Baudrillard Notes: Seduction contra Eros
June 2, 2021
The purpose of this post is to gather a few quotes from Baudrillard’s Fatal Strategies, all taken from a chapter called The Evil Genie of Passion. Here Baudrillard writes about love or Eros, contrasting it with his own prominent model of seduction (a successor concept to symbolic exchange, which featured heavily in his earlier writings). These passages are interesting in giving an uncommonly clear statement of Baudrillard’s views on modern love, and providing a novel entry point to seduction, which is more commonly contrasted with production. I guess this also serves as a supplement to my previous post on antivitalism, which lays some Baudrillard-inspired groundwork for a critique of the metaphysics of Eros.
About love you can say anything, but you don’t know what to say. Love exists, and that’s about it. You love your mother, God, nature, a woman, little birds and flowers: the term, become the leitmotif of our deeply sentimental culture, is the most strongly emotional one in our language, but also the most diffuse, vague, and unintelligible. Compared to the crystalline state of seduction, love is a liquid, even a gaseous solution. Everything is soluble in love, by love. The resolution, the dissolution of all things into a passionate harmony or a subconjugal libido, love is a kind of universal answer, the hope of an ideal conviviality, the virtuality of a world of relations in fusion. Hate separates; love unites. Eros is what binds, couples, conjugates, foments associations, projections, identifications. (Baudrillard, 1990, pp. 99-100)
The first point to make is that the “love” Baudrillard is setting in opposition to his preferred notion of seduction is quite specific. It is love as it appears in the cultural imaginary of the modern West, love as depicted by Hollywood or championed by the 1960’s counterculture as a political panacea: a kind of universal force or affect. In contrast, seduction is a form belonging to the realm of rules, games, and rituals.
Where there is no longer game or rule, a law and affect must be invented, a mode of universal effusion, a form of salvation to overcome the separation of souls and bodies[.] (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 100)
Baudrillard thinks that love qua force is something our culture has invented to correct for a deficit of norms. This deficit can be thought of as a kind of alienation, in the Hegelian sense: a loss of the capacity to experience norms or rules as authoritative, or binding (sittlich, in Hegelese)—even those one places on oneself.
It is possible to speak of seduction because it is a dual and intelligible form, while love is a universal and unintelligible one. It may be even that only seduction is truly a form, while love is only the diffuse metaphor of the fall of beings into individuation and the compensatory invention of a universal energy that would incline these beings to each other. (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 100)
Baudrillard’s line here is recognisably Hegelian: it understands our metaphysical constitution as self-conscious subjects as downstream of our participation in norm-governed social practices and communities. The deterioration of those social bonds, or our “fall into individuation,” corresponding yields a defective self-consciousness, which posits the universal force of love as a kind of compensation. It is only in the context of such an “individuation” or separation that the idea of a kind of universal magnetism makes any sense in the first place.
[W]e are caught up today in a revival of the discourse of love, a reactivation of the affect by ennui and saturation. An effect of amorous simulation. Mad love, love as passion, are quite dead as heroic and sublime movements. What is at stake today is a demand for love, affect, passion, at a time when the need for it is cruelly felt. A whole generation has gone through the liberation of desire and of pleasure, a whole generation that is tired of sex and which reinvents love as an affective or passionate supplement. Other generations, romantic or post-romantic, have lived it as passion, destiny. Our own is only neo-romantic. (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 102)
Love as affect is continuous with Eros conceived as sexual energy. In this sense, modern conceptions of love flatten the traditional hierarchy of love and mere lust.
There is, then, a kind of love that is only the froth of a culture of sex, and we shouldn’t have too many illusions about this new apparatus of ambiance. Forms of simulation can be recognized by the fact that nothing sets them off from each other; sex, love, seduction, perversion, porn, can all coexist on one and the same libidinal band, without exclusivity, and with the blessing of psychoanalysis. A stereophonic concerto: one adds love, passion, seduction to sex in exactly the same way psychosociology and “teamwork” were added to the assembly line. (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 102)
This is no straightforward conservative nostalgia. The coexistence of what were once mutually excluding terms on a single band is a claim about a kind of economic equivalence that holds between them, the integration of love and sex into a single, transactional form of exchange. The liberation of sex is, in Baudrillard’s eyes, merely the contractualisation of sex, whose aim is to make all counterparty risk explicit and hedgeable, eliminating the possibility of an erotic tension between what is explicit in word and what is implied in act. The so-called ‘liberation’ therefore amounts to a de-eroticisation of amorous relations, which the fantastical image of love as universal effusion is merely a correction for.
To love someone is to isolate him from the world, wipe out every trace of him, dispossess him of his shadow, drag him into a murderous future. It is to circle around the other like a dead star and absorb him into a black light. Everything is gambled on an exorbitant demand for the exclusivity of a human being, whoever it may be. This is doubtless what makes it a passion: its object is interiorized as an ideal end, and we know that the only ideal object is a dead one. (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 105)
This looks extremely cynical, but it should be remembered that this is aimed specifically at the neo-romantic conception of love. The point Baudrillard is making is that if love is conceived as an affect or force, then the one loved is rendered a passive object as its target.
The distinctive quality of a universal passion like love is that it is individual and that everyone finds himself alone in it. Seduction is dual: I cannot seduce if I am not already seduced, no one can seduce me if he is not already seduced. No one can play without another—that is the basic rule—while I may love without being loved in return. I love without being loved, that’s my problem. If I don’t love you, that’s your problem. If someone doesn’t please me, that’s his problem. This is why jealousy is a natural dimension of love while it is foreign to seduction—the affective bond is never absolutely sure, whereas the pact of signs is without ambiguity and without appeal. (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 105)
In this passage Baudrillard’s counterpose to neo-romantic love—his concept of seduction—starts to come into view. What is characteristic of seduction is that it is rule-governed, ritualistic, and that it is a state in which the rule is acknowledged as authoritative (just as there is no game of chess unless both players acknowledge the rules as binding—to cheat is simply to no longer be playing). This makes clear that by “seduction” Baudrillard is certainly not referring to manipulation.
Love is the end of the rule and the beginning of the law. […] God is going to love his own, as he had never done before, and the world will no longer be a game. We have inherited all of this—and love is only the effect of this dissolution of rules and of the energy liberated by this fusion. The form opposite to love would then be observance: whenever a rule and a game are invented, love disappears. Compared to the regulated and highly conventional intensities of the game or the ceremony, love is a system of freely circulating energy. It is therefore charged with a whole ideology of liberation and free circulation; it is the pathos of modernity. (Baudrillard, 1990, pp. 104-105)
The contrast drawn by Baudrillard between rules and laws is reminiscent of that drawn by Kant between autonomy and heteronomy. A heteronymous will is wholly determined by the laws of nature (here we might think of the inability to prevent oneself from acting on every impulse), whereas an autonomous will has the ability to hold itself to a rule, even in the presence of a contravening desire. In the context of seduction the norm governing the bond between its parties are thus experienced as unalienated, binding, sittlich. (Though the “dual” form of seduction suggests it has more in common with Hegel’s dyadic model of mutual recognition than Kant’s individualistic model of autonomy.)
Seduction is not linked to affects but to the fragility of appearance; it has no model and seeks no form of salvation—it is therefore perverse. It obeys no morality of exchange; it is based rather on the pact, the challenge and the alliance, which are not universal and natural forms, but artificial and initiatory ones. (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 101)
In seduction there is no need for love, for an invisible force working in the background to make appearances hang together. Rather, in seduction the reality principle of a naturalised Eros is liquidated and reinstituted as a sittlich norm. Just as it makes no sense to ask what the pawn represents outside the game of chess, so seduction requires no reference to some finality outside of itself. It is in this sense that seduction is linked to the fragility of appearances, to surfaces rather than depths.
Seduction is not mysterious; it is enigmatic. The enigma, like the secret, is not unintelligible. (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 107)
Characteristic of seduction is that despite being rule-governed, the rules cannot be made explicit. In this regard, language is perhaps a more pertinent analogy than chess. The argument, made carefully by Wilfrid Sellars (Sellars, 1954), is that you can only grasp the rules of a language explicitly if you already grasp the rules of the metalanguage in which those rules are expressed. So if the intelligibility of a rule depended on it being graspable as an explicit representation, then this would lead to an infinite regress. The implication appears to be that rule-governed practices are only intelligible as rule-governed insofar as there are at least some rules adhered to in practice without being represented explicitly by those adhering to them. (In the case of formal systems, this is paralleled by the point that a system can never represent all its structure explicitly as axioms; there must always be at least one rule, remaining unexpressed in the object language, that governs how new theorems are generated by combining old ones.)
It is in the very fact that it is enigmatic—that its rule remains implicit, intelligible in practice but never explicitly represented—that seduction distinguishes itself from the transactional mode of exchange in which all terms are made explicit and therefore negotiable.
It is, on the contrary, fully intelligible, but it cannot be said or revealed. Such is seduction: inexplicable evidence. Such is the game. At the heart of the game is a fundamental, secret rule, an enigma; nevertheless, the whole process is no mystery; nothing is more intelligible than a game in progress. (Baudrillard, 1990, p. 107)
What Baudrillard adds to the broadly Hegelian picture of normativity is the idea that only an enigmatic rule can be sittlich. This is Baudrillard’s dark reversal of the common notion that by unearthing the unconscious rules that govern our lives we achieve agency over them: only the rule that is expressed explicitly can be consciously chosen or disavowed. Baudrillard’s point is that this process of unearthing (what Peter Sloterdijk elsewhere calls latency breaking or background explication), does not just increase our degree of choice but also alienates, decreasing our autonomy—a measure of the presence of actual capacities, not merely the absence of constraints—by undercutting the sittlich character of the norms it depends on.
Seduction is Baudrillard’s challenge to the voluntarist hard dichotomy between free choice and coercion. The puzzle for critical theory in postmodernity has always been to find a way to reject this voluntarist model of freedom, which as ideology provides an alibi for the new form of power wielded by marketing, PR, and advertising, which operates not with coercive force but through the solicitation of choice. It is in response to this paradox of unfree choice (which is only a paradox on voluntarist assumptions) that theories of subjectivation, libidinal engineering, and manufactured consent have arisen.
Baudrillard’s seduction presents a unique problem for the voluntarist model. It is the exact complement of solicited choice: the idea that even in the absence of explicit choice, one can by compelled by something outside of oneself without compromising one’s autonomy (to be seduced is to be freely coerced, it might be said). A paradigm example of seduction is rational persuasion: one does not choose one’s beliefs—one is moved by reason. Seduction has nothing to do with choice, but with an openness to being compelled. This openness takes the form of a capacity to experience the other—what is outside oneself—with the force of normative necessity that Hegel terms sittlich, as having authority over one’s actions. It is for this reason that Baudrillard writes so often of fate and destiny.
- Baudrillard, J. (1990). Fatal Strategies (P. Beitchman & W. G. J. Niesluchowski, Trans.). Semiotext(e) / Pluto.
- Sellars, W. (1954). Some Reflections on Language Games. Philosophy of Science, 21(3), 204–228. [PDF]