Total Institutions

„Why would I question them? They’re a nice bunch of people and it’s always fun to hang out with them,“ you might hear one say. And it seems all right that way, with the boys from the fraternity: Every week they go out to have a blast together – they play drinking games, sing their own songs, laugh at their own jokes. What on earth should be wrong with that? Likewise, what on earth can be wrong with having your own little world to feel comfortable and confident in, your own little universe in which you’re part of something and in which you’re recognisable by a pretty distinctive feature – membership?

In theory, and in theory only, there is nothing wrong with that. We create our own little worlds all the time – our circle of friends, our family, our relationships, our workplace are all but small worlds that we belong to in a multitude of ways. It isn’t strictly bad  either that these worlds are sometimes more, sometimes less exclusive. The positive effects of such ‚worlding‘ have their limitations, and its peculiarities, however: Fraternities, as I have had the chance to experience them up close throughout my time as a student in the Netherlands, share some common features with boarding schools, college campuses (not unlike the one I lived on), and, forgive the distasteful collation, groupings that serve as breeding ground for ideological fanaticism of whatever type. Let me try to illuminate this perhaps more, perhaps less wildly acrobatic position in the next few paragraphs.

Islands of isolation

First, let me outline the concept of ‚total institutions‘ as outlined by famous Canadian sociologist Ervin Goffman. Goffman was an extraordinary observer of the everyday and certainly had an eye for the nuances of the inter-social encounter even in the most mundane of contexts. He would therefore skilfully disentangle some of the patterns that we as human beings reproduce in a multitude of situations – patterns which, sometimes, may contribute to the functionality of the social encounter, but which at other times might very well work toward the opposite end as well.

In his 1957 paper On the Characteristics of Total Institutions, Goffman presents his idea of absolute social settings for the first time, an idea that has henceforth been applied to an as compelling as illuminating variety of historical, political, philosophical notions. To begin with, total institutions are characterised by a sense of unity – they are places in which people may voluntarily congregate or involuntarily be confined to the end of the unitary character of it as a whole. One may think here of The Party in Orwell’s ‚1984‘, a bleakly dystopian novel about a future (and, as many among us may claim, a present) in which all social, political, cultural life is controlled by one omnipotent Big Brother and his omnipotent Thought Police. The Thought Police, in this case, is in some sense the ’nasty edge‘ of life in ‚1984‘, the undercover unit that makes sure everything is kept within its boundaries.

Daft devotion

Today we can see something of the like, though in a considerably less violent way, in the EU’s Frontex border agency, doing the nasty work for the sake of integrity, but then inwards. Only the EU is not a total institution: It contains a highly diverse space in which each constituent element seeks to retain its own version of sovereignty – something that only sometimes overlaps largely enough to bring about integration, as Brexit has most recently proven. A total institution is more than a unit: It is namely also characterised by some features its members share, most importantly a notion of subscription or even submission that is essential to the survival of the institution’s being total.

Goffman divides total institutions into five categories: Those that aim to care for the vulnerable, such as orphanages; those that are to care for those who are vulnerable but need to be separated from the rest of community, such as psychiatric hospitals; those that are erected to protect the community from whom it deems dangerous, such as prisons, but also concentration camps; those that are to increase the collaborative efficiency of its members, such as work camps, boarding schools, or army barracks (and, as I would add, college campuses); and, ultimately, those that serve as a complete retreat from society, such as monasteries.

Fratboys and fanatics

Now, second, we can apply this concept in a way that should make some of the similarities between boarding schools, college fraternities, and white supremacists more distinctly visible: What they have in common is that all three of them create spaces in which you eat, drink, laugh, cry, hope, struggle, learn, think together. This can be a good thing, as I’ve said above. But the larger the extent of the totality of such an institution (and by institution I don’t necessarily refer to a physical place), the more likely it is that the nature of that space takes a firmer hold of its content.

As much as a rectangular house will most nicely fit rectangular furniture, a particular kind of all-encompassing space will encourage the fitting of a particular kind of lifestyles, behaviours, remarks, thoughts. And it is equally inevitable, it seems to me, that such a space would be structured along some hierarchy – again, the extent of such a hierarchy would then mediate the salience of the institution in the eyes of its members. The firmness of the grip makes for the ease of escape, this being not so much a matter merely of freedom, as one may always claim to be acting according to one’s own will, even if in the shadow of one’s membership.

Community as exclusion

Much more is this a matter of the independence of one’s mind: of its permeability, yes, but never a permeability at the cost of its confidence. Just as much as European integration, to refer back to the above example, cannot be about the giving-up of the own standing of each of its constituent members, but only (at least considering things as they are at the moment) about their approximation. So how much fun does one permit one’s total institutions to be before they turn against the soul of one’s mind? How much does one want to dissolve into the sea of total unity before that very unity becomes one self-defeating exercise of absolute freedom?

Drawing parallels between boarding schools and brotherhoods, colleges and cloisters, or fraternities and fascists, is not about cynical looks down at the strengths of someone else’s social bonds. Much rather it is about making visible the commonalities that do exist between different instantiations of one and the same tendency: To merge group efforts ever more into one totalitarian fantasy of sticking-together which renders community an act of exclusion. Totalitarian thinking is not as distant as its relegation to dystopian novels or history books may let it seem, and it is up to everyone to render community an act of inclusion, a belonging without longing, and a together-ness without an against-ness.

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