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The Mirrored Room

The genius of money made possible the modern economy and the money culture. Georg Simmel, a German sociologist and contemporary of Freud, argued that money imitated the world around it: “There is no more striking symbol...of the world than that of money.”29

Money is the ultimate Faustian bargain—a pact with the devil in return for earthly power, wealth, or knowledge. In the second part of Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has Faust and Mephistopheles visit the Emperor who lacks the money to pay his retinue of soldiers and servants as well as his lenders. Mephistopheles comes to the aid of the Emperor, obtaining his permission to print paper money. Faust has the Emperor sign a note that anticipates modern money: “To whom it may concern, be by these presents known, this note is legal tender for one thousand crowns and is secured by the immense wealth safely stored underground in our Imperial States.” The Emperor is incredulous: “And people value this the same as honest gold?”30 Mephistopheles arranges for thousands of notes to be printed and uses this to pay off the Emperor’s creditors.

Money, ultimately, is the truest mirror for the times and human beings. The benign surface reflects back the image of the world that money can make possible. Money, like a mirror, is nothing but takes on the reality of things it can be converted into. Money reveals something of the original that is not otherwise evident. As William Shakespeare wrote: “And since you know you cannot see yourself, so well as by reflection, I, your glass, will modestly discover to yourself, that of yourself which you yet know not of.”31

In 1966, the artist Lucas Samaras, in his construction Mirrored Room, created the ultimate metaphor for modern money. The work consists of a small room containing one door, a table, and a chair. All surfaces of the room—walls, floor, ceiling, the table, and the chair—are covered with mirrors. Entering the room, the viewer sees their image reflected, fragment by fragment, expanding in number and detail but dwindling in size until it is no longer identifiable. The work is a statement of isolated, narcissistic splendor. Samaras described the feeling as “suspension.” The striking feature of the Mirrored Room is the feeling of infinity and abstraction.32

If money is a mirror of the times, then Mirrored Room is the ultimate symbol for extreme money. Money now is endless, capable of infinite multiplication and completely unreal. The world is involved in creating, manipulating, and chasing reflections of real things. Finance is the interplay of the real and its endless reflections. In the end, money would change the real world—financialize it.

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