Imagine, for a moment, that Disney World was an ordinary city.
Imagine arriving at Main Street, U.S.A., in the heart of the Magic Kingdom, where you find that every shop, knick-knack, and ad celebrated the same thing, where even non-Disney brands like Marvel or Star Wars have been appropriated. In Disney World, Iron Man, Yoda, and Darth Vader all wear Mickey ears.
Discovering a culture so univocal, you would draw an obvious conclusion: you are in a totalitarian state, where everyone participates in the cult of the Leader. It sounds kind of ridiculous, of course, to compare Mickey to Stalin, Hitler, or Kim Jong Il. It’s a comparison that one might expect from someone who wears aluminum foil in his baseball cap to keep the CIA from reading his thoughts, or who blogs under pseudonyms about Roswell and the Kennedy assassination. But to be clear, I’m not implying any grand conspiracy; I simply find it remarkable how much the artifice of Disney World has in common with totalitarianism.
When totalitarianism appeared in the twentieth century, politicians, historians, and political philosophers struggled to reckon with it. Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish philosopher who fled the Third Reich, became one of the foremost analysts of the phenomenon. As she revealed, the power of a totalitarian state rests in its ability to reduce human beings to cogs in a socio-political machine. Citizens ceased to be human in any meaningful way; their will and judgment were consumed and replaced by the will and judgment of the State.
In one of her more haunting lines, Arendt referred to Nazi death camps as “factories that produced corpses.” All the tools and values of industrialism—efficiency, productivity, and thrift—were put to use in the destruction of human life. The raw material that went into the factory was living creatures, and its end product was corpses.
At Disney World, the same tools and values are at work in a strikingly similar way. Journeying through the park, one can’t help but feel caught up in a production line, shuttled through an industrial artifice that sorts, directs, and propels 117,000 people each day from attraction to attraction, past an endless array of opportunities to shop, eat, or otherwise spend money. The efficiency is staggering.
But the product of this factory isn’t anything material; it’s pleasure itself, delivered in a blend of entertainment and consumerism that is a hyped version of all that is mass culture.
Mass Culture: What Makes Disney World Possible
In The Human Condition, Arendt describes the active life as divided into three spheres: labour, work, and action. Labour is related to the basic processes of sustaining life, the rhythms of producing and consuming. Work is contributing durable, lasting work to the world, such as art and architecture. Action is related to the political realm—words and deeds that change how men and women live and govern together.
Arendt was concerned with the disappearance of the latter two spheres. We now live, she believed, in a world where political action that results in real change appears difficult or impossible, and work—human contributions to culture that can outlast our lifetime—is disappearing as well. We are becoming, she feared, a pure labouring society, where active life is spent entirely in producing and consuming, a society of mass culture and mass consumption evidenced by “the extent to which our whole economy has become a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world.”
In this new way of life, our spare time “is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to [us], the greedier and more craving [our] appetites. That these appetites become more sophisticated . . . does not change the character of this society, but harbors the grave danger that eventually no object of the world will be safe from consumption and annihilation through consumption.”
Disney World is the ecstatic archetype of this way of life; it exists for little more than consumption and the pleasures of immediate gratification. As Arendt describes it, “Mass society . . . wants not culture but entertainment, and the wares offered by the entertainment industry are indeed consumed by society just like any other consumer goods.”
Consumable Entertainment and Mass Culture
Entertainment itself, in this sense, is a consumable. “The commodities the entertainment industry offers are not ‘things,'” Arendt says, “[not] cultural objects, whose excellence is measured by their ability to withstand the life process and become permanent appurtenances of the world, and they should not be judged according to these standards; they are consumer goods, destined to be used up, just like any other consumer goods.”
There’s something about the artifacts of mass culture—even Disney’s—that get “used up,” consumed, and lose their value. Consider how few movies hold up over time, or how a pop “hit” becomes ubiquitous until one day, no one can stand hearing it anymore.
At Disney World, try riding Mike Fink’s Keel Boat Ride, or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or (this was a real thing, I swear) buying lingerie at “Jessica’s of Hollywood,” a shop whose mascot was Jessica Rabbit, the buxom wife of Roger Rabbit. All lived out a life cycle, became “stale,” and disappeared.
Even iconic characters and stories—the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson—take on a different character within the context of mass culture. It’s a phenomenon Arendt lamented almost fifty years ago. “The entertainment industry is confronted with gargantuan appetites, and since its wares disappear in consumption, it must constantly offer new commodities. In this predicament those who produce for the mass media ransack the entire range of past and present culture in the hope of finding suitable material. This material, moreover, cannot be offered as it is; it must be altered in order to become entertainment. It must be prepared to be easily consumed.”
But this “preparation” fundamentally changes the artifact, and instead of speaking outside the culture, it now appears within it, as yet another consumable bit of media. And as a consumable, it has a shelf life. “There are many great authors of the past who have survived oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.”
Adapting cultural artifacts is Disney’s bread and butter, and they’re well aware of their characters’ shelf life. Just as fashion trends have a way of rotating and disappearing—boot cut jeans this year, skinny jeans the next—Disney’s icons have a way of rotating in and out of the spotlight. This year we get a steady diet of Frozen, but it won’t be long before another princess takes the spotlight. The relationship to consumables is obvious: one can only eat so many Turkey sandwiches until it’s time to switch to Roast beef.
Mass Culture and “Happiness”
In a labouring society, our sense of purpose isn’t found in an outward turn toward meaningful work or a greater good, but in satisfying the demands of the body—food, comfort, and entertainment, which Arendt calls the quest for happiness.
“The universal demand for happiness and the wide spread unhappiness in our society (and these are but two sides of the same coin) are among the most persuasive signs that we have begun to live in a labour society which lacks enough labouring to keep it contented. . . . For only the animal labourans, and neither the craftsmen nor the man of action, has ever demanded to be “happy” or thought that mortal men could be happy.”
This “happiness,” as she describes it, is achieved when we find a perfect balance between desire and consumption, effort and exhaustion. Disney World offers this in both it’s exhausting demands it places on the body—long lines, heat, walking for hours—and in answering all of the body’s demands—thrills, comforts, laughs, and consumables. For the labouring animal, whose joy comes in production and consumption, in effort and exhaustion, Disney World truly is the “happiest place on earth.”
The Irresistible Power of the Factory
And yet, even with a kind of cynical awareness of all of this at work, there’s no denying the fact: the factory works. One moment, you’re being guided through an industrial artifice like an animal to slaughter; the next, you’re sitting inside a plastic Dumbo with your five-year-old, whose face is alive with a kind of joy and wonder that travel agents and Disney aficionados call “Disney Magic.”
There’s something universal and fundamental about this response. To resist it takes a conscious and deeply cynical effort. Arendt calls it “sheer hypocrisy or social snobbery” to deny that such entertainment works.
Moreover, in the weeks since the trip, while much else has faded—the saltiness of the mouse-shaped pretzels, the smokiness of the Turkey legs, the Dole Whip (I ate a lot, you guys), what hasn’t faded is the memory of this moment. Neither has the memory of our family, laughing hysterically while spinning in the teacups. If anything, such memories have crystallized and become symbolic of the whole experience.
Somehow, in the midst of a “world” that is perhaps the purest expression of mass culture, a shrine to consumablility and disposability, there remains a space for intimacy, for joy, and for some kind of deeper bond to be forged. And to read Walt Disney’s vision for the project, this “magic” was his goal in the first place. How does an artifice that treats people like cogs in a machine effectively create such deeply human moments?
While describing someone navigating polarizing ideological messages, Arendt once said, “Ambiguity points the only way out.” She consistently refused to commit herself to a perspective that presumed understanding or simplified the complex. As her biographer described her, Arendt was “both a conservative and a revolutionary.” What she treasured more than anything was clarity and independence of thought. At the heart of her book, The Human Condition, was the need to “think what we are doing,” to examine how culture functions and forms us—a project that produces more questions than solutions.
It’s too simplistic to dismiss Disney World as merely commercial, vapid, or evil. But it’s equally dangerous to ignore the ways its artifice and architecture depend upon a dehumanizing vision—human beings as consuming cogs in an entertainment factory.
Perhaps the key question to ask is why the factory works. What is it that breaks through the artifice and sparks to life when you climb into Dumbo with your child, or fly along in Peter Pan’s adventure? What is it that industrial engineers and capitalists not only hope for, but depend on for the park to work (and profit)? Here, again, we can see Disney as a hyped archetype of our culture. Everyday experience can feel artificial and automatic in a consumer culture, but on occasion, something else breaks through, and we’re suddenly alert to one another or to the world around us in a new, brighter way. Disney World not only manages to intensify our sense of being cogs in the machine; it intensifies a sense of the human space that remains possible.
So perhaps the best explanation is this: at the intersection of industry, commercialism, and imagination, there remains a human space, a space for the heart to move in wonder and move toward others. “Love, by its very nature, is unworldly,” Arendt said, and when it appears it draws us out of ourselves and out of our “world.” Its presence and the echoes of our experiences with it are what make humane and transcendent moments possible, even in the chrome and plastic artifice of a pleasure factory.