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The Heterotopia of Disney World

Christophe Bruchansky asks if we’re living in a global themepark.

Walt Disney World opened in Florida in 1971. It was the second theme park built by Disney, the first being Disneyland in California in 1955. Disney World is not one theme park, but a group of four theme parks, two water parks, and many hotels, all together in Orlando. It is one of the most visited attractions in the world, and represents far from merely an American phenomenon. Disney theme parks are now located in Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong, and a new park has recently been announced for Shanghai. But what is a Disney theme park? Is it a utopia? Is it a heterotopia – a concept defined by French philosopher Michel Foucault? Or is it something else? As you will see from this article, understanding Disney World requires a profound reflection on culture, history and reality.

Disney World as a Utopia

The word ‘utopia’ comes from the Greek ού, ‘not’, and τόπος, ‘place’: thus it means a place that is not, ie is fictional, unreal, nowhere. (Things would be relatively simple if the word didn’t have a homophone: ‘eutopia’, derived from the Greek εύ, ‘good’, and τόπος, ‘place’ – defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a region of ideal happiness or good order.) It seems reasonable to think that the vision of Walt Disney World is utopian: Disney World is magical, yet fake. It promotes a world of happiness made of fairy tales.

The term ‘utopia’ was introduced by Thomas More in 1516 as the title of the book in which he describes a fictional pagan and communist island whose policies are entirely governed by reason. One just needs to compare the original cover of his book with the maps distributed at the entrances to Disney theme parks to be convinced that the Disney vision is of a utopia. Both have castles, mountains and other ‘visual magnets’. Both show a territory of nature and rivers isolated from the rest of the world. Yet if you look at Disney World from above, it’s actually made of big concrete buildings enclosing rides, shops and restaurants: nature within Disney World is not as wild as it appears on its map, and visual magnets such as the fairytale castle are actually very small compared to the rest of the park. Similarly, on Utopia Island as imagined by Thomas More, nature is also actually heavily controlled, and cities are planned to be mostly identical – far from the implication of the seemingly diverse town halls on the illustration. In both cases, the maps considerably modify one’s perception of the reality. That said, even if the vision of Disney World is a utopia, the park cannot be one: it exists for real, has a tangible location and is mainly made of concrete. This is why we need another concept to describe Walt Disney World – the concept of heterotopia.

Disney World as a Heterotopia

The concept of heterotopia was introduced by Michel Foucault during a lecture to architectural students in 1967:

“Heterotopias are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites – all the other real sites that can be found within the culture – are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted… It makes the place that I occupy when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, and absolutely unreal.”

Thus a heterotopia is a place that represents society, but in a distorted way which calls to mind particular idealised aspects of the culture. A cemetery is a heterotopia because the tombs form a sort of ideal town for the deceased, each placed and displayed according to his social rank. The cemetery gives the illusion to its visitors that their departed relatives still have an existence and status, symbolised by the stone of their tomb. It is a simulated utopia of life after death, but it is also a representation of the real world, where blood affiliation, wealth and power play a central part. A guided tour of the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, for example, could persuade anyone that cemeteries reflect societies and inform us how history is made. Another example of a heterotopia is the garden. English gardens mimic the irregularity of nature; the straight lines in gardens à la française celebrate the mastery of man over nature; Japanese gardens instead reflect the idea of balance in nature. Gardens are attempts to recreate an ideal, utopian nature – in doing so, they mirror the beliefs of their contemporaries, and this makes them heterotopias.

Drag queen cabarets are in my opinion one more example of heterotopias. Cabarets are real places, like cinemas and theatres, but they are also stages for fictional worlds. Drag queens dress and act like women, but they exaggerate and caricature feminine traits. Some drag queens even confront the feminine traits with their masculinity, not hiding their rocky voices or hairy chests. The audience not only understand that it’s an illusion, they can also see how artificial are the attributes women are socially expected to exhibit. Michel Foucault defines these types of heterotopias as heterotopias of illusion: “Their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory,” he writes. (‘Of other spaces’, 1967)

I think that Walt Disney World is a heterotopia too. In the remainder of this article I’m going to explain how it represents and inverts Western consumerist society.

The Culture of Disney World

Disney World is a triumph of mass consumerism. What a visitor gets in exchange for the fee he pays at the park entrance is impressive. He can experience rides that cost millions of dollars to build. He can see parades and shows, be welcomed by cartoon characters, use an armada of exotic public transport – all of this being operated by thousands of employees. After such a brilliant demonstration of mass consumerism in action, how could anyone not believe in all the joy it can bring?

Think for example about Mickey Mouse. Why is he so nice to children? Is it because the children did something that deserves his recognition? Is it because Mickey is in a good mood? Is it because he’s friends with their parents? None of these explanations are credible. The only reason why Mickey brings so much joy to the children is that he is paid to do so – thanks to the collective contributions of all the parents. The experience is only possible because Walt Disney World is a closed space with an entrance fee. (A system of ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ is required in all heterotopias, so that they can preserve their singularity.)

One of the most iconic attractions of Disney theme parks is It’s A Small World. Here visitors embark on small boats to discover a series of rooms filled with animatronic children from ‘every’ nation, religiously repeating the song ‘It’s a small world (after all)’ in their local language. In the World Showcase of EPCOT, a Disney World theme park, pavilions representing many nations also provide a condensed version of the globe to visitors: it’s a small world again. Each pavilion has its own soundtrack and fake façade. What else they have in common is a shop to sell national merchandising, or a restaurant to serve local cuisine. The metanarrative of both It’s A Small World and World Showcase is that whatever our clothes, traditions and languages, we all share the same fundamental values. Also being asserted is that at every point of history, in every culture and location we look at, free exchange and commerce between people and nations has always been beneficial. Cultures are fa çades that should not undermine the consensus around the benefits of consumerism. So Disney World not only showcases the entire world, it interprets it to you.

In his book Vinyl Leaves (1992), the anthropologist Stephen M. Fjellman deciphers the message of Walt Disney World in more detail: “Our lives can only be well lived (or lived at all) through the purchase of commodities. As the commodity form becomes a central part of culture, so culture becomes available for use in the interest of commodification, as a legitimation for the entire system. We must be taught that it is good, reasonable, just, and natural that the means necessary for life are available only through the market.” To understand this, take a Disney cultural asset that’s received a lot of popular interest – let’s say the first Toy Story movie. If any asset is well-suited for merchandising (that is, compatible with a consumerist approach), it will not only be visible in every cinema, but also in every shop; Toy Story will become an even bigger cultural reference, and Toy Story-themed attractions will probably be added in Disney theme parks.

This mechanism also works the other way around. Take a popular product, let’s say M&Ms. If this commodity is compatible with promoting cultural assets – being sold in a Toy Story figurine, for example – it will be even more successful, and will become an even more recognised product for consumers.

Conversely, a cultural asset that is not suitable for families and children is less likely to be adapted for mass consumerism, and therefore is likely to have less of a cultural impact. The same is true for any commodity that cannot leverage cultural assets. This is how and why popular culture – more specifically, Disney culture – is biased towards happy consumerism.

Consumerism plays a role in history too. Napoleon is a universally-recognized historical figure, who has however been slightly neglected by French people recently. A marketing study showed that the ‘Napoleon’ brand had a lot of potential with Chinese tourists visiting France. In response, cultural heritage sites worked to highlight the connection to the French emperor. Will Napoleon be remembered because of his role in history, or because his legacy has been commodified?

Supposedly serious forms of culture follow the same pattern of selective cultural promotion. For example, art history is negotiated in museums: curators select which object is worth preserving and promoting, and which is not. Museums also artificially define how human artefacts relate to each other – making connections between prehistoric and contemporary art, or between artefacts from every geographic origin. They can construct a story summarising and connecting all human creativity since its beginning. Museums are for these reasons heterotopias: real places enacting or representing a utopia of global, unified cultural history.

The Magic of Disney World

Disney World delivers its metanarrative using Magic. Stephen Fjellman explains in Vinyl Leaves that the ‘magic’ of Disney World is actually a cognitive overload associated with decontextualization. ‘Cognitive overload’ simply means that the visitors’ senses are constantly overloaded by stimuli: music, stories, animatronics, cute characters, pretty buildings, rides, simulations and more. The visitor is overwhelmed and loses part of his capacity to discriminate information or think. Furthermore, Disney World is an immense patchwork of medieval castles, colonial history, future technologies, dinosaurs, movies, animals and exotic destinations. Each of these elements is presented out of its context, and thus loses a large part of its original meaning. This is decontextualization.

Using this Magic enables Walt Disney to reinvent the world using small bits of reality to construct a story, or even history. The heterotopian story of Disney World is one of happy consumerism made real. But, like every heterotopia, it doesn’t happen only through the imagination of its creators: the visitors play an active part in the phenomenon. As Fjellman puts it, “We are asked to submit to a wilful suspension of disbelief in the ostensible interest of a complete entertainment experience.” Every visitor knows what to expect from Disney World; a place where everything is calculated to make them enjoy their stay the Disney way. Nothing is random: everything is manufactured so that millions of people can experience the park in the same ‘optimum’ way. As Umberto Eco explains in Faith In Fakes: Travels In Hyperreality (1986), “Access to each [Disney] attraction is regulated by a maze of metal railings which discourages any individual initiative. The officials of the dream, properly dressed in the uniforms suited to each specific attraction, not only admit the visitor to the threshold of the chosen sector, but, in successive phases, regulate his every move. If the visitor pays this price, he can have not only ‘the real thing’, but the abundance of the reconstructed truth.”

Walt Disney World mirrors, interprets and deforms the world in a consumerist way. But every heterotopia interprets and distorts, each in its own way, and often influenced by consumerism. How could we decide which narrative, which heterotopia, best represents reality – if any? And is cognitive overload not present almost everywhere now? Every object, every activity, is culturally saturated. It just happens that the objects and activities are more exotic in Disney World. Decontextualization seems ubiquitous too: the mixtures of cultures in cosmopolitan cities, the bite-sized news in the media, and imported food in supermarkets, are all decontextualized. Does this mean that these places are all heterotopias too?

Hyperreality and Global Disneyfication

Jean Baudrillard said in Simulacra and Simulations (1981) that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation.” This argument can easily be extended to the rest of the world. How many people can recognise the difference between a medieval and a more recent gothic-revival building, let alone restorations in Europe after the Second World War? Very little of our environment is original, most of it is a simulacrum of what reality should be: gardens and rural landscapes are what we call ‘nature’, romantic architecture is what we call ‘authenticity’. Are we all living in a big theme park, a model of reality? What is not a heterotopia?

In his notes, Michel Foucault advocated a world with many heterotopias: many ‘other’ places, of juxtaposition and transgression – escapes from authoritarianism. I don’t think heterotopias are necessarily escapes from authoritarianism, but I do strongly believe in the necessity of contrasting heterotopias. History and culture are so rich that they cannot be reduced to one narrative. Heterotopias should therefore produce discordant meanings and models, narrate different stories. I believe it is from this richness that we can exist freely, and freely invent our future.

‘Disneyfication’ is the decontextualization of reality and its repackaging in a family-friendly and simplified format ideal for mass-consumerism. I like Walt Disney World. Without judging whether consumerism is good, it is undoubtedly a very appealing social proposition, and its idealisation in Disney World makes sense anthropologically. I personally do not see any problems living in multiple copies of reality, as long as they do not deny real facts, but copies of reality, models and maps need to be diverse, contrasted, disconnected. The danger is to allow a total disneyfication of reality.

© Christophe Bruchansky 2010

Christophe Bruchansky is an art curator from Belgium. A list of his work can be found at curatedmatter.org.

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