Brenda Laurel – Computers as Theatre

•September 3, 2009 • Leave a Comment


As early as the beginning of the 1990s, Brenda Laurel hit on the idea that usability alone would not suffice when it came to the design of successful applications. She therefore articulated a theory of interaction which leveraged her knowledge of theatre with her experience in HCI. “The real issue,” she claims, is “How can people participate as agents within representational contexts? Actors know a lot about that, and so do children playing make-believe.” Laurel brings the resources of theatre, film, and narrative “to the fore and [begins] to use them in the design of interactive systems” (21).

Using Aristotle’s Poetics as a basis for dramatic theory, she explains how concepts such as catharsis, engagement, and agency manifest in digital (i.e. “representational”) contexts. She adds to the conversation by bringing in the rich vocabulary of theatre, which she convincingly points out is strikingly similar to HCI. Although her examples are now badly dated, her concepts and theoretical framework remain relevant for those interested in multidisciplinary ways to think and talk about usability and UXD.

Laurel’s project can be nicely summed up as follows: “Even in task-oriented applications, there is more to the experience than getting something done in the real world, and this is the heart of the dramatic theory of human-computer interaction. Our focus is not primarily on how to accomplish real-world objectives but rather how to accomplish them in a way that is both pleasing and amenable to artistic formulation—that is, in a way in which the designer may shape our experience so that it is enjoyable, invigorating, and whole” (120).

Quotes & Ideas Pertaining to Interface Design and UX

A Definition of UXD
“Designing human-computer experience isn’t about building a better desktop. It’s about creating imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality—worlds in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act” (33).

My Questions

1. Usability and UXD literature tends to indicate that mental models and metaphors are used to anticipate and support user tasks and behavior (Laurel, Norman, Nielsen, Young). The literature also makes it clear that proper use of mental models and metaphors makes for a useful and usable interface. However, it is less obvious how (or if) mental models are discussed / employed for emotional purposes. The same is true for metaphors, which are also discussed in terms of supporting interaction. Laurel sums it up well when she says, “The theory is that, if the interface presents representations of real-world objects [e.g. a ‘folder’ on a ‘desktop’], people will naturally know what to do with them” (128). This is true, for the most part. Yet, it is also true that people often know how they are supposed to feel and, more importantly, what role(s) they are expected to play in a representational context. However, current discussions of mental models and metaphor in interface design have shed no light on how or why this is the case.

Are ‘emotional mental models’ being leveraged in web design? If so, how? And to what end(s)? Is the work on “emotional design” (Norman, Coates) basically articulating what emotional mental models are and how they might be employed?

2. Brenda Laurel argues that “human-computer activities [are] more like plays than stories” (94). In fact, articulating a theory of “dramatic” (i.e. theatrical) HCI is the main project of her book. She explains that the 3 key differences between plays and stories have to do with the Aristotelian concepts of “enactment,” “intensification,” and “unity of action versus episodic structure” (94-95). Beginning with a discussion of these elements, then moving on to incorporate other writers who argue for the importance of narrative, turn Laurel on her head and explain why UXD is more like a story than a play.

Enactment – “the stuff of narrative is description, while the stuff of drama is action” (94)

Intensification – “incidents are selected, arranged, and represented, in general, so as to intensify emotion and condense time. Narrative forms generally employ the reverse process, extensification, where incidents may be reported from a number of perspectives and in ways that expand or explode time” (94)

Unity of action versus episodic structure – “narrative tends to be more episodic; that is, incidents are more likely to be quasi-independent and connected thematically rather than causally to the whole” (95)
3. Brenda Laurel conceptualized ‘engagement’ as something similar to the ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ She says it is “the state of mind we must attain in order to enjoy a representation of an action” (113). She goes on, “Engagement is what happens when we are able to give ourselves over to a representational action, comfortably and unambiguously. It involves a kind of complicity. We agree to think and feel in terms of both the content and conventions of a mimetic context. In return, we gain a plethora of new possibilities for action and a kind of emotional guarantee. One reason why people are amenable to constraints is the desire to gain these benefits” (115). How is interpellation similar to and different from engagement? What is the “emotional guarantee” Laurel mentions?

Fundamental to Laurel’s idea of engagement is that “the representation is all there is” (116). Can the same be true for interpellation in online environments? What does Shedroff say? Krug? Is interpellation non-representational?


Bill Buxton – Sketching User Experiences

•September 3, 2009 • Leave a Comment


Buxton argues that we are experiencing a shift from “object-centered to experience-centered” design (10). He explains, “It is not the physical entity or what is in the box (the material product) that is the true outcome of design. Rather, it is the behavioral, experiential, and emotional responses that come about as a result of its existence and its use in the real world” (10). This shift requires us to think of technologies as “social entities” which have the flexibility to respond in multiple ways, depending on how people appropriate them.[1] Buxton calls his approach “design for the wild” and says that “understanding how to take the larger ecological, contextual, and experiential aspects of ‘the wild’ [i.e. the use-context in all its richness]…may well provide the means to break out of the status quo” (38).

Buxton’s contributions in this book are twofold. First, he articulates the need for a “holistic approach to experience-based design” (71) which essentially leverages the bridging capital that is latent in all interdisciplinary teams. Buxton makes the claim that design teams should be composed of people with different backgrounds and histories because all can bring valuable, complimentary skills to bear in the creation of new products (230)[2] – and it is toward the creation of new things that Buxton pushes, because he convincingly points out that the “n+1” model of simply putting out successive releases of the same product is unsustainable in the long run.

The second major contribution Buxton makes lies in his strides toward establishing design as a professional discipline. He pointedly disagrees with Don Norman’s contention that “everyone is a designer,” and instead argues that if everyone was a designer, then movements like Participatory Design in Scandinavia would not need to be presided over by a professional. If design is really so simple, the lay people could do it on their own (102-03).

In terms of seeing a holistic design process come to fruition in the creation of a new product, Buxton suggests that various forms of sketching are effective means to that end. Like the technologies that come as a result of design, “sketches [too] are social things” (153). He goes beyond simply advocating the creation of low-fidelity paper prototypes (though he lauds these), and argues that in order to effectively design an experience, that experience must first be sketched. He gives several methods and examples of such experience-sketching, including the Wizard of Oz technique in which a convincing prototype is put in place, but the functionality is “faked” to such a degree that the user is unaware that s/he is not actually interacting with the real product (239-40). Buxton also explains that sketches can be arranged and annotated in order to tell experiential stories. Here, he explicitly invokes Denning and the immersive tradition of storytelling. He says that the fundamental actions stories promote – “invite, suggest, and question” “discovery” and “play” – are also the desired outcomes and actions that experiential and interactive sketching elicits (262). That is, both stories and sketches allow for a “discursive element” that are a key part of the holistic design process (262).

Although he invokes it superficially, Buxton invokes “Le Bricolage” in order to showcase examples of how functional prototypes can be built with found or otherwise readily available materials (253-59).[3]

Quotes & Ideas Pertaining to Interface Design and UX

“Interaction is about roles and their changing relationships” (264).

“’Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. To design something really well, you have to ‘get it.’ You have to really grok [understand] what it’s about’” – Steve Jobs (309).

Design and pathos: “Technologies need to be thought of as social beings, and in a social context” (32).

Design is more robust than “styling and usability” (77).

“The role of design is to get the right design. The role of usability engineering is to get the design right” (389).

“Despite the technocratic and materialistic bias of our culture, it is ultimately experiences that we are designing, not things” (127).

My Questions

1.  How is the process of creating an interpellative design similar to and different from creating an experience-based design?

2.  How are “designing for the wild” and storytelling related to the notion of habitus and the building of social (and aesthetic?) capital?

3.  How does interpellative design leverage pathos?

4.  From a Baudrillardian perspective, what makes sketching seductive?

This is Shirky’s fundamental assertion as well: that the relationship between humans and technologies they employ is recursive – we are shaped just as much as we shape.

Yet, for Shirky, the emphasis is on how otherwise mundane, ubiquitous  technologies take on the power to shape how we socialize with others (how we commune, communicate, and co-create, e.g.) when used for certain kairotic, user-determined purposes . For Buxton, on the other hand, technologies are social because they are collaboratively and interdisciplinarily constructed. His focus, in other words, is on how the inventional aspects of technology should be more social than they currently are. The reason for this returns us to the shift from object- to experience-centered design: designs are not used in a vacuum; therefore, they should not be designed in one.

Essentially, Shirky balances treatment of promise-tool-bargain. Buxton hones in on the tool. Buxton says, “My thesis [is] that in order to design a tool, we must make our best efforts to understand the larger social and physical context within which it is intended to function” (37).

I like the image of “silos” (92) that Buxton uses to explain the homogenous status quo of design teams. Bridging capital essentially destabilizes silos by introducing heterogeneity, and this allows creativity to blossom.

Not sure if more can be done with bricolage vis-à-vis Derrida, Deleuze & Guttari.

Clay Shirky – Here Comes Everybody

•September 3, 2009 • 2 Comments


The phrase that pops up repeatedly throughout this book is “more is different.” Shirky’s aim is to demonstrate, through detailed examples, that once technologies become ubiquitous and mundane, they can become tools of revolutionary social behavior. I don’t use ‘revolutionary’ here in one sense only. Shirky provides instances of how Twitter was used to organize flash mobs in protest, and he explains how websites, emails, and blogs were employed by a fired-up group of air passengers in support of the Passenger’s Bill of Rights. Yet, ‘revolutionary’ also means ‘novel’ – ‘different.’ Shirky claims we are in the midst of a “fundamental shift. We now have communication tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change” (20). One of the reasons we have witnessed technology at work in key social situations (another example Shirky offers is the group Voice of the Faithful, which formed in protest of the Catholic Church’s handling of pedophile priests) is because “forming groups has gotten a lot easier” (18) thanks to the ubiquitous use of now mundane technologies like email, blogs, and Twitter.

Additionally, thanks to the low costs associated with using these technologies, the most successful group-forming entities on the Web are such not because of their power to dictate the particulars of group formation, but rather because they act as a gathering spot for coordination among the users themselves. That is, users rather than the company (or host site), entirely control whether a group will form and what its rules will be. More and more, we are witnessing the power of such self-synchronized groups to enact real change in the world. This is part of the fundamental shift in group behavior that mundane technologies coupled with the right promise and the right set of boundaries makes possible.

In this new technologically mediated social environment, people’s roles are constantly in flux, and identity is a function of the capability of whatever tools are available to appropriate. This is the result of the “mass amateurization” movement which blogs, wikis, and podcasts have largely made possible. Shirky writes, “Amateur production, the result of all this new capability, means that the category of ‘consumer’ is now a temporary behavior rather than a permanent identity” (108). However, it is wrong to assume that huge numbers of people are now contributing huge amounts of meaningful content to social media systems. On the contrary, Shirky is careful to point out that all social media behavior is described by roughly similar Power Law Distributions – this curve, which slopes sharply downward from left to right like a playground slide, illustrates that a few people contribute most of the substantive content, while the remaining masses pop in to make small, infrequent contributions. This pattern of unequal participation is repeated all over the Web, from Flickr to Wikipedia. The distribution also tells us that within a small system with few participants, attention can be tightly focused, and conversation can happen among all. Whereas in a larger system, a single or small group of users broadcast content that other users see, but no conversation can happen among all members of the community because the connections are too many.

Quotes & Ideas Pertaining to Interface Design and UX


“On the Web…the arrows of attention are all potentially reciprocal; anyone can point to anyone else, regardless of geography, infrastructure, or other limits” (90).

“Every webpage is a latent community. Each page collects the attention of people interested in its contents, and those people might well be interested in conversing with one another, too” (102).

“The internet augments real world social life rather than providing an alternative to it. Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, our electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life” (196).

“Everywher we look, social media makes creativity not just possible but desirable” (311).

“The future belongs to those who take the present for granted” (319).

Promise, tool, bargain (PTB)

Definition: “The promise is the basic ‘why’ for anyone to join or contribute to a group. The tool helps with the ‘how’ [of coordination]…And the bargain sets the rules of the road” (260).

Social Capital

Shirky cites Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone to base his explanation of social capital.


  • “that mysterious but critical set of characteristics of functioning communities” (192); “a set of norms that facilitate cooperation within or among groups” (193).
  • Participation is “the vehicle for creating and sustaining social capital” (193);
  • “that store of behaviors and norms in any large group that lets its members support one another” (222).


  • “When your neighbor walks your dog while you are ill, or the guy behind the counter trusts you to pay him next time, social capital is at work” (192).
  • “The person who teaches learns twice, the persona who answers questions gets an improved reputation in the community, and the overall pattern of distributed and delayed payback—if I take care of you now, someone will take care of me later—is a very practical way of creating…social capital” (258).

“Essential conundrum”: “inclusion implies exclusion” (202). Was it K. Burke who talked about congregation by segregation?

Power of: “One reason the phrase ‘social capital’ is so evocative is that it connotes an increase in power, analogous to financial capital” (222)

“Individuals in groups with more social capital…are better off on a large number of metrics, from health and happiness to earning potential, than those in groups with less social capital. Societies characterized by a high store of social capital overall do better than societies with low social capital on a similarly wide range of measurements, from crime rate to the costs of doing business to economic growth” (192).

Types of:

  • Bonding capital: “an increase in the depth of connections and trust within a relatively homogenous group” (222)
  • Bridging capital: “an increase in connections among relatively heterogeneous groups” (222)
  • Connection to Ronald Burt: Among other things, bridging capital is the force underlying the argument for transdisciplinarity. In “The Social Origins of Good Ideas,” Ronald Burt found that “the highest percentage of good ideas came from people whose contacts were outside their own department.” In other words, “Bridging predicted good ideas; lack of bridging predicted bad ones” (230-31).[2]
  • Example: “an increase in bridging capital would increase the number of people you’d lend [your money] to; an increase in bonding capital would increase the amount of money you’d lend to people already on the list” (222).
  • “Bonding capital tends to be more exclusive and bridging capital more inclusive. In Small World networks, bonding tends to happen within the clusters, while bridging happens between clusters” (224).
  • Application: “The [Howard] Dean [presidential] campaign was great at doing everything a campaign can do with bonding capital—gathering ardent supporters and raising millions in funds—but getting people to vote for the candidate required bridging capital, reaching out to people outside the charmed inner circle” (224). Thus, the failure of Dean’s presidential bid is effectively the story of a failed bid for bridging capital.

My Questions

1. How is Shirky’s idea of “social capital” different from Ronald Burt’s, Althusser’s and Bourdieu’s? How does social capital as a mechanism drive interpellation into the realm of the aesthetic (i.e. Design)?

2. How can Pink’s 6 right-brain aptitudes and Heath & Heath’s SUCCES model be leveraged to find the right mix of Shirky’s “promise, tool, bargain”?

1.  Through an analysis of the promises offered in some of the book’s examples of group action, Shirky notes that what makes a good promise is a “balanced” message; something that sounds “just right”; an idea that’s “modest but interesting.” To me, these sounded like Aristotle’s Golden Mean might have some play in terms of better understanding what makes an interpellative promise.

Come to think of it, bridging capital seems to be a huge underlying current in Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. There, he calls for the democratization of science – the inclusion of the “uninitiated” into the discourse. Similarly, Bruno Latour in Science in Action notes that many scientific discoveries and ‘a ha!’ moments emerge from a scientist discussing work with non-scientists. Bridging capital might also be latent in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I need some quotes here to substantiate all this, but what I’m trying to say is that I see the importance of bridging capital pretty powerfully demonstrated through these writers in the history of science.

Daniel Pink – A Whole New Mind

•September 3, 2009 • Leave a Comment


Pink claims that there is a “seismic shift” in the types of aptitudes that make people successful in this day and age. Because of what he calls “Abundance, Asia, and Automation” (Chapter 2), left brain-driven skills such as linear thinking, analytic hard logic, and step-by-step methods of problem solving are no longer enough to make a person stand out in their field. Pink says that if you find yourself doing a job in which someone overseas could do it cheaper and/or a computer can do it faster, then you are in a precarious spot. In order to save your job and to be more satisfied with the work you do, as well as with the quality of your life overall, you should strive to develop or refine six fundamental right-brain aptitudes (51):[1]

  • Design – A combination of utility and significance (70)
  • Story – “The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative” (66)
  • Symphony – “synthesis,” “crossing boundaries,” “combine disparate pieces into an arresting whole” (66), inventive juxtaposition (130)[2]
  • Empathy – “allows us to see the other side of an argument” (160)
  • Playhomo ludens
  • Meaning – “Our fundamental drive, the motivational engine that powers human existence, is the pursuit of meaning” (217). The top tier of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (225).

Pink claims that we have moved out of the Information Age, and into the “Conceptual Age.”[3] In his words, “We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathetic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age” (1-2). Overall, Pink encourages an inclusive approach to living and working in the Conceptual Age. It’s not that we need to develop the right-brain aptitudes to the exclusion of the left-brain ones. The point is, we need both.

Key Differences between the Left and Right Brain

Left Brain

Right Brain

Brocca and Wernicke’s area


“The right hemisphere is the picture; the left hemisphere is the thousand words” (19)

Literal meaning / Manifest content (in psychoanalytic terms) Metaphors, figurative language / Latent content


“’The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing’…The left side is the fox; the right side is a hedgehog” (22)

Big picture / Gestalt
Sequential Simultaneous

Link obviously connected elements to establish something already known Link apparently unconnected elements to create something new. In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, ‘”creativity generally involves crossing the boundaries of domains’” (135).
Homo seriosus (Lanham)

Homo sapiens – man the knower (Pink)

Homo rhetoricus (Lanham)

Homo ludens (Pink, Huizinga)

Quotes & Ideas Pertaining to Interface Design and UX

“It’s no longer enough to create a product that’s reasonably priced and adequately functional. It must also be beautiful, unique, and meaningful, abiding by what author Virginia Postrel calls ‘the aesthetic imperative’” (33, emphasis mine).[4]

“In an age of abundance, appealing only to rational, logical, and functional needs is woefully insignificant…Mastery of design, empathy, play, and other seemingly ‘soft’ aptitudes is now the main way for individuals and firms to stand out in a crowded marketplace” (34).[5]

One way in which these aptitudes manifest in an instructional setting is being developed by Robert Sternberg. The Rainbow Project (now called the Kaleidoscope Project) is “an alternative SAT” which was designed not only to address issues related to the gap in performance between races and socioeconomic classes, but also to be a more precise indicator than the SAT is of college success. Sternberg’s test, which “doesn’t aim to replace the SAT—only to augment it,” engages students’ narrative and emotional literacies by asking them, for example, to create captions for New Yorker cartoons, to write a short story around a given title (such as “The Octopus’ Sneakers”), and to figure out how to persuade others in real life situations (such as helping them move furniture) (59-59).

“’Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them’” as is the case in video game play (193).

“Many aspects of video gaming resemble the aptitude of Symphony—spotting trends, drawing connections, and discerning the big picture…Experiences with [RPGs] can deepen the aptitude of Empathy and offer rehearsals for the social interactions of our lives” (194). Games also have a Story structure (“’games are the literature of the twenty-first century’” (195), and are often beautifully Designed.

Utility + Significance = Design

– “Utility requires significance” (79, emphasis mine)

– Cases in point: toaster (80), hospital of the future (82, and my experience on the project in Jan’s class)

We “consume experiences, not things.” – Karim Rashid (92)

Symphony is the underling drive behind my entire project, since it calls (like Lanham does in “The ‘Q’ Question”) for a both/and grammar, a gestalt (136): We need to understand how to adapt technology to users AND how to adapt users to technology.

Interfaces are satisfying if they can imbue Meaning. If they are gratifying to interact with (226).

My Questions

1. In terms of creating persuasive interfaces, how does the aptitude of Design combine both usability and user experience? How can Design interpellate users, and persuade them to act in their best interests in virtual environments?

2. In what ways is Story an interpellative construct? How are stories persuasive?

3. If Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric is an interpellative construct, how does it keep from being destructively persuasive (i.e. coercive, manipulative), since it is defined by being rule-based, and since being rule-based is inherently non-empathetic?

3A. How does (or can) procedural rhetoric as an interpellative construct demonstrate emotional literacy?

1.  From what I understand at this point, there’s overlap here between these aptitudes, and what defines a sticky idea in Made to Stick. Those elements are Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories.

2.  Symphony might have more resonance when I get to Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences because Pink writes that the best way to understand symphony is to understand drawing. Both are about relationships. Both are a way of seeing (131).

3.  Richard Lanham makes a similar claim in The Economics of Attention. Substitute ‘conceptual’ with ‘attention,’ and you’ve basically got Lanham’s thesis.

4.  Pink quotes from Postrel’s The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Values is Remaking Culture, Commerce, and Consciousness. This sentiment is more or less echoed in Norman’s Emotional Design. I’d have to see exactly how Postrel defines ‘the aesthetic imperative,’ but it might also link up with Bourdieu’s notion of ‘cultural capital.’ It also has obvious syntactic similarity to Kant’s ‘categorical imperative.’

5.  This might be an extension of Pine and Gilmore’s thesis in The Experience Economy. They claim that creating a memorable user experience is the way to differentiate yourself in the marketplace. But how is that experience generated? Through utilization of some combination Pink’s right-brain aptitudes.

Jean Baudrillard – “On Seduction”

•September 3, 2009 • 4 Comments


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).

My Questions

  1. What is the relationship between Baudrillard’s notion of the trompe-l’oeil and Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric?
  2. If seduction is an effect of interpellation, and flow is also an effect of interpellation, how are they similar in this regard? How different?
  3. 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?