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Georges Bataille's experience of the First World War and his syphilitic father are considered as context for his engagements with Surrealism, Communism and Fascism. His anti-war sentiment, somewhat ambivalent, is mediated through his notions of expenditure and sacrifice and his post-Second World War studies of the gift. These offer material that might be worth considering in the light of contemporary political questions. On the eve of a new global war emergent from the unexamined limits of liberal charity and `Third Way' governance, an experimental and extravagant, even excessive, application of Bataille might provoke rethinking.
Bataille’s Wars
Surrealism, Marxism, Fascism
John Hutnyk
Goldsmiths College, University of London
Abstract Georges Bataille’s experience of the First World War and his syphilitic
father are considered as context for his engagements with Surrealism, Com-
munism and Fascism. His anti-war sentiment, somewhat ambivalent, is mediated
through his notions of expenditure and sacrifice and his post-Second World War
studies of the gift. These offer material that might be worth considering in the
light of contemporary political questions. On the eve of a new global war
emergent from the unexamined limits of liberal charity and ‘Third Way’ govern-
ance, an experimental and extravagant, even excessive, application of Bataille
might provoke rethinking.
Keywords Bataille charity Communism Surrealism war
Part I
Burst of laughter from Bataille . . . (Derrida, 1967/1978: 254)
I suppose we could imagine him in the library. He comes every day, but he
arrives late. When the reading room is at its quietest and most austere, he
suddenly laughs out loud. Can we imagine him sitting there reading Marx?
Or must it always be Nietzsche and Mauss? It was Nietzsche who destroyed
his Catholicism, it was Mauss who gave him a theme, but how about Old
Beardo? In that library in which he worked so dissolutely, drawing
complaints from the patrons and transferred to a different section for
publishing dubious works of pornographic flavour. A maverick librarian,
he has his own classifications, and he leaves for a bar with his friends
immediately on closing.
Reading Georges Bataille is a sort of gift off the shelves. A gift that – I
want to convince you – repays effort. The use-value of Georges Bataille –
reading is not a waste of time, is not thereby a squandering. It may be
destructive perhaps – what you thought was certain will be destroyed,
uncertainty is revealed as a conceit – but this is not wholly frivolous. And
on reading Bataille, I want to ask if there are ideas there that can help us
make sense of and respond to the current geo-political moment that threat-
ens us all.
Vol 23(3) 264–288 [0308-275X(200309)23:3; 264–288;035212]
Copyright 2003 © SAGE Publications
(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
Georges Bataille, by his own words, was of a turbulent generation: ‘born
to literary life in the tumult of Surrealism. In the years of the Great War’
(Bataille, 1957/1985: ix). The Surrealists, reacting to an aftermath of horror,
death, brutality and chaos in the trenches (which afflicted the French more
systematically than either the English or Germans, who sent soldiers to the
front, but did not have the front on their doorstep), wanted to move beyond
the anti-art disenchantment of Dada and, from the mid-1920s, moved into
the orbit of communism.1Bataille was not directly involved in Dada, and was
technically peripheral to Surrealism, but his ascription of ‘tumult’ as his first
context is not a surprise. For many others in France, the 15 years after the
war were heavily marked by its consequences. In sociology, for example,
Marcel Mauss was one of the few of Durkheim’s students to survive. In phil-
osophy the future leading lights of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and de Beauvoir
were competing for the baccalaureate. In anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss
was planning his escape to South America. Bataille was meeting his lifelong
friends Michel Leiris and André Masson.
Of course Bataille’s response to the first imperialist World War might
not be the only figuring factor in his twenties – he was born in 1897 – but
it is not impossible to speculate that war shaped his life and thought to a
crucial degree. It is the thinking of war, or rather a militant thinking against
war, that might be the best and most important theme that could govern
a reading of Bataille.
So Bataille was born on 10 September 1897 and died in 1962. His father
was blind and syphilitic and in 1914 had to be abandoned, unable to move
from the house, in Rheims, when the Germans came and destroyed much
of the town (Surya’s biography of Bataille [1992/2002] reports 846 days of
bombardment – excessive). No doubt this horror was just one among the
reasons why Bataille, after toying for some years with the Catholic Church,
was drawn towards the trajectory of Surrealism, with its ambition to re-
enchant the world and its oblique revolutionary politics. Disabused of
Catholicism through his reading of Nietzsche, his (Oedipal?) engagement
with Surrealism started badly, and he feuded with André Breton from the
beginning. Much has been made of the conflicted relations between
Breton and Bataille, and there is no pressing need to dig into those
trenches again. It might, however, be worth giving a flavour of the conflict
by quoting the highest public manifestation of the exchange, where an
amazing passage in Bataille’s essay ‘The Castrated Lion’ takes revenge on
Breton for spiteful comments directed at him in the Second Manifesto of
Breton had charged that Bataille wanted to ‘avoid making himself
useful for anything specific’, he was obsessed with flies, an ‘obnoxious’ anti-
dialectical materialism [?]; and, a librarian by day, at night he ‘wallows in
impurities’ (Breton, 1929/1972: 183–5). Bataille replied, in a pamphlet
written with others excommunicated from Surrealism: ‘Here lies the
Breton ox, the old aesthete and false revolutionary’:
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
I have nothing much to say about the personality of André Breton. . . . His
Police reports don’t interest me. My only regret is that he has obstructed the
pavement for so long with his degrading idiocies. Religion should die with this
old religious windbag. Still, it would be worthwhile to retain the memor y of this
swollen abcess of clerical phraseology, if only to discourage young people from
castrating themselves in their dreams. (Bataille, 1994: 28)
Bataille was later to express regret at these hostile words. As Breton had so
generously noted – also an accusation – Bataille had trained as a librarian,
and his dissertation was on a verse history of chivalry in the 13th century,
submitted in 1922. In the early 1920s, Bataille published on 16th-century
manuscripts and numismatics (the study of coins – prefiguring, in a way
that must be decoded, his later interest in economic questions). Denis
Hollier, whose book on Bataille, Against Architecture, generally excludes any
discussion of Bataille’s political economy, or his engagement with Marx
and communism, beyond a few references, does make a good point about
the ‘perversity’ of numismatists – they contemplate money ‘not for what it
is [the means of commercial exchange] but focussing on it an interest that
is either strictly aesthetic or else documentary and historical’ (Hollier,
1989: 124). Funnily enough, this aesthetico-documentary moment does
open up a discussion of Bataille’s politics in Hollier, after a detour through
castration. In the later part of the decade Bataille wrote the pornographic
novel The Story of the Eye (1928), an anonymous publication signed Lord
Auch (meaning ‘God in the gutter’). This was perhaps the night-time
Bataille, who spent much of his time in bordellos, or gambling. Sure, into
this much of a psychoanalytic nature might be read – he was in analysis –
and no doubt it would have to be related to the syphilitic father figure. The
separation from the father during the war sets up the outcome of a kind of
double obsession – a conflictual hatred of war, tending towards the Surre-
alists and Dada, and a fascination-compulsion to understand and calculate
its destructive excess. From his first book – on the war-ravaged cathedral at
Rheims – through to his last, posthumous, book on sovereignty, war held
Bataille in its fascinating, repulsive, grip.
A most interesting librarian to say the least, much has been said of the
pornography – almost the sole focus of popular interest in Bataille, but a
better read is the almost contemporaneous, equally racy, Blue of Noon, a
novel about politics and the Spanish Civil War, written in the early 1930s
but not published until 1957. Bataille had travelled to Spain in the years
leading up to the civil war and wrote an engaging story about sexual
ambivalence and communism that would repay investigation.2What is the
use-value of the pornographic novel? I don’t feel any need to defend that
here – no doubt they could be defended – but it is possibly important that
both novels involved travel to Spain. Escape from the stifling Paris was at
stake, escape from (for) the father and from the war, and perhaps escape
from his first wife, Sylvia Maklés (who later married Jacques Lacan).
Looking for a way out, Bataille was a potential traveller, but his journey so
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
often seemed to stall. He also had plans to travel to Russia, Morocco, Tibet
and China (he began learning the languages) but did not leave Europe.
Instead he joined the Democratic Communist Circle centred around the
old Comintern figure ‘Souvarine’.
Souvarine was the revolutionary name, taken from a militant character
in Zola’s Germinal, of Boris Lifschitz, a member of the executive commit-
tee of the Comintern. Born in Kiev but having grown up in France,
Souvarine travelled to Moscow in 1921 and stayed four years. He was among
the first to defend Leon Trotsky when the Left Opposition came under
attack and he was expelled from the party in 1924, soon after returning to
Paris. He was not a blind devotee of Trotsky yet published letters from him
in his journal, the Bulletin Communiste, and also critiques of other commu-
nist leaders. He is said to have coined the term ‘dictatorship of the secre-
tariat’ (in Surya, 1992/2002: 162) as an early critical description of
Stalinism. He also published Karl Korsch and later, in a new journal, La
Critique Sociale, published the first major political essays of Georges Bataille.
Funded by Souvarine’s mistress, Colette Pegnot, whom Bataille would later
live with, it was in this journal that Bataille published key economic works,
such as ‘The Problem of the State’ in 1933 and ‘The Notion of Expendi-
ture’ in two parts, in 1933 and 1934. The first essay was a response to the
rise of totalitarian states in Germany, Italy and under Stalin, and it ques-
tioned in this context how the revolution might do away with the state as
anticipated in that ‘withering’ phrase. ‘The Notion of Expenditure’
signalled his interest in consumption and anticipated his later post-war
works that took the Chinook word ‘potlatch’ as their credo. As a critique
of orthodox Marxist focus on production (we will see that Marx himself
was not so narrowly constrained as regards circulation and valorization),
Bataille’s ‘expenditure’ extended beyond Mauss and Malinowski’s critique
of mere barter (primitivism) to elaborate more strictly political-theoretical
implications (this work is discussed in detail in Part III).
So, the early 1930s were again all about war for Bataille, this time the
anticipation of it rather than the aftermath. In the orbit of communist
activists, Bataille’s work turned to militant themes. Not all his efforts were
devoted to politics, however; still working by day in the library (he was
notorious for arriving late and the patrons complained that the doors were
never opened on time – Surya, 1992/2002: 147), he also had time, with
Leiris and Masson, to publish an art journal Documents which gained much
attention and discussion for its innovative and experimental – even some-
times ‘monstrous’ – tone.
Documents was published for two years from 1929 (15 issues) and
Bataille apparently thought of it as a war machine against Surrealism and
its alleged leader Breton – who had called him an ‘excrement philosopher’.
Breton was never mentioned, but philosophical it was, with a healthy dose
of ethnography supported by Leiris’s and Bataille’s interest in Mauss. It
carried articles such as ‘Big Toe’, several on taboo, filth, ‘Human Face’,
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
‘The Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gogh’ and short reviews or comments on
theatrical events – ‘the cemetery and mass grave of so much pathetic crap’
(see the appendices of the volume Encyclopaedia Acephale [Bataille et al.,
1995] for examples).
Like his good friend Michel Leiris, Bataille always had a complicated
relationship with Surrealism. He later called himself Surrealism’s ‘old
enemy from within’ (in 1946; Bataille, 1994: 49), but had little time for
contrivances such as automatic writing and the obsession with dreams and
the meaning of chance (he’d rather gamble). His own obsession with
regard to the surreal was with the eye as perspective and horror, with shock,
contradiction and the uncontrolled – what he called heterology. This is
what got him accused of being excremental; but Leiris too was document-
ing the satisfactions of the morning shit in his ethnographic studies (see
Köpping, 2002: 189). Leiris travelled with Maurice Griaule on the
Paris–Dakar–Djibouti expedition and wrote a detailed ethnographic report
cum diary and subsequently several novels and a sustained autobio-
graphical series (Manhood, 1946, the first of these, is dedicated to Bataille).
His reminiscence in Brisées: Broken Branches is engaging, with gems like
Bataille’s response to being invited by the Surrealists to a meeting to discuss
the ‘Trotsky case’, which he refused to attend, saying: ‘Too many idealistic
pests’ (Leiris, 1966/1989: 240).3Laughter and transgression are great
interrelated themes; it was Bataille who introduced Leiris to Dostoevsky’s
Notes from the Underground and the two patronized bars and clubs together.
Leiris worked at the Musée de l’Homme, near the Bibliothèque Nationale,
and patrons could surely also hear there a sort of maniacal mischievous
laughter, bordering on criminality, showing criminality to be merely
morality. From Dostoevsky’s book they acted on the motto: ‘Nothing is
true, everything is permitted’ (a construction later significant for William
Burroughs), attributed to Hassan I Sabbah, the old man of the mountain.
Bataille was to write several articles on humour and its darker sides.4
And Bataille was to keep this laughter up throughout his life. Quoting
Antonin Artaud in 1951, Bataille writes: ‘and the garlic mayonnaise
contemplates you, mind, and you contemplate your garlic mayonnaise: and
finally let’s say shit to infinity’ (Bataille, 1994: 46). This was not incom-
patible with recognizing Artaud’s mental shipwreck. Bataille should not be
considered callous or inhuman. There is enough of that in automatic
reaction to his writings. Misconstruals abound. So many that it is imposs-
ible, and unnecessary, to itemize them all. It will do to show how specific
interests and agendas fashion a Bataille for all seasons. The postmodern
use of Bataille in the 1980s certainly encouraged the ‘nothing is true, ever y-
thing is permitted’ approach to theory. Exemplified on the one hand by
Nick Land, despite protestations and an elegantly wasted style (Land,
1992); on the other hand, Jean Baudrillard probably takes things a step too
far when he writes that, for Bataille, the ‘economy has no meaning’ and
luxurious and useless expenditure is all that matters, and even this luxury
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
is, in what the advocate of simulation means as a critique of Bataille, ‘no
more “natural” than economics’ (Baudrillard, 1976/1993: 156–7). Michael
Richardson’s introduction to Bataille adequately, if somewhat heavy-
handedly, warns against other postmodern manifestations of Bataille-mania
(Richardson, 1994: 4). Giorgio Agamben, normally so careful, seems to
overstate the case for a versioning of Bataille as a kind of mystic. In his Homo
Sacer, he suggests Bataille’s inquiries into sovereignty were ‘compromised’
by the errors of Victorian anthropology in the study of the sacred
(Agamben, 1998: 75). Bataille had in fact read Frazer’s Golden Bough early
on, and no doubt picked up some funny ideas (that he was still citing in
the 1950s).5With this taint, though, Agamben then praises Bataille’s
‘exemplary’ attention to what he calls ‘bare life’ – to the ambiguity and
ambivalence of the pure and the filthy, the repugnant and the fascinating
– he only regrets the inscription of this life under the sign of the sacred
rather than the political (Agamben, 1998: 112). Is Bataille a god-botherer
unable to fully enact his Nietzsche and escape Catholicism? It would be
another task altogether to follow the path of a sacred Bataille; suffice to
acknowledge that ‘sacredness is a line of flight still present in contem-
porary politics, a line that is as such moving into zones increasingly vast and
dark’ (Agamben, 1998: 114–15). I don’t think this Bataille prevails. I might
be wrong.
There are of course those who find Bataille too frivolous and too
playful; others find him too exuberant, not dour enough; even his dark side
is charged with eroticism. To counteract this it might be worth remem-
bering Foucault’s preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: ‘do not
think you need to be sad to be a militant’ (Foucault in Deleuze and
Guattari, 1972/1984: xiii). Bataille offers what he called a ‘paradoxical phil-
osophy’ (formless institute, heterology, decodifying dictionary). He writes
of the ‘dishevelled joy of communication’ (Bataille, 1943/1988: 35) and of
laughter as communication (Bataille, 1944/1988: 139). His eroticism is
aimed at redeeming the sexual organs from embarrassed laughter; he takes
seriously the fine line between pleasure and pain, and finds ecstasy and
horror, joy and delirium, blood, vomit and death as the coordinates of our
life. Very human, he seems to have had much trouble with his teeth. In
Guilty he is up all night with bleeding gums; his On Nietzsche includes this
fragment: ‘A toothache (over now it seems)’ (Bataille, 1945/1992: 108).
The paradoxical philosophy had to be expressed in writing, yet ‘writing . . .
is deprived of wings’ (Bataille, 1994: 130). The paradox: ‘The leap beyond
what is possible destroys what became clear: thus the impossible is the
distressing contrary of what we are, which is always connected to the
possible’ (Bataille, 1994: 131–2). This was at the heart of his laughing-
serious appreciation of the poem of Jacques Prévert that he cites in 1946
and which is worthy of study itself in its inspired combinations of ‘a Bengal
nun with a tiger of Saint Vincent de Paul, an inspector of the round table
with the nights of the Paris gas company, a member of the prostate with a
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
swollen French academy’ (in Bataille, 1994: 145–6). Of this, Bataille says
the ruin of poetry is effected by means of an externally established determi-
nation – the exchange between couplets – that is akin to the writing trian-
gles of Raymond Roussel (Bataille, 1994: 152; on Roussel and authorship,
see Foucault, 1962). The Bengal nun particularly grabs attention, as does
the swollen academic French prostate. The legacy of this Surrealism, with
which Bataille was so obviously infused and enthused, despite struggles, is
one that continues in other groups that either Bataille set up – Acephale
(one of its advertising slogans was ‘If you are not crushed you must
subscribe’) and the College of Sociology (on this see Hollier, 1988) – or
groups that followed and might well be claimed to be the legacy of Bataille
and a politicized Surrealism: most notably the Situationist International,
but also such diverse irruptions as the YIPPIEs, fax art and some of the
Reclaim the Streets protest performance politics of the anti-capitalist
movement today . ..
It might be usual for an examination of Bataille to stop here, as many
do, noting curiosities and assimilating his heterology to some trinketizing
catalogue of French diversions – cue the tunes of Erik Satie – but there is
a serious underside to this legacy of Bataille: it is founded on an explicit
politics, born of his encounter with Dada and Surrealism and the horrific
legacy of war. Just as Bataille says ‘Yes’ to Dada’s ‘no’ and Surrealism’s myth-
making, Bataille brings a surrealist countenance to Marx and anti-fascist
work. In the same way that his critique of Surrealism was made ‘from
within’. So too is his critical response to Marxism and communism.
Part II
I am amused, moreover, to think that one cannot leave Surrealism without
running into M. Bataille. (Breton, 1929/1972: 183)
By 1935, Bataille was reconciled and working with Breton in an anti-fascist
collective called Contre Attaque. In Contre Attaque, Bataille, Breton and
Leiris participated in public meetings and critique of the established
communist parties (for their defence of the popular front and its preser-
vation of capitalism). Contre Attaque’s initial declaration begins with an
assertion against nationalism, calls for the arming of the people and asserts
its fundamental fidelity to Marxism (in Richardson and Fijalkowski, 2001:
114–15). As mentioned above, Bataille had initially been drawn into the
circle around Souvarine and had written articles in the journal La Critique
Sociale. It is not a simple matter of Bataille becoming a Marxist, for what
does it mean to be in this club that even Marx did not want to join? Rather,
Bataille gets involved in the political movements he regarded as most
compelling at the time. Among Bataille’s writings in La Critique Sociale, for
example, the especially important ‘The Notion of Expenditure’ was
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
conceived as a critique of the orthodox Marxist focus on production and
a defence of the political significance of joy, desire, pleasure, excess and
waste which economy would rather exclude. The critique from within at
the start. Later in his life, Bataille admitted to Maguritte Duras that he was
‘not even a communist’ (in Surya, 1992/2002: 565).
Not ever? Duras asked Bataille, ‘Can I nevertheless write that for you
communism answers the communal demands?’ Bataille replied ‘Yes you
can. ... But I repeat, I am not even a communist’ (Bataille interview with
Duras in France-Observateur, 12 December 1957). Elsewhere the picture is
carefully nuanced, as Bataille writes: ‘I do not want to forget that Marx’s
doctrine has always served as the only effective application of intelligence
to practical facts as a whole’ (Bataille, 1994: 156). It is unnecessary to
redeem Bataille to Marxism, but it is also not a matter of taking sides as
when some commentators do not quite see the difference between Marx
and orthodoxy. The strain is particularly pronounced in the art volume
Formless by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, where a discussion of
Bataille and contemporary art has Bois speculating on the similarity of
Bataille to Benjamin, but wanting to ‘resist’ such readings ‘since this would
be to push Bataille’s thought towards Marxism, with which he was engaged
only briefly (. .. roughly from 1932 to 1939)’ (Bois and Krauss, 1997: 48).
To resist the brief engagement is a strange tension, since a few pages along
from this ‘rough’ diversion it is the ‘major theoretical text’ from this period
– the essay ‘The Notion of Expenditure’ – that Bois identifies as that ‘from
which almost all his later work developed’ (Bois and Krauss, 1997: 55). The
evaluation of this essay will become still more important, but Bois clinches
the deal with reference to other work: ‘No Marxist could have penned’
sentences such as Bataille did about gushing blood, violent death, cries of
pain, etc. (1997: 49). Though in the same book in which Bois claims
Bataille was not dialectical (1997: 68), his co-writer Krauss notes Marx
offering very similar language to describe ‘the scum, offal, refuse of all
classes’ in his 18th Brumaire (Bois and Krauss, 1997: 246). It is of course not
the point that Marxists never write about shit, offal and blood (how absurd
a taboo would that be?), but that the orthodox Marxism that Bois is at pains
to defend Bataille from might be one that he was in fact never associated
with, not even for just a few ‘rough’ years, and, as the line in Krauss indi-
cates, this was something he perhaps shared – at least in style – with Marx
himself. It is worth recalling that Agamben praises Bataille’s exemplary
excrementa (Agamben, 1998: 112), just as Breton condemned it in the
Second Manifesto (no doubt the politics of shit would repay investigation;
consider Dominique Laporte’s inquiry into the town planning and sanita-
tion edicts of the French state [1978/2000: 7] or Mike Davis’s comments
on the ‘Hyperion’ sewerage treatment in Santa Monica Bay in his City of
Quartz [1990: 196]).
This excremental not-quite-Marxism, ‘not even’ communism, of
Bataille, is what I would want to name an uncategorically ‘bad Marxism’,
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
and it is of a different character to the Marxism of those Surrealists who
gravitated towards Trotsky (Lewis, 1990). Bataille’s version of Marx differs
again from the versions of French theorists after the war who found their
own ways to embrace Marxism – Sartre, Althusser, even Lévi-Strauss says he
was influenced, Derrida later jestingly ‘returned’, etc. Everyone is trying to
specify and locate: the biographer Surya at one point calls Bataille a Trot-
skyist, but this seems far-fetched – remember his ‘too many pests’ quip,
reported by Leiris. Whatever the case, Bataille’s economic and anti-fascist
writing deserves attention and gives a good indication of a variety of
engagement and independence of thought arraigned against the ‘sterility
of a fearful anticommunism’ (Bataille, 1949/1988: 168).6In the post-Soviet
world, Bataille’s Marxism being no ‘-ism’ might indicate a plausible way
towards what Félix Guattari and Antonio Negri project as the need ‘to
rescue communism from its ill-repute’ (Guattari and Negri, 1990: 1). In this
regard, perhaps other communist connections among his co-writers
around Documents, the Acephale group, and the College of Sociology also
deserve to be thought of in terms of a ‘bad Marxism’ that should not be
airbrushed away into literary dilettantism – Aragon for example, and Leiris
(whom I discussed in these terms in ‘Clifford’s Ethnographica’ [Hutnyk,
1998]). This is the parallel to making too much of Bataille’s ‘mystic’ side.
Along these lines, even the Surrealists might be re-evaluated not only as the
merchants of dreams – this does not mean that investigating Dali and his
paintings of the bust of Lenin will uncover a political programme, but . ..
(see the volume Dada Turns Red: The Politics of Surrealism [Lewis, 1990]).
Bataille’s version of Marx seems similarly careful in its reading to that
emphasized in discussion of responsibility and difference by Gayatri Spivak
in her Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999: 78). Where she says ‘ethics’
Bataille says ‘moral’ or sentimental as he recognizes that Marx’s originality
was in working towards a ‘moral result’ through rigorously organized
material intervention (Bataille, 1949/1988: 135). The necessary and
sufficient material change is directed, ultimately, towards what is a ‘senti-
mental’ end – ‘sovereignty’. But because this effort was directed towards
the ‘elimination of material obstacles’ (obstacles to the achievement of
sovereignty, or to species-being?), orthodox interpretations saw only ‘an
exclusive concern with material goods’ which missed his ‘provocative
clarity, his utter discretion and his aversion for religious forms’ where truth
was subordinated to hidden ends (Bataille, 1949/1988: 135). It can be
demonstrated that the presentation of Marx’s Capital, beginning with
commodities, was not the same as the analytical whole, and a reading
requirement that would encompass the expanding analyses of production,
consumption, circulation, credit, valorization and the global market might
bring forth a different Marx. In the spaces between National Socialism and
Stalin, Trotsky and Breton, Acephale and Souvarine, before and after war,
Bataille read this Marx.
This Marx is not the economist construct of orthodox Marxism, with
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
its obsession with structure and superstructure, but Bataille starts out
towards him by railing against the injunction, common in ideas about econ-
omics then in circulation, that leisure, play – and expenditure – were to be
seen as ‘diversions’ (Bataille, 1997: 168). This was first broached in the 1933
essay that Bataille wrote called ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’,
also in La Critique Sociale, where he asserts that Marx developed no ‘scien-
tific’ analysis of the influence of superstructure upon infrastructure. These
building metaphors have always been a little problematic, and Bataille does
not break them, but he is more sensitive than most to Marx’s use of
metaphor – and, contra Hollier, it is perhaps his training as a numismatist
that allows him to realize that money itself was less important for Marx than
the equivalences between differences that it was used to measure. He takes
seriously the key point about the relations between things being an expres-
sion of congealed relations between people – commodity fetishism: ‘it is
only if I remain attached to the order of things that the separation [of
beings] is real’ (Bataille, 1949/1988: 192) and ‘consumption is the way
separate beings communicate’ (Bataille, 1949/1988: 59). Even when
writing of fetish in a different sense, as in the valorization of ‘Big Toe’, it
might be an error to think that the analysis of commodity fetishism was far
from his mind – the celebration of things previously ignored is a process
of subsumption. Similarly, the almost obvious insistence of Marx that even
old Robinson Crusoe, alone on his island, was formed as a social being, was
shared by Bataille: ‘Every human is connected to other humans, is only the
expression of the others’ (Bataille, 2001: 236).
The issue of activism and organization cuts through here. Not just in
the obvious case of the organization of the Democratic Communist Circle
and Contre Attaque – though the significance of anti-fascist activity in 1933
and 1935 should not be missed – but in so many cases the issue of the group
or the community comes to the fore. The creativity of the collective is
asserted as greater than that of the individual, and this is reason enough
to prefer communism – Bataille uses the example of myth-making to illus-
trate his point (Bataille, 1994: 106).7Of course the group is more produc-
tive – the essence of the social – but the political group led by an inspired
and original intellectualism is something else again. Bataille suggests that
the theorist probably just as important to him as Marx was Friedrich
Nietzsche – he was first to defend Nietzsche from National Socialist misap-
propriation. Like the Surrealists between the wars, Nietzsche wrote as if
motivated only by the desire to ‘found an order’ (Bataille, 1994: 109), and
this desire has affinities with the foundation of a political party. Bataille’s
groups are not so different.
In his essay for La Critique Sociale, ‘The Psychological Structure of
Fascism’, Bataille considers the necessity of the proletarian classes
becoming aware of themselves as an active, not passive, even as a revol-
utionary, class. Bataille’s call is for a ‘conscious proletariat’ (Bataille, 1997:
143). He writes even more militantly in the essay ‘On the Popular Front’.
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
He calls for subversion, against fascism, and this is urgent because thus far
– 1933 – only the indifference of the proletariat had saved democratic
countries from turning fascist. No doubt Bataille has his errors of historical
detail, but he was certainly right to think later that his ideas were unlikely
to be heard – the notion of an intellectual cohort exhorting the working
class to revolt has always carried its own class contradictions.
An enemy also from ‘within’ communism perhaps. At the beginning of
The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy, working through the meanings
of the word ‘communism’ – a place of happiness and ‘community beyond
social divisions’ is one emblem – cites Bataille as one of those who pointed
out early that ‘the states that acclaimed it have appeared, for some time, as
the agents of its betrayal’ (Nancy, 1991: 2). Nancy does point out that the
‘schema of betrayal’ is less tenable than it once seemed, as the ideal of a
pure communism, untainted by realpolitik, is more difficult to project (‘not
that totalitarianism was already present in Marx’, he quickly adds). Nancy
accuses subsequent commentary on Bataille of being governed by, ‘despite
everything, a meager and all too often frivolous interest’ and he underlines
‘the extent to which his thinking emerged out of a political exigency’
(Nancy, 1991: 16). We might hedge a bet on the psychological structure of
Bataille himself: the politicization of the first war transfers its energy into
activism against fascism, which in turn energizes the concern for, and
critique of, totalitarian communism in the interests of another possible
communism (and not sterile anti-communism).
Bataille and anti-totalitarianism deserves to be read carefully, not only
because he was among the first to offer a sustained intellectual critique,
and not because his psychological insights are superior to others, say
perhaps Adorno, with whom there are useful similarities. Bataille’s critique
of fascism was contextualized; he recognized that it would not do to go to
war simply on behalf of capital. In 1935 he wrote:
. . . at the same time, while dread mounts from day to day before the
immanence of physical extermination . . . we know . . . that stupid imperialism
precisely engendered this fascism that we mean to fight while marching in
ranks assigned to us by generals and industrial magnates. (Bataille, 1985: 164)
Imperialism and industry were at the heart of fascism and war, but the
task of a politicized anti-fascism was more than national defence. It should
be clear that this was a part of a wider practical-intellectual project – one
not embarrassed by action – yet also not a patronizingly insipid engage-
ment for the sake of the engaged theorist’s ego. The critique from within
has the ultimate interest of a more adequate communism. In his book on
Nietzsche, for example, Bataille points out that the idea that anyone would
subordinate their thinking to the demands of a party was appalling
(Bataille, 1945/1992: xxii). To think that being in a party would demand
this is feeble itself, an abdication of any critical principle of the party and
the responsibility of membership which requires people not to be
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
automatons. Any party member who abandons thought should be
dismissed as unreliable and dangerous – a lazy follower who only deserves
to be led by the nose. This is the material of the popular front essay, but it
is also prefigured in the essay on fascism, where heterogeneity is identified
as that which must be assimilated or excluded from homogeneous – demo-
cratic – society. As Bataille noted in 1933, a distinction may be drawn
between those differences which can be negotiated and those which a state
must suppress to retain power: a distinction between a parliamentary
model of negotiated compromise and military suppression. Some differ-
ences are too different and must be overruled or the state overturned –
hence the double deceit of democratic politics on the one side and
despotic violence on the other – two strategies (see Bataille, 1997: 124).
The problem is that it is Hitler who breaks laws, and his is a heterogeneous,
hypnotic force, an authority based on a projected unity under his leader-
ship, godlike, with devotees, a cult. It is the ‘uniting of the heterogeneous
elements [of society] with the homogeneous elements’ that is specific to
fascism (Bataille, 1997: 140). And a party – or an army – that assimilates
and demands obedience, rather than develops a conscious proletariat, is
one that spells trouble.
The attempt to construct a model of heterogeneity and homogeneity
as a diagnostic for politics resonates with the later ‘war machine’ and
‘nomadological’ primitivism of Deleuze and Guattari (in their Mille
Plateaux, 1980/1987). Yet the neat models were a cul de sac of sorts, which
Bataille recognized yet was compelled to explore in the context of fascism
and totalitarian bureaucracy. In a 1935 lecture to a Contre Attaque
meeting, he argued that if insurrection ‘had to wait for learned disputes
between committees and political offices of parties, then there would never
have been an insurrection’ (Bataille, 1985: 162). This might echo
Souvarine who, recall, had coined the phrase ‘dictatorship of the secre-
tariat’, but Bataille’s target was those ‘professional revolutionaries whose
party activity amounted to both disparagement of the spontaneity of the
people and distrust of the intellectuals’. These ‘so-called revolutionary
agitators’ would like to ‘eliminate’ the ‘brutal’ and ‘convulsive’, ‘human
tragedy that the revolution necessarily is’ (Bataille, 1985: 162). Perhaps
there is behind this again a more sentimental and scatological Bataille, the
blood gushing once more, but the critique of revolt via meeting procedure
is well taken. In the event, this so-called revolutionary was also much
ignored. Contre Attaque foundered after two years. Bataille moved on to
other projects with a more academic bent – the College of Sociology – and
again into the library, so that by the time Hitler’s war started, he seemed
resigned to sit it out – not only for health reasons.
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
Part III
. . . celebration of a militant communism. (Habermas, 1987: 228)
On either side of the second imperialist World War – if we take his health
problems of 1942 as a marker, then symmetrically seven years either side –
Bataille published his most important economic studies. In 1933 ‘The
Notion of Expendture’ and in 1949 The Accursed Share. During the war a
period of introspective writing – Inner Experience,Guilty,On Nietzsche – while
all the while ‘working on a book on economics’, which, as even Bois tells
us, was the key work of his later life. Michael Taussig gives a generally
accepted assessment of the significance of this work in anthropology vis-
a-vis the exchange theories of Malanowski and Mauss et al.:
. . . against more restricted views of the undoubted importance of exchange in
grounding social life . . . this emphasis on giving for the sake of giving, on giving
as expenditure regardless of return, was Bataille’s contribution to social theory.
(Taussig, 1999: 268)
It is idealism to reify exchange and expenditure and not examine the speci-
ficity of capitalism’s ‘restricted economy’ in the context of Bataille’s
attempt to escape the curse of this accursed share. A case in point that
should modify the idealism of this would be to consider the ‘gift’ and
‘consumption’ of workers’ labour power, nominally purchased by the capi-
talist, who then gets the surplus produced by that power for free. Taussig
distinguishes the ‘art’ of ‘profitless spending’ from ‘the restricted economy
of capitalist profit-maximisation’ (Taussig, 1999: 81) – and, with Bataille,
has in mind here the more restricted notions of exchange of those who do
not see an alternative, whose vision of the social rests complicit with the
idea that exchange determines production (I’d suggest Clifford, 1997, as
example; for argument see Hutnyk, 1998). Such interpretations forget that
Marx wanted to take production and exchange, consumption, circulation,
etc. together, so as to overturn the process of exploitation (aufheben) and
emancipate creative life from exactly those restrictions. Bataille says as
much in the introduction to The Accursed Share:
. . . 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 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. (Bataille,
1949/1988: 25)
Anthropology had long been fascinated with the idea of ‘potlatch’.
Mauss wrote The Gift in 1926 on the basis of reports from other anthro-
pologists like Malinowski (on the Kula gift exchange of the Trobriand
Islands) and on the festivals of destruction of the indigenous North
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
American potlatch ceremonies. This text inaugurated what Lévi-Strauss
identifies as a beginning of theorizing in social science:
For the first time the social ceases to be the domain of pure quality – anecdote,
curiosity, material for moralising description or scholarly comparison – and
becomes a system, among whose parts connections, equivalences and interde-
pendent aspects can be discovered. (Lévi-Strauss, 1987: 38)
Bataille had attended Mauss’s lectures in the 1920s and, with the already
mentioned essay in La Critique Sociale, began a lifelong exploration of
notions of expenditure, reciprocity, exchange and the problematic of the
gift. The gift is about ostensible generosity, it is that which is to be given
generously, in excess of utility, given beyond what would be a utilitarian or
reasoned calculation of value. The gift establishes social ties, reciprocity
implies an ongoing relationship. In anthropology and related disciplines
the well-worked theme of the Kula finds the Trobrianders engaged (seem-
ingly forever) in a series of exchanges – of shells and necklaces – which
bind trading partners together in a circle of reciprocal gift relations – these
are the obligations of the gift. For Malinowski, the Kula is a serious game
of both calculating exchange and of excess, debt and luxury (but for the
Trobrianders?). Kula shells and necklaces are prized objects of renown, but
the social relations Kula secures are trading relations, and all manner of
other exchanges accompany the Kula trading trips (Malinowski, 1922). The
gift here is also contradictory in that it is never only a gift – as many have
pointed out, including Jacques Derrida – if a gift is to be a gift there must
be no exchange, no debt to be repaid, no reciprocity, not even the idea of
a payback – there can be no gift, there is only the exchange of gift and
counter-gift (Derrida, 1991/1992: 6). It is impossible to give without
return. Even charity returns something to the anonymous giver. The Kula
and the potlatch is more like a contest, as most exchanges seem to be –
destructive. As Dan Ross argues in an unpublished paper, the gift is the
mythical virtuous side of a calculation that, in other respects, takes the form
of the gamble, another kind of exchange, that is about chance, but unrea-
sonably – as everyone knows – it doesn’t pay off, one does not escape the
calculus of credit and debt (Ross, 1992). For Derrida the unreason of the
gift is that it is always a debt that is invoked – he suggests that any calcu-
lation or legislation of the gift, or, in another example, of hospitality, is
impossible – hospitality must be freely given in excess of what is expected,
it cannot be calculated (Derrida, 2000: 22).
For Derrida, who ascribes to Bataille a ‘Hegelianism without reserve’
(Derrida, 1967/1978: 251), what the gift gives is time – the possibility of
taking time before repayment, whether that be a return gift or an
even more extravagant potlatch. For Deleuze and Guattari, who mention
Bataille only in passing, the gift inscribes, it writes, it records. In the
context of a discussion of ethnology and bourgeois colonial economy they
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
The essential thing seemed to us to be, not exchange and circulation, which
closely depend on the requirements of inscription, but inscription itself, with
its imprint of fire, its alphabet inscribed in bodies, and on blocks of debts.
(Deleuze and Guattari, 1972/1984: 188)
For Bataille, the gift and potlatch are a part of a calculus which suggests
the necessary expenditure of an organism that, generally, receives more
energy ‘than is necessary to maintain life’ and ‘excess energy (wealth) can
be used for growth of a system . . . if the system can no longer grow, or if
the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily
be lost without profit, it must be spent . . . gloriously or catastrophically’
(Bataille, 1949/1988: 21). It is important again to note how Bataille distin-
guishes between the general and restricted, with the bourgeois manner of
giving the most limited: ‘Where accumulation is concerned, the one who
gives loses what they have given, but in the traditional world their dignity
grew in proportion to their material loss’ (Bataille, 1991: 346). This may
hint at romanticism, derived in part from that reading of Frazer and Mauss,
and forgetting colonial disruptions. But would it change the reception of
Bataille’s work if it were understood that his notion of the ‘ultimate’ neces-
sity to consume without return (Bataille, 1949/1988: 22) is distinguished
from individual examples of destruction – coffee overboard etc. – in a way
that can in fact be reconciled with the contradictions of the capitalist circuit
of production in Marx? Although he explicitly disregards the significance
of individual examples – accidents – in favour of the ‘totality of productive
wealth on the surface of the globe’ (Bataille, 1949/1988: 22), he writes of
‘the final dissipation’. It is here that the trick of the gift is most explicitly
revealed in a political way, as part of a programme.
In a restricted economy, destruction serves primarily to reaffirm the
position in the hierarchy of the one who destroys most. Reciprocity of
course is an ideal in the notion of exchange as it must imply a notion of
equivalence in value. That value equivalence is a matter of calculation is
one of the key tricks of commerce. Hierarchy and exploitation do not calcu-
late this ideal except to subvert equivalence as the deceit of the market
where money is used to stand for a general equivalent and the various inter-
ests come to trade do not do so from equal positions. Is it this idealism
Bataille wished to fight? The desire to solve this paradox of reciprocity
which is never equal is perhaps the same sentiment that leads people to
project human qualities (good, evil) in idealized form on to a deity (cf.
Feuerbach, 1841/1972). Bataille hints at something similar in his wartime
introspection about sacrifice:
The forces which together work at destroying us find in us such happy – and at
times such violent – complicities that we cannot just simply turn away from
them as interest would lead us to. We are led to contain the fire within us . ..
without going to the point of delivering ourselves [Bataille had mentioned the
Hindu who throws himself under a festival cart], we can deliver, of ourselves,
a part: we sacrifice a good which belongs to ourselves or – that which is linked
to us by so many bonds, from which we distinguish ourselves so poorly – our
fellow being. (Bataille, 1943/1988: 96)
In a system obsessed with things, the absolute and sacrificial ideal is curi-
ously not things, but profit. Having banished God and insisted on material-
ism, capital still reifies a deity of abstract and awful power. Where what
Bataille calls the moral result of Marxism is to be achieved through subject-
ing things to a regime of governance that enslaves things and not people,
instead capital has developed into the unrestrained liberation of things
from any rigorous control, while humanity remains enslaved (Bataille,
1949/1988: 135–6). Against sacrifice and complicity, against the restricted
economy, Bataille wants to release a self-consciousness that would not be
deceived into false transactions. He denounces the ignorance of the gener-
ally ‘catastrophic destructions’ (Bataille, 1949/1988: 24) just as he
condemns ‘shameless attempts at evasion such as charitable pity’ (Bataille,
1997: 129). What is needed is to face up to the fact that ‘the choice is
limited to how the wealth is squandered’ (Bataille, 1949/1988: 23). Bataille
recognized that the compulsion to produce an excess is not inevitable – but
equilibrium is also not compatible with capitalism, as Marx’s analysis of the
tendency of the rate of profit to fall had shown. There are, however, the
possibilities of choice of expenditures: destructive war, or expansion of
services, frivolous dissipations (like brothels?) or ‘the rational extension of
a difficult industrial growth’ (Bataille, 1949/1988: 25). In an introductory
essay Bataille was not going to dwell on the undeniably interesting possi-
bilities and specific instances, he was concerned instead with exposing
general parameters and working for an escape from the poverty of accumu-
lation. It was ‘Bataille who showed that the glorious and transcendent sover-
eignty of the sun-king present[ed] to all [that] their common sovereignty
had only ever taken place held and enslaved within the installation of bour-
geois power, of market economy, of the modern state’ (Lacoue-Labarthe
and Nancy, 1997: 131).
The trick of restricted economic systems is the conflicted hypocrisy of
claims to equality mouthed by those whose privilege to speak rests upon an
inequality they will not admit. The structure of fascism, ruling class stupid-
ity, illegitimacy, bourgeois delusion and lack of courage is clear in the self-
centred opportunism manifest in the failure to face up to the ongoing
crimes of that same privilege8– bureaucrats claiming unrestrained
universal forces as excuse for their repressive rules and showing no
restraint in claiming specific rights for when they break these rules them-
selves. The advent of war is a curse of a sacrificial expenditure out of
control, just as is the exploitation of slavery, including wage-slavery. The
curse of restricted economy can only be lifted by a consciousness of the
process, and in this light it seems disappointing that all that can be
proposed instead of war is a general raising of the living standard (Bataille,
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
1949/1988: 40) – but after all, this would be something, wouldn’t it? No
doubt what is raised must also be education, and autonomy – sovereignty,
the freedom to squander for all, not just the rich – but something in the
formula of the gift – its duplicity as debt, returns to haunt. Bataille had also
argued that social security and wage claims increase the share of wealth that
is allocated to non-productive labour and this would apply to efforts – after
the Second World War, the Marshall Plan – to raise the general standard.
There would be less for the bosses’ luxuries, but also less to devote to the
development of the means of production. ‘The share allotted to present
satisfaction [bosses’ luxury and welfare] increases at the expense of the
share allotted to the concern for an improving future’ (Bataille,
1949/1988: 154). Wage claims are part of the negotiation of a system which
needs be abolished, not improved. Shopping (for a better deal) is indeed
a form of civil war.
A further trouble with Bataille’s formula lies in ‘The Psychological
Structure of Fascism’ where his notion of sovereignty in the end under-
mines the coherence of his political programme. In 1933 Bataille identified
fascism as ‘no more than an acute reactivation of the latent sovereign
agency’ (Bataille, 1997: 135). The etymology of fascism has to do with
‘uniting’ or ‘concentrating’ according to Bataille, and this is used to show
how fascism is the activation of the masses under a sovereign leader (the
power of the charismatic king, or the Führer, based on a unity of military
and religious legitimacy with – like Louis Bonaparte in Marx’s 18th Brumaire
– a populist public support). Jürgen Habermas is critical of this ambiguous
fascination with fascism as unity, and questions his proximity to the
Weberian religious explanation of capital – as well as insisting that Bataille
could not be dialectical (Habermas, 1987: 229). Be this as it may, Bataille
was clearly a militant against the war, there is no doubting his engagement
in this regard:
. . . we can express the hope of avoiding a war that already threatens. But in
order to do so we must divert the surplus production, either into rational
extension of a difficult industrial growth, or into unproductive works that will
dissipate an energy that cannot be accumulated in any case. (Bataille,
1949/1988: 25)
And even after the war he maintained a theoretical interest in ways to
escape restrictions. In the second volume of The Accursed Share, Bataille
speculates on alcohol, war and holidays as the choices for expenditure. He
is not so naive as to think that a larger participation in erotic games would
help avoid war (nice thought), but he does rethink the ways of avoiding
war: ‘we will not be able to decrease the risk of war before we have reduced,
or begun to reduce, the general disparity in standards of living’ (Bataille,
1991: 188). This ‘banality’ is what Bataille sees as the only chance for an
alternative to war, and it is possible even in the midst of the Cold War.
The trouble was, faced with war itself, Bataille retreated to the library.
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
Bataille’s contempt for and fascination with fascist ‘community’ must
– Nancy says – be behind his withdrawal (Nancy, 1991: 17). Unlike Marx in
the Brumaire, Bataille’s analysis fills him with unease and inevitable failure
in the face of ‘a paradox at which his thinking came to a halt’ (Nancy, 1991:
23). It is this interruption that left Bataille susceptible to the postmodern-
ist revision which drained any sense of a political programme – the fight
against fascism – from his work.9He was confined to the library, resigned,
introspective, and in the end left passing books on to others with a whis-
pered recommendation (the review Critique was the last publishing venture
he started, and it continues today). Spiralling into the conflagration of the
sun, which gives energy without (obvious) return, he later wrote:
The planet congested by death and wealth
a scream pierces the clouds
Wealth and death close in.
No-one hears this scream of a miserable waiting.
And then:
Knowing that there is no response. (Bataille, 2001: 221)
And, finally, from the ‘Notebook for Pure Happiness’ written towards the
end of his life:
The only escape is failure. (Bataille, 2001: 223)
Everything that we know is true, but on condition of disappearing in us (we
know better in ceasing to know). (Bataille, 2001: 247)
Part IV
Have I not led my readers astray? (Bataille, 1991: 430)
Bataille cannot be left to rot in the library.
How useful an experiment would it be to try to ‘apply’ Bataille’s notion
of expenditure to politics today? Klaus-Peter Köpping asks questions about
‘modernity’ which arise explicitly from his reading of Bataille as a theorist
of transgression, addressing political examples such as Bosnia, Serbia,
Croatia and Indonesia (Köpping, 2002: 243). A more extravagant general
economy framework for such questions might take up the massive accumu-
lation that is the excess of an arms trade promoting regional conflicts as
integral to sales figures on the one side, with the performative futility of
massed anti-capitalism rallies and May Day marches that fall on the nearest
Sunday so as not to disrupt the city on the other. Expenditure and squan-
dering today, in Bataille’s sense, might be seen in both the planned obso-
lescence of cars, computers and nearly all merchandise, as well as in the
waste production and fast-food service industry cults and fashionista style
wars, tamogochi and Beckham haircuts that currently sweep the planet. No
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
doubt it would be too mechanical to rest with such applications, too utili-
tarian, but the relevance is clear. The use-value of Georges Bataille is
somewhat eccentric and the deployment of pre-Second World War circum-
stances as a comparative register for today is of course merely speculative.
No return to the 1930s (colourize films now). Yet, taking account of a long
list of circumstantial differences – no Hitler, no Moscow, no Trotskyite
opposition, etc. – is also unnecessary since it is only in the interests of
thinking through the current conjuncture so as to understand it, and
change it, that any return should ever be contemplated.
The importance of French anthropology – Mauss – as well as psycho-
analysis and phenomenology, cannot be underestimated and all are crucial
in Bataille’s comprehension of the rise of fascism. Can these matters help
us to make sense of political debates in the midst of a new world war today?
That the intellectual currents which shaped Bataille’s analysis were post-
Marxist did not, then, replace the importance of Marx. Today the compre-
hension of Bush’s planetary terror machine still requires such an analysis,
but one that can also be informed by the reading of Bataille’s thought as
shaped by the intellectual currents mentioned above. In a period of capi-
talist slump, crisis of credit, overextended market, defaulted debt and
threatening collapse, the strategy of war looms large. Even before the
events of 11 September 2001 in New York, Bush was clearly on the warpath
with missile defence systems, withdrawal from various international treaties
and covenants, and massive appropriations for military and surveillance
systems. The imperial element is clear and sustained – the aggression
against the Palestinians, the adventure in Afghanistan and the war on Iraq
(to defend papa Bush’s legacy) obviously have their roots in the imperial-
ist mercantile tradition – plunder and war in pursuit of resources, primarily
oil, secondarily armaments sales. If this is potlatch, it is of the destructive
kind that Bataille feared.
The possibility of a geo-political solution other than war should be
evaluated. But it is a matter of record that, under the Bush family regime,
the US–Europe alliance has not been interested in pursuing any
programme of reduction of disparity, a few suspensions of Third World
debt and UN summits notwithstanding. When Bataille searches for an
alternative to war in some ‘vast economic competition’ through which
costly sacrifices, comparable to war, would yet give the competitor with
initiative the advantage (Bataille, 1949/1988: 172), he holds out hope for
a kind of gift without return. That he showed some enthusiasm for the
Marshall Plan after the Second World War as a possible model for this
might need to be ascribed to the exhausted condition of post-war France,
but he soon revised his assessment. The Marshall Plan was not as disinter-
ested as Bataille implied; it facilitated circulation and recoupment of
surplus value as profit. The Cold War and nuclear proliferation turned
out to be the preferred examples of reckless waste in actuality – as recog-
nized in volume two of The Accursed Share (Bataille, 1991: 188). Today,
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
redistribution is not considered an option, the threat of Asian capitalism –
after the slaughter of millions – can be ignored, and the war on Islam
(known variously as the Gulf War, Zionism, and the War on Terror)
appears as the primary strategy (combined with a war on South America,
mistakenly named as a war on drugs, and a war on immigration disguised
as a security concern).
The secondary strategy is a newly hollowed out version of liberal
welfare. In 1933 Bataille had written of the bourgeois tendency to declare
‘equality’ and make it their watchword, all the time showing they do not
share the lot of the workers (Bataille, 1997: 177). In the 21st century, Prime
Minister Blair of England has made some gestures towards a similar pseudo-
alternative. At a Labour Party congress in the millennium year he spoke of
the need to address poverty and famine in Africa, and no doubt still
congratulates himself on his pursuit of this happy agenda; as I write a large
entourage of delegates and diplomats are flying to Johannesburg for
another conference junket – the Earth Summit. The party accompanying
Blair and Deputy Prescott includes multinational mining corporation Rio
Tinto Executive Director Sir Richard Wilson (The Guardian, 12 August
2002). Rio Tinto is hardly well known for its desire to redistribute the global
share of surplus expenditure for the welfare of all.
If there are no gifts, only competitions of expenditure, what then of
the effort of Bataille to oppose fascism? It is not altruistic, and yet it is the
most necessary and urgent aspect of his work that is given to us to read for
today. Is fascism a charity-type trick? A deceit of double dealing which offers
the illusion of more while giving less? Something like this psycho-social
structure of fascism appears to be enacted in the potlatch appeasements of
the propaganda spinsters surrounding Blair. The New Labour and Third
Way public offering is ostentatiously to be about more healthcare, more
police, more schools, but Blair spins and rules over a deception that
demands allegiance to a privatization programme that cares only about
reducing the costs (fixed capital costs) of providing healthy, orderly,
trained employees for industry, of short-term profit and arms sales to
Israel, of racist scare-mongering and scapegoating of asylum seekers,
refugees and migrants, of opportunist short-term gain head-in-the-sand
business-as-usual. Similarly, the gestures of multi-millionaires like George
Soros and Bill Gates in establishing charity ‘foundations’ to ease their guilt
is not just a matter of philanthropy, it is a necessary gambit of containment
(and these two in particular bringing their cyber-evangelism to the markets
of Eastern Europe, South and South-East Asia). The liberal rhetoric of
charity and the militant drums of war are the two strategies of the same
rampant restrictive economy. Carrot and stick. Team A and team B of capi-
talist hegemony – the critique of the gift is clear, a gift is not a gift but a
debt of time – and this is not really generosity or hospitality. The same can
be said perhaps of war – it is not war but profit, just as the gift reassures the
giver of their superior status, the war on terror unleashes a terror of its own;
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
war does not produce victories but rather defeat for all. Bataille shows us a
world in ruins.
September 11 has been made into the kind of event that transforms an
unpopular (even unelected) figure into a leader under whom the nation
coheres in a new unity – much as Bataille saw Nuremburg achieve for the
National Socialists. Of course I am not suggesting Bush is a Nazi – he hasn’t
got the dress sense – but people were betrayed by the trick of a ‘democ-
racy’ that offers pseudo-participation once every four years, and this time
in a way that has consequences leading inexorably to a massive fight. The
kowtowing to big business with a rhetoric of social security has been heard
before – it was called the New Deal (or welfare state) and was a deception
almost from the start. Where there was perhaps some contractual obli-
gation of aid in the earlier forms, today the trick of the buy-off bribery of
service provision is contingent and calculated according only to corporate
strategic gain. While we lurch towards endless war, governments reassure
us with the watchwords of security that really mean death and despair to
those on the wrong side of the wire. The largest prison population ever
(under democracy or any other form of government), mass confinement
for minor offences (three strikes), colour overcoded death row (Mumia
Abu-Jamal etc.), arrest and detention without trial or charge, celebratory
executionism, etc. The incarcerated souls in the concentration camps of
Sangatte,10 Woomera,11 Kamunting12 or Guantanamo13 are wired in and
offered up as sacrificial gifts to the rule of new judicial-administrative
fascism. A new toothy-smiling Christian cult of death and technology, spun
carefully via press conferences and TV sitcoms – television has given up any
pretence of journalism in favour of infotainment. Does the US adminis-
tration dream of a new post-war era where, once again like Marshall, they
could come with a plan to rebuild upon ruins? This would indicate the
exhaustion of the current mode of production, which, with ‘information’
promised renewal but quickly stalled. Whatever the case, the enclosure of
the US and Europe behind fortress walls does not – experience now shows
– ensure prophylactic protection, and ruin may be visited upon all. It was
Bataille who said that perhaps only the ‘methods of the USSR would . . . be
equal to a ruined immensity’ (Bataille, 1949/1988: 167–8). Polite critiques
and protest have no purchase – orderly rallies against the aggression in
Afghanistan, against asylum and immigration law, against the destruction
of Palestine, etc., get no ‘airtime’ (instead, ‘political’ soap opera like The
West Wing, as the current equivalent in ideological terms to the Cold War’s
Bomber Command). Every leader that accedes to the ‘War on Terror’
programme and its excesses (civilian deaths, curtailment of civil liberty,
global bombing) is an appeaser. This is like the dithering of Chamberlain,
only this time the opposition activists are fighting in a ‘post-national’ arena
and Stalin’s slumber will not be broken, the Red Army cannot run inter-
ference, there is no Churchill rumbling in the wings, the fascist empire will
prevail without militant mobilization across the board. This is the
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
Hutnyk: Bataille’s Wars
appeaser’s gift – betrayal into the ‘ranks assigned to us by generals and
industrial magnates’ (Bataille, 1985: 164). The unravelling of the tricks of
social welfare, of ‘asylum’ and ‘aid’ programmes, of ‘interest’ even (the
narrowing of news broadcasts to domestic affairs) or respect, of the demon-
ization of others, of tolerance, the hypocrisy of prejudice – all this prepares
us for a war manufactured elsewhere. After the breakdown of the gift’s
tricks, fascism is the strategy, the obverse side of capital’s coin. In this
context, the geo-politics that enables, or demands, appeasement of the
imperious corporate/US power is the restricted destruction we should fear,
and we should fight in a struggle that goes beyond national defence, wage
claims or solidarity. The discipline of the Soviets and of Bataille could be
our tools.
Bataille reads on in his library. We are left speculating with him, rashly
charging in with ideas that are less excessive, less exuberant, that modera-
tion might withhold. But there is no more important time to consider the
efforts in the arts to fight militarism out of control, and, as Bush drags the
world into permanent war, it is worth asking why Bataille’s surrealistic
opposition to Hitler was inadequate. Is it because there are no more
thinkers in the Party? Is it that subversion is uninformed and its spirit quiet?
Chained to the shelves, it is not enough to know that appeasement of the
military-industrial machine is the obverse side of liberal charity. Why are
we still unable to acknowledge this is the path to war? What would be
adequate to move away from appeasement to containment and more? What
kind of sovereign destruction would Bataille enact today? Against the
‘immense hypocrisy of the world of accumulation’ (Bataille, 1991: 424), the
answer is clear: we should ‘condemn this mouldy society to revolutionary
destruction’ (Bataille, 1997: 175). The Bataille of La Critique Sociale might
argue for a glorious expenditure as that which connects people together
in the social and recognizes their joint labour to produce themselves, and
this must be redeemed from the restricted economy that insists on expen-
diture for the maintenance of hierarchy. If he were leaving the library
today, the Bataille of anti-war Surrealism might say it is time for a wake-up
knock-down critique of the barking dogs. The castrating lions of appease-
ment must be hounded out of town. Back in your kennels, yelping pups of
doom. Fair call, Georges Bataille.
1 The Surrealists engaged in anti-colonial activity before 1925 but it was only with
issue 5 of La Revolution Surrealiste that they began to use a Marxist vocabulary
writing in opposition to the imperialist Riff war in Morocco (Lewis, 1990: 32–5).
2Blue of Noon opens with a few pages from the unpublished and destroyed earlier
book WC, and it is set in the Savoy Hotel, London. Is it worth travelling to the
foyer of that luxurious hotel to read these pages, as a kind of perverted tourist
appreciation? And to participate perhaps, if you can afford the extortionate
Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
tariff for a room, in an orgiastic diversion something like that therein described
as passing between the characters Troppman, Dirty, the doorman and the
maid. Vomit, then leave.
3 Richardson, in the Introduction to Bataille’s Absence of Myth, says a similar
comment – ‘too many fucking idealists’ – was contained in Bataille’s letter of
reply to the meeting invitation, claiming this as his first written criticism of
Surrealism (in Bataille, 1994: 4).
4 Bataille was criticized by Sartre for telling us about laughter but not making us
laugh. Surya and Lotringer have both commented on this. They point out that,
were he to write of an orgasm, Sartre would not then expect to come
(Lotringer, introduction to Bataille, 1945/1992: xiv).
5 In the final volume of the trilogy The Accursed Share, he writes: ‘I am not overly
concerned about the legitimacy of the results that I borrowed, as judiciously as
I could, from the history of religions, from sociology, from political economy
or from psychoanalysis . . .’ (Bataille, 1991: 201).
6 Bataille also side-steps the rather ‘simple-minded’ practice which condemns on
false grounds: ‘If one wishes to judge communism, it is necessary to begin by
noting the differences between the development Marx forecast and the facts
subsequent to that development’ (Bataille, 1991: 265).
7 And he then curiously begins a comparison of the treatment of a beggar in
London with the outcaste in Bengal. What the significance of the Bengali
example achieves here is separate from, but cannot be separated from, the ways
Bengal, India, Calcutta continue to serve as a limit experience, as the polarity
on the other end of the scale from London. In The Rumour of Calcutta I tried to
contextualize this hierarchy by reading the history of Empire up to the present
day from a centre in Calcutta – through which the wealth of India flowed –
rather than from the moribund finance capital and retirement home for Raj
officials that was colonial London (Hutnyk, 1996).
8 Charity is ‘only the expression of the cowardice of the modern upper classes,
who no longer have the force to recognize the results of their own destructive
acts’ (Bataille, 1997: 177).
9 For that matter, Surrealism as a whole has been similarly sanitized. Why did the
2002 Tate Modern Surrealism exhibition cleanse the movement of any political
content? Desire for a communist future was fundamental to Surrealism too, but
went almost without mention in 2002. What this amounts to is a systematic
‘cretinization’ (a good Surrealist and Marxist word). A way of blocking
meanings from circulation, the disqualification of revolutionary spirit through
sanctioned ignorance (Spivak, 1999).
10 The detention centre in France that Blair and Home Office Minister Blunkett
want closed. Blunkett himself has been particularly rabid on issues of asylum,
challenging even allocations of lottery money – charity after all – to the NCADC
(National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns) as part of his no sympathy
Fortress UK regimen. Apparently the Minister had decided the NCADC website
went beyond its brief and strayed into ‘political’ matters (The Guardian, 12
August 2002)
11 Woomera is a former weapons testing area and US spy base in the South
Australian desert, land appropriated from the Kukutha people. The US facility
was transformed into a high security prison for primarily Afghani and Iraqi
refugees, some of whom were able to escape after solidarity actions by activists
outside the camp over Easter 2002.
12 Kamunting is the detention centre which houses the Malaysian internees held
under the notorious Internal Security Act of Mahathir Mohammed. Originally
a British law designed to deal with the communist insurgency of the 1940s and
1950s, the Malaysian state took it over and have used it to stifle dissent, holding
opposition leaders and suspected militants for up to two years without trial or
charge. As of late July 2002 there were 113 in detention, including the opposi-
tion youth leader Tian Chua.
13 The tabloid British newspaper The Mirror was among the few to take a fighting
stand on the issue of Guantanamo when its front page headline commemo-
rated the 200th day of incarceration for those held by the US without charge,
trial, lawyers or rights with the banner headline, ‘NO JUSTICE’.
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John Hutnyk is the author of The Rumour of Calcutta: Tourism, Charity and the Poverty
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Critique of Anthropology 23(3)
... The relevance of Bataille's thinking today is underlined by recent anthropological publications applying his concepts in studies of eroticism, exchange, sacrifice, mobs and violence (Magowan 2009;Buur 2009;Ba¨hre 2007;Crapanzano 2006;Taussig 2006Taussig , 2009Hutnyk 2003). It is to be celebrated that anthropologists are beginning to reappraise Batailles' insights into issues that are quintessentially anthropological: the dynamics of death, eroticism, taboo and transgression (1962), incest and exogamy, desire and the orgy (1991), exchange, expenditure, sacrifice and the Groes-Green 387 potlatch (1988) and theories of experience (1988). ...
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In this article I explore socially marginalized young men’s excessive acts of violence, drug use, death race and unsafe sex against the background of George Bataille’s anthropology of transgression. When young men in the Mozambican capital engage in dangerous sex or violent riots, the findings indicate, it is less a sign of ignorance about HIV or indifference towards the rule of law than an expression of living in a ‘state of emergency’ where transgressive defiance of danger and death become attractive. Everyday transgressions of young men who call themselves moluwene (wild, unruly) are moulded in narratives and acts which at once oppose a smouldering socialist ideology of education and a neoliberal regime exiling marginalized young men from the realms of work and consumption to permanent unemployment, poverty and orgies of the moment.
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This article draws from the reading protocols developed by José Esteban Muñoz to advance a political reading of Georges Bataille. It argues for a consistent and coherent anti-fascism across Bataille’s work, from the early “political” writings to the mature turn toward mysticism. Focusing in particular on his writings from the 1930s, this article clarifies some of the key concepts in Bataille’s critical theory of fascism: expenditure, heterology, base materialism, and democratic anguish.
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The question addressed by this article regards the meaning of sacrifice within the framework of Jan Patočka's philosophy. Is human sacrifice aimed at reinforcing an institution or state of things as in the case of the Unknown Soldier narrative, or is it rather - as Patočka maintained - an essentially destabilizing deed, which has the power to shatter people's knowledge and existence? In order to answer this question, I contrast Patočka's standpoint with those of Émile Durkheim and of the main representatives of the so-called "sacred sociology": Roger Caillois, Georges Bataille and other members of the Collège de sociologie. In conclusion, I show how Patočka's approach to the theme of sacrifice helps us to understand if, and how, a "proper sacrifice" can actually become an instrument of political dissent within human societies.
Questions about the nature of money have gained a new urgency in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Even as many people have less of it, there are more forms and systems of money, from local currencies and social lending to mobile money and Bitcoin. Yet our understanding of what money is-and what it might be-hasn't kept pace. In The Social Life of Money, Nigel Dodd, one of today's leading sociologists of money, reformulates the theory of the subject for a postcrisis world in which new kinds of money are proliferating. What counts as legitimate action by central banks that issue currency and set policy? What underpins the right of nongovernmental actors to create new currencies? And how might new forms of money surpass or subvert government-sanctioned currencies? To answer such questions, The Social Life of Money takes a fresh and wide-ranging look at modern theories of money. One of the book's central concerns is how money can be wrested from the domination and mismanagement of banks and governments and restored to its fundamental position as the "claim upon society" described by Georg Simmel. But rather than advancing yet another critique of the state-based monetary system, The Social Life of Money draws out the utopian aspects of money and the ways in which its transformation could in turn transform society, politics, and economics. The book also identifies the contributions of thinkers who have not previously been thought of as monetary theorists-including Nietzsche, Benjamin, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Derrida, and Hardt and Negri. The result provides new ways of thinking about money that seek not only to understand it but to change it.
Post-anarchist philosophy has widely been regarded as an attempt to challenge the ontological essentialism of the traditional anarchist discourse. The problem for the post-anarchists is that by focusing exclusively on the critique of ontological essentialism and universalism inherent in the ideology of traditional anarchism, post-anarchists have demonstrated that they are unable to envision a response to meta-ethical questions that occur outside of the universalism/relativism pair. As a result most post-anarchists have retreated into an epistemological defence of relativism. In keeping with the ethical trajectory of post-anarchist philosophy, post-anarchists could stand to benefit by responding nihilistically rather than relativistically to the epistemological problem of universalism. They could also take the ontological problematic of non-being to its limit by rejecting the subject as the locus of ethical agency. I shall aim to demonstrate that this latter position is correlative to the meta-ethical position of Georges Bataille.
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■ James Clifford's work is discussed, in the first half of this article, through the prism of Malinowski, travel and the 'trinketization' of culture. In the second half, Clifford's 'ethnography' of the Fort Ross tourist-heritage project, and his sloppy reading of Marx, are brought in to contrast/comparison with Malinowskian perspectives to argue against the well-meaning pessimism of 'post exoticist' modes of culture commentary. The article is a polemical review of Clif ford's Routes (Clifford, 1997), demanding greater attention to the political context of anthropological work.
Prologue: In Medias Res TRAVELS Traveling Cultures A Ghost among Melanesians Spatial Practices: Fieldwork, Travel, and the Disciplining of Anthropology CONTACTS Four Northwest Coast Museums: Travel Reflections Paradise Museums as Contact Zones Palenque Log FUTURES Year of the Ram: Honolulu, February 2, 1991 Diasporas Immigrant Fort Ross Meditation Notes References Sources Acknowledgments Index