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i wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

My fairly constant refrain during my time in undergrad was “I just work here,” uttered with wry smile and a shrug. The sentiment was part fact and part commentary. Through my scholarship, the school was paying me to be there, and I worked first at odd-jobs my freshman year, and then as a TA and as a research assistant. I worked there, it was an expression of my position as part-time student, part-time worker. It delineated my contemporaries and I from the other students who attended and did not have to work. It also spoke to my experience there, of isolation and alienation. I didn’t do too much at Amherst, other than work. I rarely visited parties, and until my last year, barely left my room to spend time with friends. For the most part, to my detriment, I just worked there, at Amherst.

They took a picture of me during graduation and put it on the school’s social media. At least it’s a relatively flattering photo.

The society which rests on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist. In the spectacle, which is the image of the ruling economy, the goal is nothing, development everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Chapter 1.14 [1]

Don’t get me wrong, there was so much more to my experience than that. I made some of the most amazing friends, I performed in weekly comedy shows, I learned lots of stuff, I laughed, I loved and was loved. Dare I say but?

But, Amherst destroyed me. Amherst sapped something vital from me, left me dry and gasping for air. I’m still struggling to articulate what it took away, even as I try to appreciate what it gave me.

I spent the majority of my time at Amherst alone. That doesn’t quite capture it, I spend a much larger time alone than any of my peers did. It didn’t make me a better student than the others, and it certainly didn’t help my mental health. I was overworked and became completely overwhelmed. I was functionally isolated, both by the strenuous demands of working and by my own autistic complications. That wasn’t on me- it is the function of Amherst, and the society that Amherst is embedded in, to isolate the individual, to atomize them. I was socially suburbanized.

(Trigger warning for suicidal ideations, etc) I was suicidal for the majority of my time at Amherst. Suicidal ideation was something I had dealt with during my adolescence, and autistic individuals are at a statistically significant higher risk [2,3] for suicide than non-autistic people. Those thoughts had never been so prevalent and consuming as they were at Amherst. I don’t say this to write some sob story, just to state a fact. Being autistic meant that I was fairly adept at masking, and that (with the exception of a few semesters, maybe you can dig up my transcript and figure it out) I was able to “function” and continue to work at Amherst the entire time. Amherst kept me at the brink of my sanity, of my composure, so that more often than not I was a single mistake away from death, and boy did it make me work for it.

Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle… The spectacle keeps people in a state of unconsciousness as they pass through practical changes in their conditions of existence… all community and all critical awareness have disintegrated

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Chapter 1.25 [1]

Amherst, like most liberal arts colleges (I am making generalizations and sweeping assumptions here, bite me), reflects and interfaces with the atomized, alienated American superstructure. It exists as a nexus for the generation of that superstructure, for the replication of class, and the reinforcement of the status quo. No amount of diversity, equity, and inclusion can change the fundamental function of the college, because there is no challenge to its material base. There is no challenge to the feedback loop, wherein Capital/Amherst reproduces itself socially, psychologically, spiritually, and materially.

That’s not to say there don’t exist sites of rupture at Amherst, sites where evocative and important thought is developed (looking at you, Native Futures, and you Black Speculative Fictions), but simply to say that to the extent that the terrain ruptures is the extent to which the internal contradictions of the college’s development allow, and that on average, historically, these contradictions have worked to reify and reinforce the college. Mutating and adapting, the college has changed dramatically since 1821, but 200 years later, the essential functions of the college have changed very little. Manufacture consent! Invent reality! Crush opposition!

…the fundamental experience… is in the process of being replaced… by an identification of life with nonworking time, with inactivity. But such inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity. It remains dependent on it, in an uneasy and admiring submission to the requirements and consequences of the production system. It is itself one of the products of that system. There can be no freedom apart from activity, and within the spectacle activity is nullified-all real activity having been forcibly channeled into the global construction of the spectacle… None of the activity stolen through work can be regained by submitting to what that work has produced.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Chapter 1.27 (emphasis my own) [1]

Reading the above quote helped part of my experience click. There was never a break, at Amherst. There couldn’t be, because activity stolen through work can not be regained by submitting to the spectacle. All there was to do at Amherst was submit.

There was a lot more to my experience at Amherst, but reading Debord helped me cut to the heart of what made my time there so incredible insufferable and alienating. I wish I could say something sweet for the friends I have still in attendance at Amherst, but to them I’d just say that I trust you to stay safe and well, whether that is at Amherst or out in the world. To my friends who have left, all I can say is that the love that we all shared for one another, and the community we found in spite of everything I’ve spoken about, was part of what brought me back from the edge, time after time. We have “succeed” or “are succeeding” because the college’s job is to produce spectacle curators, but we found community, joy, and light because we were in contradiction with Amherst. Clear skies.

Yours, in contradiction,

William

6/4/2021, one week after graduation

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Author: willb

I'm Will, an undergraduate astronomer studying transition disks, direct imaging, and planet accretion and formation at the Follette Lab at Amherst College. I use they/them/theirs pronouns.

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