Our Brand Is Uselessness, Part 2:

Posted: June 6, 2017 by Admin in Alienation, capitalist crisis, Class Matters, Economics, Unemployment, United States - economy, Workers' rights, World economy

The CDS Way: Otherworldly Boredom, Unanswerable Humiliation, Dumbass Stupidity 

A six-part series by Laurence Peterson documenting an example of downward mobility in Post-Meltdown America

The author discusses the secrets of success in his new position, with a digression on strange alterations in the official American dialect

My main tasks were few: I was to prepare simple product samples on a portable cart, sometimes with the aid of a confection oven or microwave, but usually manually, put them out for Costco members to take at will, and try to induce sales by repeating selling points provided on a prep sheet. I was also responsible for keeping the demonstration kit and area clean and sanitary: simple enough, one might think, but, as we shall see in due course, a far more complicated matter at Costco. For the most part, though, at least on paper, the job seemed decidedly easy on the mind and muscles. As is becoming more and more the case in the contemporary workplace, however, the real secret of success involves vanishing amounts of hard work in any kind of creative or simply intentional interaction; instead, what has become indispensible is the sheer ability or will to withstand a truly soul-abusive admixture of otherworldly boredom, unanswerable humiliation and sheer, dumbass stupidity. And this whilst providing a service that all too often provides vanishing amounts of utility to its consumers, even as the surrounding community visibly disintegrates round everyone’s ears. So the effect on the psyche is an altogether different matter. And while the pay, at $11.50 per hour to start, beat the average in a sector notorious for its exploitative practices, it hardly amounted to a rewarding amount, especially when a considerable restriction on hours—never, and I mean NEVER—to exceed thirty hours a week, was constantly in effect, and ensured that potential earnings would never offer enough to maintain an independent existence.

Still, it was more than a lot of the poor sods who produced the stuff (increasingly under unacceptable conditions in the developed countries, such as restrictions on bathroom breaks  that force workers to don nappies during their shifts, and under much more prevalent but simply unspeakable conditions in underdeveloped countries) we flogged made, or what is paid to many in the US to provide childcare or look after the elderly, or even what some adjunct faculty at the university level effectively take in.   More market miracles, I suppose.

The working day for the CDS “Sales Advisor” at the Avon, Massachusetts Costco began with a lunatic routine most of the time, and was for some time quickly made much worse if, as happened often enough, the manager, a guy named Marc, was in a bad mood or became overtaken by some irritation that he had a gift for blowing out of all proportion, only to forget about a short while later, sometimes after issuing dire threats of termination or something. In addition, Marc did possess one additional, exceptionally annoying trait: he had a habit of simply walking away whilst engaged in conversation if anyone he deemed more important than his interlocutor came along, especially if it was a Costco manager or something. And, needless to say, just about all of the forty-some employees on his payroll, including myself, were quickly, and pretty much permanently, dispatched to that category from the point of hire on. Marc seemed to default to the notion that anyone who would seriously consider taking the job of CDS Sales Advisor had to be some kind of seriously defective loser, and he tried aggressively to avoid extended casual encounters with any but a handful of confidants. During his more abrupt departures, I was always reminded of Ignatius J. Reilly who, in the magnificent Confederacy of Dunces, feared that he would become a mongoloid if exposed to the halitosis of any undesirables he came in contact with.

Now the CDS office space in the Avon Costco was simply inadequate: some twenty-five carts, all the non-refrigerated food samples, all the office gear and supplies, as well as a tiny sink and crockery storage were crammed into maybe thirty square metres, mostly between two racks of Costco storage space offering maybe three metres of open space to move. Since the carts took up nearly half of that, a moderately staffed shift of ten to fifteen Sales Advisors ensured that we would all be stuck in each other’s way as we tried to prepare our demonstrations by fetching the requisite items, which were located in a small, adjoining office with only one, normal sized door. And it often happened that you’d look to your left to gain access to needed items only to be cut off by a comrade delicately balancing a couple of knives or stackful of plates, while any move to the right would be resisted by the often-times ample, always bulging arse of another worker bending over her or his cart for whatever reason, bang right in your face. And, meanwhile, Marc would be shouting that we were taking too long to get out on the floor, and that we had better not forget anything after all the delay. Such a routine was not conducive towards the cheerful taking up of a position which demanded that one always be smiling and welcoming of shoppers, many of whom themselves looked upon the Sales Advisors as losers and deserving of nothing but the most perfunctory treatment.

While outfitting the carts, we were supposed to give a good lookover to a one or two page document printed out for each of us, called the DPI, or Demonstration Product Instructions, which is prepared by the central corporate office, and occasionally appended by a local authority figure, like the area supervisor. These instructions point out in—in terms of intention, anyway–explicit detail what tools and raw materials we were to use, and were to be followed pretty much to the letter (taking any sort of initiative adapting rules to local conditions is not something mere sales advisors are to be entrusted with). And though this kind of attitude toward subordinates is commonplace, especially with all the hysteria about potential lawsuits in the US, a special, unappreciated problem arises there in my mind because of the inability of vast swathes of management to communicate at all competently. Accordingly, the DPI is prone to contain all manner of grammatical and syntactic errors, mostly of a harmless variety, but sometimes giving rise to unnecessary confusion. One example: I presided over a demo which required mixing of a powdered protein drink mix with almond milk, and the day’s DPI instructed me “Don’t leave samples pre-poured for more than two minutes.” The language suggested that I was not to prepare big batches (unlike most demos at Costco, of free items produced for general consumption, accordingly prepared en masse) to be stored in a pitcher or something, though that would mean the use of the word “samples”—which points towards small, discrete amounts, contradicts the former interpretation. Of course, I had to ask, and my manager’s interpretation was that “pre-poured” was to be interpreted as “pre-consumed,” which is not “pre-poured at all; in fact, it’s the exact opposite; it’s “ not poured at all.”

And this, to me, illustrates what may constitute a wider problem in the US: America seems to be the breeding ground of a number of communicative habits that may be providing obstacles in the way of any capacity to convey clear meaning in important instances (not a development to be indifferent to in the age of Trump and Co.), which simply becomes comical at times.   This goes beyond countless popular annoying and ugly, but arguably harmless alterations (I have chosen the following examples from recent TV programmes , mostly news shows, and adverts, which testifies to the ubiquity of these usages, not to mention the wholesale abdication of any commitment to editing in the US media) such as smuggling “need to” in for “must,” or “should,” especially when inserting a personal, subjective opinion on what someone else does (“You need to switch to Verizon”), transposing “you guys” over “you,” particularly when that leads the speaker to attempt to introduce changes in the grammatical structure employed (“which is so smart on your guys’ part”), failing to even try to conjugate (“There are other news we are following tonight”), replacing the use of transitive verbs with negations (“We need to not use it on our food”), or beginning one’s argument or contribution to a discussion with “so”. To me, anyway, Americans increasingly seem to speak their own natural language like a second language, rushing and flailing about to pick or even construct words out of the air and assemble clauses that seem at all adequate or relevant as fast as possible, rather than sensible, appropriate and in due course; and this is just as much the case in the media and amongst persons of authority (like employers), if not more so, than amongst ordinary people in conversation, which raises the question: what happens when elites lose the ability to consciously and consistently use their own natural language?”

To illustrate the first phenomenon, that of plucking completely inappropriate words out of the air, allow me to point to two separate uses I encountered in the media, in a short space of time, by persons on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, of the word “convicted,” in order to convey the exact opposite of what the word commonly means; in the first, a partisan referred approvingly to a “convicted” Republican, whilst in the second case a legal advocate for the indigent spoke of someone “convicted” of his own innocence. In both cases, the word employed resembles phonetically the more appropriate choice “convinced,” but, again, it is not difficult to find cases in the media in which even such a resemblance is completely lacking. Another example: speaking of financial reform, an author of a book on the subject said the press “villianised Wall Street and that ended up villianising the American people,” meaning thereby that the American people themselves villianised Wall Street and were not, as the commentator’s literal statement would have it, the object of villification.  But omission characterizes perhaps my favourite example: a TV personality acclaiming an anti domestic abuse activist as “this champion of domestic violence.”

I encountered an outstanding example of the second phenomenon, that of creating words out of whole cloth, while watching a video about the freakishly scary Presidential advisor Stephen Miller. A professor, no less, speaking of Trump himself, opined in the following way: “I think he had a pretty good week, and, opically, [I listened to the video several times, and he did not say “optically”] a great weekend.” Clearly the professor was flailing about in search of something in the neighbourhood of the annoyingly overused “optics” so often applied in political discourse these days, and came up, I would say, embarrassingly short, but, yet again, felt no need to keep track of what he said or, heaven forbid, go back and correct himself

What I find dangerously problematic in what I believe to be the explosive increase of such phenomena in contemporary American discourse is that it attests to a kind of tacit acceptance, on the part of speakers and even listeners alike, of any expectation that the speaker can and should employ existing linguistic means to acknowledge or correct not only idiosyncratic, but even clearly incorrect or inappropriate constructions, leaving it entirely to listeners to fill in any perceived gaps in meaning that might arise due to such haphazard usage of language. And to illustrate here, I will juxtapose an incident that arose from the last Super Bowl victory of the local American football team, the New England Patriots, with one of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s more notorious “alternative” utterances.

Conway got into a bit of trouble for referring to “the Bowling Green massacre” when speaking of a terrorist attack that never took place. Under intense pressure, she subsequently tried to replace the word massacre with the more appropriate “plot,” (there was a case in which persons involved in planning to ship arms overseas were apprehended) but the important thing to recognize in regard to my point is that she felt no compulsion to monitor her statement enough when it was uttered to go back and make the substitution right after uttering it.

Now contrast this with a sport commentator’s utterance, referring to the American football champion New England Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, and coach, Bill Belichick, in the same sentence right after the recent Super Bowl victory. The commentator’s words were as follows: the “relationship between Bill Brady…ah, I, I mean, Tom Brady, and Bill Belichick…” The interesting thing to note here is that the speaker considered it important to monitor his words as he went along (almost certainly expecting censure from his audience if he was not prepared to make the change), allowing him to immediately correct himself when an ordinary, everyday slip occurred. In contrast, Conway was not only completely satisfied with a clearly incorrect choice of words; indeed, nothing testifies to any attempt on her part, or one anticipated on the part of the chosen audience’s, to monitor and check a possibility for ordinary error. And the fact that that such an omission doesn’t raise too many eyebrows, I would argue, testifies to the spread of this type of practice in American society, and continues to nudge Americans to lower their expectations regarding the place of checks in from either speakers or interlocutors. This phenomenon, along with the increasing tendency to recycle clichés due to siloisation of broadcast media and the disappearance of the printed word and literature—about which I can’t go into detail here–has, to my mind, reduced American English usage into pat, undigested and, for a dialect once admired for its directness and vitality—especially in its more unofficial versions–often comically insincere gibberish all too much of the time.

With all due apologies for that lengthy, but, I would argue, non-trivial aside, I continue my account of the CDS Sales Advisor’s daily routine. After equipping the cart according to the more or less exact specifications set out in the DPI (sensibly rendered or not), and trundling the wheeled cart out on the Costco sales floor, the Sales Advisor takes up a position as close to the product being exhibited as possible. This often led to catfights and turf wars amongst advisors trying to access the high ground closest to items that shared a limited space, or, alternately, if an advisor’s wares were stored in a remote part of the store, ensured that the poor advisor would be bombarded with the same annoying questions—“Why did they stick you here?” or “Did you do something wrong to be sent back here?”—all shift long from unimaginative shoppers.


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