The Inhuman Landscape
James Young, corny Belfast comedian and, in his day, music-hall curio in a media age, had a voice-sketch in which he parodied tourist advertising in Northern Ireland in the nineteen sixties. The irritating refrain of the sketch, increasing in insistence and pace, was ‘The Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim … The Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim’. His target was the poverty of imagination at work in tourism in the North – Young himself, for all his complexities, was an alternative advertisement for people as an attraction over landscape.
Roland Barthes once sardonically pointed out that where the ground rises in undulations, there the bourgeoisie find their freedom – in the mountains, in ‘Nature’. Barthes had an even more allergic reaction to the Giant’s Causeway than James Young. Considering a plate of the Giant’s Causeway in an encyclopedia, Barthes described it as a ‘mass of terrifying basalt’, an ‘inhuman’ and ‘horrible’ landscape. Dr Johnson’s witticism was that the Giant’s Causeway was worth seeing but not worth going to see. Boredom and terror are, one might think, not good bases for tourism, especially when they are combined in one of the most prominent features of the tourist landscape. But think again – if they are properly contained and packaged boredom and terror can become relaxation and excitement, taking it easy and cultural interaction. Tourism is based on the promise of both – on the comfort of the known and the thrill of the new.
Middle-class tourism has, for a long time, necessitated the pretence that the unknown is really unknown, and that, in visiting a place as a tourist, you go from here to there, ready to be astonished. This involves half-forgetting what you already know before you go (your expectations and your ‘research’) and fully forgetting that the place has been made ready in anticipation of you. Ireland has been a prepared and commodified tourist destination for nearly two centuries, and the processes which go into getting the place fit for tourists are accumulatively undermining of rational cause and effect thinking. The wonders of Killarney, for example (other than the actual water in the lakes), are a long-established and developing set of expectations met rather than an experience waiting to happen. Irish coffee and Aran jumpers, stereotypes that they may be, are material objects signifying Ireland for the tourist and invented for and by tourism itself. Intense tourism brings about a kind of hyper-reality in which the circle of authenticity, and the circle of manufacturing processes which authenticity needs in order to keep up with demand, catch up with each other in a whirligig of pleasure.
It is an axiom of the tourist industry that tastes have changed. People want the authentic experience again. Tourists have gone beyond accepting kitsch versions of place as reality (bypassing too quickly the puerile but nevertheless enjoyable state of things in which kitsch can be enjoyed for its very detachment from ‘reality’ – tourism and irony don’t mix very well). Tourists, or at least those tourists who are willing to visit Ireland, want the real thing. And that may be getting off the beaten track (a revisiting of a late nineteenth-century tourist phenomenon). It may be meeting ‘real’ people. Above all tourism at the high-end is now underwritten with beliefs that revive romanticism in a pseudo form that believes in its own newness. Tourism now reinforces experientially the cultural conviction that the local is the real, that landscape, with its Barthesian undulations, is the secret to freedom. This authenticity is made authentic not so much through history, though that still matters (particularly in a genealogical mode in Irish tourism), but sensually – tourists now want to walk on, swim in, talk to, listen to, and taste. The potential hedonism of this tourist ‘reality’ is made ethically palatable with a revivified turn to ‘Nature’. Each Wordsworthian moment of tourism, whether talking or listening to the peasantry or walking the designated pathways, involves a melancholy acceptance of an economy of loss and gain – preservation of the environment is justified despite the alterations that are necessary in order to traverse it; using up material resources is a price worth paying if it enhances ‘spiritual’ reserves for the greater good.
The greening of tourism is both of our time and a cycle of repetition. For Irish tourism the sell is an easy one. The idea is that Ireland was always green. Local producers sell local products, and the scale of things is small. This becomes a world of sincere smallholders, glocal by instinct, dirty under the fingers but clear in the mind. ‘The Greenbox’, which covers parts of Fermanagh, Sligo, Donegal and Leitrim, is the best example in Ireland of the new green tourism, notable for its mixture of make-do and utopianism. The area covered by the Greenbox is a relatively unvisited one, certainly in comparison to other parts of rural Ireland. It is also, of course, economically disadvantaged, and has the political (and grant-application) advantage of being a cross-border entity. The Greenbox is a marketing strategy which, for good or ill, is an idea which might just swallow up the area in a moment of faddism. Because the Greenbox promotes green tourism, and mixes the ‘innovative’ with the authentic. Underlying the strategy is the conviction that Ireland was green anyway by dint of not having quite caught up with the modern world. What the tourist gets in The Greenbox is adventure and ecotourism, the promise of tradition (as if this was itself a guarantee of ‘greenness’) and the ethically-sound ‘new’ in a non-industrial way. There are promises of organic food and environmentally-aware accommodation. As with all tourism, the politics of the issues cannot be allowed to rise beyond a gesture, a nod to lifestyle choices but not system-shaking convictions.
The Greenbox, for all its modishness, does at least convert ideas into some kind of practice, however eclectically ‘green’ they may be. It also targets tourism at things people are actually doing and gives them a hand to do more. Discover Northern Ireland, on the other hand, still largely regards the tourist as a spectator, assuming that a visitor to the North will largely spend their time in open-mouthed wonder. C.S. Lewis was born here? Wow. The Giant’s Causeway. That’s impressive. Come see the castles and monuments. The moribund attitude at the heart of this imaginative poverty is summed up in the ‘Virtual Visits’ section of the Discover Northern Ireland website, which promises a virtual tour of the North. In fact what happens is entirely static, since you are at the centre of a 360° panorama which spins slowly if left alone and dizzily if double-clicked. The sun is shining everywhere. If you get bored and move your cursor up you can spin the blue sky around and see nothing of Northern Ireland at all (assuming that the sky is not quite the land, or the land’s). Boredom, in fact, is assumed in this form since each image has, virtually emblazoned on the ground beneath your feet, the ‘virtualvisit’ logo – which can only be there in anticipation of messers who want to see what happens when you move the cursor down as far as it will go. And so the logo on the ground is an admission of the boredom of the very images which are meant to entice you out of your virtual visit and into an actual one.
Eventually, no doubt, Northern Ireland will promote itself in another way, and stop being sold to the tourist as amazing for just being itself, for, against all the odds, being still here and being normal against adversity. For now the Discover Ireland promise of adventure in the ‘Explore’ section of their website pops up a sequence of seven images. The first is the Giant’s Causeway.
[The Vacuum, November 2009]