The Economics of Tragedy

Economic tragedies rest ever suspended over us in intervals between the moments in which they explode. Bataille's embrace of the tragic sense of the economy is as anti-utopian as it is ‘life affirming'-a Nietzscheanism without which Bataille would not be possible. But then, Bataille is not possible without De Sade either. Within De Sade's work is a key to understanding a system of exchange which throws aside the victimary moralisms socialism requires to dress itself as an utopian ideology whilst enjoying the same unencumbered power plays. In De Sade we have a divine nature which can be seen as synonymous with the sexual drive (at least). Standing in the way are morality and social conventions; themselves currencies to be burned through for the sake of reaching nature, freed from synthetic morality. Solipsism is, in effect, the protestation of the core, the declaration of mindless, perfect mother nature moving without regard for passing cosmic debris into the orbit in which it can't help but go.

Bataille understands the events which announce this disparity between nature and morality as a pressure-valve-the release and the surplus being a space which can never be truly recaptured. Bataille believes in the event, while for De Sade, orgasm is the only real event; the conditions for its perpetual opportunity and the coextensive time spent working toward it the only true currency. De Sade's thought, in his aversion to the shackles of society-even if by way of inversion-resembles a form of socialism which Bataille's economics of tragedy ultimately rejects, in that De Sade places the need for the profanation of the present to achieve the ultimate goal; it's just that human bodies of a chosen elite are currency from the outset, which resembles the social conditions to which socialism has been historically susceptible even where it hides into its own deepest recesses and wears so many egalitarian masks.

In a more formalized notion of Bataillean economics, one might be tempted to say that the failure of capitalism would, in the ancient world, resemble a squandered surplus which was built into their very economic ways of life. Where they had large festivals and inter-tribal gift exchanges, we have recessions and stock-market crashes.

Yet, because Bataillean economics is not utopian, it cannot be formalized but rather challenges the very foundational definitions of economics in modernity, calling for a radical enunciation of the very conditions which make waste/squandering inevitable. The goal cannot be wealth or even harmony. But then again, a Bataillean economics would appear to be (or Bataille would wish for it to appear) goalless. However, this goallessness is only evident in the face of a progressive worldview. By throwing out the goal of progress, what is then being proclaimed? There is obviously still a project here, even if Bataille denies it. Is it simply a Nietzschean affirmation of tragedy/celebration of inevitable waste, not unlike a Buddhist's severing of bonds so as to do away with suffering? The economy itself, rather, is not considered an external refuge so much as it is a macrocosm of the expenditure of cosmic energy. In Bataille, we see a clever return to a Renaissance era topography which anthropomorphizes the universe and the world in conformity with the corporeity of man. In the modern era, without real political mono-sovereigns, Bataille's economy comes to resemble the bodies which capital uses to perpetuate its own conditions rather than something likened to the good of a traceable national identity. It is convenient for him to use tribes of the ancient world as examples which, though having sovereigns, were also subject to a more fluidic time preference than were sovereigns of the Renaissance era.

Nietzsche made a case in his work which would prove to be far more controversial for the modern world than the statement that ‘God is dead' (which itself has come to define the modern world), and that is this: that man himself doesn't exist. If Foucault is credited with actually announcing it, it is Nietzsche who takes the greatest pains to prove it and to lay the work down for him. It is Nietzsche who finds behind ‘the mind' many minds, all battling within man's breast. The ultimate irony of Nietzsche's work is his insistence on the cultivation of that late-stage phenomenon which is self-mastery, even aware of the fact that the underlying, organizing faculty behind this project would have to be somewhat self-contained from the beginning. But in Nietzsche, immanence doesn't exist. It is only an appearance which occurs in a larger pattern; its inside determined entirely by a surface which cannot be entirely apprehended at once. Something of high quality is only the surplus of a whole set of clashing conditions. His materialism is of a dynamic quality, but which ultimately dilates itself ever outward into larger circles, requiring that one force feeds or moves while another is fed on or is moved. The physic of this constant motion causes one to consider that what is constant is rather the agencies apparent throughout the life of a cycle. That which feeds ultimately creates the waste which will be recycled ever anew as the food of the universe. That waste is bound up into the very function of the cosmos-the instant of a tragedy which, in the very simplicity of its physics, determines and announces its opposite.

The waste and squandering of Bataille's tragic economics may anthropomorphize the material world but it does so in a way that is only possible with precisely the discovery that ‘man' is an illusion, bound by forces within him he does not see and set in motion by determinations outside the walls of his limited lifespan. With conscious irony, waste is reified as gift by way of awareness and gesture. If the universe is always eating itself and being eaten by itself, there is no definite stage at which one can say whether one place represents waste and one represents abundance; each and every stage of the cycle is like a completely different mask, behind which a play of forces might not be distinguishable for our inability to see, without the mask, without the designation of moral precepts, just which forces one would prefer. It is economics beyond good and evil.

The economics of tragedy represents greater and greater awareness of accretion and secretion, of success hollowed out by failure, of birth countered by death and soil resting as the bed of new life. The greater one's awareness, the less one has any hope to master this economy (quite contrary to modern politics). Greater awareness puts one in no other position than to accept it and play along, letting one's life imitate the tragic economy with its abundances and pure expenditures. But man is never quite aware of his abundance or what his limit is if he doesn't test it. This is the key to understanding self-mastery in Nietzsche and self-expenditure in Bataille. What appears to most readers as a set of contradictions are actually enormous, mythic wagers. One can only come to learn the inevitable fashion in which one will both triumph and fail if one goes to the end of one's abundance and leave's nothing to be spent. Bataille's use of the term ‘economy' is more of a mythic overlay on a set of human interactions, like some terrestrial cosmology. Bataille has no vision or goal for the future, bur rather, a story that is always being told.