Hey! Next time you’re in a supermarket, staring at the great bounty of sustenance produced by the ascension of humanity’s technological and economic progress, try looking up:
It’s kinda easy to forget sometimes, until you see the exposed ducts, fluorescent lights, and (if you’re lucky) cobwebs and mold–you’re not only in a grocery store, you’re also in a warehouse. Let your eyes follow the wall down from the ceiling and you may see signs over sections, bakery, butcher, produce, often angled to evoke the sense of roofs, of separate shops.
People get paid lots of money to help you world a grocery store. Buying food in warehouses is a little alienating, and there are some great histories written about the struggle to help us poor mortals adjust to them. Food powders in colored boxes, machine-harvested flesh in plastic (with carbon monoxide to preserve color), sterile lights and white floors all seem rather distant from walking down streets between small shops or stalls to select what you intend to eat that day. Supermarkets are so many abstractions away from nature that we sometimes have trouble fathoming the relationship between dirt and food.
There are nicer grocery stores where people were paid even more money to help the shoppers forget they’re also in a warehouse. Once, I remember shuddering as I noticed the trickery of herbs sealed in plastic hanging from posts under a green canopy, as if I were plucking bay leaves from a laurel tree. There are organic grocery stores and co-ops where one can feel a bit better about our industrialized and capitalism-sustained distance from nature, but these aren’t very poor-friendly. I once paid 4 dollars for an in-season green pepper at a co-op in Seattle–looking up from the register I saw Tibetan prayer flags. I don’t think the Dali Lama was getting my money.
There are also other markets on pre-industrial models–but they’re chaotic. The Maybuchufer Turkish Market in Berlin is my favorite–kilo-bags of Ceylon tea stacked beside mounds of Turkish flatbread across from bolts of coloured fabrics. Old women in headscarves, anti-fascist punks, grizzled queers and furry hipsters mingling and processing as if in awe, as if on pilgrimage, each stall a station of the cross.
This isn’t a post about food, industrial agriculture, or farmer’s markets. It’s an example of how worlding works. Part collective imagination, part collective practice, worlding can be used to enchant or disenchant. We world all the time, including when shuffling down long aisles of paper-board boxes colored to represent ideas of food.
Disenchantment and Materialism
Not only are some markets more fun than others (supermarkets only seem fun when I’m doing something in ’em I’m not supposed to), there’s also a palatable sense of place in some markets utterly absent in others. Markets are not just places to shop, they are social exchanges, physical practices, places of new ideas, and part of the narratives of our lives: that is, markets are co-created worlds.
American supermarkets can teach us something important: in the disjuncture between the material existence (the warehouse full of boxes) and the worlding (our experience of a grocery store) lies a shadow, a gap. In such gaps, our longing to world the earth confronts the disenchantment of the world, and in that confrontation, in that jilted desire, we have an opening to sense what’s missing.
While many others on Patheos and elsewhere have written significantly on disenchantment (John Halstead, John Beckett), they usually stop short of fully confronting Materialism’s relationship to it. My fellow Sense of Place writer, Traci, gets much closer to the crux of the matter:
The end point of this way of thinking is total reification: everything is an object, alien, not-me; and I am ultimately an object too, an alienated “thing” in a world of other, equally meaningless “things.” This world is not of my own making; the cosmos care nothing for me, and I don’t really feel a sense of belonging to it. What I feel, in fact, is a sickness in the soul.
Disenchantment and Materialism are inextricably linked. Materialism is this: everything that exists is only matter and energy and can only be explained thusly. Like Rationalism (from the latin word meaning “root,”) and Reductionism (“reduce”), Materialism makes a bold statement about existence, evinced in the words: merely, only, just, and actually:
A market is only a place to get food. A shrine is just a religious artifact. The Other is merely a psychological experience. Or, the gods and spirits and fae are actually just stories.
By reducing our worlds to the material, our thoughts to chemical reactions, our stories to illusions, and our experiences of the Other to delusions, Materialism rips from us the very tools by which we world the Other into the earth. While denying the Other and turning our desire and experience of it into mere psychological states and disorders, we find ourselves disarmed, alienated: we become disinhabited things.
The worst part? We not only accept this state of affairs, we cling to it, sustain it, and re-enact it.
This is where things get very uncomfortable, and why I suspect many writers are reluctant to follow the connection between Materialism and disenchantment very far: our physical existence, our technologies, our jobs, and our very means of getting food are tied up in the project of disenchantment. Not only are there people earning fortunes by worlding the earth into disenchantment, we help them do it. And we’re duly compensated with the glittering spoils of a ravaged earth.
Disenchantment has to be sustained, just like pavement needs to be patched—tree roots and grasses threaten to uproot its illusory permanence. Just as we need pavement to park our cars at the grocery store, we need Materialism to justify the sterile, disenchanted markets and the empty wonders they bestow upon us.
Besides, the Other is traumatic and untidy, much like the chaos of an outdoor market or the clutter of a forest floor.