Charles Baudelaire wrote of the ‘religious intoxication of great cities,’ suggesting that the modern city appeals in an opiate way, as religion did. Years later Walter Benjamin wrote that Baudelaire was right, and that ‘the department stores are the temples consecrated to this intoxication.’ For Benjamin the department store was a key part of the city because ittaught or instructed the city’s inhabitants how they should read the city as a
whole: the department store seemed to embody something about the city’s
ideology. This link between the city and
the department store has risen its head again in the past few days, with national newspapers
reporting on the cruelty of Selfridges ‘anti-homeless spikes’.
These metal spikes, which are termed ‘defensive architecture,’
prevent homeless people sleeping outside department stores. Selfridges claim that these spikes are a
result of ‘customer demand’ not to be ‘harassed’ by homeless people whilst
shopping. No doubt there is some truth
in this: customers find it especially offensive to see a homeless individual in
this particular place. But why should it be
the department store that is the site for this problem? Why is it particularly
offensive to see a homeless person on the way into or out of Selfridges, rather
than anywhere else?
The department store is the perfect place to buy a
commodity, and it sells no necessities. The
stores are in fact a denial of the existence of necessity at all: they are worlds
in which there is only indulgence, where everything is desirable but nothing is
needed. The stores completely separate want from need, and in fact deny the existence of need entirely. To be immediately
confronted with someone in need outside Selfridges threatens the whole ideology
of the store.
This celebration of the department store as a space of glamorous
desire with no undesirable elements has made its way into popular culture in
the last few years as well, with both ITV and BBC running major (ongoing) series’ about
Victorian department stores, Mr Selfridge
and The Paradise respectively. Mr Selfridge embodies this kitsch atmosphere (Milan Kundera defines ‘kitsch’
as ‘the denial of all shit’) with unsavory aspects expelled and the untainted
celebrated. The BBC title The Paradise embodies this same thing:
the department store is a place without undesirable aspects.
The spikes represent the failure of the department store to
progress beyond Victorian attitudes to the poor (department stores saw themselves as breaking out of these class prejudices). In our age of austerity, a repeat
of Victorian austerity, the poor are victimised and blamed (and Selfridges is back in our consciousness). Here is another
example of vilifying the needy (see these articles).
Even the phrase ‘defensive architecture’
suggests that homelessness is an attack that needs combating. Homelessness
threatens the department store ideology which depends on desire and excess, so evidence
of the homeless outside Selfridges operates as a reminder of the falseness of
this ideology and causes the consumer to feel guilty by reminding them of need
and threatening to prevent them from believing in the magical and pure world of
the department store (and the city).