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Post-Modernism and the Seduction of an Unwinnable Game

Published 20 August 2014 Jonathon McWilliam

It only takes two facing mirrors to construct a labyrinth [1]

The terms of a post-modern theory of engaging with art was taken up by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his 1983/88 essay Please Follow Me. This theory has a historical connection with the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the work The Seducer’s Diary, an extract of the book Either/Or. These ideas formulate the conditions for the game of seduction that define an aspect of the post-modern terms of engaging art. This paper exists somewhat as an iteration, a kind of legend to the map navigated and traced by the aforementioned.

The game is to seek a genuine moment, without duplication and imitation. It is a neverending game of imbuing an artwork with meaning created through the relationship between artist and theorist by an object of the aesthetic. The game of seduction is a double obligation, a symbolic obligation between the players, to seduce the other through the displacement of oneself. Like all games, one must always seek to win, in this game however, winning is defined by successfully losing to the other. To engage in this paradox is to seek to occupy the symbolic position, the consequence of a game where not to win is to win. [2]

An artist creates a work of art that is deliberately deceptive in its meaning but is revealed enough from its aesthetic ambiguity for it to indirectly communicate with an audience, a theorist. The theorist then, having been seduced by the artist, can gain an insight through the terms conditioned by the artwork. The theorist then occupies the position of the symbolic and his insight, in turn reciprocates, and becomes an object of the aesthetic. In Kierkegaardian ethical terms, the aim of this double symbolic obligation is to reach the point where an individual is in the symbolic position, in touch with the aesthetic, and “the single individual has infinite significance and this is the validity of life”. [3] The end of insight into the meaning of objects is to find existential meaning. This is possible only when one is in touch with the aesthetic, which is only possible when one is in the symbolic position, and whilst they are being followed.

The aesthetic is reached from the symbolic position with the objective being existential meaning. The symbolic position, however, can only be occupied when the seducer and follower are involved in the double symbolic obligation. That is, the follower must eventually take the role of seducer to find meaning, one cannot follow their own shadow, the aesthetic is re-found in the seduction between. Paradoxically this means that one has the desire to not be in the very position that they desire to be in.

For this relationship to work there must be the implicit agreement that the artist is dependent upon the insight of the theorist, while the theorist requires the artist to seduce them in their artwork. Ultimately seduction is not a transgression of an individual subjective identity, but of seeking the transposition of identity through symbolic exchange. There must be the desire for the theorist to exceed the artist and for the artist to create something avant-garde. The game of seduction is a process to connect with a realisation of the aesthetic.

The theorist must work through an object of the aesthetic, that is the double symbolic obligation; the theorist and the artist engage with each other through the indirect communication of an object of the aesthetic. The existential task of indirect communication is so that “every man comes to stand alone” . It is crucial that one [4] and the other must connect through indirect communication. Direct communication, or “meeting would be too true”. [5] This is to maintain the symbolic position of the relationship. If one were to directly engage in such a relationship it would be “slavish”, imitative and would ultimately “eradicat[e] the trace of both parties”. [6] The withdrawal of the seducer allows for the “authentication of the others independence”. That is, in the withdrawal, the theorist can “assign him to himself” [7], he is liberated to reach the aesthetic on his terms. The importance of the artist’s subjective withdrawal, is part of why an artist must construct an artwork that is not dogmatic, or a ‘closed conversation’. It must be ambiguous in its directive, and construct the conditions and terms of engagement with which to seduce an observer. The seducer’s object of the aesthetic is made visible only as an answer to the questions of the follower. The theorist can only walk down a street if it is a path of discourse paved by the artist. As Baudrillard points out, it is because of this that the theorist can see their meaning in the artist’s mirror of the aesthetic. The position of the author is always shifting, their “power is entirely in what [they] can follow”8 . Art, the object of the aesthetic, preserves the power of keeping the “eyes closed”, of indirect communication; it is the “tactile detour of ideas”. [9]

The emphasis is not upon the object, it is however, “the shadowing itself” [10] that imbues an otherwise meaningless work of art into something meaningful, that there is something of interest in it. It is then art that gives meaning to life’s existence: “in this effect of doubling which surrealises the object in its banality, and weaves around it the strange web of seduction”. [11] It is the game itself that is the objective. To actualise into an object is to emphasise not what was being actualised, but instead, the actualisation – the medium; the subject itself is the seduction. The objective is not what one is seducing the other with, but rather with the language of seduction itself.

In the instance of Baudrillard and Sophie Calle, [12] Sophie’s artwork continues to shadow Baudrillard. It mirrors a new meaning that is more true of Baudrillard than Baudrillard’s own insight. It is impossible for Sophie’s work to stop shadowing him as their meaning has become inextricably bound. The artist cannot exist without a follower, without an audience, without a theorist. The follower cannot theorise and impart meaning without an artwork. In this way the objective is for the follower to become the seducer. One tries to win the game, in the sense that they want the audience to win it from them. Just as the audience, in turn, seeks for it to be taken from them.

Kierkegaard removed himself as an author of his works through the use of pseudonyms, displacing any authorial directive, creating a power vacuum within the work. Kierkegaard intends to position himself as merely another reader. Although one must disguise their identity in embroiling themselves in the symbolic position, it is crucial that one “must know how to be unmasked”. It is crucial that one seeks not to intentionally obfuscate, but rather, seeks transcendence through indirect communication. [13]

Ceremony, or a ritual distance, is intrinsic to seduction, symbolic roles and indirect communication. Whether it is for Artist and Theorist or for Father and Son. In a Father/Son relationship it is crucial that each is titled in ceremony to allow for the double symbolic obligation. In this case, the aim of the Father is to displace himself as Seducer, that his success as a Father is to successfully transpose the title to his Son. This re-poses a simplified Oedipus statement from: the Son seeks to kill his Father, to, the Father succeeds when he has seduced his Son to kill him. Ceremony, the aesthetic and the symbolic are the terms by which the game is negotiated and elicited.

Part of the rules of the game is the binding agent of the desire of the unknown. It is the absurdity of the game, the absurdity of life that creates the desire for meaning, and also the possibility of meaning. The absurd [14] is crucial, it is the drive for finding individual meaning; the objective for meaning is in the name of the absurd. Baudrillard’s “vanishing point” [15] is the absurd moment, recognising the submission of the finitude of life to the infinite. To find a point of meaning that is attainable in the finite but pertains to the infinite. The game of seduction is to be simultaneously bound and released by the aesthetic. Just as ceremony and indirect communication are crucial to the game of seduction, it is true for the relationship between the art theorist, and the artist. The role of the critic is not to decipher or to decode the enigmatic artwork.

Just as the role of the artist is not to communicate through an artwork under the shroud of shallow ambiguity. The critic deconstructs, analyses, contextualises, re-contextualises, formulates and articulates the questions posed by the artist and shifts and re-poses these questions. The critic builds his own writing, through ceremony, to exist in a parallel space to the artwork. The seduction is played out between the writing of the critic, the artwork and eventually between this space and to the audience.

This is the machination of post-modernism, where meaning is not intrinsically present in the physicality or experience of the artwork. Rather the medium of the artwork is the physical support of seduction, allowing for the terms of engagement – the seduction of an unwinnable game.

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Further Reading, Viewing and References

#1 J. L. Borges, Nightmares

#2 For an extended analysis of the symbolic position see Lacan’s Seminar on the Purloined Letter.

#3 Berthold 2005:1054.

#4 Berthold 2005:1054.

#5 Baudrillard 1987:108.

#6 Ibid.,104.

#7 Berthold 2005:1054.

#8 Baudrillard 1987:109.

#9 Baudrillard 1987:109.

#10 Baudrillard 1987:104.

#11 Ibid.

#12 See Please Follow Me.

#13 Baudrillard 1987:108

#14 See Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus for clarification on the term absurd.

#15 Ibid.,109


Further Reading:
Baudrillard, J. Please Follow Me, in Art & Text 23/4, March-April 1987:103-112.

Berthold, D. Kierkegaard’s Seductions: The Ethics of Authorship, in MLN 120(5), John Hopkins University Press, 2005:1044-1065.

Borges, J.L. Nightmares, in Seven Nights, Trans. Eliot Weinberger.
Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy. Oxford University Press, 2000.