Dilemmas of Voluntary Servitude
This post is in relation to the Gender and Domination course in OOPS.
My favorite paragraph in Etienne de La Boetie’s “The Discourse On Voluntary Servitude” that we read for the second class, is probably the beginning of Part II, which calls on the doctors on behalf of the mortally wounded in spirit, as if anticipating the psychoanalyst avant la lettre. He writes,
DOCTORS ARE NO DOUBT CORRECT in warning us not to touch incurable wounds; and I am presumably taking chances in preaching as I do to a people which has long lost all sensitivity and, no longer conscious of its infirmity, is plainly suffering from mortal illness. Let us therefore understand by logic, if we can, how it happens that this obstinate willingness to submit has become so deeply rooted in a nation that the very love of liberty now seems no longer natural.
In one fell swoop he undermines the efficacy of his very project, since one cannot touch incurable wounds, and voluntary servitude seems to be a mortal illness that we have lost all sensitivity to. We don’t even know we are sick! The love of liberty is what is frankly unnatural at this point to human beings. As a psychoanalyst, I can only hear this as a question about that great ‘distortion’ of the human known as neurosis… and when I say this, I mean to say that we are all neurotic frankly, unless we are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be psychotic.
What is neurotic? Chiara Bottici asked in class.
Well, quite frankly it means not to love liberty, or be unable to love liberty, attached in some way to suffering in the form of inhibition, symptoms, and anxiety. This comes about, according to Freud, from the clash between sexuality, in the broad psychoanalytic sense of the term, and familial and societal morality. Of course the question I had for la Boetie, whose diagnosis of man in the 16th century is nothing short of astounding, is what about the child? What about development and the conditioning that we undergo when passing from infancy to childhood to adolescence? In class, we asked a fascinating question, one we will no doubt consider throughout this course, about the difference between dependency (especially the dependency of children upon the adults around them) and domination. How does dependency become “an obstinate willingness to submit”?
As a class, we watched Bunuel’s classic film Belle Du Jour in which a bored housewife with an oh-so-perfect bourgeois French life becomes a prostitute by day. She is trying to fulfill long-held masochistic sexual fantasies. The over-riding question concerns the ambiguous end of the film where her husband, now an invalid, shot by her lover from the brothel, learns of her infidelity. While he cries, her face seems to exhibit, if not pleasure, some sense of calm, as she looks out the window and the cinematic devices that indicate her sexual fantasy world- bells, trees, carriages- merge with her everyday life, united finally, instead of existing in parallel.
Was this revenge? Was this a reversal from masochism to sadism? Did she want to lord over her husband rather than submit to him or men in general? Or was she escaping once again into fantasy? Was she relieved now that she had brought down punishment and guilt upon herself in the eyes of her husband? These questions point forward to so many upcoming classes, especially Freud’s Dora and a Child is Being Beaten. For now, perhaps what we can say is that the exit from voluntary servitude is fraught, as La Boetie knows… and that perhaps women’s relationship to submission, what is sexual in it, what is tied to fantasy- especially of the dominant, masterful other who protects and completes us and who we love and are sexually excited by- will tell us more than a simply political discourse can. Finally, there is no exit without first assuming the position of the master, and then, and only then, finally renouncing it. From the position of submission, there is only love, or its other face, resentiment.