Django Unchained and Hegel’s servant

When I saw Django Unchained a couple days ago, I kept thinking of Hegel’s short essay “Who Thinks Abstractly” and the brief remarks he makes toward the end about how good it is to be the servant of a French nobleman.

…no servant is worse off than one who works for a man of low class and low income; and he is better off the nobler his master is. The common man again thinks more abstractly, he gives himself noble airs vis-à-vis the servant and relates himself to the other man merely as to a servant; he clings to this one predicate. The servant is best off among the French. The nobleman is familiar with his servant, the Frenchman is his friend. When they are alone, the servant does the talking: see Diderot’s Jacques et son maître; the master does nothing but take snuff and see what time it is and lets the servant take care of everything else. The nobleman knows that the servant is not merely a servant, but also knows the latest city news, the girls, and harbors good suggestions; he asks him about these matters, and the servant may say what he knows about these questions. With a French master, the servant may not only do this; he may also broach a subject, have his own opinions and insist on them; and when the master wants something, it is not done with an order but he has to argue and convince the servant of his opinion and add a good word to make sure that this opinion retains the upper hand.

The main characters of the film are English-speaking. Four of them appear as black-white dyads: Django (Jamie Foxx) and Herr Shultz (Christop Waltz), Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Shultz is a German immigrant and his relationship with Django is entirely amicable. Candie is an American, and he likes to call himself Monsieur despite not knowing how to speak French. His hair-style and aesthetic are influenced by the French presence in the Mississippi region. His apparent head house-slave and him have a cantakerous relationship, but Stephen is extremely assertive with his master. Sometimes Candie demands a show of respect that subdues Stephen, but even then he hesitates to “assume the position”. He is described by one reviewer as “imperious” and I found this apt.

Shultz doesn’t really own Django, but he’s “his man” for the duration he needs him. Their relationship is contractual. Django is assertive, but not belligerent. He is Shultz’s equal de facto, as a “natural” marksman and clever, and de jure (kind of) through his purchased freedom. Shultz doesn’t really tell Django what to do, but he does kind of still run the show.

What’s going on between these competing visions of a the master and slave? It seems that the good-guys are those approximating a libertarian contractual relationship. It’s not “really” slavery, except when it is. Many are probably going to look at the Shulz-Django relationship as more enlightened somehow, but the idea is that if you’re a slave, your best hope is to work with a good boss and mind your own business. Django eventually goes free with his wife, but there is nothing infectious about this freedom, even if Django’s badassery evokes a desire to “be like him”.


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