Monday, February 28, 2011

A Poststructuralist Reading of the "W"

From the moment they step onto the Wabash campus, prospective students are told NOT to step foot on the “W” in the College’s athletic center or on the College’s bronze seal in the floor of the library lobby. For current students as well, stepping on the “W” remains anathema. The predominant, structuralist construct entails avoiding the W as a sign of respect for the College and its traditions. Per this reading, stepping on the W equates to disrespecting the College and all that it stands for. Indeed, stepping on the W may in fact bring bad luck. But a poststructuralist would dismiss all of this interpretation as nonsense. Can a College and its essence really be distilled into a measly symbol in a floor? The W cannot possibly convey all of the College’s traditions. The W is merely another linguistic/visual construct devised to attempt to express an otherwise inexpressible ideal. Thus, the W proves to be an interesting “text” for analysis that, like any other text, is subject to Derrida’s concept of différance. The W in the floor as a signifier is stable. But the signified is always evolving; it is inherently unstable. The College may have a fixed mission statement, but how that mission statement manifests itself in practice varies from administration to administration and from student to student. Thus, some students do not buy into the “myth.” They may walk on the W because they refuse to believe that stepping on a letter in the floor makes them unworthy of The Gentleman’s Rule—the sole rule that governs our College. And they may refuse to believe that all of the College’s students are worthy of the respect that avoiding the W entails.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with the conception of the "W" as being a signifier with an unstable signified. I wonder if we could also push this further by examining the power system underlying the tradition. Freshman are educated about the traditions and encouraged to carry them onward--part of the rationale for avoiding trodding on the W is "respect" for the college. If avoiding the W is supposed to signify respect for the college, then it seems that the college subtly preys on the fear freshmen have of social ostracization to inculcate a respect for the college. Rather than earning respect from the students, the college uses its power to raise the freshmen's opinion of the college through fear--this ensures that the freshmen both respect and fear not only the college, but everything new students might associate with "college," that is, that they also fear/respect the alumni, professors, and upperclassmen. The poststructuralist would say that the student, then, who chooses to disregard the tradition defies the power system and grants the college only the respect he thinks it deserves--a genuine, spontaneous feeling of respect and gratitude rather than a fearful display of submission and indoctrinated deference.