Objectivity. I feel that everything we’ve talked about in class has somehow come to the conclusion that this is impossible. It probably is, on a lot of levels, but isn’t it possible that there is some form of objectivity in an interpretation, albeit small or very broad? Or at least we can allow for varying degrees of subjectivity.

For example, let’s take Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a story about a rich and crotchety old man named Scrooge who has an assistant named Bob Cratchit. Scrooge seems to be a very black-hearted man who hates Christmas while Bob loves the holiday and is a very optimistic man even though he has almost no money and a sick child. That night, the ghost of Marley, Scrooge’s late partner visits the old man and warns him to change his ways. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts that night, those of Christmas Past, Present and Future. After these spirits visit Scrooge, he realizes that he must and will change his stingy ways and becomes very generous and everyone is happy. The end.

Was that an interpretation? If so, could it be construed as an objective one? If it’s not an interpretation, why isn’t it? These are the things I've been wondering each time we discuss subjectivity and objectivity... what do you think?


Joe Q. Middlesworth said...

It wasn't objective, and cannot be objective, because in writing the summary you were forced to make a choice about which parts of the story to include, thereby judging the value of those parts. For example, you included a mention of Cratchit's sick child, but didn't give his name. Through inclusion or exclusion, you show subjectivity. The only perfectly objective summary of a work is the work itself.

There is certainly value in determining the level and cause of subjectivity, and a summary or interpretation can be more or less objective. But a perfectly objective viewpoint can never be achieved.

brian said...

I agree with Joe. Even though the reader attempts to put every detail possible in the way it "should" be written does not mean that it will be objective.

I am often led to this point in interpretation: who cares? Why does it matter that one interpretation is different from another? Is it there we should focus, why each person has a different interpretation, and what are the social causes behind these subjective readings? We could certainly learn much more about our own cultures by "interpreting" the interpretation. In this case, the text becomes secondary, but otherwise, we're just reading books and telling what we read. Right?

KimStabosz said...

I agree with both Brian and Joe when they say that attaining a perfectly objective viewpoint/interpretation is close to impossible. Even Michelle’s very simple summary was subjective, because like Joe said she was the one who picked the important aspects of the story to put in the summary.

Brian, your statement about not caring about interpretation is unsettling to me. Perhaps this is because all of our Literature courses are basically made up of reading a work and then discussing the multiple interpretations of that work. It seems very drastic to me to just give up caring about the different interpretations. However, I do understand what you’re saying about interpreting the interpretations. The idea about focusing on the social causes for different interpretations is a good one, however I feel like that has already started to be done by some of the theorist we have read this year. But even if we did focus on the reasoning for different interpretations, does that make the interpretations more important than the text those interpretations came from? I’d like to believe that the text hasn’t lost its importance, and that “just reading books and telling what we read” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if we learn something from that experience.

Anonymous said...

Alright, so perhaps my 'interpretation' of Dicken's work was not objective since I left things out, but really what I was trying to present was a summary of the story. It was a superficial, straight and basic (though incomplete) mimic of the story. There was no attempt for looking deeper or understanding what things might 'mean' or what effect deeper connotations 'between the lines' might have. There's no deeper life meanings or moral lessons included that I as a reader may have taken out of it. It's just a straight presentation of the facts of some of the basic occurrences of the story. Doesn't that make it objective to an extent, or at least at a level of subjectivity that isn't really arguable except to say that things are left out, while many other deeper interpretations can have ambiguities, contradictions and disagreements over whether the text actually says this or that or means something completely different. Those kinds of interpretations, the kind that set themselves up for a more involved kind of scrutiny seem to me to be much more subjective than mere summaries of texts which I think are about as objective as a person can get. So if we are to argue for objectivity, can we say that summaries are as objective as can be achieved?

Katie said...

I believe that we can allow for varying degrees of subjectivity, possibly even objective subjectivity; however, pure objectivity doesn’t exist within the realm of interpretation. You cannot establish meaning or significance objectively because, as Joe points out, you must make judgments on the value of different aspects of the text and chose from there what to include. It isn’t possible to not be influenced by your personal emotions and prejudices when establishing a hierarchy. I do like the idea of “interpreting” interpretations which Brian brought up, but I don’t think that the text should lose importance with the practice. The text shouldn’t become secondary, if anything it should be even more primary than before- wouldn’t it be better to have your own interpretation to use as a base while you evaluate how others’ differ. After all, the text is the source of the thoughts and ideas which the interpreters are deeming important enough to share.
If we do allow for varying degrees of subjectivity, We will run into the same problems with establishing a hierarchy that we did with trying to establish the validity of an interpretation. While the extremes may be easier to identify, once we get to the grey area in the middle it seems to me that any hierarchy would be inherently subjective. How can we possibly measure the degree to which an individual has allowed their personal emotions and prejudices to color their interpretation? Also, if we are going to allow that people sometimes subconsciously include things in their writing should we also apply this theory to their interpretations of a text? We also need to decide whether or not complexity can be equated with subjectivity- does an interpretation’s complexity really depend upon how much the interpreter let their personal emotions and prejudices effect their thought process? For instance, do we presume that an interpretation full of “ambiguities and deeper levels of thought” is necessarily more subjective than a “superficial, straight and basic (though incomplete) mimic” like the one Michelle provided?
However, I think that there should be some differentiation between summaries and interpretations because I think their intent is different and that the degree of subjectivity may be seen differently depending upon whether Michelle's mimic is an interpretation or a summary. I see a summary as more of a recap of the main points whereas I expect an interpretation to establish meaning and significance as they work throughout the text. So, I would be more inclined to say that it was a more objectively subjective interpretation and a more subjective summary. Sorry this is so long...

Kristen said...

This general discussion leads me to believe that most of us think that there is no way that anyone can be entirely objective. As Joe says, the only entirely objective summary is the work itself. If this is the case, then I think that when we are discussing objectivity and subjectivity in class, we are talking about how subjective things are and not if they are subjective. To clarify, if we do not believe that people can be objective, when we say that a person is being objective, then what we really mean is that they are being as non-subjective as they can be. I think that we can all agree that there is a wide range of degrees of subjectivity. Perhaps there is some sort of boundary, short of the work itself, where a person is the least subjective that they can possibly be and that is what we are calling objective.

Hope that this post did more to clarify than to confuse!

~ Kristen

amygrelck said...

After reading all these comments, i'm not even sure i know the difference between a summary and an interpretation anymore. i was ready to say, yes michelle, that's a summary not an interpretation, and you're right, it's at least mostly objective. but now i'm thinking that, since everything we say or write comes from somewhere and (i believe) is influenced by everything we have ever seen/heard/read/experienced, then even a harmless summary will end up on the subjective side. at first i thought joe's reaction in his comment was a little extreme, but rereading his note that michelle mentions the sick child but not the child's name has made me consider something. say i read "a christmas carol" and i happen to know exactly the condition tiny tim is sick with (i can't remember if dickens tells us or not), and it just so happens one of my relatives died from the very same condition. wouldn't it be likely that i drop the name of tim's condition into my summary, rather than just call him "sick"? and this would not be because i am trying to interpret the story rather than summarize (whatever the difference may be...), but because my own experiences have made me identify certain things in the story that just stick out to me, even facts like that rather than themes.
so i think, after this long comment, i'm more on the side of "everything's subjective, even a summary." because there is no way to escape your past experiences when you read, or even when you recall facts verbatim from the story.

********* said...

Good question, Michelle! Let's see what I can do to answer it--or at least put my two cents in.

I myself do not think people are capable of objectivity. They are capable of couching their writings and interpretations in academic language that sounds objective but objectivity, full objectivity, would involve a separation of self from the ideas, emotions and values that have shaped you which leaves you with nothing to work from anyway.

The story you have presented of Scrooge (which incidentally I rather enjoyed having just seen the musical myself) was more a summary than an interpretation. It's the kind of answer that would be given if someone asked you, "What's 'A Christmas Carol' about?" Even if, and one could argue that iwas an interpreation of some kind--you said that because Scrooge was visited by ghosts, he decided to change his stingy ways--it isn't an objective one because the very wording you use isn't indifferent at all. "Stingy," "crochety," "black-hearted"--not objective.

A very interesting question indeed.

Emily Franzen