Tag Archives: consumption

We are living with half a religion.

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Last night I had a dream in which a dear friend of mine went on an uncharacteristic rent about the soullessness of Walt Disney World. In this dream, I responded. We were at WDW, a place I long to visit (having never been), and our public debate was making cast members uncomfortable. Here is what I realized in my dream:

I maintain that there are two myths at the core of the American cultural psyche: Utopia and Manifest Destiny. Tucked under Manifest Destiny lies our relationship to consumption. For the American, there are three modes of consumption:

  1. Survival—well, duh.
  2. Power—By consuming the resources, none of the other kids can have them, making us king of the playground.
  3. Unquenhable Hunger—Our consumption is also a need to satiate a hunger, to fill some kind of spiritual hole.

I am an apologist for consumption. I don’t believe that the solution to number three is to reinfuse myth into our culture. If there is any single characteristic inherent in Americans, it’s our resourcefulness. We have been writing our own myths for centuries, albeit in nontraditional forms. I do believe, however, that the solution to number three is to rewrite the consumption myth altogether, but I’m digressing from my original intended topic.

It occurs to me that number three exists because our country was founded by Protestants. Sure, Protestants brought a strong work-ethic to this country. But Protestants also brought half a religion with them. Protestantism is Catholicism without the mystery and mysticism. I’m not sure why anyone would want to take the mystery and mysticism out of Christianity, but there you have it.

My flavor of Protestantism is Episcopalian. “The Thinking Man’s Religion.” The lineage of the Episcopal Church can be traced to Henry VIII and the establishment of the Anglican Church. Henry wasn’t trying to take the mystery out of Christianity; he just wanted power and control over the church. Oh yeah, and a divorce. As such, I grok the mystery of Christianity, but not the mysticism.

Let me also take a moment to point out that today’s Catholicism is not Christopher Columbus’ Catholicism. The Catholic Church has had to change dramatically over the centuries to fight against the allure of the Protestant Churches and, increasingly, other religions altogether. This, and the ease of establishing Protestant denominations/churches, is why Christianity is such a mess.

I’m not suggesting that America would have been “better off” if it had been founded by Catholics. Look at the history of Meso- and South America. At least the Catholic conquistadors were consciously searching for modes of consumption, but they still slaughtered anyone in their path who wasn’t cooperating. There’s that annoying relationship between consumption and power again.

I am suggesting, however, that Americans need to relearn the mystery and mysticism of SOMETHING. Perhaps “traditional” or “organized” religions is not the answer (I’m including Native American traditions here). Perhaps, instead, the secret is to disconnect from the Information Superhighway. I have to give kudos to Henry David Thoreau. While his abandonment of civilization isn’t for everyone (assuming there are still remote parts of America left), his attention to the little things is. How easy it would be to embrace the mystery the Romantic poets saw, and find even a little solace in our Soulless? world.

The End of Dissertation Summer, Or: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

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Just to recap: I took this summer off from teaching to make a significant dent to my dissertation. My goal was to complete 3 chapters by the end of summer vacation. I figure that after the 2 chapters of the proposal, 3 out of 7 chapters is a significant dent to the overall project. With one week to spare on my summer vacation, I have successfully completed 5 of 7 chapters. Or, seen this way, my dissertation is 5/7 completed. Or, even better, there are only 2 chapters left to write.

So did I happen to learn anything over the course of this summer write-a-thon? One of the biggest reveals to me is that I am, at my heart of hearts, a culture theorist with a particular affinity for popular culture (notably, film). By “culture theorist” I mean someone who looks at the symbiosis of all culture elements to understand the entire package, not just with a concentration on one particular element. Rather an ironic statement, given that I’m writing about Disneyland; however, in the course of writing about Disneyland, I make it a point to root everything into a cultural context. As a “culture theorist,” I recognize that the influences of culture shape the direction that the development of myths take. Myths don’t emerge in a vaccuum, believe it or not.

Which leads to another great revelation: I’m a post-modernist. I think I entered the project believing that I was a romantic rogue scholar, but I see now that I am firmly a post-modernist, albeit a “happy” post-modernist rather than a deconstructionist. This is, I think, a side-effect of culture studies branching off from anthropology and sociology to look less at “social theory” and more at “what actually is going on.” Very few successful post-modern culture theorists are romantic about whatever they write about. Reverential, perhaps, but not romantic in the true sense of the term. Maybe “phenomenologist" is a word to drop somewhere in here.

And, while I’m happy to be a book-thumping mythologist and an arm-chair psychologist, it’s time to get some new scholarship published that isn’t just reciting or repackaging the same old theories that have been tossed around for 100 years now. In other words, stop theorizing and start doing. I’m still working on my plan of action for this step.

The chapters I worked on were 3 chapters right in the middle of the beast, dealing with issues of the cultural shadow, waste land, and fairy tale, all three of which lead me in the same direction: the Cold War as a major turning point in America’s relationship to myth and culture. We are in a very unique point of time and everyone would like us to believe that it’s all going to Hell in a hand basket, but there are plenty of myths out there that can help us cope with the paradigm shift. Disneyland, I offer, is just one among many. it’s definitely among my favorites, but it is not the only one and we could argue whether or not it’s the best one. At a place like Disneyland, we can experience the full complete spectrum of modern post-Cold War American myth, which is probably why Disney parks rank among some of the world’s most popular theme parks. They speak to those, like me, who are visual, kinetic, visual-kinetic, and they speak on the metaphoric level.

Which also leads me to a couple of isms that have made a home in my dissertation: consumerism and globalism. Both are typically read as bad things, but both I support. Consumerism is at the very heart of what it means to be American, so the consumptive behaviors aren’t something worth criticizing. The problem of consumption is the point when it becomes a neurosis, which is where we are today. We’re addicted to consuming because we believe that our stuff defines who we are. But I don’t hold Disney at fault for that, because they are simply offering product. It’s still up to me and you to choose to consume it. Then there’s globalism, which is usually criticized as one culture exerting dominance onto another. A new type of globalism is emerging, and this is the one worthy of the term in my opinion, and this is a globalism where myths of different cultures are fused together. Equally. No dominance. And this is the direction I see the new myth taking.

So what is the next step? Dissertation Autumn begins in a week after I’ve taken a small relax and experienced the D23 Expo. By the end of Dissertation Autumn, I should be at the end of my dissertation, which also means that by the end of Dissertation Autumn, I should have a new theme for this website in the works.

Myth Collection as Consumption

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A recent bee started buzzing in my bonnet. Something about people who just collect myths and spit them out to prove a point has gotten under my skin, and this has been festering for awhile and it’s part of my current disillusionment with Joseph Campbell. On one hand, it’s a very superficial way to win an argument. But on the other, it does a disservice to the myth. Each myth has a context, and it’s important to recognize this context. I sort of addressed this in a previous post. What was once a learning tool for young Greek boys is probably not a learning tool for young American women. Sure, it can work if you force it into a new context, even revising the story to fit. But have you ever tried forcing a puzzle piece into a place where it doesn’t go? It’s the same with a myth. If you pound it enough, it’ll fit wherever you want it to, but that doesn’t mean it belongs there.

In my dissertation research, I’ve been recently captivated by the idea of consumption as an inherent part of the American psyche. In fact, I have boldly come to the decision that consumption is the driving force behind Manifest Destiny, which itself is the core of the American psyche. We have been consumers since the pilgrims came to this country; since the Revolution made it our own; since the Frontiersmen, women, and settlers claimed the land; and since we started mass producing “stuff.” Unlike our Old World forefathers, it’s not enough for us to consume food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities. It’s not enough to consume art, religion or ideas. We want to consume everything and in increasing amounts. George Ritzer terms this “hyperconsumption.”

Since consumption is the core of our psyche and since I’m a self-declared cultural relativist (a remnant of my early Anthropology training), I don’t find fault with the fact that we consume. But we’ve made consumption an addiction. We don’t just consume for the sake of consuming, but somewhere along the way we started forming the core of our identity with the things we consume: by the clothes we wear, or the brands we choose to advertise, the car we drive, etc. We consciously project to the world what we want the world to think of us based on the items we are consuming.

But there’s a neurosis in hyperconsumption. We call them “collectors,” “hoarders,” or even “pack rats.” Chances are we all either know a number of friends who we would tag with those descriptions, or maybe we have certain aspects in our own lives that others would label as such. At various stages of my life, I’ve had things I’ve consciously collected, and I’ve held onto them in the classic pack-rat mentality until one move too many and they lost any and all meaning. As of right now, if I had to claim any conscious act of collecting and/or hoarding, it would be books. But the danger to collecting depends on what you do with it.

And this is where myth collecting comes into play. It’s good to know the various myths of the world. I say it many times that myths are some of the best artifacts we have from all times and cultures. They reveal so much about a culture’s beliefs, behaviors and psychology more so than many of the artifacts that do survive the times. This is one reason why I hold a very broad definition of what constitutes a “myth.” But so what? So what if you can recite a passage from Homer for me to prove a point in an argument? Or so what, Professor Campbell, that you can find three examples from world myth that supports your claim? What do you want me to do with it?

The academic realm of mythological studies threatens to become a myth collection. More importantly, choose a few mythologists, follow their work, and regurgitate their findings and sound very smart at a cocktail party.  People turn to myth when they are seeking answers. I’ve heard many people tell me that they found the answers they were looking for to a particular crisis in the works of Joseph Campbell. But while they may find the answers, do they actually put them to action? This is isn’t easy.

This is where  my dissertation has taken me. It’s become important to me to be able to read a myth and cull from it not only a culture-specific understanding of the myth’s context but also gain an understanding of the tools of mythology so that they can be applied to the current myth spectrum. It is only through this that we can begin to unlock the hidden mysteries of American mythology, long ignored as “too popular for serious scholarship.” It is through this that we can begin to understand the phenomenon of fanatic behavior that has helped define so many modes in the past 50 years. And I firmly believe that this will help us gain a better framework to create those myths that might actually initiate the healing process this country so desperately needs.

Moving Beyond the Consumption Myth

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Consumption: the act of consuming. Americans lead the world in consumption (in many different ways) and we consume just about everything. Even those who think they aren’t consumers actually are. There are the commodities we consume, the food we consume, entertainments, education, office supplies, clothing, cleaning and beauty products, and we could probably argue that we even consume our pets.

In writing a dissertation about Disney, the Consumption Myth is something I keep running into. The Disney Critics are quick to point out that the only thing Disney offers us is stuff to consume, thus Disney cannot provide anything of significance beyond that. So, I’m constantly having to defend this point.

There are two components to Disney consumption:

  1. Disneyfication – This is when a story or fairy tale is adapted into a Disney-style visual program (such as a film or television show) that is sanitized and remarkably less “Grimm.” This process takes a story and makes it acceptable for the American mind-set, including emphasizing cultural mores that are not otherwise present in the “original” story. This is the core of the PCA paper that I realize I haven’t posted here yet. I’ll get to that one another time.
  2. Disneyization – This is the impact of the Disney Corporation’s business model on the larger society. Coupled with the McDonald’s/Ford assembly line, Disneyization has created two delivery systems for consumption: the themed environment, in which a particular theme is maintained throughout the entire experience, from the attitudes and behaviors of the employees to the general ambiance of the place; and the notion that consumption is a fun experience. Increasingly, businesses have turned to the specialized theme environment to compete for our attention, and increasingly they’ve gone out of their way to entertain us. This is, according to George Ritzer, one of the reasons why small business are getting run out by Big Box – they just don’t have the ability to keep us amused while we consume.

So then, what are some examples of Disney that I am consuming in my own home?

  • My annual D23 membership and subscription to the twenty-three magazine.
  • My Disney dvd/blu-ray collection, including the D23 exclusive Walt Disney Treasures Box Set.
  • Mouse Ear hats.
  • Mickey Mouse kitchen accessories, including apron, oven mit, and soap dispenser.
  • Epic Mickey video game and collector’s edition walkthrough guidebook.
  • Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers series, in hardcover with a couple autographed.

And more, but there’s also the indirect Disney consumption that is found on my Disney shelf: books and articles devoted to all things Disney, and not necessarily published by Disney. So in this respect, I’m consuming the idea of Disney.

But rather than criticize Disney for its mode of consumption, I think it’s time to accept that consumption is a key part of the modern American psyche. And, instead of criticizing us for imposing our modes of consumption on the entire world, consider that the entire world is guilty of linking consumption with democracy since World War II. To be able to consume is an act of empowerment and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But this equation dates back to the early eras of American history. From the first landings of pilgrims on the Atlantic coastline, we have been consuming the land. Manifest Destiny is a theory of consumption that pushed us West under the guise of a “civilizing mission.” First we consume the land. Then we consume the industries that make things more pleasurable – running water, gas light/electricity, public transportation. And so on, until we start consuming stuff. Early Mickey Mouse merchandise was not limited to only toys, but also to stuff people use: watches, writing tablets, drinking glasses, etc. Tourists would come to this country to buy these symbols of empowerment, so corporations thought to make it easier for them and sent their respective consumption modes over there.

The danger of the Consumption Myth is when the consumption turns into an addiction, which is part of the underlying message of 1999’s Fight Club. This has gotten much easier in the last 20 or so years with the push of credit cards onto younger people, who then grow up to have kids and fail to teach these new kids about the dangers of credit cards, and so on. Couple with that this pervasive illusion within America that all people should have a higher education, which has lead to a greater consumption of education (and educators, I might add…), which, in turn, has lead to greater numbers of student loan debt. Or the other channels of debt: good luck trying to buy a car or house with cash (as our grand-parents tried to encourage us) when they cost of these commodities is through the roof (and don’t get me started on Home Owner’s Associations). This is when consumption becomes worth of all of the criticisms.

I’m sure there’s something to be said about an overload of pleasure and something about fetish, but that’s an area of Freud I’m not as familiar with yet.

Consuming

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One of those questions I’ve been meaning to ask for awhile is what our world/society would be like if we weren’t avid consumers. I’m not only curious because I’m writing a dissertation about Disneyland, but because consumption comes up in some of the most interesting places. For example, over Christmas I was doing a lot of baking. Have you ever considered how much consumption is inherent in baking? As I reached into the fridge to dig the tub of butter out from under the baking soda, pushing aside the leftover chicken in the Rubbermaid containers, I wondered what baking would be like if someone hadn’t come up with a process to refine all of the constituent ingredients in my pie to make them available to me processed and ready for baking and in a fairly cost-effective manner for me, the consumer. Okay, I didn’t word it quite so eloquently at the time, but that was the basic gist of the question. Without modern consumption, I would have to refine all my own flour and churn my own butter. Where would I get baking soda, baking powder or vanilla extract? Then I ask, how is modern baking any different from ancient baking because of the conveniences of access to ingredients?

Now, the challenge is to re-read this post and take out the baking metaphor. Insert anything of your choice.

So how would our world be different?