Jason DeBoer currently resides in Chicago, Illinois, where he
is attempting to finance a new literary and philosophical publishing house
called Trembling Sun Press. His short fiction is starting to appear around the
world, most recently in the Barcelona
Review; and at the moment he is working on Stupor, his debut novel.
“That sand into which we bury ourselves in order not to
– Georges Bataille, Inner Experience –
The writings of Georges Bataille have recently become the object of a certain resurgence, or rather, a recuperation, within the academy. As Bataille’s death in 1962 recedes into the past, the number of critical essays and articles about him continues to grow at an incredible rate. Most of this criticism has taken the approach of situating Bataille and his ideas into a pre-determined framework of “postmodern” thought, either through the systematic embellishment of his role as an intellectual influence on Foucault, Derrida, and others, or his role as an intermediary figure between Nietzsche and the French postmodernists. While there certainly is merit and validity in linking Bataille intellectually to these writers, it is the radicalness and originality of Bataille’s writing which ultimately becomes lost in these analyses when viewed through such an historical lens. It seems inevitable that Bataille, like Nietzsche, will be subjected to a critical scrutiny, which, in the guise of earnest analyses and close readings, serves foremost to dispel the threat that such writers pose to academia. A calculated process of intellectual taming is deployed against these radical thinkers; this procession of commentaries and dissections nearly always leaves nothing but a dilution of the original work. To avoid this, I will not concern myself with situating Bataille’s writings within the present state of theory (whether it be philosophical, critical, sociological, or psychological). Rather, I think it would be more noble to attempt a critique of the theoretical enterprise by analyzing it through Bataille’s own array of concepts. If the ideas of thinkers like Nietzsche, Sade, or Bataille are to be afforded the credence they deserve, it is only fitting that theory itself be judged according to their claims, which may run in opposition to the claims made by traditional theory.
Georges Bataille organizes his writings around many core concepts or ideas, many of which remain diffuse and somewhat underdeveloped in their definitions or meanings. Communication, sovereignty, heterology, inner experience, the sacred, dépense or expenditure, transgression, excess, etc.; each concept appears in his texts as a momentary connotation, a brief enunciation that creates an impact in the reader, then disappears before becoming fully ensnared within the parameters of conceptualization. Perhaps it is this vagueness or ambiguity inherent in all of Bataille’s concepts that prevents them from being appropriated by the theoretical mainstream and being put to work in a dogmatic system. In order for an idea to be put to work, for it to be able to perform a function, perhaps it must first have a proper definition... which many of Bataille’s concepts lack. The broadness of his terms (indeed, Bataille’s move from a restrictive to a general economy shows a digression from the specific, from specialization) may keep them from being utilized by others; this subversion of utility arises from the difficulty of pinpointing where or when a Bataillean concept begins or ends. This sacrifice of clarity certainly is an intentional strategy, Bataille’s own “employment” of unworkable concepts. It is within this arena of thought that I wish to examine the contemporary state of theory.
When one wants to discuss things such as philosophy, literature and poetry, as such, in their broadest sense, it seems impossible to provide a working definition which encapsulates enough of the defined to provide a basis for meaningful discourse. As soon as one makes statements about “philosophy”, etc. the stage is set for interpretive breakdown. Without a general concept of “philosophy” there will be confusion as to the term’s meaning; with such a normative concept, there will be disagreement over the validity of such a norm. Traditionally, philosophers have countered the problems of conceptual vagueness by imposing stricter and stricter specialization on their terms. Bataille, on the other hand, has reveled in the imprecision of such terms as “philosophy”, and, instead of specializing and building on such traditional notions, he has deployed his own set of concepts from the basis of whim (which he saw as the opposite of specialization). His attacks against philosophy strike it as a generality, before the complexities and specialties of epistemology, ontology, philosophy of language, etc. muddy the issue and make such a meta-critique more difficult. For Bataille, philosophy must be attacked insofar as it is a general project, not in its particular and multiple manifestations, and this can only be done by contrasting philosophy with other general concepts which differ from and oppose it... the sacred, excess, communication, etc. With this view in mind, I will attempt to compare and critique the theoretical enterprise itself, using Bataille’s notions as both guidelines and weapons. Firstly, though, I should remark on the victim, the generality referred to as “theory.”
Theory (again, whether it be philosophical, critical, sociological, etc.) can be said to consist of a variety of related movements. It can be thought of as the analyses of givens, predictions for the future, the systematic organization of knowledge, the very path along which thought must follow, or even thought itself. Theory is almost invariably a process that maintains knowledge (guaranteed by certainty) as its end result. Bataille contests the claim that a process of examination leads somehow to knowledge, because for him this external theorizing can only depart from or deny the only certain knowledge that humans may have: “We have in fact only two certainties in this world — that we are not everything and that we will die.”
Bataille posits knowledge of death not as the end result of a theoretical operation, but as an inner experience from which everything else radiates. This knowledge of death is in no way an understanding or comprehension of death; it is only the certainty that death will some day consume us, only a knowledge of mortality. Death cannot be regarded as an object of knowledge because it cannot be managed or subordinated by thought. Death is sovereign, hence inconceivable. Knowledge of our own mortality can only be peripheral to death itself. (Bataille’s other certainty, “that we are not everything”, paves the way for his notions of heterology and discontinuity, which I will examine in another essay.) Thus, the supposed end-product of theory, knowledge, is declared impossible by Bataille, except for the certainties of death and the discontinuity of beings. He writes: “we can have no knowledge except to know that knowledge is finite.” Death, in the end, consumes thought.
Any truth claims of theory are not sustainable according to Bataille’s rigid criteria for knowledge (namely, that only absolute certainty could guarantee knowledge). Bataille’s thought desires to exceed the very notion that knowledge is possible or that theory produces what it claims: “going to the end means at least this: that the limit, which is knowledge as a goal, be crossed.”
Bataille continues to attack knowledge insofar as it relates to the strivings of theory, with knowledge either as the end product of theory’s work or as the presumed foundation from which theory issues. Since knowledge is always linked to work and project, it is always servile to a concern for the future; it takes us away from the sovereignty of inner experience, which is only concerned with the moment. This inner experience is incapable of theorization; it evades the project-oriented grasp of language: “Everyday the sovereignty of the moment is more foreign to the language in which we express ourselves, which draws value back to utility: what is sacred, not being an object, escapes our apprehension. There is not even, in this world, a way of thinking that escapes servitude, an available language such that in speaking it we do not fall back into the immutable rut as soon as we are out of it.”
Bataille’s suspicion, even hatred, of language runs deep. However, this does not prevent him from according theory, philosophy, and science their place in the world. He believed that man should relegate such operations to a less prominent role in his thought, and instead concentrate more on his own inner experience. Bataille creates a dichotomy between experience and theory… with silence, sovereignty, and concern with the moment functioning as aspects of inner experience, and language, servility, and preparation for the future existing as inherent aspects of theory. By opposing language with inner experience, Bataille creates a dilemma for himself and his own writings. His steadfast position makes him something of an idealist regarding inner experience; Bataille leaves little room for reconciliation between a true silence which resists definitions and a sovereign use of language which is able to resist project. It is poetry, he finally decides, that is able to occupy this space, as a form of language that is sacred—a term Bataille used atheistically, meaning opposed to utility, usefulness, and concern for the future.
Even with his extreme cynicism that theory could ever transgress the servile nature of language in order to offer a glimpse into inner experience, Bataille continued to write, and not just poetry. In order to justify the agenda behind theoretical writings like Nietzsche’s or his own, which were able to perform a metaphilosophical critique of theory while still using some of its forms of questioning, Bataille needed to temper his idealism with a modified definition of project:
“Nevertheless inner experience is project, no matter what. It is such—man being entirely so through language which, in essence with the exception of its poetic perversion, is project. But project is no longer in this case that, positive, of salvation, but that, negative, of abolishing the power of words, hence of project.”
In other words, his is a theory which questions itself by attacking the foundation of theory itself: language. In this way, through a type of writing that strives for silence, even topics such as inner experience can be broached. “Principle of inner experience: to emerge through project from the realm of project.” Although Bataille writes that “the nature of experience is, apart from derision, not to be able to exist as project,” it is this derisive character of experience that can be expressed in a theory that ridicules itself, that acknowledges the impossibility of its own goal: knowledge.
Bataille finds the perfect form of such anti-foundational thinking in the aphoristic writings of Nietzsche: “I am talking about the discourse that enters into darkness and that the very light ends by plunging into darkness (darkness being the definitive silence). I am talking about the discourse in which thought taken to the limit of thought requires the sacrifice, or death, of thought. To my mind, this is the meaning of the work and life of Nietzsche.”
Not only did Nietzsche mirror Bataille’s own disgust for Christianity and philosophy, but the writing form which Nietzsche championed, the aphorism, became another weapon in Bataille’s arsenal, a “useful” tool against the utility of philosophical language. Only an aphoristic, fragmentary writing can harbor the violent, sacred qualities of poetry; only an incomplete form of writing can trace or elucidate the impossibility of knowledge as a product of theory, by revealing a lack within knowledge itself. For Bataille, the swift violence of aphorism was the most effective method of attacking philosophical theory, by critiquing all theoretical foundations in a series of broad strokes:
“A continual challenging of everything deprives one of the power of proceeding by separate operations, obliges one to express oneself through rapid flashes, to free as much as is possible the expression of one’s thought from a project, to include everything in a few sentences...”
It was this stylistic strategy that Bataille adopted for circumventing theoretical project, and he understood the difficulty (in fact, the impossibility) of proceeding any other way. Bataille believed that only a violent theory could usurp a utilitarian one, only a violent theory could clear the way for violence, which would put an end to the possibility of language. The excess of violence is silent, “the opposite of the solidarity with other people implicit in logic, laws and language.” In a way, violence consumes theory; its very excess countermines reason. He writes: “the expression of violence comes up against the double opposition of reason which denies it and of violence itself which clings to a silent contempt for the words used about it.”
And there certainly is a violent nature to Bataille’s nihilistic critique of theory and philosophy. Indeed, he may consider one deficit of philosophy to be that it does not strive violently for silence, but instead only meekly labors over question after question:
“Philosophy cannot escape from this limit of philosophy, of language, that is. It uses language in such a way that silence never follows, so that the supreme moment is necessarily beyond philosophical questioning. At any rate it is beyond philosophy as far as philosophy claims to answer its own questions.”
Philosophical theory, lost in the servility of work, is doomed to struggle from an untenable foundation (a non-arbitrary basis for language) to an impossible end-product (certain knowledge, besides that of mortality or the discontinuity of beings). Bataille believed that “goal and authority are the requirements for discursive thought” and that subsequently “discourse forms projects.” If this goal is knowledge, this authority, for philosophy, is ultimately external and metaphysical, hence religious. For Bataille, the only authority is inner experience, but its authority is in no way externalized. Outside the self, there was only chance and the randomness of the universe. “Instead of God, chance.”
If theory sought the guarantee of God to support its claims, it was both misguided and ultimately empty of value. “For those who grasp what chance is, the idea of God seems insipid and suspicious, like being crippled.”
Bataille was no irrationalist, but his critique of the metaphysics anchoring theory finally involved a rejection of reason itself, in order to purge the mind of any need for a connection with a God or metaphysical foundation.
“But the supreme abuse which man ultimately made of his reason requires a last sacrifice: reason, intelligibility, the ground itself upon which he stands— man must reject them, in him God must die; this is the depth of terror, the extreme limit where he succumbs.”
It is an ecstatic moment of doubt. He believed that “one reaches ecstasy by a contestation of knowledge.” Bataille’s challenge to theory reaches its zenith as the abandonment or transgression of reason’s need for God. “Salvation is the summit of all possible project and the height of matters related to projects.” Bataille’s atheology replaces the authority of metaphysical foundation with the sovereign authority of experience, and the work of philosophy is overcome in an act of transgression:
“Compared with work, transgression is a game. In the world of play philosophy disintegrates. If transgression became the foundation-stone of philosophy (this is how my thinking goes), silent contemplation would have to be substituted for language. This is the contemplation of being at the pinnacle of being.”
It is at this pinnacle that theory becomes a victim, a sacrifice at the hands of a great, “silent” theorist, Georges Bataille.
For more information on Bataille, try these links: