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«'What the Fuck is a Vietnam?': Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War) Victor Alneng Critique of Anthropology 2002; 22; ...»

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Approaching the Other Touristic phantasms are touristic in the sense of emerging in a context of tourism-as-usual, and they are phantasmic because they depend on the imagination as an elaborate social practice. A phantasm, as I use the term, is not a simulation of the Other, but the appropriation of the Other as an appearance to be practised and experienced. Closely connected to Benjamin’s concept of ‘aura’ – ‘the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be’ (1968: 222) – phantasms demarcate places, erase them from the ordinary to reinstate them as extraordinary in a world of ubiquitous tension between local, national and global representations of places. Spawning urges to go from ‘home’ to ‘elsewhere’ – the latter a place not purely imaginary but imagined as pure – phantasms combine to bring people from different cultural contexts physically closer for a definite period of time, while cultural distance is upheld and reconfirmed. In this sense phantasms are related to ‘perspectives’ – a position from which to see something and a disposition from which to do something, in other words, one’s position in the social structure (Hannerz, 1992: 62–99). Here we might talk of ‘slants’ or ‘angles’ to connote cultural biases and restrictions in scope. Phantasms evoke desires and wishes of the world and at once promise the fulfilment of these. Constructing phantasms is thus to position oneself in an ‘occurrent landscape’ – a world where places are demarcated as ‘events waiting to happen’ (Crang, 1999: 246; cf. also Favero, 2000; Rojek, 1997). A touristic phantasm, then, is not merely in between here and there, but also a go-between between the two – it is, as it were, a ‘(t)here’.

For tourists, the degree of satisfaction corresponds largely to the degree to which a phantasm can be transformed into experience. The dissonance between ‘(t)here’ and ‘there’ can ultimately disillusion tourists (cf. Rojek, 1993: 202; Urry, 1990: 13), and this asymmetrical arrangement of perspectives comprises a potential for social change. This disillusionment, however, is worked against in various ways. The tourism industry seeks to structure tourists’ experiences in accordance with phantasms. While tourists might rationalize their phantasms, this is always undertaken reluctantly as phantasms are intimately related to tourists’ identities and it requires tourists to give up their initial holiday dreams.4 With particularly persuasive phantasms, a ‘(t)here’ can be experienced as a ‘there’ despite their objective discrepancies.5 A phantasm as an ‘approach’ is also a fitting metaphor as it suggests agency, strategy and movement. Like a sort of touristic protocol, phantasms not only help structuring practices, they also legitimize those very same practices, thus counteracting what Frow has identified as ‘touristic shame’, that is, the realization of the paradox by which ‘tourism destroys (in the Downloaded from http://coa.sagepub.com at Stockholms Universitet on October 10, 2007 © 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

466 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) very process by which it constructs) the authenticity of the tourist object;

and every tourist thus at some level denies belonging to the class of tourists’ (1997: 95–6). Touristic shame has produced ontological and ideological distinctions between ‘vulgar’ tourists and ‘noble’ travellers. This distinction is very fragile, and it’s sometimes necessary for backpackers to differentiate themselves from fellow backpackers. In Vietnam, travelling on local buses instead of backpacker tour buses is a way of doing this. The local buses are considerably less comfortable and relatively unsafe, and boasting of this experience of ‘danger’ is an effective way of securing a traveller identity.

Curiously, nouveau not-desperately-poor Vietnamese are increasingly travelling on the comfortable backpacker buses, which undermines the whole idea of not travelling with these buses as a way of having authentic experiences by siding with the locals.

Touristic phantasms can embrace all imagined times of all imagined places. We therefore speak of our phantasms as if of the real and, at the same time, as if we remember (Agamben, 1993: 86, n5). This relates to Appadurai’s claim that the imagination has the ability to evoke ‘imagined

nostalgia’, that is, nostalgia for things of which we have no memories (1996:

77). While being preoccupied with the past and with the elsewhere, phantasms help structure our present practices, which in turn help mould the future. Obviously, aspects of power and inequalities are present here.

Hutnyk shows how travellers involved in volunteer work in Calcutta, informed by global ‘rumours of Calcutta’ as a place of dirt and poverty, through ‘specific practices and technologies of tourism, representations and experience combine to reinforce and replicate the conditions of contemporary international inequality’ (1996: 214). Norindr (1996) demonstrates how French imperialism, by entertaining a ‘phantasmatic Indochina’, not only manifested itself through physical domination, but also through a colonization of the imaginary. The combination of the tourism-as-usual discourse, which permits a view of a Third World civil war as, principally, a threat to tourism access, and backpacker predilections for experiences of danger, has gruesome implications. Garland illustrates this perfectly in The Beach when his backpacking anti-hero Richard reveals how he had wished for the Gulf War to happen just because he thought it would be exciting to watch on TV (1996: 253–4). Whatever their size or shape, phantasms disclose more information about the cultural contexts of tourists than about the exotic Other peoples and places they depict – through phantasms we imagine others in ways that allow us to imagine ourselves.

Though all tourists are culturally and spatially decontextualized while travelling – indeed a source of insecurity in itself – and although backpackers have a strong predilection for experiences of danger (Elsrud, 2001;

Phipps, 1999), touristic phantasms act reassuringly. With them we can symbolically master the world – ‘[t]he feeling that the world is the size of a golf

ball and that everything is possible lingers. The world IS ours!’ (Lind, 2000:

3), as the chief editor of World Wide Travel expressed her enthusiasm for a

–  –  –

world made dangerously safe for tourism. This is a world where ‘whatever is, is considered to be in being only to the degree and the extent that it is taken into and referred back to this life, i.e., is lived out, and becomes lifeexperience’ (Heidegger, 1977: 134). Phantasms are dreams put into practice and their dominion is their ability to satisfy the desires and wishes they themselves evoke. To successfully become tourists we dream on until our dreams come true; the world is called upon to live up to the phantasms of it (cf. Frow, 1997; Urry, 1990: 13).

The cinematic/touristic phantasmic reality: going to themovies/going to Vietnam

‘... Answer this. Where are you?’ ‘Leave me alone!’ ‘Where are you?’ he repeated.

I covered my face with my hands. ‘I’m in Thailand.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Thaila...’ ‘Where?’ Through the cracks between my fingers, I stole a glance down to the DMZ.

My shoulders slumped as I got the gist. ‘... Vietnam.’ ‘Vietnam!’ A great crowing grin spread across his features. ‘You said it! You wanted it! And now these are the breaks! In Country losing your shit comes with the territory!’ He whooped and slapped his thigh. ‘Fuck it, man, you should be welcoming me! I’m the proof you made it! Rich, I am your lost shit! Vietfuckin’-nam!’ (Garland, 1996: 323) Just prior to my fieldwork a peculiar project took place on Koh Phi Phi in Thailand – they were building a beach where there already was one. Apparently the real beach did not live up to the expectations of figments. The imaginary beach is the one in Garland’s backpacker epic The Beach, and when film-director Danny Boyle started making a movie of it reality had to be tampered with to fit the fiction. Eager to rub shoulders with Generation Y, the Coca-Cola Company launched a commercial simulating a scene from The Beach – a jump down a waterfall where the main characters transcend the world to arrive in the utopian beach paradise. In the commercial, the jump ends in Coca-Cola Land, but, though Coke might be ‘the Real Thing’, Garland’s and Boyle’s ‘Beach’ is even better than the real thing.

The question ‘Where are you?’ That question seems so ridiculously trivial. But for Richard, the anti-hero in Garland’s travelogue, it was not. For him, haunted by the glamour of Vietnam War movies, it became a question of life and death. As his tropical Downloaded from http://coa.sagepub.com at Stockholms Universitet on October 10, 2007 © 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

468 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) paradise went haywire, his flight into a phantasmic reality allowed him to become unhinged enough to eliminate the obstacles preventing his escape – he ‘became’ a GI in the cinematic wartime Vietnam. But he was still in Thailand – the DMZ he stole a glance at was not the 17th parallel in Vietnam. Richard’s DMZ was a marijuana field on a secluded island in the Gulf of Thailand – a dividing line between Utopia and the World, not between South and North Vietnam. The VCs he saw were the Thais guarding the field.

But for Richard it was Vietnam. He said it! He wanted it! And indeed he got it! He dropped acid on the Mekong Delta, smoked grass through a rifle barrel, flew on a helicopter with opera blasting out of loudspeakers, he even smelled napalm in the morning in his cinematic/touristic phantasmic reality. As his war movie drenched phantasm finally choked his sense of time and place, he lived his dream... in ‘Viet-fuckin’-nam!’ Garland has made a major contribution to the phantasmological understanding of international tourism – Richard is a metaphor for tourists and travellers. We all phantasize about Other places and Other times and we let those phantasies influence our actions. And we all stand bewildered, wondering what went wrong, when our phantasies get stripped of their reality disguises. ‘Losing your shit comes with the territory’, said Duffy Duck to Richard in the vignette above. In tourism, the territory ‘comes’ to us in the guise of phantasms, an amalgam of facts and fiction, and we are ‘losing our shit’ without recognizing it. Instead we (mind)-travel boldly into phantasmic territories where so many have gone before. In this context the question ‘Where are you?’ is anything but trivial!

Implicitly I asked tourists that seemingly trivial question. I would generally ask them to give their view of the place we were at. Few would talk at any length about Vietnam, however, without talking about Vietnam War

movies. Below are a few examples:

You know the opening line in Apocalypse Now – ‘Saigon, shit!’ – it says everything about Saigon.

Daniel’s girlfriend and two other backpackers agreed with his statement.

Different experiences of Ho Chi Minh City were then shared, and some of these stories portrayed Ho Chi Minh City as a beautiful place – the descriptive quality of ‘Saigon, shit!’ did not do anymore. Daniel then modified his

opening statement. Once again he referred to a movie:

Cyclo really gives you a true picture of Saigon – it’s chaotic and frightening but at the same time romantic.

Cyclo, a French movie by Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, does not deal with the war directly, but the war is implicitly there as the film portrays post-war Saigon as a nightmarish society of violence, prostitution and drugs.

These tourists shared a misrecognition that allowed the phantasies of film directors to be dragged on to the physical landscape. Vietnam was thus seen

–  –  –

as a sign ‘resembling itself ’ (Frow, 1997: 73). This can create oneiric situations in which the physical landscape is not only interpreted in terms of

cinematic events, but fiction is put into practice and, in a sense, experienced:

When I lie on my vinyl coated bunk, looking up to the ceiling on the junkie blue lamps around the fan, with the music in my ears I feel transferred 25 years back in time.

Still Vietnam. Almost feel like Captain Willard, wake up hungover. Don’t really know if I hear a fan or helicopters. I’m not yet aware that I’m to remove Colonel Kurtz from this earth. Almost expect Lt. Kilgore to come in and say: ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning!’ The train puffs slowly through the Vietnamese jungle night, the horn bellows. Don’t really know if I’m in Vietnam 1997, or in the surrealistic world of Apocalypse Now. I hear ‘Charlie don’t surf!’ then I fall asleep again.

(Dahlgren, 2000: 2; my translation) This excursion in paramnesia won an award in a reader’s competition in the travel section of a major Swedish newspaper. Describing (the) Vietnam (War) as we know it, the award was perhaps given out of a joy of recognition.

Danish travel writer Carsten Jensen knew that Vietnam:

I had never been able to hear the word ‘Vietnam’ without it being followed by the word ‘War’, as if it was the last syllable in the country’s full name. For me Vietnam was a country that was a war, and I couldn’t imagine that it had any history or identity beyond the battlefield.... Still, regarding Vietnam I had a true feeling of being well oriented. ( Jensen, 1997: 334; my translation)

A tourist I talked to was even more explicit:

I didn’t know anything about Vietnam before I came here... except what I’ve seen in the movies.

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