The Ethics of Sight-Seeing: Connections & a Reflection


There are other sorts of beauty on this globe, but this sort of beauty
is fully realized here.

This sort of beauty cannot get any more beautiful, any more
detailed, any more rich or perfect.

-Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone With Lungs.


I wander. As early as middle school my interest in connecting things that were not previously connected became a topic of parent-teacher meetings. I wanted to connect the softball team with math class with social studies. This was often frowned upon as block schedules and end-of-grade tests are not set up to accommodate such nontraditional excursions. It’s also difficult to assess wandering. For instance, how does one “wander well” or successfully?

Not so many years later, I found wandering to be institutionally recognized in inter/trans/a-disciplinary practices and courses. Wandering became critical thought. Something to be accessed and translated. I find myself continually invested in transdisciplinary projects as they are not only my academic path, but a deeply embedded part of my identity. Because critical thought and transdisciplinary projects continue to disrupt the status quo of traditional universities and higher education institutes, I find it helpful to ground my work in a text or concept. Working across disciplines continues to be a radical idea. To provide context and contemplation to the traveling (and wandering) process I have worked to reflect on my experience through a close reading of Dean MacCannell’s work on travel and tourism; The Ethics of Sight-Seeing. This is in no way a true review of his text, but rather a playful use of his work to ground my own experiences. By rooting my wandering—through festivals, streets, in cathedrals, in and out of conversations in an unfamiliar language, through markets, around castles, and in train stations—in the framework MacCannell provides, I add the perspectives of ethics to the discussion. I look forward to re-positioning these memories as I continue to travel and my perspective continues to shift.

MacCannell suggests that “[a]t the nexus of ethics and tourism there should be hope (as the charter of the World Travel Organization states) for increasing human virtue corresponding to the growth of tourist travel and sightseeing. Or not” (ix).
The points raised by MacCannell regarding his methods are crucial; he asks “Who are the sightseers? Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘they’?” (xi). It should be noted that as we (the GPP2016 cohort) moved through campuses and cities, were being seen as much as we were seeing. We altered the landscape by adding bodies, exchanging currency, standing in the train stations (singing and humming in the train stations!), and watching. Our presence altered these spaces. The spaces and experiences in turn altered us as individuals and a collective group. Additionally, it should be noted that each space and experience was carefully curated to meet our assumed or anticipated needs. This is a relationship and exchange which, if carefully reflected upon and deconstructed, would advance our understanding about the global university and various movements towards international collaboration– it’s assumed needs, desires, and the like.(A post on this topic is in progress.)

With this said, I do not believe disruptions and alterations made by those wandering through are necessarily bad. Rather, such relationships are critical in creating recognized spaces (here I am thinking of the work of human geographers, Doreen Massey and Edward Soja). It is how we frame and embrace (or deny) the changes we are causing that provoke conversations about ethics and ethical traveling. For instance, to try to be and/or experience the space as a local would (in my opinion) be an injustice to the embodied knowledge the traveler brings to the experience.

For instance, while traveling with friend and co-hort member Liz Loguori, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet some of her family members living in Italy. I was able to learn about the city through her younger cousin who gave a walking tour. My inability to correctly adhere to traditional customs at the dinner table (largely getting the shrimp out of the shell) led to a meaningful and lively exchange with other family members. By singing along (perhaps loudly) to 50 Cents (the rapper), I immediately sparked a friendship with another family member. Finding the places where worlds collide, and understanding these collisions can be profoundly powerful and transformative has proven to be highly rewarding. It requires serious vulnerability and openness, as we often believe the “correct” way to travel is to silently observe and deny our impact. I am thinking of the worlds Dr. Ali Neff wrote on the board in Feminist Research Methods, “Get Over Yourself” to prepare us for public presentations as I try and unpack these exchanges.

Part one of MacConnell’s text is titled, “The Ubiquitous Tourist and Postmodern Paranoia.” Interestingly, postmodern paranoia framed many of our conversations regarding the modernization of the university (to be covered in the forthcoming post). In this beginning section, MacCannell makes the compelling argument that travelers often feel a compulsion to feel something. There is a pressure to emotionally respond. We know, for example, certain sculptures should take our breath away. The anticipation of such overwhelming emotions (in response to sightseeing) often clouds or distorts our ability to comprehend “the moment” in action. We find ourselves anticipating that feeling, rather than “colliding” with the affectional possibilities at hand. Further, theories of the other (or Edward Said’s Oriental) are used to understand the social and emotional exchanges when sightseeing. On our trip this was disrupted, as we were not defining only ourselves but our institutions. This intention was personally very important to me. Knowing my trip was largely supported by the university, I sought educational connections. Thus, my travels were focused on relations between places and institutions, rather than places and myself. I believe this lead to the unexpected moments of sheer… amazement. Seeing the Rhine, walking through the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, hearing accordions in the Basel market, walking the streets of Milano, hustling through Bern with the Alps in the distance and graffiti all around, connections made with the owners of the cafe in Riva, and singing Gordon Lightfoot tunes with a group of friends from all across Europe… these were all connections so unexpected that the air left my chest and I was overwhelmed with gratitude just to be there. In complete honesty, there was also disbelief at the possibility of experiencing such junctures. (hashtag: IsThisRealLife?!)

There are also take-ways from MacCannell’s work, helpful to anyone, whether traveling across town or across the globe, considerations that I tried to keep in mind as the days progressed:

(1) it is a demeaning tendency to view native peoples as part of the local landscape—scenery to be gazed upon, photographed, and commodified. (10)
(2) “there is no possibility of an unmediated intersubjective relation. (10)
and (3) “Sightseeing can have no higher purpose than to rearrange the ground of subjective existence” (11)

I found these concepts to be key foundations not only during this trip but when conducting any research or experience-based projects which involve people. Due to my own research interests, MacCannell’s section on “Staged Authenticity Today” was particularly provocative. In this section the idea of staged (generalized, commoditized) authenticity is presented, as well as mechanisms for resistance against such spaces or experiences. For me, a very powerful takeaway (to be continued and revisited) is a realization that everything is again, the idea that everything is relational. We weren’t just site seeking, we were connecting. We were connecting with those around us, the foods, the sounds, the weather. We were getting to know ourselves out of context. For myself, this was also a re-positioning of where I see myself within the larger higher education system, not to mention learning to speak and work across disciplines. I realized how much this project of learning and knowing and teaching really means to me. I saw it’s potential from a different place, and as a result my own perspective was drastically altered.

In short, I felt connected while displaced. I connected to the world, to my studies, and to those around me in new ways. I recall an initial interest I had in this trip: learning to care in an often hyper-competitive world. To sincerely, genuinely care, we must enter the space sincerely. What this means and how this is practiced is something I have yet to fully untangle from MacCannell’s text. While wandering is something that changes when assessed or controlled, there are ethical implications to wandering– whether across disciplines, county lines, or oceans. Our intentions, reflections and process of accountability are critical and require consistent feedback. Moreover, I have realized that we are not wandering alone.

In retrospect, the words of Juliana Sphar have taken on a new meaning. Below is an excerpt from her powerful and politically charged work, “This Connection of Everyone with Lungs; a reflection on September 11th and the connectedness of humanity.

as everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands and the space around the hands and the space of the room and the space of the building that surrounds the room and the space of the neighborhoods nearby and the space of the cities and the space of the regions and the space of the nations and the space of the continents and islands and the space of the oceans and the space of the troposphere and the space of the stratosphere and the space of the mesosphere in and out.
In this everything turning and small being breathed in and out by everyone with lungs during all the moments.
Then all of it entering in and out.

The entering in and out of the space of the mesosphere in the entering in and out of the space of the stratosphere in the entering in and out of the space of the troposphere in the entering in and out of the space of the oceans in the entering in and out of the space of the continents and islands in the entering in and out of the space of the nations in the entering in and out of the space of the regions in the entering in and out of the space of the cities in the entering in and out of the space of the neighborhoods nearby in the entering in and out of the space of the building in the entering in and out of the space of the room in the entering in and out of the space around the hands in the entering in and out of the space between the hands.

How connected we are with everyone.

The space of everyone that has just been inside of everyone mixing inside of everyone with nitrogen and oxygen and water vapor and argon and carbon dioxide and suspended dust spores and bacteria mixing inside of everyone with sulfur and sulfuric acid and titanium and nickel and minute silicon particles from pulverized glass and concrete.
How lovely and how doomed this connection of everyone with lungs.
Brooklyn, New York


MacCannell, Dean. The ethics of sightseeing. Univ of California Press, 2011.
Spahr, Juliana. This Connection of Everyone with Lungs: Poems. Vol. 15. Univ of California Press, 2005.

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