Mysteries of culture (exhibit 231)

This is my last day in Cologne.  I get on the plane and home in a couple of minutes. 

Two things are circulating in my head, pre-take-off.

First, after the conference yesterday, I went trooping off to see the Cologne cathedral with four Britons.  We decided to climb to the top of one of the towers, and it seemed to take for ever.  Or at least 20 minutes.

The way up the tower is a narrow stone passage.  But the final third of the passage is done in suspended metal stairway inside the tower.  I don’t think of myself as being afraid of heights, but half way up this stairway, lights of alarm began to flash in my head.

"You go ahead." I said and returned to the base of the metal stairway.  About 10 minutes, my new friends came back down.  Then one by one, they told stories about moments in their lives when they suffered a fear of heights.  

You don’t have to be an anthropologist to see what was happening here.  They were papering over my embarrassment.  They were coming to my psychic aid.  They were closing ranks.  I believe this is standard cultural form.  I wasn’t giving off embarrassment.  At least I don’t think I was.  So they were not responding to an emotional signal to me.  This is standard package stuff, I think, something you do when someone in the UK suffers a loss of face or standing.

I saw this kind of social solidarity last week in London.  People apologizing.  Lots of "after you, Alphonse."  Reams of self effacement.  As a Canadian I am pretty tolerant of this kind of thing.  Indeed, I produce quite a lot of it myself.  There are moments when I can tell my American friends just want to shout, "Got it!  You are a humble, unassuming man!  Can we take that as read, AND JUST MOVE ON!"  

This social support can take on an aggressive edge in the English case, almost as if people are policing one another.  It’s as if people are entertaining the fear that someone will jump the real or figurative cue, that someone will make a scramble for any of the capitals on hand.  They are in some sense watching one another for any sign of self aggrandisement. (At Russell Davies first Interesting event, one of the sponsors spoke a little too long, and someone in the audience shouted, "shut up and sit down.")  

Which raises a problem, anthropologically speaking?  With all this social scrutiny, how does an individual ever individuate.  How does anyone ever go against the grain?  How does anyone produce self advertisement or assertion?  How does anyone ever break ranks? 

This is a compelling question because the English are after all famous for cultural invention of the most spectacular kind.  There is (or was?) some mechanism that gave people a way out.  We know that the class system, in its most hierarchical moment, allowed high standing people out of the codes the bound other people.  (Have a look at the sumptuary legislation and you see that freedom from the rules comes at the top of the hierarchy as an act of exception.)  And in any case, again speaking anthropologically, there have to be some devices that allow people out.  (This is a question for Kate Fox and her wonderful Watching the English.  For some reason, there is no copy installed in my Cologne hotel room!)

Second, consider the movie showing in my hotel at the moment.  One Crazy Summer (1985) is on…in German. What an ethnographic treasure this is.  And somehow I missed it.  I don’t speak German but that doesn’t matter.  This is so well formed culturally, so true to genre, that I can understand every word.

One Crazy Summer is Hollywood trying to hollow out the core of the Animal House melon some 7 years after it’s arrival at the supermarket.   But that strikes me in this context that there is not a single character in this film who would not be a total night mare in ordinary English circumstances.  Yes, of course, they are inflated by the act of film making and by the Preppie cultural moment from which it springs, but every one of these characters is noisy and self asserting in a way the British would find intolerable.  Especially Bobcat Goldthwait, but not only him.  Each character, whatever his role or her dramatic responsibility, is  making what the English would call a complete "spectacle of themselves."  Ordinary American practice, that is to say, is a apparently a systematic affront to the English social scheme of things.  

I don’t really have a closer here.  And I do have 5 minutes to get down to the lobby and checkout.  But perhaps this wee post is a Valentine to cultural difference, even in a place (nationality) and at a time when this difference is supposed to be going away.  Which leaves mem with homework.  Somewhere over the Atlantic, I am going to have to decide who I am.  

2 thoughts on “Mysteries of culture (exhibit 231)

  1. peter

    Grant — It is interesting that the people most prominently associated with the industrial revolution in Britain in the 18th century were religious dissenters – Quakers, Methodists, etc. The family which created Barclays Bank, for example, were Quakers. One aspect of their involvement was simple necessity – they were not permitted by law to attend University or to join the professions, and had no hereditary land or wealth, so they were forced to try other means to make a living. But another aspect was perhaps the breaking of ranks: if you have already disagreed with the majority over religion, then it may be easier to break ranks in other areas of life.

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