Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction.
"If we do not read Bataille as a thinker of freedom, then we do not read him at all" (5).
Most English language readers of Georges Bataille are familiar with him as a peculiar litterateur, the author of The Story of the Eye, a sophisticated and disturbing novel about sexual deviants on a rampage. But interest has been gaining steadily in Bataille's other work, a startling oeuvre that includes writing in philosophy, history, anthropology, religion, art, and economics. Benjamin Noys's book, George Bataille: A Critical Introduction, alerts readers to the complexities involved in reading Bataille. Noys writes that Bataille "is an irruptive force of violent excitation, and this accounts for the pleasure in reading him" (5). But despite the pleasure we may find in reading Bataille, Noys argues, "to celebrate Bataille is to fail to read him" (4).
This paradox is at the heart of Bataille's work. Bataille tried to position his work as an inassimilable "foreign body" that could be neither appropriated nor rejected in the domains of literature or philosophy. Rather, his work would force these domains to open themselves to dangerous forces beyond their control, to irrationality and to excess.
Noys states that the key to Bataille's writings is the notion of waste or luxury. In his three-volume work, The Accursed Share, Bataille developed the argument that accumulation, which commands the attention of most economists, is the overwhelming principle only of a "restricted economy" based on profit. This restricted economy replaces intimacy, desire, and the life of the moment with an interest in activities that have ends outside of themselves, usually material wealth. Bataille contrasted this restricted economy with the "general economy" which has ultimate authority in the cosmos and is governed by the principle of useless expenditure. Seen from the perspective of general economy, Bataille wrote, "a human sacrifice, the construction of a church or the gift of a jewel were no less interesting than the sale of wheat" (qtd. in Noys, 13).
Bataille attacked liberal democracies for their weakness, a weakness that created a vacuum for Nazism to fill. The justification for liberal democracies had been reason and utility, the great achievements of the Enlightenment. For Bataille, these achievements did not address life's important problems. Instead, they reduced human experience and human community to rational functions geared towards material ends. Primitive societies, in contrast, employed elaborate rituals of sacrifice to expel waste luxuriously. Bataille noted the need for these kinds of rituals: "A human society can have ... an interest in considerable losses, in catastrophes that, while conforming to well-defined needs, provoke tumultuous depressions, crises of dread, and, in the final analysis, a certain orgiastic state" (qtd. in Noys, 105).
For Bataille, the expenditure of excess energy could be either glorious or catastrophic. He perceived that European nations, soon to begin a second world war, were preparing a catastrophic expenditure of excess energy. Bataille imagined instead a glorious expenditure that could avert the catastrophe.
Bataille experimented with the creation of communities that desired freedom rather than power, and to that end he and others formed a group called Acephale (Headless). The group's goal was to release energies that could not be controlled by any leader. They planned a human sacrifice, but abandoned it because there were no willing executioners. However, the idea of sacrifice, particularly Marcel Mauss's work on the subject, continued to drive their thoughts.
Benjamin Noys set several difficult tasks for himself in his overview of Bataille: to explain how Bataille's work refuses both rejection and appropriation, the relationship between Bataille's life and work, the labyrinthine structure of Bataille's thought, and the influence of Bataille's work on other writers. He meets some of these goals, but falls short of others. Part of the problem is Noys's convoluted style, which hurts his efforts to clarify Bataille's work. For example:
Bennington is very critical of the pathos that Bataille reads into this problem of the limit, without perhaps recognizing that his own limitation of the problem of the limit to being a logical problem is reductive of the subjective, existential, ethical, and emotional effects that the limit can have (123).
When Noys cites the "irruptive force" of Bataille's writing, it makes us long for more of that force in his own writing.
While Noys argues that Bataille "wrote with his blood" (5), Noys does not provide many connections between Bataille's life and work, and there are few biographical details. Noys states, "I do not intend to provide an exhaustive description or chronology of his life but to select irruptive events from which it overflows into his work" (5). Yet, because Bataille's work is so difficult, readers might have appreciated more contextual information than Noys provides.
Noys argues that Bataille was deeply affected by the Nazis' misappropriation of Neitzsche's work and wanted to make his writing "unusable." He did not, of course, succeed, for many people--most notably poststructuralist theorists from Lacan to Derrida--have appropriated Bataille to many ends. While Noys defends Bataille's claim to "unusability," a book on the many uses of Bataille might have been more enlightening, even with the caveat that "use" is a problematic term in Bataille's vocabulary. Noys assumes that Bataille's readers seek only to interpret his work, and he fails to address why work meant to be unusable has in fact been so generative for other writers.
Noys's overview of Bataille and relevant intellectual history is clearly organized and may be quite helpful to the scholar wishing to put the various pieces of Bataille's work into perspective. Though he argues forcefully that critics commonly misread Bataille, Noys's goal is not to redeem him. He castigates Bataille for his weaknesses, errors, and failures, and he is clear-eyed about the dangers inherent in Bataille's violently transgressive ideas.
George Bataille: A Critical Introduction offers some significant contributions to cultural studies. It describes Bataille's refusal of all limits and his desire to unleash heterogeneous forces in all domains of human knowledge. Bataille's perverse interventions in numerous and disparate fields and his attacks on the boundaries of established textual domains have implications for every cultural institution. Cultural Analysis readers may find inspiration in Bataille's crossing of boundaries, his exploration of intensities and disruptive meaning, and his rejection of authorities who seek to control textual domains.
Noys contributes most significantly to cultural studies by elucidating Bataille's ideas about community. Media consumers frequently inaugurate their own experimental communities, such as those that make up "fandom," and Bataille would have been fascinated with those experiments. According to Noys, Bataille distinguished between open and closed communities. The closed community (read fascism) operates under the ideology of the intact subject and seeks to purify itself from outside contaminants. Bataille sought an alternative in the open community, in which the individual "as subject . . . ruins itself in an undefined throng of possible existences" (qtd. in Noys, 51). It is a community based on instability, laughter, failure, danger, and a continual inquiry into the nature of community itself.
As communities form around interests in particular texts and textual practices, they must choose between open and closed forms of community. Bataille was interested in redefining community, something that cult audiences do through their newly-formed identifications around chosen texts. Cult audiences yearn for the intimacy that Bataille argues has been lost under capitalism, but they risk reproducing the very forces that destroy intimacy. Noys's book on Bataille offers them some hope of finding that elusive prize.
Central Florida University