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The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille

Author(s): Denis Hollier and Hilari Allred


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Source: Yale French Studies, No. 78, On Bataille (1990), pp. 124-139
Published by: Yale University Press
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DENIS HOLLIER

The Dualist Materialismof


GeorgesBataille*
... wherethereis nothingwhichan obsessionto laybarethe
reverseside ofthoughtdoes notconsume.

a) AWAKENING
The lightofdayis the space ofthought.But thisspace is too hospi-
tableto thoughtforsomethingessentialnotto escapefromthiscon-
formity.Day only gathersthoughtssubservientto the day; the
insubordinate ones nevercome tolight;theydarkenlikethenight.It
couldbe thattheawakeningbroughtbydaylight is no morethanthe
dreamofan awakening,and thatthought, offeredalmostwithoutits
knowledgeto the diurnalorder,is awakenedonlyto maintainindi-
rectlya deepersleep.Thoughtfeelsathomein a claritywhichgivesit
an impressionofmastery, a deceptiveone sinceit doesnotmasterits
own ends. It thusmovesin an illusoryworldwheretransparencies
reflectone anotherand disappear,withoutanythingeverhappening
which would offera handleforthoughtto graspon to and recover
itselfagain,reallyawakeningit.
The awakeningof thoughtis not its exercisebecause, in this
exercise,thoughtis blindedbythegoodtowardwhichit gropes.The
exerciseof thoughtcorrespondto a distractedattractionto moral
good. Its awakeningbeginswith the contradictory and paralyzing
consciousnessofevil,ofsomethingwhichsuspendsthoughtbecause
itcannotbe thoughtandwilledat thesametime.Thustotheexercise
of thought,which is a morality,since it presupposeseven a naive
submissionto thegoodas theconditionofitspossibility, itsawaken-
ingis opposed,whichprovokesa moraldemandbywhichtheopposi-

andrevisedversionofan articlepublishedin Telquel no. 25


*Thisis a shortened
(Spring1966).Bypermissionoftheauthor.
YFS 78, On Bataille,ed. Allan Stoekl,C 1990byYale University.

124
DENIS HOLLIER 125
tionofgoodandevilcomesto consciousness."The essenceofmorali-
ty,says Bataille,is a questioningabout morality;and the decisive
moveofhumanlifeis touse ceaselesslyall lighttolookfortheorigin
oftheoppositionbetweengoodand evil."' It is as thoughone had to
choose betweenlettingoneselfbe directedtowardthe good (one
mightsay thatin thissense thegooditself,themotorofthewill,is
notwilled)anda suspensionoftheexerciseofthoughtin an awaken-
ing whichwould place one "beyond"the oppositionbetweengood
and evilwhichit wouldsimultaneously bringout; thechoicewould
thus be betweendoinggood and knowingwhat it is. This tells us
alreadythat,in Bataille,dualismwill notopposeGood and Evil,but
morality(whereone doesthegood)anda moralrigorwhichis beyond
goodand evil.
Bataille alwayslongedfora "livedexperience"in the incandes-
cence ofwhich "knowing"and "doing"wouldcome to merge,from
withinwhich the futurewould rise as thoughthe present,having
openedup,wouldexpandand flowintoit,as thoughthefuturewere
this verydrifting of the presentand no longeran escape out ofthe
presentas the structure oftheprojectwouldhave it. A livedexperi-
ence which,by tying "the termsofdialecticaldevelopment"to the
"elementsof real existence,"would effectthe "synthesis-at once
decisive and impossible-of consciousnessand the unconscious,
whichis forBatailletheultimatepossibilityofthatwhichis. Sucha
synthesisis whatinterestedhim mostin psychoanalysis: it occurs,
accordingtohim,at the"momentofthebrutalefficacity ofanalysis,"
a momentwhichhe strangely describeswithHeidegger'swordsfor
death:the "possibilityoftheimpossible."2
This synthesisrequiresthoughtto withdrawfromobjectsand
projectsto become the restrained, maintainedtensionof a purely
intensivethought, awakenedto itself.Thisis whatphilosophy would
consistofifonlyphilosophyagreedto "tiereflection tosuchan object
as wouldexcludethepossibilityofits sleeping.""Whatdoes it mean
to philosophize,Bataille asks, if not to push reflectionto such a
degreeoftensionthatdailyexistencefeelslike sleepandtheeffort of
1. "Du rapportentrele divinet le mal," Critique,(March1947).I quote from
Bataille'sOeuvrescompletes(OC 11: 199).This articleis a reviewofSimonePetre-
ment'sbookon dualismwhichI discusslater(seenote4). Citedhenceforth in thetext
as indicatedabove.
2. The citationsinthisparagraph
aretakenfromtwoarticles:GeorgesBatailleand
RaymondQueneau: "La Critiquedes fondements de la dialectiquehegdlienne,"
La
Critiquesociale,(1933);OC 1: 277-90.
126 Yale FrenchStudies
thephilosopher, awakening?"3 Such an awakenedthoughthas to tie
its reflectionto insomnia-producing objects-such as eroticism,
death, and thoughtitself-which resistbeing thought,and from
which thoughtis alwaystemptedto acceptexclusion,objectsinto
whichit collidesand againstwhich,failingto fallasleep,it loses its
footing.And thatis why at its most acute momentof awakening,
thoughtis moralrigor,for"moralphilosophy, not metaphysicsor
science,is theonlythoughtprocesswhichrespondshead-on,which
confronts the silenceofourdeath"("Du rapport. .. .OC 11: 199).
Rationalthoughtplans,unifies,leading-in accordancewiththe
principleofidentity-to a monismwhichis its firstand its last,its
onlyword;it reduceseverything bytranslatingit intotermsofequa-
tionand everything soon slumbersunderthelightoftheSame. The
awakeningofthought,in whichthoughtoccursas a heterogeneous
event,as a breakinhomogeneity, thuspromptsdualism,whichrepre-
sentsforBatailletheawakened(anddivided)thoughtaboutawaken-
ing.This thoughthas obviousphilosophicalflaws,butthesearethe
priceone must pay forthe rupturewithmonism,the priceforthe
committeddissatisfaction. On the subjectof dualistphilosophies,
Bataillewrote:"It seemsto me thatthepointat whichtheattention
awakensherecompletelyis thatwhichmeritsthisexasperating ten-
sion, which becomes irritatedat any possibilityof reduction.But
would awakeningbe awakeningifthe one who was awakenedwere
once to findhimselfsatisfiedwithwhat he discovers?If he didn't
prolongfurtherand withoutconcernthe interrogation which is
awakening?"(Ibid.,202).It is no longersufficient to open one's eyes
and greettheday;it is necessaryto openthemuntothenight,to the
pointofopeningup the dayto the nightand the nightto the other
night.InBataille'smanystoriesoftheeye,onemustalways"openthe
eyes farther."

b) DUALISM
Bataille neverfailedto acknowledgethe seductiondualistthought
anditsoftenheterodoxexpressions exercisedoverhim.Furthermore,
seductionitself-as opposedto reasonand reckoning-iswhatboth
dualismand Batailleyieldto, the means theyuse to communicate
betweenthemselvesas well as withus. The formshistorically
taken

3. "Le Dernier instant," Critique, (October 1946); OC 12: 116.


DENIS HOLLIER 127
bydualismare numerous,butthereareno perfectones; it is partof
the definitionof dualism that ultimately,theymust remainun-
satisfying. Dualism itself,as a doctrine,neverrelinquishestheun-
tenablepositionitimposesupontheone enticedbyit,keepinghimin
a neverresolveddissatisfaction. Accordingto Bataille,this simply
resultsfromthe factthat one must choose betweena perfection
which, satisfyingthe mind, definitelyputs it to sleep, and the
awakeningwhichrequiresan everunresolveddissatisfaction. Among
themanyoppositionsuponwhichdualismswereconstructed (thatof
Good and Evil,oftheintelligibleand the of
sensible, thetranscendent
andtheimmanent,ofthehighandthelow,ofvirilityandfemininity,
ofvisionand discourse)theoppositionbetweentheprofaneand the
sacredis theone we musttrulyconsiderfundamental here.
Let us recall, fromSimone Ptrement's book (which Bataille
praisedenthusiastically),4 whatis generallyunderstoodbydualism:
the termdesignatesa mode of thought,borderingon philosophy,
religion,and mythology, ofwhichManicheanGnosticismis consid-
eredtobe the moststrikingmanifestation. Atthecoreofthisphiloso-
phy,one finds,accordingto Petrement,"not the oppositionof two
gods,but theoppositionofGod and Matter,[Matterbeing]a second
principle,withitsdistinctive nature,different
fromthatofthespirit,
andnotderivedfromit" (12-13).As forGod: "thegnosticGod is 'the
Stranger','the Unknown','the Abyss','Silence', 'the God who is
not'." Never,perhaps,has the remotenessof God, the absence,the
voidin whichhe mustbe sought,beenso exclusivelytheobjectofa
theology"(15).A theologythenofthe absenceofGod,whicheasily
evokesBataille'satheology:"mustdualismthennecessarilybe a sort
ofatheism?It is howevercertainthatit has relationsto mysticismor
at least to a profoundreligiousfeeling"(91).
Ratherthana systemofthoughtin thestrictsense,dualismis an
attitudeof thought:dualism is not a dualistsystembut a will to
dualism,a resistanceto systemand homogeneity. Obviouslyan un-
tenable attitudein the long run. For systemcannot help being
monisticand,sincetheexerciseofthoughtis spontaneously system-
atizingand monistic,dualism resultsfromthe will bracingitself
againstthistendency, thoughtitselftakinga standagainstthemove-
mentproperto reasonand its tendencytowardconciliation,toward

4. SimonePetrement,Le Dualisme dans 1'histoirede la philosophieet des re-


ligions(Paris:Gallimard,1946).
128 Yale FrenchStudies
reduction.Thus theradicalityoforiginaldualismdegenerates intoa
metaphysicalposition;that is to say it "refines"itselfand corrects
its foundingheterogeneity
(I"perfects") intotheantagonism"ofcon-
traryand symmetrical terms,"wherebyit does not take longto be-
come a systemin whichdualityholds onlytheplace ofa thesis,an
affirmation amongothers:it has alreadybecomemonism.For,to be
trueto its inspiration,dualismmustremain"imperfect," "surpris-
ing," "extravagant";insteadof positingtwo principlesin conflict
withinthe world,it positstwo worlds.Or at least-"since, having
nothingin common,theyare not comparableand cannotbe count-
ed"5-dualist thinking exertsitstensionin maintaining thehiatusof
thisduality,in maintaining it as pureinterval, pureseparation,pure
disjointedin-between."Ofcourse,"Petrement comments,"it seems
absurdto supposetwoworlds.The notionoftheworldis thenotionof
How can one supposetwototalities?Languageitselfrefuses
totality.
thisexpression." Dualism's resistanceto expression, a resistanceim-
bedded in languageitself,condemnsit to a perpetualimbalance,
discomfort, a perpetuallimpingand sliding:neverdo thetwo "total-
ities"let themselvesbe graspedsimultaneously, neverare theyside
by side, nextto each other,because theyboth equally claim to be
everything, to contain everything. One is the contestationof the
other:theyhave no othercommongroundthantheirmutualexclu-
sion. "This shows,"says PRtrement, "thatit is not a questionof
metaphysics." Accordingto Bataille,it is a questionofethics.Com-
mentingon her book he insistson dualism'sethicaldimension,a
paradoxicalethicswhichstartsbeyondthe line ofdemarcationbe-
tweenGood andEvil. "Mywill to transcendence prolongs,ifnotthe
desiretofindtheGood,at leasta longingformoraltruth, whichis the
unappeasedpassionparexcellencewithinus" ("Du rapport. . . ," OC
11:198).
These twoworldscannotexistsimultaneously becausebydefini-
tion thereis only one world;theywill thus have to succeed one
another.But in what form?How will the passagefromone to the
otherhappen?FromtheworldofGood in whichthewill reigns,how
will one pass to the worldofEvil? Not by willingsince the will is
whatproducestheGood.How can one escapefromthewill?Can one
will notto will?One does notchoosebetweenEvil andtheGood but
5. Petrement,op. cit., 111. And also: "To posittermsas contrariesis to render
theminseparable;topositthemas principles ofthesametotalityis toreunitethemin
thesame totality."
DENIS HOLLIER 129
betweentwo "goods,"since choice and will cannothave any other
objectbutone whichtheyconsiderto be good,thegoodalone being
an object.Evil,on thecontrary,whichis thenegationofobjecthood,
eludesthewill. Here,choiceis suspendedandreplacedbyseduction.
This oppositionis most clearlydelineatedin Bataille's articleon
Baudelaire,in Literatureand Evil: "[Baudelaire],
had no will power
butan attractionmovedhimin spiteofhimself.CharlesBaudelaire's
refusalwas themostprofound formofrefusal,sinceit was in no way
the assertion of an opposite principle.... Evil, which the poet does
notso muchperpetrate as he experiences
itsfascination,
is Evilsince
the will, which can onlydesirethe Good, has no partin it."6One
shouldnotcontentoneself,however, withsayingthatin wantingthe
Good,Baudelaire(forexample)reallywantedto spiceup Evil,orvice
versa.It is truethat"iftheluminousintensityofGood did notgive
the nightof Evil its blackness,Evil would lose its appeal" (ibid.,
"Proust,"152; OC:9:257) [142]).
But Good's complicitywithEvil, farfrombeinga double game
[doublejeu] ofthewill,residesin thestructure ofbeingitselfwhich
thwarts[dejoue]thewill.Forthecontrast(thespice)wouldnotcome
intoplayifthewill didnotfullydesiretheGood: howwouldit lend
itselfto a gamewhichit had itselfstaged?The Good is notwhatthe
will has to pretendto want in orderindirectlyto attainEvil and
experiencethe refinedpleasureoftransgression: transgressionis in
factonly possible forthe one who desiresthe Good withoutany
ulteriormotive,withall ofhiswill.Itis eventhisverylackofdistance
on the partof the will devotedto the Good which deliversit to
transgression. Batailledevelopsthesame argument in his analysisof
Proust'ssadism. "Ifpinkhas to be contrasted withblackin orderto
suggestdesire,wouldthisblackbe blackenoughhad we neverthirst-
ed forpurity?had it not tarnishedourdreamin spiteofourselves?"
Thus "if[Proust]was virtuous,it was notin orderto obtainpleasure,
and if he obtainedpleasure,it was because he had firstwantedto
obtainvirtue"(ibid.,158,154; OC 9:269,268 [143]).Evil is then,in a
way,theGood whichhas becomea sourceofpleasure.It startswith
virtuebeingseducedbytheGooditself.Evilresultsfromthemerging

6. GeorgesBataille,"Baudelaire,"
La Litteratureetlemal (Paris:Gallimard,1957),
61; OC 9: 207. [The Englishtranslationshereare fromLiteratureand Evil (trans.
AlastairHamilton,MarionBoyersLtd.,1973,1985),57. Translator]. All Englishtrans-
lationshave been providedby the translatorand will be indicatedin the textby
brackets.
130 Yale FrenchStudies
ofsensibilityand reasonin existence.Thatis to say,whenafterhav-
ingunconditionally desiredtheGood,thewill arrivesat theextreme
pointwhereit can no longerwant(forthereis nothingconceivable
left,no object thatis better)and nevertheless remainsunsatisfied,
awarethattherestillis placeforsomething whichis notitself,which
is beyondthe Good and imposesitselfwithoutbeingwanted;when
thewill whichhad wantednothingbutthegood,whichhad wanted
everythingto be Good,noticesthatthereis a residuebeforewhichit
remainshelpless,a residuewhichhas totalpoweroveritsince,at this
extremepoint,will becomes so vulnerablethat it can onlyyield,
althoughitis awarethatitwas preciselythiswhich,inwanting, itdid
notwant.Suchis transgression: thatpointwherethewill,reducedto
impotencebeforethe irreducibility of a residue,can only,though
withoutwantingto (forthereis nothingleftto want),yield,know-
ingly,to whatit did notwant;Good itselfsomehow,beingcompro-
misedin thepassivityofpleasure,veerstowardEvilwithoutlucidity
of consciousnessdiminishing.Evil is consciousnessin pleasure,a
passingconsciousnessthatcannotlast. Itsplaceis thepunctualtres-
passingflashwhentheinterdiction is crossed:to dwellon theother
sideofinterdictions,toclaimtoremainin evil(as Genet,according to
Bataille,would have it) is nonsense(cf.,La Litteratureet le ma],
"Genet,"203; OC 9:300). Evil does not existindependently of the
interdiction whichis thelimitoftheGood; beyondthislimitreigns
onlyanotherGood; notEvil. Evil neverreigns.
In gnosticdualism,Bataillewas seducedbya contradictory mate-
rialismwhichhe opposedto thephysicist'smechanicaland rational
materialismwhich,because it is monistic,he called a "doddering
idealism."ThusBataille'sattitudecan be portrayed as a dualistmate-
rialism: an "impossible"attitude,as distantfromtheologyas it is
fromevenan atheistichumanismwhichhe namedatheology. In his
firstarticleabout Gnosticism,"Le Bas materialismeet la gnose,"
writtenin 1929,Bataille interprets the recurrent representation in
Gnosticiconography ofa headlessanimalas an affirmation ofathe-
ologicalmaterialism."The severedass'sheadoftheacephalicperson-
ificationofthesun undoubtedly represents,evenifimperfectly, one
of materialism'smost virulentmanifestations."7 This is the point
wherethetwopartsofBataille'stheoreticalworkmerge;theSomme
Atheologigueand La Partmaudite.
7. "Le Bas materialismeet la gnose,"Documents,1930; OC 1: 220-26. [The
I English translationis from "Base Materialismand Gnosticism,"VE, 48-49.
Translator].
DENIS HOLLIER 131
c) THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE
God'sabsenceisnolonger itistheopening
closure: oftheinfinite.
it is moredivinethanGod(I am thusno
God's absence is greater,
longerI, butanabsenceofI: I waswaiting
forthatconjuring
awayand
now,beyond I amgay).8
measure,
EvenifBataille'sreferences, withtheirsometimesscientificclaims,
can be bothersome,the oppositionbetweenthe sacredand the pro-
faneis thematrixofhis thought,notablyofwhatwe have calledhis
dualism.
Letus positan initialdefinition: existenceis profane whenitlives
in thefaceofa transcendence, itis sacredwhenitlivesinimmanence.
However,mattersbecomecomplicatedas soon as one asks whatin
the profaneworldis transcendent and, in the sacredworld,imma-
nent.Indeed,to the firstquestionone must answerthatit is the
sacreditselfwhich is transcendent forthe profane:the profaneis
definedby theabsenceofthe sacredfromwhichit is separated,this
separationconstituting its distinctivemark.
Butwhatis thesacred?Let us clarifythequestionbecause,as we
shall see, it is ambiguous:whatis thesacredfromwhichtheprofane
is separatedandwhichtranscends it?Ithas manynamesofwhichthe
mostcommonlyused areGod,ortheState,ortotalMan; butwhatis
fundamental hereis less whatis positedas transcendent (theseab-
stractentities)thantheveryseparationas a structure ofexistence.It
is thusprofaneexistenceitselfwhichproducesseparation, institutes
itselfas separatefromthesacred,and thetranscendence bywhichit
definesthe sacredin factcharacterizes theprofaneitself.
"Everything leads one to believe,"saysAndreBreton,"thatthere
existsa certainplacein thespiritwherelifeanddeath,therealandthe
imaginary, pastandfuture, thecommunicableandtheincommunica-
ble are no longerperceivedto be in contradiction to one another."
Bataillequoteshim and continues"I shall add: Good and Evil,pain
and joy."9But he does not add: the sacredand theprofane.Dualism

8. "L'Absencede mythe," inLe Surrealismeen 1947(Paris:Maeght,1947);OC 12:


236.
9. La Littgrature
et le ma], "EmilyBrontE,"29; OC 9: 186.[VE,281.
Breton'ssentencecomesfromtheSecondManifestoofSurrealism, itis thusoneof
theaftermaths of"Le Bas materialisme,"Bataille'sarticleon GnosticDualismwhich
Bretonattacksin his 1930manifesto. His beingthemaintargetofthismanifesto did
notprevent Bataillefromoftenreferringto Breton'sfornulation.See also theconclu-
sionoftheessayonGenet,whichis thelastpageofthefinalessayofLa Litteratureetle
mal 226 [OC 9: 316; [2041.
132 Yale FrenchStudies
startspreciselyhere,withthefactthatthereis no point,eitherin the
spiritor elsewhere,wherethe sacredand the profanecease being
perceivedas contradicting one another,evenifat timestheyhaveto
coexistand seem to be superimposed on one another.Moreover, this
verypoint,thisinstantofthefusionofcontraries definesthesacredas
such and distinguishes it fromtheprofane:thesacredconfusesthat
whichtheprofaneopposesor distinguishes.
Thereare thenindeedtwo worlds,theprofanein whichwe live,
andthesacredin whichwe die,theworldofthepresenceofI, andthe
worldofthe absenceofI, ofmyabsence,theworldwhereI am not,
wherethereareno I's. "The worldwe die in, saysBataille,is notthe
'worldwe livein'." This worldis opposedto theworldwe livein like
the inaccessibleto the accessible."'0The oppositionthusis not be-
tweenthisworldand thentheotherworld,buttheworldofidentity
anditsalteration;theworldofthought[lapensee]anditsexpenditure
[de'ense], the worldof measureand its immoderation[demesure].
The sacreddoes notso muchcontradict theprofane, as itdiffers
from
it by a difference whichis thealterationofits identity.
It is a strangerelationwhichties together thesetwoworldswith
no commonground,whoseunthinkableand impossiblecoexistence
cannot be describedin termsof an additionor a totality,never
amountingto a total.This situationappearsclearlyin Bataille'stex-
tualoperationsinvolvingthenameof"God,"theprofanenameofthe
sacred.Evenifitis thehighestname,God remainsnevertheless justa
name and fromthisperspective, oflanguage,it remains
a tributary
bound to the profaneworld.Doubtless,insofaras it is the highest
word,God is the keywordwhichpermits(likea weak pointin the
systemwhichhas calleduponittoachieveitsclosure)thesacredtobe
evoked,buttheprofanename ofthesacred,as soon as it turnsaway
fromthisprofanestatus,revealsitselfto be theabsence ofGod. But
let us stopat thispassage.
In Bataille,thename ofGod refersto whatis thekeystoneofthe
profaneworld,theworldinwhichthingsarewhattheyare.Godis the
one who guaranteestheidentityoftheself,who guaranteescompen-
sationsproportional to merits,justice,balance,stabilityofmeanings
in language;tiedto theisolationofindividualsin separateselves,itis
the supremeself whose idea enables human selves, despitetheir
separationand theirlimits,to communicateamong themselves.

(1957);OC 12:
10. "Ce MondeoiLnousmourons,"Critique,August-September,
457.
DENIS HOLLIER 133
These exchangesobviouslyescape thedirectand sacrificialcommu-
nicationofthesacred;theyareindirectandresultfroma compromise
betweentheintegrity ofindividualsand thedesiretheyhaveto open
themselvesto one another.Yetthiskeystonewhich,at leastpartially
(fromthefactthatGod is presentundertheguiseofa word),belongs
to the profanesystemitself,is consideredby the profanesystem-
whichitthussustains,orwhichis sustainedthrough itsmediation-
as contaminated bythesacredworld.Starting withthiskeystone,the
profaneworldis able to edifyitselfintoa quasi-architecturalsystem
(hierarchicaland specializedpartsworkingtogetherto givesolidity
and cohesionto thewhole).Butthisresultsin an architecture which
hangsuponthatwhichitrejects;thetopoftheedificeremainssome-
howheterogeneous to it,since,like a key,thenameofGod servesas
muchto closetheprofane worldas toopenit.Itis as muchthatwhich
separatestheprofane fromthesacredas thatwhichlinksittoit,andif
the obverseof it is profane,its reverseis sacred.The name of God
introducestheequivocaldimensionofthepresence-absencewhose
ambiguousplaywill contaminateall language.Forthisname which
positsthedivineas transcendent is theabsenceofGod: absenceofhis
presence;butitsreverse, orthesacred(as distinctfromthedivine),is
also a modeoftheabsenceofGod,thistimehoweverin thesense of
thepresenceofhis absence and oftheimmanentexperienceofthis
absence.This passagefromtheobverseto thereverseis whatBataille
calls thesacrifice,thatis theputtingto deathofGod byman,which
bothconsecratesthedead God and deifieshis humanmurderer, the
perpetrator ofGod's absence.

d) MAN

He who does not "die" frombeingonlya manwill neverbe other


thana man."1

The truthoftheuniverseis expenditure,whichis notgraspable,


never
fullythinkable.The incompatibilitybetweenthought[pensee]and
expenditure[depense]is radical,similarto thatbetweenconscious

11. L'Experience
intdrieure(Paris:Gallimard,1954),49; OC 5: 47. [Weareusing
the Englishtranslation,
InnerExperience,trans.withintroduction by Leslie Anne
Boldt(New York:StateUniversity ofNew YorkPress,1988)).
134 Yale FrenchStudies
and unconscious. Thus, since expenditureis ultimatelythe un-
thinkableparexcellence,thoughtitselfis thesuspensionofexpendi-
ture.
This is thetopicof"Corpscelestes,"an essaypublishedin 1938,a
firstversionofthepageswhichLa Notionde depensewill devoteto
cosmology.In it Bataillerefersto Eddington, theastronomer associ-
atedwiththetheoryoftheexpandinguniverse;buthis readingofit
transforms it into an interpretation ofthe worldthatwould rather
deservethename ofexpendinguniverse.'2Thereis one truthin the
universe;it is expenditure, whichis neverthinkable.Butit is visible,
perceptible, forthe sun bringsit as its own-if blinding-evidence,
the sun which,fireand flame,is nothingbuttheincessantexpendi-
tureofenergy withno compensation whatsoever.13Yet,althoughthis
is thegenerallaw oftheuniverse,one singlepointoftheuniverse,a
cold spot in the furnace,oddlyinsistson ignoringit: theEarth(the
planetof thinkingbeings),a blindplace in this luminous,bulging
immensity, an avariciousplanet,somberandcold,isolatedin a prodi-
gal, luminous, and boiling universe.While the universe,in the
boundlessmovementwhichit communicatesto all ofits parts-so
completelythatit is scarcelypossibleto continuespeakingofparts,
so intrinsically alien is it to anyseparation-, is uniquelythisvery
movement,theendlessmanifestation ofan incessantdisappearance,
thetotalloss whichis radiance,on Earth,on the contrary, theparts
are jealously isolated, the mass becomes atomized,the particles
claimforthemselvesan autonomyin whichtheywithdraw, indepen-
dentofthetotalitywhichgathersthem.14 Symmetrical tothecosmic

12. "Corpscelestes,"Verve,(Spring1938); OC 1: 514-20. The articlewas illus-


tratedby a seriesof paintingsby AndreMasson representing galacticexplosions.
[Translated as "CelestialBodies,"in October36,(Spring1986),specialissueonGeorges
Bataille,ed. and trans.AnnetteMichelson,77].
13. Bataille'ssun alwayssplitintotwo,betweenlightandheat,betweenraysand
flames(whichbecome ashes).It is thus alwaysnecessaryto make the distinction
betweenPlatonicsun and thatof Prometheus-Van Gogh; betweenthe sun which
illuminatesand thatwhichconsumes;betweenthatoferection("le durdesirde du-
rer,")[theharddesiretoendure]andofejaculation.ForBataille,theshiftfromonetothe
otheris dramatized in thecentralepisodeofthemythofIcarus,thepassageofthesun
"thatwas shiningat themomentofelevation"totheone "thatmeltedthewax."(Soleil
pourri,"Documents,1930; OC 1: 231-32). ["RottenSun,"VE,57-58].
14. "Earth,as a heavenlybody,differs indeedfroma starinsofaras it is cold and
does not shine.... The surfaceoftheplanetis formednot onlyofmolecules,each
unitinga small numberof atoms,but of muchmorecomplexcompositions, some
crystalline,othercolloidal,the latterleadingto the autonomousforcesof life,to
plants,toanimals,tomen,tohumansociety.... ColdEarthcannotkeeptheatomsof
DENIS HOLLIER 135
cornucopianoverflow, a generaldevouringmovementprevailson
Earth.The scientist(atonce earthlybodyandthinking being)claims
forhimselfthe statusofan exceptionto his own theory.
Thus it is as thoughthe Earth'ssurfacewere the theaterof a
reversalin the generalmovementof the universe.The firstmove-
ment,unbounded,is thatof "communication"betweenbeings,the
second,hierarchical, thatofwhatBatailledescribesas the "composi-
tionofbeings."'5Sincetheautonomyofisolatedbeingsincreasesin
proportion to thedegreetowhichtheyarecomposite,tothecomplex-
ityoftheirconstitution, compositionis a movementwhichproduces
a hierarchicaland pyramidalsystemof beings,at the summitof
whichBatailleplaces humansociety,the mostcomplexofall orga-
nisms,withlanguageand discursiveknowledgeworkingas "biolog-
ical binder"(theequivalentforsocietyto whattissuesareforbodies).
Wecan translatethisfactintotermswhosemeaningswehavealready
established.For example, with matter-the formlessmatterof
Bataille's "base materialism"-we can identifythe generalized
movementof cosmic expenditureand with form,its miserlyan-
thropocentric denial.Matter,the complexlabyrinth ofuncomposed
beings,is the base of the pyramid.We could also say thatmatter
whichis spent-matteris in factjust anothername forexpenditure
and "dissimilation"-is in thisway,aboveall,relentlessexterioriza-
tion,a pureoutside,while autonomousorganismswhose lives are
characterized byabsorptionand assimilationonlyexistbyvirtueof
theseparationbetweenan outsideand an inside.
But earthlybodies (such as scientists),even if theyignorethe
generalmovementoftheexpenditure ofenergy, arenotindependent
of it, fortheyconsumeand accumulateits energy.While resisting
expenditure, theyremainno less integrated into the cosmic move-
mentof energy,savingwhat is spent,absorbingwhat is produced,
internalizingwhatis externalized.
The Earthis thusa cosmichole in whichthetruthoftheuniverse
(expenditure, communication, gloriousmanifestation) getsdrained,
suckedin,sacrificed. ButtheEarthandman-since theculminating
point of the will forautonomyis the epistemologicalspecies,the

hersurfacewithinthepowerofan almostzeroradiation,and the 'movementofthe


whole'whichformsaroundhermovesin a direction contraryto thatofthemovement
formedwithina starwithhightemperature." Corpscdlestes,"OC 1: 514-20. [77].
L'Expdrience
15. "La Communication," intdrieure, 122-28; OC 5: 110-15,[93-
106-22; OC 97-110. [81-93. Translation
98],and "Le Labyrinthe," modified].
136 Yale FrenchStudies
inhabitantof Earth'ssurface-forgetwhat makes theirautonomy
possible(theveryprodigality theyinterrupt), and quicklyclaimto be
thetruth,themeaningoftheuniverse.Byclaimingthattheuniverse
is meantto bestowitselfforthem,theyturnawayfromtheiraleatory
origins."All thatwe recognizeas truthis necessarilylinkedto the
errorrepresented by the 'stationaryearth"' ("Corps Celestes,"OC
1:516 [76]).And,since anthropocentrism is themain featureofsys-
temsofthoughtwhichareunableto expand,to decenterthemselves
farenoughto conceiveoftheexcentricity ofexpenditure, "thecrown-
ing achievementof this [devouring] tendencyis anthropocentrism"
(ibid.,518 [77]).Anthropocentrism, indeed,repressesdehumanizing
and decentering excesses;it is committedto saving"theworldwe
live in," a worldorganizedaroundthe human subject,againstthe
worldofexpenditure, whichBataillealso calls "theworldwe die in,"
"a worldfornobody,a worldfromwhichsubjectshave been evacu-
ated,theworldofthenon-I."
But hereis preciselythe pointwherethe reversaloccurs,where
man's avariciousreversalof the law of the universewill itselfbe
reversed. Evenman,ultimately, has toenterintocommunication and
expenditure. To startwith,in Bataille'sdescriptionofman,the ac-
cumulativedriveitselfis so strong,thatit becomesa virtuallyunre-
stricted,unbounded,endlessand aimless forcewhichincreasingly
comes to resembleits opposite:unrestricted expenditure. A greed
withoutreserve,a greedthatloses its limits,becomingexcessive,
unquenchable."The greatertheirwealth,themoretheyproliferate.
Their productiveforceproduces only new productiveforce....
Men," Bataille continues, "began. . . to observe the greed which
drovethemas a curse."'16 In "Corpscelestes,"man'sgreed,thevery
compulsionto produceand to accumulate,is what Bataille calls
man'saccursedshare.Thus,themovementthatopposesexpenditure,
ratherstrangely, was originallydescribedwiththeverytermswhich
will latercharacterizeexpenditure itself.The cursewhichfirstre-
ferredto what cannotbe spentwill laterreferto what cannotbe
saved.In thisspecificcase, thelogicoftheshiftis dependenton the
conceptofavariciousness, whichrequireslimits.In becominginfin-
ite, greedloses its meaning,it becomes excess insteadof greed,a

16. "Corpscdlestes,"OC 1:519.In Le Bleu du ciel,Dirty'sexcessesareidentified


withhervoraciousness.
DENIS HOLLIER 137
greedexpandingintoexpenditure. Infiniteavariceandinfiniteprodi-
galitybecomeindistinguishable.
This shiftor reversalreflectsa hiatus which is essential in
Bataille'stheoryofexpenditure, a theorywhich,submitted toa sortof
theoreticalstuttering-thecharacteristic rhythmof dualism-can-
not be utteredin one breath.It takesseveralattemptsto getit out.
Thus,as a firststep,man discoversthelaw oftheuniverse,butin
so doing,he escapes it,he distinguishes himselffromit. The motor
doesnotmove.The thinking ofexpenditure is taxdeductible, itis not
itselfan expenditure. Insteadofdonating,it collectsdata. Denying
the cost ofinformation (thatone has to expendoneselfin orderto
know),scienceis the intellectual,ideologicalversionofthe earthly
refusalofexpenditure. The planetis nottheonlyversionofan immo-
bile ground.Scientificdiscourseis anotherone, an intellectualand
abstractformofanthropocentrism whichtheCopernicanrevolution
didnotsucceedin demolishing. ThuswritesBataille:"Evenifhuman
existenceis reallyin the processof discoveringthe universethat
sustainsit,thisexistencemustacknowledge theuniverseas a specta-
cle externalto it or else denyitself"(ibid.,516 [76]).The existential
problemofscienceis thatofan Oedipuswho risksbeingswallowed
bythesphinxpreciselybecausehe foundtherightanswer.Contrary
to Brecht'sVerfremdungseffekt, thisdistancingis essentiallya strat-
egythatprevents thebeholderfrombeingabsorbedbytheshow.Man
resistsenteringthespectacle,he resistsidentifying withit. He does
notrecognizehimselfin it.Werehe toacknowledge himself"as spec-
tacleviewingitself,"he wouldrisklosinghis life.
Yet,at the heartof this cosmology,thereis a contradiction be-
tweenthe existentialpositionofthesubjectand his knowledge,the
gapbetweenwhatmanknowsandwhathe is. A coldmindedandcold
heartedvulcanologist, he developsa theoryofan expanding universe
froma positionwhichis basedon therefusalofexpansiveness. Man
he He
withdrawsfromthegame, shirksexpenditure. doesnotpartici-
pate in theplayoftheworld,imaginingthathe is an exception,that
he restson safe,solid,stablegroundin a worldinvadedbymovement.
A firstformofthebreakwithanthropomorphism is a blindone,
the Dionysian surpassingof the theoretical(Apollonian)attitude.
This firstwayoutis an explosiveone. The vulcanolgistmovesoutto
Pompey.He replacesreservewith self-sacrifice, with "the need to
give,whetherone's own selfor one's possessions.""Throughloss
138 Yale FrenchStudies
man can regainthefreemovementoftheuniverse,he can danceand
swirlin thefullraptureofthosegreatswarmsofstars"(ibid.,520 [78]).
Butthesituationto whichsuch a breakleads cannotbe describedas
the "spectacleviewingitself."This time,however,it is forthe op-
positereason:the ex-beholder is blinded,and evendestroyed byhis
proximity withtheshow,hisparticipation in it.Enteringdepense,he
lost pensee. At least,thisis whatBataillesaysin "Corpscelestes."
However,it is not what happensin it: "Corpscelestes"is an essay
which is about blindnesswithoutbeingblinditself.It escapes the
alternativebetweenthe two exclusivepositionsdfa thoughtthat
distancesitselffromanyexpenditure and an expenditure whichex-
cludes thought.
In the finalanalysis,the major interestof Bataille's theoryof
expendituremightnot be of an economicor anthropological order
but,rather, ofan epistemological one. Itsintereststemsless fromits
theoreticalcontentthanfromwhatit doestothespaceofknowledge.
A memorablediscussionin ParisfollowedthepublicationofL'Expe-
rience interieure,duringwhich Bataille was grilledby the most
importantphilosophersofhis time,Sartreincluded.One ofhis last
answersis literallya turningupsidedownofLucretius'sSuave mari
magno.... It is hardto decideifit relatesto theactualsettingofthe
exchange,Bataille the self-taught eclectic being examinedby li-
censedphilosophers, orwhetheritis a description in generaltermsof
hisphilosophicalposition.Lucretiusdescribesman'spleasureat wit-
nessingthe stormwhich imperilsothersfromthe solidityof the
philosophicalshores,a positionin manyregardsanalogousto what
Bataille,in "Corps celestes,"called the errorof "stationaryearth."
But,in answeringthevariousphilosophers who had questionedhim
duringthe discussion,Bataille reversesthe image: "Placed before
you,I feelmyselfto be the contrary ofhimwho tranquillywatches
the dismastedvessels fromthe shore,because in fact,in spite of
everything, I cannotimagineanyoneso cruelthathe couldnoticethe
one who is dismastedwithsuch carefreelaughter.Sinkingis some-
thingaltogether one can haveit to one'sheart'scontent."'7
different,
Bataille'scogito,thus,reads: "I sinktherefore I am."
In the violentexpenditureof self,man must "perceivethathe
breathesin the powerof death" ("Corps celestes,"5:20 [78]).This
philosophicalraftoftheMedusa is theallegoryofa thoughtthathas

17. "Discussion sur le peche, Dieu vivant, 1945; OC 6: 358.


DENIS HOLLIER 139
leftbehindtheworldwe live in,thephilosophicalworldoftheexer-
cise of thought,ofthoughtas exercise,forthe worldwe die in, the
worldofthoughtas awakening.A thoughtwhichsustainsitselfbe-
yondtheloss ofthesubject,whenthoughtkeepsgoingevenafterits
subjecthas been spent.Expenditure hereis notso muchan objectto
be thoughtof,as it is themode ofthoughtwhenthereis no subject
leftto thinkit. Thinkingexpenditure, fora subject,meansfirstofall
thinkingofa scene fromwhichhe has been evacuated.It means to
push self-sacrificeat least to thepointofthe loss ofego,enteringa
spacewheretheego,havingbecomeexpendable, is endowedwiththe
gloryofnot beingthere.

TranslatedbyHilariAllred