II – Modern servitude

Text in pdf : Clémence Ortega Douville – The tiniest world – II – Modern servitude

I came to think of modern servitude when working at the shop as a salesperson. Yesterday, an italian young couple entered, they couldn’t speak french and I managed first to get along with them in english and spanish, though they did not talk much. Then, I left them alone to wander among the products. Yet, what struck me was that at one moment, the young man came to the counter after talking to his phone and shew it to me. He had asked the question he wanted to ask me to a vocal translator application that had put it in french in his place.

You would say : ‘that is the modern era, and this tool is offering a service to people to make communication easier’. But then I thought : ‘that is odd, it looks like someone has the aristocratic need not to have to learn the language of the country they are visiting or try to find some common ground for understanding with me without using technology as a shield.’ In fact, the yound man was pretty much solving the problem of communication by using his phone as a middle-person to be responsible to the understanding for him.

And then I thought that maybe he was thinking that he could bring technology to be put into servitude while he would be the master of what he could say, grant me with or not. A preliminary distance was put between me and him and his girlfriend that couldn’t be broken by the cordial and mutual effort to find understanding through the common evaluation of language.

This preliminary distance, this setting of the relational law between this person and I was startling, because it made me think that common evaluation of the means to communicate was getting conditionned by the use of a password. If I want to be understood by a foreigner, I will have to use an external device, an extending feature to be my servant in communication. The person doesn’t even have to speak the language of the other one they meet, the device is going to speak that foreign language for them.

Same is happening with the political device, except that as well as for the vocal translator, it is only borrowed to us in order to serve strategic, economical and geopolitical purposes.

There is a well-know text by french philosopher Étienne de La Boétie from 1576 that is called Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. One famous section uses the allegory of a statue that would represent the tyrant in an unequal system of government. Once you remove the base, the statue collapses and breaks apart on the ground.

A part of our discussion in this space of reflection is about the political act of thinking, as we take side first in front of our own self. The paradoxes of the gazed hand and the one of the word me that we presented in earlier texts are in fact showing that as my own hand and my self can be seen a strangers to me, to my escaping my own self, to pronounce a law toward them to deal and cope with them is in itself a political action.

I have to choose whether I will flee or cohabitate with the invading hand and self, and then I establish some basic laws from experience as to how to behave with their being around. It is not neutral, as well as spaces are not neutral.

That is why the use of his phone was convenient for this young man to communicate with me, because it allowed him to insert a political statement : ‘I am a consumer, who is king in his material kingdom.’ It was not presomptuous, it was only a way to convieniently cut the question of power off.

Assuming that power was not his, he simply stated that a new social convention would protect him from future questions : whether the political system we live in is just or not, whether we should unite through and throughout language to own culture and make it live on a larger scale for everyone regardless of social status, or should we be more aware of the question of the law.

For instance, in Public International Law studies, we find several sources other than treaties, conventions and principles to set its terms, one of which is the international custom. The latter can be constituted by the practice of a commonly understood and homogenous behaviour amongst the committed States, as well as the opinio juris (the conviction that one behaviour is relevent as a rule of the law and necessary to be applied) ; or it could pass through the codification of the custom, which is by nature imprecise.

The technical translation of the custom into writings (still going under the UN’s authority), in a systematic and organised presentation, shows the advantage of a priori preventing contestations to the behaviour of one or several States amongst the constituents of the law. However, the major inconvenient is that the written rule overrides the customary rule, and the custom is then deprived from its flexibility.

That is why this young man had turned himself into a servant of the modern servitude, not because of the use of the tool, but because it was the written law that prevailed over the flexible custom. By that I mean that he himself set a law that stated that the distance should be ruled by an external object (the authority of the law that knows what the answer to the question, what the translation will be), instead of breaking the law of predictability to learn maybe to make one new accord up between us by our own means.

The organisation of power in society has been cristallised by the law. Not that any law is a prejudice in itself, but because it has been used on those who cannot afford to break it, in order to keep them into submission.

It is a fact that even in International Law, the rules are often broken. And it is a fact that people are pressured so that the use of the law in their favor is made practically improbable, if not impossible. Because our political systems are allowing a tacit custom to be in course : that the law is one tool that have people knowing that it takes power – influence and financial resources – to break it or manipulate it.

The recourse to the law has been made difficult because the law is complex and the time and means to confront it poor. So we, as searching for responses to unlock the structures of unequality, should be more and more careful that the law, as a regulator of our rights, should be preserved for the common good.

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