Monday, August 19, 2013

The Empty Tourist: Lost In Translation and Narrative Alienation

In Obama's Dreams From My Father, he wrote:
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist Professors and the structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets.We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets.At night,in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Frantz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.
This paragraph, undoubtedly written with a wry and knowing smile, encapsulates a common liberal vision of subculture. If you are rebelling against the "system", it's because you're having troubles dealing with your own problems. These problems may be serious or (more likely) superfluous, but being outside of the mainstream is more about what you are ("expressively") as an individual than any sort of larger statement about the conditions that gave rise to what you are.  Ironically, a famous populist radical put this idea best: "Maybe there ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue, they's just what people does. Some things folks do is nice and some ain't so nice, and that's all any man's got a right to say."

This sort of folksy, sighing rhetoric is pleasant enough as a sort of humanist palliative, the kind of thing that lets us put the book down and go back to our lives, but it buys comforting cliche at the cost of detail. Moreover, the sentiment itself isn't universal. It's born of a certain set of very modern values.

In Lost in Translation we meet two characters, a recent college graduate named Charlotte and a washed-up actor named Bob, adrift in a foreign land. They're both worried about the same things in different ways;  about their respective marriages (new and old), kids, and the deep, hollow aimlessness that they feel stuck in with no agenda in Japan.  Rather than coming off insightful or wise, this feels like a performance of intimacy,  even set against the intended background of "phony" performances that Bob executes with a grimace as a part of his advertising and PR work.  Down underneath the shifting structure of our social duties, Bob and Charlotte tell us, we're all the same kids at the core.  We have common fears, common hopes, and our own little quirks. We're supposed to the see the parallel; two points of the "cycles of life" that come close to one another in the null environment of Tokyo, uniting two people that would otherwise remain strangers to one another. 

This is a compelling line and it's delivered beautifully, but the environment that Bob and Charlotte find themselves in and how they react to it says far more about them than any of their intimate, confessional scenes.  Much of the film depicts Charlotte and Bob wandering in the vast confines of Tokyo. Presumably Tokyo was picked because it is an eminently modern city; despite Charlotte's foray into a Buddhist temple (she feels nothing after) much of the scenery could fit in somewhere between Midtown and Vegas.  For a majority of the movie they could be in any city they don't understand.  Just as we have common fears, hopes, and our own little quirks, the most modern parts of our mega-cities share a cosmopolitan sameness flavored with individual kitschy touches of history.  This is supposed to be a sort of calming realization; a city is just a city just as a person is just a person. It's our common human construction, going back to the dawn of civilization. And, in the hands of Bob and Charlotte, both aimless and both having no apparent monetary concerns, the city becomes a playground.  

Debord wrote in Society of the Spectacle that capitalism was a coagulation.  Like Adorno before him, Debord thought that the specific historical nature of human reason in each period had its own dynamics that worked dialectically.  More specifically, he believed that this dialectical process was slowed by capitalism to the point of arrest.  He thought that our culture was a continual excretion of this arrested process; the modern explosion of fractured narratives was a sort of distorted snapshot of the real material conditions that were the stalled engine of historical progress.  This image of abstract individuals fed back into the dialectical material conditions that were its original basis and continued to slow them down.  Things and people were caught up in a narrative feedback loop that kept them from moving forward.  And the monolithic capitalist city was a physical manifestation of this vicious cycle. 

Though  Lost In Translation doesn't make claims that are this bold or pessimistic, it does recognize that the situation of being a tourist in a large city is a very special one. When you visit Tokyo or New York City or London without an agenda, it turns into a sort of theme park.  All of the compaction that is part and parcel of individual lives in the cramped confines of a city becomes unreal and difficult to penetrate when we don't have a structured interest in the specific details of it.  This is because the public space of a city is excessive, abstract, and impersonal. People who live in it successfully know how to draw off what they need from the excess of things that it offers while maintaining their internal agenda. The unstructured tourist, on the other hand, sees the day-to-day activities of the city for what they are; in the crowds of people they don't know, they see the bare, depersonalized flow of desires and needs that undergirds human individuality.  This can give us insight into what makes a place a tourist attraction; in the faceless slush of the day to day life of the city the most successful activities and locations manage to bring in the most tourists because they have some sort of grounding individuality.  This individuality is commonly historical (Ellis Island), prestigious (Carnegie Hall) and/or extreme (The Empire State Building).

Analogous narratives of individuality and its accompanying security attract Charlotte and Bob to their common stories.  Their stories (marriage, children, career) function like tourist attractions; these historically meaningful narratives provide them with bulwarks against the ego-annihilating buzz of Tokyo.  However, their invocation of these stories to protect themselves also brings into stark relief their failure to measure up to the stories' abstract standards.  Their ennui simultaneously protects them from the harsh alien environment and makes them into self-involved and unaware tourists.  However, we shouldn't think that this failure is some sort of radical deviance from the way these narratives are supposed to work; Charlotte and Bob are exactly what these stories are supposed to produce.  In response to the inhuman whir of Tokyo, they have achieved the modern dream of individuality and self-sufficiency, which is exactly the dream of the isolated, unchanging observer.  The reason that Bob and Charlotte can share their uniform and childlike hopes and dreams is not because they both have a lot in the common human condition, but because they've come through these stories to the same place; they both manage to maintain an identity by constantly failing in comparison to something that will never change. With only the abstract conflict and structure of narratives to limit them, they float free from everything else, wading around in the bewildering, austere, and meaningless beauty that comes with being a tourist. 

The worry is that in the modern situation, we all want to be tourists. And we're going to get what we want.

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