Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Traveling: the pursuit of mediocrity

In this travel piece in Slate about Andalusia, Elisabeth Eaves rightly complains about the wiser-than-thou tone of those travel guides that encourage you to stay away from the things that tourists do. Often these are the very things one has traveled for, often we want to experience the cliches, if only to be able to authentically dismiss them later. It's no good being better than something you've never even experienced.

It's fruitless to oppose authentic experience to cliched, touristic experiences: Since the many places that survive on tourism are earnestly and overwhelmingly engaged in the manufacture of prefab touristic experiences, these experiences are the authentic ones; their fundamental to the nature of the place you've come. Everything else is everyday life, which you'll be unable to penetrate adequately without adopting the place as your new home. You might take away impressions of this everyday life, but these differences you note will serve only to highlight the everyday life in wherever you're from and make you understand the contours of that better -- a worthy endeavor for sure, but providing you with nothing more authentic about where you're visiting. As a tourist you always taint the data you're collecting about wherever you are, so there's no point hoping for some anthropologically pure experience.

What traveling does, and what Eaves hints at in her insistence on "having fun" instead of pursuing the "Real" Andalusian life, is enable you to enjoy the mediocre with a clear conscience, with your ignorance about the place allowing you to be tolerant of second-rate experiences. You don't mind hearing a crappy band play in a crappy club, or eating crappy food in a crapppy restaurant because you don't know any better, and you are happy to trust your instincts and then not judge yourself. The brevity of your visit makes you see the fruitlessness in weighing your decisions too carefully, and this helps you to lower your standards without fretting about it. In a sense, this is what "fun" is: suspending judgment for sensual immersion. Eaves puts it this way: "I cling to the hope that visiting a new place can be about more than what's hot and what's not; that I can still do a few things without mediation. After all, I travel partly to escape the sort of place where knowing the names of obscure bands has become a substitute for enjoying music, and getting into the newest restaurant a stand-in for appreciating food." That sounds very noble, but the upshot of it is that people with discriminating tastes are shallow, and people who immerse themselves sensually in whatever presents itself to them are "real" and authentic, unmediated. Is every aesthetic choice, then, mediated; every application of criteria the importation of some shallow bias smuggled in from some media item one was exposed to? I hope not, though that's the kind of doomsday scenario Baudrillardian macroanalysis of media culture tends to imply, that all the criteria we hold as essential to defining our real being (reduced to the tastes we hold, in a culture that puts so much emphasis on consumption and defines freedom as the freedom of choice between plasma or LCD flat-panel televisions) are really things we've adopted from somewhere else, are really the dogma of someone or something else, some institution, that we have absorbed and have come to feel a deeply personal stake in. A grim thought.

Anyway traveling allows you to flip things so that you delight in mediocrity rather than discrimination, and enjoy ignorance rather then the delight of flexing what things you've learned about the business of life (which Eaves hastilty dismisses as "a vast, shallow pool of knowledge." At home, it's pleasant to know things. Away, it's pleasant to feel no shame in knowing nothing. So from this perspective, you don't travel to discover anything except your own ignorance, and to see what kind of half-assed encounters you can Mr. Magoo your way into.

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