Rex Butler's Baudrillard II: Seduction
July 23, 2021
Butler makes a comparison between simulation and Baudrillard’s concept of seduction:
Indeed, what is crucial to realize is about simulation is that it is not finally distinguishable from that second term we will be looking at here, seduction, and in a way is only another version of it (as seduction is only another version of simulation). The two are respective sides of the same phenomenon. What is this phenomenon? It is that paradox of representation we spoke of in our Introduction where, if the copy comes too close to the original, it no longer resembles it but is another original. There is thus an absolute limit to how close a copy can come to the original while still resembling it, or the copy only resembles the original insofar as it is different from it. And it is this limit that simulation is subject to. Simulation attempts to resemble the real, to ‘realize’ it, to bring out what is only implicit in it and make it explicit. But at a certain point in its progress it draws too close to the original, and further increases in perfection, instead of bringing the system closer to this original, only drive it further away. The system begins to reverse upon itself, gives rise to the opposite effects of those intended. It is this reversibility, this difference between the original and the copy, that we call seduction. But seduction, therefore, as this difference between the original and the copy, is at once what imposes a limit upon simulation and causes it to come into being. This is why seduction is not opposed to simulation but is rather its limit—a limit that makes it both possible and impossible. (Butler, 1999, p. 25)
Seduction is here conceived as the difference between the real and its copy, while simulation is the “attempt to resemble the real.” Seduction is therefore a condition of simulation, of the de facto introduction of a representation relation (as discussed in the previous post). Furthermore, the tendency of simulacra to come closer and closer to the real they represent ultimately undermines simulation’s own conditions of possibility.
This is quite astute, I think. Like Derrida, Baudrillard is concerned with both the limits and conditions of systems of meaning, and—also like Derrida—Baudrillard makes the enigmatic suggestion that the limits of these systems are part of their own conditions of possibility. (Elsewhere I’ve noted the suggestive affinity between this idea and the incompleteness theorem.) This also helps to situate Baudrillard’s historical claim: that we have moved into a phase of simulation in which the representation has come so close to the real that it undercuts its own conditions of possibility, demoting the symbolic to a kind of phantom existence:
So it is with life and death in our current system: the price we pay for the ‘reality’ of this life, to live it as a positive value, is the ever-present phantasm of death. For us, defined as living beings, death is our imaginary. So, all the disjunctions on which the different structures of the real are based (this is not in the least abstract: it is also what separates the teacher from the taught, and on which the reality principle of their relation is based; the same goes for all the social relations we know) have their archetype in the fundamental disjunction of life and death. This is why, in whatever field of ‘reality’, every separate term for which the other is its imaginary is haunted by the latter as its own death. (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 133)
[I]f simulation attempts to cross the distance between the original and the copy that allows their resemblance, seduction is both the distance that allows this resemblance and the distance that arises when this space is crossed. Seduction is the necessity of taking the other into account when trying to produce resemblance. It is that limit we cannot go beyond in our relationship to the other (another person, the real) if we still want to maintain a connection with it. Indeed, against all interpretations of it as a form of sexual coercion, seduction is the idea that the other cannot be forced to follow, that in any such forcing there is always an ambiguity, a resistance possible by the other. Seduction is the idea that we cannot have a relationship without this undecidability, without it being impossible to determine whether it is we who lead the other or the other who leads us. (Butler, 1999, pp. 72-73)
Butler crosses over several different points here, but they can perhaps made clearer in light of the analogy with Brecht. Seduction, I argued in the previous post, can be approached via the Brechtian concept of interruption—the moment at which the performer enters into state of mutual recognition the audience, collapsing the distinction between the imaginary space of the narrative and the view-from-nowhere occupied by its observer. This is to pull the audience back inside the space of participation from which they were displaced by the staging apparatus, dissolving the real as a content or referent and reinstating it as a horizon. The undecidability of seduction, then, is a product of the reciprocity of recognition. This is a normative reciprocity, a bi-directional acknowledgement of an obligation, or pact—undecidable because unconditional, its content never fixed in advance (unlike the contract).
Unpacking this further, the first question we might ask is: why must producing resemblance even involve “an other” in the first place? This question can perhaps be answered in Brandomian terms by noting that this issue concerns the relation between semantic (or representational) content and the underlying normative pragmatics. Applying Kripkenstein-type objections to private language (Kripke, 1982), we might claim that the stabilisation of semantic content depends on a discursive community immersed in language-games structured by particular rules (particular forms of exchange, in Baudrillard’s terms). Representation is, in the first place, a social practice. This discursive community is itself structured by social relations; the determination of content at the semantic level is therefore ultimately contingent on the normative relations of the discursive community who exchange such contents.
When these relations take the form of reciprocal recognition—“taking the other into account when trying to produce resemblance”—the rules that govern the language-game are left implicit (in the unconditional pact no contractual conditions are specified), and in this sense the semantic content of any utterance is always up for grabs, its parameters forever left in play. I think Baudrillard wants to say that this implicit indeterminacy—not total, of course, but partial—is the essence of true communication. Communication consists not in the trading of messages under a predetermined set of conventional rules, but in the constant renegotiation of those very rules (see e.g. Requiem for the Media (Baudrillard, 2019, p. 194)). Consequently, any system which over-determines semantic content by making the rules of the language-game too explicit (at the social level we might think of the contractual relation, exhaustively defined by its explicit conditions) necessarily undermines communication, and ultimately self-consciousness itself.
- Baudrillard, J. (2019). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (C. Levin, Tran.). Verso.
- Baudrillard, J. (1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death (I. H. Grant, Tran.). Sage Publications.
- Butler, R. (1999). Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. Sage Publications.
- Kripke, S. (1982). Wittgenstein: On Rules and Private Language. Blackwell.