Posted by: Bob Fisher | June 4, 2011

An Irish Scholar’s Challenge to Travel Writers

Reading The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing, was for me like travelling through a dense landscape in which there were many hurdles, detours, and occasions on which I began to question why I was here, where I was going, and whether my guide (the author of the book) was friend or foe.

Even more challenging was the thesis at the core of the book, which quite frankly I found rather disturbing ─ if not menacing ─ because it required that I re-evaluate what I have been doing as a travel writer; and whether I have been telling “the truth.”

The following statement on the first page sets the tone and thesis of the book:

“There may be good travelogues and bad travelogues, but as a whole, the genre encourages a particularly conservative political outlook that extends to its vision of global politics. This is frustrating because travel writing has the potential to re-imagine the world in ways that do not simply regurgitate the status quo or repeat a nostalgic longing for Empire.”

Strong words. But do they make me want to read on? Well, once the challenge was issued I was wary but willing to pursue the matter.

Assessing the source

The book is the work of Debbie Lisle who is a Lecturer in Politics and Director of Cultural and Media Studies in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is also a scholarly work that blends two important disciplines: International Relations and Cultural Studies especially as they apply to the post-1945 world of mass tourism. And as Lisle herself says, “I am specifically interested in how travel writing aligns with the changing debates and practices of global politics.”

One reviewer refers to it as “an important extension of critical international relations… its rigorous demonstration of the way popular culture makes international power possible, through an incisive analysis of how contemporary travel writing reproduces colonial relations [and] is an intellectual journey with the possibility of new political visions at the end of the line.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Lisle’s analysis of the nature of travel writing, it is certainly an in-depth, erudite, and well thought-out book, which may give you reason to re-examine what we travel writers think we are doing, and how we do it. And if you manage to make it all the way through her book without being offended, discouraged, or experiencing metaphysical angst owing to a loss of faith in the métier of travel writing, you may emerge from the experience relatively unscathed, and perhaps even enlightened. But if you accept Lisle’s challenge to engage in critical analysis about the world of travel writing, you may also find yourself, as I did, constantly “in discourse” with the author herself; and thus engaged in a very stimulating and virtual one-on-one debate. In essence, reading The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing, is a corollary experience, not unlike “armchair travelling” ─ as opposed to “the real thing,” whatever that might be.

Travelogues

Lisle’s arguments are forceful and, I must admit convincing. Her scholarship is also impressive, interdisciplinary, and even a bit intimidating; although it is my view that the arguments made are to a greater or lesser extent still in the realm of the theoretical. However, because she too is in the business of theorizing and presenting her “case”; in this regard she uses logic and the scientific method to support her principal thesis. Nonetheless I gave myself permission to play the devil’s advocate, to challenge her in return, and to look for any interpretations of the world of travel writing that did not resonate totally with my experiences.

There really were only two main points that I questioned in the book. The first was her consistent, slightly authoritarian and I suspect mildly pejorative use of the term “travelogue,” which, in her view seems to apply to most contemporary travel writing. I may be dealing in semantics but to me a travelogue is (confirmed by my dictionary of choice) “a film, book, or illustrated lecture about travel.” It is of course a legitimate and hybrid word coined in 1903 by U.S. traveller Burton Holmes, and is abstracted from the word monologue, which is appropriate as is its suffix, both of which connote discourse and a single and singular point of view.

Now that is all well and good, but in my North American culture ─ one’s cultural context being a critical element in the book’s thesis ─ the word doesn’t quite fit with my perception of travel writing because “where I come from,” travelogue has an undertone of something not quite as “serious” as other forms of literature or scholarly writing. I therefore understand why she is using the term to imply a constructed view of reality (and competing global visions); and I also agree with her arguments of the very significant role that perception plays in this profession. By this I (and she) mean perception on many levels, which is influenced strongly by the socio-economic-political context in which each of us ─ writer or reader ─ is situated.

The only other issue I would caution Ms. Lisle to consider is that she makes reference primarily to travel writers from the English-speaking world. Given that I live in a primarily English-speaking (and Western) culture, I am always aware that my use of words also reflects my worldview, and not necessarily everyone else’s. (This is especially true when I write one of these articles for the FIJET newsletter, and have to anticipate whether the words and the ideas will “translate” successfully or not.)

Bias and neo-colonial travel writing

The book makes it clear that the world of travel journalism risks dealing in overgeneralizations, manufactured realities, and even stereotypes, especially in terms of the problematic and conditioned or socialized notion of “foreignness” and the depiction of “the other.” To a certain extent, this is understandable because travel journalism is not a perfect science and always a process rather than an event. And this is what Lisle refers to as “the ethics of difference.”

It is therefore difficult to summarize the position and issues explored in this book of over 300 pages, but I will begin with my aforementioned reference to a worldview, which I think also raises the question of whether what we do as travel writers is in the realm of expression or impression given that we interpret the destinations we visit while interacting with them to the best of our ability, using both our cognitive powers and our affective sensibilities.

On a relatively positive note

In The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing, Lisle does pay homage to the craft (or art?) of travel writing when she says, “Travel writing shapes and influences the way we understand the world. Historically, our knowledge of the world has come to us, in part, through the famous travel stories of figures like Marco Polo, Magellan, and Lawrence of Arabia.” However, she also heavily critiques (and criticizes) the work of prominent travel writers such as Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Bill Bryson, Robert Kaplan, and Michael Palin and, by extension, the rest of us. The suggestion is that we construct questionable worldviews through the fragments that we see, whether consciously or unconsciously.

And to that equation one could add the commercial factors that influence how any travel story is told. Lisle underscores this by saying, “Travel writers still need other places and people to visit and write about ─ which means that travel writers must always engage in the production of difference. The political issue at stake here is how travel writers produce, project, and pass judgement on this difference.” She sums it up by declaring that travel writing has become polarized in its search for difference, as well as re-imagining the past through a “discourse of nostalgia.”

Polarity

Emphasizing that cultural relativism, presuppositions, and even hegemony play an inherent role in what we do as travel writers (and she frequently cites Michel Foucault and his critical work on the nature of power and the relationships between power, knowledge, and discourse ─ the same discourses at work in global politics and travel writing), Lisle seems to suggest that we fall into one of two camps.

In the first group are travel writers who write about destinations with a neo-colonial attitude in which the “story” contains “problematic assumptions about power, culture, and difference.” Early in the book, she criticizes Paul Theroux especially whose book The Happy isles of Oceania she considers “one of the worst books I have read” and which led her to believe that there was something fundamentally “wrong with travel writing in general” in that such “travelogues express political commitments that are barely visible beyond their received status as a minor literary genre.”

Fact or fiction?

Her book actually categorizes most travel writing as “quasi-fictional” and a genre that perpetuates the goals of colonialism and empire-building in which “wider intellectual and cultural debates about global politics” do not occur. She also seems to suggest that travel writing in general is lacking in any real relevance in the contemporary world, and questions how the genre is “coping with the embarrassment of its colonial past while recognizing that there are no undiscovered places left to explore.” Furthermore she suggests that we often impose on our subject matter our own values which we erroneously consider to be universal. Herein lies the critique of ethnocentrism to which travellers and travel writers are both potentially susceptible given that the travel industry is really all about creating globalized cultural products that do not always reflect the true social context but are often in the business of selling “dream vacations.”

Among other issues, she suggests that the neo-colonial form of travel writing still “reproduces a dominant Western civilisation” and she also makes reference to someone named Joanne P. Sharpe who has argued that travel writers (she too might be accused of over-generalizing) “continue to secure their privileged position by categorising, critiquing and passing judgement on less-civilised areas of the world….”, thus, as she suggests, assuming “the superiority of the traveller’s cultural and moral values.” She actually refers to this attitude as “a voyeuristic gaze.” In brief, Lisle states quite clearly that The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing argues that “contemporary travel writing reproduces the logic of Empire through a colonial vision.”

There is a second camp of travel writers, however, who, in her view, recognize “the anxieties , insecurities and difficulties that arise when simple logics of dominance/subordination are reproduced in a context of late twentieth-century globalisation.” And according to Lisle these travel writers err on the other side by making “deliberate efforts to distance themselves from the genre’s implication in Empire by embracing the emancipatory possibilities created by the interconnected ‘global village.’” However, this second group of travel writers, whom she describes has having a “cosmopolitan vision,” also falls into the trap of “structuring tension” between the colonial and the cosmopolitan approach to travel writing.

Whither now?

Travel writers reading the book may therefore find themselves on the horns of a dilemma and feeling “damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” Having frequently written about and referred to the interconnectedness of the world in the 21st century, I found myself questioning whether I impose my own “ethnocentric” worldview when I paint my word pictures of destinations that I have visited.

But Lisle certainly makes us aware of the complex relationship between the two approaches she has defined, which she also refers to as “sometimes antagonistic, sometimes symbiotic, sometimes ambiguous” and her book asks “whether the cosmopolitan vision is merely a blander mutation of the colonial vision.”

Perhaps I should have taken up carpentry.

Applying the principles of media literacy

In one of my previous professional incarnations, I was involved in what we referred to as Media Studies or Media Literacy. I was also involved for a time in anti-racist education. Both areas of study explore how human institutions and behaviour are influenced by commercial forces; including of course the travel media in all its forms.

In our anti-racist education programs, it was always emphasized that bias is neither good nor bad but actually quite normal. Every individual is a product of her or his culture and consequently has a natural cultural bias seeing the world through a cultural lens. There are however both positive and negative biases. There are also unintended biases in which one’s perception and the communication of that perception may be well-intentioned but nonetheless inaccurate ─ or worse, demeaning.

I suspect Debbie Lisle might draw a parallel between such attitudinal dynamics and the “competing discourses” she refers to in travel writing: “But representation is never a simple literary event: reading, writing and interpretation are political acts that involve complex power relations between readers, writers and the social world they inhabit. To argue that travel writing is connected to the world it documents in a more complex way than simple correspondence, it is necessary to examine the forces and structures that shape the text/reality relationship.”

In her concluding statements, she is somewhat more optimistic than she often is in the earlier parts of the book, encouraging us to embrace travel writing as “a profound opportunity” and “to successfully [my emphasis] refute the charge that they are only ‘superficial’ texts that peddle the acceptable face of a continuing colonial mindset…”

She also exhorts us to “acknowledge, address and engage more explicitly with debates over cultural difference….” And she is cautious in advising us to avoid political diatribes, and (this is the moment I think I was waiting for) she confirms that “one of the things travel writing can teach us is that successful resistance often begins at the level of myth, imagination and storytelling.” Above all, she sees an opportunity for travel writers to “comment on, shape and intervene in the ‘serious’ events of global politics.”

Other commercial and corporate issues

One aspect that I think Debbie Lisle has not explored in her book is the extent to which travel media (like most other forms of media) is a commercial venture. This is a global “business” that is also often dominated by corporate media organizations which depend on advertising revenues in order to continue to do what they do. This comes as no surprise to the increasingly media-literate general public.

However, the “culture” of travel media may not be as well understood as news media because it is frequently seen as primarily in the business of “leisure” travel. This in turn can lead to “nice” travel stories that tend not to investigate the “place” and the issues in it to the same extent as news media. News media of course face similar commercial and corporate challenges, especially the “if it leads, it bleeds” factor in determining the line-up. “Headlines” are precisely that; in newspapers especially which visually shout “Read all about it!”

Travel journalists who struggle to pay the rent through travel writing (most survive by doing other forms of writing) are especially under pressure to write to the corporate agenda unless they have been able to establish themselves as independent members of alternative media. Newspapers and magazines actually produce writer’s guidelines and editorial calendars in which they decide in advance what destinations will be featured and how they will go about doing that. This can also lead to a cozy relationship between travel media outlets and destinations, especially travel destinations who for obvious financial reasons must target key audiences. This leads to a number of other challenges for travel journalists. Whereas some media outlets will not allow their travel journalists to accept sponsored media trips, most travel journalists depend on these trips to get the story. They subsequently (or frequently in advance) must pre-sell the story.

Post scriptum: problematic images and imagery

There is an old expression in English that says, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” After reading this book, I now am wondering if we need to amend the aphorism to “A picture is worth a thousand editorialized words.”

In trying to choose images to illustrate this article, I was faced with a secondary challenge of choosing images that “communicate” a true and accurate sense of place. As I wandered through my library of digital images, I began to wonder how many times I have taken photos on location and inserted some editorial comment ─ intentionally or otherwise ─ by the manner in which I “framed” the photograph or edited it? On the other hand, it seems to me that travel journalism or travel photojournalism do not just present a neutral record of what we experienced; rather both are an interpretation of our understanding of the destination. The critical question however is whether we have conveyed accuracy and meaningfulness through our words and images.

In terms of the images inserted in this article, I will let you be the judge.

For a preview of The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing, click here.

See also…

Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing

Stripped Down Microtourism: From Cairo to Cape Town

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