Christopher Connery is Professor of Literature and History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz and teaches in the graduate program in Cultural Studies at Shanghai University. He has published on early imperial Chinese culture, the figure of the ocean in capitalist geo-mythology, the global 1960s, and various aspects of contemporary Chinese culture and politics. Recent essays have appeared in boundary 2, Historical Materialism, 热风学术, Made in China, PMLA, Harvard Design Review, PRC History Review, and the New Left Review. He has been a member of the Shanghai-based, Chinese language Grass Stage theater troupe since 2010, participating as writer, actor, political consultant, brick carrier, and other roles. Productions include 世界工厂 (World Factory), 小社会 (Small Society, multiple versions) and 人间一壶酒 (no English title). He has also worked as a psychogeographer in Shanghai, on projects that have included The Alley Plays (巷子戏, 2012) and the ongoing Suzhou Creek Project (走河, 2015–).
What Not to Do Before You Die
We have been moving for the life of our species, as refugees, migrants, escapees, conquerors, explorers, nomads, swiddenists, wanderers, itinerants, and, yes, travelers. Our present—an age when violence, poverty, ecological catastrophe, and social inequality are spread unevenly around the world—is naturally an era of refugees and migrants. And the traveler? Paul Fussell, in Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (1979) wrote of what he called “the final age of travel”, when British writers, in a spirit of “I Hate It Here” (one of the book’s chapter titles), took to the world and wrote about it. Fussell was aware, but not too disapproving, of the way that “two centuries of wildly successful imperialism” had contributed to the figure of the interwar British traveler: Abroad was largely celebratory. It did lead many of us to some pretty hilarious writing though, like this passage from the first page of Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana: “The bathing, on a calm day, must be the worst in Europe: water like hot saliva, cigar ends floating into one’s mouth, and shoals of jellyfish”.
In Fussell’s narrative, the traveler had given way to the tourist and the anti-tourist, the anti-tourist being those who took pains to be the obverse of the tourist: no camera, avoidance of the tourist spots, painfully spicy food… many of us have so indulged. Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (1976) came out a few years before Abroad. Reflecting on his book a decade later, MacCannell wrote that “Perhaps ‘the tourist’ was really an early postmodern figure, alienated but seeking fulfillment in his own alienation—nomadic, placeless, a kind of subjectivity without spirit, a ‘dead subject’.” There was a rise in postmodern, ironic tourism in the eighties and nineties, but there also was a renaissance in literary travel writing that coincided with Abroad’s signaling of the final age, one that continued into the next decades: Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris, Tété-Michel Kpomassie. All who read this genre have our favorites. The traveler endured.
Our era’s hottest commodity is experience: the bucket list, the destination wedding, the places to go before you die, all broadcast dutifully on the social media of choice.
And what of the traveler today, the age of Eat, Pray, Love? That title is in some ways emblematic of our times. Our era’s hottest commodity is experience: the bucket list, the destination wedding, the places to go before you die, all broadcast dutifully on the social media of choice. Consider how many verbs—to go, but also to eat, drink, buy, visit, even love—have been replaced by “to do”: “We did Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra”; “I’ll do the House Negroni”… Book an Airbnb, and you’ll be offered the chance to book “experiences” too. Walter Benjamin would have understood. For Benjamin, the continuum of erfahrung (one of the two German words for “experience”, which has the root fahren, or “travel”) had already disappeared in the modern world, having fallen victim to the assembly line, the sameness of commodity production, and the shocks of urban life. The commodification and marketing of experience was a terminus to a process for which the earlier stage of capitalism had long prepared us.
There’s a dialectical character to experience, though, one that renders it never wholly commodifiable and bucket-listable, and that is the centrality of attention. To have an experience, even the kind you’ve paid for on Airbnb, whose significance will only become manifest when it has been recorded and posted on social media, you need to be paying at least a little attention. That’s a significant site of contestation today: our attention. Many moneyed powers want it, but the ways they extract it inhibit our ability to be in any attentive state for very long. It takes effort and practice to cultivate and re-educate ourselves in the arts of attention. Travel can help with that. You’re likely paying more attention to that morning coffee on P. Chân Cầm in Hanoi than you are at home, and if you’re not on a tour or having “an experience”, the rest of your day is marked by the slower and unmediated pace that comes from focusing on the street signs, the tree roots cracking through the sidewalk, the striped bungee cords that hold the motorcycles’ cargo in place…
It takes effort and practice to cultivate and re-educate ourselves in the arts of attention. Travel can help with that.
There are many reasons to travel, and many of them are good ones, even including the damp, drizzly Novembers of the soul or other versions of “I Hate it Here”. For some of us in the university, travel has been a part of a career dedicated to the study of ways of life, thought, language, or culture other than one’s culture of origin. I thought about this the other day as an old friend was telling us about her thoughts, on a recent trip down from a Mexican highland district where she had done much of her academic work, about how much that place, and the people she had worked with there, had affected who she was as a person. That comes from a lifetime of attention and focus, habits of mind and body that one commonly brings back home, whereby even the most familiar is subtly estranged, at least for a while. As Edward Said wrote in Orientalism:
Not for nothing, then, did Auerbach end his autumnal reflections with a significant quotation from Hugo of St. Victor’s Didascalicon: “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance. (p. 259)
The degradation of experience in our era has meant that having an experience is not the same as being changed by an experience, and it is easy to travel without acquiring much in the way of vision. My first job as an academic included leading a year-long study abroad program through nine Asian countries over nine months. It changed our lives and our students’ lives, even though there were more than a few moments when my co-director and I would despair that travel narrows the mind. In the end though, the sharpening of vision and the quickening of our sensory being in the world must be somewhere at the core of homo migrans, and thus part of the force that draws us out into the beyond.
Banner Image from Max Rosero, Unsplash.
“What Not to Do Before You Die” is part of The Humanities Institute’s 2023 Travel Series. This series features contributions from a range of faculty and emeriti in the Humanities community at UC Santa Cruz – each of whom highlight connections between travel and their work or consider the role of travel in their fields. Throughout Spring quarter, be sure to look for these amazing essays in our weekly newsletter!