The Logic of Institution – In the Heart of the Sea

January 29, 2018

Um…your guess is as good as mine.

Institution serves as one of the central mechanisms of social life, and writers, self-selecting themselves to stand outside and to observe, feel this somewhat instinctively. Our institutions, economic or otherwise, frame all manner of interactions, and writers do well to think a little bit about the relationship that their subjects (characters, personalities, events, etc.) have to them. After all, Institution has its own peculiar logic, and it’s important to examine how it influences our lives.

Recently, I read In the Heart of the Sea, the story of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex – the first recorded instance of a whale attacking a whaling ship. If you don’t know the book, or weren’t one of the few people to have seen the film that it inspired, the story of the Essex was the source material for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The story centers on the town of Nantucket, once the seat of America’s whaling industry, and important stop along the history of American industrial development. As an economic institution, whaling has taken up a unique place in American mythology. It also exposes much of institution’s more tribal roots, and the pulse of inclusion and rejection that gives them such profound staying power.

To say that institutions are simply specialized organizations misses their most interesting feature – specifically their tendency to reproduce themselves. In the case of the Nantucket whalers, this tendency is pretty explicit. Several generations of Nantucketers repeated the same rituals, and underwent the same sorts of trials and initiations that were necessary to keep whaling ships operating efficiently. Journeys would last years, and for all but the barest few, payouts were small. And yet, young men would spend their youths preparing to hunt whales, and, through their cunning and determination, eventually succeed in diminishing the creatures to such an extent that continuing the practice would become untenable. Institutionalized whaling was so successful that it largely succeeded in eliminating the object of its ambition.

The attraction of the business is difficult to understand when we look back at it. Aside from the limited options afforded to the people of whaling communities, the work was hard, the animals dangerous, and the provisioning was typically minimal. Life on the ships was deeply unequal, with officers living much as they might back home, rank and file sailors subsisting on hardtack and gruel, and non-whites (usually, but not always black men) taking up the least part – in the case of the Essex, it was also the black crew members who were the first to be eaten (for the squeamish, take comfort in the fact that the Nantucketers did wait for them to die first – the only person to be killed by lot was actually the captain’s cousin).

While these separations should hardly surprise us given the broader sweep of American history, it serves as a valuable lesson in the attractive power of the institution. The Nantucketers aboard the Essex constituted themselves as a specialized class aboard the ship. Despite a more-or-less universal lack of experience, the highest posts about the ship were all held (as it were) by local boys, and when the ship was sunk, these same groups tried to keep themselves to the same boats. When survival became the name of the game, the tribe came first.

But successful institutions attempt to transcend these more primitive loyalties. Whaling opened itself to those who lived off-island, and extended many of the same promises to them. By introducing selection and promotion, institutions become something bigger than biology. In psychoanalytic terms, and Institution is both something signified, and a signifier. It creates a social space in which one person can create an identity through exclusion that doesn’t rely as deeply on birthright and lineage – the military is one of the most significant American institution that allow for this movement.

After the sinking of the Essex, attacks on whaling ships increased. That big ol’ head is basically a battering ram.

Institutions don’t require families or marriage contracts to thrive; one could almost see such lower-order organizations as in opposition to them. Institutions that thrive do so in part, on their ability to inspire the imagination of outsiders, and thereby attract talent. And this is because at its heart, the logic of institution is the logic of systematized alienation. In the case of your average Nantucketer, whaling was more than just an avenue to wealth: it was a road to prestige and honor. One was simply expected to join, the same way that a Nantucketer was expected to join the Society of Friends (they were Quakers).

Intuitions have to have two basic components to in order to function. The first is a system of dependency. Dependency can be financial as well as spiritual; they must feel needed by their members. While the promise of the payout was certainly in important incentive, whalers were also provided a home and a means of subsistence (whalers were expected to fish and forage while they hunted – the whale was a industrial product, and was seldom thought of as a source of food). But the institution of whaling was some much larger than the ship. It also required a complex of traditions, superstitions, and networks in order to function. Whaling voyages were undertaken as acts of faith, and in themselves could be looked on as a kind of lottery. The lowest orders within the whaling communities understood this: they might not get a big payout, but they would at least be provided for. The elect also understood this, but with the added bonus of having a group of toadies determined to prop up the basic structure of inequality, assuming wrongly, that by doing so they would someday be as richly rewarded as their masters. You see this same behavior sustaining drug cartels and software firms.

The second is a preference for rejection. Those within institutions must be allowed a certain antipathy towards those outside; an understanding of difference and (preferably) superiority. But this does not mean that they can be closed. The survival of major religions has always depended on the evangelizing zeal of membership: Mormons survived because outsiders were allowed in. Indeed conversion was celebrated. But what about those on the outside? Non-membership is inherently problematic. To not be institutionalized needs to be a pitiable state. Think about Harry Potter and his induction into the wizarding world. His cycle is an old one – rejected by his family, he finds something better in the elite institution of Hogwarts. In real life, institutions might not be so warm in how the deliver their blessings, but the pattern is a central theme in most religions and in young adult literature. Institutions remove our fear of alienation by alienating us from the mass of Others. They proclaim our identity in exchange for our freedom of association.

Old habits die hard.

Institutions are also ultimately faceless. They might be represented (say by a pope or a professor or a business leader), but the representation is really just a symptom of the truth: Institutions do not require any individual to function. Their internal logic has to work on its own, without being strictly led. Cults can’t survive the death of a leader; an institution will occasionally eat its own just to make a point. Redundancy, anxiety, and the promise of reward all commingle to manage the imaginations of those on the inside and outside both. Institutions must be both attractive and repulsive. They must demand a kind of sacrifice (a loss of one’s freedom to associate), with reward (eternal salvation or three square meals a day).

These relations play out in most of our writing. For writers struggling with character or setting, consider reflecting deeply on the role that institutions play in the world or process that you’re considering. Very seldom is life really about us; it is profoundly influenced by the claims that we make, and are made by the institutions that surround us.


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