Supermarkets are a popular setting for music videos. The cultural theorist John Hutnyk comments on this and presents a kind of a Marxist theory of shopping. From the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here).
Six supermarkets featured in six music videos. In different ways, I can see why these clips go together and it is not merely arbitrary. It worries me that all my life seems headed for the aisles; shopping surrounds me with monstrous collections of commodities. As in Sakari Pippo’s «Shopping Trance» for Siinai (2014), I am wandering, wondering, observing – and lost in commodification, amongst all the other shoppers, also lost. Of course I know this is the space of reproducing labor power. The hard edge of non-work that ends up being work too. So much must be done outside the nominal nine-to-five, and usually it’s a double-shift effort, to bring home groceries, to cook, care for the kids, stay sober, sleep well, get fit, wake up on time, shower, shave, dress in reasonably fresh trousers and more or less ironed shirt, drag a comb across my head, go downstairs and drink a cup.
But in the supermarket the labor of production and reproduction is also hidden. Vast global circuits of manufacture and delivery, electronically monitored supply and demand chains, and product lines, stacked on shelves, themselves built in the night by shopfitters following plans and designs informed by psychology and survey. The nighttime in the store is not all quiet – nor a place to dance, as cleverly contradicted over a remixed Jay Z track in Vladimir Gruev’s «Santa’s Massive Robbery» (2014). In these videos we are urged to think of the mischievous elves, who we know are fiction, as signifying our understanding that the theft is hidden. The shelves/elves do not stack themselves.
Maybe supermarkets are the arcades of our time. But even Walter Benjamin would be hard-pressed to get excited by block cardboard-printed sans serif font advertising posters and cheap plastic discount displays. Benjamin would be stranded in Ikea, found despairing and indecisive in the desk-lamp section, disheveled in the bookshelf self-assembly unit area, simply unable to assemble. Today when whole supermarkets are dedicated to carton food and frozen produce – the weapon systems in Animal Mystik’s «SuperMarket» (2014) say it all – we have our indictment of the zeitgeist. Each discount is another squeeze by the boss on a co-worker since the «loss» is never simply absorbed. A bargain is always passed on as extortion and extension of the wage-freeze.
There is a desperate nod of recognition in the checked out check-out counter checker in James Tuovinen’s «Jukka-Pekka» clip for Olimpia Splendid. Am I not surprised to be lost in the mall? These downgraded yet privileged spaces of commerce set apart as part of the everyday, taking over everywhere with a declining future. As J.R. Sebastian animates the department store in Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner (1982), the replicant slaves have seen more than the check-out clerks can ever scan.
At least, perhaps, in the supermarket of today I am free from the egoist clamor of everyone having their fifteen minutes – family fight, trolley rage. I see the similarities between the elves and the grotesque meat battle of Eric Wareheim’s «Ham» (2014). Like the trolley trance, the eruption into violence exposes the mutual agreement of sticking to your trolley lane. In the sanitized and inhuman reality of the shopping world, nothing intrudes but endorsements.
My trolley-rage is recorded with only a receipt stub list as documentary evidence. The constellation of trolleys is the St Vitus’ dance of the commodity, without the death but nevertheless contagious. These clips expose this zombie world, even when Gazelle Twin slows it down to introduce the police within Esther Springett’s «The Belly of the Beast» (2014). Of course we police ourselves, our own internal enemy.
Family life is supermarket reproduction. It hides the fratricidal conflict of prices in a rhetorically transparent accounting. It fudges a false economy of bargain and discount that tricks us into competition and has us doing damage to each other. Unreal contemporary life in air-conditioned comfort, crisp vegetables never seen on farms, storage boxes bigger than the desiccated lifestyles they contain, a vast abattoir just out of view.
Protocols of Commerce
Full disclosure. My bitterness is close because I worked as a shopfitter in the night of the supermarket. I know too well that the literary fantasy of products come to life – the puppets in the toy store, the dinosaurs in the museum, the pleasure-bot Pris – is only a cruelly distorted disguise for the tired night shift workers doing the android drudge. Counting down the hours to a meager paycheck with too little sleep. Alienation was never so obvious – and oblivion never so near – as it is to those who stack shelves after twelve.
Some will say we must reclaim the supermarket space for sentiments and characteristics normally excluded from commercial transaction – community care, fun, dance, drama, theater of mystery or the absurd, energy not consumed by wage work… As if this daydreaming at the till or dancing on the display floor could be collected, these little moments stolen from the protocols of commerce in the interest of expression. Then maybe, just maybe, these supermarket videos show that character is not completely crushed. Still working to repair labor capacity, a necessarily critical reproduction is more radical than shoplifting and refuses to affirm, even in contradiction, the logical equations of trinketization against recoupment of value by captains of production. Declaring something beyond the regimented aisles remains plausible, possible even, notwithstanding crazed routines.
At minimum this can be a protest against the discipline of selling labor only to have to buy back at a higher price what we have already made. At best, this suggests an active realization that the battle zone of the supermarket cannot be endured passively, that the bifurcation of the self – in working too much for wages that buy half what the work was worth and the all-against-all war of attrition that turns your discount into my overtime – shall not pass. It must not pass. The parrot is not a dead parrot. Shopping is civil war.
This text was published first in the second Norient book «Seismographic Sounds».