Monday, June 05, 2006

"Objectification"

What does this mean, really?

To begin with, probably the most basic definition:

Objectification refers to the way in which one person treats another person as an object and not as a human being.

Seems pretty straightforward on the face of it, right?

This wiki article goes on with a corollary:

(in this sense, it is a synonym of reification)

Reifi-what? Oh, dear.

Reification can refer to various things...

Er, apparently so. Artificial intelligence? Natural language processing?? fuck, there's a disambiguation page for this where it gets even more complicated. Linguistic structures? "Ideologies are not made up of brainstates?" Say wha?

Oh, wait, this is probably the closest to what we were talking about:

In Marxism, reification is the consideration of a human being as a physical object, deprived of subjectivity.

So why differentiate this from "objectification" in the first place? Wait again, the opening definition says this:

(Lat. res thing + facere to make) n. the turning of something into a thing or object; the error which consists in treating as a "thing" something which is not one. Hypostatization, treating an abstract entity as if it were concrete, is a case in point.

So...not just turning a person into an "object," but a...what? ideology? idea? something...abstract? into a concrete...object. Huh.

Let's come back to that one.

So let's say right now we're primarily concerned with "thingifying" a human being. Turning a real, whole, human person into an "object," or treating a human as an object. Denying the other person's subjectivity. The other person's own "I"-ness, in other words.

Another way of looking at this might be via Martin Buber's notion of "I-It" versus "I-Thou" relationships. In the former, you have one subject ("I") and an object ("it"); the communication can only be a monologue. In the latter, you have two "I's" connecting in dialogue.

(Note that Buber does not say that "I-It" relationships are bad or must be done away with; rather, his concern seems to be that modernity, with its emphasis on a reductionist materialism that has led to widespread commodification and alienation, doesn't allow for the deeper "I-Thou" relationship at all, or enough, anyway; and that this is not good on either an individual or a collective level).

Update: edited to add:

In the comments section of the lactivism post, below, Lis Riba says about objectification more or less what I think could fall in line with Buber's take on "I-It" ways of relating:

I think that in general a little objectification of strangers is perfectly normal in everyday life. I don't think it's possible to fully engage with every other person we encounter.

Lis goes on to talk about her husband's theory of small talk, as explained to people on the autistic spectrum (it's really interesting, better than I can do it justice: go read. The gist is that people simply can't relate to every single person in the deep, holistic way that Buber (for instance) means when he talks about I-You; it's neither possible nor good for one's own mental stability to try. What Lis (or her husband, I guess) calls "masks" are what I'd call "boundaries." One does need them; and if one is an introvert (I'm one, too, Lis), even more so; for me, it's with some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time.

...Just because I "objectify" the kid behind the counter at McDonalds as nothing more than someone who will take my order and money and give me the food I've requested, that doesn't inhibit my ability to relate in a more meaningful way to other people in similar roles. Such as the people who work at the local diner; I see them more often and we know each other better.

Likewise, when I was employed doing telephone technical support. People phoning in for help with their software had no interest nor need to deal with the whole me -- they only wanted my ears, voice, and the portions of my brain that could help resolve their technical issues. I was the tool they were using to resolve their own problems. And I was glad of that. I didn't necessarily want every customer trying to pry into my personality, nor was I particularly interested in them.

I'm sure my view of objectification differs from the definition among academic circles, but to me it seems like a continuum and not universally bad. Inappropriate objectification can be harmful, but under many circumstances, I see objectification as not only acceptable, but necessary
.

***

This is really interesting me because it starts touching on territory that might, for people of certain socioeconomic beliefs, open up a fresh can of worms or six. Is it, in fact, acceptable or even necessary for the culture to be structured in such a way that such everyday objectifications as we have of service workers (the McDonald's employee, the anonymous tech support voice on the other end of the line) are inevitable? Personally--don't have a good answer. I definitely don't have any good suggestions as to what the alternative might be, given the set-up that we currently have. Others --old-school Marxists/socialists of various flavors, anarchists of various flavors, certain factions on the far right--might have more thoughts on this. It's not my strong point, socioeconomic theory, I have to say.

But, so, okay: assuming that there is such a thing as "inappropriate objectification," whether or not it's always inappropriate to objectify another person. How exactly does this work, anyway? How does one go about "objectifying" another person...inappropriately? What do most people mean when they say such-and-so is "objectifying?"

Generally speaking, I think it's safe to say, the most commonly used and understood meaning of "objectification" is sexual objectification.

Okay, so what is sexual objectification?

Next

19 comments:

Amber said...

I like earlbecke's definition. It was one of the clearest I'd read in awhile. I mentioned it in a blog post a few months ago, and meant to write more about it, but forgot.

belledame222 said...

Ha, as it happens, I'm referring to that very article in the follow-up post. (It's coming; I'm working on it...)

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