Reproducibility of experience
Outside the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica, approximately 300 people are lined up in 24 degrees of spring heat. This is the line to enter the Renaissance-era Basilica, apparently also the biggest church in the world. The heat is excruciating. Having completed a tiring night of travel and changing-clothes-on-the-road, I am carrying a huge backpack. A train ticket in my pocket has become soggy from my sweat. After almost 2 hours of waiting under the sun, my friends and I are allowed into the Basilica. On our way in, a security guard scans us and our bags.
Entering the Basilica should excite us, but instead we are exhausted. We sit down by a water fountain next to a path that leads to the Basilica’s dome (this is a pricey affair, regardless of whether you take the elevator or the stairs to the top). The cool marble makes me want to fall asleep. I’ve recently jinxed one of my friends, so those of us who can talk are using this opportunity to taunt her. A half-hour passes. Okay. We move to the church, which is, I must admit, grand. There is a kind of natural sublime that it wants to replicate. Designed by Michelangelo, among others, this Renaissance Church is central to the Catholic order of the city. The place is full of people who are intent on taking pictures of the church’s grand arches, its frescoes. Each of these people, I imagine, have waited for more than 2 hours in intolerable heat to enter this church. I’m not a big photo-taker, but even I feel the need to capture my experience with a photo (which is the only accessible and quick medium available at this point to me), to capture in a nutshell the experience of having completely and successfully achieved this feat of tourism.
A ‘feat of tourism’, then, is a typically touristic activity that, when fully realized, is paradigmatic of the tourist’s experience of the place, museum, city she has visited. Thus the Basilica is my feat of tourism, as it is the feat of the 300 and more people who had waited in line behind me. The fact that such a feat has been achieved is usually captured by a photograph (or, one might point out, a Snapchat or Instagram video, a Facebook post, etc., all of which, I believe, are still captured by the term ‘photograph’, suggesting that a visual medium is involved). Tourists who visit the Basilica are either going to take their paradigmatic photo in the Basilica’s dome or in the Church; each of these photos are reproducible in the sense that the supposed subject of the photo, i.e. the tourist, can be replaced without harming the overall sense of the photo. Should we assume from this that not the tourist but the Basilica itself is the subject of the photo? Let’s consider a conversation we might have with one of these tourists, who will share that they found the Basilica absolutely beautiful, that it was an extraordinary piece of art and architecture; a Catholic tourist might even share a personal sense of comfort and peace they felt at this Church, I really felt God. In that sense, the Basilica is indeed the most prominent subject of our conversation. The Basilica as a permanent thing in the world is indelible, whereas this specific tourist’s description of the Basilica is erasable. But were we to ask our tourist if we could replace her photo in front of the Basilica with an identical photo but of another tourist, we imagine that she would not agree. Upon asking her why, she might answer, Well, it’s my experience, it’s my photo in front of the Basilica, it’s my money that I spent to get there, my camera that I used to take the photo, my life’s events which are conveyed through the photo. So tourist’s experience is at least intrasubjectively unique even though the tangible objects that have come to capture this experience (the photograph, a fridge magnet from the Basilica’s souvenir store) are completely reproducible.
The Museum and Ikea
IKEA, the Swedish multinational furniture and home accessories company, has massive stores in many of the world’s important cities. I have visited an IKEA in Abu Dhabi and, more recently, in Paris. Each store is organized so as to compel visitors to visit the entire store before they can pick and purchase what they’ve come for. During one of my visits to Abu Dhabi’s IKEA, for instance, what could have been a 5-minute trip to the store (to buy just one item) turned into a 45 minute walk through the entire store, ending in a huge warehouse that then opens up to the cashiers. The visitor is guided through the store by signs as well as arrows on the floor. Often due to the visual stimuli available in the store’s colorful selection of kitchen utensils, pillow cases, beds, chairs, tables, one loses track of the arrows or the signs. I usually find myself looking not for signs to tell me where items can be found, but for the items themselves. After having walked through the store, the culmination of the visit in IKEA’s huge warehouse instigates a feeling of intense liberation. The empty space, the cold air, and the gray-brown ambience of the warehouse is reminiscent of a walk through a crowded forest ending in a plain, empty grassy field that opens to the sky. The warehouse is, to me, an attempt at recreating the natural sublime. Upon reaching the warehouse, the visitor forgets the imposed curatorial vision of the IKEA store and the commercial activity of buying (and contemplating buying) items at the store, and is instead consumed by the immensity and vastness of this end area. Inevitably at the cashier’s, of course, she is reminded again of the commercial activity.
The Vatican Museums leading to the Sistine Chapel, I pointed out to my friends, are organized like the IKEA. After a crowded series of galleries, organized in an altogether arbitrary way through the Museum, upon reaching the famous Chapel which features many of Michelangelo’s most famous works, the visitor is supposed to experience the Chapel’s enormous collection of frescoes. Observing all of the frescoes is an impossible task due to the overwhelming nature of the visual stimuli which constantly redirects and re-redirects the eye, never allowing it to spend too much time fixated on one fresco or one set of frescoes.
But after further contemplation I have come to the conclusion that an IKEA is significantly better organized and curated than the Vatican Museums. At the Vatican Museums, I was guided not by the various paintings (many of them wonderful works that I would have liked to appreciate) but by the signs that govern the visitor. The curatorial vision is imposed in such a way that it overshadows the viewer’s experiences of the very curated objects. At the IKEA, curation manages to hide behind the ability of its objects to stimulate the viewer, whereas at the Vatican Museums, curation is the most prominent and often the only identifiable stimulus for the viewer. Furthermore, the ending warehouse of the IKEA prompted a feeling of liberation, ironically but subtly constrained by the financial and capitalistic aspect of buying. At the Vatican Museums, there is no liberation from the curator or from the Museum. Even the sense of sublime that one would expect the Chapel’s great art to incite in the viewer is undermined by the fact of imposed curation. The Chapel does not invite the visitor to rest her eyes on the frescoes, and the frescoes themselves are designed in such a way that it requires the viewer to jump from one to the other. These two overwhelming directions for the viewer/visitor ultimately drive her out of the Chapel and down a long path to the Museum Souvenir Store.
An IKEA is ultimately a commercial venture, while we imagine the museum to not be one. The excruciatingly clear question, it seems to me, is why our museums are organized like IKEAs. The answer revolves around this notion of the reproducibility of experience. All tourism wants to curate experience so that the tourist has achieved all paradigmatic feats of tourism. Thus the museum, a touristic venue, is curated in such a manner that the tourist who is guided by the signs of curations arrives at the cumulative point – the realization of a feat of tourism.
That experience can be reproduced is a harmful notion. It presupposes that the average tourist is not capable of constructing her own experience. It turns the tourist into a receptacle of experience rather than an agent of experience. This analysis is, as has already been implicitly suggested by the comparison between IKEA and the museum, rooted in a critique of capitalism and the consumerist culture that it encourages. The tourist, by experiencing reproducible experiences, is a laborer in a capitalist mechanism that allows the tourist experiences in exchange for capital. ‘Allows’ is an operative word here because it is not just that the capitalist mechanism is the tourist’s guide (in that sense of ‘allow’) but also her jailer (in that sense of ‘allow’). Tourism, for the tourist, is as would be a lunchbreak in the factory cafeteria for the laborer. Each laborer, who in this factory is treated as though a prisoner, is only allowed to have their lunch after completing a certain amount of work. The lunch is identical for each laborer: each has the option to either finish the entire plate, or to discard the food on the plate. Those who choose to finish the plate are our typical tourists; those who choose to discard the food are those tourists who are critical of the way their experience is selectively organized. But just as the laborer who discards her food remains hungry, the tourist who criticizes her reproducible experience is stripped of any other opportunity to experience in an already established mechanism of capitalistic tourism.
This analysis of the reproducibility of experience is undoubtedly in its infancy and is constrained by this figure of the tourist. Ultimately I want to be able to suggest that capitalism wants all of experience to be reproducible. This is a strong claim to make, since we have historically imagined capitalism to be an offshoot of radical individualism. It is the exact opposite. Capitalistic reproducibility diminishes the uniqueness of the individual’s experiences. In another article that is not evadingly titled ‘Notes’, I will try to expound more on this notion of the reproducibility of experience and its consequences for our understanding of capitalism.