Nowhere is Now Here: The Displacement of Place in American Culture Industry 
By: Sarah McCann
March 24, 2004

“Starbucks, now that’s a nice place,” I overheard a woman say. I wondered what she meant by this. Can Starbucks be considered a “place”? There are countless Starbucks locations across the country as well as abroad. A place should be defined by its location – its position within an environment – a definition that is becoming outmoded. The introduction of chain stores such as Starbucks is corroding the idea and significance of place. The notion of a here and now are losing meaning. A Starbucks is here and also there – in essence, everywhere. The growth of corporations and corporate identities is creating an alternate reality in America. Space is becoming a picture perfect replica, an image of commodity. By reproducing identical spaces (places) corporate interests are mediating experience and reality in America. The image of Starbucks enables people to believe they are living in the world when in fact that world only alludes to reality.

Walter Benjamin wrote of an object’s “aura.” It is something inherent in a unique object. Because a unique object can only occupy one specific time and place, the location is directly connected to its aura. This would imply that specific locations also possess this quality, but it is not guaranteed in every place. Aura is destructible and the construction of identical environments within space is a destructive force to the aura. Culture industry is both violent and destructive. When unique objects are mass-produced they are simultaneously destroyed.  What does this mean for American society, where objects are mass-produced as well as places? How has this reproduction affected spaces and those living within them? The aura of American culture is being lost, if not already dead. What remains is a shell of reality, a homogenized space, whitewashed by culture industry. People no longer expect the unique. In space and time, the replica has become the real.

“Culture now impresses the same stamp on everything.”[1] The cartoon reality Americans have accepted is becoming more fantastic each day. In order to save the animators work, cartoon backgrounds repeat the same sequence over and over. It is identical to the repetition of stores (brands) in American streets and malls. If reality for Americans is so closely related to the complete fantasy world of cartoons how can it appear as reality? The answer to this question may lie in the quintessential product of the age of mechanical reproduction – the photograph.

Commodified spaces function as a photographic image. People accept them as reality. They allow people a certain sense of possession. Just as photography is used by tourists to “own” the places they have been, chains allow people to “own” the places they go. The photograph is even beginning to lose its function. For example, it would be unnecessary to photograph a Starbucks because the characteristics of reproduction are fundamental to the design of each Starbucks location. Starbucks is a three-dimensional image, a surface and nothing more. People are familiar with it, hence, have some command over it. Even now a Starbucks is opening in Paris – a city that is renowned for its cafés. Does this prove that there is a need for Starbucks or are people looking for a way to escape Paris and enter into an alternate (yet familiar) space?

I have been told by a number of people that they like Starbucks because no matter where they are, there is always one and it is always the same. Why go anywhere unless it is simultaneously everywhere? The homogenous nature becomes its appeal and even its comfort. The allure of comfort is dangerous: in accepting the reality constructed for them, people relinquish power to those behind the construction. “Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows.”[2] The fact that the amount of Starbucks stores outnumbers all need and desire that could possibly exist proves that the entire framework of the culture industry is exposed. What is then revealed is the lack of an internal structure, culture industry exists only in the image, but as long as people continue to accept this image as reality, there will be no way to dismantle it from within.

It is interesting to consider this in comparison to the disassociation the public feels when confronted with photographs. I would argue that people are no longer affected by war photographs, photographs of suffering, etc., not only because of the over saturation of images within this culture, but because people now live within an image. The three-dimensional image of commodity culture gives the perception of reality to a much greater extent than a photograph or even television or film. People are unable to react to far away suffering because it is not experienced or understood in the same way a Starbucks can be.

Recent history has illustrated how this becomes problematic. The only way to enter into the bubble American culture industry has created is to puncture it with an image greater than its own. Americans experience life without touching it. The whole world is no longer “made to pass through the filter of the culture industry.”[3] Instead, the world is becoming that filter. Consider the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as an example. The attack made war a part of the American image. It did not however integrate everything that is part of war into American experience. For those who experienced the attacks first hand, war was real and more importantly death was real. The destruction of the illusion was only viable for those who were there. The collapse of the towers returned the “aura” to the location. Those who lived that day in front of their televisions were less able to experience this. The mediated experience of the television became another addition to the greater image-reality that is “America”. The press homogenized this experience by sharing footage and uniting to form the image of the attacks. The fantastic “war on terror” that followed and continues (indefinitely), proves that the bubble of culture industry is able to consume all and fit into it the reality in which Americans live.

People who “experienced” the attack through the lens of the media without any first-hand experience had a compromised view of the reality of the situation. People returned to Starbucks and this confirmed for them that Starbucks incorporated reality. It proved that they had survived and would continue to do so. Because they did not see the horror enter directly into the image they were familiar with, it became less real. War could be supported in the aftermath because war had remained something that happens on screen. Those who commented that the World Trade Center Attack was the greatest aesthetic image in recent history were not being insensitive to the destruction it caused. They were commenting on the reality in which Americans live, a reality that supports its own destruction.

[1]Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, from Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, eds. Vincent Leitch, et al. (New York: Norton, 2001) 1223.

[2] Adorno 1224.

[3] Adorno 1226.

Leitch, Vincent B., et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.