The Vulgar and the English

At the Barbican Centre in London, there was an exhibition on called The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. The exhibit explored what taste meant in the fashion world, directed by Adam Phillips’, a psychoanalyst, definitions of vulgar.

Previously, I have never given much thought to the word vulgar, but the exhibition made sure I left with my head buzzing over its various definitions.

At first, I coupled the vulgar with something that is commonplace, lacking refinement. Then I wondered how I judged something to be commonplace and came to the answer that the vulgar is subject to the individual. The definition changes from person to person, depending on their own views and placement within the social hierarchy (despite their, if any, resistance to such a concept). Through this perspective, the vulgar sits within a circle of fear, fear created by the social hierarchy through what it represents. It can represent the common in the eyes of the so-called upper classes and it can represent the lack of taste by the seemingly fashionable.

Phillips comments that the word vulgar is used to describe the excessive, such as a dress that is too popular and a person that has too much money. Katie Fox, a social anthropologist, remarked in her book, Watching the English, that the English are wary of appearing anything more than modest and hold a fear of the obvious. For instance, if someone is obviously smart (and does not hide it under several layers of humour and shame), they are too smart, and if someone is obviously loud (and, again, does not hide it), they are too loud. As a nation, humour underlines almost every exchange the English has and they use subtle irony to turn an awkward or overbearing situation into something more manageable for their modest tastes. The vulgar, if seen through this light, is a scapegoat (to use Phillips’ own word) and is used to describe anything that is too much for the English to handle.

This fear of the vulgar as excessive can relate to Phillips’ comment that the vulgar is also a form of longing. The English may unconsciously long for a way to end their bizarre fear of arrogance. They may even long to be as loud, or as popular, or as smart as they wish without social repercussions.

To manage the vulgar as the excessive and a form of longing, the English use humour, which also includes how they manage their pleasure. They enjoy using humour, find pleasure in using it and, as it is socially acceptable to use, they use it all the time. Katie Fox aptly comments, “We can only calculate the value of humour now that we have seen what the English are prepared to sacrifice in its honour – things like clarity, certainty and efficiency”.

Humour is a socially acceptable alternative of the vulgar. The vulgar sits within society’s circle of fear, both outside of the social order as well as within it. It is both a pariah and an escape from the social order, as it is something in which pleasure and taste can not only be found, but defined. The vulgar is a contradiction that distinguishes what is socially acceptable and unacceptable; it bridges the common and the special. As Phillips remarks, “Vulgarity is…taste out of order”.


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