June 18, 2014, by Graham Kendall
The Tourists’ Entitlement to Knowledge
This post was contributed by Douglas Teoh Shang En (MA Cultural Studies)
In postcolonial studies, we are invariably drawn towards the familiar Foucauldian knowledge-power nexus: to see is to know. To know is to dominate. Not unlike Edward Said’s conception of Orientalism – it is under such a similar spectacle that the tourist gaze exoticizes and subjugates a people.
But what are we to do without being the tourist? The tourist is a privileged entity; he/she is entitled to ask questions, unearth the truth, and recount what is seen, what is heard, and what is felt.
Right outside our accommodation in Georgetown, Figure 1 shows an unmarked, off-limits ‘makam’ of three wives of the Kapitan Keling said to be over two centuries old.
If the question “Makam kat luar tu siapa punya? [“Whose tomb is that?”]” remains unasked, perhaps the unmarked tomb would have been washed away; buried under the vast volumes of histories in Malaysia.
Yet at the same time, the adoption of knowledge is a subjective choice. The guide in charge of the Blue Mansion tour (Figure 2) recounts some negative reviews of her on TripAdvisor.com, where many critics dismissed the detailed history of the family, its intricate fengshui design and theory, and the amazing preservation work done by the architects by comparing its experience to the Pinang Peranakan Museum, where it was “wonderful, absolutely jam packed with furniture and art work – overflowing with history and culture.” (See http://www.tripadvisor.com.my/ShowUserReviews-g298303-d455357-r143954941-Cheong_Fatt_Tze_Mansion-Georgetown_Penang_Island_Penan.html#REVIEWS)
The privilege and indeed, profound influence of the tourist on the nation is tremendous. Tourists are allowed to learn all that they wish to know; and yet they are also bestowed the right to dictate what it is that must be known. The unearthing and dissemination of histories is selective, always confined to the mainstream.
Perhaps this is the paradox of tour/ism as double entendre. Tourism connotes an industry that preserves by surrendering its local rights to the tourists and favouring the Other.
Had there not be an initiative to preserve its heritage, Georgetown would have been a ghost town, not unlike the 1980s. Yet at the same time, it is the opening up of local/indigenous/native histories and knowledge that makes us more transparent and vulnerable to the pendatang luar (Roughly translated to outsider, newcomer, or foreigner).
However, the reality of to know is to dominate can also be mobilized in a more productive, democratic way. If the tourist gaze can provide power – then why stop the locals from acquiring such a powerful tool?
Preservation is difficult, yet imperative. The locals need to reclaim their history, culture and practices, and the tourist gaze gives them a reason to do so. In a paradoxical way, the gaze allows us to reduce an object to less than what it is (which is what the critics on TripAdvisor did), or expand it so that we are able to see more than what meets the eye.
Pedagogy vis-à-vis tourism and the role of cultural studies
Tourism is related to education; if education is the force which moves society, then tourism is that which sparks the ‘desire-to-know’. Consequently, if ‘to know’ is to dominate, then it is the crucial role for the tourism-workers to highlight, accentuate and perpetuate the fascinating aspects of the tour for their stakeholders.
Yet a tourist is but a transitional subject, in the midst of knowing, but not knowing nearly enough. In fact, one may say that a tourist knows merely for the sake of knowing.
Hence, the pedagogy of tourism needs to engage on a deeper level as well. This is where the criticality of cultural studies provide us a means to a critical attitude and the knowledge that follows from it.
While maintaining the fascinating aspects, a cultural studies student needs to ensure that the tour they narrate not only depicts sensations, histories and realities as they perceive, but rather expose the ‘impossible’ real. Here, we are reminded of Theodor W. Adorno’s philosophy; like Art, it is when tourism begins to express the inexpressible that worthwhile knowledge is produced.
With this idea in mind, the MA in Cultural Studies students, led by Dr Joanne Lim has put together an exhibition, or rather – an experiential tour that is multimodal/multisensory (via the use of pictures, videos and food) with critical thinking elements. This multisensory experience fascinates and draws the audience into embarking with us on our trip.
Culturally mapping Penang: A scholarly jaunt
However, there is a pressing question: “How do we incorporate critical (pedagogic) elements into a pleasure trip?” This is a far more difficult question that it suggests – a critical engagement has to be provoked as opposed to taught (at its worst, this can be equivalent to ideology).
As such, we have included different signs throughout our exhibition which may fascinate and provoke a critical attitude from interested tourists. Why do we present certain things in a certain way?
In Figure 4, what viewers can note is the differences in the lines used to hang our pictures: one of it being an electric cable. This is in a reference to a contemporary issue in Penang, more specifically with regards to the Blue Mansion, whose architecture was only recently connected with electricity in order to keep up with the times. This raises crucial questions about the preservation of identity: is the Blue Mansion still fundamentally the same architecture when a major change is introduced? How much change is allowed before originality and tradition is compromised?
What we see in Figure 5 is a screenshot of a video from a volunteer tour guide who walked us through a few streets in Penang. As part of the agreement between the institution and the volunteers, the guides are given a good degree of free rein on what to include as part of the tour. In the case of this particular tour guide – his agenda was to proselytize to the tourists. This video, an exploration of the themes of the reproduction of ideology and control, is our critical response.
Also related to the themes of ideology and control, this picture was a creative attempt at photography, meant to criticize the mechanical reproduction of images. While photographs usually provide us a sense of reality-as-depicted, it can also be seen as a reproduced, hegemonic reality, which leaves little room for us to resist and present alternatives.
By taking a picture of another taking a picture, however, the constructed photograph provides us an uncanny sense of interference, one which intrudes on and disrupts the initially singular-subjective frame of reference. This combination, that of (inter)reference and subjectivity gives rise to a new understanding of knowledge, that is one of intersubjectivity. The subjectivities of all three photographers intersect; multiple frames of reference are generated, with the production of new meanings from within and without the photograph.
To conclude, fascination is the key to motivation, and the tourist gaze provides us an entryway to think deeper about a subject. We do not necessarily have to be cynical (or stoic) to be critical, and being a tourist can evoke as fruitful a learning experience as a full-time student.
After all, a tourist is entitled.