The American Fear of Small Towns

Ytterligare en migrerad post

I have just finished watching what I think is the first half or the first season of the series Happy Town. This series has hit the air waves and the iPads at the same time as Haven and the Gates, and what they all have in common is that they are set in small towns or communities. And none of these small towns or communities are what they seem, and yes, of course, all of these TV-series are but bleak shadows of the original small town psychosis know as Twin Peaks.

This is no coincidence. It is twenty years since Twin Peaks completely took the world by surprise with its small town characters, eerie forests and thin, thin veneer of normalcy. The new series do not reach to this level and in fact, the difference in dynamics is quite instructive. Now, with a spoiler alert, the differences between the three series are differences between different fears of small towns.

In Happy Town, we meet a town plagued by memories of series of disappearances, and a mysterious rumour of a Magic Man, that could whisk people away at no notice, leaving only a personal effect and dead flowers for the relatives left behind. This Magic Man was never caught and he has grown in the minds of the townsfolk to legend. He is a close relation of Bob in Twin Peaks, representing, more than anything, fear of the Other.

In Happy Town you do not know if you are standing in line behind the Magic Man, or if the Magic Man is you neighbor. You only know that something about the town is terribly wrong. And then it starts again, with new disappearances, new mysteries.

In the Gates, there is only one normal person, and we, as watchers, are made aware of this in the opening sequence. After that we are asked to slowly identify with the one outsider and normal person in a community of vampires, werewolves and witches. The series – jokingly referred to as despereate weirdwives – is not about fear of the Other, but fear of the Others, plural. It is the classical feeling of being an outsider, not being let in on the secret, or the joke. The fear here is tinged with fear of the supernatural, rather than the human.

In Haven, finally, we meet a town that does not know its own secrets, and that does not believe them – or at least seems not to. The series is only on its first couple of episodes. The past is buried and the present weird, but clearly supernatural. This is the weakest of the three series, for that reason. It cannot settle whether it wants to inspire fear of Others or fear of the Other. It is almost as if we are asked to fear the place, rather than anything else. In fact, the references in the early series are more to the indian burial grounds and this being an old place of note, than to anything else. Here we have a mismatch between the haunted house theme and the fear of the small town.

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I think it is a valid observation that there is such a thing as an American Fear of Small Towns. Now, the US may not be unique here, but I believe this is predominantly a US fear (generalizing horribly, along the Weberian ideal types, of course). The unavoidable question then becomes why. I think the answer is interesting, and it ties in with some research I have been doing into concepts and philosophies of privacy.

The sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies discerned two different forms of social organization: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft – or community and society. He noted that older towns were organized with tight-knit social networks, where everyone knew everything about everyone else. There was virtually no, or little, privacy in these villages and the model comes with specific qualities like a high cost for failure and persistent reputations. As urbanization starts these small-knit communities dissolved into societies, more anonymous and open, and less restrictive in some sense, but also less caring.

The fear of small towns is ultimately a fear of community – and of the powerful social dynamics of the community. What we see in Happy Town, Haven, The Gates and ultimately in Twin Peaks is a community warped into something completely different, scary and almost otherworldly. We fear that (I think we all do) because we realize the vulnerabilities that come from living in a community. Correspondingly this is a strong component in some of our desire for privacy — not to be at the mercy of a community that knows everything about me and where the social dynamics are susceptible to all kinds of influences (supernatural or not).

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Historically, one could argue, this is a reversed version of the fear of strangers. It is the fear of friends. This, in a networked society, becomes an interesting turning point, and it connects us with the fear – or if that is to strong a word: the anxiety – we feel when we update our statuses, tweet and share our views in social media. Will we be accepted? What is actually happening in this recreated Tönniesian community where we find ourselves?

Ultimately, this may be the fear of tight-knit social networks.

The Art of the Post-Apocalyptic

En migrerad post från en liten engelsk blogg jag hade ett tag.

In the last few weeks I have directed some of my reading and thinking to the post-apocalyptic, for several reasons. I believe that the subject merits some analysis and I also think that it is a strong zeitgeist-element. In fact, our fascination with the post-apocalyptic is one of the strongest signs in the semiotics of our time, I think. We are not focused on the apocalypse as such, but at what comes after, the great big, grey swath of time that extends beyond the end. And our interest in the post-apocalyptic is becoming stronger and stronger. Just look at this Google Insights-graph over searches:

The rise of the post-apocalyptic

The perhaps most fascinating thing is the way this permeates modern art and culture in different ways (entertainment is the main category for the post-apocalyptic, the graph tells us, ironically — but the more interesting take away is that lots of the searches are categorized as ”lifestyle”…) Think of all the zombie movies set in a world after the End, or of the many novels that take place in a world that has collapsed. Not only fantastic art like The Road by Cormac Mccarthy, but also niche-literature like World War Z. Or think of Nine Inch Nails wonderful theme-album Year Zero. All works that hover near the apocalypse, but tend to push through, and end up in the post-apocalyptic.

Does a road actually lead anywhere after the apocalypse?

I think the genre as such presents an artist with a number of really hard challenges. How do you build narrative and meaning after having started your book with what is essentially the End? Well, McCarthy, of course, finds a way (by simply refusing to accept that as a given fact and asking the question rather than acting on the premise that post-apocalyptic narrative needs new formats). What I find truly disturbing and disappointing, though, is the number of writers who basically cheat by forming new civilizations. Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a great read, but not properly post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse was just that, a passage, not an End.

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What is it, then, in our time that pushes the post-apocalyptic to the fore? We are the children of nuclear deterrence, and we never got our apocalypse – shouldn’t we be amazed and thoroughly sick of focusing on Ends? The environmental debate and climate challenges in some of its formats bring it back, but overall there seems to be more optimism about the future today than thirty years ago.

Of course, you could argue that it is optimistic to think that there will be a ”post-” when the apocalypse hits. But that is not it. And I do not think that this is all tanathos in disguise, either (I am not freudian enough to believe in that). I think the root of our fascination for the post-apocalyptic comes from a secret desire for simplicity and for values. Life in the post-apocalyptic world turns out to be about values. The Entzauberung is gone, and the world has been re-enchanted and opened up to values again. Humans are no longer reduced to resources, through technology’s Gestell. Our longing for the post-apocalyptic is a longing for the return of moral value.

Ultimately, the post-apocalyptic genre, then, is conservative.

Addendum 2010-09-26

It occured to me when reading through this post, that this is exactly what the last song on Nine Inch Nails’ post-apocalyptic Year Zero illustrates, it is a quiet fear of digital nihilism, the lyrics a master piece of ambivalence between nihilistic despair and religious belief:

Shame on us/Doomed from the start/May God have mercy/On our dirty little hearts/Shame on us/For all we’ve done/And all we ever were/Just zeros and ones

Visslande flicka och Stagger Lee

Ryggskott. Svårt att sitta länge vid datorn, så jag läser. Lyssnar till musik. Detta är en fantastisk version av Wovenhands Whistling Girl. Tur att iPaden går att ha när man ligger på rygg. Hittade också en version av Stagger Lee som avslutas med en extravers om djävulen. Mellan Nick Cave och Wovenhand finns en punkt som min sinnesstämning just nu ankrat vid. Njut av Cave: