Manet’s Selfie and the Baudelairean Parallax

By Robert Kilroy

1. Selfies, Commodities, Art

In December 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary declared the term ‘selfie’ to be its ‘word of the year’. In support of this announcement, it cited a 17,000 per cent increase in our everyday use of the word.[1] However, it was not this statistic which confirmed the true extent of the selfie’s popularity but an image which appeared online the previous June. In the photo – so ubiquitous it has all but become imprinted in our collective imagination – the most powerful political figure in the world, the first African-American president of the United States, is shown at the funeral of one of the most revolutionary political figures in history, the first black president of South Africa, where he is posing under the gaze of a smartphone. Never was it more apparent that the selfie phenomenon – the act of taking a ‘personal self-portrait with a smartphone and uploading the image to social media’ (fig. 1) – had, indeed, reached extreme levels of universal acceptance.

Fig. 1. Robert Kilroy, Taking a Selfie in a Gallery with Parody of Raphael's ‘School of Athens’ by Joshua Reynolds. Photographed by Sarah McGloughlin in the National Gallery of Ireland, May 3rd 2015.

Fig. 1. Robert Kilroy, Taking a Selfie in a Gallery with ‘Parody of Raphael’s “School of Athens’” by Joshua Reynolds. Photographed by Sarah McGloughlin in the National Gallery of Ireland, 3 May 2015.

It was around the time of the Oxford English Dictionary’s announcement that a curious advertisement appeared on our television screens promoting the alcoholic drink Guinness. The ad tells the story of the ‘Sapeurs’, or the ‘society of elegant persons of the Congo’, a ‘group of everyday heroes’ who overcome their harsh working conditions by dressing up in elaborate costumes and luxury accessories. To the sound of an African voiceover and the lyrics of a song entitled ‘What Makes a Good Man’ we are shown images of the men toiling through a day’s work before getting dressed and making their way to a dance hall where they perform for an audience of female observers under the watchful eye of a barman who pours a pint of draught Guinness.[2]

By way of an intervention, the basic question this paper asks is as follows: what is the precise relation between these two images from popular culture and the works of Édouard Manet and Charles Baudelaire? At first glance, there would appear to be little connection between the photo of Barack Obama taking a selfie and Manet’s painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Similarly, a comparison between the Guinness advertisement and Baudelaire’s text Le Peintre de la vie moderne (The Painter of Modern Life), would appear to involve an equally speculative leap of faith. Upon reflection, however, one discovers a surprising set of connections: we might, for example, draw a homology between a celebration of revolutionary politics debased by forms of popular culture (Obama’s selfie) and an adoration of idealized beauty subverted by a revolutionary turn to subjects of modern life (Manet’s painting). One could also argue that the Sapeur movement represents the modern day equivalent of the Baudelairean ‘Dandy’, defined by the poet as the ‘last spark of heroism amid decadence’.[3] And yet, such a reading would continue to miss the radical, even disturbing, connection in question: how the encounter between the social (Obama’s selfie, Guinness advertisement) and aesthetic fields (Baudelaire’s essay, Manet’s painting) establishes what Slavoj Zizek terms ‘an impossible short-circuit of levels’,[4] the ‘confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible’.[5]

In Žižekian terms, this paradoxical relationship between the aesthetic and the social presents us with ‘an insurmountable parallax gap’[6] which can only be grasped by what he calls a ‘parallax’ view: a constantly shifting perspective between two levels ‘which, for structural reasons, can never meet’.[7] What this ‘short-circuit’ forces us to recognize is that the social-aesthetic opposition is a false one: rather, we are presented with two sides of the same phenomenon, the inverse and obverse of the same structural surface. In short, through a parallax view, we come to recognize how an opposition between two apparently incompatible levels is itself preceded by an inherent tension.[8]

It is with the selection of these three images – two whose absence suggests their ubiquity, another which is present before me in digital form, that my contribution to this interdisciplinary project locates itself on a digital platform.

fig. 2. Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, oil on canvas, 208 x 264.5 cm. Photo ©RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Benoît Touchard / Mathieu Rabeau.

Fig. 2. Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, oil on canvas, 208 x 264.5 cm. Photo ©RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Benoît Touchard / Mathieu Rabeau.

This paper should therefore be understood as an attempt to think the parallax gap in a ‘materialist way’.[9] As a departure point, let us ask: how might we undertake a parallax view of the project in question? Firstly, it is worth noting the innovative nature of this inter-disciplinary/digital initiative. By converging around the digital image from a range of disciplinary perspectives we are recognizing the image in its own right, as a complex socio-cultural phenomenon which requires a multifaceted approach. In turn, this pluralist model ensures that no single theoretical vantage point dominates all others. We are thus following the path opened by W.J.T. Mitchell who, in his 1995 work Picture Theory, stressed the importance of broadening the scope of the ‘problem of pictorial representation’ by opening the study of images across an ‘an array of disciplines’.[10]

To fully understand Mitchell’s model one need look no further than the current reception of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in the field of Art History. In two relatively recent publications on the work of Manet – Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Perspectives on Manet – the aim is not to ‘smooth over’ the complexities the work presents’[11] but to offer a ‘range of opinions’ on the painting’s meaning.[12] By circulating around the painting through a ‘diversity of approaches’ the contributors accept that a single ‘vantage point’ is impossible to occupy.[13] By avoiding all definitive assurances about the painting’s meaning they reflexively acknowledge that this meaning is ‘virtually impossible’ to grasp.[14]

It is significant, I argue, that this open field of diverse readings can be divided along the lines of two opposing traditions in Manet scholarship.[15] Some view­­­­ the painting as evidence of Manet’s ‘critical intentions’ with regard to the social field.[16] Others see it as proof of Manet’s aesthetic intentions, his ‘special, painting-specific claim’.[17] As Levine points out, one is here confronted with what appears to be an impossible choice: if we adopt the ‘social’ perspective – that is, by reading the painting as a product of external ‘political causation’ – we risk overlooking the obvious intentionality behind the work’s formal elements; conversely, if we take the ‘aesthetic’ position – by interpreting the painting as the product of ‘internal’ artistic causation – we risk ignoring the work’s larger social context, its obvious references to contemporary society.[18]

In each of the aforementioned publications, this dilemma is overcome through an insistence on the irreducible gap between the opposing positions: the lack of consensus on the work’s meaning is universally acknowledged through a pluralist approach which offers a ‘range of opinions’.[19] However, it is clear that this ‘interdisciplinary’ model does nothing to resolve the issues which caused such controversy and consternation when the work was first exhibited in 1863; namely, the series of ‘critical dichotomies’[20] which provoked revulsion and fascination in equal measure.[21] In other words, the precise set of obstacles which account for the painting’s ‘stubbornness’ to interpretation – the source of the ‘rage, puzzlement, and admiration it once provoked’– persist today, over 150 years later, as a set of ‘unresolved questions’[22]  which have yet to be answered by current scholarship.

The second important point is that, by preserving the series of visual distortions in Manet’s painting, the interdisciplinary model leaves untouched an interpretative aporia in Baudelaire’s text, Le Peintre de la vie moderne (The Painter of Modern Life). It is generally acknowledged that those who explain Manet’s work in terms of specifically social intentions often do so by focusing on the specific social dimension of Baudelaire’s essay.[23] Conversely, those who read Manet’s work in self-referential terms do so by focusing on the aesthetic dimension of Baudelaire’s essay.[24] It can be argued, then, that the opposition between the two alternative readings of Manet’s image – between its obvious ‘socially referential content’[25] and the explicit ‘self-referentiality’[26] of its form – has its origin in two opposing readings of Baudelaire’s text. Once again, we appear to be faced with an impossible choice, a paradoxical relationship between two levels: from a ‘social’ perspective, we risk ignoring the specific aesthetic dimension of Baudelaire’s essay – his reference to contemporary fashion; conversely, from an ‘aesthetic’ perspective we overlook the essay’s obvious social-political dimension – Baudelaire’s reference to contemporary society. As with Manet’s painting, we are confronted with an insurmountable gap between two poles: namely, the difficulty in accounting for ‘the oppositions between contemporaneity and art history found in Baudelaire’s essay’.[27] The question which, for me, persists is thus as follows: how can we replace this topic of the polarity of opposites with the concept of an inherent tension?

2. Desire, Advertising, Fashion

While this brief interlude might be of interest to those of us who enjoy the problems of abstract thought, the variety of online tastes makes me keen to enter into the positive and concrete part of my discussion. In psychoanalytic theory, subjects are subordinated as beings of desire when positioned in relation to a fascinating object of desire. Jacques Lacan’s important theoretical point concerns the paradoxical status of this object: he argues that the desired goal – the object which fascinates us – does not exist; rather, it is a lure which is always experienced as forever out of reach, beyond the limits of our experience. This logic is best exemplified by the commodity-fetishism operative in the Guinness advertisement mentioned in the introduction: an ordinary empirical object – an alcoholic beverage – appears to contain an immutable essence, a surplus quality which somehow transcends its physical properties – what Marx termed its ‘use value’. In short, it is precisely the illusion that a glass of Guinness is ‘made of more’ that one’s desire to consume is provoked.

The aim, in psychoanalysis, is to break this illusion and allow the subject to come to terms with the fundamental cause of his desire. Lacan explains this shift as follows: if the object’s very unattainable status – the fact that the goal is always out of reach, beyond a limit – sustains our desire, it is the obstacle which appears to block our access to this goal which causes our desire. That is to say, the perceived limit is itself the very feature which renders the object desirable. It is on the basis of this operation that the commodity-form – the pint of Guinness – sustains what Marx called the ‘passionate chase after surplus value’.[28] The very failure to consume ‘more’ re-produces the illusion that the product is ‘made of more’. In short, the more we drink the thirstier we get.

The role of the psychoanalyst is to break this cycle by bringing about a fundamental shift in perspective from the goal to the cause of desire. This takes place when the object of our desire is presented as an illusion and the feature which provokes our desire is foregrounded. Žižek explains how, in Seminar VII, Lacan demonstrates this operation through a joke in which a man points at a woman and cries ‘Look at her, what a shame, under her clothes, she is totally naked![29] Through this joke, the commodity-fetishism operative in the Guinness ad can be understood in erotic terms: the female body functions as the object of the male gaze as long as it remains beyond the limit of a woman’s clothes, so that it is always suggested, forever out of reach. The full exposure of the female body (‘She is totally naked!’) brings about an over-proximity to the elusive object. Consequently, the lure of the beyond is no longer operative, the object-goal is experienced as an illusion (‘what a shame!’). Ultimately, the obstacle which appeared to block access to the desired goal is experienced as the real cause of desire (‘her clothes!’).

It is Baudelaire, I argue, who, by carrying the logic exemplified by Lacan’s joke to its limit, fully articulates the erotic dimension of commodity fetishism.[30] It might be argued then that, for Baudelaire, the painter’s task is to perform the ‘psychoanalytic’ act described in Lacan’s joke: he must depict ‘the pleasure caused by the sight of a beautiful woman’ by attempting to ‘separate her from her costume’; that is, by dividing the ‘indivisible unity’ of ‘the two things – the woman and her dress’.[31] Although, in his text, Baudelaire makes specific reference to the painter Constantin Guys, it is widely acknowledged that it is Manet who responds to Baudelaire’s call. One might therefore read Le Déjeuner as an ‘unmasking gesture of psychoanalysis’,[32] a painting which gives visible form to the statement ‘Look at her, what a shame, under her clothes, she is totally naked!’ Indeed, in the central nude figure sitting on discarded clothes, we see woman separated from her costume. Furthermore, by turning her gaze on the viewer, Manet positions the contemporary bourgeois subject as voyeur, thereby directly including him as part of the picture. Ultimately, through an over-proximity to the fully exposed (sexualized) female body, the viewer’s attachment to the allegorical nude (mythical goddess) is broken (‘What a shame!’) and the feature which causes this erotic attachment (‘her clothes’) is foregrounded.

Implicit in Lacan’s joke is the suggestion that desire is fundamentally visual in nature (‘Look at her…’), that it operates through the logic of concealment/exposure (‘under her clothes…’). Lacan appears to draw out the joke’s ‘aesthetic’ dimension when, in Seminar XI, he recounts the tale of a competition between two painters in which one deceives the other not by painting an illusory representation but by painting a veil on a wall.[33] The point of the analogy is that the attachment to the female object operates through what Lacan calls a ‘dialectic between appearance and its beyond’.[34] In other words, the chase after surplus-value – the thirst for ‘more’ – is sustained by the fact that ‘what I look at is never what I wish to see’.[35] The fascination with the female body – the fetishism of commodities – is a desire to strip back the veil of appearances and see what is concealed beneath. Thus, the cause of desire operates through the act of concealment itself: it is the veil’s status as a limit or obstacle which provokes the desire to look beyond it; it is the act of concealment which creates desire ‘by pretending to conceal something’.[36]

We thus arrive at the precise visual structure of commodity-fetishism: the fact that, ultimately, it is through the advertisement – the product’s status as a ‘veil’ – that surplus value is sustained, that Guinness appears to be ‘made of more’. This ‘dialectic between the surface and that which is beyond’[37] is, perhaps, best demonstrated by the voyeuristic nature of our excessive investment in the online world, where one is never fully satisfied because there is always more to see: another link, another YouTube video, another photo on Facebook.[38] This, I argue, is also what is at stake in Baudelaire’s expansion of references to woman’s clothes into an extended discussion of ‘certain questions concerning fashion and finery’: by emphasizing the significance of the ‘iridescent fabrics’ and ‘artificial forms’[39] of everyday life, he effectively calls on the painter to give visual form to Lacan’s veil analogy.[40]

When Lacan’s analogy and joke are read together – as two sides of the same phenomenon – what becomes explicit is the erotic dimension of painting, the visual nature of desire. This is why Le Déjeuner can be understood as a ‘short-circuiting’ of eroticism and vision, a reduction of the painted surface to the level of a woman’s clothes. It is worth noting that the emphasis on the nude’s garments is caused by the attention paid to the still-life in the foreground of the painting, a motif distorted by an emphasis on colour, line, and form. This distortion has the effect of directly linking the nude’s clothes with the painting’s formal qualities; the thick application of paint which emphasizes the surface of the canvas. It is through this operation that Lacan’s analogy is directly short-circuited with the erotic dimension of his joke: the basic structure of the field of vision is fully eroticized, the viewer becomes voyeur. Conversely, the joke is grounded in the visual dimension of the analogy; the painting itself – the woman’s clothes – becomes a surface appearance – a veil. Ultimately, the fundamental visual dimension of desire is grounded, the voyeur becomes viewer.

For Lacan, this dialectic of desire is structured by the relationship between what he terms the ‘screen’ and the ‘image’: it is by playing the role of a ‘screen’ that the flat opacity of the veil causes desire; it is only when an ‘image’ – a ‘point-to-point correspondence’[41] – is marked on the surface of the veil that this opacity is sufficiently elided to generate the illusion of a beyond, an object-goal. This apparatus is best understood when we consider the way a smartphone sustains our attachment to the virtual, online world: as hand-held devices develop, the one notable feature is the increasing emphasis being placed on their very hand-held quality. Under the guise of increased user ‘engagement’ phones become wider, thinner, more tactile and the function of the screen qua cause of desire becomes clear. At the same time, the function of the digital image in eliding the phone’s tactile qualities becomes obvious: the rapid development of smartphone technology ensures that the physical nature of the interface is elided under the guise of increased user ‘immersion’ and ‘experience’.

This is why the selfie openly stages the triangular schema used by Lacan to map the topology of desire, the fundamental framework sustaining our attachment to the virtual world: as we pose we locate ourselves in a structured field of vision, at what Lacan terms a ‘geometral point’, and position ourselves in relation to a fascinating object, our own self-image.

Fig. 3. Robert Kilroy, Selfie with Lacanian schema: ‘“Image” of ‘Parody of Raphael's “School of Athens”’ by Joshua Reynolds, 2015.

Fig. 3. Robert Kilroy, Selfie with Lacanian schema: ‘Image’ of ‘Parody of Raphael’s ‘”School of Athens'” by Joshua Reynolds, 2015.

It is at this point that the first part of this paper’s title acquires signification, retroactively. In Manet’s Le Déjeuner the full co-ordinates of Lacan’s schema are rendered visible. The emphasis on the painting’s surface appearance – the painting as veil – calls attention to the function of the canvas itself as an opaque screen which cannot be traversed: the still-life motif, by not fitting the perspectival space in which the figures are located, pushes this space forward against the picture plane thereby underlining its flatness. Consequently, the function of the image – the basic compositional arrangement, the ‘point-to-point’ placement of figures in shallow space – is openly staged.

3. Identity, Land Rovers, Hipsters,

What I see as the second important aspect of Lacanian theory concerns the complex relationship between desire and identity: we are ultimately subordinated as beings of desire, Lacan argues, due to our condition as subjects of language (parl-être). In short, the logic of desire is regulated by the process of identification. For Lacan, identity is fully achieved when our imaginary self-image – the way we see ourselves, how we would like to be seen by others – is realized in a structured network of meaning. However, this operation can only take place if we first presuppose the existence of an imaginary gaze with which we identify, an idealized ‘Other’ to which we see ourselves responding. Without this external point from which to judge ourselves and see our actions as having meaning, full identification is not possible. This is why, for Lacan, the process of achieving self-identity always involves a performative dimension: an act of reflexively ‘taking into account what one is doing’,[42] of marking one’s position and registering one’s actions under a presupposed gaze.

It is, I argue, this performative dimension which is most obvious in the act of commodity consumption. As Žižek puts it, one drives a Land Rover through city streets not because of its basic use-value – the many ‘off-road’ functions it offers (four-wheel drive, air-suspension, etc.) – but because one wants to be viewed by others as someone who drives a Land Rover, someone who identifies with the surplus qualities the car represents. It is in this way that consumption functions as a firm statement of identity: it is through the Land Rover that the owner is able to declare himself to be ‘an “off-road” kind of guy’.[43]

This ‘declarative dimension’[44] is, again, best demonstrated by the Guinness advertisement. First, it is evident from the voiceover – ‘In life, you cannot always chose what you do but you can always chose who you are’ – that the ad is concerned with the question of identity. Second, the men’s activity makes it clear that this process of identification is fundamentally performative/declarative. The important point worth emphasizing is that, although the men perform for an audience, they perform under the gaze of the bar man, the man pouring the Guinness. In other words, the glass of Guinness itself is the external point from which they reflexively mark their positions and register their actions. Like the owner of a Land Rover, the men – as consumers – identify with the surplus qualities the drink represents, the implication being that through consumption one becomes ‘made of more’.[45]

It is at this point that the precise connection between the Baudelairean Dandy and the Sapeur becomes clear. Baudelaire writes that – much like the Sapeur movement – Dandyism is ‘a kind of a cult of the self’ driven by ‘the burning need to create for oneself a personal originality, bounded only by the limits of the properties’. As with the Sapeur, it is in the figure of the Dandy that the dimension of identity and performativity operative in relations of exchange – the ‘Land Rover’ element of consumption, how the subject creates and displays himself by wearing the commodity – becomes explicit.[46]

Lacan demonstrates the precise nature of this operation by telling a story from his youth when, wanting to escape his intellectual milieu and experience something different, he spent time working in a fishing port in northern France. One day, while at sea, an individual known as Petit-Jean spotted a sardine can floating on the waves and said to Lacan: ‘You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you![47] Lacan’s point is that this statement reveals how Petit-Jean achieves identity as part of the fabric of his community through reference to the external point with which everyone within the community collectively identifies: namely, the fishing industry represented by the sardine can. Lacan, on the other hand, with his middle-class upbringing, is not recognized as being part of this community: he is not seen by the same ‘gaze’ with which Petit-Jean reflexively identifies.

Implicit in Lacan’s fishing story is the suggestion that the performative dimension of identification is fundamentally visual in nature: that, in making oneself seen to an empty, opaque element, one finds one’s ‘place in the picture’.[48] We thus arrive at the precise ‘aesthetic’ dimension of the Sapeurs’ activity: through fashion – the commodity-form reduced to its basic status as something one wears and displays – the men make themselves into a picture, they are seen by the pint of Guinness. The content of the ad thus gives meaning to its form: like the Sapeurs, the Land Rover owner displays her/himself through a product under the singular, idealized gaze the product embodies (the gaze of whatever celebrity endorses the product); s/he takes her/his place in the picture the product represents, the picture constructed by the advertisement. In short, it is in relation to the ad that we become ‘made of more’: it is through the ad that we – as consumers – ‘wear’ the product and become part of the Sapeur movement.

Lacan fully articulates the ‘aesthetic’ dimension of his fishing story when, in Seminar XI, he emphasizes the ‘virtual’ nature of the gaze under which one finds one’s ‘place in the picture’: it is ‘not a seen gaze,’ he says, ‘but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other’.[49] We thus arrive at a full understanding of our engagement in the online world. More and more our everyday lives are overdetermined by the reflexive act of registering, re-marking our private experiences under a presupposed online gaze: the gaze of our Facebook friends as the point with which we identify, the place from where we observe and judge ourselves. This is why the selfie openly stages Lacan’s second triangular schema, in which the logic of identity formation is fully illustrated: in the act of taking a personal ‘self-portrait’ with a smartphone and uploading the image to social media one reflexively takes into account what one is doing by performing for an idealized gaze or ‘point of light’. Through the selfie one literally makes oneself into a picture and finds one’s place in a symbolic network (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Robert Kilroy, Selfie with Lacanian schema: ‘“Picture” of ‘Parody of Raphael's “School of Athens”’ by Joshua Reynolds, 2015.

Fig. 4. Robert Kilroy, Selfie with Lacanian schema: ‘Picture’ of ‘Parody of Raphael’s “School of Athens”’ by Joshua Reynolds, 2015.

Lacan’s precise definition of identification therefore offers us a perfect description of the selfie: ‘a gaze is outside, I am looked at, that is to say, I am a picture […] I am photo-graphed’.   Conversely, it is through the topology mapped by the selfie that Lacan’s notion of ‘consciousness in its relation to representation’, ‘consciousness, in its illusion of seeing itself seeing itself’,  acquires its full meaning: in taking a selfie, I do not just position myself in relation to an image and see myself as an object, a representation; I also mark my position in relation to a screen and see myself through the virtual gaze of others thereby making myself an object, a representation.

It is Manet who, by responding to Baudelaire’s writings, visually stages this operation: in Le Déjeuner, the two Dandies dressed to the nines in contemporary attire are performatively gesturing to one another. However, like the Sapeurs, they do not look at the nude figure but, instead, make themselves visible to her, seen by her. The contemporary (‘real-life’) Dandy is then himself included as part of the picture when the nude, instead of looking at the two men, gazes directly at the viewer: it is the viewer who, through the act of criticism, performs the activity the picture describes. As Lacan notes, it is in the aesthetic judgement that what might be termed his ‘selfie schema’ becomes explicit.[50] When speaking about a painting one reflexively marks one’s position in relation to a flat canvas, an opaque surface, and takes one’s place in the picture itself; one is photo-graphed from the point of view of the painting as the external place from where one judges oneself.

It is at this point that the second part of this paper’s title acquires meaning, après-coup. We have seen that the obstacle in our reading of Baudelaire’s text concerns an apparent deadlock between the text’s aesthetic and social content. This is why, when considering Baudelaire’s shift from aesthetic enquiry to social commentary – when reflecting on the explicit aesthetic dimension of his reference to contemporary society – one must heed Baudelaire’s insistence that ‘what to the reader may seem like a digression is not so in truth’.[51] As I have argued, his movement between the aesthetic and social levels does not concern two opposing fields; rather, Baudelaire is referring to the same phenomena from two alternative perspectives, the inverse and obverse of the same structural surface: namely, the social dimension of the aesthetic judgement and the aesthetic dimension of contemporary society.[52]

Through the actions of the Dandy Baudelaire describes what is at stake (on a social level) in the activity of criticism; through the act of criticism he openly stages what is at stake (on an aesthetic level) in the activity of the Dandy. Thus, by describing the same phenomenon from two opposing perspectives Baudelaire creates an impossible short-circuit of levels which for structural reasons can never meet; the relationship between the aesthetic and social can only be grasped by a type of parallax view, a constant shifting of perspective between the two levels. Through this shift, the apparent opposition between the two poles is perceived as an external embodiment of an inherent ‘parallax’ gap which precedes the opposition itself.

How then does this parallax gap materialize? What becomes apparent through a parallax view of Baudelaire’s text is that the structural imbalance in his discourse actually draws our attention to the structure of the discourse itself. Baudelaire’s obvious digression away from the field of aesthetic enquiry merely serves to emphasize his explicit references to the aesthetic dimension of his activity.[53] This is how Baudelaire takes into account – and openly stages – the performative dimension of his own activity. Having painted a social picture in aesthetic terms (and vice versa) he then includes himself as part of the picture he paints. He describes the critic as Dandy, the Dandy as critic, and then includes his own activity – aesthetic judgement – as part of the observed phenomenon – as an example of Dandyism. Just as in Manet’s image, where representational content gives meaning to or encounter with the painting’s form, Baudelaire’s text also performs the very operation it frames.

The Baudelairean parallax thus materializes when, in the final analysis, the gap between social and aesthetic content is understood as a gap within the form of the discourse itself: a gap between what the speaker says (content) and what is said at the level of the statement (form), an intentional slip of the tongue which draws attention to the performative dimension of the activity, the text as an aesthetic judgement, the text as a selfie. This is also what is at stake in my own contribution to this inter-disciplinary project, this convergence of perspectives on a digital platform. What to the reader might seem like a digression from a discussion of the image I have before me into a commentary on the world opened up by the two absent images – the world of commodities, advertising, Facebook and selfies – is not so in truth.  The special beauty of all these images resides in the fact that they are heavy with psychoanalytic and aesthetic suggestion. My interpretation of their meaning has involved moving between different levels of theory and exemplification, reading Lacan with Baudelaire and Manet with Lacan, in the aim, to paraphrase Lacan himself, of presenting the latter as the truth of the former and vice versa. Thus, it is inevitable that the particular intervention of this text into a discussion of the image may have only succeeded inadequately. Alas, in the interdisciplinary market, perhaps the only readymade works of art remaining are academic selfies (fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Selfie of Robert Kilroy and David Scott, Department of French, Trinity College Dublin, 2015.

Fig. 5. Robert Kilroy, Selfie of Robert Kilroy and David Scott, Department of French, Trinity College Dublin, 2015.



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Baudelaire, Charles. ‘The Painter of Modern Life.’ In Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Gaiger. London: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

Dean, Jodi. ‘The Real Internet.’ The International Journal of Žižek Studies 4, no. 2 (2010).

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Singletary, Suzanne. ‘Manet and Whistler: Baudelairean Voyage.’ In Perspectives on Manet, edited by Therese Dolan, 49-72. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2012.

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———. How to Read Lacan. London: Granta, 2006.

———. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 2008.

———. The Fragile Absolute or Why is the Christian Legacy worth fighting for? London: Verso, 2008.

———. The Parallax View. London: MIT Press, 2009.


[1] Jennifer O’Connell, ‘Selfie, word of 2013, sums up our age of narcissism,’ The Irish Times. December 10, 2013. Accessed December 17, 2010, .

[2] According to Guinness, the ad tells the real-life story of a group of Sapeurs in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, ‘whose way of life is a testament to the belief of putting more in, to get more out’. Their life, we are informed, ‘is not defined by occupation or wealth, but by respect, a moral code and an inspirational display of flair and creativity’ which ‘is demonstrated through their love of stylish dressing’. We are assured, however, that ‘it is not the fabric or cost of the suit that counts’ but ‘the worth of the man inside it’. The irony, of course, is that nowhere in Brazzaville can Guinness be found on draught. See, published on Jan 12, 2014.

[3] Like the Sapeurs, Dandies are ‘beings who have no other calling but to cultivate the idea of beauty in their persons’ by following a ‘doctrine of elegance and originality’. Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ in Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Gaiger (London: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 504, 501.

[4] Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real, ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens (London: Continuum, 2006), 11.

[5] Žižek, The Parallax View, (London: MIT Press, 2009), 4.

[6] Žižek, The Parallax View, 4.

[7] Žižek, Interrogating the Real, 11.

[8] This parallax view is achieved through a fundamental perspectival shift: instead of insisting on the irreducible gap between the two opposing poles one should attempt to ‘reach beneath the dualism itself, into a “minimal difference” […] that generates it’. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, 11.

[9] Žižek, The Parallax View, 10.

[10] W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 30.

[11] Therese Doran (ed.), Perspectives on Manet (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2012), 3.

[12] Paul Hayes Tucker (ed.), Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 6.

[13] Doran, Perspectives on Manet, 3, 7.

[14] Hayes Tucker, Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 6.

[15] I am referring here to the opposing traditions of Modernism which developed from T. J. Clark and Michael Fried’s alternative responses to Clement Greenberg’s reading of Manet, examined in Perspectives on Manet by Steven Levine. Levine explains how Clark, by relating the formal discrepancies in Manet’s work to certain forms of modernity, reads Le Déjeuner as representing a clash of social forces: the painting is, Clark argues, a commentary on the ‘unharmonised intersection of labor and leisure’, an acknowledgment of the unresolved co-existence between workman and the bourgeoisie. Fried, for his part, understands these formal discrepancies as an attempt by Manet to ground the unity of the painted surface. From this perspective, Fried reads Le Déjeuner as a negation of the convention that paintings are made ‘to be beheld’ which draws attention to the presence of the beholder. While impossible to argue that the variety of perspectives in Manet scholarship are directly influenced by Fried and Clark’s readings of Manet’s work, it is my contention that each particular interpretation relies on one of the two opposing traditions of Modernism which developed from these readings. In the first tradition, the painting is understood within its broader social context, as a self-conscious reaction to the changing nature of French society. In the second tradition, it is understood within a specific aesthetic context, as a ‘self-conscious response to the internal development of painting. See Steven Levine, ‘Reconstructing Manet,’ in Perspectives on Manet, 191, 199, 195, 196.

[16] Levine, ‘Reconstructing Manet,’ 191.

[17] Carol Armstrong, ‘To Paint, to Point, to Pose: Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, edited by Paul Hayes Tucker (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 109.

[18] Levine, ‘Reconstructing Manet,’ 200.

[19] Paul Hayes Tucker, ‘Making Sense of Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 6.

[20] Doran, Perspectives on Manet, 1.

[21] Manet’s public, who were used to seeing allegorical nudes and mythical goddesses, were perturbed by the fact that the painting’s subject matter was ‘difficult to decode’ because of the ‘scandalous’ nature of the subjects depicted: the female figure is ‘without a stitch of clothing’; she is perched in an unlady-like pose upon garments which ‘lie discarded’ next to her; her ‘stark’ gaze is fixed directly on the viewer. Critics also reacted to Manet’s apparent inability to plan relationships: the unrealistic and inconsistent placement of foreground figures in ‘shallow space’ which appeared pushed forward so that the thick application of paint was brought into focus and the formal qualities of the work (line, colour, light, shade, and form) were emphasized, all of which drew attention to the surface of the canvas. See Suzanne Singletary ‘Manet and Whistler: Baudelairean Voyage,’ in Perspectives on Manet, 49, 55-56; Hayes Tucker, ‘Making Sense of Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ 10, 21, 24; Armstrong, ‘To Paint, to Point, to Pose: Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ 90.

[22] Hayes Tucker, ‘Making Sense of Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ 28, 4.

[23] After its original 1863 exhibition, critics struggling to make sense of Le Déjeuner looked to Baudelaire’s essay as a literary source. The problem is that, although Baudelaire’s text is presented as an act of aesthetic enquiry, it also develops into a detailed commentary on contemporary bourgeois society. It thus becomes an obvious ‘match’ for Manet’s painting which is subsequently viewed as an ‘image of contemporary social mores and sexual practices’ (Armstrong, ‘To Paint, to Point, to Pose: Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ 106, 92).

[24] Armstrong argues that, although Baudelaire engages in social commentary, his text remains an aesthetic judgement. This is evident from the fact that his analysis of social relations is, fundamentally, a discussion of bourgeois fashion. That is to say, his references to the pageant of everyday life – a constant stream of hats and veils – does not simply refer to specific forms of sociability; rather, Baudelaire uses the social field to signify painting’s specific problems, beauty as it appears in an ‘artificial habitat with all its costume changes’. Armstrong, ‘To Paint, to Point, to Pose: Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ 109.

[25] Levine. ‘Reconstructing Manet,’ 189.

[26] Armstrong, ‘To Paint, to Point, to Pose: Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ 111.

[27] Armstrong, ‘To Paint, to Point, to Pose: Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,’ 111.

[28] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 254.

[29] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), 25.

[30] What might be termed Baudelaire’s psychoanalytic insight is evident in the way he identifies woman as the paradoxical object of male desire: as ‘an object of public pleasure’ she is ‘the being who, for the majority of men, is the source of the most liveliest and […] of the most lasting delights […] (of) the most exhausting pleasure and the most productive pains […] the being towards whom, or on behalf of whom, all their efforts are directed’. He then makes it clear that this female object is a non-existent lure: ‘the creature of whom we are speaking is perhaps only incomprehensible because it has nothing to communicate […] Woman […] presides at all the conception of the brain of man’. Finally, Baudelaire recognizes woman’s clothes as the feature which renders her desirable: ‘the muslins, the gauzes, the vast, iridescent clouds of stuff in which she envelops herself’ are ‘the attributes and the pedestal of her divinity’. Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ in Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 504, 501.

[31] Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ 501, 502.

[32] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 2008), 25.

[33] ‘In the classical tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasios, Zeuxis has the advantage of having made grapes that attracted the birds. The stress is placed not on the fact that these grapes were in any way perfect grapes, but on the fact that even the eye of the birds was taken in by them. This is proved by the fact that his friend Parrhasios triumphs over him for having painted on the wall a veil, a veil so lifelike that Zeuxis, turning towards him said, “Well, and now show us what you have painted behind it”. By this he showed that what was as issue was certainly deceiving the eye (tromp l’oeil). A triumph of the gaze over the eye’. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York & London: Norton & Company, 1981), 103.

[34] Lacan, Seminar XI, 103.

[35] Lacan, Seminar XI, 103.

[36] Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 223.

[37] Lacan, Seminar XI, 106.

[38] This is Jodie Dean’s point when, building on Žižek’s work, she argues that ‘the contemporary setting of electronically mediated subjectivity is one of infinite doubt, ultimate reflexivization’. Jodie Dean, ‘The Real Internet,’ The International Journal of Žižek Studies 4, no. 2 (2010), 2.

[39] Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ 502.

[40] Woman, as ‘an object of public pleasure’, is ultimately ‘a creature of show’; her clothes, as a surface appearance, ‘play the part at once of pedestal and balancing-rod’ (Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ 504). In Žižekaian terms, as a veil, her clothes deceive us ‘by feigning that there is something to be concealed’ (Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 222-224). The ‘unmasking gesture of psychoanalysis’ is thus performed when the woman’s clothes are grounded as a surface appearance, a veil; when the painter portrays women ‘who have exaggerated the fashion to the extent of perverting its charm and totally destroying its aims’. As in Lacan’s analogy, a reference to the ‘over-ornate’ is enough to present the female object as a lure, ‘to betray her for what she really is’. Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ 504.

[41] Lacan, Seminar XI, 86.

[42] Žižek, The Parallax View, 65.

[43] As Žižek writes: ‘a man who lives in a large city and drives a Land-rover (for which he obviously has no use) doesn’t simply live a no-nonsense, down-to-earth life; rather, he owns such a car in order to signal that he leads his life under the sign of a no-nonsense, down-to-earth attitude’. Žižek, How to Read Lacan (London: Granta, 2006), 16. Thus, one might argue that the real ‘recovery’ in the Irish economy – the re-formulation of the capitalist edifice – is most visible at the level of identification through commodification: the fact that, as so-called ‘consumer confidence’ increases, so too do the number of Land Rovers on the streets of Dublin.

[44] Žižek, How to Read Lacan, 16.

[45] From a Lacanian perspective, one never really uses the product; rather, one creates oneself through the product: one wears the product as part of oneself. More importantly, one always creates oneself by displaying oneself through the product, in terms of the product; one always exhibits what one wears. As the voiceover in the ad explains, ‘with every brace and every cufflink we say “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”’. It is with this statement that the ad’s crucial visual-verbal mechanism occurs: when the word ‘I’ is uttered for the first time the camera shifts to the barman holding an empty glass so that all we see is the product’s logo (the start of the word “Guinness” and the symbol of a harp); the camera then shifts back to the men performing before the word ‘I’ is repeated and we return to the barman who is now shown filling the empty glass with Guinness while looking at the men. His gaze is then replaced by a close-up shot of the product itself: ultimately, it is the glass of Guinness which looks at the men.

[46] The Dandy, Baudelaire explains, creates himself by displaying himself: as a ‘cult of the self’. Dandyism is rooted in ‘the joy of astonishing others’. This is why Baudelaire identifies the ‘distinguishing characteristics of a Dandy’s beauty’ by focusing on his clothes: it is ‘his way of wearing a coat’ and ‘his bodily attitudes’ which ultimately ‘betray an inner energy’. It is, perhaps, the Dandy’s tendency to appear in all ‘periods of transition’ that one should locate the sudden proliferation of Land Rovers on the streets of Dublin within the context of the so-called ‘hipster’ movement in fashion. In Baudelairean terms, it is ‘in the disorder of these times’ that hipsters, like Dandies, have emerged as a ‘school of tyrants’ driven by a ‘passion’ which, inevitably, becomes ‘doctrine’. See Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ 499, 500-501.

[47] Lacan, Seminar XI, 95.

[48] Lacan, Seminar XI, 96.

[49] Lacan, Seminar XI, 96.

[50] Lacan explains that when considering ‘the essential correlates of consciousness in its relation to representation […] we are dealing with the philosopher’. To put it another way, it is in the ‘philosophical problem of representation’ that the selfie operation appears in its purest form. Seminar XI, 1981 80, 107.

[51] Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ 500.

[52] Through reference to the social he articulates the fundamental conditions of identity operative in aesthetic enquiry: how, in the act of criticism, one displays one’s identity by wearing the painting as a commodity, an advertisement. Conversely, by focusing on fashion he articulates the fundamental aesthetic dimension of identification: how, in the act of commodity exchange, one makes oneself a picture by marking one’s position in relation to a painting.

[53] While the essay opens with an obvious marking of the speaker’s position in relation to an aesthetic object – ‘I have before me a series of fashion plates’ – it closes with a peculiar paragraph in which Baudelaire warns against all efforts to decipher the content of his writings; instead, he draws the reader’s attention to the form of his essay, the act of writing itself, the declarative dimension of his activity as critic: ‘Please do not think that it was in order to gratify the reader, any more than to scandalize him, that I have spread before his eyes pictures such as these […]. If by chance anyone should be so ill-advised as to seek here an opportunity of satisfying his unhealthy curiosity, I must in all charity warn him that he will find nothing whatever to stimulate the sickness of his imagination. He will find nothing but the inevitable image of vice […]. It is their moral fecundity which gives these drawings their special beauty. They are heavy with suggestion, but cruel, harsh suggestion which my pen, accustomed though it is to grappling with the plastic arts, has perhaps interpreted only too inadequately’. Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ 494, 505.

Manet’s Selfie and the Baudelairean ParallaxAlex Bradley