The issues discussed in the Disorientation Guide are real and require our attention. Reading the work of the anonymous authors, I was proud for the first time to be a part of the Hopkins community. It has never been a secret that “many students... actively volunteer... without critical reflection on the motivation behind their involvement, or the relationship between the organization and the community with which it is involved.”
Understanding this realization to be true, many students are disillusioned. It is difficult for us to resolve the deeper philosophical issues at play. Like, what is the point of being a part of society if I believe it to be corrupted and irretrievably perverted? We ask ourselves, why should I be the only one not to succumb to the semiology of cliché? Why should I be responsible for fighting the tyranny of the status quo?
Or, to quote the economist, “What is my incentive in this?” Or, to quote the environmentalist, “Is there an alternative?” Is it even possible to intellectually coerce an alleged “rape-y” frat boy or anybody without an open mind? Is there a thoughtful answer to give a guy that throws up his hands in the middle of a discussion of sexual assault to ask a question?
Ultimately, the JHU Disorientation Guide falls into the same trap as other calls for political “empowerment.” While they succeed at criminalizing the content of the system, they also endorse the same notions of political thought that created the criminal content in the first place. We are yet to construct a political alternative to the system as it currently stands.
Institutions are cultural artifacts. An institution can only be understood through the cultural context in which it exists and operates. To better understand the nature of this abstract artifact, let’s try to talk about a concrete one, the Vase, based on an example given by Jacques Lacan in “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis.”
First, a vase is, by nature, practical. Its usefulness stems from its structure. A vase comes into being when we create for it an “inside” and an “outside.” We create for ourselves an opening, but it comes with a set of “limitations.” There is an “exterior” and an “interior” that did not exist before. It is a trade-off — the Vase and the Institution are both instances of productive, purposeful stratification.
But the “content” of the Vase has no presupposed limitations. You can fill a vase with water, with marbles. You can draw pictures on the outside or adjust its width, height or materials. In the same vein, we can write and rewrite the rules that govern us. We can dismantle the institutions that oppress us. But we cannot control the “content” of an institution.
We cannot even conceive of the situations that might arise, even within the most carefully constructed set of limitations. The content of an institution is flexible; it can change. But at the end of the day, if a vase breaks, we replace it; we find another vase.
Artifacts of all kinds presuppose a redundancy of form. All the so-called “progressives” offer to us is an alternative set of norms. They provide a prototype for yet another vase. This is why we cannot stop at changing the content of our institutions. We cannot merely reject on principle the virtues of oligarchy; it is not enough to proclaim oneself to be a feminist or to negate the notion of racism; it is not enough to be an “activist.”
For example, were the authors of the JHU Disorientation Guide being serious when they asked if SAE and WaWa were in a competition for the title of “rapiest” frat? Could you conceive that exceptional individuals might exist, even with a stratum you despise? What exactly are you doing, if not relying on the same forms of rhetoric that the patriarchy employed to oppress you? Why start throwing stones?
It is good that there now exists some kind of consensus. We all should recognize that the problems that plague our society are best understood as the byproducts of hierarchy. They are political in nature. So if we are serious about making change, then we need to re-envision how we conceive of the realm of the “political.” The answer is not “to return to anarchy.”
Maybe instead we should return to structural concerns. For example, do we really want to believe in a phrase like “political theatre?” Must our goal be to dominate the “political stage?” What do we need a stage for anyways? The ancient Greeks invented politics, they invented theatre. Both were meant for “catharsis,” not for women or slaves.