Open Page

Lost at the mall

I got lost at a mall once when I was five years old. It was my first time visiting one, and I got disoriented by the sheer volume of products and signage everywhere. At 25, I still cannot help but feel an anticipatory dread as I walk through the giant glass doors, steeling myself for the flood of visual and material data. However, mall culture, or, to widen its context, consumer culture, arouses within me feelings that are far more complex than mere dread. There is a certain grim curiosity that cannot be understated. I wonder why exactly one would need such a vast variety of products made available for purchase. It cannot be for convenience’s sake, as there is no convenience in owning seven pairs of jeans, only confusion. Then it must be for the sake of status. The newest pair of jeans, as opposed to the most pairs of jeans. The most sophisticated phone. The fastest car. These constitute badges of a sort, signifying one’s wealth, and allegedly, success.

Were the ramifications of such pursuits merely relevant to us, their pointlessness may have been comical. However, our unending consumer needs have placed the natural world, from which we draw the resources needed to fuel industrialised production, in very real and immediate danger. The critics of such rapacious industrialism have been numerous, some highly incendiary in their denouncements of the production process. Quite possibly the most controversial among them has been Theodore John Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski is well known for the parcelled bombs he would mail to individuals he saw as upholding an industrial paradigm that thrived on the destruction of the natural world. Additionally, he also held sharp views regarding the human condition prevalent in modern times, which he believed to be trapped between the processes of production and consumption. His manifesto, titled Industrial society and its future, details these views and has served many as an entry point towards better understanding the fringe ideology of anarcho-primitivism.

While very few of Kaczynski’s readers would advocate his violent approach towards instigating change, such an obvious and unspoken agreement has not, however, allowed for wider academic dissemination and deconstruction of his work. This is unfortunate as Industrial society and its future forms an excellent lens through which to examine consumer culture.

Essentially, if we do not buy that pair of jeans, tasteful enough in its tearing to project upon our lives an aura of ruggedness, yet not quite torn or blemished enough to make us seem as paupers, we are mere human capital. However, when we purchase such articles of clothing, comfort and convenience, we access a higher plane of existence: we become interesting people. People of taste. Cultured people.

The anxiety we feel at the thought of not presenting ourselves in a manner that makes us appear as though we are eclectically unique, uniquely quirky and perhaps even just a little bit rebellious is a burden we place upon ourselves. The truth is, however, that we are not quite as rebellious or unique as we might imagine. This desire not to appear mundane has been placed within our minds by a consortium of advertisers and branding experts to keep us purchasing products, and through that, to keep profits flowing in. As Kaczynski points out, we have, in a sense, become both agents of production through our day jobs, as well as a reliable consumer base through our zealous worship of lifestyle brands. Meanwhile, the large corporations that many of us work for, or at least support with our financial patronage, continue to devastate the ecosystem by extracting resources at a rate that is exponentially beyond the planet’s ability to replenish. Furthermore, they support many governments as well, and it is this shared power base that enables the socio-political oppressions we see worldwide.

When discussing our role in all this, Kaczynski uses "oversocialization" to describe the manner in which we become so crippled by our shame at the thought of speaking or acting in ways that defy society’s expectations, we cannot help but live perfectly scripted lives. Indeed, many of us fall into the category of the oversocialised, forever hopping between being faithful employees and diligent consumers.

This cycle holds our attention and prevents us from engaging with the overarching systems that perpetuate human and environmental degradation. Presently, the latter of the two has manifested itself as the coronavirus outbreak, a global pandemic that has bound us all together through its utter indifference towards gender, race or class. In these challenging times, power structures, at least in India, have remained largely true to type: they have barely managed to meet the needs of the masses, while placing minority groups at risk through administrative mismanagement and, in some cases, wanton cruelty as well. On a global scale, China, the nation wherein the ongoing virus pandemic began, has seen weakened markets the world over, treating the present situation as an opportunity to invest heavily into foreign sectors.

It is times like these that reveal the predatory nature of the politico-industrial super-complex, so rapacious in its thirst for power that its individual components will enthusiastically cannibalise each other upon sensing weakness. We are also currently privy to what the end-point of unfettered industrialism may look like, which is hardly a technological utopia. Instead, it is far more likely that the current industrial paradigm will ultimately produce a barren and miasmic world, with cold, calculating power-keepers jockeying for the last patch of grass.

However, the state of affairs may not be quite as bleak as they seem, as at times like these, the global confluence of political bodies and industrial interests is also revealed to be inefficient at consolidating and exercising its power. The time, then, is ripe for change to be enacted. It will take a paradigm shift to ensure an event as catastrophic as the coronavirus does not occur again. However, as Kaczynski explains, the chokehold of the industrial paradigm will not magically slacken on its own. It must be helped along by revolutionaries who are driven by the immediacy of our times. What then, is a peaceful method of instigating change that avoids causing human harm? Perhaps it all begins with us seeing the mall for what it truly is: a grotesque monument to a decrepit neon god who holds no real boon for us, only lies and lustre meant to turn us thrall.

manu.writing@gmail.com

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 19, 2020 1:37:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/lost-at-the-mall/article32303678.ece

Next Story