here to buy
from Amazon on-line
The ultimate informed Disney
Stephen M. Fjellman,
Oxford: Westview Press, 1992
In Stephen Fjellman's view of the world
everything has been reduced to a commodity and everyone into a
consumer. Fortunately for us - the reader - Fjellman is an “informed”
consumer. What this means is that while he consumes with the rest of
us, he sees through all the crap. Even better, he is willing to
guide us through Walt Disney World lifting all the stones and
showing us the myriad ways we are being manipulated.
||It's not clear to me from your intro - which I agree
with by the way - whether you disliked this book as much as I did. I
see Fjellman doing one of three things at various points in his
book: either waxing incredibly pretentious in his academic-inquiry
mode, engaging in small-scale “throwaway” analyses that don't
link up to his central theses, or just in essence mimicking a
travelogue (describing WDW and its rides in detail). All of this is
problematic, but my basic complaint is the book's ambition: who is
the target audience? academics or general audience? He provides some
for both but not enough to keep either happy.
|Ok, we can pack up and go home
now; I think we are working off the same notes sheet. I don't
dislike this book as it actually has some interesting things to say.
But as you point out the author has buried his thesis (or as he sums
up at the end, his eleven “Theses on Disney”) among a whole lot
of chaff. Low quality chaff at that.
||About those eleven theses: I find them indicative of
the problems in his book. Some are so academic as to elicit hooting:
“postmodernism is isomorphic to the world of commodities in late
capitalism and WDW exhibits this connection” while others are so
banal that they are emptied of all meaning: “WDW is postmodern.”
|And if you think about it, those
two are really the same thing.
||It begs the question: why was this book written? Whom
is he trying to reach here? I sometimes got the feeling that
Fjellman had a lot of ideas about WDW, little theses if you will,
that he wanted to commit to paper. The problem is, they don't
connect well together. There really is no central thesis at work
here. What conclusion he comes to - that WDW is postmodern and thus
both escapist and representative of the commodified world - is dull
for non-academics and banal for cultural critics.
|An off-topic aside: Every time
the subject of postmodernism comes up I feel compelled for some
reason to point out that it is a really stupid word.
||Haha. Everyone is dissatisfied with the word.
A word representing the idea that reality
has been removed from its antecedent contexts and yet the
construction of the word (post modernism) places the idea in
relationship to its antecedent concepts. I expect something more
poetic from philosophers. This is really apropos of nothing, but as
I said I feel compelled to comment on it.
Back on topic - Fjellman actually gets off to
a good start in presenting a solid thesis. The first two chapters of
his book provide good definitions for all his ideas, post-modernism,
decontextualization and recontextualization, commodification of
culture, tautological defense mechanisms, (at this point I am just
showing I remember the big words) and lays out how he feels Disney
personifies each of those ideas. Unfortunately, in so doing he feels
compelled to play the role of travel guide and report that the
stanchions for the monorail were pressed in Oregon. At times like
that he seemed to be transcribing the promotional material.
||I have to say I don't like his analysis, but to
explain why I have to back up half a step. In grad school, we
figured out that there are really two types of analysis: those
grounded in solid underpinnings and usually making use of plain
language, and then there's the kind that uses buzzwords instead of
any real thought. We considered the latter to be the height of
pretension, and Fjellman here is a good example of that variety. He
throws all the critical tools imaginable at WDW (including the
academic kitchen sink), but they are not tied together. And the
language is unnecessarily infused with highfalutin buzzwords: “The
hegemonic metamessage of our time is that the commodity form is
natural and inescapable. Our lives can only be well lived (or lived
at all) through the purchase of particular commodities”(9).... “Walt
Disney World is an epicenter of decontetualization. In many of its
attractions, pieces of literary fairy tales are retold as if they
were the whole story. Cuteness is injected, conflict removed.”(31)
He could say all of that in much simpler, more accessible language
and still get the job done.
|I don't agree with his
conclusions, or his method of analysis, for that matter. But I do
feel he raises issues that are legitimately debatable. Has corporate
society/Disney commodified culture? Can you deconstruct every aspect
of the park into an example of such commodification? Does Disney
overload the senses with “decontextualized data pockets” so as
to overwhelm the consumers’ intentions? These are reasonable
questions (especially to those who still revere Foucault) but
Fjellman spends the whole book asking the questions and forgets to
||Right! He raises issues, raises questions, but never
solves them! Or, when he does propose a solution, it seldom has to
do with anything else in that chapter or indeed the book. It begs
the question of this book's purpose, as I said earlier. But enough
negativism. I did notice some positives, as you did. I liked the way
the academic mind can contextualize the Disney experience especially
in the broadest sense possible. He points out that the Magic Kingdom
is essentially a temporal excursion, and I like his point a
lot: “At both Disneyland and WDW, time is defined spatially.
Tomorrow is not so much a time at the Magic Kingdom as a place -
Tomorrowland. Each part of the Magic Kingdom has a temporal theme.
Liberty Square represents colonial America and the War of
Independence. Frontierland glosses the nineteenth- century American
West. Main Street USA gives us a turn of the century small town.
Adventureland alludes to the history of empire - from the Spanish
Main to the African safari. Even Fantasyland is about time,
suggesting simultaneously the timelessness of fairy tales and
children's stories and the romanticized medieval castles of central
Europe with a bit of King Arthur thrown in”(61).
Absolutely, though it must be noted that
“space as time” is not a new metaphor. The idea that the
airplane made the world smaller, for example. But Fjellman is
absolutely correct here. And he rolls it up to his idea that Disney
takes every image and removes it from its context and gives it a
brand new context. The “times” of the Magic Kingdom do not flow
into their contextual successor but rather into some other time
completely unrelated. Similarly, in the geography of World Showcase,
Japan does not flow into China or Malaysia but rather into Morocco.
But like many of his other ideas Fjellman doesn't place this idea in
its proper context.
Fjellman is seemingly criticizing Disney for
manipulating history (into “Distory”), geography, and time. Yet
he never mentions that Disney also does this to itself. Go on the
Peter Pan ride and you will see that Disney processes its own
stories in the same way it has processed American history for The
Hall of Presidents. Disney is telling stories and I would argue that
all narrative forms decontextualizes/recontextualizes. Fjellman is
holding Disney out as something special and yet rarely
differentiates WDW from the rest of the world.
||I would argue that Disney is in fact special. And the
best known academic treatise on a Disney park (written by
Baudrillard), makes the same case. Baudrillard claims that
Disneyland is hyperreal: that is, a simulacra so convincing that it
replaces the actual real place/time as feeling more “real.”
Fjellman, disappointingly, doesn't deal with Baudrillard until near
the very end, and even then fleetingly. It's a shame! Hyperreality
would do much to augment Fjellman's argument for the decontexualized
commodification of America in WDW. Besides, on a completely
different note, hyperreality is entirely appropriate right now with
Disney's California Adventure opening soon and standing in for the
entire state. If Disneyland was hyperreal America, DCA is the
hyperreal theme park: a simulation of a simulacra, if that makes
sense. In any event, it's disappointing that Fjellman doesn't seize
upon it, but maybe that's my own hobby horse getting in the way.
|When he is in full academic mode
is really the only time the book is interesting, but really it is a
small portion of the book as a whole. I want to spend a few minutes
discussing the other parts. I have to slip into librarian mind-set
(as I always do) and comment on the form of the book. First, the
copyediting on this book is atrocious. It improves as the book goes
on but in the early chapters I was awash in typos, grammatical
errors, and even a dropped sentence. Conversely, the index in
fantastic (as it should be for an academic work).
||I didn't notice that many typos, oddly. I did come
away with the impression that Fjellman knew WDW rather well, and his
sources are voluminous (100 pages of footnotes!) And while you found
that the book had highlights I'm going to cling to my reservations.
It's simply an exhausting book to read, and frankly I don't advise
it. At one point, he begs off a comprehensive “deep reading” of
Disney/MGM studios as inadvisable, and I wish he'd realized that
it's equally inadviseable to tackle WDW as a whole, at least not
without a sturdier central thesis and a defined audience in mind.
Disney does dog tags...
Walt Disney World is a
pilgrimage site filled with utopian elements, craft, and whimsy. It's a
pedestrian's world, where the streets are clean, the employees are
friendly, and the trains run on time. All of its elements are themed,
presented in a consistent architectural, decorative, horticultural,
musical, even olfactory tone, with rides, shows, restaurants, scenery, and
costumed characters coordinated to tell a consistent set of stories. It is
beguiling and exasperating, a place of ambivalence and ambiguity.
In Vinyl Leaves
Professor Fjellman analyzes each ride and theater show of Walt Disney
World and discusses the history, political economy, technical
infrastructure, and urban planning of the area as well as its relationship
with Metropolitan Orlando and the state of Florida. Vinyl Leaves argues
that Disney, in pursuit of its own economic interests, acts as the muse
for the allied transnational corporations that sponsor it as well as for
the world of late capitalism, where the commodity form has colonized much
of human life.
technological legerdemain, Disney puts visitors into cinematically
structured stories in which pieces of American and world culture become
ideological tokens in arguments in favor of commodification and
techno-corporate control. Culture is construed as spirit, colonialism and
entrepreneurial violence as exotic zaniness, and the Other as child.
Exhaustion and cognitive overload lead visitors into the bliss of
Commodity Zen--the characteristic state of postmodern life. While we were
watching for Orwell, Huxley rode into town, bringing soma, cable, and
charge cards--and wearing mouse ears. This book is the story of our