An Anthropology of Window Displays
Let us start with an article on shop window layout published in the magazine Progressive Grocer. Launched in the United States in 1922, this is a professional magazine aimed at supporting the modernisation of small independent and traditional grocers, faced with competition from new forms of distribution (such as chains of shops in the 1920s and supermarkets at the end of the 1930s). Apart from articles written by specialised journalists, Progressive Grocer publishes testimonies provided by the grocers it targets, who, from time to time, share tips about the job with their peers (Cochoy 2010a). This kind of contribution is immensely interesting as it gives us access to explanations regarding real professional know-how on curiosity. It is as if Bluebeard and Perrault had agreed to give away and exchange their methods, techniques, tricks, and little secrets with their peers, and as if we could simultaneously explore this exchange in secret and clandestinely observe the school of wizards – like Lucius from Apuleius’ Golden Ass, or the demonologists of yesteryear. Proceeding in such a manner spares us the kind of enquiry, subject to possible errors and/or oversights, which I have had to resort to thus far.
Access to this type of knowledge and its relationship to curiosity is provided for us quite explicitly in an article from February 1940 entitled ‘We put curiosity to work in our shop window’ with the subtitle: ‘Shop window displays which arouse the curiosity of passers-by always lead to sales, says a trader in Kansas’. In other words, this article purported to be the testimony of a grocer from Kansas, much renowned for giving advice and concrete examples. The expression ‘arouses curiosity’ is deliciously ambiguous given that it encompasses both the manipulation of curiosity (as an external device meant to attract customers) and the activation of clients’ prior propensity to be curious. The relevance of these two interpretations is explicitly confirmed and completed in the article’s opening proposal, based on using the display as a device to arouse curiosity:
There isn’t any part of the store which will draw more trade, pay bigger dividends, or stir up more interest than the display window. My slogan has always been, ‘Displays built right will sell on sight’. In putting this slogan to work the whole secret lies in your definition of the word ‘right’. To me it means a display that is different – unusual for some reason or other so it will arouse people’s curiosity (Progressive Grocer February 1940: 58).
Just like Emmanuel Didier’s (2007) statistical objects, curiosity is both constructed (‘built right’) and at the same time seized upon, activated, ‘expressed’ (‘arouse’ people’s curiosity), in line with the classic paradox so well identified by Latour – and of course, before him, by the actors themselves as soon as they became concerned with achieving results and not idealising their practices or putting them on a pedestal – according to which ‘les faits [facts] sont faits [facts/made]’: no fact can exist independently from its construction. Conversely, what is constructed is always based to a certain extent on facts (Latour 1999).1 In fact, setting curiosity to work (in Bluebeard’s house or in the display) means awakening the curiosity of the subject (whether wife or consumer). The one does not go without the other: that was the lesson from Bluebeard; this is also what our window dresser from Kansas teaches us. However, we still need to know what alchemy lies behind this strange construction-activation of curiosity; this activity of ‘making someone do something’ or this ‘performance’ (Callon 2007) of the ‘curious captation’. It is here that our shopkeeper from Kansas brings us something new by presenting three techniques for activating curiosity that are very similar to the figures of ‘advertising magic’ that Roland Canu (2011b) describes so clearly.
In our witness’s account, the presentation of the three techniques is preceded by a very broad and innovative definition of the curiosity which underpins them, a curiosity that provides guidance towards something ‘different’ and ‘unusual’. Curiosity is therefore closely linked to the theme within marketing of differentiation, whilst being applied to it in a very particular manner. On the one hand, there is classical differentiation with which we are well acquainted, and which, after Chamberlin (1962) and its implementation in marketing (Smith 1956), consisted in modifying the definition of the product in the hope that specific characteristics associated with this modification will encounter preferences not satisfied by the market. On the other, we have what we could call ‘curious differentiation’, proposed by our modest grocer: contrary to the other more well-known forms, this type of differentiation is not aimed at any prior preference, other than the prior preference for the absence of prior preference; our grocer intends to play on people’s propensity to be surprised, to be attracted by the unknown, to choose novelty, and/or to like surprises. This, as we will see, is what makes it so significant.
The techniques used to arouse and construct this type of disposition are each based on managing the window display as a curiosity device. Before examining them in turn, note that the choice of the object which brings them together – the display – is not in the least anodyne. For those who have just read Bluebeard, it is a choice that might admittedly be somewhat surprising.2 The image that we remember from the tale is from its final episode, that is to say it is the memory of a closed, opaque door and an association between curiosity and secrecy: the less I see, the more I want to know what I might be able to see. With the closed door and the secret room, we find ourselves at the antipode of the window displays and the shop that is on view and open to all. However, let us not forget too quickly that the tale is sequential and that the final episode is preceded by a tour of other rooms; a tour which, conversely, plays on maximum transparency and visual accessibility. What is interesting about the display is that a single device unites and links precisely those properties of the devices proper to each of the tale’s two sequences, according to an economy of means designed to maximise its effectiveness. Just like the final door in Bluebeard, the display takes the form of an obstacle and a screen – a separation capable of hindering the movement of the body and the senses and therefore of stirring desire. Furthermore, the visual access provided by the display is often deceptive, given that it is not the shop itself, and in addition, the duo, consisting of the window and the display space behind (often enclosed by a background), operates as a particularly thick and opaque door, so much so that when we first approach it, we cannot see just how thick and opaque it is. However, as with our previous tour (of Bluebeard’s rooms), the display attempts precisely to present itself as a transparent opening, as a faithful representation of the wider universe to which it is supposed to give access. The display is closed, but this closure, whilst filtering the other senses (touch, smell, sound, and even taste, despite the deceptive French expression ‘lèche-vitrine’! (Literally: window-licker – in English, window-shopper)), gives the eye almost unlimited access. Like the door, it marks both the separation between a private space (here, commercial) and a public space. However, like the door, it is also intended, in its own way, to allow passage between the two (Leymonerie 2006):3 the display is an open-closed door – open to the eye, closed to the body. The display is open to view, thus encouraging the ‘concupiscence of the eyes’, the very foundation of curiosity (see above, ‘Teaser’). However, this transparency is arranged: the view is neither direct (the objects are ‘represented’, and those that I see are not necessarily and/or exactly those that I will find, buy or consume in the shop) nor free: the objects are organised in a certain way and I cannot ‘move around’ them other than according to the very limited set of angles that the window dresser has chosen for me. But this is exactly the point; the visual opening is intensified by the closing off of the body. What conditions curiosity here is at once the illusion in which the customer experiences seeing (knowing) everything and the practical difficulties involved in using this knowledge, this total possession and perspective – the display manages to achieve, in a gradual and intricate way, that which the different rooms and the secret cabinet in the tale did but in a manner that was too brutal and divided; by luring the viewer with the impression of immediate access and at the same time obstructing it, the display produces the time lag that is fundamental to the operation of any curiosity device. The display’s invisible door is even more attractive because it opens up a world which it prevents us from reaching – the display ‘holds’ us: it prevents us from advancing and captivates us at the same time.
Once again, the display connects two devices that are clearly different in the tale. We have just seen that this device associates the visual accessibility of the rooms with the opaque closure of the cabinet. The ploys thought up by our grocer combine, as we will see, two sub-elements from the same scenarios: the effects of mirrors, on the one hand, and of locks, on the other.
The Effects of Locks
Let us start with the game of locks. First, the analogy between the lock in the tale and the shop’s window display is not obvious, as the two devices possess opposing characteristics: whereas the lock, with the exception of the keyhole, constitutes a space that is perfectly opaque, the window display offers a view that is perfectly transparent but hermetically sealed. The analogy therefore operates on another level. Not in the radically different physical configurations of the two devices, but rather in their proximity to each other as ‘observation devices’, and in the effect of this proximity on their users. In order to understand this effect, we should begin by referring to Jean-Paul Sartre and his famous text on the subject of the keyhole:
Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole. I am alone and on the level of non-thetic self-consciousness. This means first of all that there is no self to inhabit my consciousness. […] This means that behind the door, a spectacle is presented as ‘to be seen’, a conversation as ‘to be heard’. The door, the keyhole are at once both instruments and obstacles; they are presented as ‘to be handled with care’; the keyhole is given as ‘to be looked through close by and a little to one side’, etc. Hence from this moment ‘I do what I have to do’. No transcending view comes to confer upon my acts the character of a given on which a judgement can be brought to bear. My consciousness sticks to my acts, it is my acts; and my acts are commanded only by the ends to be attained and by the instruments to be employed. My attitude, for example, has no ‘outside’; it is a pure process of relating the instrument (the keyhole) to the end to be attained (the spectacle to be seen), a pure mode of losing myself in the world, of causing myself to be drunk in my things as ink is by a blotter in order that an instrumental-complex oriented toward an end may be synthetically detached on the ground of the world […] Moreover I cannot truly define myself as being in a situation: first because I am not a positional consciousness of myself; second because I am my own nothingness. In this sense – and since I am what I am not and since I am not what I am – I cannot even define myself as truly being in the process of listening at doors. I escape this provisional definition of myself by means of all my transcendence […].
But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me! What does this mean? It means that I am suddenly affected in my being and that essential modifications appear in my structure – modifications which I can apprehend and fix conceptually by means of the reflexive cogito.
First of all I now exist as myself for my unreflective consciousness […] This means that all of a sudden I am conscious of myself escaping as myself, not in that I am the foundation of my own nothingness but in that I have my foundation outside myself. I am for myself only as I am a pure reference to the Other […] It is shame or pride which reveals to me the Other’s look and myself at the end of that look. It is the shame or pride which makes me live, not know the situation of being looked at.
Now shame […] is shame of self, it is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging. I can be ashamed only as my freedom escapes me in order to become a given object. Thus originally the bond between my unreflective consciousness and my Ego, which is being looked at, is a bond not of knowing but of being. Beyond any knowledge which I can have, I am this self which another knows. And this self which I am – this I am in a world which the Other has made alien to me, for the Other’s look embraces my being and correlatively the wall, the doors, the keyhole. All these instrumental-things in the midst of which I am, now turn toward the Other a face which on principle escapes me. Thus I am my Ego for the Other in the midst of a world which flows toward the Other (Sartre 1984: 259–261).4
The lock in the tale on the one hand, and the window display on the other, are both extremely close to and distant from a Sartrian lock.5 First let us compare Perrault’s and Sartre’s locks. There are many differences between them that at first sight render the parallel inoperative: firstly, whereas in Sartre, the inquisitive person knows that he is being observed, Bluebeard’s curious wife would no doubt have abstained from being inquisitive had she known what she was about to see and the exact punishment that would result.6 In addition, in Perrault this visibility requires the door to be opened, whereas in Sartre it is rather the opposite: seeing means avoiding the risk of being seen by those being watched on the other side of the lock. We might be surprised by the fact that Perrault chose the opposite solution to Sartre for his tale, given that the keyhole – ever since doors equipped in this way have existed! – is the archetypal curiosity device.7 But if we think about it, there is only a difference of degree and style between direct observation through the lock (which means the key may not be placed inside) and indirect observation, subsequent to the key being used (preventing one from looking through the keyhole).
In the tale, the decision to open the door rather than voyeuristically peep through the keyhole has perhaps less to do with some deep reason, to which Perrault holds the secret, than with the story’s overall structure, which imposes the one outcome rather than the other on him. As such, opening the door rather than looking through the keyhole is, as we have seen, a good way to draw out the action and suspense, in a way that is likely to engage the reader in the very experience of curiosity (using the third person means the point of view cannot be shared; it is difficult for two people to look through a keyhole, and even more difficult to have a lasting view when the viewing angle is limited and the objects to be seen are immobile!). Secondly, this choice is justified because the set of keys already exists and because one of the keys will play a subsequent role as proof the action was committed. Lastly, and in this specific case, as only Bluebeard and Perrault know, it is not necessary to resort to a device that would prevent those who are being watched (on the other side of the door) realising that they are being watched, and for good reason! Aside from these contextual factors, in both Perrault and Sartre the keyhole, however it is used (with the eye or the key), remains a curiosity device able to arouse the self-consciousness of the person or people who use it,8 even if the ways in which this is done are somewhat different: whereas in Sartre, self-awareness comes from the intervention of people behind the voyeur’s back, in Perrault it comes from both the same kind of intervention (Bluebeard’s shadow hovers behind his wife’s conscience, although admittedly, alas for her, intermittently) and from the very object being observed on the other side of the door. This is because the butchered women stand for both a reflection of a broken promise and the fate promised to the wife who is looking at them (and unfortunately, unlike his wife, Bluebeard intends to keep his promise).
However, does this make the keyhole necessary for the phenomenology of self-consciousness described by Sartre? Or does the window display operate just as well (or worse) than Sartre’s door? Unless neither the keyhole nor the window display plays a direct role? Does the activation of self-awareness not depend more on the irreducible attributes of the subject who is observing, and of those who are looking at him and of the surrounding society? Another well-known text, Jean Starobinski’s analysis of the young Rousseau confronting some confectionery, helps us examine this question:
Jean-Jacques, miserable apprentice, coveted only in secret. Roasts, fruit or sweetmeats (not to mention girls, of whom he knew nothing) – all of these he ogled with sidelong glances, followed immediately by blushes. Even if he had cash in his pocket, he was ashamed to enter the pastry shop, for then he would be obliged to point out the object of his desire, thus betraying to the others the appetite that held him in its grip. This caused him insurmountable embarrassment. ‘I catch sight of the women behind the counter and can already imagine them laughing amongst themselves and making fun of the greedy youngster… But two or three young people over there are looking at me’. He feels dangerously exposed. If he exhibits his desire, the gazes focused on him will immediately turn hostile. When he restrains his greediness and goes hungry, he convinces himself that the others are ‘devouring him with their eyes’. The would-be eater suddenly discovers the risk of being eaten. A reinvigorated commandment weighs upon his conscience. ‘Thou shalt not covet’ – not even what you can buy honestly. Rousseau will not permit himself to be caught redhanded in the act of desiring, for this this would exhibit a culpable weakness, a shameful need. Before he can be slandered by a single gesture or word, his imagination leaps ahead: in the gaze of the onlooker it glimpses adumbrations of irony, anger, and mockery. Paralyzed, he is a timid Tantalus, repressing his desire while feeling it swell within him: ‘I am frightened by everything and discover obstacles everywhere. As my discomfort grows my shame increases. But in the end I go home like an idiot, consumed by longing and with money enough in my pocket to satisfy it, but not having dared to buy anything’. Desire, thus disappointed and heightened, must invent new gratifications. It will seek itself in ways more oblique or more direct. Who is spying on his actions? Rousseau has no idea. His ‘eyes lowered’, he cannot recognize faces in the distance, which only increases his alarm. He is the victim of anonymous scrutiny by an unidentified spectator. Thus he is subjected to a ubiquitous peril. The hostile witness, who is nobody in particular, in effect becomes everybody. Things quickly get out of hand. Under the scrutiny of the witness (that is, under the presumed scrutiny of a faceless witness) Jean-Jacques’ relation to the object he covets is completely distorted. The distance and the lighting change, and a new obstacle crops up. Desire, knowing that it covets a forbidden object, can no longer reveal itself openly. It is obliged to dissumulate. From now on, it will be the hidden desire of a forbidden object (Starobinski 1989: 14–15).
Rousseau’s confession9 and the analysis provided by Jean Starobinski refer to a case very similar to the process described by Sartre: whenever other people observe a look of desire, a feeling of shame and of doing something forbidden is created in the person who is surprised or observed. For all that, the way the two situations are organised, and the methods of explanation, are quite different. With Starobinski/Rousseau, the imprecise description of the context of interaction is inversely proportional to the meticulous introspection of the subject (and also, as we shall see, to the more subtle but no less significant pressure of society). With respect to the objects, I have neither door, nor keyhole, nor window display capable of arousing shame or framing the gaze (retrospectively). Rousseau’s shame is present before entering the shop (indicated by the very discreet metonymy of the counter) and this shame, as with Sartre, awakens self-consciousness. It may be delayed, but it is just as sharp, taking the form of the superlative introspection so particular to the Confessions. In neither scene is there a focus on the door, the lock, or the window display which separate them. In other words, at no point is this feeling of shame connected to things other than the subjects themselves – the person being observed and those who are observing him. Or rather, there is an object which lends support to this shame but it is only the object of desire itself, and not the mediations that might inhibit or arouse the desire and shame. In the absence of any technical intervention whatsoever, Starobinski therefore has no other choice than to seek, quite logically, the reasons for shame in both the subject and the society that surrounds him.
With respect to the subject, we are not dealing here with a generic, universal, and unknown spectator. On the contrary, the character – the young Rousseau – is as distinctive as he is famous. Starobinski strongly emphasises the irreducibility of the subject by later creating a contrast between Rousseau and the ‘normal man’. Whereas the former ‘convinces himself that others “are devouring him with their eyes”’, the latter ‘accepts not knowing how others see him’ (1989: 15). For the author – who, without any other forms of transition, establishes an equivalence between ‘a normal man’ and ‘us’; in other words, everyone but Rousseau – the difference lies in the fact that, contrary to Rousseau, ‘we’ possess a well-reasoned social attitude that does not draw us into making assumptions about the benevolent or malevolent nature of other people’s looks, given the wholly undefined and a priori unknowable, and therefore equally probable, nature of the attitudes with which we are confronted:
So as not to cut off the possibility of dialogue, we generally leave open a range of possibilities. Among the attitudes we ascribe to others, favourable thoughts more or less compensate for hostile intentions. Thanks to our polite precautions of politeness and the conventions of language, all eventualities combine, in the absence of more ample information, to create neutral uncertainty, a wavering ambiguity. This affective ambiguity, which is not without its dangers, results from mutual respect for an elusive liberty. In everyday intercourse, we readily accept the uncertainty that prevents us from making assumptions about the true feelings of others, thereby protecting our independence. We do not think of complaining about the perpetual oscillation between a phantom of benevolence and a phantom of wickedness, knowing full well that for our interlocutors our feelings are no less hypothetical than those we believe we can read in their eyes. Jean-Jacques, however, cannot bear uncertainty. With a rapidity characteristic of all his emotions, he rules out every possibility but one: hostility (Ibid: 15).
The originality and skill of Starobinski’s analysis lies in his continual combination of psychology and sociology in inverse, counter-intuitive and perfectly symmetrical proportions. In an opposition in which the irreducibly singular ‘Rousseau’ figure is on one side, and the extremely general nature of the normal man on the other, we might have expected him to propose two opposing forms of explanation: the clinical in the case of Rousseau and the sociological in that of the normal man. However, in neither is this the case.
In the passage just quoted, we see that the analysis of ‘the normal man’ involves a highly psychological sociology which chooses to reconstruct likely social behaviour not according to a range of external forces, affecting different categories of people, but according to a form of reasoning oriented around an ‘average’ social figure. This is identified by the author according to an introspective anthropology, quite similar to that kind undertaken, in a Weberian tradition, by sociologists like Raymond Boudon and Jon Elster. Conversely, as we will see later, when explaining Rousseau’s behaviour, Jean Starobinski decides to distance himself from the clinical psychology that the case nevertheless seemed to call for, focusing instead on quite a wide range of accidents and external social factors.
Indeed, his use of the category ‘normal’ implicitly appears to point to its opposite, the pathological, and even more specifically, the psychiatric. Is it not in fact paranoia which appears to emerge from Rousseau’s attitude, not only in the passage analysed by Starobinski, but also in the other circumstances of his life? Many authors have not hesitated to provide this diagnosis, both prior (see below, and Wilkins 1959) and subsequent to Starobinski (Farrell 2005; Glass 1988; Lilti 2008), by examining the delusion of persecution from which the philosopher suffered from at the end of his life, in other words exactly when he was writing the Confessions, at the risk of transferring this late-onset paranoid affliction to the writing of his childhood memories. However, even if Starobinski himself admits that the scene of Rousseau’s shameful greed is a ‘precursor to the paranoia of Rousseau’s final years’, he prefers to distance himself from this kind of analysis10 by refusing to choose between psychology and sociology. On the one hand, the literary critic takes Rousseau’s personal psychology into account, by interpreting his shame about the disapproval of others as a ‘projection’ of a ‘condemnation he feels inwardly’ given that passing the act of punishment onto others is perhaps a way of making it more bearable (‘There is an economy of suffering: better to be the object of others’ hostility than to suffer inner conflict and torment’). Yet, on the other, Starobinski wants to relate this psychology to the social conditions that gave rise to it.11 He mentions the position of the typical ‘citizen of Geneva’ and the pressure it puts on Rousseau to himself invent his own position:
Although no one really cares about mediocre existence, Rousseau imagines a reproachful gaze precisely because the idea of an omniscient and just God was an inextricable part of the Genevan heaven […] To breathe the air of Geneva was to breathe the conviction of man’s original lapse and to bear all the weight of God’s potential wrath. The vigilance of the Consistory meant that the atmosphere of the city was always kept heavy with suspicion of scandal. The Company of Pastors kept an eye on everyone and everything. It was quick to denounce and stigmatize libertines for the least offense to law and order. It observed, reprimanded, and condemned […] Believing himself to be under scrutiny, Rousseau restrains his lusts and forbids himself to give in to desire […] By the time the introjection is complete, the suspect has been found guilty, convicted on the testimony of an accuser he carries within himself. Then and only then are all the necessary conditions satisfied, allowing an inverse projection to recreate the persecuting witness where none exists […] We are now in a better position to distinguish between society’s role and Jean-Jacques’ initiatives and reactions. The environment supplied the all-seeing religious police and austere morality, quick to suspect vice and condemn it, as well as the social inequality that left Rousseau’s family in a position of resentful humiliation. Though a ‘citizen’, he was only a ‘representative’, being in fact stripped in fact of privileges accorded him in law. Confronted with these circumstances, Rousseau invented his response. Guilt feelings, protestations of innocence, and flight are not behaviours strictly determined by the environment. An element of personal interpretation is required, an extra option (Ibid: 18–20).
Starobinski is an astounding author because he understands the shame and paralysis Rousseau feels when faced with these sweet treats; he shows us that Jean-Jacques, far from being a victim of his own psychology or an external sociology, instead invents his position at the meeting point of singular suffering and setbacks which do not reduce his behaviour to a personal flaw, or to external factors, but nonetheless give a meaning to the feelings driving him and to the inhibition affecting him.
Nonetheless, and for that which concerns us – let us not forget that the only justification for this long detour via the literary history of curiosity is that we are better equipped to continue our anthropology of the window display, using the highly exotic and hardly literary case of our grocer from Kansas! – what is at stake exists neither at the level of Rousseau, or intellectuals (even those as brilliant and shrewd as Starobinski) but at the rather more ordinary level of customers and products, and above all among those whose job it is to bring the two parties closer together in the service of financial gain. The important point of view is that of the vendors, who, whenever considering a customer entering or potentially entering their shop, cannot know whether they are facing a new incarnation of Rousseau or Starobinski’s ‘normal man’. They thus have no choice other than to ignore psychology and sociology, and instead to try to overcome the irreducibility of character and the inevitability of social determinisms.12
How can this be done? Sartre set us on the right path by emphasising the importance of the ‘keyhole’ device, that, by intervening between the subject and society, manages to exceed, or rather displace each. The market puts all of its efforts into understanding each and every case that presents itself (as it is) and into organising the setting that will orientate it accordingly. It is as if the pastry chef had noticed Jean-Jacques’ discomfort yet would not admit defeat. As if, instead of assuming the reason behind the missed sale was the combined intervention of an irreducible psychology and sociology, he had asked himself the question ‘what to do’ to overcome such inhibition – to either ‘ward off the Rousseau effect’, or to encourage ‘normal’, more well ‘disposed’ customers, and so avoiding the singularity or universality of psychology (either Rousseau’s or that of the normal man), and the inevitability of sociology (which operates over and above the configuration of action).
The problem, Rousseau noticed, was due to physical pressures stemming from a configuration too restricted for the triad involved:
It is as if his world were too narrow to permit the simultaneous presence of desiring consciousness, coveted object, and censorious witness. The confrontation of these three elements resulted in an intolerable malaise. One of them had either to disguise itself, change its nature, or disappear (Starobinski 1989: 21).
But as Starobinski is only following Rousseau, he has no choice other than to list the solutions examined by his character, excluding all the external forces influencing the organisation of the situation. With Rousseau, it is precisely ‘desiring consciousness’ which yields, whereas the ‘coveted object’ and ‘censorious witness’ remain unaltered. In order to escape embarrassment, Rousseau is therefore able to ‘[avoid] the witness’ gaze’, or, when this is impossible, find in ‘imagination’ a ‘substitute’ object, or even invert the relationship, ‘stand still and leave it up to the object of desire to make the advances’ (this is in other parts of the story); or better (!) still, make a paradoxical turn to ‘theft’ to calm shameful desire. Theft is his saving grace indeed, because it gives him the means to escape the looks he so dreads.13 Of course everything changes when the adjustments to the potential difficulty of the situation are the result of the two other poles (object and witness) being rearranged. The market professional is counting not on the importance of psychology or sociology, but on technologies capable of radically altering expectations, and of putting regular customers at ease, in a way that works for him and whatever customers’ motivations and identities.14
The grocer is not confronted with one particular case, but with a range of different ones. Therefore, his problem is not that he must in some instances adjust to the Rousseauian counterpart (a rare event), and in others to that of the normal man (most often the case), but that he must contend with a continuum of attitudes, ranging from being afraid of being looked at by another person, to free and ‘liberated’ expressions of personal desire. Or rather, his job involves building on the two situations that engage the subjective relationship to the window display. On the one hand, a social tie is brought into play (to the real or imagined risk of disapproval, and therefore the shame dealt with by Sartre and Starobinski). On the other, there is the promise of a corporeal tie to the things (to the hope of discovery, and to the pleasure that also motivates the subjects being observed by the two authors15). In other words, the seller’s analytical position requires a logic according to which Starobinski’s Rousseau and his ‘normal man’, far from being radically different from one another, coexist in each of us, as corresponds with the theory of the plural actor so well described by Bernard Lahire (2011).
As well as ‘each of us’, the grocer can or must also deal with ‘all of us’, particularly when it is a matter of doing so through a window display, whose inevitably rigid physical arrangement is intended for an audience whose members it cannot differentiate between.16 Here it becomes possible to extend and improve Sartre and Starobinski: Sartre because, as we will see, the presence of a crowd rather than the sudden appearance of ‘somebody’ can noticeably change the factors involved in curiously exploring the world; Starobinski because the configuration of the people present can affect the feeling of the person who is observing and who knows he is being observed. A fundamental property of the market is that it is both a collection of things and a collection of people. Real markets, far from opposing warm-hearted human society to the cold adjustments of accountancy mechanisms, and far from revealing the contrast between social interrelations and the anonymity of the market, instead bring together and place centre stage the ‘crowd’ (a ‘society’ in other words) that has no fear of oxymoron and paradox, given that although it is ‘social’, it is simultaneously ‘anonymous’ and ‘marketable’, and given that it concerns a gathering of people whose lack of mutual relation in no way means a lack of interaction.
The crowd should be added to a more extensive list of collective figures, well known within sociology, including the community (grounded in the integration of people who identify with a cohesive group constructed in opposition to what is alien to it), the network (grounded in exchange relationships and individual acquaintanceship), the public, and social classes, or categories (grounded in a shared interest or objective properties and/or on recognition of this sharing). Of course the crowd has a close relationship with these different categories, to the extent that it sometimes merges with them. Both classic (Le Bon 1960; Tarde 1892; 2006 ) and more recent works (Arnoldi and Borch 2007) ground the crowd in the feeling of acting in a very large group that shares a common direction, and which does not necessarily require the physical presence of the people concerned. Nowadays, such crowds articulate themselves in ways that connect together community belonging, networked relationships, and/or the putting into play of a set of precise characteristics – such as taking part in a well-defined profession or activity. This kind of crowd, like the ‘public’ – in other words, at once scattered but nonetheless extremely vibrant – can be observed within financial markets (Arnoldi and Borch 2007; Hertz 1998), but more readily on the internet. The digital crowd meets through collaborative work (Beaudoin et al. 2001), the world of free software (Coris 2006), online video games (Boutet 2008), sharing knowledge through ‘wiki’ systems (Roth et al. 2008) and discussion forums (Conein and Latapy 2008). These apparent crowds, far from continually emerging and existing spontaneously, establish subtle forms of connection to companies, as in the case of communities of Wi-Fi enthusiasts (Calvignac 2010), and are now even the subject of a tripartite form of strategic exploitation. The first consists in the establishment and management of ‘customer communities’ and multiple ‘user accounts’, ‘pseudonyms’, ‘blogs’, and ‘forums’ (Amine and Sitz 2007; Sitz 2008); the second is grounded in the use of ‘viral marketing’, closely linked to networks of targeted publics (Mellet 2009); the third is ‘crowdsourcing’, which does its best to set the public ‘to work’ by encouraging internet users to carry out a range of activities that they love: taking photos, making videos, writing articles for the press, and so on (Dujarier 2008).
In view of the subject being considered here, I will, however, stick with the most common and narrow definition of crowds: the community that brings the window display into play is in fact this anthropological entity, this concrete multiple body, and this temporary and situated human agglomeration (swarming and sometimes grumbling) that can sometimes transport us, in both the physical and moral sense of the expression. Our immersion in the crowd, thus defined, confronts us with an unusual social imperative – that of learning to exist with but also of acting beside, and even with, these people whom we do not know and whom we encounter for the duration of a shared moment, without this necessarily involving verbal exchanges. This situation of ‘living in or with the crowd’ is part of the history of collective social practices, whether this occurs in the sacred form of religious effervescence (Durkheim 1985), or during more profane events, including collective crimes (Tarde 1892), political protests (Vergnon 2005), musical performances (Hennion 1993; Ferrand 2009), or sporting events (Bomberger 1995), and, of course, the daily experience of markets (de la Pradelle 1996) or the city (Goffman 1974).17
Within the narrow meaning of crowds, I will refer to an even more limited variant. Certainly, market crowds can be very dense, noisy, and insistent, as in the world of fairs or auctions (Arnoldi and Borch 2007), but, especially in the retail trade, they can appear as more modest, discrete, and hushed, as simply a gathering of people. If concerned with this latter kind of crowd, one must take into account not only the dynamics of interaction and reciprocal expectation (Eroglu and Harell 1986; Eroglu and Machleit 1990; Eroglu et al. 2005; Dion Le Mée 1999; Cochoy 2008a), but also the ‘influence of quantity’ – in other words, the impact of imperceptible physical exchanges like brushing against one other (Underhill 1999), or even the almost invisible cognitive or sensory processes that are trying to be understood by sociologists of the senses and ‘atmospheres’ (Sauvageot 2003), specialists in ‘atmospheric marketing’ (Grandclément 2004), ‘sensory marketing’ (Hultén et al. 2009) or more recently promoters of ‘neuromarketing’ (Fugate 2007 ; Lee et al. 2007, Senior and Lee 2008).
Nonetheless, it is important to emphasise at this stage that the social contact which unfolds around window displays does not stop at interaction but extends and continues with objects. Certainly, the window display establishes a very clear separation between the world of people (who are walking in the street), and the world of things (exhibited but also protected from the other side of the glass).18 However, this separation is paradoxically only there to arouse transgression, to divert people away from social exchange and towards the trading of objects. The window display is therefore to be seen as a device for shifting people from the singular social dimension, so dear to sociology, into the multidimensional sphere of commerce. The latter combines social resources and readily accessible materials, and enriches the social exchanges between people which take the form of hybrid interactions between people and things. The window display thus involves a reconfiguration of social dynamics, in which interpersonal ties are balanced against ‘inter-objective’ ties (Latour 1996) – in other words, the ties that each of us have to objects. The effect on different forms of social relationship of ties bound to objects is a classical issue, given that it involves processes that have been thoroughly explored by the sociology of consumption, ranging from ostentation (whereby we acquire this or that good in order to impress others (Veblen 2013)), to distinction (which turns consumption into the prop for social classifications (Bourdieu 1984)). However, the same question might also enrich this sociology if we cease to consider the objects solely according to their social function, and instead become interested in both their objective properties (their taste, texture, sensory, or conventional characteristics) and the way in which the interaction with these properties redefine the subject (Gomart and Hennion 1999).
Let us consider the properties of the window display. In a slightly reconfigured version of Starobinski’s schema, in which the pastry chef gives way to the glazier, the window display connects three elements: a window, subjects, and objects. The first is only relevant by virtue of the ‘suspended access’ it institutes between the two others. The tension established between visual accessibility and the hindrance of physical access is intended to draw attention and to turn the window display into a ‘device of desire’. The latter places subjects and objects in a peculiarly interactive relationship, given that the window display addresses the first (subjects) about the second (objects), but without itself being able to see any of them. It is also an object that places us in front of a crowd of things, not just in the conventional descriptive sense of the word, but also in the highly social sense outlined above. In fact, there is nothing that should prevent us from thinking about the relationships between the objects in the same terms as we do those between the subjects, even if, of course, by virtue of the differences in the shaping of the elements in question, the social configurations observed in each case will likely be very different.
Three ‘societies of things’ are involved in the window display. The first is the ‘crowd’ of articles on display. These articles have stable, deliberately hierarchical relationships that are nonetheless united by the principle of ‘collection’. The collection is predicated on the fact that the display’s attractiveness relies specifically on its ability to make the collection of objects that are gathered together greater than their sum: just as in the story of Hänsel and Gretel, the image of the house assumes precedence over the gingerbread (although it takes us there) in a grocer’s shop, and the coherence of collections plays a highly significant role in directing consumers towards the elements they are comprised of (Cochoy 2008b). This schema is yet more relevant to the window display, where the ‘layout’ of things is even more important because it cannot be ‘broken up’, or rather, not yet: the paradox of commercial collections is in fact that the coherence of their constituent elements is used to encourage their separation. However, two other crowds of objects are, paradoxically, even more important and are upstream and downstream of the first. Upstream, the ordinary customer has to deal with the things which she or he has (or does not have) at home. Their presence, or lack thereof, but also, and especially, the relationship between these things weighs heavily on purchasing decisions, to the extent that a consumer’s preferences often express more accurately those of their cupboards: we are missing certain things, but an absence is also noticeable between them, so much do their respective values often depend on their combination. If an ingredient or element is missing, then sometimes all of the other objects, despite their presence, suddenly become useless and rejected, cast into a kind of functional void. Vinegar is nothing without the oil that makes it possible to prepare a vinaigrette; a suit can hardly be worn without matching shoes; toothpaste is of no use without the toothbrush that holds it; and on and on. Conversely, the overabundance of certain things can hinder their purchase – for example by prompting in their owner a feeling of guilt, of extravagance, futility, and waste. I want these glasses, but I already have a pair; I am interested in this new phone, but mine still works perfectly; etc. Downstream, the collection of products offered for sale plays its part – products that have a metonymic relationship with both the collections of the window display and the ordinary customer. There is no way this collection can be fit into the window display; rather, it extends it by offering new displays (admittedly often less artistic and sophisticated) but that are all the more attractive because now we have unrestricted access to the goods we desire – and our desire is yet greater because we were initially impeded. When facing goods, a customer’s personal collections (or those more public ones contained in the window display) influence every choice in the end, much like the witness does in Sartre and self-awareness does in Starobinski. The customer must juggle the desires created by the window display, the injunctions posed by ‘the preferences of the cupboard’, and the delicate interplay of the successive choices between them. The time given to this or that choice limits or increases the time available for those that follow (Cochoy 1999); the volume or value of the objects already gathered is a constraint on possible new purchases in terms of satiation, physical limitations, budgetary limits, or a bad budgetary conscience.
Let us go back for a minute. Previously, Starobinski explained Rousseau’s shame by focusing his analysis on the character’s psychology and sociology, while excluding all other considerations. Here we have a typical case of Bruno Latour’s argument on the forms of ‘social theory’ that perhaps have ‘no object’ (1996): if I deprive myself of the objects that support social relationships, or am deprived of them, I need to look for explanations elsewhere, either in the subject’s inner self, at the micro, subjective level, or in society, at the macro, objective level. Starobinski is sufficiently rigorous to use both.19 Sartre’s case is a little different: the existentialist philosopher related the awakening of self-consciousness to a scenario reduced to three elements: the voyeur, the witness, and the lock, or rather its ‘hole’ – in other words, ‘nothing’ other than the access it provides to grasping pure subjectivity in action. But, however tenuously, the keyhole’s precise technical arrangement plays an essential role in connecting the visual access the hole provides to the door’s opacity, both by permitting observation, and by distributing and multiplying the positions of the observer and the observed, whether it is the person or people being observed through the keyhole being seen, unwittingly, or the voyeur who sees without being seen, on this side of the keyhole, or when the same subject is finally caught and ‘seen as a voyeur’. It is obviously the absence of a door and a keyhole ‘behind him’ which is the cause of the voyeur’s shame and (as a result) his self-awareness, rather than the keyhole and the door in front of him. Even if this is not his main concern, Sartre thus puts us on the right path: if the device is reintroduced, the explanation moves from the subjects or society to the setting that connects one to the other. On this basis, we can extend the comparative anthropology of the devices I already outlined. Taking them fully into account means managing not to limit oneself to the idiosyncrasies of this or that consumer, constrained by his own forms of moral or social conformity (for Starobinski), or his own existential experience (for Sartre), and instead going back to the agencement (arrangement) of the situations that rework psychology, sociology, and, ultimately, the subjects’ modes of existence.
From this perspective, the window display proposes a highly original compromise between the restricted technical interface of Sartre’s keyhole and the maximally open and unequipped nature of the gaze for Rousseau. As just described, the window display puts both dimensions into play: that of the crowd and that of the materiality of things. As we saw earlier, in this respect the devices are very dissimilar. With the window display, instead of having one large, awkward subject in front of a tiny keyhole (as in Sartre), or a subject whose gaze is free and limited only by that of others (as in Rousseau), we have, as it were, a kind of gigantic keyhole in front of which smaller subjects crowd. However, the difference is not only one of size and shape. Added to this lateral difference – how many subjects it is possible to have in front of the keyhole – is a difference in the depth of field: whereas Sartre only focuses on the voyeur’s point of view (while Starobinski notes that Rousseau believes he can feel the gaze of others), the window display also directs us to consider the point of view of those who are behind the voyeur. These two differences with the window display now combine their properties to wholly invert Sartre’s keyhole problem and Rousseau’s guilt complex. With the window display as an expanded keyhole, those who see the voyeur from behind his back are no longer prevented from seeing what is being seen, nor are they driven to vague fantasised guesses. They are, rather, provided with a new opportunity to experience the same view that he does, and to do so with him. In these kinds of situation in which everything happens as if several viewers were able to look through an immense keyhole together, the voyeur’s potential attitudes and those of the witnesses potentially become reversed. On the one hand (in the background), some might want to join the voyeur and share his experience – rather than, without knowing the particularities of what is being observed, condemning it as a ‘generic’ situation of ‘misplaced’ curiosity (which is clearly illustrated by the sheeplike behaviour of groups of onlookers) – and in so doing discover or convince themselves that alongside the curiosity that they assume to be guilty or forbidden (see the tradition ranging from Genesis to Bluebeard), there is an innocent, licit, and even ‘communicative’ curiosity. On the other hand (in the foreground), the voyeur, who is also aware of this possibility because things are occurring behind his back but also alongside him, far from experiencing shame, might instead feel encouraged and then become carried away as his own excitement becomes shared. Ultimately, the Sartrian effect is spectacularly inverted: whereas the sociotechnical configuration around a small keyhole provides the opportunity for the arousal of self-consciousness, an analogous configuration around the window display conversely operates as an opportunity for this same self-consciousness to dissolve into the truly collective experience of the commercial crowd – being dissolves into nothingness. The window display brings into play, or rather ‘plays on’, the double articulation of the gaze, which hinders and thus stimulates desire, according to Corneille’s maxim: ‘And desire increases when the effect recedes’. This is indeed about playing a game: the idea is to create a fictitious, festive situation, or one that is out of the ordinary; the device delimits an acceptable space for voyeurism. This space rests on both the (material) setting of the window display and the (conventional) rules of the game, both of which render it acceptable. Thanks to the game, there is an expectation that a person’s curiosity is aroused, but also that this is achieved by surrounding them with other people whose curiosity is equally aroused, so as to tip the whole crowd over to the side of the voyeur, thereby creating a crowd that pushes rather than condemns – establishing a ‘mass curiosity’, as it were.20
Of course, there is nothing new about this type of situation in which the interaction with things eventually prevails over exchanges between subjects. We have already come across this in Bluebeard’s spacious apartments, albeit with one radical exception: the difference between interest and curiosity: whereas the group of friends gives in to the collective agitation of their interest, his wife’s well-hidden curiosity enables her to avoid succumbing to the general trend and to preserve her identity. Eventually she breaks away from the group to go and satisfy – elsewhere, discreetly, and alone, and in an almost Sartrian manner – her own curiosity. More precisely: just as Bluebeard’s apartments showed, a singular display can itself be enough to arouse curiosity. This is the Kansas grocer’s whole point: to combat this inadequacy, to prepare devices that can make a window display just as enticing as the secret room (replacing, of course, the vision of horror with things that are appetising), then to closely bring together the two motives of curiosity and interest that the tale tended to split asunder. As we shall see, the window display appeals to an interest-driven curiosity (its orientation is economic and rational) and a curiosity-driven interest (in which economic concerns are subordinate to cognitive exploration). Taking this particular effort into account leads us to put the somewhat generic virtues of the ‘window display’ device to one side, in order to take a closer look at the layout of ‘those specific window displays’: the window displays from the interwar period imagined by our grocer from Kansas. The grocer makes good use of these generic properties, but in order to advance these further, we should now closely align the window display’s hyperbolic keyhole effect to the mirror effects that we already mentioned and will now present. This will demonstrate how to go about completely transforming the window display into a device able to provoke interest-driven curiosity and/or curiosity-driven interest.
The Effects of Mirrors
The grocer’s story presents two variants of how this troubling mirrored keyhole device is used. The first relates to the reflexive use of both the window display and customers themselves on Valentine’s Day, through the organisation of a photography contest that would select the best photo of the specially made-up window display:
There are many ways of arousing curiosity. Among the best are contest windows – they always more than pay their way in this respect. Take, for example, the snapshot contest we ran in conjunction with a Valentine window: We trimmed our entire window, which is 15 feet long by 8 feet deep, in red and white crepe paper, and throughout it hung large red hearts cut out of cardboard. By displaying fancy heart-shaped box candies and all kinds of fancy Valentine candies in bulk glass jars along with suitable foods for Valentine parties, we made a window that shouted ‘Valentine!’ even if you were across the street. Then we used a contest as a curiosity-arouser. At the back of the window we placed a large cut-out red heart made of cardboard, with this message on it: ‘$3.00 to the person bringing in the best snapshot of this window’. Numbers of people took pictures and entered them, and the contest excited comment and interest among customers who didn’t take snapshots. Windows of this type, and in fact all contest windows, because they are unusual, are always good for a write-up in the local papers. And these write-ups alone are worth more to us as advertising than the few dollars we put up for prizes (Progressive Grocer February 1940: 58–60).
The second consists of a metaphorical crow showing the passing foxes a large cheese in the hope that these foxes will be seduced into removing a piece, risking their money in a game based on guessing its weight:
A ‘Cheese Window’ once attracted a lot of trade for us during a time that was ordinarily slack. We displayed all kinds of cheese, filling the window chock-full of cheese in packages, jars, glasses, in tinfoil, and in bulk. In the center, at the back of the window where it could be easily reached by our customers, we featured an enormous cheese weighing 523 lbs. which was made in Wisconsin especially for our store. In conjunction with this window we again used the contest idea, this time giving prizes of cheese to persons guessing nearest the weight of the big cheese. But the main attraction of this sale and the thing that really sold cheese for us was this sign in the window: ‘Free – cut yourself a piece of cheese. If you guess the correct weight of the piece of cheese you cut, it is yours free. If you don’t guess its correct weight you must purchase the piece you cut off at our special price this week of [XX]¢ per lb.21 Their curiosity aroused and their guessing skill challenged, our trade went for this promotion in a big way. Not only did we sell nearly all the giant cheese while it was on display but we sold many, many packages of the other cheeses shown in the window – kinds people would never think of if they weren’t reminded by a display (Progressive Grocer February 1940: 127, 130).
Both window displays draw on two distinct approaches: on the one hand, they both play on the draw of a contest; on the other, each of these contests is a variant of the same game of mirrors that, for the person competing, consists in assessing the effect of an image which he himself projects (by choosing the point of view and the frame for the photo; by guessing the weight of the large cheese or by cutting a piece) in order to ascertain his future state (winner or loser). What we are dealing with here is a version of the very old and traditional branch of curiosity, long condemned by religious authorities and demonologists, and grounded in divination, in predicting the future. In Bluebeard, this version features indirectly: the mirror of blood reminds us of Snow White’s mirror; in the same way that the queen sees the future in her mirror, the pool of blood and its ominous reflection inform the heroine – a little late, admittedly – about the fate that Bluebeard has in store for her. However, with the window displays, the playful thankfully replaces the tragic: the contests at the heart of the game of mirrors on display present us with dynamics of personal and/or reciprocal expectations that are no longer reminiscent of Sartre’s famous keyhole. We are instead reminded of the equally well known beauty contest alluded to by Keynes when he outlines the behavioural dynamics within financial markets:
Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces, from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgement, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks is the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees (Keynes 1936).
As we know, the image of the beauty contest allows Keynes to explain the phenomena of speculation and the resulting risks. Keynes’ argument makes a distinction between two types of agents who might come together in marketplaces: some are interested in the real value of things, estimating the price they are willing to pay for a company’s shares, based on the hopes of profit inherent to the economic activity concerned; others are interested in market value; in this case, the company’s value does not depend on its fundamentals but rather on the value that others are likely to assign to it, according in turn to the value that others are likely to assign to it, and so on and so forth.22 The tragedy of this situation is that the existence of the second type of actor very quickly squeezes out the first: the mechanism of reciprocal expectations soon leads all the actors to play the game, unless they are willing to go bankrupt and/or leave the market, given that no one person can be more right than the market as a whole. Speculation can thus be defined as a game of mirrors in which the same projected image endlessly reproduces itself until it becomes completely detached from reality, forms a bubble, and only crashes once, albeit too late – a restorative force renders it possible to identify the gap that has opened up between the economy’s fundamentals and the market’s own introspection. The lesson learnt from the beauty contest is clear: if the profit expected from such a contest depends on aggregating the choices made by all the participants, it is more rational and profitable in the short term to try to anticipate the workings of this aggregation – from the second to the nth degree – than to depend on criteria that define external beauty, as supposedly required by a first degree assessment.
Keynes’ proposal – expressed only four years before the publication of our article on the window displays of Kansas – is useful in two ways: because of what it teaches us about the market, but also about beauty contests, given the fact that in our case, the beauty contest and the market are not in a metaphorical relationship but are instead completely entwined (one of them is simultaneously the referent and metaphor of the other). Broadly speaking, Keynes’ image first teaches us that market and contest both operate through the same curiosity and the same excitement, stemming from the frisson associated with the appeal of the unknown, the pleasure of uncertainty, and the risk inherent to gambling (an excitement, thrill, and pleasurable uncertainty which everyday gamblers and market players share23). What is unknown in contests is less the product on which they are based, and more the subject – including their relationships to themselves and others: Will I discover the price of the cheese? Will I win the prize? And if it is not me, who then? In the Valentine’s Day window display contest, and Keynes’ beauty contest, the pleasure and curiosity of the market is that of reciprocal anticipation, competition, and/or expectation; of a ‘thrill’ which economic science and financial theory have since tried to organise and reduce with their models and instruments (Martin 2005; MacKenzie and Millo 2003; MacKenzie et al. 2007), but which the actors on the ground continually test and tame through their own commitments (Arnoldi and Borch 2007). However, neither are reciprocal anticipation, competition, and expectation necessarily substitutable, nor do they necessarily operate in all situations. Furthermore, the stakes are different in each activity. Once again, it is by referring to Keynes that we are able to see things more clearly, insofar as he gives us ways of identifying the processes at play in each of our devices.
The case of the competition about the weight of the cheese (with its two variants: guessing the weight of the whole cheese or guessing the weight of the piece you have cut yourself) is on the face of it the simplest. The competition’s characteristics bring into play, in a simplified form, the logic of the first kind of agent described by Keynes. In fact here, in whichever version, winning does not mean taking part in a game of mirrors in which the expectations of a group of participants are matched with one another (as in the Keynesian stock market and beauty contest case): it is rather a quite simple game of mirrors between each participant and their own expectations. Both of the cheese game’s variants simply appeal to a reflexive curiosity – each person asks themselves the same internal question: ‘Will I provide the right estimate?’ When it comes to guessing the weight of the entire cheese, this is because there is only one real weight, regardless of the players’ estimates. The deployment of a personal reflexivity specific to the game is even more manifest when it is a matter of estimating the weight of the single piece which has been cut: on each occasion, the estimate being made is different from and cannot be reduced to the other estimates: instead of having to compete against a group of other agents in order to assess the weight of the same piece of cheese (from the same series of playmates in Keynes’ example, or from the same cheese in the first variant, or from the same window display in the photograph contest), each successive person is involved in a competition in which they are the only participant, and in which they aim to assess the weight of their own sample. In both cases (assessing the weight of the entire cheese or one of its pieces), everyone competes against him/herself – we are thus dealing with two types of ‘single-player game’ and not with ‘multiplayer’ games, as they are now called by the video-game industry. This configuration has two consequences: in both variants, each individual estimate is wholly unaffected by the others. In these two cases, the competition as a whole, combining each individual game, is a non-zero-sum game in which theoretically all the participants can win, no matter what the other players win or lose. In both, it is fascinating to note that the winning strategy is the one used by those who would always be losers24 in Keynes’ game: in order for us to win a prize, after having correctly guessed either the cheese’s entire weight or that of the piece we have cut, we do not need to be concerned with the estimates of others,25 but rather with the single cheese (or the single piece), with its fundamental value (its mass), as evidenced by the very material test that takes place before or after (respectively) it is weighed.
Let us go further by now investigating the case of single-player games according to the terms of game theory. The first game consists in offering a prize in case the cheese’s exact weight is guessed. As it costs nothing to participate and the gain is positive, all potential players are advised to play. The second proposed game involves offering the product itself in case its exact weight is guessed and making the contestant pay for the price of the cheese if not. When it succeeds, the game’s rate of return (the quotient between the gain and the bet) is infinite because the bet costs zero.26 When it fails, the game’s rate of return is neutral, given that the loser leaves with the equivalent value in cheese that was bet on (i.e. the price of the cheese27). Here also the result of the game is obvious: in games like this, one’s interest in playing – even in playing as much as possible, or even indefinitely – is because one’s chance of winning will always be more than zero, even if very small, and with at worst a neutral outcome (it will cost me no more than it will yield). In fact, the average gain is more than zero across n bets, given that out of n bets, as n approaches infinity, the probability of winning at least once increases until it approaches 1. Therefore, even if I were to win one in a thousand times, my average gain is positive and greater than zero.28 Whether I am rational or a gambler, I am once again literally caught in a gambling trap, given that the more I play, the more I increase my chances of achieving a positive outcome. As we have seen, therefore, the two games both operate (in theory) as formidable curiosity ‘captation devices’. They are like two unavoidable whirlwinds, with the power to drag customers into the shop, into the game, and then into making a purchase.
Taking part in the second game (guessing the weight of the piece that we have ourselves cut off) would not be so simple in reality, however. Understanding this problem means subjecting the (very small, very basic, and very modest) model of game theory that I have just outlined to the test of experimental economics (as our grocer from Kansas did ahead of his time!). Yet, when confronting the results of such a game, experimental economics would still not be out of the woods, whether the behaviours observed corresponded to its model’s predictions (all potential participants decide to take part in the game), or conversely, a difference appeared between the model’s prediction and the actually observed behaviours (some decide not to play). In the first case, it would be impossible to decide whether the model was effective and whether the players were rational – for three reasons. Firstly, it may well be that taking part in the game is not (just29) the expression of a calculation (one that actively encourages participation), but rather simply expresses an almost unconditional preference for gambling and the accompanying experience of curiosity.30 In this case, winning the cheese would no longer be the objective, but rather the potential consequence, and a completely secondary one – of an activity that on its own is enough to satisfy their involvement. This is especially because, in this specific instance, the potential loss is almost nothing. Secondly, taking part in the game can also result in the intervention of a collective dimension, one that literally ‘pushes’ the customer into the game, to a degree in spite of himself. This dimension is clearly captured by the illustrator who depicts an audience ‘surrounding’ the person playing. Once again we find here the sharing effect that is part of ‘the expanded keyhole’ described earlier, and the corresponding loss of individual judgement that results from submitting to collective emotion. When we play a game, we often do so in situations where we make a spectacle of ourselves, and in a situation of shared involvement and curiosity.31 As soon as a ‘single-player game’ involves spectators, it is, formally, no longer entirely what it claims to be: the preference for the game no longer only involves a calculation but also the game that results, which consists of playing in order to make an impression on those who can see us playing. In other words, even if the presence of an audience does not directly affect the player’s calculations, it might nonetheless weigh on his decision to be involved in the game.32 The audience inhibiting the young Rousseau or Sartre’s voyeur could, if formatted in a certain way, play a diametrically opposite role and actually encourage players to take licence with the rules. Finally, and from a completely different perspective, involvement in the game might result from an error in calculation, from ignoring a certain amount of ‘implicit data’ that were present in the situation but not made explicit when the game was introduced. In fact, the game becomes radically more complicated if we take into account either (in the case where the player loses) the charging of a hidden investment – the shop’s mark-up – or the cheese’s relative price, in relation to other similar cheeses being sold (‘outside the game’) by other grocers elsewhere in town. In both cases, it is eminently possible that the whole calculation is unfavourable. This means our preference comes to be for a cheese with a known price, rather than trying to obtain it for nothing in a situation where, if we lose, we do not obtain the precise value for the cheese in which we invested (given that the margin has already been deducted) and/or where we might well be paying more than we would do in other grocers.33 A final point concerns the preference for cheese or money. Even in cases where there is in fact no gain – where that which is handed over in cheese is worth exactly the price being paid – a player might prefer money, either because he does not like cheese (except when it enables gambling), or because the cheese is infinitely less fungible than money (accepting cheese means rejecting the fungibility of the corresponding amount of money).
Interpreting the results of an actor’s lesser involvement in the game is precisely symmetrical: it might reveal a lack of calculative skill – if we use as a reference the ‘explicit’ presentation of the game without mentioning the gain or the local competition – or not realising that, in this specific case, it is in our interest to play. However, conversely, it might also reveal a ‘better calculation’, sensitive to the slightest fungibility of the cheese, given the existence of a profit margin and the competition. If a player abstains it could be the result of an aversion to the game (or the cheese) and/or an ability to avoid being influenced (or influenced by players opposed to the game).
No doubt (and paradoxically), theoretical economics would argue that this material is nothing to kick up a fuss about. It believes these kinds of painstaking analyses are unnecessary; that they are parasitic ‘overflows’ that a model either cannot or need not consider. In fact, the job of economists is to ‘stylise’ reality so as to distil some of the pure elements and mechanisms that operate in a given situation; from this perspective, unless one understands nothing about the intelligence of their profession, it is completely absurd to reproach economists for not including in their analyses all these ‘details’ so adored by sociologists. Contrary to what some people believe, economists are perfectly aware of them but choose specifically to get rid of them in order to come as close as possible to the trends underlying the ‘noise’ that inevitably surrounds the operations of the market (as the cast-iron law of economic knowledge goes, there is no model without simplistic hypotheses and simplifications). Experimental economics is more flexible than theoretical economics because it is willing to take some of these overflows into consideration, but it does so in order to adjust them according to objectives it has itself set. Experimental economics is not afraid of concretely ‘reworking’ these configurations, whether by bringing both the world and the model closer to one another or by adapting them (Giraudeau et al. 2007). Certainly, this way of making ‘reality twist’, while paradoxically, ‘twisting reality’, sometimes means finding a way to avoid twisting at all:34 the contortions that experimental economics imposes onto the elements that it manipulates merely brings it closer to the underlying operations of the economy in which facts are continuously ‘twisted’, reworked, and shaped to fit models that might lend them meaning (and vice versa), as has been clearly demonstrated across the recent work on the ‘performativity’ of the economic sciences (Callon 2007).
According to experimental economics, the overflows we have described can of course be put down to an inadequate preparation/presentation of the game. In the case of our competition, in order to overcome these problems the game’s designer would repeat the experiment, specifying, for example, that the cheese ‘on offer’ in the event of a win is offered at cost; he would allow winning the cheese to be convertible into money; he would rearrange the situation so that an audience would not be able to disturb a player (for example by reducing the size of the opening that provides access to the cheese); he would choose players without prior experience of (or a known taste for) gambling; he would specify that the situation was a monopoly, and make it not possible for a player to leave the game to go and play on another table; and so on. Or rather, the experimenter would choose which of these different ‘adjustments’ were necessary, in line with the objectives he had assigned to the experiment. For example, if the experiment’s objective were to test the impact of a preference for gambling on the calculations of agents (thereby also loosening the model’s hypothesis of perfect rationality), we would avoid filtering participants according to this criterion, while making sure we were as strict as possible with each of the others.
However, what is fascinating about the situation being described is that without the help of a specialist in experimental economics and using only its own, it operates reasonably well in this process of restrictive and selective readjustment of the players’ calculation – that is, at least according to one of its dimensions: concealing the competition and the implicit bet represented by the payment of a commercial markup. On the one hand, the game’s temporality, which lends the bet its credibility whilst concealing within it the cheese’s unit price, rejects any economic calculation ‘beyond’ the game. This is concealed by giving prominence to the playfulness of the activity and the fact that it is free (see in the display the bold lettering in ‘Free – cut yourself a piece of cheese’). On the other, the shop’s location pulls players away from other offers: it is important to note that in order to play, one must ‘take the tour’ – so leaving the street to move into the store interior, and migrating from the window display outside to enter the shop. This migration further reduces the possibility of (mentally or physically) turning back towards the competition, so that in the end the window display paradoxically transforms the market into a pure externality. Conversely, this same migration by players on the other side of the window display, outside the shop, becomes part of the game’s spectacle and an incentive for those who remain outside to play: the players are part of the window display. It is not just the cheese game that is on offer, but also the playful experience it stands for: watching the players on the other side of the window, the customer can already see himself playing, as if he were looking at himself in a magic mirror.35 Of course, this ‘living mirror’ is only activated intermittently when people burst into the window as they arrive to take part in the game (and, despite themselves, to promote it). The rest of the time, however, the aforementioned placard takes over quite well: just reading a lottery advert inevitably means seeing oneself a little like a winner. The placard and/or the players’ tableau vivant thus combine their respective ‘reflections’ to intensify curiosity and the appeal of the game. Here, curiosity is ‘distributed’ and ‘arranged’: it is located in the window display and/or in the actors, with the idea that what is in the window can be activated by the actors (and vice versa). This effect is reinforced by the extreme subtlety of the games’ connection to one another. The first game, consisting of guessing the price of the giant cheese, is genuinely free. However, it leads the player into sliding towards the second, which is only ‘almost’ free, inasmuch as it results in taking the risk of paying the (admittedly ‘special’) price for the piece from the very same cheese, whose weight we will have failed to guess correctly. Because of a simple isomorphism, this second game is now very likely to be perceived like the first, despite entailing a market action.
Like a laboratory of experimental economics, the window display therefore adjusts the game, simplifies the number of hypotheses, defines an interior and exterior, and provides the terms of a calculation that, despite the lack of absolutes, is nonetheless defined and framed as if there were. Of course, the organisation of the game is aimed less at testing a model than maximising results: beyond experimental and theoretical economics, the approach is a pragmatic economics, one likely to increase sales, as the conclusion eloquently recalls:
Their curiosity aroused and their guessing skill challenged, our trade went for this promotion in a big way. Not only did we sell nearly all the giant cheese while it was on display but we sold many, many packages of the other cheeses shown in the window – kinds people would never think of if they weren’t reminded by a display (Progressive Grocer February 1940: 127).
The second window display, for its part (dedicated to the Valentine’s Day photo competition), operates according to a very different register. Whereas the cheese game did not involve anyone else as part of the incentive to play the game, or as part of the calculation to be made, the Valentine’s Day window display defines a far more subtle game, one that is fascinatingly close to the beauty contest described by Keynes. Certainly, and contrary to the very clear rules that govern beauty competitions, the criteria that will inform the selection of the winning photo of the display are not stated. However, far from altering the mechanism of reciprocal expectations, the vague nature of these criteria only exacerbates it. Whereas in Keynes, the winning choice involves guessing the average preferences of the players, who in turn are trying to guess the same average, the Saint Valentine’s game increases the uncertainty surrounding both the content of the expectation and the agents that lie behind it. It increases the uncertainty about content because the question common to both games – ‘What must one do to win?’ – in this instance involves not just (as in Keynes’ games) the concrete anticipation of other people’s choices – ‘what will the others do to win [as a rule]?’ – but also guessing the rule towards which the common question is directed. Uncertainty is therefore extended to the agents of expectation, given that it is not just a matter of guessing what other players will do (who endlessly act in the same way) but also of anticipating what the grocer’s criteria will be. And that is not the end of the dizzingly intersecting suppositions: will others anticipate the criteria? And what should I do once I have imagined what others will do to anticipate these criteria?
Speculating about the course of such speculations might run the risk of undertaking an intellectual exercise as futile as it is fragile,36 if another of the game’s dimensions – Valentine’s Day – did not reinforce the way it engages players. Coupling the game to Valentine’s Day means making a ‘contest’ and the ‘game of love’ synonymous; it means finding a way of hybridising the cold world of the competition and calculation, and the much warmer world of personal feeling and emotion. Of course, the game of love being proposed here can both surprise and disappoint: taking a photo of a window display is far less sexy than taking a photo of a beauty contestant… or your beloved! But this choice is the one best adapted to the situation: when we are in love, the most beautiful person is inevitably the one whom we love; there is ‘no competition’. However, for this very reason, it is much more convenient to shift the object of the beauty competition to something other than the choice of the most beautiful face! By offering itself as a step on the road to Valentine’s Day, the window display therefore proposes a connection between market trade and romantic exchange. This is a matter of adopting the opposite view to the young Rousseau who, as Starobinski tells us, does not yet know what a girl is! And the implied genders are of course perfectly reversible: what counts for the male sweetheart also counts for his female lover. Our Valentine’s Day contest teaches us that this property also extends to consumers’ characteristics: we encounter once more mimetic desire, so dear to René Girard (1965); we become interested in the objects that interest others. As we saw, in this window display as enlarged keyhole, this process concerns our neighbours: I become ever more interested in the window display as others become interested in me.
However, the Valentine’s Day competition teaches us that not only does this process apply to the anonymous and local relationships between people collectively observing a window display, but also, and perhaps especially, to the relationships between ordinary customers and their loved ones that are, by contrast, highly personal, even when the latter are absent, and perhaps even because of this absence. As the anthropologist Daniel Miller (1998) demonstrated so perfectly, the consumption of goods is one way of celebrating social bonds. Shopping is very often done out of love, not for oneself, but for the people we love. We could even say that buying for them in their absence is a way of rendering them present. Now, just as the homology between the two cheese contests led to the transition from one game to the other, the homology of the questions involved in the double Valentine’s Day game is a wager on their mutual reinforcement: Will they like my photo (taken from outside the window display)? Will she or he like the present that I will give them (potentially obtained by crossing the display’s threshold)? In the juxtaposition of these two questions, there is a dimension of being driven towards seduction, in which seduction becomes a force that is both equipped and that can carry someone away. Moreover, by creating a shared time and space, in which everyone is simultaneously able to experience the same questions, the Valentine’s Day display manages to unite and reinforce the two forms of being ‘transported’ that I have identified: on Valentine’s Day, what leads us to give gifts is both a singular passion for a beloved (between two lovers) and the collective sharing of this same passion (between the crowd of customers as a group of lovers, which is what they are supposed to be during this period).
The highly particular force behind the commercial version of Valentine’s Day is once again perfectly captured by the illustrator, whose drawing, had it been a photo, would logically have had to win the prize! In fact, the illustrator understands that the best view of the window display is the one that manages to bring together, create, and then unite a double collective of people and of things. The photo competition plays a decisive role here. At a time when amateur photography was not only a mass activity (Jenkins 1975) but also fetishising personal ties (as both Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1996) and Barthes (1981) identify so clearly), the Valentine’s Day window display uses the photo competition not only as a means of playing on a homology of seductive gestures – in which the photo of the window display both replaces and echoes lovers’ photos – but also as a lever to potentially intensify the onlookers’ crowd mentality. But what can they see that is so worthy of being photographed? The presence of cameras, which objectifies and renders public unique sets of views, spectacularly increase the voyeurism that is inherent to the operation of the window displays. Their use implements a recursive display, one that takes the form of a new game of mirrors: as I watch people watching (and taking photographs), I am drawn to look at (and photograph) what they are looking at (and taking a photo of), rather as if I were forced to take into account the reflection in the shop window, in which the onlookers gaze at both themselves and the reflection’s ‘bonding’ effects.
Far from simply highlighting the ability of the window display contest to bring about the lateral grouping of the onlookers, the illustration also depicts, in a particularly suggestive way, the window’s dynamic ability to make these same onlookers move towards the shop interior. The large heart in the centre not only – as we have already seen – combines love (the heart) and calculation (three dollars), it also draws people in with a zooming movement that has to be followed if we want to get more information. The most global assessment (I see the heart; I see the money) initiates a sentence that can only be completed by moving a little closer to read the small print: first we see ‘$3 for the person who’, but one has to take a few more steps forward to be able to read who this person is and what they have to do to acquire the promised money. We are even more inclined to move forward as the association between the large heart and money is not on its own intriguing, even though each element is inherently tempting. We thus find ourselves implicated – that is to say we are caught in a sequence that we are free to leave at any moment, but from which we tend to find it hard to break away. As we proceed, we find ourselves being led to do one thing in order to obtain something else, corresponding to the way that revelations are co-produced – between tempting and being tempted – which is an integral part of curiosity devices: eating an apple to acquire knowledge, turning a key to uncover a mystery and, when confronting a competition, taking part in a game to discover if we win – or rather, buying a product in order to discover a game’s result. This very last hesitation, between two formulations that are similar but with very different outcomes, reveals how in many cases a customer risks being mistaken about what is really at stake. He finds himself trapped in a new game of mirrors – what we might call a game of smoke and mirrors. This latter type of optical illusion enacts a subtle shift: taking part in the game means entering the shop, and this movement simultaneously leads to the discovery of different things, things we would not initially have been able to see. The entire art of engaging consumers here consists in making a target advance not through forward steps, but rather like a crab, both forwards and sideways, which rather neatly corresponds to the form of ‘commercial rebound’ so well analysed by Christian Licoppe (2006) – in effect, a rebound consists in making an offer at the best possible moment, over the course of a conversation on a quite different subject.
None of this analysis would be complete if I failed to mention the third and final device used by our grocer from Kansas. Unlike the two others, this one is not grounded in the logic of the contest, but rather on the principle of collection, already indicated above. Its principal interest for us is that it reveals how the targets of experts in curiosity are more diverse than we might have imagined:
Last Easter we trimmed our window with crepe paper in seven bright colors, using paper tubing alternating the colors. For variety we made up large pom-poms with crepe paper. These showed up fine. At the center and back of the window we placed Donald Duck and a flock of Easter egg dyes. Flanking that at one end we had a six-foot paper bunny. Throughout the window we placed plush bunnies in many sizes and colors. […] We sacked all our colored Easter eggs in cellophane and put them in the window, together with all kinds of Easter candies. Then we filled toy carts, baby buggies, baskets, autos and engines with small Easter eggs and covered each unit with cellophane. Fancy boxed Easter candies, vases filled with Easter eggs, sand buckets filled with colored eggs for children and real colored eggs in nests were placed around the window. On various colored cutout signs 16 inches long, made of heavy cardboard, and cut in the shape of eggs, we had selling messages: ‘This merchandise is all for sale’, and ‘Leave your order now’, and ‘Thanks for stopping to look at our display’. By the time Easter had arrived we had sold all the plush bunnies, Donald Duck, the vases, and all the toys and buckets (Progressive Grocer February 1940: 60).
As we have seen, from Genesis to Bluebeard, the captation by curiosity was above all, directed towards women. We have now discovered how, with the secularisation and commoditisation of the world, neither gender is any longer able to avoid it. With the third and final window display, we ultimately discover that to the universality of gender is now added age: as a device to provoke curiosity, the purpose of the window display is to re-enact the original setting for the temptation of innocence, by attracting children in order to attract their parents. Working on the dispositions of these targets – arousing their curiosity – involves working symmetrically on the arrangement of the objects that are the object of their desire. The idea is clearly to connect a psychology that is intensive and exclusive (focused on people’s inner being) to an extensive and inclusive sociology (extending to things that are nevertheless to be attached to people). It is not a question of mobilising a society that already exists, but of constructing a society that is yet to come; of composing a ‘common world’, or a ‘collective’ to be ‘assembled’, to employ terms so dear to Bruno Latour (2005). It is a composition that rests on three elements.
First of all, as I have just indicated, it involves including children in the sphere of decision-making which the social sciences have tended to assume is exclusively reserved for adults. With the window display, the identity of the subjects legitimately able to participate in exchange no longer depends on set rules but is rather defined at the centre of the exchange itself. It is as if, through the technical configuration of voting equipment, a level of taxation that conferred the right to vote in an election was set at the same time as when the voting took place. Catherine Grandclément and I together have shown elsewhere (Cochoy and Grandclément 2005) the degree to which this comparison extends far beyond a simple analogy, by risking a comparative anthropology of the ‘isolating device’ that is the polling booth, and the ‘gathering device’ – also known as the supermarket trolley! – both of which appeared shortly before our Kansas window display (the polling booth in 1913;37 the trolley in 1936 (Grandclément 2006)). Thanks to its narrowness, opacity, the height of the shelf, and the small size of the voting envelope, the polling booth reminds us that choice in a democracy is individual, secret, reserved for adults, and unique (respectively). However, in this specific case, it is only a reminder: the technology is only there to embody, summarise, and reinforce the pre-existing voting rules, as framed in law. In a strictly symmetrical but inverted way, because of its push-bar and seat, and its transparency and generous storage space, the shopping trolley is intended (respectively) to accommodate more than one person – by providing a separate place for children – and to enable choices to be made that are public, and of which there are many. In this case, far from being established in advance, the rule is the fruit of a chaotic evolution, characterised by appropriations and re-appropriations of the device by both consumers and manufacturers (Cochoy 2009). The window display operates in the same way: the breadth of its aperture marks an initial phase in a long history of welcoming children into places that offer provisions, at a time when the interior of a shop was still very hostile to them, with its high counters and goods that tended to be hidden behind the grocer, often concealed in opaque containers (Cochoy 2008b).
The composition of a common world, which is the window display’s responsibility, therefore involves establishing extremely close ties between the objects themselves, as if trying to clearly demonstrate – according to a schema to which I have already referred to and that I would now like to explain – that besides the society of people, there exists a ‘society of things’. The window display mixes toys, characters, and sweets (Donald Duck, Easter eggs, soft toy rabbits, sweets, toy carts…) as if it were a matter of making food fun through juxtaposition and contamination,38 but also with the help of extras (‘crepe paper in seven bright colors’, ‘large pom-poms with crepe paper’) and an entire series of syntactical operators that clearly highlight the effort made to arrange and choreograph these different elements (‘we trimmed’, ‘we made up’, ‘we placed’, ‘we arranged’, ‘we sacked’, ‘we filled’…). In the staging of the window display, we are in the presence of a new instance of the curiosity cabinet: in fact this time the collector is no longer an individual who haphazardly gathers curious things about which the collector will gain familiarity (as with the cabinets of yesteryear), but rather a shopkeeper who skilfully arranges already familiar objects that have associations that might arouse curiosity (as with contemporary window displays). As I said, the strategy is similar to that used by the witch in Hansel and Gretel (see above, chapter 2), except that here, in addition to the house of sweets, we have objects that bring it to life: thanks to the presence of the various characters, the objects form a society; they come to life and form a circle that customers are invited to join. This is in fact the third element in the window display’s attempt at composition, where the trick consists in connecting the first two: after having assembled the children and their parents on one side, and the sweets and toys on the other, the whole idea is of course to unite one with the other.
On one side… and on the other: this rather heavy expression, which we tolerate in academic literature because elegance of language must sometimes be sacrificed for clarity of expression, is for once exceptionally appropriate, provided we want to give it its literal meaning. By separating the public and the commercial offer on either side of a totally hermetic partition, the window display establishes a strict division between humans and non-humans, a division of which not even the Moderns would dare to dream, even though they establish this kind of apartheid as the basis for their representation of the world (Latour 1993). And yet the paradox lies in the fact that here this physical division between the two types of entities that inhabit the world is entirely dedicated to its own dissolution. The ‘merging’ magic of the window display operates both downstream and upstream of the gaze.
Downstream, the window display’s particular arrangement is designed to overcome the resistance of Rousseau by removing people as much as possible – the opaque curtain enclosing the background is there for this very purpose. It is as if the pastry chef had understood, from initial careful tests at the edge of his shop with a new self-service approach, that by slipping away and hiding he was better able to extend his influence. Upstream, the window display’s particular location contributes to inhibiting the emergence of a Sartrean self-consciousness. It encourages the subject to abandon himself to the objects: the window display opens onto the street – in other words, into a public domain, in which neighbours are anonymous and almost objectified individuals, and where, except for exceptional odd gestures, nothing happens that might be considered scandalous. Between the upstream opaqueness of the curtain and the downstream anonymity of the street, everything is thus played out between the customer and the objects displayed for him to view. The configuration of this setting thereby reinforces both the detachment of the subject from the public, and his attachment to the objects in question (except of course for the more limited public composed of those who crowd together and watch the scene, in that they share the same sense of fascination and excitement). Paradoxically, the more inert these objects are (frozen as a group in a meaningful relationship with one another), the more active they are; the more inanimate they are, the more they possess a soul. The tranquillity and stability of their relationships with one another is reassuring – both these properties and relationships mean that we fear neither their disapproval nor their gaze, as there is no risk of being observed. The inanimate objects re-establish vision as one-way by neutralising any possibility of being looked back at.39
It is the socialisation of objects that finally results in the absorption of the subject, thus reversing any Sartrian introspection: if I objectify what I observe, as in Sartre, then I expose myself to becoming aware of the eyes of the subjects observing and objectifying me. However, if, as in the window display, the things being observed are socialised and pull me into their own social world, just as the rabbit leads Alice into Wonderland (or into the window display – it depends!), what is happening in the present, and any people passing by in the background, becomes unimportant (Lewis Carroll tells us that Alice is a ‘curious child’40). As the result of an astonishing reversal of perspective the customer is indeed carried away by the crowd (but by a crowd of objects) with almost no-one on the side of the subject – in the illustrator’s picture, the customers are rare, stationary – objectified, in other words – sharing nothing other than the same sense of contemplation that comes from confronting the intense and dense social life of the objects that is offered up to their gaze on the other side of the glass. Society truly has migrated into this other world, and it is thus best to go towards it in order to recover moral and social life by building new relationships with the objects that compose it. Here, we really are facing a last game of mirrors which brings about its abolition and its transgression: the appeal of the window display leads the customer to suspend reflection so as to move towards action (abolition); it is an invitation to go through the looking glass, to venture around the window display in order to enter the shop (transgression).
Returning from wonderland and leaving a dream – a delusion? – waking up, and returning to consciousness in some way always leaves a feeling of ambivalence: on the one hand, we still have the magnificent memory of the world that we briefly glimpsed; on the other, we feel creeping doubt about how real this world is, and how relevant. What, then, is the point of our trip to the land of window displays, and if we look more closely, to the land of a single window display as presented by a grocer from Kansas – a character about whom we know no more than we do about Bluebeard, other than that he is no doubt less frightening but also rather more boastful – and illustrated with drawings (which we can say are to photography what fiction is to reality)? Where is the window display really? Outside or inside the story? Unless the story itself is the true window display, as the title on top of its printed pages seems to suggest, does Progressive Grocer not function as the ‘window display of all window displays’, with the magazine showing a thousand displays in its own pages, each more seductive than the next, in the hope of persuading its advertisers and readers to place their adverts and lend it their attention for its greater ultimate profit? (Cochoy 2010a).
One doubt leads to another, causing me to examine the risks involved in my own impulse. Have I not just conducted an ‘experimental exercise of experimental economics’ that was undoubtedly too long, confused, and finicky (at best) or even misplaced, inappropriate, and off topic (at worst)? As classical economic sociology is constantly warning us, economics is rarely enough to fully understand the economy. After all, does it make sense to undertake all of this calculation when the episode I just described should have warned me from the very start? What is the point of calculation when addressing children who can barely count? I would like to offer three answers to these questions. Firstly, exploring the anthropology of window displays in the way that I have allows us to use a method of expression rather similar to that in Nathalie Serraute’s Planetarium – of reliving in slow motion and gathering together a thousand tiny cognitive instances that were hinted at, experienced, and for the most part, most certainly abandoned, but which most certainly begin again each time we contemplate these commercial displays from the street. Secondly, calculation is not necessarily numerical. When a figure is missing, either because it is not on the goods (Cochoy 2002), or the subjects are still too young to read and to handle figures (Cochoy and Grandclément 2005), economic rationality (in other words, a concern to make the best choice between what is on offer and our preferences) nevertheless finds a way of expressing itself in the form of what I have called elsewhere a ‘qualculation’ (Cochoy 2008) – in other words, an appraisal of things based on a perception of their other qualities. Lastly, as François Cooren (2007) has clearly demonstrated, calculations are much ‘warmer’ than we think: ‘Is there not [asks Cooren] a little warmth, even if diffuse, in the ties that unite us to these beings whose relative weight we estimate?’ Now, the ‘warm’ dimension of calculation can make it brief and impetuous: in front of the window display the rational assessment of what is on offer can easily take the form of a sudden emotion; does not the hope of gain, the silky seduction of a prize, the promise of a discount, a gift or reward arouse in us a certain childlike happiness, one capable of implicating us in feverish consumption? So far, we have seen to what extent this kind of emotional calculation is supported by the clever combination of a mute commercial offer and a silent scenography, whose paradox consists in how it comes to life and brings us to life despite (or by virtue of?) its immobility. Now we must investigate how these sorts of combination, far from ending on the surface of a window display, proliferate, and are transformed both inside and outside the shop.