Palm trees up the M1

Own or Other Culture

October 25, 1996

ONCE, after a lecture in Oxford that included testimony from a rural working-class local, Judith Okely was approached by a distinguished but puzzled anthropologist. How, he asked, had she managed to meet such a person? The lecture that produced this sense of the remoteness of the nearby is reproduced in this book and, with other fine essays, is used to explore the heterogeneity of all cultural spaces and argue for the displacement of the "exotic".

With two exceptions, the essays have been previously published and they range across Okely's fieldwork with English Home Counties Gypsies, Foucauldian analyses of her nine years incarceration in a boarding school and a rereading of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.

Her anthropological experiences up the M1 where "piles of scrap and smoking tyres were [her] palm trees and coral strand" play with creative paradoxes that come to great fruition in a new chapter on Gypsy and gorgio (non-Gypsy) attitudes to fortune-telling.

Okely presents an even more fascinating story: refugees fleeing the collapse of English feudalism adopted an exotic identity (that of the "Egyptian", and thus the "Gypsy") that gave them a direct link to privileged forms of ancient wisdom. Thus exoticised, Gypsies increasingly inhabited marginal times and spaces (fairs and householders' doorsteps) and found an economic niche as conduits between the everyday and the extra-mundane. Gorgio expectations and Gypsy identities became entwined, and the sceptical rationalist Gypsy played seer to the irrationalist insecure gorgios in search of wish-fulfilment. Thus Gypsies - who largely discount their ability to see the future - mimic exotic others, pandering to sedentary gorgios' fantasies of nomadic inheritors of an ancient tradition. This process provokes a fleeting allusion to Homi Bhabha's and Taussig's work on mimicry and mimesis but there is no elaboration of this. Elsewhere, Okely argues that anthropologists like herself who work in "blanked-out spaces on the anthropological map" are unconstrained by regional paradigms and have been able to draw on "theories from around the globe" but in fact this freedom is not evident here. The other new essay explores a similar set of fantasies about others; in this case recent populist feminist writings from the margins of anthropology that have idealised nonwestern gender relations. These idealisations, Okely suggests, were made possible by the almost systematic exclusion of such issues within the academy.

The final chapter examines the career of Harold Busby, the exotic Oxfordshire rustic, and Jacqueline Gregoire, a Normandy farmer whose resistance to industrial dairy techniques was a form of defiant wisdom on the margins of a disastrous "progress". Busby's experiences as a deserter in the first world war suggest the career of W. H. R. Rivers, a pioneering anthropologist whose later work on shell-shock has recently been immortalised by the novelist Pat Barker. Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart have persuasively argued that Rivers played anthropology's Lenin to Malinowski's Stalin and, while it is understandable that Okely should focus so much of her criticism on Malinowski as a fall-guy for a particular kind of anthropology, it is regrettable that alternative versions of anthropology's history are not explored more. Okely rightly notes the strange absence of Margaret Mead from British anthropology, but the airbrushing out of Rivers is even more curious.

Okely's engagement with de Beauvoir sustains a recurrent critique of an antique male (and largely Oxford) anthropology that tabooed women anthropologists' discussion groups and quietly deleted contentious footnotes from those writings that did make it into establishment journals. From a late 1990s perspective, however, Okely's articles seem curiously British. Okely proclaims her originality in exploring themes (such as the deterritorialisation of culture, and autobiography) that are preoccupying anthropological theorists, especially in North America. Yet these theorists are strangely absent from her bibliographies or are, in one case, mis-spelled. Okely makes a convincing case for the indefensibility of what she calls "exoticist exclusions" but paradoxically her Eurocentric focus works to exclude a vast range of non-European contemporary anthropologists working on parallel issues.

Christopher Pinney is lecturer in South Asian anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Own or Other Culture

Author - Judith Okely
ISBN - 0 415 11512 4 and 11513 2
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 244

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