Martha Nussbaum’s “Objectification”, preceded by a digression on analytical feminism.

There are limits to how interesting I can be if I simply review the same Steven Pinker books that every similar blog reviews, so I’m making an effort to cover different ground.  I recently read Martha Nussbaum’s essay Objectification, from a 1995 issue of Philosophy and Public Affairs.  I chose this piece for the very simple reason that it’s the main source cited in the the Wikipedia article on objectification.

Wikipedia lists Nussbaum’s philosophical tradition as “analytic”, which deserves some elaboration.  I think one underappreciated cause of the ambivalence the Steven-Pinker-reviewing-blogger set has had toward feminism is that most modern feminism draws heavily from Continental philosophy, whereas the sort of blogger I’m talking about is heavily influenced by analytical philosophy.  Analytical philosophers, for example, are known for insistence on clarity of terminology, search for objective truth, and respect for scientific empiricism; these areas are not strong suits for Continental feminism, to say the least.

I would suggest that people who want to show the rationalist community that feminism is not just Arthur Chu might consider using analytical feminism as the point of introduction, rather than recommending the most widely popular third-wave feminist authors.  Analytical feminists like Martha Nussbaum participate in mainstream feminist advocacy – i.e. they aren’t Christina Hoff Somers – but neither do they drone on about postcolonial discourses and the Other in ways that rationalists will find obscure and annoying.

(Also, I don’t think any of them spell their names in all lowercase letters.)

Anyway, the crux of Nussbaum’s essay is that feminism has historically treated “objectification” as a central problem, and yet there are many circumstances in which many people think “objectification” can be a good thing.

There’s an “easy out” to this question that I’d like to steer away from for the moment: “Objectification is okay if it’s consensual but not if it’s nonconsensual.”  I think that’s basically correct, but it also avoids quite a few questions that probably deserve attention.  For example, is an advertisement that objectifies women okay simply because the models consented to being paid?

For context: As of 2018, anti-pornography feminism has a low public profile, but in 1995, large-scale feminist anti-pornography activism was very recent history.  Nussbaum points out that feminism leading up to this time typically treated objectification as one of the central problems, if not the central problem, that women face in a male-dominated society.  Even if we think consent makes everything okay, we should probably be curious as to why most feminists at that time believed otherwise.

In an example of the kind of clarity I think rationalists would appreciate, Nussbaum distinguishes among seven different things that “objectification” could plausibly refer to.  With very minor paraphrasing:

  1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable with other objects of the same type, or with objects of other types.
  5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, or break into.
  6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought and sold, et cetera.
  7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings either don’t exist or don’t need to be taken into account.

Throughout the essay, she examines how these concepts overlap and differ by reference to six different pieces of writing from literature and popular culture that vary quite a bit in length, topic, quality, and sexuality.  The essay is not especially “conclusive”, which makes it a bit hard to summarize.  So instead I’ll condense it to “greatest hits” format – the things she said that I found most interesting:

Autonomy: She does eventually reach a judgement that most feminists would reach in 2018: That denial of autonomy – i.e. consent – is the only one of these notions that is always morally wrong.  She contrasts this with Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, who treat “instrumentality” as the most important aspect of objectification in a way that Nussbaum identifies as Marxist – sex is to this form of feminism what work is to Marxism.  This makes sense – Marx didn’t think workers’ “consent” was especially meaningful in a capitalist system, and likewise, “MacDworkin” feminism doesn’t treat consent as singularly important in the way third-wave, liberal feminism does.

Fungibility: As is often the case, the excerpt written by a gay man (Hollinghurst) is the most challenging to worldview of anti-porn feminism.  Gay men, pursuing sexual fulfillment that does not cross a gendered hierarchy of power, nevertheless come up with something that looks extremely similar to straight men’s pornographic fantasies – which makes it difficult to believe that straight men’s objectifying fantasies are a solely a product of gendered hierarchy (this observation is mine, not Nussbaum’s.)

Pornography: Nussbaum devotes more than three pages of the essay to Playboy, with special focus on photographs described like so:

Three pictures of actress Nicollette Sheridan playing at the Chris Evert Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic, her skirt hiked up to reveal her black underpants.  Caption: “Why We Love Tennis.”

As I noted before, this sort of thing is the most challenging case for a purely consent-based view of objectification (forget for the moment that it’s unclear whether Sheridan consented to these photos; she well could have, for enough money.)

On one hand, Sheridan suffers no direct harm from this treatment.  Indeed, it’s likely that her success is due in no small part to her looks, so arguably she benefits.  Playboy’s caption is probably tongue-in-cheek, and it’s likely that the majority of readers can see this sort of thing and enjoy looking at underwear without that having much if any impact on how they treat women in general or Nicollette Sheridan in particular.

On the other hand, how sure are we about that?  Even if this particular Playboy excerpt doesn’t have any impact on its own, it seems plausible that the cumulative effect of advertisements that regard women purely in terms of their physical appearance could be significant and negative.

Playboy is maybe not a great example in this regard – to modern eyes, it occupies an anachronistic middle ground between pornography and “respectable” culture.  These days, the most-watched forms of pornography are probably hardcore videos on the internet, which seem to me to exist in an exceptional space, blockaded from mainstream culture, that’s so over-the-top and unrealistic that it’s unlikely to seriously affect how men view or treat women in real life.

I suspect that mainstream movies, television shows, and advertisements, which often show subtler forms of objectification than porn does, are much more influential and thus probably deserve closer scrutiny.  And curiously, mainstream popular culture goes almost without mention in Nussbaum’s essay – she considers Joyce toward the more refined end of culture and Playboy toward the other end, but basically nothing in between.  If Nussbaum were writing today, I suspect she’d have much less to say about pornography and much more to say about HBO.


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