Shopping and Looking

This is the text of a presentation I gave to an Art/Architecture symposium at UCA Canterbury, 2007;

Shopping and Looking
the rhetoric of retail parks

Derek Hampson

Aesthetic and political/social concerns derived from the perceived anonymity of contemporary architectural developments, such as retail parks and airports, led the French commentators Marc Augé and Michel de Certeau to develop the concept of the ‘non-place’ to describe these newly emerging environments.

Theorising non-places as part of a capitalist system of social control Augé and de Certeau proposed the inevitability of our resistance to them through our everyday social practices such as walking and talking. Developing a hypothesis derived from language theory and the practices of the Situationists  they describe how our everyday engagement with these non-places undermine their efforts to order us. In this view our interaction with contemporary locations is Cartesian and on the whole antagonistic.

Drawing on the discoveries of phenomenology, in particular the writings of Martin Heidegger this paper critiques this paradigm as  not accounting for the actual experience of environments such as retail parks as we encounter them. Starting from the premise that retail parks are essentially functional the implications of this understanding are explored through Heidegger’s account of the broad contexture within which our relationship to equipment resides.

This relationship is governed by sight and use, sight here is not a direct, desirous consumerist viewing but a circumspect looking that does not see things directly. Because of this, direct insight into our relationship to these functional environments is rarely given. On the whole our experience of them is neutral, yet there are occasions when they do give rise to unexpected feelings such as aesthetic interest or well being. Easily ignored these feelings reveal the essential nature of our relationship to the functional as being driven by concern.

This text explores the relationship between ourselves and our everyday environment, through an account that draws upon my experience of retail parks. These small-scale commercial developments, usually built on brownfield sites at the edge of UK towns, have appeared in response to government fears about the economic and aesthetic impact of larger-scale retail developments. If we consider them they appear to be highly utilitarian places, a product of the forces of planning and consumption aided by technologies of building, places where we go to shop.

My reason for focussing on them is that visits have occasionally given rise to unexpected feelings; changes of mood, vague intimations of well-being and visual interest. A certain sense of enigma when confronted by the expanse of an empty car park bounded by blind shop facades, freshly painted parking bays clearly delineated, give rise to a momentary sense of well-being. A complexity of plants, cars and pylons generates an engaged, perceptual looking.

How can something as mundane as a retail park have such an affect that it occasionally brings about a change in mood, a property we generally ascribe to more visually enticing entities? The study of the relationship between feelings and things has traditionally been a preserve of Aesthetics; enabling types of experience, from the beautiful to the sublime, to be defined. Yet how much legitimacy should we give to the role of feelings in the production of understanding, should we be suspicious of them, seeing them as subjective and rely more on our intellect for the development of insight? Or perhaps we should see the distinction between feeling and thinking as a false dichotomy, a product of a Cartesian worldview that distinguishes between our capacity to think and our capacity to feel?

In order to explore this question I will draw upon the writings of Michel De Certeau (1925 – 1986) and Marc Augé (b.1935) to outline a theoretical approach to understanding how we interact with places such as retail parks. By theoretical I mean an approach that utilises concepts external to the object under consideration. I will then offer an alternative analysis which seeks to understand retail parks through the actual experience of them, drawing upon the discoveries of phenomenology.

Both De Certeau and Augé can be seen to be broadly critical of the types of built environments that the planning of late modernity produces. They view locations such as airports and shopping malls as places of alienation and control. For a social theorist such as Michel De Certeau they are an integral part of a capitalistic network that supports what he calls a ‘rationalized, expansionist, centralized, spectacular and clamorous production’ (p.31). The anthropologist Marc Augé in his book Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernism builds upon De Certeau’s work. For him the apparent anonymity and utilitarian design of places like retail parks gives them an anti-social aspect. Unlike organically created places, which have come together over time, people do not use retail parks in order to socialize and organise into spaces of community, they are not places where we dwell. They are an archetype of what Augé terms the ‘non-place’

If place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which can not be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place (p.76)

The anonymous character of areas designated non-places by Augé is further indicated by their names. Transit camps and interchanges, indicate locations where people never meet, and are never at home. These are opposed to the social well-being indicated by the names of their opposites; dwellings and cross roads, both indicative of places where people meet and rest. Visitors to non-places do not inhabit them they merely have a temporary transit through them. Similarly the almost oxymoronic retail park is not a park where we go to picnic or feed the ducks. As a final proof of their outsider status Augé makes the somewhat startling observation that non-places are more prone to the unwelcome attention of terrorists and their bombs. Terrorists detect in them the opposite of the ideal world that they are trying to achieve. ‘The non-place is the opposite of utopia: it exists, and it does not contain any organic society.


In this analysis retail parks are part of an arsenal of weapons at capital’s disposal, there to persuade society towards consumption – and as such De Certeau theorises that their major focus is on the control of time. Similarly for Augé the principle characteristic of non-places is the way in which they deal with time in terms of the historical, the past. The supermodern non-place can only deal with the old if it is bounded by metaphorical air quotes, taken out of its normal functioning and recreated as an object of kitsch. This is in opposition to what he terms the ‘modernity of the Baudelairean landscape’ in which everything, the old and the new are happily combined.

Yet despite the seeming overwhelming power of non-places they are not unopposed. Resistance to their controlling effects comes in the form of what De Certeau calls our everyday practices of walking, talking etc.  His understanding of these practices is that they are anti-visual, creating non-geographic, non-geometrical space within these spaces of supermodernity. Using language as a metaphor he characterises the geometrical space of town planners and architects as:

having the status of the “proper meaning” constructed by grammarians and linguists in order to have a normal and normative level to which they can compare the drifting of “figurative” language. (p.100)

He characterises the spaces created by those everyday practices which combat them as ‘anthropological, poetic and mythic’, leading in the process to the creation of a ‘migrational, or metaphorical, city that slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city’ (p.93)

Yet language is viewed as more than a metaphor for explaining how everyday practices such as walking undercut the seemingly totalising effect of these landscapes of supermodernity. Language, particularly rhetoric is seen as a way of modelling how these practices of the everyday actually work:

…rhetoric, the science of the “ways of speaking,” offers an array of figure-types for the analysis of everyday ways of acting (p.xx)

De Certeau talks about a ‘rhetoric of walking’ being created by the walker

…making choices among the signifiers of the spatial “language” …He condemns certain places to inertia or disappearance and composes with others spatial “turns of phrase” that are “rare,” “accidental” or illegitimate.’(p.99)

If our everyday engagement with our environment is governed by the paradigms of rhetoric then we must ask why they are appropriate, why they work as they do.

For De Certeau they are a means to undercut the control of capital, they are seen as unconscious revelatory strategies, brought about by the “long poem of walking” (p. 101). This is mirrored in the practices of the Situationists who a generation earlier developed the derive, literally drifting through the urban landscape,as a form of group artistic practice that was intended to reveal the poetics of the city. In this instance walking, particularly within an urban environment, is a form of publicness a public enactment, not only with architecture but with others, as such it mirrors the condition of rhetoric which, as Martin Heidegger points out in Being and Time, has a particular relationship with publicness; or what he terms Being-with-one-another, a relationship that has been indicated (if not fully understood) from earliest times. Heideggerpoints to Aristotle’s second book of Rhetoric and calls it ‘…the first systematic hermeneutic of the everydayness of Being-with-one-another’. (1962 H p.138)

Being and Time is concerned with uncovering a fundamental ontology, and as such has to do with Being, particularly the nature of our Being as human beings which Heidegger calls Dasein. This analysis discovers that we are primarily Beings-in-the-world but we arealso Being-with-one-another we are with others in the condition of publicness. We enter into a state of publicness when we engage in group activities such as walking as part of a crowd or taking public transport:

In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services such as the newspaper, every Other is like the next. This Being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of Being of ‘the Others’, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the “they” is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they… take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The “they”, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness. (ibid H. p.126)

 Being-with-one-another underpins the working of rhetoric, and is characterised by averageness as the means through which our self is enabled to interact with others. It accounts for how public opinion can be formed, how we can share certain sentiments with others, how moods can be created through the rhetorical skills of an orator. Rhetoric operates in this environment of the everyday being-with-one-another. As a kind of being the ‘they’ has moods which the orator can manipulate and create through the power of speech. To do this the orators themselves must also live within an environment of moods, and must know their revelatory potential, ‘He must understand the possibilities of moods in order to rouse them and guide them aright’. (ibid H p.139)

Thus the aim of the orator is to create moods in the audience through the devices of rhetoric, the condition of averageness that the collective audience has, enables this to happen, rhetoric deals with collective moods. Yet a noteworthy aspect of De Certeau’s thesis is that his poet/walker is singular in his or her encounters with non-places. Furthermore he/she is characterised as a body, or as a collection of disconnected bodies there to be controlled, manipulated by the order of things in the world around us. We can characterise De Certeau’s account of places such as retail parks as creating a controlling environment that is undercut by our so-called rhetoric of walking. Yet as we have seen not only is rhetoric tied to the group, but is intrinsically tied to others. Similarly everydayness expresses the average, what is generally rather than individually understood.

We are faced with the problem of understanding the individual’s encounter with things in our surroundings. How do I account for my singular engagement with the environment of the retail park? In order to answer this question I will return to Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology, which discovers that practice does have a role in the experience of our environment, but it is the practice of using those things that surround us, entwined with sight as the principle means through which our environment is encountered and understood.

Phenomenology discovered that we, as human beings are the primary being, constituted as Being-in-the-World. As such we have an a priori relationship to things, objects that we encounter in our environment. Things that we meet are not just there as extant objects as what Heidegger calls “a standing reserve” waiting to be used by us, as object to our Cartesian subject. A fundamental aspect of our ontology is that as well as Being-in-the-World we are also Being-alongside things, we are in the world with things, in our day to day existence we dwell with them. Dwelling is a primary characteristic of our existence, and not, as Augé claims, attached to one type of environment and not another.

An immediate question that phenomenology asks is what is the status of those things we are in the world with? In The Origin of the Work of Art Heidegger engages in an analysis of the concept of thing. While for Kant a thing is everything that is not nothing, Heidegger finds that there is very little that can truly be called a thing, or as he terms it a mere or pure thing, things that have come into existence by themselves, such as a pebble on the beach;

…we hesitate to call God a thing. In the same way we hesitate to consider the peasant in the field, the stoker at the boiler, the teacher in the school as things. A man is not a thing … We hesitate even to call the deer in the forest clearing, the beetle in the grass, the blade of grass a thing. We would sooner think of a hammer as a thing or a shoe, or an ax, or a clock. But even these are not mere things. Only a stone, a clod of earth, a piece of wood are for us such mere things lifeless beings of nature… (1993 p.147)

He identifies three types of entity, in addition to the mere thing, there are works of art, and there is equipment. ‘The nearest things that surround us we call equipment. There is … a manifold of equipment: equipment for working, for travelling, for measuring’. (1982 p.163)

Equipment should be understood as more than tools; … everything we make use of domestically or in public life. In this broad ontological sense bridges, streets, street lamps are also items of equipment. (ibid p. 293)

It is on this basis that we can see a retail park as almost pure equipmentality, everything we come across there is equipment for something. Roads for driving, bays for parking, paths for walking, shops for shopping.

The study of equipment and how we use and understand it in our everyday activities provided phenomenology with access to some of its primary discoveries. Our dealings with equipment is not characterised by what Heidegger calls a “bare perceptual cognition” (1962 H p.95) i.e. theorising about the thing before us in which we detach the thing observed from its environment. Phenomenological investigation uncovered that our engagement with things is never disinterested but governed by the fundamental existential of care. Care (sorge) is a key term in Heidegger’s ontology which he calls a ‘primordial structural totality’ of our being and shows itself in solicitude (fürsorge) for others and concern (besorge) for things. Our concern is exercised when we ‘manipulate things and put them to use’, i.e. when we use equipment. It is this concernful use of equipment, guided by sight that defines our interaction with our immediate surroundings.

For Heidegger sight is central to the philosophical tradition; ‘…from the beginning onwards the tradition of philosophy has been orientated primarily towards ‘seeing’ as a way of access to entities and to Being’. (ibid H p.147)

Here seeing ‘does not mean just perceiving with the bodily eyes’ sight has an existential signification it is to do with how we engage with the world; ‘…it lets entities which are accessible to it be encountered unconcealedly in themselves’. (ibid) This is not the sight of consumerist looking and desiring. In our practical everyday orientation towards things, when use of equipment is at its most unthought and unobtrusive, our looking is that of ‘practical circumspection’(1982 p.163). It is a kind of sight that is not a deliberate looking at something, but instead a sight which looks within the neighbourhood of something, ‘a kind of awareness in which one looks around before one decides just what one ought to do next’ (1962 H ftn p.69). When we encounter things we see them in this round about way;

When we enter a room through the door, we do not apprehend the seats as such, and the same holds for the doorknob. Nevertheless, they are there in this peculiar way: we go by them circumspectly, avoid them circumspectly, stumble against them, and the like. (1982 p.163)

Yet how are we to comprehend how our understanding of the retail park is constructed in this combination of use and looking? One way to think of it is as being composed of a mass of individual things each of which we cognize in turn as we come across them, finally bringing the totality together in our mind to create a meaningful entity. Here a road, there a roundabout, above us an electricity pylon, but what about the drainage grid in the road the grass on the roundabout, the cable on the pylon? We could go on and on, from the macro to the micro. To consider our engagement with the retail park in this way ignores one glaring fact, when we visit them as part of our day-to-day routine nothing we find there stands out in relief. We don’t notice the road we drive on or the door we enter the building through or the drainage grid in the road through which rainwater is cleared, they all disappear into use. Everything is in an unobtrusive contexture, a contexture of functionality.

In our everyday behaviour we never take anything out of this context, it is this contexture through which equipment is understood as being functional. That is equipment, such as a path, has the character of being something for and something in-order-to.

Each individual piece of equipment is by its own nature equipment-for—for traveling, for writing, for flying. Each one has its immanent reference to that for which it is what it is. It is always something for… (ibid p.163)

a path is for walking to and from. It is also something in order to in this case in order to navigate between my car and the shop,

The being of something we use…a hammer or a door, is characterized by a specific way of being put to use, of functioning. This entity is “in order to hammer,” “in order to make leaving, entering, and closing possible.” (ibid)

It is this combined something-for, in-order-to that constitutes equipment’s functionality. In our dealing with the retail park as a collection of equipmental things, both the individual thing, the road, the path, and the whole of the retail park is understood as being functional, it is this contexture of functionality through which our own individual environment is created and understood.

The retail park when we encounter it has paths, roads, roundabouts, plants, electricity pylons, parking spaces etc. They constitute the arrangement which each piece of equipment is part of. When confronted by a range of equipment we have an understanding of an environs that extends beyond what is immediately before us. As such each item of equipment has a relationship to another, Heidegger calls this understanding the prius, equipmental things are pre-understood as being part of a greater whole, whether smaller or larger. This applies to each entity from the breadth of the retail park to the seeming particularity of the drainage grid. We understand the retail park, as a place to drive to in order to buy what we need, as being within a framework of producers, warehouses, distribution services. As such the retail park exists in a structure of organisation. Similarly a drainage grid has been produced and installed and helps to keep the retail park functioning in times of harsh weather conditions, allowing the road to function in times of storm and flood. This reference to weather relates us to nature.

Yet can this particular relationship between us and equipmental things ever be uncovered outside of use if its normal constitution is not to reveal itself, but to disappear into use? One of the points where things are revealed outside our standard engagement with them relates to my original interest in retail parks as affective, being able to influence my state of mind. The notion of the affective, as we saw when we looked at rhetoric, is tied to moods. The study of moods was of central importance for phenomenology, they were discovered to be a fundamental existential. We always have a mood, whether it is the pallid evenly balanced seeming lack of mood of the everyday, or momentary moods of elation or despondency.

Our use of equipment in being characterised by concern ‘has the character of being affected in some way’. To be made to feel something enigmatic or puzzling when close to a shop frontage, or to feel hopeful (or alienated) when approaching a retail park or to feel perceptually engaged when looking at a car park indicates that we have a state-of-mind geared towards being hopeful, puzzled, curious or alienated. As such the change of moods through our encounter with things demonstrates the significance that the functionality contexture has for us. It is part of the structure through we which find our selves reflected back to us from the things that we encounter, it is a momentary manifestation of ‘how one is and how one is faring’’ (1962 H p.134). As such our relationship to things cannot be just characterised simply through a consumer – product dichotomy.

Heidegger’s method as a proponent of phenomenology rather than applying a theoretical framework to objects asks instead what our experience of them tells us. It is not for nothing that the early phenomenologists adopted as their guiding motto to the things themselves, i.e. we must not impose theories upon things, but instead learn to see them as they are, through our interaction with them; looking for clues in what our sensibility, including feelings and moods tells us.

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