Hebdige, D. (2003) 'Dis-Gnosis: Disney and the Re-Tooling of Knowledge, Art, Culture, Life, Etc.', in Cultural Studies, Vol 17, No 2: 150--167.
[This is a clever, witty, and occasionally arty essay on the effects of Disney and Disneyfication, partly prompted by a commentary on 'an exhibition of Disney influenced art', installed at several art museums. The essay explores various possible effects of Disneyfication, sounding, at times, rather like Marin's famous essay on Disney as a negative Utopia. As an example of the wit, I especially liked the description of the fatigue from which left-wing cultural critics suffer as 'posture cramp', and the inclusion among the extensive definitions of Disneyfication of 'mono-theism; mono-gamysm; mono-railism'].
New Disney employees are apparently given a definition of Disney corporate culture to inspire them which refers to the philosophy underlying Disney business decisions and the commitment of all employees to that philosophy and image. The Disney Company has grown rapidly from a small animation business in 1928 to a huge global conglomerate. In the process, the values have changed, from an originally slightly subversive Mickey Mouse, whose '"walk" was really a line of flight, syncopated and crazy like the Charleston: insolent and purposeless, unhampered at the outset by social conventions, moral rules or by the laws of physics' (151). [Apparently, Frankfurt School critics also saw Mickey as a subversive 'little man', like an animated Chaplin]. Now, the Company exhibits 'a mania for nothing less than absolute control' (151). The Disney narrative aims at 'brand loyalty; return to the point of origin (ideal/american/ized childhood); return to point of sale; serial selling' (152). These tendencies have spread very deeply into leisure and culture, and now extend to 'the domestication of all otherness, the subtraction of risk from pleasure' (152).
As more concrete examples, Disney merchandising is closely integrated into movie promotions, and even into the very action of movies themselves. [Hebdige cites an episode from Hercules, when the hero becomes a modern celebrity and is allowed to endorse various products]. As this example shows, even post-modern irony has become incorporated. Jokes are made about American Express credit cards and low wages [what's a Greek urn/earn?]; paintings on Greek ceramics become protocartoons produced by a jokey fordist production system.
However, mostly, jokes and references to production are omitted, in favour of a more 'innocent' vision of childhood and of the consumers. Indeed, any critical tendencies at all are banished. Criticism of Disney, once common among cultural critics, seems to have faded after the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture. Perhaps this is 'posture cramp' (153): even the resistance to global capitalism appears to focus more on Nike and Starbucks. In-house squashing of critique is combined with litigation. Criticism of Disney seems too easy to be worth taking too seriously in social sciences and cultural studies [and there is the merest hint of a criticism of those who see consumers as active resistors].
Disney seems to have triumphed in the transformation of culture, seen again in the example of Hercules, which has been bowdlerised and sanitised: Hercules has been given a classic nuclear family! As is typical, sexual reproduction appears to take place without intercourse or parentage. The Company appears to prefer cloning -- twins and triplets abound -- and this happily guards against diversity [Hebdige is citing Wakefield 1990, and Mattelart and Dorfman 1975 here, as well as parodying a 'Gore Vidal' style of criticism]. Citing Baudrillard's famous remark about Disney helping to prop up the collapsing sense of reality, Hebdige suggests that Disneyland is the 'elephant's [sic] graveyard of the real -- the place wher all the big old mythologies of the West: history, politics, transcendence, etc, come lumbering in to die' (155). Hebdige uses the term dis-gnosis, which he has coined, to refer to this 'opposite of knowledge', a way of eliminating and managing awkward knowledge, 'the intricate machinery of not-and-never-knowing but which actively reward [sic] states of arrested development, denial, disavowal and unacknowledgement' (155). [Hence the similarities with Morin, who also says that Disney opens up utopian possibilities only to swallow them again in a negative].
The analysis then moves on to consider the Valencia town-centre, a project apparently 'overseen and sponsored by Walt Disney just before his death in 1966' (163), and designed to be a planned community, one which experimented with Disney conceptions of pedagogy and art. Apparently, CalArts managed to go on to become a rather radical Institute, but its surroundings have been Disneyfied. Hebdige describes the severely restricting local regulations governing behaviour [the most alarming of which forbids 'non-commercial expressive activity'], and the official art which is permitted and sponsored [particularly bland, realistic and rather sentimental statuary] (illustrated pages 156 - 7).
The tendency described by the term dis-gnosis refers to a kind of knowing and manipulated innocence and simplicity -- 'simulated innocence' (157). It involves a loss of memory, a 'calculated frankness' (157). The statuary, which includes a local resident reading a blank newspaper, indicates common developments in the art world, such as the Brit Art 'Sensations' show -- the bisected animals in formaldehyde and the unmade beds are incorporated provocations and accommodations with the 'irreversible facticity of corporate cultural dominance' (160). Those provocations may appear to reject many of the demands for coherence and discipline, but they are accommodating nonetheless, certainly when compared to earlier attempts to simply refuse commercial imagery.
Many involve infantilisation, another specialism of Disney. In the case of Disney, this is backed by real corporate power, involving deskilling, temporary contracts, massive surveillance of the workforce and so on. As the public/private divide weakens, so corporate culture penetrates the domestic: mature adults line-up in Disney or live in Celebration, while the Company attempts to 'reanimate "the Mickey within us"' (Hebdige page 161 quoting Ross 1999). The main form of reaction and resistance appears to be drawn from 'adolescent postures of abjection and sullen non-compliance' (161). Some exhibitions, and some museums, go further back into childhood 'complete with hands-on interactive art work' (161). Jeff Koons has responded by an attempt to escape banalisation through high camp, but this fails to provoke anybody, especially those used to 'eternal tooning' (162). This sort of artistic effort risks being united with Disney imagineering -- 'Everything has been simultaneously anthropomorphised and rendered alien, brought to life and put to bed' (162). The Disney company has also long sponsored and incorporated classical arts and celebrity architecture [there is a long list of architects who have taken the Disney dollar, pages 162 - 3, some of whom have helped to design Celebration]. 'Disney art' has itself been celebrated as art. The Company has moved beyond simulation in theme parks to actually script the physical environment and mediascape itself.
CalArts has managed to escape [we are not offered any more information]. Disney colonisation is still proceeding in the world outside, though. A heavily policed protest meeting in LA was cordoned off, and a giant inflatable was installed inside -- a 'protest playpen' (164). As the police attacked the remaining demonstrators, mainstream America continued to consume Disney products in vast quantities. The future may involve complete docility for 'the People' as they 'graze the verdant malls and mediaways... graze forever on the astro-turf... graze and blink and wear the brand' (164).
Dorfman, A and Mattelart, A (1975) How to Read Donald Duck -- Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, New York: IG editions [NB This book is a famous one, much derided as indicating 'political correctness gone mad'. Hebdige says it was once banned in the USA!]
Giroux, H (1999) The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield
Ross, A (1999) The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property. Value in Disney's New Town, New York: Ballantine
Wakefield, N (1990) Postmodernism: The Twilight of the Real, London: Pluto Press ( has a chapter on Disney)
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