Travels of a Disciplinary Foreigner

We cannot travel abroad at the moment, but we can take ourselves on imaginary journeys in the trails of classic Romantic travellers. Let yourself get inspired with Jan Gustaffson, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen.

Remember that even if adventures may feel like distant echoes from the pre-pandemic time, we are all travellers – still are.

“A culture without travellers exploring the foreign is lacking its fundamental frontier for the creation of its own identity”. This is written in a collective essay in the book El discurso de instituciones, empresas y viajeros by the Nordic-Spanish authors Helene Balslev Clausen, Carmen Cortes Zaborras, and Ase Johnsen. Encountering foreign ground and experiencing the role of a foreigner are fundamental imperatives needed for the maintenance and renewal of culture.

Jan Gustafsson, associate professor at the Department of English, Germanic and Roman Studies at the University of Copenhagen, has been studying travelling and texts written by travellers from the past. He wanted to share with us what travelling can teach us.

You have said that we are all travellers and can learn from travellers from the past. Maybe even academics, in particular those who are travelling across the boundaries of different disciplines and doing interdisciplinary work, can be regarded as disciplinary foreigners?

In a certain way, I believe (maybe with Camus, Sartre, and Kristeva) that we are all foreigners. I do not believe in individualism as an ideology or in extreme individuality as a human condition. Rather, the difficulty resides in the fact that we (the human animals) are torn between our basic biologic and social condition, on the one hand, and our high grade of individual consciousness, on the other. All creatures, I think, share this schism, but for many humans, it is felt as both pain and beauty. So, in a way, foreignness is a condition.

Academically also; as an academic, I (as many) have felt that I was always foreign, exploring without much knowledge or preparation paths known to others, but not to me. These paths become, after some time, more comfortable, more known, and suddenly you find a new one that leads you somewhere else (or maybe not). I believe that being a “disciplinary foreigner” is sometimes difficult, but mostly rewarding and even fun. 

You have written that throughout the 20th century, travel stories switched to a certain system of representation with the forms of consumer travel, marketing, and travel guides, including blogs and social media, which are fragmented texts. These mechanisms encourage travel from the text, whereas until that moment, the travel created the story. So, you are not seduced by modern travel industry, are you? In your first travels to Latin America, how did you document the travel process? 

It is probably true that in the 20th century, the travel industry creates rather fixed systems of representations that for most travellers and tourists mean that the trip, the tour, the voyage is “written” before the actual displacement takes place. But people still do travel, physically and mentally, and they write about it. In a certain way, travel and tourism and its writing have become extremely banalised, but also something everybody – or at least a lot of people – can do. Some do it, we should remember, forced by terrible circumstances, while others for fun. In a way, people have always travelled, and to travel to the hill behind the house can be as exciting (especially for a child) as going around the Earth. For centuries, to read was to travel, both in the very general sense of reading (of any type of text) as mental displacement and in the specific sense of reading travel literature. One of the most important books of travel literature in the Middle Ages (and maybe in the whole of history) is Mandeville’s Travels. Most researchers agree that Mandeville never travelled. But it is great reading and, thus, great travelling. In these times, when travelling is limited by new circumstances (the pandemic), maybe we should learn to travel by reading and thinking again. 

To the question: I am not sure that I consciously documented my first or many of my travels, to Latin America and elsewhere. I did take photographs and notes. Some of these have permitted me to do a book (together with a friend) on Cuba, Memorias de la utopía – Cuba en los 80 y 90 (Aurora Boreal, 2017), which is, rather than a traditional travel narrative, a book of memory based on my experiences from five years of residence on the island. 

You analysed in depth fifteen travel stories written by Danish travellers to Latin America, texts in the traditional sense, which convey the idea of ​​exoticism, the wild, and a particular Danish or Scandinavian idea from the Black Legend. How is Latin America represented in general features in Danish travel texts? How is the Scandinavian traveller perceived in these territories? And how is Denmark perceived in Antilles, ancient Danish colonies? Is there also a sort of black legend?

Oh, these are very broad questions, and to answer them seriously would require a lot of new investigation into each of them – anthropological, ethnographic, sociological, and, definitely, a humanities approach. I did my research almost 25 years ago, and I believe things have changed in the sense that much more people in Denmark and Scandinavia have a more direct experience (personal or second-hand, through media, etc.) with Latin America than in the 1980s and 1990s. So, in a sense, you can say that Latin America might be less exotic to Danes now than then. Of course, there is still a lot exoticism, but also more banal exoticism (the banally eroticised Other, the mulata, the mulato, the Afro-Latin Americans, etc.), you still have the perception of nature (very much an inheritance from Humboldt), and so on. But, as I suggest, I think that more basic knowledge among, especially younger, generations mix with these things. Another aspect is that of “relevance”, particularly in relation to the media (news media). Here, we can see that Latin America is only relevant for bad or crazy stories. And a natural disaster in, e.g., the US, with 50 casualties will be much more relevant to the Danish media than a worse disaster in Latin America (or most of the so-called Third World) with, say, 250 casualties. Compare how Katrina was covered to the hurricanes that only hit the Caribbean. 

The perception of the Scandinavian traveller in Latin America, well, it is difficult to say very much without having done any research on the matter. There are, of course, the ideas of the “gringo”, of someone feeling superior, and the idea of someone who does not understand very much of what she or he sees and experiences when travelling. But these are very superficial ideas, and, as I said, I would prefer not to say much more on the subject. 

Regarding the perception of Denmark in the Antilles, I must say the same. I have not seen any specific research on this problem, but there has been an increasing interest in Denmark as a former colonial power, Denmark as a country with an important post-colonial debt and inheritance, as a nation with a guilt to pay. Greenland is, of course, central to this debate, while Iceland and Norway are to some point also (but very differently) and, in later years, a lot of attention has been paid to the Danish Antilles – slavery, sugar plantations, and so on – both in academia and in the media. The perception is very critical, as it should be in any study on colonial and post-colonial relations. But, I must admit that I do not have sufficient knowledge on the subject, as my attention, due to my academic profile, is mostly on the Spanish-speaking America. 

Do you share the idea of romantic travellers, that memorable trips should have a component of danger?

For centuries, travel writing was an important object of entertainment and, as such, the component of danger was important. I also believe that a lot of people who tell about their personal travel experiences (on social media or simply in conversations or in more formalised narrative situaitons) like to have or add a dimension of danger. But the idea of danger was, and probably still is, closely related to that of otherness. Exoticism includes both eroticism and danger, often specifically related. The Other – often racialised Other (the Oriental, the Black, the Indian) – is, from a “Western European” Eurocentric point of view, very often perceived as both physically attractive and dangerous – women as well as men. Maybe the real “danger” lies in the fact that authentic travelling (even if it’s just by reading or imagining) implies a danger to something that most people believe to be something firm and untouchable, that is, their personal and cultural identity. Such an idea of identity – the idea of a stable ‘I’ – as something unchangeable is, of course, academically and philosophically undermined, but nevertheless dear to most people. Therefore, when you travel, you put this identity in danger. Some travellers travel to find “themselves” or their “real identity”. I think it is different. When travelling, you put yourself and your self (the difference is relevant) aside and, you might lose them. You experience, or should experience, losing the safe place of your “gaze on the other” or the “imperial eyes” (cf. Mary Louise Pratt), and when this happens, both in the real space of travelling and in its narrative, something important occurs: you sense the eyes of the Other upon you, even their questions or laughter or contempt, but also kindness, and you realise you are nobody, a real no one, a human being who exists, but has no identity, no specific value, an actual Stranger. This is terrifying, and my fundamental criticism in my research on Danish travel narratives to Latin America is, in a certain sense, the travel writer’s incapacity to assume this situation. Probably, they did experience, but when writing, most of these (mainly amateur writers) turned back to their gaze, to the preconceived understanding of the Other and to the low level of self-questioning. 

“When traveling, you sense the eyes of the Other upon you, even their questions or laughter or contempt, but also kindness, and you realise you are nobody, a real no one, a human being who exists, but has no identity, no specific value, an actual Stranger.”

The travel as such, what does it teach us? What you think about yourself when you travel in Latin America, is it different to your other self in Denmark?

Maybe I just did answer that question in the former one. Of course, travelling teaches us, or should, about the otherness of humans, nature and culture, but mostly about ourselves. To see, perceive, and know oneself as a stranger – as “Strangers to Ourselves” (Kristeva) – is fundamental. 

Some years ago, you were developing a project of documentary photography related to Cuba. What are you actually researching in Cultural History and History of Art? And in which measure has non-stop travel photography in social media changed this special relation with the spirit of the travel?

I do not research History of Culture or Arts as a disciplinary study. I generally take texts (fiction or non-fiction) or other cultural artefacts (such as films or music) and try to study these artefacts in their own value and, at the same time, in their relation to a broader social context. Photography interests me very much, especially in a philosophical and theoretical sense. As a medium, photography – on its way for centuries, but officially invented in the 19th century – is revolutionary, and it is magic (cf. Benjamin, Barthes, Sontag). You fix a moment of time and space. This is fascinating. And it’s real. No other medium does that. It is true that photography (like most sign production) has undergone a banalisation, not only through social media, but since long before, since the snapshot production in the early 20th century. But this adds something interesting to photography: it is both banal and magic. It is great art, but also the most trivial medium. 

The success of university education,  according to classic conceptions at least, is to become the place where local citizens learn to think as universal citizens. From your view, is this wishful thinking a reality, as applied to Copenhagen?

That is another hard question to answer. Although I am, by nature, skeptical, I would say, yes, to some point. I changed a lot as a young student of Spanish Philology. I see a lot of our students change and extend their horizons. That is beautiful. This does not mean that I am not critical of my own, and in general the University’s, academic practices. And maybe it is not possible to be a universal citizen – a lot of people would deny that. But, to open up to otherness and to realise oneself’s basic otherness – as when traveling authentically, as I proposed – is a little step toward a kind of universality.  

Illustration: Mercedes de Luis Andrés

Some voices in the Danish industry sector have critiqued the humanities, arguing that these studies are not in demand in the workforce. We need to argue in favour of humanities not only as disciplinary studies, but also as a positive force in societies. Let’s do it. What would you say in favour?

I think we have at least two, but actually many problems at stake here. The first is the direct question and its answers, as posed here and as posed and answered during most of my academic career and probably much longer than that. I refer to your question as such and accepting the premises, I would say, this is easy. How in the world would a globalised capitalism survive if we did not understand each other, the Other, linguistically, culturally, historically, etc.? Most of what leaders and other “important” people do is, actually, applying humanities, sometimes badly, sometimes well, but mostly without knowing it. In this world, the necessity of humanities is not decreasing, but as it is difficult to measure its direct economic compensation, it is seen as not worthwhile, not “value productive”. 

But a second view to this should be deeper: who are business leaders to question humanities? I think that a more important role of humanities is not so much to support business as to criticise and question business and politics. To me, business and politics are secondary aspects of life, only related to work. The real life, as Marx’s French-Cuban son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, argued, is to enjoy life, to be wiser, to learn, to live and understand. Here we have humanities. An engineer or business leader who is nothing but that is a poor human being. They must also be human, read, think, travel mentally (rather than physically – very often business people travel physically without mental displacement). Humanities is, and has always been, the fundamental human approach to the world. Everyone is, and should be, a philosopher, a linguist, a theologist, etc. But we also need people to be experts on these things. 

You mention in your essay that all individuals travel to know who they are, and the journey is part of a larger process that contributes to the establishment of an identity, of a “we” that needs “others”. How does your own identity reflect a Scandinavian man when you are abroad, and how you perceive Scandinavian collective identity is represented abroad? What role does travel marketing play?

In a way, maybe I already answered this question. More than to find one’s “real self”, I would say that one finds one’s no-self or situation of none-self – a dissolution of the self. When I travel (and I must admit that I travel physically less and mentally more, as I become of age and physical travelling adds to climate problems), I therefore try to be less of a Scandinavian or “man” or “Dane”, and simply a body – if not a nobody, a body in displacement, a voice talking to others, ears hearing what others say. 

Regarding the “Scandinavian collective identity”, I believe this to be more of a political and economic question (of high importance, of course), that is in international politics, economics, etc. In this sense, I hope that Scandinavia can go on having a positive image of responsibility, peace-seeking, and so on, as represented in some politicians and even some business people. I am not sure this is always the case, and I am somewhat skeptical about the sometimes self-enhancing ideas of Scandinavians in this sense. But hopefully there is something to it. 

In your essay, Danish travellers travel to leave the boredom of their daily routine, the cold and the darkness of the Nordic winter, but they remain in the role of observers. Nordic travellers in Latin America, according to your text, often get together in a group. Is it an effect of ignoring the language? How important is it that the traveller decides to learn, even vaguely, the language of the place?

To learn – even a little – of the language of the places you visit is fundamental. Not only to understand the place and what’s going on, but also as a way of showing respect and humility, which is the only way to travel. The traveller who applies English globally is a poor one who will learn very little and have much more difficulty being accepted. However, the tendency of using English everywhere also goes the other way around, when local people, in their eagerness to show openness to tourists, talk to them in English. This can, of course, be fine, but it is a part of general impoverishment of language and culture, i.e., of humanity and travelling, where Lonely Planet provides the experience beforehand, and this experience is known by both the traveller, who seeks it, and the local, who offers it. 

You mention the importance of being a traveller who is included in the story, as a traveller who also discovers him- or herself. From your experience traveling in Latin America, is it important not to be left out as a mere observer?

My own experience has always been to meet people, especially when I was younger and maybe better at this. To share a moment, even when talking to someone who attends you in their small business, a fellow passenger in a collective taxi, and so on. Loneliness is part of this. I like to have moments of loneliness, but also points of meetings and collectiveness, when I travel. And, as I have said now so many times, you should not just observe, but accept to be observed, to be an object, an almost no-subject. 

Mercedes de Luis Andrés is Lecturer at the University of Burgos and a freelancer journalist specialised in culture and the Nordic countries.

Main image: Caspar David Friedrich, detail, public domain