The Future of Objectivity (1)

Does objectivity have a future? Do objects have a place in a post-factual world? I certainly hope so. But the more I read about the state of academic writing today, the more uncertain I grow. The emerging ethos of academic writing instruction seems poised to jettison objectivity from our scholarship altogether. Angelika Bammer and Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres’s anthology The Future of Scholarly Writing (Palgrave, 2015) is an excellent case in point, and I’m going to devote a few posts to it in the weeks to come. I will structure my reading as an annotation of each of the indexed appearances of “objectivity” in the book’s contributions. I will start at its last appearance and work my way forward, taking issue with the authors’ various treatments  of this famously “academic” notion as I go.

To begin, then, on page 206 Susan McClary explains the valorization of objectivity by way of the “dominance of the left hemisphere [of the brain]” in academic contexts. As “a product of the analytic predisposition [of the left hemisphere, the binarism of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’] has the effect of acknowledging as valid only those observations that can be verified regardless of the researcher’s particular investments,” she tells us; “anything else is relegated to the scrapheap of the ‘merely’ subjective.”

I think this is putting the point somewhat too strongly. I don’t think the distinction between objective and subjective is a hard and fast binary. Most people will say that objectivity and subjectivity are relative notions and that any particular observation will have inexorably subjective and objective components or aspects. I personally think of objectivity as a “socially constructed” affair, always accomplished and, indeed, never more than approximated, through inter-subjective triangulation and negotiation. At the other end of the spectrum, it is hard to imagine the position of extreme or “pure” subjectivity would yield any particular observation, and it is often instead identified with the radical passivity of the transcendental subject. Indeed, it is often a gesture at mystical forms of experience. In between, I like to think, and each from our own subjective points of view, we try to accomplish our objectivity as best we can.

This does indeed mean trying to present our views “regardless of [our] particular investments” in them. That is, we want to open our beliefs to criticism from people who may not be invested exactly as we are in the outcome. The financially inflected language here is telling since we would certainly treat medical researchers who had “particular investments” in the drug company whose medicine they are testing with some skepticism. But skepticism is not, I want to emphasize, tantamount to “scrapping” the relevant observations. Objectivity does not actually mean that we only acknowledge observations that have been completely divested (if you will) of a personal stake. It normally just means that we should declare this interest and accept that our contribution will be taken with a correlative amount of salt.

“In most academic disciplines,” McClary continues, “the premium put on objectivity has strangled not only prose style–the exclusive emphasis on documentation and a deliberately drab vocabulary–but also methods: the questions we may ask and the ways we go about trying to engage with those questions” (206-7). This, again, is some strong language and I must say I don’t recognize this picture of academia at all. (See also “Academic Discourse, Folk Psychology and Intelligent Cat Pictures”.)

I’ve never read a paper that confines itself exclusively to documentation, nor is there any shortage of papers and books that manage to present their ideas using lively and evocative language. Even texts that appear deliberately restrained in their prose are not always “strangled” by this effort. Indeed, we sometimes appreciate the admirable parsimony of a writer’s vocabulary as a breath of fresh air in a discourse that is too often overwrought in its terminology. Now, it is true that objectivity demands a certain (perhaps narrow) range of methods and that it can only be achieved in the pursuit of answers to a particular class of questions. But here, too, its hard to see researchers as “strangled”. Rather, it seems to me that their adherence to these approaches make particular observations possible that otherwise wouldn’t be.

For the past 50 years, in any case, there has been a cultivation, not only of much inter-disciplinarity, but a methodological pluralism, which should have afforded almost any researcher an opportunity to ask and answer almost any question in pretty much any way they choose. When I look at the wide range scholarship published since, say, May of 1968, I just can’t recognize the “dominance” of an objective ethos, nor any particular hemisphere of the brain. Rather, I see a struggle for dominance by multiple scholarly discourses in which objectivity is an increasingly embattled notion.

I would much prefer that no one asserted dominance and that we instead let objectivity be one among several values to pursue. I enjoy an intensely subjective paragraph as much as clear, objective one. Today, I’m afraid, if anything risks ending up on the scrapheap it is allegedly “drab” presentations of what were once called “facts”. Indeed, I have a feeling that Bammer and Boetcher Joeres are as concerned about the turn that our public discourse has taken in the years after the publication of their book. I think we need to think about reasserting, and perhaps reclaiming, the virtue of writing that is anchored in an objective sense of reality. Perhaps it is time to give our analytic predisposition a little space (on the left?) in which to work?

[Part 2]

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