Disneyland as Sacred Landscape

This month’s Myth Café prompt is to consider a sacred landscape either around us or that we have visited. The catch to the prompt is that it is supposed to be a natural landscape. Because if it were just any old landscape, then I could write about Disneyland and call it a day. I’ve been sitting on this question now for a few weeks, and realize that I need to tackle this prompt before the end of the month. So, here it is: Disneyland as Sacred Landscape.

The first question to the validity of this claim lies in the word “sacred,” which evokes a particular connotation in scholars depending on how they relate to sacred traditions. My inner post-modernist holds the opinion that there are some definitions (okay, many definitions) of terms that have gotten outmoded in the modern American world. “Sacred” is one of them. The traditional definition is specific: that to be “sacred” something has to have a divine/religious connotation, and that nothing outside of this connotation can be ascribed with “sacred” meaning. But there are some situations that manifest and are ascribed as “sacred” by the person holding the experience. This understanding of “sacred” is not a generic blanket term for all experiences, but is housed entirely in the individual experience.

Going a step further, there are certain experiences of the numinous that some people claim to have from non-religious modes of the “sacred.” This does not diminish the experience as something mis-guided, etc. Rather, it begs a redefinition of terms to acknowledge the individual experience.

Disneyland is one such place that evokes a sense of the sacred” in some people. You can see it in their eyes and in the reverence they hold for the place, drinking up all of its offerings, not just running from shop to attraction to shop to lunch (i.e., consuming the park). Sure, they are sometimes hard to find in a typical Disneyland visit, when everyone in the immediate vicinity is tired, hot, thirsty, and looking overall grumpy. It’s easy to claim that no one is happy in Disneyland, because so many children are crying and so many adults are yelling at each other or their kids. But for every 10 unhappy families, you can find a couple or two (perhaps they have kids) who are drinking the environment of Disneyland as though they were drinking from the Cup of Life. A churro becomes a sacrament. The fireworks becomes a display of the gods.

But there is nothing natural about Disneyland. In fact, almost the entire landscape is unnatural – either constructed or imported from regions beyond Southern California. I attempt to allude to the unnaturalness of Disneyland in this essay, while also arguing that it is through this unnaturalness that the experience is to be had:

Tamara Andrews suggests a new perspective of  nature mythology that is especially apropos to a discussion of psyche and nature as they play out at Disneyland: “Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of the mirage, an illusion that appears where images are displaced or distorted under specific atmospheric conditions. The mind’s eye takes over. Perhaps such vision is what is necessary to understand nature mythology from a modern perspective” (xiii). The Disney park is not itself an illusion, but that design of the park at play with the senses is. Through the efforts of the Imagineers, Disney’s design engineers, it sometimes appears as though magic really does happen, that birds can talk and sing, or that a little fairy dust can make one fly to Never Land. It is, thus, necessary to read Disneyland as a fairy tale, with all of its psychological implications, not just as an abomination of nature, as critics are wont to proclaim. Disneyland may embody capitalism, but the park is a playground for the imagination. It allows people to interact with the stories and characters they love, and thus embody the closest thing to a mythological canon American has to offer, á la fairy tales and the Western frontier.

The new directions that myth is taking appears to be pointing us toward the importance of the individual experience in conjunction with the collective. Discourse for the last 100 years (at least) has explored these as unique from each other, but really they work in symbiosis. What happens in the collective shapes the individual, who then contributes to the collective. So to write off something that a small percentage of the population holds, perhaps unconsciously, as sacred, is to overlook both the impact of that experience and what is has to suggest about the collective that such an experience could exist. On the collective level, Disneyland bespeaks to America’s consumerist behavior. On the individual level, Disneyland offers an outlet for domestic pilgrimage and ritual, celebrating not a god – one of the few sacred landscapes to do so – not even celebrating a mouse. Disneyland celebrates the American Dream, from Manifest Destiny to Innoventions. The American Dream, I suggest, is America’s religion. It’s the only common belief held by all of her citizens. Perhaps this Dream has gotten tarnished in the last few years, but only because the reality of our situation is falling very short of the Dream.

Going in a different direction, Disneyland once had an attraction that projected images of America in a 360-degree theater. It disappeared long before I first visited Disneyland, but this film was used in the 1950s at a World’s Fair to sell America to the rest of the world. The scenes used were landscape scenes from the Rockies, Mount Rushmore, and others. The emphasis was on the land not the people. Through this film (and it’s children and grandchildren, such as Soarin’), Disney reinforced a long-standing American mytheme that connects our identity with the land of the country or our region. Broadcast at Disneyland, this Circarama film was the ultimate meta-myth of American sacred tradition.

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

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.

What’s The Point? My Review

1971’s The Point is an animated feature based on a fable by musician Harry Nielsen. It is set in the Pointed Village in the Land of Point, where everyone and everything is driven obsessively by the point. One day, Oblio is born with no point. Though he and his family learn to work around his “disability” (as it would be described today), he nonetheless poses a threat to a local bully, who is the Count’s son. The bully and the Count conspire to have Oblio banished to the Pointless Forest for violating the law of the land that everything shall have a point. The first thing that Oblio observes in the Pointless Forest is that there are a lot of points. He meets a pointed man, which three faces, who keeps appearing at strategic intervals to “teach” Oblio how everything he has just experienced is pointless, but he himself refuses to help Oblio understand the point of anything. Among some of the many “pointless” characters Oblio meets, a Rock Man (or a Stoned Man, as he accidently once calls his people) tells Oblio that you don’t have to actually have a point just to have a point. And Oblio begins to see the hidden point to everything. For example, the point of the Balloon Women is to laugh and dance, or that the point of the Leaf Man is collect leaves. He determines that the only truly pointless person in the pointless forest is the pointed man. Once he makes this realization, he arrives at the Destination Point, pointing him back home to the Pointed Village. Everyone but the Count is excited to see Oblio again, who reveals the truth about points. The angered Count knocks off his cap to find out that Oblio has indeed grown a point, and this revelation causes the entire Pointed Village to lose their physical points in favor of the metaphorical point. They became round, proving that not everything necessarily has to have a point.

Harry Nilssen is cited on the Wiki as saying:

I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s a point to it.’

And I kind of feel that that is the only way to really understand the point of The Point. I used to watch this on the Disney Channel, back when the Disney Channel was still a premium channel that showed classic Disney films and shorts, as well as an interesting selection of counter-culture subversive animation. Given the context of the 1980s, the choice of the Disney Channel to broadcast The Point probably has something to do with its messages of accepting diversity. It’s not that there’s a point to anything at all, but that because Oblio was born differently than everything else doesn’t mean he should be cast aside.

But there has to be more to it than that. This film was released in 1971, in the aftermath of the “come-down” from the 1960s, a decade full of change (especially among minority groups), war (Vietnam), and utopianism (peace and love). The Counterculture Movement (blanketing all of the sub-movements), once perceived as pointless, proved that it actually had a point. Even the burn-out Rock Man has a point, but he has to stay in the Pointless Forest because his point does not conform to the rigid pointedness of the Pointed Village. There is an embrace of society’s Fringe Culture in this film. From the perspective of society, they are pointless, which is why they are on the fringe, yet from their perspective, they are very pointy. Everything has a point.

And then there is the matter of the Pointed Man. He jumps in and out of Oblio’s journey like a three-headed god. Knowing that this character was created by Harry Nilssen and knowing he had a connection to the Beatles, I’m going to make a leap in logic and assume that this figure is inspired by the Trimurti of Hinduism. The Trimurti depicts the three Hindu gods, Brahma (Creation), Vishnu (Life) and Shiva (Destruction), as three facets of the same cosmic principle, and they are often depicted as three heads on the same neck. So this three-headed pointed man keeps popping in and out (literally, he’s there, then he’s not). Though Oblio concludes that he is pointless, he actually is helping Oblio come to the point of his journey, and in this case, he is fulfilling a trickster role. The pointed man knows full well what the point happens to be, but by intentionally trying to mislead Oblio by making him think that his adventures have no point, he is actually leading him straight to the point, that everything has a point (and everything is a part of Brahaman…). This realization of the point heals a Pointed Village that didn’t even know it was broken. The same can be said about the aftermath of the mass disillusionment that came with the end of the 1960s. Though everyone thought they had the point, they didn’t, and needed to be reminded.

This is framed by a father reading his son a bedtime story, though the son would rather watch his favorite program. A fitting frame to tie the message of the point into the modern world, even somewhat suggesting that television has no point, that story is where the point is to be found. A message especially true of today’s affinity with “reality television.” Yes, the argument can be made that there are some phenomenally storied television shows out there, but the point is that they are dwarfed by the number of “reality” shows.

So I guess that’s the point of The Point.

Myth Collection as Consumption

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.

Goodbye Concept Paper, Hello Thesis Statement

There is a class in Pacifica’s myth curriculum titled “Dissertation Formulation.” It’s a quarter-long mini-workshop to help students figure out just what their dissertation will be about. Each group is formed of a fraction of their cohort and one faculty, and each student is given an opportunity to present their idea and receive feedback from the rest of the group about their topic. It’s designed to take us from vague concept to ready-to-go topic before we form our committee and write the beast. At the end of the class, students submit a Concept Paper, which is essentially a proto-Introduction. Passing the Concept Paper is the golden ticket to enter into the dissertation-writing phase of the program.

One of the problems I’ve had this entire process is articulating just what I want my dissertation to be about. My chapter organization has never been in question, but my methodology has been. As Dissertation Summer comes to a close, I think I have finally grasped what it is I’m trying to do and started another redux of my introduction chapter, one that tightens my thesis statement and better represents the chapter structure. Of course, then I’m faced with the problem of justifying two of the chapters, but that will come by final draft I’m sure. In order to do this, I’ve had to divorce myself from the Concept Paper and write fresh. From talking with other buddies, it seems that this is a necessary step to a successful dissertation.

Key themes of this new thesis include: Cold War, hyperreality and new myth.