The Unfinished System Of Nonknowledge by Georges Bataille, translated by Stuart Kendall, Michelle Kendall (University of Minnesota Press) A deft reconstruction of what Georges Bataille envisioned as a continuation of his work La Somme Athéologique, this volume brings together the writings of one of the foremost French thinkers of the twentieth century on the central topic of his oeuvre. Gathering Bataille's most intimate writings, these essays, aphorisms, notes, and lectures on nonknowledge, sovereignty, and sacrifice clarify and extend Bataille's radical theology, his philosophy of history, and his ecstatic method of meditation.
Following Bataille's lead, as laid out in his notebooks, editor Stuart Kendall assembles the fragments that Bataille anticipated collecting for his summa. Kendall's introduction offers a clear picture of the author's overall project, its historical and biographical context, and the place of these works within it. The "system" that emerges from these articles, notes, and lectures is "atheology," understood as a study of the effects of nonknowledge.
At the other side of realism, Bataille's writing in La Somme pushes language to its silent end. And yet, writing toward the ruin of language, in search of words that slip from their meanings, Bataille uses language-and the discourses of theology, philosophy, and literature-against itself to return us to ourselves, endlessly. The system against systems is in fact systematic, using systems and depending on discourses to achieve its own ends-the end of systematic thought.
A medievalist librarian by training, Georges Bataille (1897-1962) was active in the French intellectual scene from the 1920s through the 1950s. He founded the journal Critique and was a member of the Acéphale group and the Collège de sociologie. Interweaving Nietzsche and Hegel in his work Georges Bataille clearly demarcates the field of what has become identified as post-structuralism. A librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Bataille wrote erotic fiction as well as philosophical reflections. Bataille's works address themes of communion, sacrifice, waste, intensity and economy in moving between the two thinkers and others, particularly the sociologist Emile Durkheim and the anthropologist Marcel Mauss.
At first, Bataille sought to locate in surrealist images a clue to the 'sacred' or the 'heterogenous' – that which was other to the bourgeois normality of individual responsibility and ego control in its ecstatic group violence and wasteful energy. Besides surrealist imagery, Bataille also recognized that the sacred had made a spectacular contemporary appearance in the mass Nazi rallies. In founding the Collège de Sociologie (1937–39), Bataille gave a forum for anthropological investigations into the manifestations of the sacred in 'primitive' cultures, with an eye to tapping this reservoir of social energy, which lay largely dormant and hence overlooked in modem culture, for progressive politics, rather than leave a monopoly on using the sacred to the Fascists.
Bataille used Nietzsche and Hegel in an attempt to think the sacred. At one point, Bataille attempted a post-Hegelian reading of the negative: taking up Kojève's thesis of the end of history (the finish of the work of the negative), Bataille thought that the creative/destructive energy that had moved history was now 'unemployed', and thus free to appear today in eroticism and squandering, non-economic waste; structures similar to the potlatches Mauss had investigated in native American society. In his reflections on the sacred using Nietzsche, whom he hoped to rescue from the Nazis, Bataille thought first of founding a 'religion', then in terms of 'inner experience'. The religious project was to create a myth of sheer negativity that brought forth renewal, focused on the figure of the overman, whom Bataille called acéphale or 'headless' to forestall any reappropriation of free-floating sacred energy by an elevated figure of dominating leadership. The project of inner experience, on the other hand, is that of individual preparation, through a meditation on horror or through sexual practice, for an experience of ecstatic communion, of ego-dissolution--thus, paradoxically, the destruction of the very ego that prepares and experiences.
The legacy of Bataille in post-structuralism is difficult to assess, largely because it is difficult to see what is due to Nietzsche and what is due to Bataille's readings of Nietzsche. None the less, it is safe to say that the investigations into the construction of the ego or consciousness through social and bodily practices, the converse experience of the dissolution of the ego in madness, the themes of non-productive expenditure, of excess and outrage to common sense, resonate in Bataille’s fragments. His System of nonknowledge now seems to resonant with the turn toward knowledge via negativa as put forth by Derrida’s “religious” writings.
Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography by Michel Surya, translated by Krzysztof Kijalkowski and Michael Richardson (Verso) I recall my youthful reading of Georges Bataille’s surrealist erotica, The Story of the Eye, written in 1928 under a nom de plume, still his best-known work, something of an underground classic, rediscovered anew by each generation. It is brazenly surrealistic, both sordid and mesmerizing, and crowded with ostensible continuous desecrations: Where the uncanny image of an eyeball detached from a corpse, sets up a series of reveries "the caress of the eye over the skin is so utterly, so extraordinarily gentle, and the sensation is so bizarre that it has something of a rooster's horrible crowing."
Despite moralistic derision as a "metaphysician of evil," focusing on blasphemy, profanation, and horror, Georges Bataille remains a premier French philosopher, poet, novelist and essayist, whose work is antisystematic and for this reason defies simple summary, inviting in this acclaimed intellectual biography by Michel Surya almost certainly the best approach to the themes and development of Bataille’s career. Bataille's life and work is permeated by transience and effacement, reflecting a will both to dispute the impermanence of things and to face the futility of death. These attitudes cluster around such themes as an obsessive concern with the erotic, myth, sacrifice, the nature of excess, profanity, heterogeneity and social transgression. Bataille's writings are also marked by an engagement with the thought of such predecessors as De Sade, Nietzsche, Hegel, Freud, the poetry of Blake, and the writings of Jean Genet. Bataille's work has exerted a wide influence within the sphere of French intellectual life. The writings of intellectuals such as Barthes, Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard all betray obvious engagements with aspects of Bataille's thought. Surya’s study provides a detailed exposition of the themes of Bataille's work as they developed against the backdrop of his life. Bataille's troubled childhood, his multifarious and antagonistic relationship with the Surrealist movement and his paradoxical position at the heart of twentieth‑century French thought are enriched here with testimonies from Bataille's closest acquaintances, making Surya’s biography a vivid and detailed approach to this influential intellectual. Most especially, Bataille's intellectual development, marked as it is by a preliminary adherence to Marxism and a subsequent turn to Nietzsche, prefigures a general trend within French intellectual thought of the post‑war era. Surya takes pains to reveal the contexts in which Bataille worked, and the ways in which his work and ideas took shape. Surya sheds critical biographical light on a figure Foucault once described as “one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.”
Bataille studied at Epernay College (1913‑1915) and then at the Ecole des Chartes in Paris (graduating as a medievalist in 1922). He then occupied a post in the Cabinet des Medales, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris until 1942, when he retired due to ill health. During the 1920s and 1930s Bataille forged links with the surrealist movement in Paris and also espoused Marxism. From the mid‑1930s his attachment to Marxism waned, largely as a result of his obsessive interest in Nietzsche's philosophy. He was the founder of the influential literary review Critique editor of Documents, publisher of the Acephale journal, and a founding member of the antifascist group Contra-Attaque. Also in the late 30s his commitment to surrealism also lessened, not least because of his dispute with leading French surrealist Andre Breton. The latter's conception of surrealism as invoking the `lower', bodily aspects of life as a means of indicating the fundamental truths attainable by way of art repelled Bataille. It is not, however, surrealism's exploration of bodily excess that Bataille abhorred but its aim of subordinating this element to a `higher', abstract realm. For Bataille, the `lower' (the bodily and what is associated with it: carnality, excrement, parts of the body generally excluded from acknowledgement in daily social life) is of interest on its own terms. As such, the body and materiality generally is not, for him, a mere appendage to reality but is constitutive of it.
Nietzsche is significant for Bataille as a thinker whose writings explore the nature of values in the context of the crisis of modernity. Nietzsche's famous pronouncement of the `death of God' in The Gay Science (1974) is a theme taken up in Bataille's work. Bataille is also interested in Nietzsche because he sees him as rejecting various dichotomies. Thus, the collapse between fictional and philosophical discourse that Nietzsche's work enacts is also admired by Bataille. Nietzsche's attempts to conflate the domains of value and the body in the opening sections of Human, All‑Too‑Human (1878) or in the first part of Beyond Good and Evil (1886) ‑ and thereby question the metaphysical opposition between conceptual thought and materiality are also mirrored in Bataille's work. Equally, Nietzsche's claim in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) that the high cultural achievements of Ancient Greece are the expression of a sublimated form of violence has its parallels in Bataille's explorations of excess and his interest in the nature of violence. In De Sade, too, it is the conjunction and interplay of erotic, sacrificial and physically violent elements that fascinates Bataille. With regard to Hegel, it is the latter's conception of the Absolute as equivalent to pure rationality that is the object of Bataille's critical attention, and against which he emphasises the bodily conditions of existence. Bataille's reading of Hegel highlights the interconnection between what he conceives to be the realm of bodily affects (e.g. plant life, the play of chance, organic functions) and the realm of rational, abstract thought. Against this, Bataille seeks to show how these two realms are conjoined. However `spiritual' and rational some aspects of human existence may appear to be, they are underwritten by a material or bodily component that is capable of overrunning them. Freud's influence upon Bataille is evident in texts such as The Story of the Eye (1928), a pornographic fantasy that has a psychoanalytic analysis appended to it.
Much of Bataille's thinking aims to illuminate socially imposed limits enshrined in the modern conception of rationality in this way (see The Accursed Share, 1949). Humans, he argues in an essay on De Sade, are composed of two contending drives: the drive to excretion and the drive to appropriation. In cultural terms, this is presented in terms of an opposition between collective, orgiastic impulses and social institutions (legal, economic and political structures). Humans conceive of their world as being composed of homogeneous unities in order to facilitate appropriation (science, for instance, thinks in related concepts, in terms of parts and their role within the whole). Philosophy is an intellectual expression of the urge to appropriate. Kant's philosophy, we could note in this context, envisages the world as being conceivable only as a consequence of a legalistic conceptual order that has legitimacy independently of experiences provided by way of the senses (the a priori conditions of experience). But the intellectual desire to appropriate produces its specific kind of own waste products. Nothingness, the infinite, concepts of the Absolute are all, for Bataille, notions that resist recuperation within an homogeneous conceptual order.He conceives of the body as being opposed to the normative constraints that serve to constitute subjectivity within social formations. The body thereby resists absorption by social forces. For example, in the modern era, which is dominated by the capitalist mode of production and hence by the values of prudence and usefulness, the body serves as a reminder of the limitations of the notion of exchange‑value. The body cannot be recuperated within the logic of the market place, since bodily functions do not accord with dominant notions of exchange and profit. The body, rather, is prodigal: its basic constitution is determined by way of an alternative logic of excess (again, Nietzsche's comments to the effect that nature proceeds `wastefully' in the notes contained in The Will to Power spring to mind here). Likewise, Bataille also alludes to the existence of practices that enact excess as a means of stating his case, for example human sacrifice is an act of gross expenditure, a total wastefulness that horrifies modern consciousness because of its violence, senselessness and irrationality. The point for Bataille is not that we should be tolerant of human sacrifice, but that this kind of practice throws into relief dominant practices within modern societies and shows their limits. Exchange‑value, for instance, cannot be reconciled with notions of the sacred and profane that are given homage in sacrifice, which is an act of gross materiality. Nor can it be incorporated within the logic of the Hegelian dialectic, which seeks to recuperate all resistances by accommodating them within the dialectical unfolding of Reason. Practices that cannot be subject to the notions of equivalence and exchange are, in other words, heterogeneous. What this implies for Bataille is that, however systematically one would like to conceptualise life, the imposition of a limit that this desire necessitates will always be overcome. Bodily and social systems will always produce waste products (excrement in the one instance, rubbish in the other) which in their very nature resist reintegration into systematic structures. The heterogeneity of the body, it follows, is marked by resistance. This points, among other things, to the limitations of scientific discourse. Where science deals with homogeneous elements, with wholes and the parts that fit harmoniously into them, the heterogeneous is in its very nature profoundly unsystematic. This important study not only gives crucial biographical insight into Bataille but also becomes a premiere introduction to the principle themes and development of his thought. Recommended.
The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge by Georges Bataille, edited by
Stuart Kendall, translated by Michelle Kendall (University of Minnesota Press) A
deft reconstruction of what Georges Bataille envisioned as a continuation of his
La Somme Athéologique, this volume brings together the writings of one of
the foremost French thinkers of the twentieth century on the central topic of
his oeuvre. Gathering Bataille's most intimate writings, these essays,
aphorisms, notes, and lectures on nonknowledge, sovereignty, and sacrifice
clarify and extend Bataille's radical theology, his philosophy of history, and
his ecstatic method of meditation.
Following Bataille's lead, as laid out in his notebooks, editor Stuart
Kendall assembles the fragments that Bataille anticipated collecting for his
summa. Kendall's introduction offers a clear picture of the author's overall
project, its historical and biographical context, and the place of these works
within it. The "system" that emerges from these articles, notes, and lectures is
"atheology," understood as a study of the effects of nonknowledge.
At the other side of realism, Bataille's writing in La Somme pushes language
to its silent end. And yet, writing toward the ruin of language, in search of
words that slip from their meanings, Bataille uses language-and the discourses
of theology, philosophy, and literature-against itself to return us to
ourselves, endlessly. The system against systems is in fact systematic, using
systems and depending on discourses to achieve its own ends-the end of
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