Rosalind C. Morris: Of Bataille, sur Nietzsche, über humanism…and other virilities [longa versio]

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 to us by Bataille but also, as I hope the above list of epigraphic citations attests, by others. Those others are linked in a broken genealogy that is often eclipsed in a fantasized line of immediate descent from Nietzsche—a virile line capable reproducing itself without sexual difference. 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[1]). Insel’s narrator speaks of the “major degradation of women,” as “the effort to concentrate on something in which one takes no interest.”[2] 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). It is significant that Bataille derives his interest in interest from Mauss. For Mauss, interest is not, as it is for Marx, an expression of the exclusive perspective, ideologically embedded and unconscious aspiration, or acquisitive drive of a particular class: of everything that resists universality. It is, rather the principle of growth in time.  This growth exceeds intentionality, but it does not, as we shall see, exceed willing.

Nonetheless, and bearing the question of interest in mind, 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.”[3]

Bataille avows incoherence (or rather “the certainty of incoherence in reading”), but we (in this seminar) have been given texts that stage the opposite, or that at least promise a more coherent political opportunity. In these texts, we find something other than incoherence: the good Bataille, the anti-fascist Bataille pursuing love amid the ruins of 1944, but also the Bataille of 1937 who appears to oppose nationalist war a priori, and without risk of feeling castrated:

“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.”[4]

If Bataille is going to have an erection, he’s going to feel it and know he feels 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 without relinquishing the allure of darkness. Or the vision it enables.


Defending Nietzsche against the charge of an incipient tendency toward National Socialism, Bataille writes that Nietzsche “dreamed of a humanness” which, embracing its “tragic fate,” would “raise itself above […] social slavishness.” This übermenschheit would be defined by its willing of the future, but also the past.  And, willing the future, it would recognize “the known […] to be surpassed.” Bataille glosses this willing as a recognition that “our native country is what belongs to the past in us.”[5]  I agree. And like Bataille, “I’m frightened by those who find it easy to reduce political activity to propaganda clichés.”[6]  But this does not take us very far, and, in fact, Bataille’s pre-war anti-fascist writings approach their own reduction to cliché.  Now, such reduction thwarts reading. But it also exposes certain contradictions inherent in Bataille’s position.

The war itself seemed to demand a more complex formulation than the willing of the future or the past. After all, total war is the milieu of chance, of its extreme dramatization.  Anyone can be subject to the event of their death in the space of total war, even if particular groups are especially targeted. As such, as war totalized, WWII demanded a willing beyond past and future. Thus, in the genre-bending journal that he wrote following D-Day and the beginning of the end of that war (which would nonetheless be apotheosized with the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), chance becomes the object of willing for Bataille.  In this context, one is left with the question of how to separate the willing of chance from the willing of war.

In 1944, amid the sound of artillery and beneath a sky choked by smoke, Bataille writes of the war as a “transcendence against immanence.” And he concludes that,if the essence of Fascism is national transcendence, it can’t become ‘universal.’ It draws its particular force from particularity.”[7]  Still, he is seduced by the undeniable “immanence” of the liberating American soldiers. How much more beautiful they seem to him, existing “in themselves,” than the Germans, whose transcendent mediocrity fails to arouse him.[8]

When a “disgusting and ridiculous mob” forms in the aftermath of the liberation to purge the collaborators, Bataille is repulsed most of all by a petite middle class woman who appears to him as likely “mean spirited and narrow minded.” It is this woman, so devoid of sexual allure, who incites in him the contemptuous outburst against propaganda.[9]  Not the Hittlerites. (At least this is the sequence of the text.)  And it is her grotesque voicing of The Marseillaise that leads him to concede that the “hatreds, hopes, hypocrisies, stupidities…accompanying the great movements of weaponry obliterate” him.  Sexually repelled, he can remark the indifference of the cosmos to such activity.  “What unfamiliar reality pursues its end … or pursues no end at all through such noise?”  But, one notes, this question and the realization that it expressed are possible because the war was over.

As Denis Hollier remarks, the philosopher who made virility so central to philosophizing, and who had linked war to the festival as well as the orgy, produced a “rapturous description of Paris” during its bombardment by American forces (“Foreword,” xxix). The muting of the guns, by contrast, left Bataille hollowed out, “lacerated” by “empty desire.”[10]  Certainly, the end of war, any war, must bring a relaxation that borders on destitution.  A war can appear, in retrospect, as that which gives life its intensity.  Bataille, to give him his due, tries heroically, to resist despair, to live and love, happily and playfully.[11]  He does so dramatically. But we may yet ask what past is willed in the vacated state to which the war delivers him? With all those bodies falling beneath bombs falling, the willing of that which “falls”—like the “randomness of dice as they fall,” writes Bataille—is itself a risk, though perhaps not the kind that Bataille avows.[12]

Nietzsche, recall, worried that people take refuge in life to flee chance.[13] To avoid the lies and superficiality of such (avoided) life, he proposed the mask in place of deity.  Bataille, for all his adoration of tragedy, seems a little more devoted to what is, rather than what appears. Or rather, because of his adoration of tragedy, and the transformation of willing that it believed it demands, Bataille performed an inversion in the idea of eternal return. “Return is the mode of drama, the mask of human entirety,” he claims.  It “unmotivates the moment and frees life of ends.”[14]  In this way, via a kind of shadow play in which the real is the nocturnally projected effect of an illusion, willing chance becomes a means of willing the past.

But back to the cooler, greyer, less illuminating light of real-political day. The day of nationalism and of nationalist warfare, totalized.

On the one hand, Bataille’s interpretation of what it might mean to will the past activates a critical dimension of Nietzsche’s thought (especially as it is inscribed in Untimely Meditations) against nationalism. It nonetheless (on the other, the left hand?) makes willing appear sufficient as a solution to the problem, a problem that is as present to us now as it was to Bataille in 1944. That problem concerns the additional force, the lure and charge of nationalism and every totalizing identity formation precisely in the moment of its being experienced as past-lost. This attraction does not merely afflict the exiled, whose expulsion or dislocation often has as it internal corollary the sensation of being torn from an origin. It adheres to anything that is amenable to being lost. The future anterior is also a mode of past-lostness-to-come. Now, the lost is precisely not loss in Bataille’s sense. The former is to be understood in terms of an absolute economy, in which what is lost destroys or negates the being of the one who previously held it.  Loss, for Bataille is something else, and never negates the principle of life, as that which gives without receiving. Past-lostness is thus the stuff of anxiety, rather than anguish in Bataille’s sense. And it suffuses nationalism’s panics and exclusionary purges with an ardor indistinguishable from what arises with any other fetishism.

There is, in this context, a somewhat urgent task: namely, 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.  This task, which entails the aesthetic education of the unconscious as much as the training of the intelligence, is leaped over by Bataille.  Despite his admiration for Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, he makes no plea for retention, the work of memory, the carnal museum of the latent senses.  Nor for severance, or the burial and slow forgetting of what has been surpassed. (He was after all a Medieval librarian.)

Beyond the opposition between loss and gain, and beyond the reversal that would merely identify them (loss as gain), he will resignify loss by conjoining it with risk, while nonetheless insisting that risk is not speculation insofar as the latter anticipates gain.[15] Chance is thus resignified. It is time, it is rivalry, it is brazenness. It is the subjection of oneself to possibility and to the knowledge that one cannot know in advance the outcomes of one’s actions—or if one can know some of outcomes, this is limited to the limited human point of view from which an individual being calculates.  There is always an exterior point of view that will decenter the subject and undo the means-ends calculus, displacing the frame in which she reasons and chooses (herein lies Bataille’s residual Kantianism).  For Bataille, even the most carefully calculated economism is, from a more general perspective, a throw of the dice. Gambling. This needs only to be avowed, the dice thrown.

Now, the references to gambling in English translate the repeated gesture, in French, which would be more literally translated as “putting into play” (mise en jeu). The will to chance is a putting into play—of everything and especially of oneself.  But it is less the bondsman or the slave of Hegel’s dialectic than the child who models this risk for Bataille.

Bataille observes Nietzsche’s interest in children, and in child’s play (jeu). Children’s putative innocence and forgetfulness are contrasted to the mournful and even more properly melancholic attachment to the past that infuses nationalism.  What interests Bataille in this context is Nietzsche’s concept of play as an occurrence that exceeds the given.  Yet, if he links this incalculable surplus to “the sacred ‘yes’,” he also acknowledges that Nietzsche’s “play” might obscure the truth as much as the word love.[16]  Indeed, at times in Sur Nietzsche, “child’s play” signifies triviality—and worse: the very opposite of that gambling or gaming, that putting into play (mise en jeu) which Bataille equates with human possibility. Thus, he writes that “if God was what they say, he would be chance.” But, being everything, he cannot be chance, which would entail “endless risk.” God cannot risk himself, being everything. He is immune to loss, or more properly, beyond loss.  Accordingly, Bataille concludes that, “compared to the urgencies of chance, God’s necessities are child’s play!”[17]  This is where Bataille’s antihumanist anthropology begins (and ends): with an identification between the human and the capacity to will loss, to will chance, to play.

In Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View Kant addressed the possibility that humans are played by their representations as much as they play them.  Kant also made recourse to children and play, and invoked their imaginations—running riot in the night after hearing terrifying fairy tales—in his theorizing of a more reasoned and reasoning aesthetic autonomy.[18] Bataille answers that philosophy with a concept of sovereignty that requires and stages the breaching of isolation—not in mutual reciprocity but in communicative loss.  Indeed, in Sur Nietzsche, the concept of sovereignty, which is so central in the later writings of La Part Maudite, has given way to the opposition between immanence and transcendence.  During the war, sovereignty is less important than is transgression, than its loss in love. Humans are singular in their capacity to will this loss, but it is willable only by leaving behind the perspective of individual human interests.


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.”[19]  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 (the sacred) which would posit the opposition, and leave us all too human. Its antihumanism goes by the name of general economy.

At first sight, chance would seem to be the other and indeed the opposite of economy, the domain of accounting, prediction, valuation and the exchange of equivalents. But this is only because first sight takes place in a banal visibility.  The economy conceived in opposition to chance is the economy of rational utilitarians, market liberals, capitalists. It is driven by the aspiration to accumulation, and structured by a calculative principle that linking means and ends, while reducing judgment to the quantitative assessment of value as an efficient and maximizing relation between the former and the latter.

It is not that Bataille disavows the existence or the significance of this kind of economism. There is “production and conservation.” But insofar as consumption constitutes the “ends” in the ideality of liberal economics, it needs to be divided and multiplied, says Bataille:

“…consumption must be divided into two distinct parts. The first, reducible part is represented by the use of the minimum necessary for the conservation of life and the continuation of individuals’ productive activity. […] The second part is represented by so-called unproductive expenditures: luxury, mourning, war, cults of sumptuary monuments games, spectacles, arts perverse sexual activity (ie., deflected from genital finality) – all these represent activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, had no end beyond themselves.”[20]

Note that, in 1933, before Bataille takes up the defense of Nietzsche against the accusation of complicity with National Socialism, war is still straightforwardly included in the category of expenditure. Via the principle of apposition, it is placed in a relation of homology with all the modes of expenditure, from art to perverse sexuality.  It has not yet been subject to a differentiation according to which bad war, the war waged in the name of nationalism, has been ejected and, yes, returned to what will later appear as the more naïvely humanist opposition between good and evil.

Bataille was not the first to attribute to militarism the function of an expenditure (and even a deathly destructive expenditure) that enables growth.  Rosa Luxemburg also thought of it as a province of accumulation, precisely because, she said, capitalist societies would not otherwise be able to convert commodities into capital. Their incapacity to consume what they produce means that the destruction (and not merely the use) of commodities is a necessary domain of total consumption. Luxemburg was speaking of capitalist societies only; militarism was, for her, a province (Gebiet) of accumulation structurally homologous to colonialism in the operations of nineteenth century industrial capitalism.[21]

Bataille universalizes the function of expenditure on the basis of an anthropological comparativism inspired by Marcel Mauss, whence he derived the theory of the potlatch.  This much is well known. But a brief review is perhaps helpful.

An institution observed among the peoples of the Northwest Coast in the moments of their encompassment by English/Canadian settler colonialism, the potlatch was for Mauss a total system like other systems of “the gift,” such as the kula ring of the Trobriand islands, in being characterized by a threefold law: to give, to receive and to reciprocate.  This law was inscribed and bodied forth in the objects of exchange as a compelling force, which he identified using the Maori term, hau (the “spirit of the gift”).[22] Seemingly singular, the system of the potlatch differed from other forms of ritualized exchange only in the degree of “violence, exaggeration and antagonism that they [stirred] up” says Mauss.[23]  But perhaps more than any other such system, the potlatch was said to conserve the principle of sacrifice. And sacrifice meant, for him, “a form of destruction” whose purpose is the solicitation of reciprocity.[24]  This sacrificial dimension is crucial for Bataille.

For Mauss, the logic of the gift was not merely a surpassed dimension of archaic societies. It was a residual dimension, a repressed possibility still available for re-animation in the societies eviscerated by industrial capitalism and world war.  It was not to counter-pose an authentic, aboriginal generosity against the self-interestedness of the West that he turned to the kula or the potlatch. To the contrary. Because these presumptively non-modern societies were governed by a merciless law demanding reciprocity, he thought they could provide a model and thus a remedy for the ailments of industrial modernity. This would be better than the volunteerism that had infected the welfare state and exempted the bourgeoisie from anything but modest charitable works.

Mauss abandoned the incandescent rhetoric of incendiary destruction, which had so marked his earlier volume on sacrifice.  But Bataille restituted it. Bataille also reinvested these “archaic” societies with a more radical alterity, in order that they “[reveal] what usually escapes our perception, and what it shows is our basic ambiguity.”[25]  If Mauss had insisted that actually existing exchange relations in archaic societies was actually devoid of the spontaneity and generosity that accrued to a more Hegelian (but also more commonsensical) concept of the gift as such, and if Bataille acknowledged the failures of actual societies to realize the principle of giving without return, he nonetheless held onto the latter concept as the true essence of the real gift (even attributing to Nietzsche this thought). Precisely what Derrida would call “the impossible,” Bataille projected into an extra-human domain, figured in a solar idiom, while, at the same  rendering that figure as the truth to which humans ought to accede.[26]

Raging against the idea that value is a function of scarcity, Bataille claims that there is always production in excess. This is why the sun can provide a figure for the human world but also for its limit; it gives without receiving. In this figuration, the difference between generativity and giving is elided.  Indeed, the concept of expenditure, of dépense, is this very slippage.  As he writes, “energy, which constitutes wealth, must ultimately be spent lavishly (without return).”[27] Nonetheless, humans (those in the societies practice potlatching) resist this truth; they attempt to make squandering an “object of appropriation” and a “source of prestige.” The ambiguity of which Bataille writes is one in which people both recognize the “truth of life in the negation of the servile use of possessions” while, simultaneously making a “service use of this negation.”

A consciousness freed from servility would, by contrast, make itself useless in play.  Bataille himself plays in the shadow of Kant’s discourse on child’s play when he writes that

“Man is necessarily in a mirage, his very reflection mystifies him, so intent is he on grasping the ungraspable on using transports of lost hatred as tools. […] In point of fact, the contradiction of potlatch is revealed not only through history, but more profoundly in the operations of thought. […] We could not reach the final object of knowledge without the dissolution of knowledge, which aims to reduce its object of the condition of subordinated and managed tings. The ultimate of problem of knowledge is that of consumption. No one can both know and not be destroyed; no one can both consume wealth and increase it.”[28]

Except, perhaps, Bataille? He sees, his eyes are open, even in the dark. Especially in the dark. The dark night of the European soul. What he sees is that, if one does not grasp what the potlatch reveals, one will be forced to “undergo what we could bring about in our own way.” This would be the “choice of an exudation that would suit us.”[29]  Not world war, not total war.  But not not war, either.  Recall that the exudations include, in addition to wars: luxury, mourning, cults of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity.  All the things that characterize our contemporaneity. But war is not absent.

Many people have criticized Bataille’s rather Weberian representation of his economic milieu as one in which bourgeois selfishness has interrupted the system of expenditure. Others have ridiculed his endorsement of foreign aid as a mechanism for redistributing wealth in an unequal world.  But Bataille’s admission that “criticism of my thought is difficult,” and that “whatever might be said, my reply is given in advance” also refracts a cosmic principle.  The global movement of energy is, for him, unaltered and unalterable by the decisions individuals make, whether to will chance or not. He quotes Nietzsche’s Gay Science: “Momentary tragedy,” Nietzsche said, “aids the eternal comedy of existence, and the sea ‘with its countless smiles’—to quite Aeschylus—will cover the greatest of tragedies with its waves.”[30]

It is not clear to me that we can afford this position.  It is also not clear to me that Bataille acceded to it.  There is, if not in Sur Nietzsche then in the La Part Maudite/Accursed Share, the hope for a more suitable exudation, as he says. And there is always the hope of communicating with a lover. Communication meaning, here, the “continuity of that loss [into another person].”[31]  Indeed, such communications or the desire for them traverse the text of Sur Nietzsche with relentless, if irregular frequency.  It seems impossible for Bataille to speak of war and not also to speak of communicating with his lover.  And Nietzsche.  Nietzsche is there in the bedroom, as it were. As dancing spirit? As ghostly voyeur? The third party?

In this particular instance, wherein Bataille speaks of communication as continuity of loss, he is invoking Thus Spake Zarathustra.  He also quotes Ecce Homo, wherein Nietzsche says that, even a little superstition makes one feel like a “megaphone or a medium.”[32] Nietzsche can hear things without searching for them, can be possessed. Not so Bataille, despite his aspirations to be entranced. He can’t even imagine a “higher power.” Not even a sanctified Nietzsche.


In his note, “Nietzsche’s Inner Experience,” Bataille writes that Nietzsche “speaks tirelessly of power while having in mind the capacity to give.”[33]  Bataille wants to mobilize that secret thought, a thought secreted even from Nietzsche. Here, the slippage of generativity into giving, which is necessary for the sun to figure that which humanity experiences, is a kind of wish-fulfilment directed at Nietzsche.  It’s always hard to know what is in someone else’s mind. But insofar as he identifies with Nietzsche, Bataille is liberated to think what his predecessor couldn’t think.  So, in the preface to Sur Nietzsche, Bataille writes that Nietzsche was unclear about how one could think “the positive value of loss” as something other than gain. And we have seen how he came to conceive of destruction and expenditure, from the perspective of a General Economy conceived beyond human interest, as necessary and in no way opposed to life.  Bataille was conscious that his own proposal could appear as “a pure play of lightning, merely an empty consummation.”[34]  Not insignificantly, it is at this point of his admission, that Bataille claims to be the only one of Nietzsche’s readers to pay him due respect.  But, in an inversion that is characteristic of his (Bataille’s) thought (and remarked by Hollier), this respect also takes the form of a betrayal.  Nietzsche, correct in his ambition to go beyond good and evil, nonetheless erred in adducing the concept of the will-to-power to do so. “I am opposed to all forms of coercion—but this doesn’t keep me from seeing evil as an object of moral exploration,” he writes.  And he continues, “As a means to triumph over significant difficulties…and over the opposition between individual and collective or good and evil…only the audacity that comes from taking chances will freely prevail.” Chance is a “way of going beyond” and Bataille offers the will to chance as a more appropriate, indeed as a properly corresponding concept for Nietzsche’s intentions, which were otherwise diverted into (and by?) the will-to-power.[35]

The English translation’s elision of the French volume’s subtitle, namely Volonté de chance, temporarily obscures the centrality of this ‘displacement,’ though the text is relatively clear on at least this point. After all, Bataille is writing “on” Nietzsche. Not quite above or over his idol, he won’t ascend into the heavens (the gods forbid!). To the contrary, he mounts his philosopher-pedestal with all the violent ambivalence of a lover, inscribing his text on the remarkably non-putrefying corpse in phallic ink. It is not Oedipality at stake in this phallogo-antagonism, but rather a reverse autogenesis, and an aggressive aspiration to identity.  The Christian God may be the object of Bataille’s contempt, and he might not be able to fathom a higher power, but he does a good impersonation of Zeus, spouting armed Athena from his own loin while literalizing Wordsworth’s romanticism to make the (playful) child the father of the man.  He commences with respects (the dead demand them), but soon he is writing, “Nietzsche is the only one to support me.” Philosopher. Corpse. Catafalque. Pedestal.  As for Bataille, he is his own exuberantly animated monument.

References cited

References to Bataille’s Sur Nietzsche use the English translations first, and are followed by indications to the French original, as it appears in Œvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard).

Bataille, George. The Bataille Reader, 167-181.  Edited by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson.  London: Blackwell, 1997 [OC I, 302-320 (1933)].

——-. “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 Acéphale (January 1937), 17-21].

——-. Sur Nietzsche. Translated by Bruce Boon, introduced by Sylvère Lotringer.  St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 1994.

——-. “The Gift of Rivalry: ‘Potlatch.’” Translated by Robert Hurley. In The Bataille Reader, 199-209.

——-. “The Meaning of General Economy.” Translated by Robert Hurley. In The Bataille Reader, 182-187.

——-. “The Notion of Expenditure.” In The Bataille Reader, 167-181.

Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. London: Secker and Warburg, 1999.

Derrida, Jacques. Given Time I: Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 23; Donner le temps (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1991)

Hollier, Denis. “Foreword.” In The College of Sociology, 1937-1939, viii-xxix. Translated by Betsy Wing.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985 [1979].

Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Translated and edited by Robert B. Louden, with an introduction by Manfred Kuehn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Loy, Mina. Insel. Edited with an afterword by Elizabeth Arnold. New material edited and with an introduction by Sarah Hayden.  Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014.

Mauss, Marcel.  The Gift. Translated and Annotated by Jane I. Guyer.  Chicago: Hau Books, 2016 [1950].

Morris, Rosalind. ‘Ursprüngliche Akkumulation: The Secret History of an Originary Mistranslation,’ special issue of boundary 2, on “Marxism, Communism, and Translation,” eds. Nergis Ertürk and Özge Serin. 43.3 (August 2016): 29-77.

Renan, Ernst. “What is a Nation,” in The Nationalism Reader, eds. O Dahbour and M. Ishay (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, International, 1995 [1882])


[1] Denis Hollier describes Bataille’s Le Bleu du ciel as “one of the finest French novels of the century” and notes that he “did not even try to publish it.” Hollier, “Foreword,” xxv. Where Bataille willed non-publication, Loy suffered its withholding. Insel went unpublished in her lifetime, despite her efforts to get it into print on more than one ocacsion. The book was commenced in 1933, at precisely the same time as Bataille was completing Le Bleu.  Loy resided in Paris between 1923 and 1936, departing just as Bataille was making his own break with literature and joining the Collège de Sociologie. To the extent that Loy’s novel is compared to anything, it is usually to Bréton’s Nadja.  The work is more decentered, however, and if legible as a roman à clef, it is less an autobiography than a repudiation of identity and its assimilation to any system of phallogocentric signification.

[2] Mina Loy, Insel, 22.

[3] SN, 184; OC VI, 199.

[4] “Propositions,” #9; Acephale 20-21.

[5] SN 170, 171; OC VI, 186, 187. Bataille is not original in making this claim. Even a more conservative theorist of nationalism, such as Ernst Renan, insisted that it was the forgetting of more local, natal languages that made nations and national languages possible. See “Ernst Renan, “What is a Nation?” 153.

[6] SN 164; OC VI, 180.

[7] SN 159, OC VI, 175.

[8] SN 163; OC VI, 179.

[9] SN 164; OC VI, 180.

[10] SN 165; OC VI, 181.

[11] SN 58; OC VI, 74.

[12] SN 70; OC VI, 85.

[13] SN 10; OC VI, 34. And, already in 1896, Mallarmé had also affirmed chance as the basis of art when he wrote of the importance and ineradicability of chance in “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.

[14] SN xxxiii; OC VI, 23.

[15] SN 150; OC VI, 167.

[16] SN 151-152; OC VI, 169-170.

[17] SN 96; OC VI, 116.

[18] Kant, Anthropology, 24-25/135-36 (Page numbers following the backslash refer to the German Academy Edition).

[19] Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, 189.

[20] “Notion of Expenditure,” 169, OC I, 305.

[21] On Luxemburg’s analysis of militarist expenditure, see my ‘Ursprüngliche Akkumulation: The Secret History of an Originary Mistranslation.”

[22] Much can and has been said about Mauss’s text, his comparativism, the translational politics informing his deployment of non-European idioms, and so forth. They must remain beyond the scope of this essay, although their shadow must also cast a questioning light on Bataille’s appropriations of Mauss’s work as well.

[23] Marcel Mauss, The Gift, 112.

[24] Mauss, The Gift, 79.

[25] Bataille, “The Gift of Rivalry: Potlatch,” 205; OC VII,

[26] This is why Derrida refers to the Gift as the figure of the impossible.  See Given Time.

[27] Bataille, The Meaning of General Economy (GE),” 184; OC VII,

[28] Bataille, “Gift of Rivalry,” 206

[29] Bataille, “The Meaning,” 185.

[30] SN 159; OC VI, 175.

[31] SN, 131; OC VI, 151.

[32] Quoted in SN 93; OC VI, 113.

[33] SN, 175; OC VI, 190.

[34] SN xxi, OC VI, 12.

[35] SN xxv, OC VI, 16.