Jesús R. Velasco: Atheologies of Communication (Bataille and Theological Thinking)

By Jesús R. Velasco

As Rosalind Morris suggested, Bataille “talks about communication as continuity of loss.” Indeed, one of the central moments in which he theorizes about communication is when he glosses the Nietzschean fragment “The crucified Christ is the most sublime of all symbols –even at present.” It is interesting that he speaks about this fragment, which Bataille also demonstrates in different ways, including the cover of Acéphale: isn’t that cover an emblem of a crucifix, holding in the right had the sacred heart of Jesus, and the sword of divine justice in the left hand? Of course, this demonstration points in the direction of a different theology, maybe an atheology, in which the crucified Christ does not have a head –thus lacking the very origin of sovereign power used in all corporative political metaphors (the body politic, in which the head is the sovereign, and the members, organs, etc., are the other sections of society, or, better yet, of the ecclesia, the community of people under the power of the church).

This Nietzschean fragment glossed by Bataille is a piece of the original fragment from 1885 or 1886: “Die christlichen Werthurtheile sind damit absolut nicht überwunden. „Christus am Kreuze“ ist das erhabenste Symbol — immer noch,” that is something like “The Christian system of value judgment has not been superseded in all its terms. “Christ on the Cross” is the most sublime symbol –even now.” The aphorism comes, in Nietzsche, after he has established a main difference between Christ and the Buddha (they started to be likened in the 13th century), and right before the fragment in which Nietzsche gives the list of the “vier grossen Demokraten,” composed by Socrates, Christ, Luther, and Rousseau –a lineage of virility indeed.

It’s no more than a small detail, but maybe it is important, that Nietzsche does not say that the crucified Christ is a symbol, but that “Christ on the Cross” is a symbol. Note that the symbol appears as a single thing in quotation marks, as a synchronic object, something more like christonthecross, that is, a crucifix, rather than a crucified.  What is a symbol, therefore, is not a process, or a result, but an image, even a mental image to meditate upon.

Bataille does not analyze the image, the iconography of “Christ on the Cross,” but rather the process of the crucifixion of the Christ. Part II of On Nietzsche begins with a historical exegesis of the crucifixion of the Christ. Historical exegesis is one very specific technique of biblical commentary that involves re-establishing the literal logic of a given biblical passage.

In Christian theology, the history of the Christ begins with the baptism (the birth), and the passion of the Christ concludes with the sacrament of communion. Communion is what allows somebody to become a member of the community, of the ecclesia, of the church, of the body of Christ. It is, indeed, the miracle (as it is not a symbol) according to which one eats the body of Christ. Eats, digests, loves.

If you read closely Bataille’s text, you will see how his history of the crucifixion, his exegesis, gives rise to the concept of communication. Bataille was not only a medievalist, but more specifically a chartiste, and therefore an expert in Latin, with specific attention to ecclesiastical Latin. He knew that the lexical root of “communication” is the same as in the word “communion”. By the same token, he also knew that the idea of ecclesia, from Greek ἐκκλησία means “congregation” or “collectivity”. Communication, communion, community or collectivity seem to be here deeply interconnected.

The community—argues Bataille—is the result of a crime, of the impossibility of keeping the collective integrity; it is this impossibility that elicits “A night of death wherein Creator and creatures bled together and lacerated each other and on all sides, were challenged at the extreme limits of shame: that is what was required for their communion.” (ON 18) Communion, indeed, is what is the formation of a wounded series of bodies—the death of god’s son, the criminal mark of humankind. Within the community, communion is communication. Bataille concludes that “The ‘communication’ without which nothing exists for us, is guaranteed by crime. ‘Communication is love, and love taints those whom it unites.” (ON, 18). While communication is guaranteed by a “summit of evil,” “an absence of communication—empty loneliness—would certainly be the greater evil,” that he characterizes, afterwards, as “an egotistic folding back into self.” However, he says, “communication cannot take place without wounding… our humanity,” and therefore “communication itself is guilty.” He then concludes that

“Communication cannot proceed from one full and intact individual to another. It requires individuals whose separate existence in themselves is risked, placed at the limit of death and nothingness; the moral summit is the moment of risk taking, it is a being suspended in the beyond of oneself, at the limit of nothingness.” (ON 19).

With this demonstration in mind, Bataille indicates that “with ‘communication’ or physical lovemaking, desire takes nothingness as its object.” The argument that he is making here is that there is no radical separation between good and evil, and that these terms must be changed with those of summit and decline. If the summit of evil, or the definitive decline, is the absence of communication, the moral summit is the moment in which risk challenges this absence of communication—and that facilitates, makes possible communication.

I am not going to go on, but you see that there is a painstaking construction of the concept of communication that seems to be at the center of Bataille’s philosophy of evil and decline, of pain, of crime and violence, maybe of war, and definitely of sacrifice, and indeed the question of the closeness between love and crime or wound. Communication is at the center of the question of defining desire and the very object of desire.

All those terms—with desire as their gravitational center, as radix omnium malorum is cupiditas (“the root of all sins is desire”)—are central to any theology, and Bataille’s thinking is a thinking with theology: with the moral, political, violent, and erotic underpinnings of theological thinking that pervade the very formation of the science of theology during the Middle Ages, and that reach their summit with the Summa Theologiae of saint Thomas—with the history of theology becoming an academic discipline in several universities, and especially in Paris.

All those are notions, I feel, that sound very contemporary to me, and that seem, as well, central to the interventions at Nietzsche 2/13. And they raise these important questions: How can one explore the critical productivity of this concept of “communication.” Did Bataille need Nietzsche to develop his concept of communication? Did he use Nietzsche as an object of contemplation in order to develop his own production of aphoristic and dialectical thinking about communication?

At times, it does not appear that Bataille was actually commenting Nietzsche, or basing his reasoning on Nietzsche. He used a theological reasoning to come up with the concept of communication, not because it was central for Nietzsche, but because Nietzsche, like Bataille himself, had been immersed in theological thinking, and one of the ways of going beyond theology was to explore the limits of political theologies.

Bataille’s political theologies are not a legal model (like that of Schmitt) of projection of one thing (theological concepts) onto another (politics) by means of an operator (secularization). These political theologies are much more fluid, even chaotic. In a certain way, they are more Spinozian, in the sense in which Bataille explores the limits of the discipline of theology in order to build an atheology (that is still formally a theology). It is a much more complex sort of political theological thinking insofar as it produces very specific and unpredictable concepts (communication, experience, risk, sovereignty) that investigate the constellation-like relationship between theology and politics (politics, here, understood as moral philosophy in general).

We would prefer, I suspect, to rid ourselves from theology. We are secular today, especially in this age of fundamentalism. Theology, however, does not want to get rid of us. It is pervasive in contemporary thought, in contemporary politics. It is on the face of the dollar bill, in the birther polemics, in gender studies, in queer studies (Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve), and so on. Thinking outside this chaotic activity of political theologies is, perhaps, a way to avoid engaging with important critical questions we should be addressing.

Maybe Bataille’s concept of communication, and his way of building it, could be productive for returning to this kind of research. Perhaps it could fuel a debate on the question of the critical, contemporary interest of reading Bataille in communication with “his only companion,” Nietzsche.