Jean Baudrillard – “On Seduction”
Seduction and Psychoanalysis
Baudrillard explains seduction in part through the use of language and analogies from Freudian psychoanalysis. He therefore begins the chapter by saying that unlike psychoanalysis, whose whole project is to uncover latent meaning by interpreting manifest content—for, psychoanalysis teaches that the locus of meaning is underneath, in between, or outside of manifest discourse—in the case of seduction, meaning is located wholly within the manifest. In other words, the domain of seduction “is the scared horizon of appearances” (153).
Understanding seduction is difficult in part because psychoanalysis privileges the latent: “Interpretation overlooks and obliterates…appearances in its search for hidden meaning” (152). Furthermore, the manifest denotes superficiality (that which is apparent within appearance), and “all appearances conspire to combat meaning, to uproot meaning, whether intentional or not, and to convert it into a game” (153). Thus, manifest discourse’s alignment with ‘play’ puts it at odds with psychoanalysis’s ‘serious’ (i.e. scientific) practice of producing meaning through the act of interpreting signs and matching them with signifiers (to bring in Saussurian terms, as Baudrillard does). Moreover, Beaudrillard writes that Freud “abolished seduction [from the list of primary human drives] in order to replace it with an eminently operational mechanics of interpretation” (155). Thus, in addition to being aligned with frivolous activities such as play, seduction also refuses to allow itself to be operationally defined, which therefore makes it anathema to science and scientific inquiry.
As a consequence of its epistemology, the psychoanalytic paradigm created a number of binary oppositions. For example:
- Latent / Manifest -Or- Hidden meaning / Surface appearance
- Science (formal logic, rules, law) / Play (no formal logic, no spoken rules, no law)
- Passive acceptance of weakness in order to survive / Active use of weakness in order to thrive
The Trompe-l’oeil, Trick of the Eye
Baudrillard’s articulation of seduction deconstructs these binaries. He addresses the primacy of appearances by bringing in the notion of “enchanted simulation: the trompe-l’oeil [or, trick of the eye], more false than false, and the secret of appearances” (157). Beaudrillard explains the trompe-l’oeil through negation: “these objects are not objects. They do not describe a familiar reality, like a still life. They describe…void and absence…These are…reappearances that haunt the emptiness of a scene. This seduction is not an aesthetic one…but an acute and metaphysical seduction, one derived from the nullification of the real” (157). As he continues to explore the ways in which the trompe-l’oeil manifests itself, the binaries reverse: in the non-space and surreality of trompe-l’oeil, play will always trump science—for truth does not exist once it is stripped of appearance (157), and appearance is the realm of play and game (153). Additionally, nothing is hidden—for pure appearance is ironically the “excess of reality” (158). The trompe-l’oeil is a key organizing principle (even though Badrillard would not call it such, insomuch as it resists form) for his theory of seduction, and it is therefore instructive to break out some characteristics of it which Baudrilard discusses.
Some Characteristics of the Trompe-l’oeil
- The effect of the trompe-l’oeil is “seduction and exhilaration” (159), as well as pleasure (160).
- The revelation of the trompe-l’oeil is that “’reality’ is nothing but a staged world, objectified according to rules…a simulacrum which the experimental hypersimulation of the trompe-l’oeil undermines” (159).
- The mechanisms of the trompe-l’oeil are play, artifice, mimicry, and questioning.
“The trompe-l’oeil does not attempt to confuse itself with the real. Fully aware of play and artifice, it produces a simulacrum by mimicking the third dimension, questioning the reality of the third dimension, and by mimicking and surpassing the effect of the real, radically questioning the principle of reality” (159).
- The aims of the trompe-l’oeil are to “reverse and to revert,” to undermine certainty.
“Surrealism, like the trompe-l’oeil, is not really a part of art of art history. Surrealism and the trompe-l’oeil have a metaphysical dimension. Aspects of style are not their concern. They disrupt the very point of impact with reality or functionality, and therefore with consciousness. They aim to reverse and to revert. They undermine the world’s certainty. This is why their pleasure and seduction is radical, even if minor, for they derive from an extreme surprise within appearances, from a like prior to the mode of production of the real world” (160).
- The locations of the trompe-l’oeil are (Renaissance) painting and architecture (specifically political edifices such as palaces) (160-61). Seduction happens in the former through perspective, or, more accurately the loss thereof—the feeling of “vertigo”, and in the latter through space, or rather the “holes” therein.
How Baudrillard’s Seduction is Different from Shedroff’s
After discussing the trompe-l’oeil, Baudrillard moves into a section called “The secret and the challenge.” Here, we learn that this theory of seduction goes well beyond the impoverished understanding of seduction in terms of sex. Baudrillard writes, “It is not through some libidinal investment, through some energy of desire that [seduction] acquires intensity, but through the pure form of gaming and bluffing” (164). Baudrillard goes on to sharply criticize the popular understanding of seduction (i.e. the way Nathan Shedroff invokes it) when he says that seduction, “in its actual [popular] form, has lost all risk, suspense, and magic to take the form of a faint and undifferentiated obscenity” (166). This is a damning invective indeed, because the way seduction has been appropriated, by Shedroff and others who attempt to ‘sell’ it, is as a commodity, and Baudrillard explicitly claims that seduction is beyond production, beyond commodification (“seduction takes hold of…all production and finally annihilates it” (166)). Seduction does not participate in the regular flow of things for “seduction is merely an immoral, frivolous, superficial, and superfluous process: one within the realm of signs and appearances; one that is devoted to pleasure” (165).
How Seduction is Related to Play
So, if sex is not seductive, what is? The answer (in addition to language itself): a challenge.
The rules of engagement which govern challenges and seduction are similar, and actually hinge on the strange logic of play: “The challenge terminates all contracts, all exchanges regulated by law (the law of nature or the law of value) and substitutes it for a highly conventional and ritualized pact. An unremitting obligation to respond and to outdo, governed by a fundamental rule of the game, and proceeding according to its own rhythm. Contrary to the law which is always written in stone…this fundamental rule never needs to be stated; it must never be stated. It is immediate, immanent, and inevitable (whereas the law is transcendental and explicit)…The enchantment of seduction…is never an investment but a risk; never a contract but a pact; never individual but dual; never psychological but ritual; never natural but artificial” (164-65).
The logic of play explains how challenges might be characterized as seductive. But what makes challenge distinct from seduction? Baudrillard both asks and answers this question. In response to his own question he writes, “The challenge consists in drawing the other within your area of strength, which is also his or her strength, given that there can be an unlimited escalation. Whereas the strategy (?) (Sic) of seduction consists in drawing the other within your area of weakness, which will also be his or hers…We seduce with weakness, never with strong powers and strong signs. In seduction we enact this weakness, and through it seduction derives its power…Seduction makes use of weakness, makes a game of it, with its own rules” (165). Here, then, is the reversal of the last binary I listed above, and the final way in which seduction thwarts the psychoanalytic paradigm “of resignation and acceptance” of weakness (165).
- What is the relationship between Baudrillard’s notion of the trompe-l’oeil and Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric?
- If seduction is an effect of interpellation, and flow is also an effect of interpellation, how are they similar in this regard? How different?
- Baudrillard gives as an architectural example of the trompe-l’oeil the studiolos of the Duke of Urbino, and Frederigo da Montefeltre, in the ducal palace of Urbino and Gubbio. He says that the studiolo is “a reverse microcosm: cut off from the rest of the structure, without windows, literally without space, since here space is actualized in simulation.” He goes on to note, “Since Machiavelli politicians have perhaps always known that the mastery of a simulated space is the source of power, that the political is not a real activity or space, but a simulation model, whose manifestations are simply achieved effects. The very secret of appearances [i.e. its seductive quality] can be found in this blind spot in the palace” (161). What do trompes-l’oeil look like in digital environments? In cyberspace? Is their effect the same as in Renaissance art and architecture?