Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Accursed Share, Vol. 1

by Georges Bataille

Translated by Robert Hurley

We must look at context and consequences. Georges Bataille published Le Part Maudit, or “The Accursed Share,” in 1967. But as Bataille himself indicates in his preface, “…a book is nothing if it not situated, if criticism has not determined the place that belongs to it in the common movement of ideas.” If Bataille’s treatise on a general economics can be thought to exist within a virulent stream of ideas, then we must look around the bend of that river- this leads to the May uprisings of 1968. The dilemma of “The Accursed Share,” and our contemporary perception of Bataille himself, lies in both the misappropriation of the man and the philosopher in the subsequent years as well as deep flaws within his often brilliant ideology. Bataille has become a byword in academia and the art world, or do I mean “buzzword?,” as his methodology of the transgressive has long since been co-opted by capitalism – the cult of transgression has transformed the question of a final point to a fashion of permissibility. Transgression is itself a push against an environmental order, that is, the illusion of a push against order that further solidifies said establishment. There is the thing, upon which so much hinges, and there is intimacy, and “the sacred thing externalizes intimacy: It makes visible on the outside that which is really within.” Can a thing remain intimate when it becomes the very antithesis of its qualifying characteristic?

Bataille’s investigation of human sacrifice amongst the Aztecs is one of the strongest segments in the whole of “the Accursed Share.” Sacrifice represents an extravagant squandering of wealth, as well as a consummate interplay with the role of things. Sacrifice restores “…to the sacred world that which servile use has degraded, rendered profane. Servile use has made a thing (an object) of that which, in a deep sense, is of the same nature as the subject, is in a relation of intimate participation with the subject. It is not necessary that the sacrifice actually destroy the animal or plant of which man had to make a thing for his use. They must at least be destroyed as things, that is, insofar as they have become things.” We now arrive at the paradox of greater immanence and antithesis, as “No one can make a thing of the second self that the slave is without at the same time estranging himself from his own intimate being, without giving himself the limits of a thing.” The ritual of the sacrifice attempts to move away from the state of things, and therefore reinforces its place within the order. We return to the sacred, as “It is always a matter of detaching from the real order, from the poverty of things, and of restoring the divine order.” Are we talking about transgression or transcendence? Are they the same thing? When are they different?

Out of this order, “the meaning of this profound freedom is given in destruction, whose essence is to consume profitlessly whatever might remain in the progression of useful works. Sacrifice destroys that which it consecrates.” Is the thing consecrated because, and chiefly so, because of its destruction? This relates to intimacy. “The world of intimacy is as antithetical to the real world as immoderation is to moderation, madness to reason, drunkenness to lucidity. There is moderation only in the object, reason only in the identity of the object with itself, lucidity only in the distinct knowledge of objects…” We return to self-consciousness. This leads to one of the central tenets of the book, as Bataille asks “If I am no longer concerned about “what will be” but about “what is,” what reason do I have to keep anything in reserve?” As discussed time and again on this blog, we return to the moment. Not to history as accumulation, but history as the present – one moment. This leads to the “nothing of pure expenditure.” Transgression or transcendence? But let’s pull back to a broader picture of this volume.

To better understand Bataille, we must look at the stated claim of “The Accursed Share.” Whereas economic theory traditionally focuses upon production and scarcity, Bataille asks us to consider both consumption and excess, a necessary surplus. He argues that this is an inevitable condition in which “…a series of profitable operations has absolutely no other effect that the squandering of profits.” The entire existence of profitability is reliant upon a narrow and highly selective understanding of energy – both its production and, more importantly, its consumption. What is productivity if it is the means and also the goal of a capitalism mechanism? We must ask ourselves if productivity is just another myth. Our common understanding is that “when one considers the totality of productive wealth on the surface of the globe, it is evident that the products of this wealth can be employed for productive ends only insofar as the living organism that is economic mankind can increase its equipment.” But we “…forget the fact that the ground we live on is little other than a field of multiple destructions.” The fate of all profit is waste, and our ignorance of this fact, according to Bataille, is that “…it causes us to undergo what we could bring about in our own way, if we understood. It deprives us of the choice of an exudation that might suit us. Above all, it consigns men and their works to catastrophic destructions.”

There is a key distinction here of choice, as well as the reevaluation of fundamentals, outward to “…a margin of profitless operations.” This requires a move away from specificity to an unfixed totality. Bataille argues for the surplus, which “…must be dissipated through deficit operations: The final dissipation cannot fail to carry out the movement that animates terrestrial energy.” We move toward a cosmic appraisal of economy, towards the recognition of energy itself and not simply its use. Man has been fixated upon a recognition of energy within the context of man, but “…the economy is never considered in general. The human mind reduces operations, in science as in life, to an entity based on typical particular systems… Economic science merely generalizes the isolated situation; it restricts its object to operations carried out with a view to a limited end, that of economic man. It does not take into consideration a play of energy that no particular end limits: the play of living matter in general, involved in the movement of light of which it is the result…” The whole of things is energy, we can normalize this unknowable state through the frame of agonies, ecstasies, but it is ultimately a thing beyond grasp – through that fashion, through possession. Because energy is all around, in us and of us; “On the surface of globe, for living matter in general, energy is always in excess; the question is always posed in terms of extravagance. The choice is limited to how the wealth is to be squandered. It is to the particular living being, or to limited populations of living beings, that the problem of necessity presents itself.” But man has, up until fairly recently, been composed of a dispersal of populations.

A very real question arises. With continuing globalization, humanity now reaches a point in which a general economy is a particular economy. We begin to interact as components of a whole instead of emissaries of different spheres. But it would be remiss to simply idealize globalization or quantify it as a degree of utopianism. Bataille’s focus on surplus remains relevant when we do not look at the products themselves, but at energy. The fact of the matter is that our natural resources will continue to decline. We must look at excesses in energy and not scarcities in production. This allows that “…man is most suited of all living beings to consume intensely, sumptuously, the excess energy offered up to the pressure of life to conflagrations befitting the solar origins of movement.” Bataille admits “This truth is paradoxical, to the extent of being exactly contrary to the usual perception.” This book is, in many ways, an offering to the solar deity. We owe our very being to the sun, “the origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy – wealth – without any return. The sun gives without ever receiving… Solar radiation results in a superabundance of energy on the surface of the globe.” Solar energy is our primary vision of this accursed share.

Bataille positions himself outside of sane society. He admits his contrary position to society at large. In his opposition from a general sanity, he states “I am that madman. In the very precise sense that there is the choice of two things: Either the operation will fail, or the madman will arrive at the self-consciousness I speak of, because reason, being consciousness, is fully conscious only if it has for an object that which is not reducible to it.” Could “the Accursed Share” been considered sun worship? Perhaps our writings on each other’s Facebook walls shares something with our ancestors’ writing on the walls in the caverns of Lascaux. The solar object is of special privilege, and requires a specialized, even aberrant, method of appraisal - a mysticism of anthropology. By his own admission, or possible delusion, “…the author of this book on economy is situated (by a part of his work) in the line of mystics of all times (but he is nonetheless far removed from all the presuppositions of the various mysticisms, to which he opposes only the lucidity of self-consciousness.” Is Bataille removed from all presuppositions of all mysticisms? Well, what constitutes a mystic order? What is a mystical constitution? Could a political position be a mystical one?

It is not Bataille’s Marxism that derails the final third of “the Accursed Share,” as much as it is his apologist stance towards Stalinism. Socialism, Bataille astutely reminds us, is clear in making the distinction between a nationalist socialism and a global one. “The consequences,” he writes, “of ‘socialism’ in one country’ cannot be disregarded. To say nothing of material difficulties, without any connection to those a global socialism would encounter, the fact of being bound to one nation could alter the revolution, giving it a composite form difficult to decipher and deceiving in appearance.” How does one successfully differentiate the furtherance of socialism from the imperial interests of political expansion? Lenin saw the October revolution as the beginning of a global movement, but “…Stalin, in opposition to Trotsky, ceased to make world revolution a precondition for the building of socialism in Russia. In any case, the Soviet Union came to accept the game it had meant to avoid.” This line of reasoning stands on sturdy ground. But Bataille falls flat as he makes arguments for the cruelty and rigor of Soviet industrialization and collectivization. Is it true that “…if this allocation had been even a little less rigorous, even a little less hard to bear than Stalin made it, Russia could have foundered?” And is this a value judgment? An apology?

Bataille’s investigations within “the Accursed Share” concerning the Aztecs, Islam and Calvinism succeed due to their refusal to place ethical value upon them. The issue of the sacred, for one, is detached from Bataille’s discussion of Stalinism, and comes close to judgment. Is Stalin the sun god? I don’t think Bataille believes so, and if the conclusion of “the Accursed Share” does eventually move back into our study of profitless expenditure, the lengthy diversion had done its damage. The book, in the end, returns to the illusion of all things and “More open, the mind discerns instead of an antiquated teleology, the truth that silence alone does not betray.” Where is this moment?

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