Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Goss, The 'Magic of the Mall'

In "The 'Magic of the Mall,'" Jon Goss aims to show that "developers have sought to assuage . . . collective guilt over conspicuous consumption by designing into the retail built environment the means of a fantasized dissociation from the act of shopping." In other words, shopping makes us feel guilty; but if we don't feel like we're shopping, then it's OK. So our mallmakers go to great lengths to build environments that help us pretend. They do this in downtown shopping districts that are constructed to look like historic places, and in suburban malls that evoke Mediterranean plazas (even in their names, the Galleria malls calling to mind Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, assuming anyone knows what that is).

According to Goss, a great deal of collusion goes into creating this effect - developers teaming up with financiers, architects, engineers, designers and government agenices - with the end goal being profit. The idea, it seems, is that everyone assumes that a profit motive is sufficient justification, that everyone benefits if everyone profits. The person who's left out of this equation, in Goss's mind, is the consumer, who is disarmed by all of this subterfuge.

Goss is particularly disturbed by the complicity of governmental agencies. Malls "may house post offices, satellite municipal halls, automated government services, and public libraries; space is sometimes provided for public meetings or religious services." In this way, malls appear to be public space, while mall owners insist that the space is purely private and still driven by profit. Drinking fountains are pushed to the margins in order to prevent their diverting business from the food court. Freedoms of speech, assembly and petition are curtailed. (Goss notes that courts generally have held that malls actually are some sort of limited public space, but I'm not sure this accurately characterizes the jurisprudence. In any case, I am hoping to provide an edited copy of Bock v. Westminster Mall, a Colorado Supreme Court case in which the Court held that the mall was a limited public space for free speech purposes.)

Goss says consumers have few means of responding to this constructed environment. He rejects as unreasonable the idea that consumers could construct their own alternative shopping areas, devoid of such deceptive "signification." Instead, he suggests that people treat malls as the public places they pretend to be - and that rebels engage in "the collective staging of games and farcical events, by artists, activists, and the shopping center patrons themselves, that can temporarily bring carnival into the shopping center, upsetting the conventional play of signification, subverting the cultural codes that are strategically deployed." It's here, I fear, that Goss buys his ticket on a nonstop flight to nutbar. He fails (refuses?) to consider that people go to malls not because they've been duped into feeling that they'r enot consuming, but because the mall offers something that is genuinely desireable, such as convenience (one-stop-shopping - isn't that why department stores were successful in the first place, and why big-box stores thrive today?). And does he honestly believe that his "stag[ed] . . . farcical events" will recapture the mall? Rather, I see events like that actually attracting people to the mall, without changing their disposition to either the place or the activities they engage in while there. ("What're you doing Saturday? I think I'm going to see what those crazy activists are doing at the mall. And I do need some new shoes. And maybe some TCBY.")

Finally, there's a bit of anachronism in this article. Published in 1993 (I think), surely it was written a year or so earlier. This coincided (or followed closely) both a spike in urban crime and the apogee of the Galleria-style suburban mall. In some ways, this anachronism doesn't matter so much. The modern strip mall has less of a constructed atmosphere than the indoor mall that is the focus of Goss's work; however, there probably are more of his urban-renewal malls. However, in other ways, I think Goss's failure to consider the geography of time does undermine his argment. For example, he writes extensively about how the psychology of fear (particularly fear of urban crime) fed the development of the mall. That argument is less relevant today, as construction of suburban strip malls continues apace, and urban-renewal malls continue to be built, often right next to blighted areas.

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