Power and Representation in Anglo-American Travel Blogs and Travel Books about China

By Calzati, Stefano | CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, December 15, 2012 | Go to article overview

Power and Representation in Anglo-American Travel Blogs and Travel Books about China


Calzati, Stefano, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture


Following Paul Fussell's definition of travel writing as an "autobiographic narrative" recounting a factual "encounter with unfamiliar data" (203) we can affirm that travel books and travel blogs share a certain genre's affinity as they often take the form of "autodiegetic narratives" (Genette 245) recounting real journeys. Needless to say, such bare definition has been repeatedly criticized in particular with respect to the preposterous distinction between fact and fiction. The most radical critique comes from Jan Borm, according to whom travel writing "is not a genre, but a collective term for a variety of texts both predominantly fictional and non-fictional whose main theme is travel" (13). In this sense, I argue that comparing travel books and travel blogs--two differently mediated forms of travel writing--would help cast a new light on the literary status of travel writing. At the same time, an important aspect stressed by Fussell is that travel writing recounts an encounter with alterity. A journey is not a mere displacement in space but, as Carl Thompson notes, leads "to encounter difference and otherness" (4). In this sense, travel books and travel blogs inherently embed, to various degrees, a (cross)cultural potential; they are texts "whose main purpose is to introduce us to the other and that typically demonstrate an engagement between the Self and the world" (Blanton 3). As a consequence, it becomes interesting to investigate to what extent such (cross)cultural potential is medially affected, when passing from the page to the screen.

"Although travel blogs offer destination marketers a window into tourists' travel experiences ... research analyzing the content of online travel diaries is still in its infancy." (Banyai and Grover 268). Echoing this warning, the purpose of my analysis is to look at travel blogs' and travel books' content investigating what is the representation that Anglo-American travellers offer of themselves, as well as of the other encountered. Here, the notion of "representation" does not stand for mere textual description, but it is considered as discourse, that is, as a (mono or multi modal) construction within which relations of power--binding the traveller to the other--can be enlightened. Concerning the texts under exam, this means to characterize: 1) the "position of power" that travellers come to occupy within China-i.e. their knowledge of the country, of Mandarin language, of ethnical, geographical, or historical information, etc; 2) the "power gaze" they exert towards the other-i.e. selfreflexive, critical, politicized, etc.; 3) the extent to which possible similarities and differences lead to a definition of travel writing as a genre or as a literary form; 4) how the position of power and the power gaze are medially affected. As for the notion of "other", it mainly refers here to "Chinese people", but it also inevitably includes the broader context in which they are inscribed and how such context is represented. In this respect, I employ Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis (MCDA) as a methodology for conducting my analysis. In Giorgia Aiello's words, MCDA seeks "to analytically situate the linguistic or more broadly semiotic detail of any given case into its cultural and social context(s)" (462) and thus I address two levels of analysis: language and visual. As for the former, I look at: 1) what is being written (i.e., places, people, historical reflections, personal impressions, etc.); 2) how it is written (organization of the text, style, and narrative strategies). As for the latter, I investigate: 1) the type of images (drawing, pictures, maps, etc); 2) what is represented (subjects, landscapes, the traveller, etc.); 3) the position of the images in the text; and 4) their interrelation with language.

The books I selected are Colin Legerton's and Jacob Rawson's Invisible China: A Journey through Ethnical Borderlands (2009) and Rob Gofford's China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power (2008). …

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