Monday, September 6, 2010

Hegel, Disney, and Parenthood

A colleague was giving a talk the other day on her dissertation project about black people in World's Fairs. She was giving a PowerPoint presentation in which she mentioned how Walt Disney envisioned Epcot in Orlando, Florida, as a "perpetual World's Fair," in the sense of bringing "the world" to one place. She had pictures of herself posing in the different national culture parts of Epcot-- Norway, Mexico, Japan, China, the UK, Canada, etc. Epcot even has outer space represented.

But, my colleague said, there is no part of Epcot for sub-Saharan Africa (although Morocco is represented). For the Africa exhibit, you have to leave Epcot and go to a different Disney theme park. Which one? Animal Kingdom.

She hastened to point out that it wasn't just the animals of Africa that were represented in Animal Kingdom. She was able to watch live performance by some lively African dancers there. Culture, as opposed to animal "instinct," is considered to be one of the defining elements of humanity, even though, of course, many would dispute the assumption that nonhuman animals don't have culture. But even African *culture* was of the Animal Kingdom.

I'm not suggesting that you get up in arms and write a letter to anybody to "fix" this "problem." Rather, I think that this is useful to our analysis of what might be a more fundamental "problem" to be "fixed," if we just observe it and listen to it just as it is. After all, we can imagine what someone might say if Disney purported to represent the world without including national cultures of Europe and Asia-- "Unthinkable!" We can read this omission of Africa not simply as a mistake or a lapse, but as an omission that is *not* unthinkable. In other words, it doesn't throw our thinking about the human world into crisis when we see Africa represented as not being a part of it.

See for yourself:

Googling Africa and Epcot online yields several hits, including an "Associated Content" article that gives no sources and tries to explain that this absence owes to the funding structure Disney used (asking countries to foot the bill for their own representation--African countries being, the author suggests, perennially too poor and unstable to represent themselves financially). But, of course, the author doesn't bother explaining why Africa shows up where it does (Animal Kingdom) while the other countries-- and outer space-- show up as nations representative of the human world.

The common sense around Africa, it seems, places it outside of "the world." It's part of the animal kingdom.

Another colleague of mine had this to say:
Think about all the movies about global plagues or the apocalypse. Africans either don't exist in the world or are the source of the plague (i.e. within nature). I recently saw 2010 and Africa entered into the movie as a place for the white nuclear family to go and start over again after global meltdown--no africans in africa, just resources.

Nothing particularly surprising, given that this is Disney/Hollywood we're talking about here. (Tarzan movies: nuff said.)

But when I consider how long Epcot's been around, how popular it is among the tourists all over the world, and the political consciousness in effect at the particular time during which it has been in existence, I wonder how many visitors have questioned this omission, even while enjoying it. Modern parenthood seems like it would afford little time and few incentives for such questioning while in Orlando, considering that the purposes of the trip include the enjoyment of a few moments of vacation away from the dreary 8-to-5 job, the edification and entertainment of children, and living within the budget. Still, how many parents would be up in arms if a teacher explicitly said "the culture of Africa is not of the world of human nations but is, rather, of the Animal Kingdom"?

I just distilled the reading of Epcot's exclusion into a statement of the implicit thinking. Mark how similar that explicit (hypothetical) statement is to this actual one from GWF Hegel, almost 200 years ago:

“At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it—that is in its northern part—belong to the Asiatic or European World.… What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World's History" (GWF Hegel, The Philosophy of History, Introduction).

Hegel's dismissal of Africa in the introduction of his Philosophy of History would be of no real consequence were it simply the stray prejudiced opinion of an otherwise notable thinker and teacher. But I think many of us know (and more of us should know) that Hegel means quite a bit more than that. Philosophy of History-- shorthanded as the dialectic movement in which two competing opposite ideas (or people) clash and the result yields a higher synthesis of the two-- shows up as the scaffolding of diverse people whose work has affected the human condition, from Marxism to the civil rights movement, from Social Darwinists to Paul Wolfowitz (one of the architects of the Iraq war). Would their thinking have been different if they had included Africa? I don't mean if they had included Africa as a case study, per se. I'm asking if the exclusion of Africa and Africans (or the inclusion of Africa as outside of humanity) somehow affects the other side of the equation-- one's ability to think about those who are included. If Toni Morrison was right when she said that the presence of a fabricated idea of Africa and Africans was crucial to the sense of Americanness from which major writers (like Cather, Melville, and Hemingway) wrote, is there any reason to think that fundamental exclusion of Africa as part of the world of human nations doesn't write itself into the things that modern movements, policies, and thinking can take for granted-- let alone how children visiting Disney's "perpetual world's fair" understand the concepts "world,""nation," "humanity," and even (for black children) "family" and "self"? Is the human world defined in opposition to Africa? If not, Africa certainly shows up that way in the modern imaginary quite often.

I would love to know your thoughts or insights, whether you're a parent or a philosopher (professional or not), or both or neither. If you've been to Epcot, do you have different information on this? Has this exclusion ever shown up in clear ways in the talk or behaviors of children you've known (including yourself)? Did you already know this stuff? Do you think it's worth caring about?

Again, I'm not advocating anything or asking people to sign on to anything or contribute money or write letters to Disney. Do that if you want to, but I don't think that it will change the unthought of Africa to which I'm referring. This is just a genuine question.

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