ã 2001 Sean Gillen. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

This work was completed in part-fulfilment of an MA Tourism and Leisure. Lancaster University, UK 2000—1, and is reproduced here strictly for scholarly purposes.

The Pleasures of Sightseeing


The deceptively simple question ‘what are the pleasures of sightseeing?’, might suggest that a straightforward task to identify those things that are the object of the sightseer’s attention then trace and characterise the positive responses that they generate. Unfortunately, no analysis of tourism is ever that simple. Most of the significant analyses of the subject demonstrate deeper, more complex explanations of the phenomenon of tourism, of which sightseeing is a major element. For instance, the notion of sightseeing as a kind of culturally driven ‘quest’ is common; MacCannell (1976) equates sightseeing with a response to modernity, resulting in an inevitably fruitless quest for a ‘unified experience’ of society. The promise of ‘strangeness’ that is not common in everyday life might pull the sightseer towards a destination (Cohen 1974). Alternatively, Cohen (1972) suggests a quest for a ‘spiritual centre’ that is not perceived at home, a theme not distinct from the pseudo-religious concept of tourist ‘pilgrimage’ asserted by Graburn (1977). All of these concepts imply a relationship between the culture of the sightseer and the significance of the sight that is visited. The analysis in this paper will also attempt to do this, but given the importance of ‘sensory perception’ implied in the term ‘sightseeing’, precedence will be given to the relationship between the cultural centre of the sightseer, and that which is ‘sensed’.

Given this focus, it is important to recognise a central characteristic of sightseeing. That is the idea that the ‘tourist gaze’ should provide contrast with the usual. As Urry (1990) explains,

“Potential objects of the tourist gaze must be different in some way or other. They must be out of the ordinary. People must experience particularly distinct pleasures which involve different senses or are on a different scale from those typically encountered in everyday life” (1990:12)

Three implications for this study can be gained from this. Firstly, that despite its dominance, it is not only the visual that is of importance in sight 'seeing’. Secondly, if difference is of paramount significance, it is important to assess whether the differences between cultures actually affect the ‘pleasures’ that are gained. Thirdly, the nature of ‘pleasure’ itself, and its relationship with the ‘sensory’ might be seen to be important. In addressing these issues, it is intended to demonstrate the complexities of the sightseeing experience. It can be asserted that all sightseers are exposed to the same stimuli, yet experience the sight in different ways. The reason for this might be due to the complexity of ‘visual perception’. As Urry submits “We do not literally see things. Particularly as tourists we see objects which are constituted as signs” (1990:128). Hence, the central theme of this paper is to assess whether the pleasures that sights offer are individual or social constructs, or are inter-related.

Beginning with references to significant periods in the history of sightseeing, notions of ‘pleasure’ and its relationship with sensory perception of the physical environment will be presented. Following this, the idea that cultural and linguistic determinants affect perceptions of the world is discussed, along with some basic assertions on how individual perspectives may be created. An intrinsic element of this discussion is the idea that dominant media forms are heavily influential in this process; adding to the process of globalisation that reduces cultural homogeneity. Consequently, indigenous cultural influences on the sightseeing experience will inevitably be affected by external cultural influences, including those socially constructed at, by, and for the sightseers’ destination itself.

It is vital therefore to acknowledge, at this early stage, that deliberation on the cultural construction of sightseeing experiences should not be considered distinct from socio-cultural processes that are present in the construction and promotion of a sight (See Ringer 1998 for an essential and thorough exposition of this area). Given the scale of this paper however, analysis will necessarily demand restriction. As such an epistemological problem is posed- ‘how does the sightseer come to understand the sight in a culturally meaningful way?’

In order to apply this conceptual basis, brief examples of sightseeing are intorduced. The object of this is to assert that the very notion of ‘difference’, as central to pleasurable sensory stimulation, necessarily implies that the sight will be experienced differently by different cultures, societies, or individuals within them. The divergent foci of the ‘natural’ concept of wilderness, and the ‘man made’ objects of monuments will be used to demonstrate this. An inherent theme throughout will be the notion that the emotional experience of a uniform set of stimuli is a significant element of this cultural construct, and can be seen as a defining and differentiating characteristic of sightseeing and its pleasures.

Section one: The legacy of Romanticism: The senses, pleasure and emotion.

The intention in this section is to trace a connecting line through specific developments in society and travel, and use this to reflect upon the nature of the ‘pleasure’ that sightseeing offers. Two specific trends underpin this analysis- the shift in objective to the subjective experience in travel, and the related growth in importance of the visual in this subjectivity.

A focus on the travel habits of the British aristocracy is the starting point, which is not necessarily distinct from a wider analysis, particularly given the propensity for social trends to ‘trickle down' throughout he social strata of the time, as Veblen (1899) seminal work suggests.

Initially then, as Adler (1989) reveals, objectivity in sciences and travelling was gained through the ‘ear and the tongue’ in the ‘discourse of learning’ during the early Grand Tours of the 16th century, with sight being “exclusively equated with reading, or at best with the confirmation of classical texts” (1989:10). A change in orientation towards ocular dominance in travel, it is demonstrated, followed similar transformations of thinking in anatomy, science and philosophy, as the eye became valued for its “unmediated and personally verified experience” (1989:11). Furthermore, the eye was considered less susceptible than the ear to ‘infection of errors’ that might corrupt religious dogmas. The association of vision with objectivity reached its peak with the development of detached, empirical cataloguing of the tourists’ destinations, which embued the traveler with high esteem and social standing. The decline of such objectivity in travel coincides with the period of Romanticism by the end of the 18th century , an era that ushered in notions of aesthetic subjectivity that played on the visual rather than cold description. As Adler demonstrates, mere observation (in travel if not in science) gave way to a ‘new discipline’ of connoissureship, “as travel itself became an occasion for the cultivation and display of taste” (1989:22), hence a form of conspicuous consumption.

The Romantic period, circa 1790-1830 (Campbell 1987) can be seen to be particularly significant to this discussion as it demonstrates a time of convergence of paths: the declining objectivity in travel experience, a refinement of emotional expression, and a growth in visual aesthetic appreciation that was influenced by the genres of poetry, art and literature (see Urry 1995). As Adler summarises,

“Experiences of beauty and sublimity, sought through the sense of sight, were valued for their spiritual significance to the individuals who cultivated them” (1989:22)

Such a condition is attributable in part to the wider social context described by Campbell (1987), namely the shift in emotional experience. Emotional expression during the ‘cult of sensibility’ it is suggested, was often indulged in simply “for the intrinsic pleasure which it yielded” (1987:151). However, excessive, often ‘superficial and fake’ emotional outpourings of elites evolved through a period of ‘sentiment’ into the more refined experiences of the emotions that characterise the Romantic movement: the ‘pleasurable fear’ of the Gothic novel, the emotional stimulation of the ‘romance’, or the appreciation of the picturesque which in itself could serve as a measure of an individual’s ‘sensibility’. As Campbell asserts, such consumption “might have helped to bring about a critical change in attitudes towards the world…and a consequent search for the kind of pleasure which could be experienced in imagination” (1987:175). Such developments might not be entirely removed from the simultaneous evolution in travel. Hence, sightseeing might be seen as a natural product of a society who recognised that travel could provide a suitably cultivated means through which emotionality could be stimulated and expressed.

The degree of pleasure to be gained through such stimulation though is both facilitated and restricted by the nature of the senses. As Campbell posits, sight (and hearing) offer a degree of discrimination in inverse proportion to the arousal to be gained. Moreover, the restricted number of senses further ‘restricts the acquisition of pleasure’ (1987:66). Therefore, an increase in the ‘variety and complexity’ of sensory stimuli might enhance the pleasure. With this in mind, it can be accepted that “it is the aesthetic dimension of experience which seems to offer the greatest promise for the rationalisation of pleasure seeking” (Campbell 1989:67), as the finely tuned visual ability to discriminate offers the greatest potential for ‘variety and complexity’, and therefore increase pleasure. This adds credence to the suggestion here: that the Romantic movement, and its association with the aesthetic dimension, provided the means and motivation for pleasure-seeking sightseeing.

Whilst the experience of pleasure supposedly emerges from a ‘favourable reaction’ to sensory stimulation, it is useful to recognize the notion that “activity which relieves discomfort of need also brings pleasure” (Campbell 1987:64). And, as Adler suggests, travel offered an opportunity to “escape sensory immersion in degrading realities” (1989:23) as perceived by the travelling class. Most importantly though, it is propounded that “The more overwhelmingly and emotionally colored the experience, the more surely might travel fulfill [this] function”. (1989:23). Therefore, the elites’ travel experiences of the Romantic period might not be particularly distinct from the modern hedonism described by Campbell, in which “pleasure is sought via emotional and not merely sensory stimulation” (1989:77). Of course, analysis of concepts such as fantasy and imagination could also produce similar lines of reasoning. However, emotion might be seen as a central factor in the experience of pleasure in sightseeing in that it personalises the processing of an array of sensory input, even playing a ‘mediating’ role in a ‘person-environment relationship’ (Lazarus 1990:17, cited in Goosens 2000:312).

Significantly, Campbell distinguishes between the nature of ‘pleasure’ and ‘satisfaction’ that illuminate this relationship. Importantly, it is suggested that their properties are divergently located: pleasure is not an intrinsic property of the object that stimulates, but a reaction gained through the senses; a ‘quality of the experience’ related to desire. Conversely, satisfaction is posited as an “intrinsic attribute of things”, affecting the ‘state of being’ by performing a utilitarian function of abating need. Furthermore, pleasure requires attention; “it is necessary to be conscious of sensations in order to derive pleasure from them” (1987:62).

Campbell offers an interesting example of this theorising by applying it to eating [thus incorporating the sense of taste], in suggesting that pleasure is gained from the first few mouthfuls, the rest merely ‘satisfies’ the function of abating hunger, as an ‘unchanging’ stimulus ceases to be pleasurable (1989:68). Although easily criticised [i.e. the stimulus can be varied through mixing of foods taken eaten together] it prompts an interesting analogy with the much derided whistle-stop sightseeing tour. Such a tour can be conceptualised as offering small and varied portions of stimulating sights to briefly gaze upon and consume, avoiding the boredom induced by extended exposure. Hence, pleasure is maximised through variation of stimuli, offering just enough to “experience ‘in reality’ the pleasurable dramas they have already experienced in their imagination” and in ‘daydreams’ (Campbell 1987, summarised by Urry 1990:13). As Urry posits though, “Such daydreams are not autonomous” (1990:13), they are a product of society, in particular, media generated signs. Thus, variations in the level of pleasure or satisfaction attained can be viewed as related to the historically and socially constructed expectations, and emotional states, that feed into needs and desires. As such, the Romantic period is a paradigm case.

It is conceivable too that such variations help to define and frame the ‘gazes’ submitted by Urry (1990). Whilst not intended as rigid, the suggestion of romantic, collective, spectatorial, environmental and anthropological gazes can be seen to exhibit distinctions on the bases of varying levels of desired social contact, length of immersion in the sight, and the depth of analysis of the sensory experience. Furthermore, the effectiveness of ‘seeing the familiar as unfamiliar’, finding the ‘typical’ or viewing ‘performance of the mundane’ in unusual surroundings necessarily relies on difference between the sight and the everyday or ordinary (1990:11). In terms of gaining ‘pleasure’ though, it could be added that it is the notion of difference that provides ‘pleasurable’ experience, in that ‘difference’ implies the variation in stimulus that is apparently a prerequisite to gaining pleasure. Therefore, the assertion that ‘difference’ as a concept underpins the sightseeing experience automatically suggests that the pleasures to be gained will be reliant on the differences between the sightseer’s originating culture, and the culture that produces the sight.

In summary then, this section has attempted to suggest the complexities of experiencing pleasure, in relation to sightseeing, whilst asserting a relationship between pleasure, emotion and sensory input. The suggestion is that pleasure relies on variation of stimulation, difference, and socially constructed needs and desires. Furthermore, that emotions are central this experience. As Mcnaghten and Urry assert, “Not only are our feelings and emotions about the environment embodied, they are spatially embedded” (1998:105). It is vital then to conceptualise cultural phenomena that might affect these relationships, and the mechanisms between them that allow the creation of meaning and pleasure. The next section will attempt this, with particular reference to the role of ‘media’.

Section 2. The media and culture in sightseeing: Gaining a perspective.

It has been suggested that one of the pleasures of sightseeing by ‘elite’ travelers around the Romantic period was of an emotional response to visual stimuli, and that these elements are socially developed; a learned response. Importantly though, these sightseers were part of a specific culture; that of the Aristocracy, and even narrower, the British Aristocracy. Hence, any suggestion of the specific significance of sightseeing can only be rightly applied to the social group that was analysed to produce this theory. The responses that were learned were ‘culturally produced’ by the dominant media of their time. As Urry proposes, cultural artisans “provided…the kind of language and vocabulary by which places are appreciated for their visual appeal (1995:196). Furthermore, the role of the novel as a medium for change in travel can not be underplayed either. As Wilson (1975, cited in Leiper 1992) demonstrates, the novel ‘Pamela’ affected a cultural change in the leisured classes of the English society. As Leiper notes, “Wilson describes how the heroine… ‘made a discovery that the imagination is also capable of voyages…of daydreams’. Today this sounds banal, in the 1840s it was as startling as discovering that you could fly by flapping your arms” (1992:606).

This might sound ‘banal’ today as contemporary sightseeing takes place in a post-modern world, where “culture affects the audience via its immediate impact, through what it does for one, through regimes of pleasure and not through formal properties of the aesthetic material” (Urry 1990:85). Hence, the production of an infinitely more diverse set of media sources and styles, offering infinitely more knowledge, perspectives and opportunities to play with the signs encountered, leads to the opportunity for more ‘individualised’ pleasures. As Rojek suggests the technological advances of the 19th and 20th centuries provided a plethora of visual media that is inevitably hugely influential on how we ‘see’ the world, offering the social actor the opportunity to create an index; ‘a new value’, on that encountered by ‘dragging’ elements from new media based ‘files of reference’ (1997). Rojek elaborates:

“We develop indexing and dragging skills as part of our socialisation in televisual culture. Tourism involves switching these skills to a new cultural plane. This is a source of pleasure” (1997:71).

Whilst poetry, art, writing, provided a discourse that facilitated aesthetic experience, it may also necessarily have constrained it within its more restricted mode of representation, in relation to today. For instance, (by applying Rojek’s framework to sightseeing ‘in real life’), whilst the sightseer to the lake district might still ‘drag’ in Wordsworth from a romantic file of reference, his/her index might also contain files from contemporary movies [see Riley et al (1998) on movie induced tourism], news items on nuclear safety at Sellafield and memories of school lessons on the water cycle. As a result, what is encountered at the site is a personal experience that combines sensory input, contemporary media and imagination.

Such is the apparent influence of the ‘televisual’, it is even suggested that the actual encounter with the sight is relegated to confirming its existence, in relation to the media image, in what Rojek calls the ‘St. Thomas effect’ (1997:60). Hence, as Urry asserts, it is the representation of the sight through visual media that is paramount. For example,

“Even when they cannot in fact see the natural wonder in question, they can still sense it, see it in their mind. And even when the object fails to live up to its representation, it is the latter that will stay in peoples’ minds as what they have really ‘seen’” (1990:86).

As such, MacCannell suggests that the sightseer attempts to replicate the representation through photography or purchasing a souvenir, as “the attraction itself cannot be purchased, [they]…buy and take home an advertisement” (1976:158). This situation need not infer however that all representations are free flowing, media based images of almost infinite regress, constructed by individually acting agents. Media sources act within cultures, [as do individuals]; societies in which despite a growing de-differentiation and globalisation, are still constrained by traditions, languages and even perhaps a distinct ‘national psyche’. Furthermore, dominant imagery is necessarily constrained by legislative boundaries, such as broadcasting rights, distribution networks and legal systems. Perhaps most importantly though, is that individuals within societies will hold varying representations of sights, based on their own experiences within their own social realm.

For Gottdiener “The meaning of an object is a function of the use of that object in social interaction” (1995:180). Utilising Barthes’s (1972) framework, connotation precedes denotation. In encountering a sight, the media images that are ‘dragged in’ might have to give way to, or at least co-exist with a social, personal or practical value. For instance, the function of the ubiquitous town centre war memorial may be that of a much used public meeting place, or an object of more personal value when associated with a couple’s first date. Likewise, it could provide the sightseer with a navigational point of reference or ‘foreground’ element in snapshot construction. Hence, as Gottdiener’s analysis asserts, infinite regress is constrained by the transactional relationships of meaning and function that evolve between producers, users and objects. The significance of objects therefore might be said to exist in a state of flux between individual referential ability to create meaning, and the social mechanisms that ‘reign in meaning’. This is in opposition to the ‘symbolic reductionism’ as offered by Baudrillard, that “ignores both the material world and our reflexively assessed experience of social content” (Gottdiener 1995:25).

In drawing this discussion together, it is argued that sightseeing is reflexively experienced, but that it is also culturally constrained: such concepts as ‘dragging and indexing’ of images and associations can be applied to sightseeing, providing a degree of reflexivity. However, the ‘files of reference’ that are available are in many ways cultural productions and cultural constructs themselves, as has been demonstrated with the example of the ‘Romantic’ cultural construction of visual aesthetic appreciation. And as such, the reciprocal pleasures of sensory experience might be equally ‘reigned in’. As Rojek asserts, the travel experience “involves mobility through an internal landscape which is sculpted by personal experience and cultural influences as well as journeying through space” (1997:53).

From this then the next task is to address sightseeing in a less abstract manner, using the conceptual tools discussed above, bringing together the discussion on senses and emotions, as well as the possibilities of individual and culturally influenced pleasures.

Section three. Language, culture and genetics in sightseeing.

At this stage, some orientation may be of value. So far, it has been suggested that ‘pleasure’ can be a product of conscious attention to sensory stimulation, and that emotional pleasure is bound up with the sensory. In introducing the ‘gaze’, the idea that ‘difference to the everyday’ is also prominent- in that the sightseeing experience provides an ‘out of the ordinary’ sensory experience too. Most importantly, it has been asserted that the pleasurable experience of environments is likely to be largely culturally constructed, through media and social practice. Furthermore, that the ‘meaning’ of a cultural object such as the tourist sight will be related to its functional use. This thinking will now be drawn together and applied to a concise analysis of experiencing the ‘natural’, or more specifically, the concept of ‘wilderness’.


Hallikainen’s (1998) thorough analysis of the wilderness concept in Finland is particularly enlightening, being based on the premise that “wilderness is a mental image formed by culture rather than an ecological system” (1998:13) [See figure one]. The linguistic definition of wilderness might be seen to influence the image that is formed, for instance Nash (1982, in Hallikainen 1998:14) posits that ‘wilderness’ can suggest an aggregate of ‘strong will …an uncontrolled creature’ and ‘deor’- an old English word associated with “an animal that is impossible to control”, and the substantive ‘ness’. Together offering either a figurative or metaphoric notion. A preferable account, perhaps, would be the simple association with ‘wild’-erness.

In contrast, the closest Finnish translation, ‘Eramaa’, suggests a more functional perception, referring to “Forest covered hunting and fishing areas located well away from village borders” (Hallikainen 1998:16), reflecting the practical utility of wilderness, as a traditionally ‘ordinary’ function. ‘Era’, it is propounded, implies areas of ‘crop, fruit and game’ in Finnish, or ‘away’ in Estonian; both of which are far from the connotations implied in the English account of the word. The symbolism of religion also suggests divergent cultural perspectives on wilderness. For instance, classical Christian ideas of wilderness as ‘something to be changed’ or a place of ‘liberation’ in Judaism. (Tuan 1974, Nash 1982, Thomson 1987, Hendee et al 1990, Rolston 1990, cited by Hallikainen 1998:14). Perhaps most interesting is the Russian word ‘poustina’, used to describe wilderness, but “first of all it is a state of mind rather than a place” (1998:14) that can signify all of the above. Hence, as Wright observes, “Whilst other societies reaffirm themselves through religious rituals and traditional observances, we [western civilisation] seem to accomplish this in part through a return to faith in the ‘land’” (1975:189, in Rojek 1993:198). But as Saarinen et al point out, even within a dominant culture, wilderness can be perceived from such divergent perspectives as ‘technocentric’, ‘anthropocentric’ or zoocentric’ (1995:39). Moreover, the particular use that an environment is put to might also be seen to affect the perception of it, for instance, the Saami people who inhabit the Northern part of Finland might well interpret wilderness very differently from the pleasure seeking sightseer. Thus, not only is the functional context of wilderness differentiated, it is also inherently bound up with variations in its linguistic basis that feed into cultural understanding. Hence,

“Because ‘eramaa’ (wilderness) has a very deep cultural and historic background, it is apparent that the images about wilderness and wilderness experience are strongly culturally defined amongst Finnish people” (Hallikainen 1998:21).

It might be expected that this ‘strongly defined’ cultural construct would even influence the ‘world view’ of Finnish as sightseers, providing a culturally specific index of reference.

Picking up on this, an appropriately related concept is that of ‘Elamys’, a word used to denote a positive, ‘special’ emotional experience, and is deeply embedded in Finnish culture (Ireland and Kivi, 1997). The fact that there is apparently no comparable English counterpart might suggest, as Ireland and Kivi do, that in some ways Finnish and English tourists are actually experiencing the sights differently. This is not inconceivable, given the earlier discussion of the relationship between the provision of linguistic files of reference and the experience of ‘wilderness’, or tourist sights in general. Furthermore, as Hallikainen posits, the experience of a place results from a combination of inherited and cultural dimensions, former experiences and state of mind (1998:20) [see appendix].

Although controversial, (and perhaps bordering on ‘taboo’), there is convincing evidence to suggest that different races do actually exhibit varying levels of perception in particular senses. For instance, recent research in Australia has identified that the sense of sight, and its use in memory, is more highly developed in Aboriginal; even suggesting that they may literally see the landscape differently, as a result of evolutionary necessity (Channel 4 2000). Indeed, it is asserted that an “ability to visualize the landscape is clearly an artistic skill, but it is a practical one too” (2000).

Repsonses to sensory stimulation can be seen to fit either argument. For instance, the sense of smell is apparently “more developed in so-called savages” (Tuan 1993, in Mcnaghten and Urry 1998:127), whilst being ‘denigrated in western culture’ (Urry 1997:131). The Stimulus of sound too illuminates the problem; the idea that ‘sound organises sight’ (1997:131) can be perceived as inherited from the response to danger that determines what demands attention. This might explain why it is a distraction in ‘quiet’ places, or why “one person’s sound pollution may on occasion constitute another person’s nature” (Mcnaghten and Urry 1998:131). Taken together, such issues highlight the problem for construction of pleasurable ‘sights’: not only is cultural context important, but the producer may also be fighting against nature.

Whether genetics or culture is dominant in shaping the ‘natural’ experience is open to question, and is best left to behavioral scientists to assess. Nonetheless, it is valuable to at least acknowledge that such issues are pertinent, and that genetics too may play a significant part in the experiencing of the ‘pleasures’ of nature. Nonetheless, this paper has orientated itself towards a cultural analysis, and, as has been recognised earlier, it is society that teaches the sightseer how or what to focus on. The cultural production of largely visual media and the organising of sight has ‘evolved’ considerably faster than the genetic propensity to differentiate shades of green, for example.

Thus, returning to the inter-cultural, (rather than the more controversial ‘inter-racial) experiencing of sights, there are still more important issues to be introduced. For instance, the idea that “A person’s inherent ‘world view’, his previous experiences, attitudes and values also have an effect on his observation” (Hallikainen 1998:22). Succintly, it is asserted that;

“Cultural differences have to be considered both temporally and locally. The people living in different cultural ‘stages’, such as pre-modern, modern and postmodern, may experience wilderness in different ways” (1998:21).

Consequently, intra-cultural differences may also be seen as significant. For instance, the Saami inhabitants of Finnish Lapland likely to have a different perception of nature than the urban Finn. Similarly, the cultural construction of ‘north-south-ness’ in England may well affect attitudes (and therefore pleasure from) nature (see Urry 1995:204). Furthermore, the functional element of land use- as either recreation or work- might also be influential, as Saarinen (1998) indicates in relation to Lapland. Even the gender of the sightseer, it seems, can affect the experience in that “woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking”, compared to the visually directed male (Irigaray 1978, in Jay 1993, cited by Urry 1990:125).

Nonetheless, in acknowledging the complexity of arrangements that guide our perspective on the natural, the opinion here is that the inherited qualities of sensory experience facilitates the application of culturally instilled practices and expectations. Hence, the cultural capital available will largely determine the level and form of pleasure to be gained from the sight, offering the standard by which the sight is deemed ‘out of the ordinary’, or indeed pleasurable. As a brief example, take the Japanese sightseer in the lake district: His or her frame of reference might be of spectacular snow-capped mountains, and may also hold little knowledge of ‘how’ to appreciate daffodil lined lakes. Hence, a response like ‘why are the hills so small’ might be expected. Moreover, whilst possibly pleasurable due to its contrast, it might not evoke an emotional response, due to the nature of ‘scale’ in making comparison.

In summary then, genetics arguments aside, the pleasures of ‘seeing’ a natural sight can be seen to be both inter and intra-culturally affected, as well as being based on personal experience of nature in general. And importantly, the provision of particular linguistic tools of expression can also be identified as a vital factor. What follows seeks to expand on this, by relating these concepts to aspects of ‘built’ sights.

Section four. Can ‘death’ bring ‘sunshine’?

In the previous section, through reflection on the experience of wilderness, it was asserted that the response to a ‘gaze’ will be a complex reaction to cultural and personal processes. Here, similar thinking will be applied to specific aspects of the ‘heritage’ sector. By now, it might be obvious the concept of the tourist gaze that was introduced early in the paper is far from a purely visual encounter; it is, to reiterate Urry’s claim, a complex concept of ‘visual perception’: “We do not literally see things. Particularly as tourists we see objects which are constituted as signs. They stand for something else” (1990:128). The notion of gaining pleasure through sensory perception, therefore, might not be as straightforward a process as Campbell suggests- that “emotions link mental images with physical stimuli” (1987:69). As the previous section intimated, emotions working between the mental and the physical must play a part in the interpretation of a sight, at the same time as being mediated by the culture of the sightseer. The examples presented here will aim to bring these thoughts together, again asking whether the sightseers are ‘seeing’ the same thing, and importantly for the subject under analysis, whether pleasure has to be ‘fun’.

As Rojek (1993) indicates, the subject of ‘death or disaster’ attracts apparently ‘distasteful’ fascination. Indeed, “Death sites and places of violent death involving celebrities or large numbers of people, almost immediately take on a monumental quality in our country” (1993:138). ‘Black spots’ such as the site of the Lockerbie or Zeebrugge disasters, or the Arlington National Cemetery lay testament to such fascination. The purpose of black spots, suggests Rojek, are to ‘distract’ and ‘inform’, as “learning experiences and opportunities for wholesale interaction” just as theme parks do (1995:168). A prime example might be that of the crash site of the Princess of Wales in Paris, or even the ensuing funeral procession that initiated a mass, emotionally fuelled ‘collective gaze’. What Rojek fails to provide though, is an explanation of the meaning of such sights to the sightseer, or whether ‘pleasure’ is a factor. Rojek’s example of Gracelands, the home of Elvis Presley, provides an interesting focus that might be of use here.

It is important to assert the relevance of this example. Undoubtedly, Elvis Presley (as all pop stars) was a product of mass media, but one that was genuinely pan-cultural, at least in the West. As such, the visual images and distinct musical styles might be seen as metonymic of the era, and representative of the then rebellious, ‘distasteful’ change in social attitudes. In applying the notion that the sightseer sees a sign, not the ‘thing’ that is Gracelands, it is easier to understand that a visit might be construed as pleasurable: as an aide memoire for older visitors, or a slice of American life, or ‘the small town boy done good’ notion, (at least for those who can drag in references that link the available stimuli with the connoted values).

Another characteristics of ‘black spots’ could be the ability of the sight to the put the sightseer into a frame of mind that reflects that of the person or persons being commemorated, perhaps eliciting an emotional response. In the case of Gracelands, the sightseer is exposed to a full range of sensations that might foster this: “Visitors sit where he sat, see what he saw, [and] his personal cook…prepares Elvis’s favourite dishes” (Rojek 1993:143). Hence, the sight is truly a multi-sensory experience, but as Rojek posits, “It is as though his death was of incidental importance”(143). Even so, the sight in this case offers a complex array of stimuli that link the signifier of Gracelands, with the signified of Elvis Presley. But it is at the level of the ‘objective referent’ (to utilise Gottdiener’s framework) that the sight might be seen to be given meaning, where personal knowledge of the singer, and his significance in the life of the sightseer, work reflexively to give meaning. Hence, the sign value of the sight would depend on such culturally affected factors as personal knowledge from the mass media, the media used on site, and the mythological notions of Elvis’s life that ‘reign in meaning’.

Continuing this theme, monuments offer an idiosyncratic focus, amongst the ‘genre of heritage sights, black spots and literary landscapes’ in that they act as ‘auratic’ objects, drawing sightseers in with ‘magnetic power’ (Rojek 1993:194). Monuments are similar to blackspots, Rojek suggests, in that they physically represent death or the dead, focussing collective consciousness and national ‘solidarity’ that apparently “draws us in by making a bold or overpowering statement” (1993:195). The examples offered, of London’s Nelson’s Column or the Cenotaph, are useful in this analysis, particularly in that there is “no remaining single autonomous essence to ‘British’ culture” (Urry 2000:11. Also, see Eatwell 1997 50-68 for a discussion on this). In accepting this, it is important to ask just what is the pleasure of visiting a monument. As the discussion of other black spots suggested, personal and cultural associations might combine to focus emotional attention on the sight. But it could also be asserted that in the case of monuments it is not predominantly important to associate them with who is represented, but what it represents and to whom.

For instance, seeing the cast bronze representations of another nation’s war heroes (or indeed your own nation, from a different time) might summon concepts of bravery, sacrifice or indebtedness. Alternatively, it might represent an act of imperialist aggression, from the perspective of a ‘colonial’ sightseer. In this sense, it doesn’t matter whose history is presented as its sign can be appropriated by any culture, or indeed no culture, as the earlier reference to the ‘ubiquitous town centre’ memorial suggested. Furthermore, an important point is made by Fowler is that history is ‘emotionally neutral’, indeed, that it is only ‘contemporary minds’ reaction that produces an emotional response (1989:60). Interestingly, this neatly coincides with the wilderness example, in that “Cultural differences have to be considered both temporally and locally” (Hallikainen 1998:21), and that sightseers of ‘different cultural stages’ would experience the sight differently.

A final point can be made with reference to the monument to the popular British entertainer, Eric Morecambe, who took his stage name from the town in which his effigy now stands [see figure 2]. Far from representing sacrifice and valor, the area is themed on notions of fun and frivolity, as echoed in the words of his theme tune and catch phrases etched into the stone floor, such as “Bring me sunshine, in your smile. Bring me happiness, all the while…”. As with many monuments, it could be suggested, the evocation by the generation that ‘connects’ with the subject is most likely to provide an emotionally ‘nostalgic’ experience. This reaction would be in contrast to that suggested by Fowler above, in response to ‘history’.

But what of the sightseer who does not ‘connect in such a way’ to this monument? It can be contended that what is left is not an empty signifier, but an image to be played with, appreciated for its ‘curiosity value’, or linked with locally equivalent cultural figures. The British sightseer might play with the monument by emulating the famous dance he performed, or singing the theme tune. [In the same vein, so might the Elvis fan at Gracelands] Importantly, a sight such as the Eric Morecambe monument might provide an interesting prop around which to frame the omnipresent photograph (see Crawshaw and Urry 1997 for an elaboration on this subject). As Rojek submits, “Most tourists feel they have not fully absorbed a sight until they stand before it, see it and take a photograph to record the moment” (1997:58).

Finally, If such culturally centred, or emotionally based pleasures are not assimilated into the experience, monuments in general might still offer the sightseer pleasures of a sensory nature: monuments are tangible: the texture and temperature of the stone and bronze, or the intricate workmanship that comprise the aesthetic dimension might still combine to offer a ‘touching’ experience. Thus, although the sightseer may visually consume the same object, they do not , as Urry (1990) says, ‘see the same thing’. Furthermore, as the discussion on ‘black spots’ suggested, the sight might well provide a pleasurable experience, even if the association with the death of the subject precludes [in most if not all…] the notion of ‘fun’.

Figure 2. The Eric Morecambe statue, Morecambe. Postcard by Jon Sparks (Abacus printers)



This analysis began with reference to the ‘Romantic’ period of British society- an era that witnessed great changes in both society and travel. Indeed, they can be seen to be interlocked. Such was the significance of the period, its legacy is still pervasive, as can be demonstrated in three ways: Firstly, the ‘shift to the ocular’ that was a prerequisite for a more personal experience with the environment. Secondly the development of subjectivity and the ‘aestheticising’ of the environment. Thirdly, the refinement of the emotional experience, and its incorporation into the sightseeing experience. In essence, these developments collectively equated travel with sensory stimulation and ‘pleasure’, which itself is such an important element of contemporary sightseeing.

Perhaps the most significant factor in affecting such change was the Romantic media of the time. The effect of such media corresponds with that of contemporary media on the sightseeing experience. Urry asserts a pertinent point:

“Places are chosen to be gazed upon because there is anticipation, especially through daydreaming and fantasy, of intense pleasures, either on a different scale or involving different senses from those customarily encountered. Such anticipation is constructed and sustained through a variety of non-tourist practices, such as film, TV, literature, magazines, records and videos, which construct and reinforce that gaze” (1990:3)

So, such media may in some way enhance the pleasure of sightseeing, at least in the pre-trip stage of ‘imagination and fantasy’. However, there is also a danger that such media saturation can diminish the experience, by removing the initial visual impact of sight. By desensitising the sightseer to the ‘scale’ or ‘difference’ of the sight, he or she may be deprived of the most intense emotional moment of the trip. Broadly speaking, ‘too frequent’ or ‘extended exposure’ to sensory stimuli leads to reduced pleasure (Campbell 1987:63). More specifically, as Rojek highlights, an “increase in the density and velocity of representations …weakens its auratic power [which therefore] sheds light on that feeling of ‘so what?’ that sightseeing often produces in the tourist” (1997:60). The same could also be said of non-audio/visual media: it is just as likely that the de-linking of foods from their indigenous cultures leads to a reduction of the pleasures of taste and smell when in foreign lands. Familiarity thereby desensitising the palate. (Rojek raises some interesting points on the implications of further technological developments in media on tourism; Rojek 1997:69-75).

To further illustrate this point, consider the first-gaze response of the sightseer who has no visual image of the pyramids of Egypt, or the Grand Canyon, or the New York skyline [beyond that of imagination]. Compare this to the sightseer who has been saturated with images of their sight. The first, it is argued here, would be more likely to avoid disappointment, and more likely to experience a pure, ‘exquisite gaze’, a pleasurable, emotional response, purely because of the ‘newness’ of the physical stimuli: a response borne of pure sensory and emotional reaction. The second may only experience such a gaze in the brief moment before associations, comparisons and judgements are made with the images ‘dragged’ in from his or her media-filled memory. The unfortunate fact is, that very few are likely to be able achieve an exquisite gaze in a society of such media proliferation. The world is not as in the film ‘The Beach’.

As has been discussed, it is not just the media that affect the sightseeing experience, but also the cultural characteristics of sight and sightseer, although it may be difficult to separate them. Consequently, the pleasures of sightseeing can be envisaged as culturally guided, yet reflexively constructed modes of response to physical stimuli, that also suggest a level of emotional involvement. The response is guided in that a distinct society can instill a way of environmental interaction that in part reflects its dominant media, as well as being linked to its linguistic base. These elements combine to enable a means of absorbing the physical stimuli encountered in a culturally meaningful way. Additionally, individuals can create their own meaning from the stimuli, through the process of pulling together material from all available sources, including personal experience, knowledge and values, thus personalising the ‘pleasure’. Hence, culture to simultaneously enables pleasurable interpretation of sights, whilst ‘reigning in’ reflexivity. Ultimately, the pleasures of sightseeing can be seen to be as diverse as the range and variety of cultural influences, and their personal interpretations.


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