I just spent 3 days at Universal Studios, Orlando and feel the need for philosophical reflection.
Rather, I pretty much ALWAYS feel the need for philosophical reflection, but in this case have to spin some of this aloud to make sense of what, if any, insights I gained out of this experience.
First, I don’t think it’s true that compulsive reflection ruins pure, unreflective experience, not in this case, at least. Insofar as I was the target audience for what was going on (which I was to some small degree; this was not Disney World, and my kids are old enough that we avoided meeting Dora and Diego and Barney), I let myself experience what there was to experience just fine, even if I ended up thinking more about the technical feats behind the whole deal more than the content: not just the technology that went into the exhibits/rides, but even moreso the human engineering involved in shuffling large crowds from here to there, figuring out how much music to pipe from which source to achieve the proper level of cacophony, how many food stands to put where, etc.
Just to expand on some of those musings: This experience really put on display both the speed of technological innovation in entertainment and how quickly our expectations adjust. Most of the “rides” were not rides but what I’ll call fauxler coasters: you sit in a chair and are not hurdled at great speeds, but instead are lifted slightly and bumped around and shown some sort of movie (sometimes with 3D glasses, sometimes on multiple concave wrap-around screens that you’re moved between) so that you feel like you’re moving at insanely great speeds but without the G-force effects. I find this well suited to my aging stomach, and for the more recent exhibits, it was actually effective. I’m sure if I saw the “Terminator 2 3D” dealie when it came out however many years ago (it, like most of these, employs special footage of the actual actors involved, so you get to have Bill Paxton or Steve Carell tell you to keep your limbs inside the ride at all times) I would have thought it was cool, though now the 3D looks chincy.
I was also interested in the narrative strategies to supposedly draw us into the ride. Now, I think the idea of showing video (or elaborate exhibits, in the case of the big Harry Potter ride) to people stuck in line is great, but giving me some elaborate backstory for why I’ll be stepping onto a conveyer belt and shuttled past various animatronics and/or video does not help me suspend disbelief or otherwise enjoy these objects. Since these were nearly all related to to movies, there was often a conceit that what you’re “participating in” (i.e., sitting there passively) is a new part of the story of that movie. Given how ridiculous that is as a rhetorical move, it worked best when not taken too seriously, and again, the older rides seemed to misfire more than the newer ones in this respect, so that the newly filmed Terminator 2 scenes whereby even though they just told us that both the bad robot and the good Arnold robot were both destroyed and that the evil computer system was prevented from being invented, in fact none of those actions were apparently permanent so now you get to see footage of Arnold referencing his catchphrases (“I said I’d be back, and now here I am!”) and further protecting a slightly aged Edward Furlong as they step into the future for some non-reason.
Much worse than this, the E.T. ride sketched a story wherein we all get to take E.T. to his home planet where his people a) all speak fluent English, so apparently E.T. himself was not a genius alien who rapidly learned our language from TV but was in fact a semi-mute idiot, b) display Dr. Seussian variations on the E.T. physiology (see the picture), c) need E.T.’s healing touch to save them, meaning again that the abilities he displayed in the film were not the typical gifts of his wonderful species but him being a freak. Spielberg was featured in the introductory video and presumably had some input on how this went down, so we can all be glad that he never made a sequel. in fact, I like to think that Spielberg was trying to tell us this very thing: “You think you want a sequel, but this is how much it would suck, so really, you don’t.”
All that venting aside, I couldn’t help after reading Zizek and talking to Bergmann reflecting on this weird weird model of consumption, and moreso why I find it so viscerally weird. I should be used by now to being marketed to, having things presented to me in stores, and movie theaters, on the radio, by door-to-door salespeople, etc. that I’m supposed to hopefully (to them) purchase and consume and enjoy enough to want to purchase and consume more.
But actually being in a place that is solely devoted to that for multiple days (one day in Harry Potterland was clearly not going to be enough for our kids, and it was buy two, get the third day free) is a different experience entirely to watching TV or walking through a store with display ads and pushy salespeople. It’s weird sort of in the way that being served by a butler would be weird in. But in that case, the weirdness would be this archaic mode of relating (or more precisely not relating) to another person, but a weirdness in relating to the place: I am walking on corporate ground, with food booths all owned by the same corporation so that there will be no price competition, where, for any given place I might stand, someone has tried to engineer the experience I’m likely to have.
What is more disconcerting to me philosophically is that this experience of weirdness seems the endpoint of the discussion. It’s not that I discovered that such a place is evil and should be closed down, that it represents capitalism gone amok. It’s more like the stand-up comedian who says “Have you ever noticed how…” and notes some bit of weirdness that we’re all supposed to relate to. But in that case, the end point is the laugh; philosophy offers the pretension of breaking down the experience, recommending a course correction. I come out of this not with any substantial social commentary, but with simply another experience of mild existentialist alienation, of a not particularly objectionable sort: I’m on alert in some way; it “makes ya think!” As a thing to have done once with the family, including with my kids who are much more the target audience of much more of the event (though they no doubt experience their own version of the weirdness), my little vacation was swell.