Friday, December 27, 2013

Hidden Mickeyisms 9: MetaMickeyism and Mr. Banks

One of the quickest ways to increase one’s scholarly vocabulary is to learn to add the prefix “meta-“ to various words. (Using these “meta-“ formulations makes you sound so intelligent and erudite!) My 1966 edition of Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (given to me at High School graduation, to enable me to tackle college-level writing) was incomplete! It was missing such an important meta- word as metacommunication (a term made famous by Gregory Bateson in 1951 in Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Bateson was suggesting that when we communicate information concerning how our other messages should be interpreted, we are using “metacommunication.” My dictionary also failed to alert me to the term “metarhetoric,” a term that was apparently disliked by Henry W. Johnstone, according to an article in the 1978 Rhetoric Society Quarterly. To oversimplify the issue, we could say that metarhetoric is any discussion of how rhetoric operates, and metacommunication is any discussion of how communication works.
This brings me to the new word I now wish to coin: “MetaMickeyism.” In an earlier post I hinted at a definition of the root term I coined--“Mickeyisms”: “Through its films, Disney provides powerful entelechies to children and their parents. These films are cow paths that implicitly offer self-persuasive rhetoric to children. Just as cows mindlessly follow paths that have been established by the cows that preceded them from pasture to pasture, so children (and adults) mindlessly follow the psychological and interpretive paths established for them.” These self-persuasive cow paths would, in my view, be “Mickeyisms.” So, MetaMickeyism, in a fashion similar to metarhetoric and metacommunication, would be any discussion of how Mickeyisms work. And, what better source of MetaMickeyism could there be than Walt Disney himself along with his corporation!
MetaMickeyism is indeed the point of Disney’s film, Saving Mr. Banks. The Walt Disney Corporation offers us a glimpse into the meaning and interpretation of Disney’s extremely successful film Mary Poppins. We watch Tom Hanks in character as Walt Disney encountering the cantankerous author of the book Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson). As the final credits roll, we even get the opportunity to listen in to actual taped conversations between Ms. Travers and Disney artists. Thompson-as-Travers interjects early-on in the film, in astonishment: “You think Mary Poppins came to save the children?” As the film’s title indicates, it was Mr. Banks, not his children, who was to be saved by Mary Poppins. Succumbing to the twin vices of smoking and drinking, Mr. Banks (the author’s father, in real life) was in the process of killing himself, destroying his health. These vices (smoking and drinking) do not appear as the vices of Mr. Banks in the film Mary Poppins. Rather, in the movie, Mr. Banks’s vice is that he is a workaholic (although, in a sense, that addiction can metaphorically stand for the other two addictions). Ms. Travers is presented as having written the autobiographically-based book as a cathartic exercise to somehow cure her own frustration, as a small child, at not being able to save her father. Kenneth Burke, in Counter-Statement discusses literature as “art for the artist’s sake.”
In my book Implicit Rhetoric, I comment: “When I characterize Burke's concept of "Art for Art's Sake" as Art for the Artist's Sake, I suggest that Burke implicitly locates the telos of Poetic art within the artist, not the art product” (p. 87). Burke is interested in what the artist is doing for himself or herself. Saving Mr. Banks provides a glimpse into what the book was doing for Ms. Travers. Discovering the background of the real Ms. Travers’s father may have even done something for Walt Disney himself as he learned the true story. This would constitute another example of art for the artist’s sake. Perhaps, in a sense, the story could even have been named Saving Mr. Disney. Walt was himself a smoker and a drinker, even though while he was alive, his theme parks prohibited alcoholic beverages and his movie Pinocchio clearly included smoking and drinking among the vices to be avoided. Walt once remarked, "I know drinking and smoking are sins because you aren't taking care of the body God gave you.” We bump into the implication that these two vices of Walt’s were sensitive areas in two scenes of the movie Saving Mr. Banks. In one scene, Ms. Travers bursts into Walt’s office and finds him smoking. Walt embarrassingly comments that he does not like people to see him smoking, because it sets a bad example. In another scene, Walt pursues Ms. Travers back to England after she bolts from the movie. At her home, Ms. Travers offers Walt some tea—laced with alcohol. After a nervous laugh, Walt accepts the drink with the comment, “When in Rome . . . .” Nevertheless, Walt Disney, in the motion picture Mary Poppins, is intent on shifting the emphasis from Art for the Artist’s Sake to what Burke calls Art for the Auditor’s Sake. Disney’s interest is in what the film will do for its audience. Therefore, Disney wants to “cure” Mr. Banks of his addiction, for the sake of his audience. In Disney’s version, the vice (represented by the song “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank,” about “tuppence wisely invested in the bank”) struggles with the benevolent philosophy of the song “Feed the Birds” at the cost of “tuppence a bag” and, after considerable stress, Mr. Banks converts from his old addiction to workaholism and its greedy, capitalist values to new, curative humanitarian values and instead invests his “tuppence” in “paper and string” in the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite!”
Walt Disney desires this happy, curative ending rather than one in which Mary Poppins simply abruptly “pops” out (the hidden meaning in the name Poppins?). This is due, I believe, to his emphasis upon Art for the Auditor’s Sake. Just as Burke equates this Art for the Auditor’s Sake to a psychological-rather-than-Poetics perspective, Burke calls this psychological perspective the “psychology of form.” Then, Burke defines “form” as the “arousing and fulfilling of expectation.” For Burke, a piece of literature in which there is no clear, satisfying “ending” or “telos” cannot fulfill expectations. The expectation of Disney literature is that there will be an end to the stress. In the case of Mary Poppins the movie, the stress of Mr. Banks destroying his life via his addiction to work must be removed. The kite song fulfills the expectation. Mr. Banks is cured. Children now have a new cow path to follow—one that is free of addiction.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Merry Xmas, Dear Atheists!

Merry Xmas is the explicit seasonal wish of a group calling itself “American Atheists.” Posting an ad at Times Square with the message “Who needs Christ during Christmas,” the electronic billboard message proceeds to X out the word “Christ” and encourages readers to “celebrate the true meaning of Xmas.” Fair enough! Merry Xmas, dear atheists! Apparently, you do not realize that the X in Xmas is not the English letter X. Rather, it is--as any self-respecting fraternity brother or sorority sister knows--the Greek letter X (pronounced: Chi). The letter X (Chi) is the first letter of the Greek word CHRISTOS, which is transliterated: Christ. Xmas, therefore, is but an abbreviation for CHRISTMAS. The billboard asks the rhetorical question, “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” A rhetorical question is one that requires no answer because the answer is so obvious. Apparently, however, the American Atheists do not trust readers enough to figure out the “correct” answer on their own, so the billboard supplies the answer: “nobody.” What seems like a more obvious answer, however, is that ATHEISTS need “Christ” during Christmas—just as they need “God” (Greek: THEOS) in order to be true A-THEOS-ISTS (atheists). Kenneth Burke calls it “the paradox of substance.” The paradox is that in order to be a true protagonist, you NEED to have an antagonist.
In order to be truly “Eve,” she needed a “Serpent” to tempt her. In order to be a true “Florida State Seminole,” one needs a “Florida Gator” to oppose (just as a “Purdue Boilermaker” needs an “Indiana Hoosier,” an “Ohio State Buckeye” needs a “Michigan Wolverine,” the “New York Yankees” need the “Boston Red Sox,” and for the longest time, “the United States of America” needed “the Soviet Union”). The nature of Drama is such that we must always look for the “what is vs. what” factor in all dramas. Snow White needs a Wicked Queen. Cinderella needs a Wicked Stepmother. Hansel and Gretel need the witch. All of Disney’s heroes need Disney’s villains to make the stories go.
What would an atheist be without a THEOS? Without a real opponent, an atheist would be just an “A.” So the true question is WHY do atheists choose God and Christ as their opponents? Kenneth Burke speculates in Attitudes Toward History (p. 52-53): “Atheism (and, in keeping, a categorical denial of immortality) is a statement of faith that necessarily cannot be substantiated by a ‘weighing of all the evidence.’ When you find a man who is exceptionally eager to deny the possibility of immortality (as though he ‘could not rest’ without a constant ‘secular prayer’ to the effect that death is absolute) you may legitimately grow quizzical of his intensity. Why such zest? Might it not come from a fear of punishment after death? For it is obvious that, if the possibility were either death or heaven, there would be no incentive for a man to become engrossed in the denial of immortality. He would let the matter slide, content to await his sojourn in paradise when it came, and to go about his business in the interim. If, on the other hand, the possibility of immortality contained for him the likelihood of his taking up permanent residence in hell, he would have ‘good emotional reasons’ for wanting to ‘pray’ immortality out of existence. Hence, when we see a man who goes out of his way to amass evidence that ‘proves’ mortality, we should take his engrossment as a somewhat unwieldy and roundabout way of cancelling guiltiness. The man . . . who says ‘absolutely not’ is driven by .. . the fear of immortality (which could only derive from a latent fear of hell that stimulated him thus indirectly to ‘legislate’ the possibility out of existence).”
Burke’s speculation seems to find some corroboration in a recent social scientific study conducted in Finland. The article, published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion (February 19, 2013), asked subjects to dare God to perform terrible acts (such as “I dare God to paralyze ______”) against themselves, their parents, friends, and children. The majority of subjects were self-described atheists. When asked to read aloud these dares while hooked up to a skin-conductance meter, which measures the amount of sweat produced, the atheists tested produced the same levels of stress as did the believers. Is there a latent fear of God and Christ that motivates atheists to choose them as their enemy? Oh, well! Merry Xmas, dear atheists!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hidden Mickeyisms 8: Disney’s “Tangled,” my Son Shane, and the Quest Entelechy

Why does one attempt to scale Mt. Everest or to swim the English Channel? Perhaps, the fame one receives is motive enough. Along with that fame, there may also be financial reward, as subsequent books, speaking engagements, and other opportunities ensue. But, why would one push oneself to the physical limit in order to prove that all 47 rides at the four Walt Disney World theme parks could be ridden in a single day without asking the Walt Disney Corporation for any special assistance or cooperation? On Father’s Day, 2013, my son Shane’s very first Father’s Day as a father, he attempted that quest—something that, so far as we know, no other human has successfully accomplished. Shane was 39 years old. Riding Dumbo, It’s a Small World, and the Tea Cups held no specific intrinsic motivation for him. He didn’t even take his new son or any family member with him as he rode the rides. He had begun riding those rides when he was only 6 months old, and had ridden all of the Disney rides innumerable times. There was no new thrill to be found in repeating these experiences.
If we turn to motivation scholar, Abraham Maslow, we are informed that the hierarchy of needs motivation starts with the level of our physiological needs. Shane, however, received no money, no food, shelter, clothing, etc., for accomplishing this quest. Maslow’s next level of motives is safety. It is hard to conceive of any additional safety Shane may have accrued from this accomplishment. He works as a computer specialist and manager for Walt Disney World, but this feat was not associated in any way with his job. Since his sprinting from park to park and ride to ride from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. the following morning could have even produced medical problems for a 39 year old computer worker, we can be certain that he was not motivated by safety concerns. Although, it could have been used this way, this quest was not even used as a PR event. No one knew about it except those who knew Shane or read his blog, The next level of motives, according to Maslow, is social. Although a fellow blog writer for Shane’s blog, whom Shane had not personally met before, was vacationing at Walt Disney World at the time and joined Shane on the quest, after Shane had announced it, Shane did not seem to be craving any social benefit from the task. He had no clue that anyone would even know that much about what he was doing. Therefore, Maslow’s fourth motivational level, esteem, did not seem to factor into Shane’s decision, either. As it turned out, after Shane began the quest, it began to trend on Twitter and more than 1000 were pulling for him to accomplish his goal at hashtag #wdw47. My own Twitter account, @StanALindsay, was more active than it had ever been before, as I followed my son’s progress. (It was MY Father’s Day, too!) They tweeted their progress after virtually every ride. Nevertheless, Shane would have striven for this goal, even if no one was following him. Maslow’s highest level of motivation, self-actualization, does not even seem sufficient to explain Shane’s motivation. There is no way that becoming the most efficient rider of rides at the Walt Disney World theme parks is Shane’s self-actualization. It was simply the quest! This is, maybe, the purest example of the quest entelechy of which I am aware.
As a quest entelechy, it resembles the quest of the fictional Rapunzel in Disney’s movie “Tangled.” Like Shane, Rapunzel (in Disney’s “reindividuation” of the story) knows nothing of any physiological, safety, social, esteem, or self-actualization motives as she simply lights out on a quest to view the annual release of the flying lanterns, up close. She does not even simply desire an escape from her tower prison/sanctuary, as previous versions of Grimm’s story tell it. There is something inside her psyche, stemming from her infancy that motivates her to begin a quest to see the lanterns. This is the quest entelechy. Although, eventually, the results for Rapunzel include physiological improvement (as she receives all of the benefits of being the king’s daughter), safety improvement (as she has caring individuals to look after her), social rewards (as she falls in love with Flynn Rider and is reunited with her father and mother), esteem rewards (as she assumes her rightful role as a princess), and even self-actualization (as she was born to be royalty), she is totally oblivious to these motivations as she plans her quest. Shane did not become a prince or receive the other Maslowian benefits from his quest such as those Rapunzel did, but he did receive the satisfaction that comes from fulfilling a quest. In a song that at first seemed to me weirdly out of place in Tangled, “I’ve Got a Dream,” a variety of scary characters in a tavern are coaxed by Rapunzel to share their own personal dreams. One dangerous-looking fellow declares that he always wanted to be a “concert pianist.” My daughter, Charise, who holds a Ph.D. in Piano Pedagogy would sympathize, but in my mind, this is not a pure quest. It, instead, can fulfill Maslow’s “self-actualization” motive, just as Tor’s desire to be a “florist,” Gunther’s motivation to do “interior design,” Ulf’s longing to “mime,” Attila’s wanting to make “cupcakes,” Bruiser’s knitting, Killer’s sewing, Fang’s “little puppet shows,” and Vladimir’s hobby of collecting “ceramic unicorns” can. Another ugly scrawny guy dreams of making “a love connection.” But this can fulfill Maslow’s “social” motive. Yet another wants to own his own island, surrounded by “piles of money,” but this, of course, fulfills Maslow’s “physiological” motive. Rapunzel alone, in this song, expresses a true quest: “I just wanna see the floating lanterns gleam.” Since Shane’s mother, Linda, and I probably understand the basis of Shane’s quest entelechy more than he or anyone else does, we will reveal the deep-seated entelechial motive of Shane’s quest. I mentioned that Shane’s first visit to Walt Disney World was at age 6 months. When Shane was young, we lived in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, but every year we took the kids on vacation to Walt Disney World. In those years, money was always tight, so we could only afford a single-day pass to the parks, each year, for Linda, me, Shane, and his three younger siblings, Charise, Auburn, and Tristan. We camped out, stayed at inexpensive motels, or stayed with friends or relatives in Florida to minimize the cost. We ate only French fries in the parks; we drank only water and chocolate milk. To maximize the value of the Disney tickets, we arose at dawn and made it to the parks as the parks opened. We rushed from ride to ride, to take in as many rides and attractions as we could. We stayed until midnight or 1 a.m., whenever the last park closed. Even so, with a family of six, we could never manage to see all of the sights and ride all of the rides on any given trip. So, the telos—the ultimate goal—in the mind of a young child was to reach for the ultimate, each year: to ride every ride in a single day. As Shane grew up, he took over the management of our one-day Disney excursions. He plotted and strategized for weeks, months before we went on vacation. He had us racing from park to park, from ride to ride, even as a young boy. As the last park closed on each year’s trip, Shane trudged back to the car, completely exhausted, but never completely fulfilled. He began strategizing next year’s trip. Like Rapunzel, who continued to have deep-seated-yet-subconscious memories of the floating lanterns that were released at her birth, Shane had a deep-seated memory of the telos of his childhood. When he was in college, Shane (along with Charise and Tristan) moved to Florida, one Summer, to work as ride operators. Since Shane has now worked with computers for the Walt Disney Corporation for nearly a decade, he no longer really needs to race from attraction to attraction. He has free admission to the parks, as a Cast Member. Yet, the quest entelechy never disappeared. Like a kernel of corn growing to maturity, the entelechial quest seed implicitly motivated him. It was in his DNA, so to speak. Appropriately, on his first Father’s Day, he attempted the impossible. He now knew the usual wait times for each ride. He knew which rides required fast passes, and when one needed to show up in order to get those fast passes. He knew which rides he could “walk onto” in the middle of the day. He knew Disney’s annual schedule, the best times of the year to make certain that no rides would be closed for refurbishment. He knew which days of those days of the year that the parks would be open the longest and would have the least visitors. He settled on Father’s Day. He knew the public transportation system and what the fastest means would be to get from park to park. He would have to change parks seven times during the day to make his strategy work.
As we followed his tweets, he got off to a good start, but then hit a snag: Test Track at Epcot had closed for mechanical reasons before he got to it. He returned. Still down. Again. Still down. He would have to hit that ride later in the day, and hope the repairs had been completed. He raced to the Animal Kingdom, because that park closed the earliest. His first trip there for the day had hit a snag because there were several rhinos blocking the pathway of the Safari. This roadblock doubled the time it took to take that ride. Even on his second visit to the Animal Kingdom, he raced against time to catch the Wildlife Express Train before the attraction closed. He made it. At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, he experienced a minor miracle as he (and TeevTee) “walked onto” the Tower of Terror—something that is never possible. He returned to Epcot, arrived at Soarin’ at the very last minute of his previously acquired fast pass window of opportunity. With the last few minutes of that park time expiring, he made it to Test Track, which had gotten back up running again. Now, there were just a few rides remaining at the Magic Kingdom. They were off and running—even though TeevTee’s foot was now bleeding. Rides were clicking off, but time was expiring. Fortunately, Shane had stayed in a Walt Disney World resort hotel, so he qualified for “extra hours” at the Magic Kingdom. All 1000 following them on Twitter were now cheering! It looked like it was actually possible. Then the weather.
The storms moved in and it rained buckets-full. As I sat near the WEDway People Mover, I was soaked. Shane and TeevTee went to the last few attractions they needed that were open—Space Mountain and the Carousel of Progress—but the lightning had closed down the Gran Prix Raceway and the Astro Orbiter rides. The rain stopped, but the lightning and thunder persisted. As Shane and Teevtee came out of their 45th ride (out of 47 possible), it was clear that these two rides—closed down for weather—would not reopen that day. Shane and TeevTee revisited three other rides, so their total for the day was 48. They did not ride all 47 rides, because of the lightning, but not because of the time. They would have made it. It was possible. I guess that God had to step in, as he did with the Tower of Babel, just to demonstrate that Perfection is reserved for just one human.