The Mausoleum Of The Mall

I’m walking around the St. Louis mall like a pharaoh inside his pyramid. This place is full of all the goods a provincial potentate could ever need, and it’s completely dead. This mall is a mausoleum. It’s like a tomb with a Cinnabon.

It’s not even the malls are such a bad idea. Fundamentally it’s just the idea of wandering down a street without getting rained on. It began with people using the new abilities of iron and glass to cover existing passages. Walter Benjamin observed the construction of early ‘arcades’ in Paris and left a mess of notes in an unfinished book. Among his notes, he noted:

The Passage Véro-Dodat (built between the Rue de Bouloy and the Rue Grenelle Saint-Honoré) owes its name to two rich pork butchers, Messieurs Véro and Dodat, who in 1823 undertook its construction together with that of the adjacent buildings — an immense development. This led someone at the time to describe this arcade as a ‘lovely work of art framed by two neighborhoods. ‘“ J.A. Dulaure, (Paris, 1835).

It’s just that the whole concept got warped into absurdity by the time I came along, especially in America. In America, they destroyed walkable neighborhoods with cars and then simulated them inside shopping malls. As consumerism spread globally, it destroyed the climate and now simulates a livable climate inside the mall. The simulation devoured the real, and now both are falling apart. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a place like St. Louis.

St. Louis is a strange town. It was a city once, effectively the West Coast of America back when flight was young. But now its population and relevance have shrunk dramatically. Everything in St. Louis is way too big; it has the infrastructure for a city many times its size, for a future that never came and likely never well. The St. Louis Mall is thus at the juncture of two phenomena: the hollowing out of St. Louis itself and the hollowing out of the American mall in general. It’s an altogether hollow experience.

Wandering this sort of mall is really like finding yourself inside a tomb. All the goods a person could need for the afterlife are here: perfectly made beds, hung clothes, every possible amenity and appliance. Even bored attendants still give up their lives here, though there are few people to wait on. As an 1828 observation of Paris goes (via Walter Benjamin):

The magic columns of these palaces
Show to the amateur on all sides
In the objects their porticos display,
That industry is the rival of the arts

But what American industry is there? St. Louis is a largely deindustrialized town. Very few of these objects are made in America. America has become a good place to get stuff from China, and now they’re going to war with China. In truth the center of industrial power has shifted back to Asia and with it its temples, the malls. The largest malls are in China now. Or in the Middle East. Or even in India. What you have across America are increasingly mausoleums, not malls. As Honoré de Balzac said in 1845 (again via Walter Benjamin):

The ruins of the Church and of the aristocracy, of feudalism, of the Middle Ages, are sublime — they fill the wide-eyed victors of today with admiration. but the ruins of the bourgeoisie will be an ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.

This is quite what I feel, nearly two centuries later. This mall is a ruin, but a completely ignoble one. Everything was built cheaply and temporarily and it’s already falling apart. The escalator is broken, the tiles are chipping, everything is tacky and nothing was built to last… and it doesn’t.

The goods inside are just detritus strewn about with barely a person even keeping an eye on them. I’m coming back to the Midwest after twenty years and it’s a shell of what I remember. For example, Toys “R” Us used to be a giant, indomitable store when I was young, until private equity took over and, like the Mafia, busted it out. Now it’s a tiny section in the mall, hidden off in a corner, literal detritus from an economy that exploded in 2008 and just refuses to acknowledge it. As Victor Hugo wrote about future Paris in 1880:

No, everything will be dead.
Nothing left in this campagna
But a vanished population, still around.
But the dull eye of man and the living eye of God,
But an arch, and a column, and there, in the middle
Of this silvered-over river, still afoam,
A church half-stranded in the mist

The only thing he misses about current St. Louis is that it’s not a church but, rather, a Cheesecake Factory half-stranded in the mist. But everything else he hits. St. Louis has a vanished population still around, with arches and columns of bygone days, and massive rivers of asphalt and steel still moving people around. But they’re not going anywhere. It’s a strange thing to grow up in an Empire, as I did, and then come back decades years later to find it entombed in its own decadence.

The whole thing never made sense. How could you have so many products? So much waste? So much extra? But it somehow worked. The mall had its own logic of its own: build it and they will come. It always seemed stupid but so many people were there, how could so many people be wrong? But now the people are gone and all that’s left is the absurdity of it all.

When I was a teenager, I experienced the mall like peasants must have experienced festival days, only the festival was perpetual. But now whatever tall gods walked within those halls have fallen down. Now they must scrunch themselves inside a computer screen or, even worse, a phone.

It’s not the people stopped shopping. It’s that people stopped shopping together. Today, the main communal experience of capitalism is filling a neighborhood dumpster with cardboard. Whereas the gathering site of penultimate capitalism was the mall, the gathering site of late capitalism is the bin. The mall is still there but it’s dead. It’s a mausoleum.