Especially with the rise and rise of feminism as social power, talk of ‘objectification’ is getting quite an airing at the moment. It’s an interesting concept, well worth pondering for a little while here.
Firstly, let’s look at the idea that objectification is something we need to eliminate or reduce. When we say we shouldn’t objectify people or treat them as objects, it is far from clear how else we should deal with them.
After all, each of us is a subject, but another person to us appears as an object – in physical terms but also in how we define them beyond the purely physical – for example as happy, sad, engaging, or annoying. It is difficult to see how we can describe other people and deal with them through language without treating them as objects. To do so would renounce our capacity to do anything relating to others – in other words to be subjects – while in a superficial sense leaving ‘the other’ as something like a ‘pure subject’ –a being with ultimate power (something which is impossible and definitely not something we should strive towards).
So judging objectification as a concept is basically problematic, and can be rather silly.
But there is some truth and value underlying this treatment.
When talking of objectification, feminist and other types of theory are nodding towards power relations, and a crucial part of power relations is the power to make language, use language and control its dissemination through the media for example.
Hence in society we can find ourselves being on the receiving end of language defining us in terms that we have little or no control over, and that we may resent and dislike. That is inevitable to an extent in a free country with free speech, but it’s about having our voice heard, and when that doesn’t happen through the principal organs of dissemination (for us, the mass media, though the internet has thankfully made inroads into this), people can get annoyed and angry, often quite rightly.
We need to respect that right of social power to define ourselves and influence others through our views – this is basically about democracy for me, with the media as a crucial part of it. Full democratic participation in Britain is less than a hundred years old, and in many ways our democratic culture and institutions are weak. But that’s another topic for another day.
Here we’re looking at objectification itself, so let’s look a bit deeper at this subject and object in relation to human beings.
Another way of conceiving of the subject is as the ‘I’. Now, looking at the ‘I’ as an object doesn’t work – there is no ‘it’ there with the nature of an object which we can appraise and deal with as we do deal all the time with things and other people. It is not possible to grasp the ‘I’ in this way. You inevitably have to create objects to represent it but, when you do, ‘it’ disappears. The more you define, the further away you get from the nature of the ‘I’.
This is where a form of freedom lives, but many of us largely ignore, deny or reduce it in favour of that objectifying way. We treat ourselves as objects, grasped, thought about and then controlled all through language. This is one great danger of objectification.
A puzzle of objectification remains though, specifically: to what extent are we ‘right’ to treat others as objects?
This plays into the fields of ethics and justice.
Trying to conceive of someone else as a ‘subject’ is impossible, so if we are going to try to define someone properly ‘as a person’ we are left with looking at them as an object. There is no way around that, since we do not have access to our own ‘I’, let alone that of others.
But, for me, a better way is rather to think of others according to what they do and what they say – looking at and maybe sometimes judging those actions and words, but not pretending we have any ultimate access to the ‘real’ person behind these things. That is a basic principle, albeit undermined in various ways, of our justice system - you break the law and you pay the price, whoever you are: institutions enforcing the law should be judging actions rather than attempting to judge the person behind them, which brings in all sorts of subjective judgements open to manipulation.
So – rather than objectifying people or trying the impossible by dealing with them purely as subjects, maybe we should stick to actions and words. We can objectify actions and words to our heart’s content without impinging on that valuable freedom of the ‘I’.
We might – and I think should (briefly here) – broaden this argument out beyond just the human being to the rest of the natural world. The world of nature (flora and fauna) might normally be thought of as not having the ‘I’ subject which us humans have. Yet with that they do not have the power to objectify themselves as we do. Their freedom lies in objective reality, which nowadays is largely prepared for them by human society.
I’m thinking we should respect that form of freedom a bit more too, in letting nature go through its motions rather than always controlling and destroying it for our own ends (or more often perhaps, the ends of institutions functioning within a clearly acquisitive, expansionary capitalist system).