Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Wesfield Ho!

So this is the class I had been dreading.  What madness  came over me?  The idea that simply because I was teaching a module about consumer culture, that a field trip to Westfield shopping centre would be a good idea?

Anyway, here we all are.  Or at least, here I am.  My students are merrily off gathering 'data' - although the odds are low that this is all they will gather - while I cower in a mainstream coffee shop.  So, since I am here, I thought I would record some of my own thoughts.

I don't know exactly what the architectural intention was when they built this place.  You arrive from across a bridge which spans the vast Stratford International train station.  The while thing is tastefully lit and leads you round a gentle curve and over a gentle hill which each entice you into a collection of glittering buildings that squat like some half-buried metropolis on the other side.  Certainly there is no hint from the approach of the sheer size and grandeur of the interior of the centre itself - which frankly rather makes it feel like the descent into to some Dante-like vision (and not one of the good ones).

The first thing that I noticed as I arrived were the huge illuminated and animated billboards, sporting a terrifyingly large image of David Beckham looking very dashing while departing from a (presumably private) jet.  'World class traveller' sported the logo, next to a watch which I can only imagine probably costs as much as the plane.  It actually strikes me as rather puzzling.  After all, the use of celebrities in marketing is now an accepted standard of all advertising.  Are there really, though, people out there who genuinely believe that wearing that watch would make them as 'world class' as David Beckham?  Are there people who genuinely believe that Morrison's must be a good supermarket because Alan Hanson and Martine McCutchens evidently shop there?

No - sure there are not many people who actually do believe these things.

But then again, to some extent there must be a vast number of us willing to 'buy into' the fantasy - because such marketing strategies have been successful over, and over again.  This is, I think, a key point about shopping centres.  They project an idea of a fantasy that nobody really believes in - but which most of us are willing to trade for our realities, if only for an afternoon.  In his chapter on 'Shopping in Utopia' Peter Childs referred to places like this as  "there to provide everything the consumer needs materially but also spiritually: the marketing of love, fate, happiness, sexual attraction, community and personality".  Ask any one of the countless consumers wondering around these hallowed halls, and I am sure the majority would argue that love cannot be bought and sold.  That community cannot be bought and sold. 

But here we all are.  We walk through the doors with the sign sporting the legend 'We ARE Christmas', boasting over 250 shops and an ice skating rink, and we think 'oooo!'

This doesn't mean we are all mugs.  Or that we are all daft.  But walking into Westfield it is hard not to be struck by the similarity of walking into a cinema: There is a definite sense that you are moving from one distinct space into another: From a reality, into what Foucault defined as a heterotopia, or meeting-point for the fragmented collected of different environments which are each disconnected from their source.  In a cinema, you move from a bright and outdoor space into am environment which is filled with a sense of conscious luxury.  You move from street lamps and daylight into a dark building lit with twinkling lights that lead you inexorably into an auditorium, in which you can allow yourself to be imaginatively projected into any world, any time, or any place the film-makers choose. 

For the brief time you are in a cinema, you allow the laws of your own reality to be suspended.  It is not that you forget them, or lose sight of them completely, but it is as though you have made a pact, or bargain with the environment when you entered this.  'I agree to try and ignore reality, and you agree to make me forget it'.   This pact lasts for as long as the film does, after which everything returns to normal.

Westfield seems to work the same way.  You enter from across the bridge, and as you do so you make a pact.  'I agree to ignore reality, and you agree to make me believe that I am merely one pair of sunglasses away from looking as good as David Beckham, or that I am one lip-gloss away from being irresistible to men'.  This pact lasts for as long as the consumer stays in the shopping centre.

Oddly enough, as I sit here in this unnamed coffee shop (writing quickly because my laptop is low on battery, and unlike most of these coffee shops there are no power-sockets which might encourage non-consumer-related activities), this idea seems somehow appropriate.  The design of this environment is one in which huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows surround me, many decorated with the wavy green tresses originated from the unnamed logo of this unnamed coffee shop.  The rather eerie impression of seeing shoppers drifting in and out of these green locks is one of seeing countless people becoming voluntarily entangled in a net of consumerism.


We all know that shopping centres are built to sell stuff.  We all know that these places are designed to make us want what we don't need, or can't afford.  Such, though, is the success of what Jameson so neatly described in his famous essay on 'The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', that if you charged people for the privilege of being so entangled, most of us would probably pay.  Shopping centres sell us fantasies.  These fantasies cost us a lot of money, but somehow the modern consumer has become so adept at living with contradictions that the costly fake fantasy is something many of us can buy into without question - but also without having to entirely surrender our rationality.

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