More Disney than Disney World: Semiotics as Theoretical Make-believe

by rsbakker

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Ask a humanities scholar their opinion of Disney and they will almost certainly give you some version of Louis Marin’s famous “degenerate utopia.”

And perhaps they should. Far from a harmless amusement park, Disney World is a vast commercial enterprise, one possessing, as all corporations must, a predatory market agenda. Disney also happens to be in the meaning business, selling numerous forms of access to their propriety content, to their worlds. Disney (much like myself) is in the alternate reality game. Given their commercial imperatives, their alternate realities primarily appeal to children, who, branded at so young an age, continue to fetishize their products well into adulthood. This generational turnover, combined with the acquisition of more and more properties, assures Disney’s growing cultural dominance. And their messaging is obviously, even painfully, ideological, both escapist and socially conservative, designed to systematically neglect all forms of impersonal conflict.

I think we can all agree on this much. But the humanities scholar typically has something more in mind, a proclivity to interpret Disney and its constituents in semiotic terms, as a ‘veil of signs,’ a consciousness constructing apparatus designed to conceal and legitimize existing power inequities. For them, Disney is not simply apologetic as opposed to critical, it also plays the more sinister role of engendering and reinforcing hyperreality, the seamless integration of simulation and reality into disempowering perspectives on the world.

So as Baudrillard claims in Simulacra and Simulations:

The Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that the real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions of their real childishness.

Baudrillard sees the lesson as an associative one, a matter of training. The more we lard reality with our representations, Baudrillard believes, the greater the violence done. So for him the great sin of Disneyland lay not so much in reinforcing ideological derangements via simulation, but in completing the illusion of an ideologically deranged world. It is the lie within the lie, he would have us believe, that makes the second lie so difficult to see through. The sin here is innocence, the kind of belief that falls out of cognitive incapacity. Why do kids believe in magic? Arguably, because they don’t know any better. By providing adults a venue for their children to believe, Disney has also provided them evidence of their own adulthood. Seeing through Disney’s simulations generates the sense of seeing through all illusions, and therefore, seeing the real.

Disney, in other words, facilitates ‘hyperreality’—a semiotic form of cognitive closure—by rendering consumers blind to their blindness. Disney, on the semiotic account, is an ideological neglect machine. Its primary social function is to provide cognitive anaesthesia to the masses, to keep them as docile and distracted as possible. Let’s call this the ‘Disney function,’ or Df. For humanities scholars, as a rule, Df amounts to the production of hyperreality, the politically pernicious conflation of simulation and reality.

In what follows, I hope to demonstrate what might seem a preposterous figure/field inversion. What I want to argue is that the semiotician has Df all wrong—Disney is actually a far more complicated beast—and that the production of hyperreality, if anything, belongs to his or her own interpretative practice. My claim, in other words, is that the ‘politically pernicious conflation of simulation and reality’ far better describes the social function of semiotics than it does Disney.

Semiotics, I want to suggest, has managed to gull intellectuals into actively alienating the very culture they would reform, leading to the degeneration of social criticism into various forms of moral entertainment, a way for jargon-defined ingroups to transform interpretative expertise into demonstrations of manifest moral superiority. Piety, in effect. Semiotics, the study of signs in life, allows the humanities scholar to sit in judgment not just of books, but of text,* which is to say, the entire world of meaning. It constitutes what might be called an ideological Disney World, only one that, unlike the real Disney World, cannot be distinguished from the real.

I know from experience the kind of incredulity these kinds of claim provoke from the semiotically minded. The illusion, as I know first-hand, is that complete. So let me invoke, for the benefit of those smirking down at these words, the same critical thinking mantra you train into your students, and remind you that all institutions are self-regarding, all institutions cultivate congratulatory myths, and to suggest that the notion of some institution set apart, some specialized cabal possessing practices inoculated against the universal human assumption of moral superiority, is implausible through and through. Or at least worth suspicion.

You are almost certainly deluded in some respect. What follows merely illustrates how. Nothing magical protects you from running afoul your cognitive shortcomings the same as the rest of humanity. As such, it really could be the case that you are the more egregious sorcerer, and that your world-view is the real ‘magic kingdom.’ If this idea truly is as preposterous as it feels, then you should have little difficulty understanding it on its own terms, and dismantling it accordingly.



Sign and signified, simulation and simulated, appearance and reality: these dichotomies provide the implicit conceptual keel for all ideologically motivated semiotic readings of culture. This instantly transforms Disney, a global industrial enterprise devoted to the production of alternate realities, into a paradigmatic case. The Walt Disney Corporation, as fairly every child in the world knows, is in the simulation business. Of course, this alone does not make Disney ‘bad.’ As an expert interpreter of signs and simulations, the semiotician has no problem with deviations from reality in general, only those deviations prone to facilitate particular vested interests. This is the sense in which the semiotic project is continuous with the Enlightenment project more generally. It presumes that knowledge sets us free. Semioticians hold that some appearances—typically those canonized as ‘art’—actually provide knowledge of the real, whereas other appearances serve only to obscure the real, and so disempower those who run afoul them.

The sin of the Walt Disney Corporation, then, isn’t that it sells simulations, it’s that it sells disempowering simulations. The problem that Disney poses the semiotician, however, is that it sells simulations as simulations, not simulations as reality. The problem, in other words, is that Disney complicates their foundational dichotomy, and in ways that are not immediately clear.

You see microcosms of this complication everywhere you go in Disney World, especially where construction or any other ‘illusion dispelling’ activities are involved. Sights such as this:

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where pre-existing views are laminated across tarps meant to conceal some machination that Disney would rather not have you see, struck me as particularly bizarre. Who is being fooled here? My five year old even asked why they would bother painting trees rather than planting them. Who knows, I told her. Maybe they were planting trees. Maybe they were building trees such as this:

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Everywhere you go you stumble across premeditated visual obstructions, or the famous, omnipresent gates labelled ‘CAST MEMBERS ONLY.’ Everywhere you go, in other words, you are confronted with obvious evidence of staging, or what might be called premeditated information environments. As any magician knows, the only way to astound the audience is to meticulously control the information they do and do not have available. So long as absolute control remains technically infeasible, they often fudge, relying on the audience’s desire to be astounded to grease the wheels of their machinations.

One finds Disney’s commitment to the staging credo tacked here and there across the very walls raised to enforce it:

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Walt Disney was committed to the notion of environmental immersion, with the construction of ‘stages’ that were good enough, given various technical and economic limitations, to kindle wonder in children and generosity in their parents. Almost nobody is fooled outright, least of all the children. But most everyone is fooled enough. And this is the only thing that matters, when any showman tallies their receipts at the end of the day: staging sufficiency, not perfection. The visibility of artifice will be forgiven, even revelled in, so long as the trick manages to carry the day…

No one knows this better than the cartoonist.

The ‘Disney imaginary,’ as Baudrillard calls it, is first and foremost a money making machine. For parents of limited means, the mechanical regularity with which Disney has you reaching for your wallet is proof positive that you are plugged into some kind of vast economic machine. And making money, it turns out, doesn’t require believing, it requires believing enough—which is to say, make-believe. Disney World can revel in its artificiality because artificiality, far from threatening the primary function of the system, actually facilitates it. Children want cartoons; they genuinely prefer low-dimensional distortions of reality over reality. Disney is where cartoons become flesh and blood, where high dimension replicas of low-dimension constructs are staged as the higher dimensional truth of those constructs. You stand in line to have your picture taken with a phoney Tinkerbell that you say is real to play this extraordinary game of make-believe with your children.

To the extent that make-believe is celebrated, the illusion is celebrated as benign deception. You walk into streets like this:

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that become this:

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as you trudge from the perpendicular. The staged nature of the stage is itself staged within the stage as something staged. This is the structure of the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, for instance, where the audience is actually transformed into a performer on a stage staged as a stage (a movie shoot). At every turn, in fact, families are confronted with this continual underdetermination of the boundaries between ‘real’ and not ‘real.’ We watched a cartoon Crush (the surfer turtle from Finding Nemo) do an audience interaction comedy routine (we nearly pissed ourselves). We had a bug jump out of the screen and spray us with acid (water) beneath that big ass tree above (we laughed and screamed). We were skunked twice. The list goes on and on.

All these ‘attractions’ both celebrate and exploit the narrative instinct to believe, the willingness to overlook all the discrepancies between the fantastic and the real. No one is drugged and plugged into the Disney Matrix against their will; people pay, people who generally make far less than tenured academics, to play make-believe with their children.

So what are we to make of this peculiar articulation of simulations and realities? What does it tell us about Df?

The semiotic pessimist, like Baudrillard, would say that Disney is subverting your ability to reliably distinguish the real from the not real, rendering you a willing consumer of a fictional reality filled with fictional wars. Umberto Eco, on the other hand, suggests the problem is one of conditioning consumer desire. By celebrating the unreality of the real, Disney is telling “us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands” (Travels in Hyperreality, 44). Disney, on his account, whets the wrong appetite. For both, Disney is both instrumental to and symptomatic of our ideological captivity.

The optimist, on the other hand, would say they’re illuminating the contingency of the real (a.k.a. the ‘power of imagination’), training the young to never quite believe their eyes. On this view, Disney is both instrumental to and symptomatic of our semantic creativity (even as it ruthlessly polices its own intellectual properties). According to the apocryphal quote often attributed to Walt Disney, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

This is the interpretative antinomy that hounds all semiotic readings of the ‘Disney function.’ The problem, put simply, is that interpretations falling out of the semiotic focus on sign and signified, simulation and simulated, cannot decisively resolve whether self-conscious simulation a la Disney serves, in balance, more to subvert or to conserve prevailing social inequities.

All such high altitude interpretation of social phenomena is bound to be underdetermined, of course, simply because the systems involved are far, far, too complicated. Ironically, the theorist has to make due with cartoons, which is to say skewed idealizations of the phenomena involved, and simply hope that something of the offending dynamic shines through. But what I would like to suggest is that semiotic cartoons are particularly problematic in this regard, particularly apt to systematically distort the phenomena they claim to explicate, while—quite unlike Disney’s representations—concealing their cartoonishness.

To understand how and why this is the case, we need to consider the kinds of information the ‘semiotic stage’ is prone to neglect…