Our Identity and the Call of the Mall
by: Jonathan Hart, LPC
It has been quite some time since I have had cause to wander around in a shopping mall for more than a few minutes. I usually have a focused plan of attack: one or two things I want to grab, in and out and done. Today, I have a couple of hours to kill. As I stroll the balconies I find myself fascinated and somewhat saddened.
I am fascinated by the allure of “the Next Greatest Thing”: whether it is the image created by what we wear or the latest advancements in gear and technology. I am saddened at the fact that, in order to get us to notice, desire, and above all else, *purchase* that Next Greatest Thing, the marketing machine must cause the adequate things we already have to seem inadequate. To quote Billy Joel, “Can’t you see that you’re out of touch?”
This is true of our possessions, of our clothing, of our very identities. We begin to believe the lie that we ourselves are inadequate, and we ask Stuff to make us better. We shape and define our identities by what we wear and by what we look like rather than by what we actually *are* to the point that we forget our original identity, or at least to the point that we believe that our original selves can never be what anyone wants to see. It’s exhausting to keep up an acceptable, presentable image.
Here at the Mall, I see purveyors of identity, cultivators of First World privilege, technological bathhouses. Here you can acquire all that is necessary to become hip-hop or hipster, outdoorsman or urban chic. Here you can locate a dozen technological solutions to all of the problems you never realized you had. Here is the lair of the next good thing that makes the thing you have look shabby and old. Here luxury and convenience become necessity.
Store after store along these sunlit and stylish halls. They thrive on the cult of appearance. Each vending hall itself bears the image it purveys. As I walk by, the walls abruptly shift from the clean modern lines of the trendy clothier to the blank whiteness of the computer clean-room, to the ragged edges and coarse textures of “Manliness”, to the frills and exposure of sexy, elegant, or beautiful. Glass, steel, wood, stone, plastic, each takes over from the previous, greedily and garishly staking their claim on my eye and attention.
Every ad, every image, every paneled line, from ceiling to floor, intended to convey a unique message of sameness and acceptability.
The open spaces and hard surfaces of the walkways and balconies reflect and muddle the noises of humanity into a background cacophony of recorded music, indistinct voices, shouts of children, and the splash of a waterfall. The liveness and persistence of the din conspire to drive me into a doorway, any doorway, passing through which the noise fades and my attention focuses.
The doorways magically defeat the polyphonic sea-sound “out there” and a different music takes over; a single, sculpted voice, indigenous to the visual style that meets my eye. I think to myself, “Was I looking for something? Maybe it’s in here.”
I absently wonder about the poor kiosketeers, whose stores do not have this benefit of restricted air space. My shoulders relax and I realize that was tense. That’s passed now. It’s nice in here. What was it that I was looking for again?
“Can I help you find something?”
“No thanks, I’m just looking.”
But in this place there is no such thing as “just” looking. This place evokes a potent hunger. There are a thousand and one “Things I Need” here.
Because this place, outside and in, is a temple of Want, the holy place of Dissatisfaction and Dearth, filled with the promise of plenty and blessing when you pass your plastic offering through the altar slot.
Here there are no average sizes. You are skinny or plus-sized. Short or tall. When did they expunge “medium” from the tag-writer’s lexicon? I am suddenly looking for the thing that fits me, but not only in size. I’m looking for my style, too. I realize that I didn’t know I had a style to be looking for, but I suddenly know that what I’m wearing is not quite up to snuff. I don’t have anything that looks like *that*, and that mannequin looks pretty sharp.
The stubbled stud in the photo ad behind looks even better.
It occurs to me that I am supposed to use the mannequin as a mirror. I’m to imagine my head where it has none and envision my body as the same in appearance as the plastic and canvas simulacrum before me. There is the unspoken promise that my face will look like the stud’s face when I wear this shirt, because damn he looks good.
I suddenly sense the inherent lie of the promise, that it is impossible to keep, and now I want to flee. Deep down I know that my face will never look like that. I know that the quest for that face would lead me to too many plastic surgeries, to the pity of the other mall-walkers when they see my overstretched, too-modified, ultimately mannequin features.
No, my altar is the altar of things. The awesome tech, the powerful devices, the clever items that no one else has (yet). The stuff that, if I pause for a moment, I know I will use three times before it loses the packaged charm that it now possesses.
But I am not in a mood to pause. The Stuff-Call is upon me.
My only choice is back out into the noise. I pass the magic barrier and the atmosphere of need is all around me again, pressing at my ears.
Now I AM looking for something. Something shiny and smart. That manly razor shop, for instance. I like the look and feel of the place, the “old school” razors and shaving gear. The smell of leather and soap. Maybe there. Yes.
Then I remember that for the last 10 years, I’ve worn a beard. Did I actually forget that? The Stuff-Call is strong here.
I do the counter-intuitive thing. I stop and sit. The benches were not made for comfort. THEY don’t want me to stay out here, looking into the windows of a single store, not for long, any way. (There are no seats facing a blank wall, after all. I looked.)
The pleasant looking but inadequately padded bench (I wonder if I could find one like this for my living room?) says, “Rest your feet for a bit, traveler, but this is not a destination. It is a way-station to help you on your journey to the temple of your choice-god.”
I defy the subliminal pressure of the Call. Instead, I record my thoughts on a very useful, very smart, very out-of-date device which I already have (but which is not yet paid for) and which will likely last me quite some time yet.
Perhaps I will share these thoughts with you someday. I will have to refine them and make them presentable first, though, because… Well, appearances matter, and they have to be presentable, after all.