A Theory of Romanized Subjectivity: Alienation as Traverse
The aim of here is to take survey of the trope servitium amoris, a slave of love, as it appears in three poems of the Roman Love Poets. And to do so such that it reveals both something of the internal dynamics of its function as a trope in poetic form, but also so that the figure itself can be shown to reflect a subjective change in the way that experience qualifies authentic Roman expression, as an objective limit. It is my thought that within the rise of the servitium amoris trope, one can see an internalization of experience, psychologizing the needs and desires of the lover via a hypothetical servitude, drawn from a real social hierarchy, and also a simultaneous segregation of those affects, a personalization of love, setting the lover apart from all other social forms such that as a privatized experience it can be reintegrated into social contexts, via that form. In brief, by borrowing from the form of institutional slavery itself, and expressing its normalized cruelties and humiliations as a private subjectivity, the poet can claim both a freedom from social norms (through this subversion), and also a re-inscription upon those norms (through homology). Through this trope of servitude, the poet explores a new locus of experience, setting forth its grounds, and circumscribing its limits, and it is through this trope that the poet seeks to contextualize his experience within sociability, giving it a language and authenticity.
The adventure begins with Catullus 63, a poem that even in meter, the Galliambic of traditional Attis worship, seems to break radically from the forms of Latin love contemplation; from the start, by invoking the heavy, drum-like repetitions of a formal ceremony, the poet is both calling towards an ancient past, but also a modern break, fusing a primordial and a metropolitan self. In this spirit, I would like to trace the nature of other breaks and reversals that Catullus is enacting, in order to set the grounds for how slavery, a real and determined slavery, can be viewed both as kinds of severance and kinds of binding. There is of course the bold, in fact startling, physical severance of Attis’ stones in the first lines: “…stimulatus ibi furenti rabie, vagus animi,/devolsit ili acuto sibi pondera silice (lines 4-5),” an act that is characterized as being done by one who is driven (stimulatus), and wandering (vagus). And even more to the skin, this is followed by the grammatical inversion of his gender in the next line, that “he” becomes a “she” for the remainder of the poem. In only two short lines this exiled man has entered a domain willingly, been exposed to a kind of madness, and actively been transformed into another kind of creature, a castrato, nearly indeterminate in gender, or whose gender is indicated by performance and grammar (as she takes up the timbrel in the next lines). Here we have a genetic image that pervades the poem, a goaded act of the will, a severance that establishes a binding or commitment, a wandering that indicates or prompts obedience.
But more than just a psychological record of a personal experience of confusion that gains context only through a subservient commitment, that is through Attis becoming a handmaid and minstrel, “ego nunc deum ministra et Cybeles famula ferar ” (line 68), what is subtly put forth by Catullus is a sociological fact, the failure, or at least the difficulty the poet had locating himself within society. That is, Cattullus’ protest to Cybele exposes a fundamental exclusion and alienation indicative of Roman life for a person of his kind. The inversion of gender and the severance/servitude ambiguity is actually a germinal form of a larger inversion, the overall contrast between wilderness and freedom which the poem will exemplify at length. Attis’ servitude to Cybele is expressed as a kind of embodied wilderness, an involute internalization of freedom, that both constrains the poet’s subjectivity and alienates it. Just as Catullus has experienced a severance from the Veronian country sensibility of his childhood, thrust into an urban milieu of imposed desires and ironic social forms, only to fall in love, so too does Attis experience his freedom as a kind of intensive, if once-willed, slavery which permanently alienates him from his home:
cupit ipsa pupula ad te sibi derigere aciem,
rabie fera careens dum breve tempus animus est.
egone a mea remota haec ferar in nemora doma?
patria, bonis, amicis, genitoribus abero? (56-59)
[Mine eyeballs unbidden long to turn their gaze to thee, while for a short space (breve tempus) my mind is free from wild frenzy. I, shall I from my own home be borne far away into these forests? from my country, my possessions, my friends, my parents, shall I be absent?” (translation, Francis Warre Cornish).]
In a kind of Empedoclean transformation  of the forms of the soul, in a brief section of sane time (breve tempus), he traces the development of who he has been, and who or what he was become, an attempt to recapture the severance point in a line of natural transfigurations:
quo denim genus figurast, ego non quod obierim?
ego mulier, ego adolescens, ego ephebus, ego puer,
ego gymnasi fui flos, ego eram decus olei:
mihi ianuae frequentes, mhi limina tepida,
mihi floridis corollas redimita domus erat,
liquendum ubi esset orto mihi sole cubiculum (lines 62-67)
[“For what human figure is there which I have not filled? I, now a woman, have been a stripling, a youth, a boy; I was the flower of the playground, I was the glory of the palaestra: mine were the crowded doorways, mind the warm thresholds, mine the flowery garlands to deck my house when I was to leave my chamber at sunrise.”]
Here the internal reflection of an alienated subjectivity projects itself across a past, reading itself as a nearly protean transmigration of forms. Yet, it ends as it begins with the experience of humiliation, and the questionable status of being a woman and a “handmaid.” It is here that Attis realizes himself as barren (sterilis), but also as part of a fecund if maddening process. His very subjectivity and reflection though, is read as a rebellion against his domina. His perspective in breve tempo draws eternity down upon himself.
More specific to this condition of consciousness in servitude to the Goddess herself, is the resultant language and imagery of slavery that can be found in Cybele’s reaction to Attis’ introspection. Attis becomes in text, a runaway slave. K. M. W. Shipton in his essay “The ‘Attis’ of Catullus,” draws this out juxtaposing his thoughts to the more familiar readings which focus on the feralization of Attis and his followers (that is the noted use of the imagery of cows, wolves, etc.). Shipton calls our attention away from the pastoral to the civic realm of institutional social order, making us aware that this is not just a flight into fancy, but an active poetic attempt to controvert the social realm that the poet finds himself in. Catullus draws on the language of a genuine and pervasive societal fact of hierarchical power, something all Roman’s would fear to enter into, so to demonstrate the experience of alienation he has encountered having come to Rome, fallen powerfully in love, and been taken up into an urban wilderness of emotions and transgressive mores. And it is the paradoxical figure of the lion that Cybele calls on to recapture her slave that brings together both these forms, the naturalistic and the civic. Shipton, comparing this lion to those figures in the Greek Moschus’ Idyll 1 and Alcaeus 21, finds the lion to be depicted as a fugitivarius, a slave-catcher here. Like Cypris in Moschus’ idyll, the fugitivarius is instructed to act without pity: “‘agedum’ inquit ‘age ferox I, fac ut hunc furor agitet,/ac uti furoris ictu reditum in nemora ferat,/mea libere nimis qui fugere imperia cupit…'” (79-80) [“Come now,’ she says, ‘come, and go fiercely, let madness hunt him hence, bid him hence by stroke of madness hie him to the forests again, him who would be too free…'”]. He is called even to endure lashing himself with his own tail, a lashing that summons up much of how a captured slave might be beaten: “age caede terga cauda, tua verbera patere,/fac cuncta mugienti fremitu loca retonent,/rutilam ferox torosa cervice quate iubam…” (80-82) [“Come, lash back with tail, endure thy own scourgings, make all around resound with bellowing road, shake fiercely on brawny neck they ruddy mane…'”]. As Shipton explains: “In real-life situations slave-catchers were expected to be harsh. The slave might be beaten. He would certainly be bound and brought back to his master” (447). This account though is even more fierce, (“strike him with fury”, furoris ictu), and certainly more terrifying than the usual reclamation, and far exceeds the classical examples of recapture and lion from Mosclus and Alcaeus, which surely Catullus had in mind. Shipton finds explanation in the only description Cybele offers her lion by which to recognize her slave, “mea libere nimis qui fugere imperia culpit,” as one who would be too free. Shipton explains the particularities of the Roman position on runaway slaves:
In stipulating the punishment for runaways Roman law distinguished those runaway slaves who pretended to be free from those who did not. The former were punished more severely when caught. Dig. 11.4.2 declares: ‘si pro liberis se (sc. fugitivi) gessurint, gravius coerceri solent’ Seen against this legal background, ‘libere nimis’ thus suggests that Attis, regarded by Cybele as her slave, affects to be a free man as he seeks to escape. This attempt at deception justifies, in Roman law, the emphasis on harsh treatment of Attis in Cybele’s commands to her slave-catching lion (448)
Here we have the conundrum of the alienated, urbanized poet. His severance from the lifestyle of his youth, his exile into an urban wilderness which is ultimately in the love of Lesbia, experienced as a kind of slavery. He marks his devotion by acts of humiliation and submission (in this case symbolized by a permanent castration), which give rise to a reflective and interiorized subjectivity, and the capacity to see himself as an object under continual transformation. Yet, it is the very awareness of the poet, the awareness of his condition, that is libere nimis. It is too-free, paradoxically making Attis a runaway from his very exiled and enslaved state. Reduced to an animal-like existence, wandering vagus animi (4), part of a vaga cohors (25), one of a herd, he will be driven back from his introspection to a cattle-state by a lion, the very animal that is most un-shepparding of beasts. He is condemned to an exile which produces the acute subjective states, yet alienates to a highest degree, giving an intimacy to exclusion. By making the most sophisticated of centers, Rome, read as the most feral, yet also a place of access to a primordial goddess of love, and then drawing on the most real figure of Roman power, the institution of slavery as the trope for his own subjective condition, the poet places himself both inside and outside of Rome. He is both libere nimis and completely bound as an exile.
To explore further this subjective condition of the poet-slave, I turn to Tibullus’ second poem to Delia (I.ii). Here we encounter more particulars to the expression of a servile love. Here is the same internalization that Catullus momentarily assumes in Attis’ reflection upon his states, but given in a stream-of-consciousness, serial imagination. At poem’s start, the poet is localized in one moment in time, calling for more wine at a tavern, yet the occasion and the metaphorical drunkenness of his love give way to imaginative dialogue with her, and an episodic telling of his world. As wine and love transport the poet from his excluded state – he has been locked out from his lover’s house – the reader is transported through an imagination of Venus’ powers, expressed in little vignettes. We are told of how the goddess works furtively: we see a girl lifting a latch, two lovers exchanging verba notis in the presence of husband; a lover creeping through darkened streets unseen, the undergoing of rites and spells; and even at poem’s close, an old man possessed by love, standing in the forum, making soft speeches and being spat on by youths. The poem indeed is a subjective serialization of love, the free association of events and arguments that occur to the love-drunk poet as he sits in a real-life situation. It is this tension between outside and inside, once again the paradox of interiorization such that the lover is both removed from and conjoined to reality, which typifies the servititum amoris trope. It draws forth an interior mind, here serializing time, severing the poet from reality. Yet this subjective experience also works to bind the poet to reality in an exterior form; just as the humiliation of the slave became in poetry a near existential state, here the interior is reified and projected forwards for the poet as an objective condition. Tibullus symbolizes this is several ways. The most particular example is that of the love spell. The magic objectively acts as if a science, an incontrovertible power in things (herbs, charms), externally observed and reported, which can actively cloak lovers discovered in a bed, or hide men in shadows. Yet the spell also is an internal experience of helpless emotion, the animate tide of an affective binding which cannot be fought. Thus the power of the goddess braids through the poem, veering out from practical abetting effects (immunity from eyes and cold, [29, 34]), to spectacular transformations of the world (stars being drawn down , the bringing of snow in summer ), yet it always condenses into real events. The poet is actually cleansed by a torch-rite (61); he is physically drunk at a tavern (1). It is this subjective and projective travel of experience, leveraged on real event that makes the slavery of love a realm that is neither fantastical, nor resolved, but serially necessary. The poet as lover becomes nearly the enaction of a mathematical algorithm thrown forward in time, a continuous unfolding of narratological forms, image-scene upon image-scene, which in Tibullus’ case begin from localizations and swing out broadly, fantastically, only to localize again. The fundamental tensions of slavery and freedom, recollective-consciousness and goading, wilderness and urbanization found in Catullus 63, in this poem is broadcast across a different axis, between the real and virtual, the local and the supernatural, an event and an episodic continuity, revealing again the germ-state of the servititum amoris condition: it is the paradoxical unit of a developed subjectivity bound to an external, objective, yet unbroachable condition.
Besides the love spell, there is another symbol of this contrastive and unresolvable state: Tibullus’ mention of the degradation he would willingly undergo, that of becoming a humble farmer for the sole pleasure of holding his love fast, something he contrasts to a supposed dignity of the soldier:
ille licet Cilicum victas agat ante catervas,
ponat et in capto Martia castra solo,
totus et argento contectus, totus et auro,
insideat celery conspiciendus equo;
ipse boves mea si tecum modo Delia possim
iungere et in solito pascere monte pecus,
et te dum liceat teneris retinere lacertis,
mollis et inculta sit mihi somnus humo (68-74).
[“Let him chase Cilicia’s routed troops before him, and pitch his martial camp upon captured ground; let folk gaze upon him as he sits his swift charger, armoured from head to foot in silver and gold, if only with thee, my Delia, I may put the oxen in the yoke and feed my flock on familiar hill; so my young arms my hold the fast, I shall find soft slumber even on the rugged earth” (translation, J. P. Postgate).]
Often this has been read as a poet’s fancy, the pastoral idealization based on the stiff and unreal Hellenic model. And as an idealization, it can be seen as a symbol of the kind of reduction the poet is willing to undergo, the becoming mollis before the inculta, a particular innovation upon the classical vision, the throwing off of the airs of dignity for the internal experiences of the harsh circumstances of love. But this reading lacks a certain grounding that no matter the theatricality of love always accompanies the expression of the Roman Elegists, a nearly indiscernible realism, the focusing on event and res, that makes of such flights conditions. R. O. A. M. Lyne points out that Tibullus’ return-to-the-land fantasies are not Roman fantasies of the farmer, that is, generalized, undetailed dreams towards a rustified escape, though these too did exist. Rather for Tibullus they represented real plans, real thoughts about leaving the Roman life behind, as he has his own land in mind. Speaking of a more extensive reference to the same in Delia 1.1, Lyne tells us:
The first and vital fact to note is that Tibullus’ wishes concern living life on his own, real country holding. He makes this clear in the lines I have quoted [1.1.1-14-19-44], giving information on its former and present fortunes. It was once grand but is now much diminished-comparatively poor-a familiar story at the time. Readers would recognize the story; they would probably assume the estate had been reduced in the notorious confiscations of 42 B.C. (152)
Yet even more to the point, at the time of the writing of the poem Tibullus is a knight under his patron Messalla (Lyne 154), so the contrast of the plundering and victorious soldier shining armor with a humble wish to work the plow is a comparison of actual lives the poet is weighing, in his own mythological life. As Lyne writes, “Tibullus contrasts rustic life with current notions of what were in practice respectable and good occupations for a Roman knight… Tibullus’ wish must have made a provocative and (initially) puzzling reading” (155).
It is this acuity of the real, its situation and alliance, coupled with the willfulness to experience that sets forth the state of servititum amoris. That is, the poet’s drawing on slavery as a language of love, is meant both as a trope for the internal experience of humiliation, the loss of will, a serialization of time, but also the objectification of conditions themselves, a realism of concerns and the limits of acting upon them. The poet is to be seen as a real slave.
In Tibullus 1.ii, the image of the slave appears fully in the final sequence, where the poet is said to be at an actual temple of Venus beseeching her forgiveness for an unnamed sin, prostrating himself and even beating his head against the door-posts there (lines 79-86). His most tortured internal state, which up to this point has not been expressed, as torture, suddenly comes through in a violent and desperate picture, at a threshold. It is a sudden manifestation of the kernel state that drives the poem. Like Catullus’ Attis, the slavery is to the goddess, and not to the woman. And as Catullus’ Attis is figured as a subjectivity confined to an exile from home, to be goaded into a wilderness of wanderings and timbrel playing, Tibullus’ poet is locked outside of the house of his lover, and the temple of Venus’s forgiveness, (and the return to his own ancestral argricola). It is the condition of an enunciated, and thus henceforth created, Self, confined by the urban demand that has brought it forth. The internal state of the poet proclaims an inescapable commitment to experience, cut off from the very possibility that has given rise to it: at mihi parce, Venus: simper tibi dedita servit/mens mea: quid messes uris acreba tuas (97-98) [“Be gentle with me, Venus: my soul is ever they loyal slave. Why burn thine own corn in thy passion?”]. Rome becomes goddess and labyrinth.
Ovid, in his Amores II xix, attempts a reconciliation of these diverse forms, at the level at which they are created, that is, the social form. Through irony and distance he tries to make an intentional slavery between men, acknowledging the conditions that drive them. He does this by taking up the figure of warfare that Tibullus longs to leave behind. As if commenting upon Tibullus’ 1.2, he poeticizes the same situation, a lover locked out of the house of his beloved, but he does not address goddess, and does not address the woman. He addresses the husband. And whereas Tibullus calls Delia’s husband ferreus and stultus, in possibly forsaking her for the spoils and fame of mercenary war, ferreus ille fuit qui, te cum posset habere,/maluerit praedas stultus et arma sequi (1.2.65-66)[That man was iron who, when you might have been his, would rather choose to follow war and plunder.”], Ovid, nearly quoting Tibullus, makes the same claim, in the same vocabulary of service, to a husband who has lost the desire to guard his wife at all:
Si tibi non opus est servata, stulte, puella
at mihi fac serves, quo magis ipse velim!
quod licet, ingratum est; quod non licet acrius urit.
ferreus est, siquis, quod sinit alter amat (lines 1-4)
[“If you feel no need of guarding your love for yourself, O fool, see that you guard her for me, that I may desire her more! What one may do freely has no charm; what one may not do pricks more keenly on” (translation, Grant Showerman).]
Ovid has laid hold of the paradox of servititum amoris, at the social level of desire itself. No longer is it the goddess or beloved that is focus, but the actual social milieu in which desire is produced. The contrast between mollis and ferreus, soft and harsh, that is the fundamental contrast between the poet’s burgeoning subjectivity, his serialization of time, this experience of torment and willful self-humiliation, set against objective conditions which alienate him from his ends, are now by Ovid brought together in a remarkable and perceptive reversal. What is ferreus is not the man who has hardened his heart against loving, or the goading fugitivarius as lion, but the man who will not turn his iron against another man, under the conditions that generate desire. Ovid calls for the husband to construct with him the paradox of servititum amoris, a taking of vows between fellow desiring subjects, a promise between subjects that creates a locus in which desire may exist: “speremus partier, partier metuamus amantes,/et faciat voto rara repulse locum“ (5-6) [“Let us hope while we fear and fear while we hope, we lovers, and let repulse sometimes be ours to make a place for vows.”]. (Notably, these few lines are quoted by Spinoza, apparently from memory, in his Ethics, crystalizing the logic of imaginary bonds, here). For Ovid, hopes and fears become spatialized and de-temporalized, through negotiation and conflict. The slave/freedom paradox of infinite becoming, the goaded humiliation of permanent exile and delay, becomes a program between lovers, as lovers. Ovid, in the wilderness that is Rome, calls out for a fellow amantes to be hard in his softness, establishing an equality in their hopes and fears. This is still an affective journey, for it is the very wounding that composes his desire, compelling him on, “nil ego, quod nullo tempore laedat, amo!” (8) [“May nothing be mine that never wounds!”], but it is one established as a form of love. He points outs that even his lover, the wife, already understands this, as she inflicts wounds and delays upon him to embolden his passion:
Viderat hoc in me vitium versuta Corinna,
quaque capi possem, callida norat opem.
a quotiens sani capitis mentita dolores
cunctantem tardo iussit abire pede! (9-12)
[“Corinna the artful had marked this weakness in me, and shrewdly recognized the means by which to snare me. Ah, how often he has feigned an aching head when wholly well, and bid me go away when my tardy feet delayed.”]
In fact, this is a servitium of compelled design: “mordeat ista tuas aliquiando cura medullas,/deque locum nostris materiamque dolis” (43-44) [“Let cares like that gnaw sometimes into your marrows, and give me place (locum) and matter for my wiles.”], a joint venture of affective suffering participated in through a differential of two amantes, through the proxy of a third. The great temporal swings of Catullus’ Attis, the transfiguration of stages in a recollective development, and the maddening servitude to a future exile, Tibullus’ serial inflations of events, marked through and condensed upon the signs of the goddess (secret nods, numbness to the cold, torch-rites, spitting youths), here oscillate between a Real of woundedness (closed doors, the tardy foot, secret tablets, dogs baying), and an irony which perhaps humorously conjoins the suffering, attempting to circumscribe it. As a lover, the husband is enduring what cannot be endured, “lentus es et pateris nulli patienda marito” (51)[“You are slow, and endure things unendurable for any husband.”]; he possesses not the requisite mollis nor celer to repulse the advance of another. He is a soldier of love who will not or cannot fight. He is iron. In involutive fashion, the ferreus of the husband stands in symbolic relation to the ferreus of the poet’s condition. The hardening of his heart prevents the possibility of the poet’s own slavery to love. Only by being able to feel would the husband then prove capable of the repulse between men. At the center of the poem Ovid places the very heart of cruelty which the other poets place at the external limit of their desire. Instead of an unreachable goddess or beloved, a female presence that indicates a domination which excludes and alienates the poet-consciousness from his own world, Ovid shows the servitium amoris to be an internal limit, a product of consciousness itself, the will to experience, but one composed of relations to others. The conditions of Rome which Catullus metaphorizes as a wilderness in a foreign land, a perpetual wooded glade ruled by an emasculating Cybele, cutting one off from boyhood and natural repose, a Rome which Tibullus sees as episodal events and powers, scenes and fancies played out before the mind, born of the tavern and the call for wine, a locked door, and unable to be resolved in the willful degradation of a return to the family argricola, a slavery to his Delia, Venus and the land, for Ovid is composed by the lovers themselves. The slavery to love is an affect-limit, an iron core that is made between lovers, a wounding that one takes on, between others. What for Tibullus is the urere of the goddess (1.2.98), brought on by a willful devotion, and for Catullus is the rabies of the supplicant, conditioned by an inescapable, humiliating servitude, for Ovid becomes patientia and laedere binding lovers, founded on repulsa and vota, the creation of a space.
In this way servitium amoris exposes the rise of an interiorized consciousness, the poet as a will-to-experience, signified in particular by the kinds of humiliations that can be invoked by slavery itself. It composes a specific kind of recursivity, that of a Möbius construction, wherein the more internal and subjective the awareness, the more objective the limit which it indicates. It is for this reason that Catullus’ Attis is most constrained when made aware of the figurae he has traversed (obeo, 63.62). His protean awareness which manifests his freedom and attunement is the very thing that forecloses his escape and brings the Goddess to release her fugitivarius, a savage and endlessly goading Lion. And it is for this reason that Tibullus, in the very idyllic vision of returning to the humility of the land, with his beloved Delia, a real economic condition and choice, is then serially compelled before the door-posts of Venus’ temple, to rap his head in abjection, because the poet-consciousness, its mollis of affect, brings about its own suturing over, making desire external to its object. When Ovid proposes vows to be taken in the space of repulse, he is only circumnavigating the objective limits which compose this new desiring consciousness, this desire to experience for the sake of experience, the development of an internal mollis. What Ovid draws out in this final metaphor is the mutual and society production of this mollis, between men and women, as a project. The “space” of Catullus’ Phrygian nemus, and Tibullus’ family argicula, is a locus internal to men at the time of Rome. That space, and the subjectivity that it produced, is nothing other than Rome itself, an equality disequal: speremus pariter, pariter metuamus amantes.
Catullus, G. V.. Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris. The Loeb Classical Library. Second edition. Revised by G. P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.
Empedocles. Empedocles: The Extant Fragments. Paperback edition. Edited by M. R. Wright. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995.
Lyne, R. O. A. M.. The Latin Love Poets: From Catullus to Horace. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1980.
Ovid. Ovid: Heroides ∙ Amores. The Loeb Classical Library. Revised by G. P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977.
Sandy, N. Gerald. “The Imagery of Catullus 63”. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 99, 1968.
Shipton, K. M. W.. “The ‘Attis’ of Catullus”. The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 37, No. 2.,1987.
Tibullus, A.. Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris. The Loeb Classical Library. Second edition. Revised by G. P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.
 “…he wanders from the blessed ones for three times countless years, being born throughout the time as all kinds of mortal forms, exchanging one hard way of life for another. For the force of the air pursues him into the sea, and the sea spits him out onto the earth’s surface, the earth casts him into the rays of the blazing sun, and the sun into the eddies of air; one takes him from another, and all abhor him. I too am now one of these, an exile from the gods and a wanderer, having put my trust in raving strife.
While an empedoclean wandering is due to a separation from love (Aphordite), Attis has committed himself, in love, to a servitude to the Primeval goddess. In looking back to a nostalgia of human forms that Attis has been, he is incorporating his latest transformation into an élan imagined to flow from the nature of the goddess herself. Attis’ severance from his past, representing Catullus’ departure from a rustic, or at least less sophisticated lifestyle, is subsumed into an ardor and commitment to love itself (in the figure Lesbia in other poems, and the actual woman of devotion in social circles to which his poems were devoted), yet this commitment is a paradoxical submission, binding yet severing. The exiled transmigrations of Empedocles’ daimon, in strife, are achieved by Attis’ soul, now in exile, through a conscious reflection upon his past, put in the service of the goddess herself. Ardor and its humiliations read as a kind of life force that produces alienation.
 See Sandy, Gerald N.
“Ovid calls for the husband to construct with him the paradox of servititum amoris, a taking of vows between fellow desiring subjects, a promise between subjects that creates a locus in which desire may exist: “speremus partier, partier metuamus amantes,/et faciat voto rara repulse locum“ (5-6) [“Let us hope while we fear and fear while we hope, we lovers, and let repulse sometimes be ours to make a place for vows.”]. (Notably, these few lines are quoted by Spinoza, apparently from memory, in his Ethics, crystalizing the logic of imaginary bonds, here).”
Very nice. I like thinking of Spinoza recalling those lines.
“For Ovid, hopes and fears become spatialized and de-temporalized, through negotiation and conflict. The slave/freedom paradox of infinite becoming, the goaded humiliation of permanent exile and delay, becomes a program between lovers, as lovers.”
This reminds me of how I’ve tried to explain BDSM as a kind of photonegative of tantra to so many people, where instead of traveling further into the body you go as far outside of it as possible. (Small wonder that the West’s “tantra” ends up inverted, being set against ‘sex-negative’ rather than ‘sex-positive’ cultures.)
Mostly to no avail.
Does the material context – a slave-owning society, i.e. a society in which some people are actually slaves – signify at all in this, or is it just an erotic/rhetorical game played between free citizens with time on their hands?
Dominic, this is a very good point, and probably what I meant when writing this. These poets as they take on the dominant trope of Love, of a slavery to love really touch on a nerve center of Western Ideology, and the ur-Spring of our subjectivity.
Part of this is that these poets are all expressing a real alienation, perhaps one that should be characterized as cosmopolitan, urban alienation. In particular, Catullus is quite alienated in his movement to Rome from a rural past (just as so many who still come to cities). His immasculation, his depiction of the most “civilized” of cities in the world as an absolute wilderness through which one is driven in desire, a refugee of desire probably speaks quite strongly to a fundamental alienation of urban condensation. It is tempting to read these three examples as three kinds of subjective strategies to alienation. If I had to class off the top of my head:
1. Cultic and riven.
2. Episodic and analogetic.
3. Contractual and topographic.
As for the case of the material condition of slavery, there is a very real sense in which the trope of the slavery of love is what all alienated subjectivities participate. One seizes the most concrete and structural historical manifestations of one’s condition…and travels them, identifying and subverting. In this case their experiential slavery to the wilderness and mores of Rome appeals to the real slavery that economically founds and drives the city. Each poet takes a different strategy so as to inscribe their possibilities of freedom upon their milieu, in the language of their milieu.
As for being bored rich people, as poets they lived a rather tenuous economic and social existence, ever beholden to the proclivities of patrons and fashion. Their poems come out of this fragile position as well I suppose. Yes, they were “free” but their freedom became their bounds, I think they are saying.
Anodynelite: “This reminds me of how I’ve tried to explain BDSM as a kind of photonegative of tantra to so many people, where instead of traveling further into the body you go as far outside of it as possible.”
Kvond: Yes, I think this is a good example, or at least what I was getting to. One externalizes one condition to the utmost limit, acting it out perhaps with recourse to the objective depths of social ordering. By externalizing it at a limit one travels this course. The most internal becomes the most external. At least it seems that this is what these poets are doing, something I believe is endemic to modern subjectivities (at least some of them).
And yes, Anodynelite, picturing Spinoza remembering these lines is delightful, the philosopher who seemed to be against all play and metaphor. It has been reconstructed by scholars that when he was 25 or so he acted in plays by Terence in 1657 and ’58,, as they were put on by Van den Enden’s group, and it seems that he had a love for the theatre. Early biography even tells that he had been stabbed outside of the theatre (keeping the cloak unrepaired for the rest of his life).
“Does the material context – a slave-owning society, i.e. a society in which some people are actually slaves – signify at all in this, or is it just an erotic/rhetorical game played between free citizens with time on their hands?”
Does the material context– a violent society, a society in which some people are actually maimed and killed on a routine basis– signify in video game violence? Or is this just a game played by free citizens with time on their hands?
What signifies is a function of the terms of a user agreement, which is written into the text of the game, or alternately *is* the text of the game, and the grounds of the users’ freedom within it. (For some people it does signify, for some people it doesn’t.) If sex is always a language game, and I would say it is, it’s pointless to make distinctions between right and wrong games, just intriguiging versus boring ones–unless someone refuses to agree to terms with others. Then they’ve stranded themselves and hopefully won’t get away with too much.
I suppose some people think we should stop playing except when we’re trying to reproduce a next generation of revolutionaries/worshippers/whatever. But how many other (spiritual, cultural, religious) practices are a function of a kind of decadence? I would say all of them. That’s what culture is, what happens when people have time.
“Yes, I think this is a good example, or at least what I was getting to. One externalizes one condition to the utmost limit, acting it out perhaps with recourse to the objective depths of social ordering. By externalizing it at a limit one travels this course. The most internal becomes the most external. At least it seems that this is what these poets are doing, something I believe is endemic to modern subjectivities (at least some of them).”
Sensations lose coherence in reference to “the social” as a sort of global whole, or as the ordering of all representations. So do affects. This is why they’re the locus of so many possibilities. When sexuality is a good thing, when it’s considered essentially positive or constructive/productive force, the goal of so-called spiritual practices w/r/t sexual sensations is to bring the practitioner into harmony with their own impulses/pleasure, a sort of reterritorialization. When sexuality is a bad thing, considered negative and destructive force, the goal of so-called spiritual practices w/r/t sexual sensations is disharmony with those physical impulses toward pleasure, a sort of deterritorialization. (If you mess with pleasure circuitry enough it fries and then you might be able to reroute it.)
Either way, a whole range of repressed or implicit dynamics are slowly and inefficiently made explicit, and both strategies are ultimately forms of exorcism-by-redirection of sensate/affective flows.
If I had more precise descriptive language for this process I would use it. Most people call it creativity or poesy or poiesis.
If we’re going to talk about freedom, I think this can only actually be achieved when we’re free from the bonds of existence within a material world, subject to the determinism of natural forces, laws, properties. So it can’t happen.
The point of locating freedom in creativity rather than materially loaded algorithms is to push freedom outward toward higher order abstractions and create new “emergent properties” within what we want to think of as reality or the real. (Anything else is too much like reshuffling the deck and dealing new hands with the same old cards.)
I tend to think this is what’s interesting about Latour’s theoretical refusal to “reduce” things to smaller or easier-to-quantify phenomena: he’s pushing toward (more) higher order abstractions and away from reliance on reductions-to-material-quantities.
Does the material context– a violent society, a society in which some people are actually maimed and killed on a routine basis– signify in video game violence?
I would say so, yes, although video games typically present second-order reworkings of violent scenarios from television and movie culture, which has its own (largely placating and reactionary) reasons for figuring violence in the ways that it does.
What signifies is a function of the terms of a user agreement, which is written into the text of the game, or alternately *is* the text of the game, and the grounds of the users’ freedom within it. (For some people it does signify, for some people it doesn’t.) If sex is always a language game, and I would say it is, it’s pointless to make distinctions between right and wrong games, just intriguing versus boring ones–unless someone refuses to agree to terms with others. Then they’ve stranded themselves and hopefully won’t get away with too much.
This is a fairly succinct statement of contractual sexual ethics (what matters is that all parties abide by the – possibly implicit – contractual terms of the sex-games they play with each other; “consent” here is nothing other than the ability to enter into, or withdraw from, such contracts; “informed consent” is consent where the implicit hazards and liabilities are made explicit, so that everybody knows more or less what they are getting into). The lynchpin (or moral hero) of sex-games regulated in this way is the contractual subject, a sort of legal fiction made flesh.
It’s interesting that what this contractual subject seems to want, above all else, is to play at being its own negation: a slave, the legal property of another person, a thing without the power to enter into or withdraw from contracts – the thing, in fact, that such contracts between free citizens are often about. Perhaps the fact that “it’s just a game” is reassuring – a way of saying no, I’m not that thing, I’m something that can play at being that thing without becoming it. There’s always a safe-word.
AL: “If we’re going to talk about freedom, I think this can only actually be achieved when we’re free from the bonds of existence within a material world, subject to the determinism of natural forces, laws, properties. So it can’t happen.”
Kvond: Yes. I think that this is where Spinoza’s conception of freedom is persuasive. Freedom that you speak of above can be captured in degrees, but not absolutely. When you understand the causes of something (and here Latour is deficit, I believe), one because “free” from it, in the sense, one is no longer passive to it. If you understand how your car works, one is no longer beholden to its mechanism in the same way as you were before.
AL: “Does the material context– a violent society, a society in which some people are actually maimed and killed on a routine basis– signify in video game violence? Or is this just a game played by free citizens with time on their hands?”
Kvond: Its interesting, because all this talk about free people doing stuff with time on their hands, whether they be poets or video gamer players also reflects back upon the criticism AL and I have been making towards the revolutionary imaginations of Leftist philosophers, those that try to redeem Marx in one way or another at the ontological level. Are these just free citizens dreaming up some elaborate spending of their time? Clearly, the actions insofar as we take them to be done by agents, are expressions of their time, context and persons.
Dominic: “It’s interesting that what this contractual subject seems to want, above all else, is to play at being its own negation: a slave, the legal property of another person, a thing without the power to enter into or withdraw from contracts – the thing, in fact, that such contracts between free citizens are often about. Perhaps the fact that “it’s just a game” is reassuring – a way of saying no, I’m not that thing, I’m something that can play at being that thing without becoming it.”
Kvond: One is always in surplus of the contract, one plays both above and beneath the contract threshold. This is the case of real, legal contracts wherein one is bound but not excluded by the terms (one both is and is not its defintions), but also in imposed relations envisioned to be one-sided contracts. Even in cases of slavery wherein one’s life is clearly and severely restricted by the terms, one is still in surplus of those terms (experiences, dreams, sorrows all transcend those specific definitions). The use of the contract is not only to define things, but also present a threshold, an orienation point for the oscillation of experience.Something happens when you promise, and even in cases where the right to promise is denied, one positions oneself subjectively toward the factor of the promise.
I think that something of this occurs in cases of marriage. One could argue that this essentially was a kind of slavery form used for the binding of property. Those that marry though are not saying, “I am not that” or “I am only playing at being a slave” but rather are inscribing themselves within that restriction, meaningfully, to see what they become. Who is bound to whom, and for what, and what are the affecdtive imaginary relationship that orbit these limits are to be determined. But it is a mistake to assume that it is just a game. Games are things that structure living.
Historically, in marriage one person is bound as property and the other is not. What it is these days is less clear; a way of avoiding some social and legal inconveniences, chiefly.
I would not have agreed to marry if I had thought of it as binding myself to another person as property, or binding the other person to me as property.
On the other hand, I have no particular problem with promising not to abandon my spouse if I should happen to meet someone younger, prettier, more moneyed or less frazzled. That promise has more to do with establishing conditions of trust and responsibility that make it feasible to make a significant material commitment to somebody – to share one’s economic fortunes, a household, and the labours of parenthood with them – than it has to do with the erotics of confinement, which have never especially dazzled me.
Dominic: “I would not have agreed to marry if I had thought of it as binding myself to another person as property, or binding the other person to me as property.”
Kvond: So you have preferred, as a subjectivity, to ignore the legal aspects of your defintional binding to another, the literal in-cor-por-ation of yourselves before the law (barring appropriate contractual stipulation). That you have decided to repress, or at least emotionally qualify, the real social relations which compose your marriage for the sake of your – what in some theoretical circles might be called “false consciousness” – meaningful fantasy projection, reliving the historical form of a slave contract, is your and our prerogative. Where the narratives of motivation ends and cultural structurings begin, of course is up for debate. And where erotic investment buries itself is always also a curious factor, enough so to say that when someone tells us “why they got married” this is always, necessarily, only part of the story of what marriage is.
No, it just isn’t the case that marrying someone these days makes them legally your property, or you theirs. Yes, it’s the heir of an arrangement in which that was the case, and bears numerous structural traces of that arrangement, which is why sensible people avoid it for as long as they can. There’s nothing particularly atypical or interesting about the reasons why we caved in, and I’m certainly not triumphalistic about it. Fuck those choices.
However, if I decided that my spouse was in some sense my property, and called upon the legal and cultural institutions of my society to lend cogency to that opinion, I would by and large be sorely disappointed. Even if one wanted to live as if it were the case, it would require a considerable effort of imagination to maintain the fiction that social right would be on my side if, say, my spouse decided that she wanted to go away and live somewhere else, and I decided to pursue her and bring her “home” by force.
The statistics on public acceptance of, or partial exculpation of the perpetrators of, domestic assaults make for gloomy reading. But those apply to unmarried cohabitees as much as the legally hitched. I doubt whether anyone very much now thinks that marrying someone makes you more entitled to batter them, or they you.
Dom: “No, it just isn’t the case that marrying someone these days makes them legally your property, or you theirs.”
Kvond: I never said it was. I said that you and she have been incorporated under the law, made one body in several respects, and that this is historically genetic to the form of a slavery contract, a form which you perpetuate despite your disclosures. Whether you choose to recognize this or not is of course your choice. There are many aspects of what we do that we do not recognize the breadth of.
The point is that contracts have a substance that goes beyond our mere intents and motivations.
What exactly is it about marriage as contemporary social practice that makes being married like being a slaveowner, or a slave? How might I now behave like a slaveowner, or a slave, and expect to find that the fact of my being married ratified or intensified this comportment?
It depends where you live, but in the case of divorce you or your wife very well may be able to exercise a rather violent right against the sovereignty of monies they had earned. This is real, material control.
Of course it is more than this, if you don’t understand the cultural question of implied ownership, the way in which there is the implication of a sphere of influence and control in social situations (if not in your mind, in the mind of others), then there is not much more to say.
I suppose you’ve never heard of the phrase, “The ol’ ball and chain” nor consider what it implies.
I’m puzzled by what you mean by “a slavery contract”, in the first instance. Are you speaking of voluntary slavery, of people selling themselves into slavery?
I am thinking a variety of practices, but the first one that I hold in my mind is the way that young girls, about 14 yrs of age, were in some sense bought (dowry) into the husband’s family, in Ancient Greece.
Of course I speak often, and not always in entirely good faith, of what my spouse will or will not “allow” me to do. That is, I’m accountable to her about various things: where I go, how I carry on in public, what I do with the money in our bank account and so on. Even if I didn’t think of myself as accountable in that way, people would probably ask me “is your wife OK with this?” if I seemed to be wandering a long way out of bounds. I wouldn’t deny that these limitations, explicit and implicit, self-imposed and socially reinforced, are useful to me, that they frame projects that couldn’t take shape without them, that they’re eroticised in various ways, that it’s sometimes good to push up against them or place oneself tentatively on the wrong side of them and see what happens and how that feels. Sure, that’s a significant part of what being in what contemporary parlance calls a “committed relationship” means to me.
It seems then you have to have a better understanding of the contract play of otherwise perverse forms of relating…
On the other hand, I don’t see a necessary relationship between this dispositif and the patriarchal traffic in women. I agree that there’s a genealogy linking the patriarchal traffic in women to the marriage contract as currently framed, and that the latter bears traces, some odious, of this genealogy. But I had the same attitudes and social expectations, with respect to being “in a committed relationship” (which I don’t hold up as the be-all-and-end-all, by the way, but which I prefer on the whole to the thrill-seeking prickery that seems to be the most popular alternative), long before I signed that bit of paper.
Thats okay. Your marriage and no modern marriage whatsoever is an active subversion, eroticization and subjectification of the slavery contracts of its odious past. Perhaps it is good to stop here.
Marriage is an institution as haunted by its own historical reliance on abuse and “obviated consent” as sex is–and actually I would think much more so. Of course, the fact that people seem not to want to acknowledge this hardly comes as a surprise to me. But it does act as a boon to the romance industry, including De Beers, Godiva, and Vera Wang, among other major players.
Before we stop, can I correct some pretty serious misconceptions here? I’ll try not to drone on too long, but this is relevant to the idea that BDSM is somehow about “slavery” as such. It’s not.
“Servitude” (acting as a “slave”) is only one small facet of S/M– one fetish among many, you might say– and is not in any way central to ‘BDSM’, which is actually shorthand for a wide variety of practices. I am not interested in servitude, although some people are, and so I have inadvertantly gained some experience with it. Servitude is not really about slavery in the common use sense of the word–in terms of owning someone’s person and forcing them into labor–it’s about people who derive sexual/psychological pleasure from giving up control to someone else within a “safe” or neutral space, where their needs will be respected and prioritized, and the games these people choose to play in order to satisfy this drive. Servitude almost always falls on the “strict” side of what you might consider a general divide within BDSM practices along the lines of “strict” and “sensual” modes.
Strict practices are disciplinary and tend toward more stern and aggressive expressions, carefully defined and navigated power relations, and have a certain visual aesthetic/reliance on props that doesn’t do much for me. This is the kind of thing you’ve likely seen as an innuendo for “S&M” on TV. Strict games are, for some reason, more generally represented in all media–probably because they’re closer to existing heterosexual terms, because the media has never been good with heterogeneity and sex, and because they’re more righteously “horrifying” to the straight pretense that “sex” [ = intercourse] is about love. Then there’s another realm, “sensual”, where you have a host of other practices that swirl around tactilely-oriented, sensation-based activities in a “mind-over-matter” game. This is more interesting to me, in part because it’s based on the assumption that there are some sensations that are more sexually rewarding than “sex” (as this is usually narrowly conceived) is, and in its emphasis on becoming-polymorphous. There can be overlap between strict and sensual practices, but in the end I think the psychological core of both is exactly the same as the one that is allegedly at the middle of straight sex: mutual gratification and respect for alterity/vulnerability.
Of course I don’t expect outsiders to understand (it took me years to get a good handle on it) but it’d be nice if what people thought of when someone mentions alternative sexual practices wasn’t always a caricature.
Personally, I don’t want to share my bank account with anybody–not in exchange for good sex, not even if that someone promises to do all the dishes and laundry for ever and ever. If other people want to become a single taxable entity (and lord knows society incentivizes marriage in many ways) I couldn’t care less–they can make whatever game they like. But then they’ll have to play it. I take comfort in the fact that I can undo my game in one word instead of a protracted legal battle. Others take comfort in the fact that they can’t undo theirs in one word without a protracted legal battle. To each his own.
I like your thoughts here quite a bit. Though to:
“Before we stop, can I correct some pretty serious misconceptions here? I’ll try not to drone on too long, but this is relevant to the idea that BDSM is somehow about “slavery” as such. It’s not.”
I might add, “Slavery” isn’t really about slavery either. That is the say the investements in actual slavery are quite diffuse and come from any number of quarters, wherein the production of the slave is merely the nexus for these.
Now, I’m not sure if you are saying that the “slave of love” trope in Latin Poetry is not about “slavery” or if themes of servitude in BDSM are not about the “slave of love” trope in Latin Poetry. But it seems that you would have to deny one of these.
If intentions don’t matter when it comes to sexual relationships and consent–i.e., if consent can so easily be obviated by broader social circumstances– then how do intentions suddenly magically make all of the difference when it comes to legally-sanctified sexual relationships?
Why are intentions so powerful in negating the systematic abuse and violence inherent in the social institution of marriage, but utterly powerless to negate systematic abuse and violence inherent in the social institution of (hetero)sex, aka, intercourse?
Kvond:”Now, I’m not sure if you are saying that the “slave of love” trope in Latin Poetry is not about “slavery” or if themes of servitude in BDSM are not about the “slave of love” trope in Latin Poetry. But it seems that you would have to deny one of these.”
I’m not saying that slavery doesn’t signify in servitude, but I was trying to explain that the entire focus of BDSM is not to enact or stage simple “slave/master” scenarios, where the dom takes on a character something like (for example) a plantation owner and the sub takes on the role of a slave. This could happen, and I’m sure it has, but this is not the entire point or goal of what is actually a range of practices. This kind of activity is basically the novice-level.
So yes, slavery signifies in BDSM, just not in a simple one-to-one historical/political correspondence to real-life-like events. I was trying to draw parallels originally between the way the poet/slave of love finds freedom in his very limited circumstances.
AL : “If intentions don’t matter when it comes to sexual relationships and consent–i.e., if consent can so easily be obviated by broader social circumstances– then how do intentions suddenly magically make all of the difference when it comes to legally-sanctified sexual relationships?”
Kvond: I’m not sure who you are responding to, but if its me, I never said that intentions don’t matter. At most I would say that relations cannot be reduced to intentions.
Nope, sorry, we crossed wires–that was a reply to Dominic.
I don’t believe I said anywhere that individal intentions mattered with respect to the social meaning of taking marriage vows. I think it’s materially not true that marriage now is a slave-owning property relation. I don’t think the reason that it’s not true is that I don’t want it to be. I don’t consider any of the odious facets of the contract to be obviated by my presumed goodwill. I regard myself as compromised by them, not them as significantly challenged or overruled by me.
Right, but you do realize that around the world today most women who marry are forced to marry by their families based solely on financial and political/social expedience and not by their own choice, without regard to their own personal, sexual or romantic fulfillment? Once married, they are denied access to financial independence and thus effectively trapped in the marriage, no matter how terrible or abusive it may be. They are considered property of their husbands and have no bodily sovereignty/autonomy within the relationship (they can’t say no to sex with their husbands), and are expected to defer to their husbands’ authority in all matters. If they decide to leave the marriage, they are penalized socially, shunned, or even in extreme cases killed to protect the family’s “honor”.
Our own societies’ recognitions of female rights, especially within a marriage, have slowly changed thanks to the hard work of policy makers, politicians, activists, lobbyists, and cultural producers. But it was only a few decades ago that our social customs were as “backward” as anything, and the abuses of our traditions echo loudly today in the symbols and language surrounding marriage, right down to the “virginal” white of the dress and the “handing over” of the bride from father to son-in-law.
To me that stuff is creepier than some moderate CBT or tease-n-denial. And this can’t be dismissed as commitment-phobia, since I’ve been living with the same person for nearly 7 years now. Personally I don’t think commitment and legal-sanctification are the same thing, or that one depends on the other–it’s quite often that they don’t coexist at all in a relationship. Same with exclusivity and commitment… but that’s hard to convince people of who are true believers.
Well, we were married two years after our son was born…sanctification wasn’t particularly the issue, it was more a question of social and legal normalisation. There didn’t seem to be a lot to lose, practically speaking; practically speaking, there were some advantages, not indispensible but worth having. I do still consider it to have been somewhat of a sell-out.
Something still to be won, both legally and socially, is the re-evaluation of kinship and recognition of its extension beyond the confines of the nuclear family. I would very much like to see that happen.
Biological parenthood is ridiculously overvalued and overprotected legally and socially, it’s true. In the U.S. the majority of the burden of nuclear family decenter-ing falls on gay couples, which is more than a little unfair, but I’m glad someone’s trying. I still remember my foster brother being stolen back by his very incompetent, very young, drug addicted mother at the last minute after they’d already agreed to sign the papers, and there was nothing anyone could do because biology was the trump card then. (Also, it’s “best” if black children get placed with black families.) After a brief experiment with the “system” my own parents summarily gave up.