GEORGES BATAILLE, The Accursed Share, Volume II and Volume III
unpublished review for Village Voice, 1993
by Simon Reynolds
"The Accursed Share", written in the twilight of his life, was Bataille's attempt to pull together all his ideas and obsessions, and construct a coherent theory of human civilisation. Volume I (also published by Zone) focussed on the problem of economic surplus. In Bataille's view, what distinguishes cultures are the different ways they have of spending this 'accursed share': these range from Aztec sacrifice, to Native American potlatch (ritualised, ruinous gift-giving, in a society where rank was determined by the ability to squander resources), to Tibet (where excess wealth was absorbed by a large 'parasitic' class of monks devoted to non-productive contemplation). Bataille's positing of a fundamental human drive towards expenditure without return, challenges capitalist ideas about the psychological motivations that govern economic activity. And while his contention that humanity's real problems concern luxury rather than scarcity would seem to be contradicted by our current reality of global poverty and imminent ecological catastrophe, Bataille saw no inconsistency. The current crisis is the result of capitalism's break with pre-Modern methods of disposing of economic surplus, in favour of accumulation, investment and runaway economic growth.
With the following volumes of "The Accursed Share", Bataille attempted to
integrate this provocative, if rather sketchily substantiated, economic theory with the rest of his thought. Volume II, 'The History Of Eroticism", is, for the most part, a rather ponderous and convoluted reprise of the theory of sexuality previously explored in 'Erotism: Death and Sensuality'. Bataille distinguishes between profane life (secular, bourgeois, productive) and sacred life. Profane life is based on the denial of man's animalism, a refusal of the animal's subjection to sexual drives and to death. All the labour and achievement of profane existence is a futile denial of mortality, that paradoxically condemns the profane individual to a living death, forever living for the future rather than in the present. But sacred life is a repudiation of the profane world's values of utility and productivity. Bataille is clearly on the side of the beasts and the angels, rather than the bourgeoisie.
As in "Erotism", Bataille explores the affinities between sexual desire and mysticism. Both are fuelled by a longing for total fusion, an incandescent,
immolatory merger of the self with the cosmos. The mystic and the lover desire
total consumption, pure expenditure without return; "their life is aflame and
they consume it" . Love's real object isn't the beloved, but what the Situationists called "the lost totality" and what Bataille calls "a lost intimacy": an end to alienation, union with the universe. And of course, utopian thought has always aspired to this ideal state of being, sometimes locating it in a lost golden age, sometimes at 'the end of history'. The psychological origin of this notion of heaven-on-earth is most likely our dim memories of the blissful inertia and kingly indolence of life in the womb.
In Volume III, Bataille defines this state of pure being as "sovereignty". Historically, the sovereign was defined by the consumption of wealth, rather
than its production (which in Bataille's view is always servile and alienated).
Bataille expands this particular meaning of sovereignty to include any form of
existence that isn't subordinated to utility, that doesn't involve the employment of the present for the sake of the future. It's the old utopian and/or mystical dream of living in the now. Since knowledge is always in some sense instrumental and thus subordinate to useful ends, sovereignty is a state of unknowingness, accessible only in moments. These occur only when strong emotions disrupt the chains of thought. Bataille's inventory of sovereign "effusions" - laughter, tears, intoxication, play, festivity, sexual ectasy, sacred terror - are all privileged moments that allow human beings to live in the present.
Haughtily contemptuous of bourgeois values (deferment of gratification, accumulation, providence) Bataille's own table of virtues are aristocratic.
Historically, the aristocracy have been the class of humans most able to devote
their lives and resources to prodigality (dandyism, combat, gambling, 'perverse'
sexuality). Appropriately, the society that's most antithetical to Bataille's
notion of sovereignty is Soviet Communism, which was created in reaction to an
obscenely wasteful feudalism. Impelled by the need to make the industrial
revolution happen in less than a decade, Stalin's economics turned bourgeois
accumlation into national policy. The result was state capitalism: a society in
which the individual's access to extravagant consumption was totally
subordinated to the goal of increasing national productivity. The ultimate goal
of Communism was an end to alienation (after the dictatorship of the proletariat
had withered away, Marx envisioned a society based around aesthetic, sovereign
activity). But in the mean time, Soviet Communism increased alienation, creating
a society whose inhabitants were less and less able to live in the present
moment. For Bataille, the real problem with Communism is its inability to
conceive of life in terms of play, only in terms of work.
Where Marxism mirrored the economicism of the bourgeois worldview, Nietzche
and de Sade are Bataille's ancestors and prophets of sovereignty. Both were aristocrats, opposed equally to capitalist values and Christian/Socialist
philanthropy (hence their usefulness to fascism); both felt that solidarity
with other human beings debilitated them in their quest to become their own
gods. Borrowing Sartre's distinction between the rebel and the revolutionary,
Bataille recognises the reactionary nature of de Sade, Nietzche and even his own
thought. The revolutionary wants to replace a bad (because dysfuctional) order
with a good (because better-functioning) system. But the rebel only wants to
break the rules, and is secretly complicit with the order he revolts against.
His trangressions are unconstructive and childish. But because he's disciplined
and self-sacrificing on behalf of the future, the revolutionary rules out for
himself the bliss of wicked, wasteful behaviour. The rebel alone has access to
sovereignty and jouissance. "Pleasure, unjustified by any utility, is sovereign
insofar as it denies to the point of ecstasy a world that is infinitely deserving of respect."
Bataille's sovereignty is a sterile splendour, the unconstructive waste of energy into the void. Chiming with in with the mystical tradition that stretches from Taoism through the Gnostics' 'cloud of unknowing' to the philosophy of Norman O. Brown, Bataille's final paradox is that the sovereign's last word is "I am NOTHING". So perhaps the ultimate modern of form of sovereignty is heroin
addiction: a return to the invulnerable, solipsistic self-sufficiency of life-
in-the-womb, a total escape from the servile ignominy of the productive world,
the purest form of wasting your life. But perhaps even Bataille would have
blanched at the idea that the junkie knew how to live like a king.