Disney vs Debord:
Methods and Ideologies for Manipulating
the Viewer through Space
by Josh Weihnacht
With the recent popularization of computers and the internet and the continued success of video games, there has been a great deal of attention focused on the ideas of "virtual reality" and "cyberspace." Much of this attention has concerned the loss of bodily presence in a computer-based environment. Less has been said about what it means to inhabit an environment that is completely synthetic, an environment that is conceived and constructed completely by humans. While mankind's construction of his own environment is not a new phenomena (the entire discipline of Architecture is devoted to the study of how to construct space for human inhabitants), computer environments allow an unprecedented degree of control over the user's surroundings. Furthermore, architecture has historically focused on creating physical spaces, whereas computer-based environments must focus on the mental and emotional aspects of an environment (since the designer rarely has any control over the physical environment in which a user's computer is placed). Of course, it is difficult to see the effects of a completely synthetic environment in computer-based media because the medium has barely begun to develop. Therefore, to begin to understand the consequences of inhabiting a computer environment, we must look to the ways that architecture can be used to construct an environment for mental and emotional effects.
This ability for architecture to produce an emotional effect on its inhabitants was realized by the Situationist International (SI), a quasi-artistic, quasi-political international movement that was active from the late 1950's to the early 1970's. They claimed that:
Darkness and obscurity are banished by artificial lighting, and the
seasons by air conditioning; night and summer are losing their
charm and dawn is disappearing. The man of the cities thinks he
has escaped from cosmic reality.
This sentiment describes the sense of control over the environment that was a basis for the theories of the SI. Ironically, they felt that this ability to control the surroundings that were once dominated by natural forces had not necessarily resulted in an improvement in human life. "Urbanism," complained Constant in a 1959 essay entitled "The Great Game to Come,"
as it is understood by today's professional planners, is reduced to the
practical study of housing and traffic as isolated problems. The total
lack of alternatives involving play in the organization of social life prevents
urbanism from attaining the level of creation and the gloomy and sterile
appearance of most modern neighbourhoods is a shameful reminder
The SI were not alone in their disgust for the state of the urban environment. After all, the Situationists were active during a time of mass exodus from the cities to the suburbs. However, rather than flee to a new location in the hopes that the alienation and afflictions of the city would not follow, the Situationists proposed that society's conscious construction of its own environment should strive to improve the "impoverished" lives of its inhabitants, instead of merely meeting the utilitarian requirements on which city planners and others routinely focus. They argued that "this world governs our way of being, and it grinds us down. It is only from its rearrangement, or more precisely its sundering, that any possibility of organizing a superior way of life will emerge." The SI's solution to this problem was the "constructed situation," defined as "a moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events." The constructed situation is a manipulation of the environment. But it is a manipulation designed to promote specific moods and behaviors in its inhabitants. This emphasis on moods and behaviors is what separates the situation from the environmental manipulations practiced by city planners. Traditional city planners are primarily concerned with issues of efficiency and productivity, trying to get the most use out of a space. They are concerned with optimizing the quantitative aspects of space. The creators of a situation would be primarily concerned with the effects that a situation would have on its occupants and with optimizing the qualitative aspects of space.
However, although the Situationists theorized the construction of situations, "There isn't even any evidence that a situation was ever constructed as prescribed." The SI left behind some general descriptions of how situations might function, and even a few proposals for situations. But to talk about an actual physical structure that might resemble a situation, we must look to another source: the theme parks built by Walt Disney. Of course, unlike the SI, Disney did not publish his theories about his parks, since after all that would take away from the "Disney magic." And the two had very different utopian aims for their manipulations of the environment. However, the comparison seems less far fetched when one asks "What exactly is a theme? A theme, as Disney conceives it, is a milieu or ambiance (the jungle of the Jungle Cruise, the quaint shops and streets of New Orleans Square) so distinctive and entrancing that when immersed in it one forgets time." Oddly enough, the theme parks that Disney built act upon their "guests," to use Disney's own jargon, in much the same way as the SI demanded that a constructed situation should act upon its inhabitants.
For example, take the SI's claim that "cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones." This principle, obtained through the Situationist practice of derive, was undoubtedly meant to facilitate the purposeful construction of an environment that could draw people in - or repel them - as one element of a greater SI environment. This principle was consciously employed by Disney throughout the construction of Disneyland (and Walt Disney World, its larger, better funded successor).
Walt wanted strong vertical elements to articulate each section of
the park. He used the term 'wienie'... to describe tall visual markers
that promised to reward the visitor who walked toward them... Walt's
theory was that if the promised goody were good enough, if what was
going to be there was clear enough from the environmental cues
embedded in the design, then Disneyland's guests would go
anywhere and relish the trip.
Even though the SI developed this idea into a more general hypothesis, Disney not only arrived at the same conclusion, he and his team surpassed the Situationists by discovering a technique to achieve the desired effect and by implementing it into a working structure. The wienies in Disneyland are the rocket in Tomorrowland, Big Thunder Mountain in Frontierland, and the castle of Fantasyland (a wienie whose draw is so powerful that it has come to symbolize the entire park). As visitors walk down Main St. U.S.A., the only entrance to or exit from the park, they are drawn by the castle, which is placed at the end of the street, from which point they are dispersed throughout the rest of the park.
Another concept theorized by the Situationists and employed by Disney is that of "detournement," defined by the SI as "the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble." For example, they proposed detourning Griffith's Birth of a Nation "by adding a soundtrack that made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan."
Disney also regularly uses similar distanciating strategies, most notably in attractions that draw upon history. "Most of the stories told at Walt Disney World make use of Disney versions of elements of U.S. (and world) culture. Notions about the home, family, and sex roles as well as historical characters such as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain are cleaned up and repackaged in the interest of Disney themes." Thus, the horrors brought about by Twentieth Century technology, such as WWI, WWII, and the possibility of nuclear war remain absent in Disney's view of history. The last major war depicted at the park "was the Civil War. After that were progress and unbounded creativity."
While detournement is easier to demonstrate with narrative forms, it is also applicable to architecture. As an example of a situation created completely through a detournement of Paris, the SI proposed to "Open the Metro at night after the trains stop running... . With the careful rearrangement of fire escapes, and the creation of walkways where needed, open the roofs of Paris for strolling." Here minor alterations on a space produce an environment that is radically different from its original form. Disney detourns a wealth of architectural forms: medieval European in Fantasyland, the Nineteenth Century American frontier in Frontierland, and the turn of the century downtown in Main St. U.S.A. These detournements are openly declared, but less obvious architectural detournements are present. Main St. U.S.A., with its varied facades meant to evoke all of the elements of a turn-of-the-century small town, is little more than a modern day shopping mall in which the "interior walls rarely correspond to the exterior dimensions of a given structure" and exterior doorways are occasionally false, used for pure decoration. Disney even detourns nature on one boat ride by claiming that the rain is "just another Disney special effect."
The structure of a Disney theme park also parallels the structure of a Situationist city. A description of the contents of a proposed Situationist "labyrinth-house" includes
the quiet room, clad in insulating material; the loud room with its
vivid colours and ear-splitting sounds; the room of echoes (radiophonic
speaker games); the room of images (cinematic games); the room for
reflection (games of psychological resonance); the room for rest; the
room for erotic games; the room of coincidences. etc.
This array of varied environments, each with its own motif or theme, resembles the array of themed attractions at Walt Disney World: Space Mountain, the Swiss Family Island Treehouse, the Country Bear Jamboree, the Hall of Presidents, the Grand Prix Raceway, etc. Both consist of an assortment of varied environments designed to have a specific effect on their inhabitants. Both arrange these environments for one to wander through. Furthermore, just as Disney World is divided up into major groupings of environments called "lands" (Fantasyland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Main St. U.S.A.), Situationist plans often involved dividing space up into "quarters" or "sectors." One proposed list reads "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." Thus, environments were grouped together into themed "quarters" or "lands." Of course, the SI included environments with themes that Walt Disney would never have imagined, much less have allowed, in his park. There is no room for a Sinister Quarter (which the SI goes on to describe in much more detail than any other quarter) or an erotic room in Disney World, the happiest place on earth. This is a distinction based on taste and ideological differences. However, despite their differences of content, Disney and the SI used the same tactics and strategies to manipulate the environment.
Not only did the Situationists and Disney develop parallel methods for organizing space on the macro level, they also employed similar strategies for dealing with the micro level of construction. Both rely heavily on attention to detail to create an environment that will have the desired effect on its occupants. Disneyland was designed by many of the same animators who created the Disney films, animators who were accustomed to manipulating every cell of a cartoon for optimum effect. Thus it should come as no surprise that "the Disney theme parks are full of compelling, believable detail." This high level of detail creates much of the emotional effect of the parks by making their fantasy "seem more real, somehow than the world outside." This same concern for detail is evident in the pre-Situationist "Psychogeographical Game of the Week":
In accordance with what you are seeking, choose a country, a more or
less populated city, a more or less busy street. Build a house. Furnish
it. Use decorations and surroundings to the best advantage. Choose the
season and the time of day. Bring together the most suitable people, with
appropriate records and drinks. The lighting and the conversation should
obviously be suited to the occasion, as should be the weather or your
If there has been no error in your calculations, the result should satisfy
While this "game" requires no specific action from its participants, it requires the player to pay close attention to every detail of her life and how these details combine to create a desired effect.
However, if both the SI and Disney believed that attention to detail was an integral factor in the successful manipulation of one's mood by an environment, the Situationists did not specify the details of their plans. They believed that the details of the environment should be constantly altered by the inhabitants of a situation. In fact, the construction of a Situationist labyrinth in the Stedelijk Museum in 1959 was canceled due to disagreements that arose when the director of the museum asked to see the plans for the labyrinth prior to the exhibit. The SI refused the request, claiming that it "would have destroyed the 'spontaneity' of the installation." While Disney left no detail of his parks up to chance, the Situationists intentionally left many of the details of their designs up to the occupants of the space, in part, to take full advantage of the chance decisions of others.
So if Disney and the Situationists can be said to to have attempted what amounts to the same thing, affecting the viewer's emotions and actions through the construction of an environment, how can one distinguish the kinds of manipulations advocated by the radical group that helped instigate the May '68 student revolts in France from the manipulations created by a multinational corporation that presents itself as safe for the whole family while building a prison under Main St. U.S.A.? In the following, I will suggest three distinctions between the Situationist's and Disney's mode of influencing the viewer: the function of the Situationist's concept of the spectacle, the intended effects of environments produced or theorized by Disney and the Situationists on their inhabitants, and the degree of control that the "guests" have over their surroundings in both models.
According to Guy Debord, the central figure of the SI, "The Spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images." This idea of spectacle is given architectural form by Disney rides, such as Snow White's Scary Adventure, in which the main character is absent "in order to allow their riders to 'become' Snow White." By inviting the viewer to identify with - indeed to "become" - a fictional character, Disney is encouraging the viewer to mediate her life through images, in this case the images of Snow White. Identification with Snow White encourages one to act as though one were Snow White and not one's self. Of course, these characters which the viewer is made to identify with are the same characters used to sell spectacle-laden merchandise at the ubiquitous Disney gift shops. Debord was opposed to this tendency in society to live vicariously through fictional characters, celebrities, and commodities. He believed that such a life was hollow, "a visible negation of life." He "sought to break the spectator's psychological identification with the hero so as to draw him into activity by provoking his capacities to revolutionize his own life." Instead of using the spectacle as a means for selling merchandise, Debord wanted to disrupt the spectacle in order to empower the viewer and therefore encourage revolutionary change in society.
While both Disney and the Situationist International wanted to create spaces that would alter their inhabitants' emotions, Disney sought to comfort his guests while the SI sought to disorient their's. Walt Disney once said about Main St. U.S.A., "It's not apparent at a casual glance that this street is only a scale model." In fact, Main St. U.S.A. is built at five-eighths true size. Forced perspective is used to make these smaller than normal buildings appear to be normal size. Thus, while the conscious mind is presented with an idealized business district, the subconscious is soothed by being in a larger than average toy and does not have the three story buildings looming over it that the conscious mind believes to be there. This strategy of producing comfort is also evident in the "clean streets, smiling faces, happy colors, and implicit promise that here, at least, everything will be OK."
This strategic pursuit of comfort runs counter to the Situationist declaration that "Life can never be too disorienting." The quintessential Situationist structure is the labyrinth. Inside the Situationist city the "principle activity of the inhabitants will be the CONTINUOUS DERIVE. The changing of landscapes from one hour to the next will result in complete disorientation." In contrast to the SI goal of spatial disorientation, Disneyland was planned around a central hub, the castle, because, as Walt Disney himself said, the "Hub gives people a sense of orientation. They know where they are at all times." Of course, making guests feel comfortable within the park has the added benefit for Disney of giving "customers the confidence to shop in an unfamiliar setting." And just as Disney's attempts to soothe his guests resulted in more shopping, the SI believed that disorienting the inhabitants of their spaces would promote "an atmosphere of uneasiness extremely favorable for the introduction of a few new notions of pleasure." The corollary to this statement being that "new notions of pleasure" would encourage people to take control of their lives in order to fulfill these new desires, creating a situation that would be favorable to revolution. Thus, while Disney manipulates space for profit, the Situationists do so in a way that promotes their beliefs for revolutionary improvements to society.
This distinction between manipulations used for self-interest and empowerment used with a revolutionary intent is central to an examination of the role of control. The most obvious form of control offered to the guests at Walt Disney World is the ability to choose from numerous rides and attractions. Essentially, this is the control provided by the TV remote. However, once one has selected an attraction, control over the environment is abdicated to Disney, first by accepting to wait in the infamous Disney line, and then again once one actually gets on the ride. "Rides are the most constrictive attractions... . They spin and turn, pointing us toward the next scene and away from anything that might spoil the illusion. They frame our view." By entering a ride, one not only gives up control over one's surroundings, one must also implicitly relinquish control over how one views her surroundings. But it goes even further than this. Not only are we convinced to give up control of our environment and how we perceive it, we are convinced that we don't want control, "that we don't want to know what goes on behind the scenes. That would spoil the magic." Everything seems to be so perfectly planned out that an attempt to alter the environment could only result in diminishing its effect and adulterating the total experience.
Disney does offer another form of control, however, one that promises the fulfillment and autonomy denied by the rides. Once one steps out of an attraction, one is surrounded by restaurants and gift shops. "Our need for autonomy is directed toward impulse buying." Thus, the analogy between television and Disneyland is strengthened: both allow the viewer to select from an array of different entertainment options, over which one has no control, interspersed with advertisements which encourage us to exercise control through impulse buying.
In contrast, the Situationists advocated "a freedom which for us is not the choice between many alternatives but the optimum development of the creative faculties of every human being; because there cannot be true freedom without creativity." Their environments would give the inhabitants significant control over their surroundings, as evidenced in the suggestion to "Put switches on the street lamps, so lighting will be under public control." While Disneyland is so well ordered that there is no role for the occupants to play in constructing their surroundings, Situationist architecture relied on a "purposeful disorder" that would allow for active participation. The more disorder is present, the more opportunity there is for someone to intervene and take action. An extreme of this can be seen in the proposed Situationist city of New Babylon which incorporated "movable assembly systems (walls, floors, terminals, bridges, etc.), light and therefore easy to transport, which can be as easily mounted as dismounted." New Babylon is an architecture designed to be constantly altered by its occupants, an idea alien to the Disney designers who believed that "Decision-making is very fatiguing. If you start wandering from one thing to another, not quite knowing what you want to see, you will wear yourself out."
Ultimately, what separates Disney's theme parks from the SI's constructed situations is an inverse relationship between the degree to which the experience is structured and the degree to which its occupants are empowered. Disney provides a well structured experience. The result is that Disney's guests are placed into a passive role and all meaningful control is channeled into the purchasing of Disney commodities. The SI provided the framework of a structure at best (Constant's New Babylon). At times they merely provided a suggestion that someone else devise a structure ("Psychogeographical Game of the Week"). The reason for this apparent lack of work is that the Situationists demanded that the inhabitants of their space take an active role in the constant recreation of their own surroundings. Therefore, any preordained structure could ultimately restrict a future user.
However, this issue of the structure of space and the empower of its occupants is something of a moot point. In present day society, power over the physical and emotional landscape is increasingly held by the few and they rarely want to relinquish this power to the many. This accounts for the widespread awareness of Disney and the obscurity of the Situationists. It also corresponds to the fact that well structured experiences are proliferating in the form of mega-malls and branded shopping at chain stores, both of which are seen as places of leisure. At the same time, public spaces in which anyone can do anything are in short supply these days. Disney seems to have already won the ideological battle over physical space.
Despite this apparent victory, the battle over structure and user empowerment is still very much alive in the realm of interactive, computer-based experience. As both video games and the internet mature as media, there is the possibility for them to grow into either highly-ordered structures through which the user merely navigates a preconstructed experience, or open-ended structures that allows the user to construct their own experiences, or both. For example, video games like Doom and Warcraft 2 allow the user to edit levels so that they can create their own virtual worlds, just as the Situationists hoped people would do in the physical world. At the same time, video games are becoming more and more complex and it is uncertain whether or not users will continue to be able to alter these new virtual spaces in any meaningful way. Their structures may become so complex that the user ends up being controlled by the video game in the same way that Disneyland controls its guests. Right now anyone with a modest amount of skill can create her own web page, allowing for both the proliferation of different experiences and the endless change in the environment that the SI envisioned. On the other hand, sites like www.amazon.com and www.ebay.com are very quickly establishing themselves as well structured, branded experiences that are very reminiscent of Disneyland. Sites created by individuals may have trouble attracting visitors away from sites created by multinational corporations. Current day web sites may seem rather boring when compared to the SI's vision of "houses where one cannot help but love." But as the medium of interactive, computer-based experience matures and proliferates it may become capable of fulfilling the Situationist International's visions, recreating Disneyland on a larger scale, or both.
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