The Older, newly arranged. Brandon Joyce.

Charlottesville, 2000 

I have been told, with a serious face, that one day High-Western Capitalism will either crumble under the weight of its own inequity, collapse with a blinding world-historical revolution, or simply fall out of fashion with the Powers That Be. But despite the shrill conviction of the red-and-black Left, my crystal-ball tells me that Das Kapital is here to stay, in one form or another, and that we ought to dress accordingly. I say “in one form or another” because, though I wholeheartedly defend a kind of free market, my kind of tricks and transformations are sure as hell not on the side of Business-As-Usual. From my skewed perspective, and from the perspective of game theorists, economics majors, and silicon tycoons, Capitalism runs on the same principles as the simplest Game— desire, parameter, contract, competition, and finally strategy. When only one team fully understands the rules, object, and dynamic of the struggle (or that they are even playing at all) we could expect nothing more than a brutal lop-sided assbeating.

And this seems the condition of the modern consumer— either hopelessly gullible or embittered beyond the point of good sportmanship. So central to my job description at The Center For Experimental Living, is cooking up devious new gameplans for the underdog lay-public to spring on the overly-prepared Business World. Basically, we put the “con” back in “consumer.” We nudge the public to exploit the wonder and dynamism of commerce while cleverly dodging the evils of commercialism. Instead of structural reforms and referenda, we turn to more mysterious means— magictricks and life-games that arouse the rent-a-cops in Loss Prevention. We’re trying to democratize economics, making it safe again for the silly and conscientious and larger souls among us….

With that said, I would like for us to take a second to celebrate the bustling American Marketplace, to sing its praise, and toss aside any Eurocentric sourness, groundless snobbery, and nostalgia for a mythical Golden Age, before the advent of greed and scarcity, when Mankind plucked its dinner from the bountiful Tree of Nature. Perhaps you are really a closet critical theorist, and have been nursing the suspicion that
“Coca-Cola, as an organ and organism of the integrated Spectacle, must work itself out of the confinements of simple use-value, into a disembodied and ubiquitous spectre of pure exchange value— a meaningless meaning— and earn its liberty only at the sacrifice of your own.”

If you recognize this as the voice of your own inner pontification, or frequently drop icecold phrases like “the monolith of commodity culture,” or if you spell America with a “k,” or send mailbomb manifestoes from secluded log-cabins, you will probably not be terribly impressed with my left-handed salutes to the United States, and its economic potential. But hear me out…

American Living intoxicates me to the point of delirium: french fries and mushroom-onion-bacon-double-cheese-burgers, strip malls, vending machines, barcodes, shrinkwrap, whoremonger philosophes like Benjamin Franklin and Thom. Jefferson, crappy motel shampoo that smells like orange creamsicle, garbled drive-thru intercoms, 25-hour superstores with gazillions of toys and gadgets, great citizens like William James, Richard Feynman, Andy Kaufman, and Mark Twain, swear words, grease monkeys, disposable razors, free toilets, plastic utensils and paper napkins, night spelled N-I-T-E, stationwagons with flamejobs and broken glove-compartments, sketchy truckstops with 72-oz coffees, and, last but not least, the persistent and ingenious Wright Brothers, who achieved the first heavier-than-air flight in Kittyhawk, North Carolina, in 1903, mocking both Impossibility and Old World doubt in a single swoosh. The Compleat Field Guide to American Possibility clearly states that “Above all else, One must have a Rubber Soul, a rollicking optimism that purges its American Body of the last Calvinist traces of seriousness, simplicity, and self-denial.” The Good Book has spoken. Once you understand its cowboy philosophy, please sign on the dotted line _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ and proceed directly to…

II. Low-Level Solutions for Middle-America.

“Low-level” means that, for most of the following life-games, No Special Assembly is Required, no fancy arrangements or rearrangements in the actual structure of the American Marketplace; no crazy legwork, special collectivity, legal contracts, legal counsel, legerdemain, reservations, credit cards— just transformation on a walk-in basis… A change, first, in meanings.

It is one thing to drift and comment flaneur-like within the flux of the Shopping Experience, pointing out all the hidden meanings, playing “smart shopper, sangfroid observer.” It is something wholly different to transform those meanings into something Bigger and Better and Faster and Smarter and Cheaper and Funner, while turning shoestores and cellphone kiosks into concrete instances of Freeplay, and the shrink-wrapped objects on the shelves into tools and toys in the hand. We are not looking for critiques; what we need are strategies, even if they happen to end in handcuffs…

For the middle-American, the Marketplace is roughly equivalent to the Public Domain. The town center. The forum. A gathering point that is both well-lit and pleasingly aromatic. Shopping is the gaping freespace between the private and the purchase, whose maintenance and burden has thankfully been shifted onto business by the competitive dynamic of Capitalism. In order to gain an upper hand we must pit Coke against Pepsi, Dairy Queen versus Burger King, mart against mart….. Make them grovel for your dollar with customer services with massages, self-amusement, minor comforts, special trial-offers, sweepstakes, free goods through advertising, return policies— commercial mechanisms churning out the universal rights and freedoms of the Shopping Public. I thank our Lucky Charms that such a counterintuitive egalitarianism pervades the American Marketplace. I mean, after all, greed is blind. The clerk will take anyone’s money despite race, creed, or color. Everyone is warmly welcomed to browse, window shop, peruse, partake, and ask stupid questions about lavender curtains. Furthermore, though purchases require money, shopping costs us nothing. This is our ticket, our brief diplomatic immunity in the American class struggle…

Except for the most obvious cases (winos pissing in Nordstrom changing-rooms), business clerks cannot really distinguish the Haves from the Have-nots, serious buying-power from weekend boredom. It is this inverted logic that allows high-schoolers to test-drive Ferraris, or read Spanish pornography in bookshop cafes, or force Gap-workers to assemble three identical outfits of highway orange— “Are you guys in a band?” Always remember: you are under no obligations. You eat the cheese, and foil the trap. Caveat emptor ad absurdum…

III. The Supermarket, a Testcase For HeadcasesWe’ll begin our experiments, then, in the Supermarket, the ostensible stronghold of Necessity— catering to the biological demands of Food, Water, Hygiene, and Idi Amin Pez-dispensers. Our task is to drum up Desire within the grid of Necessity, parlay browsing into jouissance, and circumvent/negate the commercial destinies of Piggly-Wiggly. I always enter the Supermarket with a gallop. I get hysterical, and my retinae drink the flood of fluorescent light— a great big glowing nocturnal Parthenon, with free balloons and automatic doors that I open psychokinetically, like the last American Jedi. After riding the quarter-run Cowboy Carousel, I hurry to absorb the vastness of the grocery store, the immense organization at hand, the encyclopaedic showcase of human necessities, with floorplans engineered to slow and trap drifting customers. With my identity concealed behind a gorilla mask, I dive headlong into the shopping experience.

First, we feast on the free samples (found often at either warehouse ‘Buy-4-Less’ stores or upscale Supermarkets with sushi and large wine selections). At Harris Teeter, here in Charlottesville, I stab cubes of turkey and cheese with toothpicks, shamelessly stuffing my face in front of the deli-workers. On the dessert menu, I can munch on buttercookies, guarded by the large cartoon alligator, or I might “sample” nonchalantly from the fresh cherry selection, or the barrels of self-serve candy.

Occasionally, an elderly lady measures out orange juice in dixie-cups, to wash down my square meal of dairy, grain, meat, fruit, and gummy candies. Once upon a time, I used to beeline for Farmer Jack, which always kept a steaming pot of Nine-O-Clock coffee for its customers. But, alas, Farmer Jack was mercilessly crushed by Harris Teeter, ending three glorious years of scary animatronics and psychedelic renditions of Old McDonald. But, if I get no orange juice today, I just head to the vending machines, with the money I just fished out of the nearby fountains, and buy an icecold 12-oz can of generic soda: Dr. K, Dr. South, Dr. Smooth, Dr. Extreme, Dr. Radical, Dr. Rocket, and Dr. Perky, the famous Dr. Perky…

Often, my friends and I will drive to Whole Foods, bringing our appetites but making sure to leave our checkbooks in the glove department. Whole Foods, for the unfamiliar, is an “all-natural foodstore” that targets the health-nuts and earth-friendly with “organic toothpaste” and “all natural sunblock,” and other inscrutable green-gimmicks that exploit the public prejudice for Purity, Nature, and Simplicity.—— “This fifteen dollar deodorant contains real dinosaur feces, chiseled into little bars by the water nymphs of the Amazon.”

I, for one, love synthetic foods, genetically-engineered supertomatoes, 15-syllable chemical names, and warning labels on industrial-strength caffeine drinks. Grease and sugar, blood and metal, food in a tube. In fact, my brother and I are the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Processed Foods, which lobbies the food industry for pill-form Salisbury Steak, breakfast in aerosol cans, lunch you can snort, and microwaveable pizzas and burritos handmade by factory-line robots. Nevertheless, Whole Foods is a veritable Horn Of Plenty for the free-sample aficionado— tomatoes and pineapple slices, fresh bread, fruit salads, crackers and vegetable spreads, cookies, open boxes of granola-cereals— everything from mock-chicken sandwiches to fifteen varieties of diced cheese. Best of all, because free-samples are a win-win situation for both Whole Foods and the hawk-eyed urban-scavenger, they will remain an inalienable effect of the American Marketplace. This is the magic of compromise; finding and refining the mutually beneficial, the true exchange, the essence of commerce…

Now, I’ve eaten; I’ve extinguished any desire to fulfill the prima facie Purpose of the Supermarket, i.e. purchasing food and drink and magazines and mouthwash. Everything now springs from Desire rather than Necessity. From out front, we select our shopping carts with great care, for the race demands a fit machine. Gentlemen, start your engines— Within minutes, I’m zipping through Pet Supplies with my brother in hot pursuit. After several laps, the finish line is within my grasp, until I swerve sharply to avoid a plastic fish, losing my footing and flipping over my cart. My brother maniacally speeds away with victory singing in his heart….

No worries. I will certainly regain my standing in the relay race, with the automatic coupon dispensers. The driver must adeptly steer close enough to snatch the coupon, yet far away enough to avoid collision with the shelves and by-standers. No mean task. After the races, we perform graceful pirouettes, as lovely as swans, around the midstore pillars. We are much pleased with ourselves, as usual. Whooping, giggling, smirking, barreling down the aisles of Farm Fresh. Loitering is a delicate art, true, but not too delicate. We rush to test our pulses on the blood pressure machine in the pharmaceutical aisle, or spread our gospel over the grocery-store intercom. Once the dust settles and the sweat dries, we might trade in our stainless-steel for the snail’s pace of the electric wheelchair. Races between electric wheelchairs are more comic than raucous, especially in reverse or standing. Harris Teeter indulges me even further with a dazzling new line of cart prototypes (like little baby carts or carts with bench seats), keeping me charmed and occupied while my companions actually buy their monthly groceries…

Though they may validate your presence in the eyes of the store managers, shopping carts are, in truth, stealthy vehicles to a higher Silliness. Silliness is, ofcourse, the very opposite of Seriousness, which does not mean “importance, sincerity, or meaningfulness” as it is sometimes invoked by Serious People. Seriousness is the refusal to accept, understand, or utilize the contingency of the world. Serious people think that Bisquick pancake mix or luncheon meat are not the kind of things we should toy with. The silly, on the other hand, exult in the absolute contingency and plasticity of the world, while feeling deeply its “importance, sincerity, or meaningfulness.” Silliness is not fluff, bubbles, and birthday cake. Silliness is the ability to laugh at everything in the universe, all in one breath. It is ecstasis without mysticism, without transcendence, without any respect for Bisquick or the claims of Necessity.

Lifegames, I find, loosen the grip of Necessity and bring daily rituals to crisis. They create desire where before there was only PIN numbers, grocery lists, and check-out lines from here to East Jesus. Life takes on a different line and angle. Wheat Thins and rotating champagne displays become our gamepieces; parking lots and produce sections become our gameboards; and, all of a sudden, the quest for the 7-cent Dr. Pepper becomes your all, your everything, more important in a way, than your own happiness. And having distracted myself with this obsession, my cart now brims with decadent commodities: prize watermelons, cake-icing, panty hose, Puppy Chow, orange Goop, fried chicken, and flavored contraceptives. But, I seem to have forgotten my wallet, on purpose no less. But, Warhol-like, I’ve already known all the pleasures of the gratuitous Shopping Experience, while stopping just short of the check-out counter. I salivated. I fretted needlessly. I chose Pine-Orange-Banana over Orange-Guava-Passion. Now, we could abandon this monstrous collection behind a canned-fruit display, but we have a worse idea—

“The Safeway Relay”—— We split into teams, and begin filling more carts, pell-mell, with the most eccentric goodies on the storeshelves— Vagistat 7, raw meat, diapers, toothpicks, dogbones, and Cheedar Easy-Cheese. After twenty minutes or so, the teams switch carts, and race to put the items back onto the shelves, whence they came and where they belong. The game finishes, tracelessly, in lyric self-dissolution, as stockboys observe a frantic young man sprinting through the aisles with a box of rabbit vittles. After all had been said and done and stocked, however, we couldn’t resist our darker temptations. We leave a cart full of raw meat, as a kind of perverse token of our irremediable immaturity, and return to the front for new carts and other lifegames—

“The Big Switcheroo”—— The object of this game is to transport the entire stock of a certain product to other, properly incongruous regions of the store. The modus operandi is subtle: using a shopping cart, we smuggle only five or six at a time, and cover those products with doormats, for added security. By this method, we managed to move the entire stock of enemas to the Nabisco snack aisle; the vegetable oil to the laxative section, and the pregnancy tests to, of course, Children’s Toys.

“The Supermarket Swipe”—— Without being detected, stealthily swipe items out of patrons’ grocery carts and return them to their rightful place on the store shelves. Points are tallied by the number of nicked items, with extra-points given for imaginative items such as twenty-pound bags of dog-food, baby formula, or denture adhesive (as tempting as it may be in the excitement of the game, try not to prey upon the elderly. It’s poor form). In the event that a player is caught red-handed, they have only two options. One they can flatly deny it. “You took that potato salad out of my basket!” “No I didn’t” “Yes you did, I just saw you!” “Sorry, no” Or, two, the player can try to rationalize his transgression “I don’t see your name on it.”

The game ends when store security decides its time to go. It’s best suited for team play, seeing how ten players on twenty shoppers could get rather ugly, rather quick. A tip for beginners though: grab your own grocery cart as subterfuge, and walk comfortably in their midst. Park yourself near an unsuspecting victim, and pretend your reading the ingredients off boxes of instant muffin mix. When they reach for the peach jam on the high shelf, dodge left and make your move.

When Loss Prevention is stirred from his trusty stool, we relent and the commotion halts. I stroll by the lobster tank, or lose myself in the fine reading— Muscle Car, Black Hair, Seventeen mascara tips, or the pinkest Teen People celebrity gossip. I wager my friends that the word “love” will appear in the hundredth page of the latest Anne Rice “novel.” I’m proven right by the second paragraph, promptly collect my earnings, and ripple again with excitations. Covering my head with a plastic produce bag, I begin screwing with the price guns and the hand-held laser scanners. We ask to use the restrooms, only to find a ladder to the roof. If caught red-handed, we only need to mumble something about “restroom” and “lost” and “manager” to return unscathed to the task of infiltration. We start to gallop again, skipping through the commercial Candyland with philosophy in our pockets. Before long, we’ve gotten out of hand again. Enter Loss Prevention: “I think its time to go, boys and girls…” Tossed into cold, we promise to return, safely cloaked in the faceless jumble of the American Marketplace…

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