Tourism, Mass Media, and the Making of Visual Culture in the Greater Yucatan Peninsula

Article excerpt

THE QUESTION THAT CONCERNS us here is the critical evaluation of contemporary film and video representations of the greater Yucatan Peninsula as a repository of stereotypes derived from colonial discourse and as manifestations of the culture industries, specifically the mass media and tourism based in Cancun and points south. The images and audiovisual narratives generated by the culture industries are conceived as a constitutive element of the visual culture in the region and beyond. PiSunyer refers to the link between tourism and mass media in general and more particularly in the context of Quintana Roo: "Tourism continues to be influenced by the longing to experience Otherness,' a desire heavily dependent on the global circulation of mass-mediated messages" (227). This link is echoed by other observers of tourism generally, who argue that it is symptomatic of a postmodern environment in which the boundaries between institutions and cultural forms have been blurred (Urry 84-5). Although numerous authors allude to the importance of mass media representations of the region (Pi-Sunyer; Hervik), there are no systematic accounts of it in the literature, much less any attempt to relate it to the historical legacy of modernity in Mexico and to the visual culture of the Maya, who originally inhabited the region and have negotiated modernity from the margins.

My intent is to highlight the centrality of film and video as a constitutive element of visual culture, in order to ascertain their implications for governance and hybridity, as well as forms of contestation derived from residual Mayan visual culture and an emergent critical ethnography. More specifically, the questions I wish to address are as follows: How did the visual culture in the greater Yucatan Peninsula evolve? How has it reproduced colonialism, modernity, and postmodernity? What are some of the implications of visual culture for governance and subjectivity? These are difficult questions to pose, much less answer, and in most cases I can only propose a framework for future research.

Colonial Legacy and Mimesis

The colonial encounter generated a discursive subtext that continues to define contemporary space, visual culture, and forms of social being. This discursive subtext orders the world into dichotomies that essentialize the other and facilitate governance by accentuating geographical and cultural boundaries (Agnew; Duncan; Geddes Gonzales, "Icon, Conquest, Globalization"; O'Tuathail). It allows for the contemporary framing of nature as an idyllic playground for tourists and of the Maya as exotic remnants of a majestic past to be simultaneously desired and disavowed. The result is a symbolic order that is consistent with the geopolitical and cultural aspirations of empires past and current forms of transnationalism, a hierarchy of signs that naturalizes the accessibility, malleability, and subordination of the margins of the world system.1

Consistent with colonial discourse, one of the central tropes that structures cinematic narratives is the dichotomy between desired "noble savages" and disavowed "barbarians." Homi Bhabha refers to this as the fetishistic quality of colonial discourse in which the Other is simultaneously recognized/desired and disavowed:

It is an apparatus which turns on the recognition and disavowal of racial/cultural/historical differences. Its predominant strategic function is the creation of a space for a "subject peoples" through the production of knowledges in terms of which surveillance is exercised and a complex form of pleasure/unpleasure is incited. It seeks authorization for its strategies by the production of knowledges of colonizer and colonized which are stereotypical and antithetically evaluated. The objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction. …


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