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  • Supermarket Sociology
  • David J. Alworth (bio)

Émile Durkheim would not live long enough to see the arrival of the supermarket in France. Nor would he witness its expansion into the more flamboyant form of food retailing aptly named the hypermarché. It wasn’t until after World War II and during the Marshall Plan, in which food aid was a central component, that American-style supermarkets began to crop up all over Europe.1 And it wasn’t until 1963 that the Carrefour Company constructed the first of its hypermarkets just outside Paris. After assimilating the dictates of Bernardo Trujillo, an Ohio-based business educator affectionately known as “the pope of modern commerce,” the Carrefour developers designed a food-retailing institution unprecedented in both size and style: 2,500 square meters, 450 parking spaces, and a plethora of items (clothes, household appliances, low-cost petrol) and amenities (a cafeteria, a bakery, a dry cleaners) not aggregated in quite the same way anywhere else.2 Hypermarket grand openings were characteristically hyperreal. They featured circus amusements and games hosted by a television personality, and they included large-scale binge drinking: ten thousand liters of vin de Touraine served from a marquee on the parking lot.3 It’s possible that the founder of modern sociology would’ve had something to say about such a scene, an early instance of the mass spectacle that eventually would become a hallmark of postmodernism, but his death from exhaustion just after World War I leaves us free to speculate on what that might have been. It leaves us on our own, that is, to imagine a supermarket sociology.

Such a speculative fantasy is more serious than it may seem, for it stages a series of instructive encounters: between fin-de-siècle Europe and the postwar United States; between high theory and vernacular culture; between the systematicity of social science and the heterogeneity of lived experience; between one period imaginary (the industrialization, fragmentation, and anomie of modernity) and another (the globalization, decenteredness, and depthlessness of postmodernity). Moreover, to picture Durkheim strolling the aisles of a supermarket that he never could have visited is, in some perverse sense, to proximate sociological concepts and social facts in order to track the ways [End Page 301] in which an ever-modernizing social world can exert pressure on the theoretical models by which that world is understood.4 Such is the goal of this essay. I want to portray an image of the relationship between the epistemic structure of sociological theory and the physical infrastructure of society. This will involve two interrelated steps. First, I will examine how a real site, the supermarket, has become a “metaphor” meant to exemplify certain concepts in recent sociological thought: the actor-network-theory of Bruno Latour. Then I will position Latour’s metaphor alongside other responses to the supermarket in the literary and visual arts, ultimately to argue that the aesthetics of site specificity can be a sociological enterprise.5

The site, the supermarket, thus serves to organize a comparison of art and sociology that diverts from more familiar approaches in the field of literary studies. My project is not a sociology of literature, but an attempt to see what happens when sociology and literature are reciprocally illuminated by their dissimilar, yet comparable, approaches to the same site.6 And my goal is not to understand the social context of literary production in a given period, but to argue that literary and artistic texts can develop a sociology all their own. In this regard, I mean to emphasize the former of the two possibilities suggested by Pierre Bourdieu in his influential reading of Madame Bovary: “In sum, on the one hand, Flaubert’s sociology, meaning the sociology he produces; on the other, the sociology of Flaubert, meaning the sociology of which he is the object.”7 What would it mean to read a work of literature as a sociological monograph? This essay forms an answer to that question, devoting much of its energy to one novel, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and one social-theoretical text, Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social, to compare their respective figurations of the supermarket, with the ultimate aim...


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pp. 301-327
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