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