Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost...But Most Are

How to rescue adventure from escapism

"Adventure" seems to be a central tenet of our society, most saliently expressed in obsessions with traveling. Certainly adventure has been a powerful motivator for many throughout history, and led to discoveries that have changed the world. And yet, much of modern discourse around "adventure" seems largely detached from these "transcendental" aims.

The Allure of Adventure

Reason 1: Escape from Banality

Let's be honest here: most of our lives are boring. Partly that is because we have been fed delusions of grandeur and are disappointed when Life cannot meet these impossible expectations. But it is arguably just as much due to the fact our lives are boring; far more boring than they could (should?) be.

I don't have the space or the rhetorical ability to wax poetic about the banality of modern Western life, so I will leave those explorations to the many talented writers who have come before me and had very solid discussions on these issues.

And so, when confronted with the idea that you go to school, then work 40 years, then die, the prospect of adventure, of "breaking free" from this boring, soul-crushing routine, becomes almost irresistible.

Reason 2: Embeddedness confers responsibilities that are not chosen

Our society's obsession with autonomy is prevalent, perhaps even hegemonic, throughout our socialization and discourse. What comes up against this is embeddedness.

We are all embedded within networks we had no choice in. We didn't choose where we were born or who our biological parents are, etc. We never consented to these characteristics that were thrust upon us. We didn't even consent to being thrown into the world in the first place!

And so, it is reasonable that when our society's core value runs up so strongly against the nature of our existence, our society rebels against "nature" itself. The sad irony is that this rebellion is seen as a way of "breaking free" from the boundaries of society, and yet it is this breaking free, this rebellion against embeddedness, which only leads to further alienation, atomization, etc. The state of affairs we might call "rainbow neoliberalism" only deepens.

Adventure as Fleeing Responsibilities

I do not want to make the claim that all adventurers are fleeing responsibilities. They certainly are not. Many adventures are, themselves, duties that must be undertaken for family, country, God, etc. Not all adventures are necessarily noble or righteous but they are not an escape from responsibilities.

But I feel that much of the "travel"-obsessed people today overlap almost entirely with the group of people who are attempting to avoid the responsibilities any kind of embeddedness would confer on them. It is reasonable of course. A society that values autonomy will necessarily lead to "infantilization"/"prolonged adolescence" (periods in time where responsibilities were not prevalent - beyond cleaning the dishes and taking out the trash).

The key difference here (which I will come back to later) between the adventurer fleeing responsibilities and the adventurer embracing duty and the world, appears to be whether one is engaged with the concrete realities of the world or with "travel" as an abstract concept.

The Problem: 'Travel' as consumerist lifestyle-ism

You aren't going to "find yourself" by traveling

Why is it that every single "influencer" on Instagram who travels has the exact same personality and aesthetic?

Perhaps this is because "traveling" does not give you time to truly embed yourself into a community. You only receive a surface level interaction. "Seeing the sights"/"tourist spots" are frequently avoided by the very people who live in these communities. I won't call the tourist-facing culture of a town "performative" per se, but it certainly is not a true reflection of what the town is really like.

Of course, part of that is because in their attempt to compete for consumers (travelers), these towns cultivate very similar images. Consumerism demands a flattening of experience. So it doesn't particularly matter if you visit one place or one hundred.

You can only truly experience a community and culture by being embedded in it. By taking part in its way of life. The norms, customs, rituals, etc. You can't understand a culture, a people, a place, separate from taking part in its way of life.

The problem of course is that "travel" has become a lifestyle, which is only the end result of our focus on autonomy and our revolt against embeddedness. The hypercapitalistic lifestyle-ism takes over everything.

The Frontiers are Closed

One shift between the "ancient" world and today's world is that for 99% of travel, the frontier is personal not transcendental. You aren't voyaging across the oceans in search of a New World; you are seeing a new place for yourself. And as the frontier shifts towards the personal, so too does the rationale. It is difficult to understand duty when it comes to personal exploration.

Solution: The Restoration of Places (or, Rescuing Wandering from Escapism)

So how do we resolve this? How do we take adventure, a reasonable response to the banality of our lives, and make it part of cultivating a good life instead of being an attempt to flee responsibilities and/or engage in a kind of consumerist lifestyle-ism/brand?

I would argue that the key here is the restoration of Places.

What I mean is that our towns and cities appear wholly interchangeable. The fact that most shows "set in NYC" get filmed in Toronto or Vancouver and no one really tells the difference should be condemnation enough of our glass and steel copycat urban spheres. And most of America's small towns, having largely emptied out and been left behind by our uneven economic "prosperity", tend to be depressingly similar (and built around cars, making them alienated wastelands).

What we need is an embrace of local diversity. Each town should be a Place, distinct in character, with clearly defined borders and a community with a coherent history. The local coffee shop should be protected against Starbucks encroaching so people can get coffee for $0.25 cheaper.

Obviously, a full explanation of what recovering Places would take would require a book (probably). I intend to return to this as I discuss good vs bad urbanism in the future. But I do want places to have character. The "flattening" caused by our hypercapitalistic consumerism has led to a lot of locations but few Places. This needs to change. And then, travel can be oriented around engaging with a local community readily, and not just through the consumerist façade these towns put up.