July 25, 2009

Honeymoon in Disneyland

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    "I went on a pilgrimage", [Dick] said, rising out of his usual slouch to stand like an indignant christian martyr before a Roman persecutor.

    "To where?"

    His dignity send me into another fit of laughter.

    "Disneyland," He said defiantly.

    "What?"

    "Disneyland. I walked the whole way."

    He made it sound as if Disneyland. was on some other continent when in fact it was only a few blocks away.

    "I don't believe you , Phil."

    "I have proof."

    "Let's see it."

    He took out his wallet and extracted a laminated card. "It's a pass to Disneyland, good for one whole year."

    "You must have paid a fortune for it". I took it in my hand and stared at it. It appeared to be exactly what He said it was. "To pay so much for one visit".

    "For one visit, yes. But it's a bargain for several times."

    "Several times?"

    "Many times."

    "How many?"

    "Every day at first. Now only two or three times a week."

    "My God Phil."

    "There's a little cafe in Disneyland. They have outdoor tables. I've gone there so often the waiters greet me by my first name".

    "That's amazing."

    "Even Mickey. Mickey greets me by my first name." - Ray Nelson, "The Last Days Of Philip K Dick"

I've been away on my own pilgrimage - on a four-day trip with my wife to Disneyland Paris. It was my first visit to a theme park; I hadn't even been to Alton Towers before. When it opened, the idea of Disneyland in Paris always struck me as something oxymoronic: Disneyland couldn't possibly be so close to the UK and remain Disneyland. It would be like building a replica of Shangri-La in Skegness. Heaven can't be on your doorstep. For British children since the late 50s when the first park opened in California, Disneyland seemed to be so inaccessible it belonged to another plane of reality altogether: a quasi-divine place that only the very fortunate or the very unfortunate could dream of visiting, a place of redemption where the sick would not exactly be healed, but their suffering would somehow be made good. For the British child, Disneyland was America-as-consumer-kitsch paradiso; and America already seemed impossibly, remotely glamorous, always in some future time that we would never quite catch up with: all we could do was gather the cargo cult relics - such as colour comics appearing sporadically in corner shop newsagents - that were unpredictably blown our way. Disney films, the best of which were never shown on TV, were themselves very difficult to see - there were only the teasing morsels served up on the Disney clip shows.

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Disney: promised land, and patronym turned brand-name as divinity. The rumours that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen have been denied - but who needs literal resurrection when you have been transmogrified into pure brand?

    Dick: "God help us if the man who translated my novel Ubik into German were to do a translation from the koine Greek into German of the New Testament. He did all right until he got to the sentence 'I am the word.' That puzzled him. What can the author mean by that? he must have asked himself, obviously never having come across the Logos doctrine. So he did as good a job of translation as possible. In the German edition, the Absolute Entity which made the suns, made the worlds, created the lives and the places they inhabit, says of itself:

    I am the brand name."

    Ray Nelson: "You know what a tulpa is Ray?"

    "No."

    "In Tibet they believe that if you imagine someone, set a place for them at the table, talk to someone as if He was really there, talk to other people about him as if He was real, after a while you'll glimpse that someone out of the corner of your eye. The food on that someone's plate will start to disappear. You'll hear someone breathing at night when you're all alone. Finally one night, out of the shadows a someone will step into the light from the campfire and sit down, and perhaps, perhaps..."

    "Yes?"

    "He'll speak. Come with me tomorrow. You'll see. Yesterday he was there at the next table. I didn't dare look at him directly."

    "The tulpa?"

    "Walt".


In Disneyland, we are inside the enkitsched memories of Walt himself (born, punctually, in 1901, two years after the publication of The Interpretation Of Dreams), strolling through the reconstructed space of early 20th C Main Street USA, with its corner drugstores, barbers and City Hall. The billboard advertisements feel as if they are authentic scans of period pieces, but like everything else on Main Street they have a brand-new brightness about them, an eerie absence of entropy, as if the whole mintfresh scene had been miraculated into existence only a second ago. The buildings in the Aladdin-inspired Adventureland are allowed to show (artificial) cracks and wear - all carefully maintained to always simulate a particular stage of disrepair - but Main Street is eternally pristine, forever free of decay. It's easy to see the allure of this for Philip K Dick, whose most moving extrapolation of this enworlding of nostalgia was Virgil Ackerman's Wash-35 from Now Wait For Last Year, ("Dick's most sublime invention", according to Jameson):

    a painstakingly elaborate reconstruction of the specific limited universe of childhood, which Virgil had known, constantly refined and improved in matters of authenticity by his antique procurer... Here was Gramage's, a shop at which Virgil had bought Tip Top comics and penny candy. Next to it Eric made out the familiar shape of the People's Drugstore; the old man during hiis childhood had bought a cigarette lighter here once and chemicals for his Gilbert Number Five glassblowing and chemistry set.

Disney's Main Street USA stops far short of this aching megalomania of memory. The old-time store fronts and interiors do not contain period artefacts, only shelves of shiny new Disney tat. Walking through the theme park, you're reminded, endlessly, not only of Dick - the (slightly misremembered) phrase 'How to build a world that doesn't fall apart two days later' kept recurring in my head - but also of Portmeirion/ The Village, and Chtcheglov's famous Formulary For A New Urbanism, written four years before Disneyland was first opened. Sometimes, it seems as if Disneyland was an attempt to sur-realise a neutered version of Chtcheglov's vision of the city ("Bizarre Quarter Happy Quarter (specially reserved for habitation) Noble and Tragic Quarter (for good children) Historical Quarter (museums, schools) Useful Quarter (hospital, tool shops) Sinister Quarter, etc" get anodyne-doubled as Adventureland, Frontierland, Discoveryland), another kitsch-raid on Old Europe. But you can't help feeling that the theme park experience is arrested at a certain level; only the G-force on the rides has increased since the 50s. Where is the Westworld-like total immersion? Partly it's ruined by us, the Last Men tourists, wandering through the artificial spaces in long shorts and T-shirts - but what if there was a theme park that was some combination of The Magus, David Fincher's largely forgotten The Game and an Artangel performance piece, where everyone had to dress and act the part? Where you don't just go into the Twilight Zone Hollywood Tower hotel, but the hologram ghosts follow you to your room?

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The Liberty Arcade in Disneyland Paris

In Disneyland Paris, the 'Liberty Arcade' celebrates "France's gift to America", the Statue of Liberty. Disney, an ardent organiser against UnAmerican influences, openly enivsaged his parks as walk-in propaganda for the American way, but now Disneyland - the entertainment face of Fordist capital - seems to more closely resemble its old Stalinist rival than it does the banally chaotic arcades of postmodern capitalism. The twinning was already suggested in the famous image of Eisenstein with Mickey Mouse. Now, going to Disneyland feels like a holiday from late capitalism: a visit to an environment that is more controlled and managed than a Stalin show-town, where the streets are always kept clean, where there is no random signal. A world purged of contingency, designed how (an American) God would have built it. As Disney's own imagineers put it, in a statement whose horror of happenstance is worthy of Le Corbusier:

    The architectural evolution of most major cities is the result of series of accidental layers, things building upon other things without thoughtful arrangement. In many instances, this creates a lack of order, which, in turn, creates visual conflict. By understanding what does not work, we can eliminate visual conflict and contradiction in what we create.

Planning and paternalism are dead as politics (so we are told) but they are still highly lucrative as entertainment. People won't pay for the government to provide public space, but they will pay Disney handsomely for simulating it. One of the most astonishing things about visiting Disneyland is the controlled nature of the sound - no pop leaking out of PAs or radios, only environment-appropriate sonic syrup. Mood-setting speakers in the grass and hedges. A string-only version of "When You Wish Upon A Star" muzak-looped in the hotel. Totalitarian kitsch, to use a phrase from Kundera, who, you will remember, defined kitsch as "the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the world." Disney certainly helped the US win the cold war of kitsch. There, the denial of shit amounted to removing shit - disorder, discontent as well as dirt - from the gaze of the big Other (represented by Uncles Joe and Walt). With postmodernity, there has been a reverse - it is not shit that is denied, but the gaze of the one from whom shit can be concealed that is no longer officially believed in. "The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on the base of kitsch," commented Kundera, acerbically and ambiguously. Kitsch can certainly not be extirpated from human life - but neither, contrary to what postmodernity implies, can the big Other.

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Kitsch does not have to be pure saccharine; as is well known, Disney's adaptations of Old European folk tales by no means eliminated all the cruelty, anxiety and horror from those Grimm stories (which if you read the originals, don't just seem 'dark' in the Tim Burton sense: they are stranger than that, more like a Freud patient recalling a dream than the well-formed narratives that we recognise them as). The Peter Pan, Snow White and Pinocchio rides take place in almost total darkness, the final moments of redemptive brightness a brief, uninteresting flash after the inside-the-whale, lost-in-the-forest black grottoes. I think these rides are practically the same as when the park opened in the states in the 50s. "I shall be indebted to [Disney] for a lifetime for his ability to let me fly over midnight London looking down on that fabulous city in his Peter Pan ride," wrote Ray Bradbury in 1958. When Paul McCarthy carnivalised The Pirates of the Carribean ride, he precisely smeared extrement everywhere - but the ride, introduced in 1967, is in any case remarkable for its spectacular Rabelaisian amorality: it's already a beyond good and evil Burroughs-like bacchanalia, a Saturnalian world turned upside down and set aflame. We went on it six times ...

Jacksonism and Schizophrenia

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And, when I returned home, I received Ian Penman's epic essay for the Michael Jackson book I'm putting together. This is the most substantial piece by Ian that I've read for at least a decade - it's not only about MJ (but then MJ was never only about MJ - that was always his problem), but MJ as postmodern symptom (and, perhaps, as sinthommosexual). Ian's piece, with its references to PKD, Pinocchio, Peter Pan and "Totenkindergeschichte (roughly, 'tales of dead children')", was like a Baudrillard-dream postcard of my past few weeks: from Michael's death to Disneyland, no distance at all. For Ian, I think, Michael's life can be seen as a failed attempt to erase the Father - which is one reason that the later MJ, for all his freakishness, was still the (non)man in all our mirrors. The man who never grew up but who couldn't remain a child, who denied his masculinity and his race but who didn't become the postmodern mutant celebrated by Momus, only the stalled spectacle and spectre of the erasure...

This is where 'we' are now: not Harawayesque cyborgs affirming our ontological hybridity but replicant-puppets (of Capital) dreaming kitsch dreams of being restored to full humanity but "without any Gepettos or Good Fairies on the horizon" (Ian). Note how much of this lachrymose maudlin android schtick made it onto Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak (which seems a bigger, more significant record every time I hear it) - nowhere more so than on the astonishing "Pinocchio Story". This is the kind of autotuned lament you might expect neo-Pinocchio and android-Oedipus David from AI to sing; a little like Britney's "Piece Of Me", it is song as commodity apperception, the soured sound at the end of the rainbow, the achieved American dream as Paradise Syndrome, an electro as desolated as Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop".

There is no Gepetto/ to guide me...

Only the bad fathers, the only kind we can believe now...

Michael might have preferred Walt to Joe, but even Walt was abusive (so they say)... Walt's smoker's cough would warn Disney workers that he was on his way...

Most of the time we buy without question the story that all Jackson's pyschopathologies can be traced back to his childhood abuse at the hands of his father. It fits the ubiquitously-distributed soap OprahOedipal script. But there were plenty of kids beaten by their fathers - such abuse was hardly an uncommon thing in the sixties and seventies - who didn't end up auto-mutilated xanax-zombies. You can't understand Michael's madness only in terms of family dramas, though of course the abuse had its role to play.

Wasn't Michael, in fact, a supreme demonstration of so many of the theses of Anti-Oedipus? His family life was never an interior theatre separated of from the social matrix - he was plugged in from the start into the media landscape, himself an accelerant agent (my fingers wanted to type 'angel' there - perhaps I should have) of capitalist expansion ... further into (outer) space, deeper into the unconscious...

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Reading David Foster Wallace's magisterial essay on Roger Federer in the wake of this year's Wimbledon final, I was struck by the contrasts and the congruences between MJ and Federer. Both gave up their childhoods - Federer much later than Michael of course - to repetitive drill, the same drill which in the end will alchemically transform into illustrious artistry, kin(a)esthetic hyper-precision. MJ came out of this rhythm factory infinitely more damaged than Federer - partly because the extent of his fame was so much greater, partly because the process started much earlier, and partly because of the reasons Greg Tate outlined in his 1987 Village Voice piece on Michael:

    Jackson was the under-weaned creating of two black working-class traditions: That of boys being forced to bypass childhood along the fast track to manhood, and that of rhythm and blues auctioning off the race's passion for song, dance, sex, and spectacle. Accelerated development became a life-imperative after slavery, and r&b remains the redemption of minstrelsy--at least it was until Jackson made crossover mean lightening your skin and whitening your nose.

There is no Gepetto/ to guide me...

Postmodernity has meant the repudiation of the Father. Fathers are either absent, bad or ineffectual. Cosetted by the maternal superego, no-one wants to say no... no-one wants to pay the price of success....

But the problem isn't that childhood is curtailed too early, it's that it never ends... This is how Jackson exemplified our plight... To truly overcome the Father-Thing you would have to occupy its place, but who is willing or able to do that?

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