Institutions and Things

Selznick (1949, etc.) defines an institution* as something that has been infused with value beyond its rational purpose. We usually talk about institutions with respect to organizations or practices – arguing, for example, that the TVA had become institutionalized because its employees, beneficiaries, etc. actually gave a shit about what happened to it as the TVA. We can think of all sorts of organizations that have this feature – my high school, for example, universities, states, etc. I was thinking about the definition today because I was packing all my worldly belongings in the process of moving and I noticed that I took much, much more care with a small subset of things than I did with the rest. Playstation 2? Throw it in a box. The Super Nintendo? Wrap it lovingly, making sure each game is safe. So, I thought I’d write up a brief list of the things that are most institutionalized for me**. This post is oddly personal, so feel free to skip it if you don’t like reading that sort of thing.

  • A landscape painting painted by my grandmother and framed by my grandfather. Both my grandparents are sick, and my grandfather started radiation today for his metastasized cancer. Likely my grandmother will never paint again (she mostly stopped years ago), and my grandfather may never be well enough to frame another painting. So, I spent about 20 minutes obsessively wrapping this up with bubble-wrap.
  • A necklace made from my wisdom teeth by a good friend of mine, who died soon after. He also made similar necklaces for both my siblings.
  • A stone Mayan calendar I bought at the Copan Ruins in Honduras on my first trip there, after sophomore year. The trip was a big experience for me – my first time in a foreign country other than Canada – and set up much of the next few years of my life. The calendar is one of the only thing I bought there.
  • A book of photos taken on that same trip to Honduras given to me by my best friend in undergrad as a birthday present.
  • A letter written to me by a girl I knew in Honduras thanking me for a book I’d given her and asking that I not forgot her. She was 14, I think, and, as her mother had left, she was in charge of her 4 brothers while her father worked. The group of students I was with on the trip got to know her and her brothers very well, and I wonder about them often.
  • A large stuffed Totoro that I bought in Japantown in San Francisco the first time I visited a close friend there. Totoro is sort of a family thing – my siblings and I each have Totoro-themed stuff all about. Totoro and Cthulhu.
  • A signed photograph of Bester***, the Babylon 5 villain, signed by Walter Koenig and given to me by my closest gamer friend in high school. Babylon 5 was my favorite television show for many years and Bester is probably the show’s best villain. Also, it’s amazing how great an actor Koenig turned out to be.

    I’m probably forgetting one or two, but those are the most salient. Oddly, no single book comes to mind. I love all my Borges books, but I could easily purchase more copies of them. None (as physical instantiations) have been infused with value beyond their rational purpose, even though the books (as sets of ideas and linked words) mean a great deal to me. My books as a whole I feel very protective of, however, and I am simultaneously embarrassed and proud of the ridiculous number I’ve purchased in the past several years. Alright, off to store my things in yet another basement.

    * Roughly, my books are all packed, along with my other possessions.
    ** In an Actor-Network-like argument, I would say that I strongly associate with certain objects that form a part of myself, while other possessions are more distant and used more instrumentally – I don’t care what happens to most of my things, but I do care what happens to some of them, and those that I care about thus form a strong part of myself-as-network. Enh, might be misreading ANT a bit here. I’ll let you know next term.
    ***A slightly different photo than the one linked.

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  • 3 Comments

    1. Ben

       /  July 30, 2009

      This seems like a weird definition/application of ‘institutions’. Particularly as it’s just you, not a group of people, attaching meaning (mostly nostalgic) to objects. Hihgly individual/personal meaning to private objects at that. And I’m not sure that objects can be institutions anyway. Isn’t this more like fetishizing?

      Anyway, moving really sucks. And the ever growing collection of books makes it much worse. Good luck with it.

      I’ll be interested to see if you do any posts on networks, and in particular if you look at the Emirbayer & Goodwin crtique.

    2. Ben – you’re right. I’m stretching the definition a fair bit – I was trying to frame the post rather than seriously apply the idea of an organization (or practice) as institution to my personal relationship with my possessions. My favorite definition of an institution comes from Jepperson (1991) in the “Orange Book”. It’s something like, a socially constructed, routine reproduced rule or program. Jepperson is writing in the new institutionalist tradition rather than the old, and is doing different things with the concept. But he does a nice job of discussing the ins of and outs of what goes into an institution – everyone understanding what something means and the like. That being said, as R.W. Connell notes (I think), even our relationships to ourselves are social.

      But I don’t think it’s the same as fetishizing, at least not in a Marx, Commodity Fetishism sense. I don’t know much about the actual literature on fetishism beyond that though.

      I read E&G last year and I remember not being super impressed with the argument but I no longer remember why. If I get a chance, I’ll skim it over again.

    3. Ben

       /  August 3, 2009

      Hi Dan,

      I think that fetishizing is just attributing power to inanimate objects. Freud concentrated on the sexual fetish, Marx went off in a different direction with the commodity fetish. But at the more general level it is attributing power to objects, whether it be a religious object like a crucifix or an idol, or superstitious objects (even lucky undies).

      Thanks for the Jepperson tip. Very good timing, I’ll look it up. Enjoy the ASA.