On Seduction: A technology of desire

Can computers, software, and new technologies in general be companions in social transformation and help us in bringing about new forms of collectivity? Not in terms of organizing and channeling action, but by incorporating object-orientation and emerging forms of subjectivity. I call this thinking software design instead of designing with software.

Here I will discuss seduction as an aesthetic practice in everyday communication, as a specific mode and code of communication. I see seduction as being a technology of desire that alters the ways we communicate and bond with each other, as well as with software. In other words, both on- and offline. It is part of a larger and sexier project, let’s call it Software of the Future. Let us embrace what new technologies have brought to us and keep going in further radical developments, instead of making technology fit into old and familiar cultural paradigms and trajectories. I will argue that one of those glimpses into other futures is the emergence of reversibility with networked interactive media.

What does technology want?

The discussion about Artificial Intelligence has by and large been driven by the question of if machines are able to think. Technologies are becoming more and more autonomous. This means that they are an integral part of our daily lives and our lives are becoming more dependent on them. As technologies become more sophisticated, objects in their own right, they have inspired people to ask what does technology want? A very influential book by Kevin Kelly posed this question.

I feel that it is no coincidence that Kelly poses this question at a moment in history when it is clear that technology brings a major rupture and much social transformation into our lives. Computers and software are used as tools for problem solving, and to increase productivity and efficiency, while the social or society somehow seems to lag behind. Maybe we feel this constant and accelerating rupture all the more violently and brutally because the changes that are happening clash with an outdated social order.

Kelly’s analysis is informed by biological and scientific terms. Narrating a history of technology as if it were a biological evolution, he stresses the diversity of tools, and a process moving from generality to specificity. He grants technology a new status amongst humans, which he calls the technicum:

“In addition to technology’s ability to satisfy (and create) desires, and to occasionally save labor, it did something else. It brought new opportunities. … Online networks
unleashed passions, compounded creativity, amplified generosity.”[1. Kevin Kelly: What technology wants. 2010.,p.4]

Kelly is right to hypothesize that what technology wants is what we want. But who is we, really? This is a matter for open discussion and public response. But instead Kelly is very quick to give answers. He concludes very fast. His argumentation is based on some “natural” want, some drive to grow and to live and survive according to the laws of biology. This makes it seem that the trajectory of the technicum is inevitable.

Kelly asks himself if we are indeed prone to just swallow the inevitable. The problem is his system of inevitability: It’s just one side of a dialectical dynamic. His analysis is not mediated through thought. There is no negative instance. Instead, pure energy opens to infinite potentialities without any resistance, physical or mental, as if extended into an empty space.
This is a rather old story, that the only choices we have are either to control or to surrender powerlessly to the laws of nature. Kelly seems unaware of his projections into an evolutionary narrative, from his blind position of subject. Essentially, that makes him a technological determinist.

When speaking of digital technologies, Kelly doesn’t take into account that they are programmed. There is a programmer, usually male, and white, who inscribes his own desires and social values into the software or technology. I want to argue that our Western Culture is dominated by male desires, which frame technology in certain specific ways. Computers are subjected and subordinated to human intentions and desires. They serve to make work easier for us (although in fact the way that we frame them has made our work live more difficult), to be commanded and controlled, to be at our feet. In this sense, they are not granted any autonomy. Although we anthropomorphize computers, we don’t grant them freedom. What does freedom and autonomy actually mean to us? A proper reflection on cultural and critical theory as well as philosophy is missing in this book.

But there is one aspect worth retaining from Kelly’s reading. This is the phenomenological approach of listening to the other, which lies at the heart of object-orientation. When we listen carefully, we perceive some changes that may allow a glimpse into other possible futures of sociality. What kind of futures have we been imagining since the beginning of the machine age? These visions don’t really include radical ideas about changes in human society. They are usually about some super-intelligent computer or alien threatening the human species, while the world of the future looks very familiar to us. Taking a look at science fiction, there are only a few queer narratives: Theodore Sturgeon The World Well Lost (first depiction of homosexuality) and Venus Plus X; Samuel R. Delany; Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden, Joanna Russ, The Female Man and When It Changed, Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr., John Varley, Elizabeth Lynn, Michael Moorcock, Thomas M. Disch, David Gerrold and some of cyberpunk literature.

Once we direct our attention away from Artificial Thinking and Intelligence to Artificial Life, something that moves, that is alive, we set something else in motion. We deal with emotions beyond the Cartesian Dualism. In his book The Queer Art of Failure, the queer theorist Jack Halberstam observes a shift in moving pictures. He discusses the difference between stop-motion and digital animation, and the emergence of new narratives of the relationship of the individual to the masses. In animation movies like Toy Story and Fantastic Mr. Fox, animals, humans and other creatures are animated and hence all become a set of selves:

“the individual character .. serves as a gateway to intricate
stories of collective action, anticapitalist critique, group bonding, and alternative imaginings of community, space, embodiment, and responsibility.”[2. Jack Halberstam: The queer art of failure.2011.,p. 42]

Image-problems of desire

While technology is something useful, desire has often been considered something very dangerous. This becomes apparent if we look at the history of its control and punishment by religion or metaphysical politics since Plato that are the forerunners of hetero-normative culture today.

Desires belong to the realm opposed to rationality. For the ideology of rationalism, desire was pushing for a wrong kind of concept of the subject. The subject, giving in to her own desires, without employing thinking and reason into her actions, was seen as becoming a slave to her own desires. Such an individual is not in control and hence is a danger to the social public. She is not a properly functioning subject in society and requires punishment, disciplinary controls or medical treatment. Our culture says yes to sex, but only for reproduction and in the family and in private, please. Desires are therefore institutionally controlled.

Queer theories prefer to refer to pleasures and bodies (a famous slogan of Foucault) instead of to desires, which Freud connected to sex drives as a natural given.

We know however from Lacanian psychoanalysis that desires are also dynamic, in the sense that they are constructed. We learn to desire and what to desire.

Desires have a negative connotation within anti-capitalist groups, because they are taken up by advertising and marketing. Advertising creates desires and the illusion of the possibility of their consummation in consumerism. Since desire is often related to the libidinal sex drive, it is seen as the irreversible energy on which capital drives itself. The fear is often expressed that to be seduced by the system means to buy into neo-liberal economies and its repressive features. Being seduced is therefore seen as tantamount to giving up freedom.

For me, desire, understood in a queer way, expresses some need, lust, attraction, something connected to my body, to my own situatedness in a place and time, perceived with the senses, connected to my thinking. It is an aesthetic category. Something which remains indeterminable. Desire, tight to the body, is also a very immediate communication with the world. Les than 20% of human communication is verbal. The rest is body language. Let’s not forget that we build intimate relationships by sensing, feeling and touching the other.

Reversibility in seduction

With Jean Baudrillard, seduction takes on the form of a free play of appearances. His major project was to replace the exchange logic of production, the utilitarian ideology, with a symbolic exchange based on seduction. Baudrillard identifies seduction with a feminine principle. It is that which is radically outside the phallic order of masculine and feminine.

Baudrillard speaks of seduction as having a secret. It is not something hidden, but one could say it has an aesthetic value: consuming the pleasures themselves, without any instrumental use. Seduction is based on reversibility, uncertainty and infinity, because this game potentially never ends, contrary to sex, which usually ends with a climax: the orgasm. The goal is not to have sex, but just to enjoy. It is the potential for reversibility that interests me here and that I will further explore.

I want to illustrate this with a discussion of Baudrillard’s reading of Soren Kierkegaard’s Diary of the Seducer. Johannes, a young man of society, and an expert in seduction, is especially attracted to Cordelia. She has the appearance of someone genuine, innocent, untouched, self-sufficient, not conscious of her own actions. She is the figure of ideal femininity that Johannes wants to consume. He takes pleasure in her innocence and consumes the game itself. The focus is on his pleasure in loving her, which really means, making her love him. His love for her is faithful, honest and pure. He isn’t interested in loving her ethically. Marriage for him is just a social contract without love. Because of this, loving other women is not a betrayal of his love for her.

Seduction, as Baudrillard claims, is mutual and reversible. Both partners are engaged in the game of seduction. In order to seduce, the other must be willing to be seduced. Yet, the narrative in Diary of the Seducer goes strictly from seducer/male to seductress/female. The feminine seductive powers circle around her innocence, her unawareness of her beauty. Kierkegaard-Baudrillard seems to imply that the feminine initiates the seduction, seducing the male into the game of seduction. That is the power of woman. In the story, Cordelia not only loses her innocence, but also her potential power. She is introduced into the art of seduction. Johannes finally loses interest in her. Cordelia remains in the role of the one being seduced. Here, the seduction is only halfway reversible. She is more or less just a puppet (for male desire). For Baudrillard she becomes a dead object.

Juliane Rebentisch, Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics, offers a different reading of the Diary of the Seducer in her book The Art of Freedom. According to Rebentisch, Cordelia is not only the seduced. Her development during the seduction results in her emancipation as object: Her innocence, this pre-reflexive state, is another description of an object. The tragedy for Johannes is that, through his games of seduction, he seduces Cordelia into becoming self-reflexive. In Johannes words: “I turned her into a man.” What for Baudrillard is a dead object becomes here actually a self-reflexive other, in other words: she becomes a subject.

Rebentisch wants to stress with her reading of Kierkegaard that subjectivity can only arise through a constant exchange with our environment. We are affected by it, and constantly experience the changes to ourselves. That’s how self-reflexivity comes into being. This is what Adorno calls the “dialectic of freedom”: Without the recourse to the “pre-self,” this response, which is in a sense a bodily response – is something that we can only sense, because it has not been channeled through our consciousness – there is no possibility for freedom.[3. Juliane Rebentisch: Die Kunst der Freiheit. Zur Dialektik demokratischer Existenz. 2012, p. 130]

In the erotic play of seduction, there is always something which escapes a direct understanding, something which makes for the attraction of the other. Something that shakes my own subjectivity and escapes any identification. Rebentisch links this to the potential for change. We can neither fully know ourselves nor the other. By accepting this, we accept a fundamental freedom in the potentiality to learn new things. Herein also lies the potential for democratic power. It is a power that accepts that it has to be accepted. It is a broken power. [4. ibd. p. 318] Just like seduction, it is based on the principle of reversibility. Freedom is located in or emerges from this tiny gap between sensibilities and thought. Before it is even conscious to us. Freedom is not some metaphysical or universal absolute thing. It is this potential within us, fluid and fragile. Just as subjectivity, gender, and desires are fluid. We need not only to rethink our relationships with others, but also to refeel these relationships. Going beyond rationality and irrationality. Towards a more unified understanding of mind and body. How can we do that? Maybe with technologies of desire! I would like to suggest that we relearn how to build intimate relationships with other human beings, animals, computers… listen to them, ready to be seduced, treat them as alive.

What I find problematic with Baudrillard is that he doesn’t seem to question the “natural” given order of male and female. He assumes that the male is the seducer and the female the one being seduced. Baudrillard says that Cordelia initiates the seduction and Johannes only enters the challenge as defense, only to attack later on. His diary entries are in fact filled with war vocabulary. Johannes therefore remains in a male strategy that Rousseau has identified with a logic of attack and defense. We will see in a moment that those desires and their techniques of war are deeply embedded in new technologies. But what if we replace the weapons with technologies of desire: the aesthetic, pleasurable play on the level of communication and software design? Not to conquer, dominate, erase and possess, but to give and receive, challenge, play, surprise, learn and make new experiences?

Seduction here is by no means equivalent to manipulation. It is a common misunderstanding that seduction means to make a person do something against her will. It implies a goal other than the circulation of pleasure. Indeed, in a game of seduction that relies on a fixed cast of male heroism and female innocence, there is reason to fear being seduced. Fear of being assimilated and rendered neutral or invisible by the system. Female emancipation was hysterically revolting, women trying to occupy their bodies with their own pleasures, resisting and not playing the game of seduction.[4. Baudrillard, p.8] The calls for equal rights have brought women today to inclusion in the hetero-normative matrix in which men still rule. Male subjectivity has not been shaken by the other.

So first, let us queer Baudrillard’s proposal and radicalize it for a queer practice of confusing the norms and breaking down gendered binaries. We need to link the play of appearances back to the body, to desire and the possibility for emergence and change. I want to introduce role play to engage in a more engaging practice of reversibility. What I feel is missing from what we have learned so far is that male subjectivity has missed out on being seduced, playing the bottom and experiencing a distance from his subjectivity as the ruler of the world for whom only dead objects, at his disposal, exist. I feel that many women should once make the experience of being on top. We can learn here from SM or BDSM practices. These are consensual games in which two people, whatever their gender, take on the roles of either top or bottom. They make the experience of either having power or being deprived of it. Finally to maybe turn domination into caring.

What if we apply this excessive play of seductive communication to technology? Seduction escapes the logic of supply and demand, the useful exchange. Seduction and sexuality stand for an excessive exchange that is not based on the women as exchange value, as an object to be possessed. Not love as a thing that can be possessed, but something that needs constant seduction, attraction and push back, guaranteeing the freedom of the development of subjectivity, leaving room for potentials unknown, ideas unknown.

“By contrast, for us the social is without seduction. [….] Relative to the dangers of seduction that haunt the universe of games and rituals, our own sociality and the forms of communication and exchange it institutes, appear in direct proportion to their secularization under the sign of the Law, as extremely impoverished, banal and abstract.”[5. ibd. p.5]

That means communication inside the binary mechanistic logic remains reductive, it plays only with the fixed signs. Reductionist feedback loops and circuits in closed digital binary systems only mirror themselves. B:

“The media seduce the masses, the masses seduce themselves.”[6. ibd. p.174]

Baudrillard relates these feedback loops to a culture which is essentially narcissistic:
This is what we mostly see online: “Dude, look what I have done, like me, love me…” We are seduced by the manipulation of the choices. It is so easy to put oneself out there. Everything seems within reach. We bring the world closer to us, but it is a simplified version without otherness.

Dominant desires in new technologies

Desires online also follow a hetero-normative pattern. In fact, male desires have deeply penetrated into software design and digital culture. There are many examples of desires for domination and control and its techniques of attack and defense. To remind you, the Internet was a military invention. But also popular features such as geo-location services like GPS have a military origin. The U.S. Department of Defense maintains the servers. The privatization and commercialization expresses the dominant male desire to grow, possess and win and reach all sorts of climaxes. I believe the most successful branches online are pornography and poker games. Just to give you two examples:

“Honey, it’s me” App provides lonely guys with a virtual girlfriend. She will video call 4 times a day and send messages, like “Are you still sleeping? Time for breakfast!” and “Good night, sweet dreams.”

She is purely there for the man to consume her. She is virtual, that means literally dead. She is like Cordelia for Johannes in the 19th century, when women were solely company for men.

“TapThat,” an app which links two devices together by tapping on the image you “fuck” the other. The avatars moan while you tap them. An example of pure mechanistic phone sex, nothing erotic here. The goal is only to reach climax:

Reversibility in Social Media

However, there is something in social media that we could call the emergence of reversibility. The network structure of the Internet, a multi-directional communication medium, has changed the one-way consumption of mass culture (cinema, TV, magazines, etc). As with TV on demand, the entertainment industry has understood the potential of new media and interactivity. It doesn’t cater anymore only to a mass market. It pushes individuality instead of billboarding to the consumer individual.

“More is different,” says the author of The Long Tail, Chris Anderson. When you aggregate a lot of something, it behaves in new ways. Our new communication tools are aggregating our individual ability to create and share at unprecedented levels.

With programmed software, there is a range of choices, but there is no real freedom either for the machine or for the user. But once it becomes social – a confusing mix of machines and human users – there is something already escaping the closed circuits and feedback loops of Web 2.0. Seduction techniques by advertising are slowly shifting from creating desires to listening to the user’s desires. In this shift, signs of reversibility become most apparent. It gives users and consumers new powers. Consumer and user choices are today among the few that have an almost immediate impact. But with Shitstorms, for example, these choices remain in a purely negative form of expression. There is no seduction here. Since they are listening to us, why not use this power, why not seduce them in return?

How can we design applications that take advantage of this and radicalize it? Technologies infused with desire. Technology allows for this reversibility. Seduction allows for this reversibility – we have just never imagined it, thought it, nor practiced it. The roles in hetero-normative cultural order seem to clearly demarcated between seducer and seductress, active and passive, dominant and submissive, master and slave.

True innovation and creativity stem from changing the rules of the game, by making excessive demands beyond utility and patriarchal rule. Maybe men have never been seduced. The system itself hasn’t been seduced, so it continues to treat everything as if there was no other, as if it was dead. It treats software and digital technologies as dead objects.

Let’s put desires for pleasure before desires of climax. Let’s seduce each other on the level of language. Let’s engage in and experience many levels of love and care, bypassing the ideology of the possession of the other. We should not repeat the rational or religious ideology of prohibition and suppression. If the project for freedom is going to continue, to deprive it of desire is to put a stop to dynamics and the chance for transformation. The same goes for seduction. If you close yourself to seduction, then you are letting others make the rules of the game and you stay dead.

How radical and dangerous desire is is demonstrated daily in repressive political regimes. Juridical equality of homosexuals is a dream far from reality and suppressed in many countries. Discrimination is not only an instrument that distracts from other political issues. That would underestimate the power of desires. Those regimes put control over human desires that reach beyond common social bonds and collectivity. Because only god knows what would happen if we felt alive.

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