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  • Culture on Vacation
  • Mark Goble (bio)
James Clifford’s Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.

Why is it not surprising that the Oxford English Dictionary locates the word “vacationer” as a term used chiefly in the United States? Across the whole complicated spectrum of U.S. cultures, classes, and ethnic identities, it can be said that practically no one “goes on holiday” and only rarely does someone “travel.” Instead, Americans take vacations. The very locution suggests the intensity with which leisure is pursued and constructed in the U.S., the almost violent attachment to small bits of time away from everyday life here in the industrialized nation that keeps its workers at work—across the class structure—for more hours of more weeks than all but a few Pacific Rim nations, which are then of course demonized for making their workers work too hard. At frequent stops along the various ways through modernity that James Clifford charts in his latest book, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, he makes use of his own location as the American “vacationer” to orient himself and us within the many cultures-in-transit with which he is concerned. This is not to say that orientation, once achieved, is readily understood or long maintained. One of the particular strengths of Clifford’s work as “a historical critic of anthropology” (8), whether in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, a collection of essays he edited with George Marcus, or his previous book, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, has always been its willingness to dispense with rigid conclusions in favor of a dialectical flexibility across a heterogeneous landscape that excludes total purity of either theoretical abstraction or empirical experience.

Routes extends and amplifies Clifford’s familiar style of analysis, though sometimes departing from his established topics of interest. “Routes continues an argument with the concept of culture” (2), Clifford writes, but this argument is often carried out on a terrain in which academic argument itself is on a sort of vacation, purposefully avoided in hopes of radically re-creating some of the standard styles of writing in which the study of “culture” is done. As Clifford writes, “Experiments in travel writing and poetic collage are interspersed with formal essays. By combining genres I register, and begin to historicize, the book’s composition—its different audiences and occasions. The point is not to bypass academic rigor.... The book’s mix of styles evokes these multiple and uneven practices of research, making visible the borders of academic work” (12). Routes gives one the sense of critique carried out under conditions of compulsory movement from place to place and from discourse to discourse. And like an American vacation in the strict sense of the term, different historical sites are visited both literally and figuratively. Each of the book’s three sections is loosely organized around standard essays. “Traveling Cultures” and “Spatial Practices” set the terms for the book’s first section, “Travels”; “Museums as Contact Zones” serves as the critical mass for several pieces on “Contacts”; and “Diasporas” outlines what is at stake in the various “Futures” that Clifford investigates in the book’s third and final portion. These “formal essays” inform and contend with other texts that range in styles among the various aforementioned genres. There are several pieces of travel writing that visit such locations as the northwest coast of Canada, the Museum of Man in London, the bustling tourist center of Palenque, Mexico, and Fort Ross, California. And in the practice of “poetic collage,” Clifford visits such texts as John Wesley Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado River and John Steven’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, both works of nineteenth century U.S. travel writing; Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of my Name; and Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. The diversity of approaches and appropriations is in keeping with Clifford’s conception of the book’s deceptively plain yet formidable goal: “Routes begins with [the] assumption of movement, arguing that travels and contacts are crucial sites for an unfinished modernity.... The essays...

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