Marvin Gaye at the Franprix


Ariel Schlesinger: Franprix, 2006 (CC)

by Justin E.H. Smith

The signaling behavior of human beings is intricate indeed. Forty years ago a man, seething with desire, issued forth a string of identical second-person singular imperatives followed by a hortatory first-person plural:

Get up, get up, get up, get up, let’s make love tonight.

As far as can be determined the immediate object of desire was not in his presence at the precise moment of his yearning. He might not have had a particular object in mind at all. No one followed the command, no one “made love”, at least not right away, at least not if we exclude the very form of erotopoiesis of which the expression of yearning was already the culmination. If we know about his yearning at all this is only because it came out of him in the presence of a complex arrangement of electrical signals and magnetic tape —basic materials and principles of the physical world—, which “recorded” his voice somewhat in the way tree rings record a season’s rain, and the layers of Antarctic ice record the radioactivity of a nuclear test in the Bikini Atoll. And like radioactivity, once such yearning is caught on tape and released into the world, it is hard indeed to drive it out again.

Two years after the man beseeched an invisible, perhaps nonexistent, person, likely a woman, to awaken and to “make love”, he was shot dead by his own father. The conflict had something to do with money, and likely also, directly or indirectly, with sex. It had to do with passion, in any case, in one of its limited number of species. Casey Kasem leveled with us about it on the radio. The top-40 DJ pronounced the word “murder” more frankly than he could ever bring himself to pronounce the name of the song in question —“Sexual Healing”, still charting at the time—, which he always seemed to censor somehow with his own flat and sexless affect, even if we could still hear all the syllables. He said there was a fight over an insurance policy between Mr. Gay Sr. and his wife, and that Mr. Gaye Jr. (with the e added for show-biz) had tried to intervene. One cannot help but feel for the old man — he deprived the world of a Motown legend, and himself of a son, in a single instant, in the presence of that son’s mother, to the horror of the world.

But still, the life-force lingers, in part, but only in part, thanks to the technologies men have contrived to preserve their desire beyond death. There is a supermarket, one of countless such markets in the Franprix chain, at the corner of the avenue Simon Bolivar and the avenue Mathurin Moreau in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. It is part of the intimate geography of home, for me, along with the gym at the first floor of our apartment building. I can see it right now as I look out across the balcony. I will probably take a break from writing at some point in order to go there and pick up a few things. We never keep much food around the house. There’s not much reason to do so. They keep it for us at the Franprix.

There is a stocky man who seems to be the manager, who always says to me: “Ça va, toi ?” I don’t know what made him presume the privilege of tutoiement with me, but what a nice feeling it is, at least once in the day, to not be called Monsieur, but instead to encounter another person, essentially a stranger other than in the moment of our greetings, in the spirit of brotherhood and equality that are falsely claimed as foundational principles of this republic. This is not the only strange thing that happens in the Franprix. It is a rare day when anyone speaks to me out in public — I just do not give off the right sort of aura. But at the Franprix I am frequently accosted by elderly people, by people who have had strokes, or who have impaired vision, and who want me to read the finer print on the packaging for them, or get an item down from a high shelf, or simply to advise them about a prospective purchase — Vous avez déjà essayé le lapin, monsieur ? an old woman asks, holding up a frozen rabbit dinner (dinner of rabbit, that is, not dinner for rabbits). No, I have to tell her, but I’m honored to be asked. Sometimes it seems these people think I work there. Often the stocky man stops his stocking and appears out of nowhere to take over for me when he sees I am being detained by his stroke patients, imagining I find it disagreeable, and he addresses them all by name and asks how he may help.

Half the time the floor near the refrigerated aisle is covered with puddles (this must be a topic for another occasion, the European continent’s historic inability to master the technology of coolants). Once a mouse was loose in the place, and I thought that added to the overall charm, but the put-upon guard determined it was his duty to stomp on it — every French supermarket, no matter how modest, has a doorman wearing a suit, a sort of “maitre d’”, who welcomes you, who checks the backpacks of teenagers, and who, apparently, when called upon, kills mice with his own feet. I was horrified, and said, pathetically: Mais ne faites pas ça ! C’est un être vivant comme nous ! He said : Vous avez raison, monsieur, and the stunned and injured mouse zig-zagged away somewhere.

Once years ago I attempted to buy some hummus from the kosher section, all labeled in Hebrew with a French sticker pasted hastily on top of it. The young Maghrebin cashier took it upon himself to advise me that I was wasting my money, that all the kosher products come with a surcharge to cover the expenses of castrating the turkeys, according to religious law, whose meat is sold under the same label in the form of thinly sliced chiffon. “Are you Jewish?” he asks me, and I tell him no. “Then why should you pay extra so they can castrate their turkeys? What do you care if a turkey has its nads [couillles] cut off or not?” He did not work there for long. There is a homeless man camped outside the store whose speech has been reduced to a low growl (I can hear him now, as I write), who barks indecipherable words of affection to children going inside with their parents, who goes inside himself sometimes to get a free croissant from the check-out girl. A fat women covered in beads and ribbons wanders the aisles sometimes, and speaks with an Antillais accent, saying to the stocky man: Je te dis, le Seigneur aime quand tu pries. Ah oui, il faut prier. Ça fait danser les anges !

The great Canadian director Guy Maddin once said of My Winnipeg, the quasi-documentary about his hometown, that we Canadians are terrible at mythologizing our cities, and that he thought he could do for the capital of Manitoba at least what, say, Jim Jarmusch had done for lowly Cleveland. I often think something similar about Franprix. I hate generalizing about French people, but it is clear that they have none of the ironic passion for their chain stores and restaurants that we “Anglo-Saxons” have. In the past decade I don’t think I’ve had a single conversation of longer than five minutes with someone from the UK in which there was no mention of Marks & Spencer, or Waitrose, or the humble Tesco. This might be a result of the colonization of British minds by the Americans, but I take it as at least to some extent an indigenous preoccupation, one often thematized in arts and culture — sur le coup I think of Belle and Sebastian’s lyric, “Now I spend my days turning tables round at Marks & Spencer / They don’t seem to mind”, and of the video for “Fake Plastic Trees”, where Thom Yorke rides around in a supermarket cart like an overgrown baby. We Anglo-Saxons love to infantilize ourselves in this way. We love commercial product-packaging; we love our favorite combinations of wheat flour and corn syrup and palm oil when they are personified by a familiar mascot. When we’re too old and sophisticated to love it, we sublimate that love into irony; but it’s still love.

As far as I can tell there is a general lack of feeling for such things in France. Has anyone ever actually eaten at a Buffalo Grill, that chain restaurant you see along the autoroute, so uninspired in its design and concept as to make me think it must be some sort of state-run canteen? If anyone ever did eat there, would they talk about it afterwards, the way you might hear a New York sophisticate regale you with the comical tale of a trip to a Midwestern Applebees, like some descent into the Underworld? It just never happens — these places are a total cultural black hole. They are not talked about. Nothing escapes.

Surely this all has something to do with the longue-durée history of capitalism, with the fact that France still bears the clear markers of an agrarian society, and continues to value forms of consumption that predate our consumerist false consciousness. It often amazes me that what we call postmodernism received its clearest expression from French thinkers, given that the predominant form of life here remains marked in so many ways by premodern habits and values that have largely gone extinct in the Anglosphere. But this means that the full inhabitation of the ironic mode of being that we so strongly associate with the postmodern condition often remains difficult to attain in this country. Jean Baudrillard knew he had to look to America to find the richest examples of this condition. He mocked it —as when for example the Californians try to make their own wine, and then sell it to Safeway without any inherited and instinctive ability to detect whether it’s any good or not—, but he also envied it.

A century earlier Gustave Flaubert created Bouvard and Pécuchet in order to mock them for their false consciousness, for their inability to distinguish between words and things, for their inveterate dabbling and scratching above the surface of the authentic forms of life from which their era had cut them off. But Bouvard and Pécuchet were French, for all that, and so what they dabbled in was still animal husbandry and jardinage. Nor does the urban milieu do anything to conceal from us the essentially agrarian condition of France. Paris is much more like Chicago long was than like New York — a population center, yes, but one that grows up out of cereal crops, and fields of cows and pigs, in order to facilitate the commercial exchange of grains and pork-bellies, or of wine and cheese as the case may be, and where these agricultural products are celebrated and “centered”, in sharp contrast with what we see in the ideal form of the American city — the simulation of an industrial or post-industrial utopia where our total dependence on the earth is screened out and, if possible, forgotten.

But I can’t help who I am, and instead of going to the open-air market, and to the fromagerie and the fruiterie and the others, where you are supposed to be grateful that you can still pay separately for each category of food, I go to Franprix. And though nothing is supposed to escape —“not even light”, as it is almost compulsory to say— from these black-hole zones on the map of France, I find myself moved to celebrate it.

I have already begun to enumerate for you some of the mysteries of that place, the things that happen there that fail to happen elsewhere. Yet another mystery of our Franprix, doubtless of all Franprix, is the consistent excellence of their music (unlike my gym, the Cercles de la Forme, of which I have written previously). I have heard Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”, Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon”, The Jackson 5’s “I’m Going Back to Indiana”, Stereolab’s “Ticker-Tape of the Unconscious”, and U2’s “One”, the last of which is corny as can be, I know, but always makes me think of the running buffaloes in Mark Pellington’s video, and brings tears to my eyes as I behold their beauty in my memory. Those singular buffaloes! Why were they running? It probably had something to do with desire. Are they still alive? At least in here (in the Franprix, inside my head) they are.

To deepen the mystery, occasionally the songs are interrupted by a voice telling us we are listening to “Radio Franprix”. Sometimes the voice is speaking German, sometimes Spanish, which suggests some sort of pan-European network of chain stores with a standardized music format. Who is behind this? I wonder, as I sing along to Jay-Jay Johanson or Yma Sumac or whatever else is on. It often feels like I’m in a music video myself. The worst song I ever heard there was The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Got a Feeling”, which surely would have been a black mark in my relationship with the store, had the experience not been sublimated into the most surreal and magical moment, when, and I’m not making this up, all of the customers —the bead lady, the stroke victims, the homeless man otherwise lacking human speech, the hummus lovers Jewish or not— all exclaimed in unison, at just the right moment: “Mazel tov!”

Alright, I’m embellishing just a little bit, but only in order to get across the deeper truth that what I am talking about here is a transfigured space, outside of ordinary reality. I am always primed, when I enter it, to be moved, by the music, by memory, by desire, which appear, when we are down at that level of truth I’m trying to sound, to be different manifestations of the same thing.

And so when, a few days ago, I went in for a kilo of “Leader Price” store-brand petits pois congelés and a bag of amandes décortiquées and I heard “Ooh baby, I’m hot just like an oven”, it should not be so surprising that this was enough to make time-travel possible, to make it 1982 again, 1984 again, to make Marvin Gaye die at his father’s hands again, eternal as a Greek tragic hero, to disclose to me my own oven-nature, and the oven-nature of all my fellow beings: all hot for each other, even beyond death. How did he do it? How did he get into the solid-state FM radio on the kitchen counter in Rio Linda, California, into Casey Kasem’s weekly countdown, only to weave his way, across the years and across the globe, into my Franprix? One must be very hot indeed to pull that off.

About the Author

Justin E. H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.

Publication Rights

This essay was first published in Justin E. H. Smith’s Hinternet. Subscribe here. Republished with permission.

Image Rights

Post image is a detail from Marc Lagneau: Caddie / Trolley, 2009 (CC).

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