The theme of the dignity of ordinary life explored earlier is in tension with the powers and aspirations we come to believe about ourselves through this accessorizing of our identities. Our celebration of ordinary life affirms the bonds of work, marriage, family, neighborhood and community, including the limitations on our individual freedoms that these bonds entail. The fetishized world that is being projected to us through commodities, on the other hand, entices us to disregard bonds and natural limits that restrain the full exercise of our personal freedom. It lures us to imagine that our truest selves are capable of transcending all the markers of finitude - such markers as: time (Federal Express: "When there's no tomorrow"), space (VISA credit card: "It's everywhere you want to be"), causality (Nike footwear: "Just do it"), substance (General Electric: "We bring good things to life"), and the conditionedness of all knowledge (Intel microprocessors: "Undo preconceived notions").
Walt Disney and the entertainment empire he set in motion embody this tension. His studio's output from the 1930s was attuned to the simple dignity and homespun wisdom of common folk, and promoted a communitarian ethic that was characteristic of agrarian populism of the time. But his early populism gravitated over the years into what might be called hyperreal populism - a simulacrum of the real thing that in reality covers for one of the most authoritarian, corporation-loving, profit-generating conglomerates the world has ever seen. It is remarkable that a single name, "Disney," readily conjures in one's mind not only a man's kind face and soothing voice, along with a multitude of fairytales and animated cartoons full of dignified "little guys" like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck who resisted the heavy-handed tactics of various bullies, but also several television series, a string of nature films, classical symphonies, a synthetic way of thinking (he called it "imagineering"), songs with catchy tunes, favorite children's books, unforgettable amusement park rides, southern climates, space-age technologies, populuxe architecture, time-warped modes of transportation (steam trains, paddle boats, monorails), resorts, Main Street, Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, castles, parades, fireworks, the Matterhorn, a global village, feature films, an endless line of souvenirs, and a Utopian style of city planning.
The legacy of Disney constitutes possibly the most effective production of commodity fetishes that has ever been achieved. It was at first unintentional, but a more coherent strategy can hardly be conceived. Through his early animated films of the 1930s - Mickey Mouse, the Silly Symphonies, Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, etc., Disney became America's master storyteller, and for a time its greatest mythmaker. He wielded the most mesmerizing medium for telling stories at the time - Technicolor animation - and used it, as historian Steven Watts describes it, to "animate the world - literally - by ascribing intention, consciousness, and emotion to living and inanimate objects alike."20 He reenchanted the world, in other words, and moreover he wisely took in hand the perennial literature of fairytales for his story ideas. The characters he created and the scripts he gave them then entered the moral imagination of millions of Americans, shaping many of their deepest visions and expectations of life. With Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, Snow White and the seven dwarves, the three little pigs, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, he assigned faces and voices to the vices, virtues, hopes and heartaches that one was to experience in life, and his vast audience internalized these characters within the chambers of its collective consciousness.
When he began to merchandise these characters in the form of dolls, soaps, watches, caps, and jigsaw puzzles, what people bought were fetishes - objects that made physically present and portable the supernatural world they had witnessed in the movie theater. Owning some of this paraphernalia was, at least in part, a way to participate in this world, to undergird one's own reality with the power, emotions, virtues and life lessons that had been overheard in Disney's storytelling. It was a way to bask in the aura of the fantastic and lovable creatures that sprang from his storyboards, to warm one's soul in their presence.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Disney Studios diversified its activities into live action movies, nature documentaries, and television shows. These, too, have left their mark on popular culture - particularly the wildlife films, which were fitted to a formulaic narrative arc that began with promise (dawn, spring, a baby cub), built up to some tragedy between predator and prey, then finished off with some sign of hope - a new litter of cubs, a tranquil sunset. The reassuring message was that while the law of the jungle has its way, nature will always find its more embracing balance and redeem our hopes through its powers of rejuvenation. Many baby boomers formed their basic sentiments about nature through viewing these films. One writer has suggested that "The people who swelled the ranks of environmental organizations in the 1960s and 1970s grew up on Disney's utopian tales of cuddly fawns and lost but clever dogs."21
But the opposite effect is also common, viz., a disappointment that in trips to real wilderness the dramatic performances are so hard to find. The staged documentary - nature's simulation - is preferable. These two decades continued to generate images and mythological material for another generation to cut its teeth on.
But it was only with the opening of Disneyland in 1955, dubbed "the happiest place on earth," that the accumulation of image and myth found a physical embodiment that came to life as the great juggernaut of mass consumption that is now so deservedly criticized. It is at this stage that the Disney empire really began to exploit its capacity for manufacturing fetishes. The park was built as an array of rides and attractions that journeyed into the mythical world that Disney Studios had been assembling for 30 years. Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Dumbo, the Swiss Family Robinson, Mickey Mouse, Davy Crockett, Captain Nemo, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio all became thrilling rides and ready souvenirs to take home - t-shirts, records, glass figurines, maps, caps, watches. The park also showcased an array of very visible corporate sponsors - Ford, General Electric, Carnation, Frito-Lay, TWA, Monsanto and Kodak, to name a few - who put up the money for rides, pavilions and snack bars in exchange for prominent displays of their corporate logos. Disney parlayed his cultural capital into real capital on a new scale.
This was perfected further in Disney World, where the Magic Kingdom was surrounded by Disney-owned belts of federated theme parks, hotels, resorts, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The formula they had hit upon was one that exploited commodity fetishism beyond anything that had been achieved before. The great mythmaker, Disney Company, cashed in by fully integrating all of its diverse enterprises - animation, film, television, comic strips, children's books, novelties, licensing agreements, theme parks, robotics, sports teams, and the engineering of leisure into a self-referential hyperreality, each component referring consumers to every other component. This lifted the concept of cross-merchandising to a new plane. An artistically gifted studio that had in the 1930s invented a point of compromise between high and low art forms and marshaled this into some at least modestly progressive social commentary became a full-blown culture industry. On this score, the Frankfurt theorists were onto something - although one can suspect that consumers have demanded this augmentation of the Disney effect as much as it has been forced upon them by the Disney Corporation. Still, the reach of the Disney mythos as it seeks to create consumers of its product lines is astonishing. Mickey Mouse, Michael Sorkin has claimed, is better known than Jesus or Chairman Mao.22
The Disney phenomenon was so sui generis and successful as a business concept that "Disneyization" has become a term describing the process by which its most cunning features can be used to colonize other spheres of culture with an eye on profit. Among these features are the "theming"
of cafes, bars, malls, and hotels - organizing the architecture, cuisine, merchandise, furnishings, background music, employee uniforms, etc.
around themes like movie genres, fairytales, television shows, and cartoon strips - along the lines of Disney's own theme parks - to orchestrate and then maximize the profitability of commodity fetishism. A second feature is to "dedifferentiate consumption," that is, to merge what were once distinct segments of cultural activity (e.g., entertainment, transportation, shopping, museums, education, tourism) into a single, seamless occasion for consumption - rollercoasters, sea aquariums, fitness centers and hotels are for this reason installed in shopping malls, clothing stores and food courts in airports, espresso bars in megabookstores, and natural history 23
museums in casinos.
The combined effect of Disneyization is that it greatly facilitates the encroachment of consumerism into all other spheres of cultural activity. The successful strategies of Disney World have become a model for politics, architecture, education, city planning, entertainment, journalism, and even religion.24 Each of these endeavors is pressured to adopt the phenomenally successful methods of Disney and along with them the "new creed of leisure, self-fulfillment, and mass consumption."25 While the Disney Company is not single-handedly responsible for convincing us that unimpeded consumption is the pathway to happiness, it exemplifies a process that has occurred and it has pioneered some of the most effective strategies. It has played a role in making this madness to consume a cultural preoccupation. And because of elements of populist virtue in the mythical figures deep behind Disney's screen that we have been exposed to since childhood, we have the satisfaction that the mode of good feelings that this Disneyized nexus of consumerism extends to us has some moral texture to it. Perhaps it does. But even this, it seems, has been pressed into the service of maximizing our pleasure and generating profit for the manufacturers of the simulacra that have impoverished our identities.
Those who are drawn into the gravitational pull of the mutually reinforcing little myths, movies, television, and themed entertainment that conjure up a happy world of wonderful beings so much more appealing than our own, are persuaded that through consumption they can enter this glorious simulacra, this hyperreality that, as Umberto Eco described it, is so much better than reality itself. And it is endlessly consumptive. As the simulations keep being manufactured, the opportunity to buy some of this happiness is ever before us. Moreover, as the various sectors of the culture come to be dominated by this model, more and more of our experience succumbs to its dynamism. Entertainment ceases being a way to relax during our leisure time and becomes itself a way of life.26
Alexis de Tocqueville noted this zeal for hyperreality already in the 1830s as he observed and commented on the peculiarities of the American imagination. While the lives of its citizens were so prosaic and preoccupied with simply bettering their lot in life and they showed little patience for contemplating the grand mysteries of life, they flocked to and richly rewarded the poets and artists who could conjure fantastic images of America itself. This democratic aesthetic, he worried, could spoil their taste for reality:
I fear that the productions of democratic poets may often be surcharged with immense and incoherent imagery, with exaggerated descriptions and strange creations; and that the fantastic beings of their brain may sometimes make us regret the world of reality.27
His worries appear to have been well founded. The understanding of human nature that this drive to consume seems to corroborate is one in which we are creatures driven to inhabit a hyperreal world that is more titillating than our real lives, a world of well-groomed beauty full of exquisitely engineered gadgets, where our highest aspiration is a happiness defined by leisure and good feelings. The fact that it is never as satisfying as we expect it to be does not deter us, and even draws us more deeply into it. As social psychologist Daniel Gilbert has shown in his studies in "affective forecasting," we are notoriously inaccurate in our predictions regarding how intense and enduring our emotional satisfaction will be in our pursuit of happiness. Locked into a pattern of fixing our sights on the next great thing - be it an Italian espresso maker, a plasma TV, a more spacious house, or winning the lottery - we pump up our anticipation, go after it, get it, resituate our lives around it, then look for the next great thing. As soon as the transient pleasure that it delivers fades, we set our sights on the next thing that will put our desire to rest. This testifies to the endless restlessness of our affections. Each new achievement is quickly incorporated in a process Gilbert refers to as "ordinizing," the thrill subsides, and we recalibrate our hopes for happiness to the next glimmering object of desire, which we predictably overestimate with respect to the level of gratification it will provide.28 Gilbert has described this phenomenon as "miswanting"; Augustine described it as concupiscence, a heedless craving for goods that are less than God.
And this is an anthropology we are exporting to the rest of the world -creatures giving license to their desires for amusement, desires which are endorsed rather than curtailed, creatures chasing after simulacra and playing alone with pleasure-generating devices. "The pleasure-seeking bricoleur," Hebdige complains, "replaces the Truth-and-Justice seeking rational subject of the Enlightenment."29 Gandhi once suggested that one of the seven deadly sins should be pleasure without conscience. Rather than censuring this sin, we promote it as the fulfillment of our being.
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