Mark Dery (by way of Pit Schultz <>) on Sat, 7 Jun 1997 00:02:17 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Lost in the Ether

[mark dery speaks in Berlin today, organised by joerg koch and
a spontanous email network, this text relates to a post of steve
cisler, as mark said, more soon.. /p]

					* * *

     Past Perfect   

     It's hardly news to any mallcrawler that the food court is our

new town square, nor to any city-dweller that the commons is being

theme-parked for mass consumption, as in Universal Studios'

CityWalk---an ersatz La-La Land-cum-outdoor shopping mall, located

in Universal City, that jump-cuts from Malibu to Melrose Avenue,

Sunset Strip to Venice Beach in the space of a few overscaled,

overdesigned blocks.  In a _Los Angeles Times_ interview, principal

architect Jon Jerde insisted that CityWalk, despite its pomo Toon

Town aspect, is its own "real-life place," a bona fide neighborhood

rather than a theme-malled Mock Angeles.  Chief project designer

Richard Orne extols the simulated "patina of use"---candy wrappers

embedded in the flooring, for instance---that implies a lived

history behind its pixilated streetscape.  "People want to have a

communal experience in a place that they feel safe and

comfortable," he told the _Times.  "Who cares if it's artificially

created if it does that and answers that need?"  

     The corporatizing of the commons---the replacement of landmark

neighborhoods by commercial simulacra (CityWalk), the usurpation of

Main Street's civic life by the mall, and the middle class's

retreat into privately policed, strictly regulated housing

developments---is becoming tolerable, even desirable to a society

struggling to reconcile a paralyzing fear of violent crime and the

loss of basic services with a deep-dyed distrust of government and

a fervent belief in the "free" market.  This dynamic dovetails with

a widespread yearning for the lost (and for many of us, largely

imagined) community of an earlier America: _Our Town minus the

angst, _Huckleberry Finn with the slave-traders and the lynch mobs

left out---Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A., by any other name.  

     By no accident, Disney is taking the obvious next step in the

corporatizing of everyday life, an experiment in social engineering

that contains the seeds of a privatized public sector---the hostile

takeover, in the not so far future, of the nation-state by the

multinational conglomerate.  Celebration, the planned community

Disney is building near Orlando, Florida, welcomed its first

residents in June, 1996; within 10 to 15 years, the 4,900-acre town

will be home to a projected population of 20,000.  

     Celebration's residents will live in one of six neo-

traditional home styles (Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival,

Coastal, Mediterranean, and French) based on regional prototypes in

what the _Downtown Celebration: Architectural Walking Tour_

guidebook calls America's "best- and best-loved small towns," from

Charleston, South Carolina to East Hampton, New York.  If reality

follows the Disney script, residents will promenade beside the town

lake; take in a movie at the faux Deco "picture palace"; or

socialize in Founders Park ("a civic space where, ultimately,

neighbors might congregate after walking their children to school,"

the brochure suggests, hopefully).  They'll send their children

to Celebration School, a K-12 facility operated by the Osceola

County School Board; receive health care at Health Campus, a

medical center owned and operated by Florida Hospital; and shop,

bank, and post their mail in downtown Celebration.          The

"Architectural Walking Tour" guidebook I obtained at the on-site

Preview Center calls Celebration "a traditional American town built

anew...designed to offer a return to a more sociable and civic-

minded way of life."  After a stroll through the downtown area, I

called it Bedford Falls on prozac.  The town suggests an eerily

literal realization of the Privatopias in Neal Stephenson's _Snow

Crash, Disney-esque monuments to smalltown America whose salient

features include picture-perfect lawns and stately brass fire

hydrants "designed on a computer screen by the same aesthetes who

designed the DynaVictorian houses and the tasteful mailboxes and

the immense marble street signs that sit at each intersection like

headstones.  Designed on a computer screen, but with an eye toward

the elegance of things past and forgotten about."           

     Taking in the tasteful pastels and witty medley of

architectural styles, I couldn't shake the feeling that the

buildings had been scaled down, like the ones along Disneyland's

Main Street, U.S.A., where everything is built five-eighths true

size to give reality a whimsical, toylike quality.  A vague

ontological queasiness settled over me, a postmodern malaise I'll

call the _Prisoner Syndrome: the unsettling suspicion that reality

is really theme-park fakery, stage-managed by unseen conspirators

with dark designs.  Who will live here?  The Audio-Animatronic

family from GE's Carousel of Progress?  A Duracell version of the

Mayberry gang?  Surveying the near-complete cinema, I bumped into

a perky young couple.  He was a clean-cut, world-is-my-oyster type

whose parents live in Celebration; she was a cute brunette in

shorts and a bikini top who bore an unsettling resemblance to

Annette Funicello.  Is Disney cloning these people from Mouseketeer


     Scratch the surface of Disney's Frank Capra idyll and the

cynical truth that Celebration is a company town---a media

monolith's vision of privatized governance and democracy overruled

by technocracy---lies exposed.  The town's seal, a ponytailed girl

riding her bike past the proverbial picket fence, a playful pup

nipping at her tires, is a registered Disney trademark.  Market

Street, the town's "primary shopping promenade," would have been

named Main Street, as in Disneyland, were it not for the fact that

"there already was a Main Street in Osceola County, and street

names can't be used twice," the brochure notes, with unmistakable

regret.  Celebration's welcome wagon will include an official

history course that Celebration Foundation administrator Charles

Adams described, in _Harper's_, as "very similar to what we do when

we bring in a new cast member to work for the Walt Disney

Company."  ("Cast member" is Disneyspeak for "employee.")  Of

course, Celebration's only "history," to speak of, lies in the

CityWalk-ish "slightly aged" look that town co-planner Jacqueline

Robertson gave some of the downtown buildings, and in the houses'

fastidiously historical exteriors.  No matter, assures Adams: "We

do have some history, really, going back to the original vision

from Walt." 

     Adams's comment points the way to the corporate agenda behind

Celebration's Hollywood backlot facade.  The "original vision" on

which the town is based is EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community

of Tomorrow), a Jetsonian technopolis conceived by Walt in the '60s

as a company town populated by Disney World employees.  It was to

be a brave new experiment in urban planning and social engineering,

propelled by the thrusters of American technology---in Walt's

words, "a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American

industry and research."  As realized in Disney World, EPCOT is a

corporate-sponsored science fair whose obsolete tomorrows smell

more pungently of mothballs with each passing year.  Even so,

Walt's dream lives on in EPCOT's overarching theme of corporate

paternalism and technocratic solutions to social problems---the

bedrock conviction "that planning for the future can be left to

corporations which will 'maximize the common good,'" as Disney

scholar Alan Bryman puts it in his book _Walt Disney and His


     This, the "original vision from Walt"---the belief that father

knows best, be he "Uncle Walt," the self-styled "benevolent

dictator of Disney enterprises," or the corporation itself as

paterfamilias---is Celebration's cornerstone.  Beginning with a

misty-eyed evocation of childhood memories, the town's promo video

promises that "there is a place that takes you back to that time of

innocence.  A place where the biggest decision is whether to play

kick the can or king of the hill.  A place of caramel apples and

cotton candy, secret forts and hopscotch on the streets.  That

place is here again, in a new town called Celebration."  In

Disney's " built anew," residents will entrust

the burdensome responsibilities of civic life in a participatory

democracy to their corporate parents, just as the Disney-esque

Reagan left the dreary business of governing to others, "as if

government was a boring job best left to the grown-ups," as _New

York_ critic Rhoda Koenig once put it.  An unincorporated town

under the jurisdiction of Osceola County, Celebration won't be

self-governing in any meaningful sense.  Disney will exercise veto

power over the decisions of the homeowners' only representative

body, the community association, for 40 years or until three-

quarters of the master-plan residences are occupied, whichever

comes first.  

     As Russ Rymer argues in his penetrating _Harper's essay on

Celebration, Disney's planned community is consecrated to

"prevailing nostalgias for a bygone time of life, the life of a

carefree child, a civic infant, when the corporation could make the

rules and keep the peace, and the biggest decision left to the

citizen was whether to play kick the can or king of the hill." 

In an America racked by social change and economic inequity, where

community and civility are fast unraveling, Disney promises to

time-warp an anxious middle class to a revisionist past (or is it

a neo-traditional future?) where our corporate parents unburden us

of our rights and responsibilities as citizens so that we may

frolic in secret forts and hopscotch on the streets like the inner

children we've always been at heart.  The growing appeal of the

corporatized commons is evident in the fact that demand for

Celebration's initial offering of homes exceeded supply by almost

three to one, despite the fact that prospective buyers had nothing

to go by but models, videos, and promotional literature---and the

Disney name, one of the best-known, best-loved brands in the world. 

Rymer quotes Celebration co-planner Robert A.M. Stern:

"People...almost glory in the fact that someone runs the show. 

People love to come to Disney because the very word 'Disney' means

a certain authoritative standard that they will succumb to." 

     If dystopian forebodings of the public sphere theme-parked by

the private sector and, ultimately, participatory democracy

rendered obsolete by multinational capitalism seem like neo-Marxist

paranoia, as the "cyber-elite" would have it, consider Disney CEO

Michael Eisner's expressed belief that Celebration "will set up a

system of how to develop communities.  I hope in 50 years they say,

'Thank God for Celebration.'"  Consider, as well, the extralegal

status of Disney's Florida fiefdom, an expanse of real estate

larger than the island of Manhattan that is the workaday home of

approximately 30,000 employees.  In 1967, Florida officials passed

legislation that granted Disney's holdings, the inoffensively named

Reedy Creek Improvement Area, the status of an autonomous county,

empowered to levy its own taxes and enact its own building codes

and exempt from filing environmental impact statements or abiding

by municipal or regional laws regarding development, zoning, and

waste control.  

     "Disney World is, before anything else, a governmental

entity," writes Rymer.  "Walt's greatest feat of imagineering was

his vaulting of a theme park into a polity...Because [Reedy

Creek's] powers are allowed only to popularly elected bodies,

Disney instituted a 'government' that stayed firmly in company

control; voting 'citizens' were a handful of loyal Disney managers. 

Walt's own enmity for democratic forms was legendary."  Indeed,

Walt's original vision of Celebration, nee EPCOT, was premised on

the notion that the company would own the homes, renting them to

the town's residents: "There will be no landowners and therefore no

voting control," Walt happily declared.  

     Once, when asked by a journalist if he'd ever considered

running for office, he replied that he had no interest in being

president of the United States, remarking, "I'd rather be the

benevolent dictator of Disney enterprises."  Then again, if he'd

"imagineered" a future like the one envisioned by the _Spy magazine

parody in which Michael Eisner was elected president while

remaining CEO of Disney, he might have reconsidered.  Today,

Celebration; tomorrow, the world.  "When you wish upon a star..." 

                              - 30 -

(c) 1997 Mark Dery; all rights reserved.  This essay originally

appeared in _21.C_ magazine.

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