The Magic Kingdom

Adam Wiseman, photography (Mexico City).

“Following from the way that Adorno reads the disenchantment thesis, the distortion that leads to the harmful consequences of disenchantment occurs when the calculative thinking associated with the purposive-practical attitude begins exclusively to usurp the authority to determine when experience can count as cognitively significant.”
Roger Foster (Adorno and The Recovery of Experience)

“Metaphysics must question whether, and to what extent, thought can transcend the sphere of concepts to grasp objects. Although philosophy’s con dence in its ability to transcend concepts is as “doubtful as ever”, it is both one of philosophy’s “inalienable features and part of the naïveté that ails it”. Without this naive confidence, however, philosophy must “capitulate, and the human mind with it” because, if thought were condemned to thinking only itself, “there would be no truth; emphatically, everything would be just nothing”.”
Deborah Cook (Adorno on Nature; quotes from Negative Dialectics)

“I would like to remind us right away that numerous so-called Utopian dreams – for example, television, the possibility of traveling to other planets, moving faster than sound – have been fulfilled. However, insofar as these dreams have been realized, they all operate as though the best thing about them had been forgotten – one is not happy about them. As they have been realized, the dreams themselves have assumed a peculiar character of sobriety, of the spirit of positivism, and beyond that, of boredom.”
Theodor Adorno (A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictons of Utopian Longing)

The coronavirus event, whatever the actual dangers associated with this virus, has served to reveal in stark relief both the authoritarian plans of world economic leaders and the ruling class they represent, and the final stage of a new irrationality (under cover of hyper rationality) in contemporary society. How is it possible for so many people to reflexively obey orders and diktats that seem to have little in the way of evidence behind them. People are being put under house arrest, for all intents and purposes, globally. Now this posting is not about coronavirus and the Orwellian governmental response but more about the erosion of the subjective in the contemporary West, and maybe everywhere.

It touches on a notion that Adorno called *disenchantment*. The short form version runs along the lines of instrumental thinking, resulting in a cognitive deficit that essentially eliminates experience that is not useful conceptually; meaning that which is fungible, can be applied to any number of ideas. This goes back to Kant, and the constituting subject…(per Foster) “In very general terms, the constituting subject portrays knowledge according to a scheme characterized by a sharp division between the passive or receptive moment of sense, and the active moment of synthesis through the application of concepts. An important feature of this model is that experiential items available to sense are, in themselves, blind. That is to say, they do not “count” in cognitive terms until they have been synthesized, or “constituted” in some way by a subject.”

Jacques de Gheyn II. (1604 detail)

Particular items (not a great word here, but more on that later) are cognitively privileged if they have generalizable characteristics or properties. The absolutely heterodox is one of the blind spots. For Adorno this account of the constituting subject explains the social institutions of the contemporary world. In part anyway. And that behind this truth is the cognitive subtraction of experience that does not fit. That which helps predict and regulate. Hence it is inherently a force for domination over Nature. And Freud might say, over self.

Now I suspect the evolution of instrumental thought, which might include a thinking I now call digital, has come to deaden not just the sensory but also taints emotional and spiritual experience. This is a very simplified summation needless to say.

I watched Disney’s Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs (1937) the other day (with my 3 year old twins). For all the things one might say about Disney, and in particular about this animated film, the experience watching it was nearly revelatory. This kind of attention in animation has long been lost. The grace of movement in those drawings, in group movements (think of Snow White and her friends approaching the hut in the forest where the seven dwarfs live) is both elegant and majestic, and resembled nothing so much as a crane shot out of Minelli (before Minelli). There is an argument to be made that the early animated feature length films from Disney helped shape modern color film. There are echoes in not just Minelli, but in Sirk, and Donan. These were prophetic and uncanny cartoons, but I suspect they had less to no influence on black and white film, but with the advent of color the early Disney features felt like the lost dreams of Cinemascope (and VistaVision and Super Panavision). The wide screen format of 50s musicals like Oklahoma and South Pacific feel particularly linked to early Disney. But more, for all the obvious whiteness and prudery Snow White was attempting something intelligent for children. Compare to the Muppets, for example. Now I hate the Muppets, which it seems is anathema these days, but just on a most basic aesthetic level the Muppets (admittedly puppets not animation) are ugly. They are also conformist and pedantic. Most animated children’s shows today which are stunningly simple in appearance. Simplistic, crude, and always slightly bi-polar. It suggests that even over the course of the last seventy years or so western consciousness has been engaged in a process of incremental cognitive loss. That loss stopped being incremental with the advent of the digital and internet. It became close to exponential.

Mario Schifano

“Philosophy, Wittgenstein asserts, “is not a doctrine, but rather an activity” (§4.112). It is tempting to compare this passage with Adorno’s assertion that what is important in philosophy is “what takes place within it, not a thesis or position”. This is why he claims that philosophy cannot be summarized. The attempt to condense a philosophy into a set of detachable theses extinguishes the work of the painstaking ascent toward self-awareness that is the very point of philosophical writing. What matters, for both thinkers, is that we achieve an insight that transforms how we relate to our concepts. This is not a thesis asserted in those concepts employed in the philosophical writing (hence Wittgenstein’s assertion that they can be safely “thrown away”). It is rather a form of self-reflection that occurs in the process of trying to come to grips with what happens in the course of trying to elucidate a set of theses. Philosophy, so Adorno will claim, achieves an insight about conceptual language as a whole through the self- reflection on its striving to state something.”
Roger Foster (ibid)

I would argue that, in fact, children’s TV is among the clearest lenses through which to view the legacy of positivism and instrumental thought. The lessons (sic) the Muppets taught are lessons of a tolerance toward the slave mentality. The very rise of comic books, too, can be viewed with some advantage if we see it in the light of what Adorno described as the fungible idea, the thinking of cognitive deficit. And as an expression of pent up resentment and sadism.

James Shuyff

“As a critique of positivism, and in tandem with the formulation of a critical theory of science, the critical theory that the Frankfurt School developed was also a critique of deforming and deformed processes of the rationalization of society. Succinctly, the Frankfurt School sought to develop a theory of rationality, one that sought to point to its pathological implementation through forms of mystifying positivism, and that sought to rescue reason from its imprisonment in the iron cage of capitalist economy.”
Eduardo Mendiata (The Frankfurt School on Religion)

Adorno, in his discussion of Utopia, with Ernest Bloch, suggested that the biggest loss in human subjectivity was the ability to think of the totality — that Utopia, whatever it was, was a transformation that meant that the totality was something different. Hence the potential for utopian technological accomplishments, in isolation, but not an ability to even imagine in terms of total change.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, Walt Disney).

Adorno noted too that people had come (attributing this to Freud) to identify with the aggressor. That they made the impossibility of change into their own personal affair. And I suspect this is even more pronounced today than sixty years ago.

“The identification with death is that which goes beyond the identification of people with the existing social conditions and in which they are extended.”
Adorno (ibid)

Interestingly Adorno mentions that Heidegger was the thinker who most cast aspersion on the idea of immortality and worked hard to dignify death. That he, Heidegger, was the ultimate anti-Utopian. But I digress. In Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer describe the evolution of early humans — in a party allegorical manner I think — and note that with language eventually came concepts and with concepts came an ability to “seize the identical in the flux of phenomena”…in a conceptual manner.

Paul Outerbridge, photography.

There is an important aspect here that has to do with identity. Concepts — and aspects of all thinking — are unable to shake off the compulsive need or desire to shore up the idea of the self. Let me quote Deborah Cook again..

“The repression of internal nature, which led to the formation of the self or ego, is rooted in the compulsion to tame external nature. is compulsion also incites thought to subsume natural objects under universal concepts without remainder, banishing or excommunicating non-human nature . In other words, identity thinking (a term that is not used in Dialectic of Enlightenment) is yet another instance of our irresistible urge to subjugate nature. Explicitly describing identity thinking as compulsive in Negative Dialectics, Adorno declares that his version of dialectics is devoted to breaking the compulsion to achieve identity because that compulsion distorts our appre- hension of the natural world even as it binds us to nature in ways that are increasingly self-vitiating.”

Reason was a tool for separating, objectifying, and distancing. The self then, identity, is originally empty. Humans developed language and used it to, gradually, over time, reinforce the distance of the subject from Nature.Now this is a Darwinian world view, to be sure, and its, as I say, meant allegorically to some degree. The Odyssey chapter in Dialectic of Enlightenment is evidence of this, I think. But the ability to seize the identical touches on mimesis and on Adorno’s ideas of non identity. I don’t want to spend too much time on this as it’s been exhaustively analysed and discussed. (see J.M. Bernstein Adorno: Disenchantment & Ethics) But for the purposes of this post these notes are background to this idea of disenchantment.

Sarah Jones, photography.

“The desocialization of society that is a consequence of disenchantment makes each object a moral remainder; no particular within rationalized society is, existentially and conceptually, what it could be as a consequence of “our” collective participation in the rationalization of reason and experience. If sensuous particulars are raising claims, then a fortiori there must be a “material” or “sensuous” moment in the concept that rationalization leading to the simple concept suppresses, and, equivalently, something about each object that rationalized concepts have left out of account.”
J.M. Bernstein (ibid)

Adorno noted in Negative Dialectics that life is today a kind of just “living on”. That coldness was the hallmark of bourgeois subjectivity. That the death camps of National Socialism were the apotheosis of disenchantment. Certainly that has continued, at least culturally. And it is CGI today, almost ubiquitous in the life of screens, that is a testament to the deadness of the imagination. The CGI image is the death camp of the imagination. One cannot dream from within this tomb for the mimetic, or rather one dreams in propaganda codes and image. There is simply no mimetic engagement with CGI.

The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise, dr. ) Shot in Todd-AO wide screen format.

If wide screen formats echoed Disney cartoon exaggeration, a sentimentality, which seems to be nearly built into such ersatz grandeur — the subject matter of these musicals remain uncanny in their faithfulness to colonial and fascist symbology. There is an unsettling Heideggerian quality to Sound of Music, and South Pacific its the overt racialism and cultural stereotyping. But this brings us, by way of a slight digression, back to Jonathan Beller. And it was Beller (see podcasts 3 and 4 with Molly Klein here ) who saw the unconscious as a film strip, that our memories were screen memories. As such the vaguely volkisch kitsch of Julie Andrews and her guitar on the hills of Austria seems less accidental. If our memories are a jumble of our own experiences (however truncated) and TV and film snippets and images and codes, then what I am describing is something like our dreams and Utopian impulses are probably ‘mostly’ made up of propaganda and commodified coercive manipulations and revisionist histories. In that sense people are dreaming National Socialism — and think of the advertising campaign for Man in the High Castle with swastikas and nazi flags plastered across subway walls. The imagination in its hyper reified and disenchanted state, trudging along in an exhausting effort to make meaningful the most banal and mediated of existences, finds its tools for representation from (among other things) the volkish mythology of National Socialism, but also the colonial practices of the Raj, of King Leopold and the slave trade. This is the uncanny aspect to watching Sound of Music, where the coldness of the bourgeoisie finds fleeting comforts in the homey warmth of a fantasy Aryan family, enhanced with wide screen exaggeration and sweeping cartoon (Disney) crane shots and all set to a musical score that reminds one mostly of chewing gum adverts. The disproportionate grandness of Snow White and her furry companions is the cartoon expression of Trump’s gold curtains in the oval office, or the body builder action figure — one who is also part WW1 trench soldier in gas mask, anonymous and living with the landscapes of death. The valorizing of alienation and of the codes of fascism run from those gold curtains to the work of people like Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic. The large format wide screen is the province of bloated self congratulation but also social congratulation (see Christopher Nolan). Again the identification with the aggressor and the ambivalence toward death and its final question. This is cultural carpetbagging in a sense. Disney is loved, but (and this the tragedy of his miserable life no doubt) not invited to the swank Park Ave. parties. He might get awards and a visit to the white house (did he? I have no idea) but the cartoon feature length film is still loved but condescended to, it elicits the patronizing and practiced warm smile (that is never warm — the bourgeoisie is cold). Just free associating, I think Thomas Hardy was the great writer of the fake emotions of those born to the Manor. But Disney was imitating earlier films, too. And his imitation was shot through with the provincialism of a boy from Marceline Missouri, and one with oddly stubborn and simplistic patriotism. Disney actually tried to join the Army to fight in WW1 but was underage and signed up to drive an ambulance instead. He was a bully to his workers, exploited them, fought against unions and mostly morphed into a laissez faire racist Republican. Those early features (including Dumbo, Bambi, Pinocchio, and Fantasia) are all sentimental to the point of self abuse — I remember hating Bambi as a child because it made me cry uncontrollably. But they were also the Missourian idea of operatic and evocative of real art and class.

In this sense Beller’s ideas of photography transcribing the racist symbology of slave owners makes absolute sense. The camera was ‘seizing the identical in the flux of phenomena’, and printing it out in black and white. Today all of us have been trained to accept the eye of the apparatus. Disney was operating in a strange inherited paradigmatic form to which he inserted the wholesome sadism of American business mythology.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Walt Disney, 1937).

That mechanical eye is without warmth. Somewhere Lacan said that to look at any photograph is to sense something has left it. But Lacan saw the punctum (Barthes), that thing in the photograph that disrupts and/or is uncanny, is tied into loss. Our own loss, a sense of ‘lost to death’ (photographs of people we know who have died has this quality in an acute degree) and that loss is, for Lacan, at the heart of our subjectivity. Now Adorno wrote of mimesis that it was ‘the unimpaired corrective of reified consciousness’. It is, Brian O’Connor writes, “…is a dimension of human behaviour whose origins precede the development of the aesthetic realm, while somehow surviving
only as a ‘vestige’ in an aesthetic form.”

Brian O’Connor (Adorno)

The rise of the screen to replace a visuality that developed the idea of a Nature over which it cast a seigniorial gaze, an assumed right to the dominion before him or her has atrophied in practice. But this privileged subjectivity is found most perniciously in many of today’s environmentalists (not to mention eugenicists like David Attenborough). The declaration on behalf of Nature, its pristine and untouched beauty to be protected from the surly and dirty masses is the voice of the landowner whose income is not tied to the land or the world at all. And it is this voice (and gaze) of the gentry that has even bled into the public discourse around the Coronavirus event. And this seigniorial subjectivity is anti-mimetic.

Sadamasa Motonaga

“That mimetic apprehension was a process of human beings somehow likening themselves, through imitation, to mysterious parts of nature. As an example, they write:‘The magician imitates demons; to frighten or placate them he makes intimidating or appeasing gestures’. The relationship between the subject and the object,in this context, is one of ‘kinship’, even in cases, as the example shows, when the individual is in confrontation with the forces of nature. The magician makes himself like the very demons he fears in order to place himself nearer to them. This mimetic orientation towards objects involves the individual in acts of adjustment towards the object. That adjustment is conducted through actions, behaviour and gestures.”
Brian O’ Connor (ibid)

Adorno’s ideas on second nature are useful at this point. For the screen in a step beyond second nature. But is also the problem of rationality, of a human conceptual framework created outside or before engagement with the material world. And these days that means the screen, the predictive algorithms of control . And positivism (per Adorno) is a ‘predatory devouring rage against the world’.

It is in art that one can still glimpse the non rationalized human relationship with others and with the world.

Edvard Munch, self portrait with Spanish Influenza. 1919.

“The opposition of artworks to domination is mimesis of domination. They must assimilate themselves to the comportment of domination in order to produce something qualitatively distinct from the world of domination.”
Adorno (Aesthetic Theory)

Mimesis is not simple imitation (ignore all that Habermas has to say on this, and read Robert Hullot-Kentor’s essay Back to Adorno). For it is extends beyond mere representation. And this is where it becomes rather dense and difficult to articulate. Kant saw genius (in art) as an ability to produce outside all rules, or to which no rule could apply. The key though is found in what Brian O’Connor calls the rationality of mimesis.

“‘What marks aesthetic comportment as irrational according to the criteria of dominant rationality is that art denounces the particular essence of a ratio that pursues means rather than ends’.”
Adorno (Aesthetic Theory)

The engagement with the art object has no agenda, while in rationalized instrumental thinking the object is always a means to a pre-conceived destination that has nothing at all, often, to do with the object. Socially effective business thought is concerned with profit for one thing, for conclusions of profit. The non conceptual empathic affinity the subject has with an artwork makes it by definition rational — only not rational for the positivist value system of bourgeois economics.

Minor White, photography.

Axel Honneth (and Habermas and even Jameson, and the latter is just hopeless in his reading of Adorno) thinks mimesis is an imitation based capacity for reason. But that’s not it. Mimesis is not imitation. It begins with imitation, both historically and personally. Children imitate everything. But to watch children pretending to be the fox they saw on the road, or the ravens outside, or even the animated fox on TV, is to see the imitation almost instantly becomes something else. It becomes a ‘foxian’ social dynamic with adults and other children, and a foxian exploration of space (in favorite childhood spaces such as beneath tables, behind staircases, etc). And then, that exploration yields something for lack of a better word I will call spiritual engagement. The Foxian sense of transcendence. The basic errors of Habermas and many other readers of Adorno and the Frankfurters is really staggering. Habermas even asks if Adorno thinks all experience should be aestheticized. Of course not you reactionary chucklehead. Aesthetic experience, for Adorno, is the countering of the “normal” or rationalized experience. Aesthetic experience is not waiting as if it were a stand-in about to get on stage because the normal is sick. It is, as O’Connor says, a diagnostic tool. But it is more than that, though it is certainly that.

Art is the determinate negation of the existing order…says Adorno. But that order changes. The sense of autonomy Adorno refers to is one that is tied into the rise of the bourgeois class. The negation today of the existing digital nightmare has to be cognizant of the counter revolution to the 60s and 70s and the subsumption of the terms of that counter revolution that took shape with the advent of social media and mass internet usage.

Gunther Forg

Art under the ascension of the bourgeois class defined a new idea of individual freedom.

“But what happened to the emancipation of art during the growing destruction of autonomy? We can surmise Adorno’s answer: art, somehow, retained its autonomy. And with the growing totalization of society it became less and less an activity that was harmonious with that society. Art became, as Adorno puts it, ‘the social antithesis of society’.”
Brian O’Connor (ibid)

This is a sort of inverted Hegelianism. But the truth of creative resistance resides somewhere in a realm that has increasingly squeezed out heterodox voices. And the Spectacle, the mass electronic commodified and highly predictive rationality has become adept at neutralizing that which dissents or cannot be somehow turned into its opposite. Hegel was right however to sense the magnitude of the existing power structure and its relationship to art. And he also correct to suggest the best route for the artist was one akin to religion or philosophy. I more and more feel the need for artists to keenly and closely examine the contours of the authority apparatus that works to fully administer consciousness.

Under the current quarantine there is a sense of futility — but also of anger, in people I correspond with. I have said before that being an artist today is a bit like being a monk who preserves the wisdom of the past in remote caves. And I still think that is true. But there is a slowly developing shape of resistance that is working out the relationships with electronic media. And the key is, or the keys are, often counterintuitive. And as I mentioned in the recent podcast with Guy Zimmerman ( ) the work of Jonathan Beller holds some of the clues. We remember in our dreams the movies we have seen as much as we remember our own life. And to bring in Disney again, I am sure my sense of city life, or adult relationships, was shaped as much by Lady and the Tramp as it was by own family.

Wei Dong

Commodified work presents the status quo as something good, something in which their freedom is respected. Today, under the rise of a digital algorithmic system of propaganda notions of individuality and freedom have changed from what they were a mere thirty years ago. Isolation is presented as a sign of strength and uncompromising integrity. Freedom is linked directly to militarism and fear. But it is the ideas of social alienation that are being represented in ways, often subtle, that remind the consumer how much worse it is elsewhere, and how they should cherish their limited freedoms even if they feel like slavery. Which they largely are.

Today the unpredictable has become a dangerous idea and even more dangerous experience. The goal for artists today, it seems to me, is to embrace (and Adorno said exactly this) the historical reality under which they are made. The greatest mistake is think in terms of a kitsch Utopia. For the reception to an artwork is likewise historically determined. Emancipation in the experience of the artwork is then requiring of the artist an extraordinary amount of refusal to accede authority and a refusal to fantasize or deny the contemporary material world. Fantasy is seductive but tainted since, as I discussed in the podcast with Guy Zimmerman, our dreams of a future are as compromised as our unconscious dreams of the past. The fight for everyone, artist or not, is to self de-program.

Bijoy Jain

The coronavirus quarantine is a kitsch plague. The economic plunder happening as I write this is all too real. The tragic is not in the virus but in the literal and allegorical pathogens of Capital.

“Art is mimetic not as representation or copying but in its expression of the processes of reality.”
Brian O’Connor (ibid)

The mimetic today takes on both a political (revolutionary) aspect, and a metaphysical one.

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  1. As ever, there is so much to enjoy, and consider, in these essays that it takes me several days (of re-reading, after the first straight read-through, almanac style, choice passages in no particular order) to get through them. For pleasures like this I’m grateful to the triple-edged (surveillance/ control/ access) sword of the ‘Net! One quibble, though. You write:

    “But more, for all the obvious whiteness and prudery Snow White was attempting something intelligent for children. Compare to the Muppets, for example.”

    I don’t think Snow White was aimed, primarily, at children. Initial runs of Disney’s pre-war masterpieces were attended, overwhelmingly, by adults (children in those days had little or no agency, or spending power, remember) and the adults were receptive in ways that are above the heads of children, on whom the titanic effort of giving the cartoon subtlety/ nuance/ verisimilitude would have been wasted, in any case. Quoting wiki:

    “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre on December 21, 1937, to a wildly receptive audience, many of whom were the same naysayers who had dubbed the film “Disney’s Folly”. The film received a standing ovation at its completion from an audience that included Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton. Six days later, Walt Disney and the seven dwarfs appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The New York Times said, “Thank you very much, Mr. Disney”. The American entertainment trade publication Variety observed that “[so] perfect is the illusion, so tender the romance and fantasy, so emotional are certain portions when the acting of the characters strikes a depth comparable to the sincerity of human players, that the film approaches real greatness.”

    The qualitative difference between Snow White and Sesame Street hinges, I think, on that fact: the former was aimed at adults, the latter at children. Both are effective propaganda. In Snow White’s case, the propaganda is sexually charged: the Seven Dwarfs are infantilized archetypes of the male audience. Quoting wiki again:

    “Walt Disney had suggested from the beginning that each of the dwarfs, whose names and personalities are not stated in the original fairy tale, could have individual personalities. The dwarfs names were chosen from a pool of about fifty potentials, including Jumpy, Deafy, Dizzey, Hickey, Wheezy, Baldy, Gabby, Nifty, Sniffy, Swift, Lazy, Puffy, Stuffy, Tubby, Shorty, and Burpy.”

    All of these Little Men are phallic in shape (bulbous) and movement (bobbing, thrusting, etc) and proportion. Snow White is their goddess, their local-but-unobtainable sex fantasy, their maternal figure, their sweetly bossy teen, delivered, miraculously, to their bachelor pad with invigorating results: “Walt Disney encouraged all staff at the studio to contribute to the story, offering five dollars for every ‘gag’; such gags included the dwarfs’ noses popping over the foot of the bed when they first meet Snow White”.

    The attention paid to the animation of Snow White was much greater than the attention paid to animating The Dwarfs, because it was necessary, if the film were to work, for Snow White to turn the male viewer on; to seduce. With the men (of all ages) in the audience seduced by Snow White, and the (young) women in the audience BEING her, the film was able to “teach” its lesson about The Natural Order of things (Disney was a eugenicist of one type or another), capped off when the Super Man at film’s end claims his prize, removing Snow White from the temporary protection of her Blessed (by her love and her presence and their service to her) Inferiors. Who was Snow White being protected from? Her own future self: the Fading-Beauty-Aging-Into-The-Bitter-Hag (who was, herself, once, a Snow White). Snow White’s pure white “graceful” fertile youth is the treasure at the heart of The Natural (Industrial) Kingdom of hard work.

    Soon enough (less than two years later), those Dwarfs were working tirelessly to out-produce (and dwarf) the industrial effort supporting the Wehrmacht … the Youthful American spin on the Eugenic fairytale overcoming the bitter-hag of the old German version. How many iterations of the Snow White pin-up flew back to The Fatherland as “nose art” on bombers?

    Which is a long way for me to suggest that the 1937 “Snow White” doesn’t, I feel, represent the end of a good thing (quality in children-targeted entertainment)… but the beginning of a bad thing: of fully realized, sexually-powerful media propaganda upon which total technical control is exercised on an uncannily-accurate image of the Human. Aimed, at the time, at Adults.

    Well now, of course, it’s aimed at *everyone*.

  2. John Steppling says:

    great comment steve. But i would argue the aimed at kids thing. Disney was already making cartoons for children. Mickey Mouse started appearing in short cartoons in 1928- and donald duck in 34 as part of the Silly Symphonies shorts. One can argue if kids were the target in the same way they are with the muppets, or spongebob squarepants, or rick and morty — but they were meant for kids. Its the relationship between pre teens and their parents that has changed I think. That said, the sex negativity you describe is correct I think. But Id still say the aesthetics sort of subsume the ideology…partly anyway. There is a message in the ugliness of Spongepants and the cookie monster, and the grace and cinematic anticipation of the disney features. All told I think there is probably a lot more we can say about disney and its maybe worth explorint. The latest podcast..#8…..disney is talked about a lot.

  3. John!

    After leaving that comment I started looking at WWII’s horny “nose art” and a whole new world of deconstructing military hardware, as props in Imperial Cartoons, opened up to me! Laugh.

    Then I re-read the famous Charles Eckert essay on Shirley Temple (Jump Cut no. 2, 1974, pp. 1, 17-20) and here I am to read your essay again. Not the most efficient way to read but…

  4. steve quintanilla says:


    I just want to add an observation as a longtime fan of animation. Theatrical animated cartoons definitely started out as entertainment for adults. This includes Mickey Mouse which can be seen in the Mickey shorts produced from 1929 to 1931, ’32 which are quite close to the early Fleischer shorts in terms of humor and off-color gags. Mickey’s character started to soften,eventually turning into a little boy type of character aimed at children which was I think a response to the marketplace (the selling of toys and such) and also in part to the Hays code which also affected Betty Boop who turned from a flapper (with a “hymen like a boilerpate” as Fleischer animator Shamus Culhane put it) into a chaste spinster. By the way, Culhane also animated the “Hi Ho” sequence in “Snow White”. This seems to be the case for all American theatrical animation with the notable exception being the Warner Bros. cartoons which retained their orientation toward adults throughout their run. I recommend watching American cartoons from the early thirties. They are as a whole quite racy even by today’s standards.

  5. First, thank you John for the podcasts! They’re wonderful–especially in addition to your blog. Helping me keep my sanity, or what’s left of it.
    Steve, I don’t think the subtlety, nuance & verisimilitude of Snow White (or other things) would have been lost on children. I’m a choreographer & dancer and, at least in my experience and anecdotally, kids can be a way more sophisticated audience than adults. And they respond to animal grace & subtlety in ways adults don’t. Adult audiences are often trying to figure out the angle of whatever worldview they have so they can fit the performance somewhere. I’m also not talking about kids now versus kids in the 30s–if anything kid might be more used to ugliness now.

    But I don’t know what Disney was trying to do, and the discussion is fascinating. I suspect he wanted as wide an audience as possible and had a fair amount of pride in what he was creating. It does stand in stark contrast to what’s on offer today, which is almost all infantile and ugly. Even what’s considered “beautiful” winds up being sterile.

  6. John Steppling says:

    thanks, Glena. I think the question here is what we mean by adult. Ive been guilty of being simplistic a bit in this post … regarding the Disney audience and cartoons in general. Steve is right in a sense, the audience is adults. But its also children, and certainly by the forties it was mostly children. Now take the new show Euphoria on HBO. I wrote a bit about this. Who is the target demographic there?? Not teenagers. Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter…the audience is infantile adults. Adults who love ‘taking seriously’ children’s product. But its very complex because steve also notes the evolution of MM. And the Wonderful World of Color TV show that disney ran in the 50s and 60s. It was an experiment in family targeting. Kids but with adults enjoying it too. Truth is probably the inverse. But i don’t know. I think a fuller discussion of what passes for adulthood is in order here.

  7. Yes and the notion of adulthood has most likely changed a lot since the 30s-40s, even since the 70s and 80s (my memory). I do have a vague memory of seeing Wonderful world of color in reruns (in black & white!) and there was a show about a cat who had 3 lives; and in one of them she dies and goes to a heaven presided over by the goddess Bast. So–interesting from the POV of “family” entertainment now, which probably wouldn’t reference Bast. My mom (a crazy cat lady for sure) cried and cried over that episode.
    Ha, sorry for the digression. So, yes I can see that Disney was probably targeting both adults and children with those shows.

  8. Oh yes! To both Steves. Betty Boop! She was definitely targeting adults. But I think kids got it too, and enjoyed it too. Maybe the line between kids & adults wasn’t so heavily drawn as it is now.

  9. John Steppling says:

    or after school shows like Soupy Sales.

  10. Regino Diaz-Robainas says:

    Hi John,
    Happy Ascensions and bows to uour quotodian
    brilliant insights, as illustraded by the treatise on
    “The Magic Kingdom”. Likewise, for your reader comments.

    As a sequel to Snow White, may I suggest 1977’s Rolling
    Thunder, whose Goebellean panvision is nearly pandemic in
    scope of lebensraum horizons- ranging from VietNam to Texas,
    the Phillipines and Alaska dreaming in Mexico- and
    which possibly served as inspiring tempate/founding blood & soil
    myth and ground for the fascist orange antichrist motorcycle
    rallies in sacred whitest Virginia & other dreadful venues.

    I hope you and your readers and close ones are all OK. Keep on
    keeping on.


  11. steve quintanilla says:

    Yes, kids definitely found humor in the old cartoons even if they probably didn’t understand the gag. I know there are plenty of gags I didn’t understand until I was older such as Bugs Bunny reading a book titled “How To Multiply”. Or the “I may get to like this” gag in “An Itch In Time”.

    As far as Disney films, to me the turning point was “Bambi” which I think is when the Disney studio started to aim their films at children. This trend in the features was already evident in “Pinocchio” which I borrowed from the library a few months back but was unable to watch since I couldn’t tolerate the treacly dialogue. Maybe I should try watching it again with the sound muted, but then I’d lose the music.

    In my opinion “Dumbo” was the last of the Disney features to take adults into consideration. It was produced as a low budget feature and on tighter schedule than a typical Disney feature which I think had a beneficial effect The characters are less cloying and it’s more of a cartoon than the other features, what Max Fleischer referred to as the “animated oil painting”.

    The idea of animation as kid’s stuff seems to me a particularly American attitude. A notion that exists alongside the infantilizing pastimes of adults these days which I’ve been railing against for years only using the term childish. I remember the marketing angle that the widespread reading of Harry Potter was a good thing since it was going to improve literacy because kids were reading. As if what is being read doesn’t matter. When I did finally get a chance to look at a Harry Potter book I couldn’t believe how bad it was. And I wasn’t expecting much to begin with. The very idea that adults were into that stuff changed from being an annoyance to shock.

    I grew up watching the Muppets on Sesame Street and loved them. But they have become thoroughly reactionary in the messages the promote which has it roots in the Corporation For Public Broadcasting and of course this is also heavily influenced by the fact that Disney owns the Muppets.

    Sorry to go on for so long.

  12. John Steppling says:

    i post a comment from a friend who has access issues etc.

    Hi John,
    Happy Ascensions and bows to uour quotodian
    brilliant insights, as illustraded by the treatise on
    “The Magic Kingdom”. Likewise, for your reader comments.

    As a sequel to Snow White, may I suggest 1977’s Rolling
    Thunder, whose Goebellean panvision is nearly pandemic in
    scope of lebensraum horizons- ranging from VietNam to Texas,
    the Phillipines and Alaska dreaming in Mexico- and
    which possibly served as inspiring tempate/founding blood & soil
    myth and ground for the fascist orange antichrist motorcycle
    rallies in sacred whitest Virginia & other dreadful venues.

    I hope you and your readers and close ones are all OK. Keep on
    keeping on.

  13. Regino Robainas says:

    Other Issues Et Al

    Hello once again, It seems that the old
    Bavarian’s diktat that radical clashing poles
    reveal themselves at once is, once more, empirically
    comfirmed…Our radical path to Utopia has led
    to something like a Zone 23 dystopia in some kind
    of perceptual time warp. Heidegger being validated
    in the first fifth of the 21st. century dovetails
    with what you wrote about Nazi yearnings withinThe
    Sound of Music. Wagner at Starbucks.

    Best regards,


  14. Regino Robainas says:

    Shining Dark Spaces

    In synchronous semi-simultaneity with
    reading The Magic Forest essay, I have been
    sort of bathing at Baxters by returning to
    William Blake to blast off this plagued planet.

    The return to Heaven & Hell & the doors of
    ]perception were through the mediation of
    Joseph Natoli’s Dark Affinities Dark Imaginari, a
    work I recommend. And Blake is a true, not
    commercial Babbit like Disney. And his music –
    beyond any constraints on the creative Fires within/
    without- blows away the icy triumphalism of the will
    in The Sound of Music. But, I speak only of phenomena
    enclosed within the circumferences.


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