Friday, 27 November 2009

Symbolic Interactionism In The SMU Hell Hole

How we attach symbolic meanings to things and interpret things symbolically still fascinates me to no end. Symbolic interactionism is, very briefly, a sociological theory that states that things are what they are because we attach symbolic meanings to these things, and these symbolic meanings go through a dynamic and reinterpretive process such that what the thing stands for now can be very different from what it really is. For example, a flag is objectively just a cloth, but through symbolic interpretation we see a flag as a symbol of nationhood. Around these parts one could be tried for defacing such a sacred piece of cloth.

School and the negative stigma associated with SMU for one always keeps me mentally entertained. I usually bring my laptop and a book or two out on my travels, carried along in a sling bag. The laptop is considerably heavy (since it's an old school Acer from 5 or 6 years ago), so I often opt to hand-carry the book to lighten the load on my shoulders. I also do so because it facilitates reading since it's already in my hands - I can simply flip to the last read page and resume reading. If it was in my bag, there would be significant inertia to make me deliberate over whether I want to read when the chance arrives. In geek-speak, given an unlimited number of opportunities to read, I would have read a lot less if I had chosen to keep my books tucked in my bag.

So it's always the laptop in the bag and the book in my hand. I've been reading Guns, Germs and Steel (hereafter referred to as GGS) since June but because of internship and then school I've had to put reading it aside at times and have yet to complete it until now. I just acquired The Moral Animal (TMA) today, so I've got two books on hand now. My preference for 'one book in hand + laptop & book in bag' is greater than 'two books in hand + laptop in bag' or 'no books in hand + laptop & two books in bag', so for a moment earlier today I was confronted with a very mild dilemma of deciding which book to hold in hand. I instinctively chose TMA. The rationalization of why I chose TMA then leads me on to the symbolic interactionism I was amused with.

The main reason why I even had the instinctive notion of keeping GGS in my bag while holding TMA is because GGS is a book used for SMU's Technology and World Change (TWC) module. Everyone who has seen me holding the book, enquired about it and recognized it, is aware that it is Professor Terence Fan's TWC textbook when he teaches TWC (it is perhaps the only reason why people here have come to know of the book's existence I suppose). To avoid irky questions of like, "you're reading GGS? Isn't it a TWC textbook?", "you're taking TWC next term is it, that's why you're reading it" or "you took TWC is it, that's why you're reading it", I'd rather keep it covered and expose people to TMA instead.

I have my reasons for reading GGS - while I might've heard of it only because Richard told me that it's an interesting TWC textbook and somewhat recommended it to me, I have found it an extremely informative book and it has helped me compound further questions and ideas pertaining to my areas of interest. I read it because I am intrinsically motivated to read it. I hold no qualms for explaining these reasons to people who ask me irky questions. The funny thing is, no one can accept those reasons as legitimate in the face of their symbolic interpretation of GGS as an SMU textbook, something to be read only if you're doing a TWC class, and therefore disgusting because it is associated with school (which is then further associated with many other ills that are stigmatic of SMU, such as stress, unhappiness, anxiety, etc).

If I bring this even further, I am in the school library now on a public holiday (Hari Raya Haji) as I speak. I came here today because I found out that TMA is available here and I'd been frustratingly unsuccessful trying to get it elsewhere. I pass familiar faces and many people have difficulty understanding or accepting the fact that I am in the school library because 1) it is a public holiday, 2) I have already finished my papers, and 3) I am here to borrow a book. By virtue of symbolic interactionism once more the school library has a very specific, unpleasant purpose, and that is to allow people to visit it and stew in mugging, which incites very unhappy emotions, for the exams.

Very objectively speaking, GGS is simply a book. In fact, beyond that, GGS is a fantastic book that traces the evolution of human development, state building and why people end up having very different fates across the globe. Also, objectively speaking, school is simply a facility where I can conveniently access books, the internet, power points and a place to settle in to do other stuff without having to spend money on food or drinks just to get a seat. It is therefore very intriguing to me how symbolic the social construct of 'school' is and how strongly its stigmas attach to objects like books and facilities that have been associated with it. Sometimes, it even strikes me that the reactions people give are instinctive and second natured, such as like an instantaneous cry of disapproval and disgust when GGS is held up when I'm asked, "what's that?" Some people even instinctively attempt to sympathize with me: "OMG GGS! I feel your pain bro!"

School must leave dire and deeply-resounding impressions on its students here for its ability to create such a subconscious level of effect such that negative reactions are second nature. As I type, nothing much has changed such that one can't tell that it's really a public holiday today - the rows of tables are filled with quiet and hunched students whose facial expressions are stoic. I even saw some Malays in their ethnic costumes; did these Malay SMU students excuse themselves from celebrations early in order to continue mugging for the papers that aren't over next week?

School must be a hell hole, and people actively communicate their extreme dislike for it where, as Irving has described, "it is so hot because you can practically feel the brainwaves".

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