Steve Hanson joins the Everyday Analysis Collective
A friend and I met recently and started to discuss how,
completely independent of each other, we had been engaging in tiny acts of ‘checkout
escalation’ over the last few months.
It started by accident. I dropped a bag of rice and it
flopped across the barrier, half on my side and half off, creating a real sense
of anxiety from over the garden fence.
That moment, when the customer behind expects that you will
reach over and place a line between their shopping and your own, is a highly
delicate one. I didn’t do it on purpose, but once it happened, I left it,
curious to see what it might do. I then got into the habit of refusing to put
the barrier down on the conveyor belt, on the way out.
Now I stare vacantly at the ceiling and refuse to move
forward. The person behind coughs, increasingly desperately. In Britain, very
few people ‘make a fuss’. They are literally ‘defenceless’. That barrier, in
psychological terms, is the wall of their home. They don’t know that what they
are seeing is provocation, even if they suspect. It enrages them, but they
don’t know why. Often they think it’s simple absent-mindedness, but the ‘tuts’
and sighs are great. I have come to think of these as applause.
A week later, I put a bottle of wine onto the conveyor belt
first, and it rolled right into the shopping in front, as a default barrier,
and I just left it. The customer in front stared at it, transfixed in helpless
horror, unable to touch it or speak.
The following week, my tactic of getting a new barrier from
an adjacent, closed till lane emerged, causing the checkout assistant a similar
sense of anxiety that some sort of line had been overstepped. Again, they
couldn’t react or fully understand what was needling them. I was addicted.
It turned out that my friend and I had been doing all of this
simultaneously, lingering on the spot, not moving, as our own shopping jerked
ahead of us. Staring blankly at the ceiling, denying the customer behind access
to the barrier, as they awkwardly tried to reach around, uncomfortably entering
your personal space, coughing, at which point… we carry on standing there… for
as long as we can…
We began to meet more regularly, to enthusiastically discuss
our ‘barrier incidents’, provo versions of Georges Perec’s ‘infra-ordinary’, micro
rituals that are highly complex, but enacted semi-consciously. We both
recounted the stress radiating as a result of our actions, and agreed that this
pointed to the highly ‘individualizing’ social function of the act of purchase.
But of course, the idea that buying a specific selection of objects in Tesco
makes you unique is sheer madness. And these fantasy ‘individualizing’
processes were being ever so slightly interrupted by our refusal to carry out
the necessary social ritual, right down to the very last detail. We may just be
mildly irritating human beings, but we really do believe in our own theories,
and now, our practice.
My friend is even deeper in. Up to his neck, in fact. He moves
things from one place to another in supermarkets. He went through a phase of
buying stuff in Sainsbury to leave on Tesco shelves. He fantasises, utterly enraptured,
about doing a whole shop in Lidl, before trying to pay for it again in Booths.
I did Waitrose. I threw their green tokens into the rubbish
bin on the way out, when it was really busy, on a Sunday afternoon. That really
outrages the customers who see it. It generates tutting like the sound of pistols
being cocked. Because the thing they all do as a guilt alibi – via the green Waitrose
communion wafer of privilege – that perverse anthropological confession booth, is
being treated like the garbage it really is, right in front of their eyes. And
the great thing about it is that they can’t touch you for any of it. Right in
the dead eye of soulless tedium and consumer inevitablility, there lies hope
We’re now contemplating having checkout barriers made with
‘you don’t own it yet’ printed along their lengths, and are considering the
radical potential of the ‘oh, hang on, I just need to go back and grab’ moment.
This kind of faffing already interrupts a process of auto-Fordism, and could be
devastating, provided the queue behind consists entirely of checkout-provo
I am glad that there is some comedy here. Because our
wanderings in 24-hour Asda at night have shown us capital’s obsession with
eradicating as much labour as possible, and stretching what remains. These
places, massive concerns, disinfected of any staff except G4S hirelings, operated
almost entirely by an obedient, often poor paying customer base, beeping exotic
goods into identikit bags, present perfect alien comedies for transmission back
to other, perhaps more civilised planets.