Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Pollution, Travel, and Environmental Justice / Edition 2

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Winner of the:

2010 Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Book Award, sponsored by National Communication Association
2007 James A. Winans-Herbert A. Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address, sponsored by National Communication Association
2007 Best Book of the Year for Critical and Cultural Studies, sponsored by National Communication Association
2007 Christine L. Oravec Research Award, sponsored by Environmental Communications Division of the National Communication Association
Tourism is at once both a beloved pastime and a denigrated form of popular culture. Romanticized for its promise of pleasure, tourism is also potentially toxic, enabling the deadly exploitation of the cultures and environments visited. For many decades, the environmental justice movement has offered “toxic tours,” non-commercial trips intended to highlight people and locales polluted by poisonous chemicals. Out of these efforts and their popular reception, a new understanding of democratic participation in environmental decision-making has begun to arise. Phaedra C. Pezzullo examines these tours as a tactic of resistance and for their potential in reducing the cultural and physical distance between hosts and visitors.
Pezzullo begins by establishing the ambiguous roles tourism and the toxic have played in the U.S. cultural imagination since the mid-20th century in a range of spheres, including Hollywood films, women’s magazines, comic books, and scholarly writings. Next, drawing on participant observation, interviews, documentaries, and secondary accounts in popular media, she identifies and examines a range of tourist performances enabled by toxic tours. Extended illustrations of the racial, class, and gender politics involved include Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” California’s San Francisco Bay Area, and the Mexican border town of Matamoros. Weaving together social critiques of tourism and community responses to toxic chemicals, this critical, rhetorical, and cultural analysis brings into focus the tragedy of ongoing patterns of toxification and our assumptions about travel, democracy, and pollution.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817315504
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2007
  • Series: Rhetoric Culture and Social Critique Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Phaedra C. Pezullo is Assistant Professor of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and coeditor, with Ronald Sandler, of Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: Assessing the Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement.
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Toxic Tourism

Rhetorics of Pollution, Travel, and Environmental Justice

By Phaedra C. Pezzullo

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5587-6


Tourist Itineraries

This book began, in part, by recalling the prevalent disdain with which tourists often are referred. It is remarkable, given how many of us tour, that "acting like a tourist" is so often an insult, a prevalent euphemism for looking out of place, making inappropriate remarks, and generally displaying cultural ignorance without subtlety. In addition to the more toxic undercurrents of this perception, the stigma of the tourist also has served as fodder for comedy, as in the National Lampoon Vacation films starring Chevy Chase (1983, 1985, 1987, 1989) and the Crocodile Dundee series starring Paul Hogan (1986, 1988, 2001). In these repeated, popular depictions, the tourist is represented as an uneducated, crass stereotype of a country's citizens, as well as a humorous personality who is noticeably and awkwardly unable to assimilate or "blend in" with local cultures and environments. Indeed, the neophyte tourist—or at least the tourist who appears to be a novice—is usually portrayed as one of the most embarrassing, obnoxious, and amusing characters in popular culture.

At times, of course, some view tourists and tour destinations quite romantically—especially once a person seems to have become an experienced, adaptable tourist. These tourists are admired as noble explorers, danger seekers, risk takers, and those who are willing to place their bodies "on the line" to learn new things and to meet new people. Rather than representing the epitome of "low culture" and a lack of education, a well-traveled tourist is sometimes perceived as a person who exemplifies what it means to act "worldly," thus serving as a kind of multicultural diplomat between nations. In this sense, the tourist possesses the opportunity not only to purchase souvenirs on her or his journey but also to accrue what Pierre Bourdieu calls "cultural capital," or the accumulation of experiences that may raise one's status in bourgeois circles (and, arguably, beyond). From this more favorable perspective, the tourist is capable of becoming savvier than the nontourist—a "citizen of the world," not just of one country or government. Amidst more banal examples, recall how performances of international spies like James Bond or Sydney Bristow are admired for their ability to travel to foreign lands, assess the local scene, adapt, and then escape.

These more romanticized depictions of tourist figures might also include the benevolent, more laid-back and carefree individual who welcomes new experiences. Perhaps one of the more famous and nuanced depictions in the United States of this type of tourist is Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Anne Tyler's acclaimed book that was turned into a Hollywood film of the same title: The Accidental Tourist. The protagonist of this drama is appropriately named Macon Leary (as is the cinematic star cast in the role, William Hurt). Leary writes travel guides for U.S. businessmen who frequently—and reluctantly—have to leave their homes and families for their jobs. His instructions help the man on the go to create an individualized version of what Tim Edensor calls an "enclavic space," in which the tourist is able to isolate him- or herself from any spontaneous and unpredictable experiences. Leary advises travelers on planes to "always bring a book, as protection against strangers. Magazines don't last. Newspapers from home will make you homesick, and newspapers from elsewhere will remind you you don't belong. You know how alien another paper's typeface seems." In Paris at the Champs-Elyseés, he chooses a Burger King as an ideal eating place, but warns his date: "Careful, ... these are not the Whoppers you are used to. You'll want to scrape the extra pickle and onion off." Following Leary's precautions, tourists are promised the ability "to pretend they had never left home." The irony of this narrative, of course, is that by the end of the story we realize that the protagonist's own happiness lies in rejecting all the advice he has written for years and, instead, in embracing a wider variety of touristic experiences by learning from and valuing differences, change, and impulsiveness.

These contrasting projections of the tourist are predicated on the choices a tourist makes. Will the tourist fall into a "tourist trap"? How might the tourist negotiate local customs of language, dress, and decorum? Is the tourist interested in communicating with or ignoring host communities, tourist operators, and other tourists? When the tourist risks experiencing the "new," will it be with eager grace or reluctant awkwardness?

The characteristics that enable these various portrayals and their ability to resonate with mass audiences provide a glimpse into the choices and distinctions raised by tourist practices and cultural perceptions of them. In this chapter I interrogate both negative and positive interpretations of tourists primarily put forth by scholars of tourism as a context for better understanding the cultural politics of toxic tours. In short, toxic tours are an appropriation of tourism as a discourse, a pragmatic mode of communication, and a way of acting in the world. As such, this chapter's broad overview aims to begin to help readers unfamiliar with tourist studies to appreciate more fully how toxic tours reinforce, challenge, and transform common assumptions about our tourist imaginaries.

"Touring" includes a wide variety of practices, from going on a day trip to a local historical monument to vacationing abroad for a month, from experiencing one's last hike in the woods to living through one's first safari in a savannah, and from walking through a potential home to stopping at an art museum. Given the range of experiences these ways of operating enable, almost every book or article written on tourism provides a different definition. Rather than surveying all of these arguments here, let me offer a very basic, working definition: "tourism" generally connotes the traveling from place to place, in a sequence. Hence, as one toxic tour guide explained to me when asked why her coalition of grassroots activists calls their toxic tour a "tour": "It's semantics: a march goes from point a to point b; we go from a to b to c to d to [etc.]."

Yet, beyond purely formal considerations, the naming, facilitating, and enacting of tours implicates much broader social patterns and trajectories. Tours negotiate power relations between the people, places, and values involved. By placing tourist scholarship into dialogue with the practice of toxic touring, this chapter highlights four often-noted and interrelated characteristics about the cultural politics of tourism: the primacy of vision, the privilege of having a home, the role of tourism as education, and the more recent trend involving the pleasure of touring sites of tragedy. These traits, I believe, become particularly salient by the end of the chapter as they lead me to a discussion of toxic tours as modalities that constitute, at least in part, public participation in civic decision making.

Embodying the Visual

The visual stubbornly tends to take center stage of tourist research. This focus is unsurprising, since in most tourist scholarship and in Western culture more broadly, the visual has long been privileged above other embodied ways of sensing the world. Metaphors and references to sight still pervade academic and nonacademic ways of knowing. "Seeing is believing," after all. Add the mode of sightseeing to the pursuit of knowledge, and it is no wonder that ocularcentrism abounds. Snap a photograph. Buy a "picture perfect" postcard. Stop at a scenic vista. All of these tourist activities appear to revolve around one's ability to see, or, perhaps more specifically, as some academics would negatively describe it, on one's privilege to exert "the gaze."

"The gaze" implies that in our looking we come no closer to whom or what we are looking at and, in fact, that we may move further away affectively as a result of our look. Film scholar Laura Mulvey is best known in cinema studies for theorizing when scopophilia (the pleasure of looking) is constituted by a voyeuristic male gaze and, as a result, transforms a woman into a spectacle on screen. This process of becoming an erotic object for the pleasure of another's consumption, she argues, positions the female as passive and the male as active. Similarly, Carol Adams and Steve Baker ask us to consider how the ways that we visualize animals as objects (e.g., "meat"), parts (e.g., "breast" or "leg"), or symbolic representations in our everyday lives (e.g., cartoon characters) might enable us to distance ourselves more readily from the subjectivity of nonhuman animals and, thus, further enable the objectification, exploitation, and extinction of other species.

Perhaps best known for illuminating the politics of sight to tourist practices is The Tourist Gaze, in which John Urry claims that the visual is the primary or most fundamental sense involved in tourist practices. Through emphasizing the social or collective dimensions of touring, Urry argues that what tourists "gaze at" or expect to "gaze upon" is central to tourist experiences as romantic individuals or part of larger collectives. Seven years after putting forth his initial argument about the primacy of sight, Urry revisits his initial argument in an essay coauthored with Carol Crawshaw on the relationship between tourism and photography. Together they clarify a collective position on tourism and vision, one that responds in part to criticisms of Urry's initial perspective. Although they acknowledge Michel Foucault's critiques of the visual gaze as a disciplining technology of spectacle, science, and punishment, they go on to suggest that such a position is too easily reduced to fodder for tourist scholars to denigrate the role of vision in tourist experience—as though sight were somehow more "superficial" than the other senses. Further, although they admit that other senses are involved in tourist experiences, they claim that a completely pejorative perspective on the visual ignores its role not just as part of these experiences but also as central to them. "It is the visual images of places," they insist, "that give shape and meaning to the anticipation, experience and memories of travelling."

Without a doubt, as Urry, Crawshaw, and others have observed, the visual plays an important role in most tourist practices, as it does in most ways of operating for most people. Sight can be a valuable sense to assess who we have been, are, and want to be. However, I disagree with their privileging of sight and, instead, wish to emphasize that there is more to tourist performances and the performances that tourists consume. Too often, an ocularcentric approach suggests an image of tourists somehow transformed into walking eyeballs, without bodies attached. Yet, looking is itself an embodied experience—one that influences the rest of the body's ability to experience the world, and vice versa. When we look, we peer over the edge of a canyon to feel a sense of the fragility of our position, or we lean backward so that we can admire the top of a tall building. We hold binoculars to catch a glimpse of a bird that we heard in a tree, or we grab onto a safety bar to ensure that we don't fall out of an amusement park ride when we close our eyes. We smell the uniquely colored flower that "caught our eye," and we hold our breath as we dive into a scenic lake.

Narrowing our appreciation of tourist experiences to sight not only ignores how our senses work in conjunction with one another but also excludes the wider range of sensations involved, including perhaps the most obvious one, sound. For those who can hear, how can we imagine touring without guides or hotel staff telling us where to sleep, eat, or even look? What would a vacation be without the sounds offered by our particular tourist destinations, such as ocean waves, winter winds, lion roars, roller-coaster screams, or steel drums? Fetishizing and singling out the visual aspects of touring leaves out all of these audible encounters and much, much more. Simply stated, there are some experiences, some memories, and some knowledges that are not limited to sight. Perhaps, in fact, there are none. Sometimes, we communicate without looking at all. Sometimes, what is most striking or telling to us is a smell, a sound, a touch, a taste, or a sensation we feel because of our proximity to another animal, place, or event. As such, we would do well to heed Adrian Franklin's call to address those instances when senses other than sight serve as the primary motivation for a whole range of popular tourist practices, such as taste (e.g., wine tasting), smell (e.g., a perfume factory), sound (e.g., a music festival), and adrenalin rushes (e.g., bungee jumping or gambling).

When touring toxins, the limits of the visual become all the more apparent. In fact, one of the primary constraints for anti-toxic activists is a lack of visual evidence. If you are familiar with toxins, you know that their detection often is not predicated on sight. Many people who see a toxic dump for the first time are surprised at how benign it looks. Likewise, communities are frequently unaware of the fact that they are polluted by toxins until their bodies start to manifest pain—in those moments when they find themselves, for example, struggling to breathe as a result of respiratory complications, feeling their eyes begin to water after going outside, or finding out from a doctor that they have cancer.

Compounding the frequent invisibility of toxins is the troubling fact that the visibility of this pollution and its environmentally unjust effects often are excluded from elite sight due to racial and economic residential segregation. Limiting our epistemologies of travel and tourism to what we can see exacerbates these power differentials. By refusing to explore beyond what hegemonic relationships help make invisible, we provide further, albeit indirect, consent to the distance necessary to alienate us from each other. We enable ourselves to believe in the false presumption that our lives do not affect or depend on anyone or any place that we cannot see, even though our increasingly global and industrialized world belies a different truth.

In addition, as Dwight Conquergood claims, when a researcher engages people and practices that have historically been marginalized by Western biases, decentering sight and script becomes even more critical. An ocularcentric or scriptocentric approach, he argues, limits the researcher to "the [colonial] powers to see, to search, and to seize." In other words, sensitivity to a much wider range of communicative symbols, practices, and effects would enable researchers to be more attentive to those people who have been pushed into the margins, such as women and people of color, and to the communicative practices that have been marginalized by Western biases of so-called high culture. Consequently, focusing our research solely on the visual facets of touring has much more at stake than merely being incomplete.

Remedying the dominance of the visual in tourist scholarship thus entails at least three changes. First, a less ocularcentric perspective requires us to realize that even when we are looking, we are looking from an embodied subjectivity. Merely focusing on what we can see (or not see), at minimum, excludes the way the ability to see, like any other sense, interacts with and is conditioned by the rest of our bodies. Second, such a perspective reminds us that any tour involves more of our bodies than just looking. This focus on the body need not involve a naive move away from conversations about or understandings of power; in fact, it should expand them. Oppression, for example, can be enabled as much—if not, at times, more—by a tourist's disaffected distance or nonconsensual touching as it is by sight. Third, decentering the visual as the primary focus of all tour experiences may enable those who study tours to be more aware of our own capacities to privilege and to perpetuate Western or colonial sensibilities. Embracing reflexivity toward our corporeal practices and the ways we study them, we might find ourselves more open to becoming what Ruth Behar calls "vulnerable observers." This would involve putting our own cameras and notebooks down—at times—in order to appreciate more fully our significance as "outsiders" feeling present within a specific place and time and how we might be implicated in what we are witnessing.

On toxic tours, this sense of presence or willingness to feel connected to the people and places toured is particularly important to the political efficacy of the practice. When limited solely to "the gaze," a toxic tour certainly does risk objectifying the people and the places toured. Some of the people with whom I have discussed toxic tours have likened toxic tours, in their worst possible imagined and practiced scenarios, to visiting a zoo. For example, when asked in an interview if he had any concerns about the use of toxic tours, one environmental activist shared that he lives in a neighborhood where toxic tours are held. Those tours, he said, appear to be a very insulting performance of "the exoticism of poverty," in which he senses an attitude akin to: "Let's go visit the poor people, the poor people in the zoo." Similarly, on two different occasions when I have presented my research on toxic tours in academic forums, one specific colleague (who, like the aforementioned activist, is a European American, middle class, higher educated male) has expressed concern about toxic tours. He continues to wonder if toxic tours function as exploitative zoos, with predominantly white and wealthier tourists quickly passing by the neighborhoods of people of color and low-income communities as if they were exotic animals on display. This tension between engagement and objectification will rear its head repeatedly throughout this book. For now, though, it seems helpful to highlight the role sight plays in this process of negotiation and to delve further into the genuinely disconcerting analogy suggested between zoos and toxic tours.


Excerpted from Toxic Tourism by Phaedra C. Pezzullo. Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     ix
Acknowledgments     xi
Introduction: A Challenge     1
Tourist Itineraries     24
Toxic Baggage     52
Sites and Sacralization     77
Cancer and Co-optation     106
Identification and Imagined Communities     138
Conclusion: All the Time in the World     172
Epilogue: And the Struggles Continue...     188
Contact Information for Advocacy Groups     193
Notes     195
Bibliography     231
Index     251
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