Thursday, July 17, 2008

Durden Fighting Disney

This was originally written as a final paper for a literature course:

As seemingly fit and full citizens of a Disneyized society we paid our admission to the park. We were baptized into this society, the water pouring over us as we rode on the water-rapid ride. We took Disneyized communion, breaking funnel cakes not bread, drinking watered-down beer not wine. Throughout the day I could not keep scenes from Shindler’s List and various Pro-Vegan films that document the horrors of slaughterhouses from coming to mind as we stood in numerous lines awaiting not our physical deaths but the potential death of our imaginations. Subconscious voices screamed “Buy this merchandise and you will be happy, you will be complete, you will remember your experience of simplified and sanitized history and you will remember experiencing the magic of the fantasy world where pain and death do not exist.” We did not listen. We began to fall away from the Disney faith as other, more realistic voices screamed louder. Then, we punched Disney in the face, figuratively speaking, breaking the lenses through which he sees and through which he manipulates others to see, our fists reminding him of the reality of pain and the grotesque. Upon hearing Disney’s narrative spoken and acted as truth we responded “false.” These preceding sentences describe my thoughts concerning a recent experience I had while visiting a Disneyized park. By comparing Disney’s all-encompassing narrative and praxis, called ‘Disneyization,’ with the alternative, though somewhat extreme, narrative and praxis of the protagonist of Chuck
Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, we will be better able to see the negative effects Disney has had and currently has upon our society. This novel can be understood as a commentary on our current Disneyized society, specifically concerning the following more or less intertwining issues: first, the destruction, simplification, sanitization and/or perversion of history and culture, including the ignoring of the reality of pain, death and the grotesque and secondly, the misplaced importance upon consumerism and entertainment as the end for which humanity exists.
Alan Bryman, in his The Disneyization of Society, explores a variety of issues concerning the primarily negative influence Disney (the corporation conceived and nurtured by the late Walt Disney) has had and continues to have upon our contemporary society. Disneyization has, like the ancestors of our American forefathers of old, traveled over seas; Disneyization has increasingly become a global movement. However, there is a significant difference between the two entities (the ‘Pilgrims’ and Disneyization) that have crossed the sea. The former broke from the obviously tyrannical British rule, “an externally imposed oppression” (Postman vii). They eventually declared their independence, determined to preserve their “unalienable rights… [including] Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson 53). The latter promotes/is a covert and very different kind of tyranny. In this Disney tyranny, “no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history”…Instead “people [living under this tyranny have] come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think” (Postman vii). In other words, the oppression Disney imposes on our current society is not seen as oppression but as natural and good. By comparing Bryman
and Palahniuk we will be able to see this oppression for what it is and will be better equipped to make changes to overcome the same.
In studying history we seek to discover and describe the complex stories of past cultures and events including a variety of positive and negative elements such as peace and war, life and death, pleasure and pain, joy and sadness, plenty and poverty, cleanness and dirt and everything in between all of these. Bryman describes one aspect of Disneyization as “a distinctive approach to literature and history that entails a crude simplification that also cleanses the object being Disneyfied of unpleasantness” (Bryman 12). Both past (historical) and present events typically necessarily include an element of discomfort and/or pain although they are often mixed with an element of comfort and/or pleasure. Few true stories have a completely happy ending. There have always been happily married couples; there have always been bitterly divorced couples and the former often turn into the latter.
Chuck Palahniuk, in his Fight Club, tells the story of Tyler Durden who is one half of the split personality of the protagonist. Tyler comes alive when his other unnamed half goes to what he thinks is sleep but in reality is insomnia. Tyler is the creator of ‘Fight Club’ which is a gathering of men who fight each other, one on one, until one of the fighters says “stop.” Tyler eventually creates ‘Project Mayhem’ whose “goal was to teach each man in the project that he had the power to control history”…he wants us to know that “We, each of us, can take control of the world” (Palahniuk 122). Ultimately, Durden promotes history despite the fact that he and his followers “wanted to blast the world free of history…the goal of Project Mayhem [being] the complete and right-away
destruction of civilization” (Palahniuk 124-5). Although Tyler and his followers seek to destroy historical artifacts, they indirectly promote history in that they understand and act upon the fact that human actions (good and bad, righteous and evil, loving and hateful) matter. Human actions are a large part of what history consists of. When reading a historical text, we do not expect to encounter simple descriptions of non-human objects such as rocks and plants in a vacuum. Instead, we expect to read about such objects only as they relate to humanity, for example, how those rocks were cut and formed into significant architectural structures, composed into cities and art or perhaps how those plants were eaten by humans for survival and enjoyment.
The result of Disney’s historical interpretation or perversion can be described as “‘memory with the pain removed’” (Bryman 174). When pain is removed, reality goes with it. This may be more difficult for our modern minds to grasp than it was for those who lived in a pre-anesthesia world. Fight Club was started for a number of reasons including Tyler’s desire to not “die without a few scars,” embracing the reality of pain and death (Palahniuk 48). Tyler Durden burns himself by kissing his hand with his wet lips and adding lye having concluded that “maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer…Maybe self-destruction is the answer” (Palahniuk 49). Perhaps Durden goes to an extreme here and we would be better off somewhere in between self-improvement and self-destruction.
It is important to understand that the civilization Tyler wants to destroy when he creates Project Mayhem is a civilization in which the citizens are defined by their possessions, only caring about history as it relates to monetary value. They are consumers
to the core, much like the citizens Disney successfully seeks to produce. Tyler first destroys his own home, blowing everything he spent his life to buy out the side of his fifteenth floor apartment. Everything he formerly defined himself by is burnt to ashes. This is Tyler’s first step in a long but consistent process of liberation, freedom from living as though the things that do not matter, such as collecting possessions, is the raison d’ĂȘtre of humanity. Tyler understands what it means to be “trapped in your lovely nest [where] the things you used to own, now they own you” (Palahniuk 44).
Bryman explains that “citizenship under Disneyization almost comes to be defined in terms of one’s capacity to consume” which excludes many thereby causing many unnecessary, negative self-evaluations (Bryman 172). Such extreme consumerism also causes many to embrace a false hope in their possessions, acquiring them and keeping them as though they will last forever. Many of these same consumers live as though they will never die. The relationship such people have with their possessions proves this. Tyler Durden reaches a point where he confesses, “I am helpless. I am stupid, and all I do is want and need things” (Palahniuk 146). We must view our society through new lenses, a different set of lenses than those through which Disney sees, because “Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need” and contentment is still lacking (Palahniuk 149).
The problem of having an overly consumerist society is closely related to the problem of having an overly entertainment-driven society. This connection can be seen simply in the content of what is consumed by such a society, for example, theatre tickets, DVDs, restaurant bills (including the cost of a performer/server (unless the server refuses
to fake a smile or act in any way, like me)), theme park tickets, Las Vegas experiences, etc. Neil Postman begins his Amusing Ourselves to Death by describing the difference between two seemingly similar prophecies, one being told by George Orwell in his 1984, the other being told by Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World. Postman describes some of the major differences between the two prophecies saying, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one…Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…” (Postman vii). Although Postman does not have Disney per se in mind, the culture he is describing is almost synonymous with the same.
Keep in mind that Bryman is describing and critiquing Disney’s overarching story or worldview and that Palahniuk is creating an alternative overarching story in his novel. Disney’s story is one of cute tyranny while Palahniuk’s is one of extreme realism, though overly nihilistic in that death equals “oblivion” (Palahniuk 193). Having compared these two stories a bit and critiquing both, more or less, we are better able to think of Disney’s familiar and covert story in fresh, albeit depressing ways. History should be viewed more clearly and with more respect and awe (in its’ complexity). The reality of pain and death should come closer to the forefront of our minds. This will consequently help us to appreciate pleasure and life more. Possessions should be consistently kept as possessions instead of becoming possessors.
The rich and wise King Solomon of the Old Testament conducted an experiment in which he pleasured himself in every way he possibly could (he had the resources to do this), such as building numerous houses and gardens and drinking fine wine. He then saw that these were all vanity. Tyler Durden destroyed such things not wanting to be “complete…content…or perfect” (Palahniuk 46). Solomon’s conclusion to his experiment was that “the whole duty of man… [is to] fear God and keep his commandments” Ecclesiastes 12:13. However, this would require our society to find a completely new set of glasses where ‘Disney’ is not, in one way or another, synonymous with ‘God.’