Monday, May 4, 2015

How a Super Market Can Teach You to Think

            My interest in Don DeLillo is a direct result of my research on David Foster Wallace. A lot of critics and scholars often compare Wallace’s fiction to that of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and/or William Gaddis; however, by Wallace’s own admission, DeLillo was one of his biggest influences, and Wallace liberally cribbed from DeLillo’s oeuvre (D. T. Max has a quote in his biography of DFW in which Wallace talks about how he’s glad that most people see him in the shadow of Pynchon because that means nobody’s realized how much he’s actually pinched from DeLillo’s works). This blog initially was going to focus on how Baudrillard’s concept of a consumerist society relates to the supermarket in DeLillo’s White Noise. My final essay uses his (Baudrillard’s) hyperreal, and I figured I’d just double dip and use him here, too, but it wasn’t working. Conflicting ideas kept popping up, and the whole blog went FUBAR pretty quick. So, I abandoned the Baudrillard angle and opted for Althusser and a supermarket = ideological state apparatus interpretation. This approach also failed because of genre/length concerns. I didn’t think anyone wanted to read seven + pages worth of brain droppings w/r/t DeLillo and Althusser, so what I’ve finally landed on is how DeLillo influenced DFW’s (*gasp) Kenyon commencement speech—with a drastically attenuated Althusserean flare. If you are familiar with the commencement address that Wallace delivered to the 2005 graduating class from Kenyon University—later published by Little, Brown and Company as a short booklet titled This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life—much of DFW’s speech bears a very strong resemblance to DeLillo’s break-out novel White Noise.
            A recurring setting in White Noise is the supermarket, and White Noise’s supermarkets underscore a particular 1985 American consumerist-fascism. DeLillo’s super markets are spaces representative of capitalistic identity and existence where, “Everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material. The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation. All the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases” (DeLillo 37-38). Perusing the shelves that line the aisles of the grocery store, “We don’t have to cling to life artificially, or to death for that matter;” instead, shoppers engage in a “serious business” in a well-lighted space that is “sealed off, self-contained.  . . . timeless” (38).
DeLillo’s supermarkets are expanses that symbolize the relationship of individuals to the real conditions of their existence. Surrounded by letters, numbers, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, Jack Gladney, White Noise’s protagonist, is buffeted from all sides by products stocked on the shelves of the grocery store’s aisles that reflect his personal beliefs and personal identity w/r/t 1980’s American culture. The individual shopper at the super market “behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject” (Althusser 1353). As Jack walks past the fruit bins that extend “about forty-five yards along one wall” of his local grocery, he muses about the:
Apples and lemons tumbled in twos and threes to the floor when someone took a fruit from certain places in the stacked array. There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension. (36).
Jack becomes a performer of a certain material ritual within the grocery that is illustrative of the capitalistic influences that the super market has over us.
            I seriously doubt that any of us are incapable of imagining the boredom, routine, and petty frustration w/r/t grocery shopping in the following scenario: “It’s the end of the workday,” Wallace tells the Kenyon graduates to picture, “and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded … and the store is hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out” (69). Wallace goes on to describe a scene with which all of us are way too familiar with, in which we wander all over the huge maze-like store that is crowded to the gills with “tired, hurried people with carts,” old people with the swiftness of sloths, dreamy-eyed people who seem way more interested in standing in your way than out of your way, and sugared infused kids blocking all of the aisles, and you are thus forced to have to grit your teeth as you politely try to maneuver your cart, that of course has one wonky wheel, through the crowds (72). Wallace uses the supermarket as one example for how the whole point of a college education is to teach you how to think. Wallace posits that, “the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking we’re supposed to get in a place like this [the university] isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to about” (14).
            At the end of White Noise, Jack enters the supermarket one last time, and he discovers that the layout and organization of the products in the grocery have all changed since his last visit:
The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream Wheat. They see no reason for it, find no sense in it. (326)
The shopper’s familiarity has been altered. A new default setting is needed because the automatic, unconscious way that the customer operated under to find the Cream Wheat has been upset. “Everything we need,” DeLillo writes, “that is not natural or love is here in the tabloid racks [of the supermarket]. The tales of the super-natural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for caner, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead” (326). DeLillo’s motif of the supermarket as a representation for American surface tropes plays out in Wallace’s ultimate message in his commencement speech. Wallace uses the supermarket as a setting to illuminate the fact that “the thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of [boredom-routine-petty-frustration] situations” (84). His main line is that we can choose how to think about the petty, miasmic (foul) turpitudes (wickedness) of the daily struggle we call life. “Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think,” Wallace states:
if I don’t make a concisous decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who the fuck are all these people in my way? (77).
Similar to DeLillo’s message at the end of White Noise, Wallace attempts to get the 2005 graduating class from Kenyon University to recognize that there are different levels of perspectives for what is real and essential. Both, Wallace and DeLillo, seem to be emphasizing what is hidden in plain sight all around us, and that we should keep in the back of our heads this little parable:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

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