The Tourist, the Flaneur, and Self-Reflexivity in Travel Literature: A Theoretical Enquiry (funded by National Science Council).

Project: Research project

Project Details


The “tourist” and the “traveler” is a pair of important binary opposites in travel culture. The former is imbued with such derogatory meanings as superficiality, routines, and mass consumptions, while the latter implies adventures, individuality, cultivation, and growth or enlightenment through traveling. This distinction is more a matter of how an individual traveler makes sense of the meaning of one’s own travel than of objectivity reality. In his sociological study of tourism, John Urry has put forth the famous theory of the “tourist gaze,” emphasizing the centrality of visual consumption in contemporary tourism. To Urry, the flaneur roaming the nineteenth century Paris prefigured the modern tourist. Yet in the fields of urban studies and literary criticism, critics have made use of Walter Benjamin’s theory of flanerie to promote a kind of positive way of urban spatial practice – wandering and observing the familiar cityscape with a critical eye, catching the ephemeral events in the guise of leisurely stroll in defiance of the capitalist logic of hard work and addictive consumption. Urry also points out that ever since the 1980s, the tourist industry has gradually turned from standardized Fordist mass tourism toward much more diversified and individualized post-Fordism. I claim that the recent surge of in-depth, personalized travel guidebooks are indeed part of this post-Fordist, postmodern tendency. One also sees such traits as the blurring of the distinction between “high” literary travelogues and “low” travel guidebooks, and the rise of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity in travel writing, such as the appearance of meta-travel writings. My concern is not “postmodernism” per se but contemporary travel writers’ self-reflexivity regarding the history of travel and travel writing (including the recent generic changes). I argue that contemporary writers must be keenly aware of the rise of in-depth guidebooks and related TV programs. In order to retain their authority or reliability, they feel an urgent need to go beyond the “mere tourist” and compete with the travel “professionals.” In this light, I wish my theoretical discussion of the various meanings and practices of tourists and flaneurs might offer a new perspective to study how contemporary writers travel and write about their travel experience. My particular focus will fall on how travelers (whether labeled tourists or flaneurs) watch and make sense of what they see while walking the city and with what purposes or attitudes.

Funding Source: Non-HK - Others^^
Effective start/end date01/08/0731/07/08


  • tourist, flaneur, travel literature, self-reflexivity, generic development


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