CALL FOR PAPERS:
From the mall to the market: continuities and change in the urban landscape of shopping, ca. 1800- ca. 2000
Social Science History Association, Chicago, Illinois, 18-21 November 2010
Jon Stobart Jon.Stobart@northampton.ac.uk
Ilja Van Damme email@example.com
Once upon a time, reasoning went, it was only with the advent of arcades, department stores and retail chains around 1850 that shopping experience was altered in a significant way. Only then did consumers go from casual buyers to pleasurable shoppers, ever more attuned and sensible for the trappings of mass consumerism. However, recent research for medieval and early modern times especially, has thrown open the shutters of supposedly dark, drab and traditional commercial spaces, and revaluated the apparently conservative shopping practices which pertained before the nineteenth-century.
With this research comes the need to radically re-historicise the idea that it was the advent of large scale and cost efficient commercial infrastructure that turned public space into a ‘sphere of consumption’. Even the clever pun that department stores or shopping malls are ‘holy places’ – cathedrals to celebrate the religion of mass consumerism – is not half as smart given the fact that arcaded courtyards of medieval cloisters were used as upmarket shopping premises during yearly fairs. Walter Benjamin may have been right to search in the ‘detritus’ of daily shopping practices for the binding cultural traits of an era and for the ways in which culture was constructed and reproduced. But we should not presume, as he and others have done, that the rituals surrounding the Paris passages were new and innovative in themselves. The ‘everydayness’ of the practices and material culture of shopping is also to be found in earlier periods.
This ties into two more general ideas. The first is that of ‘urban renaissance’ which highlights the role of changing urban practices and discourses, and the advent of commercialized leisure and culture in shaping the physicality of towns in the past. Second, this research, among others, has led to a questioning of the concepts of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ itself. Retail outlets have to be judged on their own merits, fulfilling historical contingent needs and desires, without necessary being seen as residual or backward. A linear, or even teleological story of primitive markets being eclipsed by ever more efficient and sophisticated commercial spaces (shops, arcades, department stores, malls) is as inconclusive as the supposed sudden disappearance of long established customs and manners in handling consumers. Similarly, continuities have to be defined in terms of path dependent choices of a causal nature.
This call for papers welcomes studies of the urban consumer geography of the last two hundred years. It seeks to engage researchers questioning: HOW the commercial physicality of the city both reflected and gradually altered shopping experiences. WHERE did this evolution take place? WHICH actors from both the supply and demand side of the equation did it involve? And HOW and WHY were urban consumer geographies constructed and reproduced through economic practices and socio-cultural discourses and decisions? The urban landscape of shopping is best understood as being as inclusive as possible, not only taking into account its many and changing commercial spaces (from markets, over shops, supermarkets, shopping centres, malls, etc.), but also its interconnecting of shopping streets and leisure zones within a broader public consumer geography. Already in 1989 Edward Soja made a passionate call for a critical ‘spatialisation’ of urban history, and a recognition of the divergent and fractured, but also fundamentally interconnected nature of space. Yet, so far, there has been little attempt to explore the long-term evolution of and inter-relationship between changing consumption practices and the social and material surroundings in which they took place – at least for the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries.
Both from an empirical and theoretical perspective new research on the landscape of shopping and the construction of commercial space awaits future analysis. For urban historians studying the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, the challenge resides in going beyond clichés and worn-out narratives on the revolutionary character of this age. From a theoretical viewpoint, new insights on consumer behaviour and the ‘spatiality of consumption’ have to be incorporated in historical study. This will give rise to a better and fuller understanding of the past, while simultaneously placing our present day consumer geographies in a genuine historical perspective.
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