Orientalism and the Cultural Constructions of Modern-Day Mass Tourism


John Nightingale | Society & Culture | Theory | August 5th, 2019



Orientalism is the most extreme form of cultural imperialism as it completely restructures the colony culture. Orientalism is arguably one of the most important theories in post-colonial study. This essay will unpack and explain the nuances of the theory first developed by Said in his famous work "Orientalism," published in 1978, then later expanded upon in "Culture and Imperialism," published in 1993. In short, Said sought to explain how, through the relationship between knowledge and power, cultural representation was used to create the discursive binary between the "east" and "west" which placed the west as superior (Gilbert-Moore, 1997). The construction of knowledge was a form of cultural hegemony which facilitated the colonising of the mind, which is argued to be a prerequisite for colonial control (Burney, 2012). While formal colonisation has ended, it is argued that Orientalism is still widely seen in modern time. The second part of the essay will explore how the tourism industry has been plagued with culturally constructed narratives that seek to homogenise host countries through repetitive reduction (Bruner, 2005; Anderson, 2005; Shivani, 2006). By exploring discourses, the binary and otherness present in tourism is akin to that of colonial times (Carrigan, 2011; Bruner, 2005).

Said follows a post-structuralist model in an attempt to dismantle the binary established by imperial discourse; he tries to highlight the power structure that establishes the Occident as superior to the Orient. Said drew upon theorists of his time to construct his theory. One key theorist he drew inspiration from was Foucault; in particular his study of power (Gilbert-Moore, 1997; Lester, 2003). Foucault said that power and knowledge are intrinsically linked in that the creation of knowledge was an exertion of power (Foucault, 1991; Lester, 2003). The "Orient" was constructed through the systematic learning, discovery and practice from the west (Said 2003; Burney, 2012). Here it is seen through an imagined geography, the east was produced through travel writing, novels and poetry, which sought to bring the east into a realm of understanding (Abdul Janmohamed, 1985; Mostafanezhad, 2013). What is important to remember is that only the west was producing knowledge, the east was not able to produce literature and art about the west. This illustrates Foucault's idea that knowledge is power, in which the west has more power and therefore is producing more knowledge, thus directly demonstrating the dominance of the west over the east. The example Said (2003) gives is, Cromer referring to the Orient as "lethargic and suspicious", and "devoid of energy and initiative". This was the only representation that the people in England received of the Orient at this time (Said, 2003). This creation of "false knowledge" along with other examples of literature and art contributes to the social construct of the "east", in which meaning is ascribed onto people and place (Crang, 1998, Ashcroft, 2008). It is seen that the "real east" is reformed into the "discursive east", meaning that the east is now conformed into the imagination of west, in which the "discursive east" will always be the submissive (Moore-Gilbert, 1997).

The second key concept that Said draws from is Foucault's theory of discourse. In discourse, power is both constituted and exercised through the flow of knowledge and representation to produce objects of truth (Moore-Gilbert, 1997; Lester, 2003). Here it is seen that what is the truth, or rather the constructed knowledge, can be linked to who has power, in that, power controls what narratives are formed or blocked (Young, 1995; Bruner, 2005). Rather than the discourse forming and reforming knowledge through passive powers, it is seen that knowledge was first constructed by specialists, often bourgeoisie men, then the knowledge becomes fact and is later reinforced by society (Said, 2016; Lester, 2003). This explains how the view of the Orient as timeless and unchanging was upheld; the idea was produced and reproduced within the Western mind (Crang 1998; Burney, 2012). Western discourse representations of the Orient have been homogenised and totalized reducing the Orient to tropes and stereotypical tropes being produced as "western knowledge" (Moore-Gilbert, 1997). This in term reinforces the binary between the Orient and Occident (Said, 2003).

Orientalism through the construct of knowledge and Orientalist discourse has resulted in the binary between Orient/Occident; creating the contrast of developing/developed, promiscuous/noble (Ashcroft, 2008). Kissinger wrote of binary opposition which viewed the Orient as "lagging" behind due to the Orient retaining a pre-Newtonian view of the world as " internal" whilst the superior Occident views the word as "external" (Kissinger, 1966; Crang 1998; Erikson and Murphy, 2017). Through the production of knowledge through literature, the Occident was placed as dominant over the east, placing the western world at the centre and the Orient in the periphery (Maddox, 2014). Cromer said that Orients "acts, speaks, and thinks in a manner exactly opposite to the European"; this illustrates how the binary was represented at the time (Said, 2003). The process of ordering is said to control all aspects of the discourse (Wodak, 2005). Gramsci adds to this, with the theory of cultural hegemony, which explains how dominant ideologies are controlled by the hierarchal class to maintain control (Lears, 1985, Crang, 2013). This is done by assigning the subordinate the role of subject which in turn creates "docile bodies" which conform to normalisation (Foucault 1998; said, 2003; Woodak, 2005). The creation of the subordinate also removes their ability to speak. This silencing effect is seen by the spread of popular writing of the era which "writes out" the Orient (Aitchison, 2001). In doing so, this reinforces the Orientalist discourse as the "true east" narrative is blocked and western knowledge prevails (Young, 1995).

This cultural hegemony is an extreme case of imperialism which colonised the mind of the Orient. Creating the viewpoint of the west as superior compared to the subordinate and silenced east led to the creation of thought, in both the Orient and Occident, that the east needs to be colonised and controlled (Lears, 1985). It is widely accepted that the process of Orientalism allowed the colonisation of the east. This is expressed by a quote from William Blake "Empire follows art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose" (cited in Said 1993).

Orientalism is seen today in tourism, the power dynamics in the representation of the "east" mimic that seen in colonial times. Before delving into the theory, it is important to acknowledge that tourism in the modern day is laden with power inequalities from its first appearance. Mass tourism was spurred on by neoliberal organisations post-World War Two as a way for welfare states to develop (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2006; Carrigan, 2011). International financial institutes offered exploitative loans in exchange for adopting tourism development strategies (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2006). Britain helped establish the "Atlantic Charter" which sought to develop the Caribbean tourism industry, however with vested interest as the UK traded 50 destroyers for a 99 year lease on seven Commonwealth islands (Carrigan, 2011). The tourism industry is also plagued with a "leakage" in that money is commonly siphoned off from the host state following a similar pattern to colonial times (Carrigan, 2011).

It is seen that tourism seeks to commodify culture by packaging "the other" for consumption by the west (Behdad, 1994; Jamerson, 2017). This commodification of tourism is spurred on by western corporations by the production of knowledge about the host country (Mostafanezhad, 2013). What is important to understand here is that the tourist destinations are always written about, not written by; and in doing so the "native" population is silenced. Using the Caribbean as an example, their image is created through western lenses by western corporations and tourists who define the islands by comparing the differences between "east" and "west" (Shabanirad, 2015). This is done by the tourist's gaze which explains how images and stereotypes of the country are distorted and homogenised by tourists to bring the world of "other" into comprehendible reality, much like Cromer in colonial times (Katan, 2012, Urry and Larsen, 2011). This distorted reality is furthered when portrayed in the media due to repetitive reduction, seen in travel writing such as "Lonely Planet" and review sites such as "TripAdvisor" (Andreasson, 2005; Simpson, 2005). On a larger scale companies reproduce this "distorted reality" through brochure discourse by using the same rhetoric phrases and imagery to sell the destination (Carringan, 2011). Holiday destinations often evoke an image of idyllic landscapes, inscribed with emotions and feelings; this is a result of imagined geographies of the place caused by the culturally constructed narratives (Hottola, 2014). This is a result of advertisements summarising an entire nation's culture into a set of descriptors (Hottola, 2014). In doing so, it plays out a "racist fantasy" in which the "east" is homogenised and given the role of inferior; seen as feminised and backwards in relation to the western world (Carringan, 2011). A prime example of this is Thomas Cook, who advertise "Africa Holidays" as cultural experiences in which you'll be "greeted by tribal elders" and "experience life the way locals have lived for generations" (Thomascook.com). This echoes the narrative that Africa is primitive and backwards, positioned beneath the west.

Many tourists seek an "authentic experience" which Mkono (2012) critiques as upholding the "Eurocentric grand narrative". Seen through Bruners (2005) theory of "questioning gaze" travellers question if constructed sites and performances are true representations of the culture. However, by seeking "authenticity" the tourist is merely projecting their pre-understanding of place (Maddox, 2014; Bruner, 2005). Tourists that search for authenticity uphold an imagined geography of a romantic, unspoilt place which is "frozen in time" and in doing so they "define India according to their own needs" (Korpela, 2010). This upholds a binary between India and the west, which defines India as ascetic compared to the consumerist west (Maddox, 2014). The creation of binary through tourism places the west as the "norm" and defines India in comparison to the west, in that it views Indian culture as a retreat from the normal, hectic western life. In doing so they deny agency of the local population by ignoring their modernity (Philip, 2009; Korpela, 2010; Maddox, 2014).

So far, it has been seen how writing and media have created a binary between the consumerist west and the homogenised east. In order to fully illustrate Orientalism in tourism, it is important to understand how the writing and portrayal of the east affects actions of the host country and the tourist. This can be explained by exploring how narratives have produced a discourse, which in turn gives meaning to space and establishes accepted practices and norms (Bruner, 2005; Carringan, 2011). Firstly, it is seen that cultural hegemony occurs within tourism; host countries often find themselves forced to adopt the culture imposed upon them (Lears, 1985). Looking at Bali, the country is dependent on tourism and therefore upholds the enforced stereotypes (Carrigan, 2011). Secondly, through media, tourists are exposed to the imagined geography of the place, which affects their expectations of the place, which in turn affects how they experience the place (Gregory, 1999). For example, tourists are controlled where they go when they travel within a place. Travel writing "stages" places constructing them as culturally significant and in doing so signposts tourists from sight to sight. (Gregory, 1999)

To conclude, Said's theory of Orientalism highlighted the power structures that create the binaries responsible for positioning the west as dominant over the subaltern east. It was seen that through literature, narratives were created by the Occident about the Orient, which resulted in the creation of "western knowledge" which was imposed upon the Orient through cultural hegemony. Using Said's theory, this essay has highlighted how the same practices used in imperial discourse are being used in modern mass tourism. Through advertising, travel writing and reviews, cultures in host countries have been homogenised and limited to a set of descriptors. It can also be seen that this practice is intrinsically linked with power through the vested interest of IFIs and corporations based in the west. Lastly, it is important to highlight power structures so that they can be dismantled.


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