Flirtation as/on Solid Ground

Published as the 6th issue of DUE by the Architectural Association. November, 11, 2016


Hal Hartley's 1995 film Flirt rotates the same script through three difference contexts: location, characters, and dynamics. In the first scene, New York, February 1993, is a heterosexual couple: the man the flirt. In the second, Berlin, October 1994, a homosexual couple: the younger man the flirt. The third, Tokyo, March 1995, a heterosexual couple: the younger woman the flirt. Flirt is described by its distributor as spanning "three continents, three languages, three races, and two sexual orientations." Though spanning implies continuity, each context instead fractures the script. Lines delivered by the role of the flirt in one location are absent or half-said by the partner in another, by the partner's spouse in the next: dropped or resemanticized through their spatial transpositions. As we take New York for the standard, we associate the deviations with the linear progression of the film and the geographic distance between the cities: from beginning to end and from east to west. The film’s structure proposes the tentative thesis that standards operate on a principle of distance (spatial and temporal) in respect to their source.


The reconstitution of the script that occurs through its iterations is a translation, the mapping of an object to a new index and scale, resulting in a requisite modulation of both its relevance and resolution – allowing for the introduction of errors. As Latour said in Aramis "to translate is to betray:" derived from the Italian aphorism"traduttore, traditore." The modulation in this process, occurring at the interchange, the borders, of two discrete systems is understood linguistically as the root of ambiguity, the instability of meaning, its 'play.' While the formal structure of the script exemplifies the ambiguity of linear systems, the flirt (each flirt, all flirts) showcases the ambiguity of substitutive systems: a lability of meaning located in the delta between two channels that share either an origin or a terminus. Opposing mistranslation, substitutive ambiguity is derived from the (un)intentional misreading or mis-delivery of a message. As the New York flirt's lover exclaims, "We’re using the same language I use when I lie to him."


Flirt roughly shares its plot structure, its module, with Arthur Schnitzler's 1985 German play Liebelei. The play reappears in 1914, translated into English with the title Playing with Love. In the foreword the translator notes that "even Flirtation" had been suggested, but that it was not a happy, approximate, or appropriate equivalent. However, as ambiguity plays with meaning, the flirt plays with love. In 1935, Roger Callois proposed that transformation caused by external stimuli was an "assimilation to the surroundings" rooted in a "real temptation by space." Midway through the film a chorus of laborers, interrupted in their restoration of an old landmark building, takes a break to discuss this tactic.


1 The milieu is bound to change the dynamics of the situation.


2 People are the same no matter what the milieu is.


3 So you don't think personality, character, has any effect on the situation?


2 Please! Don't twist my words around!


1 The question, though, remains the same: What do you do when contingent reality demands definitive response?


2 We cannot exist in ambiguity forever!


3 I disagree. I think we can. Although I think it would be the deepest kind of isolation.


The first laborer's initial proposition is easily accepted; one must consider the implications of the site. The second posits an Aristotalean "firm and unchanging disposition" of character. The third attempts to clarify the initial statement, confusing the roles played by context and character. The subsequent refutation by the second indicates a distinction between character and person, appearance and identity. The first rephrases, asking how a structure should respond to haphazard ground. The possibility of remaining noncommittal to the demands of space, is declared impossible by the second. In response, the third proposes its potential – qualifying it as generating isolation and loneliness: creating a figure with no ground.


Viewed in this sense as an almost autopoeitic system, the flirt lives parasitically off of the air, the space between meanings and relations(hips). In Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending (1958), the orpheuse, Val, delivers a monologue structured around birds that "live their whole lives on the wing" never landing "on this earth but one time when they die!” The first specimens of the Bird of Paradise named Lust Vogel, “Pleasure Bird” in German, (and said to subsist on "dew and vapors rising from the earth.”) received in Europe from New Guinea, had their legs previously removed to make them suitable for sale.


This impossible creature emerged from the flirtation between possibility and actuality generated by the lack of information (not misheard, but unspoken) produced by the process of trade (of transfer and transposition). Edward Said, on the interplay between geography and memory, noted the necessity of invention to the process of recollection – itself a re-production. Invention can also be understood, via ambiguity, as the additive result of a standard in its application to a specific context, an operation linking linear systems by converging the delta of substitutive ambiguity that exists, always, in-between.


“I want you to tell me, is there a future for me and you? / How can I answer that? / Yes or No / I can’t see the future / You don’t need to see it if you know its there.” This exchange occurs without variation at the beginning of each scene, the ultimatum being posed by the lover to the flirt. Leaving the apartment, the flirt stops at a payphone and calls his other, married, lover, repeating, but inverting, the exchange. As the flirt redirects the ultimatum, the two external relations are brought to bear on each other — though of course neither exchange is ever resolved.


The flirt is not invention. It is not the normative seduction by space or the pathology of the Lust Vogel, though these are its possible futures. It is an embodiment of indeterminacy to the ground; however its complexity is not contradictory: it is consistent in respect to itself, whatever it is. The flirt, as an active agent, induces error. It does this through the morpheme “re-” (again, anew, against, back, withdrawal, and undoing): preferring reflection (mirroring behavior), redirection (leading astray), and reticulation (being one to many).


Flirtation as/on Solid Ground
Flirtation as/on Solid Ground
Flirtation as/on Solid Ground
Flirtation as/on Solid Ground

© Gregory Cartelli 2016