Years ago a character in one of my stories claimed that “theme parks are the death camps of the twenty-first century.” Yet here I am teaching a class on Disney. Some first thoughts, still at the aphorism stage.
Disney films, parks, and merchandise espouse an ideal of walled off innocence, a hortus conclusus to protect, not the virgin, but a particular notion of childhood. A construction of innocence under the guise of protecting and preserving innocence. But in fact this innocence only exists within the construction, within the wall itself—such as within cartoon images—not within actual children. It’s not the innocence that’s important in the end, but the wall.
Innocence is both the pretext for its construction, and what results from it: a particular image or projection of innocence that is what’s for sale. [Have a look at James Kincaid’s Erotic Innocence for more on this.]
Is Your Desire Up to Date?
Entertainment is the purest form of capitalism. Producing, marketing and continually upgrading desire itself.
Park as Cyborg
Disneyland is itself a cybernetic organism, a circuit of audience (its biological component) and spectacle. The cyborgs aren’t in the audio-animatronic figures; the park itself is the cyborg.
The High Cost of Mundane Living
Disney reveals the immense effort—technical, highly capitalized, multiplatform—it takes to keep the mundane in place. The high cost, literally, of producing a culture where people accept that conservative US values are, in fact, traditional, natural, and correct. Clap and Tinkerbell will live, but only because this immense multinational is behind her. In this regard, Disney is the forerunner of Fox News, of the colossal effort it takes, in that case, to keep people outraged at the wrong targets.
Performances of the Self, Coded for Immortality
Having your performances recorded (including in analog) is the most reassuring for people if they are also felicitous performatives, ones that confirm their sense of who they “really” are. (So these may be performances of the fantastic, of an avatar that expresses the inner self. Performances, in short, of the explicitly fictive.)
Having these performatives recorded is an intimation of immortality. The dream that we can be coded into a more enduring medium that extends us is not at all novel. Most recently the dream has been expressed by proponents of an upcoming, apocalyptic “singularity” where we can be uploaded from our all too solid flesh prone to a thousand natural shocks and achieve digital immortality. The self as data, as a replicable performative is a truism of Renaissance literature, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this [the poem itself], and this gives life to thee.”
Similarly, as many critics have pointed out, the recording technology (typewriter, phonograph, and, in the films, the camera) in Dracula is in a critical counterpoint with the vampire, echoing his troubling immortality. If the vampire is the immortality of the blood, the transcription or recording is a different kind of immortality, a technical immortality, the self as data. The singularity adds the idea of a continuing consciousness, but the dream, the dream of using a technology to leave behind the particularities of the body, the perceptive system, and the physical brain is an old dream.
Theme Parks Are the Death Camps of the 21st Century
Just as the performative subsumes the constantive in Derrida’s reading of Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, so too the theme park subsumes and displaces the ordinary.
[Next on my reading list, Kem Koolhaas’s argument that Coney Island is not the exception to NYC, but its very template. Similarly, Times Square is arguably Disney-fied, as is any Shopping Mall, any downtown upgraded into a Mall-like environment, and especially, of course, downtown Ashland OR. The Mall, Main St. USA, is not inescapable, but it is pervasive.]