09 Urbanization of Theming

Please post your response by April 11, 4 pm. It will be based on the following readings:

Gottdiener, Mark. “The Mirror of Production: The Realization Problem of Capital.” The Theming of America: Dreams, Media Fantasies, and Themed Environments, 41-72. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001.

Campanella, Thomas J. “Theme Parks and the Landscape of Consumption.” In The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World, 240-80. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.

12 responses to “09 Urbanization of Theming

  1. anya ventura

    In Campanella’s description of the affects of rapid social and physical transformation in post-Maoist China, we see another cultural trajectory of the “realization of capital” as explicated by Gottdiener. Campanella describes how new landscapes of consumption communicate ideas about China’s history and identity in a global context, reflecting the needs of a new class of consumer. With the growth of middle-class consumerism, the popularity of leisure activities has increased (I recently read that a company is starting to market pinball machines, nostalgic 80s throwbacks in America, to the Chinese market). Golf, he argues, is the code for the new China – symbolic shorthand for the “good life” of the modern bourgeoisie. Golf courses, theme parks, and malls reference nature and allude to spectacular foreign locales, a kind of consumerist invitation serving up the bounty of the world after a recent history of scarcity, insularity, and deprivation. Theme parks and heritage tourism projects have emerged as a way of “recovering” the past; through the sanitizing process of commodification, history is made amenable to the new generation. As in the case of Shanghai’s Xintiandi, this add-value approach “sells” the urban place “back to its own residents.” What I find interesting after Kirschenblatt-Gimblett’s article is how residents – not just the foreign and domestic visitors – are encouraged to act as tourists in their own city in their search for experiences that affirm their sense of identity as modern consumers. In this way, these “cultural precincts” are prime examples of the cultural tourism that markets the experience of urban places as a mode of self-actualization. At the same time, Campanella is not wholly negative about this process: “Xintiandi is a place where China goes to see the West and the West goes to see China, where the old go to see the future and the young go to see the past. If nothing else, Xintiandi helped make history cool –and prove that reclaiming the past can be big business” (277). Amidst the large-scale destruction of grandiose construction projects, what other recourse is there?

    In light of these issues, Dustin Shum’s 2006 documentary photo project “Themeless Parks” is fascinating: http://www.dustinshum.com/gallery/disney/index.html

    The Impressions Light Show in Yang Shuo (http://www.guilin-yangshuo-guide.com/yangshuo-light-show.html), an area known for its natural beauty, is another interesting example of the theming of place. Here, nature itself is themed through spectacular methods, while at the same time performing a particular story about the folk culture of the ethnic minorities in the region — all for the consumption of visitors.

  2. Anish Gonchigar

    Though Gottdiener’s article introduces itself as an exploration of the importance of signs in modern consumer society, it instead serves as a convenient timeline of consumerism’s growth in 20th century America. Gottdiener begins with a brief recap of Marx’s idea of the economy. Marx saw the economy as following a simple pathway in which the bourgeois inputs money and takes advantage of the worker to mint more money. The author then invokes later writers, namely Baudrillard and Weber, who critiqued Marx’s rather narrow vision. Baudrillard in particular believed that the economy was not simply about the conversion of labor into profit, but rather the conversion of laborers into consumers. Gottdiener then introduced the concept of Fordism, which proposed that raising the wages of poor workers would enable them to become consumers, and thus create new markets. And thus, the consumer-centric society was born.

    The middle-class (as popularly perceived) is the immediate byproduct of this consumer-centric society. In a sense, television commercials are the hallmark of this idea. An average television commercial may depict one particular family or one particular workplace in order to promote some product. The fact that these images are so universal—that millions of different people can watch them and relate to them at once—is actually a pretty amazing thing. We have accepted this conception of the middle-class as the norm, but it is in fact a fairly recent—still somewhat limited—phenomenon.

    In fact, the idea of elevating as many people as possible to this consumerism-defined middle-class seems to be the overall goal of globalization (and perhaps even modern economic policy as a whole). From here, I would like to bring up Campanella’s article. Campanella discusses the numerous theme parks that have sprung up across China in recent years and their predictable anachronisms. At the same time, he suggests an idea that we often tend to overlook in discussions of international theming. While theme parks may often seem tacky and inauthentic, we are coming from positions of privilege in criticizing them. In our criticisms of Disneyland and shopping malls, we tend to focus on the detrimental effects of mainstream consumerism on culture. However, in less affluent places, theme parks and malls can be enormous economic and social boons. Suburban sprawl has earned a decidedly negative reputation, but for many around the world, individual property, access to education, independent transportation, and other tenements of suburban living would be extraordinary luxuries.

  3. Sarah Rovang

    Even though I find considerable merit in Gottdiener’s analysis of the advent of consumerism, I am tempted to play devil’s advocate and ask whether there might be an alternative narrative that will allow for a greater assumption of agency on the part of the consumer. Gottdiener’s history of consumerism is heavily top-down, driven by cataclysmic and irreversible economic/cultural shifts: “the advent of Fordism; increasing household consumption; the Great Depression; and the growth of a mass advertising industry” (Gottdiener 72). There is a not-too-subtle implication in the author’s allusion to Weber and Baudrillard that consumers don’t actually want what they think they want, but are rather manipulated and deceived into thinking they require goods and services that are wholly superfluous. The cultural studies model, which has emerged prevalently in the past 20 years, would counter this notion, suggesting that consumers make informed, conscious choices about what they consume and that these products meet actual needs. I am not entirely sure I agree wholesale with this model, but Gottdiener’s history seems a bit simplistic in neglecting the role of the consumer in all this. I think people also consume (products, media, information) in order to come to grips with the anxieties of living in a modern or post-modern era. Admittedly, profusion of choice in consumer goods is an aspect of modernity, but I would argue that consumerism cannot exist outside a larger socio-historic trajectory.

    Campanella does an admirable job of taking into account the big picture of Chinese history and politics in his analysis of theming of the Chinese landscape. As he shows us, theming, commodifying, and historicizing can all be ways of coping with the past. The Cultural Revolution, he writes, “created a kind of blank spot in the historical consciousness of the Chinese people, as though precious photographs had been torn from a treasured scrapbook. People yearn to fill in these voids, to heal the rift with history and reconnect with past ages and traditions” (Campanella 266). Beyond Fordism, advertising, and consumer research, the past hundred years has been nothing if not radically transformative for the United States as well. Campanella, in his poignant case study, seems to pick up on the strange intermingling of nostalgia and the desire to reinvent the self that also drives consumer choices. I would be interested in looking more in depth at how the trends Campanella identifies in China (such as miniature theme parks of nation or world, downtown restoration, and themed shopping districts) might also play a role in the United States. What are the cultural impulses behind other case studies we’ve looked at, such as Celebration, Florida? Were these products created just to fill empty consumer needs, or are they a legitimate way of negotiating with a national history and planning for the future?

  4. Gottdiener’s piece provides a macro level perspective on economic history, tracing processes through which America became a society based on consumption rather than production. He follows first the Marxist analysis of production, through which money is converted into commodities, and then converted back into more money. The majority of the article focuses on the second part of this link: how a commodity is sold to consumers, or the “realization problem.” (45). Individuals must be transformed into desiring customers, through processes such as Fordism (53), with its creation of wealthier workers, Taylorism (59), producing domestic commodities, and an approach based upon aggressive marketing. Gottdiener is clear in his language that he considers consumers to be manipulated into purchasing unnecessary goods. Because products are pretty much the same, symbols and themes become necessary to tap into alluring cognitive associations, appealing to idealized images and fantasies (59).

    Campanella provides interesting case studies on the linkages between consumption and theming in modern day China. Rather than solely harnessing marketing and branding techniques to dupe consumers, as Gottdiener seems to suggest corporations do, he draws out the various purposes theme parks and heritage sites play. Particularly in a post-Maoist age, burgeoning middle class Chinese are “in the midst of a grand rediscovery of their own national landscape and cultural heritage.” (242). Because Mao aggressively destroyed much of Chinese historical and cultural past during the Cultural Revolution, citizens seem to long for new sources of collective memory, commodified or not, for their heritage.

    One of the more interesting points brought up in Campanella’s work is the relationship between preservation of historical sites and commerce. Many landscapes, monuments, and built environments have been themed for commercial consumption (268), attracting China’s massive internal tourism market. While historians may mock these heritage redevelopments as being phoney, in some cases they are successful ways to revitalize decrepit urban centers. Tourists are drawn to cityscapes because they are “imbued with history and a sense of place.” (272). As streets become commercially viable to developers, these projects, “however contrived, however ersatz, seems to promise a new day in which China’s urban architectural past is spared the usual fate of wholesale destruction, even if this means being dolled up and turned into a platform for consumerism.” (275). Are these the only choices we have, then: historical destruction or a falsified, commercial landscape? It seems a rather depressing thought.

  5. Ashley Adams

    Theme parks can be built to activate and fulfill a diverse type of desires of the world community – or more specifically the consumer community. As we saw in Campanella’s article, the many theme parks consecutively erected in China served a purposed to “fill in (the) voids, to heal the rift with history and reconnect with past ages and traditions”. The idea of theme parks, or theming, was used in the construction of Celebration, Florida, in order to cater to the needs of the community’s fancies of living in the perfect “dream world”. In Japan, there is an indoor shopping center/restaurant district that is themed and architecturally ornamented to recreate the retro golden ages of Japan, commonly known as the “Showa Retro”. When the people of Japan hear the word “Showa Retro”, warm, fuzzy, welcoming images and feelings of the golden 60’s and 70’s fill their minds. This indoor shopping/eating center serve those, the generation, that lived in this “Showa Retro” era, feeding their need for reminiscence and nostalgia.

    Nostalgia seems to be the buzz word in many of the theme park’s theming goals and characteristics we have studied thus far. By using nostalgia as a tools to attract, theme parks have cleverly found a way to market and bring into their parks, consumer types who are “wallet happy” or have the financial power and authority to pay up. The nostalgic theming many theme parks use usually has little or no meaning to the younger generation who are supposedly the target audience. The era, time frame, and associations made with it are rather strategically selected to hit and entrap the generation with the wallet power now. Though this may not pertain closely to our example of the miniature theme parks in China, which focus its theming on a historical time frame which has no apparent generational tie to the money happy people we speak about in the examples above. Yet, though perhaps not a specifically and personally related sense of nostalgia, the history and feeling brought out by the miniature themed world still heavily taps into our senses of nostalgia. Perhaps it is that this kind of nostalgia is more of an imaginary or fictional type, in that we cannot directly associate specific personal memories to it. It is questionable and interesting to consider which is more powerful than the other. I feel the goals of the themed environment in theme parks are better attained when these themes resonate with some personal aspect of the consumer. This personalized relationship we make with the themed environment, helps to render the environment and all that associates with it as something precious and personal. Thus, we tend to have a soft spot for it, and like a parent spoiling it’s child, buy into its pleas and calls to consume and spend.

  6. Thomas Campanella writes about how an increase in wealth has affected amusements parks in his article “Theme Parks and the Landscape of Consumption.” He believes that “the middle class has been a particularly eager consumer” due to an increase of free time and income, and also as an escape from “the backdrop of recent scarcity and deprivation” (253). The remodeling of older buildings for aesthetic appeal mirrors the rewriting of history under the communist regime. I wonder how guilty America is of similar revamping of history. A part-black friend of mine used to work as a tour guide in colonial Williamsburg. She told me she would get responses ranging from being asked “so what slave are you?” to people trying to tip her generously out of guilt. This connects back to the discussion in class last Thursday about how to handle sensitive topics in museum, such as how Germany would handle the Holocaust.
    In “The Mirror of Production: The Realization Problem of Capital,” Mark Gottdiener uses Marx’s formula of “M-> C -> M’ “ to show the pathway of goods. His description that “Early capitalists….felt no moral or social obligation to provide for the welfare of their workers” is reminiscent of the film, “The World.” In addition, Gottdiener discusses other theories of economy such as those of Weber and Ritzer. Like Campanella, Gottdiener also discusses how an economical deficit leads to consumerism. In the case of America, the trigger was the Great Depression. However, nowadays, there are so few differences between products now that companies rely on marketing to sell their wares. Thus, “the emergence of mass advertising [has come to fuel] the spending activities of our society through the production of desire” (67).

  7. After reading Gottdiener’s piece, I wondered how this consumerist mindset applied to our lives today. Gottdiener makes it clear that the advertising industry has created a “primed” customer-base that has been mentally-molded to desire certain products and services (67). Am I one of these consumers? Thinking about the products that I purchase versus those that I forgo, it becomes apparent that branding and theming has had it’s impact on my choices: I found Advil and Kleenex in my room instead of generic Ibuprofen or CVS brand tissues, and I remember buying an iPhone instead of another, perhaps even better Smartphone, just because I’ve been accustomed to the Apple brand and their products. While the products are essentially the same or of comparable quality, I have been persuaded by the comfort in the brand names that I have been conditioned to trust. The same applies for the themed landscape of store spaces. As I briefly brought up during our first review, the Abercrombie and Fitch brand name has carved out a specific audience and method of advertising in order to maximize the desirability of its products. The store contains semi-nude photos of men and women, the overwhelming scent of their latest cologne or perfume, and dark, spotlighted ambient spaces accompanied by loud dance music. The consumers that wander into this store is not just searching for clothes but searching for status. The polo-shirt from Abercrombie and Fitch is no longer just a polo-shirt; it is an “A&F polo-shirt”. The distinction marks a symbolic difference rather than a physical difference between those who own an “A&F polo-shirt” and those who own a polo-shirt of any lesser brand: owners of the brand name item are perceived as wealthier and trendier, more fashionable and cool, and even more sexually desirable. The products they buy have been rendered as symbols rather than physical objects due to the focus on these traits in themed consumerism rather than actual differences in separate products (73). At least, this is what Abercrombie and Fitch wants their brand to connote.
    While there are those who deny these brands in favor of the generic Ibuprofen or basic pair of jeans, it seems like there aren’t many who would deny themselves of a trip to Disneyland or Six Flags. Campanella’s article describes the emergence of consumer culture in China and its ties to the numerous accompanying theme parks and heritage sites. It is understandable that consumers who desire the illusions present by brand name products would also desire the illusions of physical spaces seen in theme parks, but why don’t those who deny brand names also deny these physical illusions? The desire to see and experience these environments and the draw of the theming somehow still holds on to this public despite their recognition of the brand name illusion.

  8. Both readings this week were shot through with a respective sense of “symbolic value”–in Gottdiener’s case, of consumer goods in the United States, and in Campanella’s, of the heritage past in China. Without discounting the stark differences between the two nations, I was struck by the similarities between them, which became increasingly evident as I read each chapter (in my case, Gottdiener first).

    China is remaking itself in America’s image and doing it better, from becoming the base of the global factory where flexible accumulation is fully realized, to expanding an already enormous middle class with an acquired taste for themed experiences. That is, while it’s primarily an export economy whose upward mobility and global supremacy depends on sending goods overseas, it is increasingly importing experiences rooted in Western, and more specifically American, iconographies. Campanella describes the proliferation of golf courses, dude ranches and theme parks in China, and points out how golf courses in particular have come to symbolize money, power and social exclusivity to a much greater degree than they do in the US.

    So, whatever is signified is amplified and this elaboration to the extreme–as with late capitalism–is enabled by the expansion of China’s newly moneyed classes. Campanella focuses on the desire for, and experience of, consumption, reinforcing Gottdiener’s argument that we’ve made the transition from modernist, industrial capitalism to a postmodern, late-capitalist, information- and service-dominated economy. That the latter is writing about the contemporary US rather than China is part of my point. As Gottdiener recalls US corporation’s lateral movement to thematic competition, he may well have presaged China’s own economic evolution as we see that its workers are increasingly becoming consumers.

    In China, theme parks are sanctuaries from convulsive change as well as proxies for the wider world. As Disneyland was meant to capture America’s essence, cultivate nostalgia, and offer glimpses of the future, among other functions, Chinese world parks conveyed the nation’s new geopolitical status and impressed upon younger generations that the world beyond theirs’ was available. It also reminded them of who they (supposedly) were. From Splendid China to New Yuanming Yuan to Tang Paradise to Xintiandi, Chinese are tapping into their origins. Each typology communicates a different creation story, and collectively captures China’s multiple pasts. Miniaturized landscapes are rooted in Chinese culture, as Campanella points out, and these latest, epic iterations combine the visual language of that domestic heritage with the desire for totality inherited from the Western complex.

  9. Michael Price

    Gottdiener’s chapter effectively traced the history of capitalism and consumerism in society, supporting Baudrillard’s critique of Marx that the central component of capitalism has perhaps less to do with the means of production than with the other end of the equation- the transformation from product into profit. This ‘realization of profit’ facilitated by the development of the consumer holds a privileged place particularly in American society, and Gottdiener gives as evidence the increasing outsourcing of actual material production, leaving the main domestic capitalist activity to be the warring of signs and advertisements.

    It’s always hard to read these sorts of critiques (or at least somewhat disapproving-sounding historical descriptions) of consumer society, because no one wants to be manipulated. Giving a historical development of our consumerist society, particularly when current conditions are traced back to individual innovations (i.e. Ford’s creation of a market for himself by raising his worker’s wages) seems to underscore the artificiality of these systems (though the imagination of alternatives also proves difficult). It’s interesting how seemingly objectively positive things, like having a machine to wash your clothes as opposed to kneeling for hours over a washboard or having enough money to worry just a little less about bare subsistence, seem so problematic when they fall into some sort of consumerist corporate scheme. The point when conflicts between workers and factory owners ceased to involve a “clash over social vision and the future direction of society” and instead “became confined to the quest for more pay under better working arrangements” seems like an irreversible point indeed.

    At this point it is equally if not more important to imagine, instead of where else we could have gone, how far we’re going to go. Gottdiener ends with discussing the role of themed environments, but also of increasingly sophisticated consumer demographic analyses. In this light it’s pretty important to look at the effect the internet has had on consumerism: the Google model of advertisement to a certain extent automates the process of demographic research by providing advertisements based on viewed content. This becomes a little more than just a vaguely unsettling further sophistication of advertising technique when you think of how much on the internet is paid for by advertising. In a sense, we continue to make the trade in a large way- receiving access to incredible amounts of organized information in exchange for our participation in an ever increasingly sophisticated form of consumerism.

  10. Ned Myerberg

    I found Emperor Kangxi’s motivation for building a miniature Peking illuminating as to the appeal of the miniature world. The Emperor wanted to take pleasure in “all the Bustle and Hurry” of Peking without actually visiting the city itself because he didn’t want to be visible to his subjects. In the miniature Peking, the Emperor could look at the city without the city looking back at him. This highlights something uniquely voyeuristic in the interaction between visitor and place in the miniature world. Unlike the real city, there are no structures that exist without the sole purpose of being seen and interacted with by the visitor (aside from buildings serving the staff behind the scenes). While a miniature city may have interactive elements, such as horse and buggy rides, etc., it is a very one sided interaction in which the built environment fosters an experience for the visitor, not the other way around. While one may play role in shaping the political, economic, and social activity of a real city, one has no such autonomy in the miniature city or theme park. The miniature world affects the visitor but the visitor has no affect upon it. I think this is the danger of learning history through the immersive experience of the theme park. Unlike the museum, the theme park takes command of the senses and leaves little room for reflection. History is no longer understood by interpreting facts, material evidence or objects. It is instead received as a simulated experience completely controlled by those running the theme park. I wonder then how the prevalence of historically themed parks in China will affect the country’s historical consciousness in generations to come.
    In “The Mirror of Production” article I was really struck by the point about how industrialists like Henry Ford rose the wages of their workers in order to create a market for their products–in effect, inventing a consumer class. This would eventually lead to a culture in which one must consume in order to participate.

  11. This week’s reading focuses on the themed places which are also “postmodern spaces of consumption(Campanella, 241)” by looking at the cases of the United States and of China. Both explain the phenomenon of growth in consumption in terms of the growth of the urban, and suburbian life, and an immense middle class. I found the text by Gottdiener especially relevant to my final project, in which I will be looking at the manipulation and theming that goes into Urban Outfitters. He argues that the ”commodity-oriented mass culture helped along by ubiquitous advertising, combined to produce profound social shift s… have made us all eager consumers(66). ” It is striking to think that we, as consumers as well as producers, are faced to marketing which was calculated to every detail to manipulate us into consuming more goods, and the art of marketing is a very intriguing one which I will hopefully get to address more in detail through my final project. The idea of ”realization of self through commodity purchases(66)” is a very interesting one, and seems to be very true to the world we live in today especially in cities in the United States. The emergence of the importance of customer satisfaction is also important to recognize, and will also be one of the points I will be looking to while working on my project.
    The theme parks in China in suburbia which have become “a setting for euphoric consumption(248)” also speak to the same dramatic increase in theming to encourage more consumption. How the Emperor, through miniature Peking, wanted to take pleasure of Peking without actually visiting the city itself because he didn’t want to be visible to his subjects is also very interesting to look at, and I feel is also connected to the idea of wax museums we have looked at in the past.
    Some questions I had in finishing the readings were: What can we, as consumers, do to be aware of the manipulation and theming and be smart consumers? What are some of the specific tactics used in the modern era by companies to encourage consumptions? As the usage of internet increases over printed forms of media and TV which were primary modes to advertise the products, what change are we experiencing as the society? And how should we learn to filter through information in the internet as well?

  12. Henry Harding

    In Gottdiener’s historical analysis of America’s transition into a nation of mass consumption, I was most intrigued by the role of marketing and advertising to create demand. Rather than focusing on the particular use-value of a product, advertisers today use thematic symbols and imagery to differentiate products that are essentially the same – i.e. establishing brands. While I was abroad last semester studying Branding and Information Design in Copenhagen, I encountered a moral dilemma about the role of brands in competing markets. My question was: is it possible for designers to educate consumers without manipulating the truth, and if not, does this mean that all advertising has some hint of evil or irresponsibility? Take for instance Camel’s infamous advertising campaign from the late 1940s that conducted a poll among medical doctors and found that “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” While the findings may be true, the real objective of the campaign was to manipulate consumers into believing that cigarettes are healthy, which is far from the truth. Though this example is a little extreme when comparing it to some of China’s themed environments that we read about in Campanella’s piece, I pose a similar question: what is the objective of centering a business around a themed environment, and is it responsible to do so? Both authors would agree that theming adds an entertainment factor which is used to boost consumption and ultimately the company’s profits, but I remain curious to whether it is possible to do so in a way that does not distort the historical truth. For instance, when I look at Window of the World’s theme park, I can not help but wonder if the reproductions of foreign monuments are part of a political agenda, suggesting China’s growing dominance in the world economy.

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