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Come, come, Georges: Steven Shaviro on Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye and Ma mere.

TRANSGRESSION, no less than its sister, transcendence, was a great goal of twentieth-century art. "The human being arrives at the threshold," Georges Bataille wrote in 1938. "There he must throw himself headlong into that which has no foundation and no head." Bataille's taste for the luridly pornographic made him notorious. But what Bataille sought in the flesh, other modernists sought in the imagination, or in spirituality, or in the process of the work of art itself. All of these lead beyond representation. Bataille's furious drive to violate all taboos, to go beyond all limits, simply makes him the most lucid, exemplary practitioner of a project that was widely shared. Modernism finally exhausts itself, as Jean-Francois Lyotard suggested, in the "fundamental task" of "bearing pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible.... The paint, the picture as occurrence or event, is not expressible, and it is to this that it has to [bear] witness."

It's hard to know what sense this twentieth-century problematic can have for us today, at the start of the twenty-first. We live in a time in which transgression has lost its sting, when it has become trivial, boring, and irrelevant. Bataille's giddy gaze into the abyss no longer inspires exhilaration or dread. What remains prophetic in Bataille today is not his erotic quest but his exacerbated sense of its futility--an irony that seems "postmodern" avant la lettre. There's no more "inexpressible" to bear witness to; it's all been shown already on cable. Transgression today takes the derisory form of Marilyn Manson's carefully calculated marketing shtick. Is there any sexual practice so extreme that it hasn't found its niche online, where videos featuring it are profitably marketed and where its ins and outs are analyzed in minute detail by its fans? Of course we still have public scandals, but even these conform to commodity logic. There's no real outrage, only a hypocritical display that's easily contained within the panoply of "lifestyle options" or "consumer choices" available to us today. The people who claimed to be offended by Janet Jackson's one-second display of her breast on network television nonetheless flocked to movie theaters to see the far more explicit and extended s/m porn of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.

This is the situation that gets addressed in two recent films based on novels by Bataille. Philadelphia-based independent filmmaker Andrew Repasky McElhinney's Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye (now available on DVD) makes the impasse of transgression its overt subject. A low-budget experimental film, Story of the Eye banks on hard-core sex yet refuses to provide its audience with the usual thrills and gratifications of pornography. Despite the title, which suggests a literary adaptation, the film pays no attention to the plot or content of Bataille's novel. There are no erotic scenes involving eggs, bull testicles, or communion wafers. And there's nothing of Bataille's sense of joyous, queasy self-abandonment.

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Instead, Story of the Eye begins with documentary footage (seemingly from the 1950s) of a "twilight sleep" birth; it ends with a harsh electronic whine that goes on for several minutes over a completely darkened screen. In between, there are several lengthy sexual tableaux. A black man is the top and a white man the bottom in a scene that moves from foreplay to anal penetration. Two white women have sex in multiple positions, eventually getting off with the help of a double-headed dildo. A desultory three-way involves the same two women and a white man who has previously appeared in the film as a bored and jaded voyeur. There's also a short sequence in which the two women perform a surreal cabaret act, watched by the voyeur, who seems to be controlling their motions with a joystick that in some shots is substituted by his penis. And there's a long sequence in which one of the women, looking battered and exhausted, trudges up interminable flights of stairs, utters the words "Jackie? Jackie? Jackie O?" and then pisses on the floor. These are the only spoken words in the film, aside from a brief voice-over account of Bataille's life. The sound track otherwise contains just music and ambient noise. Story of the Eye plays with deliberate archaism, like a mock silent film, complete with intertitles (all of which are quotations from Bataille).

There's no sexual act in Story of the Eye that you can't find portrayed with equal explicitness at your local video store. But McElhinney's film not only has no plot, it also lacks any sense of progression, intensification, or climax. If one of the intertitles declares that "arranging narrative is a bourgeois mania," the film deliberately frustrates this mania. The sex scenes all take place in real time, and as far as I can tell, the sex is "real," not simulated. But this means that, in contrast to most porn, the scenes seem excruciatingly long. The result is that the sex ends up being boring. Twenty minutes of people thrusting and moaning is an eternity. The camera work is characteristically intrusive but at the same time clinical and detached, so it doesn't provide us any thrills of vicarious identification. There's no first-person camera and no sped-up editing rhythms. Though some of the sequences titillate us with the prospect of s/m, our anticipation of pain, or even of a little role playing, is quickly disappointed as the characters get down to the serious business of fucking. The film puts us in the position of the (male) voyeur, but it systematically deflates (pun intended) all our expectations.

The problem of pornography is the same as the problem of modernism: how to express the inexpressible, represent the unrepresentable. In the case of pornography, this means showing the evidence of orgasm. The customer wants proof that the acts on screen are "real." But how can what occurs in the depths of the body be opened for visual inspection? When hard-core porn came out of the closet in the 1970s, the solution to this dilemma was the (tellingly named) "money shot": a close-up of the ejaculating penis. The male actor had to withdraw from his partner just before climax to offer the evidence of his ecstasy to the camera. But obviously this strategy does not work for women. The viewer can never be sure that the woman isn't faking it. Pornography--like psychoanalysis and other versions of the modernist project--thus comes to grief on the shoals of gender.

Story of the Eye short-circuits this modernist and pornographic economy. Most of the sex in the film falls short of satisfaction. And when we finally get a "money shot," near the end of the film, the blase voyeur character ejaculates directly into the lens of the camera. Not only does "real" sex fail to be gratifying for the viewer; but the very proof of its "realness" collapses, as it falls back on the cinematic apparatus itself. No transgression is possible. This means that McElhinney betrays the modernist Bataille, who found God in the "running, teeming wound" of a prostitute's cunt, "hairy and pink, as full of life as some loathsome squid." But it means, too, that McElhinney remains faithful to the postmodern Bataille, the one who proclaims that "sovereignty is nothing," the Bataille who loses his hard-on and finds himself consigned to "irony, a long, weary wait for death."

Christophe Honore's Ma mere--which opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this month--is a far less interesting film. Made on a substantially higher budget, it remains comfortably within the tasteful Euro-art-house mainstream. It is not anywhere as confrontational or sexually explicit as recent films by French directors like Catherine Breillat (Anatomy of Hell [2004]) or Virginie Despentes (Baise-moi [2000]), though its few shots of male frontal nudity are enough to guarantee it an NC-17 rating in the United States. Ma mere closely follows the plot of Bataille's novel of incest, but it replaces the original's pseudoaristocratic fin de siecle ambiance with a contemporary setting in the bourgeois vacation paradise of the Canary Islands. The great Isabelle Huppert plays the dissolute mother with a combination of willed perversity, world-weariness, coyness, and icy reserve; Louis Garrel is appropriately narcissistic and sulky as the teenage son she seduces.

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Honore, like McElhinney, faces the question of how to restore meaning to transgression in a world that no longer finds it either seductive or menacing. He resolves the problem by, in effect, domesticating tragedy. Ma mere plays out as an intimate family drama; it reduces the scope of Bataille's obsessions from the ontological to the merely psychological. The mother's sexual initiation of her son scarcely seems as momentous to Honore as it does to Bataille, since it fits in seamlessly with the film's hedonistic tourist setting of omnisexual discos and nude sunbathing. And Honore motivates the mother's suicide, at the climactic moment of sexual union with her son, as a consequence of obscure feelings of guilt, combined with the ennui that results from a life of sterile and loveless pleasures. Such moralism is diametrically opposed to Bataille's own sense of fatal impossibility, of pushing things to a point of total rupture. I don't think that Honore means to be moralistic; but he's forced into it as a result of the diminished status of transgression in the world he depicts.

I can't conclude this review without at least mentioning some other cinematic evocations of Bataille. Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn's The Deadman (1990) remains the most rigorous and unflinching film version of a Bataille text. It finds its own way to affirm the "inexpressible" in a world from which the category has been abolished. There's also at least one great missing film: the adaptation of Bataille's Blue of Noon that Rainer Werner Fassbinder was planning to direct at the time of his death. I will always regret that this film never got made, for doubtless it would have shed a new and harsh light on the interplay of politics and sexuality and on the historical links between the fascist terror that Bataille confronted in the 1930s and the more diffuse and disguised forms of oppression and deprivation we continue to face today.

Steven Shaviro is professor of English at Wayne State University in Detroit. (See Contributors.)
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Author:Shaviro, Steven
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:May 1, 2005
Words:1711
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