ESSAYS Mousse 46

Esthetics From Acorns (1992); The Ruin of Exchange (2009)

by John Miller


01 john-miller



If you have not yet read The 120 Days of Sodom, Justine and Juliette, do so immediately. Otherwise this exercise will be purely academic.

To my knowledge Cliff’s Notes has never published synopses of Sade’s works—perhaps because the works already read like Cliff’s Notes.

Censorship sometimes takes the form of capital punishment. Sade’s publisher, for example, was guillotined for printing his works. Today we can choose between hardcover and paperbound versions of these writings. This represents a triumph of sorts, but not necessarily for us.

Why isn’t there an edition of the works with the melodramatic cover illustrations and embossed gold lettering typical of romance novels? The Name of the Rose was packaged this way.

No sooner did man suspect the existence of immortal beings than he endowed them with both actions and words. Thereafter we find metamorphoses, fables, parables and novels: in a word we find works of fiction as soon as fiction seized hold of the minds of men.[1]

The detective novel perfectly captures the logic of secular literature: someone looking for something that happened outside the regular cycle of work and leisure.

Boredom with a trace of humor.

Sade’s writing pushes the rationality of the bourgeois subject past its limit, as does the so-called logic of capital.

In The 120 Days the inhabitants of the chateau are largely constrained to a diet of chicken—and then, only the white meat. This diet was believed to produce more delectable turds which, of course, played an important part in the goings-on therein. This immediately strikes the reader as an obvious conceit, a pseudo-empiricism not so far removed from the connoisseurship of that latter day know-it-all, Secret Agent 007. But can one really speak of conceit and feces in the same breath?

Conceit and feces: a glimpse of Sade’s dandyism?

The acquired knowledge of Ian Fleming’s James Bond signifies mastery of the world. The 007 universe is a set of finite propositions which, with enough work, can always be mastered. These are formalized in a system of representation akin to that of the World’s Fairs. They take shape emblematically as a tape recorder hidden in the heel of a shoe or an Aston Martin which sprouts machine guns. Sade imagined certain gimmicks too: elaborate machines in which human bodies were the components. But the finitude which enveloped them always appears in a constant state of decay.

Your body is a temple, etc.

One can easily envision the great libertine architecture which has never been built, then observe the massive prison system, overflowing with inmates and largely devoid of pleasure.

A CIA operative in El Salvador applies electrodes to a mother’s genitals. His assistants then run progressively larger voltages through the electrodes in order to make the woman talk. The operative takes a coffee break and calls his wife to make sure she can pick up the kids from nursery school.

Annie Le Brun has this to say about Sade’s oeuvre: “No ideas without bodies.” This formulation goes a long way towards refuting the idealistic basis of most Western religion and philosophy.

The great failing of State Communism: that the masses are expected to work primarily for the good of all.

Orthodox conceptual art: a fatal addiction to the bureaucratic protocols of capitalist institutions. Second-generation conceptual art: an addiction to stationery. Poetry is always “conceptual art.”

The original manuscript for The 120 Days is a small scroll with microscopic handwriting.

Too much attention is paid to the unmarked grave in Sade’s Last Will and Testament, and not enough to the handful of acorns he asked to be strewn over it. Compared to this, the desire to preserve one’s remains in a casket is childish.

Sade’s dandyism lies in his grasp of his own body as elemental matter.

Weeping “tears of blood” over the lost manuscript.

Nothing but pen and paper.

O you who wish to venture upon this difficult and thorny career, bear ever in mind that the novelist is the child of Nature, that she created him to be her painter; if he does not become his mother’s lover the moment she gives birth to him, let him never write, for we shall never read him.[2]

Esthetics as incest.

A work of art equals so many tons of manure. A human body equals so many handfuls of maggots.

The continual transformation of matter vs. Nirvana. With this opposition, materialism equals atheism.

The patriarchy demands sublimation.

Poetics reveals the trick of language: the effect of subjectivity.

Juliette can only be read as a proto-feminist tract and it is proto-feminist only in chronological terms.

Sade never “gives” power to women as a demographic group.

Craig Owens’ exegesis of allegory and entropy in Robert Smithson’s work leads directly back to The 120 Days.

Partially Buried Penis.

Only cowardice prevents more people from becoming criminals—and revolutionaries. Isn’t this the tacit meaning of the entire penal system?

Walter Benjamin observed that the breakdown of the nuclear family—and the bourgeois morality which sustains it—leads to sadism.

Slavoj Žižek has noted that, like the characters in a Tex Avery cartoon, the figures in the Sadean narrative are made of an indestructible “superstuff.”

In the 1960s American kids played with “Superballs”; these were balls which bounced 10 times higher than ordinary balls. There was also “Flubber” (from the Disney movies Flubber and Son of Flubber), a kind of bounceable goo which gave you a rash if you played with it too long. Not to mention “Silly Putty” which bounced, stretched and picked up pictures from newspapers (just like Rauschenberg did with turpentine).

Georg Lukács criticized the romanticism of illegality as an infantile disorder of the Communist Party. This corresponds closely to the logic of transgression, wherein (in the words of Georges Bataille) the transgressor venerates the rule he breaks. The further danger of this romanticism is that it underestimates the actual strength of capitalism by supposing that it can be dissolved in spontaneous violence.

Chernobyl (the breakdown of a capitalist technology) stands as a monument to the triumph of capital inside the official Communist State. A more thorough-going socialism would have never built nuclear reactors in the first place because environmental pollution represents the exploitation of humankind by a ruling elite.

Notwithstanding its instant comprehensibility, “a victory of blue jeans over concrete” is a decidedly odd locution.[3]

Ironically, it is Chernobyl which most closely approximates Sade’s dream of a crime which would obliterate the universe.

Too bad Lukács never grasped the preeminent realism of Sade’s oeuvre.

The existence of the Communist State resembled the isolation of the Sadean chateau. Pasolini depicted the libertines in Salo as fascists.

Back to the acorns: Does his Last Will and Testament cast Sade as a kind of “proto-Johnny Appleseed?” Don’t laugh. Johnny Appleseed (like William Blake) was a Swedenborgian and so rejected the notion of an afterlife as reward or punishment for one’s deeds on earth. Rather, the deeds themselves constitute the reward or punishment.

Evil as such, which (allegory) cherished as enduring profundity, exists only in allegory, is nothing other than allegory and means something different than what it is.

It means precisely the nonexistence of what it presents. The absolute vices, as exemplified by tyrants and intriguers, are allegories. They are not real, and that which they represent, they possess only in the subjective view of melancholy… by its allegorical form, evil reveals itself to be a subjective phenomenon.[4]

…words like punishment, rewards, commandments, prohibitions, order and disorder are merely allegorical terms drawn from what transpires in the sphere of human events and intercourse.[5]



[1] Marquis de Sade, “Reflections on the Novel,” in The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings, trans. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver (New York: Grove Press, 1966), p. 98.
[2] Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings, p. 110.
[3] David Deitcher, “Blue Jeans and Death by Gun,” in Cady Noland, Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst), unpaginated.
[4] Walter Benjamin, trans. John Osborne, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (London: Verso, 1998), p. 233.
[5] Marquis de Sade, Juliette, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 41.


From John Miller,The Price Club: Selected Writings (1977-1998) (Geneva and Dijon: JRP Editions & Les presses du réel, 2000.)



Space is the ultimate medium of exchange. Money is a token or object of exchange. Money may represent “in the last instance” the materials and goods that people want to exchange, but the accumulation of money eventually becomes the end of exchange. Even this must occur through space.

Time is money. Space is not money.

Space is the arena where social relations are produced and reproduced.

Technological advances leave the public sphere a ruin.

The Theory of Ruin Value

Ruinscape: Walkmen, iPods, cell phones

One thing equals so much of another—that is the transparency of the market.

Diffuseness is the residual promise of space.

If space is socially produced, does it require labor power? Is inhabiting space a form of work?

Does inhabiting space differ from colonization?

If colonization entails the accumulation of space as an end of exchange, does space cease to function as the primary medium of exchange? No.

Exchange, in part, reproduces space as spaces of representation.

Fantasy to the contrary, one cannot be everywhere at once.

Direct experience migrates into representation.

Where do language and space intersect?

De Chirico’s piazza paintings most of all represent space. The colonnades, walls, clocks, outlying smokestacks and locomotives are all framing devices.

De Chirico is not a metaphysical painter.

Piazzas lead to arcades.

The arcade houses a world in miniature.

The commodity performs metaphysical capers.

It is always too late in de Chirico’s piazzas. Objects cast long shadows even though the sun is directly overhead. That is the mystery and melancholy of the street.

The solar symmetry is theatrical: a golden moment.

Freudian nostalgia: longing for the mother’s genitals.

From nostalgia comes psychogeography: a “unity of atmosphere.”

For de Chirico, the term enigma designates the uncanny.

The public square dreams itself. Pedestrians are sleepwalkers.

Street theater: The first boulevard is a backdrop. The theater reproduces the perspective of the noble overlooking the town square. People present themselves to each another, as if isolated in time and space.

The conspicuousness of consumption unfolds in a phantasmagoric theater.

Linear perspective implies a double staging. The vanishing points in a coherent picture indicate its virtual space.

The perspective in a de Chirico piazza doesn’t add up. It is a deficit in perspectival accumulation.

Bananas, pineapples and artichokes take the place of monuments.

The market is on the square.

Facades greet an absence of foot traffic while premonitions haunt the square. Attention wanders away from the center.

The statues flatten into funereal reclining postures. The pedestals retain more depth than the figures they support.

Trapped, statues relinquish their last vestiges of life.

The isolated figure makes the square more empty.

Everything is still, except the pennants.

The footpaths revive a more archaic city.

Fresh fruit appears on the level with monuments. The fruit recall a lost imperialism.

We live in the shadow of the colossus.

All glory is fleeting.

The enigma of the hour: Un Regard Oblique

Make the retreat into small rooms, as cluttered with detritus as the squares are empty. This strict opposition between interior and exterior propels de Chirico’s first paintings.

The detritus in the room echoes the desolation of the street.

In the arcade, interior and exterior interpenetrate.

Life is elsewhere, on a distant horizon: a vista outside the piazza.

Terra incognita

The square is the space of something forgotten, yet impalpably present.

If space is socially produced, is it not also the product of exchange?

The orchestration of public behavior: spatial code, the law, convention, the replication of work as leisure, i.e., meaningless work, strolling, blind movement, homelessness, the reclamation of space. Correctly orchestrated public behavior apparently amounts to nothing going on.

The staging of window displays: Commodities consume space, seemingly, for its own sake. Wasted space signals opulence.

In Remembrance of Things Past, shifts in spatial relations trigger instances of involuntary memory: uneven cobblestones, two steeples in parallax.

On the periphery, the railroad functions as the first modern network, the first system of dislocation.

The steam engine uses corrective feedback; governor, namely a centrifugal feedback valve controls its speed.

The city square has been overrun.

The commons disappear.

A mnemonic city: no cars, no traffic.

Utopia is a space outside the market.

The network projects an illusion of democracy.

Democracy presumes political feedback.

Entropy is the enemy of information.

De Chirico’s perspective throws topography into doubt.

The mysterious trailer: a cyst in public view. It might just as well be elsewhere.

A perspectival grid of equivalent spatial containers extends to the horizon line. That is its irreality.

A reflection creates the first virtual space.

A stereo system offers a clear set of relations: two speakers and one listener. As such, it purports to be a perfect triangulation.

During stereo playback, the listener’s brain uses differences in timing and volume to triangulate the positions of the recorded objects.

Stereo triangulation cannot reduce the listener to a geometric point. For it to work, the listener must have two ears. This is the index of the listener’s corporeality.

The Blackberry, the iPhone, GPS, a body that has lost its mooring

Perspectival triangulation cannot reduce the viewer to a geometric point. For it to work, the viewer must have two eyes. This is the index of the viewer’s corporeality.

The stereoscopic and the stereophonic create an illusion of the body in space.

Is not what is reproduced in stereo also a body, not a point?

Causality: the order of scanning. Scanning demands a surface relation in which all is synchronic.

The allegory of scanning: one thing after another.

Topology: the moebius strip mocks vestiges of direct experience.

The heterology of walking: the ideal walker is blind.

Mapping is a correspondence between two terms, whereby one represents the other.

Mapping becomes a procedure for forgetting.

The photograph amounts to a mechanism for forgetting, a topology of immediacy.

What can be remembered is what one dreams about a place.

Dreams demand language.

Words replace things.

Psychedelia: the loss of coordinates, sensory overload, the supercession of surrealism, the liquidation of poetic condensation, postcolonial feedback, the inversion of subjectivity, madness.

Psychedelia ostentatiously reduces history to a surface.

Imagery recombines to the point of blindness: a psychedelic currency.

What can now be identified as psychedelia has turned into its opposite. It no longer de-represents the rest of the world but only represents itself as a period cliché.

What persists as psychedelia defies codification.

Subjectivity entails projection and introjection. The distance between image and self is synaptic.

Subjectivity entails feedback.

Feedback entails topology.

Is the feedback loop exempt from exchange… or a kind of exchange in and of itself?

A camera is a small room that reproduces the room outside.

The camera brings the exterior inside, simulating perception.

Obscene = what can’t be staged, a stereoscopic theater of cruelty.

De Chirico’s giant bananas and artichokes set the stage for Oldenburg’s monuments. The outsize scale invokes regression.

“Oldenburg: a doll house in reverse.”[1]

Marcuse is supposed to have claimed that a society that could realize one of Oldenburg’s proposed monuments would be a free society.

The realization of fantasy falls short of liberation. Instead, liberalization gives way to the obscene.

The realization of fantasy must always be the reduction of fantasy.

Nothing left to the imagination: everything repressed.

Optics and the obscene combine in pornography.

The camera yields more than what we could otherwise know, i.e., a surplus, both yearned-for and unseemly.

Pornography evinces an undue attachment to the surface of things.

Outer space is a social differential.

Inner space repels pornography.

The term “camera obscura” was first used by Johannes Kepler in 1604.

In the reductive space of the art gallery the viewer’s body becomes rarified.

The image of space versus the experience of space.

Dan Graham’s video chambers: A life-size camera obscura that doesn’t add up. If one side is the event and the other, representation, the reflection is skewed. Which is which?

Graham exacerbates the differential between inhabiting your body and confronting an image of it, between inside and outside.

A camera is not a mirror.

The audience becomes actors.

Optics versus perspective.

The camera enacts the interpellation of subjectivity.

The camera obliterates memory.

The camera competes with the mirror.

Feedback is a homeostatic balance that enables a system to function on a higher level of complexity.

Present Continuous Past(s) dramatizes an otherwise regularly occurring process, the internalization of a foregoing image into the subjective inhabiting of space. Because the present is never fully present unto itself, direct experience dissolves into a series of subliminal lags and readjustments.[2]

In Present Continuous Past(s) the camera purports to be an index of memory.

Among other things, Present Continuous Past(s) illustrates the breakdown of information into noise.

Present Continuous Past(s) is a mise en abyme.

Donald Kuspit on feedback in Performer/Audience/Mirror: “i) it gives the system greater internal coherence by reacting to and assimilating contextual information, ii) it establishes a closed circuit between audience and performer that is architectural and iii) it externalizes an otherwise inner (subjective) map of social organization.” To extrapolate: Intersubjectivity constitutes a mental topology of an external social order.[3]

The absence of a camera in Performer/Audience/Mirror reveals the camera’s antecedent social logic.

Words confront the mute clarity of the mirror reflection.

For Graham the nonspace of the art gallery becomes the nonspace of the laboratory, a discrete, clinical theater.

Performer/Audience/Mirror is a double-staging that involves both projection and introjection. The interchange between performer and audience derives from pictorial perspective. Via literalism, Graham reinvests these processes in lived space.

Graham facetiously calls Body Press pornographic—less a joke than it first might seem.[4]

A camera filming itself in a mirror is the ultimate obscenity.

In Body Press, the camera aligns itself with the surface of the body. Filming coincides with topology.

Sex with a mannequin

The cylindrical mirror in Body Press initiates continuous de-mapping and dis-identification. The camera scans one body just as well as another. The body of the infant becomes indistinguishable from the maternal body.

Skin frames the camera.

The cylindrical mirror represents the outside as inside.

Is the space of Body Press autonomous or radically heteronomous?

Polymorphous perversity holds out the promise of unaccountability, devaluation. Everything is as good—or bad—as everything else.

Body Press is a theater that deconstructs itself, an autistic space.

Graham exposes the polymorphous perversity of technology.

Graham brings the otherwise unlived space of the camera into direct experience.

Concrete experience gives way to the abstract model.

Graham moves his isolation chambers into public space as pavilions.

The pavilion blurs inside and outside.

The pavilion is an archaic structure whose origin is imaginary: the rustic hut.

The rustic hut is a rhetorical device.

The rustic hut appears as a cabana in de Chirico’s beach paintings.

Theater is atavistic.

The pavilion is a staging device.

One’s image of oneself is subject to continuous re-negotiation. Exchange demands it.

One stages oneself.

Esthetic excess: freedom from the first order of social determinism, namely the reduction to function.

Architecture inevitably represents itself as freedom from social determinism.

Esthetics accordingly suggests that surplus consumption holds out a kind of freedom.

De Chirico stages the piazza as artifact: a discrete arena carried over from a fossilized past.

The public square is a space of consensus.

The public square is an icon of democratic homeostasis.

Democracy is politics as feedback.

The arcade is private space under the rubric of consensus.

Technology (i.e., capitalist mandates taken as a practical form of knowledge) hollows out the public square, leaving only its architectural vestiges.

A mannequin is a display rack in human form.

The mannequin on the public square foreshadows the robotization of social relations.

The robotization of public space evacuates the public square.

With his stretcher bar paintings, de Chirico retreats into private space—that of the artist’s studio. Mannequins foreshadow the shift from public to private space.

Sex with a robot

Painting a stretcher bar anticipates photographing a camera.

What is the opposite of a metaphysical interior?

De Chirico goes on to paint paintings within paintings—and to repaint earlier works on an ongoing basis: a mise en abyme. He produces handmade feedback.

De Chirico reinvents himself as a human camera.

As he ages, de Chirico portrays himself in suits of armor.

Armor is a body without organs.

The flat surface of a painting or drawing depicted within a real painting is not only a trompe l’oeil gesture but also an index of blindness.



[1] Robert Nickas, in conversation.
[2] Present Continuous Past(s) (1974) centers on time-delay video feedback. Graham set both a camera and a monitor into a wall of an 8’10”-square chamber, positioning the camera directly above the monitor. Opposite these was a mirror wall. Adjacent to this was a second mirror wall. To create the time delay, Graham ran an open-reel, videotape loop between two decks, one set to record, the other set to play. The distance between record and playback heads governed the length of the delay, which, in this case, was eight seconds. Thus, provided no one blocked the camera, a regress unfolded in the monitor at eight-second intervals. Viewers could see themselves either in the mirrors or in successive stages of the “infinite regress” of the time-delay video feedback.
[3] Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975) breaks down into four five-minute parts. In it, a performer stands before a seated audience. Behind him is a mirror. In the first part, the performer faces the audience and describes his own appearance and behavior. In the second, the describes that of the audience. In the third, he turns to the mirror and describes his own appearance and behavior. In the fourth, while still facing the mirror, he describes that of the audience.
[4] Body Press (1972) involves two naked performers who film themselves inside a cylindrical mirrored chamber. Each has a 16-mm camera and each runs the camera over the surface of his or her body. At one point, the performers exchange cameras.


From John Miller, The Ruin of Exchange (Geneva and Dijon: JRP Editions & Les presses du réel, 2012.)


Originally published on Mousse 46 (December 2014–January 2015)

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