A Savage Fascination (Part Two)

In the first part of this special we talked about cannibals, but also more generally about the concept of the Savage, object of contempt and fascination in the 19th century.
We analyzed a fictional tale and pointed out how the indigenous people were often used as pure literary devices to titillate the reader’s voyeurism. The tone of superiority is akin to the one that can be found in many reports of authentic expeditions of that time.

If this approach has disappeared today, at least from the most evident narratives, the presumption of some kind of Western supremacy over the supposed backwardness of traditional societies remains, at least in part. No luck in trying to “dispel the myth that in ‘primitive societies’ there is a subsistence economy that can hardly guarantee the minimum necessary to the survival of society(1)The quote comes from this interesting article (in Italian) by Andrea Staid on so-called ‘primitive’ societies, taken from his book Contro la gerarchia e il dominio. Potere, economia e debito nelle società senza Stato (Meltemi 2018).; another common idea about these communities is that they live in a more ‘natural’ way.
The use of this adjective may seem positive, even a form of admiration or appreciation, but we know that opposing Nature to Culture — one of the tenets of Western thought — often conceptually serves the purpose of distancing (our own) civilization from (other people’s) barbarism.

As we said, those tribes which harbor traditional elements are still the object of enormous curiosity. I myself have spoken extensively about them over the years, although I have tried to describe their customs in a detailed and detached way.
One thing not many are aware of, however, is that today many tours are organized in remote areas of the globe, for those who can afford them; they offer to discover (I quote from a brochure) the “world’s last intact systems of tribes, clans and rituals“.

It is perhaps one of the few chills left in the great machine of global tourism, the extreme frontier of exoticism. Exclusive trips with a more or less marked ethnological background, whose participants, however, are not anthropologists but tourists: to a cynical observer, it would seem the appeal lies in taking selfies with the natives, or in those traditional dances staged by tribe members for the benefit of white men’s cameras.

But one should not make the mistake of judging (or worse, being outraged) on the basis of some photos found on the internet. What are these tours really like, how are they organized, what activities do they offer? What is their underlying philosophy? Who takes part in these expeditions, and why?

Marco is a long-time reader of Bizzarro Bazar, and he happened to try one of these organized tours just this year. After following with interest the report of his adventure trip on social media, I asked him to tell us its implications in more depth. The interview he gave me is therefore a unique opportunity to find an answer to these questions.
(Note: from this point on, all the beautiful photos you will see were taken by him.)

Can you tell us in a few words what kind of person you are, what do you do, what are your interests?

My name is Marco Mottura, I’m thirty six years old and I’m from Busto Arsizio. In everyday life I am a graphic designer, and as a second job (or you could call it a paid hobby) I am a videogame journalist. Video games have obviously always been one of my greatest passions, along with board games, horror movies, crossover music and my beloved Juventus.

I am fascinated by all that is strange, dark and macabre. I am a convinced atheist. I always wear black or gray. Cannibal Holocaust is my all-time favorite movie. I am obsessed with Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

How did you find out about the possibility of this trip?

Actually the fault is indirectly yours, dear Mr. Cenzi. Thanks to Bizzarro Bazar a few years ago I discovered The Last Tuesday Society in London, and after visiting Viktor Wynd’s wunderkammer during one of my trips to the City I could not help but follow the eccentric millionaire on Instagram. A year ago I saw some of the pics he posted while he was in Papua New Guinea to attend the passing ceremony in which the young people of the Sepik River tribes turn into Crocodile-Men. I asked him some questions about such an unusual and bloody ritual, and at the end of our chat Wynd’s reply was: “In 2019, however, I will be returning over here, if you want you can come with me.” He was serious about it, I was too… and so I really left.

What were the travel options?

You had to choose between two different trips, eleven days each, or purchase the complete package (which was far beyond my budget). The first part was focused on nature, with birdwatching and floral-themed excursions, while the second half was undoubtedly more extreme, and culminated with a visit to the very remote mummies of Aseki. No need to specify which of the two I opted for.

What did you expect from this experience? What motivation led you to embark on this adventure?

I found myself in a particular phase of my life, in a moment of deep personal crisis after a period of depression and many other hardships. Following my girlfriend’s advice, I decided to do something for myself and myself only: seeking that extreme exoticism that fascinates me so much (all those Mondo movies I’d seen during adolescence must have left their mark), I decided to go for an adventurous and potentially risky trip. Even in the worst-case scenario, dying in a real-life B-movie plot looked like the perfect ending for the type of existence I’ve always tried to live.

The prospect of escaping from my everyday life, the idea of staring into an unknown and distant universe and experiencing a cultural shock fascinated me. Before this experience I had never even been camping!

Tell us briefly how the journey took place.

The expedition was open to ten people from all over the world, plus the two leaders. The first group leader was the aforementioned Viktor Wynd, the eccentric English dandy and artist (2) I dedicated a chapter of my guide London Mirabilia to Viktor Wynd and his London wunderkammer. president of the Last Tuesday Society, while the other one was Stewart McPherson, a naturalist among the world’s foremost experts on carnivorous plants: an authority in his field, with 35 species discovered and 25 books published on the subject.

Eight of the participants were men, four women: a total of eight British, two Americans, one South African and myself to represent Italy. The youngest was twenty-eight, the oldest forty-five.

We met at the airport of the capital, Port Moresby, and from there we immediately left for the Trobriand Islands. We spent three nights there, then we moved to Lae, then we went by jeep to the region where the mummies are (stopping at Bulolo, an isolated city of miners, and spending one night in a village lost in the mountains). Then we went back to Lae again and then straight to Madang, where the journey ended. All in all we traveled many, many miles — often on almost impassable roads—, took four internal air flights and encountered many different landscapes and cultures along the way, for this nation has the greatest biodiversity on Earth.

What were the experiences and details you found most striking?

It is difficult to summarize such an adventure in a few words: what’s really striking is the powerful sensation of being out of regular time and space. The absolute darkness of night in the forest, the starry sky so bright and breathtaking that it doesn’t even seem like your own sky, the sunset colors, those peculiar huts that can be seen here and there. But also the moments of pure horror — the fishing and quartering of a sea turtle we witnessed as soon as we lay foot on the pier in Trobriand (over there they live on a subsistence economy, what is captured is eaten and used to make crafts), or the giant spider that sneaked into my room on the very first evening — these things immediately threw me into the atmosphere I expected from Papua New Guinea.

One of the most magical moments was seeing the “shark callers” of the village of Kaibola, who within five minutes with a coconut rattle literally drew the sharks to themselves, and then caught them using a simple line with their bare hands. Only a few dozen people in the world are still able to perform that strange and very effective ritual, entering into full communion with the sea to charm their prey. Returning to the shore we were surrounded by a herd of playful dolphins, we ate the freshly caught shark, and then explored an underground cave until we reached a source of fresh water. All within a couple of hours.

Of course, mummies were also an unforgettable sight, as well as the aforementioned night spent in a village in the Aseki region, inside a hut without electricity, without running water or anything else (but with a lot of booze brought along by our English companions!) .

Was there a cultural difference that stood out and surprised you more than the rest?

Definitely seeing the effects of the Betel nut on the people’s mouth condition. Anyone from 6 to 99 years old is accustomed to chewing the kernel of this green fruit, the size of an apricot, mixing it with a mustard plant and with a powder made from burnt shells they call lime. The combination of these three elements determines a strongly alkaline chemical reaction, which stains their teeth and gums with a very intense blood red color… in addition to corroding the entire inside of the mouth, often with carcinogenic results. Despite this, they continue to take Betel nut for its energizing effects: I did try this awful-tasting kernel, and the result was halfway between alcohol and amphetamines.

Another peculiarity lies in the different customs, namely the way of approaching others. An example: for many remote villagers, brushing their teeth is an unusual and incomprehensible practice. While I had a toothbrush in my mouth, I found myself surrounded by some twenty people, all gathered a few meters away to observe my strange ritual: at that moment I felt like an animal in a zoo.

Was there any unpleasant episode during the trip?

Absolutely none. Indeed, the kindness of these people was touching and even sort of unsettling. People literally have NOTHING yet never skimp on a smile, a courtesy, a gesture of good heart. They act out of a pure sense of hospitality, without expecting anything in return: they just seem happy to meet someone different, odd-looking, coming from who knows where, so they welcome strangers in their homes very naturally. People will get in a line just to shake your hand; I’ve seen folks of all ages stop any activity they were doing to chase our van for a few meters.

These are situations that make you reconsider the way you look at the world — and that’s true even for a convinced nihilist like me, who seldom sees any hope for the present and the future: the context here is so different from what we are used to in our ‘civilized’ society.

What was the relationship between your party and the indigenous people you met? What was their attitude towards you? Have you ever felt uncomfortable?

Papua New Guinea is a vast country, in which 850 languages are spoken, and it’s inhabited by many microscopic communities with extremely limited means, but in general it is not as savage as perhaps one could imagine. Even in the mountains of Aseki, in the middle of the jungle, several hours by car from the city, you may come across some solitary hut displaying Coca-Cola billboards or ads for Digicel, the local telecom provider.

Of course, there are still some particularly inaccessible areas, and populations that may have remained somewhat isolated, but it was certainly not our intention to venture in such areas (it would have been dumb, disrespectful and irresponsible). Having said that, it still made us smile to hear the Trobriand inhabitants talk about the ‘2019 explosion of tourism’ as they were referring to a total of seventy people (including us!) who have come from those parts since the beginning of the year.

I was amazed to see how little the locals were interested in our technology: everyone knows what a smartphone or a camera is, and while getting a picture taken still arouses a minimum of interest, no one seemed impressed by our hi-tech gadgets. Ironically, my famous toothbrush interested them far more than a smartwatch.

The only moment in which I felt I was not in control of the situation, happened on our arrival in the Trobriand Islands: we found ourselves on the main pier and all the locals were obviously curious, and ran towards us to see the dimdim (foreigners) up close. All of a sudden we saw ourselves surrounded by a few hundred people who were trying to attract our attention to sell us food and artifacts. I did not actually feel threatened, of course, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least a little bit scared that it could degenerate at any moment. In fact, I think the only tension was in our minds, given the truly exquisite ways of the inhabitants of that province.

Let’s get to the critical part. We talked about it, and you know that I have some issues with this type of organized travels. They seem to be a late-capitalist version of 19th/20th century colonialism: we no longer use muskets and whips, of course, but it is difficult to lift the suspicion that we are still taking advantage of these poor areas, cloaking this exploitation under exotic narratives and selling the “thrilling adventure” package to bored Western tourists. What do you think about it?

Let’s not fool ourselves: extreme exoticism, the element of risk, a fascination for lost paradises (without forgetting the collective image of these places created by horror movies) are all undeniable parts of the equation. I would be lying if I said an alternative destination would have been just as exciting: the peculiar cult of the dead of the Aseki region, the mummies, the idea of getting so close as to touch them, these are all factors that drew me towards this journey. So yes, there is a nuance of dark tourism, no sense in trying to deny it.

Having said that, rather than a squalid revision of some colonialist enterprises, I believe this has more to do with the incurable nature of the thrill-seeker: no indigenous person has been ‘exploited’, on the contrary, I believe that in some cases it was us westerners who got a little ripped off! In order to access the mummy site in the village of Angapena, after exhausting negotiations we had to pay: $3,000 in cash, one power generator, two Samsung Galaxy phones, plus a whole lot of food supplies. In short, the locals are certainly not naive people eager to be exploited, and indeed they seem to have understood very well how to do business.

Well, honestly, it seems to me that exchanging smartphones for the mummies of ancestors is the perfect example of that logic — Mark Fisher called it ‘capitalist realism’(3)”The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2009) in which everything becomes monetizable and even the sacred is turned into a simple product. On the other hand this is not surprising if, as you pointed out, Coca-Cola advertising is present even in the thick of the jungle.
Regarding your presence there, what was the organizers’ approach?

I can assure you their approach was one of rigorous respect for local populations, cultures, flora and fauna (McPherson, a naturalist, was extremely attentive and diligent regarding all environmental aspects): the infamous cannibalism was never mentioned, not even once, and the word ‘cannibal’ was never brought up by anyone. Because it is alright to seek strong emotions, or to be charmed by macabre or bloody traditions; but the reality of Papua New Guinea certainly does not require further fabrications. To give you an example, the killing of a poor pig by smashing sticks on its head was an almost unbearable sight, impossible for us to understand. There was no need to add cannibalism lore to it.

Judging from what you wrote on social media, before leaving you were convinced that the trip could be very dangerous. You even made a will! In retrospect, was there really an element of danger or was the journey safer than you expected?

Flying over those lands is objectively much more dangerous than elsewhere, due to climatic conditions. All in all it was a tough experience, and sometimes physically stressful (although never really impossible); it is certainly not as hard as climbing Mount Everest, but if you opt for a similar destination it means you’re willing to test your limits. As far as I was concerned, I had taken into account every possibility, and was ready to accept even a tragic outcome with great serenity. The excitement in not being sure of coming back was a reflection of some self-destructive tendencies that I won’t deny.

Having returned home safely, I can say that the journey turned out to be infinitely less dangerous than I expected. But then again, Stewart McPherson and his organization never presented the trip as a one-way ticket for would-be suicides. If anything the only true psychological terrorism, fueling false myths, came from much more official sources such as the site of the Farnesina Crisis Unit: Papua New Guinea might be poor and have plenty of problems, but it’s unfair to describe it (like they do) as an ‘all-round dangerous country’, and to advise against any type of unnecessary travel. The reality I have seen with my own eyes is quite different.

What is the most beautiful thing or feeling you came away with?

Such an experience is quite hard to explain to those who have not lived it. I wanted to take a leap into the dark, but in the end I came back with a wealth of emotions, memories, sensations that really turned my life upside down. Certain situations make you come to terms with your limits, kicking you out of your comfort zone, and you immediately bond with those close to you: it is unsettling to find yourself in a universe that is still your own, but is not your own. You cannot come back from such a journey exactly as you were before leaving: some things are bound to get under your skin and affect you. And in the end these feelings are so powerful that you might find you never have enough, a bit like the Betel nut.

I believe this chat provides interesting food for thought: in a globalized world, nothing really remains ‘intact’. Does it make sense to worry about it, or is it part of an unstoppable process of change? Do these tours bring our sensitivity closer to that of distant peoples, thus reducing prejudices, biases and misinformation — or do they perpetuate an essentially ethnocentrist Western vision?

I’ll leave you readers with the task of forming your own idea. For my part I thank Marco again for his kindness and helpfulness (you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram).

Note   [ + ]

1. The quote comes from this interesting article (in Italian) by Andrea Staid on so-called ‘primitive’ societies, taken from his book Contro la gerarchia e il dominio. Potere, economia e debito nelle società senza Stato (Meltemi 2018).
2. I dedicated a chapter of my guide London Mirabilia to Viktor Wynd and his London wunderkammer.
3. ”The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, 2009)

Panopticon

Se siete in vacanza tra Lazio e Campania, potreste fare una visita alle isole ponziane. L’arcipelago è notevole per la sua origine vulcanica, ed offre attrattive naturalistiche uniche. Tra queste isole spicca Santo Stefano, dove ancora oggi si può visitare un’antica struttura architettonica dalle intriganti implicazioni filosofiche .

Sull’isola venne infatti costruito nel 1795 dai Borboni un carcere del tutto particolare, oggi dismesso. Fra i prigionieri più celebri dell’isola ricordiamo Sandro Pertini, detenuto a Santo Stefano in quanto antifascista alla fine degli anni ’20, ben prima di divenire Presidente della Repubblica nel 1978.

Il carcere di Santo Stefano ha una struttura peculiare, che ci porta indietro nel tempo fino al 1791, quando il filosofo Jeremy Bentham ideò la prigione ideale, denominata Panopticon. Un’utopia carceraria, divenuta nel tempo sinonimo di incubo del controllo.

L’idea rivoluzionaria era questa: un numero imprecisato di prigionieri, e un unico guardiano. I galeotti non dovevano essere in grado di stabilire quando erano osservati, e il carceriere doveva avere la possibilità di spiare tutti allo stesso modo, e nello stesso istante. Così, la prigione doveva avere una torretta centrale, e le celle dovevano essere disposte a raggiera intorno alla torre, portando alla percezione da parte dei detenuti di un’invisibile onniscienza da parte del guardiano; quest’impressione li avrebbe condotti ad osservare sempre la disciplina come se fossero sotto continua osservazione. Dopo anni di questo trattamento, secondo Bentham, la mente dei prigionieri avrebbe “assorbito” il giusto comportamento, alterando indelebilmente il loro carattere, e “curandoli” per sempre. Anche una volta fuori dal carcere, la disciplina sarebbe rimasta per loro l’unico comportamento possibile. Lo stesso filosofo descrisse il panottico come “un nuovo modo per ottenere potere mentale sulla mente, in maniera e quantità mai vista prima”.

Le celle venivano disposte a cerchio, con due finestre per ognuna: l’una rivolta verso l’esterno, per prendere luce, l’altra verso l’interno, verso la torretta o “colonna” nella quale si sarebbe collocato il custode. I carcerati, sapendo di poter esser osservati tutti insieme in un solo momento dal custode, grazie alla particolare disposizione della prigione, avrebbero assunto comportamenti disciplinati e mantenuto l’ordine in modo quasi automatico; inoltre la forma carceraria del panopticon prevedeva che ad ogni singolo detenuto fosse assegnato un lavoro – si avviava così il processo di passaggio tra una formula carceraria contenutiva ad una formula produttiva.

Bastò poco tempo, e questo concetto venne ripreso dalle arti, dalla musica e dalla letteratura fino a diventare il simbolo di una vera e propria visione della società – che osserva e giudica, invisibile e onnipresente, ogni comportamento, per soppesare l’operato di ognuno di noi. Come un Grande Fratello di stampo orwelliano, il panottico esisterebbe nella nostra stessa vita quotidiana. Michel Foucault prenderà l’architettura del Panopticon come modello e figura del potere nella società contemporanea.

Oggigiorno diverse prigioni si ispirano in un modo o nell’altro all’idea del panottico, proposta anche per la costruzione di ospedali. Un esempio italiano è il Padiglione Conolly a Siena presso l’ex ospedale psichiatrico S. Niccolò. A Birmingham, in Inghilterra, esiste l’Ashley Building che è stato costruito seguendo le linee di questo progetto. Il Presidio Modelo a Cuba, dove fu detenuto Fidel Castro, è ispirato allo stesso design.

Jeremy Bentham, l’inventore del panopticon, la struttura in cui “tutto si può vedere” (pan-optikon), è ironicamente ancora oggi sotto lo sguardo di tutti… imbalsamato in una teca dell’University College di Londra.