Volume 9, Number 1 (January 2012)
Author: Alex McVey
We will not seek change, nor oppose the fixed and the mobile; we will seek what is more mobile than the mobile: metamorphosis… We will not distinguish the true from the false; we will seek what is more false than the false: illusion and appearance (Baudrillard, 2002:185).
The works of Jorge Luis Borges have a complicated place in the history of Latin American literature. Borges’ work is part of a large tradition that takes up the position of those who are marginalized or forced to the periphery. His stories are critical of various societal institutions: government, business, and any bureaucracy. On the other hand, there is a certain fatal determinism in Borges’ works that seems to operate against the hope of liberation. The complexity of his works has established fertile ground for various critical readings. Many critics have focused on the search for identity (or lack thereof) in the postmodern world of Borges. Specifically, many feminist critics find Borges work problematic because it leaves little room for an engagement with the question of sexual identity.
Examining the criticism over Emma Zunz and El Muerto, I challenge the grounds of this feminist critique by demonstrating how Borges’ work participates in what Jean Baudrillard calls the strategy of the object. Baudrillard’s strategy of the object assumes the long-abandoned intellectual position of object-hood to engage in a philosophical judo flip against those systems of thought that slavishly reproduce a model of political and ethical recognition rooted in the dominant model of individualistic subjectivity. By placing him in conversation with Baudrillard, I attempt to show how Borges uses such themes as appearance, artifice, destiny, seduction, and the revenge of objects, in order to interrupt the rational subject of modern metaphysics. First, I discuss the strategy of the object in the work of Baudrillard and this leads to some interesting questions: What does it mean for the object to have its revenge? What is seduction? How can we begin to read outside of the desire for subjectivity? Second, I examine El Muerto in the context of this strategy, responding to one feminist critic who attempts to problematize the hidden sexual identity within this work. Finally, I analyze how Emma Zunz’s character fits the Baudrillardian model of the seductive object. I will show why the traditional feminist critique ignores the strategy of the object that exists within this story. Overall, I connect these stories by Borges with the project of Baudrillard to show how, when read together, these two great thinkers form a powerful criticism against the dominant notion of subjectivity.
Baudrillard’s oeuvre is a long-running project that attempts to establish a system of philosophy that can resist the position of the rational subject of Western thought. Following Nietzsche and Heidegger, Baudrillard writes against Descartes and his notion of the Res Cogitans that can manipulate the world of external objects. However, where Nietzsche wants to exalt the radical act of the will, Baudrillard affirms a radical form of obedience. Where Heidegger wants to resist the forces that subject being to technological control, Baudrillard welcomes these simulations of power.
For Baudrillard, there are two strategies for dealing with power – a banal strategy and a fatal strategy. In the former, “The subject always believes itself to be more clever than the object, while in the latter the object is always taken to be more clever, more cynical, more ingenious than the subject, which it awaits at every turn” (2002:198). The forces of liberation (much like the various poststructuralist literary critiques) try to produce a new reality or subjectivity to counteract dominant visions of reality and subjectivity.
For Baudrillard, however, like Borges, reality matters little. Only simulations and appearances are accessible. In contrast to these methods of production, Baudrillard offers the strategy of seduction. The seductress knows how to play with images of reality. The seductress takes the position of the object and allows the dominant subject to believe in its own power. What the subject fails to realize is that it is playing by rules that were determined ahead of time, by fate or destiny. The subject is never actually a subject, because it is victim to a confluence of events beyond its control. However, for Baudrillard, we should not challenge these notions of subjectivity. The object should always let the subject believe that it is subject. The elements of magic, determinism, and illusion, are all examples of this strategy within the works of Borges. Borges, like Baudrillard, uses thought in order to play with simulations of power. In Borges’ stories, the subjects that think they can control their destiny are transformed into objects by the same destiny that they meant to manipulate. The subject and the object are always part of an interchangeable play of appearances.
El Muerto is a spectacular example of this proposition. Benjamin Otálora is thrown into his destiny. He must flee from Buenos Aires because of a knife fight which “ha revelado que es un hombre valiente.” He is seduced by images of power. His valor, symbolized by the incident of the stabbing, is the mechanism through which Otálora tries to establish subjectivity. He wants to advance like a masculine hero, master of his own destiny. For example, he refuses to give his letter of reference to Azevedo Bandiera because he says, “Prefiere debérselo todo a sí mismo.” Otálora is seduced by the simulations of power. He wants Bandeira to see him as an equally powerful figure. Guillermo Tedio has written, “Los símbolos del poder de Bandeira tienen toda la categoría de un tinglado de dios pagano o rey antiguo: la mujer de pelo rojizo, el caballo, los aperos, las armas y un decorado chillón en medio del desierto” (Tedio, 2000). By the end of the story, these symbols of power are actually the way that Bandeira captures Otálora within his cruel game. They are false symbols. Bandeira employs the strategy of the object – he permits Otálora to believe that he has received the subjective power of the masculine hero, when in reality his destiny was already determined. Borges writes, “para Bandeira ya estaba muerto.” This story corresponds to Baudrillard’s story about Death at Samarkand:
An ellipsis of the sign, an eclipse of meaning: an, illusion. The mortal distraction that a single sign can cause instantaneously. Consider the story of the soldier who meets Death at a crossing in the marketplace, and believes he saw him make a menacing gesture in his direction. He rushes to the king’s palace and asks the king for his best horse in order that he might flee during the night far from Death, as far as Samarkand. Upon which the king summons Death to the palace and reproaches him for having frightened one of his best servants. ; But Death, astonished, replies: “I didn’t mean to frighten him . It was just that I was surprised to see this soldier here, when we had a rendez-vous tomorrow in Samarkand (Baudrillard, 1990:72).
The soldier that flees to Samarkand corresponds to the figure of Otálora. The false gesture of death is one of the false simulations of power. In reality, there is a game at foot which nobody can escape, because the subject does not know the rules. Only the object, who rejects reality in favor of appearances, can understand the seduction that takes place. Bandeira corresponds to the figure of death, he only had to introduce the false images of power to send Otálora running towards his own downfall.
Certain critics take issue with this strategy of the object. It is especially problematic for some feminist critics especially if they accept that the idea that people should pretend to be objects is patriarchal. They want to know why the only role for women in this story is as an object to be dominated. Herbert J. Brant writes: “The fictional world created by Borges is a place where women, if they appear at all, seem to exist mainly as debased objects for the purpose of providing men with an opportunity for sex and where such sexual activities, by means of a female body. Sex and women are used primarily as bargaining chips in the relationship between men” (Brant, 1995). El Muerto is a good example of a story in which the woman does not have any existence outside of her position as an object. Because Brant wants to find the hidden subjective experience in the story, the redheaded woman becomes the way that Otálora expresses his hidden homosexual desire for Bandeira.
This analysis establishes a traditional relationship between subject and object. The object (the woman) is the way that the subject comes to define itself. Brant extends this line of thought to the author himself. He writes, “Borges’ fictional world is an essentially and unquestionably homosocial space. In the vast majority of his stories, where there is a total absence of female characters or where they are merely decorative, the homosociality in the texts only hints at a possible queer sexuality between the male characters” (Brant, 1995).
Brant wants to negate the distance between symbols and reality. He wants to give a firm place to objects that define the identity of the subject. In order to resist static gender roles, Brant introduces a queer sexual identity. However, the resistance that Brant participates in is one which upholds the dominant ideology of western subjectivity. However, if one assumes that Borges is writing from the position of the object, it is possible to detect a much subtler strategy at play. Like Otálora, who wants to secure his position of subjectivity through the capture of symbols of power, Brant seeks to secure the space of identity itself.
Alan Cholodenko (2000) describes the futility of this type of criticism when he writes:
Any belief on the part of the analyst in his ability to capture, master and control the beginning, to fix it as a stable center and ground and therefore source of security, is an illusion, the illusion of the beginning as a pure, simple, tractable, compliant beginning that gives itself as such to the analyst. Any belief on the part of the analyst in the passivity, docility and candor of the prey needs to be seen as a stratagem of the prey; a hyper-conforming to the belief and desire of the analyst/hunter. A double game is in play: while the analyst tracks down the beginning, the beginning–itself a hunter–tracks down the analyst, seducing the analyst that would produce it, that would ‘bring it back alive’.
To say that the woman has no power in the story both ignores the interaction between Otálora and Bandeira, and negates the symbolic power of the red-headed woman. To agree with Brant, one must already admit that the object is actually an object rather than an image or artifice. The red headed woman is an appearance which diverts the subject away from its capacity to dominate. To agree with Brant, one must already admit that the metaphysics of masculine power is already correct, that the subject actually can dominate or manipulate a world of detached objects. This view would preclude a critical resistance which sees the world as a complex interplay between subjects and objects. This admittance is incorrect. The images of power are little more than images. As Tedio has identified, “Los personajes, protagonista y antagonista, llevan máscaras” (Tedio, 2000). By negating the power of the woman to control reality, Borges is giving the woman a different kind of symbolic power. As Baudrillard informs us, “Only signs, without referents, empty, senseless, absurd and elliptical signs, absorb us” (1990:74).
The strategy of the object is also extremely important in Borges’ story Emma Zunz. From the moment Emma receives the letter over the death of her father, Emma’s fate is sealed. She must kill Aaron Loewenthal. In order to do so, she must experience objectification in two ways. First, she allows herself to be violated by those that she hates, in order to gain her final revenge in the name of her father. Second, when the police arrive, Emma has to assume the position of the innocent and docile feminine object who could never have committed such a terrible act. Feminist critics have indicated that in order to gain this symbolic revenge, Emma Zunz had to sacrifice her body to a man (Brodzki, 1985:345). What matters for these critics is the establishment a feminine subject or identity that can resist patriarchy. For a critic like Brodzki, “the crucial question remains implicated in gender difference, not in symbol, but in fact. Could this story be if Emma were a man?” (Ibid.:347) Brodzki’s demand, therefore, is that Emma Zunz be a truthful expression of subjectivity. This criticism tries to produce an identity that corresponds to the facts or realities of the relationships of power.
However, the strategy of Emma Zunz is more advanced than this. Where critics ask for subjectivity, Borges responds, like Baudrillard, with the cold, empty stare of the object. Emma Zunz represents the power of the seductress. Why would the facts matter when after all, revenge is a dish best served symbolically. About the seductress, Baudrillard writes, “When seducing, her body and desires are no longer her own. […] She doesn’t believe in them – and so plays with them” (1990:86). The violation of the body, and the use of the body as a sexual object, changes the level of resistance from the physical to the symbolic. What the feminist critique misses is the notion wherein symbolic inversion is an active form of resistance against the ideology of patriarchy. Baudrillard writes:
The seducer’s artifice, directed at the girl’s mythical grace, is fully equal to the seductress’ artificial reworking of her body, which is directed at the man’s mythical desire. In both cases the mythical power, whether the power of grace or desire, is to be reduced to nothing. Seduction always seeks to overturn and exorcize a power (1990:87).
When Emma Zunz ‘appears’ as a weak woman, she has actually gained a superior symbolic power, a type of mental freedom from the patriarchal system. Baudrillard rejects the idea that the feminine is a truth or reality that corresponds to sexual violence or political certainty. The feminine is constituted by the realm of seduction, a secret freedom from the phallic rationality of modern metaphysics. Baudrillard describes power of a different origin:
The feminine is not found in the history of suffering and oppression imputed to it – women’s historical tribulations […] It suffers such servitude only when assigned to and repressed within this structure – to which the sexual revolution assigns and represses it all the more dramatically […] Repression is already here in full force, in the narrative of women’s sexual and political misery, to the exclusion of every other type of strength and sovereignty (1990:7).
Current critical scholarship on Borges is fundamentally insufficient. Too many interpretations of his work attempt to find causal explanations, secure spaces of subjectivity, and better visions of the reality within Borges’ work. This critical lens fails to anticipate the fatal strategy of the object worked out in Borges’ stories. Further research is needed in this area but my hope is that this paper can point the way to a new way of reading the work of Borges, one that is more finely attuned to the subtle strategies and magical inversions one can find when dealing with the challenging figure that is Jorge Luis Borges. In doing so the writing of Jean Baudrillard can shed new light on critical pathways of investigation.
About the Author
Alex McVey is from Baylor University, Waco, Texas, USA
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Jean Baudrillard (2002). Selected Writings. (Edited by Mark Poster), 2nd edition, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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Bella Brodzki (1985). “She was unable not to think”: Borges’ Emma Zunz and the Female Subject.” Modern Language Notes 100: 330-47.
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