Tag Archives: Kulturindustrie

Toys “R” Us and Alienation

We’ll start with Toys “R” Us’ by now notorious advertisement that has recently gone viral. In the ad, a group of disadvantaged children are loaded onto a bus and told that they are off to the forest for a nature lesson, only to take them to Toys “R” us instead, to “make all their wishes come true.”

Evidently the advertisement was a genuine charity stunt. For its part, Toys “R” Us also released this behind the scenes video on YouTube. Anyone interested can see what they have to say for themselves here.

It’s a “capitalism with a human face” stunt gone rather badly awry. The ad is blatantly offensive. The implied message “who needs nature when you’ve got big box toy stores?” is pretty bad. The caricature of a teacher is also insulting. But that’s just obnoxiousness. What strikes me as most awful, and is perhaps not as immediately obvious, is the fact that the ad also works by thrilling a mostly white middle and upper class viewership with the sight of disadvantaged children being allowed to briefly partake in the worst habits of consumption. As potential Toys R Us patrons, our hearts are supposed to be warmed because the rules are bent so that these children can do once what we could do any time. And the acquisition of a thing beats an encounter with a forest. As Stephen Colbert observed, the moral of this story: “nature sucks.”

Toys R Us has really captured the magic of having a stranger take your kids on a bus, lie about where they’re going, then take off his clothes and promise them toys.

Way out west, Chris Clarke has this thoughtful critique of the ad on the KCET website. Clarke suspects that the ad hits a “sore spot” with environmentally minded people, essentially that environmentalists advocate for nature while also being alienated from it. He observes that environmentalism has itself given in to a destructive techno-fetishism (in fairness, we should specify that this criticism applies mostly to establishment liberal environmental discourses). The basic thesis of the argument as it applies to the ad:

The Toys R Us ad comes from an unspoken sensibility that is so commonplace among adults, even among environmentally concerned adults, that the ad writers thought it unremarkable:

“Nature sucks: we want our toys.”

I’m no better at reading minds than the next person. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the outrage over this ad among my colleagues in the environmental realm came from the wounded realization that it describes something all too real, even among ourselves. It pushed our buttons. Those of us who advocate for the non-human world fight apathy and hostility toward nature all the time. We are constantly told that nature is boring and unimportant, at least compared to a moment’s dubious thrill catching air in an off-road vehicle. Or a quarter’s dubious thrill watching the value of your stock options go up four percent.

I tend to agree with Clarke’s assessment, and I wonder if ascribing it to intuition isn’t being a little demure. While I am disinclined to bemoan “alienation from nature” because doing so is rather cliche, the ad is not just a cultural document of such a condition, but revels in it as something desirable. As the Christmas season comes around, Toys “R” Us profits will spike as it hawks plastic crap, most of which plays with itself and will probably be off to eternal rest in a landfill by June.

What stood out to me about Clarke’s argument, though, was that he got there via an image that was wending its way around the internets a couple years back (I first encountered it here on Adbusters).

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Like the advertisement, there’s a message here, one that calls out those of us who more easily recognize commercial signifiers while being ignorant of the given world. Clarke offers a more specific reading:

The lesson of the exercise: we recognize what’s important to us. Most of us know what the swoosh and the apple with a bite missing mean. Identifying leaves by their shape? To most of us, that’s not important.

Good critical practice entails not taking a didactic text’s claims at face value, no matter how sympathetic the “message” may be. This image invites a reading against the grain. Because it’s visual, it’s message is agreeable, and it is easily digestible, it lends itself to the repost reflex. And for that it’s a rather dubious image.

First, while the image means to draw a contrast between two kinds of consciousness, it gets there by way of a false equivalency. We (post)modern subjects instantly recognize the brands at the apparent expense of the earth. But brands are signifiers, they stand for something else. What does a tree stand for? Or a tree branch? One might as well complain that English speaking humans will have an easier time turning the combinations of letters reproduced on this site into meaningful language than they will in identifying a birch leaf. For my part, I recognized the maple only because the shape has also been appropriated as a symbol of the Canadian state. As Clarke points out, the individual drawings could be identified with more than one tree. So the document itself raises the classic problem of a disconnect between signifier and signified. It always already is what it critiques. My point is not to level a cheap charge of hypocrisy, but to point out the difficulties of a line of argumentation I’ve seen elsewhere.

Second, the charge that the image reveals “what’s important to us” is a bit imprecise. The charge could place the blame for collective consciousness formation primarily in the hands of the individual. But if recognizing brands but not trees is a symptom, wouldn’t it be more a symptom of exposure? Given the diversifying channels through which advertising comes at us, it becomes impossible to will away the ability to recognize a logo. Because advertising works best when it subverts cognition, brand recognition does not demand the level mental labor required for reading texts or identifying trees. The point is, what the image calls out is not a question of individual fault. We’re dealing instead with the challenge of bringing into cognition what consumer culture would have us not cognicize. One might say that the problem with the Toys R Us ad is that it is too transparent, it lends itself too easily to critique. That’s how it ended up on the Colbert Report.

Third, what is really at stake in identifying trees by the shape of their leaves? Obviously this is a topos that is really about something else, namely taxonomy as evidence of caring, knowledge, and therefore connectedness. But that does not rescue this particular environmentalist commonplace. Taxonomic knowledge is not the sine qua non of being environmentally good. Ranger Brad is a caricature of just that mindset. It leaves you with an environmentalism that sounds a lot like the Monty Python bit “how to recognize different types of trees from quite a long way away.”

On a side note, the actor playing “Ranger Brad,” Bradford How, stands by his work.

Unfortunately the tweet misses the critical edge of Colbert’s satire. Or is that the idea?

Disneyland Dream: Zeitraum – Zeittraum

Looking over the New York Times this weekend I was alterted to a very interesting video by Frank Rich in his editorial “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” One learns interesting things from Rich’s articles now and again, but unfortunately like most of the other New York Times columnists, his articles are lack are rarely insightful or profound.  So it was not surprising that he gave a rather impoverished reading of the film he used as his jumping-off point, the small amateur film Disneyland Dream.  It’s a somewhat longish film, but the first ten minutes or so give all the background to the trip, and then the actual visit to Disneyland begins around minute 20.

This film was made in 1995 with footage shot in 1956, a year after Disneyland opened.  The story is that in 1956, the Barstow family entered a competition offered by 3M on who could basically create the best advertisement for their brand of Scoth tape.  One of the children won with a poster that read “I like Scotch brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it” ( a ringing endorsement!).  The family won a trip from their home in suburban Conneticut out to California, where they visited Los Angeles, Catalina, and, of course, Disneyland itself.  This film made it into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008, and it is definitely worth a watch.

I like this film for a number of reasons.  While it is, on the one hand, just some film from a family most of us never met, it is a rather interesting one.  First off is the way that the nostalgia functions both in the film and in the film’s subject, Disneyland.  The narrator explains events, many of them clearly stages, almost forty years after the fact carefully explaining how it was back then.  On the surface there is what, to some audiences, may appear to be a sort of pleasant innocence, when neighbors were friends, when the willingness to work hard seemed to guarantee a person a certain standard of living, and when corporations such as 3M and Disneyland appeared benevolent.  Of course this picture leaves a lot of things out (immigrants, minorities, non-nuclear families, political undesirables, etc).  The scenes in the neighborhood make this painfully clear.

Secondly there is Disneyland itself.  One of the most interesting things for friends and family of mine who have seen this film is Disneyland as it was shortly after it opened.  Of course much has changed and been redeveloped in the following decades, so the film captures a park that has been lost to its devoted fanbase, and which most of us never knew anyway (the website Yesterland is dedicated to these fans, and this nostalgia for Disneyland as it used to be).  This then leads us to the rings of nostalgia that Disneyland builds around itself.  If we view them in chronological order, I suppose the first ring of nostalgia would be Main Street, USA, which offers a verklärte representation of an American small town at the end of the 19th century (I used to joke that it was the “saubere Königreich.”  Say it out loud and think about it, German speakers.  It really is punny).  Then there is the way that the Disney Corporation mythologizes its own origins, and the way that Walt Disney himself is elevated to the status of some sort of kid friendly Prometheus.  Just think of the statue of Disney and Mickey Mouse at the center of the Disneyland park in Anaheim.  Then there is the marketing, most evident, perhaps, in the periodic celebrations of the park’s founding.  I think Yesterland.com and Disneyland Dream also represent another ring of nostalgia.  It is interesting to hear the opposition that comes when Disneyland decides to make alterations, especially to its “classic” rides.  I remember this very clearly when Disneyland tried to remove the sexual innuendo from “Pirates of the Carribbean,” and I confess that on my last visit, in 2006, even I was unhappy when a Johnny Depp automaton was added to that same ride.  Really, isn’t that strange?  Why should anybody really care?

This nostalgia in general is all very strange.  How is it that we came to think of a corporate run theme park as a historical artifact that we would think of in the same way as a medieval cathedral?  Maybe Disneyland Dream offers us a clue.  Isn’t it right there in the title?  It’s a dream of what the nation, of what our system in general should bring: order, cleanliness, pleasure.  As the narrator tells us, it offers us a vision of what was. Now the period in which it was built, the 1950’s, has been subjected to similar romantic idealization.  Just listen to politicians talk about the 1950’s.  This is not a new phenomenon, as others have noticed.  There is a long tradition of selecting some past period as the temporal locus of goodness, virtue, etc.  What we get from the different levels of temporality in Disneyland Dream (1956 and 1995) is Disneyland as a representation of a better time (late 19th century America) and as in its essence an artifact from a better time (the 1950’s).

It’s this dream of what capitalism could be that Frank Rich seizes upon in his article, but this alone is an impoverished understanding of the film, in my view, because it misses yet another level of meaning one can find in the film.  There is something unsettling in the way that the entire community so completely embraces the fantasy.  The family buys a bunch of tape and creates free ads for the corporation.  The arrival of a “representative” of the corporation is hailed as a major event, as if a visit from a 3M employee were akin to a visit from the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!  The entire neighborhood is somehow emotionally vested in this family’s fortune.  And, of course, for having created the free advertisement, they are able to go visit a corproate fantasy land all expenses paid!  This is a big thrill, and yet, the exaggerated way in which the narrator, the family, and the community reacts (see, for instance, the way that the whole family falls over in an artificial way) casts all of this in an extremely ironic light.  There is something overly performative in the behavior of everybody on screen.  Sure, Mr. Barstow was amusing himself by making a film of the event, and having his family act in this way, but within the logic of the film their extreme performativity alienates the viewer from the story unfolding and forces us to consider the film far more critically.

On a final note, it strikes me as interesting and, actually, wonderful that that they travelled all the way across the country to gaze mostly upon simulacra (movie sets, Disneyland itself, and Southern California’s phantasmagorical (ex/sub)urban developments). Of course, if that’s the kind of thing you’re in to, Southern California is the ideal place to be.

ON EDIT:  Speaking of the way the park in Anaheim is marketed, I wonder if the layer of history and nostalgia wrapped around Disneyland was a shift that could be linked to the park’s reproducing itself in Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, etc.?

SECOND EDIT:  It is also worth noting that, in addition to the simulacra of Southern California, the Barstow family saw a lot of fortifications of different kinds, or places that, by nature or by design, serve to keep people out.  There were the homes of the wealthy and movie stars, the castle set and the castle at Disneyland (both hollow representations of fortifications, a combination of both), Catalina Island, and, of course, the Los Angeles highway system.  Roads and highways are a classic technology of separation, and it is interesting that being on them inspires both wonder and fear in the narrator.  Here we might bear in mind the etymological connections of “boulevard” to French bouleverser, boulevard, German Bollwerk, English bulwark.

Destino auf Blu-Ray

Einige Jahren nachdem Disney das Projekt aus dem Archiv herausgeholt und vollendet hatte erscheint nun der Kurzfilm Destino auf Blu-Ray! Wer kein Geld ausgeben möchte oder keinen Blu-Ray-Spieler besitzt, findet einige Raubkopien auf Youtube, allerdings muss man suchen, bis man die Version mit dem Originalton findet, und dann werden sie nach ein paar Tage geflissentlich entfernt (deshalb kein Link).

Walt Disney und Salvador Dali haben das Projekt 1946 unternommen.  Er wurde als Teil eines “Mischfilmes” geplant, der allerdings nie ins Kino kam, weil die Gattung bis dann aus der Mode (!) war.  2003 hat Disney den Film nach den noch bestehenden Skizzen vollenden lassen.  Der Film ist eine bemerkenswerte Mischung der beiden Stile, dazu kommt noch der digitale Zeichentrick, der die Filme des Disney-Studios in den letzten anderthalb Jahrzehnts geprägt hat.

Es hat eine Weile gedauert, bis ich mich mit meiner eigenen Disney-Erziehung abfinden konnte.  Dieses Filmchen hilft einem dabei.

Kostenlose Donnerstags in den staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Die momentan herrschende Sparpolitik geht leider voran.  Erst vor kurzem habe ich erfahren, dass kostenloser Eintritt Donnerstag Abends in die staatlichen Museen zu Berlin seit über einem Monat Geschichte ist.  Das ist ja nicht nur ein bedauerliches Zeichen anhaltender finanzieller Schwierigkeiten sowie ein Verlust für alle Berliner, sondern auch ein Hinweis auf die Gefahren kultureller und geisteswissenschaftlicher Einrichtungen in den Ländern, wo Sparen hoch auf der Tagesordnung steht.  Es hat sich angeblich herausgestellt, dass Touristen, “die als leistungsfähigeres Publikum geltend dürfen” zunehmend das Angebot nutzten.

Die guten Nachrichten sind, dass jetzt Jugendliche bis zum vollendeten 18. Lebensjahr jeden Tag kostenlosen Eintritt gewährt wird.  Uns alten armen Kunstfreunde hilft das zwar nicht viel.  Für mich persönlich ist das ja bedauerlich, denn als ich in Berlin lebte war es für mich eine Art Tradition, Donnerstag Abends in den Museen zu verbringen.  Ich bin oft dahingegangen, manchmal bloß für eine Stunde oder zwei, um meine Lieblingsstücke oder interessante Artefakten zu betrachten.  Jahreskarten sind glücklicherweise nicht so teuer, der Preis einer solchen für Daueraustellungen beträgt nur 40 Euro, und wenn ich wieder in Berlin bin, werde ich mir wohl eine besorgen, dann könnte ich jederzeit ins Museum gehen.  Aber es kommt eigentlich nicht darauf an, was ich mir selber leisten kann.  Es kommt darauf an, dass der staatliche Kulturbesitz allen zugänglich ist.  Einige kostenlose Stunden sind wirklich nicht zu viel gefragt, und somit muss Kultur nicht unbedint nur denjenigen offen stehen, die das Geld hergeben kann.  Schade ist es auch, dass nur an das Touristengeld wird hier gedacht, als stellten die kostenlosen Abends eine Geschäftsgelegenheit dar, die man noch nicht gezapft hätte.  Eben das ist das Besorgniserregende an die Änderungen der Eintrittspreiseregelungen.