Globalization and Cultural Assimilation … Term Paper
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Shopping -- Sale of Popular Culture
The Reading Terminal Market ("RTM)" in Philadelphia is an example of a low culture shopping experience is an example of a cool version of low culture. Gans (1999, p.29) argues that the critique of popular culture has four relevant themes: its inherent negative character, the negative effects on high culture, the negative effects on the popular culture audience and the negative effects on society. His argument falls apart when faced with the reality that cool, as Gladwell (n.d., p.78) describes, arises from the ground up. Arguably, cool popular culture fits none of Gans' criteria, yet Gans' criteria can readily be applied to the version of popular culture that, ironically, is created by the wealthy for mass consumption.
The market is an immediate and shocking juxtaposition against the alternative -- a shopping mall. The shopping mall was once the shiny new toy of retail, an essential element of popular culture. Suburban culture was formed in the mall, and the mass market retailers contained in the mall were the drivers of cool. Except today that is not the case. Suburbs are out; kids who grew up in the burbs now want to live in the city. The city is edgy and cool. Most cities are now populated by wealthy cool young people -- the artists, the tech industry workers, the creatives who thrive in the 21st century economy. Gladwell's cool hunters today haunt places like the Reading Terminal Market.
Gladwell describes the process of finding cool (p.83-84). There are the innovators, then the early adopters, and finally the mass market. The Reading Terminal Market is bustling. There are no empty stalls. A coolhunter would invariably be at some sort of market like this one, or a neighborhood farmer's market, or a microbrewery, or a coffee shop pulling shots of single origin coffee on expensive espresso machines. The cool shopping experience today is urban, as young people have begun to reclaim cities, but want a connection with anything authentic. Historic buildings are in, locally-produced goods are in, and the shopping experience is less plastic than out there, in Wal-Mart land, where corporate America still rules. The market is busy, so it is past the stage of the innovators. There are markets like this in most cities. The early adopters were making markets cool a few years ago; now as with microbreweries and hip coffee shops, that cool has gone mainstream. There are tourists from Virginia, and everywhere else it seems, coming to the RTM for its shopping experience, which to many of them remains unique.
If there is a defining trait of the suburban ideal, it is plastic. Everything is clean, polished, plastic and homogenized. A safe response to an unsafe world. At the RTM, a middle path is sought. The building is historical -- an old train station -- but it is clean. The market has stalls like you would find in the third world, but they, too are clean. It is still America, after all. There are foods from all over, but the presentation walks the middle line between the plastic suburban look and the traditional market look. There are glass cases to house most foods -- this consumer base still needs its sanitation. This is because the consumer base on RTM is still largely "Middle America." Not everybody here is cool -- there are tourists from Virginia in front of me. There are a lot of tourists here, and we all know that tourists aren't really cool. If someone is cool, they don't look like a tourist. But there are locals here, too. The presentation is very much like a sanitized, Americanized version of an old world market, something that has an air of authenticity but is safe for all, and that ultimately is the consumer base that RTM attracts. And it does attract it -- the market is crowded.
Navigating the stalls is part of the experience. Each stall is different, small, and specializing in a specific item. This is part of the presentation. Market stalls are not normal stores; they are part of a collective shopping experience. You are constantly bumping into other shoppers, or stuck behind them, and when you visit a stall the staff are immediate and attentive. This is all part of the shopping experience; the RTM is experience as much as it is products. The experience trends upmarket -- this is not at all the cheapest place to buy most of this stuff -- and the experience is decidedly cool. It is a safe way for people to experience something collective, alive, organic and fun. There are several elements that are critical to the experiential element. For one, many stalls are cash only. Cash is real, authentic, and most certainly cash is not plastic. It is the alternative to plastic, and there is symbolism there, because most retail in America is about plastic. Plastic packaging, plastic goods and plastic cards. There is very little plastic at RTM, to the point where you cannot buy too many things with it -- the market is selling an authentic experience and plastic is not authentic. Cash is.
One of the stronger points that Gans makes is that of the inherent difference between creators of high and popular culture (p.33-34). RTM highlights how in today's world, the high culture concept of the cool creator is applied in popular culture. The dichotomy Gans describes seems not to exist anymore, as markets have encouraged a new generation of artists and artisans to ply their trades, even if as part-time ventures. A hoagie stand like Carmen's is marketed and portrayed not as a place where the same sandwich is made hundreds of times per day, but as a place where a work of accessible art is created, personally, for the audience. Carmen's has a photo of President Obama at their stall, a form of celebrity endorsement that highlights the link between high and popular culture -- Obama is a pop culture figure, but one of high status as that fame rests of genuine achievements in the world. It is aspirational to consume as he does. Moreover, the visual display that allows the audience to see the sandwiches being made is a form of theater. The people making the sandwiches are performers, highlighting the strength of Gans' argument that there is no inherent difference between artists who create high culture and at least some of those who create low culture -- only fame and wages distinguish one set of people who make great food full of fat and salt from any other.
If at Carmen's you can watch the cheesesteak being made, other stands offer their own sensory experiences. At Dienner's or Old City Coffee, you smell. Sounds -- sizzling meat, whirring motors and shouting vendors -- are everywhere. If a mall deadens the senses under fluorescent lights and industrial-strength cleaners, the RTM awakens the senses. Again -- it is an experience as much as a collection of products and services. This plays to the Gladwell sense of cool -- what is cool right now is to experience things. This was always a critical differentiator between high and popular culture. Gans argued that "popular culture content at best produces spurious gratifications" (p.29), which is true of the sort of passive consumption of uncool suburbia and shopping malls. The market, however, delivers a sensory experience that remedies to some extent the spurious gratification because, as in high culture, there is a closer direct link between the creator and the consumer.
This is a cool version of low culture. There is not that much high end here. But Philly was never about high culture, and the markets inherently seek to be a reflection of their local areas. This low culture is part of what is being sold, a vision of an America where everybody rubs shoulders, because everybody needs to eat and the market has something for everyone. But it is a collective low culture, rather than an individualized one; the opposite of driving to a mall to wander around by yourself, carefully choosing which stores to enter. There is nothing standoffish about the RTM experience -- everybody is close and people are friendly, neighborly if that word should be used here.
It is interesting to conceive of RTM as popular culture because in a sense it represents a rejection of what most people think of as popular culture, and yet many of its elements are purely popular culture. The goods available are often mass produced, and all of it is purely commercial in nature, satisfying the first and fourth markers of popular culture that Gans describes. Its cool comes from arguing against the suburban, plastic, car-driven, big company way of life that most Americans now live. Its cool comes from offering the antithesis of that. The critiques of popular culture as Gans describes them do not really apply to RTM -- there is no homogenization, it is not mass-market; instead it is an example of popular culture… [END OF PREVIEW]
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