At a dinner party in Melbourne’s inner north earlier this year, an image of Marie Kondo, beamed onto the wall with a projector, caught my eye. Her series Tidying Up had just been released on Netflix, and it’s fair to say that Kondo was having a cultural moment.
The image was of a smiling Kondo turned garish: photoshopped into her hands was a knife pointed directly towards her onlooker. The image went unquestioned until a baffled French dinner guest finally asked about the elephant in the room. ‘She’s a fucking gangster’, the curator huffed with knowing smirk. ‘Look at her. She’s out of control’.
I couldn’t help but wince at his response. I mean, what was it supposed to mean? Nothing, I suppose. And I guess that was the point. In Melbourne’s hipster circles, we prefer to engage with popular culture from the comfort of ironic remove.
On the other side of town, Prahran burger restaurant Pablo’s Escoburgers was facing pushback from Melbourne’s growing Colombian population. The restaurant traffics in the imagery of Medellin drug lord Pablo Escobar, a figure who wreaked violence and devastation on the lives of thousands of Colombians only a few of decades ago. One of the restaurant’s menu items even comes embellished with a ‘line’ of garlic powder as a stand-in for cocaine.
Their kitschy take on a dark period in Colombian history brings to mind my own time living in Medellín. Today it’s a safe, relaxed city that boasts year-round perfect weather, sweaty salsa clubs and a metro system that puts any Australian city to shame. But it also happens to be the city where Pablo Escobar lived and died. While visitors to the city from Western countries like Australia, England and the US lined up for grisly ‘Pablo Escobar tours’ and snorted lines of cocaine between shots, it became clear that Colombians related to the period in a vastly different way. Because of the devastating impact that Escobar and the Medellín cartel at large had on their country, their emotional relationship to that time in history was one of profound grief. Uttering Escobar’s name in Medellín was akin to mentioning the Holocaust in Berlin – indeed, the locals I met preferred not to talk about him at all. When they did, it was to bemoan the Western glamorisation of a depraved criminal responsible for the deadliest criminal attacks in Colombian history.
In Melbourne’s hipster circles, we prefer to engage with popular culture from the comfort of ironic remove.
So to many Colombians, that a burger joint would casually make light of Escobar’s name beggared belief; and many of Melbourne’s Colombian residents left the restaurant reviews that provided sobering injections of historical context. One woman wrote: ‘Pablo’s images in every part of the restaurant makes you connect deeply to the person who directly killed more than 5,500 people in Colombia. The garlic line on top of the bun is a great reminder of the 20,000 people who died in Colombia due to Pablo’s drug operations. Moreover, the atmosphere brings back the great memories of the more than 250 bombs exploding across Colombia in the 80s’.
‘Disappointing name’, added another. ‘Pablo Escobar brought shame to Colombia and even to the world. It’s not funny to use his name because he represents death, blood, pain and brought about the worst period of violence for Colombia’.
The restaurant owners’ response has been largely dismissive of their concerns. ‘Hard not to offend someone in 2019’, they said in response to the controversy. ‘We are however Australian and know how to have a laugh about a good play on words.’
This isn’t the first time that a Melbourne restaurant has surrounded itself in historically-loaded material while refusing to think about the context from which it came. Another Melbourne restaurant, F.A.T Fried & Tasty adorns its restaurant with racist and stereotypical imagery of African-Americans. The owners never apologised for the decor, defending the imagery as ‘1950s artwork’. Indeed, Escobar is invoked again at Pablo Escobeans, a cafe in the trendy inner north. And this is to say nothing of the numerous bars and restaurants trafficking in ironic sexism.
So why have Aussie hipsters got it so bad for ahistorical kitsch?
Writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton’s work in subcultural theory may help us understand how hipsters (mostly white, affluent young adults living in urban areas) mine cultural material for social rewards.
Inspired by Pierre Bourdieu’s famous concept of cultural capital, Thornton writes about being ‘hip’ as a form of ‘subcultural capital’. Like cultural capital, subcultural capital ‘confers status on the owner in the eyes of the relevant beholder’. But while cultural capital is more about knowledge of art and culture in and of itself, subcultural capital is embodied in the form of being culturally aware and ‘in the know’.
Being ‘in the know’ can take many forms… We can’t care too much or appear too invested in the cultural material that we’re engaging with.
Being ‘in the know’ can take many forms. Whether it’s using (but not over-using) zeitgeist slang or veiled references to viral dance moves – we yearn for subcultural capital because we yearn for an identity. We also yearn to be relevant – relevant to the culture that we inhabit, and relevant to our peers.
Subcultural capital also places a premium on the ‘second nature’ of knowledge. We can’t care too much or appear too invested in the cultural material that we’re engaging with – any semblance of earnestness will derail its accumulation. The key to picking up subcultural capital is to feign cultural relevance while retaining an air of aloof detachment.
Circling back to that dinner party, Thornton’s work might explain why that image of Marie Kondo needed to be photoshopped. While an undoctored image could’ve reeked of cultural desperation, the knife offers an irreverence; an emotionally destabilising jolt to the system. The result is the impression of a reflexive grip on popular culture – a host that was both down with popular culture and above it.
It may be this same emotional breeding ground which allows the owners of Pablo’s Escoburgers to react to criticism from Colombians with a casual lack of concern.
By branding themselves as irreverent, shit-stirring larrikins, the owners manage to shroud themselves in a sort of inscrutable mystique.
Indeed, it’s worth thinking about the choice to use the name of a Colombian drug lord here. Kitschy references to Latin America have accumulated growing cultural currency among Australia’s hipster communities throughout the 2010s. A relative lack of historical and cultural ties with the region means that Latin American kitsch is a shoo-in for decontextualised signifiers of hipness. The Netflix series Narcos, extended jaunts to Latin America, a basic grasp of Spanish, and tortilla presses from Casa Iberica are increasingly mined by Aussie hipsters – and to be fair, I’m probably one of them – as subcultural fodder.
Escoburgers’ marketing is packed with cues for audiences to consume it from the comfort of ironic remove. The clumsy play on words, Escobar’s cartoonish, sunglasses-clad rendering and the line ‘come get high on High [street] off my burgers’ all encourage an ironic, detached mode of consumption that confounds and destabilises our emotional relationship to the material.
And by branding themselves as irreverent, shit-stirring larrikins, the owners manage to shroud themselves in a sort of inscrutable mystique. Author David Foster Wallace has said: ‘anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig’. As ironists, the owners can escape criticism by claiming that their use of Escobar’s name is already self-critiqued. Irony, in this case, offers the owners a protective cushion against any sort of retaliation – and any earnest or sincere engagement with the material, as exemplified by the Colombian community’s response to the restaurant, is seen as pitiable or even tragic. Indeed, the owners’ public response to the Colombians who voiced concern was brief and cutting: ‘Bless their hearts’.
In Melbourne’s progressive enclaves, we enjoy images: their contemporary relevance, the aesthetic pleasure that they produce, the air of ‘in the know’ that they cultivate.
Irony can be a source of great comfort, but it is worth asking what we’re seeking protection from.
But the problem with the ironic use of this material is that it’s self-serving. By prioritising ‘hipness’ over any and everything else, the weight of these historically-loaded images disappears from view. This means that a cultural material’s intrinsic properties – the real Pablo Escobar and the rivers of blood on his hands – are glossed over in service of identity creation and social status.
When used in this way, irony can be a source of great comfort. It staves off critique and allows us to be unknowable and above reproach. But if we’re profiting off cultural material that unearths painful memories without care or concern, can we really claim to not be taking a side? To somehow be emotionally uninvested or above the fray? As Slavoj Žižek writes, ‘even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them’.
Irony is protective, but it is worth asking what we’re seeking protection from. Are we scared of being seen for who we really are? For what we really think? Irony allows us to conceal ourselves; to dodge criticism and accountability. But if we continue to erect walls around the things we actually stand for, we risk our beliefs becoming inscrutable, perhaps even to ourselves.