Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Trip to the Mall (Pop Culture Part 1)

I hate to shop. I always have. Whenever there is something I need, I will always try to get my wife to go and buy it for me. It’s not particularly that I like to stay home; in fact, I don’t mind going out, but I do mind going out if the purpose is shopping.

Of the shopping that I hate to do, there is one kind that I particularly detest, and that is going to the mall. For most of my life, I am proud to say, I have managed to avoid stepping foot in a mall. But the day before yesterday, it couldn’t be avoided. I needed a new pair of shoes and I had a coupon for a shop that is only located in the mall.

So Susanna and I piled into the car and drove to the local Mall. Immediately upon entering the complex I felt that my soul would suffocate. As my eyes were inflicted with advertisements on every side and my ears were assaulted with pounding music, I thought that this must be what a fish feels like when it is caught in the fisherman’s net. But although it felt like a prison closing in around me, everyone else was evidently enjoying their experience.

I had promised Susanna that I would buy her a treat. As we sat down on one of the benches and ate our chocolates, this gave me a chance to engage in some reflection. What is it that I don’t like about malls? As I thought about it, I realized that there is something about both malls and airports that tends to swallow up all intimations of transcendence. In the mall and the airport, you feel like that part of your soul which is sensitive to eternal and transcendent verities is being pinched, and the world becomes flat, two-dimensional and prosaic.

Why is this, I wondered? Is it that malls and airports are man-made? No, cathedrals and castles and monasteries are man-made, and yet they are not antithetic to the sense of transcendence: in fact, quite the opposite. Well then, I thought, what is it that cathedrals, castles and monasteries have that malls and airports do not have?

I soon as I asked the question, I realized the answer. Malls and airports are not beautiful. They are designed to be functional, not to be aesthetically pleasing. Whereas cathedrals, castles and monasteries are designed to be conduits of glory, malls and airports are designs to be conduits of money and people. Their purpose is purely utilitarian, functional and prosaic.

As I reflected further, I realized that it is not altogether true that the contemporary mall does not convey a sense of glory. Malls do glorify something, namely the consumer-orientation of contemporary pop culture. [1]

Footnote

But what do I mean by “pop culture”? By pop culture I mean the dynamic and continually replenished network of fashions, enthusiasms, symbols, prejudices, rituals and attitudes which have largely dominated the commercially-driven youth culture of the contemporary West for approximately the last 50 years, especially but not exclusively among the lower and middle classes, and is distinguishable (though not always divisible) from high culture and folk culture by being informed by a preference for what is novel, exciting, quickly accessible and entertaining.

It should go without saying that the culture I am referring to is far from monochrome and may contain many competing elements and sub-categories within it. It should also be evident that with I speak of “youth culture” I am not referring to something that is age-specific but to a project in which the idealization of youth remains a dominant feature.



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