Author Topic: Thesis Complete - Cultural Backpacking in Lands of Desire  (Read 5831 times)

Offline Liam

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Thesis Complete - Cultural Backpacking in Lands of Desire
« on: December 19, 2006, 11:01:50 pm »
hi all, below is the introduction for my thesis that I titled 'Cultural Backpacking in Lands of Desire: The Power of the Colonist and other Adventures'. Let me know if you would like me to send you a copy (via email or snail mail).

Cheers, Liam

The land! Don't you feel it? Doesn't it make you want to go out and lift dead Indians tenderly from their graves, to steal from them - as if it must be clinging even to their corpses - some authenticity.
- William Carlos Williams

The subject of the study that I have endeavoured to undertake is the consumption of Indigenous people by those I have called “cultural backpackers???. I am concerned, anxious even, with the inherent colonial paradigms that inform this consumption. Whereas the forerunners of colonialism had dedicated value in the consumption of Indigenous lands, and invented myths to justify the expropriation of these lands, today we see the children of these colonists designate value to the spiritual resources that Indigenous peoples apparently offer. In the process, colonial assumption produces myths which assures the swift annexation of Indigenous resources. This process relies on the subjugation of Indigenous people's voices and it is this subjugation that denies the possibility of any real dialogue with Indigenous peoples.  Whilst the “New Age??? movement (a problematic term that I will discuss later) might lavish praise on Indigenous people for the supposed “wisdom??? they offer, power remains vested and reinscribed in the colonist. It is for this reason that people who are privileged by whiteness must subvert the dominant paradigms which conceal colonialism and allow for unrestrained cultural theft. 'It is white people' Andrea Smith writes, 'who owe it to us to fight for our survival, since they are living on the land for which our people were murdered'.

I use the film Dances with Wolves as a launching pad for an understanding of some of the dynamics of the cultural expropriation of First Nations cultural property. However this film has more significance than simply this to me. I use this film with a sense of irony, in that of all the films out there that could have inspired my anti-colonialism politics, it was this one. For many years in high school, I looked to Indigenous struggles of North America for inspiration. By pointing the finger at evil people a long way away, I avoided having to look at my own privilege. I was consoled by the fact of not being implicated, by being “exceptional??? by virtue of distance. The only way I can think to explain this is to say that I did not find Indigenous struggles in Australia quite as romantic. This has some implication for this thesis for whilst it is easy for me to point the finger and rage about these injustices that I see, colonialism is a part of me and I too have racism embedded in me. If Fanon is a 'Negro, and tons of chains, storms of blows, rivers of expectoration flow down [his] shoulders',  then I too am an inheritor, only my inheritance has privileged me. If I am privileged, then this privilege comes at the cost of another's oppression.

This study is very much a limited one and as my due date looms, I am increasingly aware of just how limited it is. I am aware of Stephen Muecke's concerns about 'when feminist liberationists might “forget??? race issues, or blacks “forget??? gender issues, or white men “forget??? both'.  I hope that my lack of engagement with the following issues will not be read as “forgetting???, but simply that it was well beyond the scope of this thesis to engage thoroughly in these questions. In this capacity I have not engaged in the gender and class dimensions of cultural appropriation, these are significant issues nonetheless. Both “women's movements??? (such as eco-feminist movements)  and “men's movements??? (such as those preferred by Robert Bly)  err on the side of essentialising Indigenous people in an effort to bolster their troops. So too I have neglected the class dimensions of these issues and have avoided the relationship between race and class. I have not discussed Black-Green (such as Jabiluka) campaigns and the often troubling dynamics which play themselves out in these campaigns. I have tried to weave some understanding of Marxists theories of commodity fetishism into my work, however it has not been an overriding concern of this thesis. Whilst I discuss “cultural backpackers??? I have not explored tourist theory and how relevant it is to this thesis.  I have not drawn comparisons between the expropriation of Indigenous knowledges by, for example, drug companies, and “cultural backpackers???. Whilst I have tried to show the consequence of expropriation, I have not looked at the psychological consequences on Indigenous peoples. I also feel that a study of the representations of whiteness, in the vein of Richard Dyer's White , would be fascinating. Of course, the list could go on. I feel I need to mention these issues because the more I come to “understand??? these issues, the more I realise how much I have neglected and the more I see the need for further examination. What I have produced is neither the be all or, nor end all of these matters.

In my first chapter I discuss fantasy conceptions of North American First Nations people  and how cultural backpackers benefit from self-centred concepts such as “personal healing???: 'the liberatory potential of all this for actual American Indians is considerably less than zero'.  Andrea Smith puts it thus: 'It is no wonder we have such a difficult time finding non-Indians to support our struggles when the New Age movement has completely disguised our oppression'.  I discuss the responses and resistance from First Nations communities to the 'exploiting, abusing and misrepresenting the sacred traditions'  of their people. I will then discuss examples of this expropriation. Relevant to this chapter is that the examples I have used are performances of Native American people in Australia.

In chapter two I look at some of the New Age literature which has been produced that promises to give “primordial???, “ancient??? and “forgotten??? answers to the (white) world's problems. I consider the construction and conflation of concepts of “Aboriginal???, “child??? and “nature??? and how whiteness remains a supreme form of being that transcends cultural difference. In this way, “time??? and conceptions of it, are fundamentally important to this chapter. Johannes Fabian has written that,
Temporalizations expressed as passage from savagery to civilisation from peasant to industrial society, have long served an ideology whose ultimate purpose has been to justify the procurement of commodities for our markets. 
I go on to discuss how Indigenous people who do not fall within the narrow confines of the “authentic??? construct are rendered “impure??? or “damaged???. An important aspect of this chapter is the idea of “ventriloquism??? and the way these writers develop characters that speak the voice of the colonist, in the process speaking for Indigenous people. These writers tend to take it another step and fantasise about “becoming??? Indigenous themselves.

In chapter three I explore “alternative??? lifestyle movements and the manner in which whiteness in these movements is reproduced, negating the actual “alternativeness??? of them. I examine in this chapter the way in which Indigenous people themselves are incidental to the concerns of these movements, despite the use of signifiers and icons belonging to Indigenous people. I look at how “unity???, “connectedness??? to land and “freedom??? express themselves in specifically eurocentric terms. I will then look at the ways in which Indigenous people and in particular Yorta Yorta people are further dispossessed of their land through a process that does not acknowledge lands as Yorta Yorta cultural landscape. Important to this chapter is the need for these movement to engage in real dialogue with Indigenous people, on the terms that Indigenous people decide - this is not possible through the same old colonial paradigms of racial domination.

For the purpose of this thesis I have adopted the term “cultural backpackers??? as a descriptor of the particular dynamic of cultural appropriation that I wish to explore. Many who write on these issues use the term “New Age???, however in the vast array of material I have looked at, few of the purveyors of cultural appropriation consider themselves or their beliefs “New Age??? and few fit easy categorisation. I am interested in the ways backpackers consider their travels.  A few years ago I was inspired by the book The Beach to travel to Thailand for six weeks. The Beach is an example of backpackers in search of an “authentic??? travel experience, in which a group of backpackers discover an island with a beach in the middle of it. It was paradise and the only people who shared the island with them was a gang of Thais and their cannabis crop. So, backpack strapped on, I left for Thailand in search of some kind of “authentic??? experience. I'd arrive in Bangkok and live life on a whim for six-weeks; I ate off the street; I tried to learn as much Thai as I could; I'd go “off the beaten track???; I'd avoid Australians; I'd endeavour to meet Thai people.

What I found when I got to Thailand was that just about all the backpackers I met there planned to do almost exactly the same thing. What I found was that most any backpacker I spoke to was looking for an “authentic??? traveller experience. However, perhaps more important than this was the way the stories told by backpackers were often imbued with colonial fantasies. The stories that are told are more often than not searches for, or findings of, “first contact??? fantasies. The binary between being a “traveller??? and a “tourist??? was a significant part of this because the “traveller??? would seek out, like the colonist before them, new untouched sites, where other backpackers had not been. The old trop of the “first white people they'd seen??? narrative were always a favourite. Tourists were scorned because tourists destroyed the places that were otherwise backpacker-heaven - “tourists??? damaged the purity of place. Indeed this “place??? tended to be a long way away from anything that was “too western???. There were hierarchies of backpackers as well - the most “hard core??? (read: patronising) were the ones who “knew??? and “possessed??? these places the most.

The project of backpacking I found is about self-discovery, indeed “backpacking is a constant negotiation of identity???.  I felt that I found out more about myself in contrast to what I felt I was not. I needed the “Other???. I found when backpacking that the greatest threat other backpackers made was an economic one - if they did not feel validated, if they did not feel wanted, they could threaten to pull their economic support. When you are backpacking, you cannot maintain this performance long, so you seek the familiar. Since language is so often a problem for backpackers trying to find “pure??? sites, there is a tendency for backpackers to only speak to each other. This led me to encounter an extraordinary amount of urban legends in Thailand.  In this monologue, colonial tropes about “first contact???, about “knowing??? the “Other???, about “freedom???, and “personal??? journeys, about both the “purity??? of and being “at one??? with the “Other??? dominated ways of articulating experiences.

The descriptor “cultural backpacker??? is a relatively arbitrary one, for “paradoxically the backpacker might be categorised by the goal of wanting to escape categorization???.  In the same capacity, the variety of movements, clubs, events, centres of activity, organizations, individuals, (etc) cannot be boxed in using descriptors such as “New Age??? (despite historical connections). So I felt the best way around this was to create my own category (i.e., box in) that which does not want to be boxed. What cultural backpackers have in common is the following: they look to Indigenous people for personal fulfilment and offer little back to the community. The cultural backpacker relies on their dominance (racial, economic, colonial) to mine Indigenous communities for precious resources. If the Indigenous community does not show support for them, the cultural backpacker will pull their support. Cultural backpackers think themselves exceptional. Cultural backpackers rely on dialogue between themselves to travel the way they want to travel, resulting in urban legends, myths, and gossip that confirm what they already felt could be true before they even arrived.

What I hope these chapters show is that whilst the cases I have used exhibit some sympathy towards Indigenous peoples, this “sympathy??? is more than likely to be deployed to legitimise the further colonisation of Indigenous people. The reinscription of the power of the colonist is a major theme in this thesis. Colonialism is an ongoing process and strategy of power - “sympathy??? is not enough to destroy it. Colonialism relies on willing participants for its survival and willing participants rely on complacent monologues for self (re)assurance. Until dialogue appears which subverts and aims to raze racial domination to the ground, colonialism will continue to be reinscribed by the children of colonists.
« Last Edit: June 08, 2014, 02:50:20 pm by Liam »