Thursday, March 31, 2011

Institutionalism of the Mind

I think I've referenced sociologist Erving Goffman's description of "total institutions" before, in the context of clerical society and specifically seminary formation.

What he means is institutions that take over an individuals life 24-hours a day, usually highly regimented, with constant surveillance, and a variety of resocializing tactics of control. Think prisons, boot-camp, mental hospitals, etc:
Every institution captures something of the time and interest of its members and provides something of a world for them; in brief, every institution has encompassing tendencies. When we review the different institutions in our Western society we find a class of them which seems to be encompassing to a degree discontinuously greater than the ones next in line. Their encompassing or total character is symbolized by the barrier to social intercourse with the outside that is often built right into the physical plant: locked doors, high walls, barbed wire, cliffs and water, open terrain, and so forth. These I am calling total institutions.
Of course, there is one more class of institutions which he identifies as fitting into such a category:
Finally, there are those establishments designed as retreats from the world or as training stations for the religious: Abbeys, monasteries, convents, and other cloisters.
This time, my intent isn't to again critique the elements of institutionalism among the clergy and religious life. That is disturbing, but at least since Vatican II a lot of that sort of explicit authoritarianism has loosened up a bit. Fewer seminaries have room searches or high walls around them now. Though, of course, the real control is always psychological, not physical like that:
First, all aspects of life are conducted in the same place and under the same single authority. Second, each phase of the member's daily activity will be carried out in the immediate company of a large batch of others, all of whom are treated alike and required to do the same thing together. Third, all phases of the day's activities are tightly scheduled, with one activity leading at a prearranged time into the next, the whole circle of activities being imposed from above through a system of explicit formal rulings and a body of officials. Finally, the contents of the various enforced activities are brought together as parts of a single overall rational plan purportedly designed to fulfill the official aims of the institution.


The stripping processes through which mortification of the self occurs are fairly standard in our total institutions. Personal identity equipment is removed, as well as other possessions with which the inmate may have identified himself, there typically being a system of nonaccessible storage from which the inmate can only reobtain his effects should he leave the institution. As a substitute for what has been taken away, institutional issue is provided, but this will be the same for large categories of inmates and will be regularly repossessed by the institution. In brief, standardized defacement will occur. Family, occupational, and educational career lines are chopped off, and a stigmatized status is submitted. Sources of fantasy materials which had meant momentary releases from stress in the home world are denied. Areas of autonomous decision are eliminated through the process of collective scheduling of daily activity. Many channels of communication with the outside are restricted or closed off completely. Verbal discreditings occur in many forms as a matter of course. Expressive signs of respect for the staff are coercively and continuously demanded. And the effect of each of these conditions is multiplied by having to witness the mortification of one's fellow inmates.
This psychological element of total institutions got me thinking about the possibility (and danger) of ideology of the fundamentalist variety imposing a sort of mental institutionalism. Which is to say, one not imposed by external coercion, but rather internalized into the person himself, even living out in the secular world with external freedom.

Most especially, I was interested in this statement:
A basic social arrangement in modem society is that we tend to sleep, play and work in different places, in each case with a different set of coparticipants, under a different authority, and without an overall rational plan. The central feature of total institutions can be described as a breakdown of the kinds of barriers ordinarily separating these three spheres of life.
In other words, in the modern world at least, we are accustomed to the "breathing room" caused by our domestic life, "personal" life, and work life being separate. The second category here he is calling "play" is a bit more vague, but I assume corresponds to time with non-familial friends and also alone on personal hobbies and projects.

What struck me about this was its resonance with a certain triad that seems to be present in traditional Christian discourse under a variety of forms, sometimes under or with a fourth more encompassing header.

The triad I mean is one suggested (though not always with perfect correspondence) in a variety of places. For example, the evangelical counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience could be roughly seen as lining up with the "three spheres" of work, family, and personal/social. This same triad seems echoed in the "three enemies" of Christians; the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

Traditionally, scholastic theologians matched these up with three signal victories or "aureoles" receiving special accidental rewards in heaven (in addition to the "essential" reward or "aurea" of the Beatific Vision): martyrs, virgins, and doctors. The "enemies" also could be taken to line up with the "concupiscence of the eye," "concupiscence of the flesh," and the "pride of life" warned against in First Epistle of St. John. In some sense, in the desert, even Christ's three temptations were one fleshly (albeit in the form of food, not seduction), one more directly demonic (on the pinnacle of the temple), and one of The World (and all its kingdoms). Besides the overarching header of "Life" sinned against in homicide, the remaining three sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance also seem to correspond to the greatest sins against, basically, sex, power, and money.

Why these three? Well, I'm not well-read enough to say completely, except that the Summa (and certain books on mystical theology I've paged through) suggests a marvelously elegant correspondence between not just these things, but also the virtues, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, the beatitudes, and the powers of the soul.

Specifically, it is suggested in the Summa that the crown of virginity corresponds to the concupiscible power of the soul (and thus also the virtue of temperance), the crown of martyrdom to the irascible power of the soul (and thus also fortitude), and the crown of the doctors to the rational power of the soul (and perhaps prudence). The fourth overarching category, of the free will and the virtue of justice, would correspond to the essential reward.

Now, if it is the faculties of the soul which are the subject of virtue, but also which sinfulness in fallen man tries to disorder and rip apart, it would make sense that Christian commitment or vocation (and the enemies thereof) would take the form of consecration, one way or another, of ones sexuality, economic life, and even one's very personal freedom, either in the form of marriage, where one shares ones very body, wealth, and mutual obedience with another, or under the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience in consecrated life.

In this way, all the faculties of the soul are integrated and then immolated before God. Even moving away from abstract powers of the soul, one gets the sense that psychologically, sexuality, labor, and personal power or control (over motion, free time, life decisions, etc) are the three areas which people are most reluctant to cede control over to another person or system, are most at risk of alienation from the person (and for labor, I mean that in the Marxist sense), and which it can be considered especially suffocating to surrender before one is ready to make a healthy immolation of the three together.

This is where I get back to my thought about mental institutionalism. I would suggest that many of the types of fundamentalist mindsets and attitudes we are worried about at this blog perhaps trace themselves to people who have internalized an institutionalization of these three spheres of their lives out of fear rather than love. Which really does seem to be the difference between being put in a prison or asylum, and a true vocation to marriage or monastic life.

If one's autonomy is threatened by a totalizing system which seeks to take these three aspects of the Self most important to self-giving by force, that's bound to feel like repression or violation rather than consecration or self-sacrifice. I suppose it's like: crucifixion in Christ or the martyr can be an act of self-immolation, yet imposed externally it is a torture and execution. One wonders how many scrupulous or repressed fundamentalist types have embraced this torture, mentally, in a sort of masochism rather than true act of sacrifice out of love.
I think this approach will always leave an unhealthy tension:
Now it appears that total institutions do not substitute their own unique culture for something already formed. We do not deal with acculturation or assimilation but with something more restricted than these. In a sense, total institutions do not look for cultural victory. They effectively create and sustain a particular kind of tension between the home world and the institutional world and use this persistent tension as strategic leverage in the management of men. The full meaning for the inmate of being "in" or "on the inside" does not exist apart from the special meaning to him of "getting out" or "getting on the outside."
Of course, this can seemingly lead to all sorts of "us-them" fortress or siege mentalities, and even a constant need to provoke the "enemy" or those who disagree in order to shore up the "walls" of ones own mental boot camp or prison.

The description of the anxiety in total institutions also seems to echo my thoughts on the internal authoritarianism of the self-righteous over the humble self-integration among the more mature:
On the outside, rules are sufficiently lax and the individual sufficiently agreeable to required self-discipline to insure that others will rarely have cause for pouncing on him. He need not constantly look over his shoulder to see if criticism and other sanctions are coming. On the inside, however, rulings are abundant, novel, and closely enforced so that, quite characteristically, inmates live with chronic anxiety about breaking the rules and chronic worry about the consequences of breaking them. The desire to "stay out of trouble" in a total institution is likely to require persistent conscious effort and may lead the inmate to abjure certain levels of sociability with his fellows in order to avoid the incidents that may occur in these circumstances.
Needless to say, I think we should be very careful to avoid mental institutionalism in all its forms, especially when it can mimic in so many ways the genuine commitment we do need to make. It is also not an "us-them" sort of thing with the mature vs. the repressed. Rather, we are all both to some degree. Christian vocation and commitment, whether in general or specifically, is something that we must constantly be vigilant about being out of love rather than fear. How often can a marriage start out of love but over time become a prison where people feel "trapped"? How often does a man enter the priesthood or religious life with the highest of ideals, only to give into a cynicism that lets it become an asylum repressing him?

This is perhaps why I feel most called to live a secular life, either as a single or perhaps as a consecrated member of a Secular Institute. It is not that one can ever hope to escape surrendering these most intimate aspects of the Self to God; this proper giving is not optional for a Christian, and our teachings on sexual morality, economic stewardship, and general submission to God and Church guarantee that even those who never institutionalize them in a specific vocation are still at least meeting the requirements of Charity. Still, most Christians seem called to express it in a more concrete way through a public dedication, either in marriage, the priesthood, consecrated life, etc. These
communities (whether domestic or monastic, etc) based on voluntary self-giving according to these aspects of the self can be beautiful things.

But too often one gets the sense that attempts are made to coercively impose this self-giving, to "enforce" Christian morality or charity, through either psychological or physical means, in Christian families, in seminaries and monasteries, and (at the most all-encompassing level) in Christendoms. Of course, we cannot condemn families for choosing to raise their children in a Catholic atmosphere, nor monasteries being founded as retreats for those with a true vocation, nor even the possibility of an organic unity of Church community and civil community in a Catholic state.

But one must always be wary that these do not become attempts to found His Kingdom on earth, and we must always be careful that they are commitments and communities based on love and not on fear. I think many moderns are rightfully extremely cautious about any such totalizing commitments especially being institutionalized in official communities exactly for this reason; I'm certainly in no rush to abandon secular pluralism for some Mt. Athos (and many young people are hesitant even to marry!) Very often, what starts as a voluntary quest by some for holiness or self-giving, excluding (as it should) all possibility of sin...becomes a tyrannical system that tries to wring self-giving out of people by force (a contradiction in terms!) and in well-meaning attempts to root out sin, leaves no room for sinners as people.

I know that, in my own life, I go through periods wherein (for all my rhetoric about maturity here), I let my religion and morals become an ideological master to which I am merely a slave. And usually an angry, insecure, dull, and bitter slave at that! If we want to avoid our immolation of Self becoming simply soul-crushing masochistic self-destruction, we need to embrace the Cross with love again and again each day as our sacrifice to the Father. Otherwise, it's simply an instrument of oppression, torture, and execution, on which we often end up disturbingly willing to sacrifice others rather than ourselves.

No comments: