Saturday, 20 December 2014

On Objectification

Once upon a time, it was self-evident that God existed and that He was good. Today, it seems equally self-evident to many that there is a thing called sexual objectification and that it is wrong. Just as some people will never not be able to believe in God, so others will never be able to do anything but impute negative moral value to the market in sexual display and observation.

The New Clericalism 
   
People who have such opinions, whether about the existence of God or the moral horror that is lapdancing, have a right to those opinions. They can go to church or avoid lapdancing clubs as suits them. But what neither should do is dictate the terms of freedom for others.

The Church has largely been chased away from public policy (not quite far enough in our view) but feminist extremism is reaching its apogee of power and may yet institute its horrors on us through the Nordic model. In Hackney and in the progressive communities of the 'new feminism', Church and post-Marxist graduate ideologue have been converging to build critical mass for new social myths and new oppressions, the pseudo-theocracy of the authoritarian activist.

The 'progressive' feminist position was even converging at one point (perhaps still is) with that of the communitarian right - the theory of objectification is flowing into a bed already scoured out in the desert by the Judaeo-Christian concept of 'sin' and by Islamic concepts of womanhood. The thesis is that objectification is a thing that is real and that it is bad and that is what we will deal with here. Both statements are dubious. But we will accept, for the sake of taking on these people on their own ground, that there is something called objectification: that is, that persons treat other persons as things-in-themselves and then we will ask whether this is quite so bad as post-Kantian rectitude asserts.

Sinister Philosophy 

The idea that objectification is a bad thing in itself arises (in modern thought) ultimately from a reading of Immanuel Kant - moral value must lie in never treating another person as the object of one's desires without their interests being at heart. This is fair enough but the way it has been extended by Theory is another matter. This Kantian model, already distanced to a degree from what it is to be human in practice (his position was a moral exhortation rather than a description of the actual situation of humanity where we have to wait until Nietzsche for a fair assessment), got extended by the progressive Left into something very much more demanding, especially under Marxist influence.

Two further ideological formulae were added. The first was that using the labour of another to improve or enrich or take pleasure was always  'exploitation' so that the only unexploited person was one who lived beyond the market in some putative future socialist paradise, a fit religio-metaphysical parallel to the traditionalist's Golden Age or Lost Eden. But the second was more sinister. If Marxism made all current human relations potentially exploitative, another school of thought within Marxism but allied to progressive liberalism and derived from Plato, suggested that consent to exploitation was not permissible because any consensual element was a form of 'false consciousness'.

The Rule of the Few

In other words, Kantianism as interpreted by Marx and Platonic Liberals (regardless of similar but theological criticisms of displaying oneself and observing others) came to mean that: a) we lived in a system of mutual exploitation but b) some people who understood this system had the right to limit exploitative behaviour as preparation for its eventual ending. The denial of personal autonomy explicit in submission to God had come full circle to a denial of personal autonomy in the face of not Providence but History or Right. You can't keep a good sado-masochistic authoritarian nut down for long, it would seem.

The Marxist and Liberal debt to Christianity is as strong here as Christianity's to Platonism. Poor old Kant has long since been left behind and Nietzsche ignored. One central belief here is that mutual exploitation is never beneficial nor ever a reasonable and even pleasurable aspect of being human.
There is the belief, already noted that some people have a right (one not coming from God but from 'reason' or 'analysis') to decide who is being exploited and then judge that this is wrong. But a third belief is that the persons who are then defined as exploited can have no voice in the matters because they are ignorant.

All three of these beliefs are somewhat vile because they systematically deny agency to an individual in whatever situation they happen to be in and deliver them up to the situation as interpreted by others. The first belief denies humanity its right to be human and twists it into a rationalist simulacrum of itself. The second is inegalitarian not by way of attribute within a free society but by the fiat of the few who seek to command the many. The third shows contempt for the ability of persons, no matter how 'lowly', to make decisions in their own interest.

Objectification as Temporary States of Being

But let us get back to objectification itself which contains two states of being (we will not call them rights because this concedes too much ground to the 'progressives') - that of displaying and that of observing. The dialectic of displaying and observing is separate again from a personal decision to do one or the other.

A central if implicit psychological theme of much 'objectification discourse' is that display or observation are assaults not only on the person who objects to these states in others but on 'society' - that is, even if no one objects to a display or observation, in some mysterious way there is an observer of the display or of the observation who does. This observer would seem to be the re-invention of God but on terms that pander to the superior knowledge of the intellectual who can interpret Him.

In fact, most, though not all, display and observation falls into the category of the victimless crime at worst and, at best, as a matter of civil dispute between the displayer and the observer or the observer and the observed. The discomfort of one person is otherwise privileged wholly without any equity being invested in the inconvenience of another.

Worse, the politics of objectification means that the State and the community (in a grim repetition of the dark days of Judaeo-Christian control of public policy) are brought into play in order to demand that the observer not observe and the displayer not display. This is only the mirror image of a theoretical State demand that the observer must observe and the displayer must display that we see in the contemporary surveillance State. Obliging people by diktat to observe or not observe or display or not display is of the very essence of totalitarianism.

Politics of Disgust

No policy equitably forces the unobserved to be forcibly observed or the undisplayed to be forcibly displayed. Quite rightly. men and women are not forced to parade naked down the street but the man or woman who wishes to parade naked down the street is always regarded as having broken some law (even when, in fact, they have not).

We are, of course, embedded here in the politics of disgust and in the conservative politics of custom, forgetting that custom was once invented and often invented by earlier versions of the 'disgusted' personality types who most object to the sexual or display rights of others.

But let us get down to basics here because most reasonable restrictions on display and observation have nothing to do with the community or the State, and certainly nothing to do with the minority of 'activists' who exist within some text-based ideological framework. They are a matter of good manners and manners are never a matter for States.

Let us now reverse the radical feminist position: free persons generally know their own interest and politics should only be about increasing the flow of information to persons (education) and of free resources (economic redistribution which is where I part company with classic American libertarianism) as well as creating opportunity to escape untenable situations. It should not be about moral condemation of private acts.

The Moralists as Waste of Political Space
  
If the State and the ideologues cannot deliver full information, resources and escape valves (the three key tasks of the State other than security), then it is for ordinary folk to make the best decisions that they can about getting through the day. If that includes a drink, a flutter on the horses, a bit of drug-taking, lapdancing and even prostitution, these must be assumed to be rational decisions.

A woman or man who makes such choices is not 'weak' or 'inferior' but is dealing the best way they can with their circumstances and they are more likely to escape those circumstances if they are harmful to them if they are respected for their efforts and given what help is available without moral grandstanding from 'committees'.

But most people involved in display and observation are not at the margins of society. Display and observation are central to what it is to be a human being. The right to be naked, the right to get maximum economic value out of your looks, the right to aspire to look good, these are all sneered at by extremist feminists and yet this is what people want. None of those who want this are in any way to be regarded as inferior to those who choose to clothe themselves from top to toe, avoid make-up, look frumpy - and vice versa. These are just life choices.

Observation is a pleasure. There is a reasonable anti-exploitative argument that anyone in the adult industries should be decently paid, have appropriate healthcare facilities and not be forced into anything that was not consensual - but this applies to all workers in all industries. Conditions in some adult entertainment industries are clearly better today than in some sweatshop suppliers of manufactured items that radicals use every day without thinking how they came to be.

Choice is a Value
  
There is, however, no argument (if people make free choices that are economically rational and are not enslaved) against the right of people to earn revenue from physical attributes or skills for the pleasure of those who observe. To say otherwise is to deny humanity to the observer and economic value to the observed.

The alternative of feminist moralism is that the observed ends up in a dead end job with less money and probably a worse sexual mate while the observer becomes depressed and possibly vicious. But there is bigger charge to answer for those opposed to the theory of objectification. Feminist theory would claim that it is wrong in itself to observe or engage with another person sexually as a commodity or as an object for use.

However, the privileging of sexuality is curious here because there are other aspects of human activity that are equally fundamental and where one is normally treated as a commodity or as an object of use. We are treated like this every day as consumers, as voters, as contracted workers and spiritually by religious and community leaders.

The Peculiar Hold of the Sexual
  
What is the peculiar hold of sexuality in this general attitude to the use of humans as commodities and objects of use. Why is sexuality given a sacral nature that is not by any means essential. This fascistic over-emphasis on sexual purity is really just the special interest of one part (some women and some men) of one part of the community (all other people).

Logically, if we were truly serious about objectification, we would have a general critique of commodification and, of course, some very radical feminists manage this purist position - being anarcho-socialist feminist atheists without employment who effectively live outside society.

But, for most people most of the time, this is an utterly absurd stance. To survive in the world not only economically but in terms of simple pleasures and psychologically with some constructed meaning and participation, we require a society in which exploitation not only takes place but must take place.

The question of exploitation is not that it takes place but how to make it 'fair' - that is, how is the exploitation to be limited to the essential for mutual survival and then balanced out so that the few never exploit the many. How, in other words, is a pleasurable mutual exploitation going to result in a society where exploitation is a pleasure for all and everything balances out.

The Market & Desire
  
The market to some extent, over time, manages to do some of the balancing but not very effectively. The State does have some role in correcting imbalances and civil society (notably trades unions) has another but both the State and civil society have a tendency to be captured by ideologues and people of simple mind.

The theory of objectification has created an 'absolute' where our situation is one of 'relatives'. Thus the man who looks at a naked beautiful woman is designated a 'pervert' and the woman who strips for him as a 'slut' when, in fact, truth to be told, the man is just being a man (of equal worth to a woman) and the woman is stripping him of his resources.

The roles can be reversed. A woman may spend her money to see some inconsequential film that would bore any man silly because the 'star' offers her a fantasy that is really not so different from the man's but just involves less interest in exchange of body fluids.

Human desire is important. It fuels us as persons. It makes us who we are. Those who satisfy our desires should be well recompensed. And the person who thwarts desire by stopping the trade in desire through some asinine theory from academic philosophers is worse than dessicated, they are anti-human.

Disrespect and Objectification
  
Objectification is simply part of the social trade in desires. Perhaps we can move steadily towards an equality of desires. The real revolution for women must be to ensure that their desires are given equal weight to that of men rather than allow the suppression of the desires of both men and women for some dream of a socialised a-sexuality.

There is no intrinsic reason why objectification as such shows any disrespect to a woman (or to a man's) personal or intellectual capabilities. This is a feminist myth that deliberately misunderstands the nature of time, of context and of choice.

The central point here is that any act of objectification is not permanent. Objectification is a period of time during which a desire or the fantasy is lived. It is not a state of permanent being but a state of temporary being. When the moment is over, the participants return to what they were or at least are changed inwardly by the experience (in very personal ways that can never be assumed to be 'good' or 'bad') but the objectifier has no hold over the objectified unless the objectified is a neurotic - which is, bluntly, their problem. Most of what happens in most situations is imagined and distant.

This fundamental error of objectification theory - that it is exploitative - is important to understand. It confuses structural exploitation (where coercion lies within poverty or the limits of some communitarian authority) with a momentary exchange. Poverty may dictate the terms of the exchange but it is the poverty or other external matter, bullying probably, that is the problem. These post-Marxist pseudo-radicals need to get back to problems of coercion and poverty and away from imagined problems of culture and language.

Vicious Totalitarians
  
In nearly every area where extremist feminists rant against other women's choices, they are thus acting as somewhat vicious totalitarians because they are taking the symptoms for the disease.

The only objection to a woman being portrayed as weak or submissive in pornography, for example, is the same as one portraying a man as weak or submissive - that is, if the man or woman was coerced or not decently treated during the process. Otherwise, it is his or her decision to sell and his or her decision to buy.

Moreover, and this is central to my argument, equality between men and women permits perfect equality of desire. To condemn males for their desire as 'aggressive' or 'perverted' and privilege women in theirs is grossly unfair and leads to the logic of a negation of desire for both men and women, equally, as the only way to restore 'fairness'.

Feminist Ariel Levy thinks that modern society (as if there was such a reified thing) 'encourages' women to objectify themselves. The tone could only come from a text-worshipping academic. Such language denies the right of women to decide for themselves their own status as both subjects and objects in contexts they choose. Some are being led into submission to academic theorists in a manner little different to those who were led into futile and cruel political ideologies in the first half of the last century,

Feminist Perspectives

Levy is said to have been surprised at how many of her interviewees saw the new raunchy culture emerging in the twenty-first century as representing the triumph of feminism because it showed that American women had become strong enough to display on their terms and accept objectification as empowering. She should not have been.

While many women are embarrassed or made uncomfortable by the male or indeed female gaze (and good manners suggests that they should not be so embarrassed in private relations), many others take immense pleasure in it.

The ultimate absurdity lies in a male critic, John Stoltenberg, who condems as 'wrong' (where do they get their ethics from), any sexual fantasy that involves visualisation of a woman. This is so anti-human as to beggar belief. This could be a saint in the desert. Objectification is just what all persons do and it should be embraced not as unethical but as challenging.

The real issue here is understanding the line between reality and fantasy. The fear of the feminist and their fellow-travellers is legitimate - lack of equal regard and coercion - but their consequent analysis is quite simply ignorant.

Fear and Coercion
  
The radical feminist theorist lacks judgement and balance. So terrified are they that thoughts about inequality and coercion might lead to actual inequality and coercion that one suspects that the theory is about their own anxiety in this respect more than it is derived from any real understanding of how most persons understand that boundary.

Stoltenberg is an extreme example of the dehumanising tendencies of this deep neurosis amongst people of the text, one which derives from their deep belief that texts matter. To them, if texts matter, then thoughts which are made up of the same material (words) matter - and thoughts that lead to texts must also lead to acts.

Of course, in the real world, things do not work like that. Texts are not quite that important any more but, more to the point, thoughts are often substitutes for acts and ensure that acts are not perpetrated  - while acts are often thoughtless. Unravel the primitive humanist belief in the validity of the text, the delusion of the educated and suddenly a lot of the problem evaporates as mist drifts away in the morning sunlight.

The culture of the intellectual confuses act, text and thought into a false coherence that excludes all ambiguity despite the fact that all actual human relations are about ambiguity, confusion and compromise. All intellectualisms that have not understood this, particularly Platonic, Kantian and Marxist thought, build an entirely false picture of social reality - and from that great pain and suffering has resulted.

Text, Thought & Act
  
To actual persons engaged in the world, however, act, text and thought are very different, with text both a technical manual for action and a means of inspiring thought and imagination. However, words themselves limit action and people engage in consensual objectification in very precise contexts.

What is more remarkable, given the frustrations of modern life, is the lack of viciousness on a day-to-day basis. Even the most cursory of reading of the history of erotica will indicate that viciousness increases to the degree that sexuality is repressed and all sexual expression involves a degree of objectification.

Camille Paglia, a feminist to be admired in this respect, puts it well: "Turning people into sex objects is one of the specialties of our species." To try to change this is to try change humanity which, given the nature of our evolution, means, in effect, a cultural Sovietisation of sexual relations. A grim prospect indeed!

Paglia understands that humans are defined in part by their ability to conceptualise and to make value judgements about the beautiful to which I would add their ability to contextualise themselves and to differentiate between various functioning realities in different contexts.

Objectification Theory - An Insult to Women
  
The theory of objectification ends up as deeply insulting to women - not only because it removes choice (in itself an assault on their rights as persons) but because it has an abstract theory dictate that choice in regard to the use of their bodies as well as their minds and deeper nature.

Yes, we (and not just girls and women) develop our view of ourselves from the observation of others and, yes, the whole person questions this and challenges those views in their own inner interest but, no, the social construction of ourselves is not a bad in itself if it is critically challenged not on the basis of theory but of that of personhood.

What happens in much feminist theory is that a wholly theoretical construct of what it is to be a woman - an essentialist construct - is positioned outside society and beyond the individual. The way that feminism has distanced itself from the existentialist critique of De Beauvoir is downright embarrassing. A woman is ordered to comply with that essentialist positioning. She is, in effect, dragged into a theoretical future and away from herself.

A Caveat on Body Image

Now a note of caution is required. All this is not to say that a false relationship between one's own body image and social expectations is not a serious mental health issue in some cases but these are cases of personal adaptation in which the person is not critically engaged in their own being or has suffered some negative private psychological pressure.

Personal issues which seem to be aligned with feminist theory must be taken into account but we must look on these as problems for persons which have objectifying aspects. In other words, there is not a crisis of objectification but a failure of healthy objectification, indeed probably a crisis of healthy desire and playfulness.

The body image issue in such cases is vitally important but it is specific and not general. The imposition of strategies based on objectification theory to all men and women in this context is as absurd as dictating severe diet or lifestyle changes to all persons because some persons suffer serious physical health from specific dietary or lifestyle problems.

As in physical health public policy planning, there is a severe danger here that progressive rationalists chip away at the freedoms of the many in order to deal with the problems of the few and so begin to undertake social engineering that relates to their own political aesthetic rather than to the real needs of the many.