Critical studies that have dealt with travel writing presented a tendency to outline the presence of two opposed narrative strategies. The former one shows an interest in the intersection of travel cultures and the representational orders of imperial power and domination. This strategy follows what we may describe a “rationalist” aesthetic while the latter strategy is sometimes presented in celebratory.
In the 18th century the travel novel points out the more modernist link between travel writing and personal expressivity and its focus upon interiority, individuality and confession reflects what we may call a “romanticist” aesthetic. One narrative register shows an approach toward the acquisition of information, description of detail and an omniscient point of view; another favours sentiment, the minutia of human subjects and the dramas of subjective experience over the scientific certitude of informational orders. Another tendency in travel writing that has become particularly remarkable in the era is marked by decolonization, mass culture, and the cultural order of late capitalism.
This third trend in the genre may be categorized as a literature of “negation”, being placed and described as a way of revolt against the dominant traditions of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The subject of the literature of negation may sometimes resemble the heroic and all-knowing searcher, or the introspective explorer who, throughout the journey, improves and narrates a highly individualized articulation of self. However, when examined in terms of motivations and fantasies, this literature illustrates a sustained effort in order to compensate for a perceived emptiness caused by the specific conditions of modern social life.
This chapter’s aim is to debate the historical complex relationship between travel, social background and tourism. The main interest will be upon narratives of adventure travel which picture an orientation to selfhood that can be described as undeniably unstable and self-destructive. These types of narrative undoubtedly compose the totality of late eighteenth-century travel literature, but they do index a subculture that evolves with the evolution of global modernity and that resonates with recent theory on late modernism and postmodernism.
The value of this approach will be to pay attention on the strategies subjects employ to manage alienation in commercial societies, and to identify an travel’s dialect which is perceived not as an act of nation building, nor even for pleasure, nor to cultivate civility and cultural credentials. The expression of alienation in mass culture by no means equates to the fraternal social movement envisioned in classical Marxist theory, but it may point to the presence of a more prosaic “everyday form of peasant resistance,” to borrow James Scott’s phrase, in commercial societies. This observation is intended not to romanticize popular culture or leisure practice, but rather to underline the potential for mass society to possess a diagnostic function in cultural studies of modernity. Such an approach to mass culture insists upon the fact that modern communities must provide for the remediation of alienation in order to survive, and states the central role that leisure and consumerism play in social reproduction. Yet even as leisure practice serves this function in preserving the social order, it offers its own coded commentary on the constraints of modern social life, and on the pronounced difficulties of self-fashioning in the era of globalization.
For the specific subculture of adventure travel, this critique assumes the form of an attack on what we might call the paternal order, or what Lacan refers to as “the law.” Instead of a direct political commentary, these travel narratives portray a failed identification. Ernesto Laclau draws on recent social and political theory to demonstrate that subjects are never fully incorporated as citizens, that an irreducible gap separates them from the constellation of sources of social authority (Laclau 1994). The adventure narratives do not depict a subject eager to internalize the social order, but rather portray a subject who enacts a dramatic negation of the social field of signification.
These narratives illustrate the unique limitations the modern era poses for the fashioning of selfhood, and reveal a subculture of travel in which self-annihilation emerges as a viable alternative to re-incorporation into the social order.
We will attempt here to discuss and present an instance, in the literature of travel, of the fluid, and overlapping relations that often exist between genres, and more particularly between fictional and non-fictional genres. The fact that travel literature more generally would seem to have a privileged relation to the notion of “adventure,” might suggest a wider application for our argument here.
...(download the rest of the essay above)