watching the royals


Why so enthralled with the royal wedding?  It’s senseless to care about quaint, ceremonial institutions. Fairy tales and princesses – we’ve moved on, haven’t we?  We revolted against and removed the heads of monarchs and dispatched the ideas that held us in thrall and them in power:  divine right, heredity.  And with blood and politics ushered in emancipatory ideas to fill the void:  enlightenment, meritocracy, democracy and modernism.  Plebiscite, suffrage, revolution: these are the hard fought – and won – battles waged against the long pre-modern night.

To the wedding, reaction among my friends was pretty tepid.  Except for three Brits who donned their fascinators and watched on the BBC big screen in DUMBO and later the repeat in a bar in Brooklyn, no one seemed to care much. Each was one of nonchalant, bored, oblivious, mocking and categorically opposed.  Some were a mix.  I’m busy, we defeated the Brits, we’re anti-pomp, but mostly, we’re American, was the field of responses.

When Diana died, I watched, in the middle of the night in my east coast studio:  the cortege of the Princess, her sons, the princes and her shocked brother walking in black suits behind.  “The half muffled bells of Westminster Abbey ring out their quarter peal across an unusually still London,” said the announcer.

The bells pealed.  And they pealed again – for hours – when the newly married William and Katherine stepped from the bejeweled abby into the English spring.  And a livelier London along with other millions watched the carriages, and after the crowds, make their way to the gates of Buckingham to see the newly weds stand and wave and kiss on the palace balcony.

What a strange place we occupy:  in the modern world but held in a spell by the Kings and Queens of England.  An in-between.  We seem to want again what we violently and rationally got rid of.  Make us your subjects, is our implicit plea.


In the interview excerpted below, the philosopher Simon Critchley tells us there are two ways to understand tradition.  The first is the most obvious and accepted:   tradition is something that is passed down to us from our forefathers; it is reliable, changeless and unquestioned.  The second definition of tradition is less understood and more than a little ironic:  a tradition that challenges the status quo and is transformational.  The first form is sedimented, meaning it has settled and all of the realities that made its forms originally are now obscured by layers of politics and resistance.  The second form is called reactivated, which means all of the originating catalysts and impetuses are revealed and reengaged giving full meaning back to the tradition.

Could it be possible that an emancipated,  modern and globalized twenty first century crowd that watches young royals being married, that swoons and falls under a spell, is engaging in this kind of transformational tradition?  That we transcend the mere cynicism of the politics of the monarchy to allow ourselves to be possessed, to sit in awe of something we can’t understand and to bask in the loss of our daily condition of knowledge and control?  Is it the relief, that the gears of heaven are turning, that there is something bigger than us, that is so spellbinding?


I’m left wondering about the American reaction:  they remain outside of the spell.  In a coffee shop, as I’m writing this, a blind man stumbles with his stick under his arm, his brail copy of Harpers magazine, a cup and brownie plate.  He bumps and bobbles; he is determined to set them down at the register.  His extreme sense of duty to clean up after himself is, quite frankly, insane.  But as we all know, self reliance is the hallmark of the American scene.

In a brief time, in a single day at the end of April, London and the world stopped scuttling about, fussing after their lives and allowed themselves to be swallowed into the mystery that is the wedding of a future king and queen.

Here are the definitions of tradition in the excerpt from How to Stop Living and Start Worrying:

What I want to show is the link between historicity, tradition and the possibility of transformation.  So to summarize:  tradition can be said to have two senses.  We can talk about a tradition as something inherited or handed down without questioning or critical interrogation – this is a conservative idea of tradition – as acceptance of doxa, of common sense.  Common sense as a guide in political and social life, what people like John Gray sometimes call political realism.  And secondly, tradition can be something made or produced through a critical or deconstructive engagement with that first sense of tradition, an appeal to tradition that is in no way traditional, which is a phase that Derrida uses in Violence and Metaphysics.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Simon Critchley


2 Comments so far
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For us it was an excuse for a bloody good neighbourhood block-the-street meet-people-you’ve-never-met party with bagpipes, singing and drinking. You would have liked it
Even if – like myself – you’re no fan of monarchs.

Comment by blackwatertown

Is that a knees up? I was invited to a party but ended up watching it alone – in the middle of the night – like most North Americans. And of course, you’re right, the best thing is the party.

Comment by Peter Rudd

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