Tuesday, April 7, 2015


This has been on my mind recently: questions about and satire of the Portland OR culture. Questions about "counterculture" as it is here, or if the "counterculture" doesn't really exist in Portland.

As I often do, I started with definitions and then see where things fit or don't; what paths or rabbit holes appear to give me a deeper look at the things I'm researching or writing about. The first thing that came up was from Oxford University Press, so that would seem to be a reputable resource to quote. And here it is:

  1. counterculture
    [ ˈkountərˌkəlCHər ] 
      a way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm:
      "the idealists of the 60s counterculture"
    Powered by OxfordDictionaries · © Oxford University Press

Oh, let me say right now that if you are hoping I will give you an answer, I won't. I don't know where the counterculture is in Portland OR or if it exists.

I was recently in an online humor writing intensive with Ariel Gore. I wasn't the only one who poked fun at Portland in the course. In the short one week writing experience there were several pieces about different aspects of Portland "weird." I have also been preparing to interpret "The People's Republic of Portland" at Portland Center Stage this week, which is about just this topic. I laugh at some of the jokes along with everyone else - the ones I know are probably coming in Lauren Weedman's show and the improv sections I've never heard before despite having seen the show several times. I nod in recognition of the characters she energetically shows the audience and laugh and the sometimes only mild exaggerations; the show is funny and she is great. And I think, yes, this is Portland and it's not all bad; but is it "counter"? (Side note: the show is worth seeing and it is running right now; if you want to see the interpreted performance it is this Thursday, April 9th, at 7:30 pm. Get your tickets soon as performances are selling out!)

When does "weird" become the norm? What does that look like? What does it take for the self-consciousness of appearing to be "counter-_______" (fill in the blank) to become the standard? Is it counterculture when there is a right and wrong, when there is pressure to conform, when the individual becomes the mass, and when the focus is inward toward individual or group? What is the counterculture countering? Or has it become so commonplace that there is nothing to counter? Has the Portland Weird Culture become so mainstream that we need a counterculture to the counterculture?

Or is the idea of A Counterculture outdated and we should just look at diversity, instead? What is the role of a counterculture? What has the role of the counterculture been historically and is that still true or still needed? If we don't really need a counterculture any longer, what has replaced it in terms of keeping us alert and alive as people? What keeps us from becoming a bland homogeneous unthinking mass which just plugs in to a pod and melds?

I'm not talking about the extremists. I'm not talking about the mentally unstable or sadistic or the outliers.

And here I start going down the rabbit hole of "what am I talking about?" What do I think is wrong? If I think something is wrong then what is missing or what would make it right?

What I do know is that it feels like "Portland Weird" has become just one more thing to conform to or to resist. One more thing to say "yay, I love it," or "boo, I'm better/worse than you." One more thing to make you feel better or worse about who you are.

Do we need a counterculture? Can or does counterculture exist? Or is this one more label to separate the "them" and the "us?"



  1. I think of the word "counter culture" as being rooted in the times when it was coined. I'm thinking of the late 60s and early 70s... Back when Walter Cronkite was the voice of broadcast news. It seems like there was much more of a shared monoculture at that point in time. With fewer voices controlling the mainstream, it was possible to imagine a unified counter force challenging what's "normal."

    Flash forward to 2015. The internet has shattered much of the mainstream. Instead of making a phone call via Ma Bell, you have to try to figure out if your friend can be reached via email, Facebook, Twitter... It is infinitely easier to find other weirdos like ourselves out on the internet -- which has strengthened queers, model train enthusiasts, cancer patients, and neo-nazis all at the same time. Remnants of the monoculture stand -- but there are so many vibrant subcultures everywhere in the digital domain, the very concept of a mainstream is less obvious than it once was.

    That said, I imagine there are still communities where it's very appropriate to talk about counterculture. Go to a community in the middle of Montana that has just one health food co-op where you can buy tofu, and suddenly the freaks stand out like a sore thumb. Places where patriarchal Christianity has reclaimed ground -- or never left in the first place -- these are are areas where you discover an identification with the local counter culture that you never even had to consider while living in a diverse, urban, often progressive city like PDX.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Sven. I agree and appreciate your well written thoughts.

      Yes, this: "there are so many vibrant subcultures everywhere in the digital domain, the very concept of a mainstream is less obvious than it once was."

      I had similar thoughts about the fact of even being able to consider the question of counterculture and the concept of mainstream. Recently, on a couple of small road trips, we have been in small towns where there is a strong mainstream and, as you said, the one health food co-op or the corner of the local store. The members of the counter culture there are very visible and minimal; I'm sure the conversation there is very different than in Portland And we did choose where to stop in those small towns based on our "identification with the local counter culture," when there was that option.