The minutia of daily life revealed in the pages of local press is impressive in its mundane simplicity. Nevertheless, the importance of local news media is clear as one can begin to measure a personal sense of belonging to their surrounds based their association with the stories being printed. Local media are most likely to feature items of familiarity and instant recognition for readers: names of people they know and places that they’ve been to. You might find a majority of the content banal and uninteresting, but what about the salacious gossip about the mayor, vandals defacing property near your home, or petty crime only two streets away?

Local crimes are heinously too close for comfort, yet full of intrigue. On the front page of The Herald or The Bugle, they provide an opportunity to break the monotony of daily life which is rarely missed. Indeed, it only takes news of a nearby shooting, knifing, robbery or car accident in the vicinity (fairly regular occurrences in New York, anyway) to recall how attached we remain to the physical spaces of our immediate environs. Local press is therefore as effective as national press in provoking emotional responses.

It also comes to act as a repository for banal activist behavior (local protests, village meetings and counteroffensives) and collective sentiment at a highly localized level. The voices of local residents are emphasized through storytelling in newspapers, alongside interviews and photos, designed to reflect this tiny microcosm back on itself. It creates, displays, and reinforces a sense of “community”. For these reasons, apart from any personal interest in my own town or city, I always read local news in the field. This daily practice allows the ethnographer to situate themselves promptly in local affairs and to glean amazing insight into the public mindset. What are people talking about, reading about, writing about; and what community events or social happenings are they attending?

Knowing what we know about the quality of some small-town journalism, we might think that the gossip-mongering stories are written for the lowest common denominator, but local journalists have their fingers on the pulse of the world, albeit a tiny, self-contained and self-obsessed one.

I’ve lived in the UK for about 8 years, but I still feel like a visitor here, and the local press never ceases to make me laugh (perhaps precisely because I feel like an outsider). British newspapers (or at least East Kentish local papers, which I am addressing herein) include a disproportionate amount of “gardening features” and other green-thumb specials like reviews of flower shows, crops-of-the-week, home gardening tips, and even discount offers on manure in the classifieds section (only 50p per bag? Is that a bargain?). Other common features are op-eds, reviews of musicians and events (The Slimy Eels played an impressive set to a sold out crowd of 3 farmers and a golden retriever at The Pauper’s Arms on Friday night…); pandering feature spreads regaling the achievements of local businessmen and aspiring entrepreneurs; spicy scandals involving public officials; and full pages devoted to the local celebrities and success stories like X-Factor finalists, alongside photo albums from children’s school parties, cats stuck in trees and all the other essentials of an eternally slow news cycle.

In short, local papers in East Kent are so depressingly mundane that they cheer up the reader by putting the rest of the world into perspective. Who needs all the dire prophesizing of international politics, war and famine across the globe when people have been letting their dogs defecate on a nearby beach? Now there’s something to fight for. And, joking aside, why not? Banal activism is an important binding force in dispersed local communities, especially those as lacking in social glue as the Kentish coastline near my university where even the flagship community social center is struggling to stay open. Local news, rather than reflecting this general malaise that affects a large proportion of the wind-beaten, underemployed native population of this part of Kent masks it with the cheeriness (sweetness and light) of garden parties and charity bake sales. Still, divergent moral systems and disjunctures between generations can be read throughout the pages and, especially, through reader comments.

Even in light of the instant globality of the Internet, local newspapers and websites are immensely popular because few walks of life fully escape their relevancy. Their self-serving view of the world puts into great relief popular impressions of overarching categories like politics, economics and “the nation”. The shared experience of newspaper readers allows for the creation of a sense of “imagined community” (Anderson 1991) and is therefore significant in solidifying nationhood by uniting readers/citizens through common symbols. It follows that this symbolic community transcends the immediate locality of the home, street and village to reach millions of strangers united by common citizenship. Local press in Kent fits this role by highlighting British “culture”, celebrity, celebrations, and everyday British activities, from gardening to pub quizzes to fish and chips.

However, at the same time, focusing heavily on the uniqueness of local life can also challenge the taken-for-granted logic of the nation itself (not least of all with the conservative majority in this area of Kent listing the failures of the state and extolling the benefits of taking power and control of neighborhood services away from “distant bureaucrats” and returning it “to the people”). In this way, local expectations can sometimes be at odds with more unifying national aspirations.

I have learned a lot of things about my Kentish neighbors from comparing popular newspapers with everyday observances over the years. For example, the Kentish are fed up. They’re fed up with foreigners and immigrants and asylum seekers. They’re fed up with taxes and politicians and liberal do-gooders. They’re especially fed up with Eastern European lorry drivers and the French. They’re fed up with terrorism and security and the police. They’re fed up with stingy laws to prevent people from doing things and costly laws that protect human rights. They’re fed up with poverty and lazy good-for-nothing free-loaders. They’re severely fed up with Brussels. I would say that they are fed up with being fed up, except I think that – as in many semi-rural locales – it gives their lives a sense of purpose, honor and determination. This is probably the same impression that any review of local papers can possibly present of a European town these days. But then, according to these letters to the editor of a local East Kentish paper, Britain should do its best to back out of Europe before it is too late:


If you ever want to get to the crux of life in your neighborhood, skip to the letters to the editor (or, in the web edition, to reader comments at the bottom of a news post). With the British elections looming, the committed local activists are out in force.

Kent, the garden of England, is home to many very rich people, which only serves to emphasize the gaping abyss between the “haves” and the poverty-stricken in this expensive county. Its proximity to London, France and the port of Dover mean that East Kent is the first port of call for many new arrivals. Not unlike Gandalf entering Hobbiton, asylum-seekers, immigrants and misguided holiday-makers alike are met with intensely disapproving snarls by local anti-migrant and anti-EU activists. This boils down to a great deal of astoundingly anti-European rhetoric that has steadily increased since the expansion of the EU, a move that allowed even more “foreigners” free travel into the UK.

To visitors thronging to the British Isles by train, plane and coach, the UK represents a land of plenty. To locals braving a long, harsh winter of recession and rising domestic living costs, there is simply not enough to go around. Luckily for the anti-Europe lot, Brussels is a good target. Centralized European plans to standardize labor, education, agriculture, law, and basic human rights, feed directly into the separatist attitude reflected in the comments above. All problems, from unemployment to the failures of the NHS are blamed on Brussels controlling supranational legislation from afar. It always astounds me that many Kentish – along with other likeminded Britons – like to speak about Europe as if they are not part of it.

In the run up to the elections this week, “vote conservative” signs dot the farmers’ fields near my university and I have been thinking about right-wing conservatives and small-town provincialism. I realized that a lot of the local sentiments expressed above have certain parallels with the complexities of Catalan nationalism and separatism that I have been exploring the latest section of my PhD thesis. In both the case of EU separatists in East Kent and separatists in northern Catalonia, Europe figures highly into local identities and worldviews supporting these movements.

Kent is a wealthy county in the southeast corner of England and East Kent is a key entry and exit point for the entire UK. Similarly, Catalonia, the industrially powerful region in the northeast of Spain, is a transnational portal that is in many ways peripheral to the Spanish nation-state. Girona province, where I did my fieldwork, actually borders on France and these borderlands have deeply complex and interwoven patterns of national association, with a great deal of Catalan nationalist support. Catalan separatist groups in this area typically seek the establishment of an independent state effacing the border between French and Spanish Catalonia. As a whole, Catalonia also has the highest immigration rates in Spain and, like Kent, acts as a gateway for migrants and newcomers to the country. Immigration issues loomed largely and were a subject of daily concern in the local press while I was in the field.

However, Catalonia’s liberal democratic history and largely well-developed sense of civil society are coupled with ongoing nation-building projects that, contrary to the Kentish attitudes above, center on a respect for, and aspiration towards, Europe. Being recognized as a nation within Europe – belonging in Europe – is therefore essential to the Catalan nationalist (and especially separatist) ideology. While Catalan separatists seek further distance from the Spanish state, they simultaneously seek further inclusion within Europe. On the other hand, the Kentish people like those sufficiently enraged to write in to their local paper blame Europe (and misled British politicians who blithely trust Brussels bureaucrats and give away precious state resources to their centralized coffers) for all local and national issues and ailments afflicting their immediate environment and the nation-state as a whole. They do not seek Europe’s support, its recognition or its approval as the Catalans must; rather, they wish to retreat from its oppressive grasp.

A similar argument acknowledging the wrongful expenditure of taxpayers’ contributions is typically cited by many Catalans as a key justification for further autonomy or independence from the Spanish state infrastructure that is iniquitously redistributing their money to other regions of Spain. Based on these surface observations, there is a certain manifestation of separatist behavior in both cases. The Catalan independence movement seeks separation (of varying degrees) from the Spanish state, but naturally supports inclusion into Europe as a symbol of legitimacy. The EU holds the key to the establishment of a new state for Catalans. However, whereas Catalans look longingly towards Europe and Brussels, Kent looks away from ties to the rest of “Europe”, which many residents feel they remain a part of only reluctantly or against their will. In this case, the EU holds the power to destroy the essence of Britain by diluting its identity and self-determination. Kentish conservatives therefore wish for Britain to define itself against the EU and look to strengthen the nation-state internally by building up stronger barriers against external influence (isolationism).

In short, Kentish anti-EU activists reject Europe, while Catalan independence movements need Europe. British isolationists in Kent (EU separatists) fear the deconstruction of the existing nation-state paradigm which gives them a prominent place in the world, while Catalan independentists must rely on reworking existing nation-state boundaries (namely, Spain, France and Catalonia) to achieve their goals to become an EU-recognized territory. Thus, the disgruntled East Kent conservatives and UK independentists want “out” of Europe while Catalans want “in”. Both responses are due to similar discontents caused by hyper-local issues (immigration, poverty, social fragmentation, lack of community, disrepair of public services) as well as national ones.

Drawing these comparisons has made me think about the pan-European relevance of some of the ideas that I am exploring in my doctoral thesis; namely, that understanding communal affairs on the ground in the field is key to unlocking larger issues surrounding communication, nationalism, modernity and technology. These are typically discussed and debated at home and in the streets through the idioms of immigration, culture, globalization and (acceptance of or resistance to) change. In my PhD research, I also explore how recognizing “otherness” and protecting against its influence is vital in determining self and society throughout small towns confronting an increasingly globalized world.

References:

ANDERSON, B. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso Books.

4 comments:

Fran Barone said...

via Twitter: JohnPostill @Frnnr leaving aside Anderson's imaginings, what about the *actual* cultural differences tween Spain and UK?

Hi John,

Thanks for your question. It reminded me of something else of yours that I’ve read:

"When we live and work in a foreign country we find that the national culture is ‘all over the place’: in people’s quirks and material culture, in their civil service and mass media, in their strange sense of humour. Alas when it comes to theorising the nation we ignore the overwhelming evidence, seeking refuge in 1980s constructivist metaphors of the ‘imagined community’ and ‘invented tradition’ kind." (Book review in Ethnos of Robert J. Foster (2002) Materializing the Nation: Commodities, Consumption and Media in Papua New Guinea.)

In drawing on Anderson’s print capitalism and the nation, I didn’t intend to present imaginings over culture. The concept of “imagined community” (like “invented tradition”) belongs to analysts and without context it is a deficient way of approaching the nation, print media and the role of both of these in people’s lives. Instead, I wanted to show how local newspapers allow individuals to focus, reflect and comment on daily needs and everyday activities that are more representative of actual culture. With regard to Kent, engagement with this type of media reveals not (just) a sentiment akin to “we are all British and we all share the same culture”, but “here and now in East Kent, we are different/unique, this is how we live, and these things that others might call mundane are important to us”.

I therefore hoped to emphasize local culture, or at least a more nuanced understanding of regional culture, so I tentatively spoke of the roots of separatist sentiment on the edge of Kent and the edge of Catalonia. For instance, in the field, I was repeatedly reminded of how culturally atypical of Catalonia the city/region was on the one hand, yet how representative of Catalan culture it was on the other. Wading through these conflicting sentiments was difficult. Among my informants, nation and culture were often used interchangeably and all “genuine” local culture was emphasized as emblematic of national culture (Catalan, not Spanish).

In Kent, on the other hand, locals rarely discuss the idea of nation under usual conditions. I hadn’t thought about Kent in anything like “nationalistic” terms until the recent run up to the elections, when a hyper-isolationist perspective became evident. The arguments around whether or not Britain is part of Europe which took place during election week reminded me a lot of the typical attitudes towards (the rest of) Spain and Europe that I encountered in Catalonia.

Comparing coastal Kent to the Costa Brava in more cultural detail, other than on the surface of print media, is a wider enterprise which I may need to give more attention. Thinking about your question has got me pondering both Kentish/British and Catalan/Spanish culture and their distinguishing traits beyond the parallels in attitudes towards nationhood or statehood presented here. Thanks again for your input.

johnpostill said...

testing

johnpostill said...

I am always suspicious of people's claims to cultural distinctiveness (or indeed, to the lack of it). I would distinguish between claims and empirical actualities. Claims are important (e.g. a widely shared sense of regional/national uniqueness) but they are only a small part of a cultural complex that encompasses a web of social fields, organisations, kin groups, economic practices, etc. How different is the culture (as in the total way of life) of middle-class families in Kent and, say, Cornwall? Not very different, I would hazard (whatever the locals say).

I see a correlation between the degree of political autonomy and that of cultural autonomy. The more power is devolved to a region (e.g. Scotland, Catalonia) the more its regional culture will evolve in distinctive ways, but within the severe constraints of a globalised modernity in which dominant languages and cultures (English, Spanish, French, etc.) continue to shape smaller regional cultures. My question would be: how divergent has Catalan culture become from that of the rest of Spain since the end of the Franco era in 1975? Is Catalonia embarked on a trajectory of growing cultural differentiation?

Fran Barone said...

I would say that, in empirical terms, Catalan culture has not become so divergent from the rest of Spain since the end of the Franco era (at least not more than the regional variation that has long existed. Although the end of the Franco era is an easy benchmark and obviously very significant in terms of democratizing reform, etc, perceptions of difference were instilled before and during the dictatorship, which fuelled their character later on.) However, with regard to whether or not Catalonia has embarked on a trajectory of growing cultural differentiation, with evidence from the Emporda, I would say yes. This part comes down to claims of difference as well as observable realities, since the former begin to influence the latter, especially in public policy.

Proving that the Catalan character and culture is inherently distinct from that of other Spaniards was an everyday preoccupation among my research participants. It usually simply centered upon showing that certain “culturally Spanish” traits were irrelevant. This mostly takes the form of basic substitution, like the burro for the toro, or distinct regional foods and festivities. A lack of vibrant public street life and nightlife in my field location was often attributed to the fact that “We’re Catalan” or “This is not like Spain”. Ditto that the Catalans are supposedly more “modern” and “hard-working” than Spaniards.

In the end, a preoccupation with differentiation is more a Catalan cultural trait than a Spanish one (linked to political/cultural autonomy, as you say). Regardless, such simple claims of difference have been magnified as the justification for protective cultural policies and the real effects of these types of claims are seen in educational programming, laws, public performance and especially linguistic normalization, which enforce this trajectory towards differentiation.

At the same time, I found that while some moderate Catalans recognize the projection of cultural differentiation as important, they situate themselves alongside the rest of Spain more in terms of similarity. They want to be equal members of a Spanish state that recognizes that Catalan culture is no more or less Spanish than Castilian or Andaluz culture. The official trajectory of some centralized Catalan policies towards further autonomy is at odds with this.

All of this requires that Catalans and Spaniards agree that they share mostly commensurate views of the world and of themselves, and see cultural distinctions as variations rather than something drastic. Claims of differentiation are never the whole story. In fact, the awareness of empirical similarity between the two cultures - even among the most nationalistic Catalans - is, I believe, a necessary foundation upon which to base claims of distinction. You have to play by the same rules to know who's winning.

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