Madre and desmadre
I very recently became aware of a Spanish word desmadre, first spoken more generally in my presence and then directly to me by a group of magnificent women in the centre of San Diego. I was told desmadre means ruckus. The way I heard them use the word, it sounded like John Lewis’s “good trouble.” I thought it was two words. Of mothers? No, no, I was told, one word, meaning ruckus. The word intrigued me. Does it have something to do with madre? Well, of course it has something to do with madre, I found. It comes from a root of separation from the mother. Disintegration. Chaos. And now good trouble.
In my three works of fiction, all the main characters are women: two wandering mothers, one grandmother, many daughters. My first and third work are about separation from the mother, in one case chosen by the mother, in the other not chosen by the mother. I wanted to close these books, close the stories, go from heimlich to unheimlich to heimlich -- the formula for a good novel I was glibly instructed by a literary agent with unliterary tastes — but the characters are broken are broken, whole only in the luminescence of the world in which they live, loved and loving.
Earlier this year I presented the artwork edition of my first novel, Night Heron, in Berlin. My daughter introduced me, moderated the presentation and asked me how I came to write this novel about a visual artist who leaves her son for no very good reason, neither heroic ambition nor poor traumatic past. For the first time in all my stumbling, convoluted speaking about this novel, I spoke about the motivating ambition for this story. It was simple and too ambitiously silly to be spoken of before this, but there in Berlin, speaking to my daughter and a group of mostly artists and writers, I said I wanted to create a female Stephen Dedalus, as in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I had loved as a young woman. I wanted a woman to step out as vividly: the language, yes, but also that stepping out. I found no Dedalus. There was no easy Dedalus, no female derivative who felt remotely real or interesting. My own life at the time — a mother of young children — pushed me to the not-Dedalus figure of a mother of a young son, and then she leaves her son, which is experienced as desmadre by all readers, disturbingly and uncomfortably so for most, satisfyingly provocative in a melancholy way for some.
Art and writing has often propelled or reflected desmadre, traditionally in most parts of the world in the voices and through the agonies of men, often men with, or aligned with, more power (though they could and often did write about men of less power and even women). In the last couple of centuries that has changed. This change has become more rapid in the last sixty years or so as women and traditionally less powerful men — less powerful at least in the context of our long modern era of military gunpowder, industrialization, colonization, and rampant capitalism — have explored what it means to articulate main characters from their own experience of work and living in crowded interior and exterior worlds.
Which brings me to an early stimulus for this blog post.
A few days ago, biographyof.red, an extraordinarily delightful Instagram account that evidently springs from Anne Carson’s work and posts mostly poetry, posted an excerpt from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. The excerpt, in turn, quotes Henri Bachelin on the conjuring of myth - involving “tragic cataclysms” of the past, and ends of times — around winter hearths. Evidently this conjuring comes from men, most definitely not old women who tell “fairytales.” Bachelard’s and Bachelin’s lovely words inscribe the space in which old masculinist myths can loom. Their words projected to me a willfully blind desire for understanding that penetrates “the end,” that grandly foresees its own tragic failure. I refused this space and asked myself, what larger space do I make, what poetics if life is the hurling of oneself — whether slowly, grandly, or awkwardly — against the hard transparency of end? What poetics, what space for people living splintered lives — loving, working, laughing, living — and expiring despite themselves, where narratives of yawning pasts and distant ends are often unheeded?
Yes, yes, I know, Shakespeare, Dickens, the novel. And, yes, how does this relate to madre and desmadre, apart from the obvious gender stuff. Well, yes, the obvious gender stuff is key.
Madre, a trope for connection, with all its connotation of home, gathering, shared food, shared corporeality, cooking, fire, transformation, sometimes even hearth. Complaints, shush, small tales, snoring, reaching into “forces and signs” by women and men. Desmadre, inside and outside. Inside and outside bodies, inside and outside that gathering at the hearth, inside and outside the home, heimlich always roughly pixilated, parts spinning into unheimlich, unheimlich pressed into new forms of homeliness by personal and collective intimacies.
From trope to subject, madre to desmadre, women and the historically less powerful are saying we will occupy this hearth, we will make the space under crossing highways a hearth, we will make it a space for life, for gathering, for drought-resistant plants, for art that exclaims “we are here!”, and here encompasses the beauty and pain of our pasts, the struggles and dancing of our present, and our shared future of children, life, and death, all of that!
I didn’t know how this blog post would spin out. It is still spinning within, tilting into aliveness, spilling into uncertainty.
Madre and desmadre are mythical figures of worlds that have long been binary-gendered. As binary gender dissolves into two figures in a much larger flow, or if gestation becomes incubation in genderless machinery and separation becomes connection to a human, will madre — traditionally female, one of a binary, bloody and corporeal — change? I don’t know. The best I can do for now is to observe that the binary was always only a device, a tool for organizing rhetoric and meaning. The non-binary has always been available, residing in both vast madre and desmadre. Reflecting on the mothers in my fiction and the space-making event alluded to above, madre also seems to connote separation and desmadre also connotes connection, gathering.
A month ago, as we were told to retreat from public life in NYC, I found people, including me, staying out more widely and gathering more, and more densely, than the warnings called for. Then slowly New Yorkers, including me, retreated to our neighborhoods and then to our homes. As we did this, as an individual I worried specifically about loved ones and more abstractly about the scale and effects of this impending cataclysm. My family and loved ones live on several continents, some of us alone. I live alone. Like many other people I’ve learned to increase my use of messaging, phone, and video for mutual care with family and friends. Some people living alone feel lonely. I have a very high tolerance, and even need, for solitude, so mostly I don’t feel lonely, but the current form of my solitude – distant, with no physical activity of care for others – is also a building block for my bubble. In contrast to my situation, some people and families, especially in the small apartments of my city, contend with the everyday struggles of being constantly closed-in and crowded in small spaces.
I live in West Harlem in Manhattan. My neighbors are primarily Latino and African-American. My own coloring is just about halfway on the range you see in my community. I’ve lived here almost two years now. From the beginning I’ve loved that people commonly speak to me in Spanish, at least until they see my goat-in-headlights expression.
Before COVID19 lots of social life in my neighborhood happened in public spaces. Groups of all ages, but especially older men, and sometimes older women, would gather on or around a few chairs on the wide sidewalks of Broadway or on the small patches of green in the neighborhood; or they would gather on and around the benches on the divider between the two sides of Broadway. It was common to hear music, usually with an African-American or Caribbean rhythm. Quite elderly people – some disabled – were given place and engaged with in these public spaces. This was not some idyllic world. Most people looked worn. Many looked busy. Some frowned. Many looked intent, even worried. But I noticed and loved how familiarity gathered among people who live and work here and slowly I started feeling allowed to join in that gathering of familiarity. I have never felt unsafe in my neighborhood, even returning home on foot or by bus or subway after midnight.
As COVID19 became more clearly, more palpably, a threat, we were told to stay home except for essential services (health care workers, transit workers, EMT and FDNY, police, grocery store workers, pharmacy workers, postal workers, trash collectors, and so on) and essential activities (grocery and pharmacy shopping, exercise). At first my neighborhood seemed barely changed. The old men continued sitting in their chairs and chatting, the young men played basketball at the recreation park not far from my home. For the first few days the sidewalks did not look hugely different from pre-COVID19 days. Slowly that changed.
People continue walking up and down my street, but fewer, with more distance, and increasingly with masks on. People go to laundromats, people need to get food, people need to get away from crowded homes, and people – essential workers – go to work. Over the last few weeks most of what I see is from my closed second-floor window (it’s still cold in NYC) or on my walks to the grocery store or post box, or to the river for fresh air, beauty, and also to be with people though we keep our distance. Last Saturday, a young man, a stranger, delivered our mail. Our usual mail carrier is a young African-American woman who was assigned this route (to her delight, she told me) about the same time I moved in. I started wondering why this man delivered the mail and when I saw her again a few days later on my way to the river, I exploded at her with relief (from a distance). She had taken the day off to be with her children and family.
So what am I doing behind my closed window, apart from looking at my neighbors walking up and down my street and clapping at 7 pm? Lots of phone calls to people around the world who are concerned about me, and whom I’m concerned about. I speak to my mother in India every afternoon. Almost every day I have contact with each of my grown children who are making their own adjustments to living with COVID19. All my consulting work in conflict resolution and leadership development – in any case no longer my primary occupation – is on hold. My primary occupation is writing fiction. I am trying to get my first two novels published, and have been reading in what I considered my fallow time before I start my next novel.
Often I veer off to read and watch the news, including NY Governor Cuomo’s press briefings. A few times a day I get mired in my Twitter feed. Mostly my engagement with news and Twitter is a kind of frantic spectatorship. I look for places to donate to and donate, both to organizations that will provide resources to those most hurt and political campaigns of people whose values I support. Because of my recent divorce, I have some money I can invest so I watch the stock market, somewhat bemused. A faint guilt permeates the time spent watching the stock market and remains under the surface. Then I tell myself, better me than those hedge funds and rich people. But the faint guilt remains. I rule out certain industries and companies. But the faint guilt remains. We are all complicit in the economy. Some have less choice. Some have less effect. Some gain. Some suffer a lot more. Some don’t care. The faint guilt remains.
Starting a month or two before COVID19 affected me directly, I've noticed a storm gathering within me regarding my third novel. In the greater solitude of this stay-at-home time the storm signs have become more urgent and I’ve been trying to figure out whether it’s time to chase that storm, and, if so, where to get close to it, how to engage with it. It’s a very large storm that’s been gathering, about all of life, which means life all the way from the quivering inside from where we are subjects, objects, heroes of our destiny, and beaten down. I’ve loaded my jeep and I’ve started out to chase this storm.
Meanwhile, in numerous phone calls and messages I’m asked, “How are you? How are you in NYC?” Friends and family worry about me and they see me as touching, directly, the frightening tragedy they read about in their news media and see on their televisions. Inarticulately I tell them, I’m in a bubble. I feel like I’m living in a bubble, I say. I feel like I’m living in a bubble in a location of immense fear and distress. That’s all I’ve been able to say. I haven’t been able to, I can’t, claim more than that.
Concurrently my internal storm is getting larger and more compelling. I’m closer to it. I’m ready to start writing again.
Then, in the last few days, two things struck my bubble. Not bursting it, mind you; this isn’t a heroic story. A friend who works with very low-income women and girls in Kolkata sent me The Guardian article called A Tale of Two New Yorks. Yup, I know this, there is no hiding was my external response. Yup, we can’t hide from this anymore was my internal response, with a distant cynicism about what we can hide from given a little time and self-serving distraction. I turned to follow my internal storm.
The second thing was my experience at an open mic program organized a couple of evenings ago (April 10) by Under the Volcano, a superb international writing workshop program in Tepoztlan, Mexico which I had attended in 2018. When the announcement and invitation to sign up arrived in my inbox, I immediately responded and got a spot. In Tepoztlan, two years ago I did my first open mic reading; I chose an excerpt from my first novel, narrating the main character’s frenzied turning inside out while painting. At that time I was in the beginning stages of my second novel, so for April 10’s open mic I decided to read an excerpt from my second novel which is about memory, identity, and the internet. The novel is also about love, anger, and difference, but for my three-minute slot I chose a piece that is rollickingly about coding, gaming, hacking, and AI. I love that piece, I still do. But when I heard a young woman in the Bronx read her piece I hit my bubble. Inside, outside, all of me hit my bubble. In and after a texting exchange with another participant after the open mic program, I continued to bounce in and off my bubble.
Then, yesterday, another friend sent me the same Guardian article referenced above. With the repetition and given my experience at the UTV open mic, just knowing that two New Yorks exist, already knowing, did not exhaust my internal or external response. I immediately wrote the paragraph below and sent it to the friend who’d just sent me the article and a few others.
This is at the core of my bubble: “The public advocate pointed out that 79% of New York’s frontline workers – nurses, subway staff, sanitation workers, van drivers, grocery cashiers – are African American or Latino. While those city dwellers who have the luxury to do so are in lockdown in their homes, these communities have no choice but to put themselves in harm’s way every day.” I see that every day in my neighborhood. I know that my going out won’t help, in fact by increasing density will raise risk for everyone. So I stay home, doing work nonessential for my city in crisis, in many ways unconnected to my city in crisis, in some ways – if I gain from that benighted stock market – gaining, how can that be possible, gaining while my city is in crisis. The question is how do I connect my work, my living with this reality: how do I connect life inside me – that storm gathering – with life outside me?
This blog post is one start to addressing that last question, amplifying the question, looking at how it rises both outside and inside me. I do not touch the distress of my city directly, but, in my bubble, I am part of it.
This is not an ending. There is no resolution here. The inequities that exacerbated the unevenness of tragedy in my city existed before COVID19. The communities that have been asymmetrically affected by illness and death are likely also to be least helped by recovery efforts, least strengthened for the longer term. I can’t just be appalled. I can’t forget. This is a long game, not a short-term wringing of hands.
Added perspective: This blog post focuses on my bubble in NYC where I live, but the bubble phenomenon is countrywide, worldwide. In the U.S., race and color add an enormous burden, but low-income people everywhere serve more and are served much, much less.
Added comment: This was a difficult piece to write. It’s hard to reveal privilege even to myself, because a significant amount of privilege is unfair; I want to be “good.” But it’s much, much harder to live (and die! to see your loved ones die) without genuine equality of opportunity, equality of access to wellbeing, and equality of access to community resources in times of need. When I was young, I often fought for fairness, but I learnt slowly that life, often enough, is “unfair.” Getting old, I know life is “unfair,” but I’m learning that if I cut myself off from directly engaging with life outside me, I become emptier inside. In my case, directly engaging with life outside me means not turning away from being appalled by unfairness that I’ve always known; from my own confusions, complicities, and complexities; and from attentively, cannily choosing fairness and equity more and more rather than less. In practical terms, the last means supporting adequate wages and income security for minimum wage/hourly/casual/gig workers; easy access to health care information and services, including health insurance that is affordable or free where needed, but also specific systems in place for outreach, health education, and diagnostic and preventive services; attention to environmental health hazards, including housing deficiencies, work conditions, and inordinate production and marketing of junk foods; equality of opportunity in education which means explicitly lots more effort for children who don’t grow up with income-/class-based access and exposure outside of school systems. These are obvious ongoing things. Crises will come again; climate change is looming. In crises, the first question must be: what extra attention must we pay, what extra must we do to protect people with the fewest resources, in places with the fewest resources, who are often also most at risk? We must be prepared for this question, that extra. In a crisis we are all appalled. When this is over, how will I continue? How will you?
“From the badlands of language”: unfinished projects, wild life, and the joy of loving (a haphazard piece)
Months ago, a friend was stricken by the finitude of life and fear of regrets. We talked about this urgent – galvanizing rather than paralyzing – fear of life ending.
I couldn’t empathize because I have not feared death in a long time, if ever. I have feared disability, which could come with age but also unbidden from accident or disease; and, in particular, I have feared, immodestly, the dulling of my fine mind, but fear of death? No. We quickly and lightly attributed the difference to my Hindu, rather than Judeo-Christian, upbringing.
I have often said that I don’t have to do everything in this life. This does not mean that I believe that I will live another life, just that more lives than this life of mine will be led. So rather than the end or regrets at the end being important, it is – most tritely – living right now, “this is what I want to do, this is who I am,” that has been important to me.
This is a frame that has served me well, as I have genuinely enjoyed a little patch in a concrete path that looks like a woman dragging a sack behind her, and, less whimsically, was consumed, with awe, by a storm of jellyfish, thousands if not millions streaming past me, a few stinging my face. These are sensory joys.
In each case, it was not just an image, or a sting, but, with the concrete it was the feel of the light, the humming of a high-voltage wire above, and in the water, again, it was the light, or lack thereof, the awareness of gristle – Silky Shark bait, in the water amidst the swarming points of light – that I could not smell. But the gentle joys of the moment are not only sensory. Words can snare me, not just their rhythm, though, admittedly, it’s their rhythm that typically lures me first. Ideas can make my eyes widen, my fingertips feel alive.
In this way, reading The Paris Review’s interview with Luisa Valenzuela, whom I met in Tepoztlan in January, and chose to adulate though I didn’t really know her work, or her, led to a gentle moment with “the badlands of language,” from whence, according to Luisa, women come. Reading that phrase, I wanted to own it, not possessively, but gently, like the jellyfish stings and flawed concrete. I, a writer, come from the badlands of language. What does that even mean, as one of my daughters would ask. It has something to do with anger, I think, something to do with the paradoxical freedom of someone who struggles, who fundamentally is not and can never be free. We cannot just be the flower that offers its beauty and perfume freely, indeed the flower does not do that either, but that is a tangent I will leave aside in this piece.
Learning to gently enjoy the beauty of the moment is truly a source of peace and wonder, that – as I let the beauty of this moment, of writing this piece with morning light falling on pictures of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ray Charles; falling also on a postcard of one of Do Ho Suh “houses;” and, above all of these, falling on my collage of Thomas Hirschhorn’s ruins in Zurich – relaxes my body. I rub my cheeks. The beauty rubs on to me. This is a benediction.
But my life, coming from the badlands of language, in many ways quite literally, is not only benediction. Realizing this is not gentle joy. Indeed, it returns me to wildness, to wilderness. The Silkies never came, the gristle got caught in my hair. As I write this, the morning light is lovely, but cortisol, fear, and desire are in my fingers as well. Cortisol, fear, and desire are not gentle; they come from struggle. Struggle is wild. The flowers are not free. I have already written from that wildness (read my first novel!). How do I live with it? How do I hold it as preciously as the gentle joys of each moment? It calls for risk in living. Does risk in living mean risking loving (as my first novel explores)? When the end comes, there is no happy ending. There is just the limited end. Everything else goes on. Struggles and projects remain unfinished. I, with a happy Pollyanna-ish mind, want to end this piece with a call for, a touching of, a blowing out of the “joy of loving.” That phrase wrote itself into the title and I am loth to throw it out. But the joy of loving is what it is. You can only have it if you have it. And otherwise, or rather in any case, you struggle.
Note on jellyfish photo: Our guide and underwater photographer did not photograph the swarm. These jellyfish, also lovely, also stinging, also amid the flesh and bone of the shark bait, came before the swarm.
Epilogue: I’m going to dive again.
If I could make a multidimensional line drawing, with fine articulations, fanciful depths, repeated variations, and foggy smudges – the more it is the same, the more it changes – that would be my representation of motherhood.
If I could make a multidimensional line drawing, with fine articulations, fanciful depths, repeated variations, and foggy smudges – the more it is the same, the more it changes – that would be my representation of personhood.
Sometime in the last couple of months, there was a question raised in a periodical I was browsing about how many, and which, books in the English language literary canon have a mother as the protagonist. This discussion caught my attention because both of the main characters in my first novel, Variations, are mothers; their status of “mother” is not incidental to their stories, but agonistically central. Mulling the ways mothers are represented in literature and art, I speculated, vaguely, because I didn’t really research and tabulate, that by and large traditionally they took on primary roles in static frames – visual art, especially sculptures, statues, variations on the trope of Mother Earth. The mother, in abstract, generates and contains. As a living, historical figure, she seems either too unwieldy (abstract grandness combined with (what is perceived as) very limited room for discursive and spatial maneuver) or too quotidian, rhythmic (repetitive acts of mothering combined with a repetitive focus on and celebration of successful reproduction) to be the dynamic protagonist of a coherent and particular narrative.
In the days that followed, my gloomy mullings floated and thinned but didn’t disappear. And then I went to Goa where I stayed with my mother, hung out with my aunt (her sister), and met other relatives – some mothers themselves, others ineluctably defined by their relationships to mothers in some articulation or the other – who, in an Indian way, carry a meaning of mother that is both glorifying and glorious. As I was drawn to bask in this meaning, the discomforts of my novel niggled. Variations struggles to represent and tell the story of both the (very real and deserved) glory, and the self-representational and practical possibilities that the glory crowds out.
My mother, as mother, is a heroine and recognized as such by many who know her. While far from perfect as a person, she lives her commitment to her children (and her siblings, whom she mothered after her own mother died) in a way that can easily be mythologized, with all of the magnificence and ludic pettiness that characterize mythologies. Such a mythical mother figure matches, and even exceeds, any masculine quest-er figure, but it also presents a two-faced challenge to women who live in its shadow. Not being a questing figure itself, it doesn’t provide a model for a feminine quest; and if a feminine quest is undertaken within the practical and categorical frame of motherhood, the protagonist can find herself shadow-boxing herself, dwindling in a kind of auto-immune disease of self-consciousness.
So where did these thoughts and perceptions – fragments in indistinct interiors of my mind and senses – take me? To an unsatisfying, inconclusive, but lighthearted end.
I don’t have to choose. I can be two-faced, fractal, or chaotic. I can love this and be gloomy about that. I can write about this and live something that is different, whether bigger, more petty, more loving, more frightened, more banal, more stalwart, more frantic, or just aging.
Also, I am not alone. Starting in the late twentieth century, writers in English, and probably in other languages as well, are finding more ways to experiment with mother-as-protagonist, often enough Mother Agonistes.
Postscript: Those of you who are worried that my novel is written in the same style as this post, don’t be! The novel is ordinary story-telling.
Recently, between a daughter burbling about the chemical transferability of learning and a character (in my new novel) pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence, I’ve been thinking a lot about learning.
As a layperson, I’ve thought of learning mainly in terms of younger learning – generational transfer of social convention and disciplinary knowledge, which, in environments that adequately balance boundaries and freedom, and nourishment and stress, develop capacity for higher-order connections, analogy, abstraction, and “extra-order” creativity – and adult learning which uses and further develops the higher-order capacities. All of this presumes that learning is a humanistic and social process. Of course, our physiology allows this learning, but, until recently, I didn’t seriously consider the possibility that learning might be, fundamentally, a physiological and/or logical process. Today, however, with explorations of the chemical transferability of learning, increasing understanding of the structure and activity of the brain, and the development of sophisticated algorithms for pattern recognition and unsupervised learning by machines, I, along with many others, am fascinated by, and curious about, the chemical and mechanical nature of learning.
Snap! Palpably, truly, my brain shut a mental trap around the word “curiosity.” Aha. Where would curiosity figure in the chemical transfer of learning? Can artificially intelligent curiosity match human curiosity? What is the relationship of curiosity to learning and intelligence? So far explorations of the chemical transfer of learning are restricted to conditioned learning, so the question of curiosity is very far from arising. But I think we can ask about curiosity in machine learning.
Curiosity in mammals includes both instrumental, problem-solving, motivated curiosity and (pleasurably) idle curiosity. Both kinds can lead to learning. The first sounds amenable to algorithmic machine learning. The second, pleasurably idle curiosity, sounds fundamentally inconsistent with algorithmic processes, but certainly one could code a machine to simulate idle curiosity. One could have an “idle” curiosity algorithm, with a cosmetic repertoire of pleasure indicators, linked to a mechanical random number generator, and one could code for recording and learning from the effects of the random, if not truly idle, curiosity. I think it could look pretty good and the machine might even derive quantitatively and qualitatively better learning than I do from my idle curiosity.
So where would that leave me? At the limit, the machine cannot have idle curiosity. That does leave me (and you) with a fertile question: what then can the machine never have in terms of learning? (I think one could have a strongly analogous line of inquiry about self-consciousness. Perhaps in a future post. Or in a guest post?)
Note: In this note, I use “learning” and “intelligence” to denote mainly mental activity (descriptive, analytical, creative, etc.). I am not looking in any primary way at “muscle memory,” emotional intelligence, etc., though, clearly, all of these greatly affect any person’s overall capacity and process of learning and “intelligence.” I also do not look at a crucial form of curiosity among mammals in general, but, most strikingly, among humans – relational curiosity.
Related content: a fascinating article on gender and AI/Robots.
Mrinalini, one of two primary characters in my novel Variations, is an educated Bengali woman of the late nineteenth century.
Seventy or so years after Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit was published, she lives in Lucknow with her husband’s family, which is part of a growing “middle class” in British India, an Indian version of the educated bourgeoisie of Europe, holding a similar range of conservative-liberal values, a range that is self-contradictory from some perspectives, and politically fertile from others. As an educated woman – a wife and mother – who grew to be literate in three languages (Bengali, English, and Urdu), she is simultaneously audience for the knowledge activity of men around her and the (supposedly) malleable object of their knowledge and activity.
For Hegel, she, as a woman, can achieve at best the limited consciousness of Herrschaft (or “masterdom,” to use Howard Kainz’s word); as an Indian, she is a murky figure, dreamily between fantastic pasts and colonial presents. Most interestingly, however, as a character, a woman and an Indian of her time, she works through consciousness of self and other, in tandem with her futuristic doppelgänger Pakhi (the other primary character in Variations), to arrive at recognized existence-for-(it)self through art-in-material-living. In the dialectic, the “slave” is the necessary fabulation for the consciousness of “masterdom,” (or, in the case of real masters and slaves, the worker necessary to support and define the independent status of the master). But the potential triumph of the “slave” (in this case Mrinalini’s consciousness at work) is that the slave’s consciousness need have no dependence on the independence of the master, more vulgarly no illusions about the master, and indeed often doesn’t, and so structurally can achieve transformative survival of its own supersession, while the master’s consciousness is structurally stuck.
Added comment from a reader:
"Your reference to Hegel is appropriate since the crucial passage in the Phenomenology treats the dialectic of Herrschaft and Knechtshaft as a fundamental stage in the emergence of self-consciousness, and the arising of self-consciousness is what Mrinalini experiences. There is of course much more texture to Hegel's dense discussion of this moment than can be included in one paragraph of a blog post, but you aren't writing a technical article anyway. So the appeal to Hegel fits the case, and his analysis gives you a good tool for exploring Mrinalini and her situation.
The one passage in the post that gave me pause was the phrase "the slave’s consciousness need have no dependence on the independence of the master". I would caution you to be careful there, because, for Hegel, the independence of the master is a necessary condition for the slave's emergent self-consciousness. The master represents a perpetual threat of death for the slave. And it is this threat (which the slave experiences and the master doesn't), in combination with the slave's direct engagement with the material world in meeting the demands of the master (something that the slave's intervention prevents the master from experiencing), that creates conditions for the slave to become self aware (again there are more fine-grained details here but I'm trying to hit just the essential points!). In short, the slave is confronted by another independent self-consciousness in a way that the master never can be, and that confrontation is the matrix for the slave's developing self-consciousness. In that sense, the slave's consciousness is in part an outcome of the encounter with the master's independence. This mutual dependence between the two positions is a reason why the dance between the two is a "dialectic”!”
-- Walter Wright