Monday, February 28, 2011

Chapel Sing Semiotics

One of the most memorable Wabash traditions in which I've participated thus far has been that of Chapel Sing. Here, all freshmen who are pledging fraternities (a portion which fluctuates around 2/3 of all freshmen from year to year), and some independent freshmen, line up on the mall in white t-shirts and gym shorts to show their dedication by singing-- or shouting to some rough semblance of a tune-- Wabash's notoriously long fight song. The song can last almost 5 minutes on its own, but is repeated over and over again for 45 minutes in this ritual, with members of the Sphinx Club-- the prestigious campus unity and tradition-preservation club -- trying all kinds of bizarre (and sometimes supposedly humiliating or offensive) tricks to distract the freshmen so that they stumble in their articulation of the words. Unless they prove their mastery of the song inside the chapel, those who slip up get a red "W" spray-painted on their shirts by the Sphinx Club judges. This "W" is a mark of ignominy, representing failure and the disappointing of one's comrades.
Chapel Sing is widely viewed by the Wabash community at large as a rite of passage from high school teenage-dom into full-fledged student-hood at Wabash. After a successful Chapel Sing, freshmen are seen by many as finally becoming true Wabash men. A structuralist would likely acknowledge this association, regardless of whether or not the community did so. The event itself is clearly a signifier of the signified ideas of testing, endurance, determination, and solidarity, all values seen as essential to the traditional Western concept of manhood. A post-structuralist, however, would question the solidity of these connections, pointing out that other, downplayed aspects of Chapel Sing indicate distinctly un-manly characteristics-- submission to others, subjecting one's self to humiliation, not fighting back when heckled or insulted. Especially interesting to a post-structuralist or deconstructionist would be the sub-tradition of the red "W". The firmly-agreed-upon social interpretation of this sign is that it signifies shame and failure, completely opposite to what is normally signified by red "W's" at Wabash-- pride, victory, triumph, manhood, excellence, all qualities Wallies aspire to embody and ascribe to the "ideal" Wabash man.

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