The Cold Distance of the Master: Žižek and Gaskell

by Mark Wallace

A few months ago I wrote on the concept of the master, making some comparisons to the 19th-century concept of the Great Man. The master was a term associated with Jacques Lacan, but, primarily for me, with Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is preoccupied with this figure, and while Lacan was essentially a psychoanalyst, Žižek is very much engaged in political issues, so when he speaks of the master, he necessarily invites comparison with the Great Man theory of Carlyle and his successors.

In In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso 2008), Žižek once again considers the figure of the master in a brief but suggestive passage, contrasting him to the supposedly postmodern figure of the boss:

A “postmodern” boss insists that he is not a master but just a coordinator of our joint creative efforts, the first among equals; there should be no formalities among us, we should address him by his nickname, he shares a dirty joke with us… but during all this, he remains our master. […] We are not only obliged to obey our masters, we are also obliged to act as if we are free and equal, as if there was no domination – which of course, makes the situation even more humiliating. Paradoxically, in such a situation, the first act of liberation is to demand from the master that he act like one: one should reject false collegiality from the master and insist that he treat us with cold distance as a master. (202)


Jurgen Klopp. What a boss [in the Žižekian sense].


Back in Victorian England they had masters rather than the bosses described by Žižek. Indeed, the name given to the factory owners by their employees was “master”. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-5) this relation between masters and men is particularly central. Indeed, it is a relation that may be seen as the central problem of the age, when one thinks of Carlyle and Ruskin’s preoccupations with it. But it is Gaskell who provides the most fully-drawn model of the “master”: Mr. Thornton (he is also the love interest of the protagonist of North and South, Margaret Hale).



Richard Armitage as Thornton in North & South (2004)

Thornton, played by Richard Armitage in the popular BBC adaptation, is a hard man who, in the early part of the novel, is unwilling to compromise with his workers, or to listen to their views. Just how courageously intransigent he is is demonstrated in the climactic riot scene, which takes place about half way through the novel. Here, Thornton leaves his house to confront the mob, and faces down the whole lot of them through the power of his own presence:

Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood-flowing had made Margaret conscious – dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her gently on the door-step, her head leaning against the frame. ’Can you rest there?’ he asked. But without waiting for her answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of the crowd. ’Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death – you will never move me from what I have determined upon – not you!’ He stood amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same attitude as he had been in on the steps.

I have gone into this in more detail elsewhere (and also in my PhD thesis, soon to become publicly available [which event will, of course, be announced here when it arises]), but suffice to say that the sheer masterfulness of Thornton’s personality is key both to his behaviour here and its effect on the rioters and to the development of the social element of the plot of the novel. It is not that Thornton is by any means perfect, and he has himself plenty to learn at this point, but his availability for heroic status in a mid-19th-century industrial novel is that, whatever his misjudgements, he is a true master of men. So, later in the novel, when Thornton has won back the trust of his workers and the mill is back in productive mode, there is a fine balance to be struck between genuine engagement with and concern for the men, and the cold distance of the master. This is made abundantly clear in the scene where Thornton magnanimously offers blacklisted union firebrand Nicholas Higgins his job back.

So, measter, I’ll come; and what’s more, I thank yo’; and that’s a deal fro’ me,’ said [Higgins], more frankly, suddenly turning round and facing Mr. Thornton fully for the first time.

‘And this is a deal from me,’ said Mr. Thornton, giving Higgins’s hand a good grip. ‘Now mind you come sharp to your time,’ continued he, resuming the master. ’I’ll have no laggards at my mill. What fines we have, we keep pretty sharply. And the first time I catch you making mischief, off you go. So now you know where you are.’

So Thornton here has behaved in a noble and unselfish way, but this must be combined with a rather anxious assertion of continuing mastery, which takes the form of a warning about punctuality (Higgins has caused trouble for the mill owners, but there has been no suggestion that, of all things, his punctuality is a problem). It is at the point of true kindness that the master is at his most vulnerable, his least masterly. Thornton is, throughout the remainder of the novel true to this aloof persona, even when he is engaged in work for the benefit of his “hands”.

And what is the point of this act of anxious masterfulness by Thornton? It is so that Higgins knows where he is. Here is where the post-modernist boss differs from the Victorian master: the master is anxious that you should always know your place; the boss is anxious that you should never come to suspect it. But perhaps the moment of truth must eventually come for everybody: the moment when the boss reveals himself ascold and indifferent to us in our full subjectivity. This is a neighbor whose truth is not in the bonhomie with which he greets us on a daily basis, or even in the dirty jokes we tell each other, but in his ability to slip immediately and seamlessly into the role of pure corporate functionary, and with the symbolic authority bring the weight of this crashing down on us. Then, finally, we remember where and what we are, for a time.