Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown could really be something special if Bourdain wasn’t such a schmuck. I know, I know, his shtick is shmuck—and yet I still hoped beyond hope, as I watched the second season of his show which begins in Israel/Palestine and ends in Detroit, that the brave progressivism he shows in his first episode would extend through the end.
Over the course of the season it becomes clear that while it’s in vogue to support Palestinian liberation and tresspass to the other side of the wall—so cool, I guess, that CNN is ok with it—it’s still acceptable in the same moral and televised universe to visit South Africa without having researched it first, to romanticize the diversity of not just South Africa but also New Mexico, erasing the history of colonialism, to visit Japan and only talk about sex work, and to spend an entire hour-long episode on Detroit not only framing it in the way that the characters in the episode directly ask him not to, but also resist showing a single stable business in the entire city.
What kills me is that the episode on Jerusalem was really, really great. He gives the history of the place, uses dynamic maps to show the history of the land, who owned and conquered what, where, and when. I wished he had repeated this use of maps in each episode, especially in New Mexico, where the complex history of colonialism in that state—the Spanish conquering native Pueblos, the Spanish-Mexicans being taken over by the Anglo-Americans coming from the north and east—gets totally romanticized in this multiculti American fantasyland.
And in South Africa, Bourdain actually turns to his table of hosts and asks, “To what extent—is it really a rainbow nation? are things getting mixed?” Then the camera cuts away from the horrified diners to a swarthy white guy who looks like all those almost-white men who populate Motorola commercials now.
The episode about Japan is just violently irresponsible, like CNN deserves a censure from Edward Said himself and I recommend it to anyone teaching the concept of Orientalism, ever. Bourdain spends the entire episode—in Japan! Japan!—talking about sex work and porn, going to far as to eschew actually speaking with chefs and foodies and instead going out to eat with a Shibari artist and the woman he ties up. They don’t have much to say about the food, but that’s ok, because Bourdain doesn’t want to talk about it! Speaking with an artist who draws fantastical pornographic anime, Bourdain comments, “Chefs I know all want to die here. Because we don’t understand anything…I don’t understand the porn here. How is it, you can’t fuck someone with a penis, but you can fuck him with an octopus tentacle?” His host just looks uncomfortable, like he was hoping they could finally just talk about the food.
Bourdain’s refusal to listen, to be educated, to hear the people he is speaking to, is most spectacularly evident in the season’s final episode, about Detroit. The phrase “ruin porn” was invented for this episode, with its long, lingering shots of tall grass foregrounding bombed out buildings, and tracking shots down graffitied factory walls. no sign of the kids who bombed the place.
I’ll grant Anthony Bourdain this: his cinematographers, and possibly himself, understand that graffiti is free artwork that is magnificent for everyone to see. This may be the most progressive element of his show, this acknowledgment of graffiti’s terrific and unarguable artistry.
But Bourdain refuses to listen.
“You wanna take pictures here,” he says of an emptied old auto factory he’s touring. “The place, like so much of Detroit, invites it.” But “the locals hate it: wallowing, like we are, in ruin porn.”
I was struck by Bourdain’s apparent lack of cognitive dissonance, as he describes himself doing the thing a whole city of people has asked him not to do. That is the definition of chauvinism, right? Looking people straight in the face as you talk over them, defining them as they cry out for you not to?
Bourdain calls the people who live in Detroit “survivors” and “refugees” and at one point compares it to Chernobyl.
Finally near the end of the episode a young white chef yells at Bourdain for fetishizing him, for his utter inability to understand why, as he puts it, a hot young chef would leave New York to go to this wasteland, Detroit. “No! Not going to Detroit!” the chef screams, slapping his chest. “Coming home to Detroit!”
But acknowledging Detroit as anyone’s home would entail affirming that people actually live there, and that is too much for Bourdain to do.