When malls make you cranky, it’s time to go shopping
Exploring the consumer culture with MRU prof Kit Dobson’s new book, Malled
“It was just one of those things as a kid that made me cranky and gave me headaches,” Dobson says. “As a nerdy kid with big glasses, buck teeth and not a lot of friends, going to the mall was loud and bright, and I just wanted to hide at home with a book.”
Intrigued by his relatively strong aversion to consumerism, Dobson decided to explore further. “I find just about everything about shopping weird,” he says, but to understand why he had to spend a lot of time in the places he hates the most. The result is Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada, which Dobson calls a combination of cultural studies and travel writing. His research took him across Canada, from the tony Chinook Centre in Calgary, to the modern underground malls of Montreal, to the singular (and purportedly famous) Walmart in Whitehorse. Technically termed as a literary non-fiction book, Malled is Dobson’s first non-academic work, and it’s funny, smart and sweet.
Wolsak & Wynn publisher Noelle Allen signed Malled “because I was intrigued by how Kit examined malls both as physical spaces and as cultural and social spaces.
“He went beyond simple approaches to consumerism to consider how people use and need malls and how they’re part of the fabric of our lives. But he does it with humour and warmth, poking fun at his own activist tendencies, while also asking some tough questions.”
Dobson says his dislike of shopping is mainly ecologically driven. “We are just consuming the planet to death, which I find troubling. And annoying,” he says. “One of the statistics that I talk a little bit about in the book is from a recent issue of Alberta Views that talks about this province’s consumption patterns. It says that if everybody on Earth consumed the same way that Albertans do, then we would need four planets to sustain us.”
The problem with most academic writing about consumerism is that it is contemptuous and slightly flippant in what Dobson calls a “fairly easy” way. Most of the work seems to believe that all that is needed is education, and presto! The problem will just go away.
“But I think it’s more complicated than that. Because shopping is actually part of our culture in a way that I don’t think I expected when I started this project,” Dobson says.
Some of the shopping trips Dobson undertook were alongside his personal travels. Others were deliberate, such as visiting the Whitehorse WalMart, one of the more than 11,000 such epicentres of consumerism in the U.S. and Canada. Dobson had never set foot in a WalMart before in his life.
“There are a lot of local politics and controversies around that particular WalMart, particularly their policy that people can camp in the parking lot. A lot of people do park and camp at the one in Whitehorse, which causes some tensions with the campgrounds nearby.”
Dobson also spent a lot of time at Balzac’s CrossIron Mills.
“I was trying to figure out what’s going on there. I don’t think I have the answer but I think it has to do with irony.”
Allen says that Malled provides interesting illuminations about different parts of the country, as well as how shopping changes and evolves. “(It’s possible) malls have become disturbingly self-aware and we’ll never really get away from our need to buy things. Kit brings the reader around to accepting malls and seeing them as a space more for people than for products.”
Malled is also about the artistic practices of people in Canada, Dobson says. Each place he went to was because it had been mentioned in a book, film or poem. “I think we’re often trained, from K-12 and through university, to think about Canadian literature and culture as being tied to the outdoors and the woods, but certainly in a lot of the conversations that I have, it’s probably less the case.
“This is part of the ongoing process that I have about thinking about Canadian culture as an urban culture, or in this case I’m mostly embedded in a ‘sub’urban culture and trying to think about these spaces as ones that are culturally important and significant.”
It’s a dialog he tries to bring to his classrooms all the time as well. “Growing up in Calgary, I often had that sense that art and culture took place somewhere else. Like, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto. I think that what I’m actually trying to do with this project is to say, ‘you know, we’re actually in it all the time. And here are some of the spaces we can see it.’”
Visit kitdobson.ca for more about Dobson and his work.
Oct. 16, 2017 — Michelle Bodnar