imomus (imomus) wrote,

The book makes its readers, the shopping centre its schleppers

A week or so ago, heading for the Thai supermarket on Alexanderplatz where we buy tea, coriander and shrimps, I took a detour with Hisae into the new Alexa shopping centre just over the road. A massive curving red corridor that follows the S-bahn tracks towards Jannowitzbrucke, Alexa did that very Berlin thing of seeming to spring up overnight on a vast yet central plot of empty ground, giving some vacant space a definition. In the case of Alexa, that definition is a rather ugly pomo take on art deco, with a bit of Hollywood Babylon going on.

I won't say I didn't like my visit to Alexa; rather that I didn't like how I liked it. The vast Media Markt contains an Apple Store where I got very absorbed in testing Leopard (wow, flipping through my files with CoverFlow! I didn't need this, but I like it!). Down in the mall, a living statue handed me a real orchid which contained gift vouchers inside its petals. We sniffed at the food in the Food Court and rode the escalators to the top floor to look at the Model Railway World and the Children's Playzone. Then we rode back down on 1920s-styled elevators.

I felt a familiar strangeness in Alexa. It was the same feeling I get in Disneyland. It's a feeling of being drugged, becoming stupid. There was something in the air -- I felt like I was breathing differently in there, the air wasn't clear and fresh but warm and drowsy, and a lack of oxygen was closing down parts of myself. To resist this retail befuddlement, to retaliate, I began criticizing the place to Hisae. We enacted, in the course of our conversation, the same conflict which made headlines when Alexa first opened, and bargain-hunters smashed glass to get into Media Markt while protestors catcalled them and waved anti-capitalist placards. Hisae and I had the same conflict going on in ourselves. For me it was all the stranger because, exactly 20 years ago, I made my first visit to Alexanderplatz, then the centre of a communist country. Some of the buildings are the same, but it might as well be a different planet. I remember going into a shoe shop (they asked me to take a basket at the door), then, later, being impressed to see people queuing outside a bookshop in the rain, waiting to get the newly-published books.

What I felt in Alexa was that the mall was producing me quite successfully, but in a way I didn't want to be produced; as someone stupid, someone easy to understand. I thought again of the way places can produce the people in them when I read a striking phrase of Etienne Balibar's in an essay by Zizek last week: "Man is made by citizenship and not citizenship by man".

The idea, at its most basic, is one that displaces Romantic and Humanist notions of human agency. We are produced by our context, not by our individual will. The play makes the audience, the book creates the reader, the pet produces its owner's behaviour patterns, the baby produces the mother, the shopping centre creates the shopper. That's really the impression I got at Alexa. Here we are in this city where nobody has any money, everyone is unemployed. And yet you make a new shopping centre -- despite that! -- and it's full of people, as if you'd just plonked one down in Sim City and little schlepping shopbots had populated it. As if the shopping centre itself had created them. Created us.

Let's call this process -- for want of a better term -- Production Theory. Production Theory doesn't just reverse Romantic notions of individual will. It also stands as the antithesis to Reception Theory, the idea that a work of literature is created by its readers' creativity, criticism, community. Not at all, says Production Theory. An author doesn't just write a book, he writes its ideal audience too. That's why, when I read a John Grisham novel (and I did once, when I was writing reviews for the Glasgow Herald), I feel much more that Grisham is writing me than that I'm writing Grisham. It's not so much that I don't like the novels Grisham writes; it's the ME he writes that I don't like, just as it was the ME invoked by Alexa that I didn't like. It's Alexa and Grisham's efficiency in producing nominally happy MEs that is the real threat. Their knowledge of what "I" want, and their skill in giving "me" it.

Grisham and Alexa are temporary, passing threats: I can soon head back to my Thai grocery, my avant cinema. But what if I lived in a small town with only Grisham in its library, only Hollywood blockbusters in the video store? I suppose I'd move, as soon as I could, to a place with more "me choices". Assuming, that is, that there's some shred of a "real me", enough to say "What this town provides isn't enough, somehow".

One of the main pleasures of going to the kind of experimental, hip events a city like Berlin supplies in abundance is that, while I'm there, I really like the "me" I become. The event produces not just a spectacle that I can enjoy, but also a certain implementation of "me": a radical, liberal, sexy me! A Berlin me! This explains why a lot of avant events are, in themselves, pleasureless, and yet also deeply satisfying. Sure, all we got was some contact mics attached to a ping pong ball, and some painful feedback. But what satisfies is the self-image I get from the event. The feeling that I'm in the right place, being the right person. Not necessarily a person I was ever meant to be, but one I somehow became. One in a million, and so free!

Notice how the Romantic ideology creeps back into the narrative-of-self here, though. Through force of will, I overcame difficulties, I travelled the world, I exchanged a mainstream idiocy for a marginal intelligence! Mein fucking hipster Kampf! And yet doesn't the margin produce me too, with its rituals, its drugs, its habits, its non-conformist conformities? I'm still schlepping, produced by the hipster mill rather than the shopping mall. The best I can do is experience as many different "producers" as possible, and change contexts often. Or perhaps stay rooted in one place forever, the place I was born, say. In my case, that would be Paisley. It has several shopping centres but, as yet, no pecha kucha event.
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