Disney's Animal Kingdom
as a Distorted Mirror


by Ken Sanes

But beyond all this there is another and more profound domain of illusion, which is already much in evidence in the descriptions above. What we find is that, despite all the depictions of places and situations one might encounter in the world, what Disney's Animal Kingdom really depicts is us, the audience, more specifically that part of us that is warded off from conscious awareness.

The park is a giant materialized projection of the unconscious mind that has been turned into a fantastic environment. What it is really about is our narcissistic desire to feel like we are grandiose heroes and saviors, on the side of right, and our desire to enjoy the full-throated optimism that comes with the sense that the cup of the world runneth over and death can be conquered. It is about our childhood desire to see wonders and get prizes and surprises.
The park is similarly about our desire for quick and easy transcendence -- transcendence for the price of admission. It creates the illusion we are transcending time, traveling back to the age of dinosaurs, and that we are transcending space, zipping off to those exotic locales. It lets us see magnificent spectacles of vast scale, and lets us escape the negative emotions and mundane character of everyday life into a numinous realm of perfected nature. In short, Disney's Animal Kingdom is a giant symptom, a multi-million dollar daydream of mystical innocence and childhood grandiosity, letting us help save Life in its battle with Death in a cosmic struggle. In Freudian terms, it lets us pretend to save Mother Nature from the rapacious father or renegade son, as we whistle while we are entertained because right and righteousness are on our side, and we need never consider the complex motives that really make up our fears and desires.

The core fantasy of the park, which offers us a disguised expression of what is on our minds, is one that we find throughout contemporary culture. It expresses a growing rational and irrational concern people have that as we develop the ability to control -- and damage -- the physical world, we may have to save some aspects of "reality" from ourselves. We can see this same theme in many other entertainment products, whether it is movie characters saving humanity and nature from giant mutant insects, or movie ride audiences saving the present from a time traveler who would interfere with the unfolding of history, or Star Trek characters who discover that they will have to deal with the fact that their technology is undermining the fabric of the physical universe. In response to genuine practical concerns about the negative effects of science and technology, we are now busy symbolically saving the world from ourselves in story-based simulations which, in their unholy mix of truth and illusion, may turn out to be as big a threat to "reality" as the kind of dangers we pretend to save ourselves from in them.

What the park is about, then, is our mostly unconscious fantasies and fears and desires, involving heroism, righteousness and the expulsion of evil from ourselves, as well as optimism, transcendence and safety. It is about our desire to play the role of "reality saviors" who rescue the world, thereby alleviating our anxieties while convincing ourselves we are on the side of right. In some ways, it may also be a projection of Oedipal issues onto the world, letting us save Mother Nature from ourselves.

To give us ourselves back again, the Disney Imagineers take our unconscious fantasies and make them seem real. They do what all the culture fabricators in the age of simulation do -- they take elements of the world and blend these with fabrications modeled after other elements of the world, to create a large work of fiction. In place of nature, they give us a simplified, exaggerated, and massively denied version of human nature. The world becomes a vehicle to tell us a dishonest story about ourselves.

Here, by way of an example, is Disney's description of the attraction, Countdown to Extinction in Dinoland U.S.A.:
"When Imagineers set about working on Countdown to Extinction, they first had to choose which species would populate the attraction.

"We cast it the way we would cast a movie," said show producer Ann Malmlund. "You need a hero and you need a villain."
The hero was found in the Iguanodon (Ee-GWA-no-don), a plant-eating dinosaur large enough to make an impression yet gentle looking with a wise, beaked face.

But it is the villain here who seems to have all the good lines. Or, in this case, roars.

Imagineer wanted to surprise guests with a creature few had ever encountered in films, books or museums – a species of dinosaur not immediately known to every Brachiosaurus-loving, T.rex-collecting fourth-grade paleontologist.

They found him in the Carnotaurus.

The name means 'Meat Bull,' and the dinosaur lived up to that rough assessment with the blunt face of a bulldog, a gaping mouthful of savage teeth and two huge, menacing horns.

Fortunately, a nearly complete skeleton of a Carnotaurus was uncovered recently in Argentina, giving show designer Paul Torrigino a solid reference for the creature’s anatomy. But much remains unknown to science."

Of course, that is our story being told, not the story of dinosaurs. It is a variation on the same dumb tale we tell ourselves over and over about victims we identify with and villains who are never ourselves.
Here is a description of another attraction that presumably helps us learn about insects: "Guests step inside the huge Tree of Life to experience a 3D adventure about creatures of a much smaller scale: insects. Based on an upcoming animated film from Disney and Pixar -- the creators of Toy Story -- the humorous film and special-effects-laden theatrical experience provides a bug's-eye view of the world."

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, that is only incidentally about insects, which is a humorless realm if ever there was one. The real point is to provide an opportunity for audiences to transcend the mundane and reenact elements of their psychology in a way they will find emotionally satisfying.

What we see in Disney can now be found not merely in zoos and theme parks but throughout contemporary culture -- in news and television, movies, advertising, museums, politics and virtually all other institutions and media that are trying to win and hold large audiences. National television news, for example, is supposedly intended to give us information about the world -- information we often need to fulfill our role as citizens. But with its computer-generated special effects, camera work, dramatic music and sets, and dizzying efforts to take us to distant locales, it increasingly looks like a theme park ride. Its often exaggerated and simplified scenes and story lines satisfy our desire to feel as if we are participating in great events and striding the world stage. Like fictional stories, it offers us dangers to fear, sufferers to sympathize with, villains to hate, hypocrites to disdain, and leaders to admire, all condensed into interesting narratives and once again made more compelling by the belief that they are about important events and situations in actual life.

For its part, local television news offers us a litany of smaller scale dangers and disasters. Where more obvious forms of fiction take us to the conclusion of a happy ending in order to turn fear into hope, local news does so by framing its depictions with stories of communities coming together and victims saved. And like national news, it frames the constant and exaggerated depiction of danger with the portrayal of calm and professional newscasters who are part of a community that is strong enough to contain danger.

Here, too, we are given something that looks suspiciously like a blend of fact and fiction, along with implicit claims that our viewership is a way of fulfilling responsibilities of citizenship. And, here too, the actual events that are shown seem increasingly to be mere vehicles for giving us a chance to enact our own psychologies. Much of the time, what we respond to isn't the actual situations depicted, but the artfulness of the narrative and theater. We are deliberately led to confuse art with life, and to confuse our emotions and fantasies for what is in the world, by those who want to sell us candidates, products, entertainment and ideas.

Disney, in fact, comes close to admitting that this is what it is trying to do, although it would undoubtedly deny it if the implications of its statements were pointed out. For example, it says the inspiration for the park is "mankind's enduring love for animals," and a Disney "imagineer" is quoted as saying that the Tree of Life is a "symbol of the beauty and diversity and the grandeur of our animal life on Earth," and a "celebration of our emotions about animals and their habitats." Similarly, in the statement quoted earlier, Disney says: "Inspiring a love of animals and concern for their welfare is the underlying theme, both subtle and obvious, throughout Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park." In other words, the park is about inducing positive emotions in visitors -- emotions that are a one-dimensional expression of our complex attitudes toward nature. It isn't just nature that is falsified but our reactions and perceptions.

Of course, none of this is, in itself, new. Mythmakers and storytellers, and kings and shamans, have always taken our disavowed fantasies and converted them into artful daydreams that take on the appearance of life, to satisfy our desires and let us act out what is on our minds. Similarly, politicians and other manipulators of rhetoric have always told stories full of idealized depictions of themselves and those they represent, while offering "demonized" depictions of their opponents, to induce a fictionalized view of the world in audiences. Even this text creates illusions and plays on emotions, offering to provide a window onto some aspect of the world while creating the illusion the reader is being directly addressed in a unified and spontaneous expression of ideas, and placing the writer and reader on the side of right, as a villain is depicted who is worthy of their hate.

What is different now is that massively powerful new industries of culture fabricators have made great strides in learning how to use art and science as tools of manipulation. Collectively, they have turned news and television, movies, advertising, museums, politics, documentaries and most other forms of contemporary culture into variations on Disney. All convert life into lifelike theater by seamlessly integrating physical and sensory simulations with computers and story lines, and blending in special effects to keep people watching. And all, to one degree or another, provide depictions and stories that deliberately falsify their subject in order to play to the psychology of their audience. They do what all artists do -- they improve on life, exaggerating, intensifying, and using their raw material to create aesthetic effects. But they claim that what they offer is a faithful depiction or that it is something authentic, as they use the new techniques of image fabrication and simulation to make it convincing.

One antidote to this trend is to remember that throughout history there have been philosophies that have taught us we can make our thoughts and desires transparent, and we can also learn how to separate our own imaginings and false perceptions from the larger world. This is probably the message of various forms of Eastern mysticism; it was certainly the message of Freud, and it is the message of modern science, which tries to filter out the biases of the observer in an effort to discover the world beyond our own projections. In each case, these philosophies have suggested that there is a kind of liberation that comes both from knowing ourselves and from being in contact with things as they are, instead of constantly weaving them into the dramas that rage in our minds.

What we need today is a form of culture criticism that is based on these essential truths. Its purpose will be to study all of our representations, unraveling simulations and authentic objects, and fact and fiction, and revealing disguised and disavowed expressions of personality, ideology, marketing, and myth. Its role will be to help us understand ourselves and society, despite the censorship imposed by the mind and by those in power, and to help us cease projecting our own psychology onto things. Most essentially, it will help us see through the pervasive fictionalization and falsification that pervades virtually all forms of media.

As part of this effort, it will have to take a stand against the degradation of the search for truth, which now puts kids on thrill rides and tells them they are getting an education and helping to change the world. It will demand that we try to understand and teach about nature as it is, rather than turning it into a projection of ourselves. That means it will ask us to recognize there is little that is natural about peaceable animal kingdoms in which disguised forms of containment create the illusion the lion is lying down with the lamb. It will ask that we refuse to be taken in by scenes of "humorous" insects, and that we (to use a well-known example) stop telling stories about dolphins as enlightened beings that are really about our own hopes and aspirations. Such a form of culture criticism would not seek to bar us from enjoying any of these depictions. But it would ask us to stop confusing them for the world outside us, and ask us to try to construct stories and descriptions that are as close to what is being described as possible.

It also won't ask us to bracket out our own fantasies and unconscious thoughts when we try to study the world. On the contrary, by making the stories in each of our own minds transparent, we learn to understand the stories of popular culture, which were created by minds much like our own. And by making the stories of popular culture transparent, we learn to understand our own minds. Our psychodynamically-drenched fantasies even give us information about the nonhuman world, along with models we can use to understand it. Indeed, since it is impossible for us to think about anything without our unconscious fears and desires going along for the ride, undercover, we can't help but be talking about our selves when we are avowedly talking about nature or other people. But, once again, what is essential is that we try to tell the difference.

In helping us to know ourselves, such a form of culture criticism can also perform another essential task -- it can reveal the way our narratives and depictions express our deep-seated desires to become whole as individuals and create better, more decent, societies. Here, we discover one of the most essential insights into news, politics, Disney et al, which is that, despite all their falsehood, they give disguised expression to our desire for ethical transformation.

Disney's Animal Kingdom is certainly a prime example of this, since it takes us into a myth that expresses our primal yearning to live in an unfallen realm of nature that expresses our values, and to be benevolent caretakers rather than destroyers. The critic Northrop Frye believed that Western civilization has been permeated by a myth of a universe with four levels -- heaven; a perfect unfallen realm of nature that embodies our desires; the fallen world of nature and death we live in; and an underworld. Disney takes us into that second, unfallen realm of nature to play on our desires to undo our fallen state. Like many of the creations of contemporary culture, it is in the business of immersing us in false utopias and ersatz realms of transcendence, for its own purposes. What it offers may be fictionalized, contrived and disguised, but it expresses our deep-seated desires to reform the corruptions of the world.

What Disney's Animal Kingdom -- and the culture -- need, then, is a serpent who will entice us to eat from the other tree, of the knowledge of good and evil, and see the complexities of life, including the complexities of the culture and ourselves. The ultimate goal will be to help bring about the maturation of society and the self, in which we learn to emerge from our symbiotic immersion in our own fantasies and refuse to let society's power-brokers act as corrupt parents who would play on those fantasies to define our world for us.

Journalists and academics who focus on exposing the illusions of society and culture are in a unique position to help carry out such a critique and reveal the falsification and fictionalization of our view of the world. But it has to be said that those in academia who hold to more extreme versions of relativism, "antifoundationalism", post-structuralism, social constructionism and similar philosophies that cast doubt on the existence of objective truth or our ability to know the truth, aren't in much of a position to participate in this critique. How can they take Disney or TV news to task for falsifying our view of the world when they believe that "texts" are merely an endless field of possible interpretations without any necessary correspondence to anything in the larger world, or that we can never know the world as it is, beyond our own distorted perceptions. For those who hold to such philosophies, Disney's depiction of nature is as valid as Darwin's, and the hyped up view of society offered by local news is as valid as the best efforts to understand public events and politics by serious writers and theoreticians.

In fact, when you examine the more extreme versions of these philosophies, it is obvious that they are part of this larger trend of fictionalization. From news organizations that offer us overly dramatic depictions of events, to politicians who act like all information is the raw material for spin, to those academics who see every "text" as nothing but a self-contained theme park full of special effects, we are surrounded by people who would replace the search for truth with degraded forms of art and artfulness.

What we need then is a renewed form of culture criticism that will try to convince humanity not to become immersed in these would-be Never-Never Lands. Unfortunately, in trying to make our case, we are up against massively powerful industries that are learning how to turn computers, simulation and mass communications into the most efficient and well-disguised tools of manipulation ever devised.

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Disney's Distorted Mirror

There is more on simulation at:
The Age of Simulation

1996-2011 Ken Sanes