On the Psychosis of the Grocery Store
As we’ll state many times, in discussions of this nature, the communities of the rich world are moving toward an existence more and more dependent on symbols, which is precipitating a massive individual, isolated decoding effort that’s replacing actual communication between people.
It could be argued that language and money are currently the most important symbolic systems in the world: neither actually produce or describe anything, but rather reflect our desires about things. The cultivation of language, for instance, is beautiful to the one who can do it. Nevertheless it is ultimately an economy of diminishing returns, as with the cultivation of money, because a person’s fluency in a language is far more a result of his or her ability to understand his or herself than the product of plying the tools of language to a certain craft.
As a brief example, a man may tell his significant other that he loves her more today than he did yesterday. When we get to the reality of things, this declaration isn’t the complement that we all surely assumed it was upon first mention, for the individual is, in all likelihood, professing the miraculous ability to allow himself to feel more love for her than he allowed himself to yesterday. Many of us will never get to this point, and our symbols for love must labor under our anemia. Of itself, the expression is beautiful to us, for we all would have it reflect our desire for love, and we all want it to be a complement. But it is actually a reflection and not a complement to be conferred on another as a result of exposure to the other’s desirable traits.
Money, as a symbol, works in much the same way, and with equally as disastrous consequences. Money is the symbol of our ability to achieve the objects of our desires, or, to put it in its full perversity, a symbol for catching symbols. Of course the ability to get what we want is far more important to us from day to day than actually getting what we want (just ask doctor Faust), so money becomes more important than the actual product it buys. Again, we gain a symbolic victory by using symbols to catch symbols, and this burns up enough of our energy to render us useless when it comes time to go outside and let our bodies have some fun.
This economy of symbols has now reached our food. It did decades ago, more or less after the second world war, when the military learned how to turn weapons into fertilizer, literally feeding us the stuff of war. Yet only now do some, like Schlosser, Pollan, et al., begin to discuss the implications of our divorce from the material economy of our most basic needs in favor of a symbolic replacement for it. The irony here is, though we are (for now) adopting a very materialist analysis of this condition, the problem is that the material is being largely ignored by individuals, and that technology has prevented the divorce within us to starve us to death.
Now we come to our argument. As Pollan so lucidly points out, the wealthy country’s grocery store has no seasons. Somewhere in our longitude there’s a warmer latitude this time of year, or a greenhouse, whence someone will provide us with out-of-season food through the shortest possible distance between us. If the food threatens to go its natural way before it arrives at our arm’s length, we can preserve it any number of ways. We then grow so accustomed to the safety of preservation (though bacterial outbreaks continue to remind us of its fallibility) that we regard anything that hasn’t undergone the rite of preservation and been served to us clinically dead with extreme suspicion. Has anyone ever tried to offer homemade sauerkraut or kombucha (this writer is from California –ignore the latter if you don’t know what it is) to the grocery store-brain and had the guest, learning that it’s five weeks old and raw, decline to try out the masterpiece?
The net effect here is that the model of the wealthy country’s grocery store, with its rows of processed and colored sameness and its practically immortal produce, becomes the only acceptable model for getting food. The method of acquiring food through this ritual conveniently requires the use of our money, symbol of our ability to master the objects of our desire. We’ll keep the even weirder fast food model out of the scope of this discussion for at least two reasons: it’s more weirdness, and we want to impress upon the reader that the grocery store is just as weird, quality differences be damned, and creates just as unhealthy a relationship with the material world and with what we’d like to think of as all things.
The fact that we have grocery stores, like so many other things we now have, somehow generates a symbol in our minds that convinces us that we need grocery stores. We actually don’t, strictly speaking; grocery stores are a technological extravagance that we’d like to consider beautiful, just like language and money, and all are now governed by the out-of-control symbolic systems we’re using.
That delusional need for a certain model of existence, that psychosis of the grocery store, is what we would like in this discussion to begin healing from, that we may heal our connections to all things.
We mustn’t let our egos run off, however, and blame people for being like this. For a start, that would not be the reflection of our inner relations that we are so proud of exhibiting. On a more practical level, how is a person brought up from childhood going only to the grocery store to be blamed for keeping such as his or her only model for getting fed? To confront this we must confront the false safety engendered in us by the store.
The grocery store’s existence motivates us to regard it as the symbolic satiation of our hunger (ever since the time we invented it to do just that). No matter what happens, no matter how low our chances get of taking advantage of it, the grocery store is always there. If an earthquake or a hurricane knock it down, it can be reproduced exactly as it was. Knowing that it’s there eases our hunger. We should like at this point to verify that this is not strictly a materialist analysis. For one, the physical reality of hunger is greatly amplified by the spiritual events inside us, and, for another, should we confine ourselves to materialism, the ghost of Weber will rap our knuckles.
The fear of losing the food security promised by the grocery store is one of the strongest contributors to the psychosis of the grocery store. To measure how decadent, delusional and de-natured a community is, one must simply count the number of things that its members feel they stand to lose. The sum is proportionate to the delusion; how many things do unwesternized, indigenous people, prisoners and slaves feel that they have to lose compared to the commuting suburban couch potato? Not a hell of a lot.
As with many things, we must confront the fear of loss in order to come clear with the grocery store. Ironically, the strength of fear in this situation is swiftly destabilized when one begins to heal one’s connection to the growing world by learning to grow our own food. In fact, this writer conceived this essay a few years ago, just a few weeks after first spending no money on lunch by eating potatoes and collard greens grown in a square meter of rehabilitated apartment dirt using only water, sunlight and eager attention.
Furthermore, it’s not that we completely lack a connection to all things, but that we know that we can grow our own food with a tiny amount of soil for at least a few seasons of any climates year as we have for millennia, yet we don’t. We lose belief that it’s possible. The lack of balance between the frequency of luxurious trips to the grocery store and the real physical and spiritual toil of trying not to screw up the carrots has the following result: our clever brains simply make a hard turn away from the less-frequently visited vibration. If we add this to many people’s current lack of knowledge of cultivation and the lack of belief that it’s possible, we get a terror of instability. That instability is in turn a symbol for the terror of starvation, no matter how unconscious, or of not achieving the objects of our desire, if that’s better, and the vessel of that terror will prostitute itself to any force that promises to protect it. Hence we’ve got a deluding set of tools developing: a symbol that catches symbols, and a symbol that protects symbols.
We’d now like to raise the problems in our discussion to the level at which they encounter the out-of-control symbolic systems suggested above. We shall review our argument once more, but this time we’ll look at it in terms of symbols and of the psychosis, the unhealthy delusion, that they cultivate inside us.
We have a fear of hunger. The grocery store has the potential to cure our hunger, but its important role as a symbol is to reflect our desire never to be hungry. This is precisely because of the reality of growing our own food. However, just as we can spend money and make what we want magically appear in front of us without having to actually produce the thing, we can go to the grocery store and feel the relief that we’ll soon not be hungry, as we mentioned above. When naturally cultivating food, that guarantee is not constantly present.
Without discussing it, we in the store’s vicinity agree that the store will be a symbol of our security. As a proving action, we all go to it for food, and this normalizes its presence, gives it a symbolic identity that shields any other possible identities from our perception. Should one of us claim not to go, our brains become so overcome with terror at the thought of insecurity that we first assume that he or she must go to a different one. Maybe a cheaper one or a more expensive one, or one that takes checks.
The symbol of the grocery store, in any case, is as portable as the design of the store, and as language and money even, so it spreads, and the process begins again in another neighborhood. In our rush to make our symbols agree, that is, to make them like real communication (which they’re not), we rush to all accept that the grocery store is the model for security against hunger. We use a symbol (language) to rapidly reproduce symbols that protect us from other symbols. Then we wonder why no one understands each other, even when we’re being honest, even though we harp on the same strings for centuries. A more ambitious scholar will take Victor Borge’s and this writer’s cue from here and demonstrate to us the “obesity of language.”
If we add to the above the wicked, delusional and stupid symbology of the advertising necessary to support industrial food production, before we know it we can only prepare food at home that comes from our symbol store lest the specter of insecurity bleed through our thatch of symbols. For the most obvious example of this, see what happens to people who visit the frozen aisle often. Without digressing too much, we should also like to suggest the health implications of what happens when one acquires the habit of budgeting food money exclusively according to the store’s prices. In any case, we cannot blame people for not knowing what to do with a kitchen full of garden-fresh produce, unfrozen, unbalanced, unsoaked, unsalted.
We need to begin using the simple solution of growing our own food, of making ourselves vulnerable to the seasons and the whole uncertain astrology of natural reality. Action is great for reducing fear, if only because it makes us too busy to be afraid. We don’t have to be land owners or independently wealthy or unemployed to do it; one needs only to start, to meet someone who’s done it and let him or her banish doubt with stories and instructions.
We need a body and spirit that know store-food from home-food, and that can see its own fingerprint in its food, if that’s what’s necessary. Of course this applies mainly to vegetables, but that still has a quantitative value, and with ingenuity one can also cultivate eggs. With a healthy, realistic relationship to both foods we can make decisions about them. One cannot change who doesn’t think they have the choice (another useful measurement of decadence), and one cannot liberate a thing from its symbol until one can make good decisions enough to trust oneself with building new meanings for the symbols through communication with other people. We can’t yet resolve the issue of our talking mostly to ourselves, so we must overcome our psychoses and use our symbols freely as the simple, governable tools they are supposed to be. We can use them toward growth and healing, until perhaps the symbols aren’t as important to us as communication about a thing. Then a grocery store can be a grocery store, an opinion can be an opinion, people can be healthier and more respectful of the earth, and a wall of delusion can fall to reveal our connection to all things.
If we don’t do this, a destructive consumption cycle will continue to grow. To pick up from the digression above, we must consider that, since we agree to rely on the food in the store to fill our very model of what food is, and support our symbols of survival, there has been constructed a very powerful capitalist machine to provide that to us. We speak namely of companies like Monsanto, Cargill and ConAgra (these are the heads of many, many smaller and friendlier companies), who own so much of the means of producing our food that no one wants to think about it lest they have an Orwellian panic attack.
These companies are pursuing the money symbol, and their psychosis works in perfect harmony with that of us consumers, as we have demonstrated above with the interdependence of spending money and visiting the grocery store. They know that we use symbols to protect our symbols from harm, and they’ve mastered how to become one of our symbols while hoarding plenty of their own favorite symbol. They will drain, starve, and destroy as much land as they can to have more capital, and are suing, robbing and shutting down as many farmers as they can in order continue. This obviously isn’t something an entity does when it lives by a connection to all things. If we train our bodies to make decisions about whether to eat store-food or home-food, we take away a large share of Agribusiness’ power.
We shall conclude by reminding the reader of the goal of these essays, which is to demonstrate that these “psychoses,” and we as their vessels, are currently stuck in a negative feedback loop with the conditions that gave rise to them, and with our efforts to maintain them, though they’re no longer valid or useful. The psychosis of the grocery store is in large part caused by unsustainable economic novelties invented to keep an expanding America fed, of which the model of the grocery store is comprised, and by our repeatedly renewed response to it, detailed above.
These discussions all point toward the problem of self-preservation, and our symbolic structure should now make it clear that the decadent industrial world has gone so far beyond a meaningful, natural sense of self-preservation (to whose formulation we invite the reader), that we now feel the need to preserve our symbols for survival as much as the means of survival themselves. Unless we let go, all of these precious white liberal progressive ideas and movements for change will amount to nothing but running in circles. We cannot, for example, ever hope to cure global warming by driving hybrid cars and consuming at the level that we believe to be necessary. We’re to save the world with a car that is constructed, advertised and delivered to us using the same polluting methods as to for a “utility” truck? Whoever’s fooled by that deserves to have his or her house eaten by rising seas.
It is true that our quantity and habit of consumption is unsustainable, “organic” or otherwise, and is very close to wrecking our communities. However, rather than proposing a hysterical, millenarian apocalypse, as is the fashion, we suggest that the end of our communities as we know them is but a point in time, on either sides of which life shall go on. We have proposed furthermore that we look at our place in the circle of history and simply use new habits to shift our direction. The platitude that habits are some of the most difficult to change is itself born of habit, and we must work on many levels of our consciousness in order to render habits more pliable. This is proven to be possible through traumatic experiences, such as surviving cancer, seeing a gruesome film, hearing a tear-jerking story, and so forth. The simple plans for healing from the psychosis of the grocery store are indeed also plans to heal from our consumption habits, and there we have a tool that we can use for good: an action that disciplines and constrains symbols.