The Meaning of Black Friday

When Black Friday devours Thanksgiving, capitalism consumes one of its sustaining myths.

Black Friday began as a traffic accident. Or a series of them. In Philadelphia in the early 1960s, police noted that the two days after Thanksgiving were characterized by heavy traffic, and, in the pre-Nader days of perilous auto travel, more bloody mayhem than usual.

The relationship between extra traffic and downtown sales had been observed early on, and traders were unhappy that the ominous name was sticking to one of their best sales days. Doubtless this had happened elsewhere too, but in Philadelphia business had Abe Rosen as their municipal representative. One of the country’s leading PR gurus, Rosen suggested the city rename the two days after Thanksgiving “Big Friday” and “Big Saturday.”

The crude boosterism worked, but not as intended. “Big Saturday” dropped away. “Big Friday” was noted, but simply reverted to its earlier designation as “Black Friday.” Picking it out as an event had drawn attention to it, and the Philadelphia Inquirer played it big. By the 1980s, the name began to spread across the country.

That “Big Friday” returned to “Black Friday” was inevitable. Black days have a history as long as the calendar, and attach to many events, but they have one common attribute: reversal, subversion, undermining. In modernity it has attached itself to financial collapse, natural disaster, terrorism, and military defeat. In the Roman calendar, a “black letter day” was one marked with charcoal on the wall calendar, one to be waited out with circumspection.

More pertinently in the Christian era, these days were marked with the idea of “black mass,” initially applied by the early official Church to gnostic sects, who included sexual rituals in their masses. By the medieval period, “black masses” also referred to parody church services held on fair days, and “Mad May,” when long-suffering parishioners conduct comic masses, wearing silly hats and reciting the Eucharistic with barnyard animal cries.

The church tolerated Mad May and the like as a necessary release valve, perhaps with some awareness of just how oppressive their official theology could be. “Black” anything, in this respect, is a nod to the incompleteness of any belief system, its inability to map onto the full range of human experience — its materiality, muck, and venality.

So it was inevitable that “Big Friday” would revert, for “Black Friday” is constitutionally mired in sin. By the time it stuck in the eighties, it had acquired a new meaning that cemented it. It was allegedly the day that retailers finally “went into the black” — made a profit — and shopping thus acquired a civic and patriotic dimension.

That didn’t hold either. As the day became bigger through the 1990s and 2000s, with ever-more dramatic price reductions, ever-larger and rambunctious crowds, and greater acts of consumer durable acquisition, the character of it as a day of disorder returned.

As with all aspects of American consumption in the 2000s, it acquired a surreal aspect. The many objects being hoarded and carted away were so large, the malls were so big, the cars were so oversized that the spectacle was almost a parody of consumption.

It was a kind of reverse potlatch, the somewhat mythical ceremonies of object-destruction crafted by anthropologists out of various ceremonies in the Native American Pacific Northwest. In such ceremonies, weapons, tools, and even canoes were destroyed in tribute and competition, and as a release from objects themselves, their sequestration of energy in material.

The social purpose of such activities — in the very abundant Pacific Northwest — appears to have been to prevent the accumulation of surplus, which would distort reciprocal relations. The side effect was Dionysian release, energy returned to energy, the present moment reasserted. We are not what we have made, we are what we do.

In its heroic era, from the 1980s to 2008, “Black Friday” had a paradoxical cast. It was an accumulation of things, but it was also a dissipation of energy, a breaking of rigid structures. That structure was, of course, Thanksgiving itself, which has long since lost its festive aspect and become a dutiful occasion, larded with anxiety and forced conviviality.

In its original form, Thanksgiving combined Dionysian excess — the joy of eating actual meat! — with agape, collective love. Right into the 1970s, meat consumption was not an everyday possibility for many in the middle class and below; limited incomes remained associated with limited caloric intake. The holiday retained its pre-modern association with luxe and indulgence. It’s no coincidence that the iconic Thanksgiving portrayal — Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting as part of his “Four Freedoms” series — was dedicated to “Freedom From Want.”

The turkey in the picture looks average to our eyes, but it was exaggeratedly large for the time, a period when the birds were not dosed with antibiotics. Moreover the freedom Rockwell was commemorating had nothing to do with the “negative” freedoms endemic in the American tradition. It was one of the two “positive freedoms” (together with “freedom from fear”) that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had smuggled into patriotism, from the European socialist tradition.

In its original form, Thanksgiving took the Christian sacrament and regressed it to a degree, to its pagan roots in harvest celebration. The rare mood of well-being from adequate protein and carbs could submerge whatever irritations with each other the pilgrims might have entertained. This infrequent satiation bonded together people who otherwise spent a lot of time damning each other to hell (and massacring native peoples).

That, of course, no longer holds. For nearly half a century, Thanksgiving has occurred in a society where food for many Americans is not only not scarce, but in perpetual excess. For not a few, most of life consists of warding off food — resisting its intrusion into every area of existence, its ability to attach to multiple forms of desire.

Relationship to food defines class. In popular depictions, the rising professional class is defined by its ability to resist food, its puritan moral strength. A broader working class is increasingly defined but its joyful surrender to it. Whole regional cultures — the Gulf South around Mississippi for example — have come to be characterized by it. You can see its register in that ultimate arbiter of American class, sitcoms, where middle-class examples are populated by thin, tight people, while those with broader appeal — The King of Queens, Mike and Molly — put obesity at the center of everyday life.

Thanksgiving now consists of doing what most people try not to do all the time — systematically overeat — with relatives one may or may not wish to spend some time with.

In its original formulation it was Dionysian, a feast of food it may well have been wiser to store, but what the hell. It was, in its way, a kind of Black Thursday, when the meager stores got used up in ill-advised excess. The celebration was a zero-sum game, since every additional course meant further shortage later. Now, for many in the advanced capitalist world there is no shortage.

So in response to duty — to the alleged abandon disguised as duty — Black Friday has developed as the sly alternative. The activity is, by its very nature, as anti-Thanksgiving as you could get. Thanksgiving is, after all, a subject, even an abject celebration, in which one acknowledges submission to the whims of a distant God. Its role is in part to balance out Christmas and the practice of giving to children, in which non-reciprocity is celebrated: the child receives gifts without any expectation of reciprocal action on its part. The child’s role is simply to be. As adults we take our joy from that — Christmas Day without children is worthless and sad.

In that respect, Black Friday has a mutant aspect to it. It has taken the cornucopia effect of Christmas, and applied it to adults. It is, or was, a release from the duty of giving thanks, into a day of infantilized desire. Everything about Black Friday in its high phase acquired a ritual meaning: the drive to the mall, the lining up in the snow, the fist fights, the local news crews there for the fist fights, the rush as the doors opened, the carting away, the staggering under the weight of seventy-inch plasma screens.

The actual utility of the discount goods really functioned as a McGuffin for the activity of acquiring them. What possible improvement in viewing could a seventy-inch plasma screen offer that exceeded the sheer joy of carting it away at a major discount? You enacted the Dinoysian ceremony, but then all the shit stuck around, silting up your house. Black Friday participants, if they had any sense, would buy their goods, leave the store, and dump them straight in waiting garbage cans. They would never feel as good in their adult lives.

For two decades, Thanksgiving and Black Friday had an uneasy truce. Right up until the last five years or so, the stores observed the limits of Black Friday, holding to the daylight hour of nine 9 AM before opening the doors. Until the 2007–8 crash, that implicit limit was respected. But after that, as the country dipped into recession, those rules began to collapse. The start of Black Friday got earlier and earlier, as big box stores tried to compete with each other for scarce customers, and against online retail, which could offer discounts at any time.

Cyber retail has dissolved the commercial nexus of time and space altogether. Discount waves can be offered on specific classes of goods, geared to specific algorithms, and a bargain can be had on an iPhone, in a two-minute exchange, while waiting for the pie to brown properly.

Online retailing de-fetishizes consumption and turns stores into delivery depots. No matter how much online retailers try to replicate the ritual fetish of physical shopping, they cannot, and online retailing starts to reduce consumption of consumer durables back to a more rational pattern. The relative shrinking of the circuit of consumption — which lies at the root of the current non-recovery — appears to be in part a result of the dephysicalization of retail. The core techniques relied on by retailers of the past century, such as the “paradise effect” — the sense of overwhelming plenty in department stores — and the “Gruen transfer” — the disorientation that occurs on walking into an atrium mall — no longer applies. People are less likely to buy shit they have no use for.

The 2007–8 crash saw the collapse of a whole range of chains, but perhaps the most significant were Brookstone and The Sharper Image, mall-fodder selling — what? No one quite knew, even when they had left a store having made a purchase. The Sharper Image, a sort of repository of pointless miscellany, founded in the seventies on a quintessential seventies product, jogging watches, disappeared altogether. With them went Borders and Circuit City and many others. Dozens of chains are now hanging on waiting for the inevitable blow, another recession, and a fresh winnowing. Meanwhile, online retailers continue to trade in loss. Amazon, having destroyed physical retailing as an enterprise of profit, is yet to make one.

Thus the damage at the moment is doubled. Big box stores and chains, in their desperate attempt to keep spatial retailing going, have extended Black Friday to Thanksgiving. Eventually, they’ll push it to Wednesday, in some absurd attempt to pretend it has not dissolved altogether.

By 2011, stores such as Target and Macy’s began opening at midnight plus one second, technically observing the sanctity of Thanksgiving, but traducing it with the technical manner of their obeisance. The next year, the rubicon was crossed. Walmart and others began opening at 8 PM on Thanksgiving Day in states where that was permitted. This year, Radio Shack, that bizarre coelacanth survivor of electronics retailing, announced that they would open at 8 AM on Thanksgiving.

Black Friday consumes White Thursday. The holiday is abolished — not just for the unhappy staff compelled to turn up to half-empty stores on a holiday of family gathering, but for everyone. That’s the whole point of the sacred and the profane, and the asymmetry between them, and the manner in which a culture appends on such.

To remain sacred, a cultural limit must be respected by everyone. To debase it into profanity, into muck, filth, shit, and waste, requires only a single debaser. Thus does the transition from culture to accumulation work. It takes only one hoarder to hold their axe or canoe back from potlatch, for the cultural system to be upended, and reciprocity to be dissolved.

Black Friday came to glory in the last period of Western consumerism, when the economy effectively ran in reverse — when an ever-inflated circuit of consumption kept an ever-shrinking circuit of production alive. The final respatialization of US living — the desperate gold rush of mall building and exurbanization — peaked as a parabola, its high moment a zero point., that compendium of retail decay, starts in the late 1990s, and has all but concluded by the mid 2000s, after around 20 percent of the malls in the US have met their demise. Many have now been demolished or turned into “new urban” town centers. They are dying too, now, and, will get a fresh crop in the years to come, if anyone can even be bothered to catalog a fresh round of retail failure. Most likely, the gloss will have gone off.

The first round of deadmalls was spectacular: vast spaces designed for commercial fun rotting away. A few remain, such as White Flint outside Washington, DC, a near-dead mall with two stores remaining, but with the entire mall perpetually running, escalators humming away, lights on. I would advise everyone to make a day-trip of it, before the wrecking ball finally comes through. Not for nothing is the great photographic record of dead malls titled “Black Friday.” The second round will just be sad.

In the last couple of years, the encroachment of Black Friday on Thanksgiving has come to the attention of the wider culture. For years, workers have been protesting the demands of corporations, that they serve on what is a holiday for others. But, since Shays’ Rebellion and before, the American idea of universal celebration and citizenship has never included the propertyless, so their protests were overlooked.

It was only when the encroachment of Black Friday on Thanksgiving became absurd, a stuffing, a farce, that mainstream media began to sit up and take notice. The fact that this could even occur — that a sales event could wholly encroach on a collective holiday that lies at the root of national identity — is a measure of how decayed and compromised that identity has become.

One no longer expects the conservatives, centered around National Review, to object to this winnowing away of grassroots American life, but even the renewed and iconoclastic paleo-conservatives at the American Conservative cannot find it within themselves to make a clear and declarative protest against the cannibalization of tradition by capitalist process. They cannot admit what they will have to acknowledge sooner or later: that capitalism is a deconstructive, nihilistic process that lives off its cultural outside, and thereby consumes it.

Black Friday relies for its occult meaning on the previous inviolability of Thanksgiving, which it then debases. This year, with the 8 AM Thanksgiving openings, it has completed the process, and eaten its way out the other side of what remained of the “holy” day.

As a traffic accident it began, and thus does it end, a disaster that everyone recognizes as such, but no one has much idea what to do about — paralyzed by the contradictions of a culture whose system has gone to war against it.