Kitsch and the Consumer Imagination: Shopping at Jungle Jim’s
Few grocery stores can rise above the status of a non-place, instead sinking into a grocery landscape of interchangeable aisles with the same stale decoration and identical products distinguished by a few pennies price difference. Even fewer have secured the status of “destination,” a grocery we would travel to for an experience igniting our imagination. An exception to the prosaic grocery is Cincinnati’s Jungle Jim’s International Market, an enormous grocery to which a host of committed foodies and run-of-the-mill shoppers flock for distinctive goods and staged shopping entertainment. Jungle Jim’s is distinguished by its astounding 200,000 square-foot scale, a sprawling series of buildings containing a rich array of more than 150,000 international specialty foods. The mere size of Jungle Jim’s alone, though, does not capture its fascinating kitsch aesthetic—a monorail, fountains with jungle animals, and a host of popular cultural symbols are scattered throughout the store. The store’s astounding selection of hard-to-find goods and mysterious products certainly is key to the grocery’s growth since 1971. Nevertheless, the store’s aesthetic turns shopping at Jungle Jim’s into a fascinating material and stylistic experience that is key to the grocery’s magnetism. While that grocery trip might be reduced to a captivating leisure or the pursuit of an obscure chili, the Jungle Jim’s shopping experience provides a compelling lens on the distinctive social desires of its legion of foodie shoppers.
The Jungle Jim’s experience revolves around a kitsch aesthetic that openly embraces the patently contrived symbols decorating the store. In 1939, Clement Greenberg argued that kitsch was the “rear-guard” of the avant garde, a popular commercial aesthetics for mass consumers who are “insensible to the values of genuine culture.” Kitsch often invokes (or implies) an “inauthentic” mass culture style in its shallow symbolism and banal forms (e.g., souvenirs, ethnic exotica). However, we hazard misunderstanding the appeal of kitsch if we caricature it simply as “low” tastes grounded in industrial inauthenticity. In the case of Jungle Jim’s, much of the grocery’s attraction is its appeal to an educated palette that is not at all typical of mass taste, and the shoppers in the Cincinnati market probably cannot be reduced to the banal masses. Kitsch can be invested with consequential meanings, like the Ground Zero snowglobes, teddy bears, and historical souvenirs Marita Sturken examines; however, the meanings of kitsch things are often readily accessible and overly sentimental and contained within prosaic forms (e.g., t-shirts, key chains, etc, though there is kitsch art as well).
Kitsch is a somewhat different stylistic sensibility than camp, though they are cut from similar cloth. Susan Sontag described camp as a sensibility built on “artifice and exaggeration.” Sontag’s influential analysis of camp cast it as a style that is contrived, exaggerated, and largely apolitical because it is self-conscious artifice. Camp has long been most closely associated with a queer aesthetic sensibility revolving around witty theatricality, and certainly some of Jungle Jim’s decorative space aspires to amuse us. Nevertheless, kitsch is often not self-conscious performance, instead existing somewhere in the liminal space between theatrical self-awareness and a naïve belief that banal style is truly beautiful and desirable.
Jungle Jim’s kitsch style wields familiar symbols ranging from a mechanical animal Elvis to a fire truck to King Kong in novel and unexpected ways that have no deep symbolic ambitions. Their only aspiration is to playfully amuse us with an aesthetic that is clearly not at all serious and cannot be evaluated by any artistic or stylistic standards. For instance, in the midst of the produce the SS Minnow stands watch over the artichokes and dragonfruit with Gilligan and the skipper alongside an animatronic Lucky Charms “Cereal Bowl band”; an anthropomorphized Campbell’s Soup can swings over grocery aisles; and the restrooms are disguised as porta-johns from the Rumpke Sanitary Landfill. The store’s space appears utterly organic, a slowly growing series of rooms and buildings without any clear spatial order, which encourages shoppers to wander or simply become lost. That aesthetic and spatial organization is a stark contrast to antiseptic chain grocery stores with rows of even aisles; the local grocery store is rarely a space promoting imagination—perhaps the most essential feature of a shopper—and instead reduces shopping largely to a predictable venture involving formulaic resolution of functional need.
Jungle Jim’s sells a host of standard grocery fare, but it celebrates the absolutely novel food from little-known domestic producers or exotic places. In the astounding aisles of microbrews, cheeses, candy, baked goods, cigars, and honey, Jungle Jim’s appeals to consumers seeking distinction; that is, shopping in much of Jungle Jim’s requires an education in hot sauce ingredients, the complexities of wine geography, or the myriad varieties of rice. That sense of distinction is not necessarily a competitively secured difference from or superiority over other consumers; rather, those goods distinguish a consumer in their own imagination.
The clumsiest dimension of Jingle Jim’s kitsch is its presentation of ethnic symbols that prominently mark the locations of various international food sections ranging from eastern European to African. Some of the symbols linked to particular ethnic food sections are perhaps amusing: the English foods, for instance, have a massive Sherwood Forest display lording over the Earl Grey, Smarties, and crisps. Yet other ethnic foods sections are best simplistic—a taxi in is part of the display in the Indian foods section–and in other cases at least anthropologically awkward. The symbols are classic kitsch: they are not meant to paint a complex ethnographic picture of points on the globe but instead distill simplistic senses of particular cultures and places.
The shoppers’ imagination at Jungle Jim’s is a socially and class specific fantasy that may appropriate the allure of the exotic; secure the rare or unique good confirming educated taste; or simply resist the homogenization of middle-class life. While few other groceries are likely to embrace the scale of Jungle Jim’s, many marketers clearly are examining how to turn prosaic grocery runs into an experience. Trader Joe’s, for instance, stocks a wide range of distinctive foods in much more modest stores with an aesthetic evoking a distant trading post in some un-named island port (with easygoing staff clothed in tropical shirts); in a somewhat different vein, Publix in Atlanta outfitted shopping carts with televisions in 2007. None of these groceries may ever rival Jungle Jim’s enormous scale, and perhaps not every experience of our consumer life is likely to become an experience or “shoppertainment,” but increasingly more corners of our everyday consumption are becoming stylistically distinctive and resisting their reduction to non-places.
1939 Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Partisan Review
Jennifer Blakemore Jennings
2009 Back to the city: The re-emergence of urban grocery stores in mid-sized cities. Master’s Thesis, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Bobby J. Martens
2006 An analysis of the retail grocery industry: The spatial effects of supercenters. PhD dissertation, Purdue University.
1964 Notes on “Camp.” The Partisan Review December:515-530.
2007 Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero. Duke University Press, Durham NC.
All images by the author.