As a young Communications student, I used to organize literary soirées where I read my own writing,” I said to the audience, which remained invisible while my eyes adapted to the hot, bright bolts from the spotlights. I counted to five before the expected silence. “You were supposed to laugh.”
Their laughter echoed through the galleries of São Pedro Theater.
“Thank you, thank you, you’re the best. It’s true, though, I did organize and participate in my own soirées. This was light‑years before blogs or social media. You had to be nifty at programming and possess a sort of trailblazing spirit—key words in today’s event—to publish things online. Does anybody here remember ICQ?”
A member of the audience yelped, “Uh‑oh!” the notification sound used by that pioneering instant messaging app to announce a new message. Chuckles throughout the theater. “Awesome, now we’re talking,” I said, nodding in approval. My eyes finally adjusted to the spotlight, and I could make out the packed seats beneath the theater’s prodigious chandelier. Admen, programmers, start‑up investors, journalists, trendsetters, creative consultants, cultural entrepreneurs, and humanities students daydreaming of retro beanbags in the game rooms of the creative economy. My talk was the third in that edition of TEDx Porto Alegre, whose gigantic, LED‑bulb logo broadcast red light at my back—and I still had more than fourteen minutes, give or take, left onstage. My shirt collar grated on a mole that jutted out from the side of my neck, irritating it. It was long past time for me to schedule a doctor’s appointment and put a scalpel to that thing. The stinging snapped me out of focus, and I did the one thing you’re never supposed to do in that kind of situation: become a spectator of yourself, glimpse the clown in the arena, see the pithy sadness of it all. A dry cough cruised the perfect acoustics of that neoclassical building. I raised my head and regained my focus. For some, to try to find and understand value. For others, defining the nature of that value. The temptation to improvise was taking hold of me.
“One of the pieces I liked reading on those occasions was Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom. I trust most of you know who de Sade is, and that the cruel, fetishistic eroticism of his texts is what gave rise to the term ‘sadism.’” I pressed the button on the small clicker, activating the next slide, and the tableau of 16 HD screens was filled with the cover of Aquarius’s 1980 edition of de Sade’s book, a graphite illustration of a naked, prostrate woman floating in outer space, her arms behind her head and tangled in her wavy hair, her gaping thighs framing a spherical gland that approached her like a sentient planet, contemplating the possibility of penetrating that tuft of pubes. No one laughed; the theater’s atmosphere was filled with the far more desirable, yet much more discreet, sound of buttocks shifting in upholstered seats.
“It’s quite the little book. De Sade wrote it in 1785 while he was imprisoned in the Bastille. It’s the story of four libertine aristocrats who lock themselves up in a secluded mountain castle to—let’s say, methodically—put into practice all of their deviances and fantasies. They’re accompanied by servants, dozens of tender‑aged men and women—all taken by force, of course—and some older, experienced prostitutes whose role is to recount raunchy stories that will stoke the imaginations of those four men.”I randomly selected scenes featuring ropes, embers, daggers, and varied forms of debasement. The laughter stopped.
I paused, glancing back at the book cover on the large screen.
“Right, I could spend hours talking about this book, but I’ll try to get to the point. As you might imagine, popping Viagra and toying at porn didn’t quite cut if for the four old pals. The passions de Sade describes and extols begin with sodomy, coprophilia—i.e., poop—farting on faces, and whipping loins. All just to get warmed up. Then, things get serious. Incest, mutilation, murder. De Sade commemorates the ecstasy of these acts only to, on the same page, sometimes in the same sentence, immediately condemn them as horrific. His contradictions make the text even more uncomfortable. There are various political and philosophical interpretations of this book. It was censured for its immorality, nihilism, and misogyny and simultaneously supported for its libertarianism and decisiveness in our understanding of human nature, even according to feminists like Simone de Beauvoir.”
Someone applauded, absurdly.
“But I’m interested in a very specific facet of this book. A question of structure and aesthetics, but also of technology and monetization. Bear with me. The 120 Days of Sodom is divided into four parts, dedicated, respectively, to simple passions, complex passions, criminal passions, and murderous passions. Each part encompasses no less than one hundred and fifty passions or descriptions of sexual acts, spread across 30 days. Go on, use your thinkers to punch those numbers.”
I pushed the button again, and the screen displayed a diagram illustrating the book’s structure, each part branching into days and each day into passions.
“Here it is.” I took the copy of the book from the podium and lifted it above my head. “This is the book. It’s a tome, almost four hundred pages long.” I opened it and ran my thumb along its pages. “The print is minuscule. It’s a large volume, gigantic by today’s standards. Now, consider this. The first three hundred pages contain only the first part, the only part de Sade was able to fully develop in prison. Ink was scarce, and he had only a few sheets of paper, glued together to make a scroll. Maybe de Sade knew from the onset that he wouldn’t be able to write the entire book. Maybe he was afraid it’d be confiscated. We don’t know. The fact is that he filled that scroll with only the first section and then just sketched out the three remaining parts, in handwriting as teensy as flea shit, using all the space available to him. This means that the full book, written as he would’ve wanted, would have amounted to about 1,200 pages of tiny font and cramped spacing. Imagine, then, ye who have not read The 120 Days of Sodom, the level of detail with which de Sade narrates his libertines’ sexual whims. Consider the obsessiveness of his descriptions, the painstakingness of his structure. Picture, also, the man, in a damp cell in the Bastille of the late 18th century, alone with his thoughts and libertine furor, transfixed by hatred and repressed desires, with a plume and a too‑short scroll, compulsively writing this book in the space of just 37 days.”
In the theater’s wings, to my left, the organizer of that TEDx session, a professor of Digital Media at the Pontífica Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul called Leandra Hmpfelstein, shot me an inquisitive look while pinching the buttons of her blouse. The speech I was delivering was already a far cry from the piece she and the TED specialists had subjected to various interventions—during rehearsals and revisions—in a process that rendered every TED Talk palatable, a slave to their motivational model. The audience silently watched me flip through my copy of the book until I found the relevant pages, marked with neon stick‑on flags. “I’m going to randomly read some of the synopses of scenes de Sade had outlined for the three latter sections of the book, which he didn’t have time to develop in full. Passion 45: ‘He shits in the presence of four women, requires them to watch and indeed help deliver him of his turd; next, he wishes them to divide it into equal parts and eat it; then each woman does a turd of her own. He mixes them and swallows the entire batter, but his shit‑furnishers have to be women of at least 60.’” Giggles in the audience.
“Another one. Passion 81: ‘He has himself flogged while kissing a boy’s ass and while fucking a girl in the mouth then he fucks the boy in the mouth while kissing the girl’s asshole, the while constantly receiving the lash from another girl, then he has the boy flog him, orally fucks the whore who’d been whipping him, and then has himself flogged by the girl whose ass he had been kissing.’ Right, so these are examples of complex passions. Now I’ll read from the criminal and murderous passions.”
I randomly selected scenes featuring ropes, embers, daggers, and varied forms of debasement. The laughter stopped. The politically correct sensibilities of that audience of innovators couldn’t fathom how to respond, and the tension in the air thickened. Leandra shook her head from side to side and gestured for me to stop.
“I think that’s enough. My intention here wasn’t to shock anyone, partly because it would’ve been naïve of me to try. On the contrary, the basic argument of this talk is that nothing shocks us anymore. The time when one person could shock another is long gone. What I’d like you to take from de Sade’s text is how he discriminates the various elements of his sexual fantasies—each infinitesimal piece of every single thing that excites his imagination—in order to then organize it, mixing and remixing everything ad nauseam. He conceived of no less than six hundred scenes. Though he only had time to flesh out one hundred and fifty of them, he pictured six hundred variations of mounting intensity, resorting to a series of recurring elements. This is no ordinary narrative approach. Don’t waste your breath trying to find a hero’s journey, archetypes, or psychological realism in these pages. What de Sade wrote was an algorithmic narrative.”
Pressing the button a few more times, I presented a quick succession of images, thumbnails of pornographic videos pulled from the internet.
“De Sade’s ideas are maximized through a procedure similar to a combinatorial analysis. More accurately, what the structure of de Sade’s novel invokes today is the data processing carried out by computers. Nowadays, we’re all so familiar with this logic that we don’t even notice it. The pornography that formatted the sexual imagination of my generation, and all those that followed, is produced and disseminated via gigantic databases that hold users’ browsing routines and online consumption habits. In consuming internet porn—as everyone here does some way or another—we observe and feed into this logic’s production of the erotic. And yet, this same logic extends to all fields of human experience. We also apply it to our own genetic material, to the succession of fad diets and our behavior as spectators and readers, our sleep and work routines, our concepts of happiness. We apply it to scientific research, dating apps, or those apps that count users’ steps and heartbeats. We’re talking about the absolute quantification of existence. We’re talking about digitalizing every cultural manifestation imaginable. We treat all our free‑world desires in the same way that de Sade, confined between the stone walls of a cell deep inside a castle, treated them.”
My time was running out. For some, the flow of past, present, and future. For others, a single, immutable instant for every possible configuration of the universe. I rolled up my sleeves.
“Our clients aren’t exactly libertines trapped in towers. They’re hyper‑consumers condemned to be free in an ever‑accelerating capitalist world. Digital technology conditions them to convert their desires into information that can be remixed, which leads to the quantification of all things, to the search for the exhaustion of possibility. No human experience, not even art, is free of the jaws of this process. The profanation of all that was once indistinct, inaccessible, and elevated is a sadistic process, not in the common sense of the term, meaning cruelty, but in the sense of pining for the methodical exhaustion of desire through data processing.” I kept pressing the button, changing the image on‑screen, from a server farm in Silicon Valley to publicity photos inspired by sadomasochism, a genetically modified pig with neon green fuzz, a clip of Lady Gaga, and a bunch of other things chosen at random in a half hour’s worth of Google Images browsing. I’d reached the point in my talk where I could show them anything, say anything.
“Out goes intensity, in comes quantity. Out goes the sublime, in come patterns. As de Sade once demonstrated, this doesn’t eliminate ecstasy or even beauty, but transfigures them into something else entirely. The beauty that emerges is one of patterns, filing systems, algorithms, montages, and oppositions plucked from an excess of information. In this new world, the possibility of transgressing or transcending doesn’t exist. There is no truth slumbering beneath the surface. Flowers that bloom in excess wither from one day to the next.”
I allowed the screen to go black for a moment and took another long pause before concluding.
“‘Flowers of Excess.’ That was the title of this talk. This past year, we worked on a project that proved we could use Marquis de Sade to sell tissue paper. The key words in the ad were ‘desire,’ ‘patterns,’ and ‘excess.’ The commercial only ran late at night on pay‑per‑view, but our goal from the beginning had been for it to go viral online, without needing to run on TV or any official advertising platforms. Kleenex sales increased by more than forty percent, and now they’re miles ahead in the market.”
Finally, I pressed play on the minute‑long commercial we’d shot for that tissue brand. Several sadomasochistic sex scenes that fused Marquis de Sade-style perversion with the pop softcore of Fifty Shades of Grey. Starring in it was Tamara Dalai, an astronomically popular baile funk musician, and a supporting cast meticulously selected from second‑rate casting agencies and photography Tumblrs that satisfied standards of beauty that self‑defined as nonstandard. The soundtrack was by a post‑rock band from the interior of Espírito Santo that had nearly shot to fame after being praised by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The commercial ended with a little product gag, which insinuated that all those people would have to use Kleenex tissues to clean themselves up afterward. The commercial over, I thanked the audience for their attention and received some applause, punctuated by booing. I had never heard of people being booed at a TED event. There was a decent chance my talk would make waves online.
Excerpted from Twenty After Midnight by Daniel Galera, translated by Julia Sanches. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Penguin Books.