The useful anthropology of contemporary culture is a distressingly small library. (I have listed some titles below. This is not an exhaustive list, but neither is it a very partial subset of the complete universe.)
So it's a joy to welcome a new book by Kate Fox called Watching the English.
In the opening moments of this book, we find Fox summoning courage enough to continue her work. She is breaking the cue rule in an English public space, the better to see, exactly, what the cue rule is and how it works. (Roughly, the cue rule is, of course, "stand in line, wait your turn." But of course with all social rules there is lots more to it than that. More below.) Oh, perfect. You want quiet fury, try breaking the cue rule in an English public space. Thus does the anthropologist sacrifice her happiness on our behalf.
A book like this wants to honor its academic origins and objectives without failing to make itself agreeable, and I think Fox hits an almost perfect compromise. Watching is formal without being too writerly, and amusing without being too readerly.
But the real test is the simple one. Does the book illuminate things you did not see, does it reframe things you thought you knew, does it make the world more legible? Yes, on all counts. This is a book Anthropologists can admire and non-anthropologists can read.
There were a couple of quibbles for this reader. The older I get the more I think the secret key to English life might be Castiglione's The Book Called the Courtier. And there is no mention of it here.
Watching the English has the advantage of an intelligent choice. In the place of long and windy treatments of the meanings at large in English culture, Fox examines the rules at play in any given social situation. This has advantage of relieving Fox of postmodernist self absorbtion…and we actually learn something.
All social life is rule-bound, of course, but the English, living in the close quarters of a small island are positively Japanese in the codification of public life, and then in their secret, anarchic way, entirely Italian in their willingness to rework these rules in real time and on the spot. (Hence Fox's need to break the cue rule.)
The challenge of focusing on rules (and I haven't finished Watching so I can't say whether this is acknowledged by Fox or not), is that the English have historically had a habit of marking people of high standing by releasing them from the rules. (One of the privileges of being a Cambridge don is that the college "stay off the grass" rule does not apply to you.) This is precisely the logic of the sumptuary legislation of the medieval and early modern period. People of very high standing have access to everything, and this permission is gradually taking away as we work our way down the hierarchy.
And this brings us back to Castiglione. His idea that the courtier should conceal art with art is, perhaps, another way of saying not just that effort should not show, but that rules not apply. Certainly they should not ever be seen to apply. The courtier's grace is not rule-bound but intuitive, instinctive and therefore not very rule-ish at all.
But I digress. This is a wonderful book. It manages to do in a few hundred pages more than American anthropology has done in the last ten years. It shows how a Western, first world, culture works as a culture.
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