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Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Raymond Williams: Subject and Servant


File:Etiquette at the Ball.jpg

Etiquette at the Ball for the Victorians of London Society: artist unknown, c. 1880-1900 (image by Thyra, 2008)

It is clearly possible for an individual to acquiesce in a way of living which in fact fails to correspond with or satisfy his own personal organization. He will obey authorities he does not personally accept, carry out social functions that have no personal meaning to him, even feel and think in ways so foreign to his actual desires that damage will be done to his own being -- often deep emotional disorders, often physical damage to his own organic processes. The marks of this false conformity have been very evident in our social experience, but it is wrong to interpret them in terms of the old "individual" and "society" dichotomy. We can best describe them as the roles of subject and servant, in contrast with member.

The subject, at whatever violence to himself, has to accept the way of life of his society, and his own indicated place within it, because there is no other way in which he can maintain himself at all; only by this kind of obedience can he eat, sleep, shelter, or escape being destroyed by others. It is not his way of life, but he must conform to it in order to survive. In the case of the servant, the pressure is less severe, though still, to him, irresistible. The subject has no choice; the servant is given the illusion of choice, because again, like the subject, he has no obvious way of maintaining his life if he refuses. Yet the illusion is important, for it allows him to pretend to an identification with society, as if the choice had been real. The subject will have few illusions about the relationship which is determining him; he will know that the way of life is not his but must be obeyed. The servant, on the other hand, may come to identify with the way of life that is determining him; he may even, consciously, think of himself as a member (indeed the old sense of "member" allows for this, for if the individual is an organ of the organism which is society, particular individuals will be higher or lower organs yet still feel themselves as true parts). Yet at many levels of his life, and particularly in certain situations such as solitude and age, the discrepancy between the role the individual is playing and his actual sense of himself will become manifest, either consciously or in terms of some physical or emotional disturbance. Given the right conditions, he can play the role as if it were really his, but alone, or in situations evoking his deepest personal feelings, the identification breaks down. It seems possible, from the experience that has been widely recorded, that this situation of the servant is crucial in our kind of society. And in modern Europe and the United States there are still subjects, though the experience of the servant is much more frequently recorded. It is that we are told we are free, and that we are shaping our common destiny; yet, with varying force, many of us break through to the conviction that the pattern of public activity has, in the end, very little to do with our private desires. Indeed the main modern force of the distinction between "the individual' and "society" springs from this feeling. It is only from the servant complex that we can both maintain this conviction and yet repeatedly pretend that we believe, wholeheartedly, in the purposes of our society.


Solitude: photo by Les Chatfield, 2005

Raymond Williams: from Individuals and Societies, in The Long Revolution, 1961

1 comment:

TC said...

This post extends the discussion that began in the comments here.