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Subjectivity in Representation

posted Apr 1, 2010, 10:26 AM by Molly Schall
    I was recently required to attend a lecture concerning the novel as a literary form.  I was pleasantly surprised by my own interest in the topic, especially in the provocative question, "What is fiction?"  At first glance, one might answer, "Fiction is a story which isn't true."  However, how is something in words "true"?  Could it be that even something retold using words is fiction because it is a representation rather than the thing itself?  My own wondering mind during the lecture asked the question, "How fictional are our history books?"  It is unnerving to realize that the books, such as history books etc., which we assume to have the "facts", at their essence still reflect the personal subjectivity of the author.  Is it possible that any kind of retelling could be completely objective?
    Almost on cue, a class I'm taking, Museums and Culture, took up where the lecture and my wondering mind left off.  Just as any form of literature reflects personal subjectivity, museums, especially history museums reflect a retelling of the past which is often times more subjective than the average visitor may realize.  In an article we read, the historian Lutz Niethammer was recorded saying, "the challenge facing consists in asking 'what kind of service historians, or people with an education in history, can perform to support the subjectivity of individuals in their historical perception of themselves."  Should historians be supporting subjectivity, or promoting objectivity in the retelling of the past?  I believe most people, perhaps, are more attached to their personal subjectivity than we'd like to think.  So, we are attracted to historical documentation which seems "right" to us, that fits in our own world view. 
    Now everything seems quite hopeless, it seems that everything which is retold is fictional or subjective in a way.  Even if it did manage to be objective, we would probably not like it, as seen in the quickly altered Enola Gay exhibit in the Smithsonian.  This debate which raged in the mid-1990's almost too perfectly shows the public's occasional discomfort with hearing both sides of the story, with an exhibit which tried to be as objective as possible. 
    Thus, the question remains, "What should we do?!"  We cannot force people to see things objectively, because or own interpretations of objectivity are subjective.  My own personal solution to this problem is attempting to always trying to percieve not only authors' or historians' personal biases, but also my own.  We cannot take any sorce as complete truth.  It is our job to search widely for knowledge, and piece it together as best we can, while actively seeking both sides of the story.