Barthes on travel guides

Roland Barthes article The Blue Guide unpicks the thinking behind Hachette’s travel guide of Europe in a way which made me rethink some of my own attitudes to travel and photography. He argues that only the picturesque is included, with an obsession with mountains and rivers, which he attributes to the 19th century ‘cult of nature’ and puritan emphasis on physical effort.

Climb every mountain; ford every stream. Follow every rainbow, till you find your dream. (From The Sound of Music)

Alongside this, he muses on the emphasis on monuments, particularly grand buildings, churches and other religious symbols. Until one has ticked off various (largely Christian) religious buildings on a visit, one cannot say that you have “seen” it. Conversely, people are mentioned only briefly, and generally as stereotypes.(the Basque fisherman, the Scottish highlander, etc.). Barthes attributes this to authors trying to capture the “essence” of a place in as few words as possible  Also, there is often an underlying cultural narrative which promotes a particular view of historical events, which may not be objectively correct.

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The net effect of all this is to make the people who inhabit the places, both historic and modern, a mere afterthought to the buildings and scenery, and as such Barthes argues that the Blue Guide becomes an agent for blindness, leading visitors on a tour only  of the bourgeois history of Europe, and ignoring any other narrative. Current thinking argues that we should attempt to reintegrate the histories of women, and minority groups into this historiography in order to get a more rounded understanding of a place’s history.

This article was epiphanic for me. I’ve been wondering for years about why particular locations are seen as so iconic when visiting a new place, and why people feel they need to collect images of them as souvenirs, so they can tick them off a list of experiences. The media is full of articles such as 1o places to visit before you die, which feed this hunger  and encourages people to travel.. By going along with this narrative, one misses out on learning about the location’s people and their lives, which are, after all, the heart and soul of the place.

References

Barthes, R (1972) ‘The Blue Guide’. In Mythologies. Available online at: https://monoskop.org/images/8/85/Barthes_Roland_Mythologies_EN_1972.pdf (Accessed on 11 July 2016)

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8 thoughts on “Barthes on travel guides

  1. schirgwin

    I’m about to head off north to my touristy birthplace. I was going to do a pre-commencement I&P square mile while I was there consisting of pictures of the stuff that doesn’t exist any more (my school has been eradicated more effectively than Carthage for example), but now (having read and enjoyed this) think that I should contrast that plan (my demolished heritage) with the official, preserved heritage stuff that also fills up the square mile I have in mind…

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    1. Holly Woodward Post author

      I don’t have any Hachette guides, Catherine, but have had a rummage through the Rough Guides and Lonely Planet guides that I have, as I was wondering the same thing. They are aimed at a younger, more adventurous audience and do offer a wider range of experiences than churches and mountains. They also seem to give more historical background, and look at the out of the way places that backpackers might find interesting, which is a positive step forward.

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  2. emmapocock

    What interests me is why we travel? It’s easy to blame travel guides for our limited perspective (and I agree with most of what Barthes say) but what do we actually want to see? I want to see monuments and churches – probably that partly is conditioning but it is also about seeing the extremes of human endeavour. It isn’t about religion as such – in Europe I would visit churches, in Turkey I visited mosques – it is simply a fact that the most stunning buildings have been built in the name of God (however one perceives him)

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    1. Holly Woodward Post author

      I take your point, Emma. For instance, I wouldn’t want to visit Barcelona without seeing the Sagrada Familia. I suppose what Barthes was saying is that there is more to a place than those historical icons, and that concentrating on them offers a very limited understanding of the place. For me, personally, visiting somewhere new is about looking at the light, sounds and smells that make it different from other places. But for someone else it might be the people, or the food, or the history.

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