At a meeting earlier this year, President Martin, worried about the social poverty of dorm life, exclaimed to RCs, “Bring on the fun!” This promulgation’s metrical line conjured up what could be a hilarious parody of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” the ballad from “A Little Night Music” in which protagonist Desirée ponders the ironies and tribulations of her life. More on that later.
Consider a recent change in how the administration approaches substance-free living. The college’s official policy is that substances are prohibited in first-year dorms. However, the college permits matriculating students, on their housing questionnaires, to decide to live during their first year in substance-free areas (or to mark “no preference”). Of course, in practice — rephrasing George Orwell — “All first-year dorms are substance-free, but some dorms are more substance-free than others.” Prior to this academic year, entire first-year dorms — Stearns and sometimes Williston — were designated as substance-free spaces where students made a lifestyle choice to (for the most part) drink and smoke outside the dorm. This year, the administration instituted a new policy: divide sub-free dorms into sub-free floors and disperse them among different dorms.
Those of us who live or lived in sub-free dorms know what life is and isn’t like in those dorms. First of all: No, there isn’t some puritanical oath we all take which categorically forbids us from drinking and smoking. Neither are we boring, brainy rule-followers whose abilities to have fun were repressed. Nor are we “really fucking weird” immature juveniles who need to cultivate our tastes in life’s finer things so as to, later on, “drunkenly piss” ourselves (kudos to the Muckrake on this one).
The reasons that motivate new students to decide to live in sub-free housing are just as varied as the students who live in it. Elaine Vilorio ’17, in an AC Voice article, explained that she desired a calm environment and was comforted by the fact that “there’s a low likelihood of someone raucously stumbling home drunk at, say, 3 a.m.” Others chose it because they liked the architecture of Stearns or Williston. I selected it because a friend of mine in the class of 2015 told me that Stearns was an incredibly vibrant and welcoming community of students with varying lifestyles.
Moreover, some students arrive at Amherst with deep traumas. They may have personally experienced alcoholism and substance abuse in their families and communities. Some may have witnessed shocking and disturbing instances of substance abuse, moments that etched profound psychological scars. Acclimating to Amherst, or any college, where drinking and smoking are a widespread, if not defining, feature of social life, is a process which they might want to take at their own rate. Sub-free living provides these students with agency to adjust to or to resist the hegemony of substances from a distance.
What sub-free housing constitutes is one of a few remaining spaces of student community formation that occurs strictly on students’ terms; in a word, without administrative direction and intervention. It is not to say that all students in sub-free housing would have wanted to live there had they chosen again. But it is to argue that sub-free housing forms, quoting Vilorio, a “compatible conglomeration of people,” one which “bring[s] ‘outsiders’ home and adopt[s] them into our family.” She is right when she claims, “I see no fault in a strong community when it’s welcoming.”
The categorical policy “No substances!” never needed to be imposed in sub-free living because of the student sovereignty that fostered a collective acceptance of the variegated lifestyles in the dorm. As Marie Lambert ’15 wrote in AC Voice, Stearns was an “amazingly supportive environment [which] brought us together in a way I have yet to see replicated at Amherst.” Such support does not come about by forcing everyone into the same mold, or by entrenching bureaucratic distinctions between non-sub-free and sub-free, between fun and un-fun. It comes about because students who live in different ways make a mutual choice to come together on each of their own terms.
What precisely, though, is the substance of hegemony I am getting at? It is not the hegemony of substances per se. (It is probably worth letting this new experiment with sub-free floors play out for a few years. Although many of the friendships I developed during sophomore year were with non-Stearnsians, I don’t want to silence the voices of those who felt isolated in or ambivalent about living in Stearns.) Rather, what I am touching on is the underlying standardization and unification of the social experience at Amherst. As the administration works to integrate more and more students into the same mold, it silences our incredible diversity, granting neither time nor space for forms of social life that do not fit in with what’s paramount. What of those groups of friends who enjoy quiescence or calm? Or who prefer to play cards, watch TV, chat about life, drink lightly or listen to jazz? Or what about those friends who don’t socialize on weekend evenings but do so at other times, because of their work-study jobs?
I worry that the college’s well-intentioned desire to bring together students whose ways of life are different bulldozes over how those ways of life stand in opposition to and are incompatible with each other. President Martin’s mandate to “bring on the fun” silences the multiplicity of definitions which fun takes, and surely, by commanding it, makes fun (un)funny. I am arguing that fun cannot be ordered or normalized into one form. There are varying and contradictory ways in which acts of fun intersect with lived experiences of students here. What might be fun — raucous drinking alongside upturned music in the socials or drinking wine while watching hilariously terrible YouTube videos or sitting around playing Cards Against Humanity with no alcohol — for some, may not be for others. What we’ve perhaps realized is this: With the college’s lack of diverse social spaces for its diversity of social life, not all forms of fun can exist freely.
Let’s remember the ultimate couplet of lines from Sondheim: “And where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns / Don’t bother; they’re here.” His reference is not to circus clowns, but to fools, themselves unaware of their own tomfoolery, of the limits on what they perceive. One reading of this would call out the administration as fools, for failing to see the ways in which we students already create community in opposition to their social funneling. Another reading, contra Sondheim, embraces ourselves as clowns, as those who might have a less normalized, more quirky, stranger, funnier, and, for some, perhaps scary, way of life. (Seriously, some of us are scared of clowns.) So, if the clowns are here, we don’t need to bring on the fun.