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DARK TOURISM AND THE COMMODIFICATION OF HISTORICAL CATASTROPHES

How do we deal with this memoricide?

  • Jun 09 2022
  • Filipe Lippe
    is a poet, artist and researcher born in 1986 in Duque de Caxias, Brazil. He is a PhD candidate in art theory at HFBK Hamburg, researching on historical trauma, racism, and (de)coloniality in the context of neoliberalism.

Despite the work that artists, intellectuals and activists have done to consolidate sociopolitical reparations based on the re-elaboration and preservation of traumatic memory and history, the neoliberalization of the politics of memory has transformed this effort into mere tourist attractions. 

Common sense believes that history alone will bring justice to the victims of the modern civilizing process. Reality, however, shows that this way of understanding the historical process as a natural and apolitical passage of time is wrong. While coups d'état, dictatorships, genocides, imperialist wars, slavery, fascism and extreme poverty remain a deliberate part of our world that makes up an astonishing collection of catastrophes associated with that so-called capitalist progress, collective forms of mourning and trauma crystallize today within nation-states. This quick observation helps us to recognize that unlike what common sense claims, it is actually the struggles of politically driven groups that seek to redress past crimes, that deter the reproduction of violence and suffering in the present.

Among the most surprising ambiguities of the nation-states is that while they committed crimes against other peoples as well as their own populations, they subsequently created policies and monuments that preserve their traumatic memories as a means of preventing future atrocities. This reciprocal process did not happen just because guilt and moral crises forced societies to renounce before the international community. Massive destruction and crises are a significant part of the mechanism used by the capital to develop. The class struggle that inscribes history is delineated by a constant process of demolition and reconstruction. This means that the infinite progress that capitalism craves necessitates the ruin it creates.

At the end of the nineteenth century, more precisely between 1870 and 1914, a kind of "statuemania"[1] emerged in France. 150 statues were erected in Paris alone. The erected statues in this period celebrated military figures, the glories of French culture and its republic. As it was common in the fin-de-siècle, statuemania was exported as yet another “French fashion” to other European countries and their colonies. These statues represent a flagrant use of history and public art as an attempt to preserve power. They were used as a means to establish a pedagogy and an aesthetics that exclude and silence historical actors, ethnical groups and peoples that were considered to be of lesser value. This was nothing really new at that time, if we consider the continuous cultural erasure that Western colonialism caused wherever it happened. French statuemania remained a source of inspiration to political powers throughout the 20th century, as both the Soviet Union and the capitalist countries made use of it in order to maintain ideological, political, economic, cultural, and racial hegemony. Several statues, monuments and memorial sites were erected throughout the world in order to adjust history according to ideological needs. This was a process that kept many social groups misrepresented or completely excluded from official history, generating more social and political fragility for them. Just look at how women have been erased from the Soviet Union’s history under Stalin, how the black population has been misrepresented in American history, and how the native populations in Brazil have been systematically discredited by historians. These evident manifestations of symbolic violence stem from the consolidation of an instrumental rationality which was turned into hegemonic by Western modernity/coloniality. This is the rationality that is hidden behind every memoricide and project of domination that lies on establishing excluding historical narratives. In this sense, Walter Benjamin's famous saying that "there is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism"[2] is an alarm to the incongruities of modernity/coloniality, saving us from the comfortable posture that treats it as an uncontaminated good.

After the conclusion of the World War II, the reconstruction of the countries affected by it was mainly informed by the idea that remembering the mistakes of the past is a way to prevent regressive forces within states from committing crimes against humanity again. This new attitude towards history became the basis of what is known today as the politics of memory. This practice has used the growing consensus of historical ethics in order to establish a culture of human rights in places where the culture of violence is prevalent. In order to put this theory into practice, historical reparations that would then recompensate victims would be given through a difficult archival and legislative work that relies on social mobilization which creates commissions that investigate past crimes, as well as the creation of new laws and the establishment of courts that would punish those directly responsible for the crimes of the past. This is a peculiar phenomenon of the 20th century that, even with many difficulties and flaws, was partially achieved by countries like Germany after the World War II, Argentina after the military dictatorship, and South Africa at the end of Apartheid. 

Following the total consolidation of neoliberalism as a new rationality that governs all aspects of collective life,[3] the politics of memory started to suffer an increasing process of depoliticization due to its commercialization. Especially from the 1990’s onwards, the strong de-collectivization imposed by the demands of the free market has partially weakened the collective impetus that sustains the politics of memory, while the privatization of economic, cultural and state institutions has significantly changed the way public monuments and memorial sites are currently managed. The pressure to commercialize "places of memory" has turned places such as the Killing Field in Cambogia, Chernobyl and KZ Auschwitz into tourist destinations. It was in this context that dark tourism was established as a new category of tourism.

Dark tourism is a type of tourism based on the circulation of people in places characterized by atrocity and suffering. It consists of situations where the tourism product is generated within, and from, the aftermath of major traumatic events. Even though it has received increasing attention in recent years due to TV shows such as the Netflix series “Dark Tourist” that was released in 2018, dark tourism has not only been "innocently" fueled by pop culture. Its popularity has been metabolized by tourist policies made by governments and private investments, such as travel companies. This entanglement between public and private investment denotes that tourism in places of memory is informed by the commercial and ideological interests of neoliberalism. Hence, dark tourism can be seen as the culmination of an ideological dispute between historical narratives that concern the way that specific historical actors and events are remembered in societies: the commodification of places and institutions that were originally created to preserve traumatic memories is, in fact, a strategy used by political powers to silence voices. In short, turning places of memory into dark tourist destinations is a neoliberal reaction against the politics of memory.

 

Testimony and Historical Silence

In his article "C for Crisis",[4] British historian Eric Hobsbawn comments that the shift from the fundamental question that historians until the 1960’s used to ask about the past, such as "what happened in history, when and why?" to "how do people feel or felt about it?", brought about a subjective methodological shift toward history that impacted the way the present understands the past to this day. According to Hobsbawn, the strengthening of oral culture [5] in historiography, and the importance that was given to the testimony of victims of catastrophes in the 20th century, have effectively created an emotional texture which was not used in historical research beforehand. This newly established subjective approach towards historical events created considerable difficulties for historians who were informed by a positivist way of making historiography. To give just a few examples, what would it mean to describe the characteristic emotion of a nation or an epoch when this nation is seized by war, to describe an emotion that is socially generalized and associated with a tragic event, or to establish justice from the testimony of individuals who lived a traumatic historical event? These were new questions that forced an intellectual and ethical reformulation in historiographical methods. [6]

Although these questions are difficult to answer, they only presented a problem to those who aimed to write a history based on epic narratives that elevate certain selected individuals into normative superheroes, which ultimately meant turning them into bronze or stone statues in public squares. This linear bourgeois view of history that only cares about preserving the narrative of the winners is a way of creating historical silences. Historiography which is done in such a way is still the greatest ideological obstacle that prevents a "revolutionary" and non-linear re-signification of the past in the present. It was Walter Benjamin who developed the idea that history is a catastrophe [7] caused by progress while he was faced with the horror of the Nazi-fascist violence in Europe of the 1930’s. Benjamin made the victims' testimony into a philosophical key that founded a new ethics of responsibility and care.[8] He believed that the oral testimony that assists in narrating and amplifying the voices of those who experienced shock [9] not only sheds light on the violent episodes they encountered, but also helps in fighting against them. To build a memory and a history that opposes the traditional historiographic register which are averse to the voice of witnesses is to build a worldview that emerges from the rubble of progress. 

Another argument for the vital necessity of victim’s testimony is made clear in a famous excerpt from the French writer George Pérec: "To speak, to write, is for the deportee who returns a need as immediate and as strong as his need for calcium, for sugar, for sun, for meat, for sleep, for silence. It is not true that one can silence and forget. It is necessary to remember. It is necessary that he explain, that he narrates, that he masters this world of which he was the victim."[10] Through this argument, Pérec places testimony as a fundamental element in guaranteeing the victim's survival. However, when we go beyond the individual need exposed by Pérec, we understand that testimony also has a symbolic and political value for collective survival. For this reason, the need to establish a historical reconstruction made through the narrative of the oppressed is so necessary.

However, the problem of selective narration is also the reason why historical reparations are usually incomplete, since it is not everyone who is allowed to speak. Nation-states still maintain selectivity whenever it comes to reviewing their respective historical traumas. Colonial memories are frequently neglected by former colonialist and colonial countries as racial and ethnical minorities remain muted by systemic racism and coloniality of power. Even when colonial tragedies are remembered, they are just not honestly exposed. A classic example of this problem is the disparity in the way Germany deals with the Holocaust alongside its colonialist past in Africa. While the brutality of the Holocaust is duly remembered by several memorials and museums around the country, the German genocide in Namibia is barely remembered, resulting in only one single modest plaque in Berlin's Neukölln district. This denotes the need to fight Western instrumental rationality also when establishing the politics of memory and history. Otherwise, historical justice will always remain selective and will keep old wounds open.

Dark Tourism as Memoricide

When dark tourism attracts a surprisingly large number of people to museums, memorials, squares, monuments, and locations that document atrocities that were committed, it produces a morbid entertainment climate. While it is possible for tourists to inform and educate themselves about the history of the places they visit, the logic of the market existing in this type of tourism transforms these places of memory into a Disneyland of horrors. How many tourists that visit Rio de Janeiro have already gone on safari tours into the favelas of the city? Who has never seen tourist shops in Berlin that sell fragments of the Berlin Wall as souvenirs? The perverse irony of this situation is that capital transforms everything into a means to wealth. Individuals are seen as workers without subjectivity and rights, and nature is reduced to the category of commodity. Everything must be productive. If there is anything that cannot be immediately transformed into profit, it must be destroyed. But, once the damage is done, the remaining ruins are often turned into a tourist attraction. Thus, a cycle of destruction and reconstruction, mourning and profit, is engineered in order to feed the neoliberal free market. Dark tourism is, in this perspective, a form of memoricide.

More than a moral problem, dark tourism is a political problem that results from the neoliberalization of the politics of memory. It is a way of repressing the voices of survivors and silencing them in order to maintain a specific social order based on privilege and class hegemony. To avoid this process, it is necessary to believe that the history of the winners can be disrupted, appropriated, and transformed through the elaboration of counter-narratives and disobedient practices that put the order of capital into suspension. The global movement that was based on toppling statues which began after the assassination of George Floyd in the U.S. in 2020, was remarkable because it expressed a general revolt against oppressive historical symbols. Another considerable means of fighting the establishment are aesthetic-political actions that are made by artists and activists that are based on "illegally" replacing street and avenue names that honor tyrants of the past, with names of their victims or icons of political resistance. 

Nonetheless, these are autonomous practices that become a political disaster when they are assimilated by the market. In recent years, so-called progressive neoliberalism [11] has subsumed progressive social agendas in order to maintain its dominance, thus presenting a great challenge to those who fight for justice. It is astonishing to see how private companies have adopted identity politics and turned it into an ideological weapon of the market. The same thing has happened in the context of the art market and its institutions that commodify dissident anti-racist and decolonial artistic proposals in order to weaken them. For these reasons, artists, activists and intellectuals who struggle for historical reparation must reject these false progressive measures that are offered by capital.

Beyond the destruction of statues and monuments, it is necessary to invent policies that prevent history from repeating itself first as a tragedy, and then as a farce. Pragmatically, this implies the work of revising the institutions that preserve collective memory and prevent their neoliberalization. This depends not only on how individuals define past mistakes and present responsibilities, but fundamentally on how we create means to deal with the past and present. From a somewhat "utopian" point of view, we can believe that through the creative and radical appropriation of our narratives of violence we can imagine and shape a new ethics and invent an alternative present. Making the arts as a platform for building new subjectivities and elaborating other ways of living together may be a way to move forwards. The fundamental question here is much more complicated than the matter of tourism in places that represent historical suffering. What really matters is to know what we should do with our horrific past, and how we could create ways of living with it without permitting it to happen again.

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