On the Psychosis of the Grocery Store

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.

Frost People

For a long time the people lived in the frost beneath the ground, where they’d made their homeland since ice had covered much of the northern world. Slowly they’d been forced from the surface of the earth by hunger, weariness and predation by other peoples, until they all rested in the permanent frost, no longer walking people, but still very much alive. There they became part of the stone, the soil and the fungus and learned to live off it. They learned every underground river that coursed through the world, and how to know the weather and the movements of the earth better from below than they ever had from looking at the sky. They knew that they had neighbors, or at least that they must, because they had when they were still walking, but the other peoples, who’d met similar ends above ground as they had, never made contact. Humans buried their dead in the ground, but, though separated only by the boundaries of bones and cloth, the human dead seemed only to know how to die out entirely and never try to join the people. Perhaps the others were stuck in their ways like how the people were encased in their frost. It was a long, quiet peace.

Nevertheless, the world began to get warmer and warmer, the humans’ method of living began to show itself for how destructive it was of the earth, and their lack of sensitivity to what else may be living in the world, let alone under the ground, grew to be dangerous negligence. The frost was able to last for millennia, and here and there it came and went, but it only took one forest fire or any kind of disturbance to drive the frost away. After one moment in which the frost left, it could take centuries for it grow back, should the ground be fit for it. The winters were falling lighter and lighter into the ground, and the cold couldn’t be saved. The people were losing their home almost too fast to respond.

Knowing that they would die in homelessness much surer than they would suffer in displacement, the people decided that they must find a new place to try and live. The world above ground was full of irony: though the humans had chased and killed the people off, as they had done and were doing to so many other living things, they also seemed to be one of the most stable life forms in the world. Surely the people knew that the humans were frightened and cruel, and that it could be disastrous to mix with them again. But everything in the world eventually gives in to forgiveness, hopefully long before, but latest upon, its dying breath, and the people had long since forgiven themselves of their need to hate the humans, and so were able to forgive the humans as well.

Now their forgiveness would be tested. They were now aware that, if the humans could destroy the frost and wreck their home, then they must be capable of destroying just about anything else. The people resolved to reenter the world of the sun and sky through the humans, and to send a message to them that they needed to help the frost return. It made practical sense, since after all they and the people had been so alike.

The people didn’t take many things into account, however. They had gone from the fields and mountains before the humans had acquired language, and couldn’t begin to understand how the humans relied upon it for everything, even though –obviously enough to the people –there was an infinity of perfectly effective alternatives for communication. It seemed to the first explorers that the humans would die without their verbal language. It was also difficult to measure, for now their verbal symbols were beginning to rely on other symbols impressed on the world for their meaning. The people found this altogether absurd, since the symbols weren’t straightforward, like the hand prints and other drawings of the world that the people had left in their old dwellings.

In any case, the first babies born to the people soon proved to be less than ideal vehicles. The humans looked upon them with terror and anger, as if they’d given birth to a monster, even before trying to make the most preliminary contact. They were blinded by what they had been expecting. And that was only a response to the babies’ behavior. When the babies predictably didn’t acquire any language, for the people’s brains weren’t built for it, their parents locked them away from the world and engaged them in a ridiculous game of painfully slow instruction in meaningless concepts. The agents of that game made no pretense to really trying to connect to the people, and their consolation was distant and empty. It was a frustrating obstacle. It’d been easy enough to place themselves into the humans from the ground, for all that they had ever been was lying ready in the ground, but the people could not gain entry into the humans’ minds enough to simply tell them the message. Their language was like a terrible stormy mountain range, whose other end exists only in the realm of faith, and whose crossing would last more generations than the memory of why one undertook to cross it.

Then, one day an old spirit from the people made a much better match. It entered into an old man, whose family responded to his new ways with fear. They treated him as if he had died, since his habit for language and other human customs was summarily tossed aside. But they let him be, for the most part, and the old spirit took advantage of his age and knowledge to gain some ground in the human mind. He looked out through the old man’s eyes and his heart felt warm and full as he gazed at the mountains whose youth he had shared, and felt fondness for the sight of the deep grooves cut into them by the ice that had only revealed the mountains beneath in his old age. It certainly wouldn’t be bad to be a human, if the people could simply help them with their habits.

Slowly the old man began to acquire an understanding of language. It was still a trial on his patience, for each human seemed to have one of his or her own, and they used their language to deflect each other’s attempts at contact. They bore the relatively small differences in their utterances like wounds and used them to erect walls and build nations in order to feel master of the distances that the world couldn’t help setting between their tribes. Not even the ever-present underground water could make their symbols flow together in one direction.

Nevertheless the old man persisted. He knew that for now, and there was only now, the humans were his people’s only hope for finding a new home. The birds and other animals, even the wind, to an extent, treated him differently now that he was a human. They all advised him of the absurdity of his ways, and when he responded that he knew it, they were consistently shocked to find that he wasn’t deaf. It made for great comic relief.

Another thing that the people hadn’t considered was that, though the humans had by now lasted in their present form quite a bit longer than the people ever had in theirs, they still had quite a problem with forgiveness. One day as the old man was being fussed over by his incomprehensible family while tending his plants, which the humans had ingeniously learned to manipulate, perchance he learned about reason. The humans seemed to use it like his people used forgiveness, but it didn’t create togetherness like forgiveness did. It was overused, like language, and it seemed not to produce anything but arguments for the need of more reason. Evidently his family couldn’t get it to work on him. As we can guess by now, this was too much for the old man, and he let it go lest it drive him up the wall.

As the old man gained the ability to speak, his family brought all kinds of ideas to him that they were expecting him to understand, as if he were coming back to unfinished business, but he had to let that go too. He felt sorry for the humans; they were unable to know that he hadn’t taken their old man away from them, and at the same time he couldn’t speak for the old man.

One day, as he saw his people dying out of their human vessels and returning to the shrinking frost, the old man stood up before many people, for they were willing to listen to him for reasons owing to his body’s other life. He told them his people’s story, where they came from, how they and the humans had once been neighbors, and how they were guests now in the human world. He begged them to stop craving things that couldn’t be had without hurting the world, to stop stealing the ground from each other. He begged them to understand that they weren’t the only things that were in danger, and to forgive themselves of the need to keep settling scores and opening wounds so that they could end their circle dance of reason and destruction.

But the humans didn’t understand the old man. Some reasoned that he must be trying to do him harm, or else he wouldn’t be asking them to change. Some listened to what he had to say, understood it, and then used what they had understood to reason and argue for their own desires. The great volume of the humans who had listened was far worse than the silence of those who hadn’t. It broke the old man’s fragile human heart, and he died, returning empty-handed to the frost.

The people saw what had happened; they didn’t need an explanation, and they couldn’t have one in any case. It was clear to them now that their habits had led them as astray as the humans’ had them. When the old man thought of what he had told the humans, he realized that it wasn’t just the humans that were clinging to what they lived on.

One can never return to the same place that one has left. The people let go of their need to live in the frost and rose through the ground, now living in the old frost and soil, and also the stone, the grass, the trees and the air. In these places they found their neighbors, many of which had already learned to let go and simply be. The people no longer needed to know the weather or the seasons, for they now were all moved by the same force. As long as there was a world, the people would get by in it.

A few days after his leaving the human body, the old man decided to go back to the humans and tell them of his people’s success. When his living body returned, those who had known him were frightened, overjoyed and confused that he had somehow risen from death. The old man explained to them that his people had let go, and that was why he could visit again. On the subject of his fleeing death, the old man advised the humans that one can never return from the same place that one has left, and he told them that they could move on from what they thought was life and death as well, if they could just let go, learn forgiveness, and leave off the activities that had caused his problems in the first place.

Then the old man returned to his people, leaving with a whisper that now could float freely on the wind forever and cross the entire world; in this way the old man and his people would never have to undertake a migration again. The whispered words were a simple request to listen.