Mar 102013
 

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Harvard University Press, 1982 Amazon

I’m still trying to parse out the exact relationship between real-world slavery and the eroticized version we see in the modern BDSM culture. What is the connection?

For most North American readers, the word “slave” is usually associated with American antebellum slavery, but that “peculiar institution” had many characteristics that were atypical of slavery in the broader, historical view. In other slave populations, the ratio of men to women was so high that they could not sustain themselves through endogamy, and manumission occurred frequently. In America, the roughly even sex ratio, the low rate of manumission, and the lack of newly acquired slave meant slavery had to be sustained by slave reproducing themselves. This made American slaves more like a caste.

American slavery was mainly about cheap unskilled labour, but slaves have performed every form of work, including the most learned professions, and held the highest government and military posts. In imperial China and Rome, some of the most powerful people were the personal slaves of the emperor. In some societies, slaves don’t actually do any useful labour, and function purely as a kind of status symbol.

So what is slavery, an institution that is pervasive in human history in many different forms? The most obvious answer is to treat a person as property, but Patterson observes that slavery existed long before modern concepts of property and commerce. There’s also the question of how to distinguish slavery from other forms of servitude, such as serfdom or concubinage.

Patterson has a three-part definition for the institution of slavery: violence (the physical), natal alienation (the cultural), and dishonour (the psychological).

First, slavery requires violence (pg.3), the naked application of force, to make a person a slave and to keep that person a slave, and furthermore to continue performing that violence in order to acquire new slaves. A slave society is necessarily a martial society, to acquire new slaves and/or police against uprisings. Violence is not just a behaviourist punishment; it becomes a ritual act to remind everybody where they stand in the social order, literally which end of the whip you are on. Patterson quotes George P. Rawick about the antebellum South:

Whipping was not only a method of punishment. It was a conscious device to impress upon the slaves that they were slaves; it was a crucial form of social control particularly if we remember that it was very difficult for slaves to run away successfully. [pg.3]

Patterson also defines intrusive slavery (slaves are outsiders brought into slavery, as in war captives) and extrusive slavery (slavers are former members of society reduced to a new status, such as criminals or debtors). In the case of war captives, slaves are on the edge of death, spared by the injunction of another power, living on borrowed time. Other slaves were escaping a death sentence or death by starvation. “Slavery was not a pardon; it was, peculiarly, a conditional commutation…. Because the slave had no socially recognized existence outside his master, he became a social nonperson.” (Pg.5) In ancient Egypt, the word for captive literally meant “living dead”.  (Pg.42)

Slavery is also domination on a personal level, one person subsumed into another (pg. 4).

A slave was powerless in relation to another precisely because he had to depend exclusively on a single person for protection. A person departed from the condition of slavery to the degree that he was able to spread the source of his protection as wide as possible– without, at the same time, making it too diffuse. Thus the real antithesis to slavery in societies where the paternalistic idiom of power was dominant was what may be called countervailing power. People did not seek to be “free” (in the modern Western “bourgeois” sense of isolation from the influence of others) in such systems because, ironically, this was the surest path to slavery. [Pg.28, emphasis in original]

Second, slaves are what Patterson calls “natally alienated”, “…the definition of a slave, however recruited, as a socially dead person. Alienated from all “rights” or claims of birth, he ceased to belong in his own right to any legitimate social order. All slaves experienced, at the very least, a secular excommunication.”  (pg. 5) A slave can claim ties to mother, father, child, spouse, sibling, and so on, and those may be respected by other slaves, but they are not recognized and have no force in a slave-holding society. (Note that many stories about slaves or former slaves are about the attempt to maintain familial ties in a society that does not acknowledge them, ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Spartacus: Blood and Sand to Django Unchained.)

This alienated relation was maintained through ritual, too.

Masters all over the world used special rituals of enslavement upon first acquiring slaves: the symbolism of naming, of clothing, of hairstyle, of language, and of body marks. And they used, especially in the more advanced slave systems, the sacred symbols of religion. [Pg. 8-9]

From the structural viewpoint, … slavery must be seen as a process involving several transitional phases. The slave is violently uprooted from his milieu. He is desocialized and depersonalized. This process of social negation constitutes the first, essentially external, phase of enslavement. The next phase involves the introduction of the slave into the community of his master, but it involves the paradox of introducing him as a nonbeing. This explains the importance of law, custom and ideology in the representation of the slave relation. [Pg.38]

The ritual of enslavement incorporated one or more of four basic features: first, the symbolic rejection by the slave of his past and his former kinsmen; second, a change of name; third, the imposition of some visible mark of servitude; and last, the assumption of a new status in the household or economic organization of the master. [Pg. 52]

In other words, slaves are inherently liminal figures: partially human, partially property. Both “us” and “them”. In the household, but not related by blood. They are the “domestic enemy” (as they were known in medieval Tuscany (Pg.39)), the barbarian who lives in your home, nurses your child and guards your body. They should be dead, but they live, for now. They live and breath and eat and think, but are cut off from what the enslaving society considers normal relations. They live under different social rules than the people around them. In intrusive slavery, that difference may be expressed in terms of race (e.g. Africans in antebellum America) or religion (e.g. Christians and other non-Muslims in Islamic North Africa), while in extrusive slavery, the slave is seen as a fallen person and a potential enemy.

Institutionalized marginality, the liminal state of social death, was the ultimate cultural outcome of the loss of natality as well as honor and power. It was in this to that the master’s authority rested. For it was he who in a godlike manner mediated between the socially dead and the socially alive. Without the master, as the Tuareg insist, the slave does not exist. The slave came to obey him not only out of fear, but out of the basic need to exist as a quasi-person, however marginal and vicarious that existence might be. [Pg.46]

The third aspect is dishonour.

The slave, as we have already indicated, could have no honor because he had no power and no independent social existence, hence no public worth. He had no name of his own to defend He could only defend his master’s worth and his master’s name. that the dishonor was a general condition must be emphasized, since the free and honorable person, ever alive to slights and insults, occasionally experiences specific acts of dishonor to which, of course, he or she responds by taking appropriate action. The slave, as we shall see, usually stood outside the game of honor. [pg.11]

In some caste-based societies, slaves do not form a caste, but are outside the caste system entirely. Part of the value in such a society is that a slave can do any kind of work, while castes are occupationally restricted. (Pg.50) In a perverse way, this gives slaves a certain freedom. In certain societies, slaves could say things that would be mortal insults coming from a free person, because no one cares what a slave says.

Previously, I had thought that slavery, as it exists in the BDSM subculture, had very little to do with actual slavery, and more resembled feudalism. To my surprise, Patterson’s three-part definition of slavery actually ties in to BDSM slavery quite well.

First, the slave embodies violence, and violence is exciting and sexy, even if it is attenuated into a game or ritual or performance. The power relation of slavery occurs on a very physical, personal level, and the particular body technologies of slavery remain fascinating to us: whipping, cages, fetters and collars.

Second, the natal alienation. As I’ve discussed before, the Master-slave subset of BDSM is replete with ritual protocols, such as contracts and rules,  and symbolic objects, such as collars. These take the slave and the Master out of their everyday life and into the liminal time, creating an intimate bond between them, a society of two. (This applies to the more personalistic model of slavery, distinct from slavery in which the slavery is owned by an impersonal institution.)

Third, dishonour. For both men and woman, their honor, or more generally their social worth, is based very much on their sexual behaviour, though in very different ways. An honour-less person is outside the restrictions of sexual propriety. A fantasy of slavery was a space that made sexual excess possible for women, or homosexuality possible for either sex, as hinted at in this anecdote from Grace Gibson of South Carolina:

I was called up on one of her [Miss Ada’s] birthdays, and Marster Bob sorta looked out of de corner of his eyes, first at me and then at Miss Ada, and then he make a little speech. He took my hand, put it in Miss Ada’s hand and say: “Dis your birthday present, darlin’.” I make a curtsy and Miss Ada’s eyes twinkle like a star and she take me in her room and took on powerful over me. [Pg.12]

Hannah Cullwick saw Victorian society’s ideal of how a woman should act, and which even a woman of her low status should aspire towards. Perhaps realizing that this was a sucker’s deal, material comfort in exchange for dependence, she chose a different ideal. In embracing the lowest, most abject position a human being could occupy in her society, she found a perverse form of freedom, in  sex and in other ways.

And that’s the appeal: it is a matched pair of new social roles that are alternatives to those offered by the mainstream. They enable a new sexual economy.

Of course, BDSM slavery is not enforced by law or custom. Severin and Wanda’s contract in Venus in Furs had no legal force (and Sacher-Masoch, who went to law school, would have known that.) It is instead an approximation of a social relation, as seen through several layers of historical and social distortion. It is decontextualized and appropriated into another setting, just as yoga was removed from its religious context in India and used primarily as physical exercise. Slavery is a set of roles and props to play out dramas of initiation, devotion, abjectness.

And what of the Master? Patterson employs the metaphor of parasitism, a dangerous and slippery game to play, as Hegel described in his writings on Master-slave relationships.  The master gains honour in possessing slaves, as they lose theirs. Aldous Huxley wrote, “To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.” We could paraphrase that as, “Every man thinks of himself as Napoleon, at least in the eyes of his dog; hence the constant popularity of dogs.”

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