What’s in a Name? White Bourgeois Cruelty Culture in Auckland

Okay, I’ll admit, being irritated by the naming of high-end venues and ‘concept stores’ doesn’t even seem like an issue particularly worth blogging about. It’s just that it feels so gross that nowhere along the design process did anyone go, “hey, do you think that might be – like – a little off?” So I’m going to discuss “Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen” (the rebranding of Sale St in Sale St) and “The Shelter” a ‘concept store’ in Ponsonby.

So, “Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen” of course sounds like what you would call a brewery in a very dark children’s novel with characters, like “Mr. Amis Greed”. Or perhaps what you might ironically call a bar in a dystopian novel, or a piece of contemporary art, all the while signalling that sweat shops are not known for their fun and joie de vivre.

It’s ironic, you groan. Sure enough, “Sweat Shop Brew Kitchen” is so-named because it used to be a clothing factory (See Metro’s review) where machinists used to produce denim wear for the shipbuilders and yachts down in Westhaven. A nice little slice of history, made palatable with your ageing meat sandwich.

So this is where it begins to bug me. The marketing of ‘Sweat Shop’ is about combining clothing factory historicity – think blue denim – with symbolic markers of working-class American culture – think  American BBQ cured meats, and trying to entice consumers to follow on the bandwagon of the American Charcuterie boom. Working-class Americana looks hip. The “About Us” section of their website makes these hilarious claims about being “the hardest working bar in Auckland”, which is of course not about their actual work practice, but about marketing themselves in relation to our fascination with an American narrative of hard work, sweat and beer.

So marketing working-class culture to the bourgeois in Ponsonby seems ugly, but not terribly new because in New Zealand we expect a little exotification in our marketing; how will the bourgeois know it’s any good if it doesn’t look like it’s come from somewhere else? Of course, bourgeois enjoyment of the spectacle of working-class culture depends on their distance from it (you can enjoy your stylised brew a lot more with no actual poor people around).

The part that really bugs me though is that even though the name “Sweat Shop” is what Jameson would have called ‘blank irony’ (referring to how irony in branding in late capitalism is only drawing attention to it’s referentiality or pastiche, rather than being pointed at something) the joke only works because of the consumer’s distance from actual Sweat Shops. That is, because the drinker is able to go “haha. Sweat Shop. Good one.” and not think about how “sweat shops” are so-called because of their unacceptable working conditions, and are still commonplace in the garment industry in Bangladesh, India and China.

Doesn’t that put you off your drink, even slightly? Doesn’t it seem like the pun is actually only witty because it is also slightly cruel, referring to something we know is sinister?

That’s when we come to “The Shelter”. Now generally, a shelter is a temporary residence for people or things that need shelter. So, people that are living rough, or animals, or women and children escaping abusive homes, or people who are trying to avoid being killed or maimed by bombs.

But in Ponsonby, “The Shelter” is a “concept store” (hehe as in, a store with a concept) of “like-minded” brands to provide an “artistic experience” for the “discerning shopper”. Now, my analysis would be similar to “Sweat Shop” , i.e. it is bad taste and relies on a cruel, vacuous irony to describe a place that is actually luxurious, for the rich. But bizarrely, “The Shelter” is kind of worse. How?

Well, when I looked at the marketing, there was a noticeable lack of irony. The graphic on the website has a visually opulent image of a white building that almost evokes a church. The categories on the website offer ‘Eat – Wear – Shelter – Watch’. The text reads ‘The Shelter houses a carefully curated selection on new and established brands’.. . You get the sense that Vicki Taylor genuinely imagines her store is providing a form of care and nurture via protecting the aesthetic sensibilities of the very rich. Sigh.

This is part of the continuation of discourse amongst the wealthy, white elite told over and over to nurture themselves through consumption. And what poor, wee fluffy bunnies they are. How they very definitely deserve to take shelter in a design-led haven, away from the harsh realities of a world of people needing shelter.

It seems to me a sign of things getting worse in New Zealand (and globally) when white, bourgeois folk have lost their capacity to be embarrassed by this level of stupid. Maybe it’s because we have grown. Previously you knew that the conversation would carry across different sectors in society enough that it would get back to someone’s grandmother. Someone would have pulled Vicki Taylor aside and said “hmm not a good idea honey, that’s going to sound really tacky, because you know, of the people needing actual shelters”. Maybe there is such a burgeoning gap between the wealthy and the rest of us that many upstarting bourgeois are in a bubble having conversations in closed circuits. Their white, bourgeois lack of exposure to other worlds and other world-views can breed a form of careless cruelty.

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? White Bourgeois Cruelty Culture in Auckland

    1. thanks Kathryn. I felt like ‘Shelter’ by itself could have many meanings, but that ‘The Shelter’ was more loaded towards the way we use ‘the shelter’ colloquially. But yes, point taken that the meanings aren’t fixed here, I’m more mobilising some of the dominant associations in my reading.

  1. I was in Sweat Shop last week and a chalkboard above the bar read ‘Support your local sweat shop. T-shirts $20. No children were hurt in the making of these shirts’. Um… if they can sell shirts for that price in NZ, they’re likely made in an actual sweat shop.

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