This essay is a part of the exhibition catalogue for the 2021 show PLEASERE TURNCART SHERE featuring the photographic works of Nicholas Seitz.
“The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing. To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. There are no circumstances other than dire emergencies in which a person is not able to return their cart. Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore, the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it. No one will punish you for not returning the shopping cart, no one will fine you or kill you for not returning the shopping cart, you gain nothing by returning the shopping cart. You must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart. You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct. A person who is unable to do this is no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with a low and the force that stands behind it. The Shopping Cart is what determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society.
You may have seen this body of text before. It was written, ostensibly, on May 8th, 2020. As I began photographing and thinking about my subject, I thought of this post. When I started this project and was rooting around for the origins of this piece of writing, I would have sworn I’d seen it before May of that year. But between the date stamp on the post and the “google trends” search for “shopping cart theory” starting to spike around May of 2020, the only plausible explanation was that I saw the image after that, and it somehow lodged in my brain as something that had always been there.
You probably saw the image of that text on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Reddit. But the post originated from 4chan, a totally anonymous message board.
From really vile pornography, to white supremacist plotting, to antisemitism, to Q-Anon, there are abundant examples of the putrid aroma that has wafted out of 4chan over the years. Smarter, more patient, and more resilient people than me have extensively documented the depths of depravity that have come out of and are regularly discussed on 4chan. To study it deeply myself would be to immerse myself into an actual cesspool of thought, which I choose to avoid.
As it turns out, the feeling that you’re free from any personal connection to, or accountability for what you say tends to lower the filter of a person to its lowest level. In fact, it may dehumanize so that if you give yourself over to that anonymous, drifting discussion, you find yourself saying and thinking things worse than when you started. If the goal of a community, the goal of a relationship is to both know and be known, and this is the starting point of human trust, intimacy, and love, then a community founded on perfect anonymity and lacking any accountability can only degrade the nobler human experiences.
Yet, ask yourself: as you use the internet, how often do you see some combination of maroon text on a pale red background, green text at the top, with some sort of image as the focal point? Quite often these are posts that began on 4chan, but have been reproduced through a screenshot and distributed throughout the internet from there. It’s how the “shopping cart theory” came to be. Out of the anonymous depths gets pulled some idle thought, and it begins to gain legitimacy through repetition and distribution, slowly being amplified by non-anonymous people, until it’s just “something you heard somewhere”.
If 4chan “stayed” on 4chan- if the board were somehow just a torrent of anonymous thoughts flying around, then perhaps it could be excused. Perhaps it would really just be a nice casual thing. But with 226,793 users and 3.7 billion posts and counting as of May 2021, one has to reckon with the force that engaging in such a “community” (and I hesitate to even use the term, though that’s how the site chooses to describe itself) exerts back on those that post. Remember also that “users” refers to those that have gone through the trouble of registering on a site that is anonymous in design. One can only wonder how many unique human souls have contributed to a number of posts about to surpass half the human population.
My point here is not to beat up on 4chan users. The qualification that not every 4chan user is some sort of bridge troll seems important to make here. Furthermore, if I were to claim that I have never assumed my anonymity on the internet and said something which I would be ashamed to be personally tied to, I would earn myself the title of hypocrite yet another way. Would the world be a better place without 4chan? I don’t necessarily think that it would. But the converse does not follow: the world is not a better place because 4chan exists.
The point I’m trying to make here is a rather specific one: 4chan doesn’t stay on 4chan. One of the first major vectors for the post was a twitter user who posted it only a week after it was posted to 4Chan, saying he “can’t f—ng stop thinking about the shopping cart theory” with an image of the post. It received 204,000 retweets (talk about signal amplification) and 682,000 likes.
The internet, or rather, the vast multitude of human beings that use the internet, have an insatiable desire for content. I don’t need to cite statistics on this, but I will cite one: 9,250, the number of hits Google returns on “shopping cart theory” in quotation marks, indicating a search for that exact phrase. Each one of those, with that exact string, is likely a blog, video, thinkpiece, twitter status, or someone rehashing the “folk wisdom” that has come down from 4chan. Imagine each of those with a viewership similar to the single twitter post above, and we start getting into huge numbers of people being familiar with this single thought. Within the last few months, it’s even appeared in the “Hints from Heloise” column in the Washington Post, thus cementing its status as some sort of folksy aphorism.
The people that post on 4chan seem to have a canny ability to pair word and image. The board is billed as a photo sharing platform, but most posts are accompanied with some kind of text. Whether it’s a “monkey at typewriters” phenomenon due to]\ the volume of posting, or a real reflexive skill that is built up over time and the frequent posting and captioning of images is not for me to speculate on. What does seem to be obvious though, is that when people want to feed the content beast, it seems altogether too easy to plumb the anonymous depths of 4chan to find something fresh and outlandish to propagate. After all, who can claim that they wrote that anonymous post? But you can be the one to profit off of sharing something funny you found.
My question is this: is that the best we can do?
I’ll even concede the irony that I’ve just made an entire body of artwork in response to this anonymous thing. But I will ask again: is an authorless, unaccountable, and unsubstantiated musing about a shopping cart the best we can do for our ‘common-sense’ wisdom, our passing thoughts, our chuckle and send to a friend, source material for a blog post?
Besides being a prism through which to see the great variety in the space around the corral, the repetitive photographing and numerous return trips took on a stalker-like sensation in my mind towards the end. The repetitive imaging of the corral and the space began to amplify, in a strange way, something that was ill equipped to shoulder the moral weight that such repetitive consideration seemed to engender. Clearly, I was not the first person to think of a shopping cart corral in metaphysical or ethical terms-but can it hold that weight?
Looking at the content of the original 4chan post, there is undoubtedly a sense in which what the poster wrote feels intuitively right. It is easy to recognize the benefits to the grocery store (and, by extension) society more broadly if people simply returned their shopping carts. Doing so saves the time and effort of a low-wage employee responsible for collecting the carts. The simple action which is neither rewarded nor punished creates more societal efficiency. The pragmatist, utilitarian ethical intuition that comes easily to western cultures is sufficiently satisfied to give this post a chuckle and a share on social media.
The original post almost certainly engaged in some intentional overstatement. To draw an absolute moral imperative out of an innocuous situation that most everyone experiences at some point in a is bound to get a few laughs, especially when almost all other moral statements are “really complicated”. The 4chan poster ends by doubling down on the proposition, and does it in terms that can only be described as fascist. It lowers the status of someone who does not return their shopping cart to a mere animal and suggests that only force can truly coerce this kind of person into submission.
Perhaps it really is just for a laugh, but what if this same standard were applied to literally anything else? What if, say, an ethnic or religious minority, with customs or practices that fail to meet a pragmatic or utilitarian standard of “the right thing to do” were spoken of in the same terms?
Plenty of folks on the internet have picked this apart, and you begin to see where even a seemingly innocuous litmus test of societal “goodness” based on works begins to fall apart. Major criticism of the post lays with individuals that are unable to return carts, such as those who are disabled or people with children. There are also anecdotal accounts from grocery store workers who say they rather like walking around to collect loose shopping carts, as it breaks up the monotony of the work.
Are you a good person if you return your shopping cart to the corral? The anonymous 4chan poster would say yes, or at least, you are unequivocally a deficient individual if you don’t. The dissenters of the short moral scorecard presented in the anonymous 4chan post would say that such a determination couldn’t possibly be made off of a shopping cart or shopping cart corral. They may go so far as to say that if good and evil do exist as useful categories, then surely one could not be judged on sucha minor point, if at all.
I see a tension here between an absolutist and relativist framework.
The absolutist 4chan poster says simply that there is never a reason not to return the cart, and to not return the cart is a base and despicable act. The relativist says that there are many circumstances in which a cart can’t be returned, and to leave a cart in the parking lot is a basically excusable thing, after weighing the circumstances.
But common to both viewpoints is the sense that even mundane actions must have moral significance. After all, if there is no moral import to where one puts a shopping cart, what about something a little more “serious”? Are there circumstances that can excuse speeding? Theft? Murder? Genocide?
I am not proposing a new ethical model, nor necessarily choosing between the two outlined here. What I do want to call attention to is just the fact that there is an innate recognition that there surely must be some correlation between the actions one does and the total disposition of their being. I.e., the sense from the 4chan post (and the echoes of hundreds of thousands who assent to its text) that someone must have some inherent goodness or badness depending on what actions come out of them. Simultaneously, however, there is also the recognition that the picture is often more complicated. The viewpoint of one who reduces every situation to a discrete black and white right/wrong proposition is certainly compromised by something, making their ethical judgments at least incomplete, if not utterly misguided.
It is my belief that no act is without some moral significance. However, an individual human being, or even the so called “collective wisdom of society”, seems to be to be utterly myopic in finally assessing the moral balance sheet of every single act- who could make such a judgment? But that does not stop someone from looking for the cleanest possible litmus test, no matter how asinine- even a shopping cart. Yet, I think at bottom, an individual is unable to shake the suspicion that it is quite possible to draw some accounting of any given act- even sharing something on Twitter when you have no idea who or where it came from.