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Disney’s Fantasia Analyzed According to Cultural Rank

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Disney’s Fantasia analyzed according to cultural rank
One of the trickiest aspects of the theory of cultural ranks is what happens in multirank societies. If a society is Rank 1, that’s all there is. Things change with Rank 2, which is the product of literacy. Historically, only a relatively small portion of the population would be literate, hence only a relatively small population could have rank 2 cognition, personality, and so forth. Most of the population would be of rank 1, though in a style inflected, influenced, or even reconstructed under “pressure” from the rank 2 elite. The same thing for Rank 3 and Rank 4.
Rank is a property of modes of thought, feeling, expression, and action and so resides in individuals and can be shared among individuals in a social network or a group. In a society that has Rank 3 aspects, a given individual might be, for example, rank 2 in their general outlook, rank 3 in an occupational specialty, and enjoy entertainment of ranks 1 and 2. Hays and I talked about this, and alluded to it in our publications, but never really focused on it.
As a rule of thumb we thought of middle school as providing students with rank 1 modes of thought and expression. High school is about rank 2 and broad-ranging liberal education at the college level is rank 3, though much of college is mostly intense rank 2 vocational training. As for rank 4, many programs provide specialized training in rank 4 thought. Perhaps the very best business schools provide a more general sort of rank 4 thought. But that’s as far as we took it.
With this in mind I’d like to take a quick look at Walt Disney’s Fantasia [1]. I’m thinking that, by and large, theatrical films were intended to provide rank 1 or rank 2 entertainment [2]. Disney’s intention was to present Western classical music to the masses. Classical music is of rank 3, while most popular music would have been of rank 1 or rank 2 (I discuss this in “Stages” [2]). I’m inclined to think that the images visual sequences are of rank 2, but with inflections from rank 3 realism (in particular, the use of coherent perspective) and even rank 4 abstraction (the opening Bach sequence, which was influenced by Oskar Fischinger [3]) and surrealism (“Dance of the Hours”, “Night on Bald Mountain”).
And, for reasons I’d find a bit tricky to justify at the moment, so I’m taking a leap, the overall conception has a distinct reflection of rank 4. As I’ve argued, taken as whole, the film presents a cosmos, a view of the world over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales and experiential modes [4]. It’s an astonishing conception, and one not appreciated at the time; the film was released in 1940 and was not well-received, either by critics or the public. Moreover that conception was degraded in some later reissues that changed the order of the episodes and even eliminated one or more of them.
Now, let’s go behind the scenes. Disney’s film technology was absolutely state of the art mechanically, optically, and electronically. Call if rank 3, perhaps with a bit of rank 4. Disney’s personnel would have had skills at ranks 1, 2, and 3 as required for their jobs. And, you know, I’m going to take another wild leap and say that the overall organizational conception was of rank 4, though it’s possible that there wasn’t a single rank 4 thought in anyone’s mind. But, you know, not terribly likely [5]. Neither Walt nor his brother Roy, who ran the business side of the company, had any education beyond high school. But, by the time they started producing feature-length films, Walt Disney Studios was probably as sophisticated an enterprise as any one of any kind anywhere.
Animated films were at the center of the business. And the animators were at the center of that. How do you organize sophisticated and temperamental artists to produce on an assembly-line basis? For that is what the business required. And then we had international distribution and merchandising. And so forth and so on. No, Walt Disney Studios was a very sophisticated operation. I’m calling it rank 4. Perhaps just barely so, but that’s what it is.
The point is that various ranks or cognition and expression can exist side-by-side and intermingled in a single complex phenomenon, in this case an animated film. The point holds regardless of whether or not my characterizations of various aspects of Fantasia and of Walt Disney Studios are accurate. It’s the multiplicity and intermingling that’s important.
[1] I’ve written a extensively about this film, but not from a ranks perspective. See William Benzon, Walt Disney’s Fantasia: The Cosmos and the Mind in Two Hours, November 30, 2011, 99 pp.,
[2] Hays and I did write about expressive culture:
David G. Hays, The Evolution of Expressive Culture. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 15: 187-215, 1992,
William L. Benzon, The Evolution of Narrative and the Self. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(2): 129-155, 1993,
William L. Benzon, Stages in the Evolution of Music. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(3): 283-296, 1993,
[3] Wikipedia, Oskar Fischinger,
[4] Fantasia as Masterpiece, New Savanna, blog post, This post is included in the working paper on pp. 3-8.
[5] But gosh, I really like the idea that the overall business operation could be rank 4 without having a rank 4 thought in anyone’s head. We could say that the rank 4 character is an “emergent” property of the interaction among the various actors in the business. And then, if and when someone starts to think about and explicitly rationalize the business, rank 4 thoughts begin to crystallize in particular people.

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