The above image shows Chinese artist Liu Bolin detecting a certain homogenizing force.
1.) When Nikita Khruschev toured the United States in 1959, in a deliberate “cold war thaw,” he famously visited a supermarket outside of San Francisco. As the premier walked the aisles, marveling at the wealth of food, innumerable roasted chickens, seemingly unlimited flawless apples available for any household, the scions of agri-business chuckled into their brandies. The astounded little man highlighted the great paradox of socialist production: it didn’t matter that the supply chains were ethical if the apples came out gnarly.
By the era of supermalls and megamarts, grocery stores reached notoriety pitch in mainstream culture (think The Clash, Radiohead, Pulp) because there was something definitively alien, not-of-this-world, about their glowing aisles and products, something lurking beneath the pristine reassurances. The very sensation of entering a grocery store, or megamart, necessarily evokes a sense of dislocation as every Walgreens, Target, or Duane Reade feels like every other. And as you chart the homogenizing influences of neoliberal globalization and the rise of the multi-national, these sites gain prominence in the global consciousness.
2.) In 2000, French critic Annie Ernaux described the strange sensation of corporate-speak entering her own lexicon:
“Auchan, nine o’clock at night, in line at the cash. A guy, face flushed, continuously muttering about people who pay by check or by plastic, “can’t have any money on them!” He is getting restless, “if they’d gotten up like me at four in the morning!” On the conveyor belt, he has placed a 1.5 liter plastic bottle of wine. This scene is out of place in the increasingly prim and proper Trois-Fontaines Shopping Center. … Always this feeling of cheating when I used a specialized word for the first time, today, item.”(Annie Ernaux, Things Seen)
The language of globalized chains, “Item,” “Thank you, have a nice day,” has a desultory and homogenizing effect on language, recalling the observations made by Herbert Marcuse in his New Left classic One-Dimensional Man:
“One-dimensional thought is systematically promoted by the makers of politics and their purveyors of mass information. Their universe of discourse is populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hyponotic definitions of dictations.”
The ideology of multi-national corporations corresponds to a concrete articulation of an atomized reality where inequalities in labor relations and the sins of global supply chains are hidden under the veneer of civility and wealth (supermakets).
3.) The Polish writer Jerzy Pilch finds dark humor in the globalized spaces of the new Europe in The Mighty Angel. He spots “the love of his life” withdrawing cash from a supermarket ATM, but cannot approach her, without risk of appearing a threat.
“With aching heart, I watched the last love of my life move away from the ATM, walk a little further down Jana Pawla, and turn forever, forever into Panska. Once again in history profound sentiment had lost out to money. I was suddenly consumed with tremendous anger. I was angry at the ATMs, which only a few years ago had not even existed. I was overcome by fury; I recalled the fall of the Berlin Wall and I was opposed to the fall of the Berlin Wall, for all those enthusiasts who had demolished the wall with their mason’s hammers had taken the brunette in the yellow dress from me.”
Christa Wolf makes a similar connection in City of Angels: The Overcoat of Dr. Freud, as she weeps for the failed utopian project of the Soviet Union and East Germany. She had nothing but spite for her compatriots willing to let the corporations in, solely based on the promise of bluejeans and motorcycles.
4.) In La Grande, by the Argentine writer Juan Jose Saer, the mega-mart is a strange space, becoming almost immediately anachronistic in the hands of the country’s disastrous liberalization in the 90s. It evokes the false promises of bounty in late-capitalism.
“Every social class sends its delegations; everyone that has something to spend, however little that may be, spends it at the supercenter, where even the most intimate desires are anticipated, given that the hypermarket is intended to replace, by incorporation, every kind of business, large or small. Every new product that appears on the market has a place there, and unlike specialized businesses, in the supercenter every novelty is like a new song added to a performance. When, for instance, endives appear in the produce section, the customers rejoice and offer their commentary; and when a product that’s usually in stock is missing, the winds of dismay, if not panic, begin to blow, as they say, among the customers.”
Saer suggests that there is probably something amiss in such a place, offering “choices” to all classes, satisfying equally. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse describes the extent to which consumer choice interferes with class struggle, perverting desires into a repressive system:
“If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population.”
Instead of realizing emancipatory desires, citizens become consumers, accepting repressive manifestations of desublimated drives (we choose the beer that is sold on the pretense of sex, or the sexy perfume, instead of organizing a sexier system of self-governance). For Argentina, this consumerist identity takes on an even stranger tenor, as the population largely recognize the lies behind the neoliberal promise. Argentines can’t escape the paradoxical promise of the supercenter, even if they recognize the promise as empty.
Saer writes about the geography of political violence, and the involuntary shuddering that occurs when a character passes a house on a quiet residential street where prisoners were detained during the country’s dictatorship. Just as that structure came to silently represent the military government, the supercenter represents a different kind of global order. Megamarts, supercenters, and all their iterations; these identical landscapes, connected to multi-national supply chains, serve as outposts of the hegemon; little zones validating the rightness of the current order of agribusiness and multinational corporations.
5.) One of the great vanguard aesthetics in fiction today comes in the recognition of bathos in everyday supply chains. Unlike the so-called dirty realists that romanticize warts and drunken floundering, contemporary vanguard voices call out the violence of the supermarket, encouraging us to problematize even the “little-pleasures” of late capitalism. The New Sincerity, as it’s often called, refuses charming and pleasurable artifacts, recognizing them as nothing short of radical chains. As their characters eat Egg McMuffins and drink innumerable ice coffees, you can’t help but suspect there’s something absurd going on, and that absurdity is founded in the way we live today.
In a 2011 New Yorker piece “Free Everything,” Miranda July describes her deliberate and recurring shoplifting. “I stared at my shopping list like a stressed housewife, deliberating over which items to steal, and which to buy with food stamps. My preferred purse was gigantic and discreetly rigid, like a suitcase. I packed it with blocks of cheese, loaves of bread, and lots of soy products, because I was a vegetarian.” Although this is a humor piece, she hits on a weird reality of working class life today: the strange calculus of food vs. gas, food vs. rent, etc.
In his phenomenal 2014 collection of prose poetry All Movies Love the Moon, Gregory Robinson sounds off against the “sexy” veneer of multi-nationals, recalling Sontag on fascism: It doesn’t matter how it feels as long as it looks good. Robinson demands accountability and rejects the “pleasurable artifacts.” He writes: “You are not your job, but there are no dividing lines in the soul. For whatever I am, I am also Burger King and Di Nappoli Pizza, Ponderosa Steak House and grocery stores and bookstores and cafe sinks filled with dishes. I am a human sign for companies with inexcusable indifference to human suffering.”
6.) When populist movements revolt against the ruling order, they target the symbols of that order. In 1958, Fidel Castro bombed the American Club in Cuba built to cater to the United Fruit Company. Today, it’s no big surprise to see working class people taking out their ire on megamarkets, as the visible outpost of the existing late-capitalist order. The 2011 Hackney riots of London were nicknamed “shopping riots,” due to the extensive looting and destruction of stores. Critics called these riots “reactionary,” and it’s certainly difficult to see any revolution in Adidas track suits, but the riots were crucially targeted at the outposts of the hegemon, the places of simulacra suggesting unending wealth under the multinationals, and in solipsism and fury the rioters took to breaking down these symbols of a sovereignty from which they were necessarily excluded.