Social Invisibility for Sale: The Birth of the “Convenient Subject”
Article by Weisyun Chen.
Abstract: Convenience stores in Taiwan are unique spaces. They challenge the concept of alienation and make it totally outdated. Challenging the notion of alienation, convenience stores abstract not only labor-time but also the social relationships among individuals, as the value of labor. The convenience store is not just a place for exchanging value, but also a place for fabricating social relationships, defining subjects, and crystallizing the complex of humanity as the process of production-consumption. This research involved a textual analysis of franchisees’ successful experience sharings published by the headquarters and an interview of a local franchisee who struggles to survive and, at the same time, keeps his own style. This essay argues that it is not the headquarter policy but the “convenience” that brings about workers’ invisibility in the convenience store. The realization of “convenience” in the convenience store penetrates social relations and forms “convenient subjects,” including convenience store workers, franchisees, and consumers. Following the expansion of the convenience store and its business model, the notion of convenience is constantly strengthened and reproduced.
“Although the store is managed by my wife and me, we still sometimes face a shortage of human resources. This is why my elder sister often comes to my store to fill up the vacancy of the shift. She can easily handle the works, for she is also a franchisee of a 7-11 nearby. Actually, in addition to my sister, my younger brother runs his store (7-11) as well.” (Quote from an interviewee)
Convenience stores in Taiwan are unique spaces. Challenging the notion of alienation, convenience stores abstract not only labor-time but also the social relationships among individuals, as the value of labor. The stores’ workers are encouraged to be distinct and create personal bonds, as long as these traits can be utilized to create a “more convenient” environment for customers. With their massive pervasion, convenience stores are not just a place for exchanging value, but a place for fabricating social relationships, defining subjects, and crystallizing the complex of humanity as the process of production-consumption.
Taiwan’s convenience stores successfully forge a vivid image of substitute social relationships, in which all people and things revolve around the convenience of the process of consumption and production. As soon as the clients step into a convenience store, we are involved in a social relationship, of which we do not need to pay attention to anything but consumption. Such a social relationship is artificial. The only way to uphold it is to create a particular field, within which the fabricated social relationship can be realized through people’s daily practices, just like the citizenship realized by constant daily practices.
The extent that the convenience store diffuses into the daily lives of Taiwanese makes brand new social relationships based on the value exchange possible. This fabricated relationship is what “social invisibility” truly is. It is not the alienated labor contrary to humanistic young Marx’s “essence of human beings,” nor is it the isolated labor from interpersonal relationships. As Louis Althusser stated, this invisibility is not something outside the visible, but part of the definition of visibility, and therefore defined by the visibility (Althusser, 1997). Thus, social invisibility is a status and a process that the convenience store continuously generates with its expansive presence. The more relations and interactions are defined by and put into practice in the convenience store, the more invisible their agents are. Moreover, with the capitalistic desire of exploiting new marketplaces, illuminating the dark corners becomes the convenience store’s mission. The slogan of Taiwan’s most ubiquitous convenience store, “Always open, 7-Eleven,” shows that its expansion is not only geographical but especially responsive to human nature.
The convenience store constructs various kinds of subjects in their franchise system to include as many groups of people as possible. However, as Althusser pointed out, it’s the knowledge that defines the invisibility. The more subjects and social relationships created by the convenience store, the more powerful the principles are. These principles form and define the subjects, which are a lite version of human beings: the customers with lighter responsibilities and fewer obligations, and the workers, encouraged to be sociable, creative, and self-realized to the extent that is just enough to satisfy the simple demands of capital. Such fabrications of subjects are the most beneficial set for selling “convenience,” that is, the most significant product sold in the convenience store.
So, what are the principles being formed? The particular subjectivity that the convenience store evokes for smoothing the consumption process is what I call the “convenient subject.” The principles of the convenient subject are a set of knowledge, which imply the power of enlightenment. Within the knowledge of the convenient subject, some particular problems are interpreted into sensible and solvable questions and, in turn, enhance the knowledge and principles. Nonetheless, it’s the knowledge of the convenient subject, just like all the other knowledge, as Althusser insisted, that forbids, represses, and excludes the invisibility (Althusser, 1997:24-26). As phlogistic chemistry rejected the existence of oxygen or classical economics dismissed the “value of labor,” no matter how sophisticated the convenient subject’s principles are, humanity is excluded from it and substituted by convenience.
Fabrication of the “Convenient Subject”
The history of the convenience store in Taiwan started in the late 1970s (Wu, 2010). The convenience store’s prevalence reflects both the processes and the Taiwanese’s demands for modernization. The revolutionary concepts, such as clear pricing, individual packing, or the same quality of the same product, indeed, reversed the market and conquered the traditional grocery stores. From a macro-political and economic structure angle, it is not surprising that the modern convenience store became the symbol of progress in Taiwan, especially in the 80s and 90s, the era of globalization. Whether we view the history of the convenience store in Taiwan as economic modernization or the rhetoric of eliminating syncretism, it is the traits of modernity that fill the convenience store.
The homogeneity of the convenience store that the customers are used to in everyday life comes from detailed “corporate” instructions for everything in the store, including the lighting, music, merchandise arrangement, uniform, and script for greeting the customer. The presupposition of our research was thus related to the logic of corporate top-down homogenization. I wanted to know the status of the working subjects from two aspects. First, how the instructions strictly directed such a grand, hierarchical, value-extracting empire; second, more importantly, the workers’ responses to that hierarchy. It was a simple but undoubtedly sufficient, starting point—a presupposition that included the structure of corporate domination and possible resistance from the individuals. It was also a presupposition that suggested I had the aim of seeing certain subjectivities or autonomies in the individuals under the homogenized cover.
Soon after I started the field studies, however, the homogeneity of Taiwan’s convenience store slipped away. From my interviews, I found that each convenience store altered Corporate’s homogeneous instructions by having its regular customers, community links, charitable activities, social networks, and long-term employees. In other words, the merchandising style of each store was consistent, but the nature of “invisibility” had changed. Namely, the top-down homogenization did not necessarily apply to every store’s manager and employees. It was a totally different idea of the convenience store from our previous perspective.
Nevertheless, this unexpected change precisely fitted my aim. No matter how meticulous the corporate instructions were, there was “magic” among the people. The workers covered with the uniforms were not like bags of pineapple bread interchangeably with the same ingredients and packaging, but individuals generating unique social relationships.
On the one hand, the findings meant the social invisibility was maybe only in the intellectuals’ minds, which meant, in reality, the convenience stores were distinguishable, and the clerk was not necessarily invisible to the customers. On the other hand, being encouraged to be “distinguishably considerate,” as one of the interviewees said, through forming different, affective connections was even more problematic, which finally led me realize the notion of the convenient subject.
When I examined the convenience store clerks’ social invisibility, there was an apparent fact being misunderstood as mere propaganda. What the convenience store sold was not daily groceries, but the convenience. The price a customer paid in a convenience store was not for a bottle of mineral water, but for the effort of eliminating the inconvenience, whether it was the bacterium, the risk of being cheated, or redundant interpersonal interactions. The transparency, hygiene, and homogeneity were exactly part of the deal that the convenience store proposed, and the customers accepted this as the symbol of modernity. This is a brief answer to the why of the convenient subject. Nevertheless, if we accept the fact that the customers do actually pay for convenience in a convenience store, which means the social invisibility is a sub-product, then the way a convenient subject is conceived in the convenience store would raise more burning questions.
The convenient subject is a product manufactured by a corporation with human beings as materials. The diffusion of the convenient subject massively relates to the corporate administration. In Wu’s research, he raised 7-Eleven as an exemplary case to explain the militarized hierarchy of a convenience store corporation. Between corporate headquarters and the franchisees, there are regional supervisors, district chiefs, and district managers. All of them are obligated to head to the headquarters for general meetings twice a month. After these meetings, they will review the agenda respectively in each region on the day after. And on day three, they will gather all the franchisees and store managers to convey the messages (Wu, 2010:73-76).
Wu’s research referred to the fulfillment of strict policies to the hierarchical corporate institution. There is no doubt that a huge corporate empire would not be animated by only numbers or sales volumes but rather the vague administrative institutions. It is crucial to add a metaphysical comprehension of the administrative institutions rather than see them as an explanation of confusing general meetings, which cost so much to merely propose policies, release new products, or launch new sales.
What forms the administrative institutions is the discourse of commodifying the convenience. The knowledge and the administrative institutions are reciprocal causations for each other. On the one hand, the administrative institutions, such as frequent general meetings, strict hierarchy, and repetitive procedures of instruction passing, form a set of principles. On the other, the clarified causation within the knowledge of convenience significantly strengthens the participants’ confidence in what they are doing. New language and causal patterns are the key mechanics of fabricating the convenient subject. The convenience is then the most decisive reason for bonding social relationships, which initially did not need a reason. We must not confuse the knowledge of the convenient subject with the tactics of the individual workers/franchisees, because it is only the knowledge of convenience that can confuse the social relationships with the corporation’s exploitive policies. The terms profits or surplus values are no longer mentioned. The excessive franchise expansion, wasteful food inventory, and social invisibility are all interpreted within the language of the convenience, which is imagined to be universally applicable regardless of any particular social, cultural, and geographical context.
The formation of the convenient subject relies on corporate administrative institutions, which means the knowledge created by the corporation needs to be put into practice by the agents. The industry must subject the individuals to the knowledge of convenience. The convenient subjects are not like the classic definition of workers who own the techniques of production (even though, in young Marx’s alienation theory, the more workers produce, the less value they own), but who are subjected to learn how to commodify the convenience, which means everything, including life. This is what the convenient subject truly is.
A good illustration of the convenient subject is well-reflected on the Taiwan 7-Eleven corporate website. While the section on introducing CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) has been covered by Zikri Rahman’s Of Convenience and the concept of Citizenship, in this article, I focus on the section highlights “successful experience sharing” of some of its franchisees. There are about 20 experience-sharing reports on the franchisee-recruiting website, probably released around 2011. Each piece has somewhere between 1100-1300 words, with four or five main points. No annotation of publishing dates implies that they were written for eternity. Moreover, the site’s purpose, the refined writing techniques, and the high consistency of genre, style, and length are as good as any official statements of the corporation’s ideal image.
Among the nearly 20 “successful” cases, surprisingly, only two of them conform to the general definition of a commercially “successful” case, such as high efficiency, precise vision, or high profitability. The alternative “successful” models showcased by the other cases, of which there are more than a dozen, can be summarized into the “B-level life,” a concept mentioned in one of the experience-sharing articles on the Taiwan 7-Eleven corporate website. The “B-level life” indicates, contrary to the A-level (rich but busy), and the C-level (meagerness of both time and money), the most important elements are “happiness” and “sense of satisfaction.”(President Chain Store Corporation, 2011) Therefore, the commodification and quantification of life and affection become indispensable parts of the lifestyle, reflecting an image of biopolitics. More than two-thirds of the articles emphasized family relationships, including the convenience store as a bridge for the middle-aged couple’s communication, a field for children to grow up, a career for siblings to fight for together (which corresponds to the interviewee’s description of his family circumstances quoted in the epigraph to this paper), and a place for people to start new relationships.
Moreover, a community function is also emphasized in more than two-thirds of the articles. The convenience stores provide not only the material support during natural disasters, such as Taiwan’s 921 earthquake and SARS epidemic, but also affective support, such as sending Mother’s Day cakes to single-parent kids at school, taking care of the public garden in the neighborhood, delivering lunch boxes to the elderly, or simply welcoming the customers with a cheerful greeting. Indeed, as indicated in the entrepreneurial traits highlighted by the corporate headquarters on the website, these are all practices of corporate social responsibility. But, we cannot ignore the fact that these are stories written for potential franchisees, that is to say, the kinship, interpersonal relationships, and sense of charity achievement are expressed in the framework of the convenient subject, which means it’s not merely a job, but identity politics.
There are hints of anti-essence within the framework of the convenient subject, but at the same time, the agency/mobility can only be realized in the field of the convenience store. The convenient subject is an aggregate of all the elements in the texts. In addition to the work content is the paradigm of managing social relationships, such as couples, parenthood, siblings, friends, neighbors, and so on. Besides giving a norm to social relationships, the convenient subject also subsumes the identity crisis. In a convenience store, a female employee can show her “female advantage,” a veteran can start a new life, and a good wife/mother can become a good boss. As a convenient subject, people are equal. This is the bright side of commodifying the convenience, but is also the core of social invisibility. Every clerk has a different face, personality, background, and even a personal badge with his/her name, by which the differences are too apparent to ignore. But, as salespersons selling the convenience, it’s ironic that their duties are designed to keep them invisible. This is the complexity of the knowledge of the convenient subject, in which the differences among individuals are the suppressed, immanent definitions of the visible layout, which is the star product – the convenience.
One way to put this together is to recognize that, in the wave of modernization, the convenience store creates a set of products and consumption patterns based on the concept of transparency, hygiene, and homogeneity with its strong capital, technology, and narrative. However, it has nothing to do with the alienation, which indicates workers are abstracted as mere devices of production, which, in other words, are the value of labor.
On the contrary, through a sophisticated calculation of social relationships, the convenience store creates a new meaning of subjectivity. In this analysis, the convenience store is closer to the Post-Fordist factory, whose priority is no longer the production of value, but “fabrication of subjectivities” (Berardi, 2006), which produces the convenient subject in our context. Thus, if we are going to revise the presupposition, it is not the labor, but the relationship that is consistent with the product’s modern traits and the consumption pattern. It is not the worker becoming transparent, hygienic, and homogenous, but the relationship between consumers and clerk, between franchisee and employees, between store and community. Each person, branch, and community is different. These differences are even encouraged by the headquarters, but these units’ intricate relationships must be clearly defined. When all social connections are re-established, it is the moment that the convenient subject is born, and social invisibility is only one of its characteristics.
The Crack in the “Convenient Subject”
It is almost an analogy of biopolitics to say that, as long as there is no crack in the convenient subject, they are invisible. As long as a body is well-functioning, each part of it is unnoticeable. But once you stub your toe, you immediately find that merely walking is an extremely complex movement, involving numerous muscle connections. The analogy refers to our field-study experience, in the last, but not least, case. The “stubbed toe” in this case, was the chest hair exposed from a clerk’s peculiar fashion, and the problematic greeting. At the rough moment, I saw a series of complex governance knowledge involved in the convenient subject. For example, a 7-Eleven clerk cannot wear only a uniform jacket without a shirt underneath, and it is almost impossible to use a slightly rude title “laoban” (boss) on someone 20 years younger. It was the moment that what had been excluded by the convenient subject was now revived. The revival provided an alternative proposition of the critique of, or rebellious act responding to, the convenient subject. As social invisibility is derived from the creation of certain subjects, rather than elimination of them, the rebellion is not self-realization, which had been constantly promoted by the corporation, but a twist in the self-realization of the convenient subject, bending the convenience for use, rather than for sale; approaching the knowledge of convenient subject, rather than being excluded from the convenience.
The interviewee is a franchisee of a 7-Eleven, 42 years-old. Picture a bald, middle-aged man always wearing rolled-up trousers, no shirt inside his uniform jacket, and a hearty laugh. Our interview started with talking about the music in his shop. When he was on the night shift, we heard loud, retro Chinese pop songs even before entering the shop. Playing personal music in the store is obviously a violation, but he said, “I can’t help it. I can’t work without music.”
One day, maybe because it was late at night, we talked for nearly an hour and a half, until his last-shift employee brought him a midnight snack. Before that, he was saying that he had just signed a second five-year contract, but the corporation just opened a new 7-Eleven less than 300 meters behind his store, so, including his store, there were now three 7-Elevens less than 500 meters away. He didn’t know if he could keep struggling for five years. I asked him if the store couldn’t keep going, what would the employees do? “I would have no choice but to ask them to go to other stores, or find a new job.” he said. Even beforehand, when I had been aware that the massive store expansion of 7-Elevens had been built at the expense of numerous established franchisees, this response still surprised me at the time, especially since he had close relationships with his employees.
Of course, most franchisees will claim that they have close relationships with the employees as one of the principles of being a convenient subject. Before the “irresponsible” response, no matter the type of music in his store, the jokes between him and his employees, or the scene of clerks playing with neighborhood kids, there were only slight differences between his and other convenience stores I interviewed. The response, however, conveyed a critical message. Once again, as with the stubbed toe analogy, the complexity of the initial mechanism is revealed. The stubbed toe here is the precariousness resulting from the “irresponsibility” of the employer, but it is the corporate policy of expansion that leads to precariousness for both employer and employees. Ironically, this common precariousness does not exist with the corporate convenient subject, since the convenient subject is eternal, life-long, and omnipotent. In their story, neither earthquake nor pestilence can stop it. Or, maybe we can say that it is the “resistance” to precariousness that serves as the core of the convenient subject, as it promises to conquer the world, whether or not it is supposed to be uncertain and contingent. This is why “incapability” can be taken as resistance, for it reflects the fact that convenience should never be taken for granted.
Once we chatted during his day shift. He continued to mop the floor at the end of a busy morning and wipe all the windows, wearing the usual uniform jacket without a shirt inside. And two-thirds of the uniform had been darkened by a great amount of sweat. He looked just like a busy and exhausted underdog, which was simply inharmonious to the store. I asked jokingly about what other appearance requirements does the company have in addition to wearing uniforms. “For instance, can clothes be soaked in sweat?” He replied, “I am not sure about sweat, but I am 100% sure that “farmer’s wear” must be forbidden, hahaha!” At the same time, he bent over and lowered the pant legs that had just been rolled up to the knees for the convenience of working. His response reflected such a clear message: the convenience is for sale, and any encroachment on the goods is a violation.
Here I thought: he is the guy that does not know the name of what he is doing. He does not think how the governmentality caused him any harm, and also does not intend to challenge or subvert the so-called convenient subject fabricated by the headquarters. His elder sister and younger brother have their convenience stores nearby, and he manages his shop with his wife. His family relationships are exactly a successful model of the convenient subject. He probably would not agree, or could not even understand the narration behind the red-green-orange blood (iconic brand colors of 7-Eleven), which has run in his veins through substituting his kinships on the sly. He had never been advised to resist or expel the convenient subject or become self-realized. However, he very much insisted that he had to work in the way he liked, including small things like prohibited music, peculiar modes of dress, and friends who come to hang around in the store and sometimes occupy the place in the night. He was aware of the risk. As he said, “I am making fun of my own life. What I am doing is absolutely intolerable in any convenience store.”
The resistance in a form of instinctive need is something beyond the imagination of the corporation, counteracting the universal commodification of the corporate policy. As a convenient subject is made up of various calculated relationships, it is also those same relationships that are changed by “doing the work in the form one likes.” The subjectivity was gained by using convenience, an ambiguous but crucial difference from the corporation’s sophisticated policy. This is not to advocate that we should knock down the factory, recover the so-called human essence, and liberate the people, but to make the core of social relationships recover from the value exchange to humanity, rhetorically exemplifying his shop. The company’s modern radio advertising is still there, but his favorite outdated pop music overlays it.
Convenience is undoubtedly the fruit of modernization. It’s not a sin to create and enjoy a convenient life. What we want to reveal and challenge is the capitalistic encroachment of it. The commodification of convenience is indeed an immaterial expropriation. The way it is achieved is through its association with the knowledge production, which consolidates the convenient subject into a new species that has forgotten how to bond in a social relationship but is reminded of it by the corporation with the name of the convenience. Within the knowledge of the convenient subject, initial social relationships are invisible or even invalid, because, only when an object is explainable, predictable, and controllable, is it visible.
Thus, we have deconstructed the entanglement of the convenience into three aspects: capitalist expropriation, commodification, and people’s reclamation of it. We have to be aware that the corporation’s comprehensive techniques of commodifying only marginalize the invisibility rather than evoke any concern for it. The convenience shouldn’t be a product only belonging to the customers who have paid for it, but, in turn, a technique to deal with the inconvenience. It is its commodification that is contrary to humanity, which always includes anxiety, precariousness, exhaustibility, or incapability, rather than convenience. It is the re-imagining of the convenience store, as illustrated in the preceding rebellious franchisee case, that a possible, or rather recovered syncretism of humanity and modernity can occur.
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