Sunday, August 01, 2010

Hegel's Master-Slave Dialectic in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas?

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
(Image from Wikipedia)

In David Mitchell's story "An Orison of Sonmi-451," from Cloud Atlas, the ascended fabricant Sonmi -- i.e., a genetically engineered slave who attains self-consciousness -- had escaped and joined the revolutionaries aiming to overthrow the state (i.e., corpocracy), but has been recaptured and subjected to an interrogation, leading to this suggestive exchange:
What damage could even 10 million -- say -- ascended fabricants inflict on the most stable state pyramid in the history of civilization?
Who could work factory lines? Process sewage? Feed fish farms? Xtract oil and coal? Stoke reactors? Construct buildings? Serve in dineries? Xtinguish fires? Man the cordon? Fill exxon tanks? Lift, dig, pull, push? Sow, harvest? Now do you begin to see? Purebloods no longer possess these core skills upon which our corpocracy, or any society, rests. The real question is, what damage could 6 million ascensions not inflict, in combination with cordonlanders and downstrata purebloods such as those in Huamdonggil with nothing to lose? (Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, Random House, 2004, pages 326-327)
This reversal of roles between the pureblood masters and their fabricant slaves reminds me of the master-slave dialectic in Hegel's 1807 work, Phenomenology of Spirit (Phänomenologie des Geistes). Look at the original German (and its translation) of Section 193 in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: Selections, edited by Howard P. Kainz (Penn State Press, 1994), pages 61-62:
Die Wahrheit des selbstständigen Bewußtseyns ist demnach das knechtische Bewußtseyn. Dieses erscheint zwar zunächst außer sich und nicht als die Wahrheit des Selbstbewußtseyn. Aber wie die Herrschaft zeigte, daß ihr Wesen das Verkehrte dessen ist, was sie seyn will, so wird auch wohl die Knechtschaft vielmehr in ihrer Vollbringung zum Gegenteile dessen werden, was sie unmittelbar ist; sie wird als in sich zurückgedrängtes Bewußtseyn in sich gehen, und zur wahren Selbstständigkeit sich umkehren.

The truth of the independent consciousness is consequently the servile consciousness! Of course the servile consciousness comes on the scene at first as alienated from itself, and not as the truth of Self-Consciousness. But just as the case of the Master has demonstrated that its essential characteristics are the exact opposite of what was intended, so also will Slavery in its development turn out to be the opposite of that which it is in its immediacy. Slavery, as a consciousness-forced-back-on-itself, will come to itself and convert itself into true independence.
This is what Sonmi has done. She has transformed her slave mentality into true independence through recognizing that the slaves of the fascist society known as "corpocracy" have, in effect, become the actual masters, for the pureblood 'masters' no longer possess the skills upon which any society rests, these skills now being possessed by the fabricants. Mitchell has apparently read Hegel . . . or at least his epigone, Marx.

By the way, Huamdonggil (Huam-dong-gil, 후암동길) is a neighborhood in Seoul -- "dong" (동, 洞) meaning something like "neighborhood" and "gil" (길) meaning "street." It's one of Yongsan-gu's administrative divisions. Keep in mind that the story "An Orison of Sonmi-451" takes place in Nea So Copros, a futuristic, dystopian version of a reunified Korea.

The actual, present-day Korean society, of course, isn't made up of Korean 'purebloods' who run things and non-Korean 'fabricants' who do the real work -- despite the many foreign laborers now residing in Korea doing the "dangerous, dirty, distant, difficult" work and even if Mitchell could possibly be punning in irony on the word for "factory" in other languages, such as German (der Fabrik) or French (la fabrique).


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At 9:25 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

This sounds vaguely like The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells.

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've not read that story in a long time -- no pun intended -- but Mitchell does work with the themes of many previous writers, and even alludes to some . . . and his book Cloud Atlas does cross times.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:47 PM, Anonymous yokobeatdown said...

Yeah, I was instantly drawn to a similar line of thought. I believe it's Phenomenology to the T and the time periods are a sort of broader karmic take on Philosophy of History (thesis antithesis synthesis).
I'm glad to have read some of your ideas and to have been able to share my agreement with them.

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for posting. I'm glad I'm not alone.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:31 PM, Anonymous May said...

I just watched the Wachowskis' film adaptation and came away with a similar reading - only I read more of the Phenomenology into it than just the Master/Slave dialectic. Glad to know I'm not the only one seeing this. :)

At 6:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You can probably see more Hegel than I because you've surely read more Hegel than I.

Thanks for commenting.

Jeffery Hodges

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