This is a clear and concise guide to the life and work of the French intellectual Georges Bataille, best known as the author of the celebrated erotic novel, The Story of the Eye. Benjamin Noys introduces Bataille as a writer out of step with the dominant intellectual trends of his day - surrealism and existentialism - and shows that it was his very marginality that accounted in large part for his subsequent importance for the post-structuralists and the counterculture, in Europe and in the United States.Treating Bataille’s work as a whole rather than focusing, as other studies have done, on aspects of his work (i.e. as social theory or philosophy), Noys’ study is intended to be sensitive to the needs of students new to Bataille’s work while at the same time drawing on the latest research on Bataille to offer new interpretations of Bataille’s oeuvre for more experienced readers. This is the first clear, introductory reading of Bataille in English - challenging current reductive readings, and stressing the range of disciplines affected by Bataille’s work, at a time when interest in Bataille is growing.
About the Author
Benjamin Noys lecturer in English at University College Chichester. He has written on Bataille in Theory, Culture & Society, Cultural Values, and in Les Lieux interdits: Transgression and French Literature.
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The Subversive Image
In the Story of the Eye the narrator, a thinly veiled adolescent Bataille, experiences obscene images that flash through his mind and 'these images were, of course, tied to the contradiction of a prolonged state of exhaustion and an absurd rigidity of my penis' (SE, 30). All of Bataille's subversive images share this contradictory structure of exhaustion and sexual excitement (jouissance). They at once exhaust the possible functions of the image and subvert it with a jouissance which touches on death and that the image can only indicate but not represent. He pursued these multiple images across various media, including painting, photography and writing to the point where we can find no clear distinction between the pornographic tableaux described in his novel Story of the Eye (1928) and the photographic images Bataille commented on in the journal Documents (1929–31). I want to trace Bataille's subversion of the image through his analysis of specific images to his subversion of vision itself. Documents is the beginning because here Bataille not only writes on images but works with images: Documents is a multimedia production. It engages with Bataille's other works at the time and also with his later works, prefiguring his fractured and condensed writings which work by producing images of thought. It also raises the question, why has Bataille had so little impact as a writer on the image?
Perhaps the reason for Bataille's lack of impact is that his subversion of the image can never be assimilated by a theory of the image. It is this impossibility of a theory of the subversive image that is first sketched out in Documents by Bataille and his companions. At the centre of Documents is a series of entries written for a planned critical dictionary, with Bataille and Michel Leiris writing most of the entries until the magazine ceased to exist in 1931. Although this meant that the critical dictionary remained incomplete, from the beginning it was always intended to be incomplete. The incompletion of the critical dictionary was a critique of the tendency of dictionaries to try to define all the significant words in a language by freezing their irruptive energies into stable meanings. For Bataille 'A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words but their tasks' (VE, 31). 18
Instead of being organised by meaning the critical dictionary was organised by the tasks of words, trying to release their irruptive energies. This release often involved a play between the critical dictionary entry for a word and its accompanying image. Moreover, the entries were not originally placed alphabetically (although they have been now in EA) but worked together with their accompanying images in a disjunctive, non-hierarchical 'structure'. The tasks of words would be explored through the selection of words analysed which ranged from the question of materialism (EA, 58) to a discussion of Buster Keaton (EA, 56). Through this selection process links are made between the tasks of words and a strange 'logic' emerges where Keaton's sang-froid could be the basis of a materialism of 'raw phenomena'.
After only the first issue of Documents one of the co-founders wrote to Bataille that 'The title you have chosen for this journal is hardly justified except in the sense that it gives us "documents" on your state of mind.' However, the journal is far more than a catalogue of Bataille's own state of mind and personal obsessions. Through the critical dictionary he intervenes into the founding classifications that define the meaning of our world. The critical dictionary subverts these classifications by shifting from a word's meaning to its tasks and effects. These effects are also visual, coming through the images that accompany the 'definitions' in the critical dictionary. Bataille and his co-writers are pursuing images that overwhelm the viewer. For Bataille the 'noble parts of a human being (his dignity, the nobility that characterises his face)' (VE, 78) cannot 'set up the least barrier against a sudden, bursting eruption ...' (VE, 78). The critical dictionary registered these bursting eruptions as chance instants in which the image would rear its head and shatter the calm world of the dictionary. The destruction of the classifications of the dictionary would then affect the order of language and of the world itself. Far from being documents of Bataille's state of mind these are documents of sudden bursting eruptions that are impossible to classify.
The critical dictionary is an act of 'sacrificial mutilation' (VE, 61–72) of the classical dictionary. It is 'charged with this element of hate and disgust ...' (VE, 71) for the tranquil orderings of a world bound by meaning. In Documents, however, there is an anomalous image which appears to remain within this world of meaning. It is a photograph taken in 1905 of a provincial wedding party lined up in two regimented rows in front of a shop (EA, 99) which accompanies an essay by Bataille called 'The Human Face'. The image is anomalous to the critical dictionary because it is so utterly conventional; it is an image out of place. Why is it there when for Bataille 'The mere sight (in photography) of our predecessors in the occupation of this country now produces, for varying reasons, a burst of loud and raucous laughter; that sight, however, is nonetheless hideous' (EA, 100)? What fascinates Bataille is that this conventional image should provoke this reaction, a reaction which combines contradictory experiences of laughter and fear. These supposedly incompatible effects are brought together in this image and make it unforgettable. Although we may laugh at the wedding party it still haunts us with a fear that remains with us even in our most acute moments of pleasure. Bataille comments that it forces a youth to confront 'at every unexpected moment of rapture the images of his predecessors looming up in tiresome absurdity' (EA, 100).
Lodged within the critical dictionary, lodged within its images of base eruption, is this haunting image of propriety. It is an image that has the power to destroy our rapture and to limit the subversive image. The image of the wedding party always threatens to loom up before the subversive image and put an end to the subversion that it promises. What is worse is that these ghosts from the past are not the powerful monsters that once terrified us but banal representations of the provincial bourgeoisie. Once we had to be held in check by horrifying phantoms that possessed a terrible power; now, 'The very fact that one is haunted by ghosts so lacking in savagery trivialises these terrors and this anger' (EA, 100–1). The ghosts of our ancestors destroy the subversive image in two ways: firstly, they block any effect of rapture by appearing before us at our moments of pleasure and secondly, they make the horror they cause us appear trivial. Bataille has to counter this neutralisation of the subversive image or his subversion of the image could always be accounted for as the results of his own personal obsessions.
He subverts this image of propriety by exposing it to the violent irruptive forces that it is trying to hold in check rather than by attacking it from an exterior critical position. The irruptive forces threaten to break apart the image if 'we acknowledge the presence of an acute perturbation in, let us say, the state of the human mind represented by the sort of provincial wedding photographed twenty-five years ago, then we place ourselves outside established rules in so far as a real negation of the existence of human nature is herein implied' (EA, 101). To read the image in this way is to read the rigidity of the wedding group lined up in rows and organised around the bridal pair not as symbolic of a banal power but as the desperate attempt to control and limit the irruptive forces which circulate around and through the bridal pair. In reading the image to the limit of the frame Bataille detects an 'acute perturbation' that shakes the hold that this image has over us.
This 'acute perturbation' is found through the image and it threatens to negate the image of human nature on which the power of the photograph rests. The wedding photograph presents 'the supposed continuity of our nature' (EA, 102), the safe passage from one generation to the next represented by a bridal pair surrounded by their families and friends. The image is a promise of the continuation of the family and also of society. Yet the image is split by the violence which is condensed within it, and this family gathering can be seen both 'as representing the very principle of mental activity at its most civilised and most violent, and the bridal pair as, let us say, the symbolic parents of a wild and apocalyptic rebellion ...' (EA, 101–2). The height of civilisation that the bridal pair incarnates is not the calm transmission of a heritage but a violent repression. Violence is present within what presents itself as civilised non-violence. Bataille agrees with Freud's argument in Civilisation and its Discontents (published at almost the same time, 1929–30) that the progress of civilisation demands the increasing violent repression of our violent and sexual drives. Like Freud, Bataille recognises that this control can never be complete and often the stronger the repression the more violent the eruption of our 'civilisation' elsewhere, as both of them witnessed in the slaughter of the First World War.
The image is split by the violence that is required to organise it as a stable image, but this violence also splits open the image. In the bridal pair Bataille not only finds the principle of 'civilised' mental activity but also the parents of a 'wild and apocalyptic rebellion'. This counter-violence against civilisation is parasitic on the violence that civilised society imposes on irruptive forces. It opposes the supposed continuity of human nature by exposing the bridal pair as 'monsters breeding incompatibles' (EA, 102). As Bataille shatters the continuity of human nature he releases the subversive forces that the photograph has condensed and attempted to control. In this act of violent rejection the depth of the monstrosity of our ancestors is revealed beneath their trivial appearance. Bataille subverts the most 'normal' of images, the image of a ritual that is supposed to express and secure the continuity and progress of the generations.
The 'normal' image is now exposed as monstrous, by exposing its production of 'normal' human nature as an operation requiring massive surplus violence. Human nature is no longer purely natural, a given fact, but it is a complex arrangement of violent irruptive forces forced into stability. Bataille's work on this image is close to the satirical gestures of the surrealist film-maker Luis Buñuel. Buñuel's vicious parodies of the 'exterminating angel' of bourgeois conformity are mirrored in the frantic violence with which Bataille demolishes the image of the wedding party. However, Buñuel would eventually be seduced by 'The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie', as one of his later films was entitled. Bataille resisted the 'charm' of bourgeois power by not limiting his parody to the bourgeoisie but by taking it to the point where 'the world is purely parodic' (VE, 5).
Bataille resists the danger of parody becoming dependent on what it has parodied by making parody a 'principle' of existence. In doing so he dislodges the concept of human nature, whether bourgeois or otherwise. Bataille is not a humanist, not even a radical humanist who probes the limits of human nature to recover what is 'really' human. His work has been used by Michael Richardson to supply a new social theory of the emergence of the human, but this is a misreading. Bataille is probing the limits of the human to the point where the concept of human nature breaks down: 'Where you would like to grasp your timeless substance, you encounter only a slipping, only the poorly co-ordinated play of your perishable elements' (IE, 94). The concept of human nature is our attempt to grasp a timeless substance theoretically, but all we grasp are perishable elements that slip from our hands. The individual is carried away in a play of perishable elements which cannot be organised by a theory of human nature. Bataille cannot provide a new or 'radical' social theory but subjects social theory to parody that cannot be contained within the confines of theory.
His negation of human nature is not based on belief in 'an order excluding total complicity with all that has gone before' (EA, 101). Bataille is not a writer of radical breaks because these breaks are violent gestures of division and purification. To destroy all complicity with what has gone on before would involve purifying ourselves of the past. The break is dominated by a belief in a new pure state, a new pure human nature (for example, Che Guevara's 'new socialist man'). Bataille's violent class rhetoric of the 1930s does call for the destruction of the bourgeoisie but it is not clear that he means mass physical destruction. He is not a writer of purification but a writer of the principle of contagion and contamination (CS, 109). Rather than negating human nature with a break from all that has gone before we negate it by an act of contamination of its purity and propriety. We do not flee the ugliness of our ancestors but we are attracted by it: 'There is absolutely no thought of dispensing with this hateful ugliness, and we will yet catch ourselves some day, eyes suddenly dimmed and brimming with inadmissible tears, running absurdly towards some provincial haunted house, nastier than flies, more vicious, more rank than a hairdresser's shop' (EA, 106).
It is not a matter of destroying the image, of creating a 'pure' subversive image, but of embracing what is hateful and ugly in that image. We are pulled back into the image, running into it out of control. The irruptive forces revealed by Bataille flow out of the image and then flow back into it, disrupting its propriety. However, once Bataille has drawn out these irruptive forces is it not possible that they could be assimilated and put to use by science or philosophy? Could they not be analysed conventionally? These irruptive forces do not settle within the conventional, and the classifications of science or philosophy would be variations on the dictionary classifications which work through imposing meaning. Like the dictionary, science divides up the world into discrete units, trying to impose 'a mathematical frock coat' (VE, 31) on the world. Philosophy, on the other hand, tries to contain these forces within metaphysical wholes. What remains is the leftover, the remainder, which cannot be assimilated. The event of eruption is like 'a fly on an orator's nose' (EA, 102), whose comic effect of 'acute perturbation' mocks the discourses of knowledge.
Philosophy is more audacious because it tries to control the moment of irruption within itself by assimilating it within, but 'It is impossible to reduce the appearance of the fly on the orator's nose to the supposed contradiction between the self and metaphysical whole' (EA, 103). If the fly could be reduced to the position of contradiction then it would simply be a negative moment of the metaphysical whole. It would have escaped the image only to have become part of philosophy. Although Bataille had yet to attend Kojève's lectures on Hegel he was already aware of some rudiments of Hegel's philosophy. He knew, probably from the use of Hegel's dialectic in Marxism, how Hegel would use contradiction as a means of bringing any negative moments within absolute knowledge. The fly refused to remain in the contradictory position, and so the subversive image could not be controlled by a dialectical contradiction. The eruption that explodes out of the wedding party photograph and plunges us back into it also shatters the principle of human nature. At the same time it drags philosophy and science into this turbulent play of forces, subverting them along with the image.
With a rapid movement that is dizzying Bataille moves from the image to science and philosophy, and in doing so he suggests the hidden continuity between science, philosophy and society. What they share is a common repression of the violent irruptive forces on which they depend, but which they cannot fully control. In each case violent forces are repressed and controlled by acts that are themselves violent but which dissimulate this violence. It is this that makes them vulnerable, so when a fly lands on a human face which is trying to present itself as serious and knowledgeable it provokes laughter. There is no fly visible in the photograph Bataille discusses but he can see the fly buzzing around by sliding rapidly through the image. In the flight of the fly in and out of the image the highest of human concerns are dragged into the dirt as the fly is attracted by the odour of the rank and vicious. The fly is a provocation to the image because it cannot be found there. It does not settle within the frame of the photograph but flies out of it, buzzes around it and taunts it like the presence of the acute perturbation that disturbs the calm surface of the image. In this sense it has a virtual presence, neither actually appearing in the photograph yet not completely absent from it either. It is the haunting possibility of the subversive image that rests 'in' the photograph but only in so far as it is always spilling out of it.
Excerpted from "Georges Bataille"
Copyright © 2000 Benjamin Noys.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Subversive Image,
2. Inner Experience,
4. The Tears of Eros,
5. The Accursed Share,
Notes and References,