File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9803, message 20

Date: Mon, 23 Mar 1998 17:21:24 +1000
Subject: BHA: Truth and Objectivity 3 of 3

This is the third post and  if you are still with me this is where I use
Critical Realism to solve the objectivity problem.  Again I have edited out
the political bits.  But the full texts of the posts are available on the
Electronic Salon.



Of Politics and Objectivity: Responding to Carl R. Plantinga

1. Introduction

I was delighted to be informed by Daniel that Carl R. Plantinga was going
to reply to my and Jay Raskin's review of his book, _Rhetoric and
Representation in Nonfiction Movies_,
However Plantinga did not like my review of his book, tending to see it as
a "political diatribe".  Admittedly there was political comment in my
review but there was also a good deal more philosophy.  Ah well, that's all
one.  "If you can't stand the heat stay out of the kitchen", I say.  

Now there are two distinct areas of concern - political and theoretical.
To be frank I am anxious about pursuing political discussions on a list
devoted to film and philosophy, but I trust the moderator will bear with me
a little if I reply to the main points that Plantinga has made before
plunging into matters philosophical.

. . . 

3. Philosophy

The main point of my review of Plantinga's philosophical arguments was the
Critical Realist one, namely that his approach to nonfiction film was
severely weakened by his failure to appreciate the necessity for
ontological depth. I also argued that he had an inadequate
conceptualisation of truth.  I attempted to redress both of these
shortcomings and that for me was the most important aspect of my review.

Plantinga chose however to highlight the area of objectivity.  I grant this
is very important and of course there has been a tremendous amount written
on this problem.  I also granted in my review that his discussion of Hall's
BIOP(i)C model is very good. Plantinga wonders however if I have read his
book thoroughly.  He cites in particular pages 29-32 and 212-213.  He will
have to take my word for it here.  Yes I have read them.  I am tempted to
print out my margin notes but I am afraid that would inflame the situation
even further.  

This is how I read Plantinga's account of objectivity. There would seem to
be five alternatives for him.

1. The fly on the wall or the 'from no point of view' approach.(:30)
2. The approach which sees objectivity as totally impossible because we
cannot cease being subjects.(:30)
3. Noel Carroll's Wittgensteinian approach where objectivity is a language
game that journalists and others play.(:30)
4. An approach where all possible viewpoints are presented. (Not explicitly
outlined in the text but strongly inferred in the paragraphs beginning
"Concepts such as objectivity..." and "We might also work with relative
versions..." (: 212-213). It is stated more explicitly in his rejoinder to
my review. (16.3.98))
5. An approach which recognises that the presentation of all possible
viewpoints is impossible and the best that we can hope for is to get as
close to this as possible.(: 212-213)

Plantinga rejects the first three approaches.  He seems though to accept 4.
as a definition of objectivity but thinks it cannot be achieved in practice
and so he plumps for 5. and calls this approach "relative objectivity".

He then indulges in Liberal smugness about the status quo.  It would seem
to be one of "relative objectivity".  This is followed by scare mongering
about the alternatives to this paradise of "relative objectivity".  This
would be a hell, a situation of "discursive total war in which social
discourse becomes anarchic, unyielding, unconstrained, and polarised".   (:

I can scarce control my trembling. Thank God for CNN.  To think that for
all these years I believed that there had been a discursive war and that
the Right had won so totally that they had been able to deny that there was
even a struggle.  Silly old commie me; you see I thought that it was like
Tacitus' description of the conquests of Roman Imperialism:-

"They have made a desert and they call it peace."

To be serious though, the question is whether there is an alternative
approach to objectivity which is neither sceptical and rhetorical (Carroll-
'This is what journos do') or quantitative (Plantinga- 'We have presented
three viewpoints on affirmative action and that is better than two.')
There is an alternative but to get to it we have to break with  Plantinga's
approach which he summarises as:- 

"Objectivity is not the equivalent of the truth; thus it is possible to
believe in truth while denying that there can be 'absolutely' objective
accounts of it." (Plantinga, 16.3.98)

There are very complex influences at work here in Plantinga's position.
Firstly I detect what Andrew Outhwaite describes as the neo-Kantian
reduction of "ontology to epistemology and both of these ultimately to
methodology". (1987 :113)  Hence the stress on "viewpoints" i.e.
epistemology and the subsequent concern with how these "viewpoints" are
presented in a media text i.e. methodology.

This inevitably leads to the definition of objectivity in terms of
value-neutrality.  Whenever the presenter reveals her values she is thought
to violate objectivity. For example O'Connor in his discussion of the
Murrow program on McCarthy worries whether Murrow should have shown close
ups of McCarthy licking his lips or emphasised his maniacal laugh so much.
O'Connor, though, is not at all concerned with Murrow's failure to situate
McCarthyism within the context of the all out assault on Leftist and
Progressive thought that the Truman Administration launched in 1947.
(O'Connor, 1987)  For Murrow to have done so would of course have required
true courage and a break with his beloved US military.
There is also, I think, at work, within Plantinga's definition of
objectivity as an approach where all possible viewpoints are presented, an
element of the "neo-Kantian view of objectivity as intersubjective
validity/consensus/ solidarity". (Bhaskar, 1991: 104)  

This view of objectivity is obviously linked to the consensus model of the
truth.  Consensus is of course no guarantee of truth but believing it to be
so can lead to the anxiety that if one is not presenting all possible
viewpoints then a proper consensus is impossible.  Moreover those accounts
which claim truth can be seen to be disturbing the process of the formation
of the desired consensus.  Thus it can become distinctly bad form to say
that one is right and someone else is wrong.

As an alternative to this I would advocate the Critical Realist approach
that defines "objectivity in the sense that what is known would be real
whether or not it were known; (and) something may be real without appearing
at all". (Collier, 1994: 6)  An account is objective if it is alethic, that
is if it gives us the reasons for things not merely for propositions.  Here
objectivity is ontological and indeed is seen as the very grounds for the
possibility of subjectivity.  In other words there could be no subjectivity
if there were not an objective world.

To put this in another way we have to break with those accounts of
objectivity which see it as a matter of style or form or even protocols.
We need rather to think of objectivity in terms of content.  We should
expect that a journalist or film maker will present us with that account
which best explains a particular phenomenon.  

Often media reports entail examining differing accounts or viewpoints.
Here some theories of objectivity would seem to suggest that the
journalist/filmmaker must not advocate any particular account.  I reject
this outright.  

Let me try and work through a very real and pertinent example here. Let us
return to the Auschwitz instance.  What possible accounts are there of
this?  I have heard all the following viewpoints advanced:-

1. Auschwitz was a part of the Nazi's attempt to murder the entire Jewish
2. It is Jewish propaganda to suggest this.  Auschwitz was not a death camp.
3.  There were Jews killed in Auschwitz but not nearly as many as is said.

Now let me be clear. I know absolutely that Plantinga believes 1. to be the
truth.  The difference between us however is that I argue that if a film is
made about Auschwitz it is objective *only* if it supports 1. and rejects
outright accounts 2. and 3. Again let me stress that I am truly convinced
that Plantinga would want to endorse what I say here.  But his theory will
not allow this.

Why have I emphasised "only"?  Because I believe that objectivity is not a
matter of style (methodology), nor a matter of how many viewpoints we can
cram into a soundbite (consensus) but rather it is a question of how close
we can come to Alethia, the reason for things.  In other words objectivity
is not an epistemological question only, rather ultimately it is ontological.

Here I would like to stress the Bhaskarian point that there are more levels
of reality, perhaps always so, to be explored.  Thus when we have
established 1. as the objective truth, which of course we have, we then
have to give an explanation of this and so on.  This of course would take
us into the recent Finkelstein-Goldhagen controversy.

4. Plantinga's challenges

Plantinga ends his rejoinder with four challenges to Jay Raskin and me.  I
am reluctant to deal with them because it will wind up this reply on a
rather negative note, and I am feeling terribly guilty about being so harsh
on a book which I think is very valuable and very well written and moreover
is one which everyone who has an interest in nonfiction film must read.

Ah well.

Challenge 1. What is absolute objectivity of the kind you claim would
constitute radical media practice?

I think I have answered this.  Absolute objectivity can only be grounded in
a commitment to truth.

Challenge 2. How would absolute objectivity be instantiated in a nonfiction
film or a television news report?  

Again I think I have answered this but the temperature is rising again and
let us take another specific example.  

Last night (20.3.98) I broke off writing this and watched yet another
satellite item from the US on an Australian news program.  It was about the
changes to the trade embargo on Cuba.  The news presenter claimed that the
changes had been made at the Pope's urging.  We were given a little
background information on the embargoed items and why they had been placed
on the list.  Among other things there was a ban on the export of
medicines.  This it seems was, and I speak from memory, imposed "in
response to the Cubans' downing of "two American civilian aircraft last
year".  We then had a cut to a Senator or Congressman who condemned the
easing of sanctions as the "rewarding of a dictator."  On this note of
balance the item concluded.

After the news I was unable to return to this response to  Plantinga
because I kept thinking, very unfairly I know, that this is the kind of
news coverage which he regards as "relatively objective" and which he fears
so much to lose.

It so happens that earlier in the day I had read Peter Schwab's "Cuban
Health Care and the U.S. Embargo". He argues that the Cuban health care
system "is one of the jewels of the revolution, yet it is handicapped by
the fierceness of the embargo and the fury of U.S. enforcement." (Schwab,
1997: 15)

I would begin my alternative absolutely objective news item from this
point.  I would also point out that the so-called civilian aircraft were
flown by anti-Castro exiles and that they had repeatedly violated Cuban
airspace and that they were shot down within Cuban airspace.  I would in my
item also seek to approach the truth of American imperialism's brutal
attempt to crush the Cuban Revolution.

Challenge 3.  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?")

There are a number of points here. This is a non-challenge for me because I
give an ontological rather than an epistemological account of objectivity.
 But let me recommend "Panama Connection" to Plantinga.  Also John Pilger's
films on Australia are very worth seeing, likewise his reports on Cambodia,
East Timor, Nicaragua and Burma. There are others.  Thus I admire the
objectivity of David Bradbury's great film on Chile _Hasta Cuando?_ and Tom
Zubrycki's censored masterpiece on the Australian Labor Movement, _Amongst

I could go on but let me also tease out and address the underlying
positivist motif, which we owe primarily to Popper, namely that if
something is not actual it is not real. This would have it that if there is
no instance of an "absolutely objective account" then such a thing is
impossible.  This position is of course totally unable to give an account
of change.  Contra Popper et al, we need to understand that because
Phenomenon A does not exist in actuality at Time X does not mean that there
is not a transfactual tendency within reality for Phenomenon A to be
produced or to manifest itself at Time Y.

Challenge 4. If there *is* no such extant film, may we expect one in the
near future?  

Films which reveal the truth of things, i.e. objective films, do exist.  I
have cited some above.  That we do not see more of them is due to two
factors.  Firstly the existing balance of forces within the world favour
the point of view of the rich and the powerful.  Also within the academy
and within the arena of documentary theory in particular, there has been a
failure to develop the theory which would underlabour for the kind of
filmic practice which we so desperately need.

Gary MacLennan
School of Media & Journalism
Queensland University of Technology


Bhaskar, R., _Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom_, Blackwell: Oxford,1991
Collier, A., _Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar's
Philosophy_, Verso: London, 1994
MacLennan, G., 'Beyond Rhetoric (and Scepticism): A Critical Realist
Perspective on Carl R. Plantinga',_Film-Philosophy: Electronic Salon_, 11
March 1998
O'Connor, J.E., _The Moving Image as Historical Document: Analysing Edward
R. Murrow's Report on Senator McCarthy_ in  O'Regan, T. & Shoesmith, B.
(eds)_History on/and/in Film, History & Film Association of Australia:
Perth, 1987: 5-16
Outhwaite, A., _New Philosophies of Social Science: Realism, Hermeneutics
and Critical Theory_, MacMillan: London, 1987
Plantinga, C.,_ Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film_, Cambridge
Uni Press: Cambridge, 1997
_____________., _A Naive reply to MacLennan and Raskin'_, Film Philosophy:
Electronic Salon_, 16 March 1998
Raskin, J., 'The Friction Over the Fiction of Nonfiction Movies',
_Film-Philosophy: Electronic Salon_, 17 September 1997
Schwab, P. _Cuban Health Care and the U.S. Embargo_, Monthly Review v 49,
No 6, Nov 1997: 15-26

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