If ever a piece of writing were going to turn me into a thoroughgoing cultural Marxist, Pico Iyer’s article about ‘slow travel’ in today’s Guardian is it.
Travel and mobility have always been a crucial part of political and economic life. Serfs and peasants unable to leave their masters’ domains; chattel slaves shipped across the Atlantic, or bonded labourers transported around the Indian Ocean or Pacific rim: systems of economic exploitation clearly have an interest in the mobility or immobility of human bodies. For almost everyone who now enjoys it, and plenty of people still don’t, the right to move—or rather, to control your own movement—has been hard won. It’s still a privilege as much as a right: in the last two centuries, the liberal principle of free movement of labour has been offset by states’ increasing monopolization of the ‘legitimate means of movement’, through border controls and immigration legislation. If you want to gauge your place in global hierarchies of wealth and power, with all their gendered and racialized complexity, just try crossing a border into a rich industrialized country.
So it’s not surprising that travel and tourism have also been crucial to cultural processes of class formation. The grand tour was part of the education of the eighteenth-century British aristocrat: a chance to acquire the cultural knowledge and aesthetic tastes, as well as the objets d’art and other material trappings, that marked upper class belonging. The nineteenth-century Parisian bourgeoisie understood France and their place in it through travel, guidebooks, and postcards, learning to see their country and its inhabitants—their rural compatriots and the urban poor alike, not to mention the French empire and its colonized peoples—as a collection of ‘scenes’ and ‘types’. Actual and mental travel of this kind was part of what it meant to be a bourgeois. Cultural historians have shown the role that travel and tourism have played, in all sorts of times and places, in the formation of various kinds of ‘subject’: gendered and raced, imperial or national, aristocratic, bourgeois, or proletarian. Where you go, and what you do there, is who you are. (Not many aristocrats buying saucy postcards on Blackpool beach.)
The subheading of Iyer’s article says it ‘extolls the virtues of mindful travel’. It doesn’t, of course: it catalogues instances of privilege, in the author’s life and those of his friends. What it describes—desert trekking in Namibia, skiing trips in Kashmir, ‘digital detox’ packages in five-star hotels; ‘westerners walking to Mount Kailash, or a film producer going to the Seychelles just to read books with his daughter’—is not mindful travelling, but the self-indulgent tourism of a globalized elite. Anyone travelling mindfully would notice all the forms of labour exploitation and resource extraction that make this kind tourism possible. ‘Mindfulness’ wouldn’t make it any easier for a Namibian to go trekking in the Yosemite national park, or a Tibetan to walk the Camino de Santiago. (I won’t even start on the appalling conflation implicit in the words ‘The essence of holidays, and therefore travel…’.)
This is late industrial capitalism’s commodification of the very solitude and quiet that it destroys. Iyer’s piece is a celebration of that commodification, and a contribution to it.
‘Emptiness and silence are the new luxuries’, indeed.
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