Eva-Maria Müller: Othering Mountains: Postcolonial Perspectives on the Literatures of the Canadian Rockies and Austrian Alps



Mountain mass tourism and the forces it exercises on local cultural and natural environments are severe. The orientation towards mountainous regions has been largely influenced by a culture that was shaped by imperial thought and a literature that deploys Orientalist imagery in depicting mountain places and cultures. From the mid-19th century onwards these narratives have contributed considerably to opening mountains as spaces for colonial and leisurely explorations and have influenced the way local communities sustain and understand themselves. The impact on alpine environments as a result of decades of external representation and the consequential commodification of mountain nature and culture by a powerful money making industry led alpine writers to participate more actively within the cultural production of their mountains. Their narratives are increasingly critical of extensive travel to the mountains and the insustainability of an industry that exploits local cultures and environments. Albeit in different forms, the threats that mass tourism poses to mountain spaces are not unique to one particular mountain tourist destination but are challenges that alpine regions around the world face at the onset of the 21st century.

To study these problems in their complexity, I read the literary record of mountain travel in Canada and Austria with and against each other in 19th-century travel and exploration narratives, in travel brochures, posters, films, and postcards from the 19th century to the present, and in the following selected works by contemporary writers: Angie Abdou’s The Canterbury Trail (2011), Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995), Felix Mitterer’s Die Piefke Saga (1991), and Elfriede Jelinek’s In den Alpen (2002). What these four narratives have in common is a (re)tracing of colonial motives in present day tourism and a scorching criticism towards the usurpation of mountains, while also collectively covering a diverse spectrum of how mountains can be imagined outside the binaries of mystification and demystification, of past and present, of centre and periphery. I analyse the ways in which the authors and their texts engage with 21st-century notions of travel while also reworking, experimenting, and subverting the genre of travel narrative and its connections with colonial Othering.

My thesis sets out to investigate the relationship between literature and mountain tourism by looking at how mountain spaces in Canada and Austria have been Othered in order to be attractive for international travellers from the 19th century onwards, how contemporary mountain literature addresses the business with mountain Otherness, and how it calls for a reading of mountain spaces that goes beyond the principles of (neo-)colonial Othering. Based on a critical investigation of the concept of Othering in Canadian and Austrian mountain literature, this project is interested in investigating how a literary study that draws from postcolonial critical theory, tourism studies, and interdisciplinary mountain studies, can contribute to a better understanding of the past, present, and possible future of mountain tourism and mountain cultures. More specifically, the aims that guide my doctoral project can be summed up as follows: First, I will show that imperialist thinking has taught people to explore and travel to the mountains by demonstrating how 19th-century travel and exploration literature semantically manufactured mountains as a “playground for Europe” (Stephen 1). Then I will look at how certain literary and conceptual features of 19th-century mountain literature infuse the language and imagery of mountain tourism and sustain an understanding of mountains as pleasure periphery. After establishing by which cultural means mountain regions were put on the map for leisurely exploration in Austria and Canada, I seek to develop a theoretical framework that supports a postcolonial reading of mountain literature from a global perspective. Addressing the Austrian Alps in my thesis – a space that is not generally perceived as (post)colonial terrain – requires a series of careful and critical reconstructions of central concepts in colonial critical discourse and asks for postcolonial theory to be reframed in order to apply to cold climates, high altitudes, and intra-European regions. The third aim is then to explore the (literary) impact that local writers of mountain literature have today on a genre that has been dominated by those who travel to – rather than live in – mountain regions.

My methodology consist of a combination of literary analysis, cultural anthropological field work, and an array of theoretical approaches ranging from colonial critical discourse, tourism studies, spatial theory, ecocriticism, and interdisciplinary mountain studies.


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