Inspiration Industrial Complex

Drawing by Laura Callaghan,

“Oh, you like to travel, right? Have you read Eat Pray Love? It’s sooooo good.”

I hold my tongue and try not to roll my eyes. I remind myself that this book/movie is very popular, and not everyone who likes it wants to hear a lecture about racism and exoticism and hack spiritualism.

“Oh yeah?” Be diplomatic, I tell myself. “I haven’t read it, but it’s not really my tastes.”

But if I were being honest, I would say I hate that book and what it stands for.

A lot of female travelers consider this sacrilege. I know, because they have told me as much. People (especially women, especially white women) love Eat Pray Love for a lot of reasons. It inspires you to break away from the mind-numbing capitalist mold of office jobs and bad relationships, and makes every woman think if she goes to a yoga retreat in Bali she will be able to shape her life story into a bestseller.

But guess what? The Internet is already inundated with aspiring inspiration travel bloggers (hem hem) and your story is probably the same as everyone else’s. Your story is about privilege and the soul-sucking nature of late capitalism, and we all know about it, cause we all live it. (The ‘we’ here means middle- to upper-class Westerners. Usually white, but not always. Just read a Murakami novel, ok? Climb down a disused emergency highway exit and enter an alternate dimension.)

Traveling has become part of the Inspiration Industrial Complex, complete with the low-quality Pinterest JPEGs, and it is not the path of only a few brave-enough adventurers as expats and backpackers would like to believe.

Traveling is supposed to liberate you from your boring, 9-to-5, grinding-for-that-paycheck hustle, but it’s just become another way for us to spend a quick buck to feel relief rather than change this soulless system that puts profits before people and their well-being. People frame travel as a solution for the ennui of modern bourgeois life, but wouldn’t getting rid of the whole system that crushes spirits and prioritizes money over human life be a better solution? Why do we allowed ourselves to spend even more money as a solution when money is actually the problem?

Make no mistake, some days when my students are driving me insane, I admire people who are full-time travelers. I see women who make their money from blogging and freelance writing and I think, Damn, I could do that and never deal with another seven-year-old crying because so-and-so grabbed the book she wanted before she could grab it. But then I remember: only so many people need to tell the world about the best boutique hotels in Johannesburg before the market is saturated. We can’t all earn our living writing blog posts about the best gelato in Rome, or the quickest way to find your epiphany at yoga teacher training in Southeast Asia. (How fitting that even with spiritual experiences that are supposed to be about taking time and working through highly individual, personal struggles, we are still looking for cheats that will get us to our goal faster.)

Then we have the problem of Westerners using what we might call developing countries or the Global South or whatever as antidotes to our own inadequacies. We see lives that have not yet caved completely to our materialistic subjugation and we latch on, trying to replicate what we feel is their spiritual enlightenment, and steal some of it for ourselves. Am I really treading any new ground here by calling out how exploitative and racist this is? I feel like I’m not, yet I still see people flocking to “exotic” places trying to appropriate someone else’s culture because their own feels woefully inadequate.

Experienced travelers are always looking for the newest destination “untouched” by tourists but the minute they get there, the whole economy re-aligns itself to serve Westerners and their needs. Menus are printed in English, Irish-style pubs emerge, and prices go up. Yoga studios magically appear to help them find that spiritual fulfillment they so desperately crave. It’s trendy to condemn people for choosing to stay in one place and spend their money on domestic comforts or fast food or cable TV or whatever, but then we (the nomadic subclass) goes and uses our dollars to further the goals of imperialistic domination, really. Are we any better? Are we not helping spread American/Western European-style capitalism too? We try to get away from our old lives, only to find them recreated, for our comfort, in every tropical/charming/chic destination we visit. For example, I live in Poland, but I barely speak Polish because I can get around just fine with English. There’s always someone who speaks it marginally well, and this isn’t even a popular place for foreigners and tourists. Even though the economy is hardly re-aligning itself to meet the needs of people like me, I’m still complicit in that good ol’ fashioned American imperialism, bringing our language and materialistic customs one KFC at a time. (I actually teach the kid whose dad owns all the KFCs here, and most of the Starbucks. No joke. Poland has no Taco Bell but has embraced KFC with fervent enthusiasm.)

In this travel group I belong to on Facebook, every few weeks there is a thread about inspirational travel movies. Obviously, my favorite contender is always mentioned. (Refer to beginning if you can’t guess what it is.) But then someone always brings up other “travel” movies and I always wonder if we’re watching the same thing. A big one is Into the Wild, where (spoiler!) the main character dies at the end due to his ignorance and poor decisions. Or The Motorcycle Diaries, a popular adaptation of Che Guevara’s road trip through South America wherein he has been distorted into this quiet, romantic virgin. (If you’d like to learn more about him, I’d recommend his chapter in Alma Guillermoprieto’s Looking for History as a starter.)

Now, I can understand how people see this as a travel inspiration movie more than a politically-charged biopic, because it is not a politically-charged biopic. The movie romanticizes the trip as journey of self-discovery instead of an important moment in Che Guevara’s political development. The ideas of revolution, communism, and anti-US imperialism are overridden by gorgeous scenery and romantic subplots. So I understand why people have so badly misinterpreted this movie. It is the perfect example of the Inspiration Industrial Complex: a highly-contested, controversial figure watered-down just enough to retain that vibe of adventure and rebellion while being safe enough to stop anyone from questioning why this guy went on to fight against capitalism and imperialism for the rest of his life, the very things that allow us to travel all over the world with relative ease and comfort.

I’m sure Che would be so happy to learn that his travels have inspired so many bourgeois white girls to backpack through the Andes. Truly, it was his life’s work to have a movie made about him that is so commonly uttered in the same breathe as the word ‘wanderlust’. I’m not going to get into the contentious issue of the Cult of Che Guevara, but I think it’s fair to say he would not be about that travel blogger life.

But that’s what the Inspiration Industrial Complex does. It takes intentions that are not inherently bad, like the desire for travel, for cultural understanding, for adventure, for escape from capitalistic drudgery; and turns them into another machine to make a dollar. And here I am, expounding its vices on my own travel blog, where I also recommend my favorite coffee shops in Central Europe or the best panoramic views in Paris and Barcelona.

We are all part of the Inspiration Industrial Complex. The machine whirs on. You can try to emulate Mario Savio and put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels to make it stop, but who are we kidding? It’s not 1968 anymore. Che is dead, and took many others down with him. There is a very efficient team tasked with quickly removing the people who decide to throw themselves upon the gears. The machine wears on, and people continue to pump out gorgeous, filtered photos of the most beautiful places in the world on Instagram. I do the same thing. I’m just as much a part of it, even if I don’t want to be.

But I think we can agree that Eat Pray Love is definitely the worst contender, right?

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