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A name so cool I wish I'd thought of it myself
Like all the good ideas I have ever had, this one was first thought of by someone else. Evidently the City of Venice made up the term (or stole it from someone else) as a way of encouraging visitors to get lost in the city, “to experience Venice as the Venetians do…Become a detourist, discover what the guidebooks don’t tell you, leave the beaten track and experience unexpected encounters.” Not that I needed incentive to visit Venice, but I’ll take it. They even want to promote “slow and sustainable tourism,” which sounds like a good idea.
I want what Venice wants, too: to encourage you to “leave the beaten track and experience unexpected encounters.” And while I can’t claim originality for the term, it wouldn’t be the first time Venice had given non-Venetians something we wish we’d made up ourselves (streets made of water? I mean, come on. That’s genius.) I’ve never been to Venice. But anyway, I wasn’t aware of the Italian city’s use of the term when I thought I’d coined it, in search of some kind of verbal identifier of what I’m after, which is both the practice of getting off the main road and a way of thinking “tourism” differently.
But in this instance, as in many others, the Italians are way ahead of us. Whenever I attempt to type “detourism,” my computer insists I can’t possibly mean that, and wants to correct me to “detours” instead. In the machine’s defense, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, which is a decent measure for what is and is not officially an English word, “detourism” isn’t one. It’s not in there. (Yet.)
Maybe we should change that. In the introduction to my new book, THE ROAD TO UNFORGETTING, I try to spell out what this might look like. There, I describe “detourism” as “a philosophical and historical approach to the road trip that encourages taking it slow, stopping to wander, and the personal transformations made possible by an encounter with uncomfortable truths.” I believe that traveling with a film camera orients you differently to where you are, to whatever road you might be on. It forces you to slow down and view your surroundings more carefully. If you read THE ROAD, and I do hope you will, you will see that I mean by “detourism” more than just a weekend hobby. I envision it as something more like a way of life, a curious disposition towards the world.
As for tourism itself, social media has made us, perhaps without even realizing it, “do” tourism differently. It is virtually impossible now to take a picture on a smartphone without thinking about how that picture might perform, anticipating our post’s “insights,” telling ourselves how much other people might (no, definitely will) like to see what we’re doing, or even more vainly, imagining how cool it might make me look to share some spectacular image of my influential self in an exotic location. It’s affected the way we approach the imaging of our own lives; in fact, it may have made us think about imaging our own lives at all. How many of us enter into a situation when we’re on the road somewhere and think, oh man this is going to get a lot of likes on Instagram? You know you do. We all do. (And you also know that it almost never does.) It’s almost as though we are acting in a drama made for someone else: like The Truman Show, except that we know we’re being watched, and we love it.
I know I shouldn’t say “we” so much, but you get what I mean (right?), and maybe you feel this way too. Which is why, for me, at least, wandering around with a camera loaded with film can be quite a different experience.Sure, you can still think about how other people might receive the images on your rolls, and vanity comes in both analog and digital. And of course you should share your photographs, because that’s why we take pictures to begin with. But with film, you can’t immediately see the results of whatever it is you do with a shutter; you have to wait. You have to trust that they’re going to turn out OK, and if they don’t turn out OK, or don’t turn out at all, you have to find a way to be OK with that, too.
So one of the things I’m interested in with the Detourist is how we might think of seeing and experiencing the world beyond our own neighborhoods in a way that is not determined by the tourism industry, nor by the kind of “boutique multiculturalism” that Stanley Fish talked about years ago. In fact, some forms of contemporary travel seem specifically designed to reproduce our exact surroundings in a different locale, like those resort communities that offer us all the familiar comforts of home—Starbucks, a shopping mall, Starbuck’s in a shopping mall—but with different coordinates. “Boutique multiculturalism” might be a response to the homogenization of everything, a desire to experience a taste of something different, something out of the ordinary. But it can also be, as Fish pointed out, a convenient way of not really challenging our own presuppositions about things, a way of accumulating items of experience from foreign places while remaining entirely comfortably back at home in our settled view of the world.
Lord knows that we in the southern United States have been especially guilty of marketing versions of the South we do not interrogate first (the “charming plantation” tour, the “dirty blues” tour, the “Civil War” tour, etc.). We have gotten quite deft at pre-packaging the region to suit the tastes of visitors. Sometimes this phenomenon comes in a slightly more self-aware form, designed to correct the prejudices of visitors, but sometimes we simply replace those clichés with other clichés. But either way, we still tend to assume a basic model of tourism as a form of consumption.
All of this is really, really complicated. But as a first foray into this whole detourism thing, I’ll leave you with this: I think many of us are accustomed to expecting a lot out of foreign places to deliver something new to us, to make good on an implicitly understood promise to serve up a tasting menu of experiences or an array of sights and sounds that can be pocketed away like trinkets from a gift shop (and ultimately discarded). So what I’m asking here is: what should those places expect of us, what new version of ourselves might we offer to the world as a response or reaction to the strangeness of that part of the world that did not produce us?
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Although, to be fair, I should add that I have on more than one occasion wandered around with a camera not loaded with film, because I have an unflagging capacity for doing dumb things.