Adrian Tan - Objectifying
Delivered 02 Nov 2005

Well, I'm going to talk about the word "objectifying". And in particular I'm going to talk about what the word can mean in such contexts as "pornography objectifies". I'm going to attempt to paraphrase the word. It's a very vague word; people can use it in a lot of different ways; I'm simply going to spell out the implications of one way that people use it.

And firstly, let me say what I'm not going to talk about. I'm not actually going to talk about whether pornography does objectify. You can decide that yourself, or we can discuss it afterwards. And I'm not going to talk about the more general question of whether pornography causes any sort of harm, regardless of whether it objectifies. I'm simply going to focus on clarifying the word.

So what does it mean? Well, if you encountered it for the first time, without any preconceptions, and if you were an English speaker, you would immediately break the word into component parts. It's "object" plus "-ify". You'd think of similar transitive verbs, like "solidify", "magnify", "petrify", "terrify", "clarify", "justify", and you'd look for a pattern. And I'd suggest that the pattern is that, in all these words, you're changing x into y, you're making something solid, making it larger, turning it to stone, giving it a justification, etc. So, coming to "objectify" without any preconceptions, you'd assume the word means "to make what's not an object into an object". Let me call that definition 1, and let me repeat it: to make what's not an object into an object.

This broad definition in fact fits a lot of the way the word is used outside the pornographic context. Some people use the word "objectify" to mean making something objective, because it was previously unclear or subjective. Other people use it to mean something like creating objects. For instance, there is the process of naming things, and thereby turning them into conceptual objects that you can interact with other conceptual objects. And there are people who believe that children only gradually learn to pick out separate objects from some sort of undifferentiated perceptual haze.

But this broad definition 1 doesn't quite fit the pornographic context, for at least two reasons. Firstly, in a porn context, the word is always deprecating, negative, perjorative. You can't speak of good objectification. So a better definition would take this perjorative sense into account. Secondly, you don't usually mean that the porn actors change, though it's possible you mean this; more likely you're talking about a change in the audience, a change in psychology, a change in attitude. Something in porn makes men think of women as objects, or behave towards them as if they were objects.

To solve the second problem, I propose definition 2: to treat what's not an object as an object OR to spread or reinforce such treatment, which is supposed to take the emphasis off actual change and move it to psychological change.

Definition 2 still needs some work, because it doesn't quite catch the disparagement. But a brief word on this before I move on to definition 3.

Insult doesn't necessarily have any rationality behind it; we react to words as we're taught to react; I'd suggest there is nothing prima facie insulting in words like "fuck", "cunt", "shit". But some sense can already be seen to the disparagement in definition 2. If you treat something as something it's not -- a starship as a pencil, or a pencil as a starship -- then you're already making some sort of mistake, you're possibly doing something outright stupid, and perhaps your action could readily lead to negative consequences. So that's one small reason "objectify" in a pornographic context is perjorative. There are other reasons, but I'll get to them below.

Moving on to definition 3. You get to definition 3 by asking the question, "So what's an object anyway?".

And the word does have a lot of meanings. It's sometimes a goal or purpose -- you can say, "What is our object?". It sometimes means something separable as a unified entity, something separable from the world around it, as when you say "Pick up that object", or when you ask, "Is that black object in the photograph a person?".

And it sometimes has a grammatical sense, as in subject and object, the doer of the verb and the thing that the verb is done to. This last sense is relevant for philosophy, and indeed is (I'd claim) the essence of how the word is traditionally used in a philosophical context.

Now neither of the first two meanings is entirely relevant to the porn context, though they have family resemblances to relevance. The thing is, if you recall the -ify verbs, they're all about a change of state, from unsolid to solid, from unclear to clear, and so on. So the relevant meaning of "object" that we're looking for is something to do with a change of state, from non-objectness into objectness. We want "object" as a category term.

And if you look around at how people use the word as a category term, you'll find it's a category on at least three systems.

The first system says, "subject and object". And I think this philosophical and linguistic usage strongly informs the everyday usage, but I'd argue that it's not what most people think of. It might inform everyday usage, but it's too rarefied for it.

The second system says, "There are living things, and there are objects." An object is a non-living thing. In this system, cats and dogs are not objects, whereas pencils are computers are objects.

But this system is not the one we're looking for, because when we talk about pornography objectifying, or talk about slavery and objectifying, it's not as if we truly doubt that a thing is alive. A slave can be perfectly objectified and still be alive.

So I think the third, and the relevant, system is to say, "There are persons and humans, and there are objects" or "There are persons, and there are other living things, and there are objects".

Person is possibly not quite the same thing as human incidentally. An alien might count as a person without counting as a human. A foetus might count as human without counting as a person.

Note that "object" appears to be defined by negation here. An object is whatever is not-person or not-human. If I asked you to tell me the qualities of objects, I think you'd say "motionlessness", "lifelessness", "it can't think", "it can't feel", and so forth -- you'd tell me about what it lacks, what it doesn't have, you'd define by negation.

Now recall definition 2: -- to treat what's not an object as an object or to spread or reinforce such treatment. Well, in definition 3 I want to enlarge on 2 by spelling out the first part of it, what it means to treat what's not an object as an object. And I'd claim -- bearing in mind that "object" is defined by negation -- I'd claim that it essentially means this: to fall short in one or both of two ways: either in your extension of the concepts of human and person, or in the normative ideals we have about how we should and should not act towards persons and humans.

To repeat and clarify: "To treat what's not an object as an object means to fall short or to actively work against the correct conceptions of humans and/or persons, or our normative ideals about how we should act towards persons and humans."

Definition 3 is the final definition. But it remains to spell out what the correct concepts of person and human are, and what the normative ideals are.

And these will be very controversial, but let me very tentatively suggest that a person is defined by qualities, and that a common list of such qualities might go: life, consciousness, free will, and capacities for pleasure and suffering. And along with these qualities, or perhaps because of them, a person is a right-holder, and there are moral, social, legal obligations for other people.

I'd argue that part of the reason earlier cultures treated Africans, or native Americans, or Australian Aborigines as objects is simply that they thought they were objects. They fell short in their extension of the concept of person. They took it not to apply to something to which it should have applied. And I'd suggest this is a slightly different matter from thinking something is a person, but objectifying in your actions.

Understand that I am talking about cultural (and culturally-specific) conceptions. I personally don't believe in free will, but I think that our cultural concept of person posits free will, just like law frequently posits legal fictions, like the reasonable man in the street. It's beside the point to ask for the rational basis of these ideas, because we have these ideas, regardless of where they came from.

Now let me speak of normative ideals about how we should treat persons and humans. I'm going to list seven. Again, I'm not necessarily saying these ideas are good things; but I do think we have them.

1. Firstly, the most obvious way to treat something as "not person" is rights violation or duty failure. This is relevant for a slavery context, but not necessarily for a consensual porn context.

2. Secondly, there is the idea that if consciousness and free will are there, then you should recognize them, and take them into account. If you view something as simple and predictable, then in one sense you objectify it. You can cherish a cat or a diamond without personalizing it. You can put a girl on a pedestal without personalizing her. Loving someone and/or treating them well is not necessarily enough to not objectify. And there is a difference between calling someone "a Jew" and "Jewish", and between calling them "a black" and "a black person". Anything that nouns objectifies. Any label will pretend that something is predictable. So that's normative idea 2.

3. Normative idea 3 is that, relatedly, you should respect, value, reverence consciousness and free will, life -- not just factor them in as unknowns or randoms. After all, we can factor in unknowns for any complex system; and that doesn't mean we treat it as a person. We somehow have to go beyond simple recognition.

4. Fourthly, and relatedly, when you're able to, you should encourage consciousness and free will. You should make the person more of a person. Any restriction of freedom counts as objectification. If a parent makes a choice for a child, or simply influences the child's choices, then the parent objectifies the child. Or if you spread a gender role (or, for that matter, any role), then you objectify people, you limit males' and females' possibilities of action and becoming.

5. Fifthly, you should engage with, open up to, the person. If you deal with them at arm's length, or consider them a resource, or use them, then you're objectifying them. Kant said something similar in the idea, Never use people as a means, but always treat them as ends.

6. Sixthly, you should not only engage, but should engage with complexity, allow for many-sided complexity. This is an idea that is perhaps more related to "human" than to "person", because it's possible to imagine entities with free will, consciousness, and life that don't have the complexity of humans. In this sense, to be guilty of objectifiction could mean to be guilty of a sort of narrowing. There's some presumption or reduction you're making such that you're not facing the whole truth. Your behaviour is in some sense untrue, unreasonable, undesirable. It's not necessarily more flattering to bypass "sex object" and to treat a woman as an employee, or an intelligence object, or a personality object.

7. Lastly, you should not only engage with them, but should care about them. For instance, you should try to add to pleasure and detract from pain, or look out for their interests, or do what they would have wanted you to do. If the hospital staff fulfil only their minimum duties to the patient in the coma, then in a sense the patient is simply an object they interact with. They have to go beyond duty in order to treat the patient as a person.

Now, this is a just a suggested list. I don't think it's by any means complete. In fact, I think that cultural norms are constantly changing, so no list could be exhaustive. But I think I've done enough to make preliminary answer to the question of "What does objectifying mean?". I think it's evident that questions of what people are and how one should behave towards them are central to our use of the word "objectify". I'd argue this on the basis of intuitions of how to use the word; and the seven normative ideals were meant to provoke such intuitions.

Two more notes to finish with.

Firstly, an argument could be made that obliteration of the self -- for instance, in suicide, or in meditation, or in the complete neglect of personal interests in favour of other people -- an argument could be made that these are all forms of self-objectification. That is, they violate cultural norms. I mention this in passing because it's of relevance to criticism of the idea that we should be saints, of whatever ethical variety.

Secondly, is it possible to not objectify people?

Well, there is a frightening open-endedness, and there are obvious reasons, practical and otherwise, to not treat every person as a person. The normative ideals are neverending ideals.

For instance, taking the idea of allowing for and respecting consciousness to its logical conclusion would require being always conscious of consciousness -- really looking at people, really seeing them -- actively and continuously trying to empathize. This is similar to what Georg Simmel speaks of when he talks of the mutual gaze, or to what Martin Buber is talking about in the I-Thou relationship, but both of them note that the moment is transitory.

Nothing is more natural than to filter out what's irrelevant to us, unnecessary for us. The people we pass on the pavement are objects to be avoided, the sales clerk is part of the shop. We relate to friends in particular contexts, in particular ways. To have sex is to narrow, and non-sexual impulses interfere with performance. It's well-known, for instance, that actors can put you off your emotional state, intrude on your privacy, when they break the fourth wall and look at you; or strippers can put you off your arousal by making eye contact and interfering with your gaze.

Sartre goes so far as to claim that it's necessary for society that we be conscious of ourselves as objects under other people's gazes. Martin Buber thinks it's the "sublime melancholy" of the human situation that the I and You relationship must always turn into I and It.

So, there is reason to think that the answer to the second question is "No". We can't, or it's very unlikely, that we can all of the time live up to perfect non-objectification, though this is not necessarily a reason why we shouldn't try.


So does porn actually objectify?

I'm ill-equipped to answer the question. In some sense it must objectify, even if only because it "narrows" -- sexuality in porn is exaggerated and complexity of humanity is not dealt with. On the other hand, one shouldn't underestimate the distancing and ironizing effects of the genre and medium. In the case of violent non-pornographic films, I wouldn't be surprised if it could be shown that movie blood underprepares you for real blood, such that real blood looks different and is always shocking.

What are other examples of ways people use the word "objectifying" in a pornographic context?

Well, sometimes "Pornography objectifies women" means "Pornography leads, directly or indirectly, to rape and mistreatment of women". Sometimes it means "Pornography leads to disrespect of women". But I wasn't comfortable exploring either of these two ideas, or related ideas, for various reasons. For one thing, the cause and effect wasn't clear to me. What's behind the idea that pornography leads to objectification, which leads to rape? That you can only rape what you objectify? That you're encouraged to rape what you objectify? Neither of these seems obvious to me. I don't see any prima facie reason that objectification is necessary for rape (can't you rape people as well as objects?). And it seems to me that we respect a lot of objects, in particular abstract objects like "truth" and "love" (if these are fair examples).

It might well be the case that pornography does lead to rape or disrespect, but I'm skeptical there is a necessary connection here, and I think you can deal with these claims without bringing in the concept of objectification. The concept of objectification might well obfuscate.

By the way, I don't think "objectify", in the porn context, is a common word in academia. I found surprisingly few instances of it when I researched this talk.

What about people who want to be objectified?

What the question highlights is that you can sometimes get both objectification and personalization at the same time. We shouldn't retreat from the paradox. If you agree to objectify someone, then by cultural norms, you are treating a person as an object, but at the same time you're respecting their free will. Whether the net result amounts to more objectification than personalization or vice versa depends on the circumstances.

How does your view differ from Sartre's?

Sartre's use of the word "object" is similar, but is jargon. That is, it has a specialized, implicitly defined sense. Whereas I'm trying to elucidate the thoughts behind the everyday use of the word.

Sartre didn't talk about normative cultural ideals towards persons, and didn't define objects by degree of falling short in conceptions and ideals. Rather, all people are objects to your gaze (though there are also other ways of seeing them); "object-ness" is "one of the basic modalities of the Other's presence to me".

What does the word "personify" mean?

"Personify" isn't a true opposite to "objectify". Personify is used in various ways in literary criticism, but usually means something like endowing an inanimate or abstract or non-human object with human characteristics. But in personification you're always conscious that you're pretending, that it's a conceit. Whereas objectification has repercussions in action.

Note that disparagement doesn't attach to "personify". Presumably you're doing objects a favour by pretending they're human.

I've tended to use the word "personalize" as an opposite to "objectify", but this doesn't quite work either, because it's reminiscent of getting your initials sewn on your handkerchief.

Is objectification necessarily involved in racism?

No. It depends on the type of racism. You can bitterly and irrationally hate someone, but still treat them as a person.

Where do animals fit?

Animals are problematic. Animals and plants are the grey area between persons and objects. English-speaking culture originally considered them objects, but now recognizes they possess many of the qualities of full persons. The cultural unease is reflected in linguistic unease: it doesn't quite sit to apply the word "objectify" to them, and yet one doesn't entirely want to refuse it.

Do you need two definitions, for acceptable and unacceptable objectification?

I think that everyday objectification -- eyeing an attractive girl, objectifying people you pass on the street -- everyday objectifying is still on the same scale as slavery. I mean, when you inquire into what people claim porn does, and why it's objectionable, I think people will point to the same sort of thing as treating the sales clerk as part of the shop, and I think it's hard to find a principled basis on which to distinguish the two. They're different degrees of the same thing, and there's arbitrariness in drawing the cut-off line between acceptable and unacceptable.

In a different context, it's said that marriage is on the same scale as prostitution.

What conclusion should you draw, given that everyday objectification is unavoidable? Should you conclude that all objectification is good, or, renouncing it all as bad, should you shut yourself up in a room, to objectify as little as possible? Well, again, I don't think we should retreat from problematization. Standards of acceptable and unacceptable objectification change across time. Where to draw the line is continually being negotiated.

If you objectify someone, are you objectifying yourself?

Yes, for a variety of reasons. But more to do with dehumanizing, rather than depersonalizing. I neglected talking about what qualities we think humans have and should strive to have, and what duties we have towards humans. But there are many contexts in which it's said that a person is "less human". And I think, among the ideas of what it is to be human, is the idea that we should be compassionate towards other lifeforms, should have a heart, and should inculcate such tendencies in ourselves. Someone who is unresponsive to animals and other people or is emotionally dead is less human even if they do have free will, life, consciousness, etc.

There are also various ways in which you can be said to be depersonalizing yourself by objectifying another. For instance, if you're a slaveowner, then you're objectifying yourself in the slave's eyes, turning yourself into an object they don't engage with. And you are alienating someone. So, to the extent that what you are is what you are in relationship with someone or something, it's arguable that your possibilities of becoming are limited, your freedom of becoming is impinged upon. This is more obvious in the case of someone who writes off an entire race or culture.

Should you objectify in response to objectifying?

To be objectified is often to lose power -- with respect to at least the objectifier.

It's natural that you do objectify in response to objectification. It's been alleged that some sort of "tit for tat" mechanism (repaying good with good, and evil with evil) is built into our behaviour and moral intuitions.

On a social level, writing off people who write you off maintains some sort of dignity and power (it's only the weak who allow themselves to be insulted). On a psychological level, it might well be that writing off people who write you off protects your self-esteem.

So objectifying in retaliation might achieve something. But, frankly, I don't know if evolution's wisdom has gone astray here. Does retaliation really result in a net profit? Is it in any case immoral? Are you perpetuating bad norms? And the very fact that objectifying might always also be self-objectifying -- this gives one pause.

What's involved in defining?

There's different things that can count as defining. For instance, perhaps it counts as defining to point at something -- to point at a tree and say "tree". But the way I wanted to approach the task was this: I wanted to try to find other words to express the meaning of a word. To try to find a phrase that can be substituted in. To paraphrase. And I don't think there's a methodical way to do this. All you can do is assert, hypothesize. All you can do is gather a few examples (or, if you're writing a dictionary, you gather a large number of examples), and you hypothesize different patterns. So my entire talk was basically hypothesis, assertion, and you might well disagree. There are various ways my definition 3 could be wrong. Perhaps people simply don't use the word as I'm suggesting they do; after all, I've largely assumed people use the word in the same way in the porn context as they do in slavery contexts, and this might be a gross error. Or perhaps, to put it a different way, my definition is too narrow or too inclusive. Or perhaps, there is no unity or logic to the word use, and it's a mistake to look for logic or unity.