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  • 186 - the logo again.jpg


"Dark Tourism and Place Identity" edited by Leanne White & Elspeth Frew (London: Routledge, 2013)
I have a vested interest in including this academic book here because I actually contributed a chapter to this volume myself (namely on genocide memorials in Rwanda).
Obviously I cannot review my own text as such here. I have to leave that to others. But what I would like to do is point out one rather annoying error in my chapter. On page 151 it says (roughly in the middle of the page): "The theory of 'sequestered death' refers to the observation that the topic of death is publicly present. For example, in fiction and the media real death is hidden away and has become 'medicalized'." This is of course wrong, it's more like the other way round, in fact. (If something is 'sequestered' it means it is not publicly present. Conversely, in the media and in fiction death is very much topicalized of course … the news and esp. "action" movies are full of death). But I'd like to emphasize that I did not write it like this! There must have been some glitch in the late editing process and unfortunately those erroneous two sentences made it into print after all. Oh well, no use crying over spilt milk. I just wanted to make it clear here at least that even though the passage in question looks like I don't understand the term 'sequestered' I actually do know what it means! I can only hope that readers will either "auto-correct" this in their heads as they read those lines (or not even notice the flaw) or at least deduce from the context what is actually meant.
But now to the rest of the book, which I have meanwhile read cover to cover:
The one chapter I had anticipated most eagerly is the one by Phil Stone on Chernobyl (pp 79-93). Having worked my way through it I'm left in two minds about it. Stone takes as his starting point the concept of "heterotopia" suggested in the 1960s by French philosopher Foucault. To put it very simply, probably way too simplified, 'heterotopias' are places that are real physical places but at the same time also imagined "other" spaces with certain stereotypical functions/roles assigned to them by people/society, such as 'the cemetery'. ("Utopias" on the other hand are only imagined, without any physically real manifestations – note the etymology: -topos/topia means 'place(s), and u- means 'not', while hetero- means 'other'/'different'). Stone acknowledges that Foucault's concept is notoriously vague and controversial, but still attempts to "strip[ it] of the verbiage" (p 80) that the notion is usually clad in and to apply it to the dark tourism experience at Chernobyl. Unfortunately, however, in the process he then steeps his text in his own "verbiage" of sorts. That is to say: it is in an extremely complicated, if not convoluted, style of writing that makes this chapter by far the hardest to read in the entire volume. Academics used to such style will probably be able to untangle it all alright, but non-academic readers be warned! I couldn't blame you if you despaired and gave up on this kind of writing after a couple of pages.
Having made the effort to read it to the last word, I can say that Stone does make a commendable effort of making sense of the heterotopia concept in the context of Chernobyl. But it doesn't take away the initial problem with it. Stone notes himself that it is a "paradox of hereotopias […] that they are spaces both separate from yet connected to all other spaces" or even "spaces within places and places within spaces" and thus are "everywhere" (p 81). That's almost tantamount to saying "they are something/anything somewhere and anywhere". Thus widely and vaguely defined, the term therefore lacks scientific precision of meaning and should have fallen victim to the corrective of Occam's razor from the outset. (For those not familiar with the theory of scientific reasoning: "Occam's razor" is an agreed heuristic maxim in science to serve simplicity – which does not necessarily mean simplicity in terms of ease of understanding, but more importantly in order to prevent unnecessary terminology and inflated theoretical concepts; it's all based on the principle that out of two theories that have exactly the same explanatory power, the one that achieves this with fewer terms, assumptions, steps of reasoning etc. is to be considered the better of the two. That applies as much to natural sciences as social sciences/humanities.)
As I said, Stone's attempt to apply the notion to Chernobyl all the same does have its commendable side, and some of the six sub-principles' applications to that place do come across convincingly. Especially the one about the Chernobyl experience being simultaneously real and surreal. I can certainly vouch for that. In other sections, though, he loses me. … for instance when talking about Chernobyl as a place both linked to an old world order (the Cold War era) and to the new contemporary world order, through still being there as a place to visit today, this is suddenly also supposed to mean that during such a visit one can "(re)-connect to present predicaments" such as the eurozone crisis, religious fundamentalism or the Arab Spring (p 85). Now that's going a bit far! I really cannot see by any stretch of the imagination what Chernobyl could possibly have to do with such things. But of course the super-vague concept of heterotopia by its very nature allows for such sweeping interpretations. That's exactly why I choose to be more reluctant about its application.
All academic quibbling aside, what does the chapter tell us, you and me, the actual dark tourists, about Chernobyl? Not all that much, really. And some claims about the place are at times a bit questionable. For instance, Stone states that the appearance of the ghost town of Pripyat next to Chernobyl is "largely the result of systematic looting, rather than natural decay". That's going too far as well. There has been a certain degree of looting, and some objects have been re-ordered to appeal to photographers' tastes and expectations, and there are graffiti to be seen, yes. But it is still the case that natural decay has had a far greater impact. Trees growing on balconies or football pitches, collapsed stairs, peeling paint and all that is natural decay and not man-made. And these aspects are far more important in the overall experience of the place than the little details that have been "tampered" with.
Stone also claims that only recently government-sanctioned tours have officially been licensed and that before this the commercially offered tours to the "zone" had been "illegal" for a decade or so. When I went in 2006 we all had to apply for official permits, papers were checked at the entry points by official guards, and the guides briefing and taking groups round the sites were also officially appointed and employed by the Chernobyl site's management. So unless all of that was a clever front, I really cannot see in what way that should have been illegal? I am aware that there was a short period in 2011 (I think) when the government suspended the tours on offer, but that was more due to internal inter-ministerial quarrels (re: within who's remit it was to issue what papers and who gets what share of the money generated by such tours). But it doesn't mean all tours had hitherto been illegal. OK, there have been some people who entered the zone surreptitiously, i.e. illegally, rather than through the official checkpoints (the so-called "stalkers"). But that's not Chernobyl tourism proper, it's more "urban exploration" (where illegality of access is often even a crucial incentive). And it's not in the form of organized tours. So labelling these tours offhandedly as (having in the past been) illegal, is quite an accusation, which should at least have been backed up by some form of explanation. I presume that the author may not actually have been on any Chernobyl tour himself, otherwise I believe this accusation would not have appeared in this chapter. The cause of the misunderstanding may simply lie with the media, where reference to allegedly illegal tours in the past can indeed be frequently found. I presume one journalist misinterpreted the 2011 situation with the suspension of tours and everybody else just copied it without checking the facts. Journalistic Chinese whispers, as it were. It wouldn't be the first time. It goes to show how unreliable mass media sources can be for academic research.
Moreover, Stone also claims that Chernobyl tourists are equipped with protective clothing and Geiger counters (which "sing warnings of impending ailments") and that all this forms a somehow significant part of the "thrill" of the tourist experience. Again, that's a claim at odds with my own experience. On the three tours I have been on, between 2006 and 2018, we had neither protective clothing nor our own Geiger counters – only the guide wielded a Geiger counter to point out elevated radiation levels e.g. near old machinery (and only at such extraordinary points did the readings go up notably; most of the time levels were quite low). I know that one company offers tour participants personal Geiger counters as an optional extra (and at substantial additional cost), but that's more for the novelty of it and to serve as a souvenir afterwards. It is not a regular part of the package. However, none of these points are crucial factors in Stone's overall argument – that's rather the philosophical bits discussed above. It's just that his description of the tours is strangely at odds with the reality I was able to observe first-hand.
What about the rest of the book, then? The chapter on celebrity car-crash sites by Gary Best is certainly the best of the bunch in terms of readability and fun. I actually had to laugh out loud several times when reading it. That doesn't happen a lot with academic texts! Its style in general is highly entertaining and lucid. In a way this is the antithesis to Phil Stone's chapter. But that also applies the other way round. Best's text actually isn't very academic, neither in style nor in content. It's more of a light-hearted report – with an entertainment factor helped by the nature of the topic: celebrities and (fading) stardom. But at the end you are left wondering what it actually contributed to the book in terms of its aim. The concept of 'place identity' is not even mentioned once. It also is more about the celebrities in question (James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Grace Kelly, Princess Di) and their stories, than about the "managing and interpreting of dark sites" (= the book's subtitle).
That said, though, several other chapters also fail to pay much (or any) attention to 'place identity'. I have to admit that the term was quite new to me too when I first started research for my contribution, but I hope I have at least managed to interpret and incorporate it correctly and sufficiently. I had quietly hoped that I might learn much more about it through the other chapters in this book. But now I've read it I must say that that has not really been the case. Other than the interpretation of place identity in terms of Foucault's heterotopia in two of the chapters (Stone's and also the one about Pere Lachaise by Toussaint and Decrop), 'place identity' is typically addressed more as an afterthought (if at all). The interactions of places with 'national identity', in contrast, are much more frequently addressed.
Of the remaining chapters the ones I found stood out the most are the ones about Northern Ireland and "Soviet tourism" in the Baltic states, respectively. The former argues very convincingly, and on the basis of solid evidence (statistics, interviews), how crucial the dark "Troubles-related" sides of tourism in Northern Ireland are, both on the demand side, i.e. for visiting tourists who clearly want to learn about the country's turbulent recent past, and also for the benefit of the communities involved. It is thus suggested that the expressed reluctance on the part of the official tourism board of the province to acknowledge and promote this type of tourism should be reconsidered. I second that!
A similar situation is found in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with respect to their Soviet past and its commodification for tourism. Again, it happens only on the basis of private initiatives but is not sanctioned/supported by the official government management of tourism in these countries. Estonia appears to be most hostile to Soviet tourism (or anything Soviet, really), while Lithuania and Latvia are somewhat more tolerant and relaxed. This contrasts with the fact that the author (Brent McKenzie) notes that Estonia actually has the largest number of relevant sites of this type. Incidentally, from a dark tourism practitioner's point of view, this chapter offers several tips for explorations, and I may have to amend my own entries for these countries on this website accordingly … I will look into this, and certainly try to include them when I finally manage to go there myself. UPDATE May 2014: I've meanwhile been to the Baltics and found McKenzie's observations largely correct, especially with regard to Estonia's official hostility towards commemoration of its Soviet legacy. However, I found at least as many dark sites in Latvia pertaining to those time as well. 
A similar reluctance to acknowledge its dark tourism potential can also be found in French Guyana (or 'Guiana' in the official spelling). Again, the dark heritage in this country is not recognized by the official agencies promoting tourism in this remote and wild place. Emphasis is instead given to ecotourism, the carnival and such things. Nevertheless, few places (with the possible exception of Rwanda!) are so defined by their dark heritage as this former penal colony (and not just through the fame of the movie "Papillion"). But apparently that's a past that officials rather want to shake off. For the dark tourist this means the destinations are hard core, mostly difficult to reach and underdeveloped. However, the author points out a couple more sites than just Devil's Island
UPDATE: I've meanwhile been to French Guiana myself and have to say that while Devil's Island itself is indeed undeveloped for tourists (in fact it is off limits) the other two islands of the archipelago are very much part of the country's tourism portfolio (you can even stay overnight in the former prison's officers' building, which is now a hotel), as is Saint-Laurent du Maroni, where you can go on guided tours and see Papillion's cell.
Furthermore I will at some point have to add an entry on the Geoje POW camp in South Korea, as described in great detail in Kang and Lee's chapter. I had never even heard of the place before. But apparently it's a big draw locally, with 800,000 visitors annually!
Other sites focused on in the book are quite familiar. The chapter comparing the Anne Frank House and Auschwitz as two extremes at opposite ends of a scale (especially individual vs. mass death) is one of the best written pieces in the book. It's just that the observations aren't all that new (to me at least they're not).
I learned more about the Nanjing memorial from the excellent chapter by David Litteljohn, John Lennon and Wei Du – the latter clearly the main provider of the raw data and observations … namely 'participant observation': Wei Du actually worked as a tour guide at the site and had undergone special training for it. Unlike some other chapters in the book this thus has the character of a study "from the inside", not just gleaned from books and online media (which is so often the case in academic DT studies).
Yet other chapters are site visitation reports too, some more so that than anything else, but the richness on the on-the-spot insights front is sometimes offset by the much thinner academic analysis, even if it is as excellently written as Best's chapter (see above).
And then there are a number of chapters where I have a problem with the very topic/site even being included under the umbrella of dark tourism. A classic case of contention is that of older battlefields such as Culloden in Scotland. The relevant chapter, I have to admit, made me think about my own reservations regarding battlefield tourism, but I'm still not fully convinced and for the time being remain on Lennon/Foley's side of regarding dark tourism as a phenomenon crucially linked to modernity … not necessarily only post-WWI (see e.g. Wounded Knee), but not going as far back as the 18th century. I'd say that's proper history tourism, but not really dark in the more prototypical sense.
What I absolutely fail to see as even something remotely related to dark tourism is so-called "pagan tourism" at ancient sites in Cornwall. And the relevant chapter about this doesn't do anything to convince me otherwise (cf. also paranormal tourism). I also have trouble with the inclusion of a single murder site (Taupo in New Zealand) that may at best have had its phase as a site of media attention as well as for (re-)forging of the local community. But even some travellers making a stop there for murder-site-hunting doesn't make it a genuine dark tourism site (which would have to mean some commodification, something to see – as well as permanence, beyond a single short "season").  
All in all, the book is a bit of a roller-coaster ride. I've voiced various points of criticism in the above, as a review is supposed to. But let me emphasize too that there are also those highs on the roller-coaster ride, with several quite excellent chapters. The notion of 'place identity' is not illuminated as much as the book's title can make one expect, but from a point of view of dark tourism as such, that's no great drawback. For the non-academic reader, parts of the book may be a bit of a challenge to read, but others, in fact the majority of contributions, are much more lucid than other academic books on dark tourism that I've read. So do give it a go!
With regard to actual sites to visit by dark tourism practitioners, the most inspiring accounts are those of the Baltic states, Northern Ireland, French Guyana, South Korea and Nanjing, China. The two chapters on Australian sites may be useful in that practical sense only for citizens of that country, or at best for visitors passing through the relevant places anyway, but I would hardly consider them worth travelling for specifically (and they are not covered on this website). Much the same is true for the African American roots tourism sites – for everyone else they will have much less significance (again: unless you happen to be in the places, especially in Ghana, anyway). Likewise the narrow focus in Bird's chapter on Canadian-related sites in Normandy, France, will only be relevant to Canadians, and otherwise be only a minor part of a visit to this WWII complex of sites. Yet other sites are, in my view at least, of absolute zero relevance to dark tourists, especially those "pagan" sites in Cornwall (even though it is a fabulous part of the world, I hasten to add – see under Great Britain!).
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