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(This post is a fragment of a longer essay. I’m still thinking through some of the ideas, so consider this a work in progress!)
“This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder – naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.
Depictions of the human body as raw material are common in the cinema, being used to provoke a wide variety of disparate responses in audiences. To portray the human body as raw material is to show it as a “thing,” as an object that is subject to the impersonal, natural forces of cause and effect. Purely physical objects may be modified, manipulated, stimulated, torn asunder and sewn back together according to any logic consistent with the laws of physics, and when the human body is depicted in this way, it becomes an object of fascination, disgust, horror, and sometimes even sexual titillation. Portrayals of this kind are reminders of our brute, corporeal nature, which is not governed by intellect or free will, but by the push and pull of physical impact; of violent forces having nothing at all to do with our own personal hopes or desires. Such imagery provokes us to consider the implications of embodiment and to reflect on the latent vulnerabilities as well as the potentialities of flesh and blood. While viewing human bodies in this way, we are pushed to the boundaries of meaning and sense. It is here that nihilism erupts between the absurd reality of brute, physical existence and our yearning for that existence to maintain some sort of moral importance.
In-itself, the human body means nothing. It is a “thing” made up of parts connected one to another, all of which move and function in reaction to stimuli and forces that act from outside of the parts themselves. The arm that lovingly embraces a friend is the same conglomeration of cells, bones, and flesh that may later hatefully strike that same friend in anger. The arm itself cannot be praised or blamed for what it does. It is merely an instrument, a tool, a “thing” that can be utilized for good purposes or bad. Thus, when we observe a human body already being pulled downward by the forces of gravity, we don’t blame the body for its descent. When we see a body ravaged by the growth of cancer, we don’t reprimand it for being diseased. When we see a body in the throes of sexual arousal, we don’t reproach it for the way in which it reacts. These are just the facts of how bodies, once they have been set in motion, respond to the forces of the world.
The ways that we interpret, judge and evaluate the motions of bodies are potentially infinite in number. In horror films, the violent attacks of monsters tearing into the flesh of victims may be responded to with fear, disgust and gruesome curiosity. In action films, audiences respond with wonder and a thrilling sense of exhilaration when bodies fly through the air, bounce off of walls and one another, and then continue to move forward in their pursuits. In pornography, copulating bodies are responded to with feelings of erotic curiosity, or perhaps with disgust, as sexual acts are carried out with mechanical determination. In slapstick comedy, the physical collision of human bodies is played for laughs, as they are thrown this way and that, like any other “thing” subject to the physical laws of cause and effect. And then there are those films where a sense of awe and sublime respect result upon viewing the human body battered, destroyed and betrayed in the name of a religious or cultural cause. In all of these cases, it is the same human flesh, subjected to impact, stimulation, collision and battering, that is displayed for our fascinated attention. Audiences are variously horrified, excited, and amused by such depictions of the human body as raw material.
Over the years, much scholarly attention has been (and continues to be) brought to bear on the objectification of human bodies – in particular the bodies of women – in the popular media.[i] This concern with the body and its manner of visual representation is often tied to worries about the destructive effects of objectification, centering on issues related to domination, control and human degradation. Thus, for instance, feminists like Laura Mulvey argue that cinematic depictions of the “image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man” works to reveal and to reinforce structures of patriarchy and phallocentrism in our culture.[ii] Susan Bordo develops a similar point when she argues that in the media, representations of black women’s bodies are often accorded the status of “mere matter, thing-hood,”[iii] thus perpetuating the historical legacy of slavery. On the other side of the gender divide, objectified and idealized media representations of male bodies have also been linked by some researchers to feelings of dissatisfaction and depression in men.[iv]
But the idea that the human body (female or otherwise), when objectified, may become raw material for the actively aggressive gaze of an audience does, in fact, have a long philosophical history that has not always been so disapproving. Aristotle in particular provides a more positive assessment of this sort of dynamic in his classic work Poetics, where he characterizes the laughter in comedy as resulting from the objectification of lowly people who exhibit “a mistake or a deformity not productive of pain to others.”[v] Audiences laugh down at such “ugliness” according to Aristotle precisely because, in their own superiority, audiences feel no sympathy for the lowly characters thus depicted.[vi] Comic figures are objects of amusement; “things” whose misfortunes provoke no sense of painful compassion in viewers. It is this sort of objectification and denigration of others that allows for the enjoyable catharsis involved in laughter, and in fact Aristotle seems convinced that the health and success of any culture must allow for the consistent exercise of this sort of outlet. This is why for him the theatre was such an important part of the social apparatus.
The Marquis de Sade is another example of an author who expresses an approving attitude toward the objectification of human bodies; including his own. In his writings, such as The 120 Days of Sodom, we find catalogues of pornographic imagery intended to arouse and disgust those who read them. This imagery never treats the human victims as anything but objects; raw material for the enjoyment of the abusers. In fact, in the book Juliette, by accepting her role as an object, the main character ultimately becomes powerful, dignified and happy. This is the road to bliss for de Sade. One must lose one’s self and be engulfed by “nature,” which “permits anything” and encourages sexual pleasure through the manipulation and domination of other bodies. In a world in which “God’s existence is an illusion,”[vii] all that remains are bodies in motion, and thus the only realistic path to happiness lies in the affirmation of the body as a “thing” continuous with nature, not separate from it. Indeed, as Simone de Beauvoir argues, it is precisely because de Sade desires to lose himself in this way that he objectifies others. By making others into “things,” he hopes “to remove himself by becoming an inert object.”[viii] So it is that de Sade frantically seeks to affirm the body as raw material whose value lies in its very meaninglessness.
Despite the insights of Aristotle and de Sade, many contemporary commentators tend to remain suspicious of human objectification, seeing the aggressive gaze of an audience as something belittling and denigrating to the full dignity of human beings. Really, in a dialectical sense, both sides in this debate are correct. There is often pleasure to be had in the dominating gaze that views others as objects, and often when one dominates with a look the subject of the look becomes debased. But neither is this always the case. There can also be a kind of pleasure that results from being looked at and objectified, just as there can be a kind of pain that is generated in one who looks at another human being as an object. I think what is potentially objectionable about this dynamic is not necessarily the fact that pleasure is sometimes experienced by the one doing the gazing, but that there are times when pleasure is had at the expense of the one who is gazed at. Objectification, while not always disagreeable, may become so when the human body is regarded as nothing but raw material for the pleasure of another. When regarded in this way, it becomes easy to forget that human beings are not merely “things.” It becomes easier, as Bordo points out, to act as if their “moral and emotional sensibilities need not be treated with consideration,”[ix] thus potentially paving the way toward atrocity.[x]
Ultimately, there is no way to completely avoid making ourselves and others into objects. In order even to form a consciousness of one’s “self,” a person must solidify, and thus objectify, an identity that acts as a focus of awareness. As a self, I am both one and multiple at the same time. To have a sense of “myself” I must recognize an inner part of “me” as it is mirrored in another inner part of “me.” This implies a self-regarding “turn” involving a break between differing regions of the mind, which we might call the inner observer and the inner observed.[xi] The inner observer, in reflecting, makes the inner observed into an object of reflection. Without such a “turn,” no self-recognition would be possible, and thus there could be no awareness of a distinct and unique “I.” My “self” is, thus, split between an in-itself and a for-itself: a reflected and a reflecting. I am both subject and object. This is Hegel’s point in the Phenomenology of Spirit when he writes, “A self-consciousness, in being an object, is just as much ‘I’ as ‘object’.”[xii] When thinking about ourselves, we become objects of our own thought, in a way analogous to how our own bodies become objects when we gaze into a mirror. In this sense, self-consciousness and self-identity require objectification. Without it, “I” would not even exist as a unique and separate being. “I” would dissolve away into the undifferentiated mass of Being that is the universe. “I” would become nothing at all.
Just as self-reflection requires that we encounter ourselves from a kind of “inner-outside” perspective as objects, when we experience others, we must also encounter them from the outside, as objects that are present to, and yet outside of, our own consciousness. In this encounter, the outer other is analogous to our inner observed self. It is a thing that we reflect upon and thus that is reflected back into us. It is like our body image in the mirror; an object that stands apart and away from us. Unlike the inner self that I take as the object of my self-consciousness, however, this outer other is foreign and strange to me insofar as it is separate from both my inner observer and my inner observed. It is not me in any sense. It is merely an outer object present to my gaze. In this way, it is even more removed from me than is my own body image, which is, after all, still “my” body image. I still retain some understanding of what is going on “inside” that body. The true other, however, is in no way “mine.” It is independent of my will and mysterious insofar as I lack an understanding of it from the inside. I know it purely as an external appearance. It is a mere object to me: a thing-in-itself.
When a mind takes in outer appearances, it sees them as stable and complete entities that are “in-themselves.” Jean-Paul Sartre defines the “in-itself” as that which “is what it is.” It has no inside. It “has nothing secret; it is solid.”[xiii] The in-itself is purely a thing with no hidden life, no freedom and no capacity to avoid the contingencies of cause and effect. Insofar as we encounter the outer world from our own inner perspective, we are always seeing it as composed of objects; of beings in-themselves. By analogy with our own inner consciousness, however, we may infer that some of the objects “out there” that we interact with may actually have an inner world like our own. When I look in a mirror at my own body and I have a sense that my consciousness resides inside of that reflected mass, so too I may have the sense that there exist objects in my world that possess inner minds like my own, and thus that the world outside of me is populated by other beings-for-themselves; or self-reflective consciousnesses.
Sartre defines a being-for-itself as “being what it is not and not being what it is.”[xiv] Thus, if I regard others in my world as beings-for-themselves, I suppose that they are unstable and unpredictable because they possess inner, secret lives from which I am cut off. They have consciousness and the freedom to make choices. A being-for-itself possesses an inner mind that undergoes transformation and change by initiating projects; it flees away from its current, present state of being in the pursuit of goals. A being-for-itself, in other words, is the kind of freely choosing and aspiring consciousness that incessantly projects away and ahead of itself, moving forward into an uncertain future. It never rests satisfied with what it is, and always pursues what it is not. As such, recalling Bordo’s remarks, it has hidden, inner “moral and emotional sensibilities” that need to be treated with consideration.
While objectification is a seemingly necessary part of the process by which human beings recognize themselves, interact with one another and by which they build their worlds, a troubling issue is apparent. If I always encounter the beings in my world from the outside, then they always appear objectified to me as beings-in-themselves. Likewise, if another being-for-itself is to encounter me, I will become objectified in his or her eyes as a foreign thing; a being-in-itself. Hegel noted this issue and saw it as the initiating confrontation that leads to a “life-and-death struggle”[xv] between human consciousnesses. In confronting one another, two consciousnesses engage in mutual objectification, trying to solidify and fix the essence of the other and to deny its autonomy. We cast the other as a thing that is outside of us, which we contemplate and thus make into an object of our own reflective consciousness. This “trial by death”[xvi] kills the dynamic and lively inner nature of the other, and consequently we must, it seems, always come to treat others as things-in-themselves, since we must always come to know them from the outside and never from the inner perspective of their own conscious awareness.
In the world of cinema, this process is especially pronounced. By its very nature, the cinema is a visual medium, displaying images (usually accompanied by sounds) that are intended to be looked at and reflected upon by audiences. While some of the finest and most moving films are those that attempt to convey the inner emotions and sensibilities of the characters depicted, by virtue of the fact that audiences are spectators who approach films from the “outside,” the objectification of characters seems to be an inevitability. And while it may be the case that the actual human beings who portray characters in film are beings-for-themselves — after all, they are always more than just the characters that they play — it does seem that once performances are completed and recorded in a final form, they become fixed and stable, and so pass over into the realm of the in-itself. If this is so, what sense can it possibly make to complain about the “objectification” of women, men or anyone else portrayed in the media? Furthermore, if objectification is a mechanism implicated in the very way that we situate ourselves in the world, why should we even be concerned with overcoming it?
[i] For instance: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”  Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (New York: Routledge, 1983); Linda Williams, Hardcore: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1993); Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Elizabeth A. Brunner, “Impotence, Nostalgia, and Objectification: Patriarchal Visual Rhetoric to Contain Women.” Visual Culture and Gender, Vol. 8, 2013.
[ii] Mulvey, p. 843.
[iii] Bordo, p. 11.
[iv] Daniel Agliata and Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, “The Impact of Media Exposure on Male’s Body Image.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2004, pp. 7-22.
[v] Aristotle, Poetics. 1449a35.
[vi] This is the first mention of what has come to known as the “superiority theory” of laughter. See: John Moreall, Taking Laughter Seriously. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983).
[vii] Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, in Three Complete Novels: Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, Eugenie de Franval. (New York: Grove Press, 1966), p. 210.
[viii] Simone de Beauvoir, “Must We Burn Sade?” The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings (New York: Grove Press, 1980), p. 27.
[ix] Bordo, p. 11.
[x] This is a point made by Hannah Arendt in her classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism where she argues that the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags were made possible by the antecedent “preparation of living corpses.” (p. 447). Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1976.) It is also a main thesis in: Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002).
[xi] This is the inward turn first described by Socrates/Plato in Phaedo, 66a.
[xii] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, A.V. Miller (trans.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. §177.
[xiii] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Hazel Barnes (trans.) New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. p. 28
[xv] Hegel, § 187.