Sunday, July 18, 2010

A New Direction

The initial purpose of this blog was to record my research processes and conclusions as I explored the literary idea of the sublime and its place in our increasingly digital world. I’m returning now with a shift in focus: though I will continue to explore things incredible, unfamiliar and sublime, I will look at these not in relation to modern technology, but to nature in its purest form (which, if you know me or have read certain of my previous posts, you know is my usual preference). For several months I have been researching the idea of ecotourism in preparation for a field study I’ll be conducting in East London, South Africa this coming fall. Throughout this study I will be interviewing adults in East London about their perceptions of ecotourism and its potential to benefit (or harm) their environment, economy and community. Ecotourism is defined as “purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people” (Eva Garen, “Appraising Ecotourism in Conserving Biodiversity”). Ecotourism seeks to give tourists a pure view of nature, unaltered by industry or modern human intervention, while bringing some benefit to local people.

What the tourists themselves are looking for is, essentially, the sublime. They want to experience complete removal from the familiar; separation from the technologies and comforts to which they're accustomed; exposure to the wild, unconquerable spirit of nature. They want to see things they would never encounter in their own environment, which are outside of their own control and comprehension and have not been corrupted and suppressed by the influences of modernity. And yet they also want the safety and control found in professional, recognized organizations and parks, which (along with many other variables) helps create the sharp divide which exists between the romantic ideals fueling ecotourism and the reality of the practice. This is what has really fueled my interest in ecotourism, and what I hope to explore through my study this fall. In my next post I will more thoroughly explain the major issues behind this divide, and the problems and questions that they introduce.


  1. Katherine! Great post=) Your last paragraph reminded me of Wordsworth when he references controled nature. I'm curious, do you think that since these tourists expece the see the natural product, yet want "the safety and control found in professional, recognized organizations and parks" they are really experiencing the sublime? I don't think so. I think the true grandios nature of the sight is marred by the lines which separate the natural from the created. What do you think and how does this change our perception of what is "sublime"??

  2. Thanks Becca, that's a really good question. You're doing exactly the kind of thinking I was hoping for! I think this is an interesting paradox. Few people today are willing to truly face the unknown - we prefer to plan our experiences thoroughly, scheduling what we're going to see, when we're going to see it, and how long we'll stay. The modern traveler knows what to expect in everything they do, because the deepest corners and wildest mysteries of the world are now public domain. So an adventurous spirit goes to Africa today not to discover what's there - they already know what's there - but to see something they know they can find. Say, lions. And since lions are the point of their trip, they want to make sure they really do see them. So rather than wander around the continent looking for Simba, they find themselves a park where lion sightings are guaranteed, they get into a truck with an experienced guide who knows how to find lions, and they see their majestic cats. The journey is clearly not sublime: it's logical, artificial and controlled, entirely devoid of mystery or fear. But the object, the lion, is exactly the same: just as powerful and independent as it would be outside of the park. Or think of the Grand Canyon - it may be within park boundaries, and you may be able to drive your car straight to the edge, but it's the same canyon that has amazed generations, and it still leaves visitors in awe. So I guess the tourist has a watered-down, incomplete nature experience, but they can still find the sublime in the true wonder and greatness that still exists in nature.