Automaton: The Fashionable Cults of America’s University’s
Over the last eight years or so, when I began college in the year of our lord 2016, the world has seemed to have gone through a tremendous shift towards polarization. Our society has seemed to leap in more robotic fashion to embrace totalitarian, tribalistic tendencies and abandon the individual struggle to search for one’s own meaning in life, the humane, the free and loving. Why is this trend towards the collective rampant in modern society?
This is a fairly common talking point and can be heard being parroted by the entire gamut of pundits and commentariat across the political spectrum. The usual search for the root cause of this cultural shift follows myriad veins of analysis – the erosion of the traditional media economy, the hollowing out of the American middle class, the denuding of Democratic principles, systemic racism and prejudice, Neo-Marxist capture of the university system; the list goes on.
If my dear reader has not intuited from the title of this piece, I am going to focus on the latter issue. The premise being, whether correct or not, that the university, for all its current flaws and woes, is the fountainhead of culture; the headwaters of all politics, popular media, journalism, jurisprudence, technology, innovation, etc. writ large. Where I may depart from the average critique or analysis of this more rare but still common enough sentiment is that I will make a more radical claim. The social systems within the college system are at root responsible for the glacial tribalism that is rife across modern society. The chief inculcating mechanism of creating citizen Automatons is the college fraternity.
I propose this analysis is germane to the Liminal submission theme of Automaton because it is just by this collection of youthful bacchantes that many of the nation’s young men and women are induced into the world of adulthood. In turn, much of campus social life revolves around these organizations. Naturally giving room for exceptions, this is broadly true across the vast majority of college campuses. It was certainly true at the university I attended, a “flagship” State University of New York that shall remain nameless. It is safe to say that fraternities and the culture promulgated within them are still highly relevant to campus life.
So, in turn, it is instrumental to analyze these deeply rooted institutions and their role in the forging of the youth of America. For if we can understand the processes of socialization occurring in these settings then I wager, dear reader, we may genuinely fathom a cause of the current polarization which is evidently an emergent product of so many people in the U.S. unable and/or unwilling to think and act for themselves; beyond their tightly held group identities across the entire swathe of the political spectrum.
Automaton – That which is self-moving, or has the power of spontaneous movement, but is not conscious.
In her in-depth, often funny and deeply disturbing piece in the Atlantic from 2014 on just this topic of fraternities, Caitlin Flanagan traces the origins of American fraternities back to Union College of upstate New York in 1825. She also repeatedly references the notion that colleges at that time, and for most of history before that, were seminaries and conducted under the auspices of monastic discipline.
This is a remarkably stark contrast from the present condition of most universities. Particularly, the large state schools that seem to primarily be in the business of a wealth transfer from the legion undergraduates and their parents and banking affiliates to the university faculty. Nominally in exchange for a degree that is increasingly tenuously supposed to represent competency and enculturation of a young person.
Looked at from an anthropological perspective, this elaborate system is quite similar to the many other universal examples of initiation rituals of a societies' youth into full-fledged adults, participating and promulgating their culture. However, our mass modern culture (some could argue post-modern and late-stage capitalist) has some important aberrations. Let us examine these within the confines of the typical fraternity.
If one is poorly versed on the goings-on of a modern fraternity, please allow me to enlighten you with representative resources and my own experiences that seem to corroborate an average experience. Caitlin Flanagan’s article is a great place to start. HBO has a fantastic documentary from 1998, Frat House, with a satisfying vintage aesthetic that does an excellent job exploring the subject. In my own experience, I rushed a fraternity just up until the point of pledging. I also had numerous friends in fraternities who were quite open with me about their experiences as they pledged and joined disparate fraternities on my campus.
I will provide a caveat by acknowledging there can many positive aspects of fraternities, and many good people who join them. There can be necessary development achieved within their auspices. However, the often-dark realities of fraternities and their culture shaping dynamics are immediately prescient to the making of Automaton citizens.
In short, the fraternities lure their pledges into a sadistic process that is rife with many abuses that cannot be justified. The pledges are made to vomit on each other, ingest heinous concoctions such as a gallon of milk and raw onion, they are locked in basements, thrown down stairways, drink copious and occasionally deadly amounts of alcohol. They can be made to do oddly homoerotic and homophobic things such as an “elephant train” by which pledges are made to grab each other’s penises from behind and form a circle. If anyone of the members should become stimulated or aroused, he is then humiliated and kicked out.
There are also equivalents on the sorority side of the equation. They tend towards social bullying and ostracization. They also have their own version of sexual humiliation such as forcing pledges to sit on a vibrating dryer while watching porn, then having an inspecting ‘sister’ check one’s panties for signs of arousal.
These and many other myriad acts of humiliation and degradation are endured over a semester, ostensibly in the name of winning lifetime friendship (that you pay for) that cannot be found in any other forum or by any other means than the way the pledges are currently experiencing. The promised land on the other side of this lengthy ordeal – parties; drugs, alcohol & access to hooking up with the hottest, most desirable girls or guys, a network of academic fraud buddies and post-graduation tremendous job opportunities from alumni.
Mind you, dear reader, this is for the on-campus fraternities. For the off-campus types these ‘organizations’ devolve into gangs. There are organized fights, heavy drug use, sexual assaults & rapes, etc. All purportedly in more dangerous (less supervised) and intense ways than the methods I described previously.
In addition, these festivities take place often in grungy, dilapidated houses that are not up to code. I’ve seen the entire floor shake several feet as several dozens of party goers danced on it. I’ve seen the colloquial ‘juice’ (Gatorade, fruit punch and cheap vodka or tequila) being made in grime encrusted bathtubs, which was then garnished with crushed Xanax (known as ‘bars’), just as a little something extra.
The detailing of this stark and gothic picture of the de rigueur of our nation’s premier social organizations is critical to understanding our current polarization. This entire dynamic is the making of automatons. From Bessel Van Der Kolk’s the Body Keeps the Score:
“Many traumatized people find themselves out of sink with the people around them. Some find comfort in groups where they can replay their combat experience, rape or torture with others who have similar experiences. Focusing on a shared history of trauma and victimization alleviates their searing sense of isolation, but usually at having to deny their individual differences: members can only belong if they conform to a common code.”
Seen in this light, beyond the bravado and chauvinism, with a sober eye, what do we see? Rampant promiscuity and objectification of sexuality, gang violence, blatantly cultish indoctrination, functional (or not) alcoholism, sadism and the like. All couched in language of eternal friendship and guaranteed success. These organizations are deeply instantiated financially and culturally in the institutions that purport to give our young people the best means by which to develop themselves into full-fledged individuals.
In fact, they are being taught brutal lessons of totalitarianism and conformity. Indoctrination is responsibility. Abuse is friendship. Dissipation and lasciviousness is the height of living. And so, many hundreds of thousands automatons are born per year. Simultaneously developing their skills as professionals and citizens within the auspices of the liberal arts tradition, they are also possessed by deeply toxic socialization, breeding a corrupt enlightenment and maturation. Like a star in a solar system, these organizations have their own gravitational weight that bends society to their influence.
To boot, their boomer chaperones and parents fondly look back on their own college days as the peak of their lives, totally unawares of the historical uniqueness that allowed such unfettered freedom of the sexual revolution and how it is in fact not desirable to replicate it.
If these dynamics be the bare, ugly, guts of the majority of our institutions of ‘higher learning’, can we be surprised that so many people in the last eight to five years have been so unable to demonstrate personal agency and virtue? Instead, we have seen the dramatic pull towards poles of fanaticism on both sides of the political spectrum. Is it so hard to see where and how these dynamics are inculcated? How if they are practiced over a lifetime they would manifest in very ugly ways on a political and cultural levels?
Dear reader, I think not.