Otherness as branding strategy for literature and nature

As countless tourists each year get aquainted with Iceland, and the visual and written representations have placed the country in international consciousness, Iceland has become a heterotopia (Foucault 1984) rather than the utopia and dystopia of earlier times. However, there are elements of radical otherness, the utopian and dystopian, in Icelandic advertisements from the famous clothing company 66° Norður as well as in several of the pictures from the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011 where Iceland was the guest of honor under the title: Sagenhaftes Island.


(See the branding strategy here: http://www.islit.is/en)

Depictions of Iceland show unfamiliar sites that appear as heterotopias reflecting the norms of the surrounding Western societies. In imagological logic, this means that in the image of the other (Iceland) self images are revealed and vice versa. From a heterotopic position inside the reflection, one can come back to oneself and ones position in the world.

In Herzfeld’s theory of crypto-colonies the attitude of external parties or countries to the community is crucial, since there is an unequal power balance as well as an internalization of external ideas in the crypto-colony. Herzfeld’s optics highlights spatio-temporal axes, which have often placed the crypto-colonies as peripheral buffer zones or geographic outposts on the border of the »others« and associated with a distant past, while the dominant countries were associated with civilizational progress and a geographical center. The racial hierarchy and developmental logic of imperialism has been the foundation of power relations in the last two centuries. Especially in the 19th and 20th centuries Icelandic culture and self image was very much influenced by a fundamental division between those associated with the civilized world and those associated with a peripheral position (e.g. as indiginous peoples) within the imperialist system and having to navigate between the two. The crypto-colonial approach exposes the aspects of what is refered to as western culture as an entity characterized by inner mechanisms of exclusion and hierarchies.

Generally, depictions and descriptions of Iceland from an external (western) point of view have been characterised by a curious mixture of identification and exotification. Furthermore Iceland has been pendulating between what Bernhard Giesen has called being either inside or outside of a collective[1] – here of the Western World.  A common trait between crypto-colonialism, imagology and Giesen’s theory is a point of departure in Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness as a mutually retained confirmation of existence between consciousnesses and the importance of external recongition: »Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is it exists only in being aknowledged.«[2] This view is expressed in the chapter Herrschaft und Knechtschaft in Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807). From this point of view Iceland has inhabited a position with similarities to that of Greece as both center and periphery in the construction of European – not least Danish – cultural history and self-perception.

Recent official self-promotion that has been well received internationally e.g. in connection with the strategies of Visit Iceland and the presentation of Icelandic literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair seems to testify to an Icelandic ambivalence in relation to being, respectively, consumed or forgotten by Europe. The association of Icelandic cultural products with forces of nature reflects old exoticist and vitalist notions of Iceland that are taken into favor and instrumentalized. One example is the logo of Sagenhaftes Island showing a book merged with a waterfall. In general the representations draw on the ancient tradition in European culture of viewing Iceland as a place associated with myths, Saga literature and explosive natural power. The position of being associated – even in an indirect manner – with indigenous or nature peoples was famously and strongly rejected to by the Icelandic Student’s Association in their objection to Icelandic artifacts being exhibited next to those from Greenland and the West Indies at the colonial exhition in the Tivoli Gardens in 1905.[1]

As often before Iceland ends on the edge of the familiar in the book fair representations – as an alternative space. This strategy is known from the Icelandic tourism industry campaigns directed against external parties. On the English edition of the official homepage http://www.icelandtouristboard.com at the time there were several examples of Iceland being depicted as heterotopia and as a contrast to civilization. One example was the image of tourists in a glacial landscape shrouded in fog with the caption from the NY Times: »It’s an unearthly paradise in Iceland«. Here the country is not only placed in a chronological logic as being pre-civlized, with the reference to paradise, but also remote from the world we know, by being »unearthly«. Today the renewed website has not moved far away from this image in its description of Icelandic landscape as being: “pure, unpolluted and truly magical.” (http://www.visiticeland.com/DiscoverIceland/)

– the emphasis on purity is an other story, which I will be following closely.

Read more about the Frankfurt Book Fair in my article (in Icelandic) in Ritid: 



[1] See J. Y. Jóhannsson, 2003

[2] Herzfeld 2002, 902

[1] Giesen 1999

[2] Hegel 1998 [1807], 111.


3 thoughts on “Otherness as branding strategy for literature and nature

  1. Pingback: The Icelandic Sagas are shared with Scandinavia | Ann-Sofie Gremaud

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