100 Books: Bataille, Georges (1897-1962)

Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille (French: 10 September 1897 – 9 July 1962) was French philosopher and intellectual working in philosophy, literature, sociology, anthropology, and history of art.

His writing, essays, novels, and poetry explored erotism, mysticism, surrealism, and transgression. His work would prove influential on schools of philosophy and social theory, poststructuralism.

Georges Bataille was the son of Joseph-Aristide Bataille (b. 1851), a tax collector (later blind and paralysed on account of neurosyphilis), and Antoinette-Aglaë Tournarde (b. 1865).

Born on 10 September 1897 in Billom in the region of Auvergne, his family moved to Reims in 1898, where he was baptized.

He went to school in Reims and then Épernay. Although brought up without religious observance, he converted to Catholicism in 1914, and became a devout Catholic for 9 years. He considered entering the priesthood and attended Catholic seminary briefly. However, he quit, in part to pursue occupation where he could eventually support his mother. He eventually renounced Christianity in the early 1920s.

Bataille attended the École Nationale des Chartes in Paris, graduating in February 1922. His bachelor’s thesis titled L’ordre de la chevalerie, conte en vers du xiiie siècle, avec introduction et notes.

Though he is often referred to as archivist and librarian because of his employment at the Bibliothèque Nationale, his work there was with the medallion collections (he also published scholarly articles on numismatics).

His thesis at the École des Chartes was critical edition of the medieval poem L’Ordre de chevalerie which he produced directly by classifying the eight manuscripts from which he reconstructed the poem. After graduating he moved to the School of Advanced Spanish Studies in Madrid.

As young man, he befriended and was much influenced by, the Russian existentialist Lev Shestov, who schooled him in the writing of Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Plato, Shestov’s own critique of reason and philosophical systematization.

Founder of several journals and literary groups, Bataille is the author of diverse body of work: readings, poems, essays on subjects (mysticism of economy, poetry, philosophy, the arts and eroticism).

He sometimes published under pseudonyms, and some of his publications were banned. He was relatively ignored during his lifetime and scorned by contemporaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre as advocate of mysticism, but after his death had considerable influence on authors such as Michel Foucault, Philippe Sollers, and Jacques Derrida, all affiliated with the journal Tel Quel.

His influence is felt explicitly in  phenomenology by Jean-Luc Nancy, also significant for the work of Jean Baudrillard, the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, and recent anthropological work from Michael Taussig.

Initially attracted to Surrealism, Bataille fell out with its founder André Breton, although Bataille and the Surrealists resumed cordial relations after World War II.

Bataille was member of the extremely influential College of Sociology which included renegade surrealists. He was  influenced by Hegel, Freud, Marx, Marcel Mauss, the Marquis de Sade, Alexandre Kojève, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the last of whom he defended in essay against appropriation by the Nazis.

Fascinated by human sacrifice, he founded a secret society, Acéphale, the symbol of which was a headless man.

According to legend, Bataille and the other members of Acéphale each agreed to be the sacrificial victim as an inauguration; none of them would agree to be the executioner. An indemnity was offered for an executioner, but none was found before the dissolution of Acéphale shortly before the war. The group published an eponymous review of Nietzsche’s philosophy which attempted to postulate what Derrida has called an “anti-sovereignty”. Collaborators in these projects included André Masson, Pierre Klossowski, Roger Caillois, Jules Monnerot, Jean Rollin and Jean Wahl.

Bataille drew from diverse influences and used various modes of discourse to create his work.

His novel Story of the Eye (Histoire de l’oeil), published under the pseudonym Lord Auch (literally, Lord “to the shithouse” — “auch” being short for “aux chiottes,” slang for telling somebody off by sending him to the toilet), was read as pure pornography, while interpretation of the work has gradually revealed the same considerable philosophical and emotional depth that is characteristic of other writers categorized within “literature of transgression.”

The imagery of the novel is built upon a series of metaphors which in turn refer to philosophical constructs developed in his work: the eye, the egg, the sun, the earth, the testicle.

Other famous novels include the posthumously published My Mother (the basis of Christophe Honoré’s film Ma Mère), The Impossible and Blue of Noon, which, with its incest, necrophilia, politics, and autobiographical undertones, is  much darker treatment of contemporary historical reality.

During World War II Bataille produced Summa Atheologica (the title parallels Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica) which comprises his works Inner Experience, Guilty, and On Nietzsche.

After the war he composed The Accursed Share, which represented thirty years’ work. The singular conception of “sovereignty” expounded there would become an important topic of discussion for Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy. Bataille also founded the influential journal Critique.

Bataille’s first marriage was to actress Silvia Maklès, in 1928; they divorced in 1934, and she later married the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Bataille also had an affair with Colette Peignot, who died in 1938.

In 1946 Bataille married Diane de Beauharnais; they had a daughter.

In 1955 Bataille was diagnosed with cerebral arteriosclerosis, although he was not informed at the time of the terminal nature of his illness. He died seven years later, on 9 July 1962.

Bataille was an atheist.

At the crossroads of knowledge and the great ideological, philosophical and anthropological debates, his work is both literary and philosophical, multiple, heterogeneous, marginal and escapes labelling: “the traditional categories, the delimitations they establish, prove inappropriate or cumbersome when one wants to account for the whole of his writings”.

He went out of his way to blur the lines, as he himself declared in his last interview with Madeleine Chapsal in March 1961: “what I am most proud of is having blurred the lines […], that is to say, having associated the most turbulent and shocking way of laughing, the most scandalous, with the deepest religious spirit “. This “scrambling” is all the more evident because of the multiple versions, manuscripts and typescripts of his texts, and also because he often used pseudonyms to sign certain writings (such as erotic stories): Troppmann, Lord Auch, Pierre Angélique, Louis Trente and Dianus.

Base Materialism

Bataille developed base materialism during the late 1920s and early 1930s as attempt to break with mainstream materialism, which he viewed as a subtle form of idealism.[12] He argues for the concept of an active base matter that disrupts the opposition of high and low and destabilizes all foundations. Inspired by Gnostic ideas, this notion of materialism defies strict definition and rationalisation.

Base materialism was major influence on Derrida’s deconstruction, and both thinkers attempt to destabilize philosophical oppositions by means of unstable “third term.”

Bataille’s notion of materialism may be seen as anticipating Louis Althusser‘s conception of aleatory materialism or “materialism of the encounter,” which draws on similar atomist metaphors to sketch a world in which causality and actuality are abandoned in favor of limitless possibilities of action.

The Accursed Share

La Part maudite is a book written by Bataille between 1946 and 1949, when it was published by Les Éditions de Minuit. It was translated into English and published in 1991, with the title The Accursed Share.

It presents new economic theory, which Bataille calls “general economy,” as distinct from the “restricted” economic perspective of most theory.

In the theoretical introduction, Bataille writes: The extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles—the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy accomplishes  Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking—and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire… It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.

According to Bataille’s theory of consumption, the accursed share is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which is destined to one of two modes of economic and social expenditure.

This must either be spent luxuriously and knowingly without gain in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in spectacles and sumptuous monuments, or it is obliviously destined to  outrageous and catastrophic outpouring in war.

Though the distinction is less apparent in Hurley’s English translation, Bataille introduces the neologism “consummation” (akin to a fire’s burning) to signal this excess expenditure as distinct from “consommation” (the non-excess expenditure more familiarly treated in theories of “restricted” economy).

The notion of “excess” energy is central to Bataille’s thinking. Bataille’s inquiry takes the superabundance of energy, beginning from the infinite outpouring of solar energy or the surpluses produced by life’s basic chemical reactions, as the norm for organisms.

An organism in Bataille’s general economy, unlike the rational actors of classical economy who are motivated by scarcity, normally has an “excess” of energy available to it.

This extra energy can be used productively for the organism’s growth, or it can be lavishly expended. Bataille insists that organism’s growth or expansion always runs up against limits and becomes impossible. The wasting of this energy is “luxury.” The form and role luxury assumes in a society, are characteristic of that society. “The accursed share” refers to this excess, destined for waste.

Crucial to the formulation of the theory was potlatch. It is influenced by Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, as well as by Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.

The Pineal Eye
The Sacred
Slow slicing
The Solar Anus