Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Spectacular Nature

Title: Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)

Susan G. Davis, professor of communications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her PhD is in "folklore and folklife," from UPenn. Her first book was Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (1986). She lists her interests as "politics of contemporary public and commercial space; nature and its relation to mass commercial culture; history and memory on the landscape; the contemporary history of tourism, southern California and San Diego history and culture." She doesn't seem to have written another book since this one.

Davis takes a holistic look at the production of the Sea World experience, seeking to outline the park's positioning as public and as educational space. To this end, she describes the park's interaction with the community; analyzes the corporation's advertising and packaging, both in print media and within the exhibits and the park itself; conducts ethnographic research within the population of those who work at the park and within the population of visitors; and parses the physical space of the park. Through all of this work, Davis hopes to understand how Sea World, and other examples of what she calls "spectacular nature", are "corporate culture's philanthropic answer to a world of environmental emergencies," through which "the possibility of alternatives" (to environmental destruction, especially species extirpation) "collapses into the consumption of images" (237-8). Theoretically, she draws from Raymond Williams' concept of nature's ability to obscure hidden social relationships of power, as well as Donna Haraway's work on museum exhibits.

This picture was attached to a blog post about an article about applying Sea World's animal-training techniques to husbands. Human husbands, that is.


One: Another World: Theme Parks and Nature:
Davis sets up the framework for understanding theme-park nature as a product, and the theme park industry as the producer. This chapter is a cultural history of theme parks, concentrating on the ways in which theme parks produce multiple streams of income for corporations (through licensing, tie-ins, concessions). Davis sees Sea World, owned by Anheuser-Busch, as a powerful way for a company to associate itself with neutral and pristine white-washed ideals of nature.

Two: The Park and the City: Here, Davis does a site-specific historical analysis of Sea World's location in San Diego, concentrating on the ways in which the park must appeal "both to an audience of locals and tourists," situating itself in San Diego but responding to a national corporation and trying to attract national and international tourists as part of SD's tourism juggernaut (41). In early permutations, Sea World had a more cheesy, sideshow visual language - dolphins wore bikinis, etc - but later on it sought to reposition itself as an Educational Institution.

Sea World mascot.

Three: Producing the Sea World Experience: Landscape and Labor: Sea World's landscape, Davis points out, is a space constructed out of "human work, time, space, dirt, plants, and animals" (77). Here, using interviews with managers, she tells us about the way in which the corporation uses numbers to drive the park's physical workings, constantly recalibrating based on statistics derived from market research in order to achieve a "good length of stay" which will provide the maximum visitor utilization of concessions and other money-making components (extra shows, rides, etc) (87). She also unpacks the visual rhetoric of the exhibits, examining interactivity, levels of educational specificity, showcasing of certain animals, etc.

Four: Entertainment Lite: The Theme Park Classroom: Davis examines Sea World's actual functioning as an educational institution, questioning Sea World's claim to "make enlightenment available in a variety of ways" (117). Davis' stance is that "the theme park education that works its way into the life of the school and the family is so carefully crafted to meet Sea World's marketing and publicity needs that the union between spectacle and education is a lopsided one" (118). In heartbreaking ethnographic sequences, Davis writes about the experiences of disadvantaged schoolchildren with and at the park, pointing out that although Sea World claims to serve "San Diego's schoolchildren", the ones who actually come on a regular basis are the ones whose families own annual passes, and who come in casual fashion with their parents, while poorer schools may barely afford one official trip a year. On these trips, Davis writes, the children seem to learn very little on an unscripted, truly engaged basis.

Still from a Sea World X-Box game. Spiked purple floating globe unheard of in nature.

Five: Routine Surprises: Producing Entertainment: Here Davis strips Sea World's animal shows (which, she points out, take a lot of time to structure and revise) down to their elements, trying to understand what they say about SW's mass culture of nature. Davis interviews trainers, producers, and others involved in the making of these shows, finding that the behavioral possibilities of the animals, the desires of the corporation, and audience feedback all come together in the objectives of the show. In the end, Davis argues, the show's elements are carefully scripted, leaving the animal performer to provide all of the novelty and possibility of surprise within the performative space.

Six: Dreaming of Whales: The Shamu Show: Continuing with her analysis of the performances themselves, Davis writes of the Shamu-based show that it carries "an enormous weight", one which is "devilishly complex to analyze" (197). "Triangulating" between "performance, institutional context, and a larger cultural context", Davis finds that the Shamu show is a "kind of routinized magic", one which plays with expectations about nature and culture (198-9). The show contains and normalizes Shamu's dangerous nature as a "killer" whale. It reminds the audience of the ecological fragility of Shamu's habitat, then reconstitutes the corporation and related actors as those who are in Shamu's corner, trying to preserve his nature.

Shamu Southwest Airlines jet.

Reviews: In AQ, Brian Black wrote that Davis' analysis, situated as it was within corporate culture of the contemporary world, rather than in historical context, missed an opportunity to take what he sees as American Studies' "next step" into an understanding of "the role and nature and the environment in American life." However, in general Black found Davis' project compelling and superbly executed, pointing to her folkloric training as an definite advantage in this project. The Pacific Historical Review ran a piece by John Findlay which took issue with the book's attempt to link the politics of Sea World's space with what Findlay saw as a "free-floating academic malaise" about the state of modernity and specifically the conservative brand of capitalism flourishing in Southern California. (Findlay thought this part of the book was shallowly executed, comparing it to Sea World itself with its empty gestures toward greater meaning. What's with these reviews of books about edutainment that compare the books themselves to edutainment? Weird.)

Books to follow up on: Secondary: Lynn Barber, The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870 (1980); Warren J. Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took On the Food Industry, 1966-1988 (1989); John Berger, "Why Look at Animals?" in About Looking (1980); Henry Giroux, Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture (1994); Henry Giroux, et al, ed, Popular Culture, Schooling, and Everyday Life (1989); Peter Schmitt, Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America (1990); Michael Sorkin, ed., Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (1992).

No comments: