Notes on Portland and the Whimsical Mode of Production.

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.

About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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8 Responses to Notes on Portland and the Whimsical Mode of Production.

  1. Kambing says:

    The real question is: were the staff at the cupcake bakery wearing at least 37 pieces of flair?

  2. Kambing says:

    We’ve got hipster steampunk cupcakes in Western Australia now, though such whimsy is funded by the rather un-whimsical ‘Digging Shit-tons of Metal Out of the Ground and Selling it to China’ Mode of Production.

    There’s also a flourishing industry of little transient ‘pop-up shops’, market stalls, and online sellers of alternative/indie/hipster craft items, homewares, clothing and such, no doubt fueled in part by a whole cohort of un/underemployed design graduates who have embraced (and/or been forced into) an insecure entrepreneurial autonomy. This micro-industry has a historical connection to underground/DIY punk subcultures if you trace it back (eg. the ‘indie crafts’ scene has some attenuated links to Riot Grrrl — the retro-punk 50s housewife aprons I’ve seen on sale are beautifully representative of the process of domestication through commodification).

    Funnily enough this is quite similar to how the Indonesian punk scene transitioned into a ‘distro industry’ of alternative clothing boutiques, though the aesthetic is different. There must be equivalents in the UK, even if you are sadly bereft of bakeries specialising in red velvet cupcakes. Do you at least have access to zombie-themed tea-cozies and messenger bags made out of recycled manga comics?

    • HR says:

      How big was the riot grrl scence in western australia? I only really know and love The Saints and the Go Betweens. I think the trajectory you explain is basically the same with Portland except that it also witnessed a prolonged period of migration from different parts of the usa. So many people who i went to school in olympia ended up moving there it is often pejoratively referred to as big olympia.

  3. negative potential says:

    “I only really know and love The Saints and the Go Betweens.”

    Not the Birthday Party??!! 😉

    • HR says:

      Uh, due to my incredible ignorance, I thought Brisbane was in western Australia, so i was going for what i thought were western oz bands.

      If were talking oz bands in general i love the birthday party, the easybeats and early ac/dc. I’m also partial to some of the stuff by the laughing clowns and I need to get around to checking out some of the other stuff while i brush up on my geography.

  4. Kambing says:

    Hah, yeah, Perth is actually an incredibly isolated city, and so has been somewhat less (sub)culturally significant. Queensland may have a reputation as the Australian equivalent of a ‘redneck state’, but at least Brisbane is in relatively accessible touring distance of Sydney. Getting from Perth to other Australian cities is about the distance from London to Istanbul, but with mostly empty desert in-between.

    The Scientists were an influential if somewhat obscure ‘post-punk’ band back in the day. Riot Grrrl was actually before my time in Western Australia, but my (not especially well-verified) impression is that there wasn’t so much a local scene as there were some people who identified with/consumed products originating from scenes in the UK and the USA, and to some extent the eastern states of Australia. There were some zines and such, and probably a few local bands, but I think it was experienced more as a diffuse current within a more generic ‘alternative’ scene, with key centres of creativity located elsewhere.

    In the 90s Perth was known for spawning a bunch of rather pedestrian indie pop bands, tyically exporting the more successful ones to Sydney or Melbourne. Going back to the 70s and 80s, a lot of Australian punk, post-punk, goth etc bands were really as much British as they were Australian – for example, The Birthday Party only became The Birthday Party in London. Relocating to London is no longer an inevitable part of an Australian ‘alternative’ career, and there is now much more of an orientation to making it in the States (playing South by Southwest, etc). But heading to Melbourne is still pretty standard for the Perth scene (and for artists, writers, designers etc as well as bands).

    • HR says:

      The Scientists, Radio Birdman and Rose Tattoo are three bands I’ve hard in passing that i’ve meant to hear more.

      Trivia fact Grant from the GB’s wrote cattle and cane on nick cave’s guitar when they shared a house in ldn.

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