I moved to the suburbs of Washington a few years ago and find myself thinking a lot about my surroundings: about sprawl, about cul-de-sacs and about limited access highways. I also think a good deal about Robert Smithson, the artist, and Robert Fitterman, the plagiarist poet, in no small part because they both write so well and so differently about suburbia. The differences are many, but I keep coming back to this: Smithson didn’t talk about malls and Fitterman does. In this essay, I want to make this odd fact make sense.
In the end, I believe that it comes down to nothing more than this: the owl of Minerva might really fly at dusk, or, to switch from Hegel to Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. We live at the fag-end of the age of malls, in a period that has swapped out the enclosed shopping centers that served as the backdrops for any number of teen-age movies for new-model “lifestyle centers.” These retail outlets look like old-fashioned main streets—sort of– but aren’t. They are privately owned spaces pretending to be public ones and are unimaginable as hangouts for the young. Because of all this–because no indoor malls have been built in close to a decade–we can begin to think about what the mall, and the suburbia it came to represent, might have meant. I can only offer a start and a suggestion.
In 1966, Smithson, took in the sights of northern New Jersey from a quarry in Upper Montclair:
From the top of the quarry cliffs, one could see the New Jersey suburbs bordered by the New York City skyline.
The terrain is flat and loaded with ‘middle income’ housing developments with names like Royal Garden Estates, Rolling Knolls Farm, Valley View Acres, Split-level Manor, Babbling Brook Ranch-Estates, Colonial Vista Homes-on and on they go, forming tiny boxlike arrangements. Most of the houses are painted white, but many are painted petal pink, frosted mint, buttercup, fudge, rose beige, antique green, Cape Cod brown, lilac, and so on. The highways crisscross through the towns and become man-made geological networks of concrete. In fact, the entire landscape has a mineral presence. From the shiny chrome diners to glass windows of shopping centers, a sense of the crystalline prevails.1
Smithson’s view organizes “the little boxes of ticky tacky” painted in absurdly-named colors into little absurdly named boxlike developments. These developments are both self-enclosed and apparently self-replicating, ranged along the roads that connect them. The concrete—in all senses of the word—network grants the vista a kind of unity. It gives it a form.
To a certain extent, then, Smithson’s brief description belongs to the tradition of the scenic panorama, the vista that brings it all together, but he is not, to put it in his terms, opting for either the romantic or classical line because these are, as he puts it “old chestnuts anyway.”2 His “voluptuous pleasure” in “seeing the whole”3 is the ironic dialectician’s delight in dismantling other people’s illusions.
Smithson liked to attack the tendency—both romantic and classic– to assume that all of nature is organic, that it can be understood in terms of the life sciences. If we need models, he suggests, then we should look to crystals and not plants, to facets and not roots. Geological formations “grow” without living: they accrete. Crystals present us with an image of time that is based on symmetries and mirror images, lodged in the principle of succession and not progression. Entropy—one of Smithson’s chief metaphors– is yet another figure for this anti-progressivism, for the fascination with stasis. Smithson’s crack about “the sense of the crystalline” gets an added charge if it is read in the context of a slightly more mainstream understanding of the suburban landscape. In “Homes for America,” an article from the same year as Smithson’s trip to Montclair, his friend Dan Graham makes the (by then) conventional claim that there is no “organic unity,” no connection between the suburbs and their landscape. “Both,” he writes, are without roots—separate parts in a larger, predetermined synthetic order.”4 Smithson, for his part, has no interest in roots or growth. He does not care if the relationship between dwelling and site is “organic.” It does not grow, but accretes like crystal. It has nothing to do with life and its reproduction. Because Graham’s figure equates nature with the organic, he can see the suburbs as synthetic and can play with the term’s negative cast. Because Smithson equates nature with the inorganic, he can see the synthetic quality of the landscape—“the man-made geological networks of concrete”—as completely natural. Smithson distances himself from both suburbia’s critics (the suburbs are soulless and artificial) and its defenders (the new developments present a freer, more comfortable and more humane environment). Smithson’s suburbs aren’t either good or bad for people. They don’t contain any people at all. Smithson thus succeeds in unifying the metropolitan area that radiates out from (and towards) New York by mortifying it, by eliminating the organic completely.
The most striking example of his capacity to kill off what he sees comes in his great essay of 1967, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic.” There he inflates that city to a “self-destroying postcard world of failed immortality and oppressive grandeur” while reducing it to a “zero panorama ” of mid-Sixties road building:
That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built. The buildings do not fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. But the suburbs exist without a rational past and without the “big events of history. Oh, maybe there are a few statues, a legend and a couple of curios, but no past—just what passes for a future. A Utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass…. Passaic seems full of “holes” compared to New York City…and those holes in a sense are monumental vacancies that define, without trying the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.5
The monuments of Passaic are of course not monuments in any traditional sense—they do not commemorate any “big events of history”–but are rather the reminders of superannuated public works projects, like the pipes dumping sewage into the Passaic River. As active ruins, they too are “ruins in reverse,” foreshadowing the fate of the highway that is waiting to be built.
Smithson’s “Tour” undoes history while maintaining the sovereignty of time. In this case, time describes the process of dedifferentiation he calls entropy. Smithson wants to show how our progressive dreams of utopia inevitably dissipate into a cold, dystopian soup. The monuments of Passaic are little death heads, reminders that all our futures are already abandoned, relics of an unfulfilled past.
What are we to make of the idleness of the machines in Smithson’s suburban image of cancelled utopia? It could be taken, at first blush, as a post-Fordist dream of redemption—a world without toil. Truth be told, his Passaic is a place where one can still make a living in stone and the next model year of cars. It trades in trade and consumption, without the burdens of production. But it is also a world where there seems to be little or no employment, where the Sabbath rest—he is there on the weekend, after all—seems less a premonition of eternal reward than of perpetual joblessness.
Smithson wants to redefine the notion of the future, to dispel the faintest whiff of utopia and thus steer us away from the false conviction that things will get better. An illusory—and somewhat shabby—desire for utopia is the driving force behind the suburbs where the past isn’t even past, because the future isn’t even the future. The consumerist dream “is lost somewhere in the dumps of the non-historical past; it is in yesterday’s newspapers, in the jejune advertisements of science-fiction movies, in the false mirror of our rejected dreams” (74). Dreams morph into objects—houses, roads, Pontiacs and concrete—that are then put in cold storage or relocated “in the celestial playgrounds of the suburbs” (74).
So yes, we can account for the idleness of the derricks, jackhammers and backhoes of the highway construction on the fact that Smithson’s tour of Passaic took place on a Saturday. But Passaic’s post-industrial silence owes much to the fact that this once-prosperous city had fallen on very hard times by the late Sixties. As Jennifer Roberts’s excellent archival research has shown, Passaic had lost 36% of its retail establishments by 1966 and its percentage of minorities had risen to 35%. The city Smithson was visiting was therefore in the middle of a crisis that was quite familiar at the time.6 The “urban blight” that these numbers demonstrate had everything to do with the historic flight of the white middle classes to the suburbs.
The story of that flight is well known and well documented, so I’ll merely summarize it here. In a nutshell: after the Second World War, a pent-up demand for suburban housing, fuelled by the sheer number of returning veterans and financed by the thirty-year mortgage, along with the construction of a continental limited-access highway system drew people out from the cities. This exodus was helped in no small part by Fannie Mae’s preference for new construction and the banks’ redlining of urban districts, not to mention the sharp decline in services as cities began to lose their tax base. The riots of the mid-60’s were just the final cause of white flight.7 By 1970, the number of Americans living in the suburbs had risen to an unprecedented 56%.8
In other words, I want to suggest that that the Passaic that Smithson returned to on September 30, 1967 looked like a ghost town for reasons beyond the keen madness of his method. He did not merely mortify the downtown, presenting something presumed to be biological as if it were crystalline. By the time Smithson took the bus from the Port Authority across the Hudson, history had already killed Passaic’s Main Street. At the moment of Smithson’s visit, Passaic was in the process of being transformed from a rather scrappy city in its own right to a scrappy suburb of New York. Passaic is exemplary for Smithson because it occupies an odd position: at the moment he was writing, it was neither quite a city nor quite a suburb. It was an anxious hybrid of the worst of both. (Although it lies just 10 miles from New York and contains a number of commuters, people have had a hard time considering it suburb, though it certainly is being marketed as one.9) In this way, Smithson was bearing witness to just another skirmish in what the historian Jon Teaford has dubbed the “Metropolitan Revolution”— the centrifugal movement of population and money from more-densely populated cities into a new urban-suburban landscape, a complicated nexus of roads and jurisdictions constructed on what had once been farms, towns, villages, scrub and swamp.
But I want to make it clear that Smithson also registers a very specific aspect of this revolution—obliquely to be sure–when he notes that Passaic does not really have a center anymore. The lack of shops on the main street—part of the outward flow of commerce that marks suburbanization—is not just the obsolescence of the future. Main Street has moved somewhere else. Smithson doesn’t name that somewhere else, but at that moment it was being built just a few miles away, in the newly-developed shopping centers and malls of Passaic and Bergen Counties. The ads for the opening of the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne in 1968, billed it as “the new downtown.” That says it all. Willowbrook was aiming right at the small, weak heart of Passaic’s economy and at the economy of every town and city center around Newark and in northern New Jersey. At the time of Smithson’s writing, that section of the state saw a boom in this kind of commercial real estate. By 1967, Paramus alone already boasted three malls, ranging from the Garden State Shopping Plaza, which opened in 1957, to the upscale Fashion Center, which opened exactly ten years later. According to Mark Auerbach, who once served as Passaic’s official historian, the construction of the malls and the loss of the railroad destroyed that city’s downtown.10 Alternatively, we can say that a shift from public transportation to the automobile, and the transmigration of commerce from mom-and-pop shops in Passaic to outlying plazas turned an old industrial city into a much more modern suburb. Smithson registered the effect of these moves. He just didn’t mention the malls.
Fitterman’s four-volume serial poem, Metropolis, written between the late 1990s and 2010, comes at the end of the most recent stage of the metropolitan revolution. Metropolis might well be described as an extended piece of psychogeography in that it charts “the specific effects of the geographical environment”—in this case, the contemporary metropolitan area—“on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”11 My invocation of Debord here is partly fanciful but deadly serious. The linguistic dérives that Fitterman’s poem undertakes, its détournements of texts he finds on the web and beyond, do not just describe playful Situationist subversions of the blatantly instrumental and the bluntly functional, although they do that to an extent. More importantly, though, they highlight the way the instrumental and the functional distort and become the everyday.
The first two books of Metropolis consist of shorter works, mash-ups of found language that register the next stage in the metropolitan revolution after Smithson’s. They give voice to the revitalization of cities that took place when young Gen-X aspirants and their Millennial younger siblings decided that was worth paying a premium to move back to the cities that had largely been cleared of their middle classes.12 The final volume, Sprawl, lights out for suburbia. The first section of the book takes Dolores Hayden’s Field Guide to Sprawl as its prooftext. Hayden argues that we lack a vocabulary for describing, conceiving and combatting sprawl. Her field guide seeks to address this deficiency by providing a visual dictionary of sprawl. So we learn, for instance, that an “alligator” is a term used to signal that an investment “produces a negative cash flow.”13 A fine series of photographs accompanies the text. It shows us what sprawl looks like from the air, precisely because the patchwork pattern of encroaching developments and cul-de-sacs is illegible from the ground. In order to see suburbia, Smithson looks out from the top of his quarry. Hayden’s collaborator, the photographer Jim Wark, takes to the air.
In the end, though, the organization of Hayden’s A Field Guide to Sprawl is conventionally textual—it is alphabetical. The second and longer section of Fitterman’s Sprawl on the other hand is nominally topographical. Its sections follow the layout of a not-quite-fictitious shopping mall. Fitterman therefore attempts to render the unintelligibility of sprawl legible, not by aerial views as such, but by an interesting reduction in which the expansiveness of sprawl gets whittled down, through rhyme, to the mall. Fitterman makes the mall stand in as ta synecdoche for suburbia. The mall in Sprawl is therefore something of a pastoral fiction, to the extent that it places the complex into the simple (as Empson puts it), in this case by recasting the complicated relationships that make up suburbia as the well-defined space of a shopping center.
It has become a standard cliché to take the mall as a figure for suburbia (as the title of the NEA’s 2002 publication Sprawl and Public Space: Redressing the Mall makes clear). This makes sense as the equation of the two was written into the mall’s DNA from the start. Victor Gruen, who is credited with having invented the mall, hoped that this new space would serve as the civic and cultural center for the low- density spread of the suburbs, as a more rational and more humane downtown than the cities could provide. A good deal of the criticism of the mall has been precisely that it did not live up to this high expectation—that it turned “our complex, multiuse public space into one-dimensional venue for consumption.”14 Not surprisingly, Gruen himself was severely disappointed that the mall had become, in his words, “a giant shopping machine.”
This engine of consumption, however giant, can easily be mapped in ways that suburbia, with its lack of density, with its knots and crosses of cul-de-sacs and rights of way, cannot. And Fitterman maps it. The book is divided into floors and the odd interstitial spaces in between. Sprawl devotes sections—all culled from consumer reviews—to each retailer, stall, movie theater and food concession on the three levels of a mall. The book presents itself as a kind of digital imprint of a very specific mall—The Indian Mound Mall in Heath, Ohio.
As it turns out, though, the real Indian Mound Mall bears little relation to the mall in Fitterman’s poem. Sprawl describes an ideal type of mall, one that is rich with anchor retailers—Sears, Nordstrom’s, J.C. Penney, Bloomingdales, Saks—as well as smaller, but just as important stores, like American Eagle, Pottery Barn, Brooks Brothers, Lands End and Circuit City. Indian Mound Mall is nothing like that. It is “a graveyard where retail goes to die,” as one online reviewer on Yelp puts it. At the point when Sprawl was published, Indian Mound had been on the skids for several years (“how much business does a Tattoo parlor and a table tennis room really bring to your mall?”) and was clinging to the hope that the addition of Dick’s and T.J. Maxx (not Bloomies and Saks) would turn things around.
I assume that Fitterman picked the actual Indian Mound Mall because he was interested in the Indian mounds behind the mall. Those mounds are all that remains of a Native American city called Cahokia that failed spectacularly and mysteriously about seven centuries ago.15 In Fitterman’s poem, Cahokia stands as a memento mori, as a radical historicization that reminds us that what looks to us so solid and so natural—our very way of life—enjoys a merely phantom fixity. It is Fitterman’s way of mortifying the mall, of making it dead, or, to use Smithson’s terminology, of reducing it to a monument.
To what end? Sprawl is made up of reviews. It maps consumers’ reactions to the stores and the goods that make the “giant shopping machine” run. In so doing, the book goes straight to the heart of the ideological justification of suburbia in the first place. In an article in The New Republic in 1999, Gregg Easterbrook laid out an influential plea on the suburb’s behalf. His argument, repeated throughout the better part of the next decade in any number of predictable places–in papers from the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Reason Institute as well as in books like Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History, Randal O’Toole’s The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, as well as Teaford’s scholarship–was that sprawl is on-the-ground evidence that the market actually works. It serves as an example of what economists call “consumer sovereignty.” “People of all races seek the sprawled areas,” Easterbrook states, “because that’s what they like” (italics in original).16 Suburbs give the people what they want. And if the people get what they want relatively cheaply and relatively efficiently, then the system is doing what it is supposed to do.
If suburbia is the expression of the American dream, as David Brooks crowed in The New York Times several years ago, it is because it functions as an expression of our economic exuberance, the creative destruction that makes capitalism hum. More to the point, it shows how markets can, do and should work. Sprawl’s defenders use the language of consumption and choice to make their case. Thad Williamson quotes a study by the Cato Institute: “That suburbanization itself should be an object of attack is amazing, given the expressed preferences of the majority of Americans for suburban lifestyles and the supposed sanctity of consumer sovereignty.”17 As Williamson notes, the kicker in this quotation is the authors’ unreflective assumption that we all agree about the sanctity of consumer sovereignty, that we believe that in healthy markets, the best social outcomes are (and should be) determined by consumer choice. They work from the premise that we want what we get because what we have gotten is what we would definitely have chosen in the first place. The normative underpinning of their defense of sprawl is that consumer satisfaction—which can be gauged minimally as what a good number people have chosen a good amount of the time– is the best measure of efficiency and value. They argue that the social costs of these choices are either negligible or that people have already discounted them.
By falling back on the old Cold War conflation of consumer choice with political freedom, this argument reduces democracy to the mere aggregation of preference and gets rid of any substantial notion of the public.18 Rather, it makes sure that all interest is self-interest.19 In effect, the argument substitutes individual choice for civic debate.20 When the consumer and the citizen are one, individual purchases count as public discourse. This turns the old critique of modern politics as a form of marketing on its head. Here the market is seen as a legitimate form of, if not an unjustified substitution for, politics. We do not need public discussion about land use nor do we need regulation. The market, as the mantra goes, is the most efficient way to gauge the public will. By moving out to suburbia and shopping in the mall, people have voted with their pocketbooks and with their lives.
If the consumer is sovereign, then satisfaction is all that counts, and in the age of digital media, the online review takes the place of public debate. Weaving the text of Sprawl from discussion threads on websites like Yelp, Fitterman doesn’t see that people are all that happy with what they’ve got. Satisfaction in this case might be defined simply: consumers want to find what they are looking for and they want to want what they find. To be sure, in Sprawl, we read that some brands provide value: “These suckers have never gone bad on me. They are very lightweight that’s good. Comes in nice styles, very trendy. The staff really seems to know their stuff” (40). But some brands do not. A shirt from Talbots shrinks (“either that or maybe I’ve put on a few pounds”) and then starts “to like disintegrate and unravel…the seams were all coming apart” (32).
As Fitterman compresses long discussions into single entries, the verdicts on retailers often become inconclusive. They are both good and bad: “The merchandise lacks pizzazz. . ..Colorful, preppy and classy. These are the must-haves” (30). It is often hard to tell whether or not a retailer will do the trick. It’s also hard to tell which needs will be satisfied and to what extent they will be met:
If this is steak then my Vitamin Water is Champagne. It’s some kind of flabby, chewy organ meat tasting piece of crap in a Styrofoam container with 2 sides for like 10 bucks—yippee. When I don’t mind spending a little extra, I’ll for the steak…a yummy treat. I only have 20 minutes for lunch, so the line does play a part in where I go. It’s a catch-22 though because if there’s no line, it’s probably because the food is lousy (Sprawl 65-6).
So, which is it really: organ meat or a yummy treat? It might not matter. If time trumps taste in an everyday calculation about lunch, the consumer might opt for speed, even if the food tastes bad and presents poor value for money. In other words, Fitterman demonstrates that there are many different ways of understanding what constitutes satisfaction, just as there are many different ways of weighing costs. So the libertarians might be wrong: not all satisfaction is truly satisfying. Even at the mall, expensive, unappetizing food might be the best–or cheapest—you can do. You choose it because you have to, not because you really want to.
The Indian Mound section of Sprawl is a complicated text and I can do it scant justice here. In over seventy pages, it demonstrates time and again that shopping can turn into a form of social kabuki. It documents the embarrassing experiences of a father looking for a prom dress and of a woman who feels she deserves better because she is blonde and skinny. In an age of expressive consumption, shopping does not necessarily revolve around the quality of merchandise. Humiliation is as much a source of customer dissatisfaction as an ill-fitting shirt. Sprawl contains a number of tales of petty affront: “You can be in that store spending a small fortune,” the entry for Ann Taylor reads, “and you will invariably be ‘helped’ by some trust fund wanna-be who believes he/she is doing you a favor by even speaking to you. Not worth it” (49). In other words, consumers might be sovereign but the customer is hardly king. If he or she does not seem up to the image of the brand—if he or she is not fit enough or blonde enough—then the sales help will not in fact help. In this world of lifestyle branding, shopping easily shades into a scene of calibrated insult and aggression.
Sprawl‘s careful attention to the rituals and travails of consumption shows how the mall with its solicitation of desire and disappointment lets the consumer down. The last word in the book goes to a reviewer of the movie, Pursuit of Happiness:
I could also relate to events that cascade and come down on you like the world is plotting against you. A greedy unexpected lay off by a long time employer; a breakup, she took out 75k in credit cards…bankruptcy looms, rent is due, job outlook is bleak….etc. I could relate to his plight of “What Next?” (81)
The thought that your destiny might well turn out to be nothing more than unredeemed bad luck is hard to live with. But the realization that it was the result of those you trusted turning you into an instrument as they pursued blind economic ends is perhaps just too much to bear. The flip side and the human cost of the lionization of personal choice—the very justification of suburban sprawl and the mall in the first place—lie there in that final question.
By turning the mall into a monument, by mortifying it and demonstrating that it is no more durable than the goods that it sells or the justifications that support it, Sprawl‘s critique of consumer sovereignty shows the mall to be a crystallization of what Smithson called “abandoned futures.” The mall as a form is now such an abandoned future. It too has been junked for better, more efficient machines for shopping.
What do we make of these indexes of abandoned futures? There are no adults and no malls in Smithson’s geological rendering of the suburb and there are only grown-ups and malls in Fitterman’s ethnography of suburban consumption. Between them, these two Roberts lay waste to the promesse de bonheur — the utopian promises of pleasure and satisfaction—that bracket the most recent stages of the metropolitan revolution. At the beginning of this little history stands Smithson’s corrosive irony:
The windows of City Motors auto sales proclaim the existence of Utopia through 1968 WIDE TRACK PONTIACS—Executive, Bonneville, Tempest, Thunderbird, GTO, Catalina , and LeMans…
At the latter end stands David Brook’s unironic acceptance of the bad faith and costly illusion behind the “creative destruction” that neo-liberalism likes to celebrate:
This Paradise Spell is at the root of our tendency to work so hard, consume so feverishly, to move so much. It inspires our illimitable faith in education, our frequent born-again experiences. It explains why, alone among developed nations, we have shaped our welfare system to encourage opportunity at the expense of support and security; and why, more than people in comparable nations, we wreck our families and move on.21
In between them stands the mall. And in the mall stands Fitterman’s victim of the lethal magic of Brooks’s Paradise Spell, a man who has no social support and no financial opportunity, a man who can only ask, “What Next?”
Indeed. What next?