Key Concepts of Georges Bataille

georges-bataille.jpgFrench philosopher, novelist, poet and essayist. Georges Bataille‘s (1897-1962) work is antisystematic and hence defies summary, but a number of important themes predominate within it. These themes include an obsessive concern with the erotic, myth, sacrifice, the nature of excess, profanity, heterogeneity and social transgression. Bataille’s writings are also marked by an engagement with the thought of such figures as Marquis de Sade, Nietzsche, Hegel, Freud, the poetry of Blake, and the writings of Jean Genet. During the 1920s and 1930s Bataille forged links with the surrealist movement in Paris and also espoused Marxism. From the mid-1930s his attachment to Marxism waned, largely as a result of his increasing interest in Nietzsche’s philosophy. His commitment to surrealism also lessened, not least because of his dispute with leading French surrealist Andre Breton. The latter’s conception of surrealism as invoking the ‘lower’, bodily aspects of life as a means of indicating the fundamental truths attainable by way of art repelled Bataille. It is not, however, surrealism’s exploration of bodily excess that Bataille abhorred but its aim of subordinating this element to a ‘higher’, abstract realm. For Bataille, the ‘lower’ (the bodily and what is associated with it: carnality, excrement, parts of the body generally excluded from acknowledgement in daily social life) is of interest on its own terms. As such, the body and materiality generally is not, for him, a mere appendage to reality but is constitutive of it.

Nietzsche is significant for Bataille as a thinker whose writings explore the nature of values in the context of the crisis of modernity. Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement of the ‘death of God’ in The Gay Science (1974) is a theme taken up in Bataille’s work. Bataille is also interested in Nietzsche because he sees him as rejecting various dichotomies. Thus, the collapse between fictional and philosophical discourse that Nietzsche’s work enacts is also admired by Bataille. Nietzsche’s attempts to conflate the domains of value and the body — in the opening sections of Human, All-Too-Human (1878) or in the first part of Beyond Good and Evil (1886) — and thereby question the metaphysical opposition between conceptual thought and materiality are also mirrored in Bataille’s work. Equally, Nietzsche’s claim in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) that the high cultural achievements of Ancient Greece are the expression of a sublimated form of violence has its parallels in Bataille’s explorations of excess and his interest in the nature of violence. In De Sade, too, it is the conjunction and interplay of erotic, sacrificial and physically violent elements that fascinates Bataille. With regard to Hegel, it is the latter’s conception of the Absolute as equivalent to pure rationality that is the object of Bataille’s critical attention, and against which he emphasises the bodily conditions of existence. Bataille’s reading of Hegel highlights the interconnection between what he conceives to be the realm of bodily affects (e.g. plant life, the play of chance, organic functions) and the realm of rational, abstract thought. Against this, Bataille seeks to show how these two realms are conjoined. However ‘spiritual’ and rational some aspects of human existence may appear to be, they are underwritten by a material or bodily component that is capable of overrunning them. Freud’s influence upon Bataille is evident in texts such as The Story of the Eye (1928), a pornographic fantasy that has a psychoanalytic analysis appended to it.

Much of Bataille’s thinking aims to illuminate socially imposed limits enshrined in the modern conception of rationality in this way (see The Accursed Share, 1949). Humans, he argues in an essay on De Sade, are composed of two contending drives: the drive to excretion and the drive to appropriation. In cultural terms, this is presented in terms of an opposition between collective, orgiastic impulses and social institutions (legal, economic and political structures). Humans conceive of their world as being composed of homogeneous unities in order to facilitate appropriation (science, for instance, thinks in related concepts, in terms of parts and their role within the whole). Philosophy is an intellectual expression of the urge to appropriate. Kant’s philosophy, we could note in this context, envisages the world as being conceivable only as a consequence of a legalistic conceptual order that has legitimacy independently of experiences provided by way of the senses (the a priori conditions of experience). But the intellectual desire to appropriate produces its specific kind of own waste products. Nothingness, the infinite, concepts of the Absolute are all, for Bataille, notions that resist recuperation within an homogeneous conceptual order.

He conceives of the body as being opposed to the normative constraints that serve to constitute subjectivity within social formations. The body thereby resists absorption by social forces. For example, in the modern era, which is dominated by the capitalist mode of production and hence by the values of prudence and usefulness, the body serves as a reminder of the limitations of the notion of exchange-value. The body cannot be recuperated within the logic of the market place,  since bodily functions do not accord with dominant notions of exchange and profit. The body, rather, is prodigal: its basic constitution is determined by way of an alternative logic of excess (again, Nietzsche’s comments to the effect that nature proceeds ‘wastefully’ in the notes contained in The Will to Power spring to mind here). Likewise, Bataille also alludes to the existence of practices that enact excess as a means of stating his case, for example human sacrifice is an act of gross expenditure, a total wastefulness that horrifies modern consciousness because of its violence, senselessness and irrationality. The point for Bataille is not that we should be tolerant of human sacrifice, but that this kind of practice throws into relief dominant practices within modern societies and shows their limits. Exchange-value, for instance, cannot be reconciled with notions of the sacred and profane that are given homage in sacrifice, which is an act of gross materiality. Nor can it be incorporated within the logic of the Hegelian dialectic, which seeks to recuperate all resistances by accommodating them within the dialectical unfolding of Reason. Practices that cannot be subject to the notions of equivalence and exchange are, in other words, heterogeneous. What this implies for Bataille is that, however systematically one would like to conceptualise life, the imposition of a limit that this desire necessitates will always be overcome. Bodily and social systems will always produce waste products (excrement in the one instance, rubbish in the other) which in their very nature resist reintegration into systematic structures. The heterogeneity of the body, it follows, is marked by resistance. This points, among other things, to the limitations of scientific discourse. Where science deals with homogeneous elements, with wholes and the parts that fit harmoniously into them, the heterogeneous is in its very nature profoundly unsystematic.

Bataille’s work has exerted a wide influence within the sphere of French intellectual life. The writings of figures such as Barthes, Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard all manifest engagements with aspects of Bataille’s thought. Most especially, Bataille’s intellectual development, marked as it is by a preliminary adherence to Marxism and a subsequent turn to Nietzsche, prefigures a general trend within French intellectual thought of the post-war era.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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