By Bram de Jong
When I wandered through Ljubljana during a holiday last summer I did not come prepared…
Me and my companions had no guide of any sorts to show us around the touristic part of the city, let alone the atlas obscura-part. We were afloat, driftwood in the sea of unknown opportunities. The hilltop castle seemed inviting, but gave us no historical background whatsoever, unless we climbed its steep hillside. The river flowed wordless past clean terraces where gesticulating waiters took our order. A music festival in the city that night had an air of localness… we heard, but not not from a Ljubljana citizen.
These occurrences made me think of a particular sensation of treading ‘above a city’. This feeling immediately connects to the German word unheimlich – to feel not at ease somewhere. With this sensation you walk the cityscape, but do not connect to it. For example you have no sense of direction, but a local passes you, quickly striding towards a certain destination. The citizen has a very personal connection to the place whereas you, the outsider, the Other, can feel the thin layer that blurs the connecting surface of the street. There’s a need for guidance…. We, luckily, found out the existence of free tours around the city. We felt the surface rise and touch our feet, we were given explanation. And this ‘explanation’ is what is discussed hereunder.
But first let us move to another city I went to: Budapest. Here two universities have put together a course that approaches the history of the city in an interdisciplinary way. I, the tourist, want to be familiarized with this history, but how is always the question. The course, according to this lecture during NODEM 2014 in Poland, “invent and prototype ‘solutions’ for loosely-defined ‘problems’ of highly reputed museums and archives in Budapest.”
The lecturer, Zsófia Ruttkay, tells her audience how the students “popularized” an archive. Archives usually have a liminal feature when it comes to popular accessibility. Meaning that archives are usually open to everyone but they have certain practical thresholds. For example one has to register, or, actively search for information. Making the content of archives more transparent or even interactive for the larger public is a definite way-to-go.
Other than just patting the university’s initiative on the back I want to bring your attention to another effect. The initiative can also be seen as a means to counter ‘othering’. In this process a particular group singles out another by actively opposing them and in doing so they built their own identity as well. These can be called respectively ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’ and the tourist fits in the last one. The tourist is perceivable as an immigrant trying to invest in the country he’s visiting by knowing its past. He will need, however, tools to begin familiarizing himself and closing the liminality-gap: he needs ‘popularizing measures’.
First let’s scrutinize a bit the idea of othering. It is not as superficial as is supposed in the former alinea. Othering in fact is meant to describe the far going measures people take to oppose themselves vis-à-vis their surroundings. The most profound one being to deny someone else’s human rights, meaning to dehumanize him. Edward Saïd even goes as far as to state that the construct of the West is mainly constituted by a thorough process of othering. In one of his fantastic works Orientalism (1985) he treats this subject. Othering takes place on the outskirts of the ingroup’s bulwarked whole. To penetrate this whole you either become an invaginated pocket or… you don’t.
Stating that tourists are dehumanized by their hosts is harsh, to say the least. It is most likely not even true, but it has some veracity in it. They are maybe disposed of their touristicality by faulty information equipment. Here I’m talking about tourists that are in fact interested in this kind of historical information of course. Furthermore, ‘being a tourist’ is (according to me apparently) a constitution formulated by the person’s intention and the supply of accommodation by the host. There is no such thing as unilateral tourism! To give an example: I can state that I am a tourist in North Korea, but their denial of that statement ruins everything. The local willingness to accommodate overrules a testimony of tourism unfortunately.
Coming to terms
But let’s get back to me. I am in Budapest, experiencing the thin layer that prevents me from using the city’s infrastructure efficiently. Then, I declare to be a tourist and to hunger for history. My surroundings accommodate me, the pact of tourism is signed and I fold into the pocket of Budapest’s whole. The students of miss Ruttkay popularized the Hungarian archives and museum for me by digitalizing their information into an application, so I can familiarize. The othering process of vagueness and uncertainty leaps… and disappears.
So, the interdisciplinary approach of the university is an ideal way of ‘reusing’ dusty history. Digital approaches of popularizing archives give the traveller an means of being a tourist in an easy way. It adds to booklets and guides and helps the ever more digital tourist to overcome othering and come to terms.
Do read Orientalism by Edward Saïd. Also look at this essay by George Mead.