Life and Death at the Mall
This week's topic, consumerism and "the Mall," has pushed my thinking in quite a number of different directions all of which merit thoughtful and in depth consideration. Thanks to generative thinking and how I love to link things to other things and to bigger and bigger concerns, there is just no way to tackle them all here and now. Of course, I can't let seem to let them go so l am starting with a bit of an overview of each and see where I end up...
Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead
by Stephen Harper
in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2002, Volume 1, Issue 2
available at http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm
p.2 (on my print out, not sure that they will translate for all) "In Reading the Popular, John Fiske argues that while consumer "tactics" are never radical, they may be "liberating" to a certain extent." (emphasis mine) Green consumerism (google search "buy green" and take your pick), pink ribbon everything, Gap's red t-shirt campaign. Howies? Is an anti-consumerist consumer company possible? (props to MJS for sending that one my way). Trouble is that pink ribbon yogurt makes more money for Yoplait or Dannon than it makes in funds for Susan G. Komen fund. Ditto pink ribbon Avon whose product line includes known carcinogens. Selling a high priced coat designed to be durable and long lived is wonderful. Having owned my present winter coat for over 10 years I wish more things held up for as long as I want to use them, but the actual long-life depends more upon my, the consumer, decision to wear the same coat winter after winter through all the ups and downs and flip turns of the fashion world. This being quiet the opposite of what contemporary consumerism demands of the end-user. Too what about the people on the front end: the producers...or rather the producers people. The issue of sweatshop labor appears and fades from public media focus, but has never gone away. Are Gap's Red products, while raising their sales in what proportion to funds for AIDS issues?, made in factories where workers receive fair wages and reasonable working conditions? This skips us ahead in Harper's paper - p. 13 "....under capitalist conditions, the productive origins of commodities are easily forgotten."
p.4 "In recent decades, mall hysteria may be less common..." in relation to excitement at new mall openings. Has this been replaced by some of the rumored/reported mobs at openings of "superstores." Certainly, we see some of this still with the (embarrassing in my opinion, not to mention deadly) actions of shoppers on Black Friday or other big sale promotions. The 2004 film, Cesky sen, a documentary comedy social commentary could have been in the United States (well except for the government funding for young filmakers to even be critical of politic situations - in this case the question of the Czech Republic joining the EU - and the social).
p.10 "The typical audience response to the film..." Just a momentary turn away from the topic to a question about methodology. One of the recurring challenges for culture studies is assessing something like this. In this case I am left wonder too grammatically - is it a typical audience (in which case I'd like to know what comprises the typical audience for Dawn of the Dead) or is the the typical response of any audience in question. Later on the page, Harper extrapolates from second hand information that "ordinary" people have been "prompted" to "reconsider [their] relationship to consumerism." Using one isolated overheard comment to drawn this conclusion is a bit, well methodologically problematic. Furthermore, the comment in question might also likely ONLY demonstrate that the movie-goer shopper recognized the similarities between the movie zombies and the shoppers around her. This does not inherently mean she reconsidered anything about her role as a consumer.
p.11 "...consumerism is both morally perilous to those who can afford to buy into it AND economically exclusive to those who cannot." (emphasis mine) Indeed! This seems an important point for any educator wanting to "work" with consumerism or shopping and their students; not all students will have the same economic background. Even still some may enjoy a situation of relative wealth sustained by a familial culture of thrift (okay, maybe that is just my house and I don't have any kids!) or may be of more meager means, but whose family culture supports a consumerist ideology even if it may be more "in theory" than "in practice."
(so many quotation marks today...thanks for bearing with "me" ahem)
Having paused for most of the side notes I made on Harper, I just need to make a momentary aside. In the dichotomy between the "marxist academics" and the "consumerism liberates" schools of thought, once again I'm reminded that intellectual "elitism" is leveled as the worst of worst insults. Do not mistake me, there have been plenty of terrible moments of elitist thought and action. However, scholars time and time again seem unwilling to stand up and say "Of course I'm elitist, I have worked long and hard to earn a knowledge base and quality methodology so that I can be the best thinker and analyst possible." I don't expect Michael Phelps or Madonna to apologize for being (or have been depending upon one's take) at the tops of their fields and wanting to (elitistly?) keep the company of other expert athletes and artists. In our world people have widely varying skill sets, abilities, talents, and interests. Sometimes some people (in fact at some point most all of us) will be cultural dupes. Calling it like it is, does not inherently devalue that in other venues or at other times we same dupes can be experts.
Whew, and that is just one of the readings!
A couple of other general thoughts:
Not everyone goes to the mall. Really, I can count on my fingers the number of times I went to "the Mall" in 2008. I imagine (and would find supporting evidence somewhere) that especially people with limited mobility (walkers, bikers, public transit takers) that much of their shopping happens in urban city centers, at corner stores, via the internet. Is there a difference when we talk about the enclosed mall and the strip mall layout style. The concept of the mega-store or super-store is an interesting twist too. If the family does do their shopping together on a Saturday, will some of the questions raised and theories posited in the readings hold true if Wal-mart or Super Target are the one and only destinations?
There is consumerism, the ideology. There is shopping, the activity. There is purchasing, the transaction. What happens when these on conflated? What happens when we analyze each separately? More challenging still is when these overlap or look the same from one person to the next (my transaction trip to the mall for a new pair of trousers might, part of the time, look just like another's shopping outing or still another's ritualized reinforcement of capitalist consumptive world/life view)?
There are other places than the mall that people congregate, socialize, and create community: churches, gyms, schools, community centers, parks, barber shops or salons, coffee shops and diners, libraries, and even the internet. The cultural work of the mall to create status, define class affiliation, and provide means for seeing others actions in society is not exclusive to that the shopping site. I am sure that in some geographic regions this varies, but it is dangerous to general too greatly about the all consuming omnipresent or uniformity of "the Mall."
That all said Bacevich's article suggests that the greater message of "go to the mall and Disney World" speaks to much of the United States. Even if not an avid mall goer, it is probably true that most of us understand the meaning of "go to the mall" - take it easy, don't worry, just keep making your individual self comfortable in material ways. These days the answer to our economic crisis is "get people out to the stores" which screams to me that the notion that capitalism's drive for ever more and constant replacement - even in the midst of visible signs that it is not sustainable - is still widely believed to true and reasonable. In fact, an op-ed at Salon.com this week suggests that Americans are only angry when capitalism takes away the good old days when goods and services were more easily acquired (simple summation of the article), but that the media isn't covering the anger part of the present.
Thorny - that is what I think of when imagining a way to bring these things to students. Thorny and probably politically unpopular to many educators, administrators, parents, and politicians. Not to encourage sneakiness, but how about straight up critical thinking, analysis, and reflection skills? Observations of people and actions in shopping situations, compare to other social settings (gyms, churches, etc); price comparisons over time (is a sale really a sale?), media literacy (how to read marketing), science based investigations of resource consumption. The more we all are pressed to be critical of all aspects of our lives and world, the better we are at it an in theory better in our lives and worlds.