In its original treatment of the new experiences that mark the contemporary social and cultural milieu, the work of Jean Baudrillard has secured a distinctive profile. With a playful, elusive and provocative rhetoric, it responds to the ruptures, shifting emphases and accelerated trajectories of postmodern society, and diagnoses the conditions that these changes engender.
However, much of Baudrillard’s prolific output has been greeted with hostility, contention or dismissal by the academy. Seduction (1990) is no exception. It is a theorisation of the current phase of Western society and subjectivity that identifies its movements and recuperations, and directs the reader on how best to negotiate these nascent formations.
Baudrillard’s theory of seduction relates to issues emerging particularly from the time of the 1960s to the present. This turbulent period, he argues, has involved the erosion of traditional, conservative attitudes towards sexual practices, gender, and sexual proclivities and orientations. Most notably, a slippage of rigid social restrictions, expectations and normative values has been registered in regard to women’s sexuality and sexual behaviour, whereby notions of chaste virtue, sexual disinterest and passivity, which were historically held as markers of women’s sexuality, have become increasingly archaic, irrelevant and offensive. The reverberations of these challenges to patriarchal constructions of the female sexual personality have been paralleled by the social and psychological redefinition of sexual intercourse. Resulting largely from the introduction of the contraceptive pill and advances in the field of artificial fertilisation, heterosexual copulation has been rendered somewhat redundant in its biological reproductive function, and now oscillates through spheres of recreation, creative expression, political manoeuvre and gestures of power. Baudrillard reservedly welcomes this transformation, though he assumes as his concern in Seduction the newly apposite questions about what now constitutes sexuality, and what meaning this term can have in a world where sexuality endows all other arenas of culture with its power to provoke, captivate and stimulate. By defying the boundaries that were set for it in the past, sexuality “has become part of life, which means that it… no longer has transcendent value, neither as prohibition, nor as a principle of analysis, pleasure or transgression” (1992: 92). It is from this premise that hails a new climate of sexual uncertainty, parallel with an awareness that the present era is distinguished by, among other things, its mass production and consumption of sophisticated, realistic images, that the theory of seduction is developed.
This article will explore Baudrillard’s arguments concerning the re-appraisal of sexual identity and relations through their articulation in a dialogue with the film, Videodrome (1982), written and directed by David Cronenberg. It will aspire to a radical interpretation of both text and theory that foregrounds perversion and extricates unorthodox accounts of sexual practice and inclination from both.
Videodrome, one of Cronenberg’s most celebrated projects, is advanced through the oblique narrative perspective of Max Renn (James Woods), co-director of a small cable television company called Channel 83, a subsidiary of which is Civic TV, that broadcasts programs containing moderate erotic and violent content. Max initiates an affair with a female radio personality called Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) and becomes embroiled in a plot to broadcast “Videodrome”, a depraved program that a mysterious corporation plans to transmit via a carcinogenic television signal. In his capacity as co-director of Channel 83, Max Renn is responsible for viewing, scrutinising and purchasing television series from small production companies, and continually monitoring the standard of his channel’s programming. Max mediates between his clients and his audience and, in his remit to gather material from various sources to construct a thematically coherent whole, he is essentially a producer of the cultural text that is Civic TV.
Baudrillard argues that seduction, as a mode of representation, can be understood as fundamentally oppositional to pornography. By pornography, Baudrillard does not refer simply to graphic depictions of sexual acts, but to the modern tendency that seeks to render the relationship between viewer and viewed totally transparent, that is, apparently without mediation. Pornography endeavours to conceal its re-presentation of reality by raising the visibility of the most powerful images towards the points of maximum proximity and exhaustion. Taking sexual pornography as paradigmatic, such images are typically of penetration and ejaculation, the visibility of which engender an imaginary zoning of the sexual body into genitals and periphery. This marginal area, which includes a multiplicity of subjective triggers for arousal (posture, expression, context, minute exchanges between participants) is eclipsed by the centrality of the genital region. The over-exposure characteristic of pornography works to compensate the viewer for his/her passivity and absence from the pornographic scene, though at the cost of tantalising peripheral details and the nuances of an independent, detached interpretation by its viewer. In this way, pornography is “hyperreal”, in that it becomes more real than the unmediated object it depicts, and thus represents the supplanting of the real by its model:
Pornography… adds a dimension to the space of sex, it makes the latter more real than the real – and this accounts for its absence of seduction… [In pornography,] sex is so close that it merges with its own representation: the end of perspectival space, and therefore, that of the imaginary and of phantasy – end of the scene, end of illusion (Baudrillard 1990a: 28-9).
In Videodrome, Max Renn initially exemplifies the contemporary will for transparency and the pornographic mediation of images. As a co-director of Channel 83, whose output, according to talk show host, Rena King (Laily Cadeau), “offers its viewers everything from soft-core pornography to hard-core violence”, Max Renn strives to deliver what he thinks the channel’s audience wants to see. This statement might suggest that Max’s motives are purely professional, perhaps even altruistic, whereas, in fact, the reasons underlying Max’s investment in his Channel’s output are somewhat ambiguous. It is possible that Max intuitively grasps what it is that his audience desires to see, though it seems more likely, as the plot progresses, that Max pursues his own avenues of sexual interest and deflects personal accountability for his choices by apportioning them to a response to audience demand. This becomes apparent during the scene in the pirating booth where Max angrily confronts Barry Convex (Les Carlson) about his entrapment in the “Videodrome” project. Convex asks Max, “why would anybody watch it? Why would anybody watch a scum show like Videodrome? Why did you watch it, Max?” Max affirms that his reasons were purely in the interests of business. However, when Convex continues his interrogation, asking Max about his other motives, why he gets his “kicks out of watching torture and murder”, Max evades the question by accusing Convex of murder. Arguably, he is unwilling to admit, even to himself, the selfish (sexual) currents steering his fascination with “Videodrome”. Returning from this digression, Max and his partners, Moses (Reiner Schwarz) and Raphael (David Bolt), can be identified as promoters of pornography, as conceptualised by Baudrillard, and representational transparency. As the early scene in the Channel 83 boardroom shows, the directors are apprehensive about screening Samurai Dreams, a Japanese erotic program, because its representation of sex is too romanticised, self-censored, and far removed from their understanding of the contemporary material reality of sex:
Max: What do you think? Can we get away with it? Do we want to get away with it?
Raphael: Oriental sex is not natural. I think it’ll get us a new audience we’ve never had before.
Moses: I don’t like it. Not tacky enough.
Max: Not tacky enough for what?
Moses: Not tacky enough to turn me on. Too much class – bad for sex.
Max: … There’s something too soft about it. I’m looking for something that will break through, you know? Something tough.
This scene also lends greater significance to the later moment of the film where Max, following instructions from Convex, returns to the boardroom to kill Moses and Raphael. Firstly, a consideration of the name, Moses, associates the character with the biblical figure who delivered a set of prohibitions to his audience at the foot of Mount Sinai, and thereby occupied a position of mediation between the Truth (of God) and the people. This association is striking because it hints at the power of the film’s character to dictate the version of sexuality that he thinks is most apposite, consequently negating all other models, to the people of his audience. Although it is initially dubious to attribute this kind of authority to a low-profile television producer, further analysis suggests an iconoclastic act on the part of Max in the shooting dead of his partner. Secondly, Max also mercilessly kills Raphael, whose namesake is celebrated in the artistic canon for the beauty and realism of the skies that he painted. With his back to the wall, Raphael pleads with Max but is shot in the head. His brain is splattered against the fresco of a city skyline behind him. Finally, fatally, and in accordance with the directors’ ideal of truthfully representing sexuality, an image comes to possess the voluminosity and texture of flesh.
In a separate scene, one could suggest that Max’s desire to lessen the chasm between the real and its representation is signalled by the presence of a Magic Eye picture on the wall of his apartment. These images function in the same way as Max’s agenda. That is, to materialise a seemingly real object within a flat image. In addition, this tendency towards transparency can be observed in the scene in which Max appraises Apollo and Dionysis, a soft-core pornography series based in the classical period, with its producer, Masha (Lynn Gorman). As Max sits impatiently through the screening, he sighs and says: “I’m looking for something a lot more contemporary. I want something that’s going to show what’s really going on under the sheets. This stuff, it’s too naïve, too sweet, like you, darling”.
This scene is also indicative of Max’s attitude in the first half of the film, in which he is arguably a pornographer, in the literal and Baudrillardian sense, who endeavours to make everything visible, accessible, and immediately communicable to his audience. His ideal is to seemingly eradicate the symbolic element of Channel 83’s television programs by heightening their verisimilitude of sex to the extent that it is no longer necessary for viewers to suspend their disbelief.
For Baudrillard, the conceit underlying any claim to truthfully depict the reality of sex is inevitably ungrounded. The reality of sexual practice refuses to be totalised or represented in its fullness. In addition, the immediacy and unique sensual intensity of sexual relations cannot be duplicated outside of their original context for a detached spectator: “To believe in sex’s reality and the possibility of speaking sex without mediation is a delusion – the delusion of every discourse that believes in transparency” (1990a: 43).
However, the effect of such an attempt to deny the symbolic and imaginary aspects of a text is that all levels of representation, illusion and reality, come to be flattened and indistinguishable, and are thus judged by the same criteria. The consequence of this process is portrayed in the Turkish restaurant scene in Videodrome through Max’s inability to recognise, and later his wilful denial of, the fact that the laceration, electrocution and strangulation depicted in “Videodrome” are neither pretence or consensual:
Max: Come on, Masha! What are we talking about?
Masha: Videodrome. What you see on that show, it’s for real. It’s not acting. It’s snuff TV.
Max: I don’t believe it.
Masha: So, don’t believe.
Max: Why do it for real? It’s easier and safer to fake it.
The hyperrealism of the “Videodrome” program, which Max otherwise applauds, thwarts the assurance of his power to discern between reality and staged representation. His ideal of transparency to the level of faithful depictions is surpassed by the broadcast of raw experience. Max cannot comprehend this incursion of the real into the sphere of representation, despite the notion that it is his own agenda to initiate this process. On a different level, the film’s narrative, which is consistently presented through Max’s perspectival space, is periodically ruptured by his schizoid tremors, and plays out this intersection of reality, imagination and representation. Cronenberg does not signpost the transitions between Max’s lucid state and moments of hallucination or delusion by employing conventional cinematic devices like watery dissolves or fade-outs. Thus, the viewer is not reassured through the impression of objectivism and transcendental omniscience that is fostered by a conventional third-party vantage point, which sustains the viewer’s voyeuristic pleasure but retreats to a safe distance at times of transgression from a normalised perspective. Like Max, s/he is always involved in the play of meaning between text and reader. S/he must question the validity of the images that confront her/him and challenge the correspondence between truth and representation.
Baudrillard argues that pornography is typical of the mode of operating which he calls “production”. Production is set in contrast to seduction and represents the action of forcing otherwise obscured or enigmatic phenomena, despite their resistance, to become knowable through representation:
To produce is to force what belongs to another order (that of secrecy and seduction) to materialize. Seduction is that which is everywhere and always opposed to production; seduction withdraws something from the visible order and so runs counter to production (1987: 21).
If Max Renn typifies the swing towards pornography, Barry Convex, head of the Spectacular Optical Corporation, and his covert accomplice, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), represent the power and authority of productive agents. By conspiring to broadcast the “Videodrome” program, which he knows to contain a signal that induces brain tumours, Convex advances production to a new, logically successive, stage of realisation. He outstrips Max’s attempts to capture the epicentre of contemporary sexuality in a flat image by endowing a flat image with a corporeal effect. Through translating psychological stimuli into a physiological symptom, the metaphor of production is made literal. According to Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), the man who helped pioneer “Videodrome” but fell victim to its carcinogenic properties, and whose recorded video monologues Max consults about his hallucinations,
The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it… I had a brain tumour, and I had visions. I believe the visions caused the tumour and not the reverse. I could feel the visions coalesce and become flesh, uncontrollable flesh.
“Videodrome” is a logical progression in the attempt to accurately reproduce reality on screen. In other words, if representation is experienced as if it were transparent, in the same way as reality, then, by extension, this experience should impact on the viewer’s physical being, as it would in the real world. The “Videodrome” does not distinguish between the mediate and the immediate in the play of affect involved in televisual representation, and thus brings to bear a lethal transformation in the physiognomy of its viewer. The contention that television is used in such a way as to suggest its transparency is compounded by the fact that Professor O’Blivion, by his own admission, “refuse[s] to appear on television, except on television”. By agreeing to appear on television only via a video-link, O’Blivion inserts a secondary conspicuous signifier of representation to acknowledge the construction and mediation of the image and make apparent to viewers their perceptual and interpretative distance from his actual self. In fact, as the viewer later learns from his daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), “Brian O’Blivion died quietly on an operating table 11 months ago”. One must therefore assume that O’Blivion’s appearance on the Rena King show did not respond to the contingency of the interview but was selected on the basis of its suitability from the archive of his recorded videocassettes. This trope of asynchronous communication is developed from the first sequence of the film where Max is woken by a video alarm, recorded the day before by his secretary and initiated by the timer of his VCR, which relays to him the morning’s schedule of appointments. In addition to the episode involving Professor O’Blivion on the Rena King show, Max is introduced to Barry Convex via a recorded message played to him on a small television screen in the back seat of his chauffeured car. Later, Bianca tells Max, as he is transferred from the influence of Spectacular Optical, that Nicki’s image was used to seduce him by the corporation but that “she was already dead”. Each of these instances builds towards an indictment of the temporal deceptiveness of mediated images. The endeavour of the mass media to present its output as instantaneous, or commensurable with “real time”, is deeply problematic.
If you wish to give a meaning to this contradictory expression (since real time abolishes every real dimension of time), it would be the possibility of making everything present in an instant. It’s the time of immediate realization, of global dissemination, of action at a distance. Which abolishes any present-past-future sequence, and hence any consequentiality (Baudrillard 1998: 30).
Videodrome addresses the experiential anxiety involved in attempting to discern, from a diffuse circulation of messages that are differentiated only by content and not form, communication that is roughly contemporary and relevant. Experienced vicariously through Max Renn, the viewer is party to the disorientating effects of a cultural environment that aspires to temporal transparency, but that inevitably fails to synchronise its messages with the conditions of lived experience.
Although keen to exploit the potential of production, Convex and Harlan are not sympathetic to pornography. Their development of the dangerous Videodrome signal as a weapon to punish Max and the viewers of Channel 83 is emblematic of their contempt for the representation of extreme types of sexual expression. In the scene in the pirating studio where he reveals himself to be a collaborator with Convex, Harlan is scornful of Channel 83 and it viewers: “Now you and this cesspool you call a television station, and your people who wallow around in it, and your viewers who watch you do it. You’re rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot”.
It is due to essentially conservative motives that the Videodrome signal is introduced and, in its project to deny spectatorship of extreme images, the antithesis of pornography. The clarification of these two related concepts shows how pornography and production cannot be understood as coterminous, but underlines how they can combine to submit a subjective version of reality to the violence of totalisation and forced materialisation.
Baudrillard establishes the notion of seduction as a movement that opposes production. He contrasts production, as a masculine enterprise, to seduction, as feminine. However, it should be noted that Baudrillard uses these categories figuratively and does not necessarily refer to any anatomical distinction: “To be sure, one calls the sovereignty of seduction feminine by convention, the same convention that claims sexuality to be fundamentally masculine” (1990a: 7). In addition, he asserts that seduction is not reducible to sexuality and is by no means a matter that must be understood only in terms of the discourse of sexuality (1987: 47). Nonetheless, the distinction between the masculine and feminine constitutes a significant aspect that informs the operation of seduction. In this context, Baudrillard uses the term, masculine, to refer to the standardised conception of Sexuality. This classification is, in itself, a “masculine” enterprise that effectively creates, dictates and polices the phenomena of which it speaks, excluding all behaviour and inclinations that defy its limitations and cause anxiety for its adherents. The radical uncertainty of actual, unknowable sexual impulses and practices is rendered less threatening through this objectification, which struggles to embody and fix the wholeness of sex and sexuality by isolating those things which it determines are constitutive of the whole, and dismissing sexual alterity as marginal or deviant. However, the indeterminate, polymorphic, and diffuse nature of sexuality, which Baudrillard calls feminine, is simultaneously stifled by, and in excess of, this singular interpretation:
Freud was right: there is but one sexuality, one libido – and it is masculine. Sexuality has a strong, discriminative structure centred on the phallus, castration, the Name-of-the-Father, and repression… Either the structure remains the same, with the female being entirely absorbed by the male, or else it collapses (1990a: 6).
This contention becomes particularly relevant to Videodrome in the scene where Max meets Nicki on the Rena King show. Responding to Max’s justification of his channel’s provocative broadcasts as “socially positive”, Nicki references their contribution towards an “over-stimulated” world, where we “crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it’s tactile emotional or sexual, and I think that’s bad”. Max resists the connotation that he actively ushers in this over-stimulated condition by enveloping Nicki in a totalising theoretical framework which suggests the ability to explain the diversity of subjective action within its own tenets and implicates everybody, even critics, as subject to its principles. Thus, according to his grasp of psychoanalysis, Max attempts to defuse Nicki’s argument by interpreting her choice of clothing as indicative of the ubiquitous libidinal economy for which he cannot be held personally accountable: “then why did you wear that dress?… It’s very stimulating, and it’s red. I mean, you know what Freud would have said about that dress”. However, as the narrative of Videodrome unfolds and Max becomes increasingly seduced by Nicki’s image, he painfully discovers that his inventory of tools for discerning truth behind surface appearances, for recognising the latent, universal mechanisms that gives rise to all manifest experience, are no longer reliable or applicable.
Challenges to established or closed models of sexuality are a strong motif in Videodrome. This can be recognised, firstly, in the scene where Nicki Brand visits Max’s apartment for the first time. Here she asks him if he has any pornography to watch, saying that it gets her “in the mood”. Browsing through his video collection, she picks up a cassette labelled “Videodrome”. She asks what it contains, and is told, “torture [and] murder”. Nicki laughs and says that it “sounds great”, to which Max replies that it “ain’t exactly sex”. Placing the cassette in the VCR, Nicki begs the rhetorical question, “says who?” Her interest in sadism and voyeurism is revealed, and Max’s assumption that they do not constitute sexual relations is directly challenged. Perhaps Max’ deeply structured configuration of sexuality, which rests on the foundations and conventions that he otherwise berates, is alluded to by the design of his apartment. With the sharp lines of its window blinds, its angular furniture and fittings, and the grid of glass bricks that flanks his front door, his home is characterised, like his sexual personality, by its unyielding boundaries, partitions, stratified arrangements, mapped regions, and the impression of precise organisation.
Secondly, Videodrome addresses the notion of objectification of the sexual other, via the metaphor of inanimate objects that become endowed with sexual energy. This can be observed in the scene where Max watches a videocassette of Brian O’Blivion revealing the origins of “Videodrome”. O’Blivion is strangled after his speech, and his executioner, (an image of) Nicki Brand, removes her mask and gently beckons Max to “come to Nicki”. The top of the television set begins to softly ripple and swell. The slits of the speakers undulate in time with Nicki’s breathy moans and, as Max caresses the black vinyl, a network of veins bulge on its surface like an engorged organ. The screen displaying Nicki’s red, pouting lips inflates and, as Max pushes his face into this yielding surface, a parallel with cunnilingus becomes somewhat marked. This scene, and the two sequences where a videocassette becomes soft and responsive like flesh, accompanied by sighs of sexual arousal on the soundtrack, can be understood as vehicles to communicate the problems inherent in Max’s conviction that he is able to remain autonomous and objective in both the sexual and professional spheres of his life. Later he discovers that his associates, particularly Harlan and Masha, whom he uses like objects to further or realise his own ends, govern the direction of his destiny to an equal, if not greater, extent than his influence on them. In fact, Harlan is partly responsible for engineering Max’s exposure to “Videodrome”, whilst, to Max’s alarm, the image of Masha infiltrates his most sadistic fantasies and hallucinations. He is frequently reminded of the fact that he is always already involved in inter-subjective relations with others that inevitably refigure the world of each party, and from which he can never really extricate himself. Alternatively, the scenes under consideration might be interpreted as occasions when otherwise inanimate objects become, in themselves, the focus of sexual attention. Baudrillard argues that this projection of sexuality is typical of the contemporary cultural milieu because the fields of representation and sexuality have incurred into each other’s spheres of discourse and production to the extent that they are now inseparable: “Nothing is sexed any more, everything is sexualised… Hence, in our culture alone, sexuality impregnates all signification, and this is because signs have, for their part, invested the entire sexual sphere” (1995: 97).
This contention is particularly pertinent to a discussion of Videodrome because the film includes the transmission of sexual imagery as a significant thematic feature of its narrative. If this trope is understood according to Baudrillard’s notion then one can speculate that the scenes under consideration signal, in parallel to Max’s increasing receptiveness to unorthodox sexual stimuli, the way that sexual desire has come, for him, to evade all its previous “masculine” confinements. Perhaps the notion that Max moves towards this “feminine” openness to the multiplicity of sexualities, rather than concede to domination by an over-determined, singular Sexuality is underlined by the vaginal symbolism of his abdominal orifice, which gapes open to reveal a tunnel smeared with viscose fluid as it readies itself to consume the objects with which it is tempted, in the later sequences of the film. If one accepts this notion, one could argue, by extension, that the “feminine” potential to destroy the conservative and prohibitive forces of masculinity is signalled by the fact that Max’s pseudo-vagina is used as an offensive weapon to kill Harlan by transforming the fist that he inserts into a potato masher-style grenade. However, it should be noted at this juncture that, in spite of its sexually empowering and transgressive influence on its viewer, it was the morally outraged Spectacular Optical Corporation that invented the Videodrome signal. Even when Max kills Harlan, he is merely complying with the instructions delivered to him via the abdominal cavity that was induced by transmissions of “Videodrome”. It is perhaps problematic to employ psychoanalytic theory here, given the contingent and totalising nature ascribed to it by Baudrillard. Nonetheless for the purposes of this essay, the sequence where Max walks through the cavity in a wall, ruptured by the force of Harlan’s detonation, and into the street, may be interpreted in quite a subtle way if orthodox Freudian principles are acknowledged. Large doors carried by workmen obscure Max’s hurried journey away from the Spectacular Optical building, where he is visible to the viewer only through the glass planes of their construction. The psychoanalytic correlation of both cavities and doors with female sexual anatomy resonates with the notion that the character is somehow “feminised” by the Videodrome signal. Although Max is now framed by this transformation, he remains a product of the “masculine” Spectacular Optical agents who, like the workmen with their doors, carry Max along the trajectory that they initiated.
The tangent of Max’s “feminised” sexuality, at least until the final sequences of the film, is limited to internal breaches of, rather than any kind of departure from, the “masculine” organisation of Sexuality. The idea that Max, from his first exposure to the Videodrome signal to the point where he commits himself to the New Flesh, gradually surrenders to the infinite possibilities of “feminine” sexuality is played out amongst the shadows cast by the monolith of “masculine” Sexuality. Beyond the “masculine” conspiracy to induce his abdominal orifice, Max remains under the sway of “masculine” authority insofar as all his sexual deviations are performed against the horizon of a normalised model of Sexuality. They become exceptional only by virtue of their relation to this archetypal construction. The play of “feminine” sexuality within an overarching “masculine” framework is enriched by a distinctive visual metaphor in Videodrome. After the Videodrome signal is introduced to Max, he increasingly wears a tan, soft suede jacket, which hangs open around his torso. The visceral colour, reminiscent of regions of darkened skin on the body, and shape of this jacket, with its envelopment of Max’s invaginated torso, suggest connections with the vulvic labia. If one accepts that Max is sheathed by this signifier of femininity, later incidents that feature changes to the labial jacket also become significant. In the scene after Barry Convex forces the videocassette, encoded with instructions for Max to murder his partners, into his abdominal cavity, Max collapses and drags his body along the hallway, whereby his jacket becomes scuffed with chalky dust from the floor. Like the violation of his new, “feminine” organ with the regulating seed of “masculine” authority, Max’s labial jacket, marked by white stains reminiscent of semen, testifies to the corruption of “feminine” sexuality by phallic influence and co-optation. Also, in the scene following the killing of Moses and Raphael, Max zips up his jacket, ostensibly to hide his murder weapon underneath. However, if one remains mindful of the premise that the jacket carries labial associations, the fact that it remains zipped up until after Max is released from Spectacular Optical control suggests that the exercise of “masculine” power is somehow implicated in its suture. This notion correlates with the theme of “feminine” movements within “masculine” territory, in reaction to which it struggles to repress the “feminine” by sealing up its potential to eradicate “masculine” power to formulate and dictate a totality.
According to Baudrillard, the ability to dictate the constitution of sexuality, and claim a referential basis for this axiom, can only be sustained if it is staged through the “masculine” enterprise of power, and particularly as it is deployed through institutions: “The masculine has always been a residual, secondary and fragile formation, one that must be defended by retrenchments, institutions and artifices. The phallic fortress offers all the signs of a fortress, that is to say, of weakness” (1990a: 16).
In Videodrome, Max’s self-assurance and agency over his actions, within the sphere of (televisual) production and representation, are only effective until he finds himself alienated from Channel 83, as institution, and Civic TV, his own division of programming. Increasingly, Max is distanced from the stability and strength of conviction and purpose that his institutional position granted him. He literally becomes a passive instrument, at the mercy of the instructions that are delivered to him, in video form, via his abdominal slit. Convex programmes Max, who is then re-assigned by one of his targets, Bianca O’Blivion, to kill Harlan and Convex. Thus, as Max falls away from the structures of institutional power and pursues an unorthodox version of sexuality, his ability to wield influence over the field of representation and his own actions is overridden by external forces and, ultimately, all figureheads of institutional power are destroyed.
In opposition to production, power and pornography is seduction. It is contrary to these elements because it defies force, visibility and transparency. It involves the enchantment of one individual by another through the exploitation of the surface signs that they deploy. “There is no need to play being against being, or truth against truth; why become stuck undermining foundations, when a light manipulation of appearances will do” (Baudrillard 1990a: 10). As the desire for transparency is inevitably futile, it is in no way possible to guarantee the meaning or correspondence of a referent on the basis of its surface appearance, regardless of how pornographic that representation might be. Under these conditions, seduction becomes particularly effective because the person being viewed may deploy whatever surface signifiers they wish. In this way seduction is effective because it is reversible: “Now all appearances are reversible… [O]nly at the level of appearances are systems fragile and vulnerable” (Baudrillard 1990a: 8). The surface image of a given subject or object does not necessarily exist in a fixed relationship of equivalence with its voluminous referent and may freely violate the ideal of transparency. Thus, seduction confounds “masculine” forces that strive for transparency by making them aware of the ineluctable fact that appearances are constructs and remain subject to challenge, interpretation and flux. In Videodrome, several scenes point towards Nicki Brand as a figure of seduction who embraces the potential of her surface appearance to enchant and mislead. Firstly, she is introduced in the narrative, at the start of the Rena King Show, through a television monitor that obscures her (less mediated) character in the seat next to Max. Secondly, after she leaves for Pittsburgh to audition for “Videodrome”, Nicki only appears to Max via television screens. Thirdly, and most overtly, in the scene where she appears to Max on a television screen and beckons him, Nicki’s image exemplifies the irresistibility of seduction. According to Bianca, however, her “image was used to seduce [Max] but she was already dead”. In addition to affirming the play of absence in seduction, this quotation is useful because it reminds us that seduction is incapable of displacing the powerful with the powerless. It encourages us to reject the impression that Nicki somehow employs seduction to assert her own power, through reference to the fact that Convex also made use of her surface signifiers, severed from their referential object, to seduce Max. Seduction has only the potential to destroy power and production, and can therefore never facilitate struggles to reclaim a share of power or establish an alternative truth. The victory of seduction is the victory of play, radical uncertainty and infinite particularity.
Seduction operates to thwart masculine forces that rely on the transparency of images by turning an encounter into a game. This game is characterised by the posing of challenges, duels, and the raising of stakes. “It is a circular, reversible process of challenges, one-upmanship and death” (Baudrillard 1990a: 7, 47). Arguably, this is the trajectory that steers the relationship between Max and Nicki. This can be seen in the scene in Max’s apartment where Nicki deflects Max’s paternalistic effort to shield her from the depravity of the “Videodrome” tape they are watching. Nicki shrugs off Max’s concerns and suggests that he allow her to see it more clearly:
Nicki: God! I can’t believe it! [On the television, a figure in a mask and a black leather apron whips a girl, whose hands are tied above her head, against a wall of soft clay. The girl screams in fear and pain.]
Max: I’ll turn it off.
Nicki: No, no, no. It’s okay. I can take it. Can you get it any clearer?
Nicki also raises the stakes in the scene where she reveals her plan to audition for “Videodrome”. In response, Max flies into a protective outrage:
Nicki: I’m going away tomorrow for two weeks on assignment. Guess where.
Max: Fabulous! Don’t stay in the sun too long, I’ve heard it’s bad for the skin.
Nicki: Oh come on! Isn’t that where they film Videodrome?
Max: Yeah, why? [Siting up]
Nicki: I’m going to audition. I was made for that show.
Max: Nobody on Earth was made for that show. [Pauses] Hey, listen to me! [Grabs Nicki by the shoulders]
Max: I want you to stay away from it. These mondo-weirdo-video guys, they’ve got unsavoury connections. They play rough, rougher than even Nicki Brand wants to play.
Nicki: Sounds like a challenge!
In response, Max repeats his prohibition with even more vigour. In an act representing the annulment of Max’s power to prohibit Nicki from auditioning, she answers him, without speaking, by burning the flesh of her chest with the end of a lit cigarette. This gesture, when read in relation to the earlier scene where Max pierces Nicki’s earlobe, is highly relevant to this article’s address to the impact of intersecting trajectories on sexual(ised) bodies. The mutilations to Nicki’s chest and ear are both caused by phallic objects, namely a needle and a cigarette, that perhaps evoke elements of danger, harmfulness, sensuality, and violation of the body’s integrity. However, for Max, the needle becomes an instrument to create a cavity and a new site of sexual investment on the surface of Nicki’s body. Conversely, Nicki uses Max’s cigarette to sear the flesh of her chest, producing a new excrescence, something like a third nipple in its spatial relation to the rest of the body. By (ab)using Max’s cigarette, Nicki acknowledges that she is always branded by the phallic economy but, like “feminine” sexuality more generally, she can operate actively, independently and effectively within it, here modifying the surface of her own body and, by extension, embracing the potential to augment the characteristics of her sexual personality.
The final point in this article highlights a pertinent feature of the process of becoming seduced. Baudrillard argues that, as an effect of becoming seduced, an individual is liable to confuse multiple sources of seduction because all occur in the form of illusion and are linked by the network of desire that runs through them:
Consider another stroke… worthy of being included in the annals of seduction: the same letter written by two different women… Seduction… short-circuits the two recipients in a kind of imaginary over-printing, wherein desire perhaps confuses them… For seduction to occur an illusion must intervene and mix up the images; a stroke has to bring disconnected things together, as if in a dream (1990a: 102-3).
Such a “stroke” is symptomatic of Max’s seduction. This can be observed in the scene where his personal assistant, Bridey James (Julie Khaner), who, significantly, is also introduced in the narrative via the television screen in Max’s sitting room (Beard 1983: 70), visits him at home. After Bridey touches one of Max’s videocassettes he slaps her and then finds that she is momentarily transformed into Nicki. The transposition of images can also be recognised in the scene where Max chases Bianca around the Cathode Ray Mission, an organisation that she runs enabling homeless people to have access to television broadcasts, in order to assassinate her. He corners her behind the screens of a viewing cubicle but, after he tears through the canvas, he finds only a television showing an image of Nicki with her arms tied above her head. Nicki and Bianca are additionally linked through the initials of the Cathode Ray Mission and the radio show, called C-RAM, which Nicki presents (Beard 1983: 64). Significantly, this interchangeability is not limited to attractive young women, as the scene inside “Videodrome”, where Max, with increasing fervour, whips a television set showing the wincing face of Nicki Brand, bears witness. The camera glides up to capture the hints of glee in Max’s expression, but when it returns to its previous position, it is an image of Masha’s weathered face on the television that responds with screams to the lashes. These examples show how the images of various women, who come to be associated via fantasy, delusion, and representation in Videodrome, become detached from their respective referents and appear, through Max’s perspective, to circulate freely, as he is drawn further into the realm of seduction.
Ultimately, seduction represents the gravitational pull of difference and anomaly, play and obscurity that distorts the floating circuit of pure, apparently reliable, surface images. It associates illusion with deceit and opacity, implications that it has subsequently denied, and halts its dangerous trajectory towards the ideals of transparency and pornography.
Against the truer than true[,]… against this unclean promiscuity with itself that we call resemblance, we must remake illusion, rediscover illusion, this power… to tear the same away from the same, called seduction. Seduction against terror: these are the stakes. There are no others (Baudrillard 1990b: 51).
Baudrillard, Jean (1987) Forget Foucault & Forget Baudrillard: An Interview with Sylvere Lotringer trans. Phil Beitchman, Lee Hildreth, and Mark Polizzotti, Semiotext(e), New York
Baudrillard, Jean (1990a) Seduction trans. Brian Singer, New World Perspectives, Montreal
Baudrillard, Jean (1990b) Fatal Strategies trans. Philip Beitchman and W. G. J. Niesluchowski, Pluto, London
Baudrillard, Jean (1992) America trans. Chris Turner, Verso, London
Baudrillard (1995) Symbolic Exchange and Death trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Sage, London
Baudrillard, Jean (1998) Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit trans. Chris Turner, Verso, London
Beard, William (1983) “The Visceral Mind: The Major Films of David Cronenberg” in Piers Handling (ed.) (1983) The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, Academy of Canadian Cinema, Ontario, pp. 1-79