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Alex Stroup and Kevin Yee
November 14, 2000

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The ultimate informed Disney consumer?

Reviewed:
Vinyl Leaves
Stephen M. Fjellman,
Oxford: Westview Press, 1992

 

ALEX KEVIN

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 answer them.
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.

NEXT: Disney does dog tags...

FROM THE PUBLISHER

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.

With brilliant 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 commodity fairyland.

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