What if you could buy social justice? (Part 5: The Mall as Place of Worship)

(Due to the impending date of the Join the Impact “Light up the Night for Equality” on December 20th, which will take place in MALLS and commercial centers across the nation, I have inverted posts 4 and 5 – part 4, on Disney, will be up in a few days.)

The notion of “a place of worship” tends to be quite general, encompassing churches, temples, synagogues, outdoor gatherings, and yes, malls. There is, in fact, a place of worship called “Church at the Mall” at Westfield Mall in Annapolis, Maryland.

A “place of worship” can be any location where people gather to carry out the (religious) practices of worship, prayer, devotion, study, etc. Usually the term indicates that a certain congregation regularly gathers to perform such acts. In terms of raw numbers, it would seem malls have the biggest global congregation of all, beating out Christianity, Islam, and, yes, even Disneyism.

The Mall is one of the primary locations where devotees of the religion of consumerism practice their faith. To be honest, I really should say “my faith” here –I admit I am not immune to the lure of a good mall!

Anyhow, while mall shopping has been supplanted by internet shopping and other cultural trends since the 80’s, or the ‘era of the mall’ (view Valley Girl as a reminder of 80s mall days!), malls are still very iconic in the consumer world. Further, while traditional malls have been supplemented with virtual malls, outlet malls, and print malls (catalogues and the like), if you say the word “mall,” most people will conjure a similar image – big parking lot, long concrete edifice emblazoned with different store names, shiny floors, a food court, escalators, impossible to find restrooms…

That we have a shared cultural conception of what a mall looks like and what its functions are reveals a lot, namely that malls are an important part of our assimilation into a consumer capitalist worldview – they are places we as citizens are supposed to congregate to shop, eat, socialize, view movies, etc. Yet, unlike earlier marketplaces (the work of Bakhtin is key here but I do not have the energy to wade through my dissertation to find pertinent quotes just now), malls are not communal, or subversive, or ‘carnivalesque.’ Rather, malls promote uniformity, conformity, and, yes, as so many films indicate, a zombified populace. (Drawing on this trend in horror film, Buy Nothing Day encourages zombie mall invasions that aim to raise awareness about the ways in which consumerism turns us into zombies.)

Yet, as films such as What Would Jesus Buy reveal, consumers do not take kindly to being told they should stop shopping. To those of us born and bread in the land of consumption extraordinaire such a message is tantamount to telling us to stop breathing. We, the United Shoppers of America, do not want to stop shopping because consumption has become a huge part of our existence – or, as the saying emblazing mugs and bumper stickers claims, “I shop, therefore I am.” (Another favorite in this genre is the “Save the Planet. I need a place to shop.” – as seen on mugs and t-shirts.)

Malls, even though they are being supplanted by internet shopping and Wal-Mart super centers, are still an important American cultural symbol. In fact, when I lived in the UK, I can’t count how many times people asked me about malls and/or made fun of America’s obsession with shopping malls.

As David Guterson argues in his article “ENCLOSED. ENCYCLOPEDIC. ENDURED: THE MALL OF AMERICA,” :

“our architecture testifies to our view of ourselves and to the condition of our souls. Large buildings stand as markers in the lives of nations and in the stream of a people’s history.”

If, as Guterson argues, malls convey a great deal about culture and history, malls in the US would seem to reveal that we like concrete, crappy food, and marked down merchandise. They also reveal that consuming (be it food or products) is a cornerstone of existence – especially considering how many malls there are, how long they are open, and how much trouble people will endure to worship at them (such as circling for ages for prime parking spots). They reveal we do not like physical activity (our parking practices and escalator reliance prime indicators here), nor do we like to have our worship interrupted (as the quick food intake at food courts and the like reveal). As per what they say about how we view our children, well, what are those horrible mall strollers shaped like cars and animals if not large plastic prison cells? What are those plastic play structures and soft play corrals if not jailhouses for those not yet able to shop?

Malls also reveal our penchant for being “out of reality” while shopping. As Guterson writes:

“Getting lost, feeling lost, being lost-these states of mind are intentional features of the mall’s psychological terrain. There are, one notices, no clocks or windows, nothing to distract the shopper’s psyche from the alternate reality the mall conjures. Here we are free to wander endlessly and to furtively watch our fellow wanderers, thousands upon thousands of milling strangers who have come with the intent of losing themselves in the mall’s grand, stimulating design. For a few hours we share some common ground-a fantasy of infinite commodities and comforts- and then we drift apart forever. The mall exploits our acquisitive instincts without honoring our communal requirements, our eternal desire for discourse and intimacy, needs that until the twentieth century were traditionally met in our marketplaces but, that are not met at all in giant shopping malls.”

Malls, thus encourage, to borrow from Baudrillard, an existence based on simulacrums – simulations of the real, endless repetitions without substance. Moreover, malls serve as a primary place where the manufacture of consumer desire is perpetuated and solidified.

As Anthony Robinson argues in his article,  “Articles of Faith: Consumerism is a greedy society’s religion,” malls help to propagate the eternally deferred desire that  drives consumer capitalism. As he writes, “for consumerism, discontent is essential. One must be in a constant state of anxiety about keeping up, having the newest and the latest.” Malls trade in producing this angst, inundating shoppers with anxious-inducing messages that the sale is about to end, the newest product is nearly sold out, that if you don’t have these shoes, this dress, that video game, you are not valuable.

More problematic still, malls represent such desires as virtuous and normal. As Robinson puts it, “The sins to be repented are still with us: greed, envy, sloth, covetousness. Only they are no longer sins. They are the virtues of ‘the good consumer.'” Or, in other words, consumerism exalts in what many religions and moral codes would label as sinful/immoral/selfish.

While the mall has little to no “carnivalesque spirit,” it can, nevertheless, serve as site where the world and its norms are turned upside down, or at least critiqued. The Join the Impact candlelight vigil planned for December 20th is an example of such a possibility. While some may argue that a silent vigil at a mall is hardly carnivalesque subversion, I would counter that promoting SILENCE and NON-CONSUMPTION at a mall is pretty dissident. Malls tend to be noisy places buzzing with the hubbub of chattering shoppers; they also are dedicated to sealing the deal – to making those prattling as they roam the promenades stop by and PURCHASE. For, if the cash registers are not the altar of the mall at which the congregation is meant to worship, what is?

Thus, promoting non-consumption, reflective silence, and the raising of awareness about SOCIAL JUSTICE, the vigil planned for the 20th undercuts traditional mall worship, turning the mall, instead, into a social, carnivalesque space that is dedicated not to mindless consumption, but mindful subversion. Here’s hoping that many more such actions take place at malls across the nation and the globe so that the mall becomes not a site of consumerist worship, but a site of collective, carnivalesque interaction – or, what a marketplace, ala Bakhtin, should be.

(For those living in my neck of the woods, San Diego, go here for information about the vigil in Escondido and here for other planned vigils at various San Diego county locations.)


4 thoughts on “What if you could buy social justice? (Part 5: The Mall as Place of Worship)”

  1. You CAN buy social justice; withhold tax until equal.

    Gee, imagine if all of those pretty little candles represented a federal tax protester; then perhaps our government would begin to VALUE us AND our tax dollars instead of just noticing how pretty all the candles look. Visibility is nice (and important to an extent), but why-oh-why do you allow your government to legally abuse you psychologically, emotionally, and financially and then file your taxes every April 15th as if things are just dandy?

    The I.R.S. can go **** ITSELF until these two American Myths are made REAL:

    * Separation of Church & State
    * Equal Protection Under the Law

    [equality tax protest]

    1. Well, this wouldn’t really be “buying justice”… more like refusing to support injustice with one’s tax dollars.
      I also agree that we need a federal tax protest — and, as the saying goes, money talks.
      I suppose most still pay taxes regardless of whether they support the govt out of fear — I am sure “tax evasion” would get on labeled as an “enemy combatant.” I think also that many feel SOME of their tax money is well used — such as the itty bitty amount going towards education, etc.

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