Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The shopping mall as consumer architecture

Referring to the moment, in Plato’s Symposium, where the lover supposedly beholds a completely disembodied, atemporal “beauty”, in the process conforming to the character of this abstraction, Kaja Silverman says (World Spectators, 2000: 10): “This deindividuation of the look represents a crucial feature of the process through which Socrates negates phenomenal forms. This is because it is in the particularity of the human eye that its transfigurative properties reside. It is only by assuming its utmost ‘ownness’ that the look can make the world shine — only by becoming itself that it can deliver other creatures and things into their Being.”

I want to argue that such “deindividuation” also happens via the reduction of the variegatedness of the world by consumerist imperatives. Marx is invaluable in helping one understand this. In a discussion of money as a “symbol of alienation in capitalist society” (in the Grundrisse; 1972: 59), he remarks: “The definition of the product as exchange value necessarily entails that the exchange value leads a separate existence, severed from the product. This exchange value which is severed from the commodity and yet is itself a commodity is — money. All the properties of the commodity viewed as exchange value appear as an object distinct from it; they exist in the social form of money, quite separate from their natural form of existence.”

To appreciate the radicality of the transformation in socio-economic relations expressed in these terms by Marx, one has to recall that the value of the “natural product” (as he calls it), or its “use value”, is something that depends upon and issues more or less “directly” from the properties of the product (for instance a knife or ceramic crockery). What changes with the introduction of “exchange value” — expressed abstractly or quantitatively in terms of monetary value — is that a medium is invented, which serves as a kind of common denominator into which all products or artefacts, but eventually also all services, all resources (human as well as natural), personal skills, capacities and abilities, and also all experiential spatial modulations, can be “translated” or converted.

Money is the Midas touch of the social and natural world, and whatever is touched by it, turns into proverbial gold; at the loss, of course, of its original “life” or “natural” properties. This is even more apparent from Marx’s observation, that (1972: 60): “The more production is shaped in such a way that every producer depends on the exchange value of his commodities ie the more the product really becomes an exchange value, and exchange value becomes the direct object of production, the more must money relationships develop, as also the contradictions inherent in this money relationship, in the relation of the product to itself as money.”

Is it not possible to think of architectural space of a certain kind — say that of a shopping mall — in these terms? Shopping malls may then be read as architectural-spatial manifestations of what Marx alleges here regarding products “becoming” exchange value, as well as the “direct object of production”. This observation is bound to seem counter-intuitive. Think of it this way: if a product, for instance a cellular phone, is said to “become an exchange value” (and “the direct object of production”), it is another way of saying that remarks heard in advertisements pertaining to the “age” of certain models of phone (“Your phone is so last year!”) embody this ostensible identity between the product and exchange value. In other words, the phone is not judged in terms of its functionality or use value, which may still be excellent, but from the perspective of the question concerning its present exchange value, which is visually inscribed, as it were, in its very physical, perceptible appearance. In this sense the phone has “become an exchange value”.

But how does this translate into architectural space? It is well-known that shopping malls are designed and “signed” in such a way as to give optimal visual exposure to the brand names of the stores represented there (Woolworths, Edgars, Game, etc), as well as to the products displayed in shop windows. These products are invariably those comprising the latest fashions in clothes, or state-of-the-art technological gadgets, and the prices displayed on them are “competitive” — so much so that the way in which consumers look at them is determined precisely by their exchange value, and not predominantly by their use value. This becomes especially clear in the case of goods advertised as being on a “sale”, when the products’ exchange value is highlighted to attract potential buyers’ attention.

One could go further and say that the architectural space of a mall, with numerous shops and stores adjacent to one another, differs in a decisive qualitative manner from other kinds of spaces — that of a symphony hall, of an art museum, the domestic space of a private house, and so on. Regardless of the different products sold in different stores, it establishes a continuum of consumer space or, to put it differently, of spatial homogeneity representing exchange value in its generalised form. From the moment one enters the mall, your eyes are guided, almost coerced, into looking with a view to discerning products (clothes, electronic goods, etc) as “exchange values”.

This is as true of those goods which constitute “bargains” at a sale, for example, as for products at the other, “upmarket” end of the scale, which attract consumers who can match their (the products’) exchange value with corresponding sums of money. In a nutshell: from the moment people enter a mall, their behaviour as consumers is dictated by the mall space being presented as a metonymy of exchange value. And it means that this space is intimately connected with money relations, to the detriment of the particularity of every product displayed there, as well as of the individualising particularity of the look on the part of every person who enters this space. This is because one’s gaze is colonised by consumer items that exemplify pseudo-variation-within-standardisation, instead of the true heterogeneity that would be commensurate with the particular look on the part of a human subject.

What may be inferred, for the theme of consumer-architectural space, from this elaboration on the social alienation-effect of exchange value (concretised as money) on individuals, corroborates the impression concerning the covering-up of the particularity of products displayed in mall-space, this time in relation to individuals entering that space. To the degree that the mall-space in question is the architectural embodiment of exchange value, individuals entering it tend to be alienated from their own individuality or particularity (which is “denied and suppressed”) — these are the conditions of being a consumer.

Small wonder, then, that mall-space is conducive to — if not coercive of — typical consumer behaviour: whether one visits a mall for so-called “window-shopping” (a particularly pitiful manifestation of powerlessness in an exchange-value oriented or money-driven society), or with the purpose of shopping and buying commodities, your behaviour is orchestrated by the exchange-value organisation of its architectural space.

For a thorough treatment of this theme, see my paper, “Architecture as consumer space”. South African Journal of Art History, Vol. 23 (1), 2008, pp. 93-106. Reprinted in Philosophy and the Arts. London and Frankfurt: Peter Lang Publishers, 2009.

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