Are we confusing objectivity with subjectivity? Do we require more, not less, subjectivity? Philosopher Nicholas Joll presents Theodor Adorno’s take on the difference between objectivity and subjectivity in Minima Moralia, applying it to film, while questioning the implications for evaluating aesthetic judgements in contrast to science.
Imagine that you have seen a film with a friend. You are telling him about what you take to be the themes of the film and about what you believe the film tries to say. Your friend objects that such things are ‘too subjective’. He prefers to talk about features of the film that, he says, are more objective – such matters as where the film was shot, who produced it, how many Oscars it won, and, perhaps, the plot. Might the truth be that it is you, not your friend, who is seeking objectivity here, or at least the sort of objectivity that is worth having? That is the thesis, proposed by the German philosopher (and polymath) Theodor Adorno, which I wish to explore in this piece. I shall work especially from Adorno’s book Minima Moralia and initially from the section therein that is entitled ‘Unfair Intimidation’.
‘Unfair Intimidation’ begins with the words, ‘What truth may objectively be is difficult enough to determine’. Adorno adds that we should not let people use that difficulty to ‘terrorize us’. Particularly, we should not be intimidated by ‘the reproach that a statement is “too subjective”’. In fact, Adorno writes that one has grounds for a momentary self-satisfaction if one is rebuked in that way! He elaborates as follows (all MM §43: 69–70).
The notions of subjective and objective have become completely reversed. The non-controversial aspect of things, their unquestioned impression, the façade made up of categorized data, that is, the subjective, gets called objective; and what gets called subjective is anything which breaches that façade, engages in the specific experience of a matter, casts off all ready-made judgements and substitutes relatedness to the object for the majority consensus [. .] – that is, the objective.
Adorno is not averse to using hyperbole to try to shock his readers. However, he intends the conception at issue seriously. I unpack the conception into the three claims.
(1) A view is objective to the extent that it engages the object at issue (is object‑ive, as we may put it) and subjective to the extent that it apprehends its object only superficially or indirectly. (2) If a view is informed by one’s subjectivity – by one’s mind, imagination, education, sensitivities – then that facilitates rather than hinders the achievement of objectivity. Such subjectivity amounts to a set of tools with which one unlocks an object (compare ND 163). (3) Views reached without the aid of such subjectivity are superficial and uncritical. For they deal in the ‘non-controversial aspect of things’, ‘unquestioned impressions’ and ‘categorized data’. An example of what Adorno has in mind by ‘categorized data’ is afforded by the Internet Movie Database. The database consists of entries that comprise such material as aggregate ratings, credits, and (somewhat differently?) a ‘People who liked this also liked’ list. Other examples would be country statistics (landmass, population, natural resources, et cetera) or survey data. Adorno is not denying that such data, along with ‘non-controversial aspects’ and ‘unquestioned impressions’, can capture real features of objects. In that sense or to that degree statements that convey such things are objective. Adorno does claim that they are objective only in an attenuated way: their superficiality limits the extent to which they grasp their objects.
If we re-apply these ideas to the context of film, we can present matters as in figure 1.
Figure 1. Adorno’s ideas about the subjective and the objective, applied to film
Adorno summarises his position in the slogan that objectivity requires more subjectivity, not less (ND 40). Or, in another formulation: ‘Objectivity is not left over after the subject is subtracted’ (P 144). We may add an analogy (or develop one that was suggested already above). A person proud of dealing only in the barest facts is like a strange kind of tradesman – one who starts a job by discarding all of his or her tools and approaches the task with bare hands.
None of this is decisive. That is because our construal of the rebuke that a view is too subjective has been uncharitable. More precisely, we have been unkind or unsophisticated in our articulation of what underlies that rebuke. The underlying idea need not be that the view in question makes demands upon one’s subjectivity. After all, that holds even of propositions of natural science. The underlying idea could be that the view at issue projects subjectivity onto objects. Someone who intended the ‘too subjective’ complaint in that way would see the film case as follows. To claim that a film has a meaning or message is to confuse something that is present only in the viewer with something that exists within the film itself. On this thinking – this version of the idea that a view is too subjective – aesthetic qualities (some of them, anyway) become akin to Locke’s so-called secondary qualities. That is, various qualities that one might be apt to attribute to the work itself are held to be mere effects, in us, of the qualities that the work really – objectively – possesses. ‘Unfair Intimidation’ argues against that conception of art (MM 70):
Anyone who, drawing on the strength of his precise reaction to a work of art, has ever subjected himself in earnest to its discipline, to its immanent formal law, the compulsion of its structure, will find that objections to the merely subjective quality of his experience vanish like a pitiful illusion.
Something here resonates, I think, even with those uncertain of their abilities to comprehend, say, music, or paintings or so-called art-house cinema. Yet, seeming so is not being so. That it seems that one is responding to real features of an object is no guarantee that one actually is.
Still, it is not just aesthetic judgements that Adorno wants to defend against the charge of excessive subjectivity. Another section of Minima Moralia, namely ‘Morality and Style’ (MM §64: 101), makes this evident enough.
A writer will find that the more precisely, conscientiously, appropriately he expresses himself, the more obscure the literary result is thought, whereas a loose and irresponsible formulation is at once rewarded with a certain understanding.
Adorno explains as follows:
Vague expression permits the hearer to imagine whatever suits him and what he already thinks in any case. Rigorous formulation demands unequivocal comprehension, conceptual effort, to which people are deliberately disencouraged, and imposes on them in advance of any content a suspension of all received opinions, and thus an isolation, that they violently resist. Only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable; only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as familiar.
Adorno is describing what he takes to be a form of cognitive self-harm: a self-restriction of our thought, under threat of obscurity or of being too subjective, to superficialities and indeed to ‘received opinions’ and advertising catchphrases. Adorno believes that such conformism threatens a wide range of opinions – opinions about not just art but anything that does not enjoy the cultural prestige of science and especially of natural science. He would add that here we see subjectivity stealing back, in the impoverished form of ‘groupthink’, into what is supposedly a realm of pure objectivity.
One might retort as follows. Howsoever conformist or otherwise people are with their opinions, there is one area, only, in which more than mere opinion is possible, and that area is science. This is the idea Adorno calls ‘positivism’ (see, for instance, the remainder of ‘Unfair Intimidation’). That idea might be (re)formulated thus: ‘all knowledge can potentially be converted to science’ (NLI 8). Adorno rejects such positivism. He holds, instead, that subjectivity can unlock features that are real but irreducible to the models of natural science. Consider for instance a subtle analysis of a play, or of a political situation, or of a particular individual’s mind. Such analyses are not, at least not anytime soon, going to be translatable into the language of physics; yet, the things with which they deal are real enough (or, in the case of the play, could be).
That sort of account, whereby there are things irreducible to science, may seem commonsensical, but justifying it (and even specifying exactly what is being claimed) opens epistemological and metaphysical deeps. Adorno tries to support the account via a conception of – to use his terminology – subject and object and their mutual ‘mediation’. This is a conception of how subject and object ‘enter into’ each other (ND 183). The conception may be condensed (with some violence and some vagueness) into two propositions.
1. One cannot fully separate, even in principle, (i) how objects are – how the world is – from (ii) subjectivity, i.e. our (socially and historically inflected) sensibility and our conceptuality.
2. Objects have an independence from subjects (and subjects are objects, albeit objects distinguished by the possession of awareness).
Adorno expresses the whole, arguably paradoxical conception with such lines as these: ‘If the object lacked the moment of subjectivity, its own objectivity would become nonsensical’ (SO 509); ‘The subject is the object’s agent, not its constituent’ (SO 506).
We have been led into the difficult heart of Adorno’s thought (on which see further, especially, part two of ND, and SO). However, some of the ideas that we have reviewed are largely independent of the deeper conception (a conception, by the way, which means to fuse German Idealism with a materialistic, naturalistic Marxism, and which has been thought to have echoes in the work of John McDowell). Those relatively independent ideas can be summarised as follows. First, subjectivity is the friend of objectivity in that achieving objectivity of any substantial kind requires ability and effort. Second, neglect of that first point can yield a demand for objectivity and an imputation of obscurity that serve in fact as cover for thoughtless, received views. I hope to have made at least those two claims credible – even if, ‘Truth is objective, not plausible’ (ND 41).
Abbreviations used for works by Adorno MM - Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life (Verso, 1974, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott) ND - Negative Dialectics (Routledge, 1953, trans. E. B. Ashton) [an alternative and in many ways better translation, by Dennis Redmond, is available here] NL1 - Notes to Literature. Volume 1 (Columbia University Press, 1991; trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen) P - Prisms (MIT Press, 1981; trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber) SO - ‘Subject and Object’ in Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Continuum, 1986) In the main text, numbers following the abbreviations are page references, whereas numbers following the symbol ‘§’ are section numbers.