Mark Gottdiener, The Theming of America: American Dreams, Media Fantasies, and Themed Environment (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001, Second Edition).

 

Mark Gottdiener's The Theming of America is an investigation into why the built environment we inhabit is increasingly cluttered with shopping malls, theme parks, fast food franchises, and various hybrids of all three. Gottdiener describes these all as commercial spaces decorated with images and signs conforming to "overarching symbolic motifs." These symbolic motifs, he observes, are usually drawn from commercial media products and have little functional relationship to the goods and services sold in these spaces. In a series of highly readable chapters, Gottdiener seeks to explain this condition by first offering a telescoped history of consumerism and marketing in the United States and then embarking on a tour of the contemporary landscape of themed commercial environments. This adventure includes visits to Disney theme parks, Minnesota's Mall of America, hotels on the Las Vegas strip, some logo-infested restaurant chains, and a few of the airport terminals in between which might best be referred to as shopping malls with planes.

For this lively itinerary alone the book will interest a wide range of readers who will find their journey devoid of the poststructuralist jargon found in much of the cultural studies literature. Gottdiener's tour is guided by the thesis that "due to increased competition, businesses increasingly use thematic and symbolic appeals in order to sell their product" (p. 74). This process, he argues, is an aspect of general trends in the development of 20th century capitalism where, in order to continually stimulate the consumption of mass produced goods, the artificially generated symbolic-value of products has increasingly overshadowed their intrinsic use-value. Following Baudrillard, Gottdiener roots his argument in a critique of classical political economy and its emphasis on production and the use and exchange value of goods. In doing so, however, he assumes little prior knowledge on the part of the reader and works his way from the ground up offering valuable capsule overviews of many important trends within sociological and cultural studies theory.

As a result, the book will prove highly accessible to all readers including undergraduate students. While the second edition has been produced with classroom use in mind, several years ago when I taught a course on tourism I used the first edition and found the text useful because it not only surveys a diverse range of themed environments but also provides students with a concise introduction to elementary semiotics, the development of Fordism, and the cultural study of consumerism. In particular, I found his overview of the experience of Disney theme parks effective because it succinctly presents observations about the design of Disney theme parks (such as how they give visitors the opportunity to experience as a pedestrian a simulated urban-type environment) which students can relate to their own tourism experiences and thus gain a better appreciation of the value of sociological analysis.

Overall, the book is suitable for an introductory student's first tour of themed environments and cultural studies. That said, while Gottdiener is a fine guide, the experienced traveler to these parts will likely be disappointed by the necessarily superficial nature of the analysis which covers a wide and diverse landscape while seeking to maintain narrative simplicity and theoretical parsimony.  In the end, the journey  feels somewhat like a briskly paced pre-packaged, all-inclusive tour attempting to cover too many destinations on a single trip.  While Gottdiener focuses on a worthwhile and compelling set of cases, it is not always clear that the concept of "theming" best serves as the investigation's overarching explanatory device.  Gottdiener develops a well grounded explanation for the origin of non-functional theming but he goes on to present each of his wide-ranging cases as if they fit in a seamless stream with little warning to the reader that at points a focus on theming might overplay its significance and be overlooking alternative perspectives. When discussing cases such as the Mall of America, Las Vegas, and the Hard Rock Cafe, Gottdiener's theming thesis is apt and persuasive. But once we move from, for example, the highly themed Mall of America to other shopping malls and then to commercial spaces at airports the relevance of non-functional overarching symbolic motifs for understanding the design and use of these spaces begins to wears thin. The narrative thread connecting the cases is often left hanging on the claim that all commercial environments mask their profit making function from consumers by the deployment of symbolic motifs which connote something else such as the "urban pedestrian experience" or the "romance of travel."  But in some cases non-functional themes might be incidental or applied as an afterthought to conform to other (non-commercial) functional needs.  Commercial facilities at airports and the sign systems they generate, to take one example, are often developed for functional (or use-value) reasons such as for the increased convenience of busy travelers and to meet the needs of airport employees. At the same time, increased consumer spending can also be induced by spatial factors such as location and layout which do not rely on symbolic motifs but exploit  urban-like pedestrian traffic flows to generate rents and positive external economies. Alternatively,  an investigation focused on the concept of theming might have been better served by exploring cases such as Colonial Williamsburg which is a seemingly "authentic" historical site that nevertheless could not function without the aid of the theming techniques and consumerism at work in Disney theme parks (see Handler and Gable 1997).

Readers eager to explore all the sights and meet the locals are likely to feel that the text offers little opportunity to linger over interesting and challenging questions which are quickly breezed through by the author's self-contained narrative driven by  the triumph of symbolic-value over use-value and bounded by the concept of "theming." For example, the text might have explored the connection between flexible production techniques (Harvey 1989) and the increasingly symbol-rich landscape of consumerism. There are also many moments when an engagement with Dean MacCannell's notion of  "staged authenticity" was expected and might have proved useful in an effort present a more complex picture of the nature of tourism sign systems and how they produce meaning. More generally, the topic of globalization floats into the narrative at several points but its relationship to the author's theming thesis is never directly addressed. Finally, and most irksome, is the division between actual "use-value and artificial "sign-value" undergirding the text's central story line.  This superficial and untenable dualism seems responsible for Gottdiener's failure to take seriously the agency of consumers and the deeply meaningful aspects of consumption where "commodities permit the realization and inscription of the self in the world" (Norton 1993, 52).

Nevertheless, while The Theming of America might feel like a package tour to some, it  operates effectively as a familiarization junket. It is a well guided survey of a vast number of sights which will give readers unfamiliar to the cultural study of the built environment a taste for the topic and encourage them to come back on another visit for deeper investigation.

-- Waleed Hazbun

     The Johns Hopkins University

 

 

Handler, R. and Gable, E. 1997. The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg, Durham: Duke University Press.

Harvey, D. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

MacCannell, D. 1999 [1976]. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, New Edition, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Norton, A. 1993. Republic of Signs: Liberal Theory and American Popular Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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