Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience.
The multi-faceted discipline of cultural studies examines the theories and practices of everyday life that we use to explain and make sense of the world around us. Gender, sexuality, race, nationhood, and society are the specific but arbitrary products of social construction. Language, identity, politics, and culture all contribute, mold, reflect, and reproduce these models and frameworks in which we live. But what exactly are the influences of corporate culture? To what extent are our lives and experiences mediated by profit-driven corporations and organizations? Susan Davis, in Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, examines these questions in the context of a particular form of recreational consumption in our consumer culture: the nature theme park. She deconstructs Sea World in San Diego, exposing the extensive influence of the economic forces underlying this privatized, commercialized space. As the title of her book suggests, Spectacular Nature offers a comprehensive examination of Sea World, its creation, its meaning, and its nature spectacle as mediated by corporate culture.
Public and commercialized space has long been subjected to analysis by numerous academics in fields as diverse as sociology, history, political economy, anthropology, communication, and more recently, cultural studies. In this respect, studies of the commodification of public space and its commercialization are nothing new. However, using a more contemporary, multi-disciplinary approach to Sea World, Davis focuses her analytical gaze on the multiple "texts" that make up the theme park as a whole in order to examine the underlying social orders that shape, influence, and control our experiences within the park. With an eye of a folklorist, the patience of an anthropologist, and the shrewdness of an economist, she unpacks the carefully constructed nature theme park as a "consumer good [intended] for a contemporary mass market" (4) that hides behind a facade of scientific research, animal conservation, and environmentalism.
Reducing Sea World to a purely profit-making machine exposes an interesting text for analysis. Or, as Davis posits, "to unpack the meanings of places like Sea World, it is useful to speak of theme-parked nature as an industrial product and to look closely at the industry that produces it" (19). With meticulous detail, Davis traces how Sea World's early beginnings evolved with the commercialization of San Diego's tourism identity. In so doing, Davis reveals how the park has thoroughly integrated itself into the geographical and social history of San Diego, thereby ensuring an inextricable association with the local vernacular culture. This alliance provides the basis for much of the park's success, not only as a site for controlled (read "segregated") public recreational and educational space, but as an emblem of Southern California's tourism trade. Situating the park in this way, Davis underscores the status that Sea World has in relation to other types of tourist attractions in the community. Sea World not only provides thousands of low paying jobs, but it also draws in millions of tourists that feed the local tourist industry.
After having established Sea World's history and locality within this commodified public space, Davis delves into the machinations behind the park's theme: the nature spectacle. Relying on nearly a decade's worth of repeated visits, in-depth interviews with park employees, photographs, architectural analysis, and countless field trips with local schoolchildren, Davis articulates the process by which Sea World continually defines and refines its experience to the consumer. Sea World creates and displays versions of nature that are modeled on our expectations, hopes, fears, and fantasies. For instance, Davis found that in creating the ARCO sponsored Penguin Encounter, "designers thought they had to keep the penguins from appearing overcrowded to their public. People are made uncomfortable by the sight of swarming animals. Crowding might indicate mistreatment in captivity, and just as bad, ... it might remind viewers themselves of feeling bunched up" (108)--this despite the intense crowding in natural environments. This reinterpretation of reality "connect[s] customers to nature ... and gives the domination of nature a gentle, civilized face" (35). At the same time, these manufactured spectacles create "a process of reflecting on our own experiences" (108). This displacement of what we see is used to manipulate our perceptions of and about nature, our relationship with nature, and our concerns about our interactions with nature and the environment.
But as popular culture changes with the ebb and flow of our consumer driven, material lives, so must the image of Sea World be packaged and re-packaged to accommodate growing concerns about animal extinction, dwindling natural resources, and polluted environments. Sea World, in Davis's words, "profits by selling people's dreams back to them" (244). The beautiful landscapes, the carefully scripted shows, the trained and anthropomorphized animals, the multi-ethnic workforce, the family-oriented themes, and the contrived conservationism all contribute to the promotion and production of a site for mass consumption that simultaneously reinforces certain ideological beliefs and reinterprets the harsh world around us. Clearly, Sea World's success lies in its ability to change and re-invent itself with the ever-changing cultural climate by selling that which we want to see, need to see, and hope to see.
Spectacular Nature is the culmination of tremendous dedication and research. Logically organized, easy to read, Davis employs a number of multi-/interdisciplinary approaches to make sense of the theme park's messages: anthropology, sociology, folklore, and media studies just to name a few. The importance of this approach cannot be overstated. The complexities of popular culture in today's contemporary, multi-faceted, consumer-driven society require all of the above and more. Equally important is recognizing one's positioning. Constantly reminding us of her own changing perceptions, Davis foregrounds how her own ideology and political beliefs have influenced her interpretations. Indeed, the evolution of her initially indifferent analysis into her subsequent cynicism warrants considered attention. But as Davis guides the reader through precise and detailed analysis in clear and eloquent prose, one can neither deny the compelling logic of her arguments regarding the power and pervasiveness of corporate capitalism nor fully fathom the ramifications of such a reality. Spectacular Nature may be a fascinating study of the nature theme park Sea World, but it also demands that we question the more mundane constructions of our everyday lives.
University of California, Davis,
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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