Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What the Mall Does to the Marketplace of Ideas

According to Douglas Groothius in the very helpful Truth Decay,

“The public space of settled communities is replaced by the giant, impersonal strip mall, which serves as a surrogate for the older ideal of a marketplace of ideas. But no ideas are present, because truth repeatedly succumbs to “the evil genius of advertising,” in Baudrillard’s phrase. The mall simulates everything—with high-tech glamour and promotion—and represents nothing, outside of consumerism and commodity.” (55)

We can easily demonize various aspects of our commercial economy and miss their benefits. Strip malls, for example, may not look very nice, but they do provide us with a variety of services in one location. Where else, for example, can you do your laundry for cheap, get some takeout, and schedule a flight to the Bahamas? With this said, though, it is useful to consider what strip malls and malls in general represent in our culture. Raw, unfettered, uninhibited consumption. This does not mean that everyone who visits the mall falls into such a pattern of thought, but the mall environment does make it easy to do so.

I can see a point in my own life when I realized that I shopped for fun. I saw then and believe today that such a posture was not helpful economically or healthy spiritually. Beyond this, those who buy into consumer culture on a wholesale level often seem to trade in their mind in the transaction. That is, people who focus on things--on clothes and digital gadgets and hairstyles and cell phones--often seem to lose an interest in the life of the mind. Think about it--how many techsters do you know who genuinely enjoy reading philosophy? Not many, I'm guessing.

This is not to say that everyone who enjoys tech stuff necessarily becomes thoughtless. Some of my friends love gadgets and also love theology. But in the broader culture, where many people are separated from intellectual disciplines, materialism has taken the place of study and contemplation. To have a full life today in the eyes of many is not to read widely and think deeply but to possess fully. The person whose life is full is not the "renaissance man", but the expert consumer who has what everyone else wants. The people we look up to are increasingly not known for their mind or mental talents, but for their physical and social exploits. These cannot be good developments, especially when considering that Christianity is a decidedly mental faith.

We need to stand for truth, to be careful about technology and how it threatens to transform us, and to reverse the mass cultural exchange in which one trades in one's mind for material goods. We can be a counter-cultural witness by trading in material goods for the life of the mind, for study of what matters, for devotion not to goods but to God.

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