“What You See Is NOT What You Get!”

Musings on the Role of Seeing, Image, and Imagination in Media and Tourist Discourses.

(I’m reposting a short piece I wrote for the 2011 Southeast German Studies Consortium-meeting in Atlanta.)

A middle-aged woman lies in bed in a hotel room somewhere in Austria. Consuming the contents of the minibar, she zaps through the TV channels, mindlessly gazing at fragments of the news, a bicycle race, an Austrian folksong performance, and other short clips. In a voice-over, she formulates a postcard with the following text: “Dear Uncle, The weather is fine. And people here are rich and friendly. I found a nice hotel with hot water, drinks for free, and thirty-two TV channels. This is not America, but my first holiday since honeymoon, I guess, and a good place to hang around. So I will do my best. Los Angeles is far away, and so am I. Please don’t forget me.”

As one might have guessed by her surprise about the many TV channels, the free hot water, and by her misconception that the minibar would be complimentary, the woman in this scene is not your typical tourist. In fact, Nana Iaschwili, so her name, is the protagonist in Austrian director Florian Flicker’s film Suzie Washington (1998), and in this scene we see her taking a break from being on the run from the law. The teacher of French from the former Soviet republic of Georgia had been arrested by Austrian authorities during her layover at the Viennese airport, after it had become apparent that her passport and her visa to the United States were forgeries. With her request for asylum rejected, Nana had used a chance opportunity to escape from the airport’s transit zone and join an American tourist group bound for the Austrian lake district. Under the pseudonym Suzie Washington Nana then had embarked on an at times bizarre journey through Austria’s tourist landscape, pursued by the police, harrassed by smugglers and criminals, until she had found this isolated bed&breakfast, where she is courted by a lonesome German tourist looking for a holiday fling (Flicker).

To get the full pdf file click here.

Here’s a short clip of the film:

Sex, Performativity, and the Nation State

Performance and performativity have developed into key terms in the more recent approaches to tourism. Examples are Tim Edensor’s previously quoted book National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life, as well as the anthologies Tourism: Between Place and Performance (2002), edited by Simon Coleman and Mike Crang, and Travels in Paradox: Remapping Tourism (2006), edited by Claudio Minca and Tim Oakes. Although the precise ways in which the contributions in these volumes theorize performance/performativity for their specific approaches vary, they ultimately all refer to Judith Butler’s conceptualization of the performativity of sexual identity. As Butler famously argued, first in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and later in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, not only is gender the result of cultural discourses, but so is sex. What we accept as the biological, essential, or pre-discursive opposite of gender–namely the supposedly immutable and materially fixed category of sex–is in fact discursively constructed that way by the social discourses of gender.

This notion of performativity has shaped my work on tourism and Austrian national identity decisively from the very beginning. Especially helpful has been Butler’s view that the normative power of social and cultural categories–a power that we are supposed to understand as always already existing, as quasi-eternal–is, in fact, created by the constant reiteration of these categories, in other words by their ongoing performance in everyday life. To quote Butler: “In the first instance, performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ‘act,’ but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (Butler, Bodies that Matter 2).

How does this relate to my investigation of tourism and Austrian national identity? It addresses the point I tried to make in my previous post: Tourism did not cover up the “true” image of Austrian identity, but it facilitated the construction of Austria. Or, in other words, the discourse of tourism created that which it seemed to represent, namely Austria after 1945.

Recently I re-read an article by political scientist Cynthia Weber, “Performative States” (1998), whose innovative reading of Judith Butler’s concept of performativity helps me to further clarify my approach. Weber summarizes Butler’s main argument as follows:

“Gender should be thought of as ‘the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “pre discursive”, prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts’” (the phrases in quotation marks inside Weber’s quote refer to Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 7;  emphases added by Weber).

 Thankfully, Weber highlights a frequent misinterpretation of Butler’s work as saying that there is no such thing as “the body” or “sex”:

“Rather, she is saying that the identity of any body, the ways we understand the materiality of the body, does not pre-exist all manners of performative expressions of sex and gender. Her point is not that bodies only exist in discourse as citational processes. Rather, her point is that it is through discursive performances–repeated, yet, varied citational processes–that our understandings of material bodies are mediated.” (Weber 80-81)

 She sees a parallel here to the ways in which political scientists talk about the relation between state and sovereignty:

 “Butler’s discussion of sex and gender through performativity effectively dismantles the nature/culture dichotomy through which we so often think about these terms. In this respect, what Butler has to say about sex and gender is equally relevant for understandings of states and sovereignty. For how is the state coded in much international relations theory and practice except as the pre-discursive, natural realm of international politics to which the discursive, socially constructed, cultural referent of sovereignty refers.” (Weber 82)

 Against that, Weber posits her reading of Butler as it relates to the connection between state identity and sovereignty:

 “If we accept that–like sex and gender–states and sovereignty are both discursive effects of performative practices, then it follows … that there is no sovereign or state identity behind expressions of state sovereignty. The identity of the state is per formatively constituted by the very expressions that are said to be its result. One of these expressions is sovereignty ….” (Weber 91)

 When scholars, journalists, and literary authors criticized tourism as a cover-up of Austria’s postwar reality, they basically reaffirmed the nature/culture dichotomy in which an already existing state tries to shape its national identity by utilizing a specific set of touristic images and narratives. (One could also say that this is the performance-based notion of identity, one in which the state’s existence is independent from the sovereignty, or, as I like to see it, from its national identity. The critics, after all, seem to suggest that the state Austria could have used a different set of images to represent itself.)

The important question for me is: How can we argue an already existing Austria in 1945? Of course, there were international legal acts such as the 1943 Moscow declaration that guaranteed the resurrection of Austria in its pre-1938 borders. There was also the proclamation of the Austrian Second Republic in 1945 based on the constitution of pre-1934 Austria. Yet, if we take into account that national identity requires more than legalistic acts, that it relies on things such as “invented traditions” (Hobsbawm and Ranger) and “imagined communities” (Anderson), we face the problem that even in 1945 most of the available identity options were related to the “imagined community” of greater Germany, not a very welcome association at that point in time.

In his book The Ambivalence of Identity (2001), Peter Thaler argued that Austria’s biggest postwar accomplishment was the re-orientation of its “imagined community” from a focus on Germany to a focus on Austria. To a certain extent I agree with his view that the government-controlled educational system played a huge role in the dissemination of the image of a viable, autonomous, independent Austrian nation. However, I believe that his focus on a rather top-down and high-cultural process ignores the more mundane and popular processes that supported this transition. Tourism is, in my view, one of these processes that contributed not only to the reorientation of Austrian national identity, but to the construction of an entity called Austria in 1945 in the first place.

What those engaged in the reconstruction and renarration of Austria’s identity needed, thus, was an apparently pre-discursive, natural entity onto which they could project the notion of a new Austria, one that had been entangled in the National Socialist mess against its will; one, whose grand and impressive historical and cultural traditions could serve as testimony for its essentially “good” character and nature. Tourism provided just that. By reiterating older tourist narratives, preferably those from before 1918, but even those from between 1918 and 1938, those who were agents in the larger tourism discourse–government officials, tourism entrepreneurs, hosts, domestic and international tourists–were performatively invoking a natural, pre-discursive Austria, one that has existed for centuries.

What is, then, the really interesting aspect of studying tourism and Austria, is not so much how Austrians used tourism to hide their “true” identity, but, rather, to study tourism as a way to understand the re-construction of a “real” Austria; to understand how the discourse of tourism created the very Austria which it claimed to only represent.

Does Tourism Cover Up Austrian Reality?

Tourism and Austria–for most of the period since World War II, these two terms have been treated as an almost toxic combination. In the literary fiction of authors such as Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, Franz Innerhofer, Felix Mitterer, and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek–to name only a few of the more prominent names–the seminal images of Austria’s landscape and of its cultural and architectural icons function as metaphors for the country’s unwillingness to accept its share of responsibility in the Holocaust. These literary investigations came in different shapes and forms, but over time they have affirmed the notion that Austrian reality is hidden, covered up, concealed, camouflaged–the list could go on–by tourism. Elfriede Jelinek phrased it poignantly and in typical hyperbole in an interview. Asked if she viewed “Alpine tourism as a perfect means to cover up history in Austria?”, she responded: “Yes. Everything that has been done in this country since 1945 was the result of an intricate cover-up” (Brenner 30).

To be clear: The work done by Jelinek and other literary authors as well as by journalists and critics such as Armin Thurnher and Robert Menasse changed the Austrian political landscape and climate in crucial and positive ways. However, their works also reified tourism as the “fake” surface over Austrian national identity and treated the existence of the Austrian nation more or less as a given. (Crang describes the understanding of the nation as a given like this: The nation is not imagined as “the outcome of material and symbolic processes but instead as the cause of those practices–a hidden essence lying behind the surface of behaviour” [Crang 162]).

Viewed in the context of postwar Austria’s political history, this is quite understandable. The questioning of Austria’s existence as an autonomous nation state had played a big role in the Anschluss of 1938. After 1945, casting doubt on Austria’s national independence from Germany became the trademark of right-wing political groups, especially within the Freedom Party (FPÖ). (Jörg Haider’s notoriety as perpetual bad boy of Austrian politics was in part based on his characterization of the post-1945 nation as an ideologische Missgeburt [an ideological miscarriage]). The downside of this characterization was that the multiple ways in which tourism contributed to the process of reconstructing the Austrian nation after 1945 has received only scant attention.

Most scholarly investigations of tourism’s impact on the formation of Austria as a nation after 1945 focus on the economic importance of the tourism sector (an often-cited example is Brusatti). At the same time, the overwhelming majority of studies about the reconstruction of Austrian national identity focus on official political rituals and processes, on the role of the educational system, and on the function of “high” culture (see for instance the discussion of education in Peter Thaler’s The Ambivalence of Identity [2001]).

As Tim Edensor points out in his book National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life (2002) [see the link to My Library Thing in the column on the left], national identity construction is informed much more by everyday practices than by officially staged rituals of the nation. Taking issue with some of the more prominent accounts of national identity formation by Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, Anthony Smith, and John Hutchinson, Edensor claims that their approaches share a series of blindspots with regard to the role of popular culture in the process of national identity construction. Edensor’s criticism of the various approaches can be summarized in three points:

First, he contends that the above-mentioned authors focus too much on “spectacular and the historic.” Second, if these authors discuss popular culture at all, it’s only in the form of “‘folk’ culture,” which in turn seems to be worthy of investigation only “in contradistinction to mass culture” (Edensor 10). Third, Edensor considers the accounts to be “far too historicist, generalizing about national identity and disregarding contemporary formulations” (11).

In trying to fill in the gap left open by these various scholars, Edensor sketches out an approach to studying the construction of national identity as a

“process of continually weaving together fragments of discourse and images, enactions, spaces and times, things and people into a vast matrix, in which complex systems of relationally between elements constellate around common-sense themes–one such being the national” (Edensor, National Identity 29-30).

The key words here are “process,” “discourse,” “common-sense themes,” with the latter standing in for Edensor’s focus on everyday practices and performances [a concept I will discuss in future blogs] as an essential source for studying the national.

Where does tourism fit into all of this? Initially, it seems as if Edensor views the everyday, the routine aspects of live, as the opposite of touring, of going on vacation (National Identity 18). The latter is, in conventional definitions, the conscious and reflexive activity, the time when we leave our routine to experience something else, while the former is considered unreflective and habitual. However, as Edensor points out, that distinction is somewhat artificial. Most importantly,

“the unreflective construction of national identity, its embeddedness in the everyday, [can best be studied] by looking at how reflexive awareness can result from disruption–either by forms of common sense being interrogated by strangers or migrants, by familiar spaces, things and practices coming under threat from social and economic change, and most graphically by the habituated, embodied national subject being displaced or situated in an unfamiliar context” (National Identity 21).

There are several conclusions I draw from this approach for my own work on Austria: First, tourism might serve as a very good pathway to gain a better understanding of how Austrians reconstructed their national identity after 1945. By analyzing what kind of discourses and images the various institutions, groups, individuals wanted to be circulated for tourists, we can get a sense of what the various Austrian agents considered to be Austrian (and certainly also a sense as to what they did not want to be seen as a part of their identity, but I would argue that this is different from hiding one’s identity under the cloak of tourism.) Second, tourism, as a global practice, helps to perceive national identity not as the stagnant opposite of mobility, of globalization, but as an important element of fluid and temporary identity formation. In other words, the local variety of national identity might very well change under the influence of discourses and images about the Austrian nation by, let’s say, American tourists. The fact that the city of Salzburg now stages its own version of The Sound of Music after having for decades labelled as kitsch the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the 1965 film, and the Sound of Music tours, is only one case in point.

To answer the question posed in my title: Tourism seems to be far less a cover up, than an immensely complex discourse that facilitated the processes of reconstructing Austrian national identities [more later as to why I think the plural is important]. For today’s critic, tourism–understood as discourse–serves as a rich archive for understanding the construction of identities as well as the making of “normality” at specific moments in time.

Tourism and National Identity

This blog will accompany the writing of a book-length manuscript on the role of tourism in the reconstruction of Austria as a nation after 1945. Arguing against the mainstream notion that Austria only used superficial touristic images to distract from its problematic “real” past (the involvement in the crimes of National Socialism), my project applies recent developments in tourism studies, cultural studies, critical theory, and cultural geography to show that the discourse of tourism was not the surface covering up Austria but, in fact, the discursive environment within which Austria could be reconstructed. In order to make my argument, I will use sources such as government documents, school projects, films, literary texts, and field notes from participant observations of Sound of Music tours in Salzburg.