The Supply House: Catalogues and Commerce

Merging visual representation with textual listing, the mail-order catalogue brought the anticipation of availability to the work of supply. As it did, it crystalized the expectations of capitalism for contemporary consumer culture. This essay surveys some examples of this form around this moment of transformation: as the catalogue form gave way to the catalogue function, and the raw stuff of supply transformed into an operative relation—an ontological object defined not by material presence, but by the potential for supply.

The secret of supply is in its promise of availability. Given the excess of contemporary consumption, it is tempting to think of demand as the most insatiable sort of hunger. After all, it is from this gnawing ache that late capitalism colonizes the world, harvesting resources and exploiting populations in pursuit of the production of the most venial of goods. But supply creates its own demands. Fernand Braudel once argued that supply “makes an appointment with itself.” Rather than empha- size economic preconditioning, however, I would instead direct attention to the promissory purchase this statement suggests. And I would do so because supply, now more than ever, need not be present. Just the promise of presence is enough. If, in scrolling through the endless of pages of “the everything store,” one cannot help but wonder about the material reality of the products on sale there, it is because the tangibility of stock on real store shelves matters less than these representations of its (eventual) assembly. Though today’s appointments are more often made through online purchasing platforms operated by companies such as Amazon and Walmart than with more traditional commercial correspondence, the effect is the same. After all, these are not really stores. They are just another kind of catalogue—that is to say a virtual storehouse of and for supply.

In Thresholds 49 (2021).