Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.
Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.
As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.
This is the Main Street of the essay that follows. From here we will visit Frontierland and consider the “actual” historical, expanding American frontier and its global cultural footprint. I will argue that the myth of the frontier has functionally and very effectively taken the place of the actual frontier, in the latter’s sudden absence. In Adventureland we will consider the phenomenon of the “theme park,” a modern and very democratic American phenomenon with roots in aristocratic China, Japan, and Germany, as opposed to the “amusement park.” In Fantasyland we will consider the interaction of the fake and the real, and the Enlightenment conceptions of these which we are still struggling to transcend. In Tomorrowland we will consider the future, and find ourselves back in Frontierland, where the future always lives.
Frontierland: The Myth of Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis
The popular conception of Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” is that Turner was a cheerleader for the influence of the frontier on American and European culture, painting it in glowing, positive terms. Francaviglia says: “As if taking cues from Turner’s essay, the works of Disney help enshrine the frontier and sustain the dialogue about its validity that continues into the twenty-first century.” Turner’s portrayal is often described as “romantic,” and he is cited as perpetuating the “Frontier myth.” Some sources cherry-pick Turner’s work for positive-sounding endorsements of the frontier character, such as this:
That courseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy;—that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which come with freedom—these are traits of frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.
Quoted by Bridges, Anne, Russell Clement, and Ken Wise, Terra Incognita: An Annotated Bibliography of the Great Smoky Mountains, 2014; characterized as “romantic.”
But Turner’s actual essay is far from glowingly positive, and seems equivocal, if not on net negative, about the effect of the frontier. Even in the above quotation, he notes that the “restless, nervous energy” is used “for good and for evil,” and he focuses on the evil aspects as much as, if not more, than the good. It is not Turner’s position that “nervous energy” is a good thing; in a footnote to this very passage, he calls it “strained nervous energy.” And Turner’s actual historical examples in his 1893 essay tend to point to the evil effects of the frontier. Individualism and self-reliance sound like good things, but Turner is clear to point out how they tend to undermine group institutions and cooperative well-being. For example, he argues that political pushes for bad monetary policy, designed to undermine the currency (such as “free silver“), tended to originate in and be supported by frontier states, generation after generation, as the frontier moved west. He characterizes many policies friendly to frontier interests as dangerous to civilized society, and vividly presents the (quite founded) anxieties experienced by Eastern and European people about the effects of the frontier people on the expanding democracy.
Thomas Ligotti says, in his 2011 book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, that “[a]s a rule, anyone desirous of an audience, or even a place in society, might profit from the following motto: ‘If you can’t say something positive about humanity, then at least say something equivocal.'” To my eye, it seems that Turner produced a profoundly ambivalent and equivocal text on the effects of the frontier, emphasizing its danger to culture, and subsequent readers latched onto the few positive statements and forgot the rest.
In Turner’s view, each wave of immigrants to the expanding frontier brought with them only the most rudimentary artifacts of their culture, and a small subset of the knowledge available within their home culture. And of this small slice of culture that they carried, an even smaller amount turned out to be useful and applicable to frontier life. They were forced to discard what was not immediately useful and adopt new ways as necessary. This left them with a stunted culture compared to the one they had left.
There are many aspects of culture that are critical to operating a complex society that are not immediately useful on a sparsely populated frontier. The frontier people were cut off from their original cultural packages of architecture, literature, history, religion, government, ritual, art, and philosophy. Once cut off, they formed new, rudimentary cultures suited to the peculiar (and short-lived) environment of the frontier. But as the frontier developed economically and population density increased, the old, original culture did not simply reemerge in its previous state. Rather, the pared-down, hybrid frontier culture grew in complexity and sophistication, resulting in something completely different from the Old World (or Eastern) culture of origin—and not necessarily better.
Frontier cultures, and the cultures that arise from them as the frontier moves on, are severely lacking in certain ways. Turner says,
[T]he frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression….[T]he frontier conditions prevalent in the colonies are important factors in the explanation of the American Revolution, where individual liberty was sometimes confused with absence of all effective government….
[T]he democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits. Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit. In this connection may be noted also the influence of frontier conditions in permitting lax business honor, inflated paper currency and wild-cat banking.
[Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier on American History.” Citations omitted.]
Dealing with the expanding political and social influence of this ever-growing “anti-social” culture was “the problem of the West,” as Easterners saw it, according to Turner. Their substantial and often creative efforts to restrict its growth were futile. Turner suggests that the most important weapons the Easterners had in taming dangerous Western influence were education and religion: that is, inculcating frontier people with the old stories, rituals, and culture.
What happens when the frontier is exhausted? And how can this new people make up for the deficiencies of its hastily-assembled frontier culture? The answers are in Disneyland.
Adventureland: The Theme Park and the Mere Amusement Park
“A theme park without rides is still a theme park. An amusement park without rides is a parking lot with popcorn.”
—Margaret King and J.G. O’Boyle, “The Theme Park: The Art of Time and Space.” In Disneyland and Culture: Essays on the Parks and Their Influence, Kathy Merlock Jackson and Mark I. West, eds. (2010).
When Disney created the immersive narrative of Disneyland, he supplied something that had been specifically lacking in frontier people: the connection to a past. It is an imaginary past, but all pasts are mostly imaginary. The cultures of non-frontier peoples, with thousands of years to develop, provided connection to the past with architecture, ritual, and myth. Frontier people had only the rudiments of these, having so short a time to establish them. Disney, with his artistic and organizational genius, was able to supply satisfying doses of all these things at once. Margaret King (in The Theme Park: Aspects of Experience in a Four-Dimensional Landscape, 2002) notes that Disneyland is visited by more tourists per year than the United States capital. Money voluntarily spent in pursuance of experiences, a sacrifice of resources, is not a ridiculous measurement of the cultural value and effectiveness of an artwork of this type. But there are more reasons than commercial success to take theme parks, and especially Disneyland, seriously as cultural forces and works of art. King says:
Theme parks are a distillation of cultural values….The walk-through castles, frontier forts, and other exotic but familiar environments, populated by cartoon characters the size of forklifts, are simulations and symbols, not historic or scientific models. Disney completely avoids any authenticity claim so important to museums or historic sites. This is because his venture is not about the technics of the artifact; it is about our attachment to the idea of a thing. This becomes a far more philosophical question, and therefore far more central to understanding the mind of culture.
The theme park’s power lies in the ability to entertain, in its original meaning of “focus of attention” rather than merely amuse. While amusement and entertainment are terms too often used interchangeably, the root distinction between the distraction of amusement and the concentration of entertainment is quite critical to understanding the uses and influences of social forms in popular culture.
But this type of entertainment, along with great rhetoric, drama, and artwork, is the most important aspect of the cultural process: cultivating values and abstractions through the generations encoded as images, structures, enactments, and re-creations. If America has a succesful temple of culture in this country—by this operational definition and attendance figures—it is the theme park rather than the museum or library.
King contrasts the notion of a theme park, a values-laden narrative experience designed to entertain in a focused way, and the amusement park, offering disconnected physical experiences with little or no narrative entanglement, designed more to distract than to focus the attention. She identifies the origins of the modern theme park in the detailed, narrative-laden aristocratic gardens and pleasure palaces of China, Germany, Japan, and France, each glorifying its founding myths. But unlike these closed, elitist institutions, modern theme parks (and the myths they support) are accessible to the public. Zen gardens, Neuschwanstein, and the Manchu Imperial Summer Palace require familiarity with elite culture and narratives, acquirable only through years of conspicuous leisure. Disneyland requires only familiarity with mythology already prevalent in popular culture and shared by all.
In “The Theme Park: The Art of Time and Space,” King and Jamie O’Boyle explain the distinction between theme park and amusement park:
Theme parks are cultural mind maps—symbolic landscapes built as storyboards of psychological narratives. They are the multi-dimensional descendants of the book, film, and epic rather than the spawn of the roller coaster and Tilt-a-Whirl. In the theme park, rides are mechanisms designed to position the visitor’s point of view, much as a camera lens is aligned, moving riders past a series of meticulously focused vignettes to advance the narrative.
Rides also offer the opportunity to expand the experience with physical sensations appropriate to the narrative: the disorientation of flashing light and smoke, the evocative smell of charcoal, appropriate temperature changes, the rush of wind, and the confirmatory sensory input associated with floating or soaring. Rides are but one of the many communications media integrated into the body of the theme park, acting as “executive summaries” to underline the principal themes of the overall theme park experience—an experience that averages eight hours. Time spent on rides comprises a small fraction of the total theme park experience—as little as ten or fifteen minutes.
Unlike the amusement park patron, a theme park visitor can fully engage in the theme experience without ever setting foot on a ride. There are many other features to engage and hold attention: architecture, design, animated and live performance, video, sound and music, light and water technics and the simple fulfillment of pedestrian movement within and among the artfully landscaped themed “worlds.” The theme park is not ride-dependent, while rides are the raison d’être of the amusement park. A theme park without rides is still a theme park; an amusement park without rides is a parking lot with popcorn.
[Margaret King and J.G. O’Boyle, “The Theme Park: The Art of Time and Space.” In Disneyland and Culture: Essays on the Parks and Their Influence, Kathy Merlock Jackson and Mark I. West, eds. (2010). Citations omitted.]
What makes Disneyland so great? It is full of patterns (in the Christopher Alexander sense, see A Pattern Language): paths and goals, pools of light illuminating vignettes in the “dark rides,” levels of publicness and intimacy, small public squares, and dozens more. Michael Steiner, in Frontierland as Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Architectural Packaging of the Mythic West, notes that even city planning scholars have recognized Disney’s genius:
A host of planners and architects have been awestruck by his untutored populist designs, believing, in postmodernist Robert Venturi’s words, that Walt’s whimsical places are “nearer to what people really want than anything architects have ever given them.” As early as 1963, the noted planner James Rouse told a shocked Harvard School of Design audience that “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland” and admonished them to realize that “in its respect for people, in its functioning for people” Disneyland contains more positive planning lessons “than in any other single piece of physical development in the country.”
And a big part of what people want, apparently, is immersive narrative connection to the only myth of origin they can connect to, that of the frontier. And the mythical frontier belongs to everyone, not just Americans.
If Disneyland is the canonical theme park, then Six Flags is the canonical amusement park: focused on kinetic rides, lacking narrative detail and structure, providing distraction and amusement rather than values-laden, focused entertainment. To distinguish amusement parks from theme parks is not to judge amusement parks as bad or wanting; they are simply a different and distinct phenomenon from theme parks. Margaret King offers these criteria to contrast the two:
The theme park-amusement park spectrum is useful for classifying works of art other than parks. Video games, the digital cousin of parks, can evoke emotion, allude to values, and encode narrative in every detail (theme park games, such as the early games of Shigeru Miyamoto). Or they can simply distract or hypnotize the player with his own kinetic virtuosity (amusement park games, such as Tetris). Games, sports, mind-altering substances, sex, and relationships may be approached from a “theme park” or “amusement park” angle. Summer camps have many aspects of theme parks; the American frontier is the most enduring theme, but alternate frontiers such as space and art (as with Burning Man) have achieved some popularity as camp themes. Camps also incorporate songs, ritual, and architecture into their narrative experiences.
Again, to place things on the theme park-amusement park spectrum is not in itself to judge them. But we might also want to judge them. Are theme park or amusement park experiences good for us? Are they authentic experiences? In Fantasyland, we will compare theme parks with museums, explore the complex fakeness of Disneyland along with Jean Baudrillard, and hopefully stop worrying and love the simulacrum.
Fantasyland and the Dull Habit of Authenticity
Museums are generally distinct from theme parks. While both attempt to decode culture and unite people with shared narrative, museums have only their authenticity claims as tools. Their wall tags are not up to the interpretive task; museums merely tell or impart information, while theme parks show or evoke, says Margaret King.
I am writing this from Incline Village, Nevada, only a few minutes way from the remains of the defunct Ponderosa Ranch theme park. Based on the frontier-themed television show Bonanza, this small theme park operated from 1967 to 2004 without any kinetic “rides” at all, unless you count Conestoga wagons. Though much more modest in scale than Disneyland, it provided a strong narrative experience and the sense of a participatory connection to the frontier. The most important Disneyland-style cartographic anomaly of Ponderosa Ranch was that it had its own Virginia City. Virginia City is a real town about an hour’s drive from here, a town that is itself a theme park, with rustic frontier-themed buildings (such as self-styled “saloons”), tourist-safe mines, and more thematic details than thrills on offer. Ponderosa Ranch condensed the surrounding landscape within itself, just as Disneyland condenses the West. The Virginia City it condensed and drew within itself is a Virginia City of the mythical past; but the “real” Virginia City also locates itself in the mythical past for narrative and commercial purposes.
An even tinier “theme park” is located in the basement of the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, Nevada: a simulated underground mine that visitors can walk through, along with yet another simulated frontier town. There even used to be an animatronic miner (with a mule) telling stories about mining, an unmistakeable sign that this particular museum chose narrative engagement (the “theme park” route) over the stultifying obstruction of authenticity claims.
Another theme park that calls itself a museum is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California. Smell, sound, and many kinds of vision feature in its sincere exhibits and gleeful trolls; its wall tags are unreliable, eschewing authenticity claims and injecting “showing” and “evoking” into the traditional place of telling and imparting. When the Museum of Jurassic Technology exhibits letters from crackpots to the Mt. Wilson Observatory, words like “crackpot” are never used.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology treats the notion of authenticity as a playground rather than an anxious concern. Adam Seligman and Robert Weller (in Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity) argue that the preoccupation with authenticity and sincerity, privileging intent and inner states over action and ritual, is a relatively new phenomenon, dating to the Enlightenment. Of course, this means that the anxious concern for the authentic and sincere was born shortly after the influence of the American frontier was first felt. We are still burdened with it today.
In 1910, my great-great-grandfather was profiled in a book of “notable Nevadans.” He told the interviewer a wild story about crossing the country as a guard on a wagon train, being attacked by Indians, and accidentally getting into a dark-of-night firefight with a fellow guard. Something like that may have happened to him; he did spend a year (or was it two? sources disagree) at the Klondike Gold Rush, where he presumably learned that one makes more money selling liquor to miners than actually mining. But since I happen to know that he was only four years old when his family made the trek from Missouri to Virginia City, Nevada, in 1870, I suspect that his wild story was trolling. (Some of my friends might say that the troll doesn’t fall far from the bridge, in my case.) Is there a real, authentic history of the frontier? Or is it inextricably woven with trolls and fabrications? I recommend Evan S. Connell’s history of Custer’s Last Stand, entitled Son of the Morning Star, as therapy against the tendency to believe in historical truth. Connell examines hundred of primary sources; for each claim, no matter how minor, there is evidence and counter-evidence, and few firm conclusions can be reached. A letter says this; another letter says that; a diary says something completely different. If the little facts cannot be established with certainty, what of the big theses that depend on facts?
Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation, is very concerned with the multi-layered inauthenticity of Disneyland. In Baudrillard’s model, images (including narrative) move from the real to the unreal in a succession. First, there is representation; image reflects a profound reality. Second, image “masks and denatures a profound reality;” this is false representation. Third, images “mask the absence of a profound reality;” there is no real referent for the image, so accurate representation is not even a question. Finally, the image has no relation to any reality whatsoever, even to hide its absence; it relates only to itself.
Baudrillard locates Disneyland in the third stage of unreality, masking the absence of a reality:
Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.
I find Baudrillard’s theories fun, but I think he is wrong to be anxious about these advanced levels of unreality, and to suppose that there was a time in the past when genuine representation of profound reality was the norm. This anxiety seems to be a species of Seligman-Weller Enlightenment preoccupation with authenticity. Culture is made of myth without referent, and it has always been so. To enter the future is to enter Frontierland once again: to cast aside the modern preoccupation with authenticity, and to once again create and live in satisfying stories that bring us together and help us cooperate. Richard White and Patricia Limerick claim that the frontier myth “works as a cultural glue—a mental and emotional fastener that in some very curious and unexpected ways, works to hold us together” (in The Frontier in American Culture).
Tomorrowland: Transcending the Frontier
Frederick Jackson Turner notes that the first stage of frontier life is for immigrants to adopt a more primitive, limited subset of their culture’s technology, adapted to the particulars of their region (and often mixed with native technology). The second stage is for these people to influence their culture of origin, socially and politically.
Even in the absence of a frontier, in the twentieth century, people have attempted to act out these two stages, a sort of live-action role playing of the frontier. Almost as soon as the frontier closed, the “back to the land” movement in the United States began to form, eventually gaining perhaps hundreds of thousands of practitioners in the 1960s and 70s, including my parents. Despite the non-existence of a political and geographic frontier, these people voluntarily adopted archaic, primitive lifestyles, farming and hunting to support themselves. They also sought to influence their culture of origin with their adopted values; subscribers to the Whole Earth Catalog and similar publications greatly exceeded the number of people actually engaged in primitive subsistence farming.
In a sense, they built for themselves, if only for a decade or so, personal Frontierlands dispersed across the country. It is no coincidence, I think, that many of them grew up consuming Disney movies, reading Huckleberry Finn and Little House on the Prairie, participating in the Mickey Mouse Club, and even visiting Disneyland.
Ultimately, Disneyland and video games have been more successful than back-to-the-land primitivism in filling the vacancy left by the closed frontier. This is precisely because they make no authenticity claims. Freed from the preoccupation with sincerity and faithful representation, they allow the creation of really new worlds of narrative and shared values. One might say that Bitcoin is a realer currency than gold, because it denies the latter’s authenticity claims and explicitly admits that the value of currency is based on cooperative hallucination of value.
Margaret King defines a theme park as “a social artwork designed as a four-dimensional symbolic landscape to evoke impressions of places and times, real or imaginary.” As less human labor is required to attend to the necessities of life, such as food production, more human attention is available for cooperative narrative production. The truest and most fertile frontier is to remake the world in the image of the theme park.
Thanks to Rin’dzin Pamo, David Chapman, and my husband Andrew Breese for developing these ideas with me over the past week.