SLAVERY AND SOCIAL DEATH: A Comparative Study by Orlando Patterson
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SLAVERY AND SOCIAL DEATH: A Comparative Study

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A major study of a formidable intellectual problem. Starting from twelve years of archival and field research Harvard sociologist Patterson makes sophisticated use of Marxist and structuralist theory to weld the various examples--ranging from ancient Greece to Islamic slave societies to the American South--into a cogent discussion of the nature and structure of slavery. The great excitement, for most, will be his consideration of slavery's peculiar ""idiom of power."" To Patterson, slavery is not to be understood merely as a property relationship, for in many societies all relationships involve some conception of property ties, if not of ""absolute property."" Instead, he considers that ""Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of the slave's powerlessness was that it always originated (or was conceived of as having originated) as a substitute for death, usually violent death."" The slave, forced to acquiesce in his/her powerlessness, experiences a ""natal alienation"" from all family ties and often also a loss of native status, a deracination. Unable to make any claims based on birth or to pass on the right to such claims, the slave is always dishonored, denied any independent power or social existence. All honor falls to the master, honor that increases through his dominion over slaves. On a deeper level, the slave status is a liminal status, symbolically significant insofar as ""the slave, in his social death, lives on the margin between community and chaos, life and death, the sacred and the secular."" The actual structures developed around slavery reflect this liminality, this sense of contradiction. Patterson carefully compares the various means of entering slave status--from capture in warfare and kidnapping to sale of children and self-enslavement. Manumission, correspondingly, involves ritual rebirth, with the master bestowing the ""gift"" of life with legal and moral obligations attached. In his penultimate chapter, Patterson tests his ideas on a special borderline category of slaves: elite slaves. Drawing on both comparative anthropology (notably, Mary Douglas' discussion of pollution) and structural anthropology (including Edmund Leach's emphasis on mythic representation of the body as connecting humans with God), Patterson finds elite slaves, including eunuchs, to be ""the ultimate slaves""--expressing the special liminal powers and privileges, the inherent contradictions, that his discussion associates with the slave state in general. The eunuch, both unclean and pure, half woman and half man: who better to serve rulers deemed divine, to attend to their bodily functions and to communicate with the masses they ruled? For eunuch and ruler, as for field hand and master, a system of social parasitism emerges through which one dominates the other, but in which both are interdependent. An analysis at once imaginative and controlled; a balanced command of theory and historical example.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1982
ISBN: 067481083X
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press