Body Counts, History, the Future, and Bath Salts: Black Fridays
The comparison Greg draws between Black Friday and The Hunger Games series is an apt one. It has a fine pedigree; imaginative analogies across time to establish a connection between troubling contemporary social conditions and the bad effects witnessed in some other time and place are numerous in American culture. Perhaps the finest example is Thomas Cole’s series of paintings The Course of Empire (1834-1836) which imagines a natural progression of empire in five stages from a savage to a pastoral state, then to the consummation, destruction, and desolation of the empire. Each stage is dramatized in a single canvas depicting an imaginary civilization at a different point in its history. Cole was a pastoral painter who usually depicted the wild scenes of a still largely unsettled America, a country whose people clustered on the merchant coast with only a romantic sense of the wilderness beyond the edge of their young civilization. The possibility of a democratic and agrarian utopia set in this providential landscape, in which small farmers filled with republican virtue peopled a picturesque countryside, seemed to be within grasp. This aesthetic and moral ideal was meant to be the natural development of the United States. But industry and mercantile capitalism were a threat to the utopia. Soon, Cole warned in his art, if America embraced the luxuries inherent in a commercial society, rather than the virtues of an agrarian one, we too would move through the stages of the Course of Empire unto desolation.
Of course, this vision was itself a corrupted ideological construction. The United States had already mortgaged its contemporary moral position to the ever expanding logic of industrial capitalism in order to pay for a future of dizzying wealth and brutal contradictions. The agrarian utopia imagined by democratic romantics like Cole depended on the appetite for expansion, consumption, and immoral politics. The Jackson administration had begun a project of Indian Removal (which was, essentially, a state sponsored program of genocide) to empty out vast tracts of the American hinterland for cultivation. The yeoman farmers who would settle this society, imagined by people like Thomas Jefferson, often relied on slave labor to clear the wilderness of the interior South. The United States had already embarked on the Course of Empire and had fallen prey to the fate of everyone who romances their future as much as their past. Lord Byron writes in Canto IV of Child Harolde’s Pilgrimage:
There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page…
Cole had used this selection of Byron’s romantic epic to market his paintings in the New York newspapers.
Returning to Black Friday we see a kind of authentic American decadence. This is not velvet drapery and Oscar Wilde on a chaise lounge, lips a pout. Rather, it is the decadent brutality of liberal capitalism. Black Friday is the dark shadow of Thanksgiving itself. Thanksgiving, with its mythic roots in upright Puritanism, the value of sharing, and the necessity for a humble attitude of graciousness, is meant to reinforce the sober thoughts of a moral nation. We ought to imagine ourselves, the lesson of Thanksgiving goes, as engaged in a common project to better our country through the values of charity and community. The holiday was first made a National Day of Thanks by Abraham Lincoln, and what we were thankful for was the survival of the nation in the face of a great Civil War that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Black Friday originates in the Bush II years. It was a strategy on the part of faltering retailers in the Great Recession to boost anemic holiday revenues by offering, as they say, door busting deals. Stores would be opened early the day after Thanksgiving (when many people have time off and nothing else to do but sit around and do dumb shit like play with their children, spend time with friends and family, and reflect on those things which impart meaning in their lives) so that the maximum number of shoppers would be available to throw money at objects of notional value. Of course, not everyone is at Black Friday by choice. Tens of thousands of low-pay retail employees are there because they must be. And tens of thousands of consumers are there because they believe that in a time of economic instability they can only buy appliances and electronics during these kinds of sales. Stagnant wages - the result of the healthcare industry eating up a growing portion of GDP and the capture by the wealthiest of the massive economic benefits of technological productivity gains - over the last few decades bring both groups into an insecure position. Both groups are asked, are needed, to consume. When they do not have enough, they must borrow, when they cannot get paid enough, they must work another job. Did you study art or music, math or geology or philosophy? That was stupid, you need a job and a house and car and an iPad and debt. To be an American is to be indebted to a bank for the purchase of consumer goods. Our society has built itself not on the sober values of work and charity, reflection and grace, but a constant need to consume, to expand, to devour everything and anything.
Dave’s observation that Black Friday is new “like bath salts” is key to understanding the shift that is taking place in America - or that has already taken place and to which we are only now paying attention. The stories of people, high on bath salts, turned into cannibalistic monsters uses the already developed cultural iconography of zombies. These people are the abject refuse of our consumer culture; figures that, like Zombies in George Romero movies, are reduced by their cultural conditions to shambling wrecks. There is a deep similarity between people numbing themselves away from their lives and swarming Wal-Marts across America on Black Friday, and the undead hordes of zombies that descend on a suburban mall in Dawn of the Dead. But the fact of zombified masses is not in itself the troubling thing. No, what should worry us is that this is exactly what is supposed to happen.
Returning to the Course of Empires, the viewer can see that Cole has used vaguely Roman-looking images to represent this unnamed civilization as it travels a course from savagery through civilization to desolation. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is the metaphor through which the artist asks us to imagine the potential decline and fall of the United States. First a settler colony, then a republic, then an empire. This is an imaginary history, a past fiction, and it helps its audience imagine different futures. The Hunger Games is an imaginary future that helps us see the faults in the past (our present) that lead to it. The Hunger Games only takes America’s Roman heritage to its logical conclusion. It’s a United States with a more pronounced imperial center dominating the provinces, and a gladiatorial combat ritual meant to pacify the mob.
The past in Cole and future in The Hunger Games is collapsed into a timeless death in the American present. Now we all have an un-life that stretches out in front of us like the forever walk of the zombie - always moving forward looking to fulfill an insatiable appetite for meaning. Black Friday is our new holiday. And bath salts are our new food. Citizenship, personhood, fulfillment is in consumption In all cases the pursuit of riches becomes the pursuit of death. The ultimate consumable and the final consummation, death is the final commodity, a perfect and ecstatic state of fulfilment, and the conversion of life into symbol and time. We are racing as fast as we can for the oblivion depicted in Cole’s painting of Desolation. But we won’t have it.
Blackfridaydeathcount.com counts the injuries and deaths since 2006, at Black Friday’s dark inception. On the site is a clock. The hours represent deaths and the minutes represent injuries. But unlike a traditional clock, which imagines the rhythms and cycles of the day in 12 hour increments that reset periodically, this one will only increase indefinitely. It marks the accumulation and consumption of death and injury as capital. Hear the clock ticking toward our downfall: it will never stop, only continue into an indefinite future of blood and low, low prices.