Alexander Breth: The Audience of Tourists: Spoken Poetry and Accessibility of the Past

Writing, to the artistic community, has consistently occupied a powerful role in relationship to trauma, embodiment, and overall notions of the self. By consuming someone’s writings – whether through reading or listening to a speaker – we are glimpsed with insights into the embodied knowledges of the author. Yet, while the audience here can access this ‘truth’ (as some may argue it should be called), this acknowledgement begs the question of the degree to which audiences can fully and authentically access the past through writing. In more clear terms, the question becomes how the embodied experience of another’s past for an audience member is fundamentally limited when compared to understanding the full, vibrant history that exists.

Albeit a bit pretentious-sounding, there is much to be gained from examining the role of an audience member as performing a role akin to that of a tourist at a historical site. It offers an intriguing understanding of the implications which the phenomenon of physically experiencing another person’s history comes with. Although in the moment we, as audience members, become “sticky”, a term defined by Sara Ahmed as “a form of relationality, or ‘withness,’ in which the elements that are ‘with’ get bound together” with the affects around us (Cultural 91)[1], we are not inexorably bound to them. This bond is tangible to us for as long as we remain under the guide of the author – their gestures leading us through the exhibit before us. We remain aware of our own corporeal distance, despite feeling moved to become one with the emotions of the author.

While seemingly novel, the notion of limited historical access through embodied experience has been discussed before in performance studies and memory work in ways that complement the point I’m trying to convey. Notably, in her essay “Slavery, Tourism, and Rememory”, Lisa Woolfork discusses how the touring of slave-castles in Africa and affects surrounding them pertain directly to the types of bodies experiencing the physical site.

The kind of slave-tourism presented by Woolfork uncannily parallels what Marianne Hirsch describes as Post-memory regarding the second generation of holocaust survivors[2].  Here, in Hirsch’s understanding, the trauma and emotional burdens of the first generation, those who experienced it directly, is transmitted so fully to the next generation as to imbue them with the same sort of existential trauma. Yet, this kind of embodied experience of memory seems to be predicated on the fact that there is a familial or successional connection between the two parties; whereas, with tourism, there may or may not be some direct correlation between history and the body attempting to reexperience it. It is for this reason that I believe that performance and memory work is only partially successful in its ability to access the past; instead of making the full experience of history available, tourism-as-performance of history is only able to create affects that make the modern performer sympathetic to the past.

To provide an example of this, it seems relevant to offer an analysis of contemporary holocaust tourism. Here, similarly to the tours of slave castles described in the Woolfork essay, the physical performance of experiencing history walks the performer through similar yet asynchronous paths to that of those who experienced trauma. This juxtaposition, the contemporary subject to the punctum of seeing sites of trauma, is in a sense a space of liminality; within it, the subject grapples with a myriad of signifiers and meanings that were previously inaccessible to them through immersion in the affect. Once returning to modernity, via recognition that they are ‘touring’ a site, they have a greater understanding of the sorts of experiences that history has to offer without adopting that trauma as their own.

What proves this point is the propagation of selfies and self-unaware images that arise from these traumatic sites by the very tourists within them. There are numerous selfies of smiling couples or people within Auschwitz shared with emojis and others of cooling shower fixtures with tourists dousing themselves in mist; both ignoring quite infuriatingly the pain and suffering that occurred there.

Here, performance (such as reenactment or other bodily forms of engagement with history) and memory work are only successful in making certain aspects of history available and consumable to modern tourists. There will always be, unless an intense, personal bond like the premise Hirsch lays out, parts of history and trauma that remain grossly inaccessible to modern subjects. For even through immersion in the affect of history and its various juxtapositions with one’s emotions and understandings, it can never translate poignantly the precise kinds of history that occurred, instead only offering a fleeting affect into what may have been.

This conclusion, too, can be said of audiences of spoken or otherwise performed writings. As intellectual tourists, we do not seek a full understanding or accessibility to the embodied epistemologies laid before us; instead, we delight in having these fleeting moments of sincere connection with a complete stranger. We, frankly, don’t care about the ‘truth’ of writing – we will never access it – rather we care only for writing’s ability to stickily bind itself to us for a brief time. This is not to overtly disparage those that claim their writing has an existential truth to it, for it indeed may, but through its presentation to us as tourists we may never fully understand that ‘truth’ simply because of our ability to spatially and affectively access it.

By adopting this way of thinking, it is possible to recognize our own positionality as audience members in a way that drastically changes our relationship to spoken art; through recognition of its incompleteness, we may actually better appreciate what it is rather than what we believe it should be.

Footnotes

[1] This is the understanding of Ahmed’s stickiness that is reiterated through Rodríguez, Juana María. Sexual futures, queer gestures, and other Latina longings. NYU Press, 2014

[2] Woolfork, Lisa. "Slave Tourism and Rememory." Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture: 98-131.

Hirsch, Marianne. "The generation of postmemory." Poetics today 29.1 (2008): 103-128.


Alexander Breth is a MA candidate in Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University and the Thirty West operations manager. His current work focuses on the intersections of visual culture, affect, performance, and digital media. He can be reached at brethalexander@gmail.com

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