martes, abril 05, 2005

GEORGES BATAILLE - Stella Accorinti

GEORGES BATAILLE. An approach to “the impossible”

Stella Accorinti

"Life has always taken place in a tumult without apparent cohesion, but it only finds its grandeur and its reality in ecstasy and in ecstatic love."

"The Sacred Conspiracy," in Acéphale, no. 1, Paris, 1 June 1936; repr. in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, ed. by Allan Stoekl, 1985.

"To place oneself in the position of God is painful: being God is equivalent to being tortured. For being God means that one is in harmony with all that is, including the worst. The existence of the worst evils is unimaginable unless God willed them."

"Bataille, Feydeau and God," interview with Marguerite Duras in France-Observateur , 1957; repr. in Duras, Outside: Selected Writings, 1984.

"Sacrifice is nothing other than the production of sacred things."

"The Notion of Expenditure," in La Critique Sociale, Paris, Jan. 1933; repr. in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927 --1939, ed. by Allan Stoekl, 1985.

"Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it."

Eroticism, ch. 13, 1962.


When the critics attack anti-metaphysical thinking, they adopt one of two perspectives: they accuse the thinker of committing a performative contradiction or they say that the thinker is a metaphysical one, because from the critic’s perspective any concept presented by the anti-metaphysical thinker is a metaphysical one from the critic’s perspective. The second argument is just an attempt at turning the first argument into a more sophisticated one. It is usual to hear: “You say that truth does not exist, yet you claim that what you are saying is the truth.” This is Karl-Otto Apel’s view, known as performative auto contradiction. This kind of critic, protected under the shadows of the Aristotelian logic’s tree, has the assumption that if something is not A, is no A. However, this is a pseudo-argument, for if the thinker does not accept the existence of the color white, he is not necessarily, saying that everything is black.

A problem emerges in the way that Michael Weston, in his Philosophy, Literature and the Human Good, presents the criticisms of traditional metaphysical, with Bataille as example: each thinker who seeks to review a conventional standard or measure, doing a negation in front of this, seems to end up making their own claim to universality, or their own claim of truth. When Nietzsche rejects Kant’s metaphysical standard, edifying the Will of Power as an unending process of self-creation, a movement that reifies becoming and art (as the self-creation), is he moving all his concepts into a level of universal truth? If we are to believe in Weston writings, it seems that one needs access to metaphysical concepts such as truth, essence and other of similar categorizations, in order to realize Nietzsche’s prescriptions for self- creation, and indeed Nietzsche’s Ubermensch paradoxically represents a metaphysical ideal even as he seeks to undermine all universally valid truths.

The presentations of these arguments are common inside the field of anti-metaphysical criticisms. It takes the form of the immobilization of an opponent. However, other thinkers are not our opponents; they are different human beings, who think differently, on diverse paths. We, as philosophers, do not have the task of winning a philosophical discussion, then, if we enter in the “between” of the dialogue, we accept the becoming of the dialogue. To immobilize the other people by saying that they are presenting as a truth the proposition “There is no truth” is nothing relevant within the philosophical world, and we think, inside the entire world. It is only a simplistic game, where we proclaim a winner, the “inmobilizator”. There is another way: not to paralyze other people thoughts, but to convince them. However, to convince people is not the role of the philosophers but the role of the politicians.

Weston seems to have identified a paradox, and Bataille’s notion of the “impossibility” is part of Weston’s identification.[1] Then, what happens? Are all these anti-metaphysical thinkers connected in some way to the very metaphysics that they attempt to destroy?

What Georges Bataille himself said?

“The essence of morality is a questioning about morality; and the decisive move of human life is to use ceaselessly all light to look for the origin of the opposition between good and evil.”

“The anguish of the neurotic individual is the same as that of the saint. The neurotic and the saint are engaged in the same battle. Their blood flows from similar wounds. But the first one gasps and the other one gives.”

“Eroticism is assenting to life even in death.”

“Sanity is the lot of those who are most obtuse, for lucidity destroys one's equilibrium: it is unhealthy to honestly endure the labors of the mind which incessantly contradict what they have just established.”

What could be the metaphysics in this kind of thinker? What is the impossible that Weston found in Bataille, and why does he present Bataille’s thoughts in that way?

Looking for a third view, we found the following phrases, in a critic review about one of Bataille’s book, published in English the last year:

“Bataille does indeed suffer from all manner of faults at the level of methodology, often crushing together statistical studies, myth, dialectics, genealogy, poetry and appeals to biological ‘fact’.

“Anybody interested in the darker side of the arts, social sciences and humanities, or who is interested in destroying their lives as utile subjects should read this book. [Eroticism]”

Mark Douglas Price, 2004[2]

Did this critique read something “impossible” in Bataille’s book? It looks like what is “impossible” to read is Dr. Douglas one-dimensional and depreciative view.


Taking Michael Weston’s words about Bataille as a starting point, this paper will try to deal with the notion of impossible in Georges Bataille’s thoughts.

What does “impossible” means in Bataille’s work? We can read Bataille’s close friend, Michel Leiris, looking for a first approach to answers:

[…] “impossible” (namely that which goes beyond the limits of the possible and whose pursuit is therefore a pure act of despoiling) and that doctrine—or rather anti doctrine —of “not knowing” with which, in his middle age, he would go beyond the iconoclastic fury of his youthful revolts and be able to dispense to those who wanted to hear [in] him an instruction all the more effective because it was fed by more experience and more knowledge and at the same time was more controlled. This article, which could be called inaugural, gave its author the chance to show some reproductions of plant forms that were quite improper (as though the impropriety were not a matter of one’s judgment but inherent in nature itself) and to refer, in conclusion, to the famous gesture of the Marquis de Sade plucking petals off roses over a ditch of liquid manure.”[3]

This going-to beyond the limits of the possible reminds us of Nietzsche’s “beyond good and evil”. Like the German philosopher, Bataille, was trying to go beyond good and evil during all of his lifetime, not only in his texts but also in his own life. Evil and good are social constructions inside these thinkers’ thoughts. Evil and good are not separated entities, and they weren’t born from nothing. These concepts were constructed by a certain kind of people, with certain purpose, inside a given social artifact, and a given time and space. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche offers the example of the word “blonde” related to “good” in German language and “evil” related to “black”, concluding that the conquerors, blonde people, imposed certain language in their region, inhabited primarily by obscure skin people. Therefore, “impossible” is to go beyond all that is called “good”. This is the job proposed by Bataille. This is the reason why he said that Nietzsche must be called the “philosopher of evil”. To push the limits of the possible, beyond the possible, means also to do this in an act that is presented in a despoiling way. Nothing is waiting after the act. It is the nothing that death presents to us. This going-to-the-impossible is a going-to-death ar each instant; this pure act is to live the death in the natural way of life. Death and life are not opposite; because death is only the end of life. To try to live the limits of life, like extreme forms that eroticisms offer to human beings, is one of the roads that Bataille shows us to act the impossible on the stage of life. To live eroticism beyond the limits is to experiment death in its purest form, approaching more and more to the impossible: “Impossible” means, in Bataille’s language, absolute sacrifice and sovereign expenditure.

In trying to understand what the impossible means in Bataille , we need to enumerate, and in some cases summarize and/or develop, some key concepts that are constitutive of a possible Bataille’s cartography. This cartography could guide us in Bataille’s territories, looking for the impossible in them.

Some first key (basic) concepts that we can find in a first reading, are:

the accursed share
the potlatch[4] (borrowed from Marcel Mauss's discussion of the kula and the gift economy)

Georges Bataille rejected not only traditional philosophy, but also traditional literature and considered that the ultimate objective of intellectual, activity should be the annihilation of the individual in a violent act of communion. (This point of view can be confronted in Roland Barthes’, Julia Kristeva’s, and Philippe Sollers’ texts, who have written about Bataille’s works, all of them specifically attracted to this view of the French thinker.) “I am not opposed to the evil”, said Bataille in On Nietzsche. Will of chance. We would like to specially include this rejection of traditional literature, the violent act of communion (trough eroticism) and Bataille’s acceptation of evil, as key concepts, which we prefer to call basic concepts. This preference is based in that the word “key” is more ambiguous than the voice “basic”. The key opens, and the key closes, but we can also open something without key, etc.

In a third level of basic concepts we could recognize the solar anus, the sacred and the absolute negativity. This paper will not analyze this third level, because they can be obliterated in a first approach to Bataille’s thoughts about the impossible.


Georges Bataille (1897-1962) was born in France. He was involved in the Surrealist movement; however he always had a critic view about the movement. His perspective and activities involved and propitiated by this did that André Breton himself expulsed Bataille from the surrealist movement. Bataille founded many journals centered in his favorite issues, sociology, religion, and literature. Bataille was the first to publish Derrida, Barthes and Foucault and Derrida. This kind of propitious environment appeared usually in certain epochs when appeared that we call “brilliant thinkers”. A large number of people involved in deepest intellectual jobs, that not only include to write and to publish for the academic circles, but also, and all over, for all kind of public, and all kind of disciplines. Perhaps we can summarize those times as times with trans-disciplinarians thinkers for a trans- disciplinary society.

Bataille worked as a librarian in two times during his life. The first one was during 1922 to 1944 at Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. At the same time that he researched inside the library about eroticism, he was a recognized visitor of prostitutes. These experiences were reflected, for example, in Madame Ewarda. In 1961 Max Ernst, Miro and Pablo Picasso, organized an auction of paintings to help Bataille, who was in financial difficulties, situation that began in the earlier 1940s. We are not naming these three painters for casualty; we are citing them to show part, only a little part of this marvelous inteelctual context in the France on those times.

Bataille died in Paris on July 8, 1962. Bataille’s ex wife remarried with Jacques Lacan. We want to remark that these data about friendships and relationships offer us a vision about the weatlth and amazing environment in which the French philosopher developed his ideas.

The Tears of Eros (1961) was Bataille's final book, a detailed and morous history of eroticism and violence. This beautiful book, plenty of paintings, was a part of his researching as a librarian. Marvelous paintings of saints and martyrs, with ecstatic view, their bodies covered of blood, appearing in front of us, who must decide what to think. The presentation of all the iconography includes not only saints: we can see in this book some images of torture in China, with some pictures that were taken to common people, while they were tortured.[5] Bataille, a declared transgressor, thought that suffering and eroticism are closely linked. The passion in the saint’s eyes remember us the orgasm’s instant, when the lovers are only one. Whatever we understand for the phrase “the lovers are only one”, the projection that Bataille offers is that we are one with the universe when sex is present in our lives. However, sex was not only a biological manifestation of the human being for our author, but also a manifestation that we are really human beings, and we are really language beings. We live death each time we make love, because the “little death” involves us, and we find it trough eroticism.

Histoire de l'oeil (1928, The Story of the Eye), Le Bleu du ciel (1945, Blue of Noon), and L'abbé C (1950, The Abbot C.) are among Bataille's best-known glorifications of eroticism. He felt that sexual union causes momentary undistinguished ability between otherwise distinct objects, the undistinguished lost union with the entire world. These objects include the world and the lovers, the death and the life, the sense and the non sense (in a figurative way, for example, when , during the orgasm, we may lose in different ways, our senses –some people hear less, some people’s body changes their sense of pain, etc) . The secret of eroticism opens visions into unknowable continuity of being and the death. Being and death are un-differentiable during eroticism event. Poetry has similar dimensions when it dissolves the reader 'into the strange'. In the same sense, pornography was for Bataille the vehicle for his own surrealist experiments and memory. This also partly explains complex associations of eggs and eyes in The story of the eye, where the sex story between the two central characters develop all kind of extreme eroticism, including make love in front of the corpse of their best friend.[6]

Although Bataille could write clearly he was many times content to present his ideas in a puzzling way. This puzzle is textured not only by metaphors and neologism but also by new meanings for old words in philosophy, or words never taken by the philosophical analysis. This is an important part of his ideas, because Nietzsche said “the style is the blood”, in a metaphor that has, as a minimum, the interpretation that form and content are the same. Writers rite in their own style, and when their ideas change, their style also changes. It is impossible to write in a Cartesian style when we need to say something totally different in philosophy. We are language beings, like Wittgenstein and Nietzsche said. For this reason, to think that it is possible to elude the puzzles of language is a contradiction, since when we are trying to turn philosophy into a puzzle to deconstruct the known world.

When some writers, including Weston, let open a little the window of their writings, in a discrete critique against an author as Bataille is, saying that it is impossible to run out from the paradox of the impossibility that the language offers, we can suspect that those writers are metaphysical ones. Transcendentalisms, foundational theories, two-world philosophies are always here, between us, presenting the consolation of certain philosophy that wants to take the place of religion. In Beyond Good an Evil, paragraph 34, Nietzsche said “Could it be licit to the philosophers to go beyond the grammar chains?” This is the “impossible” that philosophers who try no to be transcendentalist, try to do. It is licit to remember that “impossible” is in itself a word, part of the grammar constructed by metaphysical minds. [7]

This way “beyond the chains of the grammar” was transited not only by Bataille, but by all the thinkers who has a recognized and/or easily recognizable debt with Nietzsche, like the magnificent Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.

The artwork on stage of Bataille’s trans-valuation of Ethics is very good represented in his books, using different methods. Pornography, sanctity, images, words, philosophy, literature, politics, theater (some of these books, for example Tears of Eros, rewritten to offer four versions), and, from the beginning, in On Nietzsche. Will of Chance[8] (translated into English as On Nietzsche, ignoring the subtitle, that is the most important concept to understand the entire book: "Chance", has too many meanings; Bataille uses these words in almost all its meanings, as "luck", "opportunity", "occasion", “possibility”, "event", "incident", "fortune”, “fate”, etc.)


The seduction, the eroticism, the poetry, and the evil are part of the constitution of the gift as the impossible. One of the most interesting interpretations about this concept in Bataille is offered by Jacques Derrida. In Derrida's view of Bataille’s ideas, if a gift exists at all, it must not be recognized as such, either by the giver or the receiver. The parties involved must forget the giving every occurred, even before it is given. However, it would have to be a forgetting more complete than even the normal modes of forgetting of psychoanalysis. It must not be repressed and be part of the subconscious. It must, rather, be apparently obliterated, without obliterating the gift itself. To be a gift the gift must not be a gift; i.e. it is the impossible. This is the meaning of the gift in the potlatch (Cf. Note 4). Moreover, the power of the gift is moving inside other notion of time, different that the Western time offers us. The subject becomes sovereign in the very creation of the temporal place for play. It is the impossible moment that diverts the flow of energy in rational exchange in its selfish uselessness to a new point of definition. Thisnew point of definition is, like the eroticism, uselessness. Hence, this is the conjunction point for death, eroticism and gift in Bataille. This remember us the child who plays (without any objective) in front of the sea, who represents the innocence of the becoming in Nietzsche’s view.

Eroticism, general economy, surplus/ excess, transgression and violence, heterogeneous, surrealism, paradoxical philosophy, unknowing, sacred, sovereignty: all of these concepts are, together, part of the Bataille’s cartography. However, this cartography is permanently mobile, like the Heraclites’ river. This cartography is the instant, like eroticism, inside a play time, and this cartography is, finally, useless (ness). It means, impossible.

Talking about the implications for how we conceive and practice Philosophy for Children, it could be said that P4C involes going against the language, to think against the language, to write against the language, and to construct a new language. Philosophy for Children means forgetting all that we learned, and beginning to learn all over again, in a different way. Marguerite Duras saw the impossible in Bataille from that point of view.[10] Georges Bataille’s thoughts are important for Philosophy for Children not only by itself, but also because of the influence that the French philosopher had on Michel Foucault, and all the thinkers who wrote about the school from a genealogy and/or a genealogic perspective. Bataille is against the ascetics that the Christian moral offers to us and against the economic ideal of capitalism. We agree with these views, because the Western world needs a philosophical revision, and this revision includes philosophy itself. If it is right, also Philosophy for Children needs a revision. Probably in this proposal of exuberance, to cite Bataille’s concepts, we will lose elements that are considered important in P4C, however it is also possible to gain other new and enrichment elements that philosophy needs to edify the new culture of the education.


- Georges Bataille, Las lagrimas de Eros, iconografia en colaboracion con J. M. lo Duca, (Les Larmes d'Éros, 1961 - The Tears of Eros (trans. by Peter Connor) translation David Fernandez, Madrid, Tusquets Editores, 1997

- Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche, London, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999

- Georges Bataille, Sobre Nietzsche. Voluntad de suerte, (Sur Nietzsche, 1945) trad. Fernando Savater, Madrid, Taurus, 1972

- Georges Bataille., El erotismo, (L'Érotisme ou la muse en question de l'être, 1957 - Death and Sensuality / Eroticism) translator A. Vicens, Barcelona, Tusquets, 1985

- Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vol I (La part maudite, 1947), translated by Robert Hurley, NYC, Urzone Books, distributed by MIT , 1989, 1998[11]

- Bataille, Georges, Historia del Ojo (Histoire de l'oeil, 1928), translator Antonio Escohotado, Editorial Tusquets Editores, Barcelona, 1986

- Bataille, G.: Madame Ewarda, (Madame Edwarda, 1937), translator Salvador Elizondo, Mexico, Premiá Editora de Libros S.A., 1985

- Bataille, Georges, The Story of the eye. There are several different editions; however the translation of the first edition, by Joachim Neugroschal, that has been floating on the Internet, is one of the best to use in research.

· Lous P. Pojman, The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

· Michael Weston, Philosophy, Literature and the Human Good (London and New York: Routledge, 2001)

· Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd., 1985).

- Nietzsche,F. , Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden, Hrag. von G. Colli und M. Montinari, Berlin-New York, Walter de Gruyter-DTV, 1980.



[1] Michael Weston chapter dedicated to Bataille in Philosophy, Literature and the Human Good has the title “Bataille: the impossible.”

[2] Mark Douglas Price recently completed a PhD thesis on the role of violence in post-Kantian philosophy in the United States.

[3] Michel Leiris, “From the Impossible Bataille to the Impossible Documents,” Brisées, trans. Lydia Davis (San Francisco: North Point, 1989), 241, 243.

[4] [Chinook jargon, from Nootka, patshatl: giving], a ceremonial feast of the Indians of the Northwest coast marked by the host's lavish distribution of gifts requiring reciprocation (Source: Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).

A potlatch is a ceremony among certain First Nations peoples on the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States and Canadian province of British Columbia such as the Haida, Tlingit, Salish and Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'kawakw). The potlatch takes the form of a ceremonial feast traditionally featuring seal meat or salmon. In it, hierarchical relations between groups were observed and reinforced through the exchange of gifts and other ceremonies. The potlatch is an example of a gift economy, whereby the host demonstrates their wealth and prominence through giving away their possessions and thus prompt participants to reciprocate when they hold their own potlatch. Although this sort exchange is widely practiced across the planet (consider, for example, the Western practice of buying one's friends rounds of drinks), Potlatch is the example of this phenomenon that is most widely known to the public.

Originally the potlatch was held to celebrate events in the life cycle of the host family such as the birth of a child. However, the influx of manufactured goods such as blankets and pieces of copper into the Pacific Northwest caused inflation in the Potlatch in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some groups, such as the Kwakiutl, used the potlatch as an arena in which highly competitive contests of status took place. In some cases, goods were actually destroyed after being received.

Potlatch was made illegal in Canada and the United States in the late nineteenth century, when the government considered such displays 'irrational' and a waste of valuable resources that would be better use to help Native North Americans advance and develop. As understanding of the true nature of the Potlatch grew it was made legal once again - in 1934 in the United States and 1954 in Canada. Today First Nations people continue to hold potlatches and they are once again an important part of community life. Gifts today include cash, blankets, tupperware, glasses, and cups.

Potlatch has fascinated Westerners for many years. Thorstein Veblen's use of the ceremony in his book Theory of the Leisure Class made potlatch a symbol of 'conspicuous consumption'. Other authors such as Georges Bataille were struck by what they saw as the archaic, communal nature of the potlatch's operation - it is for this reason that the Lettrist International named their review after the Potlatch in the 1950s. Potlatch has also become a model, albeit a sometimes poorly understood one, for the open source software movement and a variety of social movements (Source, Wikipedia)

[5] Cf. Tears of Eros, that shows this kind of images that relate torture with ectasis.

[6] Bjork singer’s video Venus as a Boy (1993) was inspired by the use of eggs in Bataille’s The Story of the Eye

[7] Stella Accorinti, “El combate contra el nihilismo” (1992- “Fighting against nihilism”)

[8] On Nietzsche was originally published in France in 1945 and translated for the first time into English, this book record the major influence Nietzsche played on Bataille's life and which led him to abandon his Catholic faith. Bataille argues against fascist interpretations of Nietzsche, expresses his disgust at German anti-Semitism and praises Nietzsche as a prophet. Against the background of the war and the German occupation, this book mixes observation with reflection in the form of aphorisms, poems and myths.

[9] As Friedrich Nietzsche's work influenced Bataille deeply, Bataille's views about social organization were influenced by anthropologist Marcel Mauss' The Gift. In La part maudite (1949) he dealt with the phenomenon of waste in nature and society, and this view influenced Bataille in a deepest form.

[10] « On peut donc dire de Georges Bataille qu'il n'écrit pas du tout puisqu'il écrit contre le langage. Il invente comment on peut ne pas écrire tout en écrivant. Il nous désapprend la littérature. »

[11] “Here Georges Bataille introduces his concept of the 'Accursed Share', the surplus energy that any system, natural or cultural, must expend; it is this expenditure, according to Bataille, that most clearly defines a society (his examples include sacrifice among the Aztecs, potlatch among the Northwest Coast Indians, military conquest in Islam and monasticism among Buddhists in Tibet). In this way {Bataille} proposes a theory of 'general economy' based on excess and exuberance that radically revises conventional economic models of scarcity and utility. A brilliant blend of economics and ethics, aesthetics, and anthropology, 'The Accursed Share' is an incisive inquiry into the very nature of civilization.” (Publisher’s commentary)


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