“The Mall as Prison” by David Guterson
“The Mall as Prison” by David Guterson
One typical shopper may enter a shopping mall with a predetermined idea of what he or she wishes to purchase. Another shopper may pass through the mall to browse the latest styles of clothing. Yet a third shopper may go to the mall simply to enjoy the atmosphere. Each shopper is on a journey of sorts to fulfill their desires, whether that means actually buying something or just looking around for potential future purchases. The mall tries to offer something of interest to every potential shopper. Guterson says that each shopper is like a pilgrim on some kind of mecca. However, what these shoppers may not realize is that by going to todays malls, they are actually missing out on opportunities to build a sense of community. After his experience at the Mall of America, journalist and novelist David Guterson realized that The mall exploits our acquisitive interests without honoring our communal requirements, our eternal desire for discourse and intimacy, needs that until the twentieth century were traditionally met in our marketplaces but that are not met at all in giant shopping malls, (Guterson p. 452).
In 1993, on assignment for Harpers magazine, David Guterson spent a week in the recently opened Mall of America near Minneapolis, MN. During his stay there he pondered the question: How is the Mall of America part of America? The first thing that Guterson notices is the vast, expansive nature of the mall. After having observed some of the shoppers, Guterson concluded that despite the malls expansiveness, it elicited claustrophobia, sensory deprivation, and an unnerving disorientation, (Guterson p. 452). According to Guterson, these feelings lead to a sense of isolation, away from any kind of community that encourages socialization. Guterson believes that the desire to fulfill these communal requirements is intrinsic to human nature and the shopping mall is only a hindrance to this goal.
Guterson describes the Mall of America as monolithic and imposing in the manner of a walled city and exuding the ambience of a monstrous hallucination to explain how easy it would be for one to get lost inside. It seems that this idea of getting lost in the shopping mall was a deliberate attempt by the mall owners to keep customers inside for as long as possible. Guterson notices that clocks and windows have been purposely omitted from the malls design so as not to distract the shoppers psyche. The very existence of the mall appears to be a grand scheme to entrap as many potential customers as possible, and to slowly loosen their grips on their wallets. After losing themselves to the alternate reality of the mall, shoppers have now been isolated from their community.
While Guterson acknowledges that it is completely normal for humans to be attracted to the buying and selling that takes place at any commercial center, he also says that it is important combine the shopping with socialization. This combination would be Gutersons ideal shopping experience. Guterson explains that in early human history, places of commerce such as the Persian bazaars and the Greek agoras were home to such experiences. They were places where humanity is temporarily in ascendance, a palette for the senses, (Guterson p. 453). Guterson also points out that these Persian bazaars and Greek agoras adhered to certain values that placed some restrictions on the shopping experiences of their customers.
One such example that Guterson provides is that religious people were often told to be time efficient with their shopping in order to prevent any pleasurable attachment to the act of shopping itself—people at the time believed shopping for pleasure could erode their purity of spirit, (Guterson p. 453). Guterson says that the Mall of America, for example, was never built with community needs in mind. With all its social amenities, it was intended to bring together people all kinds of people for the sole purpose of liberating them from their working life while deliberately discouraging socialization. This view is enhanced by the malls general managers words: I believe there is a shopper in all of us, (Guterson p. 453) featured in the promotional video, There is a Place for Fun In Your Life.
Guterson believes that the Mall of America is only a part of America as a fantasy world overseen by wealthy mall owners looking to inspire psychological addiction or to elicit in visitors a catatonic obsession with the malls various hallucinations, (Guterson p. 456). Guterson envisions a time in the near future when all places of commerce will be devoid of any type of community or socialization.
As described by Guterson, the Mall of America is simply a tourist attraction. The isolation caused by and lack of a sense of community in the mall serve to attract only those people who have forsaken such things in favor of pleasure. However, Guterson fails to acknowledge that some socialization does occur in shopping malls. Saying that no socialization occurs in the mall would be denying that many people go to the mall just as a way of getting together with their friends and family.
If this were not so, then many of these people would quickly get bored of the shopping experience. The need to socialize with other people is inherent to human nature. Though he does not directly say this, Guterson implies this point throughout his essay. Otherwise, why would he argue that todays marketplaces lack the means by which people can socialize? Though Gutersons essay succeeds in explaining the feeling of being lost in a shopping mall and how mall owners take advantage of this feeling, his seemingly contradictory ideas about the socialization and community in the mall hamper the overall effectiveness of his essay.
Guterson, David. The Mall as Prison. Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008. 450-457.