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Chapter One: Young “Tricksters”


In popular culture, shopping can be considered as an ideal example of everyday practice, since it can very clearly demonstrate the ideological struggle so crucial to recent cultural theory. In the process of shopping, subordinate shoppers attempt to resist the imposition of meaning that bears the economic interests of dominant profit-based system. In this respect, Michel de Certeau’s work on everyday practices of consumers in capitalist society represents a crucial contribution to the field of cultural studies. He draws on the Marxist ideas, though he aims to avoid ascribing a solely political character to his work. Rather he focuses entirely on the practices of everyday life and creates new terms for the practices of both the dominant and the subordinate groups in the ideological struggle over the meaning – “strategy” and “tactics”. He maintains that the weak are creative and flexible and that they use special “tactics” and play constant tricks and ruses upon the system in order to counter the “strategies” of the powerful. As he claims, “we are concerned with battles or games between the strong and the weak, and with the actions which remain possible for the latter” (de Certeau 34). The utilization of the “strategies” by different institutions leads to the process of structuring their power within various places. In other words, by using these “strategies” the powerful gain control over the places that constitute the practices of everyday life. Considering the activity of shopping, this means that retailers and businessmen assert their economic interests inside the shopping malls and accordingly turn these shopping malls into the places of exercising their dominance and power. “Tactics” are then used by shoppers who invent original ruses in order to resist these strategic formations, or to open their own spaces within these places. De Certeau maintains:

Although they remain dependent upon the possibilities offered by circumstances, these transverse tactics do not obey the law of the place, for they are not defined or identified by it. In this respect, they are not any more localizable than the technocratic (and spiritual) strategies that seek to create places in conformity with abstract models. But what distinguishes them at the same time concerns the types of operations and the role of spaces: strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose these spaces, when those operations take place, whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces. (29 – 30)

The “types of operations” de Certeau talks about in his work include the producer’s “strategies” as well as the consumer’s “tactics”. Here one can ask what represents the ways of operations of the disempowered within the process of shopping. Which “tactics” shoppers use in order to resist the powerful market-dominated system? How do they defy the meanings and representations that are imposed upon them by the consumer society and its compulsive need to buy as much as possible?

Although de Certeau does not focus specifically on the concept of shopping, in fact he hardly mentions it, he maintains that besides language which represents a “place,” where the formal rules and strategies can be resisted by its users, “we can attempt to apply this model to many non-linguistic operations by taking as our hypothesis that all these uses concern consumption” (33). In The Practice of Everyday Life he suggests some ways of thinking about such everyday practices that shopping represents. De Certeau supposes that these practices are of tactical nature and claims that for example “dwelling, moving about, speaking, reading, shopping, and cooking are activities that seem to correspond to the characteristics of tactical ruses and surprises: clever tricks of the ‘weak’ within the order established by the ‘strong,’ . . .” (40). De Certeau’s supposition that shopping constitutes one of the significant examples of everyday practices thus implies that shoppers have their own ways of operating, employing various “tactics” and enforcing “tactical raids” upon the market-dominated system.

One of the most obvious “tactics” used by shoppers, which De Certeau mentions in his work, is represented by the practice of window-shopping. While the most common definition of shopping is one that considers purchase to be indispensable part of shopping, cultural theory does not view the activity of shopping as the examining of goods with an intention to buy it at that time. As Celia Lury points out in her book on consumer culture, “with the advent of the department store, shopping lost its previous automatic association with purchase and further use” (143). The theorists of popular culture maintain that the purchase requirement, which is generally supposed to be an inevitable act of shopping and constitutes the ideal form of shopping for the contemporary capitalist profit-based system, is defied and raided upon by the less powerful shoppers. “The ambivalence of the shopper is telling. Being a shopper is usually assumed to be synonymous with being a purchaser. Yet, often shopping does not involve purchase, which is merely one event which may or may not culminate the shopping process” (Shields, “The Individual” 102). As Colleen M. Tremonte follows the thoughts of Michel de Certeau in his research, he claims that “as de Certeau (1984) has noted of everyday practices in general, window shopping can be a productive activity — one that repositions the ‘consumer’ as an active agent. . . . Driven by desire as much as by need, concerned with aesthetics as well as economics, the ‘shopper’ can appropriate various tactics in the service of gazing, selecting and buying” (3). The shopper can thus easily resist the general definition of shopping by not buying any product and instead of purchasing he can just window shop, look at the goods displayed, and try them on without any intention to buy them. As Shields points out, “this activity [of shopping] takes on leisure forms as window-shopping and browsing. In this ‘just looking’ type of shopping, sampling, non-rational spontaneous purchases and the crowd practice of these ‘public’ spaces, are the most important elements” (“The Individual” 102). According to cultural theorists of the late twentieth century, exactly these forms of shopping establish a base for shopper’s empowerment.

The influence of Michel de Certeau is particularly evident in the work of John Fiske, who sees de Certeau’s distinctive contribution mainly in “his insistence on the power of the subordinate and on the system’s points of vulnerability” (Fiske, Understanding 34). Fiske zealously follows de Certeau’s thoughts and in a similar way he looks at the act of shopping as a means through which power of the subordinate group can be gained; however, it must be noted that he rather narrows the focus of his research and applies himself particularly to the group of the disempowered. Discussing the area of shopping within cultural theory, he employs de Certeau’s terms to explain the act of shopping of the disempowered young. The young constitute a group of the unemployed, that is a group without requisite financial means, and therefore its members are not able to obey the powerful market-oriented society and fully accept the relentlessly coercive recommendation of the need to buy almost anything. Nevertheless, according to Fiske, the young unemployed people are “shopping mall guerrillas par excellence” (Understanding 37). They successfully confront their disempowerment by playing constant “trickery” upon the profit-based capitalist system and turn the meanings of the shopping malls into their own images. “Drawing especially on Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), Fiske’s ordinary human being is a tricky customer, negotiating and manoeuvring the best out of any conceivable situation” (McGuigan 73). Although the young have not enough money to spend, they are always present in the shopping mall. Why do they come here? Can such visits to the shopping mall be profitable to them?

In his work on popular culture, Fiske follows de Certeau’s fleeting reference to window shopping and presents other subversive practices that apply to the activity of shopping. To be more specific, besides window shopping, he deals also with shoplifting, changing the price tags of selected goods, or using the space of shopping mall as a meeting point. Discussing all these activities, Fiske frequently refers to sociologist and cultural criminologist Mike Pressdee and his productive term “proletarian shopping” which is used to describe the practices that the unemployed young apply inside the shopping mall. Pressdee’s study shows that in the South Australian town of Elizabeth 80 percent of young unemployed people were regular visitors of the mall. He comments on young people’s invasion of the places where the market-oriented social system exercises its power, using a metaphor of religion:

For young people, especially the unemployed, there has been a congregating within these cathedrals of capitalism, where desires are created and fulfilled and the production of commodities, the very activity that they are barred from, is itself celebrated on the alter of consumerism. Young people, cut off from normal consumer power are invading the space of those with consumer power. (qtd. in Fiske, Reading 15)

Not having enough financial means, young unemployed people can be simply considered the most imaginative and tricky shoppers. By using various “tactics,” they defy the general meaning of shopping and by invading the space of consumer power, they tenaciously resist the “strategies” of the dominant.

What is important to point out here, is the fact that Fiske attaches the same importance to the activity of window shopping as he assigns to shoplifting and illegal cheats with the goods. He compares the illegal act of moving the price tag from a lower- to a higher- priced item to the legal browsing through the shopping mall and scanning the items by a mere look. According to Fiske, “we must wonder just how different in kind such [illegal] practices are from the legal ‘trickery’ of two secretaries spending their lunch hour browsing through stores with no intention to buy” (Understanding 39). Stealing goods is likened to the stealing of images or style in the reflection of store mirrors. Fiske obstinately claims that “in legal terms, distinctions are made, however uncertainly; in terms of popular culture, all are guileful tactics, the everyday art of the weak” (Understanding 40). Further, he employs the idea that the empowerment of the shopper lies in the fact that the shop assistant can never identify the purchaser in advance; he is not able to tell who is a “real” shopper and who is merely a browser. Fiske boldly contemplates striking resemblance between the inability of staff to recognize the intention of the weak and disempowered shopper and the inability of the U.S. Army to tell the Viet Cong from the innocent villager, which can be considered “a comparison of astonishing insouciance that does not justice neither to the perils of guerrilla warfare in swamp nor to petty theft in shop” (McGuigan 73). Fiske’s overly narrow view and peculiar comparisons came under fierce criticism in the work of cultural analyst Jim McGuigan, who considers Fiske’s conception of popular culture a “drastic narrowing of vision” (73).

Young people, as visitors to the shopping mall were also in the focus of Lauren Langman, who, similarly as Fiske, views these visits as a source of empowerment. He pays attention to the changing spatial context of everyday life, pointing out that while in the past most adults were located in streets and neighbourhood corners during their free time, nowadays they very often choose the shopping mall as their meeting point. Here the young are not under the supervision of teachers and parents and can thus negotiate their identities and lifestyles without any restraint. The possibility to move freely and enjoy the space of the shopping mall, even when they might have not enough money to purchase the goods they like, gives them sense of freedom and dignity. Langman states:

The popular culture and worlds of malldom offer realms of defiance and refusal, contestation and negotiation, that sustain the fundamental arrangements. We have seen that, for young adolescents, malldom becomes a site of communities of resistance and dignity outside of school or work. Thus we can suggest that the consumption of goods and experiences that inform self-presentations provide experiences of power and dignity outside the realms of work. (“Neon Cages” 64)

So as we see, Langman also adopts the ideas of Michel de Certeau and views the shopping mall as a site of refusal and resistance. Here, young people resist the profit-based capitalist system, refusing its coercive recommendation to buy at least some of the displayed goods. As has already been noted before, they confront their subordinate position by employing various “trickery” – from changing the price tags up to putting on some of the displayed clothes in the fitting room and walking out of the shop in it. In the shopping mall, they can hang around, enjoy the spaces which are offered to them, and turn them into their own spaces. In their work The Shopping Experience, Pasi Falk and Colin Campbell consider shopping malls to be places that gain autonomy “as experiential realms in themselves, as places for meeting friends, for walking around and just spending time, rather than money” (8). Fiske, drawing upon the research of Mike Pressdee, comments on the contemporary situation in shopping malls in a very similar way: “With no money but much time to spend, [the young] consumed the place and the images, but not the commodities. They turned the place of the mall into their space to enact their oppositional culture, to maintain and assert their social difference and their subordinated but hostile social identities” (Understanding 38). Therefore, it can be stated that the shopping mall becomes a place where young people negotiate their identities and assert their dignity. It is the place where adolescents of contemporary society come of age.

However, is not always the main interest of the groups of the young to come here as “tricksters”. Sometimes, they just see this place as their meeting point since they can stay there chatting and enjoying their free time at no costs. In winter, they go there to consume the mall’s heating, in summer, they enjoy the air conditioning. “Ease of access, controlled climate, and reduced price based on a higher market volume are the functional attractions of the mall” (Shields, “Spaces” 5). Here it is important to remark that these “functional attractions” of course apply not only to the young adolescents but also all other shoppers, irrespective of their age, gender or even status. Everybody is welcome to visit the shopping malls and appropriate their spaces in some way.

Nevertheless, besides all these rather material benefits, the particular significance of the shopping mall lies in its social value. Rob Shields views the shopping mall as a site of communication and interaction, claiming that “it is here that groups meet, that face-to-face communication if not community is a practice for a huge number of people in the televisual age” (“Spaces” 5). Further, he points out that “shopping is not just a functional activity” and suggests that “consumption has become a communal activity, even a form of solidarity” (“The Individual” 110). Although the shopping mall seems a rather impersonal place in comparison with historical market places, shopping still remains a social activity and besides the common commodity exchange, the social exchange is of the same (if not greater) importance. Visitors of the shopping mall exchange formal greetings with shop assistants, or discuss the quality of the particular items. Friends meet here, talk of their lives in one of the mall’s cafés, women stroll along the shop windows together, discussing the new fashions. Shields’s borrows Lefebvre’s term “social centrality” to describe how some people delight in being part of the crowd inside the mall. He states that “the chance of meeting an acquaintance, the tactile but not too physical interaction with a crowd, the sense of presence and social centrality – of something happening beyond the close world of oneself, motivates many who are marginal, alone or simply idle to visit shopping centres as passive observers” (“The Individual” 103). And so people continue to come here without an intention to buy the displayed goods, they just look and enjoy the spaces of the mall and the presence of other people.
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