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Monday 9 December 2019


Shopping for meaning

A philosophical question for our age: why do we keep buying so much stuff?

By Peter Aspden

In ancient Athens, going out to do the weekly shop could be a tortuous, but always stimulating, process. The choice on offer was impressive. In the city’s agora, local and foreign traders brought all manner of goods to the market: pastries and sweets, wine, shoes, dresses, jewellery. There were potters and fishmongers. And there was also a cranky old man standing on a street corner, asking the passers-by what they really wanted to do with their lives.

Socrates, of course, was far from cranky. He gave his name to a process of intellectual inquiry which is still used today. He is known for his sharp and subversive wit, and clarity of thought. He famously never wrote anything down. It was his follower Plato who recorded his forensic brilliance in argument, as he accosted shoppers among the market stalls. They were used to having to justify their ways of life as they tested the ripeness of the local figs. If they were really lucky, they might also have bumped into Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in a barrel, and would shine lanterns in their faces to determine whether they were honest. Which was a little cranky.

The school of Athens, a fresco showing Greek philosophers and scientists with Plato and his pupil Aristotle

The easy cross-pollination of philosophy and consumerism was a fact of life in the agora, a word which is still used in modern Greek, and from which are derived two otherwise unrelated verbs: agorazo, to buy, and agorevo, to speak in public. The sunlit spaces of Athens were open to every type of human activity (as long, of course, as it was practised by men). There was no hierarchy of pastimes or chores. They all contributed to the well-being of the polis and its citizens.

That was 2,500 years ago. Sometime since then, it all changed. People continued to shop, naturally. As Peter Frankopan explains in his brilliant “new” history of the world The Silk Roads, trade was a driver, perhaps the most important driver, of political influence and power among societies. It was the exchange of ideas and goods that swelled the importance of nations, and caused the decline of others. But somehow the joy of shopping, in and of itself, became degraded. It became a frivolous pursuit. A guilty pleasure.

Gateway in the Bazaar, Lahore, circa 1880

I remember visiting Venice in the 1980s with a girlfriend who was interested in “doing” at least half a dozen churches on our first day there. I meekly confessed that I was more interested in buying a new Armani tie. The conversation – let’s call it that – between us polarised quickly. One of us (not me) was serious, worthy, respectful; the other was superficial and behaving like a common tourist.

My argument was lame (“I like ties”, and something to do with Richard Gere) but much later, I came to my senses. One of us (me) was plunging into the commercial centre of the city, quipping with local merchants, searching for luxurious fabrics; the other was gazing dutifully at a a few old pictures of grizzled saints. Which of us really understood what had made Venice what it was?

In one of Italy’s many tourist hotspots, the sales begin

Today, the act of shopping is under more pressure than ever. It faces two challenges. The first is an explicitly moral, and wholly understandable, one; we (the first world) have enough stuff. More than enough. We don’t need any more. It harms the planet, it exploits vulnerable societies. On top of that, it makes us feel sick. “Stuffocation”, wrote James Wallman in his 2014 eponymous book, “is one of today’s most acute, till now unnamed, afflictions. It is about how you, me, and society in general, instead of feeling enriched by the things that we own, are feeling stifled by them.”

The second, less contestable, challenge is technological. The internet is wiping out the high street. We are becoming addicted to online shopping. Speed and convenience – the two values, if that is what they are, for which our era will be remembered – are determining our decisions to the detriment of all else. The British Retail Consortium has warned that a third of all the country’s retail jobs, some 900,000, could be lost by 2025.

An Amazon fulfilment centre in Peterborough, England

Hearteningly, shops are fighting back. As the soullessness of drifting through purchasing portals on a computer began to make itself felt, stores began to reinvent the physical frisson of actual shopping. The first phase of this was for them to become simply more welcoming, and more beautiful. In an interview with the Italian businessman Vittorio Radice a couple of decades ago, the Italian businessman told me what his aim was when he first took over as managing director of Selfridges department store, the grand dame of Oxford Street, in 1996: to turn it from a “comfy old cardigan” to a “big, sexy giant”.

Part of this was mere presentation, of course. But there were deeper, more philosophical issues at play. Radice realised what his competition was. Observing that 21m shoppers had walked through the store in the previous year, he asked cheekily: “How many go to the art galleries? How many people go to the Design Museum? Less than 150,000 – that’s almost as many who come through our doors in a day.”

Slowly, the “shopping experience’ became the buzz-phrase of the new generation of branding consultants and marketeers, who brought more and more cultural activities into their halls. Was it proven that mind-expansion made people buy their products? Not necessarily. But it brought them through the doors. Selfridges, the former cardigan, recently announced the opening of a three-screen cinema in its store at the end of November. Its “State of the Arts” season earlier this year brought contemporary artworks to the end of corridors, confronting its customers with “art in unexpected places”.

John Margaritis’ ‘Broken Time’ (£115,000) in the Selfridges store in London

Even more demotic centres, such as Westfield shopping mall, has joined the fun. In addition to its regular pop-ups and makeovers, it holds seminars with interior designers, helping shoppers to “reclaim [their homes] as a space of calm and wellbeing”. Such events are invariably melded with social media platforms, Instagram and all the rest, enabling us to put ourselves in the centre of things; to snap the reflective moment of quietude, and share it with thousands.

Socrates was renowned as a master of irony, and how he would have loved to ruminate acerbically on the prospect of finding inner tranquility in a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. Diogenes the Cynic would be spinning in his barrel. He would no doubt have noted that, in addition to shops becoming more like galleries and museums, those very same cultural institutions are devoting ever-larger amounts of space to commercial outlets. Is there any longer a difference?

Escalators at a shopping mall in central Moscow

Is this what we are condemned to, wading in a kind of indistinct consumer-cultural mush all around us, advertisers prodding our thoughts into pseudo-profundity, artists churning out their dime-store icons to persuade us of our intellectual sophistication? It is but a new version of the ancient agora. Sometimes it takes a grumpy philosopher to tell us that a new pair of shoes never solved anyone’s problems.

All photographs Getty Images



Further reading