Sunday, March 10, 2019

Andrew Warnes's "How the Shopping Cart Explains Global Consumerism"

Andrew Warnes is a Professor in American Studies at the University of Leeds. He is the author of American Tantalus: Horizons, Happiness, and the Impossible Pursuits of US Literature and Culture and Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America's First Food.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, How the Shopping Cart Explains Global Consumerism, and reported the following:
This, to be honest, turned out to be something of an anticlimax. On submitting to Ford Madox Ford’s famous test, I experienced the usual low-level anxieties, wondering what stylistic outrages I would find in the middle stretches of my new book. But when I reached page 99 of How the Shopping Cart Explains Global Consumerism, I discovered that the helpful typesetters at the University of California Press had handed me a free pass: rather than my own unvarnished prose, it features someone else’s photograph [below left; click to enlarge]—and a really interesting one at that.

As a press photographer in postwar Washington DC, Thomas O’Halloran usually plied his trade by focusing on the manly icons of the Cold War: John Glenn, LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger, Khrushchev. But it is his impromptu shots—his images of off-duty soldiers, mustering Civil Rights marchers, and Virginian schoolchildren—that are perhaps likelier to catch the eye today, opening a window on everyday Washington life. His 1957 photos of unnamed customers in a suburban supermarket certainly captured my interest, and not
“Shopping in Supermarket” 1957
least as they call attention to details in this new approach to food shopping that never showed up depicted in the newspaper and TV ads of the period. Maybe, like such promotional material, they too confirm that Americans were becoming a “people of plenty,” in David M. Potter’s phrase. But whereas female shoppers in these ads often seem at ease, even spellbound by such plenty, O’Halloran shows how his subjects must kneel and bend and reach into it, inspecting and calculating it as they assemble the “big shop” of the week. As such he reminds us that the supermarket’s epic achievement of transferring American plenty into American homes only became possible because such stores handed an individual cart to each of their shoppers and required them to fill it up.

Although it is given over to visual illustration, then, page 99 still encapsulates the later stages of How the Shopping Cart Explains Global Consumerism. It captures what I elsewhere try to put into words: that the cart acts upon us as individual consumers by urging us to consume, to consume too much, and to take upon ourselves some of the work of this overconsumption. But I would add that, in emphasising both the long parallel lines of the grocery shelves and the text and images of the packages placed upon them, O’Halloran’s unusual perspective also looks ahead to modes of shopping that have become prevalent in our own period. His shoppers here become speed readers, rapidly scanning the shelves before they reach through the representation of the thing to pick up the thing itself. This alone seems to me to call attention to the continuities between the supermarkets of the last century and the touchscreen technology of today, and to the way in which the latter, too, urges us to scan a rich surface of vibrant goods and to spirit those we want or need into a cart whose overall price is not quite under our control. Opinions will no doubt differ in this regard, but I think the photo is full of contemporary resonances; a justification, if you like, for the fact that the central verb of my book’s title—Explains—is in the present, not past, tense.
Learn more about How the Shopping Cart Explains Global Consumerism at the University of California Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Savage Barbecue.

--Marshal Zeringue