Bataille & Visions of Excess


I'm very interested in Bataille. So far I've grappled with the following books: Visions of Excess, The Accursed Share, Tears of Eros, Theory of Religion, On Nietzsche, Story of the Eye. He's definitely one of those extremely brilliant 20th Century thinkers that just makes me stop and say to myself, "Who am I to even think that I'm worthy to say anything about this guy?" Many of the dilemmas and themes that he explores are very similar to anarcho-primitivism's (What is the origin of alienation? What are humanity and animality? What makes civilizations expand?) His point of view on these questions is very original and dispenses with the traditional view of economic analysis that focuses on the primacy of production and scarcity (Derrick Jensen's analysis of what makes civilization expand is still part of these outmoded views). Instead he has a theory of what he calls "general economy," which shifts focus on excess and consumption rather than production and scarcity.

From the point of view of 'general economy,' Bataille describes at least four types of civilizations based on the way that they deal with this excess of wealth or energy, the 'accursed share', that has to be spent in some way. Industrial society, such as ours, reintegrates this extra wealth back into increasing the means of production. Military society, for example, Islam (the Muslim Empire 636-1099 AD) spends this energy as violence directed outward, conquering unbelievers and so on. Unarmed society, such as Tibet, directs this violence inward and that accounts for the high number of monks in the population and the importance they place on monasteries and monkish meditation. They could in fact de-populate themselves if they took this too far. Bataille also describes a fourth one, the Aztecs. With their gift economy, feasts, sacrifices (including humans), their practice of war (although violent, it differs in many ways from Islam or industrial warfare), they were capable of wasting energy in exuberant and useless ways that do not contribute to the growth of the means of production (industrial society). Their society differs significantly form the three previous ones and is in a category of its own.

This is all from the first volume of 'The Accursed Share,' which shows how these aspects of Aztec society have a strong affinity with the practice of 'potlatch' among native North American tribes. I guess Bataille would say that 'hunter-gatherer' society, in its way of dealing with the 'accursed share,' is like a milder, smaller version of the Aztecs. So, here comes another jab at Derrick Jensen, in whose theories 'potlatch' does not play any significant role. If it did, I suspect it would appear in a very superficial form that says, "Let's all be nice and share." I think he would de-emphasize that it involves rivalry, antagonism and that sometimes gifts are completely destroyed: "More often than not it is the solemn giving of considerable riches, offered by a chief to his rival for the purpose of humiliating, challenging and obligating him. The recipient has to erase the means of a new potlatch more generous than the first...Gift-giving is not the only form of potlatch: A rival is challenged by a solemn destruction of riches"(Accursed Share p67)

But this is not the jab at Jensen's theory I have in mind. I would put in question the very notion of 'sustainability' and his so-called, 'undebatable' starting point for what to do about civilization. The whole point about the 'accursed share' is that it is precisely that which, by default, undermines the stability of any society and it has to be dealt with in some way, either by expanding and subjugating others, increasing the means of production, or by aiming that energy inward through 'potlatch,' sacrifice, etc. There is no natural steady state that we would automatically return to as long as we don't build cities or import resources. He looks at the beginning of civilization not from the perspective of 'general economy' but from the more traditional approach.

Something very crucial needs to be emphasized at this point. To say that 'potlatch,' sacrifice, expenditure without return, etc. serve the function of 'sustainability' is to reduce them to a servile, utilitarian value that misses the point completely.

"The valuing of community or society over the radicality of experience itself would, in the end, result in a vision of an ultimate homogeneous social structure that uses sacrifice or festivals; such a community could not be seen as different in kind from a bourgeois and finally even a Marxist society erected on the principles of classical utility (that is, on the denial of expenditure without return)"
That was from the introduction by Allan Stoekl in 'Visions of Excess' a collection of Bataille's early writings. (This guy also wrote a book that criticizes the notion of 'sustainability' from a Bataillean perspective). There is always the risk that in attempting to affirm this "need for limitless loss" a society might go too far and de-populate itself, because this is something that cannot be reduced to a utilitarian function.

Bataille definitely has a certain "anti-modernity" aspect to his thinking that puts him in close proximity to Foucault, Baudrillard, Blanchot, etc.

The fact that our civilization is not going to last indefinitely does not play a central role in my view. What I don't like about it is what Foucault calls 'disciplinary society' or what Baudrillard in his later works calls 'Integral Reality.' Here, the key theme of "alienation" is outmoded as well. Instead the problem has to do with transparency, immersion, and integration because they eliminate singularity, seduction, illusion, alterity, 'symbolic exchange'.

The influence of Bataille is easy to see in Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish,' which gives an account of how, before the Enlightenment reforms, criminals that attempted to kill the King were publicly tortured to death in front of a crowd of spectators. Horrible, yes, but at least when power was unafraid to unveil itself in such a manner, it also made itself vulnerable. As long as the criminal never asked for pity, for a quick merciful death, he could 'win' the duel and make the King look powerless. At least in violent death one is also saved from having to be "rehabilitated," from being a useful, docile servant and thereby remain in the realm of irreducible alterity/singularity that cannot be assimilated and made into an object of knowledge.



[1]: For a view of the potlach which does not require a Bataillean sacrifice, see Exchange, Gifting & Potlatch, and a co-optation of Bataillean economics, see The Sun's Real Position in the General Economy. Another perspective of 'Excess' is provided by Asger Jorn in his Critique of the Economic Policy.