February 12, 2018
November 20, 2017
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.
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.
'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.
'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.
'If people approach you and wish to discuss things with you, spit in their faces.’ So reads one sentence in Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. This occurs at the end of one chapter in an almost uncharacteristic frenzy, as if Vaneigem had suddenly become possessed by Jacques Vache, that phantom spirit forever hanging over the surrealists.
Georges Bataille mentions in a note found in his On Nietzsche that he is appalled at the idea of having to explain himself. This philosopher of ‘headlessness’ far surpassed simply calling the bluff of ideas like ‘progress’ and ‘project,’ but was willing to squander any expressive affinity with those ideas. It was in this sense that freedom was, for him, not simply a sensation (as it may well amount to being in the case of many other thinkers concerned with the idea of freedom), but a new project unlike any imposed from the outside—one that has less to do with the satiation of immediate pleasures than it does with acquainting oneself with great anguish in order to achieve one’s limit.
In the case of Vaneigem’s work, we encounter a more immediate, theoretical continuation of what was taking place within surrealism. Breton’s gang was content to keep their ideals semi-hidden—While they might have explained themselves (Breton’s manifestos) now and again, the explanation itself was an act within the movement, almost pushing away all definitive answers in protest of organization in favor of absolute freedom; ‘psychic autonomy,’ in other words. What Vaneigem has in common with surrealism, from the vantage point of his respective collective of choice, The Situationist International, is an unabashed concern for freedom. In Vaneigem’s work, though it is hinted at, suggested, talked around and talked up, there’s no real clear idea or suggestion as to how one might achieve this freedom, and yet, perhaps he didn’t feel he needed to spell it out. After all, no one can write a guidebook for something so abstract as a revolution of the 'everyday,' but only some strong statements of encouragement, which is precisely what The Revolution of Everyday Life is.
Carlo Michelstaedter, had he access to Revolution of Everyday Life, might not have referred to it as a work of persuasion, in keeping with the main thesis of his book, Persuasion and Rhetoric. While Vageinem intuitionally approaches a seductive subject, he works his way toward it from a rhetorical place that pretends to be the starting point.
Michelstaedter’s sole work, while quite different in temperament than Vageinem’s work, often comes to and repeats a similar conclusion—that we are slaves to a life in which death is constantly weighing upon our shoulders and that the solution is to live one's life without shackles. Here comes the often used solution and summit of most existentially concerned philosophies—They both offered, as solution, that you should live every moment as though it is your last.
Comedian Doug Stanhope riffed on this popular suggestion by saying that he does, in fact, live every day as though it’s his last, which means that he spends everyday watching television and drinking.
Perhaps it is time that we develop new existential solutions for living a proper life rather than committing ourselves to self-imposed death threats.
Many systems of thought have sought to extract meaning from life itself. The very fact that life could have ‘meaning,’ or that it is worth saying that it might have meaning, presupposes that there is a chance it may have no meaning (as if there could ever be a point by which we would be able to determine that it is discursively impossible to extract more meaning from life), which then presupposes that ‘nothingness,’ or perhaps, the non activity of matter is the likely original ‘intent’ of the universe. It is also a mistake to apply a word like ‘mistake’ to the inception of matter, the universe or life itself, since this word is often used by secular parties wishing to combat the theistic view that an anthropomorphic personality is responsible for a sole creative act. The grammar of the word ‘mistake’ in their argument still assigns an anthropomorphic nature and a sense of responsibility to the order of things which could only be a ‘mistake’ if some other ‘preferable,’ ‘more likely’ or ‘natural’ set of contingencies had already been revealed to us. Those who hold the scientific/materialistic mindset are no less mythic in their identifying a lack of meaning in the order of things as those whom they mock for identifying meaning in them.
It has never been enough, however, for secular or religious parties to identify meaning within the small, contingent realm in which their ideas find themselves at home. The existential crisis is always renewed, whether aesthetically or through a rephrasing of the original question through the perspective of different values. Even if he believes it, the Christian might wonder why his sins were in need of remission in the first place. The Muslim might wonder why an absent Muhammad is so adamant about acquiring the driest land in the world. The Marxist might wonder if utopia is ever truly possible through the constant manipulation of woolly nature. The fascist may have trouble locating true human sovereignty once economic factors begin to betray the power in which he invests. All of these parties require a large, totalizing belief in order to perpetuate the set of circumstances which protect those espousing these views—it’s cyclical.
The existential crisis, in its crudest form (which is also its most common form) is the one that removes all value but the value of the individual. Since one’s individual moral values have already been thrown out in the declared ‘lack of meaning’ of all other values, the individual is left only with sensation itself as a guiding light (everyone’s sensation is different but it is supposed that everyone has them—the only totalizing factor that the individual is allowed when all other value is taken from them). For one experiencing this loss of value concerning all other descriptions of life, he must create his own meaning—his own project. It cannot be a totalizing one since it does not necessarily come from the ‘outside.’ Since the personal meaning comes from ‘within,’ it must regard all other totalizing values that, at one time, were considered ‘transcendent,’ such as ‘unabliable rights’ and ‘liberty’ as those which one may only fight for so long as it is guaranteed that the real investment is a completely personal one.
While the surrealists and the existentialists have some differences, they are related in their violent, totalizing attitudes toward all other totalizing attitudes. Even that which might well be considered a ‘law of nature’ is deliberately leapt over (if not blatantly ignored) in order for the achievement of a revolutionary action on a small, everyday scale. Breton’s group could enjoy the cafes and all the luxuries that come in small doses during allotted leisure times in a consumerist society because their protest, no matter the size or the degree of violence of their actions, were not aimed with any finality at specific entities (even though specific entities did often suffer their violence). Their actions were made up of a set of subversive rituals that could not exist without the rituals of the realm into which they were thrown. It was necessary for them to move through society like a cold, unexpected water, walking on the same streets, using their money the same way. Their revolution was truly the revolution of the everyday, beating Vaneigem by thirty odd years.
French intellectual groups in the twentieth century kept hooking onto these totalizations of individual freedom that were sometimes all too similar in execution even if their mechanisms for arriving at their ways of life were different. They certainly couldn’t have all been under the delusion that their groups would last forever or that generations of newcomers would somehow be inaugurated and replace each member. But they did all hope for revolution of some kind, and revolution itself is the hope that the aberration will come to be the rule.
Thought experiments can be very stimulating ways of committing oneself to revolutions of the every day without becoming too invested in an ideology to the point where one’s intellect has been compromised. They’re usually less costly as thought experiments don’t ask for money in exchange for eternal happiness or momentary pleasure.
The totalizing thought experiments have already taken place. Perhaps it would be preferable, rather, to consider a series of temporary projects in order to extract meaning from different phases of life, rather than trying to create totalizing meanings that alienate all sensations that might be considered aberrant or not in keeping with one party’s contingent goals. And then, there is the wisdom of time immemorial, to which the west has only had meager access through the likes of writers such as all these I mentioned--stewing in their vulgar inclinations toward destruction but lacking the design of an ultimate totalizing project; that of destroying contingency, not from the Tommy-gun center of the ego, but from far beyond.