Twentieth century philosophy
|Name: Georges Bataille|
|Birth: September 10, 1897 (Billom, France)|
|Death: July 9, 1962|
|School/tradition: Continental philosophy|
|Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Hegel, Sigmund Freud||Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida|
Georges Bataille (September 10, 1897 – July 9, 1962) was a French writer, anthropologist, and philosopher, though he avoided this last term himself. Bataille was one of the founding members of the College of Sociology, which included some of France's most well-known intellectuals during the inter-war period, including Roger Caillois and Pierre Klossowski, among others. Participants also included Michel Leiris, Alexandre Kojève, and Jean Wahl.
The members of the College were united in their dissatisfaction with surrealism. They believed that surrealism's focus on the unconscious privileged the individual over society, and obscured the social dimension of human experience.
In contrast to this, the members of the College focused on "Sacred Sociology, implying the study of all manifestations of social existence where the active presence of the sacred is clear." The group drew on work in anthropology which focused on the way that human communities engaged in collective rituals or acts of distribution, such as potlatch. It was here, in moments of intense communal experience, rather than the individualistic dreams and reveries of surrealism, that the College of Sociology sought the essence of humanity. Their interest in indigenous cultures was part of a wider trend towards primitivism at the time.
Bataille was born in Billom (Auvergne). He initially considered the priesthood and went to a Catholic seminary but renounced his faith in 1922. He is often quoted as regarding the brothels of Paris as his true churches, a sentiment which reflects the concepts in his work. He then worked as a librarian, thus keeping some relative freedom in not having to treat his thought as work.
Bataille was twice married, first with the actress Silvia Maklès; they divorced in 1934, and she later married the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Bataille also had a liaison with Colette Peignot, who died in 1938. In 1946, Bataille married Diane de Beauharnais; they had one daughter.
Founder of several journals and groups of writers, Bataille is the author of an oeuvre both abundant and diverse: Readings, poems, and essays on innumerable subjects (on the mysticism of economy, in passing of poetry, philosophy, the arts, eroticism). He sometimes published under pseudonyms, and some of his publications were banned. He was relatively ignored in his lifetime and scorned by contemporaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre as an advocate of mysticism, but after his death had considerable influence on authors such as Michel Foucault, Philippe Sollers, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom were affiliated with the Tel Quel journal. His influence is felt in the work of Jean Baudrillard, as well as in the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan.
Attracted early on to Surrealism, Bataille quickly fell out with its founder André Breton, although Bataille and the Surrealists resumed cautiously cordial relations after World War II. Bataille was a member of the extremely influential College of Sociology in France, between World War I and World War II. The College of Sociology was also comprised of several renegade surrealists. He was heavily influenced by Hegel, especially through the humanist reading of Russian emigre, Alexandre Kojève. In addition, he was influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud, Marx, Marcel Mauss, the Marquis de Sade, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the last of whom he defended in a notable essay against appropriation by the Nazis.
Fascinated by human sacrifice, he founded a secret society, Acéphale (the headless), the symbol of which was a decapitated man, in order to instigate a new religion. According to legend, Bataille and the other members of Acéphale each agreed to be the sacrificial victim as an inauguration; none of them would agree to be the executioner. An indemnity was offered for an executioner, but none was found before the dissolution of Acéphale shortly before the war.
Bataille had an amazing interdisciplinary talent—he drew from diverse influences and used diverse modes of discourse to create his work. His novel, The Story of the Eye, for example, published under the pseudonym Lord Auch (literally, Lord "to the toilet"—"auch" being slang for telling somebody off by sending them to the toilet), was initially read as pure pornography, while interpretation of the work has gradually matured to reveal the considerable philosophical and emotional depth that is characteristic of other writers who have been categorized within "literature of transgression." The imagery of the novel is built upon a series of metaphors which in turn refer to philosophical constructs developed in his work: The eye, the egg, the sun, the earth, the testicle.
Other famous novels include My Mother and The Blue of Noon. The latter, with its necrophilic and political tendencies, its autobiographical or testimonial undertones, and its philosophical moments turns The Story of the Eye on its head, providing a much darker and bleaker treatment of contemporary historical reality.
Bataille was also a philosopher (though he renounced this title), but for many, like Sartre, his philosophical claims bordered on atheist mysticism. During World War II, influenced by Kojève's reading of Hegel, and by Nietzsche, he wrote a Summa Atheologica (the title parallels Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica) which comprises his works "Inner Experience," "Guilty," and "On Nietzsche." After the war he composed his The Accursed Share, and founded the also extremely influential journal, Critique.
Bataille developed base materialism during the late 1920s and early 1930s as an attempt to break with mainstream materialism. Bataille argues for the concept of an active base matter that disrupts the opposition of high and low and destabilizes all foundations. In a sense, the concept is similar to Spinoza's neutral monism of a substance that encompasses both the dual substances of mind and matter posited by Descartes, however it defies strict definition and remains in the realm of experience rather than rationalization. Base materialism was a major influence on Derrida’s deconstruction, and both share the attempt to destabilize philosophical oppositions by means of an unstable "third term."
Bataille's very special conception of "sovereignty" (which may be said to be an "anti-sovereignty") was discussed by Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, and others. Influenced by Kojeve and Jean-Paul Sartre, Bataille's notion of sovereignty is literally grounded in "nothingness." For Sartre, this is quite literally "no" "thing." Human beings are the "being" with no fixed being. Thus, for Sartre, the ultimate human act is to negate being, an act of "nihilation," (a term Sartre uses to play on both the concept of nothing, which also carries the linguistic resonance of "nihilism").
Bataille applies this concept to his notion of sovereignty, which is best expressed not in acts of great meaning, but rather in acts of negation, "nihilation." Sovereignty is a kind of radical freedom when one denies one's own being, such as drinking to excess and other acts, which disrupt the normal goal-seeking activities.
La Part maudite is a book written by Bataille between 1946 and 1949, when it was published by Les Éditions de Minuit. It was translated into English and published in 1991, with the title The Accursed Share.
The Accursed Share presents a new economic theory, which Bataille calls "general economy," as distinct from the "restricted" economic perspective of most economic theory. Thus, in the theoretical introduction, Bataille writes the following:
I will simply state, without waiting further, that the extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles—the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking—and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire… It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.
Thus, according to Bataille's theory of consumption, the accursed share is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which is destined to one of two modes of economic and social expenditure. This must either be spent luxuriously and knowingly without gain in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in spectacles and sumptuous monuments, or it is obliviously destined to an outrageous and catastrophic outpouring in war.
The notion of "excess" energy is central to Bataille's thinking. Bataille's inquiry takes the superabundance of energy, beginning from the infinite outpouring of solar energy or the surpluses produced by life's basic chemical reactions, as the norm for organisms. In other words, an organism in Bataille's general economy, unlike the rational actors of classical economy who are motivated by scarcity, normally has an "excess" of energy available to it. This extra energy can be used productively for the organism's growth or it can be lavishly expended. Bataille insists that an organism's growth or expansion always runs up against limits and becomes impossible. The wasting of this energy is "luxury." The form and role luxury assumes in a society are characteristic of that society. "The accursed share" refers to this excess, destined for waste.
Crucial to the formulation of the theory was Bataille's reflection upon the phenomenon of potlatch. It is influenced by Marcel Mauss's The Gift, as well as by Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals.
Volume 1 introduces the theory and provides historical examples of the functioning of general economy: Human sacrifice in Aztec society, the monastic institutions of Tibetan Lamaism, the Marshall Plan, and many others. Volumes 2 and 3 extend the argument to eroticism and sovereignty, respectively.
The book was first published by Les Éditions de Minuit in 1949, but was re-edited in 1967. It is collected in volume seven of Bataille's complete works.
Bataille was a quintessential modern French intellectual who defies description. Philosopher, anthropologist, and novelist, he influenced the rise of modern existentialism. Along with Kojeve, Sartre, and Maurice Blanchot, his theories attempted to wrestle with the existentialist notion that humankind is alone in the universe to make his/her own meaning. The impact of this group of thinkers on modern culture is hard to overestimate.
Georges Bataille, Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard)
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