- September 20, 2018
To fall off a map is to imply an edge – a precipice beyond which one’s neatly surveyed universe suddenly loses definition. Although the world as we know it today is not so much a jagged edge on a blank page as a Möbius strip of cultural continuity, we all still have personal borders that we wish to expand. To seek the world in the negative space of one’s own map is a human inclination few can, or should, fight. But it is the intentions with which we step across that arbitrarily defined line between here and there, us and them, that makes the difference.
The author of the “Can Today’s Traveler Still ‘Fall off the Map’?” in Paprika! Vol. 4 Issue 2 “Tourism Revolution” admires the traveler of the past as an intrepid adventurer, tirelessly pushing his limited horizon in search of “exotic treasure.” The plundering of foreign land that eventually goes from aristocratic sport to the ferocious project of European imperialism is represented on the page with a certain wistfulness that is ultimately contrasted with a disdain for the contemporary mass tourist.
The history of tourism as a trajectory from Napoleonic conquest to cruise ship invasions is not entirely misplaced: both are driven by the destructive impetus of material consumption and social prestige. But to imply that the violent pillaging of countries by the imperial powers of Europe is somehow “less devastating” than the purchasing of a plastic Eiffel Tower keychain is a line of thought that only contributes to the damage still reverberating through the decolonized world.
At the center of this narrative sits an architectural typology that is misunderstood as an innocuous cultural beacon: the museum. Cited examples of the Louvre and the British Museum are some of the best of their kind, not only in the provision of a world-class “experience” to their hoards of visitors, but as crucial repositories of their respective countries’ colonial endeavors. It is critical to keep in mind that the collections housed by these museums are comprised mostly of stolen objects. The Elgin Marbles and the Bust of Nefertiti were both uprooted without consent in a manner that often erased the artistic traditions that created them in the first place. More tragically, the people who once lived with those traditions now require an expensive flight and exhibition ticket to engage with their own heritage.
Countries in the decolonized world have still to catch up with the preservation standards of the West. But this is no excuse for confiscation. One need only look at Yale’s extended dispute with the government of Peru and its reluctance to repatriate the treasures of Machu Picchu1 to realize that benevolent cultural protection is merely a euphemism masking a deep-seated desire for prestige, of which the overall damage remains unquantifiable. This author recently had the bitter pleasure of encountering rooms full of exquisite Goan furniture in Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art, and left wondering why they had never been seen in their place of origin. Countless visitors to Pergamon in Turkey face an inverse disappointment when they arrive at an empty footprint, the contents of which sit comfortably in a Berlin museum.
If only it were just about pretty things on gallery walls. As Edward Said has famously observed: “Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination.”2 The cultural treasures brought back by “wanderers” like Columbus are often tainted by pogroms and wholesale destruction. But the plaques on the walls will not mar your pleasant afternoon at the museum with this information.
The author fails to condemn his correct observation that Western powers have institutionalized the practice of national theft, instead lamenting the fact that there is now nothing of significance left to take. So follows a longing for an idyllic “Shangri-La” and its “primitive and unspoiled state” – a textbook instance of the kind of Orientalism identified by Said for its harmful perpetuation of cultural hegemony, which has persisted well after the fall of the empires. He writes, “In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.”3 A crucial condition of such Orientalist imaginings is their insistence on a perpetual primitivism. The places beyond the map, once discovered, are forbidden from developing so that travelers may enjoy, beyond the satisfaction of getting there first, a state of the world that they long traded in for the comforts of modernity.
The article’s “ideal tourist” is positioned in a tier above the fiends that descend on European cities every summer, selfie sticks in hand. Curiously, all of the author’s examples of mass tourism are situated in the Western hemisphere. It is as if no cruise ships dock at Bali, no bachelor parties prowl the streets of Thailand, no daily crowds swarm Angkor Wat (an example of the neo-colonialist trappings of contemporary tourism that both cripples and supports newly independent countries is on the very same page of the Paprika! issue.) The problem of mass travel unleashed by an increasingly permeable world is a global one, making it everyone’s responsibility to find in an inclusive and sustainable solution.
We have much to fix, but we have come along way since the days Napoleon and his savants arrived in Alexandria. The trinkets sold on the streets outside every UNESCO site might be kitschy and are likely made by underpaid factory workers in China, but the crucial difference is that they are sold, not taken. We haven’t yet found a way to scale responsible tourism, but at least we have started to address an extremely exploitative economic equation. The author’s suggestion of tiers of “controlled access” to overcrowded touristic sites and the creation of virtual replicas is frightening in its suggestion of a new economic classification system, though the details are left unclear. Who exactly is to visit the simulated Romes and the fake Venices? Who gets the privilege of “discovering” places thus far un-Instagrammed?
The piece ends with a sentimental recollection of the iconic YSoA Rome Seminar as an antidote to the hurried pace of the average tour. The author identifies its students as somehow distinct from the swathes of mass tourists that infiltrate the city every summer, because they draw. But perhaps what really distinguishes a sensitive tourist is not so much their desire to sketch or take a selfie as their ability to see the continuum of history in the things they come across, a cord that tethers them to the seeming “otherness” of experiences, people, and things. The spolia freckling the Arch of Constantine are products of immense human conflict and the obelisk in the centre of the Piazza Navona is an object in exile. We perch at the edge of a long, brutal timeline.
This is not an invitation to constantly decry colonialism, which is now a fundamental fact of humanity. It is a call to be more empathetic about what we experience and who we encounter, wherever we may go. Even the ugly knockoffs bemoaned by tourists of “taste” are the latest chapter in a history of imbalanced global supply chains. We might be sensitive enough to support more local industries as we select things to take home with us, as one way of seeking moments of discovery in our now well-traversed world.
So, to answer the question posed in the title of the article, no – today’s travellers need not fall off the map for the pleasure of surprise. They need only turn it around and examine their edge from its other side.
Diane Orson, “Yale Returns Machu Picchu Artifacts To Peru,” NPR, December 15, 2010, www.npr.org/2010/12/15/132083890/yale-returns-machu-picchu-artifacts-to-peru.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism. (New York City: Vintage Books, 1994), 9.
Edward Said, Orientalism (New York City: Vintage Books, 1979), 7.