Gilles Lipovetsky, a contemporary French sociologist, knows how to choose a good topic. In his most recent book, Plaire et toucher (literally, to Please and to Touch), he recounts the history of seduction and offers us an anthropological and sociological analysis of this practice which has come to permeate every sphere of society, every moment of our lives, every place we go, every technology we use, every person we encounter. Seduction is no longer a private affair. It is so pervasive that it has become “a new way of being” (force productive d’un nouveau mode d’être), an “organising principle of the collective space” (principe organisateur du tout collectif). Today we live in a hyperseductive society, according to Lipovetsky. What is hyperseduction? Is it good, is it bad? How are we to live in our hyperseductive society ? Let’s discuss this incisive essay.
The Hyperseductive Era
Lipovetsky is well known for the use of hyperlatives such as hypermodernity, hyperindividualism, hyperconsumerism, etc. In turn, seduction is adorned with this prefix. What does it mean? To understand, we will need to dive back into the history of seduction.
The history of seduction doesn’t have a true beginning since, of all times, seduction has been the basis for the formation of couples and therefore of societies. In pre-modern times, means of seduction such as ornaments, games, dance, makeup or magic, to name only a few, varied but the practice of seduction was generally regulated by strict codes. Meetings between young people (where seduction happened through the enhancing of the body, gestures, words) and marriage (arranged, most often) were based on established rituals. That is, until the 1950s, when a definitive break with these former practices of seduction happened: marriage became free, based on individual preference and romantic love fuelled by seductive play. Coinciding with the rise of individualism, relationships today are liberated from the codes that once bound them.
To this is added a new element: digital technology. Modern society has entered a new era where “the ways in which people meet no longer obey imperative rules and can happen with no space-time limit, and thus are asserted the reign of sovereign seduction, the hypermodern era of generalised, de-controlled, hypertrophic and trivialised flirting” (1). Yet, today, seduction goes beyond interpersonal relationships. Our hypermodern, hyperindividualist, hyperconsumerist society applies seduction to every area, from politics to education, from fashion to television and let us not forget marketing. This is where Lipovetsky identifies a shift and we enter into the era of hyperseduction. Intensified and exacerbated, the practices of seduction are stripped of their mystery and become a structuring logic of society. In other words, modernity cannot function without seduction as a principle of desire, of expression, of action, of consumerism. “We live on another planet”, says Lipovetsky. “The signs of change are so deep that one might say that our times mark a definitive rupture in the millennial history of seduction and more specifically of its institutional place in the collective mindframe” (2). Today we are caught in a machinery of hyperseduction that is limitless. Is this good? Bad? How does Lipovestky answer this question?
Seduction Versus Morality
Let’s come back to the word seduction. In latin, seducere conveys the ideas of wandering, of deviating or straying from a pre-established course. In this sense, seduction has often been understood as morally reprehensible. To name one example, which happens to come from one of my favourite authors, Sören Kierkegaard considered seduction as a stage of life that man must move beyond in order to live a moral life. For him, it is not desirable to remain a seducer. In addition, seduction has often been associated with the image of the woman (think of poetry, for instance) and carried the ideas of suspicion and immorality. Lipovetsky notes however that the moral ideas associated with seduction have changed in the hypermodern era. Contrary to the past, a woman’s beauty is now praised and even encouraged with “a plethora of tips and techniques to enhance it” (3).
But Lipovetsky isn’t interested in thinking about seduction from a moral viewpoint. Adopting a purely anthropological and sociological outlook, he considers seduction as necessary for the healthy formation of a person’s sexuality. His detachment from morality enables him to consider seduction’s function and to question the effects of its intensification in our hyperseductive society. He analyses every sphere of society: from flirtatious relationships to fashion, from marketing to politics and education. His conclusions are far from uniform. He offers a contrasted picture in order to avoid generalisation. Nevertheless, he reaches the conclusion that in our hyperseductive society “the rules of the art of pleasing and touching (…) are guiding principles for the actions of individuals who are self-seeking. Narcissus of hypermodern times is not only seduced by himself: he only moves towards what seduces him (…) independently of any feelings of obligation towards anything outside of him” (4). Moreover, our seductive society is causing a “rise in distress, inner insecurity, psychological and behavioural imbalances” because it has “weakened the inner person of individuals and enhanced their psychological insecurity (…) as well as their existential discomfort” (5). What is Lipovetsky’s response to hyperseduction and its effects ?
Toward a Heightened Seduction
Lipovetsky recognises that hyperseduction is not a sustainable model for society. Seduction will eventually run out of steam and will not be able to keep up with a high speed society that has such a negative impact on human beings. But the solution is not as obvious as it seems, because seduction happens to be both the problem and the solution. To seduce and be seduced, yes, but not by uncontrolled consumerism, sprawling marketing, reality tv shows, individualistic activities that encourage selfish living and stupefy the masses. For Lipovetsky, we must build a “new society of seduction which, free from the hegemony of materialist and presentist values, is compatible with effort and work, surpassing oneself, creativity, reflection” (6). He calls this a society of heightened seduction.
In other words, what Lipovetsky is suggesting is a shift, a reformation, a restructuring of our desires. That our desires would no longer be shaped and captured by hyperindividualistic and hedonist culture but by the spirit of entrepreneurship; that our attention would not be drawn towards reality tv shows but towards creativity and cultural activities; that our lives would no longer be emptied of their meaning by consumerism of all kinds (from relationships to material possessions), but enriched by “new existential objectives” (de nouveaux objectifs existentiels). How can we make this shift, how can we transform our desires and go against the trend of hyperseduction? Lipovetsky’s essay stops here and leaves the door open. In order to carry on this reflexion, I will explore the extraordinary wealth of James K.A. Smith’s work, You Are What You Love, in part 2 of Living in a Hyperseductive Society.
Quotes in French
(1) “les façons de se rencontrer n’obéissent plus à des règles impératives et peuvent se déployer sans limite spatio-temporelle, (et) s’affirment (alors) le règne de la séduction souveraine, l’époque hypermoderne de la drague généralisée et dé-contrôlée, hypertrophique et banalisée.”
(2) “Les signes du changement sont si profonds qu’ils autorisent à faire l’hypothèse que notre époque constitue une rupture décisive dans l’histoire millénaire de la séduction et plus précisément de sa place institutionnelle dans le tout collectif.”
(3) “avalanche de conseils et de techniques esthétiques (pour) parfaire la beauté.”
(4) “la règle du plaire et du toucher (…) apparaît comme la règle de conduite prédominante des individus ne visant qu’eux-mêmes. Narcisse des temps hypermodernes n’est pas seulement séduit par lui-même : il se dirige en fonction de ce qui le séduit (…) indépendamment de tout sentiment de dette ou d’obligation envers le dehors.”
(5) “marée montante de désarrois, d’insécurité intérieure, de déséquilibres psychiques et comportementaux », car elle a « affaibli les défenses intérieures des individus et par là, accentué leur insécurité psychique (… et leurs) malaises existentiels.”
(6) “nouvelle société de séduction qui, dégagée de l’hégémonie des valeurs matérialistes et présentistes, soit compatible avec l’effort et le travail, le dépassement de soi, la création, la réflexion.”
N.B.: I have loosely translated Lipovetsky’s essay as an official translation of this work has not yet been produced.