Derridada and Simulacrumbs
Why a cheap student hotspot is also a bastion of post-modernism
El Furniture Warehouse (EFW), an inexpensive resto-bar with locations in B.C., Quebec and Ontario, recently posted a transphobic image that referenced Caitlyn Jenner on their Instagram feed. The typical social media cycle of outrage, denial and deletion soon followed.
As part of his response to Buzzfeed Canada’s Lauren Strapagiel, Sean Young, a partner at EFW Toronto, described the restaurant’s Instagram feed as “slightly edgy.” From a linguistic standpoint, this is akin to being somewhat pregnant. Either you have edge, or you lack it. Not that edgy is something to strive toward — like the dreaded h-word (hipster), no one who fits the description would describe themselves as such.
Given the many deplorable things about the Instagram incident, it seems strange to single out “slightly edgy.” But those two words are critical, as they provide proof that EFW has an estranged relationship with language and meaning.
Don’t believe me? Consider their tagline: Premium Dive Bar.
Where to begin? Is it an ironic oxymoron? Yet another example of fake authenticity? Proof that postmodernism has gone mainstream?
Such language is especially strange for a restaurant that prides itself on a straightforward financial proposition. That is, they sell el cheapo burgers and salad. (For those unfamiliar, every item on their food menu is $4.95).
While most EFW customers are content to simply study the menu, I think it’s time to deconstruct it. And given that EFW is a student bar, I feel justified in arguing about a topic of minor consequence until everyone in my vicinity is thoroughly irritated.
In other words, I’m about to get academic on your ass.
A $4.95 History of Post-Modernism
Once upon a time, language was a relatively stable construct. A tight correspondence between a given word and what it referred to ensured mutual understanding for author and reader. An era when Noah Webster was treated like a god.
Then World War I happened. Dadaism emerged as a response to the absurdity of trench warfare and mechanized killing. Language was the main Dada weapon as they violated syntax and defanged reason to protest a world gone mad. Tristan Tzara, the leader of the movement, claimed that making a Dada poem required only a bag of words snipped from the newspaper. Shake the bag gently, remove the words one by one, transcribe the result and, as Tzara famously promised, “The poem will resemble you.”
The surrealists continued the language games with automatic writing, but by 1946 the avant-garde was running out of things to rebel against, so they turned their critical eye on the bourgeois obsession with words themselves. The Letterists, led by Isidore Isou, wanted to “unmake words into their letters” and create “an architecture of lettric rhythms.”
As this article demonstrates, words survived the Manifesto of Letterist Poetry. But words continued to suffer. The censorship and propaganda of World War II inspired George Orwell to write Politics and the English Language. In that essay, he noted that due to sloppy language, “fascism no longer means anything, other than something bad.” (A variant of this idea lives on today through Godwin’s Law.)
Politicians acclimatized us to oxymorons like collateral damage and friendly fire, but the permanent linguistic slippage began with the critical theorists. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure started gently, arguing that there was a gap between signifier and signified. Then Roland Barthes claimed the author was dead, insofar as readers create their own meaning of a text, regardless of authorial intent. Jacques Derrida, using différance and deconstruction, destabilized language once and for all, arguing that texts involve an endless chain of signifiers and oppositions that postpone or defer meaning.
All the while, low culture took plenty of amusing cheap shots. The ad industry put bad grammar on 50-foot billboards: “Think Different” (Apple), “unboring” (Ikea) and Got Milk? (milk). The Japanese love to use English as a decorative element (“For lucky best wash, use Mr. Sparkle”) and the dot-coms, picking up where the Letterists left off, are furiously eliminating decadent vowels without a flickr of emotion.
Not that spelling, grammar or vowels matter much anymore, as North America is only a few weeks away from switching to a dialect of pure emoticon. (Or, if you prefer: octopus, eyeglasses, happy turd.)
So why bother getting upset about a bar shuffling words around like a drunk toddler with a box of magnetic poetry?
Fake Plastic Trees Lounge
EFW, a BC-based franchise, opened its first Toronto location in June of 2014. But a Day One dive bar? That’s unpossible. Take a traditional bar, add a decade of neglect, and maybe, if you’re lucky, someone will call you a dive. In a roundup of best dive bars, New York magazine praised The Alibi, where “a thin layer of grime covers all surfaces, and the bar stools are held together by duct tape.”
However, the argument that dive bars are made, not born, requires a belief in authenticity. And we live in a post-authenticity world. In 1999, Josh Glenn devoted an entire issue of his journal Hermenaut to fake authenticity, an adjective that describes “new items of clothing or furniture that have been distressed, weathered, stone-washed, and otherwise pre-aged for the purpose of looking like it’s been used or worn, for years, by someone who works on a farm.”
Eleven years later, Andrew Potter wrote an entire book about what he called The Authenticity Hoax. Both were riffs on Jean Baudrillard, who had warned us about hyperreality and simulacrum 20 years prior. As Sean Joseph Patrick Carney explains in his translation of Baudrillard from English to American, “It’s not a question anymore about whether or not Disneyland faithfully tries to represent America or not, because there is no America left to try to represent.”
EFW has no qualms about reality distortion, as evidenced by their Kale Caesar Salad which contains zero romaine lettuce, only the titular vegetable, along with croutons, or as I like to call them, simulacrumbs.
Speaking of which, El Furniture Warehouse is not a high-ceiling repository for tables and couches of the Mexican variety. It’s a restaurant. As Keanu Reeves famously noted in the Baudrillardian film The Matrix, “Whoa.”
Float Off This Sticky, Beer-Soaked Floor Like a Soap Bubble
Having dealt with two-thirds of the tagline, my exegesis now shifts to the word “premium.” When the Queen West location of EFW opened late last year, the phrase premium dive bar created a frisson of outrage among some of the people I follow on Instagram — perhaps because the neighbourhood has slowly cross-faded from real to mall punk over the past few decades.
A few doors east, at Nota Bene, a gin and tonic costs $17 (some perspective: that equals 3.43 plates of Kale Caesar), although they call it by the Letterist friendly name The G&T.
Ridiculous? Sure, but The G&T taps into a Toronto habit of overpaying for basic items as a way to signal status and/or cocaine psychosis. Given this tendency, Queen West has reached a point where it could comfortably support the nonsensical proposition of a premium dive bar that charges $9 for “The PBR.”
If Orwell was still alive, I feel confident he would crank out a hot take telling us that dive bar no longer means anything, other than someplace that sells cheapish beer. A premium dive bar, on the other hand, has no fixed meaning. Or, as the Dadaists might say, “The slogan will resemble you.”