Our reality has become experimental. Without destiny, modern man is left with an endless experimentation of himself. Let's take two recent examples. The first one, the Loft Story show, is a media illusion of live reality. The second one, the case of Catherine Millets book, is a phantasmatic illusion of live sex.
The Loft show has become a universal concept: a human amusement park combined with a ghetto, solitary confinement (huis-clos), and an Angel of Death. The idea is to use voluntary seclusion as a laboratory for synthetic conviviality, for a telegenetically modified society.
In this space, where everything is meant to be seen (as in "Big Brother", other reality-TV shows, etc.), we realize that there is nothing left to see. It becomes a mirror of dullness, of nothingness, on which the disappearance of the other is blatantly reflected (even though the show alleges different objectives). It also reveals the possibility that human beings are fundamentally not social. This space becomes the equivalent of a "ready-made" just-as-is (telle quelle) transposition of an "everyday life" that has already been trumped by all dominant models. It is a synthetic banality, fabricated in closed circuits and supervised by a monitoring screen.
In this sense, the artificial microcosm of the Loft Story is similar to Disneyland which gives the illusion of a real world, a world out-there, whereas both Disney's world and the world outside of it are mirror images of one another. All of the United States is (in) Disneyland. And we, in France, are all inside the Loft. No need to enter realitys virtual reproduction. We are already in it. The televisual universe is merely a holographic detail of the global reality. Even in our most mundane activities we are deep into experimental reality. And this explains our fascination with immersion and spontaneous interactivity. Does it mean that it is all pornographic voyeurism? Not at all.
Sex is everywhere else to be found, but that's not what people want. What people deeply desire is a spectacle of banality. This spectacle of banality is today's true pornography and obscenity. It is the obscene spectacle of nullity (nullité), insignificance, and platitude. This stands as the complete opposite of the theater of cruelty. But perhaps there is still a form of cruelty, at least a virtual one, attached to such a banality. At a time when television and the media in general are less and less capable of accounting for (rendre compte) the world's (unbearable) events, they rediscover daily life. They discover existential banality as the deadliest event, as the most violent piece of information: the very location of the perfect crime. Existential banality is the perfect crime. And people are fascinated (but terrified at the same time) by this indifferent "nothing-to-say" or "nothing-to-do," by the indifference of their own lives. Contemplating the Perfect Crime --banality as the latest form of fatality-- has become a genuine Olympic contest, the latest version of extreme sports.
What makes it worse is the fact that the public is mobilized as the judge of all this. The public has become Big Brother. We are well beyond panopticism, beyond visibility as a source of power and control. It is no longer a matter of making things visible to the external eye. It is rather a question of making things transparent to themselves, through the diffusion of control into the masses, a mode of control which by the same token erases the marks of the system. Thus, the audience is involved in a gigantic exercise of negative counter-transference (contre-transfert), and this is once again where the dizzying attraction of this kind of spectacle comes from.
In fact, all this corresponds to the inalienable right or desire to be nothing and to be regarded as such. There are two ways to disappear. Either you demand not to be seen (the current issue with image rights); or you turn to the maddening exhibitionist display of your insignificance. You make yourself insignificant in order to be seen as such. This is the ultimate protection against the need to exist and the duty to be oneself.
But this situation also creates the contradictory demand to simultaneously not be seen and to be perpetually visible. Everyone must have it both ways. No ethic or law can solve this dilemma. There is no possibility to adjudicate between the unconditional right to see and the unconditional right not to be seen. Complete information is a basic human rights requirement. And this necessity brings with it the idea of forced visibility, including the right to be over-exposed by the media.
Foucault used to refer to self-expression as the ultimate form of confession. Keeping no secret. Speaking, talking, endlessly communicating. This is a form of violence which targets the singular being and his secrecy. It is also a form of violence against language. In this mode of communicability, language loses its originality. Language simply becomes a medium, an operator of visibility. It has lost its symbolic and ironic qualities, those which make language more important than what it conveys.
The worst part of this obscene and indecent visibility is the forced enrollment, the automatic complicity of the spectator who has been blackmailed into participating. The obvious goal of this kind of operation is to enslave the victims. But the victims are quite willing. They are rejoicing at the pain and the shame they suffer. Everybody must abide by society's fundamental logic: interactive exclusion. Interactive exclusion, what could be better! Lets all agree on it and practice it with enthusiasm!
If everything ends with visibility (which, similar to the concept of heat in the theory of energy, is the most degraded form of existence), the point is still to make such a loss of symbolic space and such an extreme disenchantment with life an object of contemplation, of sidereal observation (sidération), and of perverse desire. "While humanity was once according to Homer an object of contemplation for the Gods, it has now become a contemplation of itself. Its own alienation has reached such a degree that humanitys own destruction becomes a first rate aesthetic sensation" (Walter Benjamin).
Everywhere the experimental takes over the real and the imaginary. Everywhere, principles of scientific evidence and verification are introduced. Under the scalpel of the camera, and without recourse to any symbolic language or context, we are vivisecting and dissecting social relations. The case of Catherine Millet is another example of experimental reality, another type of vivi-sexion. In her book, the sexual imaginary is blown away. All thats left is a principle of unlimited verification of sexual operations. It is a mechanism which is no longer sexual.
A double misinterpretation is taking place. The idea of sexuality is turned into the ultimate reference. Whether it is repressed or it is displayed, sexuality is at best nothing more than a hypothesis. It is incorrect to take a hypothesis for a truth or a solid reference. It may well be that the sexual hypothesis is nothing more than a fantasy. In any case, it is through its repression that sexuality has gained such a strange power of attraction. Once it is played out, sexuality loses its postulated quality. Hence, it is absurd and misplaced to act it out and to systematically call for sexual "liberation." One never liberates a hypothesis. And how sad is the idea of demonstrating sexuality through the sexual act! As if displacements, deviations, transfers, and metaphors had nothing to do with sex. Everything is in the filter of seduction, in détournement. Not the seduction in sex and desire, but the seduction of playing with sex and desire (le jeu avec the sexe et le désir). This is exactly what makes impossible the idea of "live sex." The concepts of live death or live news are just as naively naturalist. They are all linked to the pretentious claim that everything can happen in the real world, that everything craves to find its place inside an all encompassing reality. After all, this is the essence of power too: "The corruption of power is to inscribe into reality what was only found in dreams."
The key to the problem is provided by Jacques Henrics understanding of photography and the image. For Henric, our curiosity with the visual is always sexual. Theres no escaping it. What we always look for in an image is sex, particularly the female sex. This is not only the Origin of the World (Courbet) but also the origin of the visual. So, why not go there directly? Lets take pictures of sex! Lets surrender fully to the scopic drive! This is a "Real Erotic" principle, and Catherine Millets perpetual coital "acting out" is the equivalent of this principle at the level of the body. Since everyone dreams of a limitless sexual use of the body, lets go for it!
No more seduction, no more desire, no more jouissance even. All we have is an endless repetition, a general accumulation which marks the superiority of quantity over quality. Out with seduction! There is only one question left, whispered by a man in a womans ear: "What are you doing after the orgy?" But this question is useless. She can no longer think past the orgy. She is beyond the end. She has reached the point where all processes have gone exponential and can only reproduce themselves ad infinitum. This is what Alfred Jarry predicted in his Overmale (Surmâle). Once you have reached a critical point, you can endlessly make love. You have become a sexual machine. When sex is nothing more than a matter of sex-processing, then it has reached its exponential, transfinite (transfini) degree. But this does not mean that it has fulfilled its objective: to exhaust sex, to go to the end of its process. This is impossible. And this last impossibility is what is left of seduction and its revenge (sexualitys own revenge). Its all sexuality has to turn against its unscrupulous users, unscrupulous about themselves, their desires, and their pleasure.
"To think like a woman undresses," Bataille used to say. Perhaps, but Catherine Millets naivete is to think that people undress in order to get naked, to reach the naked truth about sex and about the world. People take off their clothes to be revealed (pour apparaître). But not to be revealed in their nakedness like truth (can anyone still believe that truth remains when its veil of secrecy is lifted?) but to join the realm of appearances, of seduction. Thats totally different.
The modern, disenchanted interpretation of the body as something which cannot wait to be undressed and of sexuality as a desire which wants to be acted out and find pleasure is misconstrued. Cultures which privilege masks, veils, adornments affirm the opposite: the body is a metaphor. The genuine objects of desire and pleasure are the marks and signs that pull the body away from its nakedness, its naturalness, its "truth," and the entire reality of its physical presence. Everywhere seduction pulls objects away from their truths (including the truth about sexual value). When thought lifts its veil, it is not in order to be seen naked or to reveal a secret buried for a long time. Thought lifts its veil to reveal the body as a definite enigma, as a secret, a pure object whose mystery will never be solved and has no need to be discovered.
Under these conditions, an Afghan woman hidden behind a moucharabieh window or another woman covered with a metallic net on the cover of Elle present contrasting alternatives to the image of Catherine Millets wild virgin. It is the opposition between an excess of secrecy and an excess of indecency.
In a sense, this kind of indecency, this radical obscenity found in Loft Story, is yet another veil. It is a final, unremovable veil which remains after all previous covers have been lifted. We want to reach the extreme, attain the paroxysm of exhibition, achieve total nudity, find absolute reality, consume live and raw violence (au direct et à lécorché vif). Well never succeed. Its impossible! The fortress of obscenity cannot be brought down. But, paradoxically, such a lost quest helps to resurrect the basic rule of the game: the rule of the sublime, the rule of secrecy, of seduction (always tracked down through the endless lifting of covers).
So, why not propose a reverse hypothesis (opposed to the idea of voyeurism and collective stupidity)? Why not suggest that what people want, what we all want in our quest which inevitably stops in front of the fortress of obscenity, is precisely to gain the sense (pressentir) that there is nothing to see, that well never find the final clue? What we want is to verify (by negation) the ultimate power of seduction. This is a desperate search, but experimental reality is always desperate. What Loft Story claims to prove is that human beings are indeed social beings... but nothing is so sure. What Catherine Millet claims to demonstrate is that she is a sexual being... which is not a sure thing at all. What these experiments confirm is merely the presence of the conditions for the experiment (simply pushed to their limit). The system is perhaps best decoded through its excesses, but it is the same system everywhere. Cruelty is the same everywhere. Going back to Duchamp, we can sum it all up as a case of "dust breeding."
1. A translation of "L'Elevage de Poussière," Libération, May 29, 2001. The title is borrowed from one of Marcel Duchamps works (1920). "Dust Breeding" is also the title of one of Man Rays photographs.
2. Loft Story is the latest reality-TV sensation in France. The premise of this "Big Brother" like real-time game show on the M6 network is to lock 11 young French adults (in their early twenties; there are 6 men and 5 women) for ten weeks in an apartment with 26 round-the-clock surveillance cameras. They are constantly being filmed, and on the day the show airs on M6, viewers vote to eject one of the tenants (similar to the "Big Brother" show on US and British television). The idea is to end up with two participants, a male and a female, who will win a $407,000 house, but only if they can stay together for another 6 months under the 24 hour a day surveillance of the live-cams (Translators note).
3. Catherine Millet is an art critic and art philosophy scholar who recently published La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M. (The Sexual Life of Catherine M.) (Paris: Seuil, 2001), a pornographic autobiography. In this book, the narrative is nothing but a succession of extremely graphic sexual acts. The book presents itself as an unmediated pornographic scene where the sexual imagery is privileged over narrative coherence (Translators note).
4. The French sentence reads: "L exclusion interactice, cest le comble! Décidée en commun, consommée avec enthousiasme."
5. Baudrillards play on vivisection and sex.
6. Moucharabiehs are the thick wooden windows found in Middle Eastern countries. They allow outside light to filter into the room while preventing outsiders from seeing inside.
Translated by François Debrix, Miami.