Friday, May 04, 2012

The Language of Waves and Radiation

“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 scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.”

-Don Delillo, from the conclusion of White Noise

Our grocery store is finishing a remodeling project. The place feels different in ways that are hard to place — the changes are subtle enough that you can't remember what it looked like before, but the cumulative effect is of being someplace that's at once familiar and strange, as though pranksters moved your bedroom furniture a few inches while you slept.

When I visited yesterday, the changes raised all sorts of questions: how many focus groups and research studies went into determining how high this shelf is, or what kind of lightbulbs to use? And where is the yogurt?

And yet, the overall effect was effective: the colors seemed brighter, the aisles more spacious, my appetite for groceries stronger.

It reminded me of Don Delillo's White Noise, which has a number of amazing passages about supermarkets. I came home and skimmed the book for those passages again, and found my favorite, the one quoted above, which occupies the very last page of the book. A pretty amazing conclusion: an apotheosis of the consumer experience.

So it felt even more wonderful to experience the same sensations in real life, and be aware of them. Was this desire to consume more a subconscious reaction to the new environment that retail analysts and architects had designed explicitly for that purpose?

Or maybe the physical details of the remodeling are irrelevant, and the simple awareness of the remodeling itself — the mere idea of the remodeling — was enough to convey expectations that I should buy more, in order to blend in with the consensus of (real or imagined) focus groups and balance sheets. To be in harmony with the language of waves and radiation.

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