The Tourist Sublime

When we travel, the meanings consumerism ascribes to objects become opaque, and the choices we have to make — where to eat, where to go, what to do — can abruptly seem arbitrary, pointless. The ubiquitous marketing discourse that normally serves to orient us instead prompts terror in the midst of plenty. The consumerist bounty ceases to comfort and instead becomes sublime.

It has become harder to escape feeling like a tourist. Part of this is because cities are becoming more indistinguishable. In his essay “The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction” philosopher Boris Groys notes how the local distinctions that once made foreign destinations exotic — the architectural or culinary peculiarities, the unique monuments, the cultural idiosyncrasies — have all become exportable signifiers, rapidly transmissible around the globe. This dissemination of local ideas, Groys argues, establishes a worldwide uniform city in places that were once distinct. This new global city has no particular prototype; it derives from no universally embraced ideal of what cities should be but instead derives from a capitalist logic of distributing novelties so that they can be conveniently consumed. Cities become a consistent pap of jumbled motifs imported from everywhere else. Culture shock becomes nostalgic.

If we want it, a cocoon of familiarity and convenience awaits us wherever we go. So when I travel, I have various rationalizations to distract me from it and from the inescapable truth that I am a tourist on vacation. One of these is to adopt the Situationist strategy of the dérive, which reconceives aimless walks as what Debord, in Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, labeled psychogeography: “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

The idea is that by walking randomly through the city and taking it in with an ethnographer’s gaze, one can crack the cocoon and see the contours of everyday life rather than being trapped within them. As Sadie Plant describes it in The Most Radical Gesture, her history of the Situationist International, “to dérive was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed.”

It seems whimsically spontaneous in theory, but these descriptions don’t take into account the practical difficulties of being a detached observer in a strange cityscape. Invariably, when I’m on vacation in an unfamiliar city, basic routines of self-care seem to slip away from me. I fail to get coffee. I fail to eat for long stretches of time. Whatever leisurely dérive I may have imagined for myself becomes instead a forced march through strange streets, during which I’m gripped with anxious indecision, unsure of how to read the landscape, the advertisements, people’s attitudes. Instead of observing how others live and interact with the environment, I become fixated on myself and fret about whether I fit in. Which places do the locals think are lame cop-outs to patronize? The brands and logos I notice are often unfamiliar enough to seem like gateways to the “real” — i.e., their novelty seems to me like authenticity — but isn’t that the quintessential tourist trap? Where am I supposed to be going, I start to wonder, and should the fact I’m “supposed” to be going there make me want to go somewhere else?

The perplexing sight of so many other people effortlessly succeeding at the basic tasks of everyday life exacerbates my mounting feeling of helplessness. In foreign cities, my unfamiliarity with the local language will suddenly loom as an insurmountable problem, as if no one in the service industry abroad speaks English. My hunger builds, my caffeine headache intensifies. An unaccountable fastidiousness settles over me and makes me wary of anything that might alleviate my distress. I start to rank all the food places in terms of their approachability, but what I really want is a place that transcends that continuum.

My basic need for sustenance gets mixed up with a hunger for authenticity, which becomes more desperate and insatiable the more I dwell on it. I start to obsess over finding the appropriate off-the-tourist-track neighborhood where I’ll find the genuine place to eat — perfectly representative but also perfectly nondescript, a place that will vindicate my dérive, if not my whole vacation, by disclosing authentic local character and letting me forget myself. Paralyzed with indecision, my panic tends to dilate; I start to think I’m doing it all wrong — traveling, psychogeography, identity, everything. At any moment I expect to be publically exposed as an impostor in their midst; I wait for a random stranger to point his finger at me and shriek a wordless warning, like in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake.

This happens so repeatedly that I wonder if that’s what I actually want out of travel: painful disorientation in the midst of the uncannily familiar, a dissolution of the self indistinguishable from total self-awareness. If Groys is right, cities have homogenized into what Marc Augé labeled a nonplace, “a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity,” a generic expanse of entertainment and amenities “where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality.” Under ordinary circumstances, my everyday life is streamlined by a certain operational anonymity; no one seems to notice me particularly, and I can act as though the city’s amenities were put in place for me alone — it becomes a seamless nonplace. But in a foreign city, that impression is dismantled and replaced by a terrifying depersonalization, a paranoid feeling that I am absurdly conspicuous precisely because I feel intensely self-conscious.

The paradox of self-consciousness is that it’s often a fixation on our failure to have a real self, an identity we believe in. As Augé suggests, nonplaces stifle self-consciousness and suspend identity by allowing commerce without communication; one’s needs are anticipated and easily sated, and no disputation, negotiation or conversation is required. This commercial sphere caters to everyone equally regardless of their idiosyncrasies, which are effaced by the nonplace’s efficiency. When I am stricken with my traveler’s anxiety — going, say, to a Starbucks instead of a Viennese café out of sheer cowardice — I recognize the perimeter of my nonplace bubble as I scramble to re-enter its comfortable confines. I’m returned to my inadequate self, and the difficulty of wanting things, obscured in everyday life, is suddenly revealed.

Ordinarily, consumerism works to let us take desire for granted. But consumerist desire is fueled less by physical need but with the meanings it ascribes to objects — the ways they can signify identity and lifestyle and, most of all, status. When we leave our bubble, those meanings become opaque, and suppressed physical needs re-emerge, with no consumerist context to cushion them. We lack the symbolic resources to translate our needs into signifiers of the self. Once we lose sense of the meanings we produce by consuming, even basic subsistence can be hard to accommodate. The choices we have to make when traveling — where to eat, where to go, what to do — can abruptly seem arbitrary, pointless, and the surfeit of signs and options and possibilities with which consumer society suffuses us — that ubiquitous marketing discourse that normally serves to orient us — prompts instead a sort of terror in the midst of plenty. The consumerist bounty no longer seems beneficent but insurmountable, monumentally indifferent to us. It ceases to comfort and instead becomes sublime.

When we are no longer nestled within consumerism but confronted by it in its awesome totality, it exhibits the vast and powerful obscurity that Edmund Burke ascribed to the sublime, that “artificial infinite” that prompts “delightful horror.” Likewise, Groys notes that because tourists are necessarily ignorant of the way the places they visit have evolved, they experience “a sheer explosion of eternity.” This explosion detonates within the tourist’s psyche. (Groys points out Kant’s argument in Critique of Judgment that sublimity inheres not in external things but in our mind.) With the world’s increasing homogenization, that explosion is arguably what makes it worthwhile to go anywhere. If we are conditioned to interpret our surroundings as packaged experiences but discover we lack the local experience to decode them, they become incomprehensible monuments of otherness — as unfathomable as mountains obscured by fog or an endless expanse of ocean. Maybe then, when we confront the disjunction between our simple needs and the elaborate and alien means for sating them, our consumerist desires are purged out of us, and something like true self-awareness returns.