38 Jean Baudrillard (3)
How could we look someone in the eye, how would we seduce them if we are not sure that they are still there?1
Seduction, after Baudrillard’s analysis, can no longer exist at this, the end-stage of societal development in our present age, because neither a seducer nor a seductee cannot exist. That is: Subject and Object alike, in the game of a seduction, are vanished from the stage. Presently not entirely, but developments seem to tend in that direction.
I shall attempt an analysis.
The separation between subject and object was a beloved axiom in the history of philosophy. Opposite the constructing, thinking, acting Subject stands a passive, malleable Object, i.e. a thing. To make a person into an object, that is to objectify them: this is what international accords of human rights seek to prohibit. Above all Hegel and Marx rejected the idea that a person should become an object for others, a work-tool, a slave, a dependent on wages, etc. We are not the defenseless work, sex, or sensual slaves of others. Even in the case of seduction to the purchase of some product, even the purchase of a sex-object itself, I wish to remain the subject: freely to determine for myself whether, or not. All else would be deception, manipulation, outside control, outside assignation.
Now the French author turns precisely this subject-object relation, this presumptuous self-assurance of the subject, thence its illusion of freedom and self-determination, on its head. We are perpetually seduced, namely, by objects that dominate us with their strategies of seduction, sometimes without our even knowing. We are not under the spell of a subject, whose eyes we might meet: seduction submits us to the cold power of a seducer, effectuated in the seduction-game not by a subject, but by an object. How does this transpire?
You have already heard something of the dominance of things, what power and violence they inhumanly wield over us. That the dominance of objects can become inhuman, excessive, obscene. That this dominion tends towards excrescence, ecstasy, and totalitarianism. And that this seduction can evaporate, dissolve into nothingness and emptiness (so it seems).
Thus is the seducing object, the seducer, ultimately entirely vanished. But likewise, so is the seductee, the subject. More on that later.
Baudrillard introduces a further term into the seduction-game: only the object can seduce us, attract us, allure us under its sway. The subject by contrast is at the mercy of its own desires, can only be seduced to the extent they desire. That the seductee, however, can also seduce (in turn) the seducer, is not possible in this subject-object constellation: objects can only seduce, and cannot themselves be seduced. The subject is at the mercy of their seduction and can only desire.
To desire a prostitute means to desire, to purchase a reification for money. Love and prostitution seem to exclude one another. This also holds, in a similar manner, when no money is in play: for the one-nightstand, to the extent one or the other of the partners is made prostitute: it applies for the short, quick, shot in the dark, etc. Love in exchange for money doesn’t work, unless gratitude is also in play (for the money, for the sexual act).
“The subject can only desire; the object alone can seduce,” without that it desires, according to Baudrillard. That also means to make domination and the subject dependent on one another.
The object is consequently in the more-powerful position, as it is in a position to supply a deficit, a shortfall on the side of the subject.
The matter becomes nevertheless more complicated in the case, that (according to Baudrillard) the object must eventually arrive at its terminal stage, where it ultimately disappears. All objects are inclined toward excrescence, toward metastasization, toward vanishing (they “dissipate into nothingness”). Thence the question: how can one be seduced by something that does not at all exist? How can one look a seducer in the eye, when there is no seducer at all? This applies, above all, for the sexual object, which is especially powerful because it knows no desire. It can, indeed it must, withdraw itself even in its terminal stage according to desire and mood, to bring itself to vanishing: “the object disappears at the subject’s horizon, and out of the disappearedness it entangles the subject in its fatal strategies.”
Yet if the seducer is vanished there can be no more seduction, and the subject likewise withdraws from the game—the subject mustperforce withdraw:
“Henceforth the subject disappears as well at the object’s horizon.” Only emptiness and nothingness remains. The game is finished.
Objectification in sexuality was previously mostly an iniquity: the man’s passivity in the homosexual act was itself rejected in Antiquity, sadomasochistic sexual practices are questioned in light of their tendency towards reification; dependency on consumer goods is almost a sickness, an addiction, in the present day. In such a way in our present-day lives, the object is often an “ostracized part of the subject:” obscene, passive, and prostituting itself—mostly with success, to the extent it can resort to the methods of advertising.
But it is also threatened with the same fate as every other object: here as well, we find excrescence, a quality through itself, toward its pure form, its ecstatic luster, toward emptiness, toward nothingness.
Baudrillard writes: the subject’s primordial privilege thus reverses itself. For as it can only desire, it is weak, fragile, brittle; while the object most likely can carry on with its game without desire. It seduces precisely through this absence of desire; it plays with the subject’s desire, amplifies or disappoints desire. [p. 138]
You will understand this meaning-construction when you consider, that Baudrillard means seduction primarily as a consumption in the sense of a consumer society. The game of desire and seduction is fundamentally a game of consumption, of consuming. Thus our day-to-day business of money exchange, expenditure, purchases and sales. To this extent, prostitution fits within this cycle.
Seduction by an object, such as a consumer good, would, in this manner—as it seduces into nothingness, indeed into emptiness (the turnaround and lifespans of consumer goods in our present throwaway society are becoming ever shorter)—thus be an erosion of the sign (of seduction), a devigoration of the sense of seduction, by which, in the end, always and only the appearance of lust in the midst of a great and sometimes also costly emptiness faintly shines.
We have perhaps overplayed our hand with our new bespoke executive couture, certain to be passé next season! In every newly purchased pair of shoes, we purchase for ourselves the image of desire, the strawberry cake is likely already eaten, and in the case of prostitutes we have also bought ourselves a sort of empty desire, in the final calculation one that’s unsustainable (to use a fashionable term), which could perhaps serve as a means to hinder development of the sort Baudrillard describes.
“What does it mean for our practical living?” you ask. Don’t let yourselves be seduced! Thus is the answer and the title of a further essay from Baudrillard.
Every seduction makes you a willing slaves of an object, which can itself do as it will freely (it does not itself desire anything), and it has you in its grip. You are prisoners of the object: a factory, a machine, a business concern, a joint-stock corporation, a factory-owner. Even prisoners of your cigarettes, your pills, your washing machines, toothbrushes, and computers.
When it might draw you toward the sex of the future (for example, cyber-sex or robot-sex): the object, to the extent it is ready (able) to seduce you, and to the extent you desire it (what may be plausibly assumed), it can be cold, aimless, and hard. More cruel than cruelty, it will ultimately and in the long run reveal but one thing: the fascinating image of emptiness, an ecstatic blinding image, in an instant, of lust just before the end, with or without orgasm.
Every animal suffers post-coital sadness, says Aristotle. Now, in our case, paid sex with an object or a machine, and in the cold intoxication of pornography, perhaps quite a lot, to the extent sadness might still, can still, be a human characteristic.
And contact with emptiness, with the image, the simulation even of meaning, this contact we have yet to learn. Presently we are in any case hopelessly overwhelmed with it. Perhaps with the exception of artists, who are presently very active in this area and attempt to sustain themselves more valiantly in this media and advertising world.
But how can one, in this externally defined world, operate artistically, when art as such no longer exists? Who has just written this text, perhaps even this simulation of meaning? Was it actually I? Or is this the ideas, the lines, the characters, of another? And who is this other? Perhaps it is an other of whom I have been written about, without even knowing it?
1Jean Baudrillard, “Les Strategies fatales” (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1983), pp. 9-33, 259-73. Translated by Jacques Mourrain in “Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings,” Mark Poster, Ed., Stanford University Press, 1988, 195.
Translated by N. Andrew Walsh