The Heterotopia of Walt Disney World


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Slides of the presentation I gave at the Philosophy for All Kant’s Cave (7th October 2009, London).

My aim was to introduce the concept of Heterotopia by Michel Foucault using the example of Walt Disney World. It allowed me to dig into Post-Modernist philosophy, involving philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco.

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The Heterotopia of Walt Disney World

  1. 1. Utopia and HeterotopiaPost-modernism and ConsumerismThe Heterotopia of Walt DisneyWorldBruchansky Christophe, October
  2. 2. Walt Disney WorldQuick facts: Opened in 1971 - Orlando, Florida, USA. It was the second Disney park built. The first wasDisneyland, California (1955). Contains four theme parks, two water parks, 23hotels. 17 million visitors in 2008, to compare with 5 millionvisiting the British Museum, for example (source:Forbes). 2008 revenues for all Disney theme parks around theworld: 11 billion USD.2
  3. 3. My assessmentWalt Disney World is a post-modernist utopia ofhappy consumerism, a pre-emptive heterotopia ofdeviation, both of illusion and compensation.3
  4. 4. References4Of Other Spaces,Michel Foucault, 1967Vinyl Leaves,Stephen M. FjellmanWestview Press, 1992
  5. 5. Agenda Introduction to Utopia Disney World and the concept of Heterotopia1. Heterotopias are everywhere2. Crisis heterotopias and heterotopias of deviation3. Juxtaposition of incompatible places4. The roles of heterotopia5. Heterochronies6. Opened and closed spaces Conclusion and interrogations Q&As5
  6. 6. Introduction to Utopia6
  7. 7. “Utopia” is takenfrom the title of abook written in1516 by SirThomas More. Itdescribes afictional, pagan,and communistcity-state in whichthe policies wereentirely governedby reason.7
  8. 8. 8Comparison between Thomas More‟s Utopia and WaltDisney World‟s Magic Kingdom.
  9. 9. DefinitionUtopia is “an ideal commonwealth whose inhabitantsexist under seemingly perfect conditions”.[Encyclopaedia Britannica] Eu-topia derived from the Greek εὖ, “good” or“well”, and ηόπος, “place”, is defined as region of idealhappiness or good order. Ou-topia derived from the Greek „ou‟ for “no” and „-topos‟ for “place,” is a fictional, unrealistic place. Dystopia (from the Greek δυζ- and ηόπος) is animaginary place or condition in which everything is asbad as possible. [Oxford English Dictionary]9
  10. 10. Roles of utopia Revealing assumptions underlying a society byproviding an imaginary alternative. Criticizing characteristics of a society without namingthem. Escaping reality to better maintain the status quo. Inspiring change by making people believe in anideal. Providing a feasible alternative to a type of society.10
  11. 11. Walt Disney WorldWalt Disney World is a utopia: It envisions a world of happiness. It is a „magic‟ and unreal world. It tells fairy tales.But it is also a real place, in a real location.=> need of a new concept11
  12. 12. “Heterotopias are something like counter-sites, akind of effectively enacted utopia in which thereal sites, all the other real sites that can befound within the culture, are simultaneouslyrepresented, contested, and inverted.” [MichelFoucault]12
  13. 13. Walt Disney World and the conceptof Heterotopia13
  14. 14. Context Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) was a Frenchphilosopher, sociologist, and historian. Among hiswork is his comparison between the Panocticon ofJeremy Bentham and modern society. Heterotopia was introduced by Michel Foucault in1967, part of his lecture “The Other Spaces” (“Desespaces et autres”) to a group of architecturestudents. Michel Foucault never published his notes onheterotopia. They are sketchy and inconsistent butbecame however central in theories such as post-modern urbanism and sociology.14
  15. 15. The analogy of the mirror The image from a mirror is an utopia: it is anunreal virtual space. The mirror is an heterotopia: it exists.“It makes the place that I occupy when I look atmyself in the glass at once absolutely real, andabsolutely unreal.” [Michel Foucault]15
  16. 16. 1. Heterotopias are everywhere16
  17. 17. 17museumscemeteriesprisonsgardensSchools, librariesHeterotopiasare presentin everyculture.
  18. 18. Disney theme parks are an international phenomenon.18DisneylandResort, CaliforniaWalt DisneyWorld Resort,FloridaTokyo DisneyResortDisneyland ParisHong KongDisneylandResort
  19. 19. 2. Crisis heterotopias andheterotopias of deviation19
  20. 20. 2 types of heterotopia: Crisis heterotopias: privileged, sacred, orforbidden places, reserved for individuals in astate of crisis. Heterotopias of deviation: those in whichindividuals whose behaviour is deviant in relationto the required mean or norm are placed.20
  21. 21. 21Crisis DeviationClub MedPsychiatric hospitalBrothelMilitary serviceChurchRetirement homeCabaret
  22. 22. Disney World is a pre-emptive heterotopia of deviation: Disney World is a sacred place devoted toconsumerism. It reinforces the idea that consumerism is the path tohappiness.22a. DisneyWorldc. Visitors(more generally anycustomer)b. USA(more generally anyState)d.Culture
  23. 23. a. The Disney corporationAccording to Stephen M. Fjellman: Disney is a major corporation that has a vestedinterest in promoting a consumerist society.Disney World is not merely a collection offantasies for children, it is actively advocating theutopia of happy consumerism. In this context, here is how Disney World isdefined: “Walt Disney World produces, packagesand sells experiences and memories ascommodities.”23
  24. 24. b. Utopian dictatorship of happiness “A good way to make sure that people policethemselves is to get them to believe essentiallythe same stories about what the world is and whythe way it is good, true and beautiful. The worldneeds to be described, and it needs to be justifiedby arguments about nature, philosophicalprinciple, history, or the gods. People will find theirplace in such a world. They will learn what hopesthey might reasonably hold for themselves.”[Stephen M. Fjellman] cf. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 193224
  25. 25. c. VisitorsVisitors know that when entering Disney World, theyare entering a place where all their activities arecontrolled and conditioned (e.g.queues, soundtracks all over the parks, visualmagnets such as the Cinderella castle) .They know that their experiences and souvenirs willbe manufactured and probably not so differentfrom the ones of another visitor. But they still buythe package because they know they will get avery enjoyable experience25
  26. 26. d. Culture“Our lives can only be well lived (or live at all)through the purchase of commodities. As thecommodity form becomes a central part of culture,so culture becomes available for use in the interestof commodification, as a legitimation for the entiresystem. We must be taught that it is good,reasonable, just, and natural that the meansnecessary for life are available only through themarket.” [Stephen M. Fjellman]26
  27. 27. 27DisneyCultureDisneycommoditiesCultures thatdon‟tintroducecommodities.Commoditiesthat don‟tpromoteculture.
  28. 28. 3. Heterotopia: juxtaposition ofincompatible places28
  29. 29. The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing severalspaces and sites that are in themselvesincompatible, all in a single real place.29
  30. 30. 30GardenAll qualities ofnature in asingle place.ZooAll animals onearth in a singleplace.MuseumAll art andhistory in asingle place.
  31. 31. The “Magic” of Walt Disney World31Magica. cognitiveoverloadb. decontextualization
  32. 32. a. Cognitive overload Someone is constantly overloaded by stimuli inDisney World, “it is with the overriding of visitors‟capacities for making discriminations that Disneymetathemes may take effect.” [Stephen M. Fjellman] Disney World is a patchwork of enchanted medievalcastles, colonial history, future technologies,Moroccan markets, zoos, characters from Disneycartoons, American presidents, rides sponsored bycar manufacturers, Mount Everest, astronomy,dinosaurs, and so on. It is the world summarized.32
  33. 33. b. Decontextualization “By pulling meanings out of their contexts andrepackaging them in bounded informationalpackets, decontextualization makes it difficult forpeople to maintain a coherent understandingabout how things work.” [Stephen M. Fjellman] It is then easier to tell Disney‟s version of history:“Idealized United States as heaven, history isdecoration. Colonialism was fun, the colonizedcute (but a little stupid). How nice if they could allbe like us – with kids, a dog, and GE appliances.”33
  34. 34. “The Disney strategy is to juxtapose the real andthe fantastic (real birds mixed with fake sounds ofbirds), surrounding us with the mix until it becomesdifficult to tell which is which. A kind of euphoricdisorientation is supposed to set in as weprogressively accept the Disney definition of things.We are asked to submit to a wilful suspension ofdisbelieve in the ostensible interest of a completeentertainment experience.” [Stephen M. Fjellman]34
  35. 35. Application 1: Disneyfication The term is generally used in a negative way, andimplies homogenizationof consumption, merchandising, and emotionallabour. It can be used more broadly to describe theprocesses of stripping a real place or event of itsoriginal character and repackaging it ina sanitized format. References to anything negativeare removed, and the facts are watered down with theintent of making the subject more pleasant and easilygrasped. In the case of places, this typically means replacingwhat has grown organically over time with anidealized and tourist-friendly veneer reminiscent ofthe "Main Street, U.S.A." attractions at Disney themeparks.[Wikipedia]35
  36. 36. Application 2: cute animals in Disney Animal characters are, for the audience, at the sametime inferior (often victims of human activities) and atthe same time anthropomorphic. The Disney movies and rides often alternate scaringor frightening scenes with cute and happyones. Bruno Bettelheim made the point that thistechnique used in fairy tales is useful for kids‟education, that it is a “symbolic presentation ofdifficult and dangerous psychosocial contradictions”.But the goal of Disney is not to educate kids, it is tomake money. Scaring children to then make themhappier is a good way to sell more cinema tickets andmerchandising.36
  37. 37. Politically correct?One of the most intriguing characteristic of theDisney “magic” is to be perceived as politicallycorrect. Why is a rather dull white princess recovering herprerogative because of her sex appeal politicallycorrect? Why is alcoholism in the Pirates of Caribbeanpolitically correct?37
  38. 38. 4. The roles of heterotopia38
  39. 39. Two types of heterotopia: Heterotopia of illusion: their role is to create aspace of illusion that exposes every real space, allthe sites inside of which human life is partitioned,as still more illusory. Heterotopia of compensation: their role is to createa space that is “other”, another real space - asperfect, meticulous, and well-arranged as ours ismessy, ill-constructed, and jumbled.39
  40. 40. Disney World is a heterotopia ofboth illusion and compensation.40CompensationMickey house and theperfect American wayof life.IllusionIn the world ofEPCOT, all culturesare illusory comparedto the logic ofcommerce.
  41. 41. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard:"Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order tomake us believe that the rest is real, when in factall of Los Angeles and the America surrounding itare no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation.”41
  42. 42. 5. Heterochronies42
  43. 43. Two types of heterochronies: Museums and libraries have become heterotopiasin which time never stops building up and toppingits own summit. Carnivals and festivals are linked, on thecontrary, to time in its mostflowing, transitory, precarious aspect. Theseheterotopias are not oriented toward theeternal, they are rather absolutely temporal.43
  44. 44. 44Often at Disney World, rides about the future areactually about the past future: the future as itwas imagined few decades ago (e.g. SpaceMountain, Spaceship Earth). This paradox istolerated by the otherwise perfectionism of theDisney imagineers because it achieves onegoal: providing reasonable credibility to thestatement that corporate technology is good forhumanity.Real future technologies are too controversial,old ones are better suited.
  45. 45. 6. Heterotopia: opened andclosed spaces45
  46. 46. Heterotopias always presuppose a system ofopening and closing that both isolates them andmakes them penetrable.Umberto Eco:“When entering Disneyland, consumers form intolines to gain access to each attraction. Then theyare ordered by people with special uniforms tofollow the rules, such as where to stand or whereto sit. If the consumer follows each rulecorrectly, they can enjoy "the real thing" and seethings that are not available to them outside ofDisneylands doors.”46
  47. 47.  Visual magnets force the visitors‟ behaviours andstill give the illusion of freedom. Everyone is happy in Disney World, but there is anentrance fee.47
  48. 48. Conclusion & interrogations48
  49. 49. “The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. Incivilizations without boats, dreams dryup, espionage takes the place of adventure, andthe police take the place of pirates.” [MichelFoucault]But what about the Disney Cruise Line?49
  50. 50. Michel Foucault advocates a world with manyheterotopias, many “other places” of juxtaposition andtransgression, escapes from authoritarianism. But dothey not instead reinforce the coherence of society?Walt Disney World is a legitimate heterotopia, reflectingsome of the ideals of our time. However, it should notbe the only one. The real danger is the disneyficationof all places.“Are we heading for the „all-in-heterotopia‟ where themuseum is becoming a theme park, and the themepark a museum, the mall encapsulating both themepark and cultural centre?” [Hilda Heynen, KULeuven]50
  51. 51. Interrogations Are there any differences between the tales of DisneyWorld and History? Are they not both illusory? What is the connection between space, history,knowledge, and power? How much of this cultural construct is conscious inthe head of Disney imagineers? Is it important toknow? Are utopias and heterotopias „good‟? Or only some ofthem? Is a society without utopias and heterotopiaspossible? Is Disney World „real‟? Is it hyperrealist? And is itdifferent from the rest of the world?51
  52. 52. Thank you!Christophe Bruchansky@bruchanskywww.bruchansky.name52Q&As