During this time of ‘selfies’ and ‘sexting’, of digital mobility but also the doppelgänger dangers of stolen identity, Pierre Klossowski’s observations and arguments in La Monnaie vivante or Living Currency (1970) are arguably even more relevant today than they were at the time of its composition. The 1970s were a time of change, surely, but no more so than now, when the personal lives of politicians are more important than their public policies; the present is the time of ‘historical fiction’ in literature, ‘reality television’ in entertainment, and ‘consensual non-consent’ for the romantically experimental. Simulacra and phantasms dominate our daily existence more than ever. Here, the role of money or currency is particularly auspicious, not just through the processes of commodification, but through the very liquidation of realities. At the same time, transgression plays a particular role. As a contravention or breach, we typically see transgression in light of laws, norms, or boundaries, while it could be understood in other ways. In fact, transaction can be viewed as a kind of transgression, specifically the transgression of resources into currency. It has not always been possible to see transgression this way. Solely with capitalism and the accompanying disintegration of historically-rooted realities has this become possible. Living Currency is prescient in this sense. For as Michel Foucault writes of transgression:
Perhaps one day it will seem as decisive for our culture, as much a part of its soil, as the experience of contradiction was at an earlier time for dialectical thought. But in spite of so many scattered signs, the language in which transgression will find its space and the illumination of its being lies almost entirely in the future” (“A Preface to Transgression” 27).
Between transgression and transaction is where Klossowski’s Living Currency is situated. Pioneering an interstitial bridge between earlier Bataillean fascinations with religiosity in Acéphale and the Collège de Sociologie along with the latter debates of deconstruction and post-structuralism, Klossowski explores capitalism and its subversion with respect to economy and culture. He offers his reader a contemporary economics of pleasure, of voluptuousness, and its impossible relation to currency while describing the commodification of pulsional life. A series of photographs by the film-maker Pierre Zucca featuring Klossowski with his wife Denise Morin-Sinclaire posing as Octave and Roberte, respectively, prove the protagonists of Klossowski’s previous trilogy, Les Lois de l’hospitalité to be more than mere portraits. Like Klossowski’s own visual texts, they present lurid tableau vivants repeatedly and obsessively. Although bearing no obvious relation to the essay of Living Currency, one might still ask whether or not they are its illustrations. Klossowski refrains from giving us the answer to our question.
Industrial society holds a tremendous power over affect and the emotions Klossowski observes. Such affect and emotions occur, he notes, through the simulacrum and its relation to the phantasm. As he writes early in Living Currencywould ever confuse a tool with a simulacrum, unless it is as a simulacrum that an object has its necessary use” (1). In “Description, Argumentation, Narrative” Klossowski acknowledges the role of simulacra and phantasms throughout his work, and how “the simulacrum imitates what it apprehends in the phantasm” (128). While perhaps offering a clue to Zucca’s photographs in Living Currency, his observations are not that simplistic. Still, a recurrent theme throughout Living Currency and elsewhere in his work shows how the simulacrum presupposes the stereotype it ‘inverts’ or ‘perverts’:
In fact, on the level of expression in language as much as in figurative art, stereotypes are nothing more than the remains of phantasmatic simulacra which have fallen into current usage, left to a common interpretation: but as degraded simulacra, they reflect an individual or collective reaction to a phantasm emptied of its content (129).
In his own work, Klossowski describes this as ‘a pantomime of spirits’ (127). At the same time, the ‘fabulation’ of simulacra is an ‘exteriorization’ of the phantasm. For as he writes, “we see the beginnings of a primary dilemma: either internal perversion—the dissolution of the unit; or the internal affirmation of the unit—external perversion” (Living Currency 21). Such for Klossowski exemplifies the ruse of political economy:
In the world of industrial manufacturing, what’s attractive is no longer what appears naturally to be for free, but the price put on what is naturally for free; a voluptuous emotion (non-communicated or incommunicable) is first of all indifferent, and has no value, in the sense that each person can experience it freely. Now, as soon as someone, while still able to experience it, cannot procure the means of immediately doing so, it becomes less indifferent and begins to gain value. If it is unique in its way—and if only a limited number of individuals will be able to experience it in its uniqueness—then either it is not appraisable at all, or the desire to experience it will ensure it the highest possible price. Such is the commodification of voluptuous emotion (23).
But to see the ‘living currency’ he envisions between money and flesh, the tension between the phantasm and currency must also be considered. As Eleanor Kaufman explains of Klossowski’s Living Currency: “From this perspective, no set of values is absolute, and any thing or being can be potentially used as currency in exchange for any other. In this system, there is no gold standard or object with stable value. If anything, emotional and physical pulsions serve as the driving standards” (117). Indeed as Klossowski asks, “How can the voluptuous emotion be reduced to a commodified object and, in our times of fanatical industrialization, become an economic factor?” (4). His answer is straightforward: although what he calls “the voluptuous emotion” is necessarily for free and is priceless, its simulacrum is not.
For Klossowski, the linguistic sign is more than just the Saussurean signifier and signified; it is both the unconscious phantasm and its expression, or ‘exteriorization’ in the simulacrum. With the simulacrum and the phantasm, he draws together intensity and perversion as well, with the phantasm’s embodiment via perversion acting as an individuating force against the more general category of sexuality. This is how intensity or voluptuousness happens: “With the numeraire, the closed world of perversion sanctions incommunicability itself among beings; this is the only intelligible way in which the world of abnormalities reacts positively to the world of norms” (25). Thus the numeraire—the basic standard of value, but also currency or ‘cash’—comes to exemplify not so much economic oppression for him but the freedom embodied in internal perversion’s ‘dissolution of the unit’. To see this as an interrogation of eroticism is necessary, he argues. As he writes, “we must consider for a moment what it is we mean by the terms ‘sexuality’ and ‘eroticism.’ Then perhaps the forms of the voluptuous emotion will reveal their simultaneously secret and tragic connection to the anthropomorphic phenomenon of economy and exchange” (4).
To make sense of these remarks, it is valuable to consider the full spectrum of Klossowski’s role within French culture and theory, a role by no means constrained to Living Currency. As a close associate of Georges Bataille and Gilles Deleuze, or as an early translator of Walter Benjamin, summary assessments fail to outline the sheer breadth of his intellectual project. Including fictional récits, visual texts, film roles, and numerous important translations, summary assessments do not illustrate the importance Klossowski held for others of his generation either, including Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, and Jean-François Lyotard, among others. In the letter that opens Living Currency, Foucault describes it as “the greatest book of our times”, explaining “it’s so great a book that everything else falls back and only counts half as much anymore. That was precisely what we should have been thinking about: desire, value, and simulacrum—the triangle that dominates us, and, starting so many centuries ago, has constituted us throughout our history” (1).
Born in Paris in 1905 to the painter Baladine Klossowski and the art historian Erich Klossowski, Pierre Klossowski was of German and Polish background. He was the older brother of the painter Balthus, and also since childhood the close friend of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, his mother’s lover following her separation from her husband. It is in part through Rilke’s initiative that the cultural upbringing of the two Klossowski children developed. It was by way of Rilke that Pierre was taken under the wing of André Gide, living with him in Paris and Normandy with the intentions of becoming his personal secretary. Under Gide’s encouragement, Klossowski was enrolled, first at the Lycée Janson de Sailly to study philosophy, and then the École des hautes études (Brunner 136).
His intellectual and aesthetic skill became clear in the 1930s, first with his translations into French of Hölderlin and Kafka, then with his psychoanalytic study of the Marquis de Sade, “Elements of a Psychoanalytic Study of the Marquis de Sade”. This was when he attended the lectures of Alexandre Kojève and participated in Contre-Attaque, Acéphale, and the Collège de Sociologie with Georges Bataille and others. He also acted as the primary French correspondent to the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt am Main. Commissioned by the Institute in 1936 to translate Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” into French for their Journal of Social Research, Klossowski was the first published translator of Benjamin’s essay. Regarding his relations with the Institute of Social Research, Michael Weingrad writes, “it was through Klossowski that the Institute came to know the groups Bataille organized in the late 1930s, first the Acéphale and then the College” (133).
On another frontier Klossowski published “Who Is My Neighbour?” in the Catholic-leaning journal Esprit. This began his interrogation of Sade through a more overtly theoretical register. According to Klossowski, popular sovereignty is “a simulacrum of the death of God”, a crime he says that is morally inexpiable. The theocratic hierarchy of Christianity dictates that every man is a servant of God, and that the king is God’s highest temporal servant. When the king defaults on his agreement, the hierarchy collapses. As Klossowski writes in Sade My Neighbour, “Sade made of the virtual criminality of his contemporaries his own personal destiny; he wished to expiate by himself that destiny in proportion to the collective guilt his consciousness had invested” (49-50). Sade is expressive of a ‘negative Oedipus complex’ Klossowski argues, one that “turns all his available aggressivity against the mother” (128). Observing the maternal influences on Sade, his wife Renée de Montreuil, and especially his mother-in-law the Présidente de Montreuil, who helped arrange his marriage and later his incarceration, Klossowski noted of Sade, “Contact with his mother-in-law, this second mother, will make his aggressivity conscious and direct it into hatred of matriarchal values, into hatred of piety, beneficence, gratitude, sacrifice, and fidelity. Sade will set out to unveil ‘the self-interest and the fear that inspires them’” (128). This psychoanalytic reading of sadism has occupied a small but vital niche not just within psychoanalytic literature, but particularly within the literature on Sade. Deleuze responded to this in “Coldness and Cruelty” for example, as did Pier Paolo Pasolini in Salò.
Then in the winter of 1939, Klossowski experienced a religious crisis during which he consulted Jesuits and Benedictines, and for a time he joined the Dominican Monastery at La Leysse. As Kathleen Brunner notes of this time: “After three months the head Father declares [to Klossowski]: ‘Your way of speaking, of reasoning is not very Christian, even less Catholic’” (141). Still we must acknowledge the sympathy of Klossowski’s position in its capacity for heresy, with Klossowski’s Catholicism as rather conspicuous relative to his contemporaries. The heretical or perverse—but at the same time ecclesiastical—character is what helps to distinguish his writing: an opposition between theology and eroticism emerges in Klossowski’s work. He is theological but he is also heretical and counter-theological, even blasphemous. For him, theology and heresy are not contradictory but complementary, which can be seen in the way he comes to examine the revolutionary force of Sade for example, whom he considers a father of the French Revolution. After La Leysse, Klossowski joined a group of lay students at the Convent de Saint-Maximin, an experience that later inspired La Vocation suspendue where he fictionally retells of his disenchantment with Catholicism. Here he presents “The Body of Nothingness: The Experience of the Death of God in Nietzsche and the Nostalgia for Authentic Experience in Georges Bataille”, later published in the first edition of Sade My Neighbour. This proximity to Catholicism provides just one aspect of his critique of political economy. Eroticism provides another. Although both remain interconnected for him, they are not the same. Rather, they are better conceived—in the language of Wittgenstein—as parallel ‘language games’, or family members infiltrating and informing one another.
The most developed reading of Klossowski’s Living Currency comes from Jean-François Lyotard in his Libidinal Economy. With Lyotard using Les Lois de l’hospitalité and what he calls Klossowski’s ‘Roberte sign’ to help illustrate ‘the tensor sign’—the tension within the sign itself, or its incompossible intensities within language—the Roberte sign allows Lyotard to confront the nihilism he sees as inherent within semiotics, or the discursive bias that stands against a pure Nietzschean flux of intensities. For in contrasting the nihilistic usage of the simulacrum by Augustine, which posits an (absent) Truth or God that is only ‘true’ in its ‘non-presence’ to Klossowski’s more affirmative usage of the simulacrum, Lyotard and Klossowski alike follow Nietzsche in illustrating the role of the phantasm for the simulacrum. As Lyotard notes in Libidinal Economy: “What Klossowski understands by the name ‘phantasm’ would indeed be better conceived, as Klossowski himself suggests, as an object ‘fabricated’ out of pulsional force turned away from its ‘normal’ use, as a generator” (72). Roberte is expressive of what Lyotard calls the “exorbitant” or unexchangeable aspect of the sign, its intensive being, of the ‘sign-as-intensity’. By “opening the libidinal surface” or mapping these intensities, Klossowski and Lyotard each reflect the Nietzschean thrust of French theory more generally through the 60s, which saw semiotics itself as nihilistic. The structural opposition between terms is secondary to a more immediately aleatory pursuit of intensities. As Kaufman further explains:
Klossowski complicates this model of phantasm and simulacrum still further by overlaying it with the more common distinction between subject and object. Whereas the subject would be considered more unique and singular, and the object as merely a medium of exchange or equivalence, Klossowski overturns this distinction in La Monnaie vivante by showing how subject and object can both function either as phantasm or as simulacrum. He notes that even the most utilitarian of objects can be charged with emotional value, whereas the most seemingly pure ‘pulsional’ forces can serve as utilitarian tools (116).
As a parody of contemporary political economy, Living Currency uses affect and the exorbitant to address the sensuous libidinal currency moving through and alongside its economic counterparts. Both Lyotard and Klossowski argue that the destruction of political economy and metaphysics are combined. For as Klossowski concludes in his essay: “Industrial slaves must either establish a strict relationship between their bodily presence and the money it brings in, or replace the function of money, and be money themselves: Simultaneously the equivalent of wealth, and wealth itself” (32). Modernity and industrialization bring with it a commodification of the voluptuous emotion, argues Klossowski. Even transgression is a concession to nihilism for Lyotard. Hence, between transgression and transaction, transaction is the more radical of the two gestures, although they are no more opposed to one another than theology and eroticism, modernity and postmodernity, or political and psychic economy are to each other. As Klossowski writes:
Abolishing property ownership over one’s own body and over the body of others is an operation inherent in the pervert’s imagination; he inhabits the bodies of others as if they were his own, and thus attributes his own to others. This means that his own body itself comes back to him as a domain of fantasy; thus it becomes merely the equivalent of the fantasy—it is its simulacrum (24).
As Klossowski would have us believe, all theology is erotic, just as modernism is transgressive: a theatre or transaction in which Eros conglomerates into myth or disperses into money. Currency, in fact, is alive.
Klossowski was first brought to the attention of most English audiences through the translations of Diana and her Bath and The Women of Rome (1990), Sade My Neighbour (1991), The Baphomet (1992), Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle (1997), and the first two volumes of Les Lois de l’hospitalité: Roberte ce Soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (2002). Just as significant, however, was the large-scale exhibition of Klossowski’s visual works curated by Sarah Wilson at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 2006. As Wilson observes in her catalogue for the exhibition, “Klossowski’s meeting with the young photographer and filmmaker Pierre Zucca was serendipitous. La Monnaie vivante was published in December 1970, coinciding “with a post-revolutionary moment in Paris where contemporary eroticism was already tinged with an orgiastic melancholy” (Wilson 24). She notes here the analogies between Klossowski’s symbolic economy and that of Jean-Joseph Goux in Les Monnayeurs du langage. As another student of Gide’s, the comparison is apt. At the same time, Klossowski can be just as easily compared to Bataille, Deleuze, or Lyotard. The list of names alone speaks to the unfortunate character of Klossowski’s obscurity in English. In this respect, the new translation of Living Currency due for publication in September 2015 proves to be promising. Despite being a difficult and cryptic text, Klossowski’s work—and Jordan Levinson’s online translation—made this very essay here possible. At the interval between transgression and transaction, Klossowski awaits us still.
Brunner, Kathleen. “Chronology.” Pierre Klossowski. Ed. Anthony Spira and Sarah Wilson. London, England: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2006. 132-162. Print.
Foucault, Michel. “A Preface to Transgression.” Bataille: A Critical Reader. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998. 24-40. Print.
—. “Dear Pierre.” Living Currency. Trans. Jordan Levinson. N.d. TS. Monoskop Wiki for Collaborative Studies of Art, Media and the Humanities. Web. 1. May 21, 2015.
Kaufman, Eleanor. The Delirium of Praise: Bataille, Blanchot, Deleuze, Foucault, Klossowski. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2001. Print.
Klossowski, Pierre. Sade My Neighbour. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. London, England: Quartet Books, 1991. Print.
—. “Description, Argumentation, Narrative.” Decadence and the Nude. Trans. Paul and Catherine Petit. London, England: Black Dog Publishing Limited, 2002. 125-139. Print.
—. Living Currency. Trans. Jordan Levinson. N.d. TS. Monoskop Wiki for Collaborative Studies of Art, Media and the Humanities. Web. May 21, 2015.
Lyotard, Jean-François. Libidinal Economy. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. Bloomington, United States: Indiana University Press, 1993. Print.
Weingrad, Michael. “The College of Sociology and the Institute of Social Research.” New German Critique. 84. Autumn (2001): 129-161. Print.
Wilson, Sarah. “Pierre Klossowski: Epiphanies and Secrets.” Pierre Klossowski. Ed. Anthony Spira and Sarah Wilson. London, England: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2006. 12-29. Print.