The BBC news channel recently broadcast a fascinating documentary on American film noir and its relationship to small town America. In it, the historian Adam Smith argues that Donald Trump’s election victory has highlighted the division between the cultures of the (corrupt) big city and the (innocent) small town. Although the demographics of the 2016 US election are far more complex than ‘small town America equals Trump, big city America equals Clinton’, there is a popular perception (propagated mainly by the urban based media) that it was the population of small town America that won it for Trump, whereas the more ‘liberal and sophisticated’ urban populations voted for Clinton. Furthermore, there is a sub-text that lies beneath this narrative: that somehow small town America equals ‘real America’, whereas the big city is a corruption of this ideal.
However, as Smith points out, this (perceived) division between small and big town America dates back to the Second World War and it was the genre of film noir which was used to critically explore and expose the underlying contradictions behind this rather simplistic differentiation. It is certainly true that some of the films in this genre portray the ‘innocent’ small town being ‘invaded’ by fugitives from the big bad city who are often trying to find a new life and a new identity (only for their past to eventually catch up with them).
However, there is another version of film noir in which the corruption lies at the very heart of small town America itself; in fact, such corruption is often rooted in the very attempts by the local populations to build a ‘real’ sense of community and an ‘authentic’ way of life. A classic example of this would be the lynch mobs of the deep South.
This idea of a ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ small town/village community that is in stark contrast to a ‘corrupt’ and ‘alienating’ urban one runs deep; not only in North American culture, but in European culture as well. Ironically perhaps, it seems to be an idea that is held more by people who live in big cities than by those who have been brought up in small town environments and who often can’t wait to escape them. In Britain this myth has manifested itself in the ‘escape into the country’ by many city dwellers, who then commute back into the very same cities that they have just escaped from in order to afford the rural lifestyles that they desired so much in the first place.
Of course, it’s difficult to say whether this myth of the rural idyll had much to do with people’s decision to vote for Brexit; in fact, bearing in mind that many Brexit voters live in large northern cities, at first sight this argument doesn’t appear to hold water. However, could it still be a useful metaphor for trying to understand the motivations behind Brexit? In particular, is there something in this differentiation between ‘real and authentic’ versus ‘corrupt and alienating’? Or, to put it another way, what is supposedly ‘real and authentic’ about small town America/England in the first place?
The short answer, of course, is nothing. However, this misses the point entirely, which is that it’s the differentiation itself that’s critical. In other words, ‘small town versus big city’ is simply a way to differentiate between ‘us and them’, ‘insider and outsider’, and so on. But there is a further twist to all this: such differentiations are an effect of language, of the Symbolic order itself. The problem, however, is this is not how they are actually experienced; the stranger from out of town is not looked upon as some form of linguistic construction, a way to differentiate between one signifier and another. Rather, the ‘stranger’ is seen as a real threat to the imaginary harmony of the imagined community.
The key point here is that harmony itself is based on the fantasy of non-differentiation, of a primordial ‘oneness’ or ‘wholeness’, which is exemplified in Lacan’s mirror phase. In this sense the ‘stranger’ is simply an embodiment of the Symbolic order, the Other, which introduces differentiation, dis-harmony. And this is not simply a rehashing of the well-worn idea of the ‘fear of the Other’, which is still in the domain of the Imaginary. In other words, this feared ‘Other’ is actually the specular, imaginary other, which constitutes the subject’s ego. Rather, the Other is the Symbolic order itself which threatens and violates the Imaginary wholeness of the ego.
How does this relate to Brexit (and Trump’s victory for that matter)? Perhaps it’s too easy simply to dismiss Brexit as ‘fear of the Other’, fear of change, of globalisation, and so on. On the other hand, a world based on economic and cultural globalisation, underpinned by liberal democratic, universalistic values, can come across as a very unsettling world indeed. One of the things it’s easy to forget about globalisation and universalisation is that these are very abstract, and in many ways, mathematical concepts. This is perhaps best epitomised by the flow of global finance itself, which is nowadays effectively controlled by a network of computers and algorithms.
And even the idea that all people should be treated equally (which is immediately undermined by the idea that we should all respect difference) regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, religion, disability and so on, is actually quite an abstract concept based on an abstract notion of ‘the person’. However this is not how people experience the concrete manifestations of globalisation and universalisation on a day-to-day basis. Rather, they experience it in terms of who their neighbours are, what they look like and what language they speak; the fact that all politicians appear to be saying broadly speaking the same things, none of which seem to relate to their own lived experiences; the fact that everything now seems to look the same, be it consumer goods, retail parks, high streets, and so on. In many ways the internet and social media has realised the dream of the global village – except that dream now feels increasingly like an overbearing nightmare.
In such a globalised and universalistic reality, one’s identity and sense of place in the world becomes increasing precarious and fractured. No wonder, then, that alternative visions of reality start to become attractive, especially if they promise to ‘give back’ a sense of belonging, of a sense of identity and a sense of place in the order of things. Of course, in reality Brexit offers none of these things, but this again is to miss the point. Brexit embodies both hostility to the abstract notions of globalisation and universalisation, and the promise of something far more ‘concrete’, something far more ‘real’ and ‘authentic’…