Sunday, December 5, 2010

Shopping, Materialism, Ho Ho Ho!

From some Italian site, natch
I like to go to malls even when I'm not actually shopping.  Yes, you read that right.  I like to go to malls even when I'm not actually shopping.

Well, maybe not to suburban malls.  But I live in Toronto where the main mall is the Eaton Centre, a totally awesome urban mall, and I definitely like to go to the Eaton Centre even when I'm not actually shopping.  I go to the Eaton Centre on my way to the gym (a gym which is actually located inside the mall, how great is that?); I go to the Eaton Centre to get coffee at the bookstore and do a little work; I go to the Eaton Centre to check out what's going on at the Apple Store.  Occasionally I sit and have a glass of wine at one of the Eaton Centre bars or restaurants.

So, as you can see, when I say I like to go to the Eaton Centre even when I'm not actually shopping, I am putting my money where my mouth is.

What I like about going to the Eaton Centre is that it's crowded full of all different kinds of people, all basically having a good time.  You got your overexcited teens; you got your weary grandparents.  You got your Nice Responsible Young Persons.  You got children of all ages.  You got Barbie lookalikes with their BCBG bags; you got homeless people hanging around the food court.  Rich and poor, hip and square:  everyone is at the mall.

People get down on malls.  There are some reasons for getting down on malls, but I don't think they're the usual suspects.  A lot of what you see at the Eaton Centre is families, speaking all the languages of the world, buying cookware, clothes for the kids, computers and toys.  Sure, I guess that's materialistic in the basic sense of the word, but it's also buying stuff that just enables you to have a nice life.

To me, what's nice about the mall is the powerful reminders of the basic sameness of humanity.  The man in an expensive suit, the woman in a headscarf, the kid with the newest Nikes, and me, we're all there to buy the same stuff.  This feeling probably reaches its apex at the Apple Store, where were literally there to buy the very same exact thing -- but it's in the mall in a general way too-- we're certainly there for the same activities.  I love that.

Now I know some people find it dispiriting to think that the thing that brings us together is shopping, but as I partly tried to explain here, I don't, really.  I mean, nice stuff is nice; what's not to like?  Sure, it's bad when we get into disposable crap and planned obsolescence.  But you don't have to shop for crap to shop for fun. 

What's easy to forget about materialism and consumer culture is that, as so often, just because something is bad doesn't mean the alternatives aren't worse.  I don't know if you know that amazing book by Haruki Murakami about the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks in Japan?  Basically Murakami talks to the people who experience the attack -- it happens in the subway -- and then talks to people in the Aum Shinrikyo movement.  The people in the first half of the book, reflecting on the question of how this could happen, were often inclined to cite the breakdown of morals and the new materialism.  But weirdly, the movement itself is deeply anti-materialistic:  the whole point is to live in an ascetic way.  It wasn't materialism that led to this horrible thing; it was anti-materialism.

It's not hard to see how this would happen.  For better or for worse, if you're into buying stuff, you have extra incentive to play by the rules.  If you're not, and you don't care ... well, you don't care.  Sure, this cuts both ways, and if you're trying to plan the next revolution, shopping is probably getting in your way.  I'm just saying in terms of ordinary, everyday, peace in living together, a love of shopping can be our friend.

Getting back to malls, one thing about malls I am uneasy about is the whole private-space-public-space problem.  A mall is, of course, owned, and mall owners make all kinds of terrible rules about who can hang out there and when.  This does make the mall, for me, a somewhat guilty pleasure.  But hey, as a non-driver, I'm putting in a fair amount of public-space-time as it is.  Nobody should have to put up with staring, elbowing, harassing, and spitting all day.  Speaking of which, what is up with the new habit of public spitting? Completely disgusting.

So if you're out shopping, and you're feeling worn down, just remember, if you want to know when the lion and the lamb will lay down with one another, it's happening now, at the mall.  They're both trying to get a closer look at the iPad before going off to grab some fried foods at the food court.

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