A curious caravanserai of notoriety and nonsense, poetry and prophecy.

Mall-itics, Class & Symbolic Capital

A hallway inside the opulent Gold Souk at Dubai Mall


In many parts of the Middle East and Africa, as well as, evidently, Brazil, shopping malls have become dominant centers of social interaction.  To better understand what this looks like, I recommend you check out this New York Times article, which captures some of the ensuing class and racial tensions that emerge.

In my own experience of malls – specifically those in Accra, Ghana, Muscat, Oman, and Dubai, UAE – socio-economic hierarchies and power dynamics similar to those described in the article above can easily be observed.  Global “mall-culture,” (which as I understand it originated in my home state of New Jersey and other suburban-sprawl consumerist regions of the U.S. and subsequently spread internationally) and has taken off recently in countries such as the three I mention (and obviously Brazil) that have experienced rapid and unprecedented economic growth during the past few decades.

Because such malls combine glamorous, sub/ex-urban social spaces with a concentrated spectacle of (usually high-end) consumer opportunities, they become culturally significant as a platform for the performance of symbolic capital (think Tory Burch flats and Emporio Armani t-shirts).  However, this also means that they become central symbolic battlefields for meta class warfare.

As we say in Arabic, sa-oodribu lak mithal – I’ll hit you with an example (though not one well-suited to superfluous extrapolation, so please resist it).  On 9/11, the terrorists’ targets – the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and White House/Capital Building (where did they decide UA Flight 93 had been headed?) – were not selected exclusively in order to achieve the highest possible death tolls.  Rather, most agree that it was primarily the symbolic significance of these places – as centers of America’s financial, military and governmental activities respectively – that made them such appealing targets (of, in this case, unconscionable violence/mass murder).

While obviously the Islamist ideology involved has nothing to do with the Brazilian mall example, September 11 effectively illustrates an important principle of guerrilla/resistance-type movements throughout history and the world: When a marginal group, conceiving of themselves in collective opposition/resistance to a wealthy/centralized power, wants to challenge that power (in relation to which they are dramatically disadvantaged), the most practical way to proceed is typically by assaulting the symbolic, rather than aggregate resources of the entity in question.

In the Brazilian example, shopping malls become the physical interface where rich citizens perform/substantiate their status and poor citizens – by entering such elite spaces and donning the accoutrements of the upper class (“flashy baseball caps, colorful tennis shoes, soccer jerseys, sunglasses and rings”) – both resist their socio-economic marginalization and, as the author notes, “aspire to be part of the very consumer society that excludes them.”

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