Monday, February 23, 2009

Thru Fragments of Cinema: Objectivism Questioned

At 43 Jean Bauby suffered a stroke and awoke to find himself with locked-in syndrome – a rare condition, as terrifying as it sounds, in which the patient is almost completely paralyzed yet remains fully conscious and aware. Able to blink one eye, Bauby was taught to communicate one letter at a time with the help of an aid who recited the alphabet until he blinked. Using this system, Bauby authored the memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; I recently had the pleasure of seeing the movie based on it.

“I decided to stop pitying myself,” wrote Bauby, “Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed, my imagination and my memory.”

As the narrative digs deeper into Bauby’s trapped mind, it becomes increasingly sensuous, marked by bright colors, strong breezes, swirling cinematography and score.

He’s also visited by various friends. Some of them, like his elderly father, go so far as to compare their condition to his - one of a soul locked within the body. He’s visited by a distant friend who was held prisoner under inhumane conditions for 4-some years. You can lose your body, he advises Jean, but nothing can steal your humanity.

The film has an unfortunate tendency to wander, but its impact remains. Its underlying tragedy is universal: that of not knowing what you have until it’s gone. The narrative goes in 2 figurative directions corresponding to the metaphors in the title: The diving bell sinks further underwater and the butterfly flies effortlessly up.

The film strikes a chord with me, similar to the book Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which attests to the hollowness of objectivism. My political beliefs are generally libertarian, and in high school I enjoyed a few Ayn Rand novels. They seemed empowering at the time. But despite their food for thought, the ideas lacked staying-power with me. From the start, I never understood why her novels were so much more famous than her essays. Novels teach through experience. They’re a perfectly suitable way to get a lesson across, but they’re anything but an objective medium. After reading other authors in college, Rand seemed shallow in comparison.

Rand is often associated with libertarianism – even Alan Greenspan (who describes his views as libertarian-Republican) was deeply influenced by her in his youth. But aside from individualistic values, I’m not sure how much Rand overlaps with libertarianism.

I hate to throw around such intellectual jargon – as if they were interesting in and of themselves – but to come back down to the real world, undue objectivity can often pose more harm than good. Nowhere is this more evident than in the economy.

A frequent myth is the belief that the value of money is objective - that it's fixed. This mistake has led to hundreds of years of mistrust against certain ways to use money. Money-lending is almost universally despised, across cultures and religions, as a greedy way of using money to make money. Despite this hatred towards money-lending, using money to make money, in almost any other endeavor, is considered the norm. This is why the economy is built upon money-lending. Banks play an integral role by distributing money to be used for its greatest potential. Their distributive actions run contrary to liberal concerns about skewed distributions of income; however, trying to “fix” their distribution of money has as dire consequences as toying with income distribution.

Value is subjective. This is why banking works – the value of a small business loan to a businessman of great potential is greater than the value of that loan to someone who won’t know how to use it. Likewise, the value of lending money for interest is worth more to a rich man with no use for that money than to a poorer man. The value of receiving lent money is worth more to someone who needs it and has a reliable credit history. The value of giving a loan to someone with reliable credit is greater than the value of giving a loan to someone of poor credit. Viewed purely objectively, the whole economy – perhaps even freedom - really makes little sense.

Another danger of unbridled objectivity is the use of statistics. This is bared out in the common concern about lying with stats – obviously stats don’t lie themselves, it’s the people who use them that lie. Numbers are of course very objective. But their use – both in gathering and making sense of them – is considered more of an art.

Even Greenspan wrote that he supplemented statistics about the macroeconomy with more subjective measures. During the oil crisis of the Nixon years, he created measures to estimate weekly fluctuations in GDP, which included surveying small business owners about their present difficulties and concerns. The later were of comparable value to objective numbers. During the internet boom of the 1990’s, Greenspan noted that despite rises in GDP, surveys showed that workers were becoming more skittish about the economy, largely due to increased employee turnover. This discrepancy led him to conclude that the rising GDP & stock indexes gave the public an overly rosy depiction of the economy.

The takeaway point is that when the stats don’t seem to match reality, the fault is more often found with the former than the latter. This has vast implications, particularly for medicine, which alienates whatever it can’t explain as psychological or somatic. A large chunk of medical progress in the 20th century consisted reclassifying phenomena from psychological/somatic into medical. The fallacy however is that, at any given time, the categorization of conditions as psychological or somatic is thought to reflect the nature of the conditions rather than the progress of science. This has led to many misunderstandings between doctor and patient, and between researcher and object of study.

The vast difference between a human and a computer attests to how off objectivism is. It’s almost a tautology to say that we live in a subjective world. Objectivity is simply one tool among others. It can be a useful tool to help us crawl out of our locked-in subjective holes, but it can also lead to as many misconceptions as truths.

Even emotions – one of the cornerstones of subjectivity – evolved for useful objective reasons. Ignoring your emotions because they’re too subjective would be to block yourself off from one of your most carefully honed tools. I find them useful for intellectual discourse: When an idea just doesn't feel right (or wrong), you can use that as a springboard for further inquiry, and guide yourself in the right direction. Of course you can’t say that something is wrong because it feels that way. But you can use those emotions to then identify objective explanations. Objectivism's distinction between reason and irrationality is meaningless; as both reason and supposed irrationality can have the same utilitarian purpose in their proper contexts.

And what role do dreams play in a purely objective world? Consider what occurs when wake up and feel you've had an incredibly moving dream, but you try to describe to a friend to little avail. The dream's objective content somehow can't stand up to its subjective impact.

Objectivism’s biggest mistake is focusing on the “bottom line”. Because life occurs in everything above the bottom line. Humans come and go; they’re born and they’re dead; they consume calories and they expend calories; that’s the bottom line, that’s the objective perspective, as if from a disinterested party observing us from the moon. Obviously that perspective does injustice to the value of life. Robert Pirsig’s solution to the discrepancy between objective and subjective reality was to meld the two by focusing on the point where they meet. That’s quality, he believed. It's the value gained in voluntary exchange. It’s life. It's the loss that Jean Bauby suffered in the objective; the gain he won in the subjective.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Movie poster from the 2007 film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; (2)Photo of Jean-Dominique Bauby, 1997; (3) curving, swirling, 04/09/2006, by David Pham; (4) Logo from book cover of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; (5) Portraits of Ayn Rand and Allan Greenspan; (6) Movie poster of the 2004 film The Merchant of Venice; (7) tools, 08/30/2006, by Striatic; (8) Blue Marble (Planet Earth), 01/25/2008, woodleywonderworks; (8) M.C. Escher's 1948 lithograph Drawing Hands.

Video: (1) Music collage, 02/08/2009, filmlasse with music from the 1959 film The 400 Blows.
Sphere: Related Content


  1. Nicely done. I've just picked up Zen...Maintenance and plan to read it for the first time, just in time for the upcoming Motorcycle season.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Hope you enjoy the book. If you're often on-the-go, I recommend checking out the audiobook which is available at iTunes - the book has just the right amount of depth for audio, & the narrator has a uniquely suited voice for its content.


Add to Technorati Favorites Add to Technorati Favorites