The Department Store Represents the World’s Totality We know that agencies of civilization like the hotel, academy, and long-distance commerce are directed towards generating differences. If we think of them as activities, they do not represent a banal one-to-one translation in the parallelism of plan and reality, but rather work with the difference between plan and realization. The artwork is a good example of this, to the extent that it itself forms the figure of difference as ruin. In the history of the development of agencies of civilization, it was first international trade and diplomacy, then art and science that played a decisive role.
The English landscaped garden, for example in Wˆrlitz, is a civilization agency in its purest form. The development of the hotel, especially promoted by the English and their notion of the “grand tour” beginning in the 1820s, is also part of this series. Since the 1880s, the department store has played a decisive role. Even though all cultures have produced their own notion and conception of the world as a whole, they nevertheless have only counted what they themselves can see as belonging to the world. With the department store, a totality is finally created where all that is present what is not at all known, that is, all that is capable of transcending cultural expectations.
The department store presents the totality of the world beyond our own cultural expectations and represents all that belongs to the totality. The civilization model of the “department store” thus established itself as the first realization of totality, in the philosophical, social, economic, and architectural sense of the concept of the whole as well. The department store is the whole of the world that is not just my world, but the entire world. When I cultural legitimated, I expect only what belongs to my culture. In the department store I am to expect what I cannot expect, that is, what I learn to see without knowing it. But without knowing, seeing is impossible. How does one learn to see in the department store without knowing something? Capitalism provides a model for these constellations.
Optionism as the Realization of Freedom The concept of freedom was developed in democracy. Freedom means to be able to follow one’s arbitrary will equally in all directions, that is, to roam through the whole world, able to travel anywhere, not knowing any limits. This freedom in the sense of an experience of the totality of the world is presented in the department store in the form of a freedom that is always first of all a freedom of choice. In the department store, I can choose between A, B, C, D, E, and F.
Even though there are numerous choices available, it remains the case that only one choice can be made. There are of course people who claim that they really only need one pair of shoes, but because they are incapable of making up their mind select and purchase at least ten of the hundred and fifty models on offer, to then continue the decision-making process at home with their shoeboxes. This correspondence of the experience of wholeness of the world beyond my expectations and freedom is what actually characterizes capitalist development, for capitalist development has developed a new mode of decision-making. Generally speaking, theoreticians of decision-making tend to belong among the conservatives. Someone like Carl Schmitt, an opponent of the rise of democracy, overlooked that there is a capitalist form of communicating decision-making processes called optionism.
The department store is a philosophical representation of the total experience of the world beyond one’s own culture that realizes the notion of freedom in the freedom of choice, and under the condition that the option remains open. If for example I were today to decide to buy a handkerchief, I can just as easily decide to buy a different one tomorrow, because it still remains on the shelves as an open option. The department store guarantees me this option: that I can buy completely different handkerchiefs tomorrow. However, I always must buy a particular handkerchief because I cannot buy them all. If I did, I would be a psychopath and be committed to a psychiatric hospital, because I would have disregarded Adorno’s dictum “the whole is the untrue.”
As a psychopath, it is easy to make the statement that the whole is not something that is part of a larger whole, but that there is also “more.” In all capitalist states of the western world we can see glorious promises on signs: “All kinds of fish and more,” “all toys and more,” “all flowerpots and more.” All shops thus mark a movement that adds the more to the totality. But what is the more of everything if not the open option realized by capitalism? The contrast to that is the conservative man who decides on one wife today, to stick with her for forty years, modern capitalist optionism announces a choice, meaning that one day I choose this woman, but perhaps already tomorrow I might choose her sister. Similarly, the modern capitalist girl keeps the option for reduplication open.
But then nature announces its presence with its demand, and tells the woman something about the limited option for descendents. As soon as the woman is forty, the option has expired. As an institution for civilizing the freedom of choice in the mode of the open option, the department store too has certain predetermined limits. The Department Store is Capitalism’s Limbic Regulative The decisive question for capitalism is: how do options expire? The answer is in the department store. In the food halls, the department store offers the old experience of the paradise model. The paradise model makes clear that we do not live in our clothes, shoes, or houses, but rather live beyond what we can keep open as an option, because we have already taking up residence in the imagination and in our thoughts. In the face of the confrontation with the totality of the whole and the more, the department produces in the buyer the effect of revulsion that is natural. The department store realizes the limbic regulative of capitalism.
The limbic regulative is a region of the interbrain that regulates the relationship between attraction and revulsion, draw and repulsion, pleasurably eating chocolate and giving it back. If somebody eats chocolate ravenously, after two or three bars, depending on cultural training, the limbic regulative ensures for a separation from the attractor. The department store as a capitalist civilization agency organizes the attractor and at the same time the mode of decision as a possibility of choice, with the proviso of the option remaining open to choose something different tomorrow. But this always only happens up to a certain threshold of disgust, of rejection.
In the face of the many temptations imposed on us, the totality of all commodities, the department store even organizes our revulsion. Everything that exceeds our imagination, our judgment, and our emotions, compels us to turn away. We owe this effect to attending church in the cathedrals of capitalism, because in the department store we envision the liberation from the eternal attractor of our desires. By decoupling from the world of desires, we are no longer eternally the slaves of our desires. We don’t need to desire anymore, because everything is available anyway. While strolling through the department store, the decision can be made to not decide at all, because the goods will still be there the day after tomorrow. Instead, we learn to purify ourselves and navigate between attraction and revulsion. In a sense, one is ascetically liberated from the necessity to always stuff oneself with commodities because they might not still be there tomorrow, or because they are available just once.
Ultimately, the king of the department store is the naked man who walks through the men’s clothing section and buys everything, while pointing out to the lady, “I don’t need it.” This is the real civilizing task of the department store.
(Bazon Brock | Capitalism Makes Art)
// Octocer 2006