Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

92: Carol J. Adam part II:
Objectification, Fragmentation, Consumption and the Absent Referent

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Sexual violence against women and the fragmentation and dismemberment of nature, animals, and women are linked and presented as acceptable through a vast overlap of cultural images. The primary tool for maintaining this acceptability is the absent referent. Consider butchering as an example: “Through butchering, animals become absent referents. Animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist.” Animals while alive are not actually food – you cannot eat a living cow. Dead animals carved up and prepared as meat are no longer recognizable as animals rather they are beef, rib, ham, veal etc. Because animals have been transformed into food, animals make food possible but they are no longer there. They have become an absent referent. “Animals are made absent through language that renames dead bodies before consumers participate in eating them.” By taking out the living animals we don’t have to talk or think about any disquieting thoughts about them.

         The process of making the referent absent takes three avenues: 1) literally: when the animals are killed, 2) linguistically: when we change cow into beef, and 3) metaphorically: when we use animal experiences for to describe human experiences for example describing a war scene as “the soldiers were butchered on the battle field” or describing rape or battery “I felt like a piece of meat”.

         Women’s experiences are also used metaphorically to describe other violence. For example the term rape is often used in environmental circles as in “the rape of the earth” or in political circles as in “the rape of Nanking”

         “Women upon whose bodies actual rape is most often committed, become the absent referent when the language of sexual violence is used metaphorically. These terms recall women’s experiences but not women.” This is inappropriate. It is like using “holocaust” for anything other than the experience of European Jews in WWII.

         Feminist who use metaphor should be careful because they may be failing to see the intersectionality of violence in the metaphor. Recalling other oppressed groups in a metaphor can have a legitimizing effect or at the very least it would have a distracting effect. Metaphor distances us by equating the violence with something we have already objectified – someone I don’t know or have no personal connection with. The use of metaphor with the absent referent makes one oppressed group defined by the experiences of another but we do not experience the connection of oppression between the two groups. Thus many feminists are unwittingly contributing to patriarchy by using metaphor and failing to see that both sides of the oppression are condemnable.

         A brutal cycle of objectification, fragmentation and consumption emerges in our treatment of both women and animals. Often objectification is achieved through metaphor. Fragmentation happens by separating the object from its meaningful context and inserting the object into a new context which the oppressor desires. The oppressor consumes the object with its new meaning which is related to the oppressor not the object (former subject).

         Any referent without reference points becomes a vehicle for meaning but is itself not meaningful. For example “meat” can mean many different things based on the context.

         Fragmentation is the point the living referent disappears and we silence its notion. Therefore it is a focal point of the author’s analysis. Six types or models of analogous fragmentations emerge concerning animals and women.

         The first is implemental violence: butchering and rape, both of which are unique to humans, require implements unwantedly (from the point of view of the victim) tearing into flesh. Hiding gory details has the effect of silencing the referent. The rules of polite company are a tool of fragmentation. The second model is the slaughterhouse and the brothel: both hide from view a violent and exploitative business which only makes them appear less offensive by selectively showing only what the business owners want people to see. The third is the disassembly line model: within slaughterhouses and brothels the disassembly line creates alienation exactly as is happening in their object. The workers are doubly fragmented in their own life on the line and in what they do. The fourth is the anesthetization or desensitization: on the road to consumption it is more pleasant for the consumer if the victim appears to will their own victimhood. Advertising in media often portrays sunny pastures and happy hookers which indirectly increase sales by making the consumer feel better about their purchase. The fifth, the author refers to as Jack the Ripper, meaning the overwhelming focus of violence and exploitation on females both in butchering and rape. And sixth, cues to practice, in which media portrayal of women and animals as exploitable fragmentable material sets a stage of common acceptability in practice.

         Oppression should be challenged including the metaphorical. The oppression should be shown to be culturally related, sanctioned and interdepend with various forms of culture. The goal should be to “resist the violence that separates matter from spirit, to eliminate the structures that create the absent referent.”

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren