Mise en Mall
Ever since the Mall of America opened its doors in 1992, the urban cognoscenti have been making excuses for indulging in the excess. We've all heard the cover stories: "My mother-in-law was visiting from Fargo" or "It's not my fault my niece loves mini golf" or "I just go to people-watch. I never actually buy anything." And we've always understood. After all, that you routinely slog out to Bloomington just to defy death on the luge or to sate your yearning for more loon wall art is not something one readily admits during intermission at the Guthrie.
Thanks to an academic treatise published in the March issue of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (a City Pages staff favorite), self-respecting highbrows from hither and yon can now shop till they drop without shame. After devoting himself to a full ten days of intense "semiotic reading and participant observation" inside the mother of all malls, Jon Goss, a professor of geography at the University of Hawaii, retreated, stunned and enlivened, to the ivory tower. There, with a nod toward the German cultural philosopher Walter Benjamin's analysis of nineteenth-century arcades, Goss penned his erudite, 28-page analysis, "Once-upon-a-Time in the Commodity World: An Unofficial Guide to Mall of America."
From the get-go, he recounts his pilgrimage to and though the City Unto Itself, likening the postmodern plaza to "a dreamhouse of the collectivity, where fantasies of authentic life are displaced onto commodities that are fetishized in the spatial, anthropological, and psychological senses." Why stop there? "The critic's task," Goss writes, "is not to rudely wake up the consumer to the reality outside of consumption, but to ourselves awaken to the potential of the dream inside of which we shop, and so to reveal the traces of ideals of collectively meaningful life that are so vulnerable to forgetting." Or something like that.
For the uninitiated, semiotics is the study of signs and signifying systems; semioticians like Goss cogitate on how it is that cultural meanings get constructed through language, images, gestures, objects--the mise en scène of, say, the Mall. So that the corn dog stand in the North Food Court is, besides a tasty tribute to the State Fair, a phallitician's dream. Nordstrom's sprawling shoe section, with its pungent leathers and ambient lighting, could be interpreted as a playground for fetishists. And that kid waving a gun up by the cineplex is...well, awfully dangerous. But we're supposing you already know as much--after all, hadn't we all ripped through Foucault, Lukacs, and Marcuse by the time the diapers came off?
Goss, who, uncannily enough, seems to speak for all of us, concludes that wandering the shopping complex's 520 overstocked stores, 22 themed restaurants, and assorted fast-food courts doesn't have to be a mind-numbing surrender to market forces. Rather, if studied through the lens of semiotics, doin' the Mall can be an intellectual exercise that "provides glimpses of imagined authenticity and keeps alive dreams of utopian possibility." Indeed. Here then, are a few selections we've culled from Once-upon-a-Time, and well wishes for shopping happily ever after.
Recycling bin, Level 3
"There are recycling bins throughout, so that the consumption of nature itself seems to contribute to its preservation. The trope of primitiveness echoes here in the form of natural relations with nature, or stewardship, and also travel, for ecoshopping, like ecotourism, is underpinned by a perverse dialectic of love and money."
Mall of America Gift Store, N128
"My Mall of America 'Shop till you drop' sweatshirt and Endangered Species 'Extinction is Forever' T-shirt are not souvenirs of Minnesota....They are testaments of my consumer faith--which is why the slogans so often seem to proselytize--and the means by which cultural history moves into private time and natural history into personal possession."
FAO Schwarz, W122
"Bears, particularly, seem to be everywhere--and this is not to exaggerate. They stand at doors welcoming visitors into stores and sit cutely on commodity displays. These objects bear powerful multiple meanings: they fit with the regional theme (most bears are manifestly black, or less appropriately, grizzly), they are signs of wild and fugitive nature, they are the archetypal cuddly toy of childhood, and their manufacture is a craft."
Gap Kids, S160
"The gendered nature of this expression is only too appropriate since The Mall celebrates mutterrecht [the "maternal principle"] in its embrace of nature, its nurture of the child, its erotic community, and its womb-like architecture. The design even includes something the architect remarkably refers to as a "mother line," a serpentine pathway that links the mall's rectangular footprint and lower floors with the third floor's circular form."
Hormel cart, Knott's Camp Snoopy
"The Mall, for example, systematically insinuates itself into the natural and cultural history of Minnesota, recreates an originary urbanness in the form of past and distant places, and evokes personal memory and collective mythology with the overall effect of evoking natural relations with self, other, and object-world in a mythical realm of immanence."
Rainforest Cafe, S102
"Crocodiles and sharks feature prominently in attractions such as Rainforest Cafe and UnderWater World (which promotes gift certificates using a remarkable image of a gift-wrapped shark), for they symbolize not only the danger and excitement associated with large predators, but the long-term survival of form, function, and meaning."
Victoria's Secret, N178
"If erotic potential is channeled into safe, heterosexist fun, the Mall, like the arcades, contains potential for the eruption of surplus libidinal energy."
Youth, Knott's Camp Snoopy
"A persistent cliché in the critique of consumerism is the intellectual immaturity of the masses, whether in childish surrender or childlike insubordination to the exhortations of the consciousness industries....The child, of course, is not yet modern, still inhabiting the time of myth, and with primitiveness, is the ideal "subject supposed to believe," the other whose capacity for enchantment opens up a space for the rational adult, through the mechanism of transference, to experience faith in the animation of the world."
Security guard, Level 1
"The technical and semiotic perfection of illusion makes The Mall vulnerable to contamination and destabilization by "real" traces of the Real..."
LEGO Imagination Center, S164
"Popular culture is obsessed with the dinosaur, and rightly so....Part of the fascination is undoubtedly the function of their fate as a hopeful allegory for human politics suggesting the inevitable decline of large-scale maladapted institutions. More important, however, they allegorize the fate of the commodity, for the dinosaur both naturalizes the obsolescence of form built into the social product and yet maintains a dream of resurrection through faith in mythical nature, the rationality of science, and the aesthetics of commodity."
Timbuktu Station, S178
"The existence of the gap is repressed entirely in the "imperialist nostalgia" of retail themes, such as Banana Republic and Timbuktu Station, which seem to deny entirely the presence of the other except as a cipher for a narcissistic desire. Exhibiting a culture of amnesia, they reduce colonialism to a fashion shown on tropical location...hunting big game and long lost power-objects from pre-Christian times. They also cleverly double alterity in the form of the past exotic, evoking a time of authentic travel that contrasts with contemporary tourism, such that the clothes and accessories sold are souvenirs of an authentic mode of the souvenir."
Zhivago Rugs, S210
"The use of foreign languages in retail themes, from Bellas Cosa to Zhivago Rugs, and including the tongue-in-cheek Maison du Popcorn, give pleasure of distinction to those who can pronounce them and know their meaning, while further satisfying an 'oral fixation' with alterity."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.