Monday, August 17, 2009

Institutionalized

The curious aspect of institutionalization is that, in its aspect of a habit, it automates behavior; if the behavior is beneficial (“a good habit”) all’s well. But institutionalization automates everything repeated often enough. In that aspect it is inertia. Ambiguous tool, the institution. It defends us against chaos but confines us within rigid limits. In fearful states we defend our prison as if it were a castle. And just as bad habits can form, very difficult to break, so also bad institutions come about and turn into laws we sometimes view as absolute.

Representative democracy was a worthy innovation, quite efficient. Let one trusted person, chosen by lot, represent many in collective decisions. The institution is much more effective than its unwieldy Athenian predecessor. That old thing required that the massed assembly of all the citizenry be present frequently—and one of its shake-the-head consequences was juries made up of five hundred people. Good grief.

Modern communications, the erosion of the meaning behind the word “representation,” the increase in population, which has made it difficult to reach what today are very large constituencies, thus demanding huge sums of money, the gradual morphing of these supposedly temporary jobs into careers, the shift in our time-sense (today two years in Congress are the wink of an eye, especially when you need to start running a year out and start collecting money the day after election)—all this has slowly deformed the original institution. It remains unchanged in concept but has become transformed into something entirely different.

The telephone, the scientific method, Pascal’s studies of chance having come of age, the rise in television and, within it, of news broadcast 24/7—all this has led to the rise of another institution called Public Opinion. The telephone has created ways of reaching people rapidly wherever they might be. We have accepted the idea that statistical samples produce true results that may be projected to the whole with minor, ignorable rates of error. Television’s power to focus attention on dramatic news—the more violent and contentious the more dramatic—has become greater as entertainment content has decayed because it is expensive. Television can thus affect opinion—not for long, to be sure, but effectively in the short span. It is a safe assumption that the majority of people respond to emotional stimuli without much reflection—else advertising would not have become the “institution” that it is. The combination of TV clueing and statistical sampling of opinion—and this process linked to the deformation of the original concept behind representation, has produced the entire truly weird institution that we now call politics.

The new idea, to spell it out, is that the people govern directly; the representatives are, as it were, mere nodes in a communication system, just pass-through devices; that the will of the people is effectively detectable by polling and that the machine-gun spray of TV news, focused on a single target, don’t really affect opinion; they are only supposed to “inform” or “educate” the public. Therefore representatives must act as public opinion directs; we know it by polling; and it’s scientific, therefore automatically good. And that’s the story of, that’s the glory of public love writ large.

Alas, collectively, we’re fit to be institutionalized.

The oppressive nature of institutions is, of course, as well known as their beneficial uses. But we see the evils selectively: they’ve got to be in the past. We speak about monarchies and the Catholic Church, laud the Renaissance, the Reformation. We applaud the DaDa movement for breaking the crust of artistic custom. We’re also all cubists now; and viva Picasso, Dali, and also (minor honors) pointillism. We don’t recognize institutionalized decadence even when the New York Times Magazine brings us images of it in content where it is indistinguishably present both in the ads and in the editorial matter. Creativity, alas, is not, repeat NOT, to work in the latest genres using the latest fashions. That is why that impulse, and those who feel it, are always out there somewhere, unshielded, in the wilderness.

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