Original Blogpost Here.
The term “objectification” has been used variably by different people. The primary exemplary group that has used the term are gender feminists. However, even within this group it has been used in differing conflicting contexts. There are, of course, the anti-pornography feminists who have demonized porn due to its “objectification” of the female sex. By anti-porn feminists, I of course, refer to feminists against porn on a legal or State-regulatory level (although my criticisms here may apply to feminists who are anti-porn in other cultural senses or forms). In general, forms of sex or sexualization are increasingly being linked, amongst such anti-pornography feminists, with “objectification”; this is particularly blatant when pornography is denied on a broad streak. Hence, it seems to me that anti-porn feminists, while well-intended (if I give them any compliment), end up narrowing the acceptability of female sexuality back to the traditional heteromonoamorous gender constructs.
Thus, while perhaps trying to help women, it seems anti-porn feminists are busier handing out sexual admonitions against certain expressions of female sexuality while turning a blind eye to male sexuality. And even a critique of male sexuality in turn would affect the boundaries of female sexuality as well, since heterosexual sexual expression is interdependent. What we want to do isn’t set boundaries on either sex, as that would simply be reinforcing the concept of gender. We want to destroy social boundaries and liberate both; this liberation in turn means they receive autonomy in determining their own boundaries, and have those boundaries respected in their social network. The same applies to those feminists who take an anti-prostitution stance. Of course, we also cannot ignore the exploitation that occurs or may occur in the respective industries, but these are sociopolitical contingencies to commercial sex, that are due to socioeconomic differences (which is where these gender constructs really do get their hegemony, hence the origin of patriarchy). The State is a male institution, and historical capitalism has also been, consequently, a male institution.
But the purpose of this post isn’t just to discuss either of the two sex industries, or to discuss the sex industry as-it-is and the sex industry as-it-could-be (or the extent of its existence if the exploitation ceases), but to ask one pivotal question that must be addressed throughout feminist discourse:
What is “Objectification”?
The simple, modern answer often received if one asks this question is that objectification is the act of turning someone into an object (“bringing them down to the level of an object”), or otherwise the treatment of someone as an object. This definition does not only remain ambiguous and vague, but is problematic in general even when understood as it is given. Thus, it requires an improvement.
To start, I will attempt to clarify what the proposed definition may mean in its most direct and face-value form. So the question now is, “What is an ‘object’, and thus what does it mean to be treated ‘like an object’?” This is a two-part question, and the first part of the question can be given a simple literal answer: an object is that which is observed. But of course, this isn’t the only thing which is meant by an “object”, as then objectification would be absurdly all-inclusive–any presence of a perceiver logically entails observation, and thus an object; hence, all things that perceive “objectify”. Rather than sacrifice the credibility of objectification, it’s best to assume the least absurd definition. With that task, the term “object” in the context of objectification must refer to a more humanistic definition–”objectification” is visibly spoken of concerning inter-relationships between humans, i.e. subjects. Intersubjective interaction. It must therefore be the case that “objectification” refers to a subject-directed phenomena, within an intersubjective context. When it comes down to that, my personal source for understanding what an “object” is, is Jean-Paul Sartre, considering a bulk of what he talks about is consciousness and its general relationship with objective existence.
Although I would love to get into things on objectification right away, it is necessary to introduce Sartre’s philosophy and concepts first. After doing so, I will be tying all of that into a substantial definition for objectification. Bare with me.
Jean-Paul Sartre divides Being between being-in-itself and being-for-itself/being-for-others. The first refers to a mode of existence that simply is–it could alternatively be described as a self-sufficient existence, or “unconscious being”; Being that is not defined by intentionality. It is a mode of existing; hence, while “being” is often said to need an attached qualifier, Sartre does not speak of being as such, but Being, as in a fundamental “mode” of existing. In this case, being-in-itself merely describes a mode of Being, of existing, wherein something exists self-sufficiently, i.e. its existence is not itself purely intentional. The being-for-itself, on the other hand, refers to “conscious” being. Consciousness as intentionality, as an “aboutness” of existence, i.e. of that which exists, is not an object as we would imagine a being-in-itself to be, e.g. a chair or rock. The chairs essence is being-as-a-chair. While you can say consciousness is being-as-consciousness, consciousness itself is defined as being “about” X or being about “being” (X or “being” not solely defining consciousness itself as a result of consciousness being also only about both). Consciousness is then, in fact, a “nothingness”–a lack of being, so to speak, in the sense that it has no content of its own, but absorbs content. An analogy that might help is that consciousness is a wind that sweeps through and encompasses Being–lets say a mountain to represent Being–rather than only composed of being-itself (or, say, “mountain-ness”). This is the nature of intentionality, consciousness, if the principal is generalized to all “Being” (as opposed to just the mountain, and not the wind). As a result, though, when consciousness reflects on itself, it is thus the nihilation of that “consciousness” it is reflecting on, although that consciousness was itself a nihilation of other things.
Since consciousness as intentionality includes both the pre-reflective and reflective, it is then the case that consciousness is a transcendent for-itself. Hence, “every conscious existence exists as consciousness of existence”. The mode of Being for the for-itself is nihilation, standing out as what things are not, and thus being able to be “about” those things. In effect, without this transcendence, where conscious is itself (a being, itself) and a reflection of itself (apart from itself so as to be itself), it would not be consciousness. In an extension of this conclusion, intentional objects are both consciousness and objects of (apart from?) consciousness. As a summary: Consciousness is nothing without what to contemplate (being-in-itself), but at the same time supercedes contemplation (is being-for-itself), hence why it itself necessitates both what is contemplated and what contemplates–as a contemplated consciousness, it forms a “persona”, a conception of itself, but as itself always superceding itself as itself, the persona-concept does not fully grasp the intended fullness of consciousness. The for-itself also brings forth a “Nothingness”, which is, while not Being, supported by being–this “Nothingness” is an aspect of the transcendence of consciousness, where it cannot fully grasp itself and is thus condemned to “spontaneity”. In other words, the continuing “chasm” between the reflective and pre-reflective in consciousness (although they’re really a unified whole, unified by a “strange loop“, so to speak).
Of course, this is only an inaccurate simplified representation of Sartre’s thoughts, and perhaps a very simplistic and unrepresentative reasoning/explanation of his ideas, since I only intend to use it as a quick sketch for practical purposes (after all, I am going to admit I have not yet fully read his magnum opus “Being & Nothingness” and have not at all even begun to read his related essay “The Transcendence of the Ego”). But I have a very basic general summary idea of what he was trying to ultimately expound regarding the nature of consciousness on an abstract level. To continue, we can see that being an “object”, for subjective/intersubjective beings, is a natural and perhaps necessary part of being a subject, as without it there could be no subject (nothing to contemplate): existence precedes essence. However, there’s also what Sartre calls “Bad Faith“, and I think this is where “objectification” can begin to make sense. Bad Faith, or Self-Deception, is essentially the denial of this transcendence or the denial of the obligation of consciousness being as itself (unbounded by itself), or the constant striving towards “fully emerged indifferent being-in-itself”. There will always be a chasm or conflict between our spontaneity and our constraining actions. In simpler terms, Bad Faith is the reduction of the subject to a mere persona, to the constraining action. A waiter plays as waiter, but there is no Bad Faith once he recognizes his being is not the waiter. The waiter exists, but when this realization of being-other-than-the-waiter arises, he is his essence. The only option is to force being head-on, as a realization of, and at the same time a chasm with, his essence. Before anything, he exists, and this is where his essence arises: at the core practice of his being.
There are social implications for all of this as well, via the concept of the Other. The being-for-itself necessarily entails the Other, which are constructs of the reflective consciousness. Pure conscious has a need of the Other, though, in order to display its existence–a desire to be limited by reflective consciousness (which, in relation to pure or pre-reflective conscious, is “otherly”). E.g., the status of the Other’s recognition of me is logically connected to the status of my recognition of the Other. Being-for-itself implies being-for-others. So here we arrive at intersubjectivity: Bad Faith here would represent itself as the Other reducing you to a persona, which is not at all different from our initial discourse on being a waiter. The social implications of this can be summarized with the famous phrase by Sartre, “Hell is other people”–there is a struggle here between being an “object” (reflective, being-for-others), i.e. a “persona”, and a “subject” (pre-reflective, being-for-itself). The world is no longer your total subjectivity when you encounter a person, but in friction with his/her world, and this haunts your very being. When one is “in love”, it means one is obsessed with controlling of the other so as to achieve a state of objectness to the world consistent with the state of objectness of the world implored by oneself. In other words, enslavement to the Look. There is therefore, objectification in all sex and love, and one also partakes in this “objectification” as well.
If we want to find a significant difference between sex & love and objectification, however, it would require that we change the definition (again, so it isn’t all-inclusive). I propose it should then be seen as, not an “enslavement” to The Look or “becoming an object” on an intersubjective level, but a denial of the subject (the prereflective, the being-for-itself). It is, I reiterate, an act of “Bad Faith”, where our transcendence is turned in on itself and we reduce ourselves to mere intentional objects. On a social level, where the intersubjective “I” commits Bad Faith. This “freely” cuts down my freedom or transcendence and invests on intentional objectness instead, rather than “freely” expanding through investment on the struggle of objectness and total subjectivity.
Objectification, in that case, though, ceases to be particularly political or social–it is metaphysical. Nonetheless, phenomenological existentialism has its effect on social, ethical and political formation: it allows recognition of transcendence of our sociopolitical-economic categorical “roles”, which can concretely devastatingly challenge those structures that, not only allow us to assert objectness, but concretely pressures or negates transcendance. Objectification, and existential freedom, are pre- and postpolitical metaphysical conceptualizations of the human condition, that remain relevant to sociology and politics by reminding theorists that these “essences” follow only after existence and that concrete experience therefore comes first. In the context of capitalism, the capitalist-worker relation involves an objectness-denying-transcendance of capitalist and labourer, so as to maintain these classes. In other words, the worker cannot come to the realization that, as the waiter in our example ended up doing, his being is being-other-than-the-worker (“I’m not just your employee/human-resource; I am a human being, damnit!”). Under the lack of this realization, a realization which is a necessary even if not sufficient condition for awakening “class consciousness” (class consciousness also implies one knows one’s facticity-of-role/being-other-than-the-worker), the worker is a “thing” or “tool” of his material facticities; a mere objectness. This is how personhood has historically been developed, even though, in a Hegelian fashion, each historical period has constructed a new objectness that sometimes is adjacent to a denial of subjectness or transcendence.
In some sense, then, “objectification”, to function as any substantial differentiation amongst social relations, cannot merely be defined as “treating like an object” (considering that, as counter-intuitive this may sound, objectness is a dimension of all relationships), but treating like a non-subject within The Look. Objectification, in this sense, is thus necessarily non-mutual (if the objectification is mutual, it ceases to be an issue). Objectification in the context of sex does not necessarily imply rape or even sexual exploitation, although it is often imparted in social hierarchy. However, the same logic of objectification can apply in messages opposite of sex (or that attempt to usurp whatever social hierarchy). So when we oppose a sexual act “because” its objectifying, we are conflating the sexual act itself with the objectification, and thereby condemning the sexual act (rather than the objectification). As a result, we end up also objectifying the participant individual in the act, arguably as an asexual being or sexual deviant. This is just as devastating, and can even be just as misogynistic, in relation to the female, because her sexuality is either being suppressed or expressed only through The Look of the Other, her own individuated Look still being denied; whether The Look-er shares a facticity (such as sex) with The Looked-upon or not is irrelevant and the conclusion still applies. Hence, objectification is by nature not just a group-specific enforced phenomena, although it is how hegemony (which is a group-specific-enforced phenomenon) can perpetuate. This is why anti-porn and anti-prostitution feminism, particularly of the legal kind, does not work relative to the goal of female emancipation (political & in terms of authenticity) and tends to arrive to absurd conclusions and distinctions that are “gender-essentialist”, for lack of a better term (e.g., giving a “deepthroat blowjob as a female is ‘disrespectful’ to a female’s own body” while giving “cunnilingus as a female is completely respectful of female ‘dignity’ and respectful to a female’s own body”).
We should also keep in mind objectification isn’t “wrong”, in any moral/ethical sense, although it is definitely inauthentic, and existentialism, especially the Sartrean kind, particularly emphasizes authenticity. Authenticity is a pre-moral/pre-ethical precept, which cannot be construed as a moral/ethical criteria or judgment. It refers to something concrete, individualized, thought-judging and personal rather than abstract, universalized, action-judging and “impersonal”. Inauthenticity is wrong as an intellectual act or act of consciousness, for lack of a better way of putting it, and thus only “merits” responses proportional to that (likely, intellectual ones and ones of consciousness).
The next person I’m going to draw from is Max Stirner. In case you guys have no idea who Max Stirner is, I am limited to describing him as an Egoist who, although not necessarily an anarchist, ended up influencing a lot of anarchist theory.
His philosophy revolved around the Unique and the repudiation of what he calls “spooks”, and an emphasis on concrete, rather than abstracted, action. The level of abstraction he employed was only the level necessary to mark the difference between a person as person as apart from ideology and a person-as-idea, resulting in the “pure” category for the concrete person which he termed “the Unique” or “the Ego”. Both “the Unique” or “the Ego” can only, at least initially, be described as overall negative entities, and then in some sense nihilistic on all fronts. Stirner, after all, also dubbed “the Unique” or “the Ego” a “creative nothingness“. Note, however, that it isn’t a mere nothingness, but a creative nothingness. In other words, the “nothingness” is negative because it is merely full potential–the creativity comes in with concrete choice, i.e. a discernment. Stirner makes it clear, though, that even all through-out these particular concrete choices, the entity in question is still a nothingness, or at least still “inhabits” nothingness.
However, Stirner’s philosophy cannot be reduced to psychological egoism or some metaphysical statement about the nature of Will. These are certainly implied parts of Stirnerite Egoism, it may be conceded; however, it is, in fact, an inadequate description of Stirner’s “Egoism“.
Stirner does not only seek to elucidate on one’s egoism, but to make it “conscious”, similar to the way in which Marxists refer to class consciousness–only that it is a realization of individuality and inner nihilo. Just as class consciousness has concrete expressions, Stirner’s “conscious egoism” also has some imperative implications for concrete action.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to call Stirner’s Egoism a kind of ethical or moral egoism. After all, Stirner’s “Unique”, or Ego, is a category isolated from abstract ideological concessions or commitment. To the extent Stirner’s conception of “conscious egoism” can be considered imperative, it is imperative only at a pre-moral or pre-ethical level, similarly to the way that Sartre’s “authenticity” is. It may be interesting to consider Stirner’s philosophy as wedged in-between metaphysical/psychological egoism and ethical/moral egoism–or, as being well within metaphysical/psychological egoism, but “impure” (i.e., having additional imperative elements) while not at all in the camp of ethical or moral egoism.
Regardless, the initial venture to offer approaches to understanding what “objectification” is shan’t be forgotten. Now that the nature of Stirner’s philosophy has been surmised, it is time to get back on focus. The best quote to start with for this is the following:
“Where the world comes in my way — and it comes in my way everywhere — I consume it to quiet the hunger of my egoism. For me you are nothing but — my food, even as I too am fed upon and turned to use by you. We have only one relation to each other, that of usableness, of utility, of use.“
How does this relate to objectification? Well, it doesn’t yet, if we choose to define objectification as something more substantial than “the observation and typification of something”. However, under that very limited definition, the aforementioned quote is tangentially relevant. To draw more of a connection, Stirner here is essentially recognizing the necessary fact of everything except the Unique-as-and-by-itself, being a an object of consumption of the Unique. It’s a necessary fact because the Unique is a creative nothingness; this means, not only that things can arise from it, but also that these very things that arise are consumed by the Unique as well, i.e. by the nihilo. In other words, in abstract practice, the concept-world contains both destructive and constructive elements (in which case, the concept-world is the nihilo, as a summation of all potential sole concepts). Hence, there is now this “dichotomy” of the Unique and consumption-good. Since the consumption-good is reduced to a consumption-good, this is a form of objectification, in both the limited and more substantial sense, even if only for the purpose of understanding “the Unique”.
However, it can be seen, in Stirner’s Critics, that this either causes a pole reversal for the Unique or results in some type of friction when confronted with the Unique or the Ego as well. This is where “conscious egoism” comes in. Essentially, “conscious egoism” is the spontaneous “obligation” for resolution in confronting the necessary challenge of other Uniques, as a Unique oneself, while at the same time being an antinomious consumption-good. Simultaneously, however, this confrontation or attempt at resolution may ironically or paradoxically result in a shifting of personal interest from pure conflict to less frictional forms of socializing. But now I’m bordering on tangential speculation and rambling off a bit. The point is that this friction is symbolic of clashing “objectifications” and the co-operative alternatives are symbolic of coalescing “objectifications” (neither friction or cooperation here being strictly necessarily mutually exclusive). In which case, “objectification”, of the substantial kind, is nullified. Nonetheless, insofar as these frictions and/or co-operations are tipped off balance in regards to “objectification”, objectification of the substantial kind is revived. [Recall that, since conscious egoism is pre-moral/pre-ethical, so is "objectification" within this context.]
A clearer way to understand the implications of this may be through Stirner’s concept of a spook, although it will need to be expounded on an interpersonal plane for it to be relevant to objectification. A good quote to begin with that exemplifies Stirner’s “spook” is this:
“What is it, then, that is called a ‘[spook]‘? An idea that has subjected the man to itself.“
I will admit that the original passage actually said “fixed idea” instead of “spook”; regardless, they seem to be roughly equivalent in Stirner’s book. Whatever differences there may be will not be relevant to our conclusion, insofar as the quote maintains its meaning, and my own statements do as well, regardless of the term plugged in.
Now that we have that out of the way, it is evident that a spook is any idea that is sanctified beyond a mere consumption-good, “consumption-good” roughly meaning something subordinate to or dependent on the pure crude Will (also called “might” by Stirner) itself. In other words, a spook is an idea that subordinates the person, effectively wiping out consciousness of the Unique (which in turn means wiping out consciousness of the expression of “pure crude Will” or “might” or of the “crudeness” and “purity” of Will/might). In other words, the presence of a spook is the loss of conscious or willing egoism, and the arrival of unwilling egoism wherein one is “possessed” by the “spook”. [Mastership of ideas, which could be said to be a necessary part of willing egoism, is what Stirner means by "being free": "'Freedom' awakens your rage against everything that is not you; 'egoism' calls you to joy over yourselves, to self-enjoyment."]
As a sidenote, we have to keep in mind that the freedom Stirner is referring to is an entirely individualistic or isolated one; social anarchists, mutualists, and anarcho-communists (along with many others) who draw from Stirnerite egoism may see conscious egoism as the first and most essential step to social liberation (and perhaps even class consciousness)–that is, once people become conscious of their egoism or “uniqueness”, and then have to confront the uniqueness on the other side of the mirror as well, discourse in that direction is enabled, in the same way class consciousness enables people to recognize the contingency of their class and (perhaps) repudiate it (as is necessary for social evolution/revolution towards socioeconomic liberty/self-determination).
If we express “mastership of ideas” on an interpersonal level, those only slaves to ideas are by extension slaves of the masters of ideas (keep in mind we’re still speaking in a pre-moral/pre-ethical context). Does this mean, to oppose masters of ideas, persons must oppose mastership of ideas? Quite the contrary: it means persons too must take up this mastership. Couldn’t it also be the case, though, that the masters of ideas are to be made slaves to the ideas instead? It may be in the interest of our own mastership, but since all are unique, this is factually the case for everybody. Thus, on an interpersonal level, no. Insofar as everybody is competing in mastership in the case of seeking more slaves to ideas, that very slavery is cancelled out (there will always be deviations, of course, as part of the stability of the system–a good analogy would be the concept of market equilibrium in economics). However, cannot everybody at once be slaves to ideas? Sure. However, to be subordinated to a mere idea rather than expressive of one’s uniqueness is opposed to conscious egoism: it negates self-determination.
An opposition to the spook implies an opposition to what Sartre called the spirit of seriousness (which is to be interpreted, not as denying objectivity or “universality”, but reaffirming the subject’s role or “particularity”). In terms of objectification, it is when the Unique itself has been “spookified”, similar to the way in which, in our previous discussion of Sartre, one’s persona is confused as the essence of one’s being, i.e. when being inauthentic. In other words, in objectification, the Unique is “turned” into a spook that the actual Unique is in turn made a slave to, causing the Unique to be, by extension, a slave of the “spookifier”, i.e. the Unique that had originally spookified the Unique. Considering objectification as it is being used is of a social nature, the spookifier and the spookified must be two separate persons (well, they are unique after all, aren’t they? ). The Stirnerite approach to objectification is just as pre-moral/pre-ethical as Sartre’s, and thus objectification isn’t morally “wrong” or “right”–the Stirnerite approach may be said to actually go farther than Sartre’s because it doesn’t even hold an inert explicit or extract-able pre-moral/pre-ethical precept concerning objectification itself (probably because of the analytical limitations of Stirner’s philosophy, rather than because it opposes any relevant precept per se).
All in all, one cannot actually vilify something, on any moral or ethical level, only or simply because it is “objectifying”. Which means the concrete responses, such as making that something illegal, cannot be justified solely by pointing out that something is “objectifying”. The only justified responses are abstract ones, considering objectification is something that occurs on an abstract level. Insofar as the concrete expressions of that abstraction are actions and immoral/unethical, one can respond concretely in action. This, of course, does not mean one shouldn’t look into getting rid of exploitation, even if expressed in or by the sex industry. While subtly related, objectification and exploitation are not the same thing. Furthermore, please note that the Stirnerite and Sartrean approach to objectification aren’t the only approaches, and they are also not mutually exclusive. Additional approaches can be formed through the concepts employed by Michel Foucault (particularly The Gaze in relation to the predominant episteme, which has some parallels with Sartre’s concept of The Look in relation to consciousness/existence in general) and the concepts employed by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (particularly the Will to Power in relation to the Übermensch, which has some parallels with Stirner’s “might” in relation to the Anarch or conscious-egoist/willing-egoist).