Objectification in Contemporary Media.


I. What does it mean to be an object?


What is objectification and how does it exist in art? Being an object means being perceived as an object. Being the subject means being perceived as a subject or person.[1] Objectification is breaking down the subject in terms of the subject’s relationship to the object. If there is a word for it, we can objectify it.[2] 

Everything is made from matter, from particle to wave. Thus everything can be understood in terms of matter. For example, the purchased lottery ticket is either a winning ticket or a losing ticket. The numbers have already been written down. The ticket has already been purchased. Humans are simply unable to calculate all of the variables involved in the act of knowing. Particles work with exactitude, but our mathematics prohibits us from understanding this exactitude. Even the smallest percentage of error helps to create the idea of chance. Physics that we cannot fully understand, like quantum mechanics, become anything short of a ‘miracle’. The ‘miracle’ is simply an act of science which we fail to interpret. The more complex the system the harder it becomes for us to understand. The subject is like the ‘miracle’. In the David Spade classic, Joe Dirt, the main character Joe Dirt confronts his father about deserting him during a family vacation, where Joe Dirt’s dad explains the idea of the miracle. Joe Dirt asks his father “but how exactly do you not go right back to the place ya saw me?”. His father replies:

“Hey, how exactly is a rainbow made?

How exactly does the sun set?

How exactly does the posi-trac rear end on a Plymouth work!?

It just does!”[3]

Dirt’s Dad’s understanding of the world is the perfect example of the miracle. The miracle is a person’s lack of understanding; the posi-trac rear end can be broken down in terms of objects, where it fits on the car, how to create it, what it does, and how it works. The person as a subject can also be broken down in terms of objects.

Using Kant’s universal ideal the subject can be objectified.[4] The universal represents an ideology that is recognized and understood by a group of people, like a semiotic code. By this, the individual is a combination of universals.[5][6] The qualities that represent each unique personality, the clothes that one decides to wear, the books that one chooses to read, and the ideologies that one chooses to follow are signifiers to the adherence to an ‘universal’. The perception of universals can go both ways. One can adhere to a set of universals, or be objectified as adhering to a set of universals. For example, Frantz Fanon is objectified using the racist white man’s universal ideal of the black man.[7] The ‘white man’ perceives a particular set of universals, which embody what it means to be a ‘black man’. The universals are defined through the terms of the racist ‘white man’. Similarly, the famed ‘Feminazi’ applies a set of universals that signify what it means to be a ‘man’, and forcefully puts every ‘man’ into the same category. The ‘man’ shamefully objectifies the ‘woman’, by forcefully perceiving a particular set of universals.


II. How are we objectified according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Frantz Fanon, and Jean Paul Sartre?


Objectification can change depending on a person’s perspective. Maurice Merleau-Ponty states that while each perspective may offer a different insight, true objectification can only occur through viewing all of the perspectives at the same time.

If it is to reach perfect density, in other words if there is to be an absolute object, it will have to consist of an infinite number of different perspectives compressed into a strict co-existence, and to be presented as it were to a host of eyes all engaged in one concerted act of seeing. [8]

Ponty states that we are limited by our singular perspective. We can only understand our perspective from within our own gaze, which is understood through our own organs of perception, and analyzed through our own minds. We cannot understand the other points of view, unless we literally change our perspective.[9] So herein lies the problem, how do we understand the point of view of other races and sexes? Frantz Fanon states that a ‘white man’ can never empirically understand what it’s like to be a ‘black man’, because one has to be a ‘black man’ to understand.

“Ontology – once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside-does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.”[10]

The perception of the ‘black man’ exists in direct relation to the ‘the other’, and therefore only a ‘black man’ may understand what it is to be a ‘black man’. Sartre views objectification in similar terms of ‘the other’[11]. An identity is rooted in the perception of ‘the other’, through ‘the other’. A person has the option to view another person as object or as subject. In turn, the viewed upon has the option to view the first person as an object or as a subject.

“…the Other is defined not as the absence of a consciousness in relation to the body which I see but by the absence of the world which I perceive, an absence discovered at the very heart of my perception of this world.”[12]

The ‘other’ is the use of the term ‘they’, it describes the perspectives of everyone else, but only as perceived through the self. The ‘other’ represents a singularity and a plurality at the same time. The ‘other’ is everyone and no one. The ‘other’ is a way that the self is viewed, and a way that the self views others. The self can only ever know what it can sense through its own body. In this comes the contradiction. The act of seeing and being seen are both done directly through the selfs eyes. Love is the perfect example of ‘the other’ and Sartre’s subject/object relationship. In his brilliant metaphor, Zizek explains the idea of love via the Lacanian Gift and la femme[13].

“According to Jewish tradition, Lilith is the woman a man makes love to while he masturbates alone in his bed during the night — so, far from standing for feminine identity liberated from the grip of patriarchy, as some feminists claim, her status is purely phallic: she is what Lacan calls La femme, the Woman, the phantasmatic supplement of male masturbatory phallic jouissance. Significantly, while there is only one man (Adam), femininity is from the very beginning split between Eve and Lilith, between the ordinary hysterical barred subject ($) and the phantastmatic spectre of Woman: when a man is having sex with a ‘real’ woman, he is using her as a masturbatory prop to support his fantasies about the nonexistent Woman … The catastrophe occurs when the two women collapse into one, when the ‘ordinary’ partner is elevated to the dignity of Lilith — which is structurally perfectly homologous to the Zionist elevation of the ‘ordinary’ Jerusalem into the Jerusalem the Jews had been dreaming about for thousands of years …”[14]

Love is a ‘miracle’ to philosophy, it occurs when the ‘ideal’ and the ‘real’ become one and the same.[15] Love is an abject representation of the blurred category. Applying Sartre’s perspective of ‘the other’,[16] Adam and Eve are victims to each others perception. They individually have the choice to view the other person as an object or as a subject. Lilith sees Adam as object, Adam sees Eve as object, and Eve sees Adam as subject. If one applies Fanon’s perspective on objectification to the Adam and Eve metaphor, Adam perceives Eve as a sexual masturbatory tool, a stand in for Lilith. Fanon is forcefully objectified by the ‘white man’,[17] and Eve is forcefully objectified by ‘Adam’. Applying Merleau-Ponty’s perspective[18], Adam can only ever know his own perspective, unless he physically changes, and becomes the one being objectified. Adam may only experience the act of objectification through Lilith’s perception.


III. How do Artists Deal with the Notion of Objectification?


Artists deal with the act of objectification in a number of ways. Many artists ironically objectify themselves. While other artists objectify the perpetrators of objectification as a form of making a statement. The Guerilla Girls are a good example of artists dealing with objectification in the ironic sense. On their website, the Guerrilla Girls state that by calling themselves ‘girls’ that they are removing the negative connotation of the word. “Calling a grown woman a girl can imply she’s not complete, mature, or grown-up. But we decided to reclaim the word “girl”, so it couldn’t be used against us.”[19] A man cannot ontologically understand what it is to be a woman, because a woman exists only in direct relation to the patriarchy. The Guerilla Girls pose the question of gender inequality across many disciplines, their most famous quote being “Less than 5% of artists in the Modern Arts Section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”[20] A woman has no choice in the act of objectification, and exists as an object in terms of the perception of ‘the other’, the ‘patriarchal order’.

The objectified subject has the option to objectify the perpetrator. A perfect example of the objectification of the perpetrator is the art by the artist Anna Gensler. She objectifies men who have objectified her on Tinder by mocking their terrible pick up lines and drawing them naked.[21] This is a good example of Sartre’s object and subject relationship.[22] The men are simply looking to get laid, she returns the favor by objectifying them right back.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty mentions that the perspective must be changed in order to understand what true objectification is. The individual is limited by their own point of view and their own sensory organs. The common perspective of objectification fails to acknowledge the ‘abject’ notion of homosexuality within the historical framework of art. What about the Greek statues and their obsession with the nude male forms? By translating the numerous love poems that Michelangelo wrote for other men, we discover that Michelangelo was possibly gay.[23] So is the Statue of David a sexually objectified representation of a heroic scene from the Bible? Is the David a Renaissance equivalent to Wonder Woman? Are the nudes on the Sistine Chapel male sexual fantasies about other males, love affairs sprawled out on the Pope’s ceiling? Why does Jesus Christ have a six pack, blonde hair, and blue eyes? Aren’t these historical examples of the sexual objectification of the male human figure?

Objectification in art exists in the formal elements, as they present themselves in problem of symbols. The symbol ultimately represents the personification of, the idea of, the universality of something which does not initially inhabit its form. It is forcefully placing the ideology of the ‘universal’ directly onto the object or subject. The lion can symbolize the ‘universal’ of strength, but since the lion is an animal. The lion cannot understand the human emotion of strength,[24] human emotions are best represented through human forms. Thus, the symbol lacks the qualities that can most easily be expressed through the human form. Beauty is a human emotion that is best understood in terms of what humans define as beautiful. Beauty is limited to the human analysis of the phenomenological[25], which is what we can sense directly in the context of our human sensory organs. What humans innately define as beauty is other humans. The human representation of beauty is best exemplified through the human form.

In Kant’s Aesthetica,[26] the formal elements in art can only remain as art as long as the viewer remains disinterested or objective, but the formal elements can only be interpreted through our human sensory organs. Doesn’t it make sense that as humans, what we define as beautiful at least at its core, is somewhat related to the idea of sexual arousal? The historical objectification in art is a formal application of portraying primal beauty, while formally remaining objective. Art is best understood, or best exemplified through our addiction to the human form. Art itself is the objectification of forms. A picture of a person is not a person, but a picture of a person. Artwork presents the act of objectifying as the fantasy intended to be displayed as an object itself. Unless the act of beauty is recognized as subject, the artistic representation of any form, in its purest sense must remain as object.


Citations


[1] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York, New York: Citadel Press, 1965. 400-410.

[2] Lacan, Jacques . “The Mirror Phase.” in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing

     Ideas. Eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. 2nd ed. 620-624. Malden, MA: Blackwell  

         Publishing, 2003. 620-624

[3] Joe Dirt. Performed by David Spade, Brittany Daniel. United States, 2001. DVD.

[4] Zizek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 2008.

[5] Zizek, Slavoj. The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

[6] Zizek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 2008.

[7]  Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” In Black Skins, White Masks. Trans. Constance

     Farrington. 129-131. New York: Grove Press, 1967.  129-131.

[8] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology and Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. 2nd ed. New

         York: Routledge, 2005.

[9]Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology and Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. 2nd ed. New

         York: Routledge, 2005.

[10] Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” In Black Skins, White Masks. Trans. Constance

     Farrington. 129-131. New York: Grove Press, 1967.  129-131.

[11]  Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York, New York : Citadel Press, 1965. 400-410.

[12] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York, New York: Citadel Press, 1965. 400-410.

[13]  Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-73 (Encore), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 95.

[14] Zizek, Slavoj. Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. London: Verso, 2005. 41-42.

[15] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-73 (Encore), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 95.

[16]  Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York, New York : Citadel Press, 1965. 400-410.

[17] Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” In Black Skins, White Masks. Trans. Constance

     Farrington. 129-131. New York: Grove Press, 1967.  129-131.

[18] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology and Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2005.

[19] GUERRILLAGIRLS: Fighting Discrimination with Facts, Humor and Fake Fur.” GUERRILLAGIRLS: Fighting Discrimination with Facts, Humor and Fake Fur. Accessed March 2, 2015. http://www.guerrillagirls.com/interview/index.shtml.

[20] “GUERRILLAGIRLS: Fighting Discrimination with Facts, Humor and Fake Fur.” GUERRILLAGIRLS: Fighting Discrimination with Facts, Humor and Fake Fur. Accessed March 2, 2015. http://www.guerrillagirls.com/.

[21] Cascone, Sarah. “Artist Gets Revenge By Reverse-Objectifying Online Dating Creeps.” Artnet News. April 24, 2014. Accessed March 3, 2015. http://news.artnet.com/in-brief/artist-gets-revenge-by-reverse-objectifying-online-dating-creeps-11886.

[22] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York, New York: Citadel Press, 1965. 400-410.

[23] “University of Illinois Springfield.” Michelangelo – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, and Allied Resource Office. Accessed March 2, 2015. http://www.uis.edu/lgbtqa/michelangelo/.

[24] Zizek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 2008.

[25]

  1.   Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology and Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2005.

[26]Zizek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 2008.

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