Imprisonment, as a form of detention and punishment, was first introduced by Ancient Greek philosophers thousands of years ago. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is also one of the few types of punishment, originating in the ancient world, still adopted today. From primitive metal cages to modern cells and fences, all prisons give people a sense of isolation, loneliness, and hopelessness. The main purpose of a prison is to deprive the condemned man or woman of the freedom of movement; nevertheless, the idea of imprisonment also extends to the mental and spiritual aspects of being. Viennese psychologist Anna Freud once claimed, “We are imprisoned in the realm of life, like a sailor on his tiny boat, on an infinite ocean.” Indeed, internal forces such as self-objectification, plus external forces including objectification by others, can both imprison a human being and prevent him/her from being free.
In his famous speech “I have a dream”, Martin Luther King uses the metaphor of imprisonment several times to represent the political, social and economic situation of black Americans in the U.S. of the 1960s. “The life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” Here, King uses manacles and chains, which both limit the physical freedom of people, to describe segregation and discrimination. This implies that black Americans are ‘socially quarantined’ by the force of prejudice and injustice, emphasizing the idea of ‘imprisonment’. Besides, King describes the whole nation as loan which has defaulted – “They were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir… It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” The word ‘default’ indicates that the whole nation failed to fulfill the obligation that every citizen should share equal rights. King also claims that “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” By drawing parallel between quicksands – which can trap everything inside – and our nation, King tries to convince his listeners that freedom itself, in the U.S., has been captured by racism, and we cannot be free unless we can break out of this prison of racial injustice.
Similar metaphors of imprisonment can also be found in Maya Angelou’s poems. Having worked with Martin Luther King to combat racism, Angelou depicts the black community’s longing for liberation from a racist society in the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”. She contrasts the image of a free bird, representing white people, with a caged bird, representing black Americans, to illustrate the fight for civil rights.
A caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
Since a bird cannot be trapped on its own, the poem serves to denounce a racist nation, whose narrow-mindedness and blindness has confined a group of its own citizens to an invisible cage. During that period of time, the black community was excluded from the public sphere, from the marketplace, and from the rights and resources generally enjoyed by American citizens. And in her “Million Man March Poem”, Angelou uses the night, the pit and the walls to illustrate the great racist pressure the underrepresented groups faced in the U.S. society – “The night has been long / The pit has been deep / The night has been dark / And the walls have been steep.” Imprisoned by the long, dark night, abyssal pits and high walls, these people were unable to become free and could only wear a badge of shame.
In fact, Martin Luther King’s speeches as well as Maya Angelou’s poems are both concrete examples of what Jean-Paul Sartre regards as ‘objectification’. In his “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre makes the distinction between unconscious being (being-in-itself) and conscious being (being-for-itself). An unconscious being is concrete, lacks the ability to change, and is unaware of itself. For instance, a table is an unconscious being – more commonly people simply call it a thing or an ‘object’. On the other hand, a conscious being has the ability to change itself, and possesses consciousness which, based on Sartre’s argument, is “a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being”(p86). For Sartre, there is no doubt that human being is a conscious being – the use of the gerund ‘being’ after ‘human’ suggests that humans are constantly changing, dynamic and spontaneous. Furthermore, humans do not have general properties as objects do. Every characteristic of a human being – body shape, skin color, weight, height and so on – uniquely belongs to himself / herself. In this way, a human being is a phenomenon rather than an unconscious object.
However, it is possible that some people may imprison themselves through ‘objectification’ – turning people into unconscious objects. Generally, objectification arises from what Sartre called ‘bad faith’. Bad faith, based on his discussion in “Being and Nothingness”, is a kind of attitude “which is essential to human reality and which is such that consciousness instead of directing its negation outward turns it toward itself” (p87). In simpler terms, bad faith is a kind of self-deception, the denial of the transcendence from the unconscious being (being-in-itself) to the conscious being (being-for-itself). As a result of bad faith, people will reduce a subject to a mere object based on one of its features. Using the example of a waiter in a cafe, Sartre claims that the waiter plays as a waiter, but there is no bad faith if he recognizes his being is not the waiter. Conversely, bad faith is generated once the waiter immediately objectifies himself as a waiter, “in the sense that this inkwell is an inkwell or the glass is a glass” (p104).
Moreover, Sartre argues that people who suffer from self-imprisonment – as they try to escape the burden of subjectivity – are essentially not free. They deceive themselves by ignoring their consciousness and immersing themselves instead in a particular explanation of life, a handbook of rules, an ideological perspective or pursuit for omnipotence. Therefore they are considered as possessing inauthentic attitudes. “Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself.”(p35) Sartre claims this in his “Existentialism is a Humanism”, and he further argues that human beings are “condemned” to be free since “Man is freedom”. In this way, if a person is inauthentic to his own personality, spirit, or character, then he is not free – as he refuses to accept his freedom and retreats into only one aspect of his being, viewing himself as a pre-determined object. One of the examples given by Sartre in his “Being and Nothingness” is the description of walking on a narrow path:
…At the same time I conceive of a certain number of causes, originating in universal determinism, which can transform that threat of death into reality(p66)
Instead of coming up with methods to push away danger, “I” passively accept the current situation and leave “myself” as an object in the world which is only subject to gravitational force. “I” am imprisoned by my anguish and thus not free in this case.
Furthermore, Sartre rightfully observes that self-objectification be turned against others. In other words, bad faith also allows (or compels) us to imprison people. In “Existentialism is a Humanism”, Sartre develops the concept of self-objectification further to the idea of objectification by others.
Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth – I shall call bastards. (p49)
One motivation for such behavior is to imprison a man in what he is, since the perpetuators live in fear that he/she might escape from it, and that he/she might overflow and suddenly elude his/her condition. In the case of Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou, objectification is the act of reducing human beings to their skin color. And people with black skin color are imprisoned by oppressors, partly because these people are afraid of losing their social privileges once black people get rid of their “being as black” – the black community can fully claim their freedom, enjoy the same civil rights with others and do not have to suffer from segregation polices.
Examples of objectification by others can also be found in Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”. Written in the summer of 1940 after the fall of France, this article uses Homer’s epic poem the Iliad to illustrate the triumph of the most extreme expression of force – war. It starts with a horrifying definition of force – “To define force – it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him”(p5). This definition implies that force has the effect of objectification, as it presumes to make objects of conscious, thinking beings, that is, of human beings; in the worse case, force can turn people into dead bodies which totally lose their freedom to live. It is very easy to link this definition to actual situations that occurred during World War II. Countries were invaded; people lost their sense of belonging and identity; their civil rights were suddenly denied; many of them were imprisoned, sent to concentration camps or even to extermination camps. In this sense, they are not considered as human beings anymore. Instead they are simply objects and things to be discarded or resources to be exploited by the invaders. Conquered people suffer spiritual imprisonment along with the limitations placed on their freedom of movement. Based on historical facts, more than 4 million Jews were sent to Nazi concentration camps during World War II – they completely lost their physical freedom, and they suffered from severe mental trauma. Surprisingly, force not only objectifies victims; it turns the abusers into things as well. “Such is the nature of force. Its power of converting a man into a thing is a double one, and in its application double-edged. To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone”(p50). One reason is that force intoxicates the stronger party, partly by numbing their senses thereby crippling their ability to reason and infecting their capacity for compassion. As a result the users of forces become unthinking objects driven by their false sense of omnipotence. In the case of World War II, this refers to figures such as Adolf Hitler, who distorted human consciousness and saw men as killing machines. In this way they are imprisoned by their own power and desire; they cannot be free so long as omnipotence tempts them, and therefore also lost their freedom – their freedom to make conscious and wise decisions which are beneficial to themselves as well as to the entire world.
The objectification of force in “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” reminds us of the discussion of the sub-man and the serious man in Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Ethics of Ambiguity”. Beauvoir defines the sub-man as follows –“Ethics is the triumph of freedom over facticity, and the sub-man feels only the facticity of his existence”(p36)
The sub-man only maintains his existence in this world as bare facticity, and he is afraid to consider new or different possibilities. They were easily controlled, and dared not to try new things which may have had disastrous consequences. On the other hand, the serious man subordinates his freedom to absolute, external values. “The thing that matters to the serious man is not so much the nature of the object which he prefers to himself, but rather the fact of being able to lose himself in it”(p38) In the real world, the serious man could easily become a tyrant or a fanatic as the cause he adopts becomes its own end to which all else is subjugated. Thus, abusers of force such as Adolf Hitler, who is mentioned in the previous paragraph, can be categorized as the serious man. It is interesting to note that some people can be both the sub-man and the serious man. Soldiers, for instance, have to blindly follow orders to accomplish whatever tasks they are assigned during wars. In this sense they are considered as the sub-man; in other cases they have the power (weapon) to exploit armless citizens, and they become the serious man in such circumstances.
Speaking of objectification, one may also remember Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy”, in which Kafka depicts an ape who learns all the human behaviors only to provide itself with a means to escape from the cage. Throughout this essay, the author emphasizes the concept of “way out” several times. In particular, he points out that the ape is only aiming for getting out of the cage. “No, freedom was not what I wanted. Only a way out” (p177). On one hand, this ape succeeds in the end – it learns from different teachers and manages to become a performer on stage, thus escaping the fate of being caged in the zoo. From this perspective, we can claim that this ape escapes from the physical imprisonment set by other human beings. However, it is interesting to note that in the last paragraph, Kafka introduces a new, half-trained female chimpanzee which “has the insane look of the bewildered half-broken animal in her eyes” (p184). By contrasting the ‘humanized’ ape and the new little chimpanzee, we can probably argue that this ape has lost its internal existence. Its existence in this world is not represented by its own being for itself, but rather “being for others” in the form of stage performance and learning to behave like humans.
In this way, this ape has indeed been objectified by others. In the pursuit of escaping physical imprisonment, it loses its freedom of expressing itself and falls into another form of imprisonment – its original animal nature is eroded, and its identity is re-shaped based on others’ will.
Therefore, we have found that the greatest enemy of freedom is imprisonment – physical imprisonment through chains and manacles, mental imprisonment through self-deception and anguish, and last but not least, social imprisonment through objectification by others. These imprisonments prevent us from becoming free, as they either limit our space of movement, or degenerate us into mindless objects, or corrupt our human consciousness. To obtain total freedom, we have to break out of not just the physical prison, but also the prison of objectification as well as inauthenticity.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, “Existentialism Is a Humanism”, Trans. Carol Macomber, Yale University Press, 2007.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, “Being and Nothingness – A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology”, Trans. Hazel Barnes, Washington Square Press, 1992.
Weil, Simone, “The Iliad, Or the Poem of Peace”, University of Chicago Press, 2003.
De Beauvoir, Simone, “The Ethics of Ambiguity”, Trans. Bernard Frenchtman, Citadel Press.
Kafka, Franz, “The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories”, Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, Schocken Books, New York.