Notes on Codification and Commodification in Travel Writing

by David Miller Jul 5, 2010
Find more tips like these in the curriculum of the Travel Writing program at MatadorU.

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


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.

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