I’m currently working on the penultimate post in my pluralism series, working title: Facing up to Relativism: Negotiating the Commons, and the Hinterlands. There’s a place where, in the course of making the point that, contrary to much popular and too much academic usage, nations are geo-political entities, not cultural ones. To illustrate the point I note that there is a Disneyland in France and one in Japan. Will the culture at one be French and Japanese at the other? Or will both be American, as America is the home of the original Disneyland. Or will they be neither French, nor Japanese, for American, but Disney, Disney culture?
Last year The New York Times ran an article on a resort and theme park that Disney is planning for Shanghai. It has a number of passages that touch on this most tricky matter, that of culture.
Disney is also walking a careful line with the Chinese government, which approved the park, after two decades of off-again, on-again talks, on the condition that it would be sharply different from the original Disneyland, which has become a symbol of American culture. Disney agreed to heavily incorporate Chinese culture; dressing Mickey Mouse in a kung fu robe would not do.“Authentically Disney but distinctly Chinese” is how Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, described the resort in an interview. “There will certainly be familiar Disney elements, but it will also be quite different from the moment that you walk through the gates,” he said.
There’s a mouthful, “authentically Disney but distinctly Chinese.” It’s easy to be snarky about such corporate-speak. One can wonder just what, these days, Disney authenticity is about. The company that Walt and Roy created has long since been swallowed by a corporate Leviathan. And which distinct China are we talking about—does the one that was wiped out in the Cultural Revolution count for anything these days?
Those problems aside, the problem remains: Just what kind of a cultural beast is this? Obviously, it’s one whose cultural content has been explicitly negotiated by government and corporate officials. What kind of world are we living in that such matters are the substance of negotiation?
The next paragraph gives some hints on the matters that have been negotiated:
Shanghai’s Disneyland, for instance, will not feature a Main Street-theme entrance, a staple of every other Disney resort. (The Main Street areas are designed to reflect Walt Disney’s idyllic childhood in a Missouri town at the turn of the 20th century.) Instead, guests will enter through a lush 11-acre area featuring water and trees, where they will be greeted by costumed characters, Mr. Iger said. The castle will be Disney’s biggest.
The article’s penultimate paragraph gives another example:
One important lesson involved food. Disney expected visitors in Hong Kong to spend an average of 20 minutes eating in restaurants, which is how they behave at Disney World and Disneyland Paris. But Hong Kong visitors stayed an average of 40 minutes, creating backups. Seating has since been added, but Shanghai will have cavernous restaurants from the beginning.
The cultural repertoire of a large social group, such as the inhabitants of Hong Kong, consists of tens of thousands of such practices, attitudes, beliefs, and customs. To lump them all into a single homogeneous cultural substance as though it were one essential thing—Hong Kong culture, Chinese culture, Asian culture—is to take geo-political myth craft at face value. We can’t afford to do that, not if we want to understand how culture operates.