|Cybernetic culture research unit|
Markets on the Periphery
If you leave Taipei's Chientan subway station and follow the crowd you will find yourself drawn into the sprawling luminous chaos and hubbub of Shihlin Night Market. Passing through a cacophony of overlapping sonic bubbles - fuzzy music from numerous cheap stereos, microphone amplified vendor pitches, animated bargaining processes, and the anomalous sonorous tolling of a buddhist mendicant's bell - you enter into ever narrower spaces of increasing turbular density which swirl with strange smells, events, and interchanges.
Streets give way to alley ways tightly packed with heterogenous merchandise: spices, flowers, clothes, mobile phones, pets and above all street food. Donuts, sweet pies, dumplings, noodles, grilled squid, fresh fruit, fried vegetables, trays of assorted sausages and roasted animal parts (occasionally recognizable by their necks and feet) compete for attention with local delicacies such as the infamous 'stinky tofu,' glazed tomato kebabs, and mysterious tiny seashells raked back and forth over a grill. Cooking takes place on the spot while you watch, immediately demonstrating the nonsegmentation of production, commerce, and consumption.
The market is constructed out of the juxtaposition of different spaces: covered and uncovered areas, roads, shops of various sizes, shadowy stalls shrouded by incense-smoke, dark paths lined with crates of fatalistically somnolent chickens - even an old taoist temple - find themselves quasi-amoebically absorbed. The market subverts every tendency to spatial closure, interiority, or organization. Adjacent shops and restaurants adapt by losing their rigid contours, spreading their goods, tables, and activities out onto the street.
In the market you never know what you might find. The dense and mazelike market topography encourages something akin to a 'random-access' distribution of populations and tradable items, maximizing the number of encounters, or opportunities for transaction. Crowds meander with a quasi-brownian motion as they eat, shop, talk, meet, pass through and wander around, continuously redirected by the intermingling traffic/traffick for its own sake that constitutes the real life of the city.
Balancing the desegmentary sprawl of the market is its tendency toward clustering. This emergent arrangement - one lane devoted primarily to spices, another to fish, another to blankets, etc. - fosters intense comparison and automatic competition. This tendency can even become powerful enough to carry an entire market-place down a line of specialized individuation (Hong Kong, for instance, has particular zones dedicated to a bird market, flower market, fish market, and computer market). To the citizens of demarketized capitalist societies - where the basic trend is for traders to flee competition - there is something almost incomprehensibly paradoxical about the intrinsic antimonopolism of spontaneous markets. Why does a peasant vendor set-up their pile of vegetables right next to a cluster of similar vendors selling (almost?) indistinguishable produce? Such practices seem scarcely to distinguish between cooperation and competition, suggesting that market immersion breeds a microcommercial culture which itself constitutes a crucial 'surplus value' (comprising local knowledges of pitches and techniques, population shifts, available products, stock-clearing rates, and price-pressures).
The dynamic tension between heterogeneous distribution and clustering continuously re-energizes the market as a festival of communication, spiralling tightly into itself, but also folding out to connect with everything it touches. Despite lacking specialized organs of publicity and promotion micromarket vendors are pioneers in transcultural semiotics, hybridizing tones, hand gestures, and indicative signs with decimal notation. The arrival of commodity electronics has enabled them to innovate the usage of cheap calculators as communication devices (extracting an unanticipated sociomachinic dividend from what was designed as a private arithmetical instrument).
Markets like Shihlin can be found throughout the periphery, and yet - considering how things have turned out in the West - it is impossible not to wonder: is this place destined to die?
The most critical conclusion of Fernand Braudel's stupendous three volume study of the history of capitalism is that there is a fundamental distinction between markets and the capitalist order (or "system of the anti-market" married to the state). Capitalism proper belongs to the politically privileged upper and core zone of an overall system, establishing a monopolistic / oligopolistic superstratum upon the diffused and selectively exploited substratum of market activity. The popularity, spontaneous innovation, and relative disorder of markets makes them inconsistent with the geostrategic economic initiatives and industrial planning favored by the state (functions that are entrusted to politically well-connected large-scale businesses). Under the conditions of organized capitalism 'the market' is associated primarily with the meta-commerce of stock-trading, whilst 'marketing' is reduced to a specialized sub-function of large-scale business activity.
Braudel's thesis helps to explain why bourgeois sentiment is so reliably and instinctively anti-market, despite widespread pronouncements to the contrary. The more 'developed' a society becomes the less comfortable it is with market environments. When compared to uncluttered boulevards and shops - especially exclusive ones - markets are not very 'nice.' Bourgeois ('civil' or 'polite') society is unanimous in condemning the dirt, noise, and disorder of concrete markets, even when it espouses a measure of confidence in abstract market principles. The state is encouraged to adopt wide-ranging responsibility for protecting 'the public' from markets, using the tools of regulation, policing, and urban planning, which are enforced in the name of safety and hygiene.
It takes very little to set up a 'stall' at a market place - a blanket and some merchandise suffices - which enables markets to spontaneously appear on sidewalks, streetcorners, and fly-overs, in parks, and underpasses, making them very difficult to eradicate (and further consolidating their associations with vermin, nuisance, and disorder). If metropolitan societies seem to be more readily sympathetic to pan-handlers than street-traders it is because the former carry less threat of 'market contamination,' and seems more amenable to public 'remedy.'
The distinction between the public and the private is a segmentation internal to capitalism. It is produced as a function of the long-term strategic reduction of commerce to 'the private sector,' complementing a 'public sector' designed to manage the population: privatization of markets combined with the promotion of a public sphere that communicates the agency of the state. The ideal of rigid public/private differentiation plays a particularly significant role in antimarket polemics because it conforms to the basic polarity of bourgeois aspiration: private wealth and public order. This desire for clean and orderly public spaces free of commercial activity is complemented by the endogeneous anticommercialism of large-scale capital, which subordinates the culture and space of commercial activity to concentrational private interest.
In 'highly developed' economies the anarchy of concrete market-places has been replaced by the securitized space of the shopping mall (interiorized, guarded, and surveilled). Instead of dark and crowded alleys, lined by open stalls - which encourage a multiplicity of tactile interactions - the mall substitutes shop windows and brightly lit retail displays. Every tendency to direct and anonymous contact ('touching the merchandise') is relayed through the services of eager attendants, pandering to the sad narcisstic pleasures of undivided attention, whilst implicitly abolishing the market requirement for consumer and vendor expertise. As if in compensation for the disappearance of commercial transparency, the spontaneous aromatic labyrinth has become a meticulously planned maze of glass and mirrorized surfaces, exhibiting a spectacular alliance with the 'mass-marketing' potential of televisual media (whose parodic underside is the proliferation of CCTV cameras). The hazards of street food have been triumphantly eradicated by 'food courts' offering a choice between alternative chains, and by 'supermarkets' (which are not markets at all).
The mall substitutes architectural-teleological structure for the semi-aimless trajectories of the market, organizing space in conformity with a programmable segmented order of discrete activities. Anyone might pass through a market, but the only reason to be in a mall is to shop (or serve customers), merely 'hanging out' is reconstrued as the illegitimate vagrant activity of 'loitering.' When teenagers attempt to re-colonize malls, by treating them as real market-places - or zones of microsocial coalescence - they trigger a security response. Malls have become laboratories in which to experiment with strategies for subtly dissolving 'problem populations.'
As they are squeezed by the twin-claws of urban planning and mallification markets undergo a peculiar schizoid dissociation in the cultural unconscious of the West. Their increasingly alien character entangles them in an unstable mixture of phobic anxiety and lyrical attachment, which associates them ever more intimately with the status and practices of peripheral populations. On the one hand - abstracted and unified in the imagination - they condense into a monstrous transcendent power: THE MARKET, the Thing from Outside, whose inexplicable and unpredictable 'forces' surreptitiously dominate the earth. On the other, they are hazily integrated into a wistful orientalism, as exotic tourist attractions (foreign bazaars and souks), or as anomalous pockets of immigrant eccentricity.
There is nothing arbitrary about this construction which constitutes a simultaneous - if fractured - response both to the autonomous or 'demonic' agency of emergent commercial singularities, and to their intense alliance with the periphery (with edges, outer limits, eccentricity, and marginality). Traders have always operated at the edges, and insofar as true markets still exist in the West they are primarily produced and supported by peripheral populations, amongst whom recent immigrants have a particularly crucial role.
Markets emerge wherever the periphery cuts through a culture, as a spontaneous consequence of disrupted centralism, unconstrained communication, and positive disorganization.
There is undoubtedly a sense in which the repulsive forces of the metropolitan control-core push whatever disturbs them to the edges, but there is also a sense in which edges are everywhere.