Subjectivity & Objectivity: a Contrast

Recently, I’ve come to a crossroads in my writing: I’ve written many essays over the past year or so, but I’ve reached a point at which the things I want to say are too large, too abstract, or too fundamental to properly convey in an essay. The things I want to say are those types of truths that can only be properly told through a good story.

Socrates and Jesus told parables for a reason: they had a greater impact than any other form. We are creatures of story, in fact: it is the thing that our entire world consists of. We tell stories to our children and grandchildren to teach them of our own past. We read newspapers and magazines for their stories of success or failure: the poverty-stricken rise to success through ingenuity; a celebrity meeting his demise at the hands of an ill-advised bender.

As I made the transition to telling stories, I began to think more and more about subjectivity. Even now, as I write this, I struggle with the distinction: do I outline this piece, form a coherent structure, then fill in the blanks? Or do I write it as it comes, so that it becomes a mirror for my stream of consciousness? One implies objectivity by mimicking a sort of journalistic narrative; the other implies subjectivity by letting the thoughts in my head spill out onto the page.

In the end, I’ve chosen a combination of the two.

Let me give you an example of the distinction we’re discussing.

To my mind, there are two titans of Russian literature who perfectly epitomize the effects of subjectivity and objectivity.

Tolstoy was a master of objectivity, if not the master. Take this excerpt from War and Peace:

For him, it was no new conviction that his presence at all ends of the world, from Africa to the steppes of Muscovy, struck people in the same way and threw them into the madness of self-oblivion. He ordered his horse brought and rode to his camp.

This is a remarkably poignant observation, made all the more effective by its striking tone of objectivity. The subject of the paragraph is Napoleon, and Tolstoy gives us extraordinary insight into his psyche by remaining detached. “Threw them into the madness of oblivion” is particularly effective. The phrase conjures such a wide array of emotion and thought in the reader in so few words. Tolstoy could describe the “madness of self-oblivion,” but he doesn’t, instead opting to allow room for the reader’s thoughts to echo, enhancing the effect. By remaining objective, he allows the reader to transfer something of himself onto the text. The last sentence tells us of the sociopathic demeanor of Napoleon: though he causes this absurdly strong reaction in people, he himself couldn't care less: he simply goes about his business.

Tolstoy gives us the facts, allowing us to draw our own conclusions from them.

Dispassionate objectivity is itself a passion, for the real and for the truth.

~ Abraham Maslow

Now, take a passage from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment:

Coughing stopped her breath, but the tongue-lashing had its effect. Obviously, Katerina Ivanovna even inspired some fear; the tenants, one by one, squeezed through the back door, with that strange feeling of inner satisfaction which can always be observed, even in those who are near and dear, when a sudden disaster befalls their neighbor, and which is to be found in all men, without exception, however sincere their feelings of sympathy and commiseration.

Here, the subjectivity leaps from the page. Dostoyevsky is describing a scene which may or may be not interesting in and of itself, but it is the imposition of his own beliefs onto the scene which lends the passage its depth of emotion. The simple scene of tenants leaving a room becomes quite powerful when we think of the opinion that all men- every single one- feel a sense of satisfaction at the misfortune of others. In this case, the misfortune is death, and it's appalling to think of the tenants squeezing out of the house with a smug smirk of satisfaction on their face. But once we are sufficiently appalled, Dostoyevsky then reveals to us that we, the reader, should also be appalled at ourselves, because these feelings of satisfaction are present in “all men, without exception,” you, dear reader, included.

The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror.

~ Hans-Georg Gadamer

Now, it’s quite easy to contrast subjectivity and objectivity in terms of dead Russian writers, but we’re interested in how it affects our writing.

Suppose I’m writing a piece for Sssimpli, a profile of a new startup. I want to give the reader the facts: this is what the startup does, this is the problem it solves, these are the devices it works on, etc. There is an objective element.

I don’t want to remain completely objective, though. The things I write about on Sssimpli (and indeed everywhere) are things that I feel strongly about. I’m excited about this particular startup, and I want to convey that excitement to the reader. I can only do that (or, rather, I can do it much more effectively) with subjectivity.

A similar chord is struck on link blogs: take a couple of examples from Rian Van der Merwe’s homepage. One recent entry points to a New York Times op-ed: Rian offers a simple opening statement, a quote from the piece, then ends with: “I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just link there quietly.” He offers no insight, no dissection. He simply lets the piece speak for itself. He recognizes the impact that objectivity can have here.

In another piece, Rian recognizes the value that some personal insights can offer, so he breaks down some of the recent decisions at Twitter, interjecting his own subjective thoughts into their design process. Had he stuck with the facts, the piece is not nearly as useful.

This is the line we must walk, and I’m convinced that it is not only a remarkably difficult line to toe, but it is the litmus test of a true writer: he who masters the use of these two extremes is a craftsman. Whether the text requires complete subjectivity, complete objectivity, or a deft mixture of the two, it is what transforms the mediocre read into the words that find a home in our soul, never to let go.

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