From The Archive
Seth Sanders
No. 6  December 1994

Soft City: Chicago

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More than any other part of the American metropolis, it is the mall and the shopping district that appear to offer power and freedom today. At the end of a day of work, stepping out of an office into a busy district, or at the beginning of some aimless Saturday having just hit the town, a dazed clerk is faced with a spectrum of individual choices that would have made any Oriental Despot (had any ever existed) go crosseyed. But why does one feel that flicker of a sense, that brief intuition of helplessness and predestination? People come here to exercise an easy and harmless, maybe even necessary form of choice; they are defining themselves, satisfying needs. This is what people do, isn’t it?

But the question is not just one of individual choice; it’s stickier, there are other questions that have to be asked first. Do the movements people make in their mall-given freedom describe other orbits, diagrams of helplessness? People looking for something to do come and have things done to them: you shoot around like a pinball in a huge, beautiful machine, bouncing from section to section with credit card debt racking up like points on the bright display next to Sonic the Hedgehog, the Cop Car, or the Empowered Woman with Big Gun and Breasts. A day at the mall leaves you dizzy, spent, the image of a fading light seared on your retina. You follow your passions, maybe in the etymological sense of the word “passion”: “something that one undergoes,” recalling dim associations with what it means to be passive, to be a patient.

Culture critics sometimes come to bury these places, but they always walk away having praised them. Critics need malls too. Consumer culture comes from something every good leftist intellectual knows is bad. Yet still this terrible culture is worth experiencing, sensing, and criticizing … no, it is more worth experiencing, it is superior to other topics, it is the best subject for criticism because it is so exciting.

At the mall the culture industry holds a thick bouquet of ironies up to the nose of the critic, a nose that is uniquely cultivated to sense the rank, barn-y edge of ulterior motives, the winking sweetness of self-conscious wit and the fruitiness of historically conditioned images. The more screwed-up a piece of culture is, the more perplexing it gets, the more pleasure it can bring.

Criticism soon expresses itself like advertising, soon it creates new slogans and becomes a normal part of the ebb and flow of cultural consumption.

Whether you want a day on the town, a cheap spectacle, something to cluck your tongue at, or the topic for a critical, distanced paper on the construction of identity (upper class version: the ironic purchase of rap apparel along with extremely specific types of luxury goods; the self-reflective discourse on the act of shoplifting one has just performed at the Nieman-Marcus … lower class version: a day’s entertainment, free entry, you can stay for hours and eat cheap, maybe get a job at the Taco Bell in the food court; later, in malls that don’t have food courts at all, there will be extremely specific types of luxury goods), the mall is there. It quite literally serves all needs, political and critical as well as consuming. As the whole situation gets more complicated and varied, it gets even more interesting. And the most interesting thing about it is the way that all intellectual roads seem to lead back to the mall: criticism somehow ends up partaking of both advertising and consumption simultaneously. When the Chicago Tribune paid a semiotician to cast his withering gaze on Niketown, it had all the starkness of the rustic Aristides coming to praise Rome.

The situation may be inevitable for a contemporary critic writing about America. Advertising, after all, is now written with full awareness of postmodern thought, as the makers of virtual reality self-consciously, almost piously work alongside science-fiction writers. The scenario brings to mind the gorgeous contraption invented by the eighteenth century economist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham and rehabilitated by Michel Foucault: the Panopticon, a plan for a ring-shaped prison, hospital, asylum or school (it does not matter which) with a guard tower at the center. In separate cells that face inward toward the tower, the inhabitants, amply backlit by a rear window and totally visible to the guards through the bars, must work, study, or sit and be punished. Unable to see the guards or their neighbors, the people in the cells assume that they are under constant surveillance. After a while they begin to monitor themselves; they are the subjects and objects of this power, which now requires no outside enforcer. What has happened? The people in the cells have been made totally individual, totally visible. The image is grotesque (you can see it today at Stateville Penitentiary), but seems to loom over us. Foucault used it as a figure for the new, self-policing individual that was being created in Bentham’s time; today, we can see its shape in the pattern that our intellectual freedoms take. As we enter the context of the mall, of the discourse about culture, where every individual is clearly visible, articulated, with opinions and intentions and desires, something terribly interesting starts to happen. The same forces that render the critic visible and articulate also start to determine what that critic says and does. Attraction and interest, like light, stage the speaker. This is the diagram in which we are inscribed.

Criticism soon expresses itself like advertising, soon it creates new slogans and becomes a normal part of the ebb and flow of cultural consumption. This embarrassing insight is nothing particularly new; it is one of the ideas that Jean Baudrillard, the official theorist of Club Med, stole from the failed revolutionary Guy Debord. But there are two misconceptions that arise from our new situation: the first is that it is good; the second is that there is nothing we can do about it. I will try to destroy them both in order.

The argument that the culture of consumption, as a subdivision of and complement to the economy, is here to stay and we may as well make full use of it (since it is productive of pleasure and possibility), is both clearly correct and profoundly trivial. The anthropologist Talal Asad elaborates this: it is often remarked in a triumphal tone that “subcultures” (us) or “local cultures” (the natives) are not total robots. Since audiences actively reinterpret and use the things handed down to them by global capitalism, they are therefore individual and free, the “authors of their own history.” Indeed, it is obvious that members of subcultures, whether upstate New York Satan Teens, South Chicago P-Stone Ranger gang members, or Fanzine writers, are living by their own cultural logic. But does it really matter that they can invent their own quaint “misreadings” of a world substantially controlled by people bigger than they are? Like the members of Kwakiutl society, their “authorship,” as Asad puts it, “consists merely in adjusting consciously to [Western capitalist] forces and giving that adjustment a meaning.” Pushing the metaphor of “authorship” past some viciously ironic breaking point, Asad says that “ … the main story line is authored by the capitalist juggernaut, and local peoples provide their own interpretations in local performances.”

The notion of the universality and immortality of the “post-modern condition” is a sort of musty blanket that insulates and hampers anyone who buries their head in it.

It is a commonplace that identity today is fluid; immigrants can change countries and negotiate new allegiances between different cultures; pop, fashion, or food from any one place in the world could show up anywhere else, creating new contexts, hybrid tastes and selves. The cheerfulness, even sense of triumph, that accompanies statements of postmodern rootlessness (moral, mental, physical, and what-have-you) also strikes Asad as strange, for the ability to invent oneself, the profound sense of mobility available to many today, is not simply a gift. “If people are physically and morally uprooted, they are more easily moved, and when they are easy to move, they are more easily rendered physically and morally superfluous.” In fact, it is exactly the forces of business and government that benefit from the radical mobility of things, whether it is the Israeli government moving Bedouin off of land, the Urban Outfitters chain selling identity accessories to rootless twentysomethings, the retailers existing at the next level up the scale selling homemakers goods when the twentysomethings get some money and decide to put down roots, or the city of Chicago erasing old neighborhoods and building a Nerf version of history at River North.

The second bad idea is that we are living in a new era that is somehow a radical departure from past history. The notion of the universality and immortality of the “post-modern condition” is a sort of musty blanket that insulates and hampers anyone who buries their head in it. As the days slog by, Baudrillard, Fukuyama, and others who advertised an end to history seem less profound, more products of their time. Ask a Palestinian Muslim revolutionary if history is over; ask a black American lesbian about the authenticity of experience. I cannot predict what they will say (you really do have to ask them to know), but the answers might help to trace the questions as a product of a certain, quite limited and clearly corporate-sponsored approach to knowledge and reality. People with money and power still take over land in order to locate more money and power; a lot of energy still goes into making people think they need to be told what to do. Mobility, subculture, and Postmodern rootlessness: these are the fields that give capitalism and its super-culture room to move. If you don’t believe me, visit River North.

One of the remarkable things about River North, a shopping and tourism district just north of the Chicago River featuring sites based on the themes of “Hollywood,” “Gangsterland Chicago” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” is that there is no particular reason for it to be where it is. Certainly there are a number of factors that must have caused the developers to build this strip of entertainment palaces in a central, safe, high-rent area, rather than, say, the isolated, lower-middle-class reaches of North Hyde Park, but there is nothing specific. It has no history that you cannot divorce from the place as it is today, it did not grow over a long time due to a series of contingencies. Someone just put it there. Obviously, the people who organized the place performed studies, made comparisons, did ponderous amounts of research, gathered numerous wealthy investors and came up with bold ways to put River North on people’s mental maps. But then they just put it there.

Although it has probably been described somewhere as a tourist Mecca, River North is, at least in this way, really more like the Biblical Temple in Jerusalem. J. Z. Smith explains: “There is nothing inherent in the location of the Temple in Jerusalem. Its location was simply where it happened to be built … To put this another way, the Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of a complex, self-referential system. It could, in principle, have been built anywhere else and still have been the same. It required no rationale beyond the obvious one that, once having been declared a temple and accepted as such … it became a place of clarification—most particularly of the hierarchical rules and roles of sacred/profane, pure/impure. In an apparent paradox, its arbitrariness, its unmotivated character, guaranteed its ordering role. There was nothing to distract from the system.” Once having been declared a tourist attraction, and accepted as such, River North became meaningful and interesting. This quality of “softness” is shared by both places, their significance tied to how very flexible and arbitrary they are.

Standing in a surreally huge line outside Planet Hollywood, I notice a pair of spotlights that do not light up the sky. They are lousy spotlights. They are in fact not spotlights, but big, flat decorations on the side of the barnlike Planet Hollywood structure, cutouts in the shape of big lamps with long rays of light projecting from them. They produce a faint glow from the neon that decorates them, that is all. Nobody needs to be told where River North is and there is no particular event tonight, no singularity to which some solitary driver might perhaps be attracted by a beam piercing the black sky.

Pure systems, self-conscious as they are, know they are more interesting than the world. So do we.

When a Baffler researcher asked why the crowd outside Planet Hollywood was there, neither they nor the guard at the door could give an answer. Of course, a perceptive businesswoman might supply one: the place is celebrity-owned and -frequented, and represents a watered-down version of some part of culture that the customers want to imitate. But what makes the creation of a place like this possible? What allowed the investors and builders to create this place and the tourists to put themselves in it? Perhaps it is the perfect, unmotivated character of the place as a tourist attraction ex nihilo. The success of River North seems tied up with its quality as system: pure, complex, and self-referential. And that is why I avoid talking about its content, about the things on display there; I don’t think that’s the point. In its arbitrariness lies its own weird sort of freedom and power. The “soft” city writes its own charter. People go here to be inscribed in its diagram, to mesh with different levels of this intricate machine.

The final question we are left with is provoked, in a winking way, by the sign that faces the customer leaving Ed Debevic’s “diner”-themed restaurant: “YOU ARE NOW LEAVING ED DEBEVIC’S AND ENTERING GRIM REALITY.” The DJ is not embarrassed to reveal that he has only a single CD player to spin platters with; the chatter of the crowd smooths over the bad segues. It’s better this way, anyhow. There is nothing malevolent or lacking in his falseness, nor in his superiority. Pure systems, self-conscious as they are, know they are more interesting than the world. So do we. And the only response that is not in collusion with them is to tear our eyes from them that we might see the world again.

And so we finish in North Hyde Park, a place, as Smith would say, invested with thick temporal significance. A lot of important things happened here; here, and nowhere else; here, in a particular way. There are no signs marking the apartment on Drexel Boulevard where composer and bandleader Sun Ra ran his tiny, private record label in the sixties with the support of businessman and visionary Alton Abraham. There are certainly no signs marking the strip of racially and ethnically mixed bars and brothels that the University of Chicago, where Smith now teaches, tore down in the fifties to make way for more wholesome and controllable entertainment. This place has an ecology (one can chart the frequency by season with which books stolen by the neighborhood’s poor from the neighborhood’s aspiring academic class show up in the neighborhood’s ancient and dignified used bookstores, perhaps to be bought back at a substantial markup), but it is no pure system.

But to the extent that this place can be remembered and imagined, to the extent that it can be talked about and lived in, it represents a topic for thought that has not been made interesting solely by investors. The word “topic” has its roots in a word for “place”; as we choose topics for our attention, we choose places to focus our power. The people that run the city of Chicago need, periodically, to efface these “hard,” historically dense places; the stinking, nineteenth-century-looking Maxwell Street Market reminds us (“us!”) of poor Jews and shows us poor Blacks; worse, it is standing in the way of someplace more abstract. Good old Maxwell Street is, admittedly, modern, already part of a frayed diagram of power and attention, of arguments about how to use civic space and opportunities for slumming. But it’s not very mobile, and it’s not very self-conscious, and it’s not all that interesting from a theoretical point of view. A “soft” business district is both more profitable for businessmen and more amenable to police.

The question is which sort of place you’d rather think about; the question is where you’d rather live. The fact is that people will build more Jerusalem Temples, sometimes within the hollowed-out skeletons of Maxwell Streets; even now malls are being constructed within respectably bleak, 19th-century-looking Brooklyn buildings (the Soft Sell for the Soft City; the “Hard Look”). Which means the question is, necessarily, a tough and open one. To what extent are the structures that shelter you, render you visible and audible, a trap? Buildings, journals, fields of thought define individuals and enable choices; in creating particular kinds of freedoms they become invisible. Realize how they enable you to exist, and know that they’re not all the same. Although most of us live in both the “hard” and the “soft” cities at once, and have to in order to get the things we want, we don’t realize that we can redraw our own maps strategically. See the two cities on top of each other; know that they are at war; take a side.

Where you live, how you buy, how you move through the city’s spaces; these all matter. Map and think the hard city of diverse, spotty human history; like the ashes of a burnt corpse rubbed on the eyes in Celtic myth, this will let you see and hence enter a usually invisible, but more real and magical world.

Thanks to Ana Cox, whose idea the whole River North thing was, Linsey Herman, who critiqued it from the inside, Chuck Jones, without whom it would have been less interesting, and James Steincamp, without whom it would not have been typed in.

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