Barbarians at the gate

Spanish is definitely on the rise worldwide, as I found out this morning, listening to my children’s intake of pulp from Disney and meeting a TV character called Manny who peppers his sentences with Spanish words and helps his – mostly Hispanic – community.  On the face of it, Disney seems to be towing the PC line – but this is Disney, remember, bastion of WASP US. Disney pays social respect only to the Greenback family, as one can ascertain from the fact that it dropped out of the respectfully adapted C.S Lewis Narnia series for cheaper thrills, such as the mega hit High School Musical.  

Culturally, I feel, Disney is a serial perpetrator of literary ethnic cleansing, involving masterpieces, notably A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, now repackaged as My Friends Tigger and Pooh, with Christopher Robin being replaced by a little girl named Darby who has a dog named Buster (I kid you not!!!). Other atrocities include a mushy elephant thingy standing in for the Heffalump – totally invisible in the original book – whose animated character has been clearly cribbed from the baby elephant character in Disney’s 1967 Jungle Book is now called Lumpy. To top it all, I am reliably told by my children that Kanga has been retired.  Will anyone remember Milne’s magical work in 10 or even 5 years, after his masterpiece has been fully Disney-fied?   

There is also something insensitive, sinister and deeply disturbing in Disney’s recycling practices – the 1996 animated version of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame did a fair adaptation of the French original, only to be followed by the made for DVD The Hunchback of Notre Dame II – pulp sequels have been also created as Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World ,  Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a GlitchThe Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (am extremely offensive thin sequel to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s stunning 1989 original.  Other diluted recycling project include Jungle Book,  Bambi, Peter Pan, Cinderella and even – Fantasia 2000  – a deadly boring sequel to Walt Disney’s own favourite Fantasia (1940). Most sequels are made for TV, thinly written and industrially produced pieces – zilch creativity, zilch innovation and, crucially, zilch deference to the original work. Many of these synthetic works are then recycled further and turned into eternal TV series. 

How bad a cultural meltdown is it?  Apple founder and creative/business mind, Steve Jobs, had this to say about Kindle – digital book reader:  “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.” 

Wired magazine has another take on the subject of TV-sumption. In a piece entitled “Minifesto for a New Age“, contributor Nancy Miller argued that we are witnessing a “current boom in what might be called snack-o-tainment […] Movies, TV, songs, games. Pop culture now comes packaged like cookies or chips, in bite-size bits for high-speed munching.” Some describe this as digital Snacklash:  (Snacklash , noun, any of the negative effects of excessive and/or reckless snacking.  Digital Snacklash – “In the Web 2.0 world, digital snacking creating snacklash by fueling appetites for long-form narrative, such as five episodes of “24” back-to-back and feature films running longer than 120 minutes.”) –   elsewhere, Wired’s Steven Johnson believes that “Snack culture is an illusion. We have more of everything now, both shorter and longer: one-minute movies and 12-hour epics; instant-gratification Web games and Sid Meiers Civilization IV. Freed from the time restrictions of traditional media, we’re developing a more nuanced awareness of the right length for different kinds of cultural experiences.” 

Let’s ToingToing the various points of this piece – 1. Written literature is pulped and diluted, 2. (Jobs says 🙂 most (American) people don’t read anymore, 3.Snacklash culture is pre packaged and served in minuscule doses, and 4. At the same time, much (much!) longer versions of digital narratives are available on demand.  Are we witnessing a migratory process – a shift from one cultural platform to another?  What will be the difference between novel readers, able to digest hundreds of printed pages, follow an intricate narrative and understand the ‘hidden voice’ of the author, and TV watchers, covering the hundreds of TV hours that form their favourite series, following intricate visual narratives, as well as ingesting additional information through websites, blogs, SMS missives and podcasts? 

Earlier this year, Newsweek published an article titled “The Future of Reading” arguing that “We could return to the era of Dickens-style serializations. With an always-on book, it’s conceivable that an author could not only rework the narrative for future buyers, but he or she could reach inside people’s libraries and make the change… Those are fairly tame developments, though, compared with the more profound changes that some are anticipating. In a connected book, the rabbit hole is no longer a one-way transmission from author to reader. For better or for worse, there’s company coming.” 

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