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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

You construct intricate rituals by CJ Q. '23

function loses form and form loses function

One

It’s weird how we do so much that we don’t stop and think about.

On Floor Pi, one of our traditions is this event called tea time. It’s a weekly-ish event, usually held around 10 PM, where we all come together in the TV Lounge, drink tea and eat snacks, and talk about stuff. Ostensibly, discussion is centered around a topic like “identity” or “community”, leading with a question like “what does it mean to be you?” or “what communities do you most value being a part of?” But often, discussion strays into video games, politics, or most recently, buses. (It sometimes strays into math, but we have a hard rule of “no math during tea time”.)

I’ve gone through the college application process, which meant shoring up all these details about myself, carving my identity into these palatable essays, splaying my life story to strangers in interviews, and thinking about abstract concepts like “fit” and “where I really want to go“.

In comparison, the internship application process demands less of you. Instead, you carve your identity into these “resumes”, you solve some programming problems on sheets of paper, and talk about your unwavering dedication to the company-of-the-week’s mission. I made my way through three interviews for this one company, once, last spring. It was the only company I applied to, and I got rejected. If a single rejection already made me sick of the process, how was I going to put up with several dozen more?

It tends to be the case that things are fine as long as I don’t start thinking about them too hard. As long as I distract myself by doing things, I won’t have to face the existential questions. Why bother doing tea time anyway? Why bother going through the application process anyway? Why do I even bother going to class?

When the real question, the one that I actually wanted the answer to, is “do I have enough energy to go to tea time today?”, or “do I have enough energy to work on my resume today?”, or “do I have enough energy to go to class today?” Recently, the answers to these questions have been no, no, no.

Two

Last year, I remember going to lots of infosessions from student organizations, all with the allure of free food. Looking back at my September 2019 schedule, I went to pretty much a different event every night: the music production club had boba, the Happy Club decorated cookies, then ESP had dinner, all in a single night. The next night there was an infosession for Splash, with Thai food, then Microsoft Azure did a talk with Chipotle. And then the next day, Sum of Differences had a picnic, HMMT had dinner, and some of the Filipinos in MIT went to Hei La Moon. And this was over the span of three days!

It goes without saying, I guess, that none of these happened this year. As much as I loved being on the receiving end of the endless stream of free food, and as disappointed as I was that we didn’t have that this year, I was plagued with the problem from the opposite side. How do these translate virtually? How do we do recruitment now? And I’ve had to deal with these questions in a litany of contexts: as a member of the Filipino Student Association, the Puzzle Club, ESP, Floor Pi, the Assassins’ Guild.

So yes, I’ve thought about recruitment. I’ve talked about recruitment lots and lots of times these past few weeks, and everyone else has been thinking about recruitment too, and somehow, we’ve all converged to similar answers. Now is the era of the “hangout”. The social Zoom call, movie nights, cooking together, and reimbursing people for buying their own food. Suddenly, everyone wants to play games together, whether it’s Skribblio or Quiplash or Among Us, all in the name of “socializing” and “building community”.

For hall rush, Floor Pi ran virtual tea time and game night. For the Puzzle Club, we all hopped on a Zoom call and did puzzles together. ESP moved its weekly meetings to Zoom, and we now intentionally put aside time to hang out after them, either talking about our weeks or playing games together. And sure, it was somewhat fun, but it all felt so hollow.

We could be doing the exact same thing, but doing it over a Zoom call changes things. It turns going to an infosession with friends and free food, to listening to someone read a slideshow in the background. It turns cramming ourselves in a room and doing puzzles, to staring at a spreadsheet talking to voices over the internet. It turned surprise birthday parties to silly virtual backgrounds and singing Happy Birthday out-of-sync.

But when the song ends and the celebrant says thanks, what do we do now?

Three

In the twentieth century, there were movements within Melanesian villages, with people building imitations of runways and airplanes, and doing dances or marches mimicking landing sequences. Doing these rituals would, supposedly, bring material goods, like how planes dropped supplies in the area during the war. Anthropologists at the time called them “cargo cults“. The phrase has evolved to be a metaphor for an irrational method to obtain some objective, making phrases like cargo cult science or cargo cult programming.

In a literal view, these ceremonies could just be viewed as a silly superstition. They’re actions that have all the appearances of cargo shipping, without the actual function. But the phrase itself is misleading, and I’d think that these rituals played a different role. I’m no anthropologist myself, so consider this speculation. But even if they didn’t bring them material goods, what if the rituals brought them a sense of social unity? Or what if “cargo” meant something beyond cash or supplies, and meant desire for independence, or salvation?

There are rituals like communion, worship, prayer. I’m not religious myself, but I wouldn’t dismiss the value it can bring to someone’s life. Even from a purely secular perspective, I know lots of people who’ve found some community in their religion. Convocation and graduation are definitely rituals. With a looser definition, parties, weddings, and funerals are rituals too.

Or even things like shaking hands, greeting someone with a hug, or singing Happy Birthday together. Maybe you’d consider these practices too mundane to be a ritual, but these aren’t things that are automatic. If I grew up in a different planet, hugging wouldn’t something I’d come up with as a way of greeting someone.

If you asked me why I shake hands, or hug people, or sing Happy Birthday, I’d say things like “it’s polite” or “this is how I’ve been doing things forever”. I don’t fully understand why, but I do these things anyway. Because even if their purpose isn’t fully transparent, I know that it’s satisfying to do it. Or more accurately, it’d feel awkward if I didn’t do it.

All this to say that ritual isn’t useless. It serves a purpose, even if that purpose is as simple as “it feels good to do it”. And that sometimes, things that seem meaningless on the surface play a deeper function. (Or, you know, something something structural functionalism.)

Four

And now I’m confused.

We’ve translated these social events into virtual ones, hoping that the same things will happen. We have all of the trappings of in-person events; we’re getting all the mechanics right. We’re pouring time into things that, supposedly, will make people feel closer to each other, or introduce people to each other, or reach out to people interested in certain things.

And yes, sometimes, it works! Sometimes it works. Sometimes I get good feelings when it’s two AM and we’re in a Discord voice chat talking about Geoguessr, or when it’s tea time and we’re talking about buses, or even just hanging out and doing homework over a video call. But what makes this different from the dozen game nights and hangouts I’ve been in, all of which feel like hollow attempts to bring back the days of free food and infosessions? More often than not, it all feels hollow.

But why? Why does it feel hollow? We’d be quick to blame the fact that we’re in a virtual environment, that maybe this medium is inherently unconducive for socializing. That maybe there’s just some fundamental spirit that’s only available in-person. That we’re hanging on to symbolic meanings, in the hope that maybe if we go to enough Zoom meetings we’ll feel part of a community.

Yet this explanation feels like it’s missing something. For one, what about the handful of events that do work? More importantly, isn’t this the same view that we get when we take a literal view of cargo cults and call them ineffective? The fact that things are happening online isn’t, shouldn’t be the real reason. It’s not getting to the heart of the matter to just blame it on Zoom and call it a day, and it doesn’t satisfy me to end there.

The thing about ritual is that, in some level, I need it in my life. I’m aching for the social rituals of greeting people with hugs and playing board games in the lounge and drinking tea together, that social distancing’s taken from me. I’m aching for waking up and dressing up and walking to class every day and listening to chalk-on-chalkboard, for reversing linked lists on a sheet of paper, and shaking hands with campus recruiters.

And when I say this, when I express this desire, I’m not just yearning for face-to-face conversation or free food. It’s a deeper craving, one that can’t be reduced to just “let’s do things in-person again!” I want regularity in my life, and to hell with however mundane it sounds.

Five

It’s weird how we do so much that we don’t stop and think about.

Through my first semester, I was pretty scrupulous about going to most of my lectures. I only ended up missing 6.036 lectures, but that’s because it was in the mornings and the videos and lecture notes were good anyway. For many of my classes, I don’t actually have to attend lectures live, because many of them were being recorded anyway. Yet I still felt this obligation to go, to uphold this thin illusion of consistency in my life. Yesterday, I did not have this energy, and for the first time this semester I skipped going to a lecture just because I didn’t feel like I could pay attention.

The other day I tried to work on my resume and could not find the motivation to. The next day, I tried to work on it again, but I still couldn’t find the motivation to. The next day, I decided that I didn’t really care, just put together whatever, and sent it through the application forms for an internship or two. I haven’t heard back, and I’m not sure if I want to. But I think I’ll still make an effort, I guess, to look for something that would interest me.

Last Tuesday, we had tea time. We hopped on a Zoom call and talked about home, and what factors make somewhere feel like home. Floor Pi is home, even if it is excavated of its people, and somehow, some part of me starts to enjoy East Campus stairwells and fire alarms in the middle of the night. Our discussion strayed into video games, and politics, and of course, buses. It was fun, but I soon got tired.

I stayed for only forty minutes, and then I left.