Wednesday, June 30, 2004

GEM Discount Super Store

Around the corner from where I live is my favorite store in the neighborhood, the GEM Discount Super store. I don't know if GEM stands for something or if its meant to summon the image of jewels to your mind -- I think their bags might have an illustration of a diamond on them. It's one of many discount stores around Broadway in Astoria -- Dee & Dee, Bargainland, Super Bargain Store, etc., including one place the size of a bodega that claims in a window sign to stock 100,000 items. I haven't counted, but I'm somehwat skeptical of that. I suppose what I'm about to argue about GEM applies to all of these places, but GEM seems to stick out as the largest of them, and as the chain that's most brazen and craven simultaneously.

First of all, there's a leanness to GEM. It's trying to address all the mutifarious needs of modern life -- whether they be for polyester lingerie or factory-reject linens or novelty socks or wafer cookies or something called hair mayonnaise -- with about ten percent of the floor space Wal-Mart has, and so there are skinny, skinny aisles piled high. It's impossible to imagine your stereotypical Wal-Mart shopper -- overweight and sweating with several kids in tow (I know, that's extremely unfair) -- clamboring down these rows. You could be whisper thin and still struggle. You don't pass someone in the aisle; it's pretty much single-file shopping, and it requires a good deal of patience if someone's in the area you need to get to.

What's amazing is that everyone, more or less, is patient, and this shows especially at the check-out, which is, inexpicably, at the back of the store, about as far away from the exit as possible. Is it only old-school discount stores that do this? I've only seen it in New York. And why? It has got to be the most inefficient arrangement that can be imagined and offers the least protection against shoplifting. (This is why iten that run at $7.99 have security tags on them.) At the back of the store there's a long counter with registers, most of them abandoned -- there's always one person cashiering, no matter how busy they are. Some of those registers must be for show; I suspect that some haven't been opened for years. To reach this one cashier, who has been beaten into an indifferent, leisurely pace by the assurance that no matter how quickly she works there's always going to be another person in line (so why hurry?), there's nothing like a comprehensible line: no cattleshoots, no directions, no nothing, just a sort of ad hoc arrangement of people filing in, like you find at the Holland Tunnel when aits backed up or a lane is closed (which is pretty much always). There is no justice or rights to this system, you're never assured of being next without showing some aggressiveness, but amazingly, there are rarely problems. I have never seen a dispute about it. It flows. There seems to be a lesson in this, one dear to the American way, about how assured individual aggression and self-interest and unregulated competition can lead to a functional system that no one feels the need to contest. Never mind that its hopelessly wasteful -- it's a system that doesn't hassle you with rules, it's one that gives you a chance to strategize (maybe if I loiter in the aisle with the old Easter candy i can dart in after the guy buying the oscillating fan. Maybe I can pretend to be with that Columbian woman with the armful of wicker baskets, and saunter up to the register beside her), it's one that respects you as an individual without catering to you insincerely with the glad-handing and ass-kissing of the rhetoric of customer service. GEM has no customer service and I like it that way -- if I can't figure something out there I can just leave. The idea that the customer is always right would seem to help all customers, but in fact it amounts to this, that all the customers who don't complain are wrong and will have their time wasted by the incessantly squeaky wheels who do.

I like the GEM approach because there's no effort to disguise the brutality of the marketplace. It's a dangerous place, where all the participants are in competition, and where no underhanded or disingenous trick will go untried. Hence the GEM store's preponderance of overtly exploitative items like the "internet-ready keyboard" or the knock-offs designed to look like some more desirious brand, such as the Barkley's mints in the familiar Altoids tin. They are like the Mad magazine version of the product, it seems like a joke, harping on the original's design quirks toexpose how meaningless they are. In this way, GEM parodies the entire consumer sphere, undermining the practices of branding, the bogus ideology of customer service, of there being some sort of lasting value in the crap we spend our money on -- everything in GEM is explicitly substandard upon manufacture; this is stuff that is sub-Goodwill quality, stuff that lacks the endurance to be owned more than once, stuff that even Goodwill wouldn't try to re-sell (It's enough to make me want to invoke Bataille's notion of expenditure, and see this explosion of crap as a means of destroying dangerous surplus in the guise of making surplus).

At GEM, it's easy to dismiss these marketing ploys and congratulate yourself for being the sort of person who would never fall for them, but the glow of self-satisfaction blinds you to the way you're being duped by something else, something you'r enot considering. The laughable ludicrousness of these products make all exploitation seem harmless; the way self-deprecating ads that flatter the customer's savvy in resisting them do; ultimately they both break down a resistance, they melt away what should be a furor at what is second-rate, what is wasteful, what is crass.

Baudrillard, in The Consumer Society, writes about the drug store, "the synthesis of profusion and calculation," rather than the department store being the primary emblem of late-capitalist consumerism, excerpted here for our convenience. The crux of his argument seems to be that "Whereas the large department store provides a marketplace pageantry for merchandise, the drugstore offers the subtle recital of consumption, where, in fact, the “art” consists in playing on the ambiguity of the object’s sign, and sublimating their status and utility as commodity in a play of 'ambiance.' ” GEM has no ambiance, commodities are stubbornly commodities, but there is a calculated profusion for sure, which in and of itself creates a sensation of abundance, an eagerness to spend and expend, because supply seems inexhaustible. This seems to me the essence of American optimism, this carefree, spendthrift bonhomie amidst an endless array of commodities too copious to try to disguise their calculatedly false appeals. The chaotic profusion, which obliterates categories -- not only descriptive categories but ontological ones (useful/worthless) (sturdy/flimsy) -- somehow makes junk not junk; sheer quantity bulks itself until it amounts to a kind of quality. Another quintessential American attitude: the all-you-can-eat more-is-always-better approach to acquisition.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Freedom of choice

I just got a book from the library that was on hold for me, T.H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution, whic argues that the American revolution was primarily fueled by consumer concerns and employed consumerist tactics: boycotts and the like. I don't know if I agree with this thesis -- I haven't read the book yet, and I may end up being biased by an evisceration of his argument that appeared in TLS, but I wanted to investigate because it coincides with McKendrick, et al.'s case that the consumer society began to crop up in the 18th century, and not after the Industrial Revolution, as is commonly held. The essence of this argument is that the consumer demand that sustained the kind of factory building that the Industrial Revolution brought on was already percolating in the 1700s, and people were already eager for standardized, mechanized goods. I'm likely misremembering details of their argument -- much of it hinged on the wily practicality of a particular small time manufacturer, who exploited every advertising trick in the book to tap into a nascent consumer market. I had been interested in that because my pet thesis is that commercial novels, which emerge in the late 1700s, rely on essentially the same mental equipment that adverts do, that to enjoy novels is to be able to enjoy and be swayed by ads, and vice versa. Both ask you to suspend disbelief, to think non-rationally, to indulge in elaborate fantasy and enjoy these more than the concrete thing that instigates them. If that sort of psychological ad culture was coming into being then, and not, as many argue, in the early 20th century, then that serves my idea well.
Breen seems eager to ascribe to America the first mass consumer society as opposed to England, but the time frame is the same. I would still try to argue that burgeoning literary culture facilitated the consumer culture, and that books were one of the first mass produced commodities to hit the early modern market.
The dark side to this may be the implication that American politics are essentially consumerist, and therefore naturally take the form of a kind of marketplace of ideas -- that one should choose between candidates the same way one would choose between Coke and Pepsi (there is the same amount of difference between the two in each case) is the inevitable course of things for a country born out of a desire to drink untaxed tea. Or rather than buying power should inevitably equate to political power -- that spending money should dictate policy. The similarities between the voting system under democracy and the freedom of choice among commodities probably should be denounced rather than celebrated (I don't know that Breen celebrates this); Baudrillard, for one, ridicules this in his work on consumerism, seeing the sham political process as a ramification of the "code" of consumerism, the equivalence of everything as signs, taking over everything. You can't opt out of the code any more than you can vote for some real change in the way things are in America. Baudrillard came around to advocating the "fatal strategy" of silence, which most Americans have taken him up on, as it sounds a lot like voter apathy to me.
Lizabeth Cohen, in A Consumer's Republic, makes a similar case about ways that post WWI politics were driven by consumerism, that consumerist tactics were a way for marginalized groups (minorities, women) to unite and exercise political power thrrough boycotts, etc. But I'm reluctant to endorse any politics that involves shopping decisions as its primary mode. Again, I'm not sure Cohen endorses this, she just seems to be arguing it was the only option, the only way in, perhaps because in the end, no one in power is really threatened by people who are primarily shoppers.
The problem with politicized shopping is that ultimately you need to buy more to increase your political clout; boycotts are merely a negative expression of this, they are only as strong as how much money is being withheld from the market. And if you are spending more, buying more, seeing consumerism as the medium for your social life and expression, than you may have already lost the important fight.
There's also something to be said about the erosion of a public sphere for political discourse that mall-shopping politics has contributed to. If you go to the mall to participate in your society, then the owners of that space can banish an anti-shopping, anti-business voices. But anyway I'll have to finish reading Habermas first.

Monday, June 28, 2004

PopMatters column

This blog is meant to work in conjunction with the column I just started writing for PopMatters about consumerism. I don't know how often I'll post to it, but it seems like a thing columnists ought to do. Presumably I'll come across things in my daily life as a serious contemplater of consumerism and feel a burning need to annotate them as soon as possible for whatever audience I have hubristically posited foy myself. I can't say I have ever had this experience before, but perhaps it is only a matter of time, now that I've broken the seal on this thing.

It seems like a place to log future column ideas as they occur to me, so I will know where to find them. For instance, there's the war on logic mounted by TV ads. I don't watch much TV outside of sports events, but the ads I see during them freak me out. I am convinced that advertisers have collectively stumbled upon a strategy that invovles breaking down the viewers use of logic by inserting as many non sequiturs as possible, figuring that once the viewer loses the power to reason, he'll be more susceptible to the irrational lures designed to get him to buy Ford trucks or light beer. The point must be convince you that illogicality is delightfully whimsical, much more fun than dreary old reasonability. And by purchasing whatever item the ad is pushing, you are able to bypass reason and head straight for that fun world of whimsey yourself. All and all, another example of America's characteristic and pervasive anti-intellectualism.