Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Reliving off the Swamp: A Cajun Tourism Commodity

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Reliving off the Swamp: A Cajun Tourism Commodity

Article excerpt

"... [T] he very idea of culture has been developed and deployed as a means of attempting to order, control and define 'others' in the name of power or profit."--Don Mitchell, 1995

"Cajun is a big deal. Cajun sells. No matter what you have, it sells itself."--Swamp tour guide, 2010

In what ways do ethnic cultures "sell themselves" and how is this transaction facilitated? This paper addresses the process by which an "other" ethnic culture is objectified and commodified for tourism, identifying the roles of the state and the individual ethnic producers. In particular, I show how the idea of "living off of the swamp" is used to create Louisiana Cajun ethnic commodities for tourists. In the Atchafalaya Basin--a massive network of flooded forests, lakes, and marshes in southern Louisiana--a past Cajun cultural ecology is mythologized as swamp subsistence despite the fact that most swamp products were created for markets external to the region. This myth is relived by those who produce Cajun swamp culture for tourism. Through analysis of tourism experiences, interviews with industry professionals, and examination of Louisiana state tourism-planning documents, I have found that the notion of swamp subsistence is an integral element of a Cajun "heritage ecology" narrative that is reproduced both in representations of Cajuns for tourism and in the practices of those involved in "selling themselves."

The theoretical basis of this paper follows Don Mitchell's assertion that the idea of culture is manufactured by those who profit from its consumption. The objectification for exchange or commodification of ethnic culture for tourism appears to be a process that is particularly contradictory. While producers create ethnicized products as an expression of uniqueness or provinciality, in doing so, they cede control over their cultural expression to the globalized market and state. This inside or outside contradiction in the process of cultural commodification for tourism has been explored by many scholars in geography and anthropology. Anthropologists have outlined this process particularly in reference to indigenous peoples (Volkman 1990; Nesper 2003; Bunten 2008; Wallace 2009; Lemelin and others 2012). Geographers have shown how ethnicity can be intertwined with the production of place (Hoelscher 1998; Oakes 1998, Torres and Momsen 2005; Qian, Wei, and Zhu 2012). Theoretical works have informed and commented on the features that unite these sorts of studies (Urry 1990; Rojek and Urry 1997; Milne and Ateljevic 2001; Stronza 2001; McGuckin 2005; Bianchi 2009). Ethnic tourism studies have for the most part come to one of two conclusions (or both). The more postmodern and poststructural perspectives identify how ethnic groups, whose members are often socially marginalized, are empowered and able to use tourism as a means of preserving the face of ethnic power despite external demands (Esman 1984; Oakes 1998; Jamison 1999; Ishii 2012). Marxist accounts claim that in the end, tourism and globalized capitalism as a whole dictate the differentiation of cultures (McGuckin 2005; Bunten 2008; Bianchi 2009; Fletcher 2011). In response to Raoul Bianchi's call for a more materialist-critical tourism studies, I will show not only how the discourse of swamp subsistence is constructed, but also how this discourse is relived by those whose labor creates tourism (2009). In the end, the romanticized idea of Cajuns living off the swamp is used to attract tourist's dollars and to privilege the production of some commodities over others.

After explaining the methods used to arrive at these findings, I start by broadly unraveling some scholars' perspectives on the production of cultures and tourism. Then I interrogate the role of the state in the commodification of culture before moving to the specifics of this Louisiana Cajun case. After giving a history of Cajun swamp ecology, I show how the "heritage ecology" of swamp subsistence is used by the state and those involved in the commodification of Cajun culture to attract visitors and as an essential trope of the swamp-cultural experience. …

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