Purchase The Culture of Make Believe
Read more

Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Objects and Subjects (p. 221)

From chapter "Seeing Things"

A week or so ago I stopped visiting the Internet porn sites, in part because I was done writing about porn, and so there was no more reason for me to do the research, but, in greater measure, because I had to. The pornography was invading my dreams in a way I didn’t like. I dreamt last week that I was in love with a chimera (no, not a “fire-breathing she-monster,” as in dictionary definition number one, “with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail,” but definition number two: “an unrealizable dream”). She was beautiful, yes, but unreal, and unrealizable. Each time I stepped forward to embrace her, she vanished—poof—leaving my arms empty. That dream was clear enough, but the next night was the kicker. In that dream, I needed a place to stay, and became a boarder at some man’s house. I rarely saw him. I soon learned, however, that he regularly kidnapped women and forced them into rooms the size of appliance boxes. At night he would compel them to perform complicated dances with him in which they had to follow his every step. Afterward he would put them away, to bring them out another time, and another, until finally he would tire of them, rape them, and kill them. He tried to get me to help, by sending me to fetch two of the women. I went to their boxes, and let them out. Instead of bringing them to the room where he waited, however, I took them to the back door, and told them to run away as fast as they could, to run and bring back help. I awoke with a headache.

There was something else, too. I found that pornography was altering my spontaneous fantasy life, which historically has run to conversation: I’d see a woman I might be interested in, and wonder immediately, “How would she be to talk to?” I’d play out the creative and intense conversations we might have. But lately, after even this short time, sometimes when I see a woman, I’ve begun to wonder what is the color of her pubic hair, or the shape of her vulva. I do not like that at all. I want to go back to the way I was before. I hope I can, soon.

The “problem,” of course, isn’t pornography, any more than lynchings or other “hate crimes” are the “problem.” Pornography is just an easy target, as are lynchings, as are white-robed buffoons. They’re not even the most interesting targets, though, because, to return to porn, with pornography, at least it’s obvious that the person is interacting sexually with an object, just as, with a lynching, it’s obvious that the mob is objectifying the person to be lynched. Yet the problem isn’t objectification as such. Far more problematical is that we so often forget the difference between objectification and relationship. Perhaps more problematical even than this is the way that, through training and habit, objectification insinuates itself into what might have otherwise been relationships, and into those encounters that we callrelationships. Witness the change in my fantasy life. Or how about this: If you’ve been told ten thousand times that the value of trees is in their wood, you may come to believe it, to knowit, and it may happen that when you try to look at a tree you find yourself incapable of seeing anything but dollar bills. You may even devise an entire economic and governmental system to buttress and reify your constricted perceptions. If you have been told that women act in certain ways toward men, and only in those certain ways, you may believe it, and you may in subtle and not-so-subtle ways attempt to constrain (or provoke) them into behaving in the ways you expect. You may construct a theology that mirrors your belief. If you have been told what to expect when you encounter a black man, you may act appropriately to your expectations: If you are a policeman in Oakland (or any number of other cities), this may include fatally shooting him.

Having inured ourselves to the routine objectification of those around us, having long lost touch with the particular (anyparticular), when we encounter another, be it tree, woman, black man, or any thing else under the sun, we too easily lose sight of that other, too easily lose our hold on the slender slip of possibility of actual encounter, that joining of will and grace, as Buber put it, and encounter instead little save our preconceptions, our projections already formed in a culture based on domination. It is not possible to overestimate the damage this does to the potential of relationship. Ask the Indians encountered by the colonists. Ask the Africans enslaved. As we enjoy the comforts and elegancies our way of life affords, and as we stand amidst the embers of a smoldering and dying planet, we should ask ourselves, too, what this systematic objectification costs—not only them, but us.

We may no longer be able to provide an answer. Having been raised to see trees as dollar bills, we may, at this point, not be able to go back: We may never again be able to see another as a subject, not an object. From all evidence, most of us can no longer even tell the difference.

To become confused and to think that an object is a being is merely sad. This is why the pictures of naked and seemingly inviting women did not arouse so much yearning in me as sorrow. Those who become delusional enough in the direction of mistaking objects—to the degree that anythingcan truly be said to be an object—for subjects are sometimes put away. On the other hand, to become confused and think that a being is an object is more dangerous even than sad. I’ll tell you what is even more dangerous, more sad, more pathetic than this. If you become so delusional that you no longer see trees, human beings, a living planet, but, instead, dollar bills, workers, resources—far from being put away, you may find yourself well-rewarded, perhaps the CEO of a corporation. If your name is Lawrence Summers, you may just become the secretary of the treasury or president of Harvard.

I am not the first to remark that our financial riches come at the expense of the planet, those we enslave, our capacity to engage in relationship, and our humanity. Time and again we make this wrong choice. We have created an entire society that rewards this wrong choice, that consistently cuts off realistic possibility of making the right choice, that consistently causes us to forget that we even have a choice to make in the first place. And we do have a choice: We can see others as objects, or we can open up to them as subjects. Neither is specifically and in all circumstances the only choice, or the right choice, to make. The decision is, as always, in the particular.