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Objectification

March 29, 2010

I’m reading George Mann’s The Osiris Ritual, which Nigel picked up to have something to read on the train. One passage just startled me (on pp-230-231, Snowbooks tradeback); bold emphasis is mine:

There was clearly nothing sexual about the deaths; the manner in which the women had been discarded, carelessly, suggested that Alfonso was in no way objectifying the girls. He didn’t appear to desire their deaths, to treat them with any reverence or passion. No, it was as if he considered them as animals, there to be experimented upon in his laboratory. The bodies were purely carcasses, immaterial, and he had left them there to rot while he went about his business, having extracted whatever it was he needed from inside their heads.

Actually, Mann is describing multiple ways in which these women’s killer objectified them.

What is objectification? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers this (specifically from a feminist perspective):

It can be roughly defined as the seeing and/or treating a person, usually a woman, as an object. In this entry, the focus is primarily on sexual objectification, objectification occurring in the sexual realm. Martha Nussbaum (1995, 257) has identified seven features that are involved in the idea of treating a person as an object:
(1) instrumentality:
the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
(2) denial of autonomy:
the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
(3) inertness:
the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
(4) fungibility:
the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
(5) violability:
the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
(6) ownership:
the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
(7) denial of subjectivity:
the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

Rae Langton (2009, 228–229) has added three more features to Nussbaum’s list:
(8) reduction to body:
the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
(9) reduction to appearance:
the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
(10) silencing:
the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.

An instance of objectification does not need to meet all these criteria. One of these tactics is enough to take away a person’s humanity. They are rarely used in isolation, though.

What we’re talking about here is dehumanization for the purpose of treating other people like things, so they can be consumed. It’s the core of the contagious, culturally based wétiko (cannibal) psychosis. Sexual objectification is one obvious face of this phenomenon, and has entered popular discourse under that term. That doesn’t mean that it is the only common way of objectifying other people, much less the only possible one.

You have to objectify and dehumanize people before you can murder them to sell their body fat for cosmetic uses, which is not too far from Mann’s scenario. Objectification is also necessary to treat people as described in Amanda’s recent If we were real people disability blog carnival post. Pretty much any kind of abusive behavior depends on objectifying the other person(s). You can’t get any number of nasty -isms going without it, much less genocide or other systematic violence. I am trying to avoid Godwin’s Law, even though it quite specifically doesn’t apply here.

That systematic violence includes–but is by no means limited to–rape culture; human trafficking and the “sex trade” in general; and prevalent, continuing violence against women and children–i.e., “domestic violence”, another hideous euphemism. For that matter, you pretty much have to be basing a lot of assumptions in objectification for the “sex trade” or “domestic violence” to make sense as euphemisms, much less for them to look like acceptable euphemisms. (Without multiple layers of interrelated objectification and commodification, having a “sex trade” at all would not make any sense.) Where is the obvious harm or agency in either term? Where are any human victims? It’s more objectification.

There’s an interesting older post on some of the ways objectification works, in less surface-spectacular settings, over at Fetch me my axe, Objectification, continued further. It’s necessary if you want to set up any kind of power differentials in order to control/bully/mistreat other people; they just can’t be Real People, like you. If you can even call them people at all. This happens on a personal level, every day. It also happens on a societal level, every day. And everywhere in between.

I am not doing much here to link in how it’s considered appropriate to treat the rest of the non-human world around us, and what characteristics are deemed necessary for personhood/respect, since this post’s focus is on objectification of human beings. What people consider acceptable ways of treating “things” is very relevant, though, since that will inform how they will treat other humans they’ve turned into “things” or “animals”.

Objectification isn’t sounding that great, eh?

That’s why I get so damned frustrated at the way the term has been mangled in popular usage. Since sexual objectification is what’s mostly gotten talked about in those terms, way too many people skip the whole “objectification” bit, and seize right onto the “sexual”. Since it’s used in conjunction with “women” and “sexual”, objectification must be something sexy (and even empowerfulling). With the popular connotations of a tantalizingly forbidden kick, it even sounds like something a person might enjoy playing with.

Earlbecke covers this very well in But Don’t You Like To Be Objectified Sometimes? (the original blog it was taken from seems to be down). The whole piece is well worth reading.

By definition, what is an object? An object is something inert to be manipulated by others. An object exists only for the purposes it was made and can only passively fulfil that purpose through its use by an active party. A grammatical object is the part of a sentence which indicates what is being manipulated by the subject; linguistically, an object has things done to it but does nothing on its own…

Objects are things.

A woman is not an object.

Let me ammend [sic] that: people are not objects…

“Don’t we all like to be objectified sometimes?”

No. I don’t. I don’t enjoy being made into a passive object to be manipulated. I don’t enjoy being made into something less-than-human. I don’t enjoy being ignored and overlooked as the individual that I am and instead made into something else against my own will.

Do I enjoy being found attractive? Yes, of course. Everyone does. But too often these two phenomona are conflated and confused. Being objectified, being verbally or sexually abused, is often said to merely be the same thing as attraction. It’s a compliment, it’s an honor to be harrassed on the street. Being a desireable object is confused with being a desireable human being. Being made into a thing to be used, which exists solely for the purpose of this use and is judged only on its usefulness, is not the same as being found attractive at all.

When a person finds another person attractive, that other person is still human. They are an active participant in all interactions. No one can have a relationship with an object; relationships are a dynamic, mutual process on the part of all involved. Relationships are an active process. In the dynamic of objectification, only one party retains active personal agency

That certainly corresponds to my take on it.

Since we’re looking at agency, is it even possible to consent to being objectified? I’ve certainly heard that idea more than once, usually from people who did not seem to understand what objectification means. Can a person willingly give away their agency, since that is what’s required to be turned into a thing? I think not. They may consent to something they mistakenly believe to be objectification, but not to the real deal.

Some of Earlbecke’s further thoughts apply here, too:

But I am not willing to accept that anyone on Earth actually wants, of their own free will, to lose any and all freedom to define themselves or to have any real agency in their own lives. Powerlessness as a fantasy or a kink is not the same as actual powerlessness, as actual slavery and bondage. No one who actually cares about the subject would think to conflate the two while describing submission in those terms, and the fact is that being made into an object is very real powerlessness, is very real bondage to another person’s desires at the expense of one’s own.

Objectification is a forced loss of self.

No one has any right to ever, under any circumstances, inflict this on another person.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could give true consent to this. Objectification is, by definition, something which is done to people, without their consent, much like rape or murder. If you are able to give true informed consent, it’s not objectification. If you consent to one thing and the objectifier does something else entirely, you have not consented. And those who truly objectify don’t give a rat’s ass if their objects think they’re giving consent or not. It does not matter. They’re too busy trying to rob you of agency.

Yeah, some of the connections to rape culture face of wétiko are obvious. No wonder the very idea of objectification–sexual, or otherwise–has been mangled almost beyond recognition in the popular imagination. This is not a case of “Oh well, we’re just using the same term differently,” as convenient as this “sexy” distortion is. Unfortunately, it serves a lot of people’s interests if we don’t even know what objectification means nor how to recognize it when it happens, much less how to talk about it in a way which might possibly get taken seriously.

It serves a lot of interests for us to speculate about how people might even want to be objectified, and enjoy it (which idea, in itself, is more objectification). Do any of these things serve our own best interests? Again, cui bono?

It’s very frustrating and saddening when, going back to the original book passage quoted, murdering kidnapped strangers to get some substance out of their heads–then leaving their bodies in a pile in the corner, once you’ve gotten what you wanted from them–does not qualify as objectification. Not to mention when the author’s understanding of objectification is necessarily sexual, requiring “desire” and that the victims be treated with “reverence or passion”. *shudder*

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 6, 2013 7:26 am

    As you surmised, objectification is being seen as ‘a means to an end’. While I suspect that the writer you quoted was merely being ‘artistically sloppy’ – ie not being careful enough- that cannot be said for many who objectify ‘lesser beings’.
    While this is usually an unconscious action, it is still inexcusable. More, it is the act of a predator: a being which, by goal-directed behavior, seeks to USE another to achieve his or her ends.
    Just like the murderer in the quotation.
    Just like some Normals (their preferred word – it speaks of their supposed choice to be so) do with autists.

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