Nostalgia for shopping malls amid decades of critique

Many shopping malls are in dire straits. The potential end of shopping malls can also induce nostalgia and good memories. Add to the decades-long critique of how shopping malls have harmed communities and societies and we have an odd moment: should we celebrate or lament the end of shopping malls?

A few reasons why there is nostalgia:

  1. The shopping mall was a prime social space, let alone a business space, for at least a generation or two. Hanging out at the mall as a teenager was a sign of independence for many and it is glorified by media narratives and images.
  2. The shopping mall is a marker of the past and those growing older can often lament the disappearance of what they knew. Perhaps they did not even like shopping malls or visit them very much but they are a marker for a particular era.
  3. The shopping mall was a significant shift in the shopping experience by providing a collection of chain stores in a single place surrounded by plentiful parking. While we have since moved to big box stores and now to online shopping, the shopping mall transformed retail.

But balance the nostalgia with the critiques:

  1. Shopping malls killed downtowns, from big cities to suburbs to small towns, across the country.
  2. Shopping malls are part of suburban sprawl that wastes resources and land (and contributes to more driving)
  3. They contributed to mass consumption and commercialization. As one quick example: would the commercial celebration of Christmas today be the same without the development of the mall?

How shopping malls end up in the collective memory down the road still remains to be seen. Once the generations that spent so much time in shopping malls is gone, what will their legacy be?

 

Using social media to commemorate September 11th

In recent decades, cultural sociologists have spent more time examining how people today create and experience newer memorials like the Vietnam Wall. But the nature of memorials changes quickly; here is a sociologist discussing how 9/11 is remembered on social media.

Brian Monahan, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania’s Marywood University, said social media helps Americans remember 9/11 in an anniversary year that is not a milestone 10th, 20th or 25th.

It also provides ways to remember events other than the structured process of scheduled memorials, said Monahan, who has studied coverage of 9/11. There was a proscribed way before of how to be solemn. The symbolism went through official channels.

“It was an informal process but it was structured,” he said.

Social media takes all the barriers away.

The conversation about 9/11 is also different now on Twitter and Facebook, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Monahan said.

“There was only one way to talk about 9/11 and that was tragedy,’ Monahan said. “But now it’s about core American values.”

Maybe we are headed toward a world where physical memorials simply don’t matter as much. Existing and new memorials may still attract a lot of visitors and certain locations, such as government centers or big cities, might still be expected to commission and maintain memorials. For example, the 9/11 Memorial in New York City which I had a chance to see in July, may still be important because it is rooted in a certain space. Here is one picture from the site (with the to-be-completed museum in the background):

The collective memory may be rooted in the World Trade Center site but it is now more diffuse. Public commemoration can now be done from anywhere. The 9/11 site can be experienced through websites and Google Street View. Videos can be watched online. People can share their memories from that day and where they were when they heard the news. Now participants can more widely share their memories and opinions rather than just relying on the “big narrative” to which memorials often point.

Perhaps these social media expressions were in part foretold by these new memorials themselves which encourage reflection and having viewers read their own interpretation into display. The classic example is the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. which was deliberately designed to move around controversial views of the war and allow people to reflect on the lives lost. See this classic 1991 piece in the American Journal of Sociology by Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz titled “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Commemorating a Difficult Past.” Social media simply furthers this process but also possibly gives interpretations from individuals the potential to reach wider audiences.

Interpreting Abraham Lincoln through a 21st century lens

A new sociological book explores how Americans have interpreted Abraham Lincoln for their own purposes:

Jackie Hogan, sociology chair at Bradley University in Peoria, writes that, by now, nearly 150 years after his assassination, the way we think about Abraham Lincoln says more about us than about him.

“In the years since that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre, fact and legend have become so intertwined in the Lincoln story that it now may be impossible to know the man as he really was,” Nolan writes in her new book, “Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America.” “Instead, we are largely limited to 21st-century interpretations of what 20th-century historians wrote about 19th-century recollections of the man. We are reduced to standing in a historical hall of mirrors, trying to discern the original from its countless reflections.”

This blog has covered, tongue mostly in cheek, a lot of the phenomena Hogan deflates in far more scholarly fashion, like Geico’s “Honest Abe” commercial and Lincoln as science-fiction hero. Although I confess I didn’t know that Abe has also starred in romance novels. (Irving Stone once wrote that Mary admired “the powerful muscles and the indestructible male strength of him” … whew, what an image.)…

Hogan is particularly good in her examination of how people have marketed Lincoln over the years, how they’ve  used Lincoln to market themselves, and how Lincoln is often appropriated for modern political purposes — there’s a whole chapter titled “What Would Lincoln Do?”

Why worry about the actual history if you can use the figure for your own marketing ends?

This sort of work on collective memory can be quite fascinating. Of course, we are far removed from Lincoln’s life so there is a lot of room for distortions and various interpretations. What is important today is not just what Lincoln actually did but what we think he actually did. For example, our current president has used Abraham Lincoln as an example numerous times in order to help get his points across. This is probably a fairly good tactic for a leader from Illinois: is there another figure that comes anywhere close to matching Lincoln’s stature? (Michael Jordan probably has a broader popularity around the world but it is of a different kind.)

This reminds of a local story that involves Lincoln. For years, the suburb of West Chicago was thought to be a site of an unplanned Lincoln-Douglas debate. This story went that Lincoln and Douglas were nearby to each other because of some train difficulties and the two decided to debate in West Chicago on property just southeast of the corner of modern-day Route 59 and Washington Street. This story was corroborated by a number of eyewitnesses who submitted their testimony in affidavits to prove their veracity. Alas, the story is not true:

Bombard says Lincoln and Douglas probably did come to The Junction, as West Chicago was known in those days, because it was a rail crossroads.

“To go anywhere, you had to come to The Junction,” she said.

In fact, Bombard said a man from Batavia remembers seeing Abraham Lincoln at The Junction, once when he was 8 years old and a second time on the funeral train.

But Lincoln experts largely agree, Bombard said, that it’s impossible that the two were together on Aug. 28, 1858, the day the debate supposedly took place, because the places Lincoln was known to have been on Aug. 27 and Aug. 29 would have made it impossible for him to be in West Chicago on Aug. 28.

Still, the story featured prominently in the history of the community for a number of years.

A sociologist against the idea of closure

Via BigThink.com, I stumbled across a sociologist making an interesting argument: “closure” is a cultural construction. This sounds both controversial and fascinating as it draws attention to a topic that we don’t think much about: how to grieve and deal with loss as individuals and, perhaps more interesting for sociologists, as a culture.

Two quick thoughts:
1. I would guess Berns argues that closure is more of a cultural development than an actual experience a person has and is emblematic of a therapeutic American culture that emphasizes “moving on.” But I’ll have to read the book to find out. Developing personal or collective memories about traumatic events can be interesting topics to study, as the growing field of the sociology of disasters illustrates.

2. Looking at the blog that accompanies the book, I wonder how much demand Berns will be in with the upcoming September 11th memorials. On one hand, some could find her take on grief to be reassuring and needed. On the other hand, some might be angry. If she does become part of the media circus surrounding the commemorative, I hope she can push a sociological perspective on the proceedings.

Pictures of 9/11 Ground Zero memorial

Here is an interesting set of pictures of what the 9/11 Ground Zero memorial is going to look like. The architect talks about his own experiences in putting this together here. See the official website here.

I assume there will be a lot of discussion about the memorial once it is fully open to the public. Does it adequately sum up American feelings and experiences regarding 9/11? Memorials not only invoke the past but also reflect our current understanding of past events and people. Such spaces can both provoke and inspire collective memories, meaning they can reinforce already existing narratives or ask people to develop their own (like the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial).

Tunnels as infrastructure and symbols of pride

Boring machines broke through today at the opposite end of a 35.4 mile tunnel in the Alps, creating the world’s longest tunnel in Switzerland and taking the title away from Japan. While this is a feat of engineering (allowing high speed trains to carry cargo under the mountains rather than have it be shipped on trucks over the Alps), it is also interesting to read about the emotional responses people are having:

Trumpets sounded, cheers reverberated and even burly workers wiped away tears as foreman Eduard Baer lifted a statue of Saint Barbara — the patron saint of miners — through a small hole in the enormous drilling machine thousands of feet (meters) underground in central Switzerland.

At that moment, a 35.4-mile (57-kilometer) tunnel was born, and the Alpine nation reclaimed the record from Japan’s Seikan Tunnel. Television stations across Europe showed the event live…

Peter Fueglistaler, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, called Friday “a day of joy for Switzerland.”

“We are not a very emotional people but if we have the longest tunnel in the world, this also for us is very, very emotional” he told The Associated Press.

This project is not just a boon for business and the environment; it is seen as a testament to the will and determination of the Swiss. As a project that has been in the works for decades (with the referendum votes for funding taking place nearly two decades ago), to see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” is a big accomplishment. This is cultural moment that will likely become part of the Swiss collective memory.

How might the response in the United States to such an engineering feat differ?