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Shopping for the Sublime

But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?
                             —Hydriotaphia Urne-Buriall, Sir Thomas Browne1

When Bruce Springsteen—that avatar of a blue-collar America fighting for its life against the riptide of history—asked on his 1981 single “The River” whether a dream is a lie if it doesn’t come true or if it’s something worse, the question was rhetorical. This is America, after all. Dreams and lies are similar things, each with a force derived from desire, and both displaying the familiar ambulations of fantasy. It’s our desire which makes Utopia utopian, by loading it up with so many impossible goals. True American horror is thus the realization that our fantasies are subject to entropy. They evolve, decay, and disappear, making way for tomorrow’s new series of dreams.

The American landscape is composed both literally and imaginatively of our putrefied utopias, and the remains of lost fantasies mark the American psychological landscape. The religious revival. The cowboy. The boomtown. The dead starlet. These were events and objects once invested with so much meaning that they’ve taken on elaborate afterlives in our cultural memory, becoming tropes or archetypes.

The mall is just such an archetype. The shopping mall as we’ve come to know it—a fully enclosed, climate-controlled, suburban consumer shopping center with on-site parking—spent decades accruing cultural heft as a centerpiece of modern American life. The popularity of the mall with average Americans was expressed in our art. Movies such as Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Mallrats (1995) projected our intense but ambiguous feelings about the centrality of the mall back at us. And now that the American shopping mall has reached its epilogue, its ability to haunt the American mind is even stronger. The New Yorker recently featured in its “Rabbit Holes” section a YouTube channel which sets music to the image of empty malls. They claimed that the project conjured “fundamental emotions”—“longing and consolation together, extended into emptiness, a shot of warmth coming out of a void,” a feeling of being “solitary and cared for at the same time.”2 It seems apparent that what the mall symbolizes has grown both stronger and more infectious now that it can be experienced as a disembodied state of almost painful nostalgia, unanchored in corporeality. The mall has become a feeling.

These abandoned utopias also inhabit the landscape literally. The American West is dotted with ghost towns like Rhyolite in Nevada, which sprang up almost overnight in 1904 after gold was discovered in nearby hills. By 1916 the surrounding area’s mineral deposits were exhausted and the town was abandoned. Rhyolite’s brief existence is emblematic of the boom, bust, and abandonment cycle, always soon followed by aesthetic veneration. According to the National Park Service, in 1904 Rhyolite “immediately boomed with buildings springing up everywhere. One building was 3 stories tall and cost $90,000 to build. A stock exchange and Board of Trade were formed. The red-light district drew women from as far away as San Francisco. There were hotels, stores, a school for 250 children, an ice plant, two electric plants, foundries and machine shops and even a miner’s union hospital.”3 It took roughly a decade for the town to be abandoned completely. In the early decades of Hollywood, Rhyolite was occasionally used as a set to film Westerns. Beginning in the 1980s it became the setting for contemporary art installations, such as Albert Szukalski’s “The Last Supper,” made from fiberglass sheets molded to resemble (appropriately enough) ghosts. In the space of a few decades, Rhyolite transformed from a sparsely populated patch of Nevada desert, to a bustling frontier town full of the promise of a new century, to a handful of dusty, abandoned buildings. Another couple decades on and it was transformed once again into a setting used by Hollywood to nurse nostalgia and fantasy. And finally now, when the abandoned structures of Rhyolite serve as an ambient background to contemporary sculpture, it contextualizes the art within an aura of loss and decay.

Western ghost towns, however, tend to be isolated and remote. If we happen to see one, it’s usually on a road-trip detour indulging in a bit of kitsch. We’re also used to seeing dusty Western ghost towns in film and television, and as such it’s difficult for us to imagine them throbbing with actual life. They appear as if they’re supposed to be dead, more skeleton than corpse. None of this is true with dead shopping malls. They might be on the outskirts of suburban developments, but they’re never far from where people live. And to encounter one, especially an abandoned mall that one has previously spent time shopping in, is to stumble over a freshly killed body. Shock and sadness are palpable in people who explore the ruins of shopping malls, because we discern in their remains the collapse of our own fantasies and sense in their decay a force more compelling than consumerist utopias or even our failure to sustain them. Dead malls allow us to experience the sublime.

Shopping Is a Feeling

The shopping mall shares a symbiotic relationship with cars and television. They do more than accent or supplement one another. Their dynamic association provides the context without which the very idea of the suburbs would become incoherent. Consumption, comfort, and artificial proximity are the component parts of what we now recognize as the post–World War II American dream, but it’s a dream which actually predates the war itself. The first clear vision of the American suburbs was Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York City World’s Fair. Built over the top of the ash heap in Queens made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the fair was a particularly American celebration of optimism and boundless potential. In sharp contrast with the cramped, dank, and often squalid conditions of urban living at the time, Geddes exhibited a series of “superhighways” stretching across a model America, with developments nestled at increments along the routes. It was a seductive vision, escapist in its dream of the eradication of physical boundaries, and suggesting utopian inclinations. Geddes himself wrote that the people who visited his exhibit “saw the world of tomorrow lying there inviting before them—a world that looked like Utopia and did not seem to have a very close relation to the world they knew.” Futurama also happened to be sponsored by General Motors.

Forty-five million people attended the 1939 World’s Fair, an all-time record. One of the many architects who found work creating Futurama and other exhibits at the fair was a Jewish socialist refugee from Vienna named Victor Gruen. If any single person could be said to have midwifed both the shopping mall and the American suburban experience as a way of life, it’s Victor Gruen.

The mall didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, of course. There had been antecedents. Country Club Plaza, the first shopping center to appear as a single architectural unit, appeared on the outskirts of Kansas City in the 1920s. In 1931 the first architecturally cohesive collection of shops opening inward into a center outdoor courtyard opened in Dallas as Highland Park Village. But it wasn’t until Gruen designed the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, in the early 1950s, that the American shopping mall became what it would remain in our collective imagination.4

Southdale was suburban, completely enclosed, climate-controlled, anchored by large competing chain stores, and provided massive amounts of parking. But more importantly, Southdale was built to cohere with Gruen’s progressive ideals. Still haunted by the cultured and sedate European town squares he was forced to flee, Gruen combined the cosmopolitan sociability of his past with the seemingly limitless promise of American wealth and land. M. Jeffrey Hardwick writes in Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of the American Dream:

Not surprisingly for Gruen, the European city symbolized more than a physical plan to be copied. The cities represented the greatest accomplishments: democracy, high culture, and community thrived in Europe’s dense urban environment. . . . Gruen believed that, in America, people would come together at the shopping center, which would “fill the vacuum created by the absence of social, cultural, and civic crystallization points in our vast suburban areas.” He envisioned his shopping centers having “a community center, an auditorium, a children’s play area, a large number of public eating places and, in the courts and malls, opportunities for relaxation, exhibits and public events.” This nearly utopian socialist dream, however, would be built by American capitalists.5

If there’s a spiritual focal point of Gruen’s designs, a physical synecdoche for his utopian inclinations, it would be the center atrium of the mall. “It was in this central core space that Gruen exerted most of his efforts in designing something similar to an outdoor European town center,” writes Lisa Scharoun in America at the Mall: The Cultural Role of a Retail Utopia.6 There were sculptures, moving water, plants, Japanese lanterns. “Every effort was made to trick the visitor into believing they were really outdoors, instead of enclosed in the synthetic concrete slab structure of the shopping mall.” The outside of the mall might have been a drab, brutalist edifice recalling Le Corbusier, but the inside was intended to be magical, drawing potential customers from miles away and causing them to linger in the dreamy, dimly lit, and windowless (save atrium skylight) space.

This hypnagogic impression that everyone has felt in a mall, the feeling that you’ve entered some sort of time parallel to the chronology of the outside world, came to be known as the Gruen Effect. Its basic premise is simple: the longer people remain in the mall the more money they’ll spend, so keep them distracted. But the experience itself—of “the bedazzlement by goods and the power of their presentations to provoke more purchases,”7 to borrow Hardwick’s description—became its own unique and powerful sensation. With its total phenomenological heft overflowing the sum of its parts, the Gruen Effect gave the sense of being somewhere outside of space and time. The simulacrum of the town square became a place where compulsive consumption replaced contemplation. The limits and specificity of location dissolved in the cookie-cutter ambiance of the mall. Shopping, as David Byrne puts it in his largely mall-set 1986 film True Stories, became a feeling.

The shopping mall became a symbol of American abundance and hence a symbol of America itself. Thanks to the Gruen Effect, it was a “happy imprisonment” where shoppers had “infinite choice, but seemingly no way out,” according to cultural historian Norman M. Klein.8 Malls had become pocket infinities, places where the people physically and imaginatively constrained in the American suburbs—teenagers, housewives, and the elderly—found dubious distraction from their isolation. Cars and highways emptied people out of cities and brought them to their ranch-style homes. Inside of those homes people watched televisions which reflected back to them a pop-culture version of the Gruen Effect. As in films like 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, these shows often included depictions of the mall itself. Our actual experiences of the mall and their portrayal in popular culture formed something like an infinite refraction, mimetically reinforcing the feeling of shopping and the vast consumerscape which made the feeling possible. Like all artificial paradises, it gave the appearance of an infinite horizon without the hope of vertical transcendence. You could find everything you wanted, but you had to keep wanting what was offered. The American mall, bounded within the nutshell of endless consumption, became the king of infinite space.

Death Was Beginning to Talk

Malls were not universally popular. “Who wants to sit in that desolate looking spot?” asked Frank Lloyd Wright upon entering Gruen’s Southdale Mall in 1956. “You’ve got a garden court that has all the evils of the village street and none of its charm.”9 Wright wasn’t the only critic. Films, for instance, subversively lampooned the Gruen Effect. In Dawn of the Dead, former shoppers limped through the mall as herds of cannibalistic zombies. The Blues Brothers (1980) included a comically destructive police chase through a mall, cathartic for its raucous embodiment of the opposite of the Gruen Effect. Even Gruen himself eventually came to feel that his dream of the mall as a substitute for the European town square had been betrayed by developers who didn’t quite share his lofty social vision. Simply put, the mall didn’t transform the American suburbs into a new, improved Vienna after all. Gruen recognized the vast distance between the banal reality and the original spirit of his project. In his 1964 book The Heart of Our Cities, Gruen wrote, “Those who have fled from the congested city realize by now that they have gained nothing.”10

The American mall died nearly as quickly as it had been born. In 1990, nineteen new malls opened in America. In 2007, for the first time since the middle of last century, not a single new regional mall was constructed. By 2008, when Time had declared the mall dead, the site of an empty or emptying suburban mall had already become commonplace.11 The reasons why Joan Didion’s “pyramids to the boom years”12 became menacing, deserted hulks are deceptively straightforward: the internet and the rise of the big-box store. At the same time that internet shopping increased through the ’90s, so-called category-killer stores such as Walmart outcompeted malls on cost and convenience. According to The Wal-Mart Effect, “Ninety percent of Americans live within fifteen miles of a Wal-Mart.”13 They’re cheaper to build, staff, and maintain, without superfluous distractions such as arcades, movie theaters, and the occasional live performer. Big-box stores stand in contrast to malls by offering what philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls “bare life,” or the valuation of information over fantasy and utility as an end in itself.14 Parallels can be easily drawn between the “bare life” logic of big-box stores and the proliferation of online shopping. In both, the traditional offerings of the town square or market—a sense of place and the cultivation of community—are replaced with cost-cutting and convenience in extremis.

But these “bare life” amenities, while they kill the regional shopping mall, are themselves symptoms of a larger dynamic. Shopping malls were locked in a strange death spiral with the postwar economy from the very beginning. The growth of the suburbs was, according to Lisa Scharoun, in large part “a means to segregate and control society.” This meant “redlining” practices in order to segregate racially, and new zoning laws which “effectively compartmentalized suburbia” into a drab homogeneity. After the federal government took over a majority of bad real estate loans in the early ’90s, after the ’80s building boom and subsequent bust, real estate products were standardized into nineteen different types of developments. With this forced uniformity and abstract financialization of the mall, the heart of Gruen’s utopian dream had finally stopped beating. What has recently been termed “the retail apocalypse15—the closing of more than twelve thousand retail locations since 2010—has been more of a necrotic rot than a second death. The American shopping mall was from the beginning fated to be killed by the same logic that birthed it. Of course, for a shopper in the late ’80s trudging through a food court, stupefied by the Gruen Effect, it didn’t feel at all like the high-water mark of a doomed American fantasy. It felt like you had already stepped beyond the dialectics of history into a manmade eternity, into a utopia achieved.

Considering their lifespan, it isn’t shocking that the first appreciations of dead and dying malls were found on the internet. In the late nineties and early aughts, websites like DeadMalls.com and Labelscar.com began documenting and cataloging dead malls in order to “preserve something of their presence.” According to Labelscar, “many of these places that were crucial to many people’s lives are now gone.” There’s a nostalgic sweetness to this documentation. It’s a nostalgia that is in many ways almost the photo negative of twentieth-century dreams of progress which the malls came to represent. Personal memories of defunct malls provide much of the rationale for seeking out these derelict buildings, letting a camera linger on a now-empty courtyard littered with dead plants, and describing the current disrepair in heartfelt detail. What began as amateur appreciations on the internet eventually spread to published books of photography and even an associated music style, vaporwave. As the rest of America’s manufacturing and consumer infrastructure collapsed, dead malls were reduced to a subcategory of “ruin porn,” the dismissive phrase denoting a fascination with American loss and decay as represented by abandoned buildings. But such a broad category isn’t useful for thinking about dead malls. It is significant that the afterlife of malls began on the internet. The moment the first picture of an abandoned mall was uploaded, a bit of outmoded utopianism was appropriated by the new. Lacking a “body” that could die, the internet, unlike malls, became the perfect vantage point from which to view the poking and prodding of the decay. And so the American mall came to have an afterlife as symbolically rich as its living years.

The Sublime Terror of the Reliquary Mall

What do we see when we look at an abandoned mall? In a YouTube video of the now abandoned million-square-foot Medley Centre mall in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y., we begin in the parking lot.16 The bare, imposing outer edifices of abandoned malls are often surrounded by vast melancholy moats of buckling concrete. It’s a reminder of how integral the car was to the mall and therefore the mall to suburbia. But the empty spaces also convey an almost aggressive sense of isolation, a desolate warning to curious intruders. Inside the mall the light is gray and heavy, as if it, too, has been aging in solitude. Crumbling drop ceilings inside the smaller outlet spaces look like decaying chessboards hung overhead. Cheap carpet is dusty underfoot and mottled with detritus. It’s recognizable as a mall, certainly, but it’s become uncanny with dilapidation, like an exhumed corpse that only vaguely resembles the living.

As Gruen intended, the centerpiece is always the central atrium. Sleek columns, echoed by parallel beams of ponderous sunlight, rise towards a vast glass encasement overhead. The desolation that Frank Lloyd Wright saw has grown into its abandonment and taken on a strange, placid dignity. And there are surprises. In the Medley Centre video, a dead bird is discovered in an open safe, forming something like a secular acheiropoieton. Natural entropy, manmade materials, and the faded aura of consumerist desire blend into an overpowering alloy. Wilhelm Jensen’s description of Pompeii, which fascinated Freud, also holds true for abandoned malls: “What had formerly been the city of Pompeii assumed an entirely changed appearance, but not a living one; it now appeared rather to be becoming completely petrified in dead immobility. Yet out of it stirred a feeling that death was beginning to talk.”17

There’s a German word, of course, for the feeling that draws people to ruins in order to hear death begin to talk: Ruinenlust. Those who explore America’s abandoned malls are participating in what Henry James called, of his own Ruinenlust, “a Heartless pastime.”18 Heartless, one assumes, because the conditions necessary for death to talk indicate a dramatic rupture. The more substantial the breach, the stronger the effect on observers. This is why sites like Pompeii, and for years Rome itself, became such sought-after ruins. Falls from tremendous heights imbue empty and collapsing buildings with a particular significance they wouldn’t otherwise have. The vicissitudes of chance and time reduced Rome to a temporary rubble haunted by the grandeur of a fallen empire. What haunts the ruins of the dead shopping mall? What remained when Gruen’s synthetic utopia of mindless consumerism collapsed in on itself? Derrida suggests that what remained was something unique which can only be articulated by absence. He writes that ruins aren’t spectacles or themes, but “precisely not a theme, for it ruins the theme, the position, the presentation, or representation of anything and everything. Ruin is, rather, this memory open like an eye, or like the hole in a bone socket that lets you see without showing you anything at all.”19 The dead shopping mall, one might say, is something like the footprint of an extinct animal. In an inversion, we discover the details of presence in the indication of absence.

The first major mall to open in my hometown of St. Louis was the Crestwood Court, also known as Crestwood Plaza, in 1957. It was the closest mall to my house and the one that I spent the most time in as a teenager. Distinct and powerful memories are tied to the mall. In retrospect, it’s difficult to say whether the heady sense of unfulfilled desire and voracious wanderlust I felt hanging out with friends in the food court can be attributed to the Gruen Effect or to being a teenager. Perhaps it was an alloy of both. Yet when the mall finally closed in 2013 after years of decline, I didn’t expect to feel anything. It seemed reasonable that a slightly cheesy relic from my youth would be decommissioned. But when I actually saw the site of the abandoned mall during a trip home, it was almost overpowering. The building was being demolished, and from my vantage point I could see over a mountain of multicolored debris and into the cavernous dark center of what still stood of the mall. It opened like a cryptic, mute mouth or the cave at Taenarum through which Orpheus descended into the underworld.

Crestwood Plaza had always felt small compared to newer malls. But, gutted and dispersed, it resembled an entire small city reduced to rubble. The half-destroyed mall had more presence, more aura, than it ever had standing. And it terrified me. As I’ve learned from my own experiences in war, people and architecture come to resemble each other after years of combat. Broken windows and teeth, strange fractures, bent posture, missing parts, and an air of almost unconscious courage. Seeing Crestwood torn apart was almost as affecting as coming across a dismembered corpse. It was awful in the original sense of the word, and I found the most cogent expression of the feeling in Edmund Burke’s description of the sublime: “whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.”20 The sublime occasions a mixture of terror and pleasure because it emerges from opposites—as in the roiling sea which threatens death but which is seen from a safe distance.

But what the experience of the dead mall elicits is the notion of a force which transcends the phenomenological world itself. Dead malls show us more than this, and the sublime which they reference insinuates an order transcending language games. The art to come out of the sublime of dead malls indicates as much. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012) is primarily set in an absurdist dying mall populated by vagabonds, a stray wolf, and stores like “Reggie’s Used Toilet Paper Discount Warehouse.” It completely inverts the mall fantasies of the past. Gruen-induced consumer utopias have collapsed into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Even dated concerns about the mall turning people into shopaholic zombies are passé: the conditions which gave such humor its past coherence have been destroyed. And vaporwave, the first music genre to be created and exist entirely on the internet, uses dreamy echoes of piped in “mall music” and distended samples from ’80s and ’90s pop to create a soundtrack suited to our postindustrial decline.21 What this dead mall art has in common is a kind of pathetic orientation towards the failed promises of both materialism and progressive thought alike. It responds to the situation that the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce described as the death of all old ideals paired with the inability of new ideals to be born.22

The dead-mall sublime undermines the stationary utopias of banal consumerist culture.23 It suggests an alternative to both the horizon of endless possibility and the flat paradise of secular materialism. Before Burke the preeminent philosopher of the sublime was Longinus, the first-century author of On the Sublime. Longinus defined the sublime as “an irresistible desire for anything which is great and, in relation to ourselves, supernatural.”24 This emphasis on the divine is not just more straightforward and accurate than academic definitions, but defines the sublime in a way which acknowledges that it might actually exist. Perhaps dead-mall explorers, anti-comedians, vaporwave artists, and others sense the real community space that Victor Gruen longed for but failed to establish. A full embrace of the notion that every human dream eventually collapses amounts to more than dime-store eschatology or Ozymandias syndrome. It’s the truth. And, more importantly, it’s an acknowledgement of the vast hierarchy of order, independent of human thought or language, which allows truth to exist at all. In the dead-mall sublime, failed attempts at utopia find their redemption.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 2 (Summer 2018): 193–205.

Notes

Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall; or, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk (New York: New Directions, 2010), 23.

Jia Tolentino, “The Overwhelming Emotion of Hearing Toto’s ‘Africa’ Remixed to Sound Like It’s Playing in an Empty Mall,” New Yorker, March 15, 2018.

Rhyolite Ghost Town,” National Park Service, last modified February 28, 2015.

See also: Matthew Newton, Shopping Mall (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).

M. Jeffrey Hardwick, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 134. 

Lisa Scharoun, America at the Mall: The Cultural Role of a Retail Utopia (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2012), 12.

Hardwick, Mall Maker, 223.

Norman M. Klein, The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects (New York: New Press, 2004), 338.

Ben Welter, “Nov. 28, 1956: Frank Lloyd Wright at Southdale,” Star Tribune, November 28, 2015.

10 Victor Gruen, The Heart of Our Cities: The Urban Crisis: Diagnosis and Cure (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964), 42.

11 Tony Dokoupil, “Retail: Is the American Shopping Mall Dead?,” Newsweek, November 11, 2008.

12 Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 311.

13 Charles Fishman, The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works and How It’s Transforming the American Economy (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 5.

14 Byung-Chul Han, The Agony of Eros, trans. Erik Butler (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017).

15 Hayley Peterson, “A Tsunami of Store Closings Is About to Hit the US—And It’s Expected to Eclipse the Retail Carnage of 2017,” Business Insider, January 1, 2018.

16 Exploring a Huge Abandoned Mall—1 Million Sq Ft!” YouTube, November 3, 2017.

17 Wilhelm Jensen, Gradiva, in Sigmund Freud, Delusion and Dream: An Interpretation in the Light of Psychoanalysis of “Gradiva,” a Novel, by Wilhelm Jensen, trans. Helen M. Downey (New York: Moffat, Yard, 1917), 40.

18 Henry James, Italian Hours (London: Penguin, 1995), 147.

19 Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 69.

20 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 8 vols. (London: Bohn, 1854), 74.

21 For more on the genre of vaporwave music, see Scott Beauchamp, “Attention Online Shoppers . . . ,” Brooklyn Rail, April 1, 2017.

22 Augusto Del Noce, The Age of Secularization, trans. Carlo Lancellotti (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).

23 See John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy: With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, 2 vols. (London: Parker, 1848), bk. 4, chap. 6.<

24 “Longinus” On Sublimity, ed. and trans. D. A. Russell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), 35.2–5.

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