Sunday, June 18, 2006

The $2.97 Gallon of Pickles, Sam Walton's Neoliberal Reality

In my English and American Fiction class this semester, one of the ideas we're returning to regularly is the claim - often identified with postmodern, or post-Nietzschean theory - that 'reality' (as opposed to the Real) is inherently fictional. Variations of this claim - which understandably sounds rather esoteric to some ears, a piece of New Age obscurantism - I try to explain informs the way many people go about their business in a neoliberal world in which The Market is revered and feared like Zeus or some other fickle Greek god.

The following quote, from "The Price of Pickles" an essay by John Lanchester on Wal-Mart
illustrates how economic fictions shape our reality in mundane and profane ways:

Wal-Mart is about price, so much so that it has created a reification of cheapness, in which cheapness becomes a mystical quality, a Ding an sich or fundamental essence, separate from questions about utility or practicality or how on earth a thing can be put on sale for such a price. Charles Fishman, in his punchy and valuable book The Wal-Mart Effect, cites the example of Vlasic pickles, the most popular brand in the US. Wal-Mart talked Vlasic into pricing the pickles so that a gallon jar was on sale for $2.97. That is a bizarre, surreal price for a gallon of pickled cucumbers; no one had ever seen such a jar outside a deli, and no one had any real use for it, since even if you’re a pickleholic you’ll only manage to eat about a quarter of a gallon before the remaining pickles go mouldy. It had never occurred to anybody that there was such a thing as a market for a gallon jar of pickles. Even so, priced at $2.97, there was something so magnetising about this Brobdignagian vat of pickles – something so alluring about the way it embodied the Platonic ideal of cheapness, in and for itself – that Wal-Mart was soon selling 200,000 gallons of pickles a week. The ‘scary part of the Vlasic story’, as Fishman points out, is that:

The market didn’t create the $2.97 gallon of pickles, nor did waning customer demand or a wild abundance of cucumbers. Wal-Mart created the $2.97 gallon jar of pickles. The price – a number that is a critical piece of information to buyers, sellers and competitors about the state of the pickle market – the price was a lie. It was unrelated to either the supply of cucumbers or the demand for pickles. The price was a fiction imposed on the pickle market in Bentonville. Consumers saw a bargain; Vlasic saw no way out. Both were responding not to real market forces, but to a pickle price gimmick imposed by Wal-Mart as a way of making a statement.

Wal-Mart is so big and so powerful that it is in effect defining its own reality – creating its own products, and a market for them, by sheer act of will.

And the Wal-Mart reality, as critics have explained, is all about maximizing profits, which often means that people, particularly workers, and the environment must be exploited.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Czech Bud vs. American Bud: No Contest

I don't follow soccer closely enough to know whether or not the Czech's World Cub victory over Team USA was an upset. But I'm not at all surprised to learn that Czechs Bud soundly defeated its American rival, which is the 'Official Beer of the World Cup' in taste tests outside the stadium. Word to Anheuser-Busch: Money can't buy you love.

Lest I be labeled 'anti-American' by some zealous patriot, let it be known that my sojurn in San Francisco convinced me that Anchor-Steam is a world-class brew, a worthy candidate for the prestigious, if not necessarily lucrative, 'beer-of-the-year' that I like to bestow annually.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Journal for Class 6

“The Dead” by James Joyce; “On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense” by Friedrich Nietzsche; “Figures and Tropes” by Bennett and Royle

1. Bennett and Royle claim that “’The Dead’, which is above all about death, is also about dead language, dead metaphors” (83). They support their claim by providing a close reading of the story’s final paragraph that focuses on the figurative effects produced by the “verbal repetition” (84) of the word ‘falling.’ Find another passage from “The Dead” that is in some way ‘about’ dead language or dead metaphors and which Bennett and Royle could’ve used to support their argument. Then write your own analysis of this passage that explains how and to what purpose Joyce makes use of a particular figurative effect (or effects).

2. After reading Graff and Birkenstein’s “Three Ways to Respond,” identify one or more of the arguments that Nietzsche makes in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” Then write a response to Nietzsche’s essay in which you summarize and/or quote some of his ideas and makes clear whether you’re agreeing, disagreeing, or both agreeing and disagreeing with what he says and why. Use the templates in They Say, I Say: see Chapters 1-3 for templates that will help you to represent Nietzsche’s ideas and Chapter 4 for templates that will get you started with your response.

Beware of Stray Voltage

Wally, when you're out for walks in Delaware, you and Claire should take care to beware of 'stray voltage.'