Previous Next
Find more tips like these in the curriculum of the Travel Writing program at MatadorU.
Commodification

com·mod·i·fy (kə-mŏd’ə-fī’)
tr.v. com·mod·i·fied , com·mod·i·fy·ing , com·mod·i·fies

    To turn into or treat as a commodity; make commercial: “Such music . . . commodifies the worst sorts of . . . stereotypes” (Michiko Kakutani).
[ commodi(ty) + -fy .] com·mod’i·fi’a·ble adj. , com·mod’i·fi·ca’tion (-fĭ-kā’shən) n.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Codification

cod·i·fy (kŏd’ĭ-fī’, kō’də-)
tr.v. cod·i·fied , cod·i·fy·ing , cod·i·fies

    1. To reduce to a code: codify laws.
    2. To arrange or systematize.

cod’i·fi·ca’tion (-fĭ-kā’shən) n. , cod’i·fi’er n.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

CODIFIED LANGUAGE is always interchangeable.This is why I feel I can invent the following example (just interchanging a few words) and still sort of claim it as the sentence I read recently at [name withheld] magazine:

Art lovers know there’s nothing that tops a free exhibit on a warm summer day.

I sent this sentence and some of the following notes to the editorial team at Matador, asking if anything about commodified language was brought up at TBEX (it wasn’t).

From there it evolved into this piece.

One point brought up was the potential for misunderstanding and/or conflation of different kinds of travel writing, each with its own intended purpose and audience.

In other words, I should delineate who this article is for.

With this in mind, here’s a second sentence, also slightly changed. This was part of a travel narrative submitted recently:

My friend and I were spending our last full day in Hawaii being driven between one natural wonder to the next, a dizzying amount of pounding waterfalls and volcanic craters to stare open-mouthed at.

Now that these two examples are out there, here are the theses of this article:

  1. Travel writing – regardless of form, intention, or intended audience – is often codified in a way that can have negative consequences.
  2. This codification is predicated on describing place, culture, and experience in terms of commodity.
  3. This creates a cyclical effect: Because codification enables a “common frame of reference” for people, it can cause them to describe place / culture experience not as they perceived it, but as they believe their experience is “supposed to sound.”
  4. This kind of “commodified thinking” is the real “issue” as it can ultimately change / influence one’s perceptions of and relationship with place.

Notes on the sentences above:

1. Codification begins when a narrator suggests something without actually declaring anything or referring to anything that exists in concrete reality (concrete reality being the real world in time/space). For example, in the first sentence, “art lovers” is only a suggestion, not an actual group that exists (as opposed to, say, “the sophomores at Savannah College of Art and Design.”)

2. Therefore the key to recognizing codification is carefully examining the narrator. Oftentimes the narrator in codified writing uses a kind of “detached” / “objective” voice. In straight up marketing / ad-copy, this detached voice is usually combined with a kind of “casual 2nd person” point of view, such as “Enjoy miles of perfect white sand. Stroll the beaches at sunset.”

The opposite of this detached narration would be what we call at Matador first-person transparent narration, which simply declares what the narrator sees, feels, hears, perceives in concrete reality, and, in turn, the thoughts, ideas, emotions, that this occasions.

3. Codification functions by reducing what might otherwise exist in concrete reality into abstractions. For example, in the first sentence, the narrator could’ve started by mentioning someone he knew who loves art. Instead, he mentions “art-lovers,” an abstraction. In the second sentence, the narrator could’ve mentioned real places that actually exist. Instead he turns them into the abstraction “one natural wonder after the next.”

4. These abstractions often lead to fallacious or illogical constructions. For example, in the first sentence, how can an abstraction (“art lovers”) actually “know” anything?

5. Codified language invariably contains cliches (see #1, “suggesting something without saying anything.”) In the first sentence, the narrator writes “there’s nothing that tops.” In the second, the narrator uses slightly subtler cliches–but still language that has been codified as “how travel writing is supposed to sound” – “dizzying amount of”, “pounding waterfalls”, and “stare open-mouthed.”

6. Codified stories are often set up as comparisons and/or value judgments. These are almost always fallacious as they exploit readers’ emotional triggers (“what do you mean x is better than y?!) but have no actual context / place in concrete reality. In the first sentence, the narrator is essentially saying that an exhibit is the “best.” But according to whom? To him? If so, then this sentence could only work by declaring that transparently instead of couching it as a kind of quasi-fact.

This usage of value judgments (particularly superlatives), is commonly exploited by travel publishers (of which Matador is included) who “rank” place / people / culture in a non-ironic way. I feel like superlatives both as general practice and as specific marketing (such as claiming to produce “the best travel stories / writing”) tends to exacerbate / propagate the codification of travel writing.

7. Codified descriptions “exist” outside of time. One of the most subtle but powerful elements of codified language is the way it operates outside of temporal context so that events, ideas, or description just seem to “float” – as in the first sentence, on “a warm summer day.” Even in the second sentence where the narrator does mention it’s his “last day in Hawaii,” there’s still this effect of him just being “driven around” and that what he perceived didn’t really occur in “real time.”

This removal of temporal context is a way of obfuscating (either intentionally or unintentionally) the narrator’s relationship to place.

8. The “I-get-what-you’re-saying-factor:” Of course I “get” what the narrator is trying to say in both of these sentences. That’s the whole point of codified language–instead of actually reporting unique perceptions of unique places or experiences, writers are essentially relying on (as well as propagating) a common frame of reference that works something like “when I say a ‘art-lovers’ or ‘a dizzying amount of waterfalls’ or a ‘warm summer day’, people are going to automatically “get” what I’m saying.”

The problem however, is that even though these things may be “known” generally, the specifics such as place name, natural history, local culture, are all obfuscated.

9. The relationship between codification and commodification: Codification is an extension of looking at place, people, culture, or experience within the limited context of its “value” as a commodity or resource. This is obvious in the first sentence. In the second, the commodification lies in the way the “natural wonder(s)” are reduced to things to be observed and in this way “consumed.”

10. Potential negative consequences of commodification and codification: People in the travel industry leverage the same codified language / suggestions of “natural wonders” and/or “memorable experiences.” The traveler / consumer then buys the “promise” of “natural wonders” and/or “memorable experiences.”

In turn, the traveler / consumer may then evaluate place / culture / experience based on the level to which it “delivered on the promise” of providing the scenery / comfort / experiences.

If the traveler / consumer writes about the experience in a codified way, then he/she essentially “completes the cycle” of commodification, serving as a kind of advertisement or marketing (even if the “review” is negative or it isn’t in the form of a review at all) for the commodified experience.

*Learn more about how to become a travel writer — check out the MatadorU Travel Writing course.

Travel Writing Tips

 

About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • http://www.bottomofthesoul.com Oliver Allen

    I think we unfortunately live in a society in which commodification (your spell-checker has underlined that word!) has become expected, if not standard. Not sure if it’s because we (both writers and readers) are lazy, or we’re inclined to make our lives easier. Regardless, I very much appreciate this analysis, David! I’ll do my best to avoid codification in my writing – I already avoid it in my reading.

  • http://www.carolinanomad.com Spencer Spellman

    Excellent piece David and unlike any other I’ve read on travel writing. As a Philosophy major, this hit right to the soul.

    I will say, however, that Spud Hilton at one of the panels did hit on this briefly. He mentioned removing words like “perfect” out of travel writing. There’s no perfect place. Eventhough it may seem that way to you the traveler, you’re guaranteeing something that can’t be guaranteed.

    • http://miller-david.com david miller

      thanks for the kind words and the clarification spencer.

      glad spud brought this up.

      there is something in the example you give however, that evinces a fundamental kind of commodification even as spud is ‘trying to help.’

      [of course i'd have to read the actual notes for a more precise examination, but this is just going off your example.]

      saying that ‘you can’t guarantee a place will be perfect’:

      who / what is that ‘looking out’ for?

      it seems like it’s not the place itself, or even the traveler him or herself, but the traveler / consumer’s ‘experience’ of the place

      essentially, that’s what’s being ‘guarded against’ – the traveler / consumer having something unpleasant break the ‘perfection’.

      which presupposes a commodified view of place, a ‘relationship’ to place based on consumption.

      therefore to say ‘you can’t say perfect’ is just a more strategic or ‘perfected’ kind of commodification.

  • http://itchyfoot.tumblr.com Sara C.

    I just got back from Peru, and one of the things that was frustrating about my trip was that I felt like everything I read beforehand was kind of bullshit. This same sort of commodified boilerplate, “Cusco is a treasure trove of mind-blowing cultural wonders”, blah blah blah.

    It’s not a lie, per se, because, sure, Cusco is chock fucking full of history and archaeology and art and culture. But that sentence doesn’t really tell me anything new; in fact all it really does is restate common cliches I’ve gleaned from TV or maybe the Childcraft Encyclopedia (anybody remember those?). It works as “copy” because it confirms our vague notions of what a place ought to be like, thus creating positive feelings and maybe nudging us towards buying that ticket. But it doesn’t work as writing, because it doesn’t actually tell us anything. In which case, why bother?

    • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

      I think that’s a good example, Sara. And to me it suggests another reason why we writers so often get caught relying on these meaningless abstractions–they’re easy. How much easier is it to come up with this “one-liner” about Cusco, figuring the reader will “get it,” instead of doing our job and supplying concrete, experiential data? We can’t discount laziness here.

      • http://itchyfoot.tumblr.com Sara C.

        I think laziness is a part of it, but I think another part of it is that so much travel writing is done either directly as a way to sell something (that’s what magazines exist for, like it or not), or with the less directly consumerist goal of inducing wanderlust in the reader.

        Using real lived experience that may or may not correspond to anyone’s preconceived notions is much harder than just playing to the cliches, which is where laziness comes in. But when you rest on commodified language, you also avoid the possibility of failing to inspire.

  • http://saffakidlife.blogspot.com Jenna

    thanks for an interesting read david!

    it’s incredible how second nature this kind of writing has become to me, and how i have often fallen into the trap of “selling” while writing travel pieces (i blame working as an online copywriter).

    but, by reading articles like this, and by taking in all the feedback i get from the editors/students at matadorU, i am hoping to be more aware of not writing in a vague/marketing style that has no substance or meaning.

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      thanks for being transparent about that jenna.

      there’s nothing inherently wrong with copywriting or making money.

      the problem is when the codified language (of copywriting) becomes one’s default mode of writing, reading, and, over time, the way one begins to frame his or her relationship with place.

  • Allura

    An interesting perspective, but I’d still rather read a factual third-person piece any day than have to bear the inanities of a self-intoxicated first-person blogger.

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      thanks for the comment allura.

      can you elaborate or give examples re: ‘factual third-person’ piece vs. ‘self-intoxicated first-person blogger’ ?

      would appreciate links / references to both.

  • http://matadornights.com Kate

    Great points, David. And great point, Hal. On a similar note, reading and hearing about the fashion conscious Buenos Aires which is “the Paris of South America” is grating. Most of the people I see here don’t fit that description and it makes me think these “writers” are simply seeing what they want, what is attractive to them, and often just copying what other people have written.

    I also want to add, that even more harmful than commodifying experience, which is very much a part of this era we live in, there is further a tendency to commodify and generalize people. To take the “fashion conscious Porteño” as an example, what about the other people? Are they not perceived? The homeless, the working people, the amputees, or just regular people living day to day?

    Problematically, they seem not to exist in the majority of writing about Buenos Aires as a destination written by people who have the disposable income to drink, eat, shop and party and do it all over the next day and the next and the next until they leave and then feel qualified to write about the city and its people.

  • mark jordan

    don’t forget bariloche, “the switzerland of south america”. tambien existe el sur.

  • http://www.evenowlspine.com Desiree

    Thanks for posting this. As an editor for a guide book company, I found it really helpful. I think sometimes writers, myself included, fall into the habit of writing like this because it feels safe. It’s nice to be reminded that you can be thoughtful about your writing without being maudlin or indulgent.

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      glad you found this helpful desiree.

      checked out even owls pine. made me kind of miss quito.

  • Eli

    I think your analysis applies to almost all types of communicative language (as opposed to literature) that are sold, simply because external factors diminish the integrity of the author. The problem is even worse with guide books, simply because the amount of material to cover is so immense, making the usual tropes and formulas necessary to just get the job done. And I think people’s expectations are generally lowered for this style of writing (yours being more of an exception). Travel writing as a commodity is almost always going to supersede travel writing as a thorough description of place and culture. Many writers get paid by the word, and quantity is often equated to depth. These writers also have to cover an entire country under extreme time limitations, further propagating codified, superficial writing. You seem to think that it’s more of the writer’s fault for choosing to write like this, but I disagree. I think it’s the nature of the medium (bulky travel books like Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, etc). However, there’s a lot of hope. I think that, increasingly, travel blogs, especially those that are not-for-profit, are going to pluralize the medium and offer more useful, detailed descriptions as opposed to the surface perceptions of a travel writer on a budget and time crunch.

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      thanks for commenting eli.

      i agree partly that ‘he nature of the medium (bulky travel books like Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, etc)’ can propagate commodified writing.

      and i also share your hope that hyperlocal media in whatever form will bring writing on place back to ground-level.

      one clarification though – i’m not ‘faulting’ anyone for writing in a commodified style, i’m just trying to analyze / expose / note the ‘pattern.’

      when i contributed a chapter to last year’s Fodor’s Patagonia, i had ridiculous time / budget constraints. i know exactly what you’re talking about. still, i spent extra hours editing / researching and so i could fix anywhere the writing drifted into cliches / ‘suggestive’ styley.

      as they say, ‘that’s just me.’

  • http://www.twitter.com/gabimgarcia Gabriela Garcia

    Thanks for this detailed analysis, David. It was really helpful and certainly something I struggle with–my main freelance client, a newspaper, has really strict style guidelines and I’m not allowed to write in first person. Before that, I wrote mainly for magazines and it was pretty much the same thing. Often it felt like “commodified thinking” was subtetly encouraged. It’s been difficult to un-do that omniscient third-person magazine voice that seems second nature now. I think it’s not only writers that can rely on codification as an easy way out, but a lot of editors that underestimate the ability of their readership to process anything complex.

  • http://jollyniceouting.wordpress.com Jon

    I’m pretty fresh to all this, so please bear with me…

    Is there any room for things like metaphor or simile in transparent prose, or am I completely missing the point here? Speaking in terms of literal cut and dried experience, how do feelings and mechanisms to communicate them work?

    Any good examples of transparent prose that you could slide me links for? I want to learn more!

    Many thanks

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/david-miller David Miller

      all good jon.

      thanks for commenting and for asking for examples.

      re: metaphor / simile – the way you express yourself through writing is all yours. nothing is ‘right or wrong’

      if you feel like using a metaphor then use it.

      the concept of transparency is more about ‘uncovering’ truth in the way you write, essentially letting go of how you think your words (and perhaps more importantly, your experience) is supposed to sound, moving instead towards writing as close to the truth of how you actually feel about / perceive whatever situation you’re writing about as you have courage to ‘let fly’ . . .

      some examples:

      http://thetravelersnotebook.com/notes-from-road/tim-and-toms-excellent-adventure-part-1-cashews/

      http://matadorabroad.com/two-villas-in-iraq/

      hope that helps.

  • http://candaceroserardon.wordpress.com Candace

    hi david – just wanted to thank you for such a great piece! thought-provoking and well-said. i’m not sure if you’ve read it or not, but george orwell’s essay “politics and the english language” covers the exact same points, except without a focus on the travel writing side of things. i literally had just finished reading it for a critical theory class i’m in before i read your article, and was amazed at the similarities in your arguments. if you have a second, here’s a link to orwell’s essay:

    http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

    in it, he writes: “by using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.” at the end of the essay, he gives four questions a “scrupulous writer” should ask himself:

    1. what am i trying to say?
    2. what words will express it?
    3. what image or idiom will make it clearer?
    4. is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

    i was just thinking how helpful his essay was going to be in my own travel writing, in working to avoid hackneyed phrases and images, when i came across your article–what a coincidence! thanks again for the piece.

    - candace

  • http://marysojourner.com Mary

    This (the exposition above by David) is brilliant (faceted, shining ), subliminally witty (funny under the radar ) and should be assigned in all Beginning Creative (and what else might they be) Writing classes. It(the exposition above by David) is a perfect (#1) piece of subversive (if you read Matador Travel you gotta know what subversive is) political (don’t get me started) writing.

    • David Miller

      hehe.

The importance of recognizing what's "underground," and how failing to find it can lead...
". . . as if the reader is supposed to simply applaud because the narrator traveled to,...
One of the most overlooked elements of travel writing is its ethics.
More Americans have had their perceptions of place influenced by hip hop than travel...
How can you write about your amazing adventures without sounding like a showoff?
Now that the world has been Google Mapped, how does does the modern travel writer fit...
More new lesson excerpts from the MatadorU travel writing program.
"I realized the value of that travel journal I was keeping – jottings that, although I...
When the advisories go out, when the chairlifts shut down because of wind, and the chain...
If you want to learn how to present characters, find a mentor or master.
But by not being super-conscious of exactly how each word affects the reader's experience...