Shane Eide


Tragedy and the Spectacle

Shane Eide

February 12, 2018 

The Autarch

Shane Eide

November 20, 2017

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. 

Calasso Contra Bataille

Roberto Calasso said, in his Paris Review interview:

'The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind. There were certain cultures that decided they had to offer it in some way. It is not clear to whom, why, and how, but that was the idea. There are other cultures, like ours, where all this is considered entirely useless and  obsolete. In the secular world, sacrifice shouldn’t have any meaning at all. At the same time, you realize that it does, because the word has remained very much in use. In discussions of the economy, analysts speak all the time of sacrifices, without realizing what is inside the word. Even in psychological terms, sacrifice is a most usual word. It is considered illegal—for instance, if one celebrated a sacrificial ritual in the middle of London or New York, he would do something illegal, he would be put in jail. Sacrifice is connected to destruction—that is an important thing and the most mysterious one. Why, in order to offer something, you must destroy it. '

This statement strikes me as very Bataillean, though with Calasso's particular flair.

Funny enough, when offering criticism of Levi-Strauss for not engaging with the subject of sacrifice in his anthropological work, Calasso was then reminded by the interviewer of Bataille, for whom sacrifice played a major role. 

Calasso replied: 

 'Bataille is the opposite. Bataille wrote of sacrifice all his life. His best book on that was La part maudite, a very audacious work. But Bataille was not a rigorous thinker. He wrote too much and had a terrible habit—ressassement, endless repetitions. Yet in a way, he put the question at the center of everything.' 

After dismissing Bataille, he goes back to the subject of sacrifice and makes yet another Bataillean statement: 

'Maybe it’s simply because sacrifice brings us into dealings with the unknown. In the act of sacrifice, you establish a relation with something that you recognize as enigmatic and powerful. Our collective psyche seems to have lost touch with it, although science is providing countless motives for being overwhelmed by the unknown. The unknown itself is in our own mind as well—our mind is in its largest part totally unknown to us. Therefore, it is not only a relation to the exterior world, it is a relation to ourselves. We establish a connection with the unknown through the act of giving something and, paradoxically, the act of destroying something. That is what is behind sacrifice. What you offer and what you destroy, it is that surplus which is life itself.'

Throughout Calasso's work, however, he makes frequent mention of Rene Girard, who's work also dealt largely with sacrifice, but from a far different perspective than Bataille. While Calasso seems to claim a much greater affinity with Girard than Bataille, I tend to think he has far more actual affinity with Bataille.

For Girard, sacrifice is examined solely in a configuration of jurisprudence. This he links to religion and ancient myth, with the Judao-Christian tradition offering the first signs of the divine scapegoat's narrative innocence. It is a simple equation that Girard sees everywhere. 

Calasso and Bataille, on the other hand, both set the course of their configurations onto a different path; one which doesn't trap itself in the different codings of one text against many, but which is slightly more epistemological. They concern themselves fundamentally with the impulse to destroy and its relationship to reciprocal surpluses of energy. 

It is interesting that such rigorous critiques of something so morbid, so hidden deep within our past, could happen at the hands of a group of men with such a strange relationship to the secular west and the intellectual environments around them in each respective case. Calasso speaks with reverent forbidding about the unknown and the mythical gods he revisits in his texts. Georges Bataille, though an atheist, started a secret society called Acephale, which he described as intensely religious. Girard was a Catholic. Calasso, paradoxically, says that the west has always been secular, but then claims that the modern secular world is the last great myth. Girard often seems to suggest, rather, that the secular world is a crude extension of the Christian tradition--a sort of inverted Nietzscheanism. Bataille radicalized the headless destiny beyond the summit.   

Girard is always trying to enclose the world. Calasso and Bataille seem to be reaching beyond it.



Bataille Contra Marx

 'There are already North Americans who have learned to gurgle the phrase "Bataille contra Marx..."'

-Nick Land, The Thirst For Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism


It would certainly be an arduous task to set Bataille up as an alternative to Marx, though one could say, rather, that Bataille swallows Marx up into his theory of general economy (along with all sorts of phenomena usually unaccounted for in economic theory, such as human sacrifice in the Aztec civilization, or wife-bartering among Native Americans).

Bataille's theory of economy, found in his three-part work, The Accursed Share, was deduced on a plane beyond good and evil. It is more of a Nietzschean/Sadean economics than an extension of Marx, though it is certainly that too. 

Not being a moral economics, however, it poses an unprecedented evaluation of redistribution which would have certainly baffled his more conventionally socialist friends and peers. Marx's evaluation of redistribution is almost entirely moral, even when it doesn't set out to be: capital is turned over to the workers and all class hierarchy done away with. 

For Bataille, revolution is simply one way of dealing with surplus. He goes entirely against contemporary scarcity narratives and posits that the flow of life fundamentally produces a far more abundant degree of resources than what could ever be used up, but only intermittently. It is then necessary to lavishly use up what is left or it goes to waste. 

In the case of the Bolshevik revolution, the surplus was the monarchy itself. We deal here with a common historical contingency in which the surplus is maintained by a minority of people who have the most social power. As they have a monopoly on both the means of production and the means of squandering, the revolution acts as the squandering of lives, paradoxically, to free up the share not put to use by the working class. For Bataille, whether or not this worked in the favor of the proletariat is not a matter of concern; he simply describes this situation and re-configures it over and over to different degrees of intensity throughout history. 

The gift has its origins here. The gift comes not only from an acknowledgement of surplus resources, but from the radical affirmation of the reciprocal play of forces which supposes that if something which would otherwise be squandered is given away freely, something might be received in kind. The gift is related, if remotely, to revolution. It is its non-violent counter-part. 

I'm simplifying Bataille here, but who doesn't? His readers can be excused to some degree for offering conclusions since he, by nature, refused to provide any.