Monday, October 1, 2007

You Owe Somebody, Somewhere, Something

You hear it all the time: “That’s Objectifying!” Fashion, pornography, sex, whatever.

Immanuel Kant thought sex was inherently objectifying of both partners: since it involved using a person as a mere means, as an object of pleasure, it was morally wrong. His solution was the unity of marriage.

I’ve always had some doubts about the deployment of this concept of objectification. Even when I was kind of on board with the general feeling that there was something amiss, the appeal to this particular concept didn’t seem right. I mean, if I choose to wear stilettos, or pose nude, or let a guy come on my face, well, aren’t I making a choice? How could that be being used as an object?

You might say, well, your choice wasn’t genuine, wasn’t free, it was made only in response to a fucked-up world. And that might be true in some cases, and it would be important. But that conclusion would be a different one from “that’s objectifying!” and would require a separate, contextually sensitive argument: because of very particular conditions X Y Z W you weren’t choosing freely. In such cases “That’s implicitly coercive!” might be a more accurate thing to say – though, of course, it lacks a certain pizazz.

This cool photo is called "Objectified." By Flickr user Stu Willis, here. (Used here under Creative Commons license).

In this previous post, I discussed the ways in which contextual conditions might make choices less than free, and I argued that we had “cultural obligations” not to create such conditions.

In a nutshell, what I said was, if almost everyone does X, it’s very hard to resist X, so your choice to do X is less free, less yours, less genuine. If you do X, you may help create conditions under which others cannot freely choose X. You have an obligation of sorts to help block the creation of such conditions – maybe by being in touch with your inner weirdo; maybe by consciously resisting.

You can see where I’m going with this with the objectification business. Sure, you’re free to choose to participate, and there’s nothing wrong with your free choice. Your conscience has to kick in only when you start joining some kind of mass parade.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing to wear stilettos, with posing nude, with letting guys come on your face. But if so many people did these things 24-7 that opting out just wasn’t a real possibility, well, that would suck.

One appealing thing about this line of thought is that it explains why sometimes the most extreme, crazy, version of a thing seems less objectionable than the everyday version. I love to look at high-fashion magazines; I love seeing teenagers in micro-miniskirts. I was a miniskirt wearer myself in my day. But like most women, I don’t like feeling like unless I look like a fucking fashion plate, no one is going to pay attention to me, or take me seriously. It’s not the teenager in the micro-mini that’s creating this problem; it’s the cumulative effect of millions of women making tiny conformist choices every day at the mall.

Another appealing thing about this line of thought is that, instead of pitting the Xers and the non-Xers against each other, there’s a sense in which each is guaranteeing the freedoms of the other, by undermining the coercion of conformity.

Feminists have bitter battles over “freedom” – does freedom mean freedom to be "Babe of the Month" for Playboy or freedom not to be treated as a sex object? As I see it, it’s only when one is *generally* not taken as a mere sex object that one is free to choose to be treated as one. The everyday insistence of feminists that women must be regarded with equal respect in fact ensures conditions under which there is any freedom to pose for Playboy at all. This might lead to restrictions on how, and how much, of such a thing is good. So perhaps these two lines of thought are reconcilable.

Anyway, I like feeling that when I go out in (somewhat) sensible shoes and a high-cut shirt to teach my classes, and so on, I’m actually enabling that micro-miniskirt wearer, by making her choice a more free one.

Because they involve the undermining of conformity, cultural obligations involve practices that are common – especially those that are becoming standard – and not practices that are uncommon. So you should worry about your choice to get Botox but not about your choice to post bikini photos of yourself in storm-trooper uniform on Flickr.

One big problem putting this idea into practice is this extreme context-sensitivity. When is something on the verge of creating coercive regimes? Hard question.

Anyway, I tried to put theory into practice yesterday. I’d been planning a long-awaited foray into the world of eyebrow waxing… Til now I had always made do with a few tweezer plucks at home, and the result was iffy.

Thinking of my cultural obligations, I changed my mind. It’s probably a losing battle, but whatever, dude. At least I’m trying.


Captain Colossal said...

I like the idea of winding up with an anti-Malcolm Gladwell trend-spotting moment. Where I analyze something and say, "This has no possibility of hooking into some larger cultural undercurrent, so I'm okay."

I regret to say I recently started waxing my upper lip, in a complete cave-in to social norms. It was just nagging at me and nagging at me, and finally I was like, "Okay, fine." But I'm coming out right here and saying it: death before arm hair removal. That's my line in the sand; everybody has to draw their own.

Noko Marie said...

Arm-hair removal! Here outside the ThirtyMileZone I didn't even know people did that. See, so on top of everything else, this gives everyone a reason to discuss fashion trends so that we can, uh, avoid following them. Or something. Anyway, yeah, I also like the freedom for iconoclasm and constraint on conformity.