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Chapter Three: Shopping for Identities


The rise of the department store had a great impact not only on the empowerment of women, but also on the creation of people’s identities in general. In the context of consumer culture, which experienced an extraordinary growth in the second part of the twentieth century, the status of individual identity has been changing; there appeared to be an almost unlimited possibility for individuals to create meanings of themselves. Therefore, it can be stated that contemporary lifestyles are more or less consumption-based and that shopping constitutes an activity which helps establish people’s identities. As Lauren Langman puts it, shopping malls are “places to purchase the goods of gratification and/or to be something, to realize fantasies located outside of the usual constraints of time and place. Malling thus exists as dialectic between doing something and being someone, a fantastic someone whose selfhood brings recognition and gratification” (“Neon Cages” 54). The way we shop is the way we create our identities. Shopping is thus not just an activity done in order to satisfy our basic needs – it has much more complex meaning since it helps to create our selves. Susie Scott comments on the phrase by Helga Dittmar, who said that “to have is to be”, claiming that

possessions are regarded as extensions of the self, and used accordingly to perform identity. . . . Goods are selected no longer on the basis of their intrinsic value or aesthetical appeal to the individual, but on the basis of their legibility as cultural codes – that is, what your possessions say about you and how easily these meanings can be read. (151)

This means that people shop according to their particular way of life, in conformity with their lifestyles. What we witness in the contemporary shopping malls is “lifestyle shopping” to use the term of Rob Shields. People chose goods on the basis of their identities and the other way around – they chose identities according to the goods on offer.

In every society there is always a structure that enables individuals to determine their set of values, morals and ideas and thus orient in their life. Within this structure people are able to think about their lifestyles, organize their behaviour and search for their identities. In the past, it was religion that determined individual’s way of life; people went to church, searching for a purpose in life. However, contemporary society is different. Religion as a main interpretative framework has been on the decline since the Enlightenment and it has been gradually replaced by economics and expanding production and consumption. Nowadays it is not religious belief that helps us organize our lives anymore. Rather there is an essential idea of unfailing consumerism that establishes the structure of contemporary world. In his essay “Neon Cages: Shopping for Subjectivity,” Langman maintains that it is a shopping mall that establishes the structure of contemporary society, claiming that “if the Gothic cathedral was the symbolic structure of the feudal era, and the factory of the industrial, the distinct structures of today are cultural sites or theme parks like the Centre Georges Pompidou of Paris or Disneyland, and the carnivals of consumption – the shopping malls” (41 – 42). Therefore, what we see here is that consumerism can be likened to religion, the shopping mall to the cathedral, the goods displayed in the shop windows of the malls to the icons believers worship, and the act of shopping itself to the church services. Today, shopping mall becomes the space that articulates the meaning of ourselves, our lifestyles and our identities. Shopping is an important social practice that has an effect on the whole of society and is thus exposed to the unceasing research by contemporary cultural theorists and sociologists.

Although this metaphor of religion seems to be quite pertinent when discussing the shopping mall as the new structure of contemporary society, there are some momentous problems with comparing these two spheres. As a matter of fact, there are fundamental differences between a cathedral and a shopping mall, not only in the way they operate but also in the way they present themselves. Further in his work, Langman points out that “the expressways are crowded with cars; the land with private houses; the waters with boats, but most important, the malls are crowded with shoppers, lookers and exhibitionists” (“Neon Cages” 42). Here, we come to an appreciable tension between the way people behave in relation to their religion and the way they act while shopping. Langman admits that the visitors of the shopping mall are represented not only by the people whose basic intentions are to purchase the goods displayed but also the people who just look at the goods, try them on, or even search for a style. Shopping malls are intended to be places of purchase; however, as we can see, they are not always places of purchase. People are not obliged to shop, they can always just stroll and look. On the contrary, cathedrals and churches are intended to be places of masses and holy communions and people come here for this particular reason. While shoppers sometimes shop and sometimes not, believers always practise their belief when they come to church. John Fiske who similarly as Langman used the metaphor of religion to describe consumer society admits that this likening is rather glib and highlights the differences between them. He states that:

The religious congregation is powerless, led like sheep through the rituals and meanings, forced to ‘buy’ the truth on offer, all the truth, not selective bits of it. . . . the congregation has no power to negotiate, to discriminate: all accommodations are made by the powerless, subjugated to the great truth. (Reading 13 – 14)

Therefore, Fiske comes to the conclusion that if we focus on the power of the consumer, the metaphor of religion is highly counterproductive. He claims that because shopping can have many different forms, from purchasing to just looking and stealing the styles that are in fashion, it becomes an arena of ideological struggle between the ones with “strategy” (de Certeau) and the ones who resist these strategies and thus succeed in preventing the hegemony from victory. Fiske therefore views shopping as a crisis of consumerism, claiming that “it is where the art and tricks of the weak can inflict most damage on, and exert most power over, the strategic interests of the powerful. The shopping mall that is seen as the terrain of guerrilla warfare looks quite different from the one constructed by the metaphor of religion” (Reading 14). Langman himself acknowledges the fact that there is a dialectical relationship between the power and the resistance to this power and that it is “the very problematic and changing nature of hegemony that allows if not requires contestation – at least in those realms that leave unchallenged basic structures of privilege” and suggests that “everyday life offers opportunities for pluralities of interpretations and contestations about meanings over politics, sports or leisure practices” (“Neon Cages” 42). He even refers to Fiske at some point, admits the counter-productivity of the metaphor and agrees that, unlike cathedrals, shopping malls might serve as a source of empowerment. As he puts it, “whereas the laity is powerless in face of the clergy, mallers can find ‘microspheres of empowerment’ in the malls, form the products they get there and the meanings and pleasures the person can choose” (“Neon Cages” 48). Therefore, considering the structure of these two institutions – the cathedral and the shopping mall – we can find some similarities; however, to use the cathedral as a metaphor for the mall is rather misleading since the ways they operate significantly differ.

As he allows for the strong dialectic of enfeeblement and empowerment, Langman seems to be, similarly as Fiske, aware of the demerits of such a glib metaphor. At the end of his essay, he leaves the metaphor of cathedral behind and expands on the idea of the shopping mall as a prison, claiming that the shopping mall can be seen as “a modern ‘panopticon’ in which the search for subjectivity locks people into ‘neon cages’ of consumption, sentenced to lifetimes of shopping for subjectivity” (“Neon Cages” 72). He maintains that malls share some features with jails and prisons – they are both enclosed areas that are isolated from the larger environment. He points out that “if iron bars keep us from getting out of prisons, neon lights, lasers and hologram images keep us from wanting to get out of the fantastic worlds of malldom” (“Neon Cages” 72). Moreover, both prison and shopping mall are places that are somehow controlled. But can we really compare iron bars that keep us closed in the space of the prison to the neon lights and the lures of the shopping mall? Are the limitations of freedom of the same measure in the jail and inside the mall? Langman admits that even here we can observe some discrepancies: “Like prisons and cities, there is a ‘panoptic’ of design to control, but in malldom the control is not so much through surveillance as the organization of special settings and the allocation of fantasy and pleasure” (“Neon Cages” 48). Nevertheless, according to Langman, both the prison and the shopping mall expose their visitors to panoptic controls which restrict their freedom and coerce people into submitting to the rules they dictate.

Besides the notion of freedom, equality is another interesting matter that dominates the discussion of shopping within cultural studies. Are the shoppers equal in the sense they can all freely enter the spaces of the shopping mall and shop for any of the goods displayed in the shop windows? Is there democracy and freedom of choice in these malls? In fact, there exists equality in the access to the mall – all people, regardless of their social status, are welcome here. As Langman points out, “whatever one’s status or job in the world of work or even without job, there is an equality of just being there and looking at the shows of decor, goods and other people. Malls appear democratic and open to all, rich or poor, young or old” (“Alienation” 2). Nevertheless, the notion of the freedom and equality seems to be full of contradictions.

On the one hand, this initial, apparent equality seems to diminish when it comes down to purchase of the goods. Everybody can just look, but only the people with enough financial means can accomplish the real purpose of shopping, which means purchasing the goods. As Alan Tomlinson maintains in his essay “Consumer Culture and the Aura of the Commodity,” there is no freedom for the shoppers but rather a notion of inequality. According to him, the freedom involved in buying goods is a mere illusion. He states that:

. . . if we think we are free when our choices have in fact been consciously constructed for us, then this is a dangerous illusion of freedom. And if in paid work with money to spend we define ourselves as free human actors in a drama in which we can all have the choice of a part, we by inference define all those without parts too as free. Those who are not able to consume are simply the weak-willed, unable to exploit their freedom! (13)

Here, Tomlinson refers to a real danger which is included in this illusion of freedom and equality and highlights the fact that consumer’s choice is highly socially constructed. Moreover, he points out that the poor and unemployed cannot afford to go shopping very often and are therefore brutally excluded from the sphere of this freedom. Since the shopping malls are not egalitarian, they restrain the people without financial means from a free choice of identity and thus impede them to be endowed with the identity they really desire.

On the other hand, Rob Shields, as opposed to Alan Tomlinson, maintains that the shopping malls are not places that would repress freedom or impede acceptance and development of particular identities. Following the ideas of de Certeau, he claims that the main problem with shopping malls and department stores is that they represent sites of resistance. Shoppers are clever and know very well how to please themselves even if they like things they are not within their budget. As Shields puts it, “even the most disadvantaged have demonstrated an ability to steal the opportunity for pleasure in the ‘clever art’ of appropriation” (“Spaces” 12). Shoppers can relish all the spaces of the shopping mall, stroll to and fro, look at all the goods displayed and enjoy the visual pleasure the goods offer. They can even touch the goods, try all of them on, ask the shop assistant about the quality and pretend they are thinking about their purchase. Some of the shoppers simply just look, some of them steal the images and then refashion their old clothes according to the new styles they observed while window shopping. Shields highlights that although the shoppers are aware of inequalities of exchange, they try to avoid them, consuming the symbolic values of the objects inside the shopping mall. As he claims, “they resort to browsing through stores as a leisure practice, shoplifting, the purchase of cheaper imitations and look-alikes, and by reclaiming the sites of consumption through a crowd practice which returns these (usually private) spaces to the public sphere of market square and street behaviour” (“The Individual” 100). And so, similarly as de Certeau or Fiske, Shields views shopping as a complex activity that consists of many different parts. Being unable to purchase some of the goods does not necessarily mean that the shopper is weak-willed and unable to exploit his freedom as Tomlinson puts it; and it definitely does not mean he is brutally excluded from the sphere of freedom. It only implies that his choice of identity is limited in the same way it is limited for an individual with high social status. But still, does not this inability of some shoppers to buy what they desire point to their subordination, emphasizing the domination of the market-dominated system? Do not these people lose power to choose freely their identity and lifestyle they like? If we consider the purchase to be only one of the many various forms of shopping, then the possibility to employ the other forms gives the shopper a good deal of empowerment. John Fiske considers the shopper’s moment of choice as a moment of empowerment. He claims that “if money is power in capitalism, then buying, particularly if the act is voluntary, is an empowering moment for those whom the economic system otherwise subordinates” (Reading 26). If the shopper has not enough money, he still buys cheap luxuries, enjoys seasonal sales or relishes the strolling around shop windows. All in all, it is the shopper who decides what will happen with the goods displayed, if it will be purchased or not. According to Fiske and Shields, the empowerment is on the part of the shopper, whatever his financial status is. Nevertheless, this viewpoint came under strong criticism from the site of McGuigan who points to Fiske’s rather uncritical and “consumptionist” view of culture, claiming that it “ignores the social, political and economic frame within which popular culture is produced and thus overestimates the degree of freedom enjoyed by the individual subject when making his/her own meanings within popular culture” (Turner 206).
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