Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption

Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption

All the world is not a stage, anymore - the world is a supermarket. This book relates one man's struggle to go 'working the aisles'.


Working the Aisles takes the reader on tumultuous driving trips across the United States and France, on phone sex escapades in San Francisco, on banking battles in Sweden, and many other adventures – including, of course, on trips to supermarkets, where the author has had to ‘work the aisles’. Moving back and forth through time, like a novelist, indeed in something of a memoirist tour de force, the book develops the story of struggle, of poverty and depression, but also of gaiety and desire, of a will to live in spite of it all, and to keep working the aisles. It moves the reader through highs and lows, through episodes of ecstasy and thoughts about suicide, and tells how this particular Everyman ended up sane but sorry.


Robert Appelbaum, Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption. Winchester: Zero Books, 2013. 244 pp. £12.99 pb. ISBN 978-1-78279-357-1. In this autobiographical history of consumption from the 1960s onwards, Robert Appelbaum teeters on the balancing wire between depression and desire. ‘The first thing you have to remember when you walk down the aisles of your local supermarket is that they do not love you’ (1): that is Appelbaum’s mantra to avoid the pitfall of vacuous elation in a consumer-driven society with the supermarket at its centre. It is also the thread on which this engagingly curious tale hangs, about how a New York-born, Chicago-bred, Jewish boy restlessly crisscrosses North America before making a leap for Europe, hopping from professional despair to prosperity. His heart and mind are as complex and multifaceted as the culture around him. A sometime limousine driver-gigolo and second-hand purveyor of semi-sadistic telesex, he is also an unhappily distant father, a love-thirsty boyfriend and, later, a devoted husband, tossed between being a victim of and a hapless semi-agent within neoliberal consumer society. The book successfully entwines personal and cultural history through a dope-fuelled cross-continental car journey, with its only interruption a night spent in jail, a booze-cruise with a twist and a fortnight drenched in a tent in the Loire Valley. One of Appelbaum’s absolute strengths is his flawless sensitivity to the significance to be found in meticulous detail. Casually situating his analysis in the context of Raymond Williams, Appelbaum lifts his gaze to reflect on his own arduously attained maturity in terms of ‘the gap between my parents and me [being] representative of the new salience of “culture” as a domain of struggle’ (77). To shape his analysis, he compares a good range of national contexts from the ‘orderly, mannerly, respectful’ aisles of a British Sainsbury’s supermarket (8) to the suave casualness of a French youth coming out of his local supermarché carrying a baguette. The Swedish state-monopoly alcohol shop, Systembolaget, comes off by far the worst as ‘in effect a communist supermarket’ with its mission ‘to serve the people [and] to give them what they think they want. But not too much: its mission is also to shame the people and suppress the crime of excess’ (229). At the other extreme, Applebaum finds the alienating brutality of an American Walmart or Meijer’s hypermarket ‘where the ketchup bottles are next to the athlete’s foot powder and the pantyhose, and the beef steaks are set across from a stack of polyester sweaters’ (9). Appelbaum’s everyday paranoia about supermarkets’ power to simulate love seems wholly justified. What connects these mercantile ventures globally is how they lure customers by appealing to their supposedly individual tastes, while at the same time enforcing predefined and artificial categories of personal identity. By providing its customers with tailor-made special offers Reviews 165 and other forms of targeted advertising, supermarkets use complex algorithms to calculate who we are based only on what we buy, even when the choices we make as customers are at their most erratic. This is a racy, provocative and largely male-centred story, at times a tad bitter, which embodies its publisher Zero Books’ commitment to ‘another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist’ (245). The occasional editorial roughness gives the text authenticity and immediacy, and although there are a few too many typos, the pace of the text makes up for the odd copy-editing slip. Appelbaum ties the two narrative strands of cultural analysis and cathartic memoir together with physical precision. At one point, he even ends up with a shopping bag round his head in a failed suicide attempt. Tacitly explored throughout is the impact on mental health in general of a neoliberal system living off consumerism, individualism, isolation and humiliation. But there is hope. What Appelbaum really mourns in the supermarketisation of the West and beyond is heart and connectedness: interhuman contact as well as contact between us and the raw materials of existence. He finds such humanity and warmth in France: in the delicate sensitivity of a provincial restaurateur who has gently boiled and seasoned the bouillabaisse he serves to his customers, and who cares with his heart and soul about its delectation. As an upbeat mock-Joycean conclusion to this often rather gloomy cross section of contemporary everyday life comes a handful of semi-orgasmic yeses in the protagonist’s sleep (244); though it remains unsaid whether these are spoken in good faith or in bad. Kristin Ewins Örebro University ~ Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism 13 (2015)

Walter Benjamin writes of the “idea of what the commodity whispers to a poor wretch who passes a shop window containing beautiful and expensive things. These objects are not interested in this person; they do not empathize with him.” This is precisely the point at which Robert Appelbaum begins his incisive and wide-ranging analysis – except that Appelbaum extends the scope of his work to include not only the commodity, but also those persons and corporate entities that sell, distribute, advertise, and otherwise market those commodities. Frances Corner has opined that "It was at the end of the nineteenth century when Marx dubbed religion 'the opium of the people'. In our increasingly secular world, I would now replace 'religion' with 'shopping'." All of “Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption” can be seen as an object lesson demonstrating the validity of this statement. Coincidentally, right before reading Appelbaum’s book, I had gotten through memoirs by Joseph Brodsky, Geoff Dyer, and Sonali Deraniyagala, plus another two by Edmund White. Appelbaum’s prose is more evocative than all of the aforementioned: he presents complex ideas more lucidly, his writing flows better, and he tells better stories. For example, don’t miss the college road-trip episode that reads like a zany Hollywood comedy take on Jack Kerouac; or, likewise, the quite definitive account of what it’s like to be kept up all night by an alcoholic who is determined to drag you along into their current party-cum-binge and all the hoops they make you jump through along the way. And Appelbaum's descriptions of the San Francisco Bay Area are as trenchant as any I’ve read anywhere. It takes a special writing talent to turn philosophy into fun, and commodity fetishism into comic material: Prof. Appelbaum has succeeded admirably. ~ Glenn Peterson,

This book sticks in your head well after you put it it down. The author is a great story teller. His personal journey is both funny and profoundly sad. This was a great read for anyone anyone who enjoys a good book. ~ Dale Ridge,

By Chrispher Schaberg, Loyola Unversity, Excerpts: Ostensibly a nonfiction account of growing up and living in various corners of consumer culture in the twentieth century and beyond, Appelbaum’s book works its way into all sorts of unexpected zones of thought and life. As the book’s story unfolds, the author questions the very possibilities and limits of memoir and academic study in modern society. To say this book is hard to pin down genre-wise doesn’t quite get it right, because the book sticks together so well that one has the distinct sensation of experiencing an altogether new form. .............................................................................................................................................................................. Working the Aisles is profoundly sad and intensely harrowing at times—yet it also manages to elicit bursts of laughter, even a joyful sense of camaraderie (at least it did from this reader). It is a book that so deftly manages its narrative movements, intellectual struggles, and emotional energies, all while paragraphs unfurl and pages turn, that it actually warrants its definition of being a “book.” This may sound obvious or odd, but in fact I think it is another way that this book rubs critically against its topic of consumption. ..................................................................................................................................................................... Appelbaum has written a book that reminds us what a book is, what it can be. This is especially important for the “us” who are academics, whose writing can all too often seem destined only to the miserably predictable forms of monograph or edited collection. And this goes as well for creative writers, who must produce marketable forms at regular intervals (or else). But a book need not be another commodity in the chain of consumption—whether it happens for the bored traveler in the airport bookstore, in the academic’s abject file for tenure and promotion, or for the superstar novelist who delivers the same reading bookstore after bookstore before profitable book signings. A book might be something to be digested, maybe even something difficult to digest. Working the Aisles reminds us of this, of the pleasures and sorrows of life, and of reading—and how these things can be rendered in writing, written in a book. ~ Christopher Schaberg, New Orleans Review

By Peter C. Herman - Published on June 9, 2014. This is a magnificent book that beautifully combines an unsparing analysis of capitalism and an equally unsparing memoir of Appelbaum's struggle to find a place in this world. This is not a book for the faint of heart, or for readers who expect easy solutions. But it will remain in your memory. With all due respect to Appelbaum's critique of the culture of consumption, I urge the reader to buy this book. It's amazing. ~ Peter C. Herman, San Diego State University,

Robert Appelbaum's new book is a deep and passionate meditation on the meaning of consumption in contemporary society. Its engagement with the concept, while primarily auto-biographical, offers a number of theoretical pointers and extended critical openings that turn this book into an example of what good, experientially relevant, cultural studies might read like today. There is a lot here to remind us that capitalism is as much about systemic expropriation and value accumulation as about `immaterial' struggle on the terrain of affects and desires. Appelbaum's incantatory and recurrent motto - `they do not love you' - comes to life in a series of vignettes, ranging from the warmly frivolous to the painfully moving, in which the alien seductions of the commodified universe of the supermarket combine and alternate with the enslaving pressures of precarious work. Whether recreating scenes of youthful angst or adult pleasure, of despair or survival, his claim is coherent and indisputable: either way, whether it is your spurious satisfaction or your capacity to sell and provide satisfaction for others that is on offer, they do not love you because love is what exceeds the limits of the marketable. Appelbaum makes a very Spinozian and revolutionary point in reclaiming desire - and love - from the claws of the system and in reminding us of what is really at stake in this universe of 24/7 capitalism. ~ Roberto del Valle Alcala,

This exploration of our desires, commercial and otherwise, and how we are manipulated by them and how we manipulate, reaches far beyond the shopping mall critique: Mr Appelbaum ranges from the highly intellectual social psychology and literary deconstruction to a highly personal narrative, with dramatic scenes of arrest and odd love encounters and vivid details from the United States, England, and France. Covering roughly 50 years, from 1960 till a few years ago, Working the Aisles paints a telling picture of the astounding economic and social changes of the half century. This is a very entertaining and at the same time melancholy and thoughtful novel-like trip into our ever-growing appetites. It should satisfy reading appetites of nearly everybody: rigorous scholars and those looking for a good and fresh story. Mr Appelbaum will keep you lively company for a couple of nights. You might even want to light a pipe. ~ Josip Novakovich, finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, author of April Fool's Day and Shopping for a Better Country.

Robert Appelbaum’s Working the Aisles is a harrowing performance in lived theory. In these pages, Appelbaum reflects on life within our cultural of consumerism, and identifies the ways in which his decisions and desires have been circumscribed by the market itself. Appelbaum turns a clear and brave eye on the events of his own life, and reveals, in surprising and sometimes heartbreaking detail, the humanity that aches to be loved, wanted,valued, both within the system and independent of it. Appelbaum's experiences, even the exorbitant ones, are striking not because they could never have happened to anyone else among us, but because they are happening in some version all the time, to all of us. ~ Kimberly Johnson, Brigham Young University, author of Uncommon Prayer and translator of Virgil's Georgics: A Poem of the Land.

Robert Appelbaum
Robert Appelbaum A native of New York City, a long-time resident of San Francisco and for a number of years a Lecturer in Lancaster, England, Robert Appelbau...
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

Capitalist Realism

Mark Fisher

An analysis of the ways in which capitalism has presented itself as the only realistic political-economic system.

Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

Kill All Normies

Angela Nagle

How internet subcultures are conquering the mainstream, from from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right.

Ghosts of My Life by Mark Fisher

Ghosts of My Life

Mark Fisher

Collected essays on popular culture by a major critic.

One Dimensional Woman by Nina Power

One Dimensional Woman

Nina Power

Exposes the dark heart of contemporary cultural life by examining pornography, consumer capitalism and the ideology of women's work.

Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures by Graham Harman

Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures

Graham Harman

These writings chart Harman's rise from Chicago sportswriter to co founder of one of Europe's most promising philosophical movements: Speculative Realism.

Fear of Music by David Stubbs

Fear of Music

David Stubbs

An examination of why modern art can be easier to appreciate than modern music.

Post Cinematic Affect by Steven Shaviro

Post Cinematic Affect

Steven Shaviro

This book ponders the fate of the movies in a world of digital media, globalization, and massive financial flows.

Weird Realism by Graham Harman

Weird Realism

Graham Harman

As Hölderlin was to Martin Heidegger and Mallarmé to Jacques Derrida, so is H.P. Lovecraft to the Speculative Realist philosophers.

Non-Stop Inertia by Ivor Southwood

Non-Stop Inertia

Ivor Southwood

A theoretical investigation into the culture of precarious work, digital consumption and personal flexibility, calling for a counter-discourse of resistance.

Babbling Corpse by Grafton Tanner

Babbling Corpse

Grafton Tanner

In the age of global capitalism, vaporwave celebrates and undermines the electronic ghosts haunting the nostalgia industry.