Lea Gekle | The political consequences of Bataille’s critique of Reason

By Lea Jenny Sophia Gekle

In the discussion following the 2/13 Nietzsche session, Prof. R. C. Morris was asked by the participants of the seminar session to expand upon two concepts that she had introduced in the day’s presentation. One could sum these ideas up with two questions: First, how must we understand Bataille’s concept of subversion? And second, one must ask how Bataille’s political emancipatory project is linked to his specific concept of virility. Asking these two questions means to point out a paradox: The use of the concept of virility for an emancipatory project seems more than surprising, it is contradictory. If virility is understood as well as a “male quality,” or like “strength or power” as the Cambridge Dictionary suggests[1], it is difficult to understand how such a concept of virility which is  based on the exclusion of everything with isn’t considered to be “virile”, can propose a base for emancipatory politics, meaning, politics which enable the subjects, all human beings to self-determine themselves.

I will propose, using Jürgen Habermas highly critical and negative analysis of Nietzsche and post-Nietzschean thoughts, to interrogate certain key concepts of Bataille and to, I hope, problematize and raise questions about the usefulness of Bataille’s concepts for emancipatory politics.

In order to understand the historical context of Bataille’s reading of Nietzsche, as well as his use of subversion, — rather than from a Marxist understanding of the revolutionary subject as he develops it in “The Psychological Structure of Fascism”[2], — I will, with a first step, return to the differences in the forms of critique of reason which appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries. This approach, I think, is necessary to understand why Bataille’s reference to Nietzsche’s critique of reason has a political impact, and pushes him to consider subversion as the necessary political practice. According to this, my first part (I) will be a reconstruction of Habermas’ distinction between two kinds of critique of reason. It will lead us to the different interpretations of Nietzschean thought in the 20th century, and I will highlight the concrete political aim underlying Bataille’s Nietzsche reading (II). This will take us to our final part (III) where I will touch on the question of Bataille’s uses for emancipatory politics, and the paradox that exists between the ideal of a liberated society and the concept of virility.

Critique of Reason. Classifying Bataille’s critique of reason in a larger historical context

Jürgen Habermas, in his large scale study, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity”[3], on the main Western European philosophical debates of the 19th and 20th century, draws clear distinctions between “three perspectives on modernity”[4]. The first two must be understood as a direct answer to Hegel’s conception of modernity and are therefore an intrinsic critique of Hegel.

This is the case for the “Left Hegelianism” and “Right-Hegelianism”. Habermas’ calls his third perspective on modernity, simply, “Nietzsche”[5]. It is the latter which becomes for Habermas the “turning point”[6] or, the “entry in into Postmodernity”[7].

But, before getting to the third perspective, Nietzsche, it seems helpful to focus on the commonalities Habermas recognizes in the “Left-Hegelian” perspective and the “Nietzschean perspective”.

Above all else, it is the critique of the self-positing reason. He writes in the third lecture “Left Hegelians, Right Hegelians and Nietzsche”:

The accusation is aimed against a reason grounded in the principle of subjectivity. And it states that this reason denounces and undermines all unconcealed forms of suppression and exploitation, of degradation and alienation, only to set up in their place the unassailable domination of rationality.[8]

Reason itself becomes domination. Both lines of heritage, that of the Left Hegelians and that of Nietzsche, do make of the critique of Enlightenment reason the main purpose for their philosophies. Following the observation of society made by Adorno and Horkheimer —  to name two of the most famous philosophers in the tradition of “Left-Hegelianism” and founders of the Critical Theory, the concept of reason which has been introduced by enlightenment philosophy does not stand up to its own promise; to liberate humankind. On the contrary, instead of liberating and making humankind wholly autonomous, it becomes oppression and domination.[9] In the “late capitalis[t]”[10] society of the “culture industry”[11], reason is reduced to “becom[ing] merely an aid to the all-encompassing economic apparatus.”[12]

Bataille, on the other hand, is conceived and conceives himself in the tradition of the Nietzschean critique of Reason. This specific tradition of Reason Critique, in difference to the Left-Hegelian tradition, wants, as Habermas writes:

[To] remove the dialectical thorn from the critique of reason centered in the subject and shriveled into purposive rationality; and he [Nietzsche] related to reason as a whole the way the Young Hegelians did to its sublimations: Reason is nothing else [in cursive in the original] than power, than the will to power, which it so radiantly conceals.[13]

 

Whereas the Left-Hegelian critique, as well as their heirs (i.e. first generation of Frankfurt School), still believe in the ideals of the Aufklärung, Nietzsche refuses this ideal of the Aufklärung as being already a narrative of a problematic conception of reason. “Reason”, in every way, “is power”[14], as Habermas puts it. A critique of the self-positing reason which navigates only in the pre-determined framework given by reason itself, is incapable of profoundly “changing the perspective” [15] on reason. In other words, if we want to critique present time we must have another framework beyond the limited one of the Enlightenment to make a change in perspective possible. Nietzsche proposes a critique of reason which has recourse to a frame which is not determined by occidental reason.[16]

Different uses of Nietzsche

 While comparing Heidegger’s and Bataille’s different Nietzsche readings, Habermas identifies something which seems to me to be particularly important. Habermas locates the political aim in which Bataille’s Nietzsche reading is embedded.[17] He writes: “In November 1933, when Heidegger was making his campaign speeches for the “Führer”, Bataille published a study of The Psychological Structure of Fascism”[18]. Here, Habermas opposes Heideggers political action with Bataille’s theoretical enterprise which is  intrinsically tied to the political aim, for a free, “libertarian socialistic society”[19].

This is why, Habermas tells us, Bataille’s reading of Nietzsche must be understood within the horizon of human emancipation:

“[J]ust as Nietzsche did in the Genealogy of Morals, so Bataille studies the demarcating and ever fuller extirpating of everything heterogeneous by which the modern world of purposively rational labor, consumption, and domination is constituted. […] But in Bataille’s account the heterogeneous, extraneous elements appear […] as subversive forces that can only be convulsively released if they are unfettered within a libertarian socialistic society.”[20]

In every society, but especially in the society of the developing capitalism, societies produce heterogeneous elements,  which are “impossible to assimilate”[21].  Even though, we will see this in the third part of this essay, Bataille’s distinction between a subversion with an emancipatory aim and a fascist subversion is ambivalent, it is certain that it’s only society’s excluded heterogeneous elements which can become subversive. For Bataille, the emancipatory heterogeneous elements have the capacity to subvert the “social slavishness”[22]. Bataille’s Nietzsche reading is driven by the very idea that “subversion continues to pursue the emancipation.”[23]. This is why he writes:

Nietzsche dreamed of humanness that, far from fleeing its tragic fate, would love and embrace this fate to the fullest, a humanness that would no longer lie to itself and would raise itself above the social slavishness.[24]

Now, once we’ve seen the political motives behind Bataille’s Nietzsche reading, we will have to analyze more precisely what Professor Morris highlighted in her presentation , “Of Bataille, Sur Nietzsche, Über Humanism … and other virilities”: the problematic co-existence of the emancipatory aspirations of Georges Batailles, which are directly linked to the celebration of virility. More than that: Virility becomes, to Bataille, the very concept of a certain self-determination.

Political use of Bataille’s subversion

Bataille’s paradoxes make him interesting, in his political theories as in his pornography. It has been claimed that his attitude toward Fascism was troublingly equivocal. Hollier, confronting that claim, has argued on the contrary that the equivocal nature of Bataille’s thought saved him from Fascism: ‘A little equivocation gets close to Fascism, a lot of it moves away from it.’’ That is because Fascism, like other political ideologies, abhors the equivocal.[25]

If we want to, we could speak about two connected equivocations: The first is, as Suleiman has let us know, Bataille’s often quoted, ambiguous relation with fascism. The second is the ambiguous use of virility as a concept for emancipation. It is Denis Hollier who describes the concept of virility as used by Bataille as « the homeophile fulfilment of human wholeness.”[26]. In order to better understand the equivocation stated by Hollier and Suleiman and to figure out if this latent equivocation is not a manifest paradox, we will have to take a look at Bataille’s already quoted text: The Psychological Structure of Fascism.

Bataille’ aim is, in opposition to the Marxist idea of a working class as the revolutionary subject, and, in opposition to the Marxist analysis of fascism present at Bataille’s time, to think anti-fascist resistance not as an opposition between fascism vs communism:

“[A]t this moment when a vast convulsion opposes, not so much fascism to communism, but radical imperative forms to the deep subversion which continues to pursue the emancipation of human lives”[27]

In order to understand this quote, let’s get back to the ambiguous concept of heterogeneity: For Bataille, there are different kinds of heterogeneity. Some of them can be fascist as well as not fascist. Heterogeneity means above all the systematic exclusion of “bourgeois society”[28]. He writes;

The very term heterogeneous indicates that it concerns elements which are impossible to assimilate; this impossibility which has a fundamental impact on social assimilation.[29]

The impossibility of society to assimilate the “heterogeneous elements” endows them with specific characteristics, especially “violence, [and] excess”[30]. In addition, they, “provoke affective reaction”.[31] And it is this point which allows one to see, why Mark Mayer writes in his “La virilité dans la psychologie des foules dans l’antifascisme de Bataille”, published in the second Volume of the Cahier Bataille :

[…] The description by Bataille of crowds and masses, [is] marked [as such] by an apparent obsession for virility and the rejection not only of fascism but also of parliamentarian democracy and communism. It is evident that for Bataille, the crowds with its presumed power to eliminate of the limits of the self in a collective passion of effervescence represented the source of the virilising energy which the modern public of masses needed not only [in order] to escape the alienation and the boredom but also to efficiently resist fascism.[32]

Bataille’s  is so deeply interested in the fascist movement because he sees an energetic strength acting in fascist masses.[33] But, against this fascist ideal of virility which is linked to the energetic strength Bataille sees in the fascist masses, Bataille presents another sort of virility. A virility which would not be a virility after a fascist ideal but which would have an emancipatory impact. Mayers who also considers this point, writes: “Bataille affirmed that a more positive relation toward the heterogeneous and shapeless energy of the crowds was precisely what needed the left to resist in a virile way to fascism.”[34]

Bataille makes it clear, virility in an emancipatory sense is not the same virility as the one in fascism. The first presents the possibility render humanity capable of self-determination and liberty whereas the latter uses the concept of virility which “[u]ltimately only serves to render inner nature’s revolts against instrumental reason adaptable to the imperatives of the latter”[35], as Habermas puts it.

Nonetheless Habermas’ questions stays valid: Bataille’s political intentions are of course anti-fascist but his use of “virility” as an emancipatory concept, doesn’t seem able to show concretely  “[h]ow the subversively spontaneous expression of these forces [the subversive forces] and the fascist canalizing of them really differ.”[36]

Our conclusion must be paradox: Bataille opens with his concept of the heterogeneous and subversion a possibility to think not only of anti-fascist resistance differently than it had been thought in the 1930’s, especially as he analysing more precisely the psychic aspects of fascism. But also, he opens to the possibility to think resistance in a broader political sense in other terms than it had been thought by the Marxist orthodoxy.

However, the direct link between “happiness [and] power”[37] and this other form of virility which Bataille seems to have in mind in opposition to a fascist concept of virility still follows the problematic ideal of violence and masculinity.[38]

It is at the same time a trap: if virility and the question of affection are both so central to Bataille’s theory of emancipation, it seems impossible to “adjust” his idea of emancipatory subversion to function without it’s reference to virility. If we want to use Bataille for emancipatory or subversive projects today, one must ask: “is it possible to have Bataille’s theory of subversion without the concept of virility?

I would like to conclude this short examination with Suleiman’s statement on the subject of virility, which is in my eyes, valid on a political level:

[…] I fault Bataille finally, for his obsession with virility – the word as much as the concept. As a concept, virility took shifting forms in Bataille’s thought. His continued use of the word, however, locked him into values and into a sexual politics that can only be called conformist, in his time and ours. Rhetorically, virility carries with it too much old baggage. Bataille’s male protagonist may be sexually equivocal, possessing feminine traits and female soul mates; but his rhetoric of virility does not follow them.[39]

In our concrete case, this would mean: Even if the distinction between the fascist ideal of virility and the “emancipatory” idea of virility as the “fulfillment of human wholeness,”[40] which Bataille seems to have in mind has become clearer, virility is still too closely linked to its misogynous connotations that it could present a political concept, useful for us to think of human emancipation without excluding everything that is considered “feminine” or simply different from virility.


Bibliography

Bataille Georges, On Nietzsche, 1st American ed., New York, Paragon House, 1992.

Bataille Georges, The College of Sociology (1937-39), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Bataille Georges, « The Psychological Structure of Fascism », New German Critique, Winter 1979, no 16, p. 64‑87.

Habermas Jürgen, The philosophical Discourse of modernity, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Pr, 2004.

Horkheimer Max, Adorno Theodor W., Dialectic of enlightenment: philosophical fragments, Stanford, Calif, Stanford University Press, 2002.

Meyers, Mark, “La virilité et la psychologie des foules dans l’antifascisme de Bataille” in, Cahiers Bataille,. Numéro 2., Meurcourt, Les cahiers, 2014.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin, “Bataille in the Street: The Search for Virility in the 1930s.” Critical Inquiry 21.1 (1994), p. 61-79.

Saar Martin, « Genealogische Kritik » dans Rahel Jaeggi et Tilo Wesche (eds.), Was ist Kritik?, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 2013, p. 247‑265.

Dictionary:
“Virility” in the online Cambridge Dictionary (visited October 4th): http://dictionary.cambridge.org/fr/dictionnaire/anglais/virility?fallbackFrom=british-grammar


Footnotes

[1] « Virility » searched in the Cambridge online Dictionary :

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/fr/dictionnaire/anglais/virility?fallbackFrom=british-grammar, visited 4th October 2016.

[2] Georges Bataille, « The Psychological Structure of Fascism », New German Critique, translated by Carl R. Lovitt, Winter 1979, no 16, p. 64‑87.

[3] Jürgen Habermas, The philosophical Discourse of modernity, translated by Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Pr, 2004.

[4] Ibid., p. 51.

[5] Ibid., p. 51.

[6] Ibid., p. 83.

[7] Ibid., p. 83.

[8] J. Habermas, The philosophical Discourse of modernity, op. cit., p. 55-56.

[9] Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of enlightenment: philosophical fragments, Stanford, Calif, Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 22. „Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”

[10] Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of enlightenment: philosophical fragments, Stanford, Calif, Stanford University Press, 2002, p.43

[11] Ibid., 94.

[12] Ibid., p. 44.

[13] J. Habermas, The philosophical Discourse of modernity, op. cit., p. 56.

[14] Ibid., p.56.

[15] Martin Saar, « Genealogische Kritik » in Rahel Jaeggi et Tilo Wesche (eds.), Was ist Kritik?, 3. Aufl., Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 2013, p. 247‑265, here p. 247. It is Martin Saar who speaks about the importance of the “change of perspective” (Perspektivenwechsel) in the project of genealogical critiques.

[16] J. Habermas, The philosophical Discourse of Modernity, op.cit., p. 96.  Habermas writes: „Nietzsches owes his concept of modernity, developed in therms of his theory of power, to an unmasking critique of reason that sets itself outside the horizon of reason.“

[17] Ibid.,p. 212-220.

[18] J. Habermas, The philosophical Discourse of modernity, op. cit., p. 216.

[19] Ibid., p. 101.

[20] Ibid., p. 101.

[21] Georges Bataille, « The Psychological Structure of Fascism », p. 68.

[22] Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche, 1st American ed., New York, Paragon House, 1992, p. 170.

[23] G. Bataille, « The Psychological Structure of Fascism », art cit., p. 87.

[24] Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 170.

[25] Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “Bataille in the Street: The Search for Virility in the 1930s.” Critical Inquiry 21.1 (1994), p. 61-79, here p. 78.

[26] Hollier, Denis Foreword in : Georges Bataille, The College of Sociology (1937-39), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. xvi. This passage is also quoted by R.Morris.

[27] G. Bataille, « The Psychological Structure of Fascism », art cit., p. 87.

[28] Jürgen Habermas, The philosophical Discourse of modernity, translated par Frederick Lawrence, 14. Nachdr., Cambridge, Mass, MIT Pr, 2004, p. 212.

[29] G. Bataille, « The Psychological Structure of Fascism », art cit., p. 68.

[30] Ibid., p. 70.

[31] Ibid., p. 69-70.

[32] Mayers Mark “La virilité et la psychologie des foules dans l’antifascisme de Bataille” in, Cahiers Bataille. Numéro 2., Meurcourt, Les cahiers, 2014, p. 96. Personal translation of the French original: “[…] La description des foules et des masses par Bataille, marquée comme par une obsession apparente pour la virilité et le rejet non seulement du fascisme, mais aussi de la démocratie parlementaire et du communisme? Il est évident que pour Bataille, la foule, avec out son présumé pouvoir d’éliminer les limites du soi dans une frénésie d’effervescence collective, représentait la source d’énergie virilisante dont le public de masse moderne avait besoin, non seulement pour échapper à l’aliénation et à l’ennui, mais aussi pour résister efficacement au fascisme.”

[33] J. Habermas, The philosophical Discourse of modernity, op. cit., p. 216-217.

[34] Ibid., p. 98. Personal translation of: “Il affirmait qu’une relation plus positive envers l’énergie hétérogène et informe de la foule était précisément ce dont la gauche avait besoin pour résister de manière virile au fascisme”.

[35] J. Habermas, The philosophical Discourse of modernity, op. cit., p. 220.

[36] J. Habermas, The philosophical Discourse of modernity, op. cit., p. 221.

[37] Ibid., p. 220. We adapted the “happiness without power” Habermas is using to describe the analysis of fascism by Adorno and Horkheimer.

[38] See also Mayers Mark “La virilité et la psychologie des foules dans l’antifascisme de Bataille” in, Cahiers Bataille. Numéro 2., Meurcourt, Les cahiers, 2014, p. 98 who draws a similiar conclusion.

[39] Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “Bataille in the Street: The Search for Virility in the 1930s.” Critical Inquiry 21.1 (1994), p. 61-79, here p. 78-79.

[40] Hollier, Denis Foreword in : Georges Bataille, The College of Sociology (1937-39), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. xvi. This passage is also quoted by R.Morris.

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