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Volume 1: On L'Informe

by Lauren O'Neill-Butler

In the late 1920s, as the Partito Nazionale Fascista reigned in Italy, Nazism was on the rise in Germany, and fascism was beginning to take root in France, the Paris-based philosopher and librarian Georges Bataille edited Documents. The journal ran for fifteen issues, from 1929 to 1930, and includes his earliest criticism—on art, political theory, and eroticism—all clearly driven by the collapsing world around him.

It’s easy to recognize specters of Bataille’s thought today, for better and for worse. Especially his writing on l’informe (formless): a simple yet infamous paragraph published in the Critical Dictionary of Documents. Of this untranslatable and indefinite word that defies definitions, he wrote:

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.1

This short text has been on our minds, and we have a feeling we’re not alone. During our conversations, we found that it’s possible to rethink contemporary aspects of the informe—related to technology, gender, disease, and race—in a Bataillean key.

Enter volume 1. For our first thematic outing, we turned to several art historical texts including a roundtable published in the winter 1994 volume of the journal October (“The Politics of the Signifier II: A Conversation on the Informe and the Abject”) and the related exhibition and accompanying catalogue “L’informe: mode d’emploi” (The Formless: Instructions for Use), which was curated by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss and held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in summer 1996, twenty-five years ago. The show was billed as a “radical” game-changer, as heralding the next major art historical movement, and as a violent reaction to modernism writ large. Was it?

In our roundtable, we query that nearly forgotten history. We wanted to hear from writer Bruce Hainley, one of our favorite practitioners of form’s undoing, and we wanted to continue Dawn Chan’s conversation with curator Ruba Katrib (in the spirit of seeing our interviews as unfolding conversations).

In addition, volume 1 includes three interviews that revolve around the informe—with artist Matthew Barney, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and anthropologist Michael Taussig—and two essays, Aria Dean on Black Bataille and yours truly on the long shadow of catharsis.



Georges Bataille, “Informe” (Formless), Documents 7 (December 1929): 382.

Volume 1

On L’informe

Next from this Volume

Unfinished Work: A Roundtable on L’informe

with Aria Dean, Bruce Hainley, Ruba Katrib, Emmanuel Olunkwa, and Lauren O'Neill-Butler 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.”