(ESSAY) We Are House of Fraser: The Creation of the Body by the Shopping Centre and Porn

In this essay Elliot C. Mason guides us through the phantasmagoric happiness factory of the department store, situating this late-capitalist hall of mirrors within a vivid critique of desire, power, urban space, consumption and value, ecological devastation, embodiment and postmodern codes of a coming apocalypse.       


> My step-dad recently discovered £100 of House of Fraser gift cards that someone must have given him at some point. He couldn’t be bothered to go through all the hassle of looking for new clothes, though, so he gave them to me. After letting them mature on my desk in a pile of weird business cards I receive when drunk, I finally took them into House of Fraser.


> I had never been in there before. At first – after looking around for a single sign showing me where anything might be and constantly getting referred back to the same self-referential point – I thought this must be a brilliant joke made by some genius critical group like Abolition Collective or gal-dem. Eventually I managed to mark out a little path between a row of jeans and some discounted shirts, and I took my new clothes to the counter. The cards had expired and couldn’t be used.


> It was so disappointing and confusing, it had to be real. No simulation could ever be this accurately crap.


> If you’re lucky enough not to know it, House of Fraser is a megamarket of blinding happiness on Oxford Street in central London. It is on four floors but there are no signs showing where the lifts or stairs are; it is one shop but it is densely packed with hundreds of seemingly individual shops, each with its own staff and branding and till; it is not so much split by gender as by body part, with shoes for everyone in the basement and make-up for everyone on the ground floor, rather than the standard “female”, “male” and “children” sections.


> House of Fraser is like Davos, a performative gimmick where the split networks of power momentarily manifest as bodies, as if to tease all oppressed life that is either oppressed precisely by being forced to exist as a body/commodity (human life) or oppressed by being excluded from the perfect-body-as-perfect-nation paradigm (non-human life).


> At Davos, invisible power that usually exists only as networks of information – the sticky surfaces onto which everyone’s data coagulates – becomes bodies. Not just any bodies. Immensely happy bodies. Perfect bodies that slip inside the Enlightenment Ideal of self-control (they are slim, muscular), aesthetic individuality and anonymity (they have sunglasses, thick long hair, you recognize them but will never see who they are), property and body ownership (they own your house, your city, their body, and all the products you ever touch). They exist in the cosmic apogee of superior morality: they denounce climate destruction while arriving in private jets, they lament the lost seas while arranging their yacht to pick them up, they cry for the poor children whose homelessness they directly created by property development and gentrification.


> There is an impenetrable happiness in the Davos network because they know that their power is hegemonic.


> Jean Baudrillard distinguishes between ‘domination’ and ‘hegemony’. Domination is the old form of power, the one that Michel Foucault begins Discipline and Punish (1975 [1977]) with; the gruesome direct destruction of the non-conforming body by agents of power who are known: the king, the factory-owner, the symbolic Father. Hegemony is invisible and everywhere. It exists within the market but only once the market has become indistinguishable from all things. What is the market nowadays? It doesn’t even mean anything. My body is a market, your body, the climate, the ground, our health and our ideas are all the market.


Domination is characterised by the master/slave relation, which is still a dual relation with potential alienation, a relationship of force and conflicts. It has a violent history of oppression and liberation. There are the dominators and the dominated – it remains a symbolic relationship. Everything changes with the emancipation of the slave and the internalization of the master by the emancipated slave. Hegemony begins here in the emancipation of the dual, personal, agonistic domination for the sake of integral reality – the reality of networks, of the virtual and total exchange where there are no longer dominators or dominated.  


                                                                                              (Baudrillard 2010: 33)


The Davos network is hegemony par excellence. They are friendly, smiley people who care about you. They worry about the environment. They are not dominators. They will not behead you if you do not conform to their order. And that is because you cannot not conform. Hegemonic power is total domination without the violent event of domination. We exist for them, as them. There is no distinction between us and the Davos network because – when they manifest as bodies – they do what we do. We also take planes, whether theirs are private and ours not. We also wear sunglasses and go to the gym and jog and try to make ourselves anonymous in our individuality. There is no duality, and so no symbolic relation between us (the producers of data, the workers of the network) and them (the accumulators of the value of data).


> In House of Fraser there is no central authority, just endless little shops that claim no responsibility for each other and are unified by nothing. You are not commanded to give your money to a particular company, to know who to blame for your poverty and your mass of useless commodities. This is the total space of hyper-desire. There is too much to want to want any of it. Watching Davos on the news, we realise that we are them once they become us, once they express concerns and provide some kind of easily achievable step-by-step mythical strategy to fix everything, then we suddenly realise that we know that too, we agree: ‘it is the hyperrealization of desire before it has even had time to appear that is the true curse’ (Baudrillard 2010: 85). That is the sickening feeling: we didn’t know what we were until they turned into us.


> At House of Fraser the same sickening feeling arises. Inside it, we realise that we are the same body as the shop with its shoes in the basement, make-up above, its internalised competition between markets of the same product, its manic re-occupation of its own space, disguising itself as multiple others.


> The shop, it is very important to note, is not mimicking the human body. Rather, the human body and the shop are produced together, at the exact same moment, according to the logic of hegemonic power. The logic is capitalism’s central force: the limitation of all thinking to a single dimension – the economic. All things function solely for the production and accumulation of value. And that growth is the only path to happiness. But when you get the happiness, of course, you realise that its very illusion was created at the same moment as your body and its deterministic economic context: the pursuit is circular and never-ending. As Baudrillard writes, this logic that makes the shop and the body is ‘the belief that everything is granted us virtually, or will be, by the grace of continual growth and acceleration – including, by extension, a universal lifting of prohibitions, the availability of all information and, of course, the obligation to experience jouissance.’ (Baudrillard 2010: 87) You must believe that this is freedom, and keep on the circular track of pursuing it, because that is the only way it is possible to think in the hegemony of capital.


> This feeling is very pornographic. People say that sex nowadays mimics pornography, or that porn came out of a repressed desire for sex that couldn’t be satisfied in conservative societies. But that is the same as saying that before House of Fraser we had no clothes, or that House of Fraser was created out of a genuine need for people to have more clothes. Pornography and contemporary sex were created together by the logic of hegemonic power. Pornography’s smooth surfaces and endless repetitions of the same scene function as universal equivalents. Like how money is able to represent the value of all commodities (as a universal equivalent), porn is able to represent the value of all relations between bodies.


> It is excessively simple and smooth. No hair in the way, no variation. It is the simplest exercise to follow. And that is because it is not sex at all. It is labour, like shopping is labour. It is a repetitive task like any other job, the same as frying burgers or testing new medicine on mice.


> The screen is manifested bodily in the purview of hegemonic power by all relations between bodies, which work privately to solidify the universality of the pornographic relation. In our bedrooms, alone together, we keep working, maintaining the status of our bodies as universal equivalents against which all value can be measured. We are machines of labour that no longer produce value – that would be some nostalgic notion of sex, some cute old memory of a time when stuff was actually made – but rather exist as visual equivalents, indistinguishable from money, from hegemony, from House of Fraser.


> Our bodies are the visual representation of the ubiquitous market, and House of Fraser is a visual representation of our bodies, and our bodies of it. Relations between bodies are formed and maintained in a process of visual mimesis, turning into each other to realise the illusion of the other’s happiness all the time. House of Fraser, porn and our bodies all being universal equivalents of value, the only relation between them is competitive proximity to total value-accumulation: who can be closest to the ideal body, which is the body that does not exist because it is total value, i.e. the Davos body, the abstract being of the billionaire.


> This is the thing, though: there is no original body, no true essence that ever presented anything. There is just this representation of the market, but the market is nothing because in neoliberal hegemony the market is everything, indistinguishable from the entire universe and all that we can think in our economic mode.


> This isn’t about the body turning into a machine, or becoming a body without organs as it serves more to produce desire in products than to respond to the desire they create, the lifeblood of the body becoming the shiny new shoes in House of Fraser. This isn’t about the body turning into a phone screen, smooth and lifeless, reproducible and repeatable like any sliver of glass, or like Simon Cowell’s new plastic head (The Guardian, 2019). This is the revelation that there is no body. There is no original around which various assemblages are constructed to fit the current ideological code. The body is only ideological assemblages. There is nothing before that, or beneath it.


> When House of Fraser was built, we began to have bodies. Similarly, we only knew there was an environment to kill when the Davos network started bemoaning the loss of the Amazon, when Leonardo Di Caprio in his private jets started sobbing about spilt ice, when governments investing in oil and arms with one hand used the other hand to meagrely feign a cross-fingered promise to reduce emissions. The Anthropocene creates the idea of a singular collective “humanity” when it deems us doomed. We only exist when we can no longer exist. Humanity is ending – therefore it must have been. We know we are because we no longer can be. The Anthropocene is – necessarily – the simultaneous creation and eradication of this thing called “humanity”, “Man”, “anthropos” or whatever else. Indeed, “I” can only exist once narratives of the Anthropocene have created the idea of our collective environmental agency and projected it into the past: “I” exist because we killed ourselves.


> In Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols (2016), a brilliant book by Claire Colebrook, Tom Cohen and J. Hillis Miller, Cohen presents this point through Paul de Man and Nietzsche: ‘It is anthropomorphism that, inversely, retro-projects that there was an entity or anthropos to begin with … The “I” or so-called subject … is only conjured by whatever violation has already occurred. In giving the proper name “anthropomorphism,” it assumes and pretends to conjure the anthroposas a retro-hologram to confirm itself.’ (Cohen et al., 2016: 52-53).


> Humanity confirms itself by claiming agency in its own destruction. House of Fraser has the same performative and retroactively genetic agency. Once it has constructed itself as a human body and therefore performed the last spectacle of the human body – it no longer being possible as a body since it is now a shopping centre – then the body is created. It did not exist until it ended, until the final value-shaped nail was slammed into its coffin – a coffin that didn’t even exist until the nail went into it.


> This redefinition of the human body allows for so much more profit potential, so much more exploitation. In industrial capitalism, the bodies that produce are not the same bodies that consume. The factory workers live in areas segregated by class and race and access to the parts of the city where choice in consumption is available is restricted on gender/race/class/nationality grounds. Globally, this division still applies – entire regions and nations are enclosed in productive zones, where everyone works in a factory, no one has the money to consume, like in Shenzhen in China. But in the Global North the body is now the machine producing its own product, of which it is also the consumer. Each body has to work all day: work to produce, work to circulate, and work to consume. These are the constant tasks of the body that is House of Fraser. The body that is me, you, and House of Fraser all at once. We are all indistinguishable, anyway.


– – –


> So what can be done? It is clear by now that the body cannot simply remove itself in order to challenge hegemony. Introspection and self-removal are the gimmicks of power, and they will only ever function to help its hegemonic plan. An individual body slipping off to the forest and pretending it is now outside of the deadly machine of capital is foolishly naive at best: it is unaware that the body itself is the universal equivalent of contemporary hegemonic capital. It is wearing the twenty-first century factory as itself. As Baudrillard says, ‘A wall is always suicide … Any protection only leaves the field open for deadly impulses from the inside’ (2010: 105). Because hegemonic power has no particular source and no particular object – it is just everything – it cannot be challenged by particular subjects removing themselves. It is not being seen physically that positions the body under the regime of hegemony, but rather the way of seeing itself, the way sight is understood as the basis of being. And you can’t run from that.


> I have no easy solution, obviously, and to have one at this stage would surely be a mistake – the problem is too complex to be fixed with the silly innocence of TED-talk 10-step guides or YouTube tutorials. But still, there are things we can surmise from the problems all around. It was the city, its planning, its architecture, its veins of value-production in streets and shopping centres, that made this idea of the body. It is the construction of the contemporary city that necessitates such nonstop labour from everyone, performing every part of the capitalist production machine within ourselves at all times.

> So it is the city that must be changed to redefine the body, to retroactively code it as something that it has not ever been. When housing is affordable and universal – decent housing in a good location – then the bodies in the city can have other forms of relation that are not only competitive. When the city does not produce racial, gender and class distinctions between bodies in certain areas, doing certain things or working in certain jobs, then various marks on the body or ways of bodily being do not signify totalizing violences – black bodies eating chicken are no longer synonymous with knife crime, for example.


> The body as we know it now can only exist upon acceptance of its imminent destruction, but that does not mean that other body narratives cannot be told. The city can be replanned and rebuilt according to a more equal logic, which undermines the subsumption of all bodies and all being into the production of value for capital.


> Until that happens we will always be House of Fraser, and we will exist only as signs of our coming end.


Texts cited:


Baudrillard, Jean, translated by Ames Hodges, The Agony of Power (L.A.: Semiotext(e), 2010).


Cohen, Tom; Colebrook, Claire; Miller, J. Hillis, Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols (London: Open Humanities Press, 2016).


Dent, Grace, ‘Is Simon Cowell’s surprising new face a vision of our deepfake future?’ in The Guardian, 24 August 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/24/is-simon-cowell-new-face-vision-of-deepfake-future> [accessed 24/8/2019].


~


Text: Elliot C. Mason


Illustration: Maria Sledmere


Published 24/10/19


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