Artists, bohemians, obsessive collectors, and idlers have long frequented bazaars, curio shops, yard sales, and other offbeat emporia in search of the Marvelous, as the Surrealists called it, hidden in the everyday.
In the late 1920s, cultural critic Walter Benjamin had the arcades of Paris — glass-roofed pedestrian passageways lined with shops, which sliced through city blocks. Turn-of-the-century forerunners of the department store, the arcades were slipping into decrepitude by Benjamin’s day; T.J. Clark, the art historian, memorably described them as “dusty covered shopping streets with greenhouse roofs, most of them built in the 1820s, which still dreamed on in the Jazz Age, cluttered with stores specializing in trusses and life-size dolls and used false teeth.” Regarding the arcades with a Freudian as well as a Frankfurt Marxist eye, Benjamin saw in their battered mannequins and rickety zoetrope theaters the urban unconscious laid bare. “Dada was the mother of Surrealism,” he wrote in his unfinished magnum opus, The Arcades Project. “Its father was the arcade.”
Truth be told, the Surrealists preferred “Les Puces,” as the flea markets on the outskirts of Paris were called. Andre Breton, the group’s self-appointed leader, wrote in his novel Nadja that the market at Saint-Ouen was “an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels” and “petrifying coincidences,” where unexpected encounters with dreamlike objects lurked around every corner.
EBay, the first e-commerce site, was until recently the web’s kitschier, crummier answer to Benjamin’s arcades or Breton’s Saint-Ouen. In its early years, its hit-or-miss search engine was conducive to close encounters of the absurd kind. Stumbling around the site, you’d find yourself in some obscure corner, staring in slack-jawed amazement at William Shatner’s kidney stone (auctioned off in 2006 for $25,000) or a Lilliputian suit of armor handcrafted to guinea-pig proportions, guaranteed to keep the dauntless rodent “protected and secure in all situations.” Unlike its sleeker competitor, Amazon, whose algorithms ensure you only see things like those you’ve already seen, eBay seemed, for a while, to facilitate chance meetings with the offbeat and the downright bizarre.
Lists of the most curious, absurd, abject, and grotesque eBay auctions have taken their place in the folklore of consumer culture: the grilled cheese sandwich miraculously emblazoned with an apparition of the Virgin Mary, which sold for $28,000; four golf balls (not just any golf balls; they’d been surgically removed from the belly of a python, who’d mistaken them for hen’s eggs); your advertising slogan tattooed, for $10,000, on some cash-strapped woman’s forehead; a corn flake shaped like the state of Illinois; a Dorito shaped like the pope’s miter; the meaning of life, on offer from a seller who claimed to have “discovered the reason for our existence” and was “happy to share this information with the highest bidder” (which he did, for the dispiritingly small sum of $3.26).
These days, eBay’s corporate overseers are dedicated to remaking public perceptions of the site. “The business is very different than I think people historically thought of it,” said Devin Wenig the company’s CEO, in a 2014 interview. “Over 70% of what we sell is new, fixed-price; the distinct minority are auctions, the distinct minority are consumer-sold used goods. EBay is the world’s largest mall. We are in essence an enormous mall that holds 25 million sellers, reaching 145 million consumers every month.”
All true, no doubt. Still, the metaphor falls short of most users’ experience of wandering around the site. If eBay is a metastasizing megamall, it’s one where slick, name-brand storefronts sit cheek-by-jowl with halfhearted garage sales, “junk drawer lots” of worthless oddments, and the sort of Weird Stuff, Really Weird Stuff, and Totally Bizarre Stuff (actual eBay categories) that wouldn’t be out of place in a wunderkammer curated by John Waters. Shatner’s kidney stone (and Justin Bieber’s hair clippings, and Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten French toast, both of which have also been auctioned off) are not-so-distant cousins of the religious relics given pride of place in Baroque curiosity cabinets. Likewise, the perennially popular category, Things That Look Like Other Things — the corn flakes, Doritos, and other humble objects that, if you squint hard enough, seem to resemble famous people, places, or things — have their parallel in the “figured stones” treasured by premodern collectors of curiosa, surreal minerals “in which cats, dogs, fish, and humans were ‘sculpted by nature,’” as the historians of science Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park write in Wonders and the Order of Nature.
While the look and feel of its archrival Amazon is all efficiency and buttoned-down professionalism, eBay, with its sleeve-tugging sellers and fannish communities of obsessive collectors, retains a flea-market raffishness. Some of its shadier sellers — traffickers in animal specimens of dubious legality, dealers in fine-art “originals” of questionable authenticity — have a whiff of the carnival midway about them, if not the black market. Robert Hughes’s characterization of Les Puces in The Shock of the New fits eBay to a T: “It was like the unconscious mind of Capitalism itself: it contained the rejected or repressed surplus of objects, the losers, the outcast thoughts.”
EBay may be “the world’s largest mall,” but it’s one where a click of the search button can take you to what feels like a trailer-park version of a Moroccan souk or one of those last-chance moving sales where a house disgorges the lives of its inhabitants onto the front lawn. Auctions of “consumer-sold used goods” may account for a “distinct minority” of the site’s listings, but they’re still a presence, hawking their wares in typo-ridden, semiliterate come-ons, luridly tricked out in a variety of eye-jangling colors and typefaces. Wenig envisions eBay reborn as a virtual-reality department store in which “shoppers browse merchandise via augmented reality, a flavor of VR that lays computer graphics over the real world.” He hopes to harness AI to intuit what you want to buy before even you know you want to buy it.
In a world where algorithms guard against experiences that don’t fit our past preferences, some of us yearn for the delights of getting lost. Disorientation is the equivalent, in space and time, of the visual defamiliarization that was the 20th-century avant-garde’s job description. Yet the code behind our online lives is designed to thwart disorientation. On Amazon, helpful suggestions swarm like gnats on every page, lists of “featured recommendations inspired by your browsing history” and items “customers who bought this item also bought.” But what about those of us who can’t be defined by our browsing histories because we rejoice in the wrong turn that takes us outside our comfort zones? Even more confoundingly, what about those of us who aren’t here to fill our shopping carts but rather to drift, to idle, to consume only images? The flâneur regards the world with a camera eye, as Susan Sontag notes in On Photography: “The voyeuristic stroller … discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, he finds the world ‘picturesque.’”
Of course, the cyberflâneur I’m eulogizing has been dead and buried for a while now. Evgeny Morozov, a critical observer of digital culture, performed last rites for the type in a 2012 New York Times essay, attributing the species’ extinction, as I have, to the commodification of our online lives and the ever-smarter algorithms that shape our experience of the web. “Transcending its original playful identity, [the internet is] no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done,” Morozov wrote. “Hardly anyone ‘surfs’ the Web anymore. The popularity of the ‘app paradigm,’ whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely.”
The terminus of this trajectory is the technology blogger Robert Scoble’s ghastly vision of the web as one-stop shopping for couch potatoes — “The new world is you just open up Facebook and everything you care about will be streaming down the screen” — which, as Morozov notes, is the exact opposite of flânerie. “The whole point of the flâneur’s wanderings,” he emphasizes, “is that he does not know what he cares about.”
All that said, the passing of the old eBay — for some of us a cheesier, Tron-like update of Benjamin’s arcades — is worth noting, I think. It’s the last nail in the cyberflâneur’s coffin. Ironically, it was the arcade itself that foretold the flâneur’s passing. The bustling outdoor marketplace tamed and sealed in a vitrine, it paved the way for the department store, which would put “even flânerie to use for commodity circulation,” as Benjamin wrote in Reflections, in Marxist Jeremiah mode. “The department store is the flâneur’s last practical joke.” To Benjamin’s jaundiced eye, the arcade marked the historical shift from a culture of production to a culture of consumption.
Meanwhile, back in downwardly mobile working-class America, the smell of economic desperation wafts off all those eBay listings for yard sale detritus and swap meet “collectibles.” This is the America of the padlocked factory and the moribund Main Street. It’s hard to have a consumer culture when you’re all out of consumers. Behind the site’s newly renovated front page, past the established merchants selling “new, fixed-price” goods, the hand-me-down myths of postwar America — middle-class dreams of job security and a decent wage, the virtues of conspicuous consumption and the disposable lifestyle, the equation of net worth with self-worth — are on the block at Buy It Now prices.
Perversely, Benjamin’s flâneur may be reborn in the dead malls that dot the Rust Belt desolation between the coasts. Across the country, zombie malls totter on, their escalators running, their Muzak humming, their anchor stores gone, nobody home but a few forlorn tenants clinging to life. Increasingly, as online “everything stores” like Amazon and eBay kill off brick-and-mortar retail and the service jobs it generates, the ghost mall is becoming a distinguishing feature of the heartland. Pioneered in the mid-1950s by Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect who dreamed of importing the community vibe of the European arcade to America’s suburbs, the shopping mall’s final role is that of tombstone of runaway consumption, cenotaph to sprawl.
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