on memory and the non-place

“Because those are the things I won’t remember.”

In Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 film Mystery Train, two Japanese tourists arrive in Memphis, Tennessee to pay homage to “the King,” as well as the entirety of the rockabilly scene birthed at the legendary Sun Records.  

After a series of beautiful shots of the two wandering the empty streets of the run-down neighborhoods of the city (thanks to Robby Müller’s cinematography), and a hypnotically fast-paced tour of Sun Records, the two check into a run-down hotel.  Although tourists ostensibly visiting one of their most coveted destinations, the two took no pictures until arriving at their hotel room.  Indeed their trip was a whirlwind, illustrated most memorably in their Sun Records’ tour guide’s rapid, monotone delivery of her obligatory script: there, you saw it, now get out of here. How many travelers recognize that experience.  Upon entering the hotel room, however, the male half of the couple whips out his camera and starts shooting everything: the floor, the bed, the kitschy painting of Elvis hung above the bed. “Why do you only take pictures of hotel rooms and airports when we travel,” his partner queries.  “Because those are the things I won’t remember,” is his response.

While I would argue against generalizing human experience at large from any film, his is a sentiment many would probably recognize. I just wonder how true it is… 

It seems a rote observation to make; airports and hotels, after all, are supposed to be unremarkable in contrast to the sites they abut.  We don’t travel for the hotels, we tell ourselves, we travel for the Parthenon or the Great Wall.  But is it really true, and was it ever, that these are the most memorable sites of our travels?  It is what our Mystery Train protagonist doesn’t say that seems more revealing with regards to the role memory and images play in our culture, an elision that might point to a more accurate illustration of our experience: In the late 20th and now early 21st century,  it may be more true that the professional and amateur images of popular tourist destinations in circulation, replace, or rather prevent our own images from overcoming their previous colonization of our mind’s eye.  Take all the pictures you want, your own photos will never replace the ones you have already seen and will see tomorrow.  See, it was not because he saw these places for himself that our Mystery Train friend was unable to forget them, he couldn’t forget them long before he saw them in person.

This cultural emphasis or need we have to experience something in person, the fulfillment we are promised in so doing, seems confused.  Maybe misguided.  Maybe a lie we’ve been told for so long it seems true.  What is it we are really after with our seeing something in person? The knee-jerk reaction would be, of course, to chalk this failure of the in-person experience to satisfy us to life in the digital age, but that excuse doesn’t seem to cut it.  The Internet excuse as a catch-all, as in so many other instances in which it is instrumentalized, is not sufficient because, you see, this is not a new problem.  In Non-Places: An Introduction to Super-Modernity, Marc Augé relates stories of the travel writers whose excursions preceded ours by centuries. He notes the futility they expressed regarding the production of their own descriptions of the sites they were taking in.  “I could only repeat what has already been said,” Chateaubriand writes of his visit to Jerusalem, “Never perhaps has there been a subject so little known to modern readers, yet never was any subject more completely exhausted.” What our Mystery Train protagonist fails to state of his own habits but is as true of his journeys as it was for Chateaubriand, is that he won’t forget those sites not because his visit was so memorable, but rather because culture won’t allow him.  What is really the point of another description, another image?  There are already too many and no-one is saying anything new.

So perhaps then the interest in documenting the relatively neglected aspects of travel is the natural response, maybe it is a more honest response: the sites we intended to visit, the sites we are told we must see before we die, are not really that interesting to us, maybe they never were: we must train our eye elsewhere. Create interest elsewhere.  I imagine everyone has had experiences which would contradict Mystery Train’s protagonist and his forgetfulness regarding the transit-oriented sites of his travels, but there is certainly something about our (historical) cultural narrative regarding hotels, gas stations, or airports, one replicated in how these places have been designed, which desires to be forgotten.  Augé describes these spaces as “non-places,” sites of transience, of super-modernity, in his words; these are places defined by things other than what Augé understands to be the anthropological factors which define a place as place: a meaningful and manifest relation to a group or individual’s history or identity.  He acknowledges the proliferation of spaces which might require a new anthropology of place, but still seems to bemoan the uniformity of these new places and the ways in which they “make us all the same.”

What I am starting to wonder is if we might have avoided this need for a new anthropology of space, if we had acknowledged the value of these in-between spaces all along.  It still seems to be only recently and slowly migrating to the mainstream that travel is not just about getting your picture next to Niagara Falls but about the entirety of the experience of being away, of being somewhere new, with people that are new.  But information and knowledge has always been transmitted in the smallest of increments and given how much easier it is to intuit the need to see than it is to learn the ability to experience, especially in the age of distraction, I’m not sure that it wasn’t always too late to teach our culture, or any culture how to travel.

There are a variety of ways in which Augé understands the non-place and although his conclusions are meant to extend beyond the places intentionally designed with the traveler in mind, I’m obviously most interested here with how the phenomenon of the non-place specifically effects the individual engaged in tourism-related transit.  In Augé’s characterization, the traveler’s space is always a non-place, a result of what he describes as “the reversal of the gaze;” in other words, when we travel, what we see most vividly is not the site itself but rather ourselves looking at it.  A result of the proliferation of words and language surrounding a place which come to supplant, for visitors or viewers, the place or object itself, this phenomenon seems to have become the only means of actually seeing something.  Augé does not emphasize as strongly the role of images in transmitting this effect, but writing before the ubiquity of the Internet and images, it seems fair to extend his initial ideas a bit further to account for how we experience places today, weighed down far more by images than by text.  

Like all travelers since the dawn of travel, the Mystery Train travelers arrived at their destination with years of knowledge; words and images which had been slowly building of their destination, layer upon layer in their minds.  They did not need a picture of Graceland or Sun Records, they weren’t able to see it anyways, not in person anyways, for them it was already a non-place.  As futile as it no doubt is, perhaps it is time to start calling more aggressively for a change in how we think about and talk about travel.  Perhaps it’s time to start celebrating the non-places Augé has no love for in order to reverse the effects of the traveler’s non-place.  Maybe the doubling up of language, the words that orient the traveler in transit-oriented sites such as the airport or highway, both the words used for way-finding and the words we use to describe these places in the broader culture, can cancel each other out, and we can start really seeing these places.  Maybe then we can start seeing everywhere else too.


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