Ross Smith on social identity in the Metro

When people describe a city’s construction in its simplest sense, they tend to discuss the architecture, the way in which the streets and roads intersect, the way nature is embedded within the urban infrastructure to take away from the far too often grey and industrial skyline. All of these things create a social identity and a sense of belonging to said particular city. What doesn’t often get discussed, however, is how the formation of the city from below creates a social identity. A huge advancement in the structure of the city is the construction of the undergrounds. Metros, subways, undergrounds (or whatever you wish to call them) become fundamental in the everyday life of modern society and can be seen as a source of identity. Moreover, they have become marketable to general public as a tourist attraction so their iconicity can be seen in souvenir shops throughout the cities in which they reside.

ross-1 I have seen the above image on everything from phone cases to bed sheets. The symbol of the underground is now more than a useful mode of transportation for the busy commuter; it is a brand which is marketed in the same way as any other. When one thinks of the tourism industry in capital cities, such as London, you consider key monuments (Big Ben, The London Eye, Buckingham Palace….); why then do the overlapping routes of the underground appear on as many tourist souvenirs as other monuments? It would therefore seem that this suburban structure is something to be experience by the tourist as they would experience, for example, the London Eye or any other tourist attraction.

This then can be seen as a form of identity due to its iconicity; in the same way as a monument does, it tells a story of culture and history. With this in mind, popular culture representations become a broadcasted image of what it is to belong to a certain culture and creates one’s identity from an outside perspective. An example of this would be the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall which creates a sense of what it is to be British. As the heroic Daniel Craig pursues the enemy on the London Underground, he leaps on to a carriage as it is speeding out of the station to which two bystanders comment, “he must be in a rush to get home”. This blasé, relaxed attitude to this event which appears in front of them creates a sense of what it is to be British, and forms as much of the British identity as any other key monument due to its iconicity as a brand.

Therefore, the suburban space can be seen as a way for our own identities to be formed. It may seem insignificant in one’s everyday life, but from an outside perspective it shows the world who we are as a nation (it is common knowledge, after all, not to talk to a stranger on the London underground). This is similar to metros throughout the world; they provide an insight into the everyday life of the people of said particular city.

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Leïla Sebbar’s (2007) work Métro: Instantanés explores this idea excellently. She provides many examples of observations she makes on her day to day travels throughout Paris, which creates a collage of Parisian life: ranging from the dumb American tourist who calls her dog her baby, to the worried grandmother who tells her granddaughter to “faire attention” when talking to boys. This multicultural and breathing city is explored within this work, allowing the Parisian, and to a wider extent, French identity to be constructed through the metro. This construction also allows for someone to perceive their own identity from an outside perspective. A person living in Paris may not indeed recognise how their life is shaped by the metro, but Sebbar’s work allows them to engage with their own identity and to see how they are perceived by others.

It could be said, then, that the mundane aspects of the underground, which in day to day life do not receive much credit or attention, actually create a powerful portrait of the identity of a nation, and are more telling about the people of the city than the mere physical construction of it.

Ross Smith is an MA student in French Studies at the University of Sheffield.

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