Monthly Archives: November 2013

Irrationality and Frenzy: Desire and Shopping on Black Friday

Black Friday at the New York City Apple Store in 2006 (image from jardenberg).

Black Friday at the New York City Apple Store in 2006 (image from jardenberg).

This year even Apple appears poised to join the host of American retailers offering dramatic sales in the early morning or middle of the night on Black Friday.  By Black Friday standards the Apple store sale prices are not especially dramatic, but a legion of consumers seem eager to find an iPad under the tree and will likely beat a path to some of the competitors who are promising dramatic deals on iPads. 

It is now an expectation that Black Friday will be greeted with irrational crowds rioting for prosaic things, and by Saturday a host of videos will dot the internet documenting the most boorish behavior.  Much of the media coverage seems to suggest that the consumer miscreants storming the housewares aisle are a horde quite unlike the bourgeois patiently awaiting iPads.  For some observers, Black Friday reveals the distinctions in class consumer desire and obliquely disparages mass consumption as emotionally driven irrationality; at least implicitly, that storming of the Target doors is suggested to be quite unlike the material desire at high-end retailers and upscale spaces like the Apple store.

A 2012 camp out awaiting Black Friday at Best Buy (image from Mahat Tattva).

A 2012 camp out awaiting Black Friday at Best Buy (image from Mahat Tattva).

The mass consumption experience is followed closely by the media, which routinely psychologizes Black Friday as mob manipulation by clever marketers.  This week, for instance, the Las Vegas Guardian Express hysterically argued that “it seems necessary to recognize that this much anticipated retail extravaganza can be as deadly as it is lucrative.”  In 2011, a Huffington Post article likewise painted Black Friday shoppers as an emotionally frenzied mob, suggesting that “Add in the online-coupon phenomenon, which feeds the psychological hunger for finding impossible bargains, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.”  The Las Vegas paper’s Daniel Worku blamed all this on clever marketers and manipulable consumers, arguing that “This atmosphere seems to be intentionally manufactured by the countless advertisements, blurbs, signs, billboards, and radio plugs, constantly seeding the suggestible public mind about how this years deals will be better than ever.  The energy and frequency of this media frenzy, galvanizes the debt burdened public into spend-crazy, deal-hunting, sale-seeking, mob with zombi-like [sic] determination.” Read the rest of this entry

The Allure of Pastness: Watching Televised History

The new Dracula has a significantly different look than Bela Lugosi and Nosferatu (image NBC)

The new Dracula has a significantly different look than Bela Lugosi and Nosferatu (image NBC)

It seems like a uniquely rich moment for history: a host of gangsters, Vikings, and royals have stepped out of the past onto the small screen.  These historical dramas freely pilfer from real personalities, documented material culture, and style drawn from the past, finessing historical details, amplifying threads of style, and fabricating an oddly persuasive picture of wholesale manufactured pasts.  Heritage purists are perhaps always wary of history in the hands of Hollywood, and the most recent wave of serial dramas suggests that an aesthetically magnetic and decidedly non-critical vision of pastness has found a mass audience.

Perhaps the freshest wrinkle in the historical serial celebrates a completely contrived heritage that is all about style and makes no claim to substance.  NBC’s Dracula, for instance, cuts its characters and premise from the rich literary and cinematic heritage of Dracula narratives.  NBC’s version of the Count captures a familiar thread of the new histories in its focus on an impossibly stylish and beautiful Dracula (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), with the network TV carnality only implied (as opposed to his unabashedly carnal  Showtime version of King Henry VIII).  Fox has likewise seized on a literary character in Sleepy Hollow, which also has a beautiful man in stylish garb portraying a time-traveling Ichabod Crane.  Like Dracula, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow refers to various real historical figures and events as well as historical literary subjects like the headless horseman. Read the rest of this entry

Seeing the Elgin Marbles: Photography, Gaze, and Artifacts

IMG_5505 - CopyFew archaeological artifacts are better known than the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, which are commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles.  Lord Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon and Acropolis between 1801 and 1812, and they were spirited away to London for sale to the British Museum in 1816.  They remain in the British Museum today in the Duveen Gallery, which was specially constructed to showcase the Parthenon marbles.  

A flood of people stream through the gallery each day to see the sculptures, and many if not most of those visitors know the basic histories, mythological narratives, and perhaps even individual designs of the marbles.  The incessant stream of photographers capturing the statuary is not especially unique in contemporary museums, especially those displaying the treasures found in the British Museum.  Yet the frenzy of picture-taking in the Duveen Gallery suggests that many museum artifacts are latent camera images and not material things with which we physically interact. Read the rest of this entry

Authenticity and Authority on Yelp

The Guadalajara Grill's authentic decor (image zachary_o on yelp)

The Guadalajara Grill’s authentic decor (image zachary_o on yelp)

No compliment on the online review site Yelp is as highly esteemed as being dubbed “authentic,” and that authenticity is routinely linked to restaurants’ material spaces.   An Oakland reviewer believed herself transported to another place, concluding that “i looked around the restaurant and noticed how well the place is decorated…felt like i was back in thailand (ive never been, but i felt like i was there maybe?).”  Yelp reviewers fancy they are unlocking a hidden consumer geography:  In the class and ethnic niches of neighborhoods outside bourgeois comfort, yelpers discover dishes, spaces, and new experiences.   However, the search for an authentic burrito or an urban “dive” may tell us more about yelpers than it reveals about foodways.

Yelpers stake their claims to authority by capturing dimensions of authenticity that often include material descriptions of space.  A Mexican grill review waxed rhapsodic that “The meticulously painted walls and ceiling, accompanied by fountains and trellis, will make even the least-cultured of individuals feel as if they’ve just stepped into an authentic Yucatecan [sic] bodega.”  Many Yelpers echo that an appropriately appointed ethnic restaurant sweeps the guest to that distant place:  in one Moroccan restaurant in Indianapolis, for instance, “When one steps into the restaurant, he would almost feel as if he had been magically transported to the streets of Casa Blanca [sic].”  A review for a Mexican restaurant in Indianapolis pinned its authenticity on its materialization of the Mexican immigration experience, indicating that “The decor is authentic: homesick people putting things on the walls that remind them of home.”  A review of a German bakery in Indianapolis pointed to the store’s décor, indicating that “The lunch fare is a 3 star since its fairly simple.  However, what makes it a 4 star is its authenticity as well as the numerous knick knacks and [sic] hoarder would love to have.”

Yelp is simply one of many web sites that allow users to assess consumer goods and services in the internet public square.  Meredith Kuehn’s 2011 dissertation argues that sites like Yelp “capitalize on the productivity of users who create discourses through and about local consumption by voluntarily rating and reviewing local businesses and services.”   Kuehn argues that Yelpers aspire to be citizen-consumers seizing power over consumer symbolism and returning it to the users themselves.  However, Kuehn is wary of the limits of such empowerment:  she is critical of the literal “architectures of participation” that Yelp pages provide; she is circumspect about how Yelp and similar sites focus on “the local” in ways that elide global consumer structures; and she warns that Yelps’ focus on “lifestyle politics” risks reducing citizenship to shopping. Read the rest of this entry

Bike Helmets and the Culture of Driving

Bikes lined up in Copenhagen (image pradadearest).

Bikes lined up in Copenhagen (image PradaDearest).

A host of observers argue that cycling is saddled by a “culture of fear”: apparently terrified by warnings about the dangers of cycling, many people fear biking, and even disciplined riders seem compelled to wear bright clothing, confine themselves to bike lanes, and wear safety gear, such as helmets.  Many of these commentators decry a “nanny state’s” construction of cycling as a “dangerous” activity that breeds fear to hawk commodities that will make us impervious to all possible threats.

Hush’s Chris Bruntlett, for instance, captures the contorted logic (and unsubstantiated science) that helmets increase the danger to cyclists:  “the mistaken sense of invincibility provided by safety gear drastically changes the dynamic between road users, and not in the favour of the cyclist.  Armoured cyclists have been statistically documented to indulge in ‘overcompensation’, taking additional risks, riding quicker and more recklessly than they otherwise would. Similarly, in a scientifically proven phenomenon known as the Mary Poppins effect, motorists also conduct themselves differently around cyclists dressed in protective equipment, leaving less space when passing, and travelling notably faster around them.”

Mikael Colville-Andersen's constructions of cyclists as the perfect aesthetic marriage of function, beauty, and style unmarred by an obtrusive helmet (image from Mikael Colville-Andersen).

Mikael Colville-Andersen’s constructions of cyclists as the perfect aesthetic marriage of function, beauty, and style unmarred by an obtrusive helmet (image from Mikael Colville-Andersen).

The most persistent volleys against helmets have come from Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Andersen, who has been lobbying against helmets for most of a decade.   Colville-Andersen’s Cycle Chic  blog champions stylish urban bike culture; he argues that “Copenhageners have demystified the bicycle and use it without any form of bicycle ‘gear,’” a dig at cycling style dominated by lycra, skin-tight jerseys, and helmets.  Cycle Chic comes armed with its own pretentious manifesto including the directive that “I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of ‘cycle wear.’”  Sociologist Dave Horton sounds much the same tone about cycling fear, but he acknowledges that anxiety about cycling is an emotional apprehension of accidents as well as the uncertainties of being a rider in public space.  He laments that cycling anxieties are symptomatic of a broader “culture of fear,” with the apprehensions fostered by helmet laws typical of our deep-seated dread of everyday social life.

Colville-Andersen secured international media coverage this year with his shallow ethnographic analysis that “it’s an interesting cultural question as to why, in Anglo Saxon countries, there’s this almost pornographic obsession with safety, whereas in France and Spain they don’t promote helmets.”  For Colville-Andersen, the confidence in helmets is misplaced faith fueled by “fanatic safety nannies” and overwrought emotion.  In 2008, Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagenize exhausted the metaphorical link between faith and helmet rhetoric when he suggested that “people insist on sticking to their beliefs that they are wearing a polystyrene, all-powerful halo that wards off all traffic evils and will ensure a long, healthy life.”   He theatrically refuses to cycle in Australia in protest of compulsory helmet laws, arguing that “Australia is held up as the example of how helmet laws destroy urban cycling.”  Colville-Andersen’s desire to cycle without the imposition of an intrusive state perhaps strikes a populist sentiment allowing him to unleash his long locks and wear trendy clothes, but his assessment of the social and material conditions of cycling in America at least is fundamentally flawed.

A Copenhagen bike lane (image Cian Ginty).

A Copenhagen bike lane (image Cian Ginty).

My hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana has a bike-friendly mayor whose office has led a push for bike lanes throughout the city, and those lanes and bike trails provide a modest foothold for cycling in the state’s capital city.  Bike lanes are routinely considered confusing to motorists, and after construction of Indianapolis bike lanes in 2011, one local TV station reported that “The bicyclists, at least the ones we talked to today, know the rules. The problem is everyone else on the road beside them.”

These bike lanes are routinely the targets of local critique.  Indianapolis cyclist Paul Ogden assessed the city’s bike lanes in October and concluded that “too many bicyclists entering bike lanes think they’re riding in a magical place where they no longer have to worry about the dangers of riding a bike in traffic. . . Now confined to a little strip of pavement along side of the road, the bicyclist is actually more likely to be hit at, and certainly so at intersections.”  In July he attacked “bike boxes,” sounding the same mantra that “bike lanes and bike boxes often cause bicyclists fall into the false sense of security that a line on the pavement will protect them from a collision with a several thousand pound vehicle.” Read the rest of this entry