Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘Tamagotchis’

228. The Mistress-Servant Relationship

In 1990s, 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Media, parenting, Politics, reading, Words & phrases on October 12, 2013 at 2:31 am
David's mother abandons him (from

A.I. Artificial Intelligence: David’s mother abandons him (

As I prepare to teach Sindiwe Magona’s Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night, and Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People, both describing human relationships in a South Africa deformed by apartheid, the ugliness of the mistress-servant relationship impresses itself on me once again.

In an earlier TMA story, Servants, or Cleaning My Own D*** House!, I explored some of my reasons for doing my own cleaning, in particular the desire to do away with the pernicious master (in my case, mistress)-servant relationship and its attendant habits of mind, which, to me, perpetuate the ideologies of colonialism and slavery. In it, even as I endorsed Gandhi’s belief in the nobility of all work, I remembered my own resentment at having to do other people’s dirty work for them. But the humiliation and alienation of the servant is only one half of the dynamic of this inherently unequal relationship; understanding the other half requires us to consider how seeing another as a servant perverts the mind of the master.

It was a long time ago that I watched Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence and my memory of it is hazy; I remember the terrible sadness of a cyborg child who was programmed to love his human parents deeply and was heartbroken to learn that he was not loved in return. But even more terrible was those parents’ persistent dehumanization of the boy who called them mother and father. At first they needed him because he was useful to them as a surrogate child; once they had their “real” son back, he was a supernumerary and a threat. But from the start, they saw themselves as his owners and soon saw him as a mere commodity, of non-use-value to themselves.

It will be readily acknowledged that the condition of being a servant damages the psyche of the servant. For me, Kazuo Ishiguro’s devastating novel The Remains of the Day drove that point home like no other. But it is less readily admitted that the condition of having a servant is equally destructive. That was what horrified, and continues to haunt  me about A.I.: that the parents were incapable of recognizing, let alone reciprocating, the child’s love. In this regard it mattered not whether the child was human or cyborg; what mattered was that the adults became less than human in their rejection of him.



In the mid-to-late 1990s, when Nikhil was just entering his teens, there was a computer game, pre-Tamagotchi, that allowed him to have a virtual pet, a little doglike creature that was wholly dependent on him. It lived for him and him alone. He had to remember to pet it, play with it, and feed it, and to do so consistently. When he entered its compound, it jumped up and wagged its tail wildly; when he was otherwise engaged it simply lay there pining for him, getting ever feebler and more forlorn. Whether or not the little fellow was real was immaterial; what was touching to me was how it brought out the loving, nurturing parent in Nikhil. (Unlike the parenting exercise required of him and his classmates in sixth grade, in which they each had to carry a doll around with them for a week as if it were a baby, and which most of the boys routinely forgot to feed.)

Any day now, we’re told, a really useful domestic robot will be available for purchase, eliminating the boredom of routine household chores and the nuisance, let alone the expense, of servants. To the extent that we look toward that day, I fear that we will fail to free our minds from the ugliness of the mistress-servant relationship. No, let’s call a spade a spade: if we buy that domestic robot, it will be a mere commodity: not a servant, but a slave.

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