Cannibal Tours

ANTHRO 302: Part 1 - Part 2

ANTHRO 104: Part 1 - Part 2

Dennis O'Rourke

An Interview with Dennis O'Rourke

followed by excerpts from the writings of Dean McCannell, Richard King, and Tim Oakes

Dean McCannell 1992 Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers. New York: Routledge, pages 26-31

The film makes it painfully evident, and the choice of the Sepik region drives the point home with precision, that this primitive 'Other' no longer exists. What remains of the primitive world are ex-primitives, recently acculturated peoples lost in the industrial world, and another kind of ex-primitive, still going under the label 'primitive,' a kind of performative 'primitive.'

During the first slow phase of the globalization of culture, colonialism, and industrialization, eventually tourism and modernization, modernity, the modern -- during this phase the energy, drive, and libido for the globalization of culture came from Western European and North European cultures. But today, the older centers of modernity are demanding a return on their investments, an implosive construction of primitivism (and every other 'ism') in a postmodern pastiche that might be called 'globality.'

Postmodernity is itself a symptom of a need to suppress bad memories of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the other genocides on which modernity was built. Of course, it is not possible to repress the past without denying the future. Thus, the central drive of postmodernity is to stop history in its tracks, and the central drive of postmodern tourism is to discover places that seem to exist outside of history: unspoiled nature and savagery.

The opening scenes of Cannibal Tours neatly frame several postmodern figures. A voiceover taken from Radio Moscow world service announces a Paul Simon rock concert in Lenin Auditorium. But the film's postmodern figure par excellence is a self-congratulating German tourist who comes as close as anyone in the film to being its central character. He compulsively records his travel experiences on film while speaking into a hand-held tape recorder. His age is ambiguous. He might be old enough to have fought in World War II, a suspicion not allayed by his attire, which is designer re-issue of an Afrika Korps uniform. He explains to O'Rourke's camera, 'Yes I have been to Lebanon, Iran, India, Thailand, Burma, China, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, Australia two times, once to New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia, all of South America....' He appears in the film as someone under a biblical curse to expiate the sins (or would it be, the failures?) of National Socialism, and also to displace certain memories. He goes where the German army was not able to go, expressing a kind of laid-back contentment when he encounters a fascist regime: 'I liked Chile. Next year Middle America...'. Only the United States. is not mentioned in his recounting of his itineraries. He asks his Iatmul guide, 'Where have you killed the people? Right here. People were killed here? (he pats the stone for emphasis) Now I need a photograph of the two of us here before the stone for the memory.'

The economics of tourist/recent ex-primitive interaction

The little reliably obtained ethnographic evidence we now have tends to confirm a central theme of Cannibal Tours: that the relations between tourists and recent ex-primitives are framed in a somewhat forced, stereotypical commercial exploitation model characterized by bad faith and petty suspicion on both sides. Ex-primitives often express their belief that the only difference between themselves and North Americans or Europeans is money.

The German in Cannibal Tours, responding to what was supposed to have been a high-level question from the film-maker about commercial exchanges spoiling the New Guineans, 'agrees' that 'these people do not know the value of money,' but the workmanship 'often justifies' the prices they ask. In short, he thinks it is he, not the New Guineans, who is being exploited. He is doing them a favor by not paying the asking price - he simultaneously gives them a lesson in commercial realism and, by withholding his capital, he helps delay their entry into the modern world. He thinks their eventual modernization is inevitable, but they would benefit from a period of delay. The dominant view expressed by recent ex-primitives of white Europeans and North Americans is that they exhibit an unimaginable combination of qualities: specifically, they are rich tightwads, boorish, obsessed by consumerism, and suffering from collectomania. The Sioux Indians call white man wasicum or 'fat taker.' This arrangement can devolve into hatred. Laureen Waukau, a Menominee Indian, told Stan Steiner:

Just recently I realized that I hate whites. When the tourist buses come through and they come in here and stare at me, that's when I hate them. They call me 'Injun.' Like on television. It's a big joke to them. You a 'drunken Injun,' they say.... I hate it.

And, of course, it should not go unremarked that intention in these exchanges does not alter the outcomes. The tourist who calls an Indian 'Injun' means to insult, but the well-intended tourist on the same bus is no less insulting. Steiner describes an encounter between Waukau and a tourist:

One lady gently touched the young girl's wrist. 'Dear, are you a real Indian?' she asked. 'I hope you don't mind my asking.
But you look so American' [both incidents are reported in Evans-Pritchard, 1989: 97].

The commercialization of the touristic encounter extends to the point of commodification not merely of the handicrafts and the photographic image, but to the person of the ex-primitive. Southwest American Indians complain that tourists have attempted to pat up their hair and arrange their clothing before photographing them, and that they receive unwanted offers from tourists to buy the jewelry or the clothing they are actually wearing.

As degenerate as these exchanges might at first appear, there is no problem here, really, at least not from the standpoint of existing social conventions. All these behaviors are recognizably boorish, so the 'problem' as represented is entirely correctable by available means: counseling ('don't use ethnic slurs'); education ('Indians were the original Americans'); etiquette ('don't be condescending in conversation,' 'don't violate another's person or privacy,' 'don't comment on how "American" they appear'); and so on. With a bit of decency and sound advice these 'problems,' including their New Guinea equivalents, would go away.

Or would they? I think not. Because I detect in all these reports on exchanges between tourists and others a certain mutual complicity, a co-production of a pseudo-conflict to obscure something deeper and more serious: namely, that the encounter between tourist and 'other' is the scene of a shared Utopian vision of profit without exploitation, logically the final goal of a kind of cannibal economics shared by ex-primitives and postmoderns alike. The desire for profit without exploitation runs so strong, like that for 'true love,' that even intellectuals can trick themselves into finding it where it does not exist; where, in my view, it can never exist.

The touristic ideal of the 'primitive' is that of a magical resource that can be used without actually possessing or diminishing it.Within tourism, the 'primitive' occupies a position not unlike that of the libido or the death drive in psychoanalysis, or the simpleminded working class of National Socialism which was supposed to have derived an ultimate kind of fulfillment in its labor for the Fatherland. Or the physicist's dream of room-temperature superconductivity and table-top fusion. These are all post-capitalist moral fantasies based op. a desire to deny the relationship between profit and exploitation. Let's pretend that we can get something for nothing. The fable is as follows: The return on the tour of headhunters and cannibals is to make the tourist a real hero of alterity. It is his coming into contact with and experience of the ultra-primitive which gives him his status. But this has not cost the primitives anything. Indeed, they too, may have gained from it.

Taking someone's picture doesn't cost them anything, not in any Western commercial sense, yet the picture has value. The picture has no value for the primitive, yet the tourist pays for the right to take pictures. The 'primitive' receives something for nothing, and benefits beyond this. Doesn't the fame of certain primitives, and even respect for them, actually increase when the tourist carries their pictures back to the West? It seems to be the most perfect realization so far of the capitalist economists' dream of everyone getting richer together.

Of course this is impossible. If a profit has been made, some bit of nature has been used up or some individuals have worked so that others might gain. It is easy enough to see how the advanced techniques of modern' statecraft and stagecraft, recently merged into one, permit the destruction of nature and the alienation of work to be hidden from view. But how are they hidden from consciousness? The only way is by negative education, specifically the suppression of an understanding of exchange within exchange relations. In the relation between tourists and primitives, this pretense transforms the literally propertyless state of primitives into a property. Tourism has managed (and this is its special genius in the family of human institutions) to put a value on propertylessness itself. 'Look, there are no fences around their fields. That's worth a picture!' 'They work only for their own subsistence. That's worth reporting back to our overly commercial society at home!'

And for their part, the performative primitives, now ex-primitives, have devised a rhetoric surrounding money that perfectly complements the postmodern dream of profit without exploitation. They deny the economic importance of their economic exchanges. They will explain that they are exploited absolutely in their merely economic dealings with tourists, but also as far as they are concerned, at the level of symbolic values, these exchanges count for nothing. By the ex-primitives' own account, their economic dealings with tourists are spiritually vacuous and economically trivial, producing little more exchange than what is needed to buy trousers. Their problem is not petty exploitation by tourists. Rather, it is getting money and having it. The New Guineans in Cannibal Tours repeat, to the point that it becomes a kind of litany, their position that money is simply 'had' and 'gotten', never earned and spent, and are quick to guard against the formation of any idea that the tourists, especially, earned their money. An old admitted ex-cannibal speaks to the camera about the tourists: 'These are very wealthy people. They got their money, I know not where, perhaps their parents earned it and gave it to them, perhaps their governments give it to them.' Clearly, he is thinking not in terms of earnings but capital. Sounding more like Donald Trump than a Western proletarian, the old warrior complains, 'I have no way of persuading them to give me money.' From an ethnological standpoint, this is not especially surprising coming from a people whose basic unit of money, their equivalent to the American dollar or the British pound, is the tautau, nassa, or maij, a string of shells, that at the time of first European contact, was estimated by Mrs Hingston Quiggin (1949: 172 ff.) to be worth the value of between two and ten months of labor. There is a deeply ironic movement of the camera in the scene in Cannibal Tours in which a New Guinea woman complains with bitter eloquence that 'white men got money... you have all the money.' For an instant, the camera drops down to the blanket in front of her showing what she is selling: it is maij, strings of shell money. She knows herself to be positioned like the Western banker, trading in currencies under unfavorable exchange conditions. The tourists think they are buying beads.

In sum, there is so much mutual complicity in the overall definition of the interaction between the postmodem tourist and the ex-primitive that the system comes close to producing the impossible economic ideal. The performing primitives claim to be exploited, but in so doing they take great care not to develop this claim to the point where their value as 'primitive' attraction is diminished. In short, they must appear as almost noble savages, authentic except for a few changes forced on them by others: they sell beads, they do not trade in currencies. They gain sympathy from the tourist based on the conditions of their relationship to the tourist. And the entire arrangement almost works. O'Rourke asks a young man on camera how it feels to have his picture taken, and points out that as he (O'Rourke) takes his picture. one of 'them' (a woman tourist) has also come up behind to take yet another picture: 'One of them is looking at you now.' The woman tourist gets her shot and awkwardly steps into O'Rourke's frame sideways to give the young man some money for letting himself be photographed....

Richard C. King 2000. The (Mis)Uses of Cannibalism in Contemporary Cultural Critique" Diacritics 30.1 : 112-5.

"In his much-discussed film Cannibal Tours [see Bruner; MacCannell], Dennis O'Rourke offers a visual ethnography of tourism in Melanesia. The tourists who figure centrally in the film have traveled from Europe and America to the Sepik River valley to encounter the exotic, to come into contact with what they term primitive peoples, who they believe until recently lived in a state of nature and practiced cannibalism. Cannibal Tours presents the tourists in the raw, as neocolonial subjects. They tell stories to themselves and O'Rourke about simple peoples living in harmony with nature who create authentic cultural forms unmediated by modernity. They seek out locals and press them to talk about cannibalism, and even take them to the places where individuals were sacrificed and consumed. They long for and obsessively collect artifacts and other tangible markers of difference. And with their ubiquitous cameras, they tirelessly strive to capture the natives and their alien world. These scenes combined with the reflections of locals on tourists and their interactions with them underscore the centrality of ethnocentric stereotypes, consumption, and sociopolitical privilege to cross-cultural tourist sites. Above all else, Cannibal Tours, dwelling as it does on appropriation, consumption, and incorporation, implicitly argues that the cannibals of the title are not the natives but the tourists. Fashioning experiences and identities out of the images and alterity of the Melanesians, tourists become cannibals. Their dehumanizing practices literally eat up these people and their lives.

Although stated softly, O'Rourke's contention resonates within a broader field noteworthy for its critical engagements with cannibalism, culture, power, and the West. Indeed, while conventional uses persist in popular and intellectual forms, a novel constellation of strategies has emerged in contemporary cultural critique. Whereas the conventional approaches to cannibalism have deployed their practices to question practices and precepts both in Western and non-Western contexts, current interpretations invert and flatten these principles. In fact, this field of cultural critique advances two novel propositions. First, we, not they, are cannibals. And second, cannibalism is not the eating of human flesh, but an asymmetrical system of cultural appropriation and consumption. Consequently, it undermines the comfortable binary that others are savage cannibals while we are not. Importantly, however, it retains the moral and political core of more familiar formulations. Cannibalism still carries negative connotations. In fact, the key to this critical strategy hinges on reversing, unsettling, and even dismissing prevailing oppositions, while retaining the central meanings energizing them."

In "Cannibalism Today," Dean MacCannell reinterprets contemporary Western culture in terms of cannibalism, outlining its specificity in practices as diverse as tourism, organ transplants, ecology, and sexuality. Placing Cannibal Tours at the center of his rather ambitious meditation on the contemporary human condition, he accepts the film's fundamental [End Page 112] assertion: we are cannibals. On this foundation, he reflects upon the desires, identities, and relationships central to late capitalism: tourist sites in which postmodern consumers encounter indigenous peoples, what he terms ex-primitives, the findings and fictions of Melanesist ethnography, Occidental understandings of cultural difference, and the asymmetrical, dehumanizing shape of the world system. MacCannell reads in these social signs evidence that Occidental anthropophagy is a total social fact. It is an integrated bundle of practices related to consumption, incorporation, and appropriation with economic, political, ritual, ideological, corporeal, and psychological components. Cannibalism today, for MacCannell, manifests itself most clearly as a socioeconomic formation (late capitalism), a way of relating to difference, and a novel subjectivity.

MacCannell understands the postmodern present to be best specified as neocannibalism, as a political-economic and metaphoric refashioning of anthropophagy. Drawing on Marvin Harris's Cannibals and Kings, an account of the centrality of cannibalism to empire-building in Mesoamerica, he understands cannibalism to be "a crude but effective method of producing capital gains through legalized murder, plunder, and/or inheritance, and compounding the gains of eating the dead" [53]. Cannibalism mirrors capitalism. By analogy, these productive modes of consumption, for MacCannell, derive from a shared foundation of terror, violence, sacrifice, and exploitation: "The empire-building cannibal is the totemic ancestor of modern-day (tribal) capitalism" [56]. Given the similarities between classical cannibalism as embodied by the Aztec and quintessential capitalism as engendered by the modern West, it is not surprising that recent realignments of capitalism correspond to the emergence of a reconfigured cannibalism. In fact, MacCannell wants to suggest that precisely as the West--and the world along with it--has entered into a new socioeconomic and geopolitical moment, it makes cannibalism anew.

Here I give some evidence that late capitalism has aligned itself against humanity with the worst human impulse; that it is an only partially sublimated form of cannibalism. That cannibalism has transformed itself into a metaphoric cannibalism should not be greeted as a positive development . . . it is precisely its metaphoric character that protects it from having to admit its gruesome excesses, empowering it in ways that the original form of cannibalism could not imagine. [20]

Neocannibalism, MacCannell suggests, detaches cannibalism from the body, while retaining, even elaborating, the centrality of consuming others. Although largely transparent, anthropophagic acts and effects become generalizable, made more flexible, more fecund through consumption. Even as late capitalism refigures cannibalism, it ultimately expresses "the same desire for absolute domination and control" emergent in more classical configurations [20]. Neocannibalism, then, is new as a mode of consumption, rearticulating desire and domination, in which the incorporation of others becomes purely metaphoric.

As the logic of late capitalism, neocannibalism fosters particular relations with difference. These relations are power relations, relations of domination and exploitation. In neocannibalism, individuals and institutions absorb difference, feeding off alterity like phantasmagoric parasites to create identities, experiences, and communities.

Cannibalism in the political-economic register is the production of social totalities by the literal incorporation of otherness. It deals with human difference in the most direct way, not merely by doing away with it, but by taking it in completely, metabolizing it, transforming it into shit, and eliminating it. [66] [End Page 113]

In myriad domains, consumption absorbs difference, simultaneously appropriating and nullifying it. While this may be most visible in the worlds where tourists and ex-primitives encounter one another or in the contexts in which consumers endeavor to inject meaning, pleasure, or interconnection into their lives, MacCannell sees this way of engaging the alterity to be a pervasive feature of the postmodern condition, especially tangible in neoconservative ideologies and the social movements of the political right. Importantly, MacCannell again appeals to parallels between the primitive and the postmodern, insisting that cannibalism as conventionally conceptualized and its recent reconfigurations in the West both result in "the literal end of history" [61]. Thus, he understands this desire to incorporate difference completely to mirror those of "Classical cannibals" who (he asserts without citation) "believed they had assimilated the courage and strength of their enemies, and through eating them, the powers of all of his own ancestors that they (the enemies) ate" [61]. Thus, neocannibalism not only has structured the playful and productive lives of citizens, but also has shaped military and political policies of Western nation-states. "The fascination that socialism holds for the officials of capitalist regimes, their fixation of the plight of their socialist enemies, precisely parallels cannibal conflict with its themes of triumphal incorporation, of ingesting the entire being of the enemy" [62]. Neocannibalism, then, is the absorption of difference, signifying practices that incorporate and negate alterity.

Not surprisingly, the entanglements of power and desire MacCannell attributes to neocannibalism have profound implications for the psychologies produced in the present. Indeed, the consumers who dwell in the late capitalist West are troubled, even sick, individuals. The new cultural subject associated with late capitalism possesses "a still operative cannibal ego" and a "pervasive cannibal unconscious" [25, 68]. For instance, anthropological and touristic "fascination...with ecstatic violence, taking heads, and eating human brains, involves displaced anal sadism which is a strong, albeit necessarily denied, component of Western culture and consciousness" [37]. They are afflicted as well with what he terms "cannibal narcissism," a condition "beyond narcissism": "It is not merely that everything is a mirror image of the self; everything, including other human beings, is the self" [57]. Moreover, they are deluded, even delusional, denying the violent, exploitative, and dehumanizing relations enabling their worlds of experience. Thus, they suffer from debilitating psychological conditions. In addition to "cannibal narcissism, " "disordered orality and anal sadism" [57, 67], "the metabolized 'other'," according to MacCannell, "supplies the energy for auto-eroticism, narcissism, economic conservatism, egoism, and absolute group unity or fascism" [66]. Imbalanced individuals (cannibals) create sick societies (cannibal cultures), forging a collective unconscious (cannibal solidarity) with disastrous effects. Importantly, these psychological categories enable MacCannell to reactivate the central meanings associated with cannibalism. Neocannibalism is vile, repugnant, inhuman, cultivating problematic desires and troubling relationships.

Formulating neocannibalism, MacCannell endeavors to make sense of the networks of power, the desire clichés, and forms of subjectivity associated with late capitalism. In doing so, he contributes to discussions of the postmodern condition, pushing these largely Eurocentric accounts to consider ex-primitives and marginalized places. Through neocannibalism, he also hopes to redirect conversations about self and society in the West. Although strongly charged, his remapping of the Occident through anthropophagy undermines itself. Above all, neocannibalism, as advanced by MacCannell, totalizes, flattens, transcends. In contrast with its ambitions, his argument does not outline a specific theory of late capitalism; rather it makes sense only as a supplement to more "primitive," original forms. He situates the Aztec as a kind of evolutionary antecedent, as a "totemic ancestor." More importantly, he understands cannibalism to be a sort of [End Page 114] primal scene: "Cannibal incorporation is the original site of exploitation" [68]. In turn, a kind of universal unconscious, rooted in desire and power, unites cannibalism--old and new, primitive and (post)modern, embodied and metaphoric. The transcendence of the cannibal ego, this drive to dominate and incorporate, encourages a flattening of self and society which closes analysis of the specificity of sociocultural context. As a result, the complex and contradictory sociocultural formations comprising the West materialize as a singular, easily accessible and completely comprehensible entity. While relocating cannibalism in a rather superficial, congealed version of the West as neocannibalism, his new understanding demands tired clichés about humanness, propriety, and goodness, here read in reverse. Oddly, MacCannell locates neocannibalism not in his everyday practices, but only in conservative practices. Why is neocannibalism discernible only on the right? Can we claim or occupy the position of the cannibal, or is it useful only to demonize and dismiss others from a secure remove? In the end, we must agree with MacCannell that cannibalism is a site of fantasy. Today, however, cannibalism as a site of fantasy appears to be most useful as a space in which to reimagine dominant practices.

References Cited:

Bruner, Edward M. "Of Cannibals, Tourists, and Ethnographers." Cultural Anthropology 4 (1989): 439-46.

MacCannell, Dean. "Cannibalism Today." Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers. New York: Routledge. 1992. 17-73.

Tim Oakes 2005. Tourism and the Modern Subject: placing the encounter between tourist and other. Seductions of Place, edited by C. Cartier and A. Lew London and New York: Routledge.

In “Cannibalism Today,” MacCannell offers a reading of Dennis O’Rourke’s documentary film, Cannibal Tours, about a group of Euro-American tourists traveling by luxury boat up Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River to see authentic, head-hunter natives.  The tour is, clearly, a packaged journey into the “heart of darkness,” and the film is an attempt to demystify the touristic search for authenticity and detached experience of the other.  Throughout the film, the audience is offered interview footage, with translation, revealing the attitudes of the New Guineans in juxtaposition to those of the tourists.  Not only does this reveal the typical gap in understanding between two groups of vastly different people, but more importantly, we learn that the New Guineans understand much more about the tourists than the other way around.  MacCannell calls the New Guineans in this encounter “ex-primitives,” for the film tends to reveal how “there is no real difference between moderns and those who act the part of the primitives in the universal drama of modernity” (p. 34).  The New Guineans are reflexive about their encounter with the tourists—much more reflexive, in fact, than the tourists themselves turn out to be.  The tourists and the ex-primitives, MacCannell argues, do not represent absolute differences but the differentiations inherent in the new cultural subject.  The only difference that MacCannell can see between moderns and ex-primitives is in the language that they speak.  Moderns cannot detach themselves from their myths, their denial, their values.  Ex-primitives are necessarily detached; they’re more conscious of it than the tourists.  Thus, the New Guineans are clearly aware of the role they play in the touristic encounter—they understand their value as a “primitive” attraction. [14]   The tourists, however, are less aware of the role they play, the role of performing a ritual aimed at absolving the modern guilt at having “killed off the childhood of humanity” (p. 24).  The “heart of darkness,” as in Conrad’s novel, is a guilty conscience.

For MacCannell, tourism mediates and reveals differentiations in the new cultural subject, differentiations that develop in response to the spread of the global capitalist economy.  As vanguard of global capitalism, tourism generates a discourse of “anti-conquest” (Pratt 1992), which MacCannell discusses, in more Freudian terms, as a condition of modern guilt.  The tourist approaches the encounter with the New Guineans by articulating a desire for profit without exploitation, hoping that all groups can benefit from the encounter.  MacCannell wants to see in O’Rourke’s tourists all the guilt and repressed desires (homoerotic and sadistic) of the modern subconscious.  His reading turns our attention to the more psychic aspects of modern subject formation, but it still shares many similarities with The Tourist.  While he is clearly aware that the New Guineans, too, need to be regarded as “new cultural subjects” in their own right, his primary interest lies with the tourists themselves, in the way that they are compelled (determined, even) to play out the tragedy of modern life.  “Modern civilization was built on the graves of our savage ancestors, and repression of the pleasure they took from one another, from the animals and the earth.  I suspect our collective guilt and denial of responsibility for the destruction of savagery and pleasure can be found infused in every distinctively modern cultural form” (p. 25).  This is a quality of modern subjectivity that only the Euro-American tourists can feel, leaving the subjectivity of the “ex-primitives” to be constituted in terms of the rebellion of the conquered, rather than the guilt of the conqueror.

Ultimately, then, we are left with a structurally determined tourist that remains stubbornly unreflexive.  I want to make two points here.  First, that the “ex-primitives,” not the tourists, are the ones who articulate the kind of reflexivity that MacCannell’s “new cultural subject” seems to require.  Second, that it is the touristic encounter, and the spatial nature of that encounter, that yields such reflexivity.  The reflexive subject, in other words, is a product of encounter, but more precisely of an effort to derive meaning and a sense of place from that encounter.  MacCannell’s essay ultimately proceeds beyond Cannibal Tours to a broader discussion of the metaphor of cannibalism in modern society.  But his discussion of the encounter between the New Guineans and the Euro-American tourists offers a point of departure for a more thorough rendering of the reflexive modern subject.  As the New Guineans attempt to derive meaning from their encounter with tourists, they engage in an act of place making, by articulating their differences from the world of the tourists.  For the New Guineans, those differences, as revealed in Cannibal Tours, are all about money—who has it, and who doesn’t.  The tourists’ money is the only thing that can explain their ability to travel such far distances, and their ability to possess such fantastic machines.  Most importantly, money explains the behavior of the tourists, their maddening stinginess when purchasing Sepik crafts, their inability to understand the lives of those they travel so far to see—“they exhibit an unimaginable combination of qualities:  specifically, they are rich tightwads, boorish, obsessed by consumerism, and suffering from collectomania” (p. 27).  The New Guineans position themselves as a placed people relative to the tourists and their money.  The New Guineans have no money, and this fact is used to frame their articulations of identity in spatial terms:  the tourist’s money isn’t earned, it’s simply a fact of the place where the tourist lives, just as a lack of money is a fact of the place of the New Guineans.  Indeed, their performance as primitives for tourist consumption enables a sort of “anti-money” discourse to emerge, where place-based identity asserts a non-monetary moral superiority over the outsiders:

[The New Guineans] deny the economic importance of their economic exchanges [with tourists].  They will explain that they are exploited absolutely in their merely economic dealings with tourists, but also as far as they are concerned, at the level of symbolic values, these exchanges count for nothing.  By the ex-primitives’ own account, their economic dealings with tourists are spiritually vacuous and economically trivial, producing little more exchange than what is needed to buy trousers (p. 29).

For MacCannell, this suggests mutual complicity in the tourist encounter, between the tourist’s need to absolve modern guilt, and the ex-primitive’s need to perform primitiveness.  But it also suggests a reflexive process of differentiation, a process to which both the tourist and the New Guinean contribute.  The space of tourism—inhabited by reflexive modern subjects—becomes a place of difference.  While it is clear that the New Guineans deserve the appellation “new cultural subject” as much, if not more, than the tourists, the point being made here is not that one group is more qualified to express reflexive modern subjectivity than another, but rather that the modern subject emerges out of the encounter between these groups, and cannot be constituted in any other way.  It is not the guilt of the tourists that informs subject formation (particularly since they seem so unreflexive about it).  Instead, the subject is constituted in the particular time and place where that guilt (or whatever else may motivate the tourist to journey up the Sepik) encounters its other.  This subjectivity belongs as much to the New Guineans as the tourists, for both occupy the tourist space in which it has been constituted.  In addition, the need to invest that space with meaning, to make it a place, is what drives this process of subject formation.

Constituted in these terms, the modern subject is necessarily contingent upon the particular historical and geographical “instances” in which such encounters occur.  I do not mean to suggest that there is necessarily a large socio-economic gap that must be filled by tourism for such instances to occur.  In the case of Cannibal Tours, the gap is indeed vast in socio-economic terms.  But differentiation occurs in a virtually infinite variety of situations, as infinite as the possibilities afforded by any given intersection between history and geography, between flows across space and memories through time.  Place defines the site of this intersection.  By focusing on tourist space, and place-making more specifically, we move beyond the modern subject as simply a mobile subject, a traveling or exiled or sightseeing subject, to a historically and geographically situated subject, constituted in part through mobility, but more importantly through encounter and the differentiation that encounter yields....

The tourist, then, does not play out modernity’s paradox by traveling in search of authenticity, as MacCannell has suggested, but by encountering the other and, indeed, becoming the other, in a landscape of places.

References Cited

Pratt, M. L. 1992. Imperial Eyes (London: Routledge).



January 4, 2006

Back to Anthropologist at the Movies