As you drift through the aisles at Bloomingdale’s, do you ever stop to think what you’re doing there? Brushing against strangers’ coats, lost in the hum of overheard conversations and the ambient mist of perfume, you browse, fondle, and purchase objects that may tell the world something about you.
From Walter Benjamin’s writings on 19th-century Parisian arcades through the cultural studies boom of the ’80s, academics have been smitten with the idea of shopping as a form of self-definition and as a deeply revealing social activity. A clutch of new books suggests that shopping studies is finally coalescing into a full-fledged academic discipline, jumbling together fashion, art, architectural, economic, and urban theory.
Many of the essays in Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture (edited by Christoph Grunenberg and Max Hollein; Hatje Cantz, 270 pp., $40)—an illustrated book that accompanies a major exhibition at the Tate Liverpool—linger in the sepia-toned 1800s. That’s when the first department stores sprang up in Paris, London, and New York. Warhol once said, “All department stores will become museums and all museums will become department stores,” but as Mark C. Taylor points out in his essay “Duty-Free Shopping,” the two were already entangled from the start. Nineteenth-century retailers saw themselves as entertainers and edifiers, mounting spectacular exhibits of exotic foreign goods and avant-garde art.
These spaces created a new mode of being: the flaneur and flaneuse, cruising for commodities, entranced by stimulating shop fronts and billboards as they drifted down the aisles and boulevards. Before the department store, products were kept behind the counter or made to order; customers had no choice but to interact with individual tradesmen. But now shoppers could sail anonymously through the seascape of merchandise, free to caress whatever caught their eye.
Rachel Bowlby’s “Défense d’afficher: Posters, Women and Modernity” hinges on Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” which celebrates the ephemeral delights of the flaneur who “makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory.” Baudelaire offers an early, optimistic take on shopping as a playful surface activity that leaves some deep inner space untouched.
Still, a fluttery ambivalence runs through most serious books on the subject. It’s not just nervousness (Why am I devoting my life to such a mindless subject?), but also confusion (Why do I feel so compelled yet repulsed by Banana Republic?) that mirrors the reader’s own. The sensuality of shopping, the idea that acquiring and disposing of possessions allows us to repeatedly re-create ourselves, rubs up against an aspect of commodity culture we’d rather ignore: that Western abundance is grounded in third-world scarcity. But unless you want to look like a Marxist scrooge, simply condemning consumerism isn’t an option anymore. So shopping theorists straddle the line, trying to deconstruct their cake and eat it too.
Celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas is the king of this sort of fence-sitting. He’s criticized the way consumerism has colonized the world, but also designed Prada’s new store in Soho; he disses museums for becoming malls, yet signed on to design the Guggenheim Las Vegas. Koolhaas constantly juggles these contradictions—a pragmatic approach to the fractured nature of capitalist existence. He once told an academic gathering, “Just as you cannot be critical of oxygen, you cannot be critical of shopping. . . . There is no stopping, but also there is no heart or identity.”
Published earlier this year, the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (edited by Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, and Rem Koolhaas; Taschen, 800 pp., $50) is a massive tome that emerged from a research project Koolhaas developed with his grad students. Though dauntingly hefty, the book encourages browsing. Flip through the eye-catching statistics (Wal-Mart’s sales are bigger than the gross domestic product of three-quarters of the world’s economies combined) or zoom in on the absorbing essays about innovations that made contemporary shopping possible. The advent of AC enabled architects to design spaces totally insulated from the outside, while bar codes allowed goods to be easily tracked across the country (now the globe) and sparked a revolution in retail anthropology. In his angsty prose-poem “Junk Space,” Koolhaas laments the implications of bar codes: “You are complicit in the tracing of the fingerprints each of your transactions leaves, they know everything about you, except who you are.”
The guide offers an apocalyptic vision of the modern age, with its hermetically sealed architectural monstrosities and all-engulfing commerce. Shopping has colonized public life, taking over communal spaces like airports (“the highest yielding sales per square foot of any shopping type”), museums, and even churches. That panicky sense of being swamped by consumerism isn’t new, though. Rachel Bowlby argues that the sentiment was already circulating 100 years ago. A French cartoon from 1890 reprinted in Shopping shows a bather, with the sign “Défense d’afficher” (“Post no bills”) stuck to her back. She explains, “You do have to take precautions, these days advertising is taking over every surface.” Paging Naomi Klein!
The most facile book of the bunch, Thomas Hine’s I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers (HarperCollins, 222 pp., $24.95) also takes the most enthusiastic stance. Like an old-school cult stud poring over Harlequin romances for signs of resistance, Hine twitters on about the thrills of consumption like a toddler who’s just discovered Santa Claus. “Shopping is an affirmation that there is a future, and that it will be better than today.” By that logic, setting your VCR for next week hastens the revolution, right? His favorite catchphrase is “buyosphere,” meaning the marketplace and media, “our chief arena for expression, the place where we learn most about who we are.” In this mind-set, Amazon’s recommendations become more than fiendishly clever niche marketing—they become revelatory.
I Want That! might soothe your guilt about Christmas splurges. But who needs a book for that? With President Bush urging us to spend money to bolster the economy, shopping now equals patriotic duty rather than a giant leech that saps the culture’s energy—energy that might, dare I say, be put to more creative use.
Gliding toward the checkout line, I think about what it means to be a thinking shopper, about how to combine the bliss of the flaneur with a greater sense of the cultural forces that define us. Neither Shopping nor Koolhaas’s Guide hits the spot exactly, but both hint at what shopping studies could be: a complex, subtle field that follows the tentacles of consumerism as they reach ever deeper into our lives, influencing political policy and altering the way we see the world.