This piece appeared on RSA Comment on 8th November 2010.
The other day I found myself outside of Selfridges department store when I remembered a flashy two-page feature I’d seen a while back in Time Out about the store’s new shoe department. ‘The fabled Selfridges Shoe Galleries are finally open!’ the magazine had gushed.
I wandered in to see what all the fuss was about and discovered – you guessed it – shoes. Lots and lots of them, divided up neatly by brand. There was Jimmy Choo right next to Carvela. Stella McCartney rubbing elbows with LK Bennett. In short, high street meets Bond Street. How’s that for democracy?
Bewildered and exhausted by this exhaustive offering, I headed home, put on the kettle, and grabbed the dictionary where I searched under ‘F’ for ‘fable’. Here’s what I found:
1. a short moral story, esp one with animals as characters
2. a false, fictitious, or improbable account; fiction or lie
3. a story or legend about supernatural or mythical characters or events
Now what could this Time Out copywriter have had in mind? Surely the opening of a new shoe store – albeit a big one – couldn’t be construed as ‘a moral story’. Equally, they couldn’t possibly mean ‘a legend about supernatural or mythical characters or events’…could they?
The new galleries are ‘the largest shoe destination [sic] in the world’, the magazine continued, housed in a ‘conceptual’ and ‘interactive’ space. Besides an infinite supply of shoes, of course, they will feature ‘art installations’ among other ‘lofty’ aims. Yes, that’s ‘lofty’, as in [back to the dictionary] ‘exalted in rank, dignity, or character; eminent’ or ‘elevated in style, tone, or sentiment, as writings or speech.’
Stretching ingenuousness to the breaking point, I began to wonder if ‘lofty’ was meant as a play on ‘elevated’ – you know, as in wedges and platforms and stilettos? Ok, maybe not.
Now before you conclude that I’m a complete wet blanket, let me say that I like shoes. I also like dresses and cool rings and my MacBook. What’s more, I grasp that spending money fuels our economy, providing work for the ‘sales executive’ at Selfridges, not to mention the company that makes the store’s shopping bags, and the folks who clean its loos.
Nonetheless, I find myself deeply, viscerally and stubbornly disinclined to equate my consumption of these earthly delights with meaningful civic participation in some mythical narrative of our time. Indeed, I would argue that if the grand opening of a shoe store is the ‘fable’ our civilisation has invented for itself we live in a truly unheroic age.
‘So what’s a bit of marketing?’, you’re probably thinking. ‘It’s just hype from Selfridges, shamelessly flogged by Time Out.’
I’m not convinced. You see, this little incident put me in mind of the store’s longer standing campaign: a series of text-only ads featuring statements like ‘I shop therefore I am’, which they’ve been running for years. Of course, this isn’t intended as a serious, existential claim. What’s worth noting, however, is the origin of this quirky sales pitch: it was unironically lifted from the work of the American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, who employs aggressive slogans to critique consumer society, the mechanics of power and control (‘Your comfort is my silence’), and the objectification of women (‘My body is a battleground’).
It’s precisely this relentless and cynical pillaging of language, culture and their deeper meanings and symbols for the (lofty) purpose of delivering people to brands that’s so dispiriting. If you have any doubt, take a look at the store itself. Carved up into small concessions, it’s no longer possible to shop for a skirt or coat or wallet. Instead, you’re forced to navigate Selfridges – and most large department stores nowadays – via the real estate of its brands. Dolce & Gabbana? Dries van Noten? Dior? Forget ‘shoes’, for goodness sake. Who do you want to be?
Perhaps the most alarming instance of this consumerist transformation is the notion of ‘motherhood’, which once hinged on the relationship between a woman and her child. In the age of the ‘fabled’ shoe store, motherhood has been reinvented as a category of shopper known as the ‘yummy mummy’. Severed from anything as unmarketable as human engagement, yummy mummies are defined instead by the clothes they wear, the boulangeries they frequent, and the yoga they practice.
Of course, the French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed these phenomena long ago, alleging that needs are constructed, rather than innate. Consequently, said Baudrillard, consumption has greater symbolic significance than production. As such, I suppose the Selfridges Shoe Galleries merely represent the nadir of this late capitalist phenomenon. Seen through this lens, it’s easy to grasp how our self-understanding has become so essentially transactional, and still to be struck occasionally by how impoverished we are as a result.