Making a Tourist Town
No one who lives in a tourist town really likes the tourists who visit. They’re guests, but they deliberately ignore the rules: they ignore the inhabitants, they occupy public squares with language the inhabitant must learn in order to survive, they touch and take things without asking. Yet they fill the state’s coffers. Most people that I knew once in Darjeeling—there is a subjunctive mood to my utterance—expressed their derision in whispers. I learnt the hierarchies. Tourists from the south of India were better than tourists from within West Bengal; tourists from Sikkim were like cousins, and one stomached a lot from white European or American tourists for they tipped the most. We behaved hospitably, hiding our smiles when the prices quoted at restaurants were higher than what we knew. We knew why: it is humiliating to have one’s entire livelihood depend upon the leisurely economic moods of strangers; it is humiliating to be an aesthetically-pleasing commodity.
My mother, my father—migrants from Kolkata, straddling the line between guest and host, inhabitants for twenty-five years, but with only a pidgin Nepali to exchange—they don’t know the rules either. I blame them, but it’s perhaps not entirely their fault. The garb of assimilation in a tourist town is complex, one must learn to distinguish between town produced for consumers from the “outside” and the other one for those “inside.” Bourdieu begins his classic anthropological work with such an introduction: “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.” In Darjeeling, you know the outsiders by what they buy.
Tourists’ bad neighbourly behaviour would hardly matter if they had not, like most of those who came of working age after economic liberalization in India, desired different attachments to consumer goods that nominated social mobility. To belong, it was important to understand the aesthetic categories of production, circulation and consumption of goods—likely without ever naming them as such—within a potential “extensive social field of others who share the same registering.”
Within Darjeeling, it was clear to residents who made those goods for circulation that their history and traditions were opaque to tourists. Everyone knows this: those who actually belong to a tourist town, more often than not, also know why and how things are made.
For most of modernity, production has been relegated to the spectre of shadows; art has followed along, regarding much of this production in terms of its finished material, revealing its relationship through advertisement and packaging. Popular narratives about the factory, depending on genre, have chosen to reflect upon the tenuous relationship between the laboring mass and machinery (standardized in its Fordist avatar, alienated in its Taylorist one) and the spectator’s curiosity about it—a curiosity pursued only during out-of-work leisure hours. Horror reveals the dangers of machinery or becomes a zombie narrative of mindless workers and mindless consumers; romance elevates the working hero out of the empty-headed mechanical labor of the factory through love’s transcendental imaginary; propaganda recasts the man and the machine in throes of power, and in between these, are films about labor’s collective expression, either through unionizing or company sports.
For all that, people enjoy watching things being made. With the proliferation of media, especially platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and others, an entirely new genre of films situated in the factory or outlining the factory-process has become exceedingly popular. These films, set in sites of work (like the factory or the retail kitchen) follow the making of an item, chronologically, from beginning to end. Many also focus on maintenance or repair, or showcase unexpected use being made of a familiar product. Like DIY (do-it-yourself) sequences or quick recipe videos, auto-playing as one scrolls down social media, these are announced as “Strangely Comforting” or “Oddly Satisfying” clips. They’re branded by the collective surprise that the precision of machinery or basic repetition of activities could produce a sense of gratification; the content so atypical that it could produce delight. Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, writing on the form in cinema, situates the “process genre” somewhere between the industrial film and the educational film, citing examples such as Chantal Ackerman’s sequences of domestic labor in Jeanne Dielman or Robert Bresson’s sequence of picking pockets in Pickpocket. Skvirsky considers these to be visuals of skilled, repetitive processes, displayed in order. These depict “form-giving activity”: labor is regarded with largess, as both waged work and unpaid effort, both a social relationship within the capitalist mode of production and also a creative activity. Most importantly, the sequence of such imagery produces an affect, or an organized narrative, about labor.
While Skvirsky refers to it as a cine-genre, suited to the moving image in particular, the videos on social media platforms are not films but short clips. They differ from each other in terms of their use: whether as advertisement, click-bait, sponsored content, personal vlogs, or as an accumulation of curated clips in order to drive viewership on platforms dependent on advertising revenue. More bluntly stated, most of the platformed clips have a productive, monetary motive within neoliberal economy.
Labor is replete with anxieties, whether about productivity or about the proportion of work to the wage, all of which capitalism structurally tries to soothe. So determined is the production of satisfaction that during the course of the pandemic, factory videos increased in great numbers in the form of advertisements. Zany companies emphasized the maintenance of air quality, clean surfaces, and masked and sanitized laborers as an added layer of consumer comfort added to these perfectly-tuned process sequences. More than one of these videos have also been used to invite the audience to inspect the conditions of the factory, or in the absence of such monitoring, showcase a worker so attuned to the demands of the job that they work perfectly and without supervision—in either case, attending to the anxiety associated with labor within capitalism, irrespective of whether the job is waged or not (such as doing household chores, organizing, or applying make-up) as long as it performs a socially productive task.
The object of this inspection is, however, not the regulated process but the aesthetic category. According to Sianne Ngai’s formulation, aesthetic categories are related to capitalist production (such as the zany, the cute, and the interesting—minor affects unlike the aesthetic category of the sublime) where the valuation of a form is tied to a socially-determined aesthetic judgment. There can be no aesthetic perception or formation without judgment of some kind. As such, evaluation is a task that inspires some anxiety and ambivalence in the perceiver. For these videos, the spectator is charged with performing their social difference—taste, their worldliness and discernment—through judgments about the produced affective quality. How immersive is it? Is it comforting enough to watch before going to bed? In The Cut, Danya Evans remarks on the “zen-like” quality of Buzzfeed’s Tasty recipe videos. In other cases, the impact of powerful machinery, like the hydraulic press, is revealed in its ability to crush purple Furbies down to strands. Evaluation and judgment are significant aspects of an aesthetic category: we speak our judgments to other people, discussing and debating the merits of what we see, experiencing aesthetics through our relations to other people and their evaluations. Ngai regards this as a condition “that has thoroughly saturated evaluative practice, as if the panoptic monitoring and assessment of the worker under Taylorism were now being offloaded onto a hyperbolically evaluative, judgement crazy aesthetic culture.”
Process isn’t always visualized in cinematic ways. But when it isn’t, its effect is different. Darjeeling, for example, featured early in the colonial imaginary, in company advertisements and reports, as a sanatorium (due to its colder climate in a tropical country and its proximity to Calcutta), as a trading site, and at its foothills, as vast “empty” tracts to use as plantations. The British built post offices, a grand hospital overlooking the hills, a wide mall, a town hall, and restaurants, mostly in classic Gothic Revival styles.
The visual economy of the colonial town, expressed in print media like travel literatures, commercial photographs or art, woodcuts, and even personally commissioned photographs, was negotiated between a site for medicalized retreat and a site of extractive resources like timber or army recruits—the most lucrative, for a while, being the tea grafted into its soil from China. Much of the appeal of Darjeeling was in being an outpost for Britain, and tea was the foremost product that narrated the story of the empire’s glory, and of the “Britishness of a product produced far afield”—whether through Lipton’s commercial photographs, or Bourne and Shepherd’s photo album, An Indian Tea Garden, or on numerous woodcuts. Many of these images depicted the entire process of manufacturing, including hiring plantation workers, plucking, and the mechanized processes of drying, rolling, and sorting. Usually, these production stages were presented in orderly sequence. These commercial images emphasized, through the figure of the white supervisor in every frame guiding the plantation process—with one hand on his hip, or in a pose of knowing inspection—a supervisory role that the audience, the equally white consumer, was supposed to mirror in their own hierarchical relationship to the colony, its claimable products and its workers. The workers in these images, mostly women and indistinguishable from one another in the distant panoramas, are relegated to singular frames, reoccurring only as a mass of laborers, hardly aware of final product of their own labor even in these sequential images. Simultaneously, the images display a sense of pride associated with the machine, and these sequences also introduce and familiarize the spectator with a sense of the power, accuracy, regularity, and efficiency of industry.
Colonial towns and their lucrative products and industrious workers tend to exist as part of a sequence in such stories of the empire’s capacious hunger, forming merely a part of the journey from colony to the metropolis. This colonial imagining has shaped the town that exists today: its numerous missionary schools and its ongoing-military recruitment drives; its art, in brochures and postcards emblazoned with the Kanchenjunga Mountain range (so beloved by the British because it resembled the Alps); its archaic lexicon of words like “kachari” (from the British “cutcherry”); and its tea estates, which though made public after Indian independence, are still run as exploitative plantations owned by out-of-towners, Marwaris or Bengalis.
What is tourism but relics? The town still circulates as a brand name—“Darjeeling teas”—and as a tourist landscape, selling the attractions built during colonialization. Those who live there experience the anxiety of producing and maintaining its value, but those who visit experience Darjeeling as a trans-historical aesthetic category, seeing only a town tied still to colonial and imperial extraction, feeling ambivalently caught between taking and taming an expansive ecosystem. Ngai deftly outlines many aesthetic categories and the social anxiety of passing judgment upon them. While Ngai is writing from the point of view of the spectator, here we can turn the camera around to focus on the producer’s anxiety around value—the need to create the aesthetic resonance that the viewer, trained on a colonial imaginary, expects to feel. In Darjeeling, producers need to create the aesthetic category of “Darjeeling” for tourist consumption.
But tourists just want to collect, so let us do that. Let’s go.
Consider Waiwai. It’s like Maggi; it’s like every other brand of instant noodles—except it’s also fried to a crisp. The packaging (used to be) in Nepali, except for the single wavy, sort of neon-sign-inspired graphic saying “Waiwai.”
The brand came from Thailand, the recipe bought and revised by a man from Nepal in 1984, and it flooded the market in Darjeeling. Nepal enjoys a certain porosity in terms of the commodities it collects from other Southeast Asian nations: there are candies from Thailand, cheese from Bhutan, fashion from the Hong Kong knock-off markets, Indonesian exports, cheaper cigarettes, Chinese electronics, Korean dramas in pirated DVDS, and now, even clothes and trinkets. Pashupati, located at the Darjeeling-Nepal border, has long been the origin point for these products to enter the Indian market, which perhaps explains why Darjeeling (and other northeast Indian states) has been able to acquire trendy products from these parts of the world, or even to set the trends. Over the last decade, Pashupati became the most popular on-land trading point where these goods moved, not just to Darjeeling but also to other parts of the country. It may seem like a node on a supply chain, but Pashupati is a large marketplace that caters to wholesalers, smaller boutique stores, and individual consumers, forming a long line of small brick-and-mortar shuttered stores and tarpaulin stalls along the mountain path. The array is seductive. The variety of mass-produced goods denotes excess.
Waiwai was among the first of these products to occupy Darjeeling’s community, and no household was without a few packets in the pantry. Circa 2000s, people in other parts of the country would demand that a box of the addictive stuff be sent to them via mail. But by 2006, a factory opened within Darjeeling district. The factories mostly employ women who make, sort, and pack each red packet—hastily, for the workers are evaluated in terms of time. If you see the workers in the news, however, they’re protesting for salary hikes or non-contractual agreements.
More factories soon mushroomed and grew in various other parts of the country and abroad. In Darjeeling (and in Nepal too), Waiwai is mostly eaten as a raw snack. It’s sprinkled on top of a tito aloo-dum, a red potato curry with spicy pickle on top, or laphing, a cold mung-bean noodle, for the crunch, or mixed with a local variant of dalle, a hot lightly-pickled pepper, as a chaat. Waiwai is so popular there are copy-cat products, like “Mimi,” sold in two-rupee pre-mixed packets in any store. Over time, it has expanded, and Waiwai now occupies a country-wide (and gradually even global) market through new factories and e-commerce platforms.
It’s not clear whether Waiwai is a tourist delicacy; it is local, yet widely available; branded with novelty packaging, but a pantry item. It’s like every other good in the tourist town, special but not exclusive to the locale anymore. Like Waiwai, everything is available in a tourist town, imported to cater to the foreign tourist, influencing the locals who can afford it, changing the price and market demand over time. It’s difficult to find something hyper-specific to the habitat for the tourist to take home.
If you visit Darjeeling, I can (grudgingly) take you shopping around the tourist town, show you local haunts and help you amass souvenirs, only for you to return to home and find the same products in a corner store—stripped of all aura.
“Where’s the essence?” you ask.
“Nestled back at home,” I say, quoting Walter Benjamin writing on the empathetic nature of the commodity, which explicates upon Marxist commodity fetishism to describe a metaphysical status conferred upon the object. The commodity draws the consumer into a relationship of subjectivity with its particular exchange value. The ritual of acquisition dissolves in that underwhelming feeling.
You’re a terrible curator, unable to tell the essence apart from the affect. You’ve been seduced.
After all, shopping is an activity that only works if the erotic appeal makes you permeable, porous at your limits, willing to gently zip your purse open. So what if the effect wears off soon after?
Are you bored of flirting? Want an end to your sad, tedious, dreary life? Do you want more? Try our new flavours! Waiwai now comes in pizza, spinach, and fish flavours for everyone to enjoy.
Consumerism’s most powerful affect is sensuality and eroticism; its most powerful metaphor is woman. In French, the term for window shopping, leche vitrines, can be translated as licking windows. The department store attends to the woman’s whims; the flâneur follows her around; the (underpaid) shopgirl scandalizes. The public sphere is fatally tantalizing. But, with the increased intertwining of economy and culture in our present moment, it is difficult to say where art begins and product ends—worse, spend an afternoon on Instagram and it becomes difficult to say where the woman begins and the product ends. Glamour, say of the advertisements employing models to sell cars or skincare, intends to produce a glossy, reflecting, finished product, one that ultimately adheres not just to the woman, making her an accessory and replicable object, but also construes immobile relations of gender. The subject is immobilized through the smoke of glamour, hiding the constant social reproductive labor necessary to produce this affect.
Production is not invisible in representations either, and films and shows to that effect are abundant. Especially when set within factories, the primary aesthetic of these media have an opposite dimension, as if working to remove the glamour. The reveal is jarring, discordant, but clearly exhibited. Rahul Jain’s film Machines, set in a textile mill in Gujarat, slowly reveals an industrial process where work is constantly linked to exploitation; the film is set in the darkness of a factory, revealing the impact of labor on human life through high-contrast shots. Other films, like the Business Insider series documenting informal labor in various cities in India, outline the rough process of manufacturing through a narrative voice, depicting environmental impact, a continuation of dangerous working conditions, contractual work, child labor, and a lack of protective equipment. These videos reveal the precarity of the worker, a lack of regulations, and the cheap availability of labor in the country, as if providing the spectator with a glimpse into an otherwise unavailable interior world of shadowy and exploitative production.
However, if distinctions between production and commodification were once distinct, they’re now tangled in each other—the woman is producer and consumer as seamlessly as in a step-by-step make-up video, becoming a product by the end of the transition sequence as well. The process of making a product for consumption is subsumed into the exchange value of the product. Process videos, which follow the manufacture of the product from its beginning to its indelible end, collapse labor into a seamless event. Labor is revealed as whole and continuous, requiring no secrecy or privacy.
The aforementioned Darjeeling tea, handpicked by local workers in these mountains, was counterposed to the exploitative labor of industry. The East India Company officers who settled there vividly reconceived the tea factory as a garden. Their depictions of the process of tea production created an idealized image of better, easier, non-exploitative labor through calm order and bucolic vistas. Process genre images have historically been part of a variety of commercial strategies that iterate this ideal. The actual labor may still be concealed, but every product and object compels the observer, too often as arbiter, to regard its aesthetic aspect in terms of the amount of work that has gone into it, which is also to say that different kinds of labor play a significant role in the aesthetic categories that have valence today.
Skvirsky takes a neutral position in this conflict about the genre and its ideology. The process genre has advocates across the ideological spectrum—whether tending towards the disciplined aesthetics of fascism or a communal artisanal dexterity. For her, the process genre evokes magic in its seamlessness. She claims that labor has again gained a certain enchantment through the cinematic deployment of skill and craft. “This is, in a way, the rhetorical genius of some processual advertising films that tap into the pleasures of craft production and turn something that is not craft production into something that feels like craft production,” she states in an interview. But craft, perhaps, has always been a particularly stylized form to think about production, evoking cultural subjectivities, drawing attention towards the hands at work to tease the viewer, and emphasizing the particularity of skill. It has it all: embodiment, subjectivity, and a position within the world. Craft-work makes the claim that labor can still be unalienated, borne out of simple relations, shared through pedagogic relationships.
But how far can craft be used to describe the image of the production process that circulates as short-form video content? What do you call the image curated by the state or corporate apparatus? Visuals of craft work, even cinemas, are used as a mainstay of state-sponsored tourism, occupying glossy brochures, catalogues, and spawning sites that the visitor can walk through, like craft bazaars or handicraft centres. The travelogue-style video, or the personal vlog, shot by the tourist proliferates alongside it, overlaid with folk music or baroque orchestra pieces—the whole process of visiting, shooting, and uploading such videos are free of cost, legitimized outside property law, for they function as word-of-mouth advertisements. The products are made by hand and sold in gift shops or trade fairs, even packaged as heritage products and shipped globally. The objects seem to have an anti-branding purpose, eschewing labels and attendant names, but attaching instead a sense of belonging, unmediated, to the land.
One example is shot on a handheld by a Bengali tourist at the Tibetan Refugee Centre in Darjeeling, a state-sponsored area that provides housing and occupation to Tibetan refugees. This video is one among many unlicensed acts of personal documentation that burgeoned alongside personal technologies and sharing platforms, taking genre cues from journalism’s interview styles, with odd cuts, and overusing the panoramic effect. The camerawork features a disembodied voice moving around various workshops. In the beginning, the lens turns amateurishly, sharply, onto the faces of the old women working at the loom, asking their names—twice, before they answer. The scene cuts here abruptly. The voiceover historicizes: these are refugees from Tibet who settled in parts of the country during the prime ministerial rule of Jawaharlal Nehru. We are then shown some political paraphernalia, a map or two, and for a long ten-second zoom, a greying blue signboard: “Original site of Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre started in October 1959 with four workers and two rooms.” Much is obscured, such as the precarious position of political refugees in the country today, especially in the wake of the new efforts to officiate belonging, or even the fact that most skill-work and self-help centers run on poorly-waged entrepreneurial schemes or move especially fast/skilled workers to textile sweatshops.
Instead, the effect is of another kind of seamless movement, where the state implicitly lays uncontested claim on indigeneity. This gradient becomes apparent through the prism of tourism where each state sets aside a marketplace, like the Tibetan Refugee Center, where a heterogenous mix of indigenous communities are both inhabitants and workers. As far as public policy goes, they’re allowed to be inhabitants only because they are also workers. Their labor is multivarious: not only involving the exhibition and sale of their traditional art forms as products, like wood carving or making loom carpets, but also through an invitation to the tourist to view the production process of manual, non-industrial, traditional production as part of the experience of buying a product. Along the way, the site of production also becomes a retail space, demanding the sort of labor that is necessary in retail of managing and producing emotions—in this case, of expressing a sense of tradition and identity through their labor. In the video I cite, the tourist hovers with his camera over the women, more visible than they are because of his jerky and quick movements; he pans the camera over them until they smile and narrate a brief account of their precarious life while working the loom. Almost immediately, the scene cuts to a new workshop, the women forgotten.
Labor, in various ways, has always been an aestheticized aspect of the commodification process—through its mystification or absence, an allusion to traditional forms of making, in the idealization of skill and craft, through its entanglement with the commodity fetish, in the revelation of the ambiguous underbelly of production and exploitation, and in terms of the ideologies of mass production. The production process, as a singularly important aspect of labor, is swallowed in these varied imaginaries, of which the process genre is a particularly contemporary event.
Tourist towns are special in that regard; they’re sites where the production is always on display. Moreover, they exist as imaginaries that have been produced and maintained through our very aesthetic judgments about labor. Especially in its continued rehearsal of the question of labor and exploitation, tourist towns juggle representations of mass production and traditional artisanal production. The distinctions, though stark, constantly seek to collapse into one another. In one case, it occurs through the representation of distinguishing one kind of mass labor from another, as in the nineteenth-century garden-like factories of Darjeeling or the slow, tactile, artisanal production of goods. The constant production of an aesthetic of a more rooted, idyllic, traditional world—with its tall mountains, its soothing air, its folk knowledge, wise natives, and many many hotels—is also the aestheticized production of a world of unalienated labor. For the tourist, the town must appear as if untouched by industry, reflecting a world gone by, where the tourist can retire to escape industry as well. The artisanal or local is emphasized even in terms of large-scale consumption, where goods like Waiwai are sold as locale-specific tokens; a mass-manufactured product becomes a locally relevant and necessary commodity, and the site of global commodity distribution is seen as a local bazaar. The process of labor in tourist towns is always uncannily on view, as the place and its inhabitants continually produce and reproduce themselves as an aesthetic. If producing the aesthetic is work, waged or unwaged, then what is labor but an aesthetic?
To craft this effect, the hands at work, the laborer actually transforming material within the frame, must be rendered superflous. This is apparent not just for representations of production processes, but also for spaces conceived as suggestive commodities, constantly alluding to their simpler modes of production. This is the manufacturing of a tourist town, where every subject becomes an aesthetic object, and the value of every produced object is regarded not for those who belong to the communities, but for those who visit.
 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique on the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge, 2015), 6.
 Christopher Jaffrelot and Peter van der Veer, Patterns of Middle Class Consumption In India And China (New Delhi: Sage India, 2008).
 Anna Kornbluh, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (Massachusetts: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 15.
 Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetics of Labor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).
 Skvirsky, 119.
 Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, and Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 11.
 Ngai, 237.
 Leila Anne Harris, Labor and the Picturesque: Photography, Propaganda, and the Tea Trade in Colonial India and Sri Lanka, 1880–1914 (New York: CUNY Academic Works, 2020), 113.
 Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, translated by Harry John (London: New Left, 1973).
 Gertrude Stein, “Flirting at the Bon Marche” in Gertrude Stein, Selections (University of California Press, 2008).
 For more on glamour, see: Judith Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).
 Skvirsky, The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetics of Labor.
 Skvirsky, 117.
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