Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
‘The Age of the Ass’: Baudrillard, Black Leggings, and the More Nude than Nude
Graduate Studies, Loyola University Chicago, USA)
First there was Greek civilization.
Then there was the Renaissance.
Now we’re entering the Age of the Ass.
(Jean-Luc Godard [director], Pierrot le fou,1965)
The leggings of young women…
No talk of trends, of the 1980’s (RUN DMC shirts in the Wal-Mart ad were too much; everything thankfully imploded), of resurgence of this or that. We have moved far beyond. Simple: a way to be nude. In fact, a way to be more nude than nude: the further hyperreality of a nudity that was slaughtered by the hyperreal obscenity of pornography. Since we must move beyond and beyond and beyond (fatal), we have found ourselves in a peculiar spot where we must make the obscene and hyperreal seductive again. No use of trying to return, and so an infusion of seduction and appearances into a system of sexuality that has explained everything, shown every organ, given every facial expression and body movement an irreversible tract of desire and ecstasy (and here, in the latter, is where modern young misogyny is found).1 The “fuck me” of pornography must now be present but nuanced. Where does that leave us?
A black veil that divulges everything it hides. The outline, the form, the model as that which seduces. Proof of the commutability of bodies, even in seduction, because every ass would be the same underneath this black curtain. But that’s not altogether true, because this commutability, this awareness isn’t found in seduction; here, everyone wears the same thing. It’s fascination. Baudrillard’s recounting of the Beaubourg hyperrealist exhibit, which contained “flesh-colored, absolutely realistic and naked sculptures, or rather mannequins in unequivocal, banal positions,” is also applicable here (1987:30 emphasis added) – the indifference of mannequins is always that they are in fact somehow like us and know why more than we). Of particular use is his assertion that “the instantaneousness of a body which is meaningless and which has nothing to say but simply exists, has a kind of stupefying effect upon its spectators” (Ibid.). Elsewhere in this piece I say that “the Bottom can only be right there;” it has no choice but to be an instantaneous instantiation of an ass. More, a hyper realized model of an ass. This is the Ass in “the Age of the Ass,” and there is nothing to see. “The exhibition did not even fool the eye;” neither does the Bottom (Ibid.:31). NUDITY; DESIRE; etc. It’s all there, and nothing more. The “stupefying effect” that the Bottom has on the subject, however, is not simply the awareness that he witnesses nothing; that nothing is undeniably conflated with an obscene hypersexuality. A meaningless model as plucking up the most base and amorous sexual drives. “Do we desire this fascination? Do we desire this pornographic objectivity of the world? How can we know?” (Ibid.: 33). Stupefaction. We can ask not only, “Why does this move me,” but, “Why doesn’t this move me in the way it should move me?” No play of appearances, but a uniform appearance of hyperreal nudity lazily attempting to seduce. In other words, the Bottom tries to hide the fact that what’s underneath is meaningless, but it does so while simultaneously attesting to that lack of meaning:
So the prophecy has been fulfilled: we live in a world where the highest function of the sign is to make reality disappear and, at the same time, to mask that disappearance. Art today does the same. The media today do the same. That is why they are doomed to the same fate (Baudrillard, 1996:5).
The Bottom today does the same. And the ass is doomed to the same fate: secondary to its perfect sign of disappearance. Seduction doesn’t do that. Fascination.
This is not like the clomping feet of the high-heels or ‘hooker boots’ (that this is endearingly referred to by women: what?), whose sounds come from a mile away, like the Doppler screech of the police siren or the jangling keys of the prison warden. No, the Bottom swoops in; sleek and quiet as the black that cloaks it. Incandescent vacuum of hushed desire; the form doesn’t so much seduce (dead) as much as beckon us to recall and Return to our education of desire. That is why this is the ultimate fetishization of the female form. “We are in a jungle, where objects turn into fetishes; and a fetish, as we know, is an object that has no value in itself—or rather, it has so much value that it cannot be exchanged” (Baudrillard, 1995:19). While the statement may seem paradoxical, it holds weight in reference to the Bottom: the Bottom cannot be anything but itself. It has no exchangeable value in the system of the body. It becomes the locus of everything, because it simultaneously denotes the entire body as a pure sexual object and denounces all that is not the Bottom. So, far from having “no value in itself,” the Bottom has all the value and gives itself as sole possessor of that value. Dr. Pat Medford’s legs or Barbara Stanwyck’s ankle could perhaps be the mortar for such a model of fragmentation, but their bodies had staircases and shot-reverse-shots to create visual separation.2 If I’m standing on the staircase, the Bottom can only be right there. Literal: as the Bottoms glide by you want to reach out and touch.
Even more radical: it is not that one wishes to have sex with what is underneath the leggings, but that one wants to somehow have sex with the leggings, to have sex while the leggings are on. Ecstatic paradox, insane a tergo hyper drive. If the condition here is fascination, then the sexuality of the Bottom has functionalized the most amorous of drives — we want to fuck a perfect black model of nothing. We desperately desire the enforced perfection of the Bottom, as it makes a body prove itself as the model we know it now to be. Hence the functionality and the fascination, for the response of the subject to the object is as immediate as a computer process and in response to nothing. This is why Barthes says that “in Japan – in the country that I call Japan – sexuality is in sex, not elsewhere; in the United States, it’s the opposite: sex is everywhere, except in sexuality” (Barthes,  1980:42). Sex is contained within the objects themselves; “sexuality” becomes an unknown and unreachable space. Where could it be? It is clear why this quote surfaces early in Forget Foucault. The strategy there is to remove the need for an airtight critical discourse on sexuality, based on that fact that sexuality, as a transcendent space, is disappearing. However, at this point such an observation, whether about the United States or Foucault, is without controversy. It must be treated as a paradoxical fatal starting point. Baudrillard asks, “and what if Foucault spoke to us so well of sexuality…what if he spoke so well of sexuality only because its form…was, like that of power, in the process of disappearing;” as illustrated by the Bottom, that process is complete (Baudrillard, 1987:13). If critical discourse is to accomplish anything, it is time we recognize where we actually are – sexuality, as a space, has disappeared. He inquires further: “And what if sex itself is no longer in sex?” (Ibid.: 16). A brilliant division, a testament to the dead space of sexuality and the crude objective givenness of sex found in the Bottom. “Sex itself” now glides by the subject, given in sleek fetish objects smugly transplanted onto the human form. The subject has no space of sexuality in which to intuit the phenomenon, he is left with an inexplicable, already-reduced drive. Therefore, Barthes’ statement makes even more sense today, and in fact reads more like a de facto: in a hyperreal nation, our hardest erections are for forms and signs.
Baudrillard says of images, “what we truly desire is their technical artificiality, and nothing more” (1987:44). Fine. His extension of this idea to the body, however, when considered alongside the Bottom, can be problematic: “In itself changed by sexual liberation, the body has been reduced to a division of surfaces, a proliferation of multiple objects wherein its finitude, its desirable representation, its seduction are lost. It is a metastatic body, a fractal body which can no longer hope for resurrection” (Ibid.). Yes, but the Bottom, while a division and a fractal surface, is also finite – eternal as a model, and thus surely not any “real” finitude like the temporally changing appearances of an ass, but there is a certain charm of finality built into that model. Don’t risk or bother with flattery or disgust; it’s out of fascination, and has little to do with sexuality (although this may be the end-kill of the game, that’s only proof that there is no game. If the battle’s already won, there never was a game. All the same – who won?).
In this way, the Bottom becomes a pure object, meaning an object that only makes sense as itself, in itself, without any relation any longer to the parts surrounding it. It is what it signifies, and so it signifies nothing. And so it communicates nothing – this is fascination. It is the presence of the absence pretending to be presence (full presence as leaving absence). What this means is that there is only something to see when there is discrepancy, play of appearances, plays of absence and presence. When it is perfect, pure, when it wants to be seen as something but then absorbed as nothing, as absent presence, it is obscene and irreversible.
Looking implies that the object viewed covers and uncovers itself, that it disappears at every instant, for looking involves a kind of oscillation. These [pornographic] images, however, are not caught in a game of emergence and disappearance. The body is already there without even the faintest glimmer of a possible absence, in the state of radical disillusion; the state of pure presence (1987:32-33, emphasis in original).
The difference is that, in its desperate attempts to seduce through fascination, the Bottom exclaims its presence but pretends that it is an absence – and it is absence, but only in the sense that it is absolutely nothing; hence that it is “the presence of the absence pretending to be presence.” It tries to be everything (nothing and something at once), knows it is nothing, but yearns to be something. The Bottom is no longer a part of the system of the female body; perhaps it now is the body (pure bodies? Functional, sleek, yet with a trace of…something?). But this is not Vulgar, nor is it ideological, nor is it any of those stupid things. Socialization? Not in the least: the further fatal strategy of the object reclaiming power, of the object finally recognizing that it no longer must serve the symbolic whims of the subject and can instead place itself back into the realm of desire and sexuality (which are just phallic discourses banal on a level close to history: what are you an expert of?) in order to further confuse and manipulate us. Or perhaps leave us altogether behind. Perhaps the reversibility of sexuality. In any event, the object has absolutely no use for the subject, and the Bottom is proof. It doesn’t need us to exist: it has usurped our bodies! Or, if that is incorrect, then our bodies were objects before (true) and finally decided that they had had enough of their subordination to the mind.3 In a brilliant move, they rejected the conflation (or rejection) that had been forced onto them and now embody that which we know but explain away with desire and sexuality. And yet this is why there’s still a touch (small) of seduction in these forms: we’ve seen it before, but have we seen it this plainly, this crudely, this free of discourse? This free of any space of desire? For all the talk of fascination, there is still something indubitable about the Bottom: it makes us turn. “Seduction is not a theme which stands in opposition to others or puts an end to others. Seduction is what seduces, and that’s that” (1987:57). Fascination can indeed seduce; analysis of forms and models such as the Bottom are ways of “exploring new forms of seductive power that are linked to pure objects, to pure events, and to the modern passion that we call fascination” (1995:20). It is a question, then of what exactly is seducing us, and why?
The drive to fuck is so hyperreal, just like the nudity of the Bottom (and it is nudity – hyper real, but nudity outright), that it’s already happened.
Once each individual is contained in one hyper potential point, the others have virtually ceased to exist. It is impossible to imagine this, just as it is futile to imagine space if one can cross it in an instant. Picturing the austral territories and everything separating you from them is futile from the moment that the airplane can take you there in twenty hours…If imagining is impossible today, it is for the reverse reason: all the horizons have already been traversed, you have already confronted all the elsewhere’s, and all that remains is for you to become ecstatic over (in the literal sense of the word), or to withdraw from, this inhuman extrapolation (1987:41-42).
Once you can see an Ass, thanks to the model of the Bottom, there is no suspense, no aura of anticipation, no latent wavelengths of unsure possibilities; what is left is a perfunctory turn of the head that contains all the hyper potentialities of a sex with that Bottom in view. It may as well have already happened (which also means it may as well not even happen) if one can picture everything that would transpire. Whence Baudrillard’s claim that, in the era of fascination, “sexuality is relegated to a position of secondary importance, to an already luxurious form of transcendence, of a waste of existence, while the absolute urgency is simply to verify this existence” (Ibid.: 30). The Bottom, as immanent phenomenon, is certainly sexual, in fact hypersexual, but the space of sexuality, the “sex itself” of Forget Foucault, is a transcendent object for which we have no use. In fact, when faced with the coasting Bottom, we do not even have recourse to that transcendent, reflected space of sexuality. We remain in the unreflected consciousness of pure sexual objects, which immediately offer themselves and their hypersexuality to intuition. “Transcendence has drawn its last breath,” Baudrillard says; “all that remains is the tension of immanence” (Ibid., 55). If the space of sexuality is transcendent, and the Bottom is the immanent object that contains all that was formerly reserved for the former transcendent space (that is, if the Bottom is “sex itself”), the diagnosis is clear: in the Age of the Ass, there is no point in having sex.
What would be next?
James Driscoll is an MA candidate in the Media and Cinema Studies program at DePaul University Chicago. His interests include proving the cinematic nature of hyperreality, as well as constructing a critique of everyday life (qua Henri Lefebvre) based upon the idealism of the hyperreal.
1. This is nearly a direct summation of Baudrillard’s view of pornography: “The extreme opposite of seduction is the extreme promiscuity of pornography, which decomposes bodies into their slightest detail, gestures into their minutest movements” (1987:43). What is meant, therefore, by the modern young misogyny as contained in this phenomenon (in the strict sense of a thing giving itself), is that these slightest details and minutest movements give themselves, like the Bottom, as containing within themselves every single component of their desire, liquidated in the formulaic, pornographic model of sexuality. Thus when a close-up of penetration becomes the hyperreal sign for SEX, the close-up on the woman’s look of pleasure becomes the hyperreal sign for LIQUIDATED DESIRE, and all “psychological” problems which the subject may bring to the representation are instantaneously realized and given as also built-into the sign. The dissonance of the subject’s mind falls into the camouflaged rut of objective sexual signification. The implications of this process are that the subject not only sees the sign as giving itself in its totality, he also sees his own negation as an impossible participant in an indifferent system. And as concerns the “young”aspect of this claim, it is simple: a generation of subjects raised completely within the hyperreal sphere have no choice but to “look” in this way (see Williams, 1996:16-17 for a classical film example of this procedure). As Williams points out, each of the two male protagonists of D.W. Griffith’s Enoch Arden (1911) perceive their own disavowal as they watch Annie Lee privately interact with the other. To be sure, the fact that the men voyeuristically watch these interactions is significant. However, while Williams draws from this voyeurism conclusions concerning film spectatorship and mastery of the signification of women, I believe this to be an example of perceived objective indifference toward the subject, which is a more accurate approach to misogyny.
2. See Douglas (director, 1954) and Billy Wilder (director, 1944). Double Indemnity. Paramount. To appropriate Baudrillard’s own self-defense, “I am not expressing any reactionary nostalgia” (1987:63). It is not that I favor one form of overvaluation to another; the construction of the female filmic signifier—perfectly articulated by the way these films construct the filmic female body – deserves the consideration it has received. It is just that the fragmented body has now, in the form of the Bottom, become a floating signifier that is not even constructed by a signification process. “The Bottom can only be right there” means that it gives itself and its fetish immediately, without a starting point or culmination, without relation to anything but itself. It already contains all the cold, ecstatic sex it provokes. It is in itself overvalued, ecstatically fetishized. This is infinitely more dizzying, more upsetting than any construction of the cinematic apparatus.
3. This revenge recalls Baudrillard’s fragment on the lie-detector test: “Every intervention of a machine on a body is an electric shock. In the lie-detector, the body becomes the machine’s technical accomplice. The confession is obtained by automatic betrayal of the body as part of an integrated circuit. The mind plays no part in this. It’s like in tests or torture: the body reflects the machine, it refracts mechanically; the mind can only watch the body writhing under the electric shock” (Baudrillard, 1996:47-46). In the Bottom, the body becomes the indifferent, overvalued object’s accomplice: the mind can only watch as the body becomes more itself than itself; further, the mind can only watch as its own body reacts with its own hyper sexualized indifference. Perhaps there is an objective magnetism here that, in the last instance, would be preferable? (The looming threat of an essentialism in the face of a seeming and unbearably melancholy inevitability? Perhaps the question should be whether Baudrillard really hates the reality test or the inevitability test.)
Roland Barthes ( 1980). L’Empire des signes. Genève: Editions Skira.
Jean Baudrillard (1995). “Absolute Merchandise.” Andy Warhol: Paintings 1960-1968. Martin Schwander (Editor). Kunstmuseum Luzerne.
Jean Baudrillard (1996). Cool Memories II. New York: Verso, 1996.
Jean Baudrillard (1987). The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e).
Jean Baudrillard (1987). Forget Foucault. New York: Semiotext(e).
Jean Baudrillard (1996). The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso.
Gordon Douglas (director, 1954). Them!. Warner Bros.
Jean-Luc Godard (director, 1965). Pierrot le fou. Films Georges de Beauregard.
Billy Wilder (director, 1944). Double Indemnity. Paramount.
Linda Williams (1996). “When the Woman Looks.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Barry Keith Grant (Editor). Austin: University of Texas Press.