le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spaceship Earth and Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller" (from Illuminations) was one of my early critical influences. I read it as part of a project on narrative theory, my third year of college; since then, I have taken grad classes that dealt with Benjamin (one in particular that looked specifically at "The Storyteller"), and have come to realize Benjamin is far more complicated than I initially thought. Still, some of the basic things in that essay that really moved me still affect me strongly, and though they have deeper meanings and connotations and contexts than I fully grasp, they also retain their surface meaning(s). In other words: this is a simplistic view of a very complex text, and I am aware of that.

Experience, Benjamin tells us, and wisdom or counsel, are what the storyteller offers. And we are losing (have lost?) the ability to communicate experience; we have lost any counsel or wisdom we might have been able to offer. In Part VI of this essay (in the version linked to above) is the stuff that really hits home for me. Benjamin identifies as concomitant with the rise of capitalism the true menace to experience and storytelling: the rise and primacy of information.
Information replaces experience, replaces story. The already-explained and the instantly verifiable replaces the psychological work of the story-listener/reader and the art of experience and counsel-sharing of the storyteller.

Benjamin wrote this essay in the mid 1930s; I would argue that, in many ways, in mass popular culture, information has almost totally eclipsed experience and story. Or, perhaps, experience has been downgraded and filtered and collapsed into information.

You can see the replacement of story and art with information in a very vivid way if you pay a visit to Disney's Epcot Center in Florida. My family began making annual pilgrimages to Disneyworld when I was a small fry; my parents now "snowbird" not far from Orlando. When I visit them during my spring break, there is disneyfication. I get almost as much of a charge from the critical outrage I experience as I do from the pleasure of entertainment.

At any rate, for years I've been touring peacefully through the iconic attraction at Epcot, Spaceship Earth, the slow-moving ride inside the geosphere at the park's entrance (the "giant golf ball" to the uninformed). As a small fry, it was narrated by Walter Cronkite; as an older kid, it was revamped and narrated by Jeremy Irons in richly British accents. One particularly glorious moment comes when the ride vehicle rounds a corner to face a tableau of animatronic figures with masks in a Greek amphitheatre, and Jeremy intones "The theatre is born." (you can hear Jeremy say this around 3:45 in the above clip). The ride was a journey through the art of human communication, from cave paintings to the invention of papyrus "paper" to a common alphabet to the movable-type printing press to the explosion of art in the renaissance (pronounced by Jeremy, wonderfully British, as the renAYsance) to mechanical reproduction on a grand scale to films, television, radio, internet.

A recent reference to Spaceship Earth ("the most relaxing 15 minutes of your life") on the website of Karsten Knight plus my recent Florida/Disneyfication spring break, made Benjamin and Spaceship Earth to collide in my brain, prompting this (lengthy and link-riddled) post.

A year or two ago, however, sponsorship of the attraction changed hands from AT&T to Siemens. And the ride changed. A lot.
Now it's narrated by Judi Dench (anglophilia at epcot, what can I say?), and instead of being the story of communication, it's the story of information, and information technologies.
No longer do we have Jeremy Irons telling us that the Greeks elevated the spoken word to an art form, and the theatre is born; now, we have Dame Judi tell us that the Greeks founded schools, and developed mathematics, which lead to mechanical inventions that paved the way for technology.

In the former narrations, Glorious Rome falls to invaders, and thus the Dark Ages descend. "But all was not lost; far across the land, from Cairo to Cordoba, Jewish teachers and Islamic scholars continue the quest for knowledge." We learn that these Jewish and Islamic thinkers "shared new discoveries with all who would listen."

This is a bit of history that I don't think most people know about; we mostly get that Anglocentric history with the blacked-out bits of the dark ages, where Europe and the world just goes dark for a few centuries, until slowly, aided by unicorns and King Arthur, they pull themselves up into the medieval age, then the Renaissance. Meanwhile, everyone outside the white Christian world continues to writhe around in abject squalor and ignorance (see 7:20 or thereabouts for the best visual representation of this).

Obviously, this unicorns and ignorance version is utterly false; as Jeremy tells us, Jewish and Islamic scholars (in Spain, in much of North Africa and the Middle East) were working away, inventing modern medicine and any number of other things; meanwhile, all of Asia was clicking away, China leading the race of progress by a good many miles.

My point here is: Jeremy includes the non-Christian, non-white world, briefly, here. And it's a really important inclusion, one that makes note of both the preservation of and the continuance of scholarship.

Judi Dench, on the other hand, now tells us that these "Arab and Jewish" chaps had all this Roman-and-earlier knowledge stored away in libraries, where they, the Arabs and Jews, "watched over it." No mention here of new ideas or inventions made by the Arabs (who used to be Islamic scholars) and Jewish folks; no, they're just maintaining the warehouses.
Dame Judi makes this entirely too clear by saying: "call it [the Arabs & Jewish folks] the world's first backup system."

you did not just call thousands of humans, some of them truly brilliant thinkers, a "backup system."
Oh, but she did.

The ride does not improve from this point. We got paeans to progress and technology, information, computers, a very nerdy fellow (Steve Wozniak? Bill Gates?) in a garage fiddling with a prototypical personal computer, greenlit screen and all. We get told a new language was invented, one spoken by computers. We get technology and computers are awesome rah rah huzzah!
We got lots of tableaux of people alone with their technology.

In the old days of Spaceship Earth, it was about communication and the arts; it was about the way humans were able to connect with one another. In the setup to the ride, accompanied by misty images of fur-wearing folks hunting woolly mammoth, Jeremy Irons and Walter Cronkite told us that human invention of arts and language and writing meant that we were "no longer alone."

The tableaux at the end of changed. Used to be a pair of voice actors in the radio booth; now it's just one man. The woman seems to have been repurposed into the 80s, where she gets an afro and yellow tights and stands alone surrounded by huge computers. The small obnoxious child who shrieked "Extra! Extra!" while brandishing mass-printed newspapers at us in our ride vehicles is now, very curiously, pushed back and facing into a corner, back to us, while a new, older voice says "extra! extra!" in a muffled way. This child laborer, turned to face the corner, is a freakish alteration, reminiscent of the end of the Blair Witch Project and absolutely baffling.
Instead of seeing how communication technologies connect people - through a series of mini-tableaux of - essentially - webcam communications (a mother singing to a child at bedtime, grandparents watching a grandchild's graduation, a field researcher discussing a find with a colleague, two kids sharing clips of their athletic achievements, one in California, one in Japan), we get the nerdy guy alone in his garage, and then a new "interactive" gag about where you, the rider, want to live.

Information and isolation, instead of experience and wisdom. Technology and data, instead of arts and invention.
It's a grim visualization of the (admittedly first-world) ills of contemporary life.

As noted above, my musings were partially prompted by Karsten Knight's fairly offhand comment on his website. Spaceship Earth used to be a very blissful 15 minutes of slow-moving British narration through a eurocentric but otherwise fairly inoffensive art-appreciation show. As a kid, visiting the park in August with my family, Spaceship Earth was a blessed relief:  usually with a short line, the ride was cool and dark, enabling us to sit, slightly tipped back in our ride vehicles, relaxed.

Now I feel unhappy, tensely awaiting that awful "Backup system" comment, angered by the translation of some of the west's greatest artistic achievements into nearly literal blips of data. Computers are great - I'm using one right this second, and so are you - but Steve Wozniak or his avatar inventing a PC really doesn't have a patch on Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. You see both of these represented now, but the avatar-nerd gets more time and focus than Michelangelo. Greek theatre has vanished, replaced with mathematics. The very real scholarly, intellectual and artistic pursuits (of which medicine was one very important aspect) of the Islamic/Arab world are totally elided, replaced with the truly offensive and insulting "backup system," as if cultures and civilizations and humans are some kind of primitive floppy disk, a precursor to that old 5-inch floppy.

It's Benjamin's essay in animatronic form, and it's truly heartbreaking. My dissertation work also deals with Disneyland, and my reading about Walt Disney and the early years of his work has me genuinely convinced that, at the heart of what Walt Disney and his studio did, was a true commitment to the twin forces of technology AND art, and what each could do for the other. Spaceship Earth strips art right out of the picture, replacing it with gleaming technology for its own sake, information instead of experience and story-telling. It's a vast step backward for Disney, in my estimation of that company's philosophy (not its corporate philosophy, which was never Walt Disney's philosophy to begin with; this is a man who plowed most of his eventually sizable income right back into his studio and his techno-artistic endeavors).
It's a bloody shame is what it truly is, and it's no longer that 15 most relaxing minutes of your life. Now it's a hurried-along, 10-minute barrage of information without counsel, wisdom or art.


Anonymous said...

I think you've chosen the perfect career. Academic as cultural interpreter, thinking smartly about the aspects of our lives that most of us just gloss over on our way to the next chore.

I've always been bothered by the new Spaceship Earth, but never could put my finger on exactly why - it just seemed more soulless, somehow. And I LIKED Judi Dench as an actress...

You've just helped me 'make meaning' of this - thank you. You rock.

Library Diva said...

I agree with you, I don't really like the new Spaceship Earth, and I can see how information has replaced narrative and experience all over. There used to be a woman on Museum-L who would answer every single query with links to searches she'd done. Thanks, but I don't want to read a book on teenagers and museums, I'm asking my colleagues how they've reached that audience, I want to hear what's succeeded, what's failed, what they're working on, what outcomes surprised them for better or for worse.