Institutions: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – The Cruise (1998); by Rachel Mah

Published: 12 September 2018

          Institutions. Does the word ring a bell in your mind? What exactly are institutions and how do we know we encounter one or are in fact, part of one? Many times, we are often oblivious to our surroundings, taking everything for granted without questioning. This could be the power of Institutions, I guess. They have the power to shape our beliefs, our values, direct our lives and the way we behave. What image does the word ‘Institutions’ paint in your mind? Solid, tall, tangible structures? Or are they more about power struggles? We talk about the Schools as an institution, and the Prisons as an institution. Here, institutions are used to refer to places that are run by rules and have social norms attached to them, places that have legitimate domination. What is legitimate domination, you might ask? Legitimate domination refers to a form of authority that we abide by, because we believe in the credibility of it and feel that there is no other alternative. Institutions have the power to do so as we abide by social norms within these institutions that dictate our behaviour and how we are supposed to act and carry ourselves.

          Institutions are sites, sites where socialisation and resocialisation take place. As mentioned, institutions govern our behaviour. Within institutions, there are rules that are taught to us. We are socialised by the everyday interactions with the people around us, on what is the appropriate way to behave. An example would be how the Family serves as an institution, where values and the way we carry ourselves are passed down to us by our parents. There is always a boundary that is not to be overstepped. Similarly, resocialisation, also takes place in institutions such as the Prison. Resocialisation refers to how an individual’s self is taken away from him and he is given a new one more in keeping with the needs of the institution. In the case of a Prison, the inmates are stripped of their individuality and they are forced to assume a new one that fits the needs of the institution. This is why Prisons have often been coined as ‘total institutions’, where individuals are not treated as persons but objects and things. They are not dissimilar from one another but a homogenous unit.

          However, as with all the ‘bad’ in Institutions, could Institutions possibly bring any hope? It has been mentioned how institutions have the power to dehumanise, making us follow rules blindly without questioning, but is it really the case? In a recent documentary that I’ve watched titled The Cruise (1998), some beauty in ‘Institutions’ is brought to light. At first glance, the word might seem intimidating and hinges at something that is firm, unchanging and unshakeable. In the film, the narrator plays at the beauty of ‘Institutions’ and the unchanging landscape of Manhattan. He talks about how these structures do not challenge us, unlike how humans in day-to-day interactions do. These buildings stand tall and are passive structures, instead of active ones.

          In the film, the protagonist, Timothy, travels around the city, cruising (as he is the tour guide of a tour bus). He talks about how much he enjoys cruising and being around the concrete buildings, skyscrapers, that are set in stone. Unlike how we view these structures as rigid and unchanging, Timothy in the video talks about them as though they have feelings and emotions worth pursuing. However, at the same time, the way the film captures the tall magnificent structures of the London Bridge and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre shows the rigidity and unchanging nature of institutions, and how everything is structured and ordered in society. To him, the cruise is about searching for everything worthwhile in existence – not just in the surface, daily interactions with one another, but something that is more raw and natural. He talks about having a relationship with a flower, how he can appreciate the beauty of the flower and have the flower appreciate the beauty of him. He searches for a deeper meaning and relationship between exhibitionist objects such as buildings, flowers, structures, instead of the mundane relationships among human beings. The structures that Timothy sees on his cruise makes him feel alive as it evokes in him feelings since the structures itself do not fight back against him.

          He talks about “The Great Plan”: something that we blindly follow because it is the right thing to do, making a left turn when we are supposed to turn, crossing the road when the light is green. He shuns civilisation where people have to work for a living and feels that it ought to be erased. He feels that between what one enjoys doing and what one does for money there is often a blurry line. He feels defeated by the world and as much as he tries to reach out to these buildings, they remain emotionless and unchanging no matter how much he tries to bring life into them. He attempts to love the chaotic universe of structures, buildings and concrete.

          Through the internal struggle of the narrator, we can see that the term ‘Institutions’ is actually not as rigid as it seems, and although there are rules that bind us, we can strive to break them. Rules are made by Man, and similarly, these rules can also be broken by Man, and new rules can emerge. The term ‘Institutions’ might not be as bleak as it sounds, as ultimately, it is all up to one’s interpretation. Meaning is created when we as active individuals, give life and significance to objects and things. If all were to see the humanity, love, care and concern behind the family, we would see ‘Family’ not as an institution but as unique to every individual. We would then not spell the word ‘Family’ as how we see it as an institution, with a capital “F”. We can bring these institutions to life.