By Rosalind C. Morris
“…[Often], we are … a play of obscure representations, and our understanding is unable to save itself from the absurdities into which they have placed it, even though it recognizes them as illusions.… The power of imagination enjoys walking in the dark…” –Immanuel Kant, Anthropology
“The light of day is the space of thought. But this space is too hospitable to thought for something essential not to escape from this conformity…Day only gathers thoughts subservient to the day; the insubordinate ones never come to light; they darken like the night.” –Denis Hollier, “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille.”
“…the fire of sacrifice is none other than the divinity itself, which consumes the victim, or, to put it more exactly, the fire is the sign of consecration which sets it on fire.” –Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice.
“The surrealist man is very long, stretching like a live wire from 1938 as far into the future & through equally numerous stages of evolution as he reaches into the past. His beginning is a speck of transparency, impinged upon by the sun. His ultimate presence would have been virtually invisible to a twentieth-century eye.” –Mina Loy, “Visitation,” Insel.
Play. The play of light and darkness, of day and night. And: the sacrificial consummation of that which, being burnt, gives light—with no possibility and certainly no thought of return. These are now-familiar tropes, bequeathed by Bataille but also, as I hope the above list of epigraphic citations attests, by others in a broken genealogy that is often eclipsed in a fantasized line of immediate descent (a virile line capable reproducing itself without sexual difference) from Nietzche. These are, one might say, not only familiar tropes but verily sacred topics, if the idea of the sacred hadn’t itself become, well, profane, or at least secularized (which is, of course, not the same thing).
I cannot help but recall here the inestimable wit of Mina Loy’s narrator in the posthumously published novel Insel, a novel that is nothing if not Bataillean (and, in my opinion, as good if not better than any novel Bataille wrote but did not publish). Insel’s narrator speaks of the “major degradation of women,” as “the effort to concentrate on something in which one takes no interest.” It is not that I take no interest in Bataille, but rather that there is an excess of interest in Bataille, thanks in no small measure to his interest in excess. We might question that interest, noting, as we do, and quite obviously, that the problem of interest was central to Bataille’s writing. He inherited this interest in interest from Marcel Mauss, the anthropologist of Essai sur le don/The Gift, and nephew of Durkheim, as well as the co-author with Henri Hubert of the book, Sacrifice, its Nature and Functions (cited above).
Nonetheless, it is hard to question Bataille. Having been established as the critic of liberal utilitarian thought, of rationalism and acquisitive individualism, of violent unity and transcendentalism, having assumed the mantle of Nietzsche without ever having committed parricide, Bataille resists criticism. (When there are no phallic women, there is no need to struggle with the father, to possess the mother). Indeed, criticism of Bataille risks appearing, in advance, as a defense of these inadequate, puerile, and historically indictable philosophies. In his defense of Inner Experience against Sartre, appended to Sur Nietzsche, he writes, “I don’t land anywhere…This is why criticism of my thought is difficult. Whatever might be said, my reply is given in advance, and for me significant criticism will only be a new means to anguish, with intoxication remaining the starting point” (SN, 184; OC VI, 199).
Bataille avows incoherence (or rather “the certainty of incoherence in reading”), but we have been given texts that imply rather the opposite: the good Bataille, the anti-fascist Bataille, the Bataille who can appear to oppose war:
“War, to the extent that it is the desire to insure the permanence of a nation, the nation that is sovereignty and the demand for inalterability, the authority of divine right and of God himself, represents the desperate obstinacy of man opposing the exuberant power of time and finding security in an immobile and almost somnolent erection. National and military life are present in the world to try to deny death by reducing it to a component of glory without dread.” (“Propositions, #9; Acephale 20-21).
If Bataille is going to have an erection, he’s going to feel it! The night is not a domain of somnolence for him, as Denis Hollier reminds us (in his brilliant “Foreword” to The College of Sociology, 1937-39), but of awakening, of dreaming in a manner that dissolves the opposition between night and day. In defense of Nietzsche against the charge of his unconscious, but anticipatory complicity with National Socialism, Bataille writes that Nietzsche “dreamed of a humanness” that, embracing its “tragic fate,” would “raise itself above […] social slavishness.” Willing the future and thus recognizing “the known as to be surpassed,” this enlarged humanness, this übermensch would share with Bataille, the realization that “our native country is what belongs to the past in us” (SN 170, 171; OC VI, 186, 187). I agree. And like Bataille, “I’m frightened by those who find it easy to reduce political activity to propaganda clichés” (SN 164; OC VI, 180). But this does not take us very far, and in fact, Bataille’s anti-fascist writings are the most clichéd of his works, the point at which his philosophical project approaches its own reduction to cliché.
In what will follow, I want to engage Bataille on the basis of his writings in other fields: on economy, on sacrifice, on the category of the human. And I will attend to the problem of gendering, which cannot be separated from them. These are the categories of anthropology.
I am biased, of course. And perhaps even a bit resentful, but I’m in good company. As Elizabeth Costello says, in a monologue recently delivered as part of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s)—Bataille’s “Phaedra Complex” is an entirely different story—anthropology is the “the sole homegrown science” of the gods. “They specialize in humankind because of what we have and they lack; they study us because they are envious” (EC, 189). Coetzee’s cynical heroine asks of those divine beings, “Do they guess (what irony!) that what makes our embraces so intense, so unforgettable, is the glimpse they give us of a life we imagine as theirs, a life we call (since our language has no word for it) the beyond?” Bataille’s anthropology commences there, not with a yes or no but with an interrogation of that divide which would posit the opposition, and leave us all too human.
References to Bataille use the English translations first, and are followed by indications to the French original, as it appears in Œvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard), except for texts from Acephale.
Bataille, George. Sur Nietzsche. Translated by Bruce Boon, introduced by Sylvère Lotringer. St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 1994.
——-. “Propositions.” In Visions of Excess, Selected Writings, 1927-1939, 197-201. Translated by Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. Edited and introduced by Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985 [originally published in Acephale (January 1937), 17-21].
Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. London: Secker and Warburg, 1999.
Hollier, Denis. “Foreword.” In The College of Sociology, 1937-1939, viii-xxix. Translated by Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985 .