Malls are much worse when you see why they make sense. Typically, I waited far too long to do most of my Christmas shopping. I had hoped to take a good half day ambling about Manhattan looking for cool, interesting gifts for the various people on the list, then realized I had to be somewhere for lunch, and was struck with a vaguely House-of-Usheresque sense of dread as I contemplated the alternative: the Palisades Center Mall. At some point while I was off at NYU, the country’s second largest mall was built a fifteen minute drive from my house. I think it’s still in the top five or so. It is a grotesque and magnificent leviathan, a look-on-my-works-ye-mighty-and-despair style tribute to 21st century consumer capitalism. I have seen the future, and to my horror, it works.
And it did work. I didn’t find things as interesting or quirky, or have nearly as nice a time, as I would have wandering lower Manhattan. But I got everything done in a pair of hours navigating the corridors with my fellow lumpen New Jerseyites, rather than half a day, and did find gifts that I think were enjoyed by their recipients well enough. And that’s the market for you: giving the people what they want. Normally that sort of reflection makes me do the Dance of Capitalist Superiority a-la Buffy’s Anya. It clearly has that effect on some: an eager Randian sent a manuscript to Laissez Faire Books back when I worked there for a novel in which Objectivist Ã¼bermenschen preside over a mall civilization cum Athenian renaissance. Seriously.
If I’m not quite willing to see Palisades Center as the Parthenon, I should in principle be all in favor of these towering consumer palaces. So why is my personal vision of what hell would be like, the sci-fi dytopian scenario I’m saving for my own Nineteen Eighty-Four (should I ever decide to write one), a global mall, a huge complex of condos merged to highways merged to shops? Why can’t I learn to stop worrying and love the mall? Not primarily because of the consumption-inducing psychological tricks malls employ, sleazy though some of those seem. If anything it’s the reverse, the fact that we don’t need to be “tricked.”
The anticapitalists, bless them, think that absent the nefarious influence of Madison Avenue, we’d want to spend our time reading Rousseau, doing Yoga, and getting in touch with our inner selves. We rabid free-marketeers are denied such a comforting (or distressing, depending on your opinion of Rousseau) thought. If malls flourish and grow ever more monstrous, we believe, it’s because they reflect — at least as a funhouse mirror reflects — our own desires and preferences. The Hot Topic with its prepackaged goth rebellion, the Urban Outfitters with overpriced thrift-shop fare for the lazy hipster, the Best Buy with crowded aisles of shiny gadgets and top-40 CDs, the Abercrombie & Fitch stocked with preppie uniforms for uniform preppies, the Discovery Channel store peddling toys and gee-whiz trinkets wrapped in a veneer of “science,” and the little specialty shops with insufferably cute names… all these we have chosen.
I imagine that some of the appeal of hating markets ties in to precisely this fact: if some nebulous reified “market” is at fault, we get to think better of our fellow human beings. Or, less self-flatteringly, we get to imagine that their tastes more nearly mirror our own — or would, if not for “false consciousness.” Like most ugly truths, though, the truth about malls is worth facing. Markets coordinate dispersed and tacitly held information and preferences via price signals. Malls concentrate that information and put it up in gaudy neon on a 50″ Trinitron screen. You want to strap a pulse cuff to the American zeitgeist? Then put down the Baudrillard, ignore the jabbering pundit-bobbleheads on the cable news orgies, and head to your local mall. There, beneath the sale banners, is our own World’s Fair, a generation’s vision of the future made solid. Force yourself to stare at it, as you might a photograph of a cirrhotic liver. There is no sound treatment without precise diagnosis.
When I returned home from my excursion to the Shopolopolis, I did a quick web search to see what I could learn about it. I discovered, with no small measure of amusement, that the mall is slowly sinking. If I were religiously inclined, I’d know just how to interpret that. The Palisades Center is going home.