in Hmm Weekly
on June 24, 2021

I WENT TO the drugstore over the weekend to buy four things—one thing more than I can comfortably keep in my head, so I had to keep repeating them—and while I was searching the aisles and trying not to forget what merchandise I was searching for, I came across this non-merchandise:

Once upon a time we were supposed to pity the Soviet Bloc for their empty store shelves, left barren by their refusal to participate in consumer capitalism. Now American consumer capitalism has produced something beyond empty shelves: shelves filled with manufactured nothingness. Someone designed and printed and shipped and built these cardboard boxes, so that they could be put on the shelves to indicate that something is not on the shelves. “MORE PRODUCTS ARE ON THE WAY.” Which products? Whatever it is that you want but aren’t able to get.

“DON’T SEE YOUR PRODUCT? FIND IT ONLINE!” said the outward face of one box, placed there by a worker whose job is, or formerly was, to put things on the shelves of a retail store so that people could pick them up and buy them. One such worker had enterprisingly put out one of the boxes upside down, adding an extra layer of improvised nonperformance to the drugstore company’s designed nonperformance. The whole setup was too perfunctory to even qualify as Potemkin; the literal idea of not having empty shelves had displaced the substantive idea of having something to buy.

Here was the spirit of a phone-robot chanting “Your call is very important to us,” manifested in three-dimensional space. Of my own four items—lens fluid, socks, shampoo, kitchen trash bags—I ended up finding one and three-halves: the shampoo was as needed, the socks were the slightly wrong cut labeled as the right cut, the usual lens fluid had been crowded off the shelf by a new Acuvue-branded line of lens fluid products, and the only garbage bags were house brand.

Long ago, when I was learning about buying things, I had made it a rule never to buy any garbage bags but the real major brands. The off-brand ones, I had discovered, tended to split and leak, and a failed trash bag was worse than no trash bag at all. And yet, now, the trash had to go somewhere. I bought the inadequate bags.