I’ve spent the last few days in Portland. Its an interesting and unusual place, which a friend and I proposed to analyze through the lens of what we termed the Whimsical Mode of Production. Our analysis ran along the following speculative lines:
Portland can be viewed as a paradigmatic example of the post-industrial service economy. This can be outlined historically by the movement from its function as an industrial port city to now where even in formerly industrial areas niche boutique businesses proliferate. An anecdotal example from yesterday is illustrative– I ate lunch in a niche restaurant which specializes in ‘artisinal’ meat which sat next to a teamaker’s warehouse in an area between the port and railyards where heavy industry used to to thrive.
The products sold at these boutique stores offer a multitude of choices between products which emphasize uniqueness and specialization by way of the experience, identity and status the commodities posses. In this way a visit to Portland might be said to have parallels with cliche’s about citizens from eastern bloc countries being overwhelmed by the decadent array of consumer goods in the West. The UK does not currently possess cupcake only bakeries, let alone ones with flavours such as salty caramel, red velvet etc. These array of products cater to whimsical and fantastical identities signified by those who possess them. To eat a red velvet cupcake is not to eat any other cake, rather it is a unique experience signifying your support of what is unique and special also indicating you are the same.
The people who work at these places, in turn, form an emotional attachment and identify with their role. They do not perform the homogenous type of service in corporate service industry jobs. Instead they are imbued with a craftsman aesthetic, in which their services enchant the world with whimsy. Such a transformation might be analyzed terms of a type of affectual capital, where in the new spirit of capitalism, this type of whimsy becomes more fulfilling than the old hat homogenous types of work. This was also conveyed anecdotaly by the person working in the cupcake bakery who in fear of becoming stuck had quite their union job in Maine right before becoming a journeyman and moved to Portland to seek something more fulfilling work. Such fulfillment equates to service work at what is probably less than half the pay.
These points may signfy that Portland forms an interesting object of investigation of the way and means the postindustrial service economy reproduces itself.