READING GUIDE TO: Marin, L (1977) 'Disneyland: a Degenerate Utopia', in Glyph (1): 50 - 66
[The piece begins with a lot of material about how to write about Disney and utopias in a suitably open-ended text - like manner.]
There are two main focuses:
(1) Spatial aspects and how they organise reality, history, and social relationships, especially at the unconscious level. Ideology is defined as a representation of the real conditions of existence [so rather like Althusser]. Utopias express a possible society but still within a 'common and ordinary language of the period and of a place' (53), and still using standard codes. It becomes possible to see the Disneyland tour as a kind of narrative. The map describes the tour, and thus becomes an important part of the representational picture.
(2) Utopias degenerate in ideology into myth, based on the representations of dominant groups. [Briefly, in a degenerate utopia, all the tendencies that might lead out of existing social forms are turned back and incorporated, so to speak. Following the analogy with the map of Disneyland, outlined below, degenerate utopias apparently contain everything you might want, ready packaged] . Such degenerate utopias tend to have an uncritical impact on the audience -- 'All forms of alienation are represented in Disneyland' (54), but the audiences do not feel estranged or distant, but rather fascinated. In this sense the visitor plays an alienating parts, realizes the models, and imagines the construction of society.
As with all utopias, there are limits or barriers between Disneyland and the outer world: (a) physical boundaries, such as car parks; (b) booths where you buy Disney money; (c) the physical boundary offered by the train line and Embankment -- all the inside parts are Disney. Such limits produce 'a concealed rule of behaviour for the visitor' (56) [So inside the boundary you act like a Disney tourist -- becoming infantile, uncritical and all the other things the critics have mentioned?]
There is an interesting layout taking the visitor from periphery to core -- Fantasyland [remember this is Disneyland in California in the late 1970s] via Main Street. There are lots of images that become realized as statues or animatronics. This changes both the image and reality, producing a constructed 'real "imaginaire"', a 'fixed, stereotyped powerful fantasy' (56). There is a harmony between the 'rhetorical and iconic code' in Disney, and those of the visitor - performer. These are fixed in a collective understanding -- the totalitarian 'imaginaire'.
'If we consider Disneyland as a text' (57) [and there are real difficulties and disadvantages as well as benefits in doing this], Main Street becomes the [communicative] channel, the 'phatic' [bridge-building communication] will be, which permits the visitor to narrate his own story'. Visitor impressions become part of the narrative -- the variety of these impressions is exchanged according to codes 'imposed by the makers of Disneyland' (57).
The structure is best revealed in the map [more important assumptions here]. Main Street has three functions: (a) phatic, (b) referential (where reality becomes fantasy or the image), (c) integrative, since it unites the different zones. It is also a real place to do real commerce [a point emphasized by Eco]: consumption is 'the truth for all of Disneyland' (58). Therefore, Main Street stands for the whole. It unites the past and present too. It reconciles, in fiction all the contradictions.
The visitor does a kind of 'parole' [local actual speech] within the constraints of a previously structured syntax and codes. The representations themselves constrain, especially of imaginary history. 'He is manipulated by the system even when he seems to freely choose his tour' (59). Any possibilities of 'code interference', or interplay [intertextuality?] are excluded -- the tours are determined, the map becomes a substitute for a visit (59). There is no real 'parole', no 'opportunity to escape' (59). The architecture is not progressive, does not permit different interplays or local uses, or openness. The lack of contradiction is clear [and this justifies Marin's focus on the map (61) rather than on actual narratives found in the park -- pretty dubious and reductionist for me].
Descriptions of the map follow. Adventureland and Frontierland offer a 'world of natural savagery' and an indication of the past of the US nation respectively (61). Tomorrowland depicts a universe captured by science and technology (61). There are some differences between the map and the semantics structures inside each zone -- for example, the centres are not the same. There are also 'sites of exchanges' -- not only is money exchanged, but 'reality becomes phantasmatic and fantasy actual' (62). One example would be where American history is represented by signifiers which are also commodities [souvenirs?]
As for the Pirates of the Caribbean, the site offers a clear 'syntagmatic organisation of a ride... a narrative', and the resolution of the narrative is that 'crime does not pay' (62). This moral message is also presented early, in order to control any unpredictability of the narrative. There is a clear link to economic ideologies [piracy becomes a kind of primitive accumulation instead of savings and trade] (63). Similar themes are found in the displays about technological growth and families.
Nature is also dominated and represented. It is rendered as a benign mechanism -- 'a basic tenet of the utopian mode of thinking' (64). Machines appear largely in terms of technological futures and are often scaled down. Fantasyland offers a 'return of reality in a regressive and hallucinatory form' (65), with 'reduced models of death, strangeness and exoticism' on one side, and 'life, consumption and techniques' on the other (65). This represents an ideology of exchange between nature and mechanized life.
To conclude, Marin offers a kind of autocritique, pointing to his own use of narratives to make critical points, and noting that critiques like his can also be seen as 'degenerative utopias, critical myths and theoretical fantasies' (66). He admits that his is an imposed reading. Thus even scientists and theorists 'have to get out of their Disneyland to discover their utopias' (66).
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