The Consumer's Regress

There’s a website called “Black Friday Death Count,” which is exactly what it calls itself. Since 2006, there has been almost one death per year on average in the frenzied rush to acquire discounted electronics and toys. The images of crowds, masses of indistinguishable faces pressing themselves against locked glass double-doors, has become in our imaginations a kind of synecdoche for the wildest excesses of consumerism. But really, it is an outlier. The most efficient forms of consumption do not ask you to raise your blood pressure or plan your attack. In fact, it helps if you almost forget what you are doing. Being a real Black Friday warrior requires planning ahead. Scope sales, arrive early, and at the very least orient yourself well-enough to plan a straight shot sprint towards the items you want. You have to know where you are and where you are going. But the inner nature of the most efficient consumerism works against this frenzy. It helps, in fact, if you are a little lost. 

And it is easy to become lost in a shopping mall. Or more specifically, to lose yourself there. You can always consult the multi-colored map kiosk with its abstract shapes and exhaustive list of names if you are looking for a specific store. But I mean that it is not difficult to start to purposelessly wander. Your sense of being situated in specific time and space deteriorates under the harsh glare of the overhead lights reflecting off of the minimalist columns and almost wet-looking white tile floor. They are consumer-friendly Klieg lights, drawing out your grazing instinct and devouring your shadow.

Floating from one store to another, you will eventually pass through the central atrium (every American mall has one), where, standing among plastic potted ferns and glass elevator shafts, you will look up and see a vast opaque skylight. The only suggestion of an outside world. And even then, you cannot quite tell what it is like out there. It could be any time of day. Any weather. You have been disembodied, as it were. Temporarily removed from the vagaries of the corporeal world and transformed into pure consumer. Of course, you drift off to another store before these notions fully suggest themselves to you.

It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that this experience is by design. It even has an appellation, the Gruen Effect, named after the Austrian immigrant Victor Gruen who fled the Nazis in 1938 to settle in America, where he developed the first suburban shopping malls. He was, as one book title attests, the “Architect of an American Dream.” As M. Jeffery Hardwick writes in Mall Maker, “Dubbed the Gruen Transfer or Gruen Effect, the theory holds that shoppers will be so bedazzled by a store’s surroundings that they will be drawn—unconsciously, continuously—to shop.” A video made by Business Insider defines it as “the moment a consumer is no longer shopping for a specific purpose, but instead shopping as an activity.” The Gruen Effect is meant to draw out compulsion, inducing a consumerist fugue state. In the introduction to his book, Hardwick quotes from a 1997 conference in Minneapolis, near the site of Gruen’s first indoor suburban mall, where a journalist breathlessly summarizes the effect as “the removal of those impediments to the consumer impulse,” where it seems as if “the guards won’t let you stop, even for a moment, the process of having fun.”

There are many “impediments to the consumer impulse” to be removed, of course. The mall itself has to be comfortable, heated or air-conditioned and giving the impression of near sterility. And it helps if there’s a sense of abundance. Scarcity forces one to consider material necessity. But most importantly, the mall needs to be sealed off from the rest of the world. There should not be any worries about the weather outside or politics or the environment. No profound moral or spiritual quandaries to hang you up. Even the fulfillment of your most basic physical needs become flattened into only superficially distinguishable consumer choices: Panda Express stir fry. Pacific Sun board shorts. Bath and Body Works scented candles. A sex toy from Spencer’s.

But most importantly, the factor which defines the Gruen Effect as much or even more than the cultivation of compulsion, is the eradication of moment to moment time and the establishment of a sort of synthetic sense of eternity. The creation of a comfortable stasis or an illusion of escape from the vagaries of the embodied world. Which is to say, the world itself. This is the secret heart of the shopping mall’s utopian aspirations: to become an ersatz eternity. To mimic, in vulgar ambulations, the contours of a timelessness reserved in reality only for heaven.

Of course, the mall’s simulacrum of heaven is a shoddy imagining. David Bryne sang that “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens,” but that of course is only meant to imply that heaven is static, boring. Even such a respectable critic of the Church as Terry Eagleton knows enough to avoid categorizing heaven as a second, more boring life. He writes that,

The Christian idea of heaven involves not immortality in the sense of life without end, but the transcendence of time itself. This is why it is not a question of an “afterlife,” in the sense of an infinite stretch of time in the wake of one’s death. Besides, “afterlife” or “survival” also suggests a placid continuity with the present, which for Christianity is not the best way of trying to grasp the cataclysmic event of the transformation of the flesh.

“Transformation of the flesh” is key here to understanding where these more banal notions of a heavenly eternity go wrong. Christianity recognizes the person as an embodied self, not a mind that happens to be temporarily imprisoned in flesh. Or, in the case of the shopping mall, an inchoate consumption drive meant to be stage-managed by marketers. As Josef Pieper wrote in Death and Immortality, “It was finally expressed by Aristotle . . . that it is not the soul which is the ‘real man,’ but the existential configuration, the unity of soul and body.” A notion which Aquinas interpreted as the soul not possessing “the perfection of its own nature except in union with the body.” The Gruen Effect is a movement away from the recognition of the embodied self, a physical thing that not only moves chronologically through time but recovers a sense of actual eternity only through the mediation of memory and duration.

In The Scent of Time, Byung-Chul Han writes that “Truth is itself a temporal phenomenon.” The ultimate truth of our own death unspools along the contour of temporality. In fragmented moments we’re allowed a glimpse of our own denouement and, one hopes, potential salvation. Han again writes:

Empty duration is a non-articulated, directionless time without any meaningful before or after, remembrance or expectation. In the face of time’s infinity, a short human life is nothing. Death is an external power which ends life at non-time. Death would cease to be a power were it a conclusion that follows from life and as the result of a lifetime. Only such a conclusion would make it possible to live one’s life to the end on its own terms and, and to die at the right time. Only temporal forms of conclusion create duration—meaningful and fulfilled time—against a bad infinity.

What else is the Gruen Effect but the creation of a “bad infinity?” Even more than blocking out the external elements, the duration-less experience is meant to block out the truth of death through the simulation of eternity. As the shopping mall experiences its own physical death in America, the “bad infinity” of the Gruen Effect has become digitized. It is, of course, the experience of being online, or what anachronistically was once called “surfing the web.” There is as much or more Utopian hope in the promise of becoming an uploaded consciousness as there ever was in being a pure consumer denuded of the vagaries of the physical world.

Think here of “San Junipero,” the lone episode of the show Black Mirror to unironically interpret the use of high technology to “positive” ends: the consciousnesses of two lovers are uploaded to a simulation of a city which perpetually exists in 1987 and, it is insinuated, live happily ever after. The song “Heaven is a Place on Earth” plays—on the nose, but appropriate. But what anemic imagination would conceive of eternity as simply one night in 1987 forever? Or, at least for as long as the servers which create the illusion are functional? Han again writes that “there is a rush from one present to the next and an aging without growing old. Finally, one perishes in non-time.” In “San Junipero” there is no hope for salvation and no death to give life coherence. It is just a flat non-life within the duration-less loop of a counterfeit eternity. Empty time which cannot be remembered or redeemed.

When thinking of the redemption of time, it is always good to turn to Eliot. He writes that “only through time time is conquered,” in the “Burnt Norton” section of Four Quartets, expressing the truth that duration, the segmentation of experience itself, is created on the chopping block of eternity. As Corey Latta explains Eliot’s theological gist in When the Eternal Can be Met: The Bergsonian Theology of Time in the Works of C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden:

The theological . . . [concept] which the Four Quartets uses to give time its ultimate meaning: the Incarnation, the act of God’s entering temporal time by taking on humanity. It is not space or abstract consciousness into which Eliot writes the Incarnation. The conduit for the Incarnate is time. The Incarnation defines the theological meaning of time in the Four Quartets by giving time its identity as the theological instrument of divine revelation.

Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton”:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

What might have been is an abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

The lines “all time eternally present” and “What might have been is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation,” give us a poetically-condensed description of the Gruen Effect and, perhaps, a startlingly vivid depiction of what the attention economy does to the experience of time. The visceral heft of life incarnate is necessary for a sense of how time itself might be redeemed, or how events “Point to one end.” Our fractured experience is a felix culpa. And memories, sweet pangs of ephemerality, are themselves suggestions of redemption.

Embodiment is necessary for the eternal to pierce. But memories, too, can be incarnate in their own way. This is anamnesis as opposed to impression. Not the intentional recall of a past event, but through the physical reenactment of the past. An embodied experience of an embodied past. The most recognizable instance of this in literature would have to be when Proust has Marcel involuntarily re-experience the past as he tastes a Madeline. As Gabriel Josipovici explains it in The World and the Book:

Ordinary memory is the memory of habit, of the intellect, which smooths out the specific in favour of a generalized view of the past. It is always those senses which are the furthest removed from the intellect (smell, taste, touch) which reawaken our past selves. Thus it is only when Marcel tastes the madeleine, not when he sees it, that the whole of Combray floods into his mind and senses, Combray not as he had consciously remembered it, but Combray as it felt when he lived in it. And he explains this by saying that he had probably seen plenty of madeleines between that time and this, so that they too had taken on the familiar generalised look of habit. Taste and smell, however, because they cannot be conceptualised, remain uncorrupted.

Memory is not only an idea. It is a physical reenactment which, more than simply conjuring the past, allows us to experience ourselves in the grip of the fundament from which all experience of time is made possible. Marcel’s madeleine suggests the primary act of anamnesis: the Eucharist. “Do this in memory of me.” It is worth quoting Josipovici here again, in length:

And in the eucharistic sacrament [Christ] gives the Church the means to re-enact [his own redemptive] action forever. As Dom Gregory Dix has pointed out . . . the meaning of anamnesis here is a recalling or re-presenting a thing in such a way that it is regarded not so much as being absent as being itself presently operative in its effects. This is a meaning which the Latin memoria and the English “recall” and “represent” do not bear. The early writers on the subject, moreover, concentrate on the eucharist as a single action, rather than upon the matter of the sacrament itself, as modem Westerners tend to do. The idea of “becoming what you are” is the key to the whole eschatological teaching of the New Testament, and it is carried out in the liturgical action. As Dix says, the pre-Nicene Church conceived of the eucharistic action as one by Christ himself, “perpetually offering through and in His Body the Church his flesh for the life of the world.” It is “the perpetuation in time by way of anamnesis of His eternally accepted and redeeming act.”

Lost in the mall, binging the web, dancing on a digital dance floor, gesticulating among the un-dead in San Junipero . . . each of these experiences, empty simulacra of eternity, acts as a kind of anamnesis in reverse, voluntary amnesia in the food court, a counterfeit heaven on an overheated server.

Featured Image: Screen Capture from Black Mirror episode "San Junipero"; Source: Netflix, Fair Use.


Scott Beauchamp

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, American Affairs, and Bookforum, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.

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