Hyperrhiz 10: Book/media reviews

Crab Man, Counter-Tourism: The Handbook

Phil Dickinson

Bowling Green State University


Counter-Tourism: The Handbook. Assembled by Crab Man (aka Phil Smith). Axminster, Devon, UK: Triarchy Press, 2012. £32.00; paperback, 227pp.

"Museums are just big sheds." Crab Man, Counter-Tourism: The Handbook. 128.

We live in liquid times. All that was solid was already melting into air a century-and-a-half ago and now, at the dawn of this new millennium, what remains of the old certainties and security seems to decompose, disintegrate and disappear with dizzying rapidity. This is what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls the doubled promise of liquid modern consumerism: that by stringing lived experience into an endless string of new 'beginnings,' "humans-turned-consumers are now offered the chance to cram many lives ... [a] whole series of families, careers, [and] identities" into each accelerating cycle of accumulation and disposal of commodities and the experiences that go with them." Capable of "pre-empting the future, and disempowering ... the past," the 'consuming life' can now make time itself disappear beneath the imagistic flows and torrents of globalised capital. Little wonder then that in the complex history of modernity and the myriad avant-garde projects that seek to reimagine and resist modernity's transformation of everyday life, contested questions of aesthetic and political practice have often focused on the experience of time in modern everyday life. From Dada's embrace of chance, to Surrealism's simultaneity explored via montage and juxtaposition, from Beat spontaneity and projective poetics to the Situationist moment, the radical imagination asserts that the challenge to capital's transformations must be taken up in the temporal realm.

Counter-Tourism The Handbook, by Phil Smith (writing here as Crab Man) belongs firmly in this tradition. For those familiar with contemporary theater and performance studies, Smith (and Crab Man) probably need no introduction, having made (a) name(s) for himself as a writer, dramaturg and, more recently, a pedestrian-prankster and site-specific artist associated with the British performance group Wrights & Sites . Since the late-1990s, Smith has pioneered the theory and practice of the "mis-guided tour," a pastiche of the guided tours so familiar to visitors to iconic heritage industry sites. Both the mis-guided tour and counter-tourism draw on Smith's own notion of 'mythogeography,' a sort of psychogeographical remix that aims to "put the highest value on journeying, hyper-sensitisation to the everyday and [to] keeping alive the many meanings of places in the face of those who would homogenize them" (205). In Counter-Tourism, a glossy, slickly produced guidebook filled with photographs and passages of text — some short and aphoristic, others longer and more academic in tone — Smith offers up these practices for those readers "who want more from heritage sites than a tea shoppe and an old thing in a glass case." Smith's central premises are that modernity reconstitutes a collective past as commodified "heritage," and that the aesthetic vision of modernism offers a repertoire of practices by which such notions can be undermined. His own twenty-year involvement with interventionist walking and performance practices allows him to fully explore both of these ideas to full measure, and help his book retain a suitably absurdist, performative character despite his frequent forays into 'serious' critique.

"I chose to limit myself to heritage sites" Smith tells us, because "I had an intuition that these had a powerful resonance for their visitors, serving as fanciful, nostalgic and utopian spaces" (205). As ever-more frequent environmental and economic crises feed the growth of what Naomi Klein has labeled 'catastrophe capitalism,' the past is wiped clean, then re-scripted with a "New Fakeness" that's heavy on simulation and disguise (215, 216). The heritage industry becomes one method whereby historical narratives (and how we consume them) can be legitimized as the reassuring stand-ins for vexing and problematic political questions of 'why-things-are-the-way-they-are.' It's a 'fix' (however temporary) that freezes the gleaming global networks, what Smith calls the "image bathing and immersion," into recognizable and comforting ideological forms (213). The disjunctions and lacunae left by the messy everydayness of a lived past is replaced with a seamless, story boarded experience of a history that exists only to be consumed. This is heritage as "stained glass propaganda" offering platitudinous comforts of "cocoa for history, and Victoria Sponge Cake" and Smith finds these particularly worthy targets of derision (31, 32). Like "scenery in a mass hallucination, beyond questioning and subject to a besotted gaze; as if tourists should behave like the loyal mums of serial killer sons," the heritage industry shapes and names the past in familiar and seductive ways (136-137). Thus do the workings of ideology — the "web of stories that dominates movies, guidebooks, TV programmes, novels advertising, images, signage" — lend a certain sameness to the landscape of heritage, offering up an anodyne, "common drama we're all supposed to play our part in" (66).

In truth, for Smith, the heritage industry is an apocalyptic enterprise filled with "waste, decay, remains, excretion, horror and disgrace," a corpse literally and metaphorically "propped up" by costumes and staged sets, "re-animated in a dance of death called 'living history.'" He reads heritage-inspired wars against 'non-native' flora and fauna as sublimated analogues for the eliminationist 'cleansing' from history of unruly bodies marked by race and class; the "Rhodie-bashing" of the UK wildlife trusts echoes the "Paki-bashing" of the English working classes, because after all, history "hangs around in bodies" (94). This is the "scratchy, silent reality" that must — of course — be expertly dressed up by teams of "heritage morticians" dedicated to fiction and illusion, although their efforts to produce a seamless picture of the past are never entirely successful (122, 125). After all, erasure is always marked by a dialectical return, so despite the visible disenchantments of the "comic ruins" of heritage, enough remains of what Smith wryly terms "special" to be reclaimed by carefully applied tactics of intervention and infiltration (215). These practices can help us identify and exploit the ideological fissures and tensions within heritage's ideological performance, Smith argues, and offer a particularly rich repertoire for creative redeployment. Which is the job of counter-tourism — to expose us to just how "odd, surreal, dreamy, horrific, elusive, ruined and apocalyptic it all is" (31).

But why counter-tourism? The culture industry critique has been standard boilerplate for some on the academic left since the days of the Frankfurt School, a fact that undoubtedly encouraged critics within Tourism Studies to write off tourists as the "duped victims of a massive manipulation industry" (207). But, as Michel de Certeau reminds us, consumption should always be understood as another kind of production, reflecting less the demands of a dominant order than "the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop" (de Certeau xviii). It's in this resistant sense that Smith is anxious to recuperate tourism's active possibilities; he does so with recourse to the concept of the "agentive tourist." Far from being a passive dupe drifting through the pre-ordained package deals handed down from on high, this tourist actively intervenes in her world; she is a bricoleur who produces her own "associations, stories, reconstructions" that, in theory at least, offer the potential for some serious transformation (207). These nomadic and rootless qualities make the tourist one of the characteristic consumer identities of the liquid modern age and, for Smith, become the seeds of an immanent critique, a powerful set of practices for actualizing "that haunted bit of you that never wants to work again, that believes your destination holds magical things" (16).

Much like de Certeau's consumer-as-producer, Smith's counter-tourist practices an errant poetics that interrupts the 'logic' of history's disciplinary gaze. There's a whiff of the utopian here; the unitary narratives that disguise the conceits of the powerful are humbled by the teeming, fragmentary and multiple tactics and stories of the weak. These practices proliferate everywhere across the pages of the first two-thirds of Counter-Tourism and they are as evasive, elusive and hard to pin down as any dreamed up by de Certeau, even in the most lyrical passages of The Practice of Everyday Life. Given Smith's performative preoccupations, it's not surprising that walking is the ur-tactic in his handbook, as it's the simplest yet subtlest practice of temporal and spatial movement, of being in a body, of riding the improvisatory edge towards a new sort of seeing and being that opens up all sorts of critical possibilities. Smith offers countless paeans to walking — to walking at different speeds, to walking the patterns, to tripping yourself up with pleasure, to blowing along the horizons, to walking as "full scale hallucination," a special form of alchemy achieved through the edges and corners, the margins and mistakes, the "Z worlds" encountered in "discarded boxes, in sheds, in abandoned rooms, in rock pools, in shop window displays, in decrepit horse troughs, on lichen-covered walls" (50, n129). This is counter-tourism as transformation, as re-enchantment and transcendence, an "ecstatic heritage"-as-pilgrimage, albeit a pilgrimage without a destination, a pilgrimage for its own sake.

The "bigger journey" to which counter-tourism points us is our ongoing passage through "a transitory space that a particular kind of performance might be able to bring into being and sustain for a while" (205, 210). "Chorastic space" is the particular modality Smith uses to anchor this model of transformation. This is less a place than a moment of becoming, an arising and a passing away of consciousness of itself as consciousness, a "notional space somewhere between how things are and how they might be" (209). Chorastic space is unyoked momentarily from the weft and warp of dominant ideologies and is accessed through specific ritual invocations: "first exorcism, then spectral resurrection." In practice, these function as what Smith calls 'mis-guides,' that feature lectures and all the haptic accouterments of a mainstream heritage tour; the "walking and pausing, anecdotes and potted histories, jokes and personal reflections," mimicked here with a fiercely absurdist, almost Pythonesque fidelity to the requisite forms (164). Much like de Certeau's art of speaking, counter-tourism becomes, via chorastic resurrection, an "art of living," a vibrant and collectively imagined human riposte to the dead and embalmed landscapes of capital. "People," writes Smith. "Not in every space, but in every place — people!" (201).

But unavoidable tensions remain. This is, after all, still a guidebook, for all Smith's protestations to the contrary. He still demands we "get the strategy right" and use the "right maps" (205). And then, elsewhere, he asks: "You do realise that you can make up your own tactics?" He urges us to create a "new guide by cutting up this one," a form of cut-up he'd "take ... as a compliment" (88, 108). All of which makes me wonder about the form Smith has chosen here as the vehicle for the dense network of ideas he wrestles with. Guy Debord famously mocked the gravitas of book-as-commodity by wrapping his first volume, Mémoires, in sandpaper; here however, fully realized networks of production, distribution, and social reproduction that makes the textual experience of Counter-Tourism: The Handbook possible, often threaten to neutralize the auto-destructive promise of Smith's ideas, if not eclipse them entirely. Other questions present themselves, too: Despite the pervasiveness of 'heritage' as a symbolic site for ideological recuperation in the liquid modern imaginary, does Smith's singular focus on the heritage industry narrow the utility of counter-tourism? Does counter-tourism threaten to fetishize the very spaces, places and temporalities of the industry itself as opportunities for quixotic and transitory transformations? Is this a blunting of the broader, longer-term political potentialities of practices of infiltration and intervention? What too of such everyday questions as class and domestic politics, the gendered worlds of work and leisure in a society dominated by exchange and the commodity form? Perhaps Counter-Tourism is one more example of the tradition in everyday life studies that reads "freedom and agency [as] traditionally symbolized by movement through public space"? This is a space far too often — in the critical literature on everyday life at least — identified as a masculine prerogative. Rita Felski reminds us that a countervailing tendency within writing on the everyday questions the unthinking assumption "that being modern requires an irrevocable sundering from home" (89). How are we to reconcile the persistent tension between those practices that locate the promise of aesthetic self-realization outside, in the public spaces opened up by walking, drifting and flanerie, with those necessarily repetitive, almost ritually generative notions of home, domesticity, rootedness, and the daily? "Routines may strengthen, comfort, and provide meaning" writes Felski, so the careful contextual reader may wonder about counter-tourism's characterization here as an "adventure based on disruption that lasts for a while and then is itself disrupted and returns to the everyday" (Felski 91; Smith 168, emphasis mine). Or is, perhaps, 'home' itself just another tourist destination to be countered, in turn?

Counter-Tourism is a fascinating and visually striking book, and speaks eloquently to Smith's twinned preoccupations with modernity's centripetal and centrifugal forces and his own relationship to the avant-garde's long and embattled history. These preoccupations are marked in the disrupted, disruptive contrast between the silky weightiness and smoothness of the Triarchy Press binding and the illustrations — all 170 of them, mostly in color, many of them sight gags (site gags?), all of them fancifully mapping a relationship to their associated text. This is the aesthetics of montage and juxtaposition writ large; image and type vie for attention and short discursive excursions on tactics, interventions and infiltration are given individual headings or, depending upon their objective, collective designations ("Picnic Hampered," "Stem Cells"). The resultant mixture of fragments, short polemics, aphoristic declarations, puns, and whimsically titled passages and paragraphs ("Edgy," "Flow," "Perspective," Pattern," "Shred," "Viewing Point," "Occult") are deployed in such a way that they threaten — almost — to terminally short-circuit the usual scholarly demand for a unitary "rational, domestic, sociological or accidental" explanation for the cultural and historical processes that Smith wants to foreground. But this is not a scholarly book, not at least in the usual sense of that term, although a casual reader shouldn't let the anecdotes, burlesque, photographs, reminiscences, puns, sight gags, and pranks that spill across the pages of this book deceive her; much like his avant-garde forebears, and with more than a little nod at the long, subversive history of British comedy, Smith's ideas may be wrapped in the pleasing, absurdist garb of pastiche and parody but he is always deadly serious. "We are in a war of meaning and memory," he reminds us (205). So make no mistake — Counter-Tourism is a knock-down, drag out affair, as white-knuckled a struggle with the dead weight of a reified past as you are likely to find.


Notes

  1. Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007.
  2. For a discussion of the renegotiation of the meaning of time under 'liquid modern' regimes, including a reference to Michel Maffesoli's concept of pointillist time, see Bauman. Consuming Life. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007. 32-34.
  3. Bauman, Consuming Life. 100.
  4. An associated website, referenced throughout the book, can be found at: «http://www.countertourism.net»
  5. Wrights & Sites. «http://www.mis-guide.com»
  6. For example, see Counter-Tourism 25, 161-164, 184-185 for more detailed descriptions of Smith's 'mis-guided tours."
  7. See also Phil Smith, Mythogeography: A Guide To Walking Sideways. Axminster, Devon, UK: Triarchy Press, 2010. In this volume, Smith defines mythogeography as a "set of ideas about space and place that celebrates the multiplicity of meanings in any site, heritage or not" (Counter-Tourism. 107).
  8. For a fuller discussion of psychogeography as a means to "extend the nonmediocre part of life, to reduce the empty moments of life as much as possible" (23-24), see Guy Debord's "Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency's Conditions of Organization and Action" (June 1957), in Ken Knabb, ed. Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981. 17-25.
  9. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Penguin Books, 2008.
  10. Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  11. The copy I reviewed was priced at £32.00 (approximately $50 US), which might make its reader a little reluctant to take scissors to its pages.
  12. See Rita Felski, "The Invention of Everyday Life" in Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2000. 86.

DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/010.r01