Ron Horning has been on what I suspect was a much needed holiday, but—delightfully, but perhaps also tragically?—Horning clearly didn’t get much of a holiday from being Horning. But then, of who among us could it ever be said that &c &c?
Anyway, the first half of Horning’s latest reminded me of thoughts I had while I was in Prague last month, preaching brimstone at the blockchainers. First, the satisfying recognition of a mutually held contempt:
I tend to understand “cringe” more as an expression of steamroller privilege, an imperviousness to embarrassment, and I suspect many tourists travel precisely to inhabit that Mr. Magoo-ish subject position, with an entire industry to cater to your whimsical myopia. Expanding that industrial capacity to accommodate tourists in their self-importance likely makes sites more rather than less popular, much like adding lanes to a highway makes it more congested. People may bellyache about how crowded and inauthentic it all is, but that is also part of their enjoyment. Living in New York City has fully convinced me that there is nothing tourists are more eager to do than to wait in lines. Crowds are an amenity.
The Charles Bridge in particular (but pretty much all of Prague’s architecturally charming Old Town) was a perfect illustration of this, with people queuing to take selfies of themselves with the most expressive or weird statues along the bridge, while other people photographed the people queuing, photographed themselves queuing, photographed the wedding photographer trying to stage the groom-and-entourage photo of a groom whose entourage had clearly been lubricating him heavily throughout the hot, sultry afternoon.
This Breugelesque tableau reminded me that none of this is exactly new, but rather an intensification. I spent three months tooling around Mexico in 2003, where I quickly learned that the best way to approach visiting the ancient monument sites—because how could one not visit them, given they were the dominant reason for your fascination with the country you’d decided to visit?—was to make sure you were there in time for the gates to open, getting in before the identikit hordes of tourists, and getting to see (and, of course, to photograph) the ruins with few or no tourists milling around on or in front of them. (It also meant you would dodge the worst of the heat, and could split around lunchtime, just as the package-tour buses were turning up.)
This was, of course, an act of massive hypocrisy on my part, and I think at some level I even knew so at the time. Nonetheless, I remember being quite taken with the dichotomy that Horning mentions, which was (if i remember correctly) stated as a kind of dogmatic principle in the introductions to Lonely Planets and Rough Guides:
Much anti-tourist discourse revolves around an longstanding opposition between tourism (the terrible, routinized thing they do) and travel (the endlessly surprising journey of discovery I have embarked upon).
I’m kind of amazed it’s still a thing, two decades later, though that suggests to me that the dilemma or issue that lies beneath it is much older. Had I the time, I would spend a few months reading the accounts by young British Men of Substance regarding their Grand Tours; I’m willing to bet there’s some handwringing in there, too, albeit of a very different sort.
My experience on the Charles Bridge reiterated a difficult feeling that I’d had before in other equally tourist-saturated spots, but had not yet crystallised in exactly the same way. I’ve been very taken in recent years with the brilliant and succinct jab at the automotive hegemony which consists of observing that when someone complains of “being caught in traffic”, they are refusing to see that they themselves are traffic. As I turned to make some witty remark to my fellow conference outsiders about the shambling torrent of phone-wielding obliviousness in which we were unhappily afloat, that riff snapped straight out of my backbrain and into the front. I’m not stuck in tourists; I am tourists.
Nothing could have made the Charles and its surrounds a more dispiriting experience, but this revelation continued to cast a pall over our later wanderings, when we deliberately crossed back over the river to Letna Park to begin a meandering journey back to our hotel in Holešovice. Despite being literally at the end of one of the bridges in and out of the tourism Zone (but perhaps due to requiring one to climb a number of flights of broad stone stairs), the park was pretty much devoid of capital-T tourists, a stream of whom had parted like some parodic Red Sea at the end of the bridge, turning left or right in large gaggles, perhaps to return to parked buses and coaches, while we went ahead up the steps.
We sat beneath the non-operational metronome sculpture, our backs against the rather gestural guardrail, drinking beers and talking about language and permaculture and the challenge of locating a sense of meaning and purpose in your work when a lot of your work is about confronting the reality of a world on fire, looking out over the city and up the valley in which it sits. Drunk teenaged locals rolled and lolled about on the parapet nearby, leading to multiple moments where I thought we’d witness a banal but horrific accident, the sort of life-altering or life-ending damage that falling ten meters onto thick stone paving might do to even a young and numbed body—but they were as immortal and lucky as every other wasted teenager (my former self included) tacitly assumes themselves to be, on this particular afternoon at least. Further behind us, skaters ranging in age from perhaps 12 to 50 or so practiced grind-based tricks on blocks seemingly dragged in for the purpose, whether by them or the city, or by the caprice of the monument’s architect. Directly beneath the stopped metronome, a DJ in what looked to me like an extremely ill-fitting set of black pyjamas stood behind a small square IKEA desk that held two CD turntables, a mixer, and a pair of speakers whose size belied their power output. He punched the air, span on his heels, flipped sitches and dials on the mixer, manipulated the beat, cut to silence briefly before the big drops of the hugely anonymous and indistinguishable EDM bangers he was playing. In front of him, two friends (or perhaps employees?) scuttled around with gimbal’d cameras, attempting to immortalise this artificial moment; behind the DJ, between his desk and the monument, drunk local teens and skaters and the occasional braver-than-usual stag party wandered into and out of shot.
I’m not entirely sure why I feel the need to describe that part of my afternoon, nor to note that Holešovice seemed eminently more charming and less crowded (if less historically loaded) than the Old Town, a much nicer place to spend time wandering, whether alone or with recently-made friends: a place you could enjoy without feeling guilty. I think I wanted to somehow make it bounce off of Horning’s last observation, made before he returns to gnawing at the bone of social media’s ongoing end-of-empire moment:
… the pursuit of authenticity is an equally good way to ruin a vacation. Second-guessing whether what you are doing is too touristic is just another expression of the “obsession with getting everything right.” Not photographing the picturesque place is just as contrived as taking multiple shots of it. Trying hard to blend in as a local is just as preposterous as being loud or demanding, or going to see only the well-promoted sights. Demanding serendipity is self-canceling.
The feeling that stayed with me on my way home from Prague (and which followed me around central Hamburg when I was there with L____ a few weeks later) is something related to this, I think: that there is no ethically uncompromised way to travel, at least not in the context of late-late capitalism and the climate crisis and everything else, and perhaps there never was or ever can be.
If refusing to take the photo is as contrived as taking it, is writing months later about your increasing ambivalence about travel and your own role as a repeated partaker in it any less contrived? Or is it just contrived in a different way? Tourism and travel both make hellscapes of beautiful places, places which are some people’s homes, but it has also redirected money into those places, albeit mostly into the hands of established or new and nimble forms of elite. But the urge to see new places and beautiful things seems universal—though perhaps that’s just an (a)historical illusion. I know for certain that telling myself that my rejection of flying in favour of trains does little to affray any of these arguments; sure, I’m contributing fewer emissions, but in this case—as in so many others—emissions are only one facet of something far larger, for more complex, far harder to isolate and criticise without recourse to theoretical language, or to abstractions like “late-late capitalism” which have become so semiotically loaded as to be useless for anything other than signalling on which side of the runaway train you have chosen to sit as it heads for the edge of the cliff.
Is this all just a tiny-violin solo, then? Am I just lamenting that I have reached a point where any sort of vacation will be ruined by my own solipsistic centering of myself in systemic problems that are beyond my ability to influence or alter? Is this just a particularly baroque form of liberal guilt? Honestly, I think that’s part of it—and perhaps, were it to be come more widespread, and tourism to massively decrease, liberal guilt might actually finally achieve something other than its own consolation and self-absolution.
(Not gonna hold my breath, though.)
What would a vacation be in a future where long-distance travel and tourism has been denormalised? As someone who has spent a lot of the last five years working on two tourist guides which purport to come from denormalised futures, I am disappointed to realise that—perhaps inevitably, given that choice of rhetorical device—I am no closer to answering this question than I was before.