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Summary Article: Georges Bataille
from The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory

Georges Bataille (1897-1962), novelist and critic, flourished in Parisian intellectual circles in the period between World Wars I and II. Known for his erudite approach to eroticism and his iconoclastic writing style, Bataille focused his attention on a wide variety of themes and problems in anthropology, philosophy, literature, sociology, and economics. Although he was involved in contemporary literary and political groups in Paris throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, his writings did not have the kind of impact they would have on poststruc-turalists in the 1960s and ‘70s. He was in this sense an intellectual heir of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose own writings were not fully appreciated until after his death. In many ways critical of the French avantgarde in his lifetime, Bataille nevertheless managed posthumously to redefine it through his influence on writers like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva.

Born in 1897 in Billom, in central France, to predominantly secular parents, Bataille struggled through a traumatic childhood, the end of which saw his conversion to Catholicism in 1917, when he was 20 years old. Educated predominantly in Rheims, he entered the seminary at Saint-Fleur at this time, but soon abandoned his vocation and renounced his faith. Bataille's biographer Michael Surya interprets this sequence of decisions - the “unlikely” trajectory of his life - as the result of two tragic events: his mother's descent into insanity and his father's slow death from syphilis, which left him blind and paralyzed. These events had a profound impact on Bataille's writing, which tended from the start to focus on the body, on disease and death, and on the obsessive and violent elements of sexuality.

Leaving behind his native Rheims and its provincial norms in 1918, Bataille enrolled at the École des Chartes in Paris, where he studied medieval history and literature, eventually writing a dissertation on thirteenth-century verse. After leaving the École, he gained employment as a librarian and archivist, specializing in numismatics and paleography. He soon became familiar with the Parisian demimonde, a world of brothels, cafés, and art studios. His intellectual development began in isolation; the early 1920s found him reading deeply the works of sociologist Marcel Mauss and the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Lev Shestov. Not long after leaving university, Bataille had gained the reputation of being a mild-mannered habitué with a penchant for the city's lurid nightlife that created two far-reaching consequences for his thought: it contributed to his combative and iconoclastic critique of philosophy and it informed and reinforced his interest in bodies and their pleasures.

Bataille was a formidable presence in the city's numerous literary and political groups. Gradually making the acquaintance of Salvador Dalí, Alexandre Kojève, Jacques Lacan, Michel Leiris, Pablo Picasso, and Simone Weil, he initiated debates whose topics included the fate of communism, the nature of the unconscious, and European politics. Bataille's close friend Roger Caillois described him as a “strange, placid, almost awkward man, but his gravity had something fascinating about it” (Surya 2002: 246). Throughout his life, Bataille's most persistent criticism was directed at the practice of philosophy. He reiterated in various ways that the de facto legitimacy of philosophical thought is perpetuated by a spurious separation of its truths from “non-knowledge.” Accordingly, the particular experiences that philosophy deems inadmissible or “nonsense” became the basis for what Bataille called “heterological thought”:

If thought and the expression of thought have become [the philosopher's] privileged domain, this is only after he had, to the limit of his resources, multiplied the apparently incoherent experiences, whose intolerance indicates his effort to embrace the totality of possibilities - more precisely, to reject untiringly any one possibility exclusive of others. (Quoted in Sasso 1995: 41-2)

Sudden intimations of mortality, ineffable perceptions, incommunicable or stray affects, “all too human” fallibilities, involuntary or seemingly trivial compulsions such as laughter: a host of human experiences considered inconsequential to or uncategorizable within philosophy became, for Bataille, the objects of serious, disciplined inquiry. Staking his claim for a form of writing that would counter this tendency in philosophy to reject entire fields of human experience, he argued consistently that “thought,” as it was viewed conventionally through philosophical rationalism, took an active role in perpetuating “a homogeneous and servile world” (Botting & Wilson 1997: 64). Heterological thought needed, in a sense, to be written into existence, for Bataille believed that such thought had of necessity to create both its own cognitive basis in language and a style suited to the “irruption” of the heterological in discourse. Above all, it had to resist erasure by philosophy's claim to truth. Bataille's writing and editorial work, therefore, sought not only to confront philosophy with what was regarded by it as nonphilosophic, but also to treat the latter with the same discipline and rigor accorded to the former.

Bataille's bohemian personality and combative writing style attracted conflict as well as admiration. His most sustained intellectual dispute was sparked in 1929, days prior to his initial appointment as a journal editor at Documents. As associate editor, he gathered together artists, art historians, curators, and librarians in order to mount a concerted critique of bourgeois culture. Bataille's intent was to present Parisians with “[t]he provoking and the unusual, if not the disturbing” (Surya 2002: 559). Documents soon became the premier publication for polemics against André Breton's faction of the surrealist movement. Although Bataille avoided intellectual and artistic partisanship, his attack on Breton was exceptionally confrontational; in addition to his own writings, he published ripostes by André Masson, who drew the cover for the first issue of Bataille's Acéphale journal and led a group that challenged surrealism. The critique of Breton and surrealism arose from disagreements concerning the nature of aesthetics and, more important, from Bataille's belief that painting, poetry, prose, and sculpture ought to express libidinal and social forces curtailed by daily life. Bataille accused surrealists of harboring an ideal of “the marvelous” that, when encountered in an artwork, purportedly would liberate observers from their illusions and habitual states of mind. Thus, his participation in Parisian political and literary debates - particularly his contribution to journals such as Genesé, Critique, Critique Sociale, and Acéphale fomented a dynamic skepticism, the target of which was the European intellectual who believed that art and philosophy could counter the rise of reactionary social and political movements like fascism.

The second consequence of Bataille's life in Paris entailed a reversal of his youthful renunciation of the human body. His affinity for bodies and pleasures should not be mistaken, as it often is, as mere philistinism or decadence. An interest in erotic passions and its representation led Bataille to examine the contradictions between one's animality and the bodily norms of human civility. In this sense, he developed erotic imaginary in ways that went well beyond the limits of human sexuality. Eroticism is described by Bataille as a trembling fear, as the desire both to negate and to transform a given erotic convention or situation (a process not unlike the Hegelian Aufhebung or “sublation”). Bataille published stories that extol the unique power of eroticism to pursue, as Jürgen Habermas (1990) describes it, “the traces of a primordial force that could heal the discontinuity or rift between the rationally disciplined world of work and the outlawed other of reason” (99-100).

Transformative and transgressive narratives of primordial powers have a well-known precedent in the writings of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), which Bataille heralded for their opposition to economies of value, exchange, and utility. Bataille's early novellas, Histoire de l'oeil (1928) and L'Anus solaire (1931) - both published under pseudonyms - narrate a fascination, if also solemn perplexity, for the mortal, excretory, and enervated body of their characters. Bataille's stories are distinct from de Sade's in that they symbolize the human body in cosmic rather than exclusively courtly contexts. In L'Anus solaire, erotic scenes are framed within nonhuman surroundings and their cycles of growth, decay, and regeneration:

Beings die only to be born, like phalluses leaving bodies to be able to enter them. Plants rise up in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground. Trees ruffle the terrestrial ground with an immeasurable amount of flowered shafts raised towards the sun. The trees that forcefully soar up are finally burned by lightening, cut down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they rise again, identical with another form. But their polymorphous coitus is a function of uniform terrestrial rotation. (Bataille 1985: 7)

Against the symbolic hierarchy of the planet, humanity, and God in an ascending degree of value, Bataille's novels are replete with images and scenarios undermining the purported equilibrium offered by humanism, religion, and “common sense.” Describing the rudimentary or “lowly” material of daily life - carcasses, dirt, excrement, insects, refuse - he focuses our attention on the abject, on that which lacks intelligibility, both sensibly and symbolically. What Bataille describes as “formless” is not, strictly speaking, a concept within his writing. He consistently redefines the meaning of this term and, as with most of his concepts, he subjects his writing to the same mode of critique he employs when interpreting other writers. Ontological claims are made possible when forms of representation simplify and dissipate potentially troubling interpretations; for Bataille, undermining metaphysical claims with terms such as “formless” was a primary aim of heterological thought. In this sense, he helped set the stage for post-structuralist critiques of representation and future avant-garde artistic movements, both of which fully emerge in the 1960s.

Although Bataille did not write a study of Friedrich Nietzsche's writings until 1945 (Sur Nietzsche), he was deeply influenced by the German philosopher's critique of morality and religion from as early as 1923. Bataille was one of the first modern French thinkers to study Nietzsche with an acute sense of his relevance for interpreting the ethical and political ramifications of contemporary bourgeois European culture. Anarchistic in its opposition to all forms of power, Bataille's critique of “sovereignty” is reminiscent of Nietzsche's critique of servility; both ideas conceive of social relations as detrimental to human experience, inattentive to individual desires and drives, and ultimately easily manipulated by political forces. For Bataille, sovereign experience renounces, or is indifferent to, the process by which meaning is related to truth as well as the coherent self and universe implied by this process.

From 1933 to 1939 - during the time of his involvement with the Collège de Sociologie - Bataille attended Alexandre Kojève's lectures on G. W. F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit at L’École des hautes études. For an interwar generation of Western European intellectuals, these lectures constituted no less than a reinterpretation of modern consciousness based on Kojève's reading of Hegel's master-slave dialectic; they renewed the viability of practicing philosophy as a system and not simply a collection of disparate topics. Although he rejected Kojève's “end of history” thesis, Bataille emerged from the seminars with a desire to test the parameters of Hegelian dialectics. In his late writing, he reinterprets a constellation of distinctly Hegelian concepts, including animality, death, economy, sacrifice, and writing. His influential essay “Hegel, Death, and Sacrifice” revisits Hegel's epistemology, especially paradoxical aspects of subjectivity, in terms of the knowledge of one's mortality:

In order for Man to reveal himself ultimately to himself, he would have to die, but he would have to do it while living - watching himself ceasing to be. In other words, death itself would have to become (self-)consciousness at the very moment that it annihilates the conscious being. (1990[1955]: 19-20)

Bataille's revision of Hegel was part of a general turn in his writing after World War II, in which he subverted categories such as subjectivity, sociality, aesthetics, and political economy. At this time, the problem of community became paramount, for Bataille had come to believe that community was not based on person-to-person relations but rather on the presence of that which impedes all social relations, pre-eminently, the consciousness of one's death. Interpreting the political and psychical forces of fascist and authoritarian political movements employed to legitimate and sustain their own authority, Bataille wrote extensively about community and friendship, authority and economics, in order better to grasp how human relations are shaped by spontaneous forces and histories that conventional academic disciplines often failed to acknowledge. In his investigation of the concept of “expenditure,” Bataille rewrote the argument in traditional Western European social theory - especially Marxism - that production is at the root of social necessity and the movement of history. Bataille argues that capitalist norms and structures are reproduced as a result of their expenditure of energy and their excessive consumption. Texts like The Accursed Share (1991 [1949]) and his posthumously published essays attracted a generation of thinkers such as Derrida, Michel Foucault, Kristeva, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Giorgio Agamben, who learned from Bataille's multifaceted oeuvre.

In 1971, nine years after Bataille died in Paris, Roland Barthes published a brief essay pondering the future study of written forms. Mid-argument he pauses to consider what he believed were major shifts in the formal and institutional categories of modernist French and European thought. Singling out a writer who defied such categories and thus typified an undercurrent of revolt against perfunctory written expression, he asked: “How would you classify a writer like Georges Bataille? Novelist, poet, essayist, economist, philosopher, mystic? The answer is so difficult that the literary manuals generally prefer to forget about Bataille who, in fact, wrote texts, continuously one single text” (1977[1971]: 157). Barthes confirms a lesson that Bataille's works teaches us - that despite the will to exhibit knowledge and the aspiration toward authority, writing must exceed specialist propriety and all manner of idealism to be “the sum of the possible, in the sense of a synthetic operation, or it is nothing” (Bataille 1986 [1957]: 254).

SEE ALSO: Agamben, Giorgio; Barthes, Roland; Derrida, Jacques; Habermas, Jürgen; Kristeva, Julia; Lacan, Jacques; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Marxism; Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and Cultural Studies

  • Agamben, G. (1987). Georges Bataille: Il politico e il sacro. Liguori Verona.
  • Barthes, R. (1977). From work to text. In Image, Music, Text (trans. Heath, S. ). London Fontana, pp. 155-164. (Original work published 1971.).
  • Bataille, G. (1985). Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-39 (ed. and trans. Stoekl, A. et al.). University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis.
  • Bataille, G. (1986). Eroticism: Death and Sensuality (trans. Dalwood, M. ). City Lights San Francisco. (Original work published 1957.).
  • Bataille, G. (1990). Hegel, death, sacrifice. Yale French Studies, 78, 9-28. (Original work published 1955.).
  • Bataille, G. (1991). The Accursed Share. Vol. 1: Consumption (trans. Hurley, R. ). Zone New York. (Original work published 1949.).
  • Bataille, G. (1994). On Nietzsche (trans. Boone, B. ). Paragon House New York. (Original work published 1945.).
  • Bataille, G. (2001). The Impossible (trans. Hurley, R. ). City Lights San Francisco. (Original work published 1962.).
  • Bois, Y.-A.; Krauss, R. (2000). Formless: A User's Guide. MIT Press Cambridge, MA.
  • Botting, F.; Wilson, S. (eds.) (1997). The Bataille Reader. Blackwell Oxford.
  • Derrida, J. (1981). From restricted to general economy: A Hegelianism without reserve. In Writing and Difference (trans. Bass, A. ). University of Chicago Press Chicago, pp. 251-277.
  • Foucault, M. (1977). A preface to transgression. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Interviews and Essays (ed. Bouchard, D. et al.). Cornell University Press Ithaca, pp. 29-52.
  • Habermas, J. (1990). The entry point into post-modernity Nietzsche as a turning point. In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures (trans. Lawrence, F. G. ). MIT Press Cambridge, MA, pp. 83-105.
  • Holier, D. (ed.) (1988). The College of Sociology. University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis.
  • Holier, D. (1995). From beyond Hegel to Nietzsche's absence. In On Bataille: Critical Essays (ed. Boldt-Irons, Leslie ). SUNY Press Albany, pp. 61-78.
  • Nancy, J.-L. (1991). The Inoperative Community (trans. Connor, P. ). University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis.
  • Sasso, R. (1995). Georges Bataille and the challenge to think. In Boldt-Irons, L. (ed.), On Bataille: Critical Essays. SUNY Press Albany, pp. 41-50.
  • Surya, M. (2002). Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography. Verso London.
    © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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