Posted by: L. E. Barnes | August 26, 2009

Through a Mall, Darkly

It’s a perennial complaint: Americans are too materialistic. And doubtless, in the eyes of many, one of the most glaring symbols of our matierialistic ways is the mall.

My composition students’ first writing assignment is to do summaries of a few articles from their textbook. The articles deal with malls, those wonderful oases of shopping in our urban deserts. For today, they read “Shopping for American Culture,” by historian James J. Farrell, and we discussed it in class. Actually, I did most of the discussing; they mostly sat there like mannequins. But I digress…

So can any good thing come out of malls–besides the latest fashions or bling-bling? Farrell would answer in the affirmative. He sees malls as a key to learning about our culture.

In this article–which served as the introduction to a book he wrote–Farrell argues that to understand ourselves, Americans need to understand malls. He cites various facts and figures to show how these places figure prominently not only in our national economy but in our culture. A complex and multipurpose activity, shopping has become a major part of our way of life. (Farrell provides a little etymology of shop, noting that it went from being just a noun to a verb as well. Just like, as I pointed out to my students, we say go clubbing.) Malls are of course designed to promote buying. They now fill a role performed by other public spaces, such as town halls, in previous eras, and because of all their commercial art and other cultural aspects, Farrell even likens them to art galleries and museums. Malls play a part in acculturation, helping us make sense of our values, beliefs, and institutions. They’re complex places: not only do they require a good deal of miscellaneous knowlege to navigate successfully, but people’s perceptions of and responses to malls are as diverse as their backgrounds. To attract customers, malls essentially create “stories” about their goods and services; that is, they plant ideas in our minds about what kinds of stuff we should have to be fulfilled as Americans. Farrell admits having an affinity for malls, especially their social dimensions and aesthetic qualities. He enjoys going there to people-watch and look over the commercial art, which he considers beautiful. But at the same time, he acknowledges malls’ downside: in promoting consumerism, they can easily depersonalize people, reducing them to being nothing more than buyers.

So perhaps, to alter a phrase from 1 Cor. 13:12, now we see ourselves through a mall, darkly.

And if I can just get my students to be more enthusiastic about their assigned readings…

I’ll close with a little mall humor. Here are some (tongue-in-cheek) suggestions that I found online for having fun at a mall:

  • At the bottom of an escalator, scream, “MY SHOELACES!! AAAHHHH!!”
  • Test mattresses in your pajamas.
  • Answer any unattended service phones that ring and say “Domino’s.”
  • Stand transfixed in front of a mirror bobbing your head up and down.
  • Construct a new porch deck in the tool department of Sears.
  • Pay for all your purchases with two-dollars bills to provoke arguments over whether they’re real. (I’ve heard of that actually happening, by the way.)

I’ll try sharing these at the beginning of class on Friday. With any luck, they might elicit a few chuckles.


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