Notes on Con-temporary "Travel"

Thomas Cohen

What does it mean to tour, today, the outer reaches of the empire—which is an unnamed empire (America will not do, nor the West, and so on—as if some programming encompasses, now, this series of terms and its one-time others) legislating time and fashion as well as economy? When we go, say, as pleasuring witnesses to whatever still bears the trace of a certain otherness: a cultural imprint (Andean natives), the laws of a climate (tundra), a history so marked by recent disfiguration that we, today, seem to find comfort in the commodity of a readable catastrophe. Unlike several decades if not years ago (but what, now, is a "year"?), it is so easy to travel, to transfer oneself for brief episodes to distant points—which, in turn, appear woven, then, more firmly, as the mock-aura of a frontier of any sort recedes. What does it mean to write travel, today—and is not every genre of such invoked, every narrative twitch (anecdote, observation, description, rumination) mobilized, as obstacle, at the first rustling of intent?

Let us suppose that what the traveler seeks is not another place, another co-ordinate on the same mapped surface, but an other to the very idea of place itself. What lies behind the hypothesis that the culture-traveler seeks not anthropological difference but an escape from anthropomorphism altogether?

It is difficult not to address sympathetically that doomed product of the industrial world's middle class, the culture-traveler. Unlike the colonialists of the late nineteenth century or the tourists of the post-war (WW II) economic booms, screened by serviceable ideologies, what becomes possible in recent decades of budget plane travel is unexampled—and parallels the transformation of the perceptual topographical and political mapping of the world into a "global" field of interstices itself detached, in turn, from the latter's performative role as earth. This traveler—who we will artificially bracket from the tourist, with all sorts of ironic conditions—pursues a certain self-canceling quest that parallels and partakes of the transformation of all points on the map into system outposts. He (though "his" gender is systematically neutered in this) turns into a communicative and contributing viral agent of the very modus he or she more or less passively hopes to avoid. It is part of the system: create a need, a hoped for drug, in the remnant of a certain imaginary of the commodified "other" or exotic, that will generate the phantom of its (already remembered) consumption, then proceed beyond the detritus of this excess. The anti-promise of travel, if only by inference, partakes of a double logic: the pretense of a quest for the non-originary, for something disappeared or disappearing, masks the lure of a rape or intervention by which one's present itself would (be) buckle(d).

There are, perhaps, two types of travelers—those who want to know the language of their destination, to maintain the illusion of communication (mostly commercial), and those who are not determined by the latter need, and who, in the process, locate themselves in a certain nexus of "translation" in which their own words, sounds, and gestures operate on the same plane as alien ones, in the open, without special contents or interior. It is only at the latter point that certain questions can be posed—once the pretense of retrieved meaning, or "experience," is suspended.

The idea of a "natural history" with its perverse invocation and dismissal of science is, here, part of a shift from a representational and imperial logic into a materialist and virtual politics of the temporal. Seeking a non-human Archimedian point irreducible to the programming of an inhabited cultural semiosis, the cultural-traveler like Walter Benjamin's flaneur brushes against this logic of an alternate zone or real—where the disposition of concretized history threatens to return to a moment of its own virtuality, and projects, beyond this, the possibility of alternative pasts and futures. This fantasm, which opens as a ghostliness of the present that faces any traveler whose eye lights on the zones of evisceration and transformation that mark the "global" today (the accelerated obliterations of rain forests, bio-diversity, indigenous economies. . .), is more than just the aesthetic by-product of a deceived quest for the drug of "otherness," even where that is already derived from the purportedly nascent culture (the media generated norms, say, of American urban images, sounds, advertisements, sanctioned interpretations). The trick of the system that produces and erases in advance the motif of the culture-traveler, with the latter's echo of declasse tourism always yapping at its heals, adheres to the programmatic quest that travel or transport announces—what makes multiculturalism, removed from the spur of justice, a design to efface rather than celebrate difference. (We will forego, for the moment, asking what transport itself may or may not entail today: whether the figure of such movement, itself metaphorical, does not more often than not greet the idea of acceleration with the shrinkage and consumption of putative frontiers, markers of passage, movement itself.) The trick is: if what the culture-traveler seeks is a certain late notion of what had once gone by romantic indices of "experience," what remains is not an otherness to be documented, coded, stored for an anthropological imaginary no longer functional as other than a centralized mnemonic archive or informatrix; no longer the surprise of species and cultural forms one may witness at the crest of their disappearance (for fifty years either way means nothing), or at a momentarily different historial imaginary than our own that adheres to indigenous peoples. Such a traveler, concealed beneath the businesses and relays that have sprung up to accommodate and anticipate him or her, only exists from time to time in excess of his or her inscription in the system that promotes this parody of "escape" for its own viral purposes. One can well note the non-times—in a market, say, or indexing protocols of recognition with a new companion—where one is nothing but their puppet. It remains to be seen if this traveler is not a kind of walking inversion of the museum, inside-outed, to whom instantly commodified specks of otherness adhere, mortified for collection, rather than whose semiotic imprinting is revived, reprogrammed, or recalibrated by a too calculated "return."

This would be crosser of boundaries and states soon learns, for instance, that every new site visited has, at first, the dank taste of a return. (But, in truth, "crosser" presumes a certain arrival: one might rather be termed a carrier—as with drug smugglers—accepting the double role; and one could, at the same time, do away with the pretext of arrival, or the surprise that attends it: survey any iconic airport or station in this regard (Lima will do, but the smallest frontier town replicates this), and the competing hordes of agents, cab-workers, travel-hawkers and connectors have all and very precisely been expecting "you," in replica and continually, as though announced.) If the conceit of "travel" errs in presupposing the experience of movement—which, if anything, is given the lie in "cinema" itself—this error conforms to a foreclosure of "experience" that precedes it. The con-temporary, con-temporal carrier, if and where he exists, seems distinguished by accepting this foreclosure in advance. If the term travel suggests, first of all, the transport of figurative language or displacement (as do trains in Hitchcock, say), the perversity of the term's survival, in this instance, may be that what its desert-mode quests would relieve us of, perhaps, is its own motive: the prefigural.

| 1. Sorata—May, 1996; or, Bad Timing |

| 2. Selva—or, Recollecting Genre |