WRITE: A History of Wanting
As an initial mode of inquiry into our cultural attitudes toward food, I explored my feelings and assumptions about Blue Apron dinners with a pastiche of Barthe’s essay “The New Citroën.” This little nugget of self-righteous banter reaches its crescendo in the passage transposed below.
But, oh! The sweetness of diminished cognitive load does hum in our collective ear. To never enter the grocery store again. What joy! And then also why not forgo cooking completely. Perhaps carrots could be plucked from the ground by drones, sliced mid-flight, and dropped directly into app-controlled frying pans. The post-war dream of TV dinner finally realized in the local food era as the Jetsons’ Rosie wheels in to wash, rinse and sanitize the remaining dirty dishes.
This passage rings with a variety of assumptions from overt to subcutaneous. The ironic tone presupposes that the reader would not prefer this fully automated future, while simultaneously admitting that the writer (ME!) sort of / kind of admires that future. Sentence two assumes the reader is busy, that the reader suffers from choice fatigue, that she FEELS OVERWHELMED. Sentence three asserts, without mentioning why, that the reader dislikes grocery shopping, whether the edifice itself or the act of shopping is unclear. Sentences four and five suppose the reader is living in 2016 and, at a minimum, understands the basic functioning of drones and apps both literally and societally. The final sentence assumes the reader is cognizant of American popular culture in the not so distant past.
After this quick dissection of the obvious assumptions, two short and explicative sentences remain. While seemingly innocuous, “But, oh!” and “What joy!” pick at a deeper assumption about advertising and control in American consumer culture. They attempt to utilize the same language that TV and radio advertisements have recycled for decades—a simple exclamation intended to appeal to the visceral.
The visceral speaks to the consumer/reader’s “lizard brain” inspiring a subconscious desire to satisfy base cravings. Behavioral level needs (food) and visceral level desires (Pop Tarts®) are corralled by the immaterial advertisement and linked to a physical place, the supermarket.
Few modern people realize that supermarkets are patented inventions. The process of self-service, or picking one’s own items from the shelf, is little more than 100 years old. Prior to this, goods were kept behind closed gates. Clerks took their clients’ lists and retrieved all desired food items from the back. Clerks didn’t impulse buy for you.
In early supermarkets, shoppers were required to follow a zig-zag maze from entry to cash register. Along the way, they would pass every single item for sale in the store. “In plan view,” says Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, the Hidden Battle for the World Food System, “the internal geography of the store balanced stock control with the communicative architecture of what was, ultimately, the first consumption factory.”
Over the years, store designs have relaxed giving shoppers the “freedom” to dart in and out of aisles or simply circle the stores perimeter if desired. This only occurred after consumers “internalized the cost saving measures of the self-service.” So now, when Joe Shopper is on his way home from work and his car radio exclaims that Anderson Erickson Milk and Pop Tarts® on sale at Safeway, a series mediators is engages beginning with the visceral feeling of elation. The relationship between the advertisement and the feeling is necessarily subconscious. Next, a conscious thought occurs, Gee, I really need some milk and eggs. Then subconsciously, where do I get milk and eggs? The supermarket. Safeway.
Joe turns his car toward the supermarket. He enters through double automatic doors, an airlock keeping ALL THIS FRESHNESS safe from the outside world. Joe knows the milk and eggs are in the far back corner. He doesn’t need to have been to this store or even to a Safeway brand store to know this. It is part of the collective consciousness, of the mise en scene of our time and place. To get to the milk, Joe successfully navigates piles of apples and onions, but when he stumbles upon the Soda–Mazing™ Crush Orange Pop-Tarts® it is just too much for him and two boxes end up in his basket. Joe hangs a right into the snack aisle and ends up with a full basket. On his way to the register he notices an interesting headline in People and quietly grabs a King Size Snickers®. It isn’t until he is back in the car that Joe realizes he’s forgotten the milk and eggs.
The advertisement sets off a chain of mediators that ALWAYS ends at a row of registers. Despite a more relaxed floor plan, the “factory for consumption” is alive and well. This is because “consumerism today has constructed us, built consuming people at the same time as building consumer goods.”
Affordance in design—the relationship between a physical object and a person—is both resultant of the world in which it resides and simultaneously creates that world. In the supermarket context affordance is defined as all physical arrangements that exist between a shopper and merchandise. This affordance must be based in an ordering of things, in, as Foucault says, “categories that make it possible for us to name, speak, and think.” An entire pseudo academic field known as ‘atmoshperics’ has emerged to study the exact anatomy of the retail environment. Atmoshpericists would, for instance, study the relationship of a musical tempo to shopping patterns. What the modern shopper could not possible comprehend is how thoroughly the affordances of their experience within the supermarket have been sculpted to maximize profit.
Aimee Lee Ball’s piece in New York Time Style Magazine entitled, “The Anti Packaging Movement,” studies manifestations of zero waste grocery stores across Europe. On the surface of things she shows how the zero waste experience differs only slightly from ‘regular’ grocery shopping, but she sidesteps the history of the supermarket and the internalization of self-shopping categories that make it possible for the modern shopper to name, speak, and think. There is “nothing hippieish” about these stores, Ms. Ball assures her reader, urging them that the aesthetics of zero waste shopping will trump the supermarket experience. “The bins of caramels and quinoa and arrangements of olives and honey are at eye level, essentially advertising themselves, their actual shapes and colors replacing photos on packages.” This beliefs that a foods “actual shapes and colors” will automatically signify its intended use is based in pre-supermarket episteme—an ordering of the world that has been battered so ruthlessly by the coalesced forces of advertisement, food science, and atmospherics, that is scarcely exists in 2016, particularly in lower socioeconomic sectors.
When Foucault wrote The Order of Things, these forces were relatively new. Could the internalization of ‘self shopping’ that ultimately upended and redefined the entire world of retail sales have pushed us into a new epistemetic era? Might the ordering of our consumptive habits be so completely different that food, sitting in a bin, free of words and photographs, no longer signify itself?
Ball, Aimee Lee. “The Anti-Packaging Movement,” The New York Times Style Magazine, 2016.
Foucault, Michel. “Preface” The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Trans: Les Mots et les Choses. New York: Random House, 1970.
Norman, Don. The Design of Everyday Things. Philadelphia: Perseus Books, 2013.
Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved, the Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2008.