Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Critical Tourist: Four Days in D.C.

The Hotel

Expensive soap with the scent of white tea and a bathtub suitable for battleships were the highlites, but the essence was the pervasive servility. Service industry obeisance is perhaps the single most common type of relation between individuals in our society and I have been on both sides of that detestable arrangement: I hated it when I had to engage in robotic scripted politeness as a gas station attendant, I hated it last month when I was targeted by the passive-aggressive pseudo-helpfulness of a certain big box technology store's employees and I hate when the woman who runs the cafe in the cool downtown magazine store in Sudbury falls all over herself to tack "sir" to the end of every sentence.

There was, however, something qualitatively different about it at this hotel -- easily the swankiest I have ever been in, chosen by default because it was hosting the conference my partner was attending and because her employer was paying. Perhaps it was because it was more obviously racialized than I encounter in everyday life in Sudbury. There were people of colour among the guests and there were white people among the frontline employees, but very few; there was no doubt about the core identity for each group. But it wasn't just that, I don't think. It was also the degree to which it was taken. One result of the particular profile of privilege and oppression that each of us experience as we grow up is what we learn to expect that the world will and will not do for us with little or no effort on our part. Obviously, mileage varies significantly. My whitemiddleclassnorthamericanness means I am able to assume far more than most human beings throughout history, but it was obvious that the high octane, proactive, servile enthusiasm disciplined into the employees of this hotel was calibrated for much higher expectations than my own. I'm not sure it really matters the extent to which this is an actual reflection of the ways in which global and North American elites experience the world versus a reflection of their desires played up as part of the competition among high-end hotels -- whether they really expect it or just desire it, it is still creepy.

the city

I was in four distinct kinds of outside space in D.C., probably none a reflection of the lives of most of the people who live there. The first was the neighbourhood in which our hotel was located, Foggy Bottom. This space is filled with low rise buildings, a few of which were definitely offices but most of which appeared to be hotels, apartment buildings, and condos. (To give a sense of the money in this part of the city, one bedroom condos in the area start at $350,000). Not far away was the city center, also dominated by low-rise buildings, most of which were offices, most of which were related to government. And in the middle of that area is the imperial monument park, which includes the White House, the Capitol Building, the National Mall, many Smithsonian museums, the National Phallus (aka the National Monument), and various other nationalist displays. And, finally, I spent some time in the area around Du Pont Circle, which was the closest area to our hotel that had significant presence of street-level commercial enterprises.

I was surprised at how not tacky everything was. There is a certain strand of mainstream U.S. culture that is given not only to excess but to a kind of excess that appears embarassing and bizarre to those of us who grew up at even a slight remove from it. I thought that D.C. might exhibit this tendency, given its role as the capital and as a focal point for what might euphemistically be described as a rather robust nationalism, but it does not. You could argue that certain monuments and pieces of architecture display a certain imperial arrogance and excess of a particular sort, but it is not at all tacky.

I was also surprised how few restaurants there seemed to be. Foggy Bottom and the city center both have built forms that lead to dense concentrations of people, many of whom have plenty of money, but there are relatively few restaurants to be found in either of those areas. And D.C. is a city like Toronto or Ottawa where lots of people of all classes take public transit (unlike places like Los Angeles, Hamilton, and Sudbury, where transit is used mainly by working-class and poor people) so it's not like the city is built around the assumption that everyone who can afford to is cocooned in an automobile. There were a few more restaurants in the DuPont Circle neighbourhood but especially considering that area also serves as the geographic centre for niche capital that has latched onto the visible aspects of gay public life, there are still far fewer restaurants than I would expect.

My strongest impression of the imperial monument park, which I felt in a more muted way in the city centre more broadly, was how profoundly this space was not about itself. Which is kind of an odd thing to feel. Even in my brief stint living in Hollywood I didn't feel that as strongly -- you certainly felt it, walking everyday on streets whose names have been made famous in movie and song and seeing evidence of that space's centrality in dominant mass cultural production -- but there was still enough evidence of 'normal life', whatever that might be, to temper it with a sense of genuinely local, about-itself life as well. Not so in the imperial monument park at the heart of D.C., and only slightly so in the rest of the city centre: that is space that is about the rest of the U.S. settler state and about the projection of U.S. state power throughout the world. I have been to other spaces that felt like this too, like the Parliament at Westminster or the Colliseum in Rome, but it has usually only been a feature of one particular site rather than an entire area of a city.

Related to that was the feel of the relationship between the imperial monument park and the rest of the city centre. The former is largely about nationalist theatre of one sort or another but it includes focal points of actual power in the White House and the Capitol Building. Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that all of it, including the extravagant displays of security around the White House, were really part of a smoke and mirrors show so that U.S. Americans on their pilgrimage to this secular shrine of nation and state pay all of their attention there and miss the significance of the block after block of imposing (and largely unguarded) buildings that comprise one of the most important functional cores of the relations that rule in an administrative sense in the U.S. and beyond.

the folk festival

The first day that I was walking around exploring D.C. was the last day of the Smithsonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival in the National Mall. I was happy to have stumbled upon it and spent a few hours walking around, looking at the displays, and listening to music.

The way this festival is organized is that each year it focuses on three different areas. This year it concentrated on Northern Ireland, the Roots of Virginia, and the peoples living in the valley of the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. My first impressions, both confirmed on closer inspection, were (a) it felt weird for this celebration of life and music to be happening in a space that is, as I said, a high shrine to a predatory nationalism, and (b) it struck me as a bit odd to do Northern Ireland and Virginia in the same year given that the dominant culture in both traces its roots to Scots-Irish people.

The first area I went to was the one about Virginia. Now, I have never been to the southern U.S., nor have I ever done much learning about or exploration of white southern culture. So I knew intellectually that many of the working-class white people in the south are descended from Scots-Irish settlers, but until I heard a young bluegrass group do their thing on one of the larger stages, I had not really appreciated the obvious connection between the musical culture of the white south and the Scottish musical culture with which I was raised (having, as I do, a Scottish mother and a Canadian father for whom retirement from highschool teaching has meant turning what had always been his second career -- bagpiping -- into his first career.) Its hard to explain the connection that I felt watching that group -- it had to do with the manner of the musicians, the instruments, the spontaneous step-dancing that would occasionally break out on stage or in front of it, and just the whole feel of the thing. But it was kind of an eerie thing to experience, because as I was feeling this connection I was also very conscious that the music that I was listening to evolved in a context of slavery and lynchings. This obviously complicated my gut-level identification with the music, because a big part of me (quite reasonably) rebels at identifying in any way with the outcomes of a space of such naked white supremacy. But then I thought about it some more, and I realized that indignation was really just me not wanting to see the role of me and those who trace their heritage to the same part of the world in oppression and exploitation. After all, the branch of Celtic culture organized around the great highland bagpipe, which is the one I was immersed in growing up, has the shape that it does today in Scotland and around the world in large part because of its tight ties to the British imperial armies over the last couple of centuries, even if little that is visible to your average highland games attendee makes that clear. And that is not at all any better, politically speaking.

After listening to this bluegrass group for awhile, I wandered off to check out the rest of the Viriginia section. I discovered that it was not only celebrating the dominant Scots-Irish contributions to Virginia culture, but also African and indigenous contributions as well. This was, as I said, in a space pervaded by settler state dominance, so it was still a kind of imperial multiculturalism with the non-white cultures clearly coded as subordinate, but it was still interesting. I came across a smaller performance area -- unlike the bluegrass group, they didn't rate an actual stage -- in which some dancers from indigenous nations in Virginia were performing. This heightened my feelings of contradiction between the imperial nature of the space and the letsallgetalongism of the festival, but I sat down thinking that not only might I learn something, but there might also be some contestation of the domination of the space.

Now, I have no business passing judgment on how people whose oppressions benefit me choose to resist. Or, in particular moments, how they might decide stealth is more important than defiance, how they assess their own safety, what they judge can be gained by being circumspect. Still, I don't remember encountering before an organized indigenous presence, and one which foregrounds the fact of indigeneity, that did not voice at all the legacy of colonization as a grounding for current realities, including the process of recovering traditional culture. Different indigenous people and groups have widely differing politics about what to do now, and in my experience there is usually a far greater willingness to engage in dialogue and to have patience in the face of oppression than I can easily understand, but I have always sensed that grounding. It was discomfiting not to sense it here (though, to be fair, I was not present for the whole performance, so I may have missed important stuff). When the leader of the group identified as a Vietnam vet, explicilty honoured veterans of the U.S. imperial armies (my term, not his), and then explicitly honoured the 60,000 U.S. dead in Vietnam without a single critical word and without so much as a nod to the 2 to 3 million Southeast Asian people killed by the U.S. invasion and occupation, despite the fact that a few hundred feet away were people from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other locations performing their cultures in the same white-dominated imperial shrine, the contradictions were interfereing in my ability to appreciate what I was seeing/hearing, and I decided it was time to move on.

I also spent time in the Northern Ireland and Mekong sections, though I have less to say about them. I thought the contrast across the sections was interesting: In the performance of the bluegrass group, culture was clearly recognizeable in its dominant North American form, as a slick commercial product. In the performances I saw in the Mekong section, culture became framed as an oddity, a marker of exoticness to which the most visible white North American tourist response was the asking of stupid questions. In the Northern Ireland section, the "culture" that was performed seemed delifhtfully amateur and was the closest to what I consider culture actually to be: "just what people do." There was less evidence of the deliberate self-productization of culture seen, say, from the bluegrass group, or the tension that I think I saw in the Mekong section between the productization of local cultures by the self-interested states that rule over them and the slotting of all of it as markers of Otherness by a completely disconnected audience (in which I include myself).

the museums

The last element of the trip about which I have come up with anything to say is the experiences I had in going into two of the Smithsonian museums that surround the National Mall. The first was the Hirshhorn Museum, which hosts an extensive collection of modern and contemporary art, and the other was the National Museum of African Art, which houses both contemporary and historical African art, though mostly historical. Both are excellent galleries and both are free, and what I observed as I went through them is really true of all museums and not just these two.

I came to both of these museums knowing very little about the contexts that produced their content. I know a bit about twentieth century European and North American history in general -- though it is not stated explicitly, the Hirshhorn collection is mostly European and North American -- and I have gone to museums featuring modern and contemporary art before, because I like it, but I know next to nothing about art history and do not have even basic concepts and vocabulary to really engage with the work at a level more sophisticated than elementary liking or disliking. My knowledge of African history and culture is even more marginal. So I entered both of these spaces in ignorance.

Now, the actual experience of viewing objects in a museum or gallery is a very particular one. There is usually a gesture towards creating a relationship between the viewer and the creator of the object, through a gallery guide or an information card or what have you, but usually the information provided is so minimal as to make the viewer-creator relationship a token one at best. Instead, the main relationship is between the viewer and the object. What that relationship entails depends very much on what the viewer brings with her. If the viewer brings significant knowledge, the object can act as a trigger for what the viewer already knows about the human context in which it was produced, the living flow of making and doing that gives it form and meaning. But if the viewer brings mostly ignorance, as I did and as I suspect most people who go to these two museums do, then the relation between viewer and object is purely one of aesthetic appreciation. Such appreciation is important, of course: If I see a painting, say, and I find it beautiful or powerful or shocking, that interaction can be both valuable for the experience itself, and an input into better understanding my aesthetic world and myself, and into elaborating ideas about both of those things. But there is still an odd feeling of absence, of incompleteness, when witnessing such a thing, and knowing that behind this object there was passion, talent, ideas, conflict, love, oppression, privilege, but not knowing any details or how they relate to the object itself. This is perhaps even more important when witnessing not objects intended for aesthetic consumption from the point of conceptualization through to display, but objects with functional purposes within a particular cultural setitng that are then removed from that setting and turned into an aesthetic experience for privileged people far away. (Museums have always been colonial, and I'm not saying anything remotely original by pointing this out.)

I'm not sure what to feel about all of this. On the one hand, I appreciate the opportunity to engage with the world at an aethetic level in a concentrated way, because it is often something I pay inadequate attention to in my daily life. The focus it provides can also be a prompt for further learning, even if the form of musuems themselves is a relatively poor tool for pursuing that learning on its own. On the other hand, I can't help but feel that the overall impact of such museums -- given, as I said, that most of us who go to them do so from a place of ignorance -- is to reinforce the reification of culture, our understanding of culture as being about things rather than about people and doings. The impacts that this reifciation has is different in the two instances that prompted this reflection. The reification of a different culture -- its presentation through objects with little context -- functions to reinforce the idea of other as Other. Even when the presentation is done well and sympathetically, I suspect it is often taken up by viewers in ways that reinforce the ideologies that sustain our tendency as white north americans to see as natural the benefits we derive from the domination of the globe by our elites. The reification of the dominant High Culture, on the other hand, reinforces our alienation from our own culture, by encouraging us to understand it as something done by special people in special circumstances rather than fostering a participatory vision of culture.

final words

I have no grand conclusion, just a warning for U.S. American readers who are not familiar with other writings on this site: Please step back and check what I'm all about before you get indignant about the things I've said. I don't write from the space that so many left nationalists in Canada do, of constructing supposed Canadian virtues by talking about actual U.S. vices; much more often, Canada is the critical focus of what I write, or North America as a whole. In this case, I'm writing about the U.S. because that's where I was, and that focus should not be read as an implicit claim of innocence for the identity "Canadian."

Oh, and I should add that the other main activity in which I spent my days in D.C. was going around to look at independent bookstores. I only bought one book, though, because I already have a huge backlog of reading to do, mostly work related, and I want to plough through that as quickly as possible. Look forward to lots of book reviews posted her eover the next month!


KOB said...

Good post. Regarding Foggy Bottom and its restaurants -- true there aren't many. That's because a large amount of the area is owned by either GW University or the federal government and, in some respects, the absence of restaurants is unique among city neighborhoods. But Georgetown is 10 min walk, as is Dupont and just beyond Logan Circle, 14th.

I didn't quite get the tacky reference in regard to DC. This city is conversative and restrained compared to most other cities in the U.S.

I've been to Toronto and some other Canadian cities and, while beautiful, will admit that they are probably less commercial in appearance than the typical U.S. city, but DC is a beautiful city in many respects. In Foggy Bottom how can you not be charmed by the townhouses, in particular, along 25th Street? The neighborhoods in DC are spectacular, and many of the neighborhood shopping districts, Cleveland Park, Woodley, Capital Hill -- are equally attractive.

Regarding housing prices, while it is true that housing prices escalated considerably (a one bedroom in Foggy Bottom perhaps cost 150,00 in 2003) and you will have no trouble finding one bedrooms for 350K and above, not all the units are priced in such a a way. I'd also point out that compared to NYC it's much more affordable.

Scott said...

Hey the tacky reference, I think you may have misread what I wrote...though I admit I didn't word it very clearly: in fact, what I said is that I did NOT find D.C. tacky at all, including the parts of it that are there for public consumption (the monuments and stuff), and that kind of surprised me. I agree, there is lots about D.C. that is beautiful, or at least impressive and striking and stately.

And I certainly didn't mean to draw some sort of implicit comparison privileging Canadian cities...I am not a fan of nationalism of any stripe!

Anyway, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.

Scott said...

There we go...I went back and put the word "not" in bold in the sentence indicating that I didn't find the city tacky.

Public Masturbation said...

As a longtime DC resident I was somewhat puzzled by your refrence to the Imperial Monument Park. No one calls it that and I've never seen it referred to as such. Usually we just call it the mall (which leads to no amount of amusement when tourists ask us where all the shopping is) The Washington Monument(not National Monument) is indeed a national phallus but it dominates the skyline. The mall does house memorials to Vietnam, Korea and WWII but those are less about imperialism (for instance the Vietnam memorial is very anti-imperial) but also to Presidents of note (FDR, Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln) and of course the museums.

It's been said many times that DC is restaurant poor, particularly in Foggy Bottom. But Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Chinatown and other areas of the city have many hidden gems.

I thank you for your excellent and thoughtful piece. As an American Canadophile I do appreciate your views and will have to read more of your site.

Scott said...

Hi PM...yes the "imperial monument park" is a phrase of my own coining, chosen because it captures my sense of the spirit of the space and my understanding of history...I suppose it can be an annoying and confusing tendency of writers (and leftists, I suppose) to apply our own labels to things when inherited labels don't feel like they fit. And it isn't necessarily a comment on individual monuments, some of which may indeed aim to foster reflection on some of the more progressive things that the U.S. state has accomplished at various points along its path, or sober reconsideration of actions taken and since regretted. Rather, that label is a response to the state-directed use of that space as a dramatic effort to mobilize sentiment in support of a nationalism and a state with a history in which imperial actions and processes were integral from the very start...which of course is based on my own understanding of the history of the U.S. settler state (which is, I should add, very much tied to the similar origins of the Canadian settler state.)

In terms of the Vietnam memorial specifically, while it certainly is not rabidly pro-imperial, I don't think I would categorize it as unequivocally anti-imperial either...certainly its efforts to commemorate some of the human costs of war are important, but it does not do so in a way that obviously pushes a questioning of and challenge to the imperial basis of the war it commemorates.

And sorry about misnaming the Washington Monument as the National Monument!

Anyway, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

ouij said...

A few things about this post:

Washington was never intended to be a "real" city in the same way that, say, New York or Philadelphia was. The site of the capital itself was a compromise: the swampy desolation of the Federal District made it more accessible to The South (and most importantly, Virginia).

Putting the federal capital on virgin swampland also (so went the thinking then) kept it at arms' length from the influence of Northern financiers and industrialists.

Consequently, the whole of Washington has an air of unreality about it, as you have correctly sensed. Those of us who live here, though, deal pretty well with the unreality.

Washington is really a city with monuments to the second revolution and founding of the country--the civil war of 1861-64. You can't swing a dead cat in Washington without hitting the statue of a Civil War hero: Farragut Square, Scott Circle, the memorial to U.S. Grant at the apex of the Mall. The whole city functions as a "Temple of Concord,"--not, as in ancient Rome, between the social orders, but between the sections of an immensely complex political system.

This was not a city meant for its inhabitants. It's a ceremonial core that happens to have a city around it. It's an arrangement that's not unprecedented in human history, but it is relatively rare.

Anonymous said...

Always interesting to see someone that thinks of themselves as well-read and well-traveled reveal themseleves to be nothing of the sort.

Scott said...

I wish blogger had some sort of easily identifiable eye rolling emoticon...if you're going to leave snark, could you at least engage a little with the content?

And btw, I would definitely not consider myself to be well-travelled at all...and as for "well-read", while I read a lot, I wouldn't apply that expression to is generally a way for snobs who cocoon themselves in the well-expressed but conventional platitudes of a canon shaped by the interests of the powerful to put down people who engage with the world in critical and independent ways. I never claimed to be saying anything profound, just engaging in print with the world as I experience it...

sarah said...

I noticed that you referenced the short buildings in many areas of the city - this is because there is a building height restriction in the District. See

Interesting blog!

Scott said...

Hi sarah...I figured it was something like that. To be honest, I actually kind of like allows for density without being too overpowering.