10 questions with ... Chris Howard

This installment of '10 questions with ...' features Dr Chris Howard, who has just published his first book, Mobile Lifeworlds: An Ethnography of Tourism and Pilgrimage in the Himalayas.

1. How would you describe your book to a non-anthropological audience?

At the most general level, the book is about ‘travel’ or ‘travelling’. It began with basic questions; the most basic being, why do people travel? What do encounters with foreign landscapes, cities and cultures do for people? Why do some people feel a strong pull to travel halfway around the world to walk in the mountains? I sometimes tell people it’s about ‘global mobility’, but this isn’t as immediately recognisable to most people as simply ‘travel’. More specifically, the book is about the intersections of tourism and pilgrimage in the Himalayan region (Nepal, northern India, Tibet and Bhutan). It explores how travel in the region demonstrates aspects of pilgrimage or spiritual quest on the one hand, and tourism on the other. These two modes of travel have been entangled for quite some time, which is why I prefer the term ‘travel’. The other reason is that this is commonly how the people I met and interviewed described what they were doing – ‘travelling’. For many people in the developed world, being mobile has become a way of life and/or an ideal, so the book taps into a newish vein of research on what is being called ‘lifestyle mobilities’. I sought to understand the values and meanings that these people ascribe to their travels, as generated during the actual travel experience, but also before and after through the imagination, media and language. In this sense, I wanted to cover travel as a ritual process made up of different stages: pre-departure, time on the road and eventual return (or further travelling). But considering this in isolation wasn’t enough. I needed to understand how global mobility in general and travelling in the Himalayas in particular fit into the historical framework of modernity and globalisation. 

The book could be called a ‘global ethnography’ in the sense that it attends to the ways in which local contexts are in dialogue with the global. Like many global ethnographies, in fact probably all, there is a critical aspect to Mobile Lifeworlds. Leisure travel reveals a vastly uneven distribution of opportunities and life chances. This is largely overlooked by the globally mobile, who take their freedom to move through other people’s backyards largely for granted. The cultural value of ‘going everywhere, seeing everything’ also reflects our consumer society, and tends to ignore the cultural and ecological impact of global mobility. But the book is not all doom and gloom. There are some very valid aspects of the desire for travel that go very far back in the history of our species. I relate travel to the ‘religious instinct’ or the ‘utopian impulse’; that is, the typically human desire to look over the horizon, to transcend our limitations, to enlarge or understanding of the world and ourselves within it. 

2. Why now?

The level and extent of human mobility today is unprecedented in history. Tourism makes up 10% of the global economy, but this is only one form of mobility. There is also immigration, refugee outflows, moving for work, education and as a lifestyle. I am far from alone in noticing this trend and the late modern imperative to be on the move. In the last fifteen to twenty years, following the wave of research on globalisation in 1980s and 1990s, a ‘new mobilities paradigm’ emerged across the social sciences and humanities. This inter- and cross-disciplinary approach places movement at the center of social life and correspondingly, social and cultural analysis. That life is lived in motion and constituted by the interdependent movements of bodies, objects, information, and capital is a very powerful and epistemologically and ontologically sound way of looking at things. It is particularly important understand mobility now because the Earth is a closed system. I discuss how in capitalist modernity, the world comes to appear as what Heidegger calls a ‘standing reserve’, or what Marc Augé calls a ‘planetary landscape’. Thinking and acting as if the world is simply and passively there for human beings to use and appropriate is a thoroughly anthropocentric and dangerous mentality. This isn’t entirely new of course (the Bible states as much), but since the industrial revolution the scale and magnitude is more threatening than ever. Current levels of consumption are deeply unsustainable, and consumption and mobility go hand in hand. This is why the book ends with a discussion of the Anthropocene.

3. What kind of assumptions do you unsettle in this book?

As I alluded to above, I sought to bypass the conceptual debates on the categories of tourism and pilgrimage. Based on my fieldwork and other research, it became very clear to me that these terms don’t do justice to the multi-dimensional nature of much contemporary travel. People today are mixing tourism with business trips (including academic conferences); they are working online during their travels and keeping up with life at home via the internet and social media. The same goes for pilgrimage. People are still undertaking meaning-centered journeys, but in most cases they overlap with tourism and lifestyle mobilities at various stages. This all calls for broader and more nuanced conceptualisations of travel. Now more than ever, travel takes place within the overall continuity of life, which is increasingly configured by networked technologies. Although it’s not impossible, being really and truly ‘out there’, completely cut off from life at home is becoming a thing of the past. That is what the title of the book points to. A mobile lifeworld is a dynamic situation in which so many aspects of life are tightly interwoven and unfolding on a global scale. This includes non-human objects, elements and forces, so the posthuman project of unsettling the human qua human is present in the book.

I also questioned the common assumption – common among social scientists anyway – that tourism is necessarily a superficial pastime of alienated, middle-class consumers. Social class is indeed important and modern alienation was a prominent theme in my case study, but this is a narrow and somewhat arrogant way of looking at it. Rather than throw everyone in the same basket – mere tourists – I tried to really listen and understand what the desire to travel and experiences of travel mean for people. Of course, consumerist attitudes and dispositions are at work because we live in a consumer society, but in a fundamental way, the desire to expand one’s horizon is deeply human and quite logical. People are curious and restless by nature, so if they find themselves in a situation where they have the opportunity to go and see the world, many are going to take it. When asked why he need to climb Mount Everest, the famous British explorer George Mallory simply replied: ‘Because it’s there’.

4. What drew you to your topic?

The answer is both personal and impersonal, the two of which are connected. Around my mid-20s, I realised that my life, and many people’s lives I was encountering, was coming to be defined by movement. I’m from northern California, but I had been moving around for a number of years already. I went to university in Hawaii, then lived in Japan for several years. I backpacked all over Asia and Europe, moved back to Hawaii, back to California, and finally ended up in New Zealand. While finishing my MA in linguistics at Victoria University and preparing to ‘move on’ (I had job offers in Peru and Morocco), I really started questioning the meanings and implications of the mobile life. I soon found that there was an emerging body of research exploring precisely the type of questions I was interested in. I read Michael Jackson’s Being at home in the world and this made a big impact on me, along with work by James Clifford, John Urry, Manuel Castells, Zygmunt Bauman, and others. I realised that researching travel as a sociocultural phenomenon was not only perfectly justified, but very important for understanding contemporary life.

5. How was your publisher?

The series editors, Ian Reader and John Eade, were an absolute pleasure to work with. Interestingly, it was they who approached me. They had found my PhD thesis, of which the book is based, online, and asked whether I was interested in publishing it as part of the Routledge ‘Travel and Religion’ series they were editing. Needless to say, I felt really honored, and their interest and encouragement gave me a lot of momentum. There seemed to be a lot of organisational change going on at Routledge during the course of the project, and I kept getting handed to new ‘managing editors’. Only, the previous ones didn’t bother to tell me this, so I was often left in the dark for months at a time and had to send a lot of emails to figure out what was going on. This gave me a strong reminder that at the end of the day, publishing is a business, and businesses are made up of employees who are busy and stressed and may not care deeply about the work they do (for quite understandable reasons). Writing a book is such a huge personal investment, but I saw clearly that for managing editors, copy editors and marketing people, a book is more or less just another product to sell. That stung a little, but I tried to stick with John and Ian and focus on the higher purpose of contributing solid scholarship and (some) new knowledge.

6. What’s your favourite part of the book?

The last two chapters before the conclusion strike me as advancing probably the most original ideas and theoretical implications of the book. Both are focused on the status of the body. In chapter six, ‘Travailing’, I approach travel as a form of embodied practice in which actors, conditioned by the habits and routines of their home environment, find themselves out of practice by virtue of being out of place. In a foreign environment, travellers as strangers find themselves a little off balance, things don’t quite jive, their practical sense and tacit knowledge is disrupted. Cognitively, the traveller works hard to adapt, to learn new ways of doing things and acting, to cope and comport to new environmental conditions. Responding as such is a lived demand, experienced primarily on the level of the body and senses. So I use phenomenology and affect theory to explore this process in the context of foreign travel, but it really points to much more basic bio-cultural issues to do with embodied cognition, how we learn and adapt. Foreign travel can be viewed as an experiment – drop a person from one place into another and see what happens.

The next chapter, ‘Being where?’ also focuses on the body, but goes in a very different direction. It explores how mobile technologies and 21st century media are impact travel, and life in general. I develop a concept called ‘inter-place’ to try and comprehend what it means to be physically emplaced somewhere, but to be simultaneously connected to a multitude of elsewheres – to other people in other places all over the world, the relations of which are mediated by internet technologies. At first, I had a hard time believing my own line of reasoning – how could a person be both here and there? But I came to realise, by reading Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, and Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour and other posthumanists, that my sense of doubt had to do with the limited way we tend to think of human beings; as discrete bodies, individual selves, monads. I was really fascinated by Heidegger’s writings on the way human being (or Da-sein, ‘being there’, as he prefers to call them) project their presence through space and time. We bridge distances. For example, gazing out the window across the city, your presence is in a way distributed across this territory; by looking, you send yourself out into the world, which sends itself back to you in mediated form. You can’t have one without the other, which is why Heidegger hyphenates the concept, Being-in-the-world. I applied this logic to the use of mobile technologies during travel and everyday life in what I call, after Heidegger, ‘the age of digital enframement’. Extending ourselves through media and being digitally connected on a global scale is what I mean be being inter-placed. Our life isn’t taking place only right here, but also over there and somewhere between. This idea has and will keep me thinking for a long time.

7. What have you learnt about yourself as a writer as a result of this?

Recently, a student of mine told me that there’s a school of acting whose mantra is ‘trust the process’. This resonated with how I find myself evolving as a writer. I’ve learned to trust that I more or less know what to do when it comes to writing; that I have a grasp on how language and ideas works. After so much practice (and suffering), my system seems to auto-correct and guide itself better than before. This is not to say writing is now easy for me, but it’s easier than when I was doing my PhD. In the past, I would get really lost and entangled in dense webs of language and ideas. That doesn’t seem to happen anymore. I’ve learnt that good writing is the product of clear thinking. I am for clarity of expression by clarity of thought. I’ve also learnt that often unforeseen connections and answers only come in the process of writing. Thus, I have to keep writing and ‘trust the process’.

8. Would you write another book?

Certainly, but I would try to be very systematic about it because of how much time it involves. Relatedly, I would make sure it was on a topic that I found sufficiently interesting and meaningful to write about.

9. What’s next?

In terms of writing, I’m putting the final touches on a few articles and book chapters on everything from the Anthropocene to Michel Houellebecq to neoliberalism in Chile. I have diverse interests. Otherwise, what is ‘next’ depends largely on the direction my career takes. I hope to continue on the scholarly path, but am looking down others. I’m three years out of my PhD, during which time I’ve been on part-time, fixed-terms teaching contracts (aside from a 1 year visiting lectureship at Boston University). This precarious way of life makes it really difficult to have a long or even mid-term horizon; to plan or predict what comes next. Practical and immediate questions such as ‘how am I going to pay rent and live?’ or ‘what am I going to do if they don’t renew my contract in two months’ take precedence in such a situation. This takes a lot of time and energy away from intellectual endeavors and other future-oriented projects. It’s really frustrating, but I’ll fight on for a little longer in hopes that all the hard work and dedication will pay off. At the same time, I’m not so naïve to think that this is how things work; academia is no meritocracy. Luck and politics have a lot to do with who gets a secure position. 

10. What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently teaching a course called ‘Cultures of Oceania’ for Chaminade University of Honolulu. I designed it in the months before it started and it turns out I chose two truly excellent books. The first is Niko Besnier’s On the Edge of the Global: Modern anxieties in a Pacific Island nation (2011), and Jason C. Throop’s Suffering and Sentiment: Exploring the viscidness of pain and experience in Yap (2010). To me, these are works of the highest level of anthropological scholarship. I’ve also just received the late John Urry’s final book, What is the Future?, which I’ll review for the journal Thesis 11. Urry is one of my intellectual heroes and I’m looking forward to seeing what his vision of the future was. I recently finished the journalist William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: a surfing life. I’m a lifelong barbarian surfer, so I resonated a lot with his ‘addiction’ to riding waves and playing in the ocean. It’s very well written, but also a bit pretentious in the way he doesn’t acknowledge the utterly charmed life he’s lead. Finally, I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels from the wonderful collection at the Wellington public library. There’s something mysteriously appealing to me about this literary art form; the way the images and words work together. I can fly through them, but I try to go slowly to appreciate the drawings.