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Georges Bataille: Phenomenology and Phantasmatology

Georges Bataille: Phenomenology and Phantasmatology

by Rodolphe Gasche, Roland Vegs (Translator)

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This book investigates what Bataille, in "The Pineal Eye," calls mythological representation: the mythological anthropology with which this unusual thinker wished to outflank and undo scientific (and philosophical) anthropology. Gasché probes that anthropology by situating Bataille's thought with respect to the quatrumvirate of Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche,


This book investigates what Bataille, in "The Pineal Eye," calls mythological representation: the mythological anthropology with which this unusual thinker wished to outflank and undo scientific (and philosophical) anthropology. Gasché probes that anthropology by situating Bataille's thought with respect to the quatrumvirate of Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud. He begins by showing what Bataille's understanding of the mythological owes to Schelling. Drawing on Hegel, Nietzsche, and Freud, he then explores the notion of image that constitutes the sort of representation that Bataille's innovative approach entails. Gasché concludes that Bataille's mythological anthropology takes on Hegel's phenomenology in a systematic fashion. By reading it backwards, he not only dismantles its architecture, he also ties each level to the preceding one, replacing the idealities of philosophy with the phantasmatic representations of what he dubs "low materialism." Phenomenology, Gasché argues, thus paves the way for a new "science" of phantasms.

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"A splendid introduction to a revolutionary thinker, still not as known in this country as he ought to be, written by a renowned commentator on twentieth-century French thought. An important book!"—Arkady Plotnitksy, Purdue University
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"A splendid introduction to a revolutionary thinker, still not as known in this country as he ought to be, written by a renowned commentator on twentieth-century French thought. An important book!"

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Stanford University Press
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Cultural Memory in the Present Series
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Phenomenology and Phantasmatology
By Rodolphe Gasché


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7607-3

Chapter One

Mythological Representation

1. Reversal

From old—and indeed extremely ancient—times there has been handed down to our later age intimations of a mythical character to the effect that the stars are gods and that the divine embraces the whole of nature. The further details were subsequently added in the manner of myth. Their purpose was the persuasion of the masses and general legislative and political expediency. For instance, the myths tell us that these gods are anthropomorphic or resemble some of the other animals and give us other, comparable extrapolations of the basic picture. If, then, we discard these accretions and consider the central feature, that they held the primary substances to be gods, we might well believe the claim to have been directly inspired. We might also conclude that, while it is highly probable that all possible arts and doctrines have been many times discovered and lost, these ancient cosmologies have been preserved, like holy relics, right up to the present day. It is these, and these alone, that we can know clearly of the ancestral—indeed primordial—beliefs. —Aristotle

What sort of a new under water boat ride; and what new spyglasses are to be invented for this vast domain? —Johann Gottfried Herder

If thought once attains power sufficient to give existence to itself within itself and in its element, the myth becomes a superfluous adornment, by which Philosophy is not advanced. —G. W. F. Hegel

Right at the very beginning of Bataille's text that we will attempt to read here, we encounter the following terms: "mythic," "mythological," "myth," and "mythology." In order to be able to grasp the organizational role of these terms within the texts into which they have been woven, and in order to be able to decide if "myth" functions here as a concept or only as a signifier, it is necessary to briefly outline the Romantic concept of myth, which has been presupposed without exception by all later efforts to think the mythical. The Romantic concept of myth, just like that of German Idealism, indicates a turn that appears to have reversed the hierarchy of myth and logos that had been valid up to that point. Jean Bollack describes this turn in the following way:

While ever since Aristotle myth had appeared to be the corrupted form of an always already revealed truth, a form of forgetting or intentional veiling that philosophy once again sublates, for Romanticism myth counts as something primary and undetermined. Thus, philosophy becomes for Romanticism the explicator of this myth whose mysterious original truth it translates into a more controlled, more precise, and for this reason also poorer language.

Generally speaking, in the following short presentation of the relation of myth and logos by the Greeks we will follow Bollack's explanations.

According to Bollack, Aristotle, who based himself most likely on Plato's doxographic speculations in Timaeus and Critias, presupposes another age that is anterior not only to the present age but also to mythical times. This "Saturnine Age," or "divine age of true theology," which has been destroyed by a cataclysm, is an age that is in full possession of true knowledge concerning the divine, in short, of philosophy. Needless to say, with the catastrophic end of this age the science of the divine that characterized it is lost and is followed by a time of forgetting. Yet, according to Bollack's reading of Aristotle (and Plato), "the legacy of this age, although fragmented and distorted, still contains enough truth to be incorporated into mythological thought, and to be able to bring forth again philosophy through the adjustment of reflection."

According to Aristotle, before the epistemological efforts of philosophy at progressively rediscovering the truths of the Saturnine Age, the myths of the poets are the first to take up the remaining traces of the lost science. Although the poets are the guardians of the philosophical heritage of the age of true theology, they also clothe, and thus disguise, it in mythopoetical ways. In other words, myths are only transitional figures between prehistorical knowledge and the world of posterity. They, therefore, represent something that after the loss of the oldest revelation of truth was added to it, and that is again to be cast off in the parousia of the Saturnine Age. In other words, according to this conception, myth itself is not a preform of philosophy but only a recipient in which something that is heterogeneous to it, that is, the traces of philosophy as it existed in the Saturnine Age, is preserved. Truth in myth is not something that intrinsically belongs to it.

But Plato and Aristotle view the return of the knowledge of the Saturnine Age differently. For Plato, the theology in question can come to a reactualizing completion only beyond the epoch that remains suspended between past and future. A fully accomplished philosophy—which for Plato arises also from myth and restores prehistorical knowledge to its full plenitude—is not possible either in myth or in philosophy but only beyond them. By contrast, according to Bollack, "the nature of Aristotelian metaphysics forbids it to search for the fulfillment of an original theology beyond itself." Its own epistemological efforts at rediscovering the lost heritage are indeed its progressive realization.

Whereas for Plato perfection is banned from the world that we live in and is displaced into the beyond of the universe, for Aristotle the idea of the divine survives the demise of philosophical knowledge in such a way that the newly emerging philosophy can divest it of the mantle that mythopoetical activity has dressed it in so as to develop it until its new completion in this world. This is possible because for Aristotle the heterogeneity of mythology and philosophy is contained in the mysterious element of myth like a seed, as it were, yet, as we have already seen, "the 'philosophical' element, that is, the truth in myth, does not for its part belong to the myth itself." Indeed, the fact that philosophy at its first emergence appears in the form of the mythical, as is to some extent the case with the pre-Socratics, does not at all deny its autonomy and its essential independence from myth. To the contrary, philosophy is from the very beginning a disposition that with its first appearance has already subjected myth to itself. Philosophy—just like science standing by its side—does not originate from a gradual rationalization of mythical thinking. It immediately ties itself to the idea of the divine, which is presented in myth only in a veiled form. From the outset, these direct ties to the idea of the divine secure for it its proper authority and autonomy in opposition to myth. They put philosophy from the beginning in a position of mastery of what is other than it.

But, ever since their births, philosophy and metaphysics have always relied on the mythologem merely in order to "clarify a thinking, which in spite of its theoretical autonomy does not yet possess its own language." Philosophy, therefore, uses the discourse of myth in order to allow it to say something other, something alien to itself, given that myth has also already become alien to philosophy. The recourse to mythical language—which, under the already mentioned conditions, has been demoted by Aristotle to a world of images—is therefore not to be understood as a "lack in science" (PM, II, 284). Rather, this usage is grounded in the demand for the political effectiveness of philosophy (as it conceals the inability of philosophy to work out a language that is its own and adequate to it). With the "formalization of teaching" that renders "the recourse to mythical language superfluous," the degradation of myth is further intensified. Henceforth degraded to a "figure of mythical narrative," it duplicates properly philosophical discourse and makes two completely new kinds of application possible:

Either myth now becomes a container of the kind of meaning that was obtained outside of experience through speculative abstraction. In this manner, the allegory of the Sophists could affect an audience whose consciousness remained faithful to traditional representations and allowed, by means of myth, a system that was no longer mythical in nature to appear convincing to a general public.

Or myth opens up an access to the world of eternal ideas as intentional poetic fiction. It shows to man, delivered to temporality, the reasons that should move him to finally abdicate the mythical world.

Philosophy's claim to mastery grounded in its self-issued autonomy, however, cannot be explained merely on the basis of its relation to mythology as a world of images and as a means of rhetorical persuasion. Philosophy and metaphysics are from the very beginning instruments of mastery. They are the discourse of mastery. Vernant writes: "Greek reason is the type of reason that makes it possible to act in a positive, deliberate, and methodical manner upon men.... In its limitations, as well as the innovations that it brought about, it was truly the product of the city."

The description of philosophy as a discourse of mastery is preserved regardless of whether we present its birth as consistent with the emergence of the polis, its legislation, and its new social organization (as it happens in the works of Vernant and Vidal-Naquet), or if we derive this claim to mastery necessarily from its own concept of truth (as it was attempted by Bollack): "The break between myth and philosophy coincides with the assertion of the identity of all beings, regardless of how indispensable mythical forms of presentation remain even later."

This assertion of the identity of all being—with which philosophy in the proper sense of the term first actually emerges (an identity that philosophy tries to grasp beyond physis or Nature)—has nothing in common with the mythical supernatural: "it belongs to a quite different category; it is a pure abstraction, that which always remains identical, the very principle of rational thought made objective in the form of the logos." Just as the essence of all beings from now on can be thought only as self-identity, discourse is subjected to the absolute requirement of noncontradiction. Therefore, philosophy establishes itself, on the one hand, through its rejection of the mythical mode of explanation and its critique of the supernatural, and on the other hand, insists on the inner coherence of discourse, through its break with the "logic of ambivalence" that characterizes mythical thought.

We can demonstrate in Greek thought, in Plato as well as in Aristotle, the priority of logos over mythos: they form a hierarchy in which myth always represents only a corrupted logos. Philosophy will remain faithful to this relation until Romanticism. In the eighteenth century, however, the hierarchy appears to reverse itself. From this moment on, myth is credited with harboring originary truth, of which logos in the form of philosophy can only give an abstract, and anemic, expression. Henceforth, myth counts as a nonsublated remainder that confronts logos and reason with the unfulfilled promise by the latter of full presence. Provided that we could posit something like a "primal Romantic experience" of myth, perhaps Herder's journal of his journey to France in 1769 would be the text that we needed to return to. This journey stands under the sign—or the "landmark [Wahrzeichen]"—of myth. The destination of the journey is France, which Herder tries to reach from Riga by way of the sea. The boat trip over the seas provides him an occasion to "explain the first mythological times." Even in the case of the Greeks, mythology, according to Herder, came from foreign lands over the seas:

There exist thousands of new and natural explanations of mythology, or ... it had to be sailors who brought their first religion to the Greeks. The whole of Greece was a colony on the sea. Therefore, it could not possess a mythology like the Egyptians and Arabs behind their deserts of sand. The Greeks needed a religion of the foreign, the sea, and the groves.

In the same ways as these seamen a stranger, for Herder, is a refugee—"perhaps like someone banished from his fatherland in his youth, who has slain his father and seeks a foreign land"—he takes the reverse way back. This time, however, the goal is not to bring a myth to the foreign land but rather to return to the source of the myth. Indeed, the return is a boat ride to the mothers, the "vagina hominum."

Like a child, Herder returns to this place, ignorant of the language of the foreign country, as he was raised only in the language of sciences and their abstract world of concepts inimical to the senses. With this, all the essential concepts are given in which the Romantic reversal takes place. Yet, significantly enough, this return and turning around fails to keep its promise. Upon his arrival in France, in place of the "mothers of being" (Nietzsche), Herder encounters only an old woman: "On the 4/15 of July, we disembarked in Painhof and our landmark was an old woman." Although Herder believes that he is motivated by his thinking to feel the mythical element, all he experiences is only "numbness," "a kind of shudder that is not even the shudder of lust." And while he is ready "to utilize all of his senses," he is only destined "to see shadows, rather than to feel real things." Indeed, the language of the sciences and the new rationality (in contrast to the "old reason" of the Greeks) by which he has been marked, whose spell Herder cannot escape, allows the anticipated return to the mythical only in a distorted form: as a "grotesque deformation," as a "walk through gothic domes." Therefore, the simple return or the turning back fails: what remains is the longing for the origins and the painful experience of the impossibility of its renewed realization.

This nostalgia still dominates, and seemingly even more consistently, The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism with its demand for a "new mythology." In 1793, Schelling anticipated this program to elaborate a mythology that would function as "a means of the return of science to poetry" in his essay "On the Myths, Historical Sagas, and Philosophemes of the Most Ancient World." Demanding a new sensibility (which has been lost to knowledge as based on understanding), myth represents for Schelling at this point in time the form in which the spirit of childhood—of the most ancient humanity characterized by ignorance and simplicity—dresses historical events and the first philosophemes. Myth is the appropriate and historically only possible form in which the imagination, the most effective faculty of the soul at the time, can express its representations. The mythical form, moreover, pursues the goal of a "doctrine, a presentation of truth," inasmuch as it serves the purposes of "the sensualization of a philosophical speculation" or of an "idea." As we can see in Schelling's discussions, the mythical mode of presentation functions as an unavoidable "mythical garment" and a necessary moment of alienation. In order to bring an idea effectively to the people— to "a childish people, not capable of knowing the truth in general"—truth must be obtained as represented in a sensible-mythical and historical form.

Yet, according to Schelling, "the mythical element in a mythical philosopheme pertains ... only to the form of the philosopheme"—with the provision, however, that this philosopheme is not "mere poetry"! However, if the philosophy of the most ancient world could easily present itself in a mythical garment, the reason is that it was often a work of mere poetry. As Schelling holds, a philosopheme can be distinguished from a mythologem "mostly through its origin," which is henceforth to be strictly separated from the origin of the mythical. Thus, the criterion of true philosophy is to be sought in its origins, which are to be distinguished from those of myth. Myth, consequently, must be understood simply as a sensible form, as a garment only for an intelligible content or for an idea in itself foreign to the myth. As a result, this definition of myth, distinct from its Romantic definition, once again follows the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition.

Myth—which for Schelling is also preceded by logos in the form of ideas and first philosophemes—nevertheless retains a positive value due to certain characteristics that belong only to myth. In contrast to the abstractions in which logos is caught up, through its oral transmission myth appears to be richer, more fiery, more alive, and more pleasing than the written discourse of philosophy, which addresses only the understanding and is therefore colder and more pedagogical, even if paradoxically it is more appropriate for truth and expresses it more precisely.

The whole reversal of the relation of mythos and logos in the case of Schelling then consists only of the following: Myth, the mere birth place from which philosophy emerges as always already foreign to myth, confronts philosophy with a language, which as a spoken language guarantees the sensible fullness of philosophical ideas, a sensuousness that is absent from the philosophical discourse as a written discourse wresting itself away from myth. This return to myth, the demand for a new mythology, the opposition of sensibility and understanding, under the perpetuation of the classical hierarchical relations between myth and logos, leads to the privileging of only certain aspects of the mythical, which can be held up against philosophy as an abstract science of the understanding. The Romantic reversal consists, then, of the demand on philosophy to redeem or to sublate the given promise of originary truth in a (new) philosophical mythology.

Herder's failure (who could always only rediscover Riga in France) and the inner conflict of Romantic longing are overcome here in Schelling merely to the degree that only certain aspects of the myth and the mythological are taken up and preserved: its sensible garmentlike character as well as its promise of the full presence of the ideal, as the result of its oral transmission.


Excerpted from GEORGES BATAILLE by Rodolphe Gasché Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rodolphe Gasché is Distinguished Professor and Eugenio Donato Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Stanford recently published his Europe, or The Infinite Task (2009).

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