Francesco Guercio | Bataille’s Nietzsche: sovereignty of loss/loss of sovereignty

By Francesco Guercio

Je vois devant moi une sorte de flamme, que je suis, qui m’embrase

Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche

Destruction plus intime, bouleversement plus étrange, mise en question sans limites de soi-même. De soi, de toutes choses en même temps.

Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche

Those are thralls and hirelings who seek anything in their works and who act for the sake of some ‘why’

Meister Eckhart, “Justus in Perpetuum Vivet”

By means of the following remarks, allow me to address, and briefly develop, a few points I believe should be reckoned with when dealing with some of the many questions raised during our seminar Nietzsche 2/13. Due to the shortness of my post, by hinging on the lecturers’ thorough observations – expressed both during the seminar and in the follow-up posts – I shall focus primarily on some clusters, or constellations of concepts that I find particularly compelling for our discussion on Bataille’s reading of Nietzsche, while trying to keep our conversation running by posing a few questions in a pass-the-baton-like manner.

A thinking like Bataille’s, that has passed through the eye of the needle of Hegelian dialectics and has landed on Nietzschean shores, cannot but engage with, and assume contradiction as its in-operative mode of deployment in a non-dialectical, tragic way. This mode of thinking is what Bataille calls sovereign thought, he ascribes it to Nietzsche and to himself, and identifies it with the unlimited tragic: “La pensée souveraine est la tragédie illimitée” (OC, VIII, p. 413)[1]. In Bataille then, sovereign thought, by being tragic, cannot but be self-contradictory, constantly resisting any reconciling Aufhebung as both the end of thinking and the fair gain of its inner movement. Always gambling with chance and bound to miss the chance of letting loss appear as loss – as Rosalind Morris reminds us – sovereign thought, both differing and coinciding with the sovereign subject, is caught up in the double bind of its tragic mode of deployment.

The contradictions of a sovereign thought that wills, and wills itself free from the inescapability of gaining even in and by losing – as the issuance of even its own most unproductive expenditures – are expressed in a shattering of subjectivity, both in Nietzsche’s notorious proliferation of names and in Bataille’s self-expenditure of a “consumation vide[2]. By virtue of his attempt at reaching the limit of Nietzsche’s thought as his own thought, Bataille’s self, in being sovereign, is felt to become a “field of infinite contradictions”, as is expressly said in Sur Nietzsche:

Qui essayerait, comme j’ai fait, d’aller au bout du possible qu[e la pensée de Nietzsche] appelle, deviendrait, à son tour, le champ de contradictions infinies.” (SN, 15; ON, xxiv)[3]

With this in mind, I would then argue that the seemingly different readings of Bataille that emerged during our seminar Nietzsche 2/13, rather than undermine a perspicuous comprehension of what Morris named as a “broken genealogy” linking the French bibliothécaire to Nietzsche – a felicitous term that could be extended to the relation established with Nietzsche by many of the names in our seminars or, at least, as it has been previously discussed, to the Auseinandersetzung Heidegger was seen engaging Herr Friedrich in – are to be considered as a lucid rendition of Bataille’s sovereign dis-appropriation of Nietzsche’s fundamental concepts as well as a fairly consequential response to the fleetingness of the former’s mode of thought as his mode of subjectivation, itself being essentially a field of infinite contradictions.

If “x marks the spot”, as Anthony Vidler noticed, then the corpse/corpus of Bataille has always already been displaced for us the readers or, as it were, it has always been fleeting its “proper” spot, and what we are left chasing after is but an anamorphic imago of the dead that escapes the monumentalization of itself – and of the self – while constantly resisting any possible appropriation or fetishization. Thus, the instantaneousness as mode of an image that flees the perduring apprehension and therefore spoils any incorporation into political or academic partisanship should inform the mode of, as Bernard Harcourt suggests, the critical standpoint of those thinkers whose genealogy has been, and cannot be but, broken.

As another “brokenheir of Nietzsche, namely Michel Foucault, has shown in a masterful study[4], the disruptive potential deployed by Nietzschean genealogical critique consists in having unveiled the phantasmic mystification of a transhistorical and thus ‘a-historical’ hypokeimenon, or sub-jectum underlying the multifold, historical alethourgic practices, processes of subjectivation and power relations. Defying the primacy of the one origin both in phenomena and in selves and, thus, unveiling its thetic, performative and governing power over time, genealogical critique tears the fabric of the historical plot as the hypostatization of occurrences that are indeed the transient configurational site of a struggle between differential forces at play for dominion, or in Nietzsche terms Herrschafts-Gebilde, or “formations of dominion”[5] of will to power.

The complexity of such a genealogical critique cannot be discussed here, although I would argue that what Bataille – in an undeniably Nietzschean move – has shown by advocating for a “réparation à Nietzsche” is, in fact, the former’s acknowledgment that Nietzsche’s corpse/corpus has acted as the topological mise en constellation of struggling forces in the will to power and that can be perhaps best apprehended if configured in terms of the interplay and distinction, hinted at by Harcourt, between appropriation and misappropriation. Harcourt has reminded us that if Nietzsche’s corpse/corpus is the configurational site of struggling will to powers, then “the field of infinite contradictions” that Bataille feels to be by his thinking Nietzsche au bout du possible is not only the very same agonic site always prone to, as to pun on Harcourt’s Nietzschean pun, both “The Uses and Abuses of Bataille”, but might as well be appealing for a “réparation à Bataille”, the urgency of which had already been recognized by Denis Hollier.

However, in this interplay of appropriation and misappropriation, can we then rephrase Bataille’s assertion, justly recollected by Harcourt, that “LA DOCTRINE DE NIETZSCHE NE PEUT PAS ETRE ASSERVIE” as “LA DOCTRINE DE BATAILLE NE PEUT PAS ETRE ASSERVIE”, or as it were, that by its being part maudite, Bataille would always keep resisting appropriation as an hypostatization of reactive forces, spoiling any Verbrauch, any mis-usage?

To avoid repeating the cycle of mis-appropriation, as critical readers of Bataille, we then need not to, nor we shall erect any obelisks to the late Georges Bataille, nor in Morris‘s terms, mourn his loss as “experienced as past-lost”. If “radix omnium malorum est cupiditas” as Jesús Velasco reminded us, when confronted with our will to erection and our drive to monumentalize – lots has been said and, still, should be said about ‘e-rections’, especially in systems of thought  – by scorning our desire and subscribing to the Christian principle, would we be still pious, all too pious? Harcourt has shown that what Bataille is trying to think and live with and through Nietzsche, is an evil beyond good and evil, an evil that would transgressively invert the value that the caveatradix omnium malorum est cupiditas” assumes for the constant self-scrutiny of the Christian subject into  a sort of a categorial imperative for a sovereign ‘moral summit’. And yet, is this summit irredeemably severed from its root and, as such unaccessible? Couldn’t it be so? What Bataille seems to be saying is that Sade is of no use as long as we remain human, and thus trapped in the coils of language as servitude to things, although, “the decline is inevitable” and the summit continuously slips away:

Il se dérobe à nous, du moins dans la mesure où nous ne cessons pas d’être hommes: de parler” (SN, 57; ON, 39)[6]

Bataille is quite clear in denying the homology between the summit and evil, showing how the summit cannot be opposed to decline as evil to good:

On ne peut pas d’ailleurs opposer le sommet au déclin comme le mal au bien.” (SN, 57; ON, 39)[7]

Is it therefore hazardous to think such a ‘moral summit’, such an evil beyond the distinction between good and evil as the realm of nothing beyond language, the inaccessible rien, and imagine a ethics that cannot be put to use or misused? Or as Bataille seems to suggest:

une morale, qui ne s’engage pas, qui ne nous mette pas au service de quelque moyen?” (OC, VIII, p. 248; AS, II-III, p. 199)[8]

Unfortunately, we cannot follow these suggestions here. Nevertheless, it seems that the Leitmotiv in Nietzsche 2/13 is the warning that, as critical readers of Bataille, we would better keep refraining from monumentalizing Bataille’s imago as the most obvious, even hoped for or required reconciliation of our critical Trauerarbeit, and, as Morris urges, rather attempt to engage in

learning how to separate pastness from loss (the lost), without introducing the (ironic) specter of a residual presence, and thus restoring the metaphysics inseparable from transcendentalism”. (Morris, OF BATAILLE, SUR NIETZSCHE, ÜBER HUMANISM…AND OTHER VIRILITIES, p. 5)

Nietzsche certainly showed whence transcendence creeps in: anytime monumentalization occurs, both in architecture, as Vidler reminded, and in the practice of historians, as Velasco pointed out. We should then wonder whether, when dealing with corpses and corpora, we are able to stand not to mourn Bataille – and Nietzsche via Bataille – and not to exert on them a mis-appropriating will to power and finally cease, in a movement of immanence, to eternally return to the spot marked by the x, where their imago lies. Although constantly, painfully reminded that this lying be the permanent metaphysical mark of the image – its symbolic bearing the truth of another, for the other, while, at the same time, lying of and on itself – are we capable of thinking about Bataille’s imago of Nietzsche’s corpus otherwise that as an eidolon, an idol?

Morris insightfully showed that “the future anterior is also a mode of past-lostness-to-come” and indeed vice-versa, I would argue. Dino Campana once wrote: “In the whirlwind of the eternal return the image instantly dies[9]. We could perhaps read the sentence this time through Bataillean eyes, iconoclastically as a warning not to monumentalize the past-lostness or erect obelisks, but rather to never subject critical thinking to ‘teleocracy’, the government of future ends, and let Bataille’s, and Nietzsche’s imago die, instantly, in the whirlpool of the eternal return.

Should we, “who spoil our own parties” (Harcourt), deploy then our Nietzschean ars lethica, our ‘technique of forgetting’ – as Velasco suggested in a previous seminar – to yield to oblivion all the spots marked by x’s, the spots of mourning, in the attempt at overcoming ressentiment in critique, and thus cease to monumentalize our past as past-loss, and finally affirm the loss as loss? Nonetheless, we have seen that the aporias of a loss that would still inescapably be a gain, as Denis Hollier and Rosalind Morris pointed out, kept haunting Bataille:

La valeur positive de la perte ne peut en apparence être donnée qu’en termes de profit.” (SN, 12; ON, xxi)[10]

What would remain of a critical thinking performed and/or deformed in its lethic function? Isn’t critique subjected to the tyranny of reading the past in order to understand the present, in order to change it for ‘a better’ future? Isn’t critique subjected to the tyranny of the ‘in order to’, the ruthless ‘teleocracy’? Nietzsche’s Zarathustra had spoken clearly:

‘By Chance’ – that is the most ancient nobility of the world, and this I restored to all things: I delivered them from their bondage under Purpose.” (PN, p. 278)[11]

Is it perhaps a transcendental-genealogical project of a sovereign critique that we are attempting to sketch in our Nietzsche 13/13? Would such a critique that has let the loss be as loss still inescapably gain? Isn’t this exactly the oximoric condition of a possible sovereign critique? Is a sovereing-critical thinker a paradoxical type still in need to be thought? And how would such a in-human type live? Bataille’s dis-appropriation of Nietzsche reads:

Ce qui est souverain, en effet c’est de jouir du temps présent sans rien avoir en vue sinon ce temps present” (OC, VIII, p. 248; AS, II-III, p. 199)[12]

Is it possible for critique to be undertaken “sans rien avoir en vue sinon ce temps present”? Isn’t even perhaps the most radical presentification of critique, namely Foucault’s “ontologie du présent”, albeit a critique of the present, an archeological/genealogical endeavor deeply rooted both into the past of Western tradition and into the reinvention of techniques de soi aimed at constantly producing processes of subjectivation ‘in order to‘ be governed in a different way? Or is it maybe, the resistance of the ‘in order not to’ that Foucault through a Nietzschean-Bataillean broken genealogy is trying to prefigure? Would the reverse negativity of the not be able to disengage the teleocracy? In other words, can Bataille’s attempt at thinking of sovereignty as critique of utility and negative, gainless loss, open the chance for a disruption of the ‘in order to‘?

As Hollier reminded us, Georges Bataille fantasied about sovereignly plunging himself into the abyss of evil while laughing at the safety, and pettiness, of the fearful on-shorers. Although, isn’t his rope still firmly tied to the steady earth of his European petit-bourgeois-ness, as Morris suggested? Is perhaps Bataille’s will to chance somehow indiscernible from the contemporary fascistic will to war? If “one is left with the question of how to separate the willing of chance from the willing of war” as Morris has warned us, then a suspicion may arise on that Bataille’s “saluer ceux qui tombent que d’éclats de rire(OC, VI, ; ON, 159)[13], rather than a Nietzschean movement of immanence, could instead be just the phantasmal leakage of a ‘petit-bourgeois white cis male’ subjectivity, longingly “dreaming of sovereign sheep” while sleeping safe & soundly in a country-house bed, far from the horrors of war.

This notwithstanding, one could at the same time legitimately wonder: in his dreaming of Nietzschean dancing stars and ever-expending suns, isn’t Bataille still too heavy-footed (too Hegelian?) for evilly “dancing on the corpses’ ashes” and orgiastically conjoining “the heroes of Sade” with Nietzsche’s Übermenschen? Isn’t Bataille’s tension, his passion also, as Harcourt justly points out “close to that of martyrs and saints…(SN, 11; ON, xix)[14], still too close to the latter, to crookedly “go evil” beyond good and evil, and decisively dismiss the siren’s call of transcendence or, of what he yearns for as “l’existence noble, le mépris moral, l’air sublime(SN, 173; ON, 157)[15]?

The agony between transcendence and immanence in Sur Nietzsche, according to Morris, displaces Bataille’s concept of sovereignty in an oscillating movement between two opposite spheres. At the same time it patently shows not only the cleft of genealogical relation Nietzsche/Bataille – a genealogy acutely described by Morris as a “a virile line capable of reproducing itself without sexual difference” – but reflects indeed Bataille’s fascination for the depths of Christian theology and its bi-wordly metaphysical structure. By rooting what Velasco has called “a different theology, maybe an atheology”, in the apophatic non-savoir of his expérience interieure, Bataille unveils his attempt at reaching an a-theological, inverse mysticism in, and of, the death of God. In a Dyonisian dismembering and incorporation of “papa-Nietzsche”’s corpus/corpse, while positioning himself as a self-proclaimed messiah – aren’t all? – of a Nietzschean a-theological religion, Bataille displaces himself in the polemos of will to powers struggling for the mis-appropriation of Nietzsche. As critical readers of Bataille then, we should retain as well from turning Bataille’s imago into a new “erhabenste Symbol”, a most sublime symbol, an a-theological christonthecross, as Velasco sagaciously coined and suggested.

Were Bataille just befallen from his aristocratic heights and thus condemned to the infinite anamnesis of a paradise lost where sovereign subjects (sic!, one of the many Western political aporias) could ‘give’ and ‘lose’ without concern for any coming morrow – not even a nuclear one – then he would not be worthy more than some antiquarian interest. One would then need not to spend ‘precious’ time in engaging in Bataille’s reading of Nietzsche and could peacefully put him back into the gypsotheque of the very exclusive and eccentric “White-Dudes Country Club”, while moving on to, certainly, most pressing, gaining activities. No doubts some may feel this way. Shouldn’t time, as precious as it is, be properly invested?

Although, as our lecturers reminded us in Nietzsche 2/13, it is precisely this conundrum utility/will/time, namely ‘time as value’ one should spend “in order to” gain from the past any possible future  – with the cathexis, or chrono-libidinal-economy that such investment entails – that Bataille’s thinking with Nietzsche puts into question and resists. Therefore, if one rather agrees on the urgency of digging into even the somewhat disturbing layers of Bataille’s writings, with the problematic rhetorical twists that they deploy, and stubbornly attempts to engage in what, in Foucauldian terms, could be thought and lived as “une ontologie critique de nous-même[16], then the reading of Bataille could still reserve a few surprises. Nonetheless, it is precisely this distinction at the core of Western metaphysics between theoria and praxis as respectively auto and allo-telic activities, that Nietzsche and his “broken genealogy” engage with and render inoperative. Thus, the exigency of an eternal return to Bataille, and ‘his’ Nietzsche becomes impelling, as a way of questioning both ‘teleocracy’ – the “government of ends” that underlies critique and our engagement in critical thinking – and ‘utility’ as motive and condition for a critical living that poses itself as a way to “arracher l’être aux limites d’une pensée qui se charge essentiellement d’assurer l’ordre judicieux de choses”. (OC, VIII, 416; AS, II-III, 385)[17]



[1] Georges Bataille, La souveraineté, in Œuvres Complètes, VIII, Gallimard, Paris, 1976, p. 413; The Accursed Share, II-III, Zone Books, New York, 1993, p. 381: “sovereign thought is boundless tragedy”.

[2]  Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche in Œuvres Complètes, VI, Gallimard, Paris, 1976, p. 12; On Nietzsche, Paragon House, New York, 1992, p. xx: “empty consummation”.

[3] Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche, cit., p. 15; On Nietzsche, cit., p. xxiv: “To try, as I have, to push the possibilities of his [Nietzsche’s] teaching to the limit is to become, like Nietzsche, a field of infinite contradiction”.

[4] M. Foucault, “Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire”, 1971, in Bachelard Suzanne [ed.] Hommage à Jean Hyppolite, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, pp. 145-172

[5] For the Nietzschean concept of Herrschafts-Gebilde see occurences in KGWB: NF 1887 11[73] – NF-1885,2[57] – NF-1885,2[69] – FW-358 – NF-1887,11[99] – GM-II-17 – AC-55 – GD-Streifzuege-39 – NF-1886,5[61] – NF-1886,6[26] – NF-1888,13[3] – NF-1888,14[138].

[6] Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche, cit., p. 57; On Nietzsche, cit., p. 39: “It slips away from us, at least until we stop being human, that is, until we stop speaking

[7] The English translation On Nietzsche, though, on p.57, mistakenly reads: “The summit can, though, be opposed to decline as evil to good”, establishing a forced homology between the summit and evil, as evil VS good, and blending the nuances of Bataille’s argument.

[8]  Georges Bataille, La souveraineté, cit., p. 412; The Accursed Share, II-III, cit., p.380: “an ethics that does not commit itself, that does not place us in the service of some means?”

[9] Dino Campana, “Nel giro del ritorno eterno vertiginoso la immagine muore immediatamente” (Storie II) – Opere e contributi  (Florence: Vallecchi, 1973) p. 444, quoted in Giorgio Agamben, “The Eternal Return and the paradox of passion”, in Nietzsche in Italy, ed. by Thomas Harrison, Anma Libri, Stanford University, 1988.

[10] Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche, cit., p.12; On Nietzsche, cit., p. xxi: “It appears that the positive value of loss can only be given as gain.

[11] F. Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, III, Before Sunrise, in The Portable Nietzsche, Edited and Translated by Walter Kaufman, Penguin, New York, 1954 – in German: ASZ: Vor Sonnen-Aufgang: “„Von Ohngefähr“ — das ist der älteste Adel der Welt, den gab ich allen Dingen zurück, ich erlöste sie von der Knechtschaft unter dem Zwecke”.

[12] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, II-III, cit., p. 199: “What is sovereign is in fact to enjoy the present time without having anything else in view but this present time”.

[13] Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche, cit., p. 175; On Nietzsche, cit., p. 159: “greeting war victims with bursts of laughter”.

[14]Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche, cit., p. 11: “proche de celle des martyrs ou des saints…”; On Nietzsche, cit., p. xix.

[15] Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche, cit., p. 173; On Nietzsche, cit., p. 157: “Transcendence (noble existence, moral disdain, an attitude of sublimity)”.

[16] Cfr. Michel Foucault, “Qu’est-ce que le Lumières?”, Dits et écrits, IV, p. 577; Eng. version as “What is Enlightenment?, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (London, The Penguin Books, 1984), p. 50

[17] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, II-III, cit., p. 385: “rescuing being from the strictures of a thought that is essentially concerned with ensuring the judicious order of things.