Unfinished Work: A Roundtable on L’informe
with Aria Dean, Bruce Hainley, Ruba Katrib, Emmanuel Olunkwa, and Lauren O'Neill-Butler
“It’s easy to recognize specters of Bataille’s thought today, for better and for worse.”
If one were to look through the indexes of your many books, certainly Walter Benjamin would have the most notes, but Bataille comes close. I’m very curious to hear about how you first encountered Bataille’s writings and the effect he had on your writing.
Your question implies a tie between the two—with Benjamin having something that resonates, but not necessarily something in common, with Bataille. Another element here could be simply that I was attracted to both, for even though they did not have much in common, they woke something in my make-up. Certainly Benjamin, the Berliner living in Paris, was most curious about surrealism, and Bataille was the arch surrealist renegade with an interesting group surrounding him. Moreover, they were both passionately and philosophically concerned with what I’ll call quasi-religious motivations in politics and history although in different ways that I found complementary.
How would you define quasi-religious?
Religion without the church, which in Bataille’s case meant taking up the concept of “the sacred” in Emile Durkheim’s book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, published in English in 1912. This became further secularized and mischievous in what Bataille’s colleague Michel Leiris called “the sacred in everyday life.” Indeed, defining that slippery fish, “the sacred,” and using it as a tool, was key to their work especially in the late 1930s with what came to be known as the sub-discipline of “sacred sociology” with the formation in Paris of the College of Sociology, which ran from 1937–39. This was intended, among other things, to combine ethnography, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud so as to better understand the attraction of fascism which, today, would focus on Trump’s America, especially where the Proud Boys intersect ideologically and performance-wise with the paramilitary Freikorps of Weimar.
What led you to Bataille?
I can’t recall, but at some point I needed a better explanation of torture and cruelty, as I was studying the rubber boom atrocities in the early twentieth-century Putumayo region of Colombia (where I did a lot of fieldwork) as described in vivid detail by the legendary Roger Casement who was later hung in the Tower of London for treason (and being gay) during WWI for his running guns for the Easter Rising in 1916. The point is that the violence he described far exceeded economic rationality. It became an end in itself, much like the holocaust of the Jews. At the same time I was working on the rubber boom, Jacobo Timerman came out with his terrifyingly lucid book on the Argentine army’s torture and terror, which was not only a memoir but also a theory of the production of terror and the need to have an enemy. That got me thinking about Bataille’s idea of dépense, meaning over the top spending in its most extreme sense, or “wasting,” which he thought was present in different ways in all societies and vied with or was even more important than material production. In fact, he also put art and poetry in this category, along with the need for beauty, jewels, the building of a church and the sale of a ton of wheat—all grist to the mill of what he called “general economics” as opposed to the “restrictive economics” of utilitarianism and the market.
It was this insistence on going to the limit and beyond as the motor of history that could not be reduced to rational schemes of cause and effect that caught my attention. Just look around the US right now, not to mention a few other places like Israel/Palestine or northwest China and Hong Kong. Nor was it a question of ideas versus economics.
Around the same time, I was captivated by the history of anthropology that James Clifford postulated in his essay “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” followed by my reading many of the bombshell essays brought out in English by Alan Stoekl in Visions of Excess. These were translations of many of Bataille’s essays in the Paris art magazine he edited from 1929–30 called Documents, a lavishly illustrated medley of art historical, religious, and magical studies as well as ethnography, archaeology, and ancient history. The advertisements alone give you an idea of the Paris art scene at that epoch-making time.
I was lucky enough to run into a facsimile copy in two hefty volumes that had just been published, exhibited on the pavement near the Seine. I recall Carolee Schneemann later in upstate New York, enraptured, turning the pages in my kitchen saying, “All of twentieth-century art is here!” Certainly, you could say it was a great document in and of itself, the magazine of the European avant-garde, with the excitement and the different artists involved there.
And the Clifford connection?
Clifford not only presented a new history of anthropology but one that opened the gates to a surrealist anthropology that challenged the hegemony that still holds in France, the UK, and the USA. Anthropology, like anything else goes, through its fashions—functionalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, the literary turn, anti-colonialism, the ontological turn, etc.—but there is an unwritten law not to mess with form. Clifford’s essay held out the possibility of new writing by exposing and exploring the historical roots of a para-anthropology centered on “surrealism” involving Bataille among others.
To me it seemed like an invitation to think more creatively about the experience of one’s fieldwork, to allow the strange to wreak havoc with our normal, and to create a new feeling as to reality itself. Brecht was in there, and of course Nietzsche too.
For example, later on I read how the underwater tide pool shoreline in the 1920s Brittany-based films of Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon fascinated French scientists and artists alike, the latter regarding them as surrealist! I think this curious mix is what made “ethnographic surrealism” such a hit for me, although Clifford later told me he exaggerated. Well, it was the exaggeration that interested me and many other kindred souls as “best practice.”
André Breton and Bataille seemed to have very different forms or notions of the surreal—or ones that threatened each other. I read there was actually friction between the two.
Of course! How could there not be. It was murderous. Breton had a reputation for maintaining order and kicking people out—that was standard with him. But in this case, I think it was especially violent. Breton’s surrealism was “tasteful” verging on the mystical/poetic. But Bataille went for the transgressive, which is what Foucault focuses on with much brio in his introduction to Bataille’s Collected Works. That essay paves the way for Foucault’s famed History of Sexuality.
At what point does newfound excitement about the application of Bataille’s thinking connect to your teaching? You famously formed groups outside the classroom structure to explore subjects essential to your writing with students who shared that particular interest. What is the history of your Bataille group?
The clearest statement of the social and historical role of transgression I know is a book by the anthropologist Daniella Gandolfo, The City at Its Limits. It’s a study of Lima(which is where she is from). She was a graduate student at Columbia when we formed a Bataille study group that took us into Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, especially the Master-Slave chapter, and the lectures at the College of Sociology. In his book Society of the Dead, Todd Ochoa combined Bataille with Deleuze in his study of death and base materialism in the Afro-Cuban religion Palo in Havana. Bill Buse, psychoanalyst and anthropologist, was part of this group and has just come out with a book, Psychotherapy Under the Influence of Georges Bataille, which consists of case studies of New Yorkers. Jon Carter’s recent book on gangs in Honduras, Gothic Sovereignty, is very much a Bataille-inspired work, and necessarily so, given this theme.
Undergraduate students were keen readers of Bataille as an addition to the Great Books curriculum. Peggy Ahwesh’s 1987 film, The Deadman, which is based on Bataille’s novella of that name, and Carolee Scheneemann’s film Fuses were also studied with interest.
Were you mostly interested in Bataille’s early writings?
Not only. Bataille’s later economics of the 1950s in The Accursed Share is less glitzy but equally astonishing as he works through the implications of his idea of dépense (that Norman O. Brown called “too muchness”). This puts pressure on the unsayable, when thought jumps the rails in the face of the impossible, intimate experience, death, and sex.
I wanted to ask about sacrifice in Bataille, as it seems to run through so much of his writing.
Sacrifice is a pointed instance of dépense, an exquisitely sacred combustion and one that runs throughout Bataille’s economics. He wrote about Aztec sacrifice and also used the term in a metaphoric way to distill the ecstasy of destruction. “Sacrifice consecrates that which it destroys,” is a memorable and indeed remarkable phrase in his work. In his book on the Nuer religion in the Sudans, the celebrated anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard discusses sacrifice at length, the identification with the animal sacrificed, and the emphasis on giving, not receiving. Arguing that the chief problem is to understand destruction, he thinks that what the god is given through sacrifice is a life—a life that can only be given through death. For all his differences with Bataille, this seems to me like dépense.
There is also a somewhat different notion of sacrifice: that the individual sacrifice involves giving for the greater good, and of the larger group or community. The death of Jesus required that he became a man in order to give up his life—so it was the man who was sacrificed, not the god—or better, god as man.
Self-sacrifice of the god is the “origin” of all sacrifice, wrote anthropologist Marcel Mauss and archaeologist Henri Hubert in their 1899 essay on sacrifice. And yes, case in point: that strange prophet, Jesus, the Jew of Nazareth. And think of the glory of His wounds and His blood adorning the interiors of countless churches or the simple sign of the Cross. It’s a lot more than “dying for our sins.”
But we could also speak of war glories in the dépense of sacrifice, in which people feel the glow of self-sacrifice—recall JFK at his inauguration: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Then came Vietnam.
Using Horkheimer and Adorno as well as Bataille, Annette Michelson wrote on the disturbing transfer of power and meaning in the word sacrifice, how it completely changed from being an end in itself to become, in modern society, a part of “instrumental reason”: a means to an end, citizens sacrificing themselves for war, parents for children, and so forth.
On a lesser scale, but as the same kind of animal as war, take the Saturday night party time, especially during Covid. Pundits had a field day telling us that the need to break the rules and dance the night away was all about our need to be social. Well, what’s new? More to the point was the need for some dépense, break the rules, go ecstatic, whirl.
Norman O. Brown also has a lovely and striking essay on Bataille called Dionysus in 1990, in which he wonders whether a new society is possible along dépense lines, but he eventually concludes it would just be more of the consumer society—suggesting that capitalism has a built-in dependency on measured doses of dépense, too. But then you have to understand the strange beauty of Brown’s essay as testimony to dépense itself!
In his big book on the Lascaux cave paintings, published by Skira, Bataille proposes that they are not the result of hunting magic but were made in homage to the animals and birds that were killed—that killing is transgression, that it establishes a relation between slayer and slain that creates art. Maybe we could say that modern art reverses this, killing reality by means of its figuration, thus negating the gift?
You were engaged with thoughts about the sun for a long period, focusing on the dying of the light and re-enchantment. Do you think your preoccupation with the sun, as with your theater piece, The Berlin Sun Theater, and with your latest book, The Mastery of Non-Mastery, stems from your reading of Documents?
Yes! Bataille’s early essays have a lot to do with the sun, which you find also with his obsession with verticality and hierarchy. He fabulates his own surrealist cosmology, playing one end of vertiginous verticalities against the other. You see this deliciously in the essay “The Big Toe,” which is a mischievous deconstruction of Hegel (idealism, the head) and Marx (materialism, the foot) creating a dynamic motion of restlessly combined antagonisms, contradictions, absurdity, and humor, not to mention the full-page pricelessly grotesque photographs of big toes by Eli Lotar. In fact, the vertical axis is displaced by a circular one, namely the bowels grumbling and groaning. The big toe essay moves beyond “ordered disorder,” making Bataille a proto-post-structuralist, summed up in the apothegm of “the informé,” which Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois used as a device for thinking about certain “structure-less” modern art such as Robert Smithson’s gravel works.
You mean the way Spiral Jetty was intended to slowly devolve and return to the material from which it was made, a kind of continuing entropy . . . I also would be interested in knowing more about the relationship for Bataille between the abattoir and the museum-cum-temple.
In Beyond Architecture, Denis Hollier integrates some of Bataille’s “Dictionary” entries from Documents so as to create a paradigm wherein the decapitation of the king and queen in the French revolution coincides with the displacement of the slaughterhouse from the city center to the periphery. Then the palace of the decapitated king becomes the Louvre, and the piteous cries of animals and the stench of offal are sensed no longer, as on Sundays, the newly empowered bourgeoisie purify themselves with Art, as they do today.
You could go further, taking into account the displacement of the dead from what is today Les Halles to the catacombs, and the construction, at what was then the periphery of Paris, of Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Bear in mind the magic of the corpse as Bataille sees it, as what enhances the sacredness of the Church, negative and positive poles in harness, so to speak, like an alchemist’s retort. Not for nothing was he himself buried in a church graveyard in the countryside at Vézelay.
Apropos of our previous conversation about form—Clifford quotes Bataille: “Opposition to the idea of planning is so necessary to me, having written a detailed plan I cannot stick to it.” And I can see that in the way you write as well—there’s an absolute unpredictability, as if you were setting up to surprise yourself with each new thought.
Maybe. But I find it best not to think about how I write! Maybe that accounts for my interest in montage and collage, not only in the shamanic séances I wrote about but as one among several modes of writing.
Well, Bataille was often anti-poetic . . . at least a kind of disruptive poetry.
I would not go that far. The Documents essays are great poetry and Bataille expends considerable rumination on the nature of poetic language. The epigraph to The Accursed Share is from the eighteenth-century poet William Blake. “Exuberance is beauty.”
But then if you look at most of Bataille’s talks that became essays in the College of Sociology, I do find his essays there to be boring and obscure, not necessarily incoherent, but obsessed with attraction and repulsion and energy—reminding me of the great stylist Leslie White at the University of Michigan in the 1950s trying to develop an anthropology and sociology based on energy. That seems well on the way back today in art as well as the discourse on global warming.
Certainly Bataille’s essays at that time don’t compare well with the talks and essays by Roger Caillois and Michel Leiris, which are clear and groundbreaking. For example, Caillois’s “The Sociology of the Executioner” has to be one of the greatest sociological essays ever written, highly relevant to the violence of our time, as well as a wonderfully spirited piece of sociological method and reasoning.
Incidentally Adorno was highly suspicious of the College and of Caillois in particular as fascist or on the verge of such—all of which shows you how tricky, confusing, delicate, and dangerous was the attempt to analyze the role of the sacred in politics in an empathetic way. On the other hand, to ignore the sacred was to ignore what gave both fascism and the communist parties their appeal—much like liberals today who suddenly found themselves gasping for air, amazed by the appeal of Trumpism. Where had they been all these years?
There’s a story that women students in Hamburg U flashed Adorno during his lectures because of his critical attitude towards the eroticism of the 1960s student movement—and he died from a heart attack (months later). Looking at his work as a whole you could guess that he was a little short on humor and given to moralism.
Where does Benjamin fit in here?
Tangentially on most counts, opposed on others. It is reported that he sat in on some of the College of Sociology lectures but appeared mystified. The sophisticated Marxism of the Frankfurt School could only go so far despite Benjamin’s earlier attempt to blend surrealism with German revolutionary concerns in his remarkable essay on surrealism. Yet it’s a pity he didn’t engage with the intellectual endowment of the College via Durkheim, Mauss, and ethnography concerning the sacred. It is a fact that German social theory was hampered by a weakly developed anthropology.
Yet there is surely a Bataillian burst of dépense radiating through Benjamin’s last text, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), written on aerograms posted to his Paris address while on the run from the Nazis. This text conflates Messianism with Marxist revolution (given an anarchist twist). The first thesis stated that Marxism would win if it recruited the hunchback dwarf of theology. He wanted to be a Marxist materialist but wide open to the “messianic”—which is what drove his friends crazy, putting Bertolt Brecht on one side, Gershom Scholem on the other—sworn enemies. Bataille surely would have “got it.”
In your writings you have many images of the sun and deploy it in various ways. You talk about the power or force of the sun and sunset. I just finished reading Bataille on the pineal eye—was your writing in any way connected to your understanding of that piece?
Yes. Of course. The pineal eye essay is out to shock. It is maliciously clever in its spoof of evolutionary theory and the sanctity of the human face as the outcome of the ape’s anus. The “poetry” here lies in the richness of allusion that makes for the intersection of two cosmologies, that of the solar system and that of the human body. How could I resist that when thinking about global warming and the Sun Theater!
Later on, in Bataille’s Accursed Share, the sun is characterized by him in terms made famous by the Mauss in his writing on the gift. Hence Bataille’s formulation of the sun as that which gives without receiving—so much so that it provides more energy than the planet needs. We’re certainly feeling that now. His idea was that we’re immersed in a natural environment that is wildly energized (think of dépense)—which comes across with panache in his early essay, “The Language of Flowers.”Years after editing Bataille’s early essays (unfortunately without the illustrations), Allan Stoekl published Bataille’s Peak, his analysis of Bataille’s ergonomics, which is a crucially important topic.
I’d like to talk more about dépense, or unproductive expenditure—how it is articulated by Bataille and how it seeps into your thinking and writing. Is this what your Sun Theater was about?
Yes, the “sun gives without receiving” is an appropriate figure for dépense, now “electrified” by the shattering changes afoot with global warming. The Sun Theater as much as The Mastery of Non-Mastery were attempts to perform in language, image, and the music of Annie Rossi the shifts in our sense of the world at the level of “the bodily unconscious”—meaning my body, your body, and the body of the world. The leitmotif was in Emily Dickinson’s lines:
The last Night that She lived,
It was a Common Night,
Except the Dying—this to Us
Made Nature different
We noticed smallest things,—
Things overlooked before,
By this grand light upon our Minds
In the presence of death—in this case of the planet—everyday life and “small things” are stood on their head, rendered in “italics,” such that Leiris’s and Bataille’s “sacred” flares.
It seemed to me that our language and consciousness limped behind our bodies and the body of the world in interesting and strategic ways, unable to inscribe the terrible richness of the “dark surreality” and metamorphic sublime which is our current dispensation. Think of the people sleeping in their condos on the beach in Miami plunging earthwards to their death as the sea level rose after the pesky mangroves were cut down and porous landfill making artificial “land” was brought in to serve as a “foundation” for an uninterrupted view of the ocean with the sun rising at dawn.
Nancy Goldring is an artist and writer living in New York City. Her work that combines photography, drawing, and projection has been shown nationally and internationally. She has written primarily on subjects related to drawing and architecture. Her recent books include Shadows' Shadows (Metambesen Press) and The Clumsy Ark (Sprachlichter Editions).
“It’s easy to recognize specters of Bataille’s thought today, for better and for worse.”
"I've never understood catharsis."