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General Economics and Postmodern Capitalism

Author(s): Jean-Joseph Goux, Kathryn Ascheim and Rhonda Garelick


Reviewed work(s):
Source: Yale French Studies, No. 78, On Bataille (1990), pp. 206-224
Published by: Yale University Press
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JEAN-JOSEPHGOUX

GeneralEconomics and Postmodern


Capitalism

La Part maudite, Bataille's most systematicand long-considered


work,provokesin thereaderan inescapablefeelingofmingledenthuThere is somethingstrikingand gransiasm and disappointment.
diose aboutBataille'sattemptto subvertexistingpoliticaleconomy,
caughtwithinthelimitsofa utilitarianorcalculatingrationality,
in
orderto replaceit witha "generaleconomics"thatwould make of
unproductive
expenditure
(sacrifice,
luxury,war,games,sumptuary
phenomenonofsociallife.Atlast
monuments)themostdeterminant
a critiqueofpoliticaleconomywhich,while remainingon the decisiveterrainofthesocial circulationofwealth,escapestheconfined
atmosphereof the bourgeoisethic-so oftencaricatured-, the
crampedand grayishworldofpettycalculation,quantifiableprofit
and industriousactivity!It is the most extravagantwaste-gratuitous,careeningconsumption,whereaccumulatedwealthis set
ablaze and disappearsin an instant,wreathingin ephemeralglory
ofthisblaze whichbecomesthecentral
himwho makestheoffering
phenomenon,the one throughwhicha societydiscoversitselfand
celebratesthe deepestvalues thatanimateit: its religion,its metaphysics,its sense ofthe sacred.
Bataille's"Copernicanreversal"ofpoliticaleconomyis a remarkIt is notthe
able and dazzlingoperationofethnologicaldecentering.
thathold thekey
storeand theworkshop,thebankand thefactory,
fromwhich the principlesof the economycan be deduced.In the
to thesun
bloodthatspurtsfromtheopenchestofvictimssacrificed
in an Aztecritual,in thesumptuousandruinousfeastsoffered
to the
of
the
monarch
divine
in
courtiersofVersaillesby
right, all thesemad
YFS 78, On Bataille,ed. Allan Stoekl,C 1990byYale University.

206

JEAN-JOSEPH GOUX

207

economicshas covdissipationsis founda secretthatourrestricted


Wemustrethinksocialwealthnot
eredup andcausedtobe forgotten.
ofan asceticbourgeoisiethatonly
fromtheparsimoniousperspective
butfromthepointofview
consentsto spendwhenitexpectsa return,
(nearlydeliriousto ourmind)oftheerectionofthepyramidsor the
cathedrals,orofthesacrificeofthousandsofherdanimalsin archaic
holocausts.It is in thisintentionally
unproductive
use, in thisunandnotin utilitarianconsumption
limitedexpenditure,
thata secret
lies hidden,the "generallaw of the economy":"a societyalways
produceson thewhole morethanis necessaryto its subsistance,it
disposesofa surplus.It is preciselytheuse made ofthisexcessthat
determinesit: the surplusis the cause of disturbances,
changesof
andofitsentirehistory."'A thesisthatis radicallyopposed
structure,
andutilitarian
totherationalist,
vision.Itis themode of
productivist
expenditureofthe excess,the consumptionofthesuperfluous,
this
a society'sform.The dominantproaccursedshare,thatdetermines
saic vision may be only a recentlyformedprejudicecontempousheredin bytheReformaraneouswiththereignofthebourgeoisie,
for
the
realandineluctablemovementof
tion,andunableto account
wealthin a society,a movementthat sovereignly
engageshuman
beings:theirrelationshipto thesacredthroughreligion,mysticism,
art,eroticism.
One cannotdenythatthis"generaleconomics"has a greatforceof
ofa newcritiqueofpoliticaleconomywhich
conviction,thestrength
insteadofacceptingthenotionsofthisdiscipline(marketexchange,
need, scarcity,work-value)as Marx did, conteststhe verymetaphysicalgroundof a utilitarianand productivist
rationalitywhose
ofarchaicsocieties.
limitationbecomesevidentin theanthropology
Betterstill,farfromretreating
beyondan economicexplanation,
as do
the spiritualistcritiques,this vision generalizesthe economicapproach,directlyplacingin its conceptualfieldnotionsthatdo not
seemtobelongthere:religion,art,eroticism.
AttheheartofBataille's
thoughtlies thetroubling
postulatethatthedistinction
betweenthe
profaneandthesacred-a fundamental
ofall humansocidistinction
ety-mergesin a broadsense fromthe economic.Whereastheprofaneis the domainofutilitarianconsumption,
the sacredis thedomain ofexperienceopenedbytheunproductive
consumptionofthe
1. GeorgesBataille,La Partmaudite(Paris:Minuit,1967),143.Henceforth
cited
in thetext.This editioncontains"La Notionde depense"whichwaspublishedfifteen
yearsearlier.

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Henceforth
thepositionofreligionorart
surplus:whatis sacrificed.
byMarxis comwithrespectto the "economicbase" as formulated
The religiousor artisticdomainis nota simple
pletelytransformed.
ofvaguewhimsbuilton theeconomicinfrastructure:
superstructure
it is itselfeconomic,in thesenseofa generaleconomicsfoundedon
oftheexcess,on theunproductive
and ecstaticcontheexpenditure
sumptionof the surplus,throughwhich the human beingexperiencestheultimatemeaningofexistence.Generaleconomics,unlike
restrictedeconomics,encompassesobliquelythe entiredomainof
human activities,extendingthe "economic"intelligenceto highly
symbolicpracticeswhereformidable
energiesare consumedforthe
celebrationofthegods,thegloryofthegreatorthedionysiacpleasure
ofthehumble.Whatbecomesapparentthenis thegenealogyofour
oflife(inaugurated
economicthought.A completedesacralization
by
Calvinismand carriedto itslimitbyMarxism)was necessaryforthe
worldofproductionand exchangeto becomeautonomousaccording
to theprincipleofrestricted
utility.The profaneand prosaicreality
economicscan be constitutedonlybyexthoughtby contemporary
thetotalsecucludingoutsidethefieldofhumanactivity-through
larizationof ethicalvalues-any impulsetowardsacrifice,toward
consumptionas pureloss.
a veritable
ofhistory
whose
Batailleis thusproposing
anthropology
guidingthreadwouldbe theaccursedshareandwhichwouldachievea
unificationofthetwoforcesthathavebeen consideredindividually
the motorsof human societies (religionand economics).But this
is markedbya break.Untilthebirthofcapitalismeverysociety
history
Whetherin thepotlatchofprimitive
is one ofsacrificialexpenditure.
tribesdescribedby Mauss in The Gift,the bloodysacrificesof the
or eventheopposing
Aztecs,thebuildingoftheEgyptianpyramids,
pathsofpeacefulTibetanlamaismandwarlikeIslamicconquest,the
expenditureof excess is alwaysinscribedwithina principleof the
sacred.Withthe birthofthebourgeoisworlda radicalchangetakes
nowentirely
dominatessociallife.In a
place.Productiveexpenditure
desacralizedworld,wherehumanlaboris guidedin theshortorlong
termbytheimperativeofutility,thesurplushas lost its meaningof
gloriousconsumptionand becomescapitalto be reinvestedproductively,a constantlymultiplying
surplus-value.
In myview it is in thishistoricaloutcomethatthemostserious
lies. This is also undoubtedlyBataille'sview: he always
difficulty
wantedto continuehis firstsketchbutthiscontinuationexistsonly

JEAN-JOSEPH GOUX

209

On theonehand,thereis hardlyanydoubtthatBataille
in fragments.
society,a will that
alwaysharboreda will to subvertcontemporary
andpolitically
was heightened
byhis searingcontactwithsurrealism
engagedgroups.On theotherhand,it is clearthatthediscussionsin
La Partmauditeconcerning"thepresentfacts"oftheworldsituation
Everyin termsof generaleconomicsare morethandisappointing.
thingsuggeststhatBataillewas unableto articulatehis mysticismof
ofmajorcommunication-expressed
so
ofsovereignty,
expenditure,
in La Somme Atheologique,L'Erotismeor La Litflamboyantly
generaleconomics.
teratureet le mal-in termsof contemporary
Wheredo we situateBataille'sclaim? Whathappensto the demand of the sacredin capitalistsociety?How do we reconcilethe
an unprecedented
breakwith
thatcapitalismrepresents
affirmation
and the postulateof
formsof expenditure
all archaic(precapitalist)
ofspendingas pureloss? This is thediffithenecessaryuniversality
princiculty.Bataillewantsto maintainas a generalanthropological
whilesimultaneously
expenditure
ple thenecessityofunproductive
ofcapitalismwithregardto this
upholdingthe historicsingularity
to a "generalatrophyof
expenditure.
Bourgeoissocietycorresponds
formersumptuaryprocesses"(41).An anomalywherebyloss is not
absent(whichwould contradictthe generalprinciple)but virtually
unreadable:"Today,the greatand freesocial formsofunproductive
we shouldnotconclude
havedisappeared.Nevertheless,
expenditure
is no longersituated
fromthisthattheveryprincipleofexpenditure
at theendofeconomicactivity"(37).So whathappenstoostentatious
in capitalism?And can we reallybelieve,furthermore,
expenditure
thatthe evenmoreradicaldesacralizationeffected
by communism
ofsovereignty-thefeastof
could become a libertarianaffirmation
withoutdivinitiesand myths?
self-consciousness,
Everything
suggeststhatBataillewas unableto articulatethemy"withoutform
stical tensiontowardsovereignself-consciousness
and mode,""pureexpenditure"
(224)witha utopiaofsocial lifethat
wouldmakeit possible,norto explainin a developedcapitalistsociin proetythe consumptionofthe surplusbeyondits reinvestment
duction.Now it is quiteclearthattoday'scapitalismhas comea long
The valwayfromthe Calvinistethicthatpresidedat its beginning.
ues of thrift,
sobrietyand asceticismno longerhave the place that
theyheldwhenBalzac couldcaricaturethedominantbourgeoismenofpereGrandetortheusurerGobseck.It is
talitywiththecharacters
doubtfulthatthe spiritof capitalism,whichaccordingto Weberis

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expressedwith an almost classical purityin BenjaminFranklin's


principles("he who kills a fiveshillingcoin assassinatesall thatit
could have produced:entirestacks of sterlingpounds")[citedby
Bataille,163],could todaybe consideredthespiritofthetimes.Unthe pace at whichall residualsacredelementsinherited
doubtedly,
fromfeudalismare eliminatedhas quickened.Buthasn'tcontempooftheethicofconsumption,
rarysocietyundergonea transformation
analysesof
desire,and pleasurethatrenderstheclassical (Weberian)
the spiritofcapitalism(to whichBataillesubscribes)inadequate?If
the greatoppositionbetweenthe sacredand the profaneno longer
and gloriousexpendisocial life,ifcommunal,sacrificial,
structures
it is no less truethat
turehas been replacedbyprivateexpenditure,
econadvancedcapitalismseemsto exceedtheprincipleofrestricted
omy and utilitythat presidedat its beginning.No society has
"wasted"as much as contemporary
capitalism.Whatis theformof
thiswaste,ofthisexcess?
These questions strikedirectlyat the historicalsituationand
ofBataille'sthought.Is it not clearthat
philosophicalsignification
beginningin
his passion forthe "notionof expenditure,"-which,
to come-emerge
1933,is thematrixofall his economicreflections
preciselyat a turningpointin thehistoryofcapitalism,in the 1920s
and 1930s,whichalso saw theappearanceofLukacsandHeidegger?2
Can we not perceivewithinthe principlesofsecularizationand reofearlycapitalisman interstrictedeconomicsthatwerethestrength
and
nal conflictthatunderminesthem, putscapitalismin contradictionwithitself?
they
To treattheseproblemsin detailandwiththedevelopments
deservewouldrequirean analysisthatI couldnotthinkofcompletofpostmodern
thoughtwould
ingin a fewpages.Almosttheentirety
howeverbya
bearupon thisproblematic.My taskwill be facilitated
recentattemptat a new legitimationofcapitalism-thatofGeorge
Gilder-who situates himself,curiously,on the same terrainas
Bataille,ifonlyto arriveofcourseat oppositeconclusions.Confrontationwiththisworkwill lead to a discussionofcapitalistmorality
as envisionedbyBataille,and the correlative
conceptofutility.
GeorgeGilderwas one of the most vocal advocatesof the economicpoliticsofneoconservative
duringtheearly1980s.In hisbook,
of solutionscf.,
2. On thisparallelismof the problematicsand the divergence
delamoderniue(Paris:Gallimard,1988),
Jurgen
Habermas,Le Discoursphilosophique
chapter8 on Bataille.

JEAN-JOSEPH GOUX

211

totheLosAngelesTimes
Wealthand Poverty
(1981),whichaccording
made him "theprophetofthe new economicorder"(and President
once again
Reagan'sfavorite
author),Gilderattemptsto demonstrate
the ethicalvalue ofcapitalismagainstthe "intellectualconsensus"
thatstigmatizesthemoralvoidonwhichitrests.The greatinterestof
Gilder'sendeavorlies in its ambition: "to give capitalisma theology."13
Althoughunaware,we can reasonablyassume,ofBataille's
theories,Gilderseemsto respondwordforwordto theauthorofthe
"notionof expenditure,"
placinghimselfimmediatelyon the same
terrain.Recallingthe analysesofMarcel Mauss in The Giftand of
Levi-Straussin The Savage Mind,Gilderundertakesto demonstrate
thatcontemporary
capitalismis no less animatedbythespiritofthe
giftthantheprimitivetribesdescribedby ethnographers.
"Feasting
and potlatchingillustratea capitalisttendencyto assembleand distributewealth" (26). The most elaboratedformsof capitalismare
simplya moreelaboratedformofthepotlatch.The current
notionof
a self-interested,
parsimoniouscapitalism,motivatedonly by the
Attheoriginof"capitalism"is
interestofmaterialgain,is erroneous.
thegift,notself-loveand avarice.The conceptualbasis ofthisseemis a classicaleconomicprincipleknown
inglyparadoxicalaffirmation
as Jean-Baptiste
Say'slaw: "Supplycreatesits owndemand." Suchis
themodern,contemporary
formofthepotlatch.The essenceofcapitalismconsistsin supplying
andin obtainingan eventualprofit
first,
onlylater.The capitalistinvests(hesuppliesgoodsand services),but
he is neversureofthereturn,oftherecompenseforhis supply.This
movement,says Gilder,is the same as in thepotlatch,wherethe
essenceofthegiftis nottheabsenceofall expectation
ofa countergift
butrathera lack ofcertainty
thereturn."Likegifts,capconcerning
italistinvestmentsare made withouta predetermined
return"(30).
Thus capitalismwouldbe in essenceno less generousthanritual
tribalexchange.Let us cite at lengththepassagewhereGildersum-

marizes his argument.

to thenotionsofMaussandLevi-Strauss,
Contrary
thegiving
inmodemcapitalism
isnolessprevalent
impulse
andimportant-no
lesscentral
toall creative
andproductive
activity,
no lesscrucialto
themutuality
ofcultureandtrust-thanin a primitive
tribe.The
ofentrepreneurs,
unending
offering
investing
jobs,accumulating
in3. GeorgeGilder,Wealthand Poverty
(NewYork:BantamBooks,1981),7. Henceforthcitedin text.

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is received,
all without
ventories-alllongbefore
anyreturn
anyaswillnotfail-constitute
surancethattheenterprise
a pattern
ofgivinextent
andinessential
ingthatdwarfs
generosity
anyprimitive
rite
ofexchange.
Givingis thevitalimpulseandmoralcenterofcapitalism.[30]
Despite theappearanceofparadox,it is understandable
whyit is
thatSay'sadage,whichunderlies
withina capitalismofconsumption
Gilder'sargument,becomes particularly
apt. Supplyprecedesand
createsdemand:thismeansthatthereis no priordefinition
ofneed,
demandfoundedon essentialand rano naturaland preestablished
tionalexigenciesthatcouldbe fixedin advance.Suchis, accordingto
Gilder,theheresyofthesocialisteconomy:it beginswiththepostulate ofa demandassigneda priori,corresponding
to an identifiable
essenceofneed and to whicha corresponding
productioncouldadequatelyrespond.But the capitalisteconomyis foundedon a metathe objectofhumandesire.It must
physicaluncertainty
regarding
desire
the
invention
ofthenew,theproduction
createthis
through
of
the unpredictable.It supplies in orderto createdesire,insteadof
a desirethatwould alreadybe knownby thepersonwho
satisfying
experiencesit. The preoccupationwithdemandleads to stagnation.
withsupply-in thegiganticpotlatchofthecapThe preoccupation
italist store,which puts the unpredictableon displayin orderto
seducethepotentialbuyerwithoutcoercionorcertainty-isthe"genius ofcapitalism"(34),its frenetic
pursuitofthenew.
Thus thereis no equivalencein factbetweensupplyanddemand,
to whatWalras'scurvesofgeneralequilibrium,
forexample,
contrary
to
believe.
The
mathematical
mightlead us
theoryofvalue,which
ofpricesat theintersection
ofthecurvesof
locatesthedetermination
a deceptive"reification"
supplyand demand,is a falseabstraction,
(45). Demand registersonlythe simplereactionof consumersto a
and "sacrifices,"
a veritablegift,
supplythatcorrespondsto efforts
whichis not accountedforbythisquantitativeequivalence.
fromthisconceptionofcapIt is remarkablethatGilder,starting
italismas potlatch(lossbeingmeasuredbythefrightening
sumsand
energiesinvested"fornothing"in a societywherethousandsofbusinessesarecreatedanddisappeareachweek),arrivesat an irrationalist
ofthecapitalistuniversethatstandsin sharpcontrastto
legitimation
It mustbe
theWeberianthemeofthegenesisofmodernrationality.
emphasizedthatforGilderit is because capitalismis irrational(altheuncalculable,theindeterminate)
wayssuspendedin uncertainty,

JEAN-JOSEPH GOUX

213

thatitis superiortoall otherformsofsociety.Criticizing"thesecular


rationalistmentality"(310),he praisesthespiritopento theparadoxes ofchanceand gambling.Forin theend,havingtakenintoaccount
the unmasterablenatureofthe multiplefactorsthatenterinto the
success of a business (not the least of which is the unpredictable
desireoftheclient),profitresidesin chance.Understoodin thisway,
in thefundamental
mystery
thespiritofcapitalismthusparticipates
and the
ofanyhumansituation:its openingontotheunpredictable
societiesinventformsofgamundecidable."Eventhemostprimitive
bling(dice in manyplaces precedethe wheel)" (296).The ultimate
ofcapitalismis thetheologyofchance-our onlyaccess
metaphysics
to thefutureand to providence(299).It is onlyin thiswaythatthe
openingis preserved."Because no one knows which venturewill
a societyruledbyrisk
succeed,whichnumberwill win thelottery,
and freedomratherthanby rationalcalculus,a societyopen to the
futureratherthan planningit, can call forthan endlessstreamof
and art"(296).
invention,enterprise,
ofcapitalismstrikesme
This sustainedpraiseoftheirrationality
Is it notrhetorically
thatat the
remarkable.
satisfying
as thoroughly
reconclusionof a workon wealthand povertythe term"fortune"
gains its most propermeaning:Fortuna,the Roman divinityof
chance-a termwhich had acquiredby metonymythe more restrictedmeaningofwealth?Whilea certainphilosophicalleft,since
Lukacs,HorkheimerorAdorno,and in thewake ofWeber-or a certainphilosophicalrightwithHeidegger-is benton denouncingcalinherculatingreasonas a dominantand alienatingformofthought,
entto capitalism(whosemarket,exchangesideobscuresitsentrepreneurialside),a displacementis occurring(whichis not entirelynew
since "capitalistanarchy"was denounceda longtimeago) ofwhich
Gilder'sbook is a frankand unnuancedexpression.Capitalismis
irrational(in the last analysis it can rely only on a theologyof
chance-ultimatelyopeningto the divine,to creativityand to the
future)andthisis whyit is superiorto all rationalist(hencesocialist)
pretentionsto masterthe processof productionand consumption,
and consequentlyto prejudgehumandesire,to mortgageseduction.
ofthepostmodern
Is thisnotin 1981theformulation
legitimationof
is no longera denunciationbut a justificacapitalism?Irrationality
tion,a defense.
Letme makeitclearthat,ifthereis no questionofmysubscribing
withoutdiscrimination
to Gilder'sapologeticdiscourse,on theother

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hand I take it quite seriouslyas a pointedideologicallegitimation


Gilder'stheoryis exemplaryas an
strategyof eighties-capitalism.
attemptto formulatea moralityof capitalismat odds with the
Ifhis theoryis weakas politicaleconheritageoftheEnlightenment.
as ecoomy,it is highlysignificant
(althoughat timesdisquieting)4
nomicpolitics.Anysocial critic(togo backto a phrasethatBataille
justifiwouldnotdisavow)who overlooksthistypeofcontemporary
once morecapcationrisksmissingthetruetargetand overlooking
italism'sresourcesand metamorphoses.
Furthermore,
perhapsMauss wouldnothave disavowedGilder's
does not hesitateto see in
attemptin principle.The anthropologist
the skillfuloperationsof potlatchon the partof the Iroquois (in
he is carefulnot to believe)a prewhose simple disinterestedness
of
Anditis also his aim,atthe
of
the
capitalism.
operations
figuration
world
end of The Giftto searchforsomethingin the contemporary
of primitive
that could prolongthe processof giftand countergift
in "thecold reasonofthemerchant,of
societies.It is not,however,
the bankerand ofthe capitalist"(The Gift,Chapter4, Conclusion,
butratherin theliberality
of
vol.2) thathe detectsthatprolongation,
insurance
funds
creates
better
in
still,
who
or,
family
theindustrialist
nationalhealthinsurance,wherethecommunitygivesto theworkerssomethingotherthana simplesalary.Wearefarfromtheinsane
squanderingfantasizedby Bataille,as well as fromthe innovator's
generousriskinvokedby Gilder.
There still remains the question of why neitherMauss nor
Bataillehave pointedout,in some decisivemechanismofcapital,a
continuationofpotlatch,while Gilder,in 1980,does
contemporary
and to make it
not hesitateto resortto thatethnologicalreference,
the guaranteeofa moralbasis. The reasonis thata transformation
(alreadyat workbut still concealed)has become manifest.In the
capitalismof abundancethe distinctionbetweenluxuryand nonClearly,it is onlyin a regimeof
luxuryhas becomeindeterminable.
thatdemandcannotbe asis superfluous,
luxury,whereeverything
signedandbecomesopentopossibilitiesthatareless andlesspredictable. It is onlyin a regimeofsurplusconsumptionthatthe subject
(the client who chooses) does not know his own desire,and that
4. Gilderin factstill returnsto the simplisticnotionof "poverty"of the last
theresultofviceorof
thatmakespoverty
tradition
a well-known
continuing
century,
divinedisfavor.

JEAN-JOSEPH GOUX

215

supply(foundedon still unknown,still unimaginedtechnological


and aestheticpossibilities)must necessarilyprecededemand.The
distinctionis no longerbetweenthenecessaryand thesuperfluous,
but betweenseveralas yet unimaginedpossibilities.This is why
ofmerchandise,
role.
seduction,theaesthetization
playsa primordial
It is vitalforthissupplyeconomyto denythenaturalnessofneedsincludingtheverynotionofneed and utility(in thetrivialsense).In
ofpoliticaleconomy.
thissensewe arewitnessingtheaesthetization
Gilder'spostmodernlegitimizationof capitalismthus resolves
a continuity
thequestionofthegiftin capitalismbypostulating
with
theritualsofprimitivesocieties.The capitalistcannotcounton an
assured,calculable profitfromhis investment.He agreesto spend
Gilder
moneyandto spendhimselfin a projectthatis alwaysaleatory.
he makesofhim
sees thenobleandglorioussideoftheentrepreneur;
a gamblerwho sacrificesin orderto "supply"withan alwaysuncerItis in so gamblingthathe earnshis
tainresult:wealthorbankruptcy.
rank.We shouldemphasizethatBatailledid not completelyfailto
recognizethisludicdimensionofcapitalism;ratherhe was unableto
show thathe
integrateit simplywithinhis vision.The fragments
reflected
on thecoexistenceofplayandtheprojectin capitalism,but
in all action)
onlyto concludethatdespitethiscoexistence(inherent
capitalismis essentiallya project,even if play and riskintervene
necessarilybetweenthe projectand accumulation."Play in capitis theeffect
italismis somewhatheterogeneous,
ofa relativelackof
power.Capitalismwould avoid play if it could."5Finally,Bataille
summarizes,"the projectdominatescapitalistactivity.Play is restrictedto the stock exchange"(OC, 220). Denouncing "the avariciouspracticesofbigbusinessand industry,"
Bataillethusremains
attachedtotheromanticimageofcapitalismas a moralanomaly.If"a
currentofgloriousactivitiesnaturallyanimatestheeconomy,""the
bourgeoiseconomyalone is exempted"(OC, 201).
But whateverthe clear divergencebetweenthis position and
Gilder'smaybe,one cannothelpthinking
thatthelatter'sapologetic
attemptultimatelyendorsesBataille.Forwhatis remarkableis that
Gilderis obligedto resortto the notionofgiftand sacrificeat the
momentwhenhe is givingcapitalisma nobleandgloriousimage,an
adventurouslegitimationthatgoes beyond"the secularrationalist
5. GeorgesBataille,OeuvresCompletes,(Paris:Gallimard,1970-1988),vol. 7,
219. Henceforth
citedin textas OC.

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mentality"(Gilder,310). Whenit is a matterofgivinga theologyto


thatevenitsmostbrilliant
capitalism,ofinfusingit witha grandeur
defendersgenerallydo not recognize,thereis no routebut the one
of capitalism
Bataille has alreadymappedout, as if the singularity
could onlybe upheldby connectingit, despiteeverything,
withan
unchanging,
anthropological
base,mostclearlyrevealedbyprimitive
societies:thegiftalone createsthegloryandthegrandeur.
Therefore,
to
fromthestart,Gilderis obliged positionhimselfon theterrain
that
Bataillehas cultivated.He is obligedto beginwithMarcelMauss's
The Giftin orderto bringout,in supportof capitalism,the moral
challengeconstitutedbytheprimitive
practiceofthepotlatch.That
this
must
to
Gilder
resort
anthropological
paradigmdoes nottellus
much about the real mechanismsofcapitaland the multiplestratbutit at leastshowstheforce
egiesofprofit(itis onlya legitimation)
of the demandof which Bataille has made himselfthe bedazzled
echo.
morethanonenotiondear
Morover,Gilder'stheologyrediscovers
to Bataille: the critiqueof profanerationalismas well as the final
appealto chance,notas a simple,favorable
coincidence,usefulforits
thatrevealsthemost
anecdotalvalue,butas an existentialstructure
ofbeing."Chanceis thefoundation
ofchangeand
profound
mystery
thevesselofthedivine"(Gilder,312). Or again: "The cruxofchange
is chance" (Gilder,308). Gilderdrawson theworkof
and creativity
Pierce,well-knownas a pioneerin the foundingof semiotics,and
In his
whose work anticipatescertainaspects of deconstruction.
posthumousvolumeChance,Loveand Logic,"Piercehas shownthat
chancenotonlyis at theverycenterofhumanrealitybutalso is the
deepest source of reason and morality"(Gilder,312). Here again
Gilder'sargumentswhich opposethe "closed systemofsecularraof chance,"strangelyecho Bataille's
tionality"to the "prodigality
is notthesame.6"Themostdireand
notionsevenifthefinalargument
fatalhubrisforanyleader"writesGilder,"is tocutoffhispeoplefrom
fromthemiraculousprodigality
ofchancebysubstituting
providence,
a closedsystemofhumanplanning"(Gilder,
313).Thisis a remarkable
to give the risk and chance of economicinnovationan oneffort
tologicaldimensionwhich contradictsratherthanagreeswiththe
and its secular rationalism.
greatnarrativeof the Enlightenment
6. GeorgesBataille,cf.,thethirdpartofSommeatheologique:SurNietzsche,Volonte de chance,(1945).

JEAN-JOSEPH GOUX

217

whichbothcloudsthe
Gilderis admirableinsayingopenly,something
classical Weberianvisionofa capitalismofrationalistlegitimation,
andilluminatesthehistoricalbasesofthepostmodern
rupture:"The
tale of human lifeis less the pageantof unfoldingrationalityand
purposethan the saga of desertwanderingand briefbounty. . ."
(Gilder,315).No, capitalismis notrationalcalculation(individualor
undecideableplay,andthereinlies its
collective)butindeterminable,
its profoundontologicaltruth,and its harmonywiththe
grandeur,
mysterious
originsofthings.Therecouldbe no betterformulation
of
ofcapitalism"than
whatwe havecalled a "postmodern
legitimation
these pages of Gilder.That capitalismlegitimatesitselftodayin a
notonlyprofoundly
postmodern
version,andcouldnotdo otherwise,
illuminatesits presentnature,butalso permitsus apparently
to deof
the
cipher sociohistorical
meaning postmodernism's
philosophical
Postmodern
thoughtis in accordance
(andaesthetic)manifestations.
withoutallowingus toprejudgethemodalities
withthislegitimation,
ofthisagreement.This wouldjustifycertainsuspicionsofsomeone
butat thesame timewouldinvalidate
like Habermas(Introduction)
thembyvirtueoftheirlackofadequatehistoricization,
andtheirlack
articulatedandprofound
evaluationofthenecessities
ofa sufficiently
and modernity.
This is an essential
ofthisbreakbetweenrationality
is over.
pointfornotmistakingtheera:theEnlightenment
one can now pointto an "antibourgeois"
Therefore,
defenseof
likean
capitalism,an appositionoftermswhichresonatedisturbingly,
values
enigmaticoxymoron.
Everything
happensas ifthetraditional
ofthebourgeoisethos(sobriety,
calculation,foresight,
etc.)wereno
tothedemandsofcontempolongerthosevalueswhichcorresponded
rarycapitalism.Anditis in thiswaythatGilder'slegitimation
(which
lendsalmosta senseoftragicheroism,ofsovereign
playtothecreation
of businesses)7can echo so surprisingly
Bataille's critiquesof the
andcalculatingbourgeois
utilitarian
mennarrowly
cramped,
profane,
no
can
count
on
The
tality.
entrepreneur
longer
pettycalculation,on
at a timewhensupplymustcreatedemand(as in
theexpectedprofit,
artisticactivityoranyworkofgenius,stressesGilder)andnotmerely
dimension(perceived
7. Itis thisadventurous
byBalzac,butin essentiallycritical
ofthebourgeoisethosofthe1830s),
andsarcastictermsin responsetothenarrowness
whichgivesbirthto thefinancialnovel.Forexample,cf.,themass-produced
novelsof
Paul-LoupSulitzer Money,Cash, Fortune,Le Roi vert)fromthe beginningof the
eighties,whichare closelylinkedbytheirthemes,theirideologicaluniverse,to the
visiondevelopedat thesame timebyGilderin Wealthand Poverty.

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ofthefounding
it.Anoverturning
satisfy
valuesofpoliticaleconomyis
occurring.The visionofAdam Smithhimselfis deceptiveand dangerous:"Infact,a rationalcalculationofpersonalgainwouldimpelan
individualabove all to avoidriskand seek security.
In ourworldof
committedto a secularvision,the invisiblehand of selffortuity,
interestacclaimedby Adam Smithwould lead to an ever-enlarging
welfarestate-to stasisandsterility.
This is therootofourcrisisand
classical
economics
the crisis of
today"(Gilder,321). There is no
an "invisiblehand."The divinity
longer,therefore,
ofcapitalismis no
longerthe social insurerthatguaranteesthe bourgeoisharmonyof
egotisms.The entireruseofreasoningwhosegrandiosephilosophical
expressionwas furnishedby Hegel,is, in fact,onlythe ruse of socialism-a "welfarestate"ofthe end ofhistorythatstopschance's
The marriage
oftheEnlightenment
miraculousprodigality.
andpolitical economyis over."Thefutureis forever
incalculable"(Gilder,314).
We mustadd,ofcourse,thatit is preciselyat themomentwhen
must thinkhimselfinto the model of the most
the entrepreneur
advancedartisticgenius,at themomentwhentheavant-gardist
strategyof innovationat any pricebecomesthe paradigmof dominant
economicpractice,thattheartisticavant-garde
necessarilyloses its
its deviance-value.The aestheticavantits marginality,
difference,
Whenthe
gardeshavewon.Thatis whatparalyzesthemso seriously.
gadgetmaker,alongwithGilder,borrowsfromthemtheircritiqueof
whichbecomesin his [Gilder's]eyes "themybourgeoisrationality
thologyofa secularrationalistworld"(309)andwhichhe calls upon
wherecan be found
"to plungeintotherealmofdarktranscendance
forthe
all truelightand creativity"
(309),it becomesmoredifficult
forthe
poet to distinguishhimselffromthe grocer,moredifficult
himselffromthedisheveledmanager.
surrealistto differentiate
Alongwiththis "postbourgeois"
capitalismthatat once contradicts Bataille's sociological interpretation
and confirmshis ontological vision, explode the socioculturalcontradictionsof capitalism.Daniel Bell has convincingly
shownthatwiththedevelopmentofmass consumptionandmass credit(whichhe situatesin the
1930s)the puritanideologyofearlycapitalismenteredinto contrahedonistmodeofconsumptionfavored
dictionwithan increasingly
need to reviveseduction,to reby capitalism.The entrepreneur's
spondto competitionwithpromisesofevermore
complexpleasures,
inscribeshim in a consumeristideologydirectlyat odds with the
andhardworkthathadassured
"bourgeois"virtuesofsobriety,
thrift,

JEAN-JOSEPH GOUX

219

thedevelopment
ofproduction.
In thisway,thestrictmoralconfines
with the ethical
necessaryforproductionenterinto contradiction
Bataille
liberation(evenmorallicense)necessaryto consumption.8
does not seem to have foreseenthisconflictbornofabundanceand
ofproduction.
The Weberianimage
theextraordinary
sophistication
ofcapitalismthathe maintains,theslightly
obsoleteconvictionthat
Franklin'spreceptsof economyand sobrietyrepresentcapitalism's
moralsin itspurestate,seemtoindicatethatBatailledidnotimagine
theparadoxicalsituationofpostindustrial
capitalismwhereonlythe
in unproductive
appeal to competeinfinitely
consumption(through
technicalrefinement,
thesuperfluous)
allowsforthe
comfort,
luxury,
developmentofproduction.
One must recognizethatGilderskillfullyemphasizesthe most
seductiveaspectofcapitalism(thecapitalismofabundanceas seducorfeigning
tion)evenifit is byoverlooking,
ignoranceof,thatwhich
can intentionallymislead, deceive, manipulate the consumer,
whetherit is thefictionofperfectcompetitionorthebuyer'slack of
controlovertherealnatureofthemerchandise(harmfulness,
fragility,plannedobsolescence)to theprofitofits appearance,ofits pure
transient
spectacle.If"anAmericanappleis notan apple,"as thepoet
Rilke used to say in an amazingaphorism,it is not only because
ofpeasantshavenotcrystallized
theirsacredefforts
generations
in it,
butalso becausetheproducerandthesellerofthatapplepreferred
to
giveit all the most stereotyped
qualitiesofthe "beautifulapple"to SnowWhite),even
(big,redandshiny,liketheone theWitchoffers
if it is to the detrimentof the real apple (tasteless,fiberless,carcinogenic).This substantive,
actuallyconsumedapplemustremaina
simple "noumenon,"inexistentand withoutinterestcomparedto
the"phenomenon,"
thespectacleoftheapple,whichaloneis at stake
in thesale. Butthatdoesnotpreventthisveryspectacle,thisabstract
aesthetizationofthemerchandise,
fromgoinghandin handwithan
ideologyofconsumptionthatseems to transgress
utilityvalue.
We are touchinghere on difficulties
whichare linkedfromthe
startto the terms"utility,""unproductive
consumption"etc....
Thereare ambiguitiesherethatBataillehas not dealtwithdirectly,
eveniftheposthumousfragments
offer
somequestionsthatnuance
and complicatethepositionsofLa Partmaudite.I wouldliketo note
8. Daniel Bell, The CulturalContradictionsof Capitalism(New York:Basic
Books,1975).

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severalobjectionswhichalso concernmorerecenttheoriesinspired
largelybyBataille.
seemingconsumption
It is clearthateventhemostunproductive
but
also
pleasuretrips,moviesetc.)
(forexample:tobacco,alcohol,
and therebyfallsinto the ecoproducesa profit-making
industry,
nomicsphereaccordingto thelogicofthegeneralequivalent.Ifone
remainson strictlyeconomicground,it is in truthimpossibleto
separateproductiveconsumptionfromunproductivesquandering.
It is perEthicalcriteriaalone could claim to make thisdistinction.
haps one of the aspects of our societyto have erasedat once the
oppositionbetweenthe sacredand the profane,and withthe same
betweentheusefulandtheuseless,thenecesgesture,thedifference
primaryneed and secondarysatisfaction,
saryand the superfluous,
microwaveovens,
etc. Is it useful or superfluousto manufacture
to travelto the moon
quartzwatches,video games,or collectively,
Saturn'srings,etc.?Condillachad already
and Mars,to photograph
is
and
"What
that
written
luxuryforone peopleis notso foranother,
forthe same people,whatwas a luxurycan cease to be one."9Conofthe
dillacand manyotherssaw theveryprincipleofthe "progress
ofluxury,
thismovementwherebythechoicest
arts"in thisrelativity
goods"enterintocommonuse" (191).Anditis doubtlessthiserasure,
difficult
forBatailleto find
thatmakesit so desperately
thisblurring,
the oppositionbetweenthe glorious,sacrificial,spectacularconsumptionoftheaccursedshare(foundedupontheprincipleofa loss
that lends grandeurand nobility) and prosaically utilitarian
consumption.
Butifthislineofdemarcationcannotbe found,itis theveryresult
ofdemocraticlifewhichhas weakenedanddismantledtheseoppositions,whichhas madethemlose theirmeaningofsocial cleavageand
confinedthemto therealmofinsularindividualexperience.All the
examplesof consumptionsocieties that fascinateBataille are extremelyunequal,evencruellyhierarchicalsocietiesin whichspectacularconsumptionis the tool withwhichthe powerfulmaintain
theirpositionabovethedazzled,miserablemasses.The counterpart
oftheerosionofthesehierarchical
oppositions(andin thefirstplace,
is certainlythe dominationofall acthe antimonysacred-profane)
tivitybythecategoriesofpoliticaleconomy.This doesnot,however,
(Geneva:Slatkine
9. Condillac,"Du Luxe,"Le Commerceet le gouvernement,
citedin thetext.
Reprints,
1980),chapter27, 190.Henceforth

JEAN-JOSEPH GOUX

221

implythe reignof the "implacable,sereneGod of the useful,"as


it as a production
marked
Baudelairewrites.10Unlesswe understand
by completeaxiologicalindifference.
Baudrillardis in factwrongwhenhe contendsthatthenotionof
moralsensein economics,
"use-value"and "utility"has a restrictive
ofneed." Itis falsethat
a sensethatimpliesa naturalistmetaphysics
wheneconomistsspeakoftheuse-valueofgoods,theysupposethat
thegoodsproducedmustfirsthavehad "utilitarian"
valuein orderto
have exchangevalue. In economics,use-valueand utilitywereseparated,fromthe start,fromany moral evaluationconcerningtheir
ortheverypossibilityoftheirhaving"use" at
legalorillegal"utility,"
all in thecurrentsense.Ifone mayreproachclassicalpoliticaleconomy forsomething,it is certainlynot, as Baudrillardbelieves(and
mistakenlycreditsMarx with the same limitation)thatit presupposes a metaphysicsof need and of the utilitarian(in the trivial
thatitoperatesa radicaldemoralization
sense),buton thecontrary,
of
12
thesenotions(whichgivesthemcompleteaxiologicalindifference).
in mind,we see thatit is notreallya break
Keepingthisindifference
in historicaldevelopment,
buta continuity
thatleads to a capitalism
of consumption.From the start,even if the common conscienciousness formedby traditionalmoral values of utilitycould not
a denormativation
ofuse,
perceiveit,politicaleconomyhas effected
returning"utility"to the most subjectivewhims of individual
choice. Moreover,when Batailleattacks"the principleof classical
to "currentintellectualrepreutility,"he firstreducesit prudently
sentations("The NotionofExpenditure,"
La Partmaudite,26),"that
is, he reducesit to the most conventionalnotionof utility.In the
thathe has lefton "thelimitsofthe useful"he has perfragments
ofcapitalism,""The greatest
fectlygrasped"themoralindifference
moralindifference
reignsfromthestart,anddoesnotstopreigning
in
theuse ofproducts"(OC 7,218).Does thisobservation
notcontradict
the "utilityprinciple"thathe denouncesin "The NotionofExpenditure"?
Let us reiteratethatit would be useless to look forany kindof
in the notionsof "use-value"or "utility"as political
normativity
10. Les Fleursdu Mal, poem5.
11. JeanBaudrillard,
Critiquede 1'6conomie
politiquedu signe(Paris:Gallimard,
1972).
12. Cf.,mytext"Calcul des jouissances"in Les Iconoclastes(Paris:Seuil,1978).
in Symboliceconomies,CornellUniversity
Americantranslation
forthcoming
Press,
1990.

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Yale FrenchStudies

economydefinesthem,eitherto critiquepoliticaleconomyas an
enslavingmetaphysical
vestigeortoseekinita basisforauthenticity.
politicaleconomy
Veryearlyon, perhapsevenfromthe beginning,
And it is doubtlessthis disengagement,
declinedall responsibility.
this audacious pullingaway,thisautonomizationin relationto all
moralballast(whichthecurrentterms"use" and "utility"stillconthiscareeningaccelvey)thatsoongavecapitalismthisprecipitancy,
eration,this feverforany formof production,this unprecedented
ofsupplythatdidnotresponda priorito anydemand.
multiplication
forexample,Jean-Baptiste
Say.Forhim,menonly
Letus consider,
attachvalue to somethingin functionofits "uses,"and "thisability
of certainthingsto satisfymen's diverseneeds"is called "utility."
But,he adds,politicaleconomyonlytakesnoteofa fact,itstaskis not
to "realutility."
tojudgewhetherornotthisappreciation
corresponds
Politicaleconomymustnot judgein the mannerof "the scienceof
moralmen,men in society"'3-the scienceto whichhe leaves the
"themostuseless,mostinconvetaskofthisjudgement.Therefore,
as
a
what I am here calling
such
robe,
possesses
nientitem,
royal
ifa pricecan be attachedtoitsuse,whateverthatmightbe."'4
utility,
Elaboratingon the same idea AugusteWalras,clearlymarksthis
extensionofthe term"utility"thatrequiresa separationof "moral
utility"from"economicutility"(Walras,83).This explicitdissociaofpoliticaleconotion,whichis at thebase oftheconceptualization
break
with
all
normativity
myandmarksitsradical
(ancientormedieval)oftheuseful,rendersinoperableandnaivethosecritiquesofthe
ofthenotionof"use-value."Auso-calledutilitarian
presuppositions
betweenmoral and
guste Walraswrites: "There is this difference
first
terms
"useful"
the
onlythoseobjectsthat
politicaleconomy:
satisfythoseneedsexplainedbyreason,whilethesecondgrantsthis
name to all objectsthatman can desire,eitherin theinterestofselforbyvirtueofhis passionsandwhims.Therefore
bread
preservation,
is usefulbecauseit servesas ourfood,andthechoicestmeatsarealso
usefulbecause theyappeal to our sensuality.Waterand wine are
usefulbecause theyquench our thirst,and the most dangerousliquorsareusefulbecausemenhavea tasteforthem.Wooland cotton
are usefulbecause one must be clothed;pearlsand diamondsare
usefulas objectsofadornment"(Walras,82).
Say,Trait6d'6conomiepolitique(Paris,1841)57.
13. Jean-Baptiste
14. CitedbyAugusteWalrasin De la naturede la richesseet de 1'originede la
citedin thetext.
valeur(Paris:Alcan editor,)82. Henceforth

JEAN-JOSEPH GOUX

223

Whathas been describedas a "societyofconsumption,"


theconspicuousnessin the 1960s, of a consumeristcapitalism,therefore
does notat all subvertthestatusoftheextensiveconceptof"utility"
inpoliticaleconomy,evenifitundoesthetrivial(moral)notionofthe
theimplicationsoftheaxiologicalindifuseful.It is, on thecontrary,
ferenceof economic "utility"and the historicalconsequences(bethatareexposedandtriumph
yondall reason)ofSay'sprinciple,
in the
lightofday.
A lesson,however,emergesfromthis. It is not the quantityof
ortheimportance
ofunproductive
waste,theamountofsquandering
consumption(whichis impossibleto assignin economicterms,but
thatenablesus to distinguishbewhichsupposesa moralcriterion)
tweenprecapitalist
societies,supposedlygoverned
bytheprincipleof
and capitalistsocieties,supposedlygovernedby
pure expenditure,
no societyhas squanderedso much,
"theutilitarian."Undoubtedly,
producedand spentso much merelyforthe sake ofproducingand
industrialsocieties.The difference
as contemporary
lies in
spending,
its representation,
and
the mode ofwaste,its social mise-en-scene,
finallythe imaginaryof the expenditure.
Withoutarrivingat clear
ofmodernsocietiesin
conclusions,Bataillelookedforthesingularity
theindividualismoftheirexpenditure
(OC, "The LimitsofUtility,"
232 if.)and its allotment(La Partmaudite,"La Notionde depense,"
37) (whichis opposedto communalandspectacularwaste,offered
by
therichfortheirown glorification).
PerhapsBataille'seconomictheoryis explainednotbyhis discovofwhat
eryofpotlachin primitive
societies,butbythepresentiment
capitalismis becoming.That is whyBataillefindshimselfin such
bad company:in troublingconsonance(althoughone cannotreduce
Batailleto what compromiseshim here)withGilder'spostmodern
legitimation.What Gilderrevealsis the play of capitalism,which
withouthis knowingit overdetermines
Bataille's exaltationand
whichalso, at the momentthatit becomesevenmorevisible,dazzling, spectacular,sets offBaudrillard'sacceleratedderangement.
Baudrillardand Gilder map out the same configuration
of postmoderncapitalism.But Gilderis the truthof Baudrillardsince he
wantspoliticallyand theologicallythesocial playofwhichBaudrillardis contentto be the appalledtelevisionviewer(morethanthe
rationalcritic).At the momentthat Gilderforgesthe ideological
instrumentof a libertarian(orratherneoconservative)
politicsand
thus determinesa reality,even indirectly,
Baudrillardenduresthe

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spectacleofthatpoliticsin turmoiland unreality.Gildertheorizes


postmoderncapitalismfromthe point of view of the active entrepreneur,
whileBaudrillard
ravesbrilliantly
aboutpostmodern
capitalism in the televisualarmchairof the stupefiedconsumer.But
Gilder'sentrepreneurial
moralityprovesthatthereis indeedin our
eraan economicpoliticalproject,a locatablemetamorphosis
ofcapital, whereBaudrillardsees only a desintegrative
and paradoxical

poetry.15

But ifBataillewas unable to thinkthroughconsumeristcapitalism


(whichtookon a morereadableformonlyaftertheupheavalsofthe
in
1960s),ifhe was unableto thinkthedissolutionofall foundation
ofthegeneralequivalent(whichcouldserveas a
theunconvertibility
ofthepostmodern
definition
conjuncture)16,ifhe couldnotthinkthe
ofa "postbourgeois"
subsequentlegitimations
capitalismwhichdisandthegreatrationalist
missestheEnlightenment
narrative,
Bataille
did offera new gridwhich also facilitatesthis thought.Moreover,
and fissuredwork,he testifiedto an uncondiwithhis fragmented
tional demandthat has the volcanic centerof the most powerful
a demandbeforewhichhis existentialist
contradictions,
contemporariesappear-with thepassageoftime-as mere "men ofletters."
We know thathis workin "generaleconomics"had a majorplace
amongBataille'spreoccupations,and thatit was undoubtedlythe
Eventhemysticalessays
connectingstrandofhis theoreticalefforts.
ofLa Sommeatheologiqueare indebtedto thispersistantendeavor,
ofoverwhelming
evenifonlyas a momentofdistancing,
liberation,
The precedingpagesattempt
fromtheburdenofhis argumentation.
ofthe"notionof
onlytomarkseveralguideposts:boththedifficulties
whenone triestolinkitwithcontemporary
expenditure"
conditions,
andthestillunexhaustedrichnessofan openinginwhichwe seekthe
could
basesofa moralityforwhichthetwomodesofcommunication
be articulated.One oftheseis daily,prosaicexchange,andtheotheris
the strongermode of love, the festival,and art-communicational
unreason.
TranslatedbyKathrynAscheimand RhondaGarelick
to Batailleis most
15. Especiallyin Les Strategiesfatales,wherethereference
direct(Paris:Gamier,1983),119.
du langage(Paris:6ditionGalilee,1984).
16. Cf.,myanalysisin Les Monnayeurs
Press.
at OklahomaUniversity
forthcoming
Americantranslation