The title is contradictory, no? How can we, as contemporary individuals, experience a baffling medley of social roles whilst juggling our often alienating structural traits whilst being able to say “me too?”
I guess it is this problem I have been grappling with for the last six months. As a consumer culture sociologist, I try to comprehend how we can experience an object of material culture, or a commercial consumption space, individually. Due to what often feels like cultural homogeneity, this challenges both my critical senses and my personal feeling that mass commodification tends to flatten out the social. Is there room for resistance within commodity culture? And if we find sites where individuals and groups have deviated from the status-quo, how can we discuss them without forgetting a social actor’s location within existing social relations and relatively deterministic economic structures?
The main case study in my thesis research are the heritage arcades that greatly contribute to Melbourne’s reputation as a high-cultural postmodern consumer spectacle. The Hub, The Royal and The Block Arcade are relatively unique in Australia, and coming from some US tourists I have approached, they are also unique to ‘new world’ consumer culture. By this, I mean that the heritage arcades here in Melbourne can be seen as a preserved site of colonialism, an old world Eurocentric implantation into a new country, that sought to bring the feelings of the old country to the distant geographical otherworld that Australia represented. The harsh climate, the uncanny fauna and flora and the youthful cities confronted migrants in the nineteenth century. However, Melbourne’s 1880s economic boom saw it’s international reputation as a brash new city full of luxury and romance flourish. Melbourne remains famous for it’s ornate cast iron and Victorian buildings alongside cutting edge postmodern architecture and clean shiny streets. Politically-focused planning movements such as the 1980s ‘Marvelous Melbourne’ campaign and the 1990s drive to retain Melbourne’s charm alongside new large-scale urban developments function as forerunners to current norms of Melburnian pride of place. Current challenges, such as sustainability and infrastructural maintenance pose not-so-new issues, but public engagement and the presence of world class universities in the CBD provides Melbourne with a diverse blueprint for future action.
The political movements above suggest a top-down event, however, it was individuals, and their passion, that implemented the blueprints and have maintained, on a sociocultural scale, the importance of Melbourne’s urban beauty to its residents and tourists. Statistics on the Melbourne City Council’s website see a daily visiting population in Melbourne of almost 900,000 people. This includes workers, students and other individuals commuting to the city for leisure or other means. My rudimentary observations of the arcades confirms that the historical urban spaces are among the most popular sites for consumption. Shopping is a popular pastime for Melburnians and tourists alike – and the boutique experience that the arcades (and laneways) provide the Melbourne shopper are unique in Australia. My research will also look at other Western cities (Las Vegas, London, Sydney and Toronto) to investigate whether this phenomenon can be found elsewhere. I suspect that each city will provide me with an unique example of what boutique consumerism means. Below, is an image of Sydney’s The Strand Arcade, which is similar to Melbourne’s main three historical arcades:
The above certainly does not begin to address my initial problem of social fragmentation. This is why I have decided upon using postmodern social theory as a lens to discuss how diverse experience can be, whilst, strangely, remaining relatively similar and common to most. The implantation of familiar global symbols (such as the ‘golden arches’ that signify the presence of a McDonalds) are mixed within heritage spaces, at times openly contradicting other messages and moods. Even absurdities such as the ‘McCafe’ within the McDonalds complicate the matter further! Here, Baudrillard’s treatise of simulacra and simulation begins to give us the toolkit to work towards analyzing how urban strangeness molds into a mosaic of everyday experience and widescale social acceptance. If we can begin to accept that society itself is a simulation of the real, a ‘map that precedes territory’, then we can work towards a critical, yet realistic, theory of contemporary consumerism.