Georges Bataille, 1973
Where this Book is Situated
Every book should make visible both the new contribution of the author, and the innumerable other works s/he’s in conversation with. The The reader should be offered this ensemble, not merely a single element of this. However, “The unlimited assemblage is the impossible.” The natural impulse is to drop this impossible effort to survey the assemblage in favor of articulating the isolated opinion. “This powerlessness defines an apex of possibility, or, at least, awareness of the impossibility opens consciousness to all that is possible for it to think. In this gathering place, where violence is rife, at the boundary of that which escapes cohesion, he who reflects within cohesion realizes there is no longer any room for him.
Philosophy is always incomplete, a “construction site,” not a house. (There’s probably something interesting in this language of place/building/dwelling.) It should always remain open to what will follow. It is “an act of consciousness” to push thinking to its possible boundaries, without seeking there a definite state of rest.
There cannot be any philosophy of the individual. Indeed, the basic problem of philosophy is how to get out of the human situation. How do you move from a self-consciousness, subordinated to action and necessary distinctions, to an understanding of consciousness of being without essence.
Chapter I: Animality
Animality is immanence or immediacy. This immanence is given when one animal eats another; immanence is situational. There is no relationship of subordination between the eater and one eaten. The eaten animal is consumed or disappears in a world with no sense of time (time being a human construct). At best, there is the quantitative difference of strength. The animal is one with its environment, a wave within water.
It’s impossible to envision the viewpoint of the animal, because there are no objects or meaning. The only difference between envisioning a world without man’s gaze and a world seen from an animal’s view is that the absurdity of the former is immediately apparent. The view of the animal is both intensely familiar - it is our depth - and unfathomable. Attempts to describe it end in poetry. No consciousness is gained or betrayed in combat.
Chapter 2: Humanity and the Development of the Profane World
“The developed tool is the nascent form of the non-I.” Consciousness posits the object is the creation of the tool. The tool has no value in itself; it is always a means. To think of a tool serving a “true end” or breaking the endless cycle of utility is to think of an utterly superfluous, meaningless world. It means to bring back a world of continuity.
The object breaks continuity. The perfect, clear, and distinct knowledge a subject has about an object stems from its manufacture. It knows it has made an object and could do so again, while it, as a subject, couldn’t be duplicated.
We still haven’t reached awareness of ourselves as subjects; rather, we posit objects, as things clearly manufactured, on one plane, and ourselves along with other men, animals, and the world out of which objects are manufactured on the other. We cannot know ourselves clearly and distinctly unless viewed from the outside by the other. But this requires placing the other on the plane of manufactured objects.
This transition is a precarious one, mediated through language. Language allows men to see things both internally and externally. The tool can be seen both as an object, and as possessing the attributes of its maker.
Because men conceive of the world as continuous with their intimacy, they necessarily conceive of it as thinking, acting, willing, as they do; in short, as a thing. The introduction of a supreme being is in one sense continuous with this understanding of the world as pure immanence. In its earliest stages, the divine being is a thing like other things, a mixture of personality, subject and object. This is an impoverishment, a weakening of the sense of intimacy without compensation.
A hierarchy of the sacred develops, with a distinction between spirits that depend on a body and ones that do not. The notion of the body becomes the key difference separating the sacred from the profane. As a spirit with a body, man straddles the two. This distinction is not the same as that between the continuous and the object. The notion of the bodily world as fallen begins to emerge.
Eventually the animal becomes a thing, not man’s fellow creature. This is in one sense false; an animal exists for itself and has to be dead or domesticated in order to become a thing. Hence the practice of cooking animals before eating them. The development of the tool explains the alienation of man. The tool allows man to subordinate nature, but in the same time it alters him.
Sacrifice develops, then, as a way of reuniting man with the old sense of immanence. It breaks the object out of its role of subordination and the logic of utility. Moreover, it reverses the antinomy between life and death “by means of a reversal” (47). Death is nothing in immanence, and because it’s nothing it’s everywhere. The world of things, despite being concerned with duration and future time, has no room for death. It treats it as something fundamentally unreal, and yet, when death emerges it reveals the lost world of intimacy/immanence. It shows the impoverishment of life in the moment of its cessation; it’s the excess that can’t be contained within the system and shows all of the promises of the real world to be empty.
Nonetheless, death is not strictly necessary for a sacrifice. All that is needed is that the thing pass from the logic of the order where consumption is limited by the need for the duration of resources to the order of unconditioned consumption. Consumption is concerned with the moment, not the future, as is the order of the real. Thus, one sacrifices the useful, not the luxurious, because luxury items have had their use value destroyed beforehand.
Intimacy is necessarily violence because it is not compatible with the individual. Man is afraid of the order of things which cannot be reconciled with his place in a world that defines him by his projects, his duration. The festival is the site of the outbreak of this intimate violence, of the sacred. the sacred is contagious, threatening to consume the world of objects, and must be contained.
“Religion, whose essence is the search for lost intimacy, comes down to the effort of clear consciousness which wants to be a complete self-consciousness: but this effort is futile, since consciousness of intimacy is possible only at a level where consciousness is no longer and operation whose outcome implies duration, that is, at the level where clarity, which is the effect of the operation, is no longer given” (57).
Put otherwise, consciousness only develops by turning away from intimacy. Thus, the desire to reach full self-consciousness by coming to understand intimacy misses the point that consciousness can only be built by means of excluding intimacy. Full transparency is impossible.
War is the opposite of the sacrifice. Rather than returning man, however briefly, to the order of intimacy, it reduces man totally to the object of things through the invention of slaves. Granted, man could not be totally subordinated to the logic of utility had he not originally developed the logic of work, but the worker is only temporarily subordinated to utility; the slave is permanently.
Part 2: Religion within the Limits of Reason: From the Military Order to Industrial Growth
The military order put an end to the consumption of the sacrifice, in favor of the “methodical diversion of violence to the outside” (65).
The empire is the universal thing, which orders everything around it in a project of conquest. It can’t allow another empire to exist at its borders (unlike, here, the early gods). Its universality reveals a void and the impossibility of infinite subordination. The law develops to ensure the stability of the order of things through public force. Morality exists on the edge, where the law is already instituted.
Because the military world of the empire is bound to the order of things, consciousness is “determined in the measured reflection of the world of things.” Put otherwise, the shift is this. The empire introduces universality into consciousness. Faced with the necessity of ordering relations between individuals within the real order, consciousness begins to posit universal laws of morality. Some of these appropriate old sacred prohibition, such as the law against murder; other aspects of the sacred, such as consumption, are forbidden. Gradually, the sacred begins to shift in meaning from the contagious, dangerous, to the prerequisite for morality. The malefic sacred is relegated to the sphere of the profane. The world of spirit is the intelligible world of ideas; matter becomes the site of the unpredictable and disruptive.
Likewise, the nature of transcendence shifts. In the old world, the split between the human and the sacred was provisional. Man could still be reunited with the sacred through sacrifice. Now the split is total. Intimacy becomes transcendent. In the transcendent man catches a glimpse of something else, of the old intimacy, but only as a memory that is soon forgotten.
The sovereignty of the good leaves no escape except in a return to violence. But the good god excludes violence, unless mediated in one of two ways. First, through a type of vengeance which restores the moral order by sacrificing the perpetrator of a crime. Second, through violence which comes to divinity from the outside. And yet, what is sacrificed (i.e. Christ) is only that which serves and can only be returned to the divine order by its destruction.
All of this may seem to subordinate the old world of intimacy to the logic of the real, but, in fact, the strictly rational, transcendent logic of morality is always undermined by the aspects of religion such as contemplative idleness, prohibitions, and the liturgy.
Chapter IV: The Rise of Industry
The world of mediation/salvation through works, is the world of the real, not of intimacy. One gains salvation through future-oriented works, the logic of production, rather than through violent impulses. And yet, the negation of works in grace only completes the separation between the other world and this one. The deferral of intimacy to the next world misses the point. Intimacy is by nature immanent, immediate, not subordinated to the logic of the future.
However, negating the value of works paradoxically frees them to develop for themselves. The principle of non-productive destruction only holds in the beyond and has no relevance to here and now; only industry, then, is worthy of our interest in the present. Production was no longer subordinate to violence or the logic of consumption; it could, instead, become its own end in capitalism. The quest for intimacy was abandoned.
Most people have accepted the rise of industrialism, even if with some degree of terror. And yet, the more totally everything, including man, is reduced to thinghood, the larger intimacy looms. Industry pushes closer to that moment where production reveals itself as essentially non-productive, in the moment when it no longer knows what to do with its products.
Science is the condition for “achieving clear self-consciousness.” It is the “autonomy of the consciousness of things.” Things only become clearly and distinctly known under the logic of production. However, science takes this clear consciousness and tries to direct it toward the order of intimacy. In this, is basically fails. The real is known as the authentic, and the inarticulate stammerings of the intimate as vanity. But because they oppose the real, they acquire more force. In order to redress this inequality, self-consciousness must turn toward intimacy.
The highest expression of self-consciousness would be to return to the darkness of man’s intimate animal nature. In doing so, it will attain absolute clarity in assuming obscurity.
Clear consciousness and a world of production that doesn’t know what to do with its things makes destruction of the order of things possible and necessary.