Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Looking Back: the Gaze and the Postcard

I presented Looking Back: the Gaze and the Postcard in my Critical Theory class in 2015. It is intended as a presentation and not as a paper. I do not own the images. 

The postcard. It does not happen as much these days but there is always something special about receiving one in the mail. Someone thought about you when they were “getting away from it all”. There is usually a beautiful image that offers a little window into another world that inspires some fantasizing.

As innocently as the postcard may have been sent and received, I would like to open a conversation about how the postcard has been a powerful tool within Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses to reinforce the colonial agenda and more contemporary geo-political modes of power imbalances.

I will return to this concept in a moment but first I will give a very brief overview of the history of the Barbados in order to contextualize this presentation. The British colonized Barbados in 1627. According to Portuguese and British sailors, the island was uninhabited - this data of course relies on historical here-say however it possible as other islands were documented as having a native population, also some indigenous peoples were known to canoe from island to island so it is speculated that Barbados was not inhabited at that moment (Parker 15). Around 1642, the colonizers began to grow sugarcane. Over the next few decades and lasting more than two centuries, sugar cane became a hugely profitable crop, making Barbados one of Britain’s richest colonies (Parker 65). The wealth of the white plantation owners from Barbados and other anglo-Caribbean colonies drove forward the Industrial Revolution in England and the development of the east coast of the USA (Parker 65). The beginning of modernity came at great cost, initially with the lives of the white indentured servants who came from Ireland, Scotland and British orphanages and jails then in much much greater numbers with enslaved black persons from many tribes and regions in Africa, such as Igbo, Akan, Yoruba (as a side note, other islands also went on to import indentured Asian and South Asian people).

The sugar industry started going into decline in the late 18th century because of various interconnected factors, such as taxes, debt, beet production, and the abolition movement. Emancipation occurred in 1834, sugar remained the primary industry in Barbados until 1902 when sugar prices collapsed (Parker 363). Faced with widespread malnutrition (Parker 363), the region turned to tourism as a means of income and it has become the primary industry in many islands. According to the Central Intelligence World Factbook, industry, which includes tourism, accounts for 11.8% of the GDP and the service industry accounts for 85.1% in Barbados in 2014. The service industry being restaurants, stores, bars, spas, banks (there is a large offshore banking system there).

In Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation), Louis Althusser furthers Karl Marx’s conclusion “every social formation must reproduce the conditions of its production at the same time as it produces” (101) by looking at the “reproduction of the relations of production” (113-114). I feel this is particularly valid with tourism. As opposed to, for e.g, a manufactured product sold on a store shelf, the product in tourism is a blend of geography, reputation, marketing, people and ambiance. The product then does not depend on raw material and functioning machinery - it is much more ambiguous and in my opinion the relations then are that much more important. 

Let us review Althusser’s theory to expand on this. Althusser grounds his point in Marx’s conception of the social whole, that is to say, the structure of society divided into two parts: the infrastructure, or the economic base, and the superstructure which has two levels: the politico-legal and the ideological (104-105). The politico-legal or State apparatus is the (and I quote) “machine of repression which enables the ruling classes to ensure their domination of the working class” and includes the head of state, the government, the police, prisons (106-107). As Althusser points out, the State may change or fall but the State Apparatus may survive (109). In the case of Barbados, British rule changed to the Barbadian government, but the State Apparatus remained: the ruling class, the economy, etc. This is readily apparent in Barbados as the elite, usually but not exclusively a white elite, have remained in place as can be seen by a variety of businesses that have existed from before Independence in 1966 as well as the international aspect - the economy has always operated on an international level and never been exclusively local (sugar barons) (an example of this is food). As I stated, the objective of Althusser’s argument is to look at the “reproduction of the relations of production” (113-114). He presents that the power of the superstructure, is maintained through ideology and that ideology is maintained through what he calls Ideological State Apparatuses. He lists several institutions as Ideological State Apparatuses, from here on referred to as ISAs: the religious ISA, the educational ISA, the family ISA, the legal ISA, the political ISA, the trade-union ISA, the communications ISA, the cultural ISA (110). These may be privately owned but work in conjunction with the public domain in so much that the ruling class usually maintains both (111). This is possible because they function by ideology. While the State Apparatus functions by repressive force, the ISAs function on the level of social structure in order that all levels, all people of society understand their place and function within it and maintain the social structure as it is, with the proletariat working and the rich profiting (111-3). Althusser discusses how education has usurped the religious ISA in the secular western society and how education would have taught the people how to behave and the skills to function as a worker (1169). 

In view of my presentation of the postcard, I will argue that the Communication and Cultural ISA are extremely significant within the tourist society, in which cultural interaction is sold as a product. With only one local television station in Barbados until the late 1980s that only functioned for a few hours a day and quite limited access to multiple international stations well until into the 1990s, the radio and the visual culture of tourism, such as postcards, billboards, tourist magazines were an important part of culture for both tourists and locals. Made locally, postcard was ubiquitous. I clearly remember as a child being very familiar with all the images as the postcard stands were stationed by the cashiers at all the supermarkets, convenience stores, the pharmacies, right beside the National Enquirer. So beyond an innocent “I am thinking in you” note sent in the mail, I argue that the postcard functions as a tool to understanding how one is supposed to be. What do I mean by this? In a society in which cultural interaction is sold as a product, the postcard functions on two levels. First, it is sold to the tourist who learns through the image who the Barbadian is supposed to be and what the landscape is supposed to look like. It reinforces classifications of exoticism, the picturesque, of the notorious us and them (Thompson). Second, the postcard functions at the level of interpellation as Althusser calls it. He states that interpellation is “the recognition that they really do occupy the place it designates for them as theirs in the world, a fixed residence” (133). So the local looks at the postcard, (which they also purchased it to send to friends and family abroad) and understands it like a mirror “this is how we are supposed to be”, locals assimilate the identity projected through the card. The individual being then works for the tourist industry as the stereotype of the Other. 

Working with a Marxian understanding of ideology as the system of the ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group, these examples demonstrate Althusser’s assertion that ideology has no history but at the same time connects to the real conditions of existence and has a material existence (120-123).  

This postcard entitled Sugar Cane in Blossom, Barbados is from 1911. One can pretty safely assume that they are cane workers (although they have no tools with them. The cane is at a growing stage which can be seen by the arrows or the blossoms so their work would have been weeding and maintenance.) Tourism aside, at a time in which these photographs would have been taken there was much less visual imagery, this postcard would have reinforced the class position of the field workers to both the plantation owner as well as to the field worker themselves (Thompson 12). Furthermore, the fact that they were posed in a line in front of the cane, (the photographer placed them in the same depth of field as the cane) and the exclusion of their presence in the title of the card indicates that these black fieldworkers were more than part of the landscape, they were the landscape (7). In that era, white tourists would likely not have expected to interact per se with the black population but still would have expected to see them, to look at them over there and this image would have reinforced (Thompson 7). I feel that it is important to understand the postcard and the functioning of the ISAs in both the local context - the worker and the ruling class - and the global context - the worker, the ruling class both local and global, because this is an on-going global issue. Interesting comparisons can be made from this postcard from 1911 to this recent postcard that I found online from Indonesia.

Let us now fast forward to the 1980s. As you can see, there is quite a shift in how the local Barbadian is represented. Island Adonis lays on a sunny coral beach with clear blue water behind him wearing only an orange-coloured high cut bathing suit, smiling directly into the camera. 

This postcard with no title is an image of a young man wearing a cheetah high cut bathing suit, leaning against a tree branch in the shade, on a non-identified beach. One might think that these are less clear cut visual examples of ISAs in action. There is no product, such as sugar, in the image that directly profits the ruling class. However, I would argue that this demonstrates ideology’s ability to adapt (126): The objective remains the same - to keep the ruling class in power and the working class working for the ruling class (106). In the 1980s, tourism was already amongst the primary industries in Barbados (databank worldbank .org) and would have included a multi-national industry of hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, airlines, marketing companies, and so forth. Postcards directly or indirectly would have serviced all of these industries. They would also service the ideological concept of the “first” world and the “third” world. But the representation of ideology shifted according to the real life conditions of existence (Althusser 126): in this case, the real life conditions of the shift in tourist desires. An easy clear cut example of this would be the shift in the 1950s to the image of the beach becoming a primary signifier for “the tropics” as Krista Thompson points out in An Eye for the Tropics (280-281). 

International mores would have shifted from wanting to see the so-called native from a distance to actually interacting with the locals (Thompson 298). Sex tourism was evident, even blatant. Interestingly, I recall from my youth that female sex tourism as more visible than male sex tourism in Barbados (a white foreign woman with a black local man). These postcard clearly respond to this. Island Adonis’s bare black skin, his skimpy bathing suit, his in-style jeri curls, his gold chain - signifiers of exotic sexiness are all there. The product, instead of being a material substance such as sugar, had become the person, the Island Adonis, and the experience. 

If read as visual tools for cultural and communication ISAs, these postcards can no longer be understood as simple images on heavy paper that one mails in order to fulfill one’s duties towards friends and family. They can be read as serving to reinforce the black Barbadian as a product / worker / other. This is done on three levels: in the minds of the tourist or overseas person looking at the card from an outside perspective, then within Barbadian culture recognizing the class structures that exist there as well as the Barbadian looking at the card and recognizing themselves. They also serve to uphold visual ideals of tropicalized landscapes - the sugar cane field with its workers, now the beach as paradise. (Thompson 10). So to summarize, postcards function as a tool for ISAs in so much that they visually demonstrate how one is supposed to be within state and global structures of wealth and power (117-118). 

But, let us reconsider this...   What are we dealing with here? These are postcards, yes. But what is in the images? That is correct, real live people. While I agree with Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses and the manners in which lives, some more harshly than others, are subjugated to ideology and the ruling class, at a certain moment I start to think “but what about the people themselves?”.

By using Judith Butler’s writing in the Introduction of Bodies that Matter, I wish to reconsider these images again and search for another reading of this visual culture. While Butler is talking about gender, sex and the body, her concepts may be carried over to think about Other or the Black Body or the Barbadian because of the intertwined nature of the constructs of gender, sexuality, race and class. Butler puts forth that “sex is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize sex and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms” (xii). By replacing the reiteration of regulatory norms of sex with the body of the other and by contextualizing the postcard of the cane-field workers into a larger pool of Caribbean postcards, all dating from 1910 to 1912, the postcard begins to feel just like that - a reiteration. One becomes aware that someone needs to be convinced that the bodies in these images need to be fixed into an understanding of them.

Cutting Sugar Cane, Cuba
Sugar Cane Harvesters, Barbados
Sugar Cane Cutters, Jamaica
Natives in a sugar cane field, St Kitts BWI

Yes there are similarities between the islands but there are also vast differences, such as the colonizing country, language, histories so the fact that these black bodies, from different locations need to be defined and fixed into a category repeatedly points to the construct itself. 
Butler then proceeds to state that “the mobilization of the categories of sex within political discourse will be haunted in some ways by the very instabilities that the categories effectively produce and foreclose” (xiii).  I would like to go back to the first postcard entitled Sugar Cane in Blossom to look at it again. Please pay particular attention to the young man on the left.

If these images’ objective is to define the young man as black cane worker in the field, as categorized into this social position in life, then why is this young man posing for the camera with a certain amount of swag and confidence? I would argue that his presence points to the instability of social categories. I do not mean that social categories are easily shifted but rather that there are cracks in the boundaries of the categories and in those cracks lie potential.

If we return to Island Adonis, we can see that he also is self-confident in his appearance. If he is a product whose purpose is to be consumed, if he is placed in a social category in order to maintain social structures and wealth, then why is he so satisfied? 

I realize that this is not a perfect argument, that one could argue back that he is simply participating unaware within the cultural norms of his life, but I will maintain that there is something about his sexiness, his self-confidence in his desirability, that points to his subjectivity and to the fact that individuals can not be so easily categorized. It also points to his agency in his knowledge of his own projection as object of desire to be consumed and profiting from it. 

I would like to consider also the shifting of the categories over time as another instability. I showed this postcard to a number of people and the response I received was often giggles. My understanding of those giggles is that his performance of masculinity of 30 years ago is not the performance of masculinity of today. (one person thought he looked gay - and even if you consider that, what does gay or straight look like?). So if gender is not a stable category, that how gender is performed shifts and changes over time, pointing to its constructed nature then would it not follow that Island Adonis’s presence as exotic other is also unstable due to the constructed nature of race?

To conclude, tourism is unlikely to go anywhere any time soon. Postcards may be not as prevalent today as they used to be but I think it is important to recognize the role they had in imaging and imagining a location. The postcard may disappear but other formats of visual culture that work in conjunction with ISAs will take its place.  So is it possible to look at visual culture (or travel?) with appreciation and not only in terms of how land and people may be subjugated. I do think it is. I feel that by understanding further the ISAs in place and the class structures and ideology behind them and then understanding even further the possibility of subversion, even if that can only play out in a small way in day to day life, that the tourist can travel with awareness and with respect in the hopes of creating rich interaction that benefits both the tourist and the local.

Butler, Judith. “Introduction.” Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex", Routledge, 1993, pp. X-XXX.
Parker, Matthew. Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies. Walker & Company, 2012.
Thompson, Krista A. An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque. Duke University Press, 2007.
Vasquez, Sam. “Travelling Humour Reimagined: The Comedic Unhinging of the European Gaze in Caribbean Postcards.” Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 2-3, 2012, pp. 79–100., doi:10.1080/00086495.2012.11672444.
Zizek, Slavoj, editor. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Mapping Ideology, by Louis Althusser, Verso, 1994, pp. 100–140.

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