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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Back To The Future—The Utopia Connection

In this section, we will begin by seeing how critics and fans alike pair Disneyland and utopia.  We can then take a mini-excursion and see the "word" on utopia—its history, and other utopian features. Finally, we will explore how utopia might be both a looking-forward and a looking-back.

Utopian Associations

Disneyland has been associated with utopia by critics and architects alike.  Like nostalgia, utopia is integral to Disneyland.  Disney publicists, relating the thoughts of a key designer discussing the jungle cruise and its condensation and distillation of the “safari” experience, recount: 

This brand of "spruced up reality" is integral to the Disney Theme Show.  “The environments we create are more utopian, more romanticized, more like the guest imagined they would be.  For the most part, negative elements are discretely eliminated, while positive aspects are in some cases embellished to tell the story more clearly."  (J. C. Wolf, 1993, p. 159)

Both nostalgia and utopia are imagined and concerned with “enhancing” the environment or world.  While nostalgia looks to the past, utopia looks to the future.  Disneyland has both mythic and worldly importance: “these parks not only look toward worlds of the future; they also reach back into our collective unconsciousness” (King, 1981b, p. 59).

Nostalgia simply edits out undesirable elements with selective memory “like it never even happened,” while utopia does not allow undesirable elements in to begin with: undesirable elements are “not welcome here.”

King (1981a) provides a sample of the utopian allusions regarding the Disney parks, which architect Paul Goldberger called a “symbolic American Utopia… perhaps the most important city-planning laboratory in the US,” while Millicent Hall credits them as being “the prototype for social and technological planning methods” (p. 123).  Isozaki (1993) discusses the benefits that urban planning can glean from Disney’s expression of its utopic vision.  Indeed, much of the appreciation for Disneyland and Disney World comes from architects, who see it for its design features and how well it executes its goals. 

Critics on the other hand use the “u” word more disparagingly when discussing Disneyland. For example Marin (1984), a French communist theorist, argues that Disneyland is a degenerate utopia although conceding that some of the patterns of its spatial organization can be considered utopic, remarks that Disneyland is entirely caught up in the capitalist worldview and has been changed into a myth or collective fantasy which is acted out by the visitor.  Real (1977) see Disneyland as a morality play in which participants are drawn into archetypal utopian characterizations which instructs them in a particular ideology—that of white middle-class American values.

Wilson (1993), although mainly discussing Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center, sees these Disney creations along with Disneyland as not really utopian at all, but a repackaged version of the present based on the myth of progress, glorifying industrial capitalism and technology.  J. C. Wolf (1979), although writing specifically about Disney World, sees it almost as an “anti-utopia” as compared to previous concepts of utopia.  Wolf summarizes that Disney World is a place where eternal childhood is glorified:

All the aggressive, anarchistic, egocentric drives of childhood—at whatever age—are catered to.  As in the cartoons, death is a fallacy, conventions are silly prohibitions and individual overindulgence is a viable, desirable and rewarding way of life.  Disney World thus represents the triumph of the material, the excessive, the irrational, the irresponsible and the selfish over that mature recognition of the individual’s relationship to society which characterizes traditional utopias. (p. 77)

Wolf (1979) argues that other concepts of utopia were based on man as a rational being who would willingly cooperate to bring about what was most beneficial for him, once he knew what was most beneficial.  (Yeah, right!)  Wolf however remarks: “Plato and others who did recognize at least to some degree the irrational part of human nature found a simple solution in banishment” (p. 73).  Well, banning these irrational elements that seem to thrive at Disney World clearly has not worked—can you say “return of the repressed?”  Here again, though, we are beginning to see a familiar pattern: the importance of childhood.  [Remember, there is an excursion devoted to that located at the hub—the "Cherishing of Childhood" excursion.] But, better not go there just yet, since we still need to explore the following question: Just what exactly is utopia and why is it linked to Disneyland?  And for that we need to take a mini-excursion into Utopia.

Mini-Excursion—The “Word” on Utopia

Utopia is a word that was coined by Sir Thomas More in his book by the same name, published almost 500 years ago in 1516.  The book was about an ideal imaginary place where More expresses his vision for a more ideal social order, as he plays with his audience at the same time.  Marin (1984) in Utopics, Spatial Play, discusses the book Utopia in great detail, and although Marin treats Disneyland rather harshly, his discussion of More’s work is intriguing. 

Utopia is a word that was coined by Sir Thomas More in his book by the same name, published almost 500 years ago in 1516.  The book was about an ideal imaginary place where More expresses his vision for a more ideal social order, as he plays with his audience at the same time.  Marin (1984) in Utopics, Spatial Play, discusses the book Utopia in great detail, and although Marin treats Disneyland rather harshly, his discussion of More’s work is intriguing. 

Utopia was the name of an island that Marin (1984) tells us is oú-topos, no-place, and is also eú-topos place of happiness (p. 91).  Tarnas (2006) notes that Utopia was the first utopian work of the early modern period. And the word utopia expresses:

a world at once ideal and imaginary—two distinct sides of Neptune’s archetypal principle compressed into a single bivalent term.  The sequence of axial alignments of the Uranus-Neptune cycle was closely correlated with the births of individuals who brought forth influential utopian works and visions, as with Thomas More, born in 1478 with a nearly exact Uranus-Neptune conjunction. Utopian ideas are one of the major characteristics of Uranus-Neptune cycle.  (p. 375)

Walt Disney was born in 1901 during the Uranus-Neptune opposition, as was discussed in the preceeding astrological aspects section, and Disneyland opened in 1955 during the Uranus-Neptune square of the 1950s.  In Cosmos and Psyche, Tarnas (2006) fascinatingly traces how many of these different archetypal themes play out historically.

Patrick and Negley (1968) explain that utopias are fictional, they describe a particular state or community and that their theme is the political structure of that fictional state or community.  Utopias “represent one of the noblest aspirations of man” because they dream of an ideal community that might become a reality, for the “vision of one century is often the reality of the next one or the one after that”  (p. 108).  Patrick and Negley explain that “utopia is eternal,” and the influence of utopias are inestimable, since utopian thoughts have stimulated men to dream of better worlds, and have also prodded them “to reshape reality closer to the ideal.”  The influence of the utopist is subtle and accomplished “by indirection, portraying through his ideal the imperfection of the existing real” (pp. 108-109).

Utopia, as mentioned before, comes from the Greek, ou (no, not) or eu (happy) plus topos (place) and can mean “no place” or “happy place.  The “no place” form of utopia comes from the Indo-European root for ou which is aiw or ayu which means “vital force, life, long life, eternity,” and its derivatives include no, ever, medieval (AHD, 2002b, p. 2020), while the “happy place” form of utopia comes from the Indo-European root for eu which is (e)sumeaning good, well. (AHD, 2000b, p. 2028).  Do these two definitions apply to Disneyland?  The answer is yes!

Mills (1990), in speaking of what is innovative about Disneyland says that Disneyland is a “placeless place” that “takes existing features and uses them within a site that though permanent is nevertheless placeless (in that it studiously ignores its own locality in favor of a three-dimensional re-creation of an imaginary world)” (pp. 70-71).  Findlay (1993) notes that:

Disneyland was designed to wall people off from the outside world.  It was intended not to resemble a particular site or region—least of all a large and confusing metropolis.  In a way, it was supposed to be placeless, even though it was very much a product of a particular place and also an influential force in reshaping that place.” (p. 54)

For many decades, the sign outside of Disneyland said “Welcome to the Happiest Place on Earth,” and thus the eu, happy place fits, and, so does the ou, no place, and not only because it is a placeless place, but also because Disneyland is a timeless, or eternal place, which is also at the root of ou.  So, without further ado, lets consider . . .

Other Utopian Features

Now that we know the roots of utopia, what can we expect of a utopia?  As we look at different characteristics of utopia, we can see that Disneyland indeed satisfies many of these requirements, in its own imaginal way.  Marin (1984) gives us an idea of what utopia is all about.  Marin reminds us that Utopia is a fiction, a book:

It is a text whose reality is nowhere . . . it is a product of its own play with the plural spaces it constructs . . . it is a world of the written (or a writing of the world) as the ideal representation of history, a world of being that has been substituted for history or being. (p. 65)

Marin (1984) notes that history is a fiction and that fiction can be historical.  Disneyland indeed posits an ideal history in its fictions of Main Street USA as well as its other “narratives.” [One of the secrets to Disneyland’s successes is its narrative structure as we can see in the Art of the Show excursion located in Fantasyland.]

Another important idea about utopia that Marin (1984) stresses, is that More, in Utopia, was playing in many ways.  One of the most important was in showing the reality of fiction.  More declared that the proper nouns of Utopia “signify nothing” and that while they indicate something real, the proper nouns themselves are fictional, because they only signify something, which is nothing, and they are not what they signify.  Marin says parenthetically: “(here is perhaps More’s serious play) that fiction is reality. They signify that there exists a being of simulacrum that is pure emergence, referring to nothing other than itself: poiesis” (p. 90). 

At Disneyland, the boundaries between reality and imaginary are blurred by giving us real imaginary experiences.  This is done through “simulations to provide an experience which then authenticates the imaginary” according to Mills (1990) who continues “the imaginary is made real”:  we can swoop over Peter Pan’s Island “as if it were a real place.  The real and imaginary are deliberately confused by the provision of an ersatz experiences: the 3-d roller coaster movies” (p. 72).

Disneyland has been called a simulacrum by Baudrillard (Scheckner, 2002), and a collection of virtual images (Isozaki, 1993), which Isozaki points out in turn has replicated itself in Florida, Tokyo, France.  Disneyland has replicated itself, yet again in 2005, in Hong Kong, so we have simulacra squared, simulacra of simulacra.

Utopias, like the paradises of the future that they portray are eternal.  They are timeless and changeless.  Marin (1984) argues:

Utopia knows nothing of time and the only time it knows is the rhythmic cycle of rituals, celebrations and accomplishments.  These are immobile times and temporal images of eternity.  Utopia knows nothing of change.  It is constituted by the representation of the identical, of the “same” of repetitive indifference.  There is no going beyond, no “supersession,” because even at the beginning of the game, utopia is either origin or end; it is immobile representation and repetition compulsion. (p. xxiv)

Disneyland, although always changing, is, at the same time, timeless and eternal.  While new attractions may be added, and others refurbished or removed, the spirit of Disneyland, remains one of eternal childhood, eternal spring, and eternally returning attractions whose audioanimatronic actors perpetually repeat their parts for our pleasure and play.  Mickey and his pals remain forever young, and we can, too, at least in spirit.

Back to the Future—Maybe It's Both at the Same Time 

Walter Benjamin felt that utopias are not always based on anticipation of the future, but that “utopian desire was based on memory, not anticipation” in discussing this, Benjamin interestingly enough quotes Kafka’s description of a singing mouse, Josephine, from one of his stories: “something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness which can never be found again, but also something of active present-day life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet real and unquenchable” (Waldrep, 1993, p. 147) 

Rowe and Koetter (Waldrep, 1993) ask a very interesting question about utopias:  “Could not this ideal city, at one and the same time, behave, quite explicitly, as both a theatre of prophecy and a theatre of memory” (p. 147)?  This reminds me of one of Milton Erickson’s, favorite sayings: “isn’t it nice to know you can experience both at the same time.”

Milton Erickson was a brilliant psychiatrist and the father of medical hypnosis.  His groundbreaking work legitimized trance as a healing modality, and his methods often involved indirect suggestion, storytelling, and ordeals.  This rather Neptunian saying, coming from the master of the nonordinary state of consciousness know as trance, reminds us of the dissolution of boundaries that are possible in play, where binaries can coexist peacefully.  [More about nonordinary states and how they relate to play can be found in the ongoing themes section of the "Mary Poppins" chapter ] and [The "Art of the Show" excursion located in Fantasyland, also explores Neptunian ideas.]

The utopist accomplishes his influence by indirection.  In portraying his perfect imaginary world, he is making a statement about the imperfect real world.  Disney does this with Los Angeles, the imperfect real world to which Disneyland is an answer.  [Learn more about this on the "Child of the Times" excursion, located on Main Street USA] Disneyland is a protected environment, as Venturi points out, which is a characteristic of all utopias, “the Disney spaces exist in relation to the hostile environments lying beyind their gates” (Bukatman, 1991, p. 68).  The political dimension of utopia is alluded to as well in Disney’s promotion of the “American dream”:

As an existing condition or state of mind, the Disney dream was also envisaged as an organized political community. When asked about the nature of this dream, Disney reputedly used to quote Archibald Macleish, claiming that “there are those, I know who will reply that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and the mind, is nothing but a dream . . . they are right, it is an American dream.”  (Wakefield, 1990, p. 109)

Mills (1990) sees Disneyland as not just a commercial venture but as “a heroic agency to promote U.S. values far beyond the limitations inherent in the movies… re-establishing popular faith in both the individualistic myths of the past and the technological possibilities of the future” (p. 71).

Disney’s utopia is different from other utopias.  First of all, Disneyland is more fun, since Disney added wackiness into the mix.  Technically, Disneyland is not a true utopia, because Disneyland would not exist if it was, and Disneyland does exist.  Also, Disneyland is not a real city:

Disneyland isn’t a city; too much reality would ruin the illusion.  Too much illusion, conversely would ruin the reality—and that never happens.  Disneyland is a dream and a place.  No place.  Utopia. A not-city city.  A city of dreams. (Marling, 1997, p. 176)

This real imaginary place mixes lots of things.  [We can see how Disneyland is a mix of its historical predecessors in the "Amusing Ancestry" excursion,] and [Explore how Disneyland mixes reality and illusion in the "Art of the Show" excursion. ] At Disneyland, nostalgia and utopia are blended together as nowhere else, to create “The Happiest Place on Earth.”  Main Street USA, the first place that guests enter as they arrive at Disneyland, sets the stage nostalgically for our return to childhood.  [The "Cherishing of Childhood" excursion, located at the hub, highlights the concept of neoteny and importance of remaining childlike]

Disneyland itself is a child of not only Walt Disney, but of the 1950s. The next excursion, the "Child of the Times" eccursion explores just this.


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