File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9803, message 19

Date: Mon, 23 Mar 1998 17:13:58 +1000
Subject: BHA: The truth and Objectivity Problems : 2 of 3

     This is an edited version of Plantinga's reply.  I post it because it
will give you some idea of the tone of our debate and the area he choses to



                          Carl Plantinga

                          A Naive Reply to MacLennan and Raskin

I'm happy to see that my book, _Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction
Film_, has generated some discussion in the reviews by Jay Raskin and Gary
MacLennan at _Film-Philosophy_. Although I'd like to respond to these
reviews in tandem, they are very different. Both take issue with parts of
my book and raise issues I wish I had the time to discuss. Raskin's review
is measured and fair, but MacLennan's at points degenerates into a
political diatribe. In the interest of brevity, I'm going to limit my
response to the issue of objectivity in the nonfiction film and to
MacLennan's claims about my supposed political naivete.


On the issue of objectivity in nonfiction film, the reviewers understand my
project only partially. The fault could lie in part with the presentation
of my views, since I discuss objectivity in several separate parts of the
book, some of which they have apparently ignored. Both Raskin and MacLennan
like my analysis of the CBS documentary program, _The Twentieth Century_,
in which I demonstrate Stuart Hall's contention that journalistic practices
having to do with objectivity, fairness, balance, professionalism, and so
on, can serve to mask biases in favor of the status quo.

Both dislike what I do with this analysis, however. Raskin claims that I go
on to defend _The Twentieth Century_. In my book I am critical of the
series and its politics, but I do defend the concept of journalistic
objectivity, despite its flaws. To make such a defense I introduced the
concept of 'relative objectivity', a concept both Raskin and MacLennan find
to be philosophically and politically problematic. But here is my thinking.
First, we should not completely dispense with objectivity, fairness,
balance, etc. in journalism and nonfiction because although 'objectivity'
can mask biases in favor of the status quo, it also creates a standard for
journalists that can encourage the representation of diverse views. To
dispense with objectivity altogether would be to invite a journalism
without constraints, and one even more rigidly-tied to the interests of
those in power than was _The Twentieth Century_.

On the other hand, to call for absolute objectivity as an attainable
standard, as both Raskin and MacLennan do, is to ask for pie in the sky.
Raskin writes that 'a demand for the absolute instantiations of these
principles [objectivity, fairness, balance] would be the radical demand'.
MacLennan agrees with Raskin in his review, and argues that the 'correct'
response to my analysis of objectivity in _The Twentieth Century_ 'is to
demand proper objectivity, balance, etc. from the media'. By this I take
MacLennan to mean an absolute objectivity, as Raskin does.

This leaves me to wonder whether either Raskin or MacLennan read my
analysis of the concept of objectivity (29-32), where I discuss various
ways of thinking about the concept. Objectivity is not the equivalent of
truth, but is a characteristic of accounts or representations of the truth;
thus it is possible to believe in truth while denying that there can be
'absolutely' objective accounts of it. If absolute objectivity means that a
representation should be free from a perspective or point of view, then it
is clearly unattainable. If, on the other hand, absolute objectivity means
a representation which takes into account every diverse perspective on a
subject, it is equally impossible. That is why I endorse what I call
'relative objectivity'. No representation will ever be absolutely objective
on either of these definitions, but we can nonetheless measure our
representations against other representations (88) and demand closer
approximations to absolute objectivity.

Moreover, the fact that all of our representations are necessarily from
*our* perspective does not require that we abandon all notions of evidence.
MacLennan writes as though I do not give a description of what I mean by
relative objectivity, so I would refer him to pages 212-213 of my book, in
which I invoke Allan Casebier's contention that objectivity is a matter of
degree rather than an absolute condition, and Steven Lukes's point that an
objective representation can be perspective-relative, yet constrained by
''evidence that is as systematic and reliable as possible, and relatable to
other perspective-relative accounts'' (212). We can judge the relative
objectivity of nonfiction films in relation to other films and to what we
imagine the filmmaker might have done to make the film more objective.

MacLennan's ire is not directed merely at me, but at an entire approach to
the media that MacLennan thinks is insufficiently radical and also
politically naive. He misleadingly dubs this approach an 'American
formalism-cognitivism'. (The approach to which he refers is not just
American but counts among its adherents scholars from many countries.
Moreover, it might be characterized better as a cognitive/analytic
approach, since many are not formalists (although we are interested in
form) and since we are often influenced not only by cognitive psychology
but also by analytic philosophy. It is also a mistake to assume that those
who find this approach useful share a common politics.)

Whatever our political persuasion, however, we could all use a political
education. So for the moment let us be content with interpreting the world.
Both Raskin and MacLennan put a lot of stock in 'absolute objectivity' as a
radical media practice. By this I'm not sure if they mean that the
mainstream media should become truly objective and therefore radical, or
that radical media makers should employ absolute objectivity as a radical,
that is, non-mainstream practice. If they propose the latter, that is
certainly a controversial prescription, since most radical filmmakers
prefer polemics to the measured sobriety of 'objectivity'. Either
prescription raises problematic issues.

Leaving that aside, however, let me pose of Raskin and MacLennan (or of
anyone wishing to reply) four questions. First, what is absolute
objectivity of the kind you claim would constitute radical media practice?
Second, how would absolute objectivity be instantiated in a nonfiction film
or a television news report? (That is, would it take into account all
possible interpretations of a subject or all possible answers to a
question, or only those actually made and asked by living persons, or those
made and asked at any time by persons living or dead?) Third, do you know
of an actual film or television program which instantiates absolute
objectivity? (Please let me know because I am dying to see one). Fourth, if
there *is* no such extant film, may we expect one in the near future? If
anyone can satisfactorily answer these questions, then I will have been
enlightened and perhaps, after a few more lessons, can leave the ranks of
the politically naive.

Hollins College
March 1998


Gary MacLennan, 'Beyond Rhetoric (and Scepticism): A Critical Realist
Perspective on Carl R. Plantinga', _Film-Philosophy: Electronic Salon_, 11
March 1998

Carl Plantinga, _Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film_
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Jay Raskin, 'The Friction Over the Fiction of Nonfiction Movies',
_Film-Philosophy: Electronic Salon_, 17 September 1997


Carl Plantinga, 'A Naive Reply to MacLennan and Raskin', _Film-Philosophy:
Electronic Salon_, 16 March 1998


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