Oh Behave! Hegelian Master/Slave dialectic in Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

Alex, the protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange, is a murderous delinquent who enjoys drinking “Milk Plus” and committing acts of “ultraviolence” with his gang, or “droogs”. As a means to curb Alex’s anti-social behaviour the state attempts to condition his behaviour using a Pavlovian brainwashing that forces Alex to associate feelings of aggression with feelings of nausea.

In other words, whenever Alex feels like doing the old one-against-twenty, or in-out-in-out, he is overcome by a physical illness, forcing him to submit.

So Alex, who, in Hegelian terminology, is otherwise a Master, has now been manipulated into becoming a Slave. The logic being that by conditioning criminals in such a way will transform them into model citizens. However, while Alex may exhibit the behaviour of a Slave it is only because he is physically determined to do so; he has no choice in the matter. According to Hegel, the decision of adopting the role of a Slave in the Master/Slave dialectic is a subjective act – a realization that unless one submits in a dual s/he risks death.

To interfere with the process of the Master/Slave dialectic is a pretty big deal. It is, as Hegel explains, a crucial early step in the narrative of consciousness realizing itself and actualizing its freedom. “The central idea of the film,” Kubrick stated, “has to do with the question of free-will. Do we lose our humanity if we are deprived of the choice between good and evil?” This essay will argue that conditioning people into adopting desirable behaviour corrupts the development of consciousness and blocks the individual’s journey to freedom.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit can be interpreted as the story of human consciousness traveling from naïve innocence and bogus self-sufficiency to the sophistication of a critical, all-embracing world outlook attained through its own efforts. The self is an active, self-making agent, but it is also a mutual project, something that only arises within a social community of like beings. This is because the reciprocal recognition and affirmation are conditions Hegel thinks are required from fully developed selfhood. Hegel is thus a break from the social contract philosophers such as Hobbes and Rousseau, who say that man is born free but is enchained by society and that freedom is essentially unrestricted mobility.

Hegel firmly, sometimes a little creepily, believes that the individual is free only in the State. Selfhood, for Hegel, requires a social context in which to play out its potentialities, and in order for selves to flourish, the form of this interaction must be one that is respectful, cooperative, and mutually validating. In the ethical life, personal freedom finally loses its anarchic edge as it redirects itself from purely private goals to those that seek the overall good – the universal ends of humanity that we need to work together in order to reach.

Hegel’s central idea here, which kind of gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling, is that the ability to identify with others gives each of us the universality we need to become who we want to be. Imagine, we, as members of the state, enjoying a maximum amount of freedom to construct ourselves in our own chosen manner and without interference, and mutually endorsing each other’s projects of selfhood. You may say Hegel’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. He hopes one day you’ll join him and the world will live as one.

The Master/Slave dialectic represents one of the earliest stages in which self comes to understand itself and its relationship with other selves. An important early development in consciousness is desire. Desire, for Hegel, is the ingredient responsible for switching on our specifically human engagement with the world of objects. Desire is not mere wanting; it’s the will to both actively fashion what is external and to assimilate or appropriate this “other.” Moreover, desire contains the impulse to selfhood in its latent, as yet undeveloped form.

So, in this early stage of consciousness, we go around desiring objects and assimilating them according to our wants/needs, and asserting our will over them. However, at some point we recognize another consciousness. We are confused, surprised, scared, and angry. Thus begins a new stage in the dialectic of consciousness, as it must now make sense of this other consciousness. One option, perhaps the most obvious one to me anyway, is to ignore the problem and hope it goes away. Unfortunately, like all plans that rely on procrastination, this won’t do. Hegel states that “self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” To become self-conscious a self requires another self to recognize it. The self perceives another self which in turn is perceiving it.

Or, to quote Pink Floyd, “Strangers passing in the street, by chance two separate glances meet, And I am you and what I see is me.”

The self then sees itself as an “Other” in the eyes of the other. At this point of the dialectic, the self sees this other as a “Mirror” and is thus merely an object and not an “essential being.” In this recognition each consciousness wishes to assert itself and “become certain of itself as the essential being.” This stage of recognition is problematic because the other is perceived as an object when it is in fact a subject. Hegel explains that each “is indeed certain of itself but not of the other, and therefore its own self-certainty has no truth.”

True self-certainty is only possible “when each is for the other what the other is for it, only when each in its own self through its own action, and again through the action of the other, achieves this pure abstraction of being-for-self.” Thus only when each consciousness has come to the realization that the other is also a self can consciousness be truly self-certain.

At this point, however, each being is striving to establish itself as the “Sovereign Subject,” or free self-consciousness, and thus each stakes its own life in a struggle for supremacy. Staking one’s life is crucial because in order to be conscious of life one must also be conscious of death. The goal is the negation of mere natural existence, and the affirmation of pure selfhood. The danger of this stage of the dialectic is that if one should die then s/he obviously cannot become self-certain because s/he is dead, however, nor can the other because his/her Mirror is shattered. Therefore in order for the dialectic to progress one must forfeit its bid for recognition. The one who submits becomes the Slave and the “victor” is the Master. The Master may indeed seem victorious but in fact it is the Slave who stands to gain more from this relationship, progressing beyond the Master in the dialectic towards self-certainty.

Hegel explains that “the master is the consciousness that exists for itself; but no longer merely the general notion of existence for self.” The Master’s selfhood amounts to little more than the negation of another’s desire for selfhood. The Master, by treating the slave as a mere thing or means, also denies to him/herself the sort of mutual recognition needed for fuller forms of selfhood. Furthermore, the Master relates him/herself to the object of his/her desire through the Slave. That is to say, the Master perceives an object of desire and has the Slave work on it. The Master is thus alienated from his own object of desire. Recall the existentialist flavour to Hegel: one is what one does. So, the Master is doing nothing while the Slave is doing all the work.

Hegel explains that “servitude in its consummation will really turn into the opposite of what it immediately is; as a consciousness forced back into itself, it will withdraw into itself and be transformed into a truly independent consciousness.” While the essential reality of the Master was a dependent consciousness, the essential reality of the Slave is an independent consciousness existing for itself.

However, the Slave is not yet aware that this truth is inherent in servitude. Nonetheless, the Slave has experienced the ultimate nature of self-consciousness because s/he has feared for his/her life in his/her subservience to the Master, which is thus pure being-for-self. Yet, while fear of the master is the beginning of wisdom, consciousness is not at this stage aware that it is a being-for-self: it is through work, servitude and labour that the Slave becomes conscious of what it truly is.

For the Master, the object of desire has lost its independence because desire “has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object and thereby its unalloyed feeling of self.” Thus the Master’s satisfaction is only fleeting because it lacks objectivity and permanence. Labour, on the other hand, is desire held in check. Hegel explains that the “negative relation to the object passes into the form of the object, into something that is permanent…This negative mediating agency…is at the same time the…pure self-existence of that consciousness, which now in the work it does is externalized and passes into the condition of permanence.” As a result, the Slave comes to see in the independent being of the object his/her own independence.

Initially, to the Slave self-existence or being-for-self was an other as it was embodied within the Master. However, in its moment of fear of the Master and drive for self-preservation, the Slave experienced being-for-self within itself. Moreover, by labouring on the thing the Slave realizes being-for-self as its own proper being. And in order for this self-reflection to occur both moments of fear and labouring must be present. On the one hand, without the discipline of labour, fear remains at the formal stage and does not extend into the real world of existence and thus consciousness does not become explicitly for itself. On the other, if the Slave has not experienced absolute fear the negative reality remains external to it.

When it slowly begins to dawn on the slave that it is because of  labour that the master’s identity is sustained, it is an empowering realization. The slave comes to learn that rebelling and confronting the master’s negatively constructed self-hood can help to overthrow an oppressive condition of existence, and altering the dynamics of the master/slave relationship in this manner knocks away the props that support the master’s masterhood. Simultaneously, the master comes to an awareness that his/her self-hood is also one of dependence: one is a master only in so far as there are slaves to prop you up.

This ultimately represents only part of the tale because the former slave’s incipient selhood is thus far grounded in negation in equal measure with that of the former master. The Slave has not yet begun to become a mature self but has only alleviated the exploited situation somewhat. Therefore many further steps or dialectical developments have to be run through before fully adequate selfhood is secured by either party. But I think that’s enough Hegel for our purposes.

So what the hell does this have to do with A Clockwork Orange? Alex, our humble narrator, leader of the Droogs, is a teenaged Caligula who has no empathy and uses his gang to help him rob, steal and gang rape, all in the name of hedonist pleasure. Sound familiar? Let’s have a look. This scene comes after an episode in which Alex “disciplines” his droogs and now they are feeling jilted and spiteful, and are demanding change.

Alex, can thus be considered a Master. His sense of self relies upon his domination over his “droogies.” When his alpha status is threatened he beats them into submission without any fear of his own natural life. However, his droogs are more clever than Alex believes. They fool Alex into breaking into an old woman’s house, killing her in the process. When Alex tries to escape they beat him and leave him for the police, who then sentence him to a long-term jail sentence.  Once Alex is thrown in prison he is selected for a psychological procedure, called the Ludovico Technique that seeks to condition criminal’s violent behaviour.

The treatment is based on the B.F. Skinner style of behaviourism that rejects the inner experience of human life and believes that all we have is behaviour. In Walden II, Skinner states quite plainly that he does not believe we are free or have rational processes, and that humanity can be conditioned into more desirable behaviour. Hence the title of the film, A Clockwork Orange: a dichotomy of the mechanic and the organic forced into an absurd union.

The doctors inject Alex with mysterious “medicine,” bind him in a straight-jacket, strap him to a chair, and forcefully secure his eyes open as they screen hours of violent film showing scenes of murder and rape, until Alex is ready to vomit. Like Pavlov’s dog, Alex is “taught” to associate anti-social behaviour with feelings of nausea. Let’s see the results:

Alex, who was once a Master, asserting his will over others and beating them into submission, now exhibits the behaviour of a slave. Why would the State do this? There are two possible explanations. First, the State could be considered the new Master and has turned Alex into a Slave so they can now use him for their own ends. In Marxist terms, the superstructure has assimilated the dissenter into the fold. The second option is that this is some kind of misguided altruism on the part of the State. That they are trying to reintegrate Alex back into society because of that Hegelian freedom that comes with ethical life. They are simply giving Alex a shove in the right direction.

Either way, neither option is successful. Because Alex is brainwashed into becoming a Slave, the dialectic has been corrupted. From a behavioural point of view, Alex appears to be a Slave but this is not the case. Alex chooses Slave behaviour not because he no longer seeks recognition, or even because he fears his natural existence, but because he is too nauseous to do anything else. Because the dialectic has been corrupted Alex doesn’t gain any new, progressive sense of self. This is evident especially at the end of the film when Alex, after a botched suicide attempt, is hospitalized and the effects of the brainwashing are undone. Let’s have a look at the end result:

Alex has thus learned nothing from his experiences and has returned to his old self.

In conclusion, it is worth pointing out that in Burgess’ novel, Alex in fact goes on to decide of his own free will to renounce his violent ways, start a family and become a respectable member of society. Nonetheless, the fact remains that one cannot simply be conditioned into becoming a moral individual. One must engage in the Master/Slave dialectic freely and rationally in order to arrive at a sense of self that does not impinge upon the oppression of others.



*      *      *

I wrote this as an undergrad a few years ago. A friend of mine reminded me of it and suggested I turn it into a blog. I’ve been very busy lately working on my thesis – one long haul before the end of the semester and Xmas break – so I figure I’d open the vault and empty out whatever is worthwhile. I just don’t have the energy to write anything new for the time being.

I should probably also quickly discuss why I revert to the film as opposed to the novel (with the exception of the conclusion). Firstly, I just prefer the film. I think Kubrick took a fine novel and made it better. A rare feat indeed. Also, I think the different endings are significant. Burgess’ conclusion is heavy handed and didactic. It just doesn’t get its own narrative. Kubrick’s pessimism obviously opens up all kinds of new possibilities of interpretation using Hegel, but I think that’s beyond the scope of this entry. Maybe another time.


~ by braddunne on November 28, 2011.

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