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Exodus: “The Egyptians Drown in the Sea”, 1866, by Gustave Doré

In the beginning was the word, and the word was Brexit. But nobody quite knew what that word meant.

And then the oracle spoke: Brexit means Brexit.

What does it say about the prospect of Britain’s exit from the EU that the word itself became the preferred contender for its elucidation? No matter that many different messages were received, in Britain or on the Continent: “We will not backtrack,” “no half-way house,” “we are ready to pay the price,” or “your choice,” “it’s all over,” “good riddance”. No matter that some heard the word with glee, others with despair, remorse, hurt or sadness, the one mantra stood: Brexit means Brexit.

Since the 2016 referendum, we each have had our own way of dealing with the ubiquitous tautology. We have turned to the past and asked why. We have gazed into the future, trying to predict what will happen or prescribe what should. Explanations and Implications. Sociology and Policy.

And everyone’s hopes and fears converged on an EU Article called Fifty. With the trigger, we were now supposed to know: Brexit really means Brexit.

To clarify her intentions, our oracle decreed that there should be a snap election in June: “If you want Brexit to mean Brexit, don’t make June the end of May!” But the “about Brexit” elections came and went but still left us with the original question: what does “mean” mean in “Brexit means Brexit”? Whatever happens next in the negotiation saga, we know that there will always be people, trucks, firms, diplomats, trains, diseases, fads or songs crossing the Channel. A bit more or a bit less. But meaning, of course, is more than that.

Meanings matter, for we have entered a battle of narratives whose protagonists will spare no crude short cuts. Which one dominates the next two years will help determine the nature of the Brexit deal and maybe of the EU itself. But they matter for less instrumental reasons too. They matter to our individual sense of identity and connectedness. Meanings process feelings but do not transcend them. And as Roland Barthes famously argued, when the hidden narratives which sustain our societies rise to the surface, they borrow from the qualities of past fantastic tales, which help determine what we see. They become mythology.

Now, it is clear to any casual observer that the great debate between Brexiteers and Remainers has been powered by different historical mythologies or at least different readings of history having to do with “the mother of parliaments”, Henry VIII’s first Brexit against the Vatican, Wellington beating Napoleon, the Great War and its lost generation. But behind and beyond collective memory and the lessons we pretend to extract from history, there are other kinds of myths, great archetypal myths, sacred narratives which may provide a less contested terrain for our conversation.

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July 11th, 2017
8:07 PM
Charles VIII? Did no one proof read?

Mark G..
July 7th, 2017
9:07 AM
A very well written article, didn't expect something that good, thank you :) From a casual perspective Brexit could mean a lot to the UK, but in fact, the EU will probably maintain friendly and cooperative relations with the UK. Time will tell... Best regards, Mark from

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