Rachel Bowlby's Carried Away is about the shopping phenomenon: the rise of the mall and how what we buy has become, at least for some, a way of stating who we are and an act of self-creation. Bowlby documents the transition of the shopper from gullible victim of a manipulative marketing sting to empowered consumer, putting the world to rights through the cash register.
Bowlby writes: 'The consumer has ceased to be seen as part of jellyishly susceptible mass, having become instead an individual endowed with rights of which, by implication, his or her previous incarnations had been deprived. She (or he) is no longer a fool, but the model of modern individuality, the one who, as patient or passenger or parent, demands and gets the deal to which, implicitly, she was always entitled but that she was never granted before.'
It is an important story and Bowlby does a decent job in telling it; the historical account is racy. But it is also sketchy. There is no discussion here of the shopping mall (surely the paradigm of the shopping experience) either as a function of suburbanisation, or as a new arena of public space and innovative venue for social interaction. It would have been worthwhile having more analysis on the implications of malls for existing urban centres, for example.
Carried Away also left me doubting the value of polarizing the debate on the identity of the shopper - suggesting they must be either victim or liberated citizen. The former view derives from a patronizing disdain for ordinary people getting more access to goods in the post-war boom and became known as the theory of consumer society or as consumerism. The contemporary form of this elitist argument still has at its heart a division of the world into the few who, having more than enough, consume exquisitely and the many who will consume anything they can get their hands on! The other side of the argument seems just as implausible. It is that the exercise of choice in matters of consumption constitutes a form of political strategy and even a staging post on the road to liberation: 'You are what you shop.'
Bowlby's book does give you something to get your teeth into but I got much more idea of how to digest it from a book which arrived in Britain only a few months later:
Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project (AJ 27.1.00). Benjamin's text is not about shopping but about modernity and a shaggy dog story if ever there was one. It is sometimes impenetrable but more often illuminating - in this case about shopping.
Whereas Bowlby goes back to 1883 to locate the department store in Zola's phrase as 'the cathedral of modern commerce', Benjamin is more telling in his association of the new form of shopping with the onset of modernity in the 1840s through his use of Balzac: 'The great poem of display chants stanzas of colour from the Church of the Madeleine to the Porte Saint - Denis.'
In The Arcades Project the shopper is neither victim nor master of his destiny but an adequate symbol of contemporary life. Benjamin quotes a 19th century Illustrated Guide to Paris in which the passage of an arcade is called '. . . a city, a world in miniature'. It is not the world in miniature because shopping and consumption are the marketing magician's sophisticated sleight of hand - our very own bread and circus - or because shopping makes us free but because we relate to our fellow human beings only through the act of exchange.
For Benjamin consumption is not a determining feature of life, it only appears so because so much is produced. As production for exchange rather than immediate consumption becomes the general rule, and we increasingly relate to each other only through the exchange of goods and services, we do indeed exist through the relations between these things.
The rise of the mall and the attempts to rejuvenate the high street, are symbolic of the elevation of the fetish of consumption.
Shopping is a cornucopia of purchasing opportunities; a fascinating story to which Bowlby does proper justice. But the real secret of shopping is that consumption is a gift to us from highly productive workers all over the world - from Beijing to Taiwan - and without them we would be bartering second-hand clothes. Consumption would be meaningless without the driver of production, and the malls would soon lose their pulling power.
Alan Hudson is a senior lecturer in education and social theory at Canterbury Christ Church University College