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Institute of Contemporary Art Miami

John Miller: Socially Approved Love (Excerpt)

John Miller: Socially Approved Love (Excerpt)

“Socially Approved Love” was reproduced with permission by JRP|Ringier from the publication John Miller: The Ruin of Exchange, 2012,available for sale at ICA Miami.

I first became aware of Pierre Bourdieu’s reflexive sociology in 1992, when Ulf Wuggenig invited me to take part in “The Aesthetic Field,” a panel discussion at Vienna’s Hochschule für angewandte Kunst. Already influenced by Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), I was quite receptive to the issues raised in this symposium. However, while some artists and writers work with Bourdieu’s ideas explicitly, I generally do not. One exception is my personal advertisements project, an investigation spanning 1987–2004. Because it corresponds to Bourdieu’s critique on several points, I would like to discuss this in detail, beginning with the theoretical background from which it initially arose, namely Veblen’s work.

“Pecuniary Standards of Taste,” a chapter in Theory of the Leisure Class, is primarily an essay on aesthetics. In it, Veblen defines all aestheticism as that which exceeds pure functionality. Moreover, he considers this excess to be socially motivated; its function, which he typifies as conspicuous consumption, is both symbolic and invidious. By demonstrating the capacity to waste, aestheticism shows one’s social superiority over those who cannot afford to waste as much time and money. Thus, according to Veblen, all aesthetics involve social competition and legitimation. Accordingly, this systemic logic of aesthetics as a means of social differentiation serves as an important precursor to Bourdieu’s work, especially Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984). Until recently, perhaps because Veblen’s sober yet unsettling critique so thoroughly undermines our fundamental precepts of beauty, the intellectual mainstream has pointedly dismissed it as merely a satire of robber barons, i.e., as something dated and somewhat preposterous. Yet, in a culture dominated by mass media and advertising, where one consumes the image of the commodity as much as the commodity per se, Veblen’s critique is more pertinent now than ever. The weak points in his work, however, are its puritanically functionalist bent and its overly sardonic rhetorical style. Veblen revels, for example, in recounting the story of the monarch who burned to death because it was beneath his dignity to move himself away from the fireplace. Even so, the violence of Veblen’s analysis is compelling because it points to otherwise unacknowledged cycles of violence and shock underlying everyday life.

Not surprisingly, I first read Distinction from the perspective of “Pecuniary Standards of Taste.” From this standpoint, in what many regard as his masterwork, Bourdieu significantly expanded and structurally articulated Veblen’s initial inquiry. Because Bourdieu based his analyses on fieldwork as well as observation, his rhetorical style is more matter-of-fact and less strident than Veblen’s. Often, to prove his point, he needs only to quote his informants. Rather than diluting the critique, the empirical component serves to intensify it. Where Veblen invokes a monolithically vertical hierarchy, Bourdieu deploys a spatialized model of social fields that derives both from Ferdinand de Saussure’s differential logic of signification, and from postmodern mapping techniques. Bourdieu’s graphs literally represent differences both vertically and horizontally, indicating field relationships between various values. The graphs also suggest the ways in which the relationships are structured. This allows for a more nuanced understanding of social competition, especially struggles that occur within—rather than between—class fractions.

Above all, Distinction concerns the disposition of various class fractions vis-à-vis the judgment of taste. The relations between them constitute a social structure. Bourdieu argues that taste is the means by which a class fraction legitimizes itself and de-legitimizes its competitors. He further identifies the latent violence of aestheticism as symbolic violence, namely: “gentle, invisible violence, unrecognized as such, chosen as much as undergone.” This passage is an apt description of the “pleasures” of aestheticism. In contrast to this symbolic violence, Bourdieu acknowledges another kind of violence, that of applying an analysis that derives from a critique of capitalism to pre-capitalist or exo-capitalist formations. Here, he seems to suggest that the rationalizing nature of the revelation, as a form of disillusionment or disenchantment coming from outside a primitive or less rationalized political economy, carries a certain potential for violent disruption—if only symbolic. Based on this reading, I believe that one cannot make an absolute opposition, from the standpoint of subjective affect, between these formations and those situated within capitalism but nonetheless enchanted. In other words, one could construe enchantment as a quasi-primitive, i.e., unselfconscious, state—or as a state subjectively experienced as exo-capitalistic even though, technically, it is not. No doubt, with his emphasis on self-reflexivity, Bourdieu wanted to challenge the pretense of scientific detachment in conventional sociological practice. Instead, he regarded the sociologist as an agent who intervenes in what she or he observes. The intervention changes the object of study. Indeed, when trying to square my artistic practice with the objective rigor of Bourdieu’s critique, I can see even myself as a kind of primitive.1 Nevertheless, one need not be an artist to experience this. Despite the melancholic impact of disillusionment or disenchantment, bringing an objectifying analysis to bear on the seemingly most intimate aspects of subjectivity is crucial for a critical understanding of aesthetics, especially because aesthetics functions through subjective affect.

Aestheticism concerns beauty. Beauty is the promise of happiness. To be in thrall of beauty is to be enchanted. When one perceives beauty, one conforms to its dictates. No one is immune to its allure. Beauty demands conformity. Thus it helps build social hierarchies. When I took part in “The Aesthetic Field,” a recurrent phrase struck me: “art consumers.” It seemed to be a paradoxical construction because, if anything, the reception of an artwork constitutes a kind of co-production of meaning—and even value—rather than a kind of consumption, which would ostensibly use up or exhaust the work in question. Even so, consumption accurately reflects the superimposition of commodity relations onto a set of antecedent practices, namely what had been, once upon a time, sacred art production. The long-range, historical transformation of the artwork from cultic object to discrete commodity creates a specific ambiguity that corresponds to the violence to which Bourdieu alludes. While the artwork unquestionably has assumed a commodity status, this status does not subsume the artwork in its totality. Rather, it functionally represents—or misrepresents—it through processes of exchange. One might go on to argue that exchange value is the fundamental misrepresentation from which all capitalist signification derives. This disparity is incisive. Does it not apply to the individuals as well as the things we behold as beautiful? To fashion models? Actors? Lovers? Spouses? Indeed, in Distinction Bourdieu himself argued, “Taste is a matchmaker; it marries colors and also people, who make ‘well-matched couples,’ initially in regard to taste.”2


The precept of beauty binds aestheticism to courtship. When I made The Bachelor Stripped Bare in 1987, I was concerned with both, mainly from the standpoint of Freudian theory. Specifically, I was concerned with desublimation, especially the aftermath of Marcuse’s notion that desublimation could be a liberatory project. Freud, however, characterized sublimation as the process of redirecting libidinal urges to socially useful ends. He maintained, moreover, that sublimation is the opposite of repression. For example, he argued that someone with an urge to cut flesh might sublimate that urge into surgical work. Surgery would satisfy the libidinal urge as well benefit others. Freud also characterized art making as a sublimated anal urge, the urge to model feces. Compared to surgery, the utility of art is unclear—at least taken at face value. If art is useful, is its usefulness desirable? Accordingly, one might ask whether art resolves the problem of repression or whether indeed it furthers it. The Bachelor Stripped Bare began with a piece of furniture I found on the street. I am not sure whether it came from a bed, a wall unit, a room divider, or something else entirely. I decided to use it as an armature for two signs. I got the text for each from personal advertisements. The first came from New York Magazine, taken out by a man who characterized himself as a lover of “the arts” and fine dining:

Wealthy Corporate President—Needs a beautiful woman to share life’s voyage. I came to NY with nothing and the climb to power never let me marry. But my enjoyment of books, ballet, opera, and fine dining were not destroyed by command responsibilities and I have remained personally upbeat, warm, and understanding. I seek a relationship rooted in kindness and toleration leading to a deep friendship that evolves into permanent union. I am refined in taste, wear designer suits, am good looking, 40 years old, 6’1”, 166 lbs. I seek a woman with a stimulating mind who values the freedom money provides more than the material trinkets it buys, and who wants to experience the full tide of New York’s cultural glories. She must be beautiful, very thin, well-groomed, fashionable, and aged 18–30. She knows that the good things in life are rightfully hers for her intellectual vigor, tenderness, and gracious beauty, but still needs a worthy man to find full happiness. Letter-phone-photo NYM R438.

I took the second from Al Goldstein’s Screw Magazine:

ATTENTION WOMEN! Young man, 38, wants you. You will have a large clitoris, long-hanging pussy lips. I prefer pussy that is wet, creamy, and very scummy. Would like a woman who will share her bedroom with me, a woman who’s [sic] pussy cream shoots out. Send photo to: Eddie, GPO 3221, Bklyn. NY 11202. Send used panty.

I mounted the signs upside-down in relation to each other to suggest that they were mirror images. I thought of the two advertisements as opposed, yet structurally similar. One was an inverted reflection of the other. What distinguished them, I thought, was aestheticism. Where one man, however weirdly, graphically described the genitalia of the woman he sought, the other described, in short, his capacity to waste, i.e., his habitual manner of conspicuous consumption. Curiously, what psychoanalytic theory might designate here as sublimated, Veblen and Bourdieu’s respective analyses could construe as repressive. Without my having intended it, my questions about aesthetic sublimation led to sociological critique.


Fourteen years passed before I returned to working with personal advertisements and the issues surrounding them. In retrospect, although The Bachelor Stripped Bare offered certain revelations, the binary opposition it set forth seemed too schematic. Nonetheless, I still believed that personal advertisements ultimately reconstitute prevailing social hierarchies under the sign of free subjectivity. Despite their liberatory promise, the advertisements restage the preconditions of the advertisers’ social and ideological repression. Clearly, a collection of such advertisements, appearing in a print publication or on a website, functions as a differential structure through which prospective partners negotiate their respective positions.

With all this in mind, I began Double Date (2001). I started by selecting 220 assorted personal advertisements from the May 1, 2001, Village Voice (vol. XLVI, no. 17). The advertisements appeared in seven categories: “Women Seeking Men,” “Men Seeking Women,” “Men Seeking Men,” “Women Seeking Women,” “Multiples,” “Anything Goes,” and “Transgender.” Rather than include every entry from that issue, I sampled different advertisements in proportion to the size of their respective categories and assigned to each a number. I construed my “fieldwork” as that of an armchair sociologist casually thumbing through a paper that anyone else could easily obtain.

The personals section in the Village Voice reflects the cosmopolitan diversity of its advertisers who, in effect, categorize themselves according to sexual, religious, gender, and cultural differences. Rather than introduce categories of my own, I decided to use these stated categories to demarcate distinct social fields. I selected eight ostensible oppositions and combined them to yield four sets: a) white/black, dominant/submissive; b) religious/atheist, clean/d&d (drugs and disease); c) straight/gay, financial capital/cultural capital; and d) single/married, old/young. These combinations may be arbitrary, but because I drew the criteria straight from the advertisements, the categories reflect a process of self-identification that lies at the root of ideology formation. Of course to register on the graphs, an advertisement must reflect at least two sets of criteria that happen to appear together. Not every advertisement registers on every graph. Some do not appear at all. The finished work includes three panels that feature the four charts and an essay-length analysis of them. Ultimately, the mapping process, i.e., the spatialization of self-articulated positions, reflects my assumptions as much as it does the disposition of the advertisers per se.

My reason for graphing was to show the way in which repression plays out just below the advertisements’ tacit promise of sexual liberation. Often, the routine trade-off between youth and money, the tendency of almost everyone to identify him- or herself by race or phrases like “straight-acting gay,” make this repressive potential strikingly clear. In effect, the advertisements enact a concrete, paradigmatic social hierarchy. In effect, they put theory into practice in a manner not unlike Bourdieu’s own description of the paradoxical discrepancy between two, which could almost serve as a description of courtship itself. Here, one plays the game:

in order to be carried along by [it] … without getting carried away by the game beyond the game, as happens when simulated combat gets the better of the combatants; the art of playing on the equivocations, innuendoes, and unspoken implications of gestural or verbal symbolism that is required, whenever the right objective distance is in question, in order to produce ambiguous conduct that can be disowned at the slightest sign of withdrawal or refusal, and to maintain uncertainty about intentions that always hesitate between recklessness and distance, eagerness and indifference. One thus only has to go back to one’s own games, one’s own playing of the social game, to realize that the sense of the game is at once the realization of the theory of the game and its negation qua theory.3


The following year, I began working on A Mutually Beneficial Encounter (2003), which focused on 247 personal advertisements taken from the June 2, 2002, issue of Cologne’s StadtRevue. These appeared in five categories: “W/M,” “M/W,” “W/W,” “M/M,” and “Bi.” Where the Village Voice advertisements stressed personal identity, those in the StadtRevue emphasized leisure activities like dancing, physical fitness, education, and psychotherapy. Even though the demographics of the StadtRevue’s readership differed significantly from those of the Village Voice, I surmised that the relative blandness of the advertisements reflected not simply a less diverse population or a lesser degree of repression, but repression in a more discursive form. Accordingly, I decided to examine two, less overt, a priori aspects of the advertisements: rhetorical style and age.

Rather than tactically choosing a rhetorical stance, advertisers may find that their rhetoric chooses them, and that they experience it as an innate discourse. Even so, it swings between literal and allegorical poles. On the one hand, literalism stresses the facts of life as a life of facts, affirming the seeming immutability of social relations. On the other, allegory implies fate and predestination, a fixed future where the advertiser should find an appropriate place, ideally the storybook ending. Despite this, fate remains an unpredictable agent that promises change. One can only properly meet one’s fate through self-realization. Together, the literal and the allegorical triangulate a mainstream ideology of contemporary life, an ethos of sober fun and pleasure. One lives happily ever after, provided a conventional standard of happiness would suffice.

Compared with rhetoric, aging seems to be a non-prejudicial category. No one can avoid it. Most advertisements usually state it outright. Even so, a hegemonic youth culture disavows and devalues aging. The traditional assumption that wisdom and experience come with age loses credence as a result. People enter the singles market acutely aware of their limited shelf life. (Coincidentally, artists face the market with similar apprehensions.) Placing a personal advertisement registers an awareness of lost opportunities: one must “seize the moment.” Although the vast majority of personals advertisers fall between 35 and 45, many claim to look or feel younger than their actual age. Yet people younger than 35 do not yet feel compelled to take out such advertisements. After 45 they feel it is too late. That leaves about a ten-year span in which one would typically take out an ad.4

Combined in a personals column, rhetoric and age can work like pincers on the individual subject. If aging is an experience of devaluation, then both literal and allegorical rhetorical styles mandate, among other things, the cheerful acceptance of this as an objective fact set by fate. Thus, I decided to compare the two using a graph with x- and y-axes to depict the social organization of these fields. To do so, I numbered each advertisement according to its order of appearance in the StadtRevue. Only numbers appear on the graph itself. Readers could check an index for the full text of any advertisement. The graph’s x-axis ran from wörtlich (literal) to allegorisch (allegorical). The y-axis ran from 18 to 78, a 60-year span. Although every advertisement necessarily deploys some form of rhetoric, many omit age. That omission, of course, meant automatic exclusion from my graph.

By correlating rhetoric with age, I mixed two different kinds of data. If we can take age at face value (even when deduced from other information), rhetoric is a matter of interpretation. Many variables, including my comprehension of a second language or even my mood, affected how I might assign a rhetorical value to a given advertisement at any time. If an advertiser states that he or she seeks a happy life, for instance, I take this to be a literal assertion. What happiness itself may represent, however, is ineffable. Even familiar colloquialisms, such as “schwarz Humor” (black humor) or “vielschichtige Frau,” (multi-faceted woman) admit explicitly allegorical elements. Because language, structured by metaphor and metonymy, is never completely literal, it intrinsically pushes in the direction of “another story.” The fantasy of complete literalism, by contrast, demands the stiltedness of legalistic or authoritarian diction. One final complication: age itself counts as a basic component of literal rhetoric, so an element of literalism intrudes upon the format of the graph from the outset. Despite such ambiguities, the way in which age, height, and weight confront fairytales, fables, and proverbs is clear enough. I reproduced the 247 StadtRevue advertisements as a poster, glued to a 245 cm replica Litfassäule (a column or pillar designed for posting advertisements) placed in the center of the exhibition space. The graph of social fields appeared as vinyl adhesive letters and numbers applied to the floor. The graph’s vertical and horizontal axes radiated from the central pillar. Thus on entering the exhibition space, one took up a position on the graph. Of course, this ambulatory positioning is not entirely deliberate, but neither is one’s positioning in any social field. The exhibit also included a small booklet entitled Fatalism and Fun that reproduced all the advertisements together with an analytical essay.


Public and private spaces come together in the personal advertisement. The mediation between the newspaper-as-public-forum and the interior life of the individual advertiser manifests itself not only in content, but also in stylization, special jargon, abbreviations, etc. Here, anonymity is the precondition of exposing oneself to an unknown public, real or imagined. Logically, advertising promises a rational solution to the otherwise arbitrary—and often frustrating—process of finding a suitable partner. This of course introduces an anti-romantic factor into the equation. With it, sexual fulfillment literally enters the market, an arena of competing goods and services. Objectively, the very idea of advertising for a mate is predicated on an aggregate of historical factors and assumptions: a critical—i.e., cosmopolitan—mass of advertisers and readers, exchange extended to sexuality (or was it always so?), the relative equality (thus, exchangeability) of partners and competitors, the ability to construe mating as a form of consumption or leisure activity, and a concomitant rationalization of sexuality itself. In a perfect utopian market, the advertiser would choose from a sea of respondents, having only to decide who would make the best match. Conversely, romantic literature chalks love up to fate, which convention commonly attributes to one’s intrinsic character.

Walter Benjamin once observed, “Fate and character are commonly regarded as causally connected, character being the cause of fate.”5 Taken to extremes, this suggests a reduction of the external world to internal subjectivity. Such a belief might result from urban experience—compensating for the degree of anonymity and displacement the city regularly exacts on its inhabitants. Not surprisingly, Bourdieu construes the experience of love as fate as the straightforward enactment of pre-existing social forces: “Socially approved love, love predisposed to succeed, is nothing other than that love of one’s own social destiny that brings socially predestined partners together along the apparently random paths of free choice.”6 Belief in fate expresses itself through reference to fairy tales, fables, and proverbs. The fairy tale especially is closely bound to German cultural history. The definitive source is the work of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm who recorded and codified what had previously been an oral folktale tradition. Notably, they also recorded and codified the German language in what remains its definitive dictionary. While empirical information (age, height, weight) counterbalances the fatalistic tendency and seemingly confirms the reality of the person behind the advertisement, it also corresponds to the systematization of knowledge and data that the Grimms advanced. Typically, advertisers weave the two opposite kinds of description into a quasi-love poem.

We know neither fate nor character as things-in-themselves. Thus these elements resist systematization. We apprehend them instead through signs. Here, the romantic/speculative process begins. We imaginatively read signs of character in someone’s body or face. By contrast, print advertisements are limited to written description, an impoverished, denotated portrait at best. To compensate, advertisers project their corporeal nature onto forms of consumption. Commodities come to stand in for the body. Via the paradoxical, “social relation between things,” readers can thus more vividly imagine what their prospective partners—the advertisers—are like in person.

The body of the personals advertiser is the body in leisure. Most advertisements concentrate on preferences in special food or drink, fashion, sports, or musical taste. All these demarcate—with greater or lesser degrees of awareness—the advertiser’s social positioning. None of the advertisements, however, acknowledges this positioning as proscriptive. Instead, every choice suggests potential gratification. All thus conform to a “fun morality”: “You’ve gotta have fun (whether you like it or not).” Writing in 1953, Theodor Adorno already foresaw fun morality’s implications for sex practices: “Sexuality itself is being desexualized, as it were, by becoming ‘fun,’ a sort of hygiene. It loses not only its more threatening and ego-alien impact, but also its intensity, its ‘flavor.’” He compared this tendency with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) where “orgies deteriorated into social functions, while the adage most frequently uttered by the inhabitants of his negative utopia reads ‘everybody is happy nowadays.’”7 Today, however, orgies remain vastly more the exception than the rule, lying on some imagined horizon of sexual liberation.


To conclude that an absolute logic of commodification governs personal advertisements misses the concreteness of what the advertisements transact. Their goal is less clear than, say, the simple sale of manufactured goods. There, once a buyer makes a purchase, unless the merchandise is defective and covered by a warranty, he or she is stuck with it. The purchase, in turn, may be something consumed all at once or over a longer period. Personal advertisements, however, confound such expectations. The exchangeability of sex partners, especially, does not necessarily meet the free market goal of reaping increased surplus value through surplus consumption. The advertisements target consumers as discrete individuals, not as a collective. Ordinarily, the point of most personal advertisements is just to make one “sale.” After that, their purpose is exhausted. Secondly, their need of the “buyer” matches that of the advertiser, who is also the “product.” Since both are seeking mates, their positions are reversible. In fact, the “product,” so to speak, might even reject the “buyer.” Many other questions complicate the premise of commodification as well: Whose labor power is expropriated? Where is the profit motive? At what point is the transaction complete? And so on. Of course, the terms “buyer” and “product” sound hyperbolic and perverse because they designate people trying to form relationships, not things for sale. Yet the restrictive economy of capitalism (a logic of pure acquisition) culminates in reification. To this extent, personal advertisements expose universal contradictions faced by all. Conversely, Bataille’s notion of a general economy, based on the circulation—not accumulation—of goods, demands that intangibles such as happiness or fulfillment be accounted for as well. Is it asking too much to hope that capitalist political economy should include a happiness index?

When an individual takes out a personal advertisement, she or he projects an idealized persona—inadvertently or not. A degree of pragmatism might temper the optimizing tendency: the need to appear real, the need to lay a credible foundation for an encounter, the need to appear honest, etc. Conversely, the ever-elusive relationship becomes an absolute yardstick of success. Perhaps the most naively utopian aspect of the personals is the promise of an utterly legible market in which perfect matches can be made. On this imagined correspondence, Bourdieu notes: “Love is … a way of loving one’s own destiny in someone else and so of feeling loved in one’s own destiny.”8 That said, no one should ever have to write his or her own personal ad.


  1. When Walter Benjamin argues that mechanically reproducible images reawaken a dormant sense of the primitive in mass culture, this may correspond to the aestheticism of media culture.
  2. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1984, p. 243
  3. Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California 1990, p. 80–81.
  4. Since the emergence of online dating, this is no longer the case. For many younger users, online dating has become the primary way to meet a prospective partner.
  5. Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York & London 1978, p. 304.
  6. Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, p. 160.
  7. Theodor W. Adorno, Soziologische Schriften II: Zweite Hälfte, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main 1975, p. 65.
  8. Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 243.

John Miller, “Socially Approved Love” (2008), John Miller: The Ruin of Exchange, JRP|Ringier, Zurich 2012, pp. 325–339.

Part of Idea 005: Self-Made Man

Self-determination is a foundational cultural belief, particularly in American mythology, and characterized by faith in meritocracy, middle class self-expression and freedom of choice. John Miller’s work has frequently focused on the figure, and its life in social spaces, in order to point out the material reality that forms us all. Consumption and communication play key roles in constructing our “selves,” as witnessed by Miller’s interest in the banal and the everyday. Through his mannequins, material artifacts and photography, Miller poses a challenge: can the “self-made man” create the conditions that surround, determine and produce us?