Jul 23

Postcorporate Form; or, Art After Disney

With Comcast dropping its bid, The Walt Disney Company’s purchase of 21st Century Fox looks increasingly likely. Together those two companies account for about 47% of the domestic cinema market, and their merger would further flatten a media landscape dominated by a handful of companies.

I’m currently working on a book about The Walt Disney Company’s adaptations of Victorian literature, arguing that analytic categories like historical periodization and literary form remain relevant even as readers’ experiences are shaped less by teachers and scholars than by global media corporations. There are such things as “corporate histories” and “corporate forms,” and they exert a strong influence on the reception even of centuries-old works. It’s essentially a project about literary history, but it also has me thinking about a more contemporary genre that emerges from a media climate controlled by a handful of major players.

That thinking is partly inspired by postcolonial studies. Among the important questions asked by global and postcolonial scholars is the extent to which artists after colonialism accept, reject, or reinvent the colonizer’s artistic forms. Robert Stilling’s forthcoming book shows “how postcolonial artists reimagined the politics of aestheticism in the service of anticolonial critique,” and iGlobal Anglophone Poetry Omaar Hena argues that “the renovation of aesthetic forms” allows global anglophone poets to look both backwards to “irreparable historical realities” and forward to “more robust models of worldly belonging that would match the aesthetic and political complexities of the contemporary world” (3).

One has merely to mention the East India Company to demonstrate that colonialism and global capitalism have always come hand in hand, and it’s not at all uncommon to hear companies like Disney or Facebook compared to the colonial nation-states that exerted their dominance in the nineteenth century. Critical works like Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1991) and the National Labor Committee’s Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti (1996) take the comparison seriously, but does art do the same work? Might there be an analogue in “postcorporate forms,” works that “renovate” (to use Hena’s term) corporate forms in the service of anti-corporate critique?

I have in mind three very different works. The first is Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), a futurist dystopia set in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In a rejection of the copyright system with which Disney is inextricably linked, Doctorow distributed his novel under a Creative Commons license (you can download it for free from his website). Part of Hena’s argument is that the colonizer’s aesthetic forms also determine which writers gain — or don’t gain — institutional recognition, and so colonial power structures still determine which works succeed. In a sense, Doctorow subverts a similar power structure.

Banksy’s Dismaland (2015)

The second is Banksy’s 2015 art installation Dismaland, which leveraged the form of the theme park in its critique of corporatism, media culture, police brutality, and predatory lending. Though Banksy disavowed any direct aim at Disney, the decrepit castle at the park’s center certainly evokes the castles around which Disney’s parks are built, and the whole concept of a “theme park” is linked to Disney: the first recorded usage in the OED is a 1960 reference to efforts to duplicate Disneyland.

The third work I have in mind is Jon Cozart’s “After Ever After” series, the best among myriad YouTube Disney parodies. Cozart imagines the next step in the characters’ stories and links them to issues of contemporary concern: Ariel is poisoned by BP’s oil spill; Aladdin and Jasmine face both American islamophobia and the threat of ISIS; Pocahontas and Elsa lead violent uprisings against (respectively) British colonials and climate-change-deniers; Mulan ponders gender realignment surgery. Cozart has three videos, one of which you can watch here:

Striking about Cozart is his clear fondness for Disney: the videos are as much homage as parody, and if they take aim at Disney’s films it is only in their formal reliance on a “happy ending.” Yet they implicate corporate actions in environmental destruction, racism, and imperialism. There is some irony in the leveraging of these critiques through homage to a company that is far from innocent of those same charges (see Dorfman and Mattelart and the National Labor Committee).

These are just initial thoughts on this topic, and a slight deviation from the argument I’m developing in Disney’s Victorians. Of course the analogue between “postcorporate” and global or postcolonial writing needs some further thinking. But this is a line of inquiry I might pursue in a future post, or perhaps a longer work.

Feb 22

Corporate Periodization, INCS conference preview

The Interdisciplinary Nineteenth Century Studies conference is March 10-13, in Asheville, NC, and I’ll be presenting part of my current book project about the Victorians and the Walt Disney Company. The paper argues that literary and corporate periodization are analogous, each stemming from particular institutional objectives, and demonstrates the analogy by examining the history of the Walt Disney Company.

In fitting the paper to its necessary length I wrote two sections that don’t fit exactly into the argument, and I decided to post them here as a preview of (or complement to) the paper. The first part explores the imagined contrast between making art and making money. The second very briefly identifies different periods in the management of the Lyceum Theater, which I see as a historical example of the kind of periodization I’m claiming for Disney.

Making Art and Making Money

The imagined corporate ethos is encapsulated in an internal memo written by Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005. The memo is famous enough that it has become a meme:

We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective. - Michael Eisner

I first encountered this memo in Henry Giroux’s The Mouse That Roared. Giroux argues that Disney is a cultural icon, but its profit-centered motivation makes it a threat to Democratic values (Giroux 25). For those who value making art, history, and statements over making money, Eisner’s memo raises eyebrows. And it’s easy to imagine a corporate executive spouting claims like this. It’s a too-perfect encapsulation of the neoliberal values we fear are encroaching into the university.

But the next sentence of the memo changes things a bit, at least for me. And it tends to be left out of the memes. Here is the slightly extended version:

We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, to make some significant statement. (Stewart 23; Eisner)

Eisner is a corporate CEO, and clear about his priorities. But he is also aware of the kind of company he’s leading. In his 1998 memoir he doubles down on the idea, and claims to be riffing on Woody Allen’s claim that “if show business weren’t a business, it would have been called ‘show show’” (Eisner).

It’s the contrast between these different values that interests me most, and the way they are too often framed as a zero-sum game. Professors are often caricatured as being out of touch, as if our only objective is to teach students and produce research. And I don’t necessarily disagree that that is our objective as faculty. But imagine a university president adapting Eisner’s words:

We have no obligation to make money. To make art, to study history, to make statements is our only objective. But to make art, study history, and make significant statements it is sometimes necessary to make money.

I don’t think that statement is a slippery slope that leads all universities to become like Corinthian Colleges. To insist on a contrast between universities and corporations is to insist on different priorities. It doesn’t mean we remove ourselves entirely from the financial system. When we push for state or federal funding, for student loan reform, for alumni donations, or for higher wages for contingent faculty, we recognize that universities do need to be funded. My paper takes seriously the shared motivations among academics, artists, and corporations.

The Lyceum Theater

The division between corporate and academic ethos is less stark than news coverage makes it out to be. But it nonetheless exists, and does affect the moves we make in our own scholarship. In her book on Gilbert and Sullivan, for example, Carolyn Williams argues that

Genre formation is not only an aesthetic and historical, but also an economic, process, and genre was important to Gilbert and Sullivan’s effort to carve out their own market niche. They distinguished their productions from other theatrical fare through their genre parody and their particular treatments of gender. Their success at capital accumulation supported unusually high production values, which led, in turn, to further capital growth. (Williams 5)

That’s an insightful point, recognizing the link between profit and aesthetics. Williams then emphasizes that capital accumulation “does not reduce the aesthetic dimension of their success” (6). Even when acknowledging the link, she recognizes the need to guard against a backlash that would insist on a divide between art and the marketplace. In arguing that English departments and the Walt Disney Company follow similar institutional drives to periodize, I aim to further bridge that divide.

Theater scholars tend to be especially attuned to financial questions: Williams is just one example, and Shakespeare critics have long been invested in learning about his financial involvement in his companies. For my purposes, the Lyceum Theatre provides an index to theatrical trends, and its operational history demonstrates how an institutional brand can turn a profit by keeping up with the rhythms of popular culture. Built by the Society of Artists in 1772, the Lyceum hosted a variety of exhibitions in the late eighteenth century, including “astronomical demonstrations, air balloons, waxworks, ‘philosophical fireworks,’ boxing matches, circuses, programs  of humorous recitations, and concerts”  (Altick 54). The site took advantage of fads like waxworks and tableaux vivants as they emerged: Madame Tussaud began her British career at the Lyceum in 1802 (Altick 333) and William Dimond’s The Peasant Boy (1811) featured one of the earliest tableaux (Altick 342).

After hosting operas and fairy extravaganzas around mid-century, the Lyceum later came to be associated with Henry Irving, and especially with Shakespeare: Irving’s 1874 Hamlet has been called “one of the most influential and talked about theatrical roles in the latter part of the nineteenth century” (Young 3). As these examples demonstrate, the Lyceum shifted its strategy to keep up with popular culture, its different stages analogous to literary periods. Today, I would suggest, the Lyceum continues its Victorian legacy: since 1999 it has hosted Disney’s The Lion King, an adaptation of Hamlet that takes combines two distinct trends of twentieth-century pop culture: the animated musical and the Broadway musical.

In the INCS paper, and in the book towards which these arguments are building, I continue developing these analogies to explore how a global media corporation can helps us understand Victorian culture and its reception.

Works Cited

Sep 16

Eye Rolls, Corporatization, and Wikipedia

I’m once again teaching my first-year composition course about Wikipedia, and so on the lookout for when the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” makes the news. Notable stories in the past couple years include the lamentable scarcity of female editors (and the abuse those few female editors face), manipulation by marketing firms, and grudge-holders seeking revenge. Last week Wikipedia featured, briefly, in the ongoing debate about the corporatization of American universities. The example touches on two lessons I hope my first-year students take away from their composition courses — evaluating sources and the importance of knowing one’s audience — and reveals what I take to be a major disconnect between a corporate ethos and an academic one.

The University of Iowa recently announced that its 21st president will be Bruce Harreld, a former executive at IBM, Kraft, and Boston Market. The choice has been, to put it mildly, unpopular. Inside Higher Ed‘s Kellie Woodhouse notes that fewer than 5% of faculty and students approve Harreld’s appointment, primarily because of his lack of experience in higher education administration, and even Business Insider picked up the story. Cathy Davidson, among others, sees the announcement as further evidence of the corporatization of the public university, a trend has become all to common and was exemplified this summer by Scott Walker’s gutting of the University of Wisconsin system. (As Caroline Levine cogently explains, Walker’s move was political and ideological rather than budgetary).

So how does this connect to Wikipedia? Harreld’s critics point out his performance in a public forum, which began with a presentation that Kembrew McLeod of Slate calls “rambling,” then continued with a Q&A. Here is a video of the forum, queued to the moment that most upset his detractors:

Sara Riley, who identifies herself as an attorney and a second-generation Iowa grad with kids recently graduated and currently enrolled, calls out Harreld for his comment that Iowa should aim to become a “public Ivy”. Riley asserts that Iowa is a public Ivy, and has been since the 1980s, to which Harreld snidely responds, “I’ve seen the website, too.” In answer to Riley’s, “which website?” he replies “Wikipedia.” When Riley says, “I don’t go to Wikipedia, I’m an attorney,” Harreld rolls his eyes, unable to hide his derision. He doubles down on his source a minute later, assuring Riley that he does remember what Wikipedia says about Iowa’s status as a public Ivy. (For the record, Riley cites a better source.)

The exchange, and particularly the eye roll, reveals a lot. The truth is not measured in mass appeal #quote #quality #innovation #inspiration #CSISpadina #torontoThe educational model that colleges and universities promote distinguishes authoritative, trustworthy sources from biased, unrepresentative, or ill-informed ones. (So does Wikipedia, for that matter: and it doesn’t even consider itself reliable). Harreld’s implication that such distinctions are silly, that it doesn’t matter where he gets his information, reveals a fundamental disconnect with the faculty, staff, and students he will lead as president of the university.

But that’s not the biggest issue. If I’m being honest, I use Wikipedia just about every day (Riley probably does to). Not for nothing is it the seventh most visited site: it’s an efficient, accessible resource, and it’s mostly right most of the time. There’s even a case to be made that Wikipedia can help us rethink liberal education in the twenty-first century. Rather, the issue is one of audience. I don’t cite Wikipedia in my scholarship, I don’t prep class based on Wikipedia, and I would certainly never bring it up in a job interview as evidence that I’d researched my prospective employer.

At least in the clip, Harreld seems not to understand why academics might object to such a source, and that misunderstanding, to my mind, gets at one of the fundamental disconnects between the corporate ethos and the academic ethos. For speed and efficiency, Wikipedia is just fine. But for accuracy and rigor, a better source is necessary. Stakeholders in an institution whose mission is to “advance scholarly and creative endeavor through leading-edge research and artistic production” have a right to expect more from their leaders.