This is the third and final post in a series about the portrayal of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas through the tourist narrative. I’m interested in the favela tourist experience because I believe it is both representative and constitutive of the transformation of favela space and the remaking of Rio de Janeiro as an ‘integrated’ city, a global city of an emerging world power. Tourism is a major contributor to the city’s economy, and a priority for both the government and private interests prior to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. As discussed in part I, tourism, art, media and local-to-global citizen projects can challenge the subjective sociocultural definitions of the favela in relation to the so-called formal city. These continually contested relational definitions stand to redefine the whole of Rio de Janeiro. Therefore we should scrutinize the imagined favela, the favela produced as a commodity, as a consumable experience.
I scoured travel blogs and Flickr photos looking for patterns of representation in the stories of tourists in part II. The digitized and uploaded ‘metanarrative’ of favela tourism is perhaps unsurprisingly oversimplified, contradictory and rife with factual errors. However this is not cause to condemn the tourist for lack of fact checking or due-diligence, because the same stereotypes and misinformation carelessly reproduced by backpacking bloggers are characteristic of local, national and global media. Indeed, the ‘fact’ that Rocinha is the largest favela in Latin America (it’s not) or the notion that whichever favela visited is too dangerous to enter without a professional guide are most likely planted by the tour companies in order to add a sense of danger and spectacle to the experience. And as Andrew pointed out in the comments section in part II, all tourism is voyeuristic; all tourist agencies cultivate spectacle. For now, it’s important to bracket ethical debates; and I want to stress that more important than a detailed account of the content of tourist-produced media is the recognition that the narrative exists, productively, to transform the meaning and experience of favela-space.
Here I am inspired by Asher Ghertner’s work in Delhi . Ghertner builds on the work of Bernard Cohn  who created a number of categorical ‘modalities’ through which to analyze colonial governance. One of those modalities, the travel/observational modality, is useful here. I quote Ghertner at length:
This modality works by providing a narrative for the experience of, or movement through a given space. It creates expectations for how space looks and how it should look. Cohn discussed this primarily in terms of establishing set itineraries or patterns of movement for newcomers to India so that they could easily comprehend ‘India’ through an already narrated experience, but this modality could also be thought of more broadly as training a particular way of seeing. By providing routine, shared experiences of moving in a given space a consistent narrative or set of clear aesthetic markers, this technique makes the experience of space itself the inter-subjective epistemological basis for knowing that space and its features. When this narrative of moving through a seeing space becomes dominant within a population–i.e. when it prompts the viewing public to identity with the state’s vision–then how one sees that space becomes the basis for assessing what that space is, positively, and what it should be, normatively [1, p. 208].
Ghertner is building a framework of aesthetic governmentality in order to explain how the state in Delhi has replaced technical slum surveys with aesthetic indicators to classify and calculate urban space and ultimately condemn slums to demolition. While the situation in Rio de Janeiro and Delhi are by no means parallel, I find the travel/observational modality and the reproduction of normative space through routinized, shared experience particularly pertinent to analysis of contemporary urban space in Rio. Favela tourism, and related industries, is just one mechanism through which this modality functions. Take for example the construction of luxury tourist villas atop the favela Vidigal a few years ago.
Rolf Glaser sees economic opportunity in Vidigal, and he wants the state as an “official partner”. He got his wish. Glaser started his project in 2009, and since the 2011 state invasion, occupation and pacification of Vidigal with militarized police forces, foreign-owned guesthouses in the neighborhood are thriving according to The Rio Times. Glaser’s vision for the favela as a potential real estate hotspot (which as you note he claims will not only benefit Vidigal but all of Rio) is in sharp contrast to the ‘native’ carioca favela narrative. This news segment juxtaposes Glaser’s vision with the academic opinion of a local researcher and historian. Not only does she rightly caution of displacement (gentrification), but she is worried about creating a “false illusion” for the community.
It’s not surprising that foreigners are on the forefront of this transformation. Native cariocas (those from Rio de Janeiro) not only have historical sociospatial prejudices that define favelas as spaces of poverty, neglect, crime and danger, but also firsthand experience of the pitfalls of Brazilian politics, which understandably leads to mistrust and skepticism. For those of you who speak Portuguese, I’m posting a (rather lengthy) conversation between the researcher Bianca Freire-Madeiros and the popular talk show host Jô Soares. Freire-Madeiros has written a book about the production of the favela for global tourist consumption. She struggles to convince Soares that poverty tourism is an unfair characterization of favela tours. Deep-rooted prejudices are present in Soares’ remarks as he criticizes foreigners who “pay to witness misery”. It doesn’t matter than Freire-Madeiros insists that the tourists are often self-reflective and critical (also supported by my own observations) or that there are examples of communities within a favela effectively capitalizing on the market demand and retaining profits. Soares argues that these tourists are exploitative. He calls their interest in Rio’s favelas a perversion because he struggles to see the favela as anything but misery, poverty and crime. This is the contested narrative that the travel/observational modality seeks to mediate through what Ghertner calls aesthetic training.
Favela tourism is one routinized process that trains the viewer how to see. The ‘adventurer travelers’ that explore beyond Copa Cabana may think that they are witnessing a defining moment in Rio de Janeiro, the transformation of favelas, but in reality they are active participants, especially when they publish their experience online through blogs and photos. The state’s attempt to positively redefine the city’s favelas (at least those strategically located) clearly appears in the tourist narrative. The tourism companies are agents of this aesthetic training because they stand to profit from their collusion. Drug lords are replaced with community police officers and favela communities are “liberated”. Violent oppression is discarded in favor of citizenship and public works; sewers are laid, homes are upgraded, schools are built and businesses flourish. The form of the favela remains, but the aesthetic meaning evolves. “Squatters” now pay taxes as “citizens” when “self-built” houses and apartment buildings are “regularized” and favelas are “urbanized”. Illegal electric hook-ups are regulated, and the telephone poles overwhelmed by thousands of electric cables stand as markers of favela peculiarity. Houses stacked vertically up an overcrowded hilltop are precarious yet symbolic of a new world power, rejecting Euro-American ethnocentric models of development and forging its own path towards global greatness. Large-scale art projects envisioned by European designers and financed by decadent European development agencies are avant-garde urbanism, representing progress and novelty.
To those interested in the empowerment of favela communities, this is where we might retake the formerly bracketed ethical debate. But rather than obsessing over the production of the favela as a consumer good or the abstraction of favela tourism, the focus should center on the subjectivity of the narrative. Community activists often struggle to affect the news media because of its proximity to and influence over political discourse. But we stand to gain with a broadened strategy, one that appropriates all the techniques of aesthetic training and promoting a narrative that is beneficial to the local communities rather than convenient only to external political and private interests.
1. A Ghertner. 2010. Calculating without numbers: aesthetic governmentality in Delhi’s slums. Economy and Society. 39(2): 185-217.
2. B Cohn. 1996. Colonialism and its form of knowledge. Princeton University Press; Princeton.