Universitas Helsingiensis

The quarterly of the University of Helsinki
The narcissistic game of an urbanite
Narcissus comes to the spring at the city square, and believes he is seeing his beautiful reflection in the water. He is curious to see what he looks like today. He is sustained by the feeling that he can never fully know himself, who he really is. That is why he comes to the well time and again, not to love himself but to fall in love with his new self that is reflected in the water. He admires his picture, one reflecting on the other, so that he finally melts into it. He does not drown, his image drowns into him. The image wears off and becomes part of the self. The image of Narcissus ceases to exist as he has become his own image. Tomorrow he will come again.”

Kati Palmberg

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The final lines of my doctoral dissertation are quite literary, or lyrical, as my opponent kindly put it,” says Pasi Mäenpää, smiling as we sit in his small study. It is less than a month since he defended his dissertation in social sciences entitled Narcissus in the City: a study of a consumer-urbanite and urban public space. I ask him how long he had worked on his dissertation.

“I think I first started to work on it thirteen years ago, but obviously I’ve done many other things along the way,” Mäenpää says. “I have been the editor of the Finnish Journal of Urban Studies, for example. I already focused on urban studies in my Master’s thesis, more specifically, on the 1980s’ gentrification of Kallio, a traditionally working-class district in Helsinki. One of my findings was that the new young residents of Kallio romanticised the proletarian past of the area so much that they were not bothered by the hoards of winos hanging around their homes, as they belonged to the picture. I thought that was pretty interesting,” says Mäenpää and quickly grabs the said book from the shelf for me to see. “After I took the Master’s in 1992, I studied lottery winners with Pasi Falk. That study also informed my doctoral dissertation.”

The doctorate is, in other words, the fruit of many years’ work. It includes a theoretical discussion of the modern urban milieu as well as three empirical research projects, all on Helsinki. First he discusses the public spaces in Helsinki, and public events organised there, such as the Night of the Arts. Secondly, he studies the shopping mall in Itäkeskus, an eastern suburb in Helsinki, and finally he analyses a phenomenon very strongly linked with the Finnish way of life, the mobile phone culture. His fundamental question is, how do consumption and urban culture influence each other? How do the city and its public spaces create a consumer culture, and how does consumption influence the city? What do people actually do when moving around town and shops? How do people encounter each other, or do they?

Anonymity is freedom

In a crowd, an individual may remain lonely and anonymous. But throngs of people and the anonymity they create may also mean freedom, and paradoxically enough, freedom from other people. The more, the freer. A modern city may seem scary, chaotic and ruthless, which it may sometimes be, but the freedom to be anonymous, “just anybody”, may also be comfortable. In Mäenpää’s words, it is the “other, bright side of randomness”. Besides, the city is not really all that unpredictable. Mäenpää uses the term teatrum mundi, the world as a stage, to illustrate what he means. Everybody is observing everybody, and the city is therefore actually quite strictly controlled. If something or someone is out of the ordinary, it is immediately registered.

“Just the other day, one of my colleagues pointed out that the ‘Funny Incidents’, the very popular little stories that readers send to the newspaper, are no more exciting than ‘I saw a squirrel today’. That’s how uneventful the urban environment can often be,” Mäenpää chuckles.

Homo ludens urbanus

Apart from unpredictability and freedom, play is also an integral element of today’s urban culture, according to Mäenpää. In his classic Homo ludens, a study of the play element in culture, Johan Huizinga argues that modern society dulls the mind, as it arrests people’s natural need to play, but Pasi Mäenpää has, in other words, seen opposite tendencies. He has created a new term for the type of people he has been watching in the busy streets of Helsinki: Homo ludens urbanus, the playing urban man. According to Mäenpää, shopping has all the elements of play, such as unpredictability – you never know what you may find – and performance.

There are many different games. Mäenpää’s doctoral dissertation refers to Roger Caillois, who names four different types of games: agôn, competition; alea, chance; mimicry; and ilinx, vertigo, which can be felt, for example, on a roller coaster ride. Mäenpää thinks all these are connected to the urban game, but the strongest element is the chance and the second strongest mimicry.

Consumer as a caterpillar

“Sociologist Colin Campbell has concluded that consumers are hedonists who play a part for themselves inside their heads. I apply this thought to urban life in general. I would argue that this situation, where people don’t know each other and are therefore free to be ‘just anybody’ also detaches them from themselves. This leads to playing with one’s own identity,” says Mäenpää.

When shopping for clothes, people try on a garment or hold it up next to their face in front of a mirror to decide whether the clothing would suit them or not, so there are actually two “selfs” present at the same time. I, one’s “real” self that decides, and me, the identity that a person aspires to acquire when wearing a particular piece of clothing. So it is not only clothes but also identities that are tried on. Mäenpää calls this ‘mimetic self-relation’, whereby a person in a sense performs oneself to oneself. But if the purchase is made, the game is over, and the magic disappears. The I and me gradually merge into one.

“A modern consumer can be likened to a caterpillar,” says Mäenpää. “It starts with the head and bottom together, proceeds with the head, that is the me or the make-believe self, to look for a direction, while the bottom, the I, stays put. When the head finds somewhere to take hold of, the bottom follows, and the whole thing starts over, with a new search.”

Community and the individual

Mäenpää is not, however, interested in individual consumers alone. He also asks, what is the public place of our time like? Is there a place where people could encounter each other? This has everything to do with the idea of democracy. Mäenpää gives an example.

“It is unlikely that two people in today’s Helsinki would meet in a café and start discussing Prime Minister Vanhanen’s cabinet.” American scholars Hanna Arendt and Richard Sennett come up in this conjunction. Sennett finds that the game has somehow already been lost. Today’s people have descended to passive narcissism. They are no longer interested in influencing issues, only in how they might present themselves. Sennett’s dystopic views have inspired Mäenpää’s research.

“I spontaneously and intuitively react against what he says of today’s people as passive narcissists. If he thinks like that, he has walked around with his eyes closed. Sennett sees the world only from a political perspective. But lots of other things happen out there. My aim with my dissertation was to make those things visible.”

Another discussion in Mäenpää’s dissertation is on the ideas presented by Michel Maffesoli, a French sociologist and postmodernist. According to Maffesoli, modernity and rationality are dead, and we live in the age of communities. It is as if we were floating in a blissful sea of nirvana, without understanding it ourselves. Maffesoli uses the Narcissus myth as an image of postmodern humanity. Instead of drowning when reaching to touch his beautiful image, Maffesoli’s Narcissus is immersed in the pool of communality. This is what Mäenpää refers to in the extract taken from the end of his dissertation. Contrary to Maffesoli’s Narcissus, who merges into the pool, in Mäenpää’s view, the image of Narcissus merges into Narcissus himself.

City as a shopping centre, shopping centre as playground

So where does Mäenpää’s Narcissus play? In the 1980s, numerous new shopping centres were erected throughout Finland. Large hypermarkets and malls accessible only by car became more common. The 1990s brought on a counter reaction – city centres fought this trend and shopping centres began to be built in city centres, to compete with those out of town. Helsinki shopping malls, Forum, Kluuvi and Kaisa were built. Now those shopping in the city centre could also shop in one place without having to step outside and put themselves at the mercy of the elements of the Finnish seasons. The shopping centres have proven very popular. Their architecture – transparent glazed walls and low thresholds between the actual commercial spaces and spaces outside, the ‘street’, the mall – has been so popular as to establish a norm of a kind. Other public and semi-public urban spaces have been influenced by shopping mall architecture, while shopping centres traditionally aim to resemble towns.

“For example in Itäkeskus, the passageways have been named as streets and squares. There is the ‘boulevard’, the ‘passage’ and the ‘piazza’. Shopping centres are not shy about trying to be towns within towns.” The width of the Itäkeskus ‘boulevard’ is exactly the same as in Alek-santerin katu street, the main shopping street in the centre of Helsinki. This is a fact, I interviewed the architect,” says Mäenpää.

The shopping centre boom has not subsided. Only this year, a new shopping centre in the heart of Helsinki, Kamppi Shopping Mall, which was built on top of the new underground bus station, opened. Now you can go shopping in Helsinki by bus without once having to go outdoors. There are also plans to build glass-roofed walkways across city blocks, and Helsinki’s architecture is becoming increasingly uniform. This extends comfortable commercial interiors, which people are familiar with from shopping malls, to exterior spaces.

“Museums also follow this trend,” says Mäenpää. “Look at Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art, which specifically aims at a low threshold and attracting people to its café visible to the street through the large glazed walls – and yes, to its museum shop – without having to see the exhibitions.” Here, Kiasma follows the model of the Vapriikki Museum in Tampere and the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova Museum in Turku.

The Narcissus of our time is only having more room to play.

Pasi Mäenpää: Narkissos kaupungissa. Tutkimus kuluttaja-kaupunkilaisesta ja julkisesta tilasta. (Narcissus in the City: a study of a consumer-urbanite and urban public space) Helsinki 2005. Kustannus-osakeyhtiö Tammi, 432 p. ISBN 951-31-3316-8

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