Portlandia and Postmodernism- Some Thoughts

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In TJ's latest article Why No One Throws 2000s Parties he describes aspects of the cultural flowering of postmodernity in the North American context. I was an editor for that piece and it was in my mind last week when someone recommended that I watch a TV series called Portlandia, a comedic sendup of some of the more questionable features of that postmodern culture. I thoughtp-landia this was uncanny timing, so I went home and watched most of the first season, giggling and cackling my way through at all the nuggets of truth in the show.

The series is a creation of Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen and musician Carrie Browstein (formerly of Slater-Kinney), and is produced by SNL's Lorne Michaels. It centers on a certain culture found in the US city of Portland, a place where, as the very first skit of season 1 announces, the "dream of the 90's is alive". Check out that clip to get a sense for the show and what it's going for.


Portland has an amazing local food and drink culture, one of the best bookstores probably on the planet (Powell's), great public transportation, and a generally quality vibe that makes it a favorite getaway destination of many thirtysomething's in Vancouver (myself included). Portland has a lot going for it for sure, but it's also host to many of those aspects of postmodern-hipster culture that are in my view genuinely worthy of a little parody. But it's not just Portland. I think one of the reasons that I personally find the show so funny, is that we have a couple places in these parts- Victoria and Nelson, BC in particular- that are full of all the same themes, memes and cultural patterns. Vancouver is no slouch in portlandia-we-can-pickle-thatthis department either. I'm sure there are many more places across the US where the target of the show's comedy also applies.

The thing is, I'm a quintessential Gen X'er who came of age in university in exactly the sort of milieu the show skewers, and I still share many of the same values with this postmodern zeitgeist. But there are also many aspects of this culture I find problematic, and I think the show does a good job of capturing those elements. For instance, I'm a huge supporter of the local food movement, and have written about it here at the site on several occasions. But, things can also get taken too far, and I think this next clip nails it; you can go from being a supporter of what I think is a crucial shift in our culture, to the asshole that ruins it for everyone, sort of like when people hate a band because of their fans. Check out these two ordering a chicken at a local restaurant:


I think one of my biggest beefs with this culture is how a-political it can often be. Now, I know people think that what they're doing is 'creating new culture', and is thus politically radical, but I'm sorry, buying a new shirt from the thrift store, having a potluck and riding a fixed-gear bike means very little when half of Greenland melted last week, income inequality is at record highs in a corrupt global economic system that's careening towards implosion or a nightmare police state dystopia or both, and whole sections of the US have become hell on earth for its forgotten and discarded citizens (to speak to the local context). I think we need something much more broad and sustained than these gestures, which are fair enough as far as they go, and postmodern (hipster) culture at its worst can slide into a certain myopic self-absorption that renders it largely politically impotent.

One thing in this culture that's never made sense to me, and is a case in point, is the dumpster diving movement. I actually had a friend in the eco-hipster scene in Victoria subtly brag to me that she was going to a dinner party where the food was retrieved from waste bins. The subtext was that this was an edgy kind of thing to do. I'm not so sure. While I appreciate the symbolic gesture in a society of such waste like ours, if you really want to be radical, battle a global capitalist system that creates millions of dumpster divers around the world on a daily basis. I find the hipster dumpster diving scene an absurdly inconsequential act in the grand scheme of things (not to mention kind of gross really), which was why I appreciated this good sendup of it:


Here's another part of the scene that's never sat quite right for me- the revival of all sorts of games and themes from our childhood. In Vancouver there was a movie theater that played cartoons on Saturday morning, and people could go there and eat sugary cereals while they watched them (and I believe some dressed up in pajamas and the like too). The clip below is the tale end of a sketch of an "adult hide and seek league" in Portland.

I was reading a sociologist the other day who talked about how the speeding up of time and cultural change in the modern period created a huge surge of interest in the past, in primitive cultures and all things historical. He suggested it was a fear based reaction that was trying to anchor itself in the familiar and stable world of the past to withstand the anxieties of the present. What's going on with watching cartoons in your pajamas and playing hide and seek? Sounds a bit infantile doesn't it? Well, I don't profess to know what this is all about, but I'm sure there's an important sociology paper in there somewhere. Here's the clip:


Lastly, it's the aggressive biker, a funny scene that pokes fun at the intense bike culture found within the postmodern milieu.


I'm sure some take offense at this comedy, and maybe even with some of what I've written above. But I also find parts of myself getting zingered in the show, and I appreciate the chance to shed some of my shadows gained within this culture over the past couple decades. And it seems that many of the folks in Portland are finding a good healthy dose of humor in it too, as evidenced by some of the commentary I've been reading around the web. In a New York Times article on the show a Portland resident is quoted as saying, “When it makes fun of the aggressive bicyclists and things like that, well, that’s stuff I complain about, too,” said Amber Rowland, 27. “But then I’m part of what it’s making fun of as well. There’s a kernel of truth in it, and it’s O.K. to roll with it.”Portlandia intro1

In another article that actually found the show somewhat malicious and out of bounds, the first commenter responded with this:

As a former Portlander, (current Boisean due to job circumstances), and hopeful future Portlander, I have to disagree with the author's statement that "viewers are encouraged to despise the characters". I love the show, and love the characters (indeed, I see a little of myself in many of them), and I do regard the show as a homage to that wonderfully quirky and eclectic town (and it's denizens). I do know a few Portlanders who don't care for the show, but I've noticed the common trait among those few critics is they tend to take themselves a little too seriously, and perhaps as a result, find it difficult to laugh at themselves.

All of this sounds healthy to me, a good way to poke fun at some of the lesser dimensions of a generally valuable cultural flowering. There's a certain negation in this that I think's necessary and timely, and I appreciate the unique role that comedy can play in helping to grease the wheels of this sort of cultural evolution. May the core dream of the nineties live on within future cultural iterations to come.

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