The Outdoors: Spaces of nature/culture and the body in the advertisement of a growing industry

Theoretical framing

The outdoors is not a given, waiting for being represented. It is made real, presented and enacted in various fields of communicative practice.
Depending on the angle of reflection the outdoors may then appear as a growing industry of so called outdoor products (rising number of outdoor trade fairs, spread of companies that sell outdoor wear / gear). This industry advertises in a growing number of journals dedicated to outdoor pursuits (tgo, trail, ute, outdoor), and obviously there is a broad readership that can be addressed with outdoor issues. According to common language use, the outdoors can also be understood as a space that can be entered (and left). As such, it appears as a destination for a growing number of people doing so called outdoor sports such as hiking, trekking, canyoning. Children are sent to the outdoors for educational reasons.
On the other hand, the outdoors seems to be something that can be experienced. According to habitual language use people cannot only travel to the outdoors, but also enjoy it or explore it. The outdoors is – at least to some extent - constituted by the practice of experiencing and feeling “outdoors”. In this respect, the outdoors may appear as a synonym for nature: The “Profilstudie Wandern” 2005 of the German Institute for Hiking (Marburg) shows that “enjoying nature” is a growing motivation for people relocating their leisure activities to the outdoors (Profilstudie Wandern 05/06: This report also shows a trend towards solitude hiking (i.e. no longer understanding hiking as a group experience, an idea that was formative for the Wandervogel movement in the late 19th century or the rise of organised tours as members of Alpine Clubs etc.). Theoretically, the phenomenon is hence connected to an increasing individualistic body-centred culture – in response to a life-style more and more steeped in technology and artificial surroundings (Bette 2001). This stresses not only the important force of a visual consumption of the environment (Urry 2002, Urry and Larsen 2011), but also of consuming natural space with the whole body.

This tentative approach to what is called the outdoors reveals various dimensions of my research subject (rather than conclusively explaining its nature):

  1. the outdoors is a complex social construction, a relative and contingent, yet stabilized concept that is somehow interlinked with other concepts such as space, nature (and its opposite, say culture), and the body
  2. this communicative interplay involves the dimension of meaning as well as the dimension of experience, theoretically spoken: the construction of the outdoor has a semiotic and a phenomenological side, a representational and a presentational level.

Though these two realms might seem to be disjoint, I adopt the theoretic assumption that they are dialectically intertwined. Even experiences of what is called the outdoors are not pure or innocent or in a way antecedent and hence more real. Rather, like the realm of meaning, they are discursively informed. Taking this as a starting point for a heuristic approach, the question I am concerned with is:

What does the everyday making of “the outdoors” as both a representation and a presentation reveal about contemporary understandings of nature and culture and their respective “spaces”? And how is a contemporary concept of the body involved in this process?

Put as a working hypothesis: (Re-)Presentations of the outdoor are a key for observing the contemporary discursive interplay of ideas of nature, culture and the body.


Visual images, I suggest, are of vital importance in order to grasp both the semiotic and the experiential dimension of the discursive construction, because they can be theorized as mediator of signification and sensation

As Sachs-Hombach (2001) (following the French Philosopher Merleau-Ponty) put it, visual images are “perceptional signs”, they dwell in an ontological interspace. That means, visual images do not simply reproduce and frame an external world of objects. Nor should they be understood as pure subjective constructions, or rather, as genuine products of the mind. They are rather “in betweens” since they have both a representational reproductive and a presentational productive character. On the one hand, according to Watzlawick, visual images provide an “analogous” form of communication (see Watzlawick et al. 1971, 61ff.). ‘Analogous’ here means, that material images do not present their message by contingent naming (that follows a linear grammar), but by similarity relations. On the other hand, as phenomenologists such as Waldenfels point out, this similarity is neither barely representative nor “innocent”. Speaking from a critical realistic stance, visualization is not as contingent as naming, yet analogous images (especially computer generated images) are always culturally informed. Additionally, visual images are intertwined with the performative act of perceiving. And this act of perceiving, in turn, is discursively informed as well. There is no such thing like the innocent eye. Perceiving in this perspective is the performance of codes that have been learned through social institutions.

The visual images hence can be seen as powerful agents in the re-production of concepts such as space, nature and the body on the one hand. On the other hand, visual images can be conceptualized as powerful agents in the discursive structuration of sensations of space, nature and the lived body (Leib), in Foucauldian terms: visual images bear “somatic power”. The value of a conceptual difference between the body (Körper) and the lived body (Leib) gets obvious in this regard. Though these concepts describe different analytical levels, some theorists claim convincingly, that the lived body is also discursively formed, in Foucault’s terms, that it is an object of genealogy. Hence the idea of first-order experience must be questioned, or rather reflected and historized: what is the cultural origin of absolute feelings we have? And why do we take them naturally for granted?

One approach in this direction is to understand that images bear truth claims about the objects they visualize. They bear a mimetic implicitness, a character of evidence, and they imply illocutionary acts such as “the presented object looks like the object represented!” or “the presented place (there) looks like this!”). According to speech-act theory these can be understood as “visual assertive statements”. Associated sensations thus easily lose their subjective character and appear to be mere responses to inherent features of visualized environments. The romantic gaze (Urry 1990), for instance, is not experienced as contingent and culturally informed gaze. Instead, the landscape gazed at is experienced as if it was romantic by nature. Hence, images – and seeing or gazing respectively - are powerful agents in the process of naturalizing affective relations to objects or the environment

In sociological theory of embodiment or “incorporation”, this naturalizing effect is seen as an important stance of validating organizational and complexity reducing structures of the social (Jäger 2004), for example the understanding of the world in terms of binaries such as nature and culture.


From the outlined theoretical/methodical perspective I have traced the continuous performance of the nature/culture dualism (as a social construction) and the respective incorporation of the body in the ads of the outdoor industry.

This dualism is clearly manifest in the propositions of many visual images and their captions. The outdoors as a natural space is typically depicted as the non-human, the non-technical or non-artificial. The images provide the idea of a pure and exclusive nature and they evoke - via kinaesthetic effects - purified nature feelings. Furthermore, these images rely on topoi such as escaping from artificial surroundings and “going nature”. The outdoors thus appears as a late-modern arcadia where members of an urbanised and technology-based society can regain freedom and self-affirmation.

Surely, this construction of a quiet zone where you can recover from an over-directed working life obscures the fact that it is precisely the satisfaction of this need which reproduces the functionality for this working life.
Likewise, the idea of regaining freedom obscures the fact that the proposed dress code for the outdoors can also be seen as a disciplinary action of the outdoor industry. The outdoor body as constructed by the images is not only fit and well trained but uniformly dressed in hi-end functional wear.


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