1. Is there some underlying trend from functional shopping to
as a cultural activity, from markets to malls, or is it a picture of
development and complexity that defies any general models?
Now I know I mustn’t hijack the agenda and witter on too much about these theoretical matters, so I’ll begin with some modest exposition.
A QUICK HISTORY
I am going to summarise the history of shopping development in
city in the UK – Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Tyne and Wear Metropolitan
(as it was known in the 1980s), summarising the account by Davies in
and Dennis-Lord (1985). I do not know if this is a typical history, if
indeed there is such a thing, but it will help us grasp some
For marxists, this would indicate that the old class struggle as before is still driving these events, but there are problems: the events also indicate a growing independence and flexibility of culture in our societies, offering new pleasures which are not confined only to dominant groups. Indeed, it would not make economic sense even to aim to benefit just the petit-bourgeoisie. Shopping is an activity that offers genuine pleasures to a wide range of people, and, indeed, must do so for economic success. At the very least, the activity must be ‘open’ enough to permit a wide range of people to find pleasure in it (to borrow a point made by Fiske (1987) about commercial television.
As with other areas (like heritage (see file) or Disney (see another file)), we must turn to the issue of pleasure to explain the developments. Shopping has turned from a functional activity into a pleasurable one, associated with culture and lifestyle and with the general ‘aestheticisation’ and playfulness of life (these matters are often discussed under the broader heading of ‘consumerism’, of course)
1. Producers add meanings and values by design, of course.
Shepherd (1989), for example, chart the rise of the design business in
retail, which has grown, they claim, by 300% in the fifteen years
their book. Designers have grown from being advisors to manufacturers
retailers to becoming the dominant force in retail, able to control
and persuade retailers to undertake frequent expensive transformations
of their premises. This designer-generated restlessness and future
this need to cater for the needs of a fickle public (and to create
needs too) has been a major concrete factor in the move towards
networked production of consumer goods that the ‘New Times’ theorists
others have discussed (see file)
3. We are but a short step from the themed shopping mall, of course. These have also sprouted all over the place in recent years. We can specify the key ingredients – major attractor stores, adequate transport, additional pleasures via some themes. These themes are often based on popular elements in leisure pursuits, of course - heritage and nostalgia (what Gottdiener (1995) calls ‘Ye Olde Kitsch’), holidays (Lehtonen and Mäenpää in Falk and Campbell (1997) point out the similarities with tourism), cosmopolitan cities, hi-tech, nature, exotic locations – and are embodied in safe, pedestrianised, modern buildings often with air conditioning and security systems.
What about the shoppers themselves? Are they passive victims of the designers’ guile, lulled into a pleasurable mood so as to convince them to buy goods they don’t really need? Perhaps so, but there are genuine pleasures on offer too, it seems.
1. Fiske’s (1989) piece on shopping takes the familiar line that shoppers are able to resist the official intentions of the designers and impose their own, often contrary meanings. The young and homeless can invade the mall, for example, and engage in a kind of cultural politics via symbolic contests with the security guards and the affronted respectable shoppers. Or people can walk around and try clothes on, but not actually buy anything – taking the pleasures but not paying the price, so to speak.
2. Morris’s account (in During (1993) is a different one, based on trying to explain the less politicised pleasures of malls as places to visit (although the piece is written in a spirit of showing that women shoppers are not mugs). Morris is one of the sharpest cultural analysts and commentators in the business, and she really likes some malls at least. To borrow an idea from DeCerteau’s piece on walking in the city, Morris argues that malls can occupy a place in local narratives of family reunions, or revisits to home towns, for example. I think myself that the elements of futuristic fantasy can be important too, much as in clubbing (I read) or in visiting Universal Studios theme parks.
3. Gottdiener’s account (1995) offers perhaps the best single account that tries to relate the economic functions of the mall to the pleasures on offer to the consumers and visitors. Shopping malls arise as part of the movement of ‘deconcentration’ of cities – city centres lose their functions which are dispersed into nearby (or even global) smaller locations instead. Yet shopping malls also offer an image of city centre life which has been lost, the centre as a public space, a safe space, one devoted to play and pleasure. This constructed or simulated city space contrast strongly with real cities outside, which are unsafe, not public, and not playful any longer (meanings work by deploying these contrasts, according to the framework Gottdiener is using). The very design of (American) malls emphasises this contrast, with their blank external walls and their inward-looking orientation. Meanings are also complemented, so to speak, by images provided by mass media encountered well before entry to the mall, providing visitors with a stock of intertextual meanings they can ‘recognise’ once they enter (and there is a certain convergence between malls too, as designers try out already successful themes in new ones). This intertextuality allows a certain individuality, of course, rather than a tightly closed and controlled image of the visitor (although, as all the commentators note, there are security guards able to police or expel anyone with particularly undesirable identities). We have the basis for the main ingredients of safe pleasure here – nostalgia (including visions of restored cities in the future) and recognition. Indeed, Gottdiener argues, very elegantly, that the mall allows us to become, for a while, the ‘ideal self’ of modern capitalism – the playful consumer and community member with a public life again, but this time, a public life structured around insistent economic imperatives. As this ideal self becomes less and less capable of being realised in the ‘real world’, so simulated ‘themed’ environments which permit it to appear become more attractive - ‘the virtual self of the "amusement society", created and reproduced by the media and advertising…exists alone and unfulfilled until it enters the mall’ (p. 97).
4. Lehtonen and Mäenpää (in Falk and Campbell 1997) follow what looks like a very similar analysis in their account of the biggest mall in Scandinavia – the East Centre Mall near Helsinki. This mall offers a sanitised version of Helsinki city centre (and also takes on undertones of the popular tourist sea cruises), and a chance to recreate a playful sociability in its main thoroughfares. The visitors interviewed by Lehtonen and Mäenpää seem to be able to reproduce many of the pleasures of city tourism, including flâneurie (see file on cities) , managing that mixture of engagement and detachment, the pleasures of being able to observe things without the annoying mediations of shop assistants, and to manage shopping and sightseeing and periodic withdrawals to eat or be entertained by street performers. The mall helps punctuate people’s lives, as a kind of half-way house between work and home, or day and evening. There are other pleasures too, those of managing familiarity and strangeness, as in tourism, and, above all, of ‘playful trial and anticipatory longing’ (p.164). The whole tone of the account is more active, so to speak, based on the ability of visitors to fantasise for themselves. They look like the docile virtual citizens of Gottdiener’s account, but Lehtonen and Mäenpää suggest this may be a mask donned by skilful players. Fantasy may perhaps escape even the controls of advanced capitalism: ‘In the playful street sociability, in the freedom and looseness of its anonymity and in the touristic disengagement from everyday life, can be detected [a]…trance-like aspiration reaching out from the demanding self and towards other people’ (p. 164).
5. Now see my notes on a study by Woodward
et al (2000) which attempts to test the postmodern thesis
that shopppers are disoriented by mall architecture and thus made
vulnerable to consumerism. This is the same idea that leads Kinder to
worry about postmodernist kids' TV.In the case of shoppers., Woodward
et al suggest that shoppers quickly establish their own routines and
are pretty skilled at reading malls and other spaces anyway -- so
routine replaces design intentions.
Dawson J and Dennis Lord J (eds) (1985) Shopping Centre
policies and prospects, London and Sydney: Croom Helm