February 20, 2011

Deconstructing Lineages

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Today marks the beginning of Big-Little Week for many sororities, and is also the week when many fraternities assign new members to lineages. What’s that about?The question sounds weird, I know. We all know the language of Big-Little stuff, more or less. But worthwhile language isn’t just in poetry books. It’s in our apartments, our dining halls, our drunken huffs. The point of the humanities, I think, maybe, should not be to labor over flowery prose, but to interrogate the words and rituals we already use, to distance ourselves from our own language. This is the first installment of what I hope will be an ongoing series of columns trying to unpack the symbols we actually employ as 21st Century youngish people, and taking some stabs at what they might tell us about … stuff.There exists in the lineage a sense of time that is deliberately absent from any other part of the Greek system. Fraternity pledges learn about the frat’s founders not to emphasize the flow of time but to eliminate it: They were stout-hearted men at a distant rural university, and so are we. What makes Greek houses artificial is also what makes them powerful — their endurance as symbols. The high profile of such-and-such house’s such-and-such party stems from the fact that it happens every year on the same date. Time is a marker of the same, not a bringer of the new. With time eventually comes extinction, so houses stick with what’s old.Not so for Big-Little week, or so it would seem. Dusty family trees, real or imagined, are carted out, and upperclassmen pinpoint the member with whom the lineage changed, the common ancestor who determined the crucial genetic mutation or spawned a sister lineage. Change over time, the mantra of evolutionary biology, is apparent, especially for the senior who recalls the legendary big-big-big even as she receives an alien little-little-little.But why not “little-little-little sister?” The first time I ever heard of Greek lineages was as a senior in high school, while I was visiting my cousin at Penn State. When she said she was about to grab lunch with her Big, I asked, “your Big what?” Maybe the shortening is an attempt to cover up the fact that the “lineage” is not really a lineage at all. The family trees are logical nonsense — there are no fathers and sons, no mothers and daughters (except, of course, for the founding ones). We’re all part of the same humongous generation; time has never really happened.Indeed, the lineage is less a tribute to time than an attempt to neutralize while acknowledging it, sort of. For sororities in particular, a goal of the week is to celebrate the induction of the newest member as loudly and publicly as possible. 100-person lectures are interrupted, frat pledges’ chests painted, etc. But could we imagine a parallel Greek universe where the opposite were true? Where the lines of descent were the sorority’s most closely guarded secrets, unknown even to sisters outside of the lineage? Imagine the momentous sense of time the lineage would import in this bizzarro world! Rather than a week of fireworks, the lineage would consist of a year of hallowed, furtively-watched change in the youngest descendant.But in this world, the spectacle of Big-Little Week begs the question, who is the audience of the Greek lineage? As with most such questions in college, and, I guess, in life in general, the answer is potential hook-up partners. Hetero frat boys look at sorority lineages and see a potential sexual set, and this can’t go unnoticed by those being ogled, that is, by those forming the lineage itself. This (surely reciprocal) game of carnal tic-tac-toe only really works if each X (or, eventually, each ex) is attractive in the same way; that is, if change over time is muted. The lineage is, ultimately, a symbol like any other,  synthetic and non-biodegradable. It apes reality — in this instance, the reality of time and, it seems, of sex — even as it denies it and makes it social.

Original Author: Jake Friedman