Reading Guide to: Habermas J (1984) 'The French Path to Postmodernity: Bataille Between Eroticism and General Economy', New German Critique, 33: 79 -- 102

by Dave Harris

Bataille can be seen as an eroticist in the tradition of de Sade and Nietzsche. He was a surrealist in the1920s and 30s, but came to attack the orthodoxy of Breton. He became interested in the heterogeneous, the unassimilable, which could be only accessed via 'fascinated shock', hence his attraction to outcasts and marginal groups. Although not exactly alike, there are similarities with the aesthetics of Heidegger or Nietzsche -- a rejection of Occidental rationalism, and an opposition to [conventional, bourgeois] subjectivism and its 'reifying violence' (one reason why Foucault liked him).

He pursued no cognitive or ontological critique though, but took an ethical stance against utilitarian action and pursued de-alienation, rather than offering a critique of the category of the subject. He was close to Nietzsche's superhuman self-assertion. He saw the erotic as a site of transgressing subjectivity. Celebrating such subjectivity and heterogeneity led to a political analysis of fascism and modernity. He also opposed totalitarian societies like the USSR, which he saw as ending rebellious subjectivity. Overall, Bataille offers some support for the dialectic of Enlightenment in Hegel, and a mix of 'scholarly analysis and mysticism' (83).

His study on the psychological structure of fascism was published in 1933. It concerned the social and psychological effects of new political movements, and discussed leadership, sacral elements, and the moral identifications of the masses as crucial to fascism's success. He noticed the underlying economic crisis as well, and the political interests emanating from capital, but analysed especially the affective dimensions, trying to see how fascism tapped a number of heterogeneous elements which lie deep in the Psyche, even beneath the unconscious.

He was interested in a whole 'economics of the total social ecology of drives [mechanisms of expulsions and exclusions]'. He saw that homogeneous societies were losing their meaning and purpose. He borrowed the notion of the sacred and profane from Durkheim, but added that the sacred includes that which is superfluous -- refuse, excrement, dreams, perversions, and ideas. The profane became increasingly regularised, can modified, and dominated by relations of identity (as in Adorno). Fascism offered an irruptive heterogeneity, which made it dynamic and exciting. Fascism was also rational and mundane, but essentially irrational, and thus sovereign and authentic.

The analysis can be compared with the account of fascist rituals in Dialectic of Enlightenment:  such rituals ironically rationalise and counterfeit rebellious subjectivity, but there they are mimetic rather than sovereign or authentic. Adorno and Horkheimer, operated with some notion of a realm of unconstrained thought, seen as a realm of understanding in Benjamin, [and as the freedom of universal pragmatics in Habermas], but not so for Bataille. This made it difficult for him to choose between good and bad social movements. He really sought an aestheticised poetic politics just like the Surrealists: he can see that this had become distorted in fascism, but never really explained why and how this had happened. To overcome this, we really need a new systematic science of heterology.

Early Bataille cited Marxist analysis to focus on the waste in consumer capitalism, but saw this area as a sphere of freedom too, as the only escape from the purposive-rational [Marx's own view of leisure was still closely connected to labour]. Deliberately wasteful consumption included luxuries, cults, wars, and even perverse sexuality. All this became routinised under capitalism.

Later, Bataille pursued an analysis similar to the notion of reification in Lukacs and Critical Theory -- subjectivity was spiritualized and excluded from rational life. This became rendered as some universal historical process to forbid sovereignty and the sacred. Ethnographic material, for example on Aztec sacrifice, was used in support of this view. The whole story of the growth of modern forms of labour and rationality was seen as objectification. Actual forms of sovereignty, religious ones or monarchical, were tainted with the need to dominate and to labour: a process of commodification took place in capitalism, including a version of the 'routinisation of charisma' (93). Further, democratic levelling robs authority of its Otherness, and hence of its sovereignty -- this took place in modern societies, including the USSR. A whole system of objective power emerged, far more than just a functional administrative system. In bourgeois societies there were romantic adaptations of traditional forms, rather than an adoption of subversive new possibilities, and this peaked in fascism. Perhaps a Stalinist administration of things will clear the ground for a proper return of subjectivity, Bataille thought [because it would lead to a final separation of the homogeneous and heterogeneous again?]. Again though, this particular model of developments, and this eventual optimism remains unexplained.

The anthropological evidence cited by Bataille indicated that social life was already deeply implicated with matters of prestige and power, wherever you looked [he seems to have relied on the analysis of potlatch -- conspicuous gift-giving -- as concealing relations of power]. How could explain this deep entanglement? Marx was insufficient because he only analysed the economic. Weber's work on the history of religion looked more promising:

(a) Humans develop a system of prohibitions and taboos, especially about death and sex, and place them at the heart of their cultures and rituals. For Bataille, death and sex are to be understood as nature's inexhaustible excess -- the universal taboos represent a desire to prohibit this excess in order to preserve ourselves.

(b) Cultural norms are not just functional but relate to some notion of the sacred. But there is an ambiguity towards the sacred -- is seen as both universally valid and as an invitation to transgress. This explains the fascination, the mix of horror and charm, terror and ecstasy of overcoming it. This is best seen in the erotic.

(c) Religions develop through a process of rationalisation as in Weber. This leads to a spiritualisation of religion, a separation of 'the Holy', and sin as a purely moral matter. The law is no longer validated by a periodic transgression. Religion is now merely another autonomous sphere in the general division of labour -- this gives permission for economic development too, which leads to further profanity and the exclusion of religion from [human] sovereignty.

So, how can this separation and mixing be reversed? How can we move to a new respect for and liberation of [human] sovereignty? We need a new general economics, which becomes, via the general themes of excess and sovereignty, a science of the disposal of surplus energy and resources. This can be directed into growth and complexity, including a 'luxury of nature' via celebrations of births and deaths, and by conspicuous consumption by the leisure classes are. Less 'glorious' ways exist too -- wars, conquest, and pollution. Productive societies must produce surpluses, and is this that produces inevitable glories or catastrophes.

However, we have the same problems as with Nietzsche -- sovereignty and the sacral are completely heterogeneous so they are not accessible to reason. We need a new science which does not objectify, and which has the subjective inextricably involved with it. Such as science should lead us to both experience ecstasy, but also to 'yet retrieve those experiences to which one is exposed -- to catch them like fish from the decentred ocean of emotions' (101). Sometimes, this looks like an old Enlightenment project -- to reflect, and transform, yet remain aware of the dangers of objectification.  Yet we cannot proceed 'without dissolving the sort of knowledge that reduces people to subordinate and useful things' (Habermas quoting Bataille, page 101).

As a result, the project ends in mysticism, in 'illuminated silence'. We can use poetic language to jolt and shock the reader, but philosophy and science always reproduce the problems of language, which 'assembles the totality... but fragments it at the same time... we cannot reach that points at which the flashes of successive statements yield to the grand illumination' (quoting Bataille again, page 102).

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