it’s a hell of a town.
The schoolyard’s up
and the shopping mall’s down
— Bart and Milhouse (Boy-Scoutz ‘n the Hood)
The town of Springfield, USA, is one of the most recognisable fictional places ever created. Alongside the cavalcade of characters, Springfield has everything it needs to be constantly self-maintained.
It has a media industry (Channel 6, Itchy and Scratchy, the Springfield Shopper). There is the nuclear power plant, educational facilities like schools, two universities, and daycare. The local government is lead (in)ably by a corrupt mayor and it has a local police department, similarly inept, plus a congressman or two. Springfield also has something of an (un)believable geography featuring a port, a river, a lake, a canyon, a forest, a significant mountain, and more.
As Bart and Milhouse sang in Boy-Scoutz ‘n the Hood, it is a hell of a town. Interrupted in their song by a lost sailor, who sings “New York, New York,” the children direct him on:
New York is thataway, man!
For New York to be ‘that way’, Springfield must be this way. It must at least have a way to be.
Created entirely in a fictional media product (The Simpsons), it easy to recognise in Springfield what Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community”, where ‘imagined’ corresponds to fictional.
While Anderson wrote primarily of nations as imagined communities, he also argued “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined”. Thus, the formulation of ‘imagined’, does not necessarily mean fictional, but it does denote a shared imagining: “in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.
The denizens of Sprinfield, fictional though they might be, show a strong sense of loyalty to their town. They regularly campaign for it’s improvement and protection, even when such developments (the monorail, for example) seem antithetical to good sense. They abhor or are at the least disinterested in outsiders, particularly those from neighbouring Shelbyville and “the latest rock band to die in our town”.
Springfield is both a political community and a physical place for its inhabitants, even if it is inaccessible to those outside. This accords quite strongly with geographic conceptions of place as being
sensed in a chiaroscuro of setting, landscape, ritual, routine, other people, personal experiences, care and concern for home, and in the context of other places
For Doreen Massey,
what is special about place is precisely… the unavoidable challenge of negotiating a here-and-now (itself drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres); and a negotiation which must take place within and between both human and nonhuman… This is the event of place
Place is a phenomenon that largely comes about from the sensing of people within it, and the experience of negotiating movements in and around place, especially alongside other people and objects.
Springfield, then, has everything it needs to be conceived of as a very real place. Despite being fictional, it corresponds fairly well to both Anderson’s imagined communities and the Relph and Massey descriptions drawn on above.
Throughout The Simpsons’ extraordinarily long run, many episodes each have dealt with the challenges of negotiating one’s role within a broader community, of negotiating a sense of place, and of relating not only human others but to nonhuman others as well.