Death on credit

A supermarket in central Paris was preparing for renovations last month when a group of mass graves was uncovered in the basement. The largest of the graves revealed tightly-packed skeletons lying head to toe, evidence of a famine or epidemic dating as far back as the late medieval era when the site was occupied by a hospital cemetery.

Denis Gliksman, Inrap

Denis Gliksman, Inrap

The story of dead bodies in a supermarket proved irresistible to the global press, which treated the news item as a kind of macabre allegory of consumer culture. “Parisians carry on shopping as mass graves are exhumed below their feet,” said a headline in the Guardian this week; “customers wander the aisles without realizing that under their feet more than 200 skeletons are lying in the cellars,” said 20 Minutes. In a news video the leader of the archaeological team can be seen walking through the cheerful, brightly-lit store before taking a spiral staircase down to the excavations. Stories and videos alike play on the contrast between the scenes going on above and below ground, emphasizing death’s proximity to the shoppers. As the Figaro points out, the exhumed skeletons lie only “a few meters below their shopping carts.” Another shared theme in the press is the supposed ignorance of the customers: “blissfully unaware” and “uninterested,” as the Guardian put it, or wandering clueless, as portrayed by 20 Minutes.

As distinct from this purported cluelessness, journalists covering the story seem compelled to invoke a hermeneutics of mystery and detection, of burial and recovery, of “digging a little deeper into the story,” as the Guardian puts it. In this way the press conjures a kind of Freudian topography of the uncanny, according to which repressed secrets emerge from their obscure hiding place. The “uncanny,” Freud tells us, citing Schelling, “is the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light.”* Accordingly, the supermarket becomes a kind of haunted house and the journalist a detective exposing unconscious “secrets” (20 Minutes).

If the macabre ironies of the supermarket scene are perfectly obvious, the news item nonetheless suggests a more puzzling social hieroglyphic the journalists themselves can’t seem to decipher. We might even say that the media’s tropes of detection and discovery obscure what they mean to expose, since the themes of burial and haunted houses are little more than outworn clichés in a globalized, virtual marketplace. After all, shoppers increasingly buy products not in ‘brick and mortar’ stores but online, products that may themselves be immaterial, stocked in digital storerooms and loaded in virtual carts. Likewise, death is not a secret so ready to hand, a memento mori hiding in the cellar and emerging instructively from the historical past.

The spatiotemporal world of digitized globalization breeds different ghosts. The deaths haunting our planetary marketplace are the morbid evidence of a necropolitical system whose traces cling to every commodity, and whose victims are often far away, neglected and unmourned.** It’s significant in this light that the Figaro article, like several others, closes with the mention that the French state will see to the reinterment of the Monoprix store’s exhumed bones. A haunting calls for a proper burial and a settling of debts. But first-world profits by definition foreclose the possibility of a balanced ledger, just as they depend on disposable and unmourned lives in the deathscapes sown far and wide by consumer culture, deregulation, and finance capital.


The Monoprix story recalls a memorable scene from Philippe Sollers’ novel Portrait du joueur, in which the narrator, a character modeled on the author, revisits his childhood home in Bordeaux.*** The house has been replaced by a large supermarket, however, and as the narrator wanders the building he superimposes his personal memories of the house on the bland commercial interior.

Let’s see: by the entrance, over there, below the calculators and TV monitors, that must be where the front steps were and, a little further, the interior French doors… Further still, the marble staircase, the hallway, the brown door leading to the cellar, and the sun porch right here in the deli department… (24).

The narrator takes the escalator to the second floor where he finds that the space of his former bedroom is now occupied by racks of coats and jackets, his sisters’ room by the women’s underwear department. The scene turns comical when the narrator is hailed by a suspicious sales clerk, and in the ensuing exchange he perversely adopts the role of an archeologist.

“Don’t you know we’re on an extremely important location?”

“Really? What? The Romans? The Gauls?”

“Maybe earlier.”

“Prehistory? Lascaux? Bisons and all that?”

“We’ll have to look into it.”

“You don’t mean to say that you’re going to do some digging! Here?”

“Why not? It wouldn’t be the first time.”

The guy snickers. “I suppose the SUMA would have to be demolished?”

“It’s happened before,” I said coldly. […] But let’s not exaggerate, we can always dig underground” (25-6).

In the end, as he takes his leave, the narrator plays a final joke, passing himself off as a “monsieur Lévi-Strauss” to the sales clerk’s ingenuous credulity. Here Sollers’ supermarket farce shows its unlucky victim; just as in the Monoprix news stories, the critique of consumer culture can’t seem to do without a convenient adversary, a naive dupe of the market. This cruel joke on Sollers’ part sheds some light on his pastiche-like use of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s prose style in this novel, complete with that author’s characteristic ellipses and exclamation marks.

No one’s ever really described that anonymous final procession of satisfied wretchedness, unconscious, self-regulated, fully consumed. A space of total display. Terminus! Everybody gets off! Everybody digests! Everyone’s the same! Finished off! Null and void! Tube! Appendix passing the goods! And so much the better! And good night! Shirts, pants, bellies… The check-out line patient and resigned… Practically devout… Cellophane… Just like at communion… (24).

It seems that only Céline’s black humor and unhinged grotesqueries are up to the task of satirizing the absurdities of consumer life, circa 1984. But for a former Maoist to adopt the racist and obscene contrarian Céline as model for sociopolitical critique seems a sign of desperation, if not surrender. There’s a touch of the aristocratic in Sollers’ condescending mockery as he revisits the desecrated site of his family domain.


Passage Choiseul, Paris

Unlike Sollers’s character, Céline’s childhood home still stands. The greatest French innovator of modern prose fiction was raised in his mother’s lacemaker’s shop in a covered arcade at number 64, Passage Choiseul in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement, a mercantile setting unforgettably rendered in Louis-Ferdinand’s autobiographical Death on Credit. Walter Benjamin considered the Paris arcades to be dreamscapes of the future. For Céline there was no outside of the marketplace; it was a self-enclosed space of delightfully ludicrous marvels that expanded to encompass the world, as in the madcap scenes in Death on Credit where a monstrous, gigantic Customer sweeps all the denizens of the Passage out into the streets of the city in a Rabelaisian send-up of social revolution.


* Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919), 223.

** See Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, vol.15, no.1 (Winter 2003), 11-40.

*** Philippe Sollers, Portrait du joueur (Paris: Gallimard, 1984).

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