Monday, 2 April 2012

Georges Bataille: a life of works seeking synthesis OR his continuing relevance

Do we want our politics to be religiously inspiring, or do we want our politics to be a dry but magnanimous affair that manages religiously inspiring ideas, movements and groups? Is the former dangerous? Is the latter? And do we want religion to sustain order or to subvert it? Does religion serve a function at all or is it a dangerous destructive force to be tamed or restrained? And is religion supposed to unite people or simply to serve the needs of individuals? Some of these questions Georges Bataille devoted his life to answering, the rest are unavoidable consequences of his work. For Bataille they also happen to be the most important questions there are to ask since we all of us will be religious, one way or another: ‘WE ARE FEROCIOUSLY RELIGIOUS’ (Bataille 1985: 179).

Bataille did not simply intellectually assent to the notion of all of us being religious in one way or another; religion was an inescapable part of his life. Raised by a family not atheist but without any religious observance, Bataille converted to Catholicism at the age of seventeen and briefly attended a Catholic seminary. Although he quit the seminary and fully renounced Christianity in his mid-twenties, Bataille was to become successively more devout as his life continued – devout not to any established religion but to a concatenation of mythic ideas, some borrowed, some invented. While Bataille renounced dogmatic religion, he clearly felt a need for religious observance. This dialectical opposition, central to the way Bataille understood himself, was also the secret to his creative social theory, his life of works seeking synthesis.

The dialectical opposition – ‘I MYSELF AM AT WAR’ - manifested itself in two opposing institutions: Acephale ("headless") and the College de Sociologie (quoted in Stoekl 1985: xxiii). Acephale was a secret society that met at ‘a tree struck by lightening – a point of intersect between lower…and higher forces’ (Stoekl 1985: xxii). While Acephal produced publications, it had no political objectives, its central task being 'the rebirth of myth and the touching off in society of an explosion of the primitive communal drives leading to sacrifice' (Stoekl 1985: xix). On the other hand, ‘the College was meant to study the tendencies of man that the Acephale group hoped somehow to spark’ (Stoekl 1985: xx). It had a clear political objective: to reignite a dynamic sense of community in society; the College sought a post-Christian civil religion.

The Acephalic Man depicted on the front cover of Acephale magazine (Andre Masson 1936)

Now that we have an understanding of this dual life, we can turn to look at the questions that arose out of it. The intention of this article is to fuel discussion. So rather than seeking to answer these questions, I am going to flesh them out with regards to politics in the UK at present.

So we turn to the first question: do we want our politics to be religiously inspiring, or do we want our politics to be a dry but magnanimous affair that manages religiously inspiring ideas, movements and groups? Is the former dangerous? Is the latter? It is clear why a religiously inspiring politics could be dangerous. Religion seems to imply blind devotion. The history of religions is replete with examples of violence and persecution. The history of religiously inspiring politics - Nazism, Stalinism - seems to be similarly fraught. Indeed, part of Bataille’s project with the College was seeking a “good” alternative to these regimes (Noys 2000). But since religion will happen, we have a choice between religiously inspiring politics and a politics that manages between religiously inspiring groups. The latter is dangerous for two reasons: first, if a group is more inspiring than the state, one’s allegiance may well be with the former. Second, since the state is always aware of this danger, it will have a tendency to weigh in on groups that seem threatening. This latter scenario corresponds to our current state of affairs. First, the state has no alternative to offer those who join religiously inspiring groups such as the EDL, BNP and Al-Muhajiroun (see Russell Berman 2010). Second, the state manages between various religious groups, sometimes forcefully (as with PREVENT and PREVENT II), sometimes subtly (as with the demand for secular justifications for religious actions. See Habermas 2010 for the theory and Chris Baker 2009 for the practice and controversies).

The second question was do we want religion to sustain order or subvert it? I have suggested that Bataille’s aversion to Catholicism was based on its dogmatism. This is right, but there is also something deeper, more radical to his distaste. Bataille felt that Christianity only touched the surfaces of the sacred. The sacred is expenditure, it is the human need for ritual destruction. The ‘Christian glorification of Christ’s death’ only glimpses at this need (Stoekl 1985: xvi). It was the purpose of the Acephale group to explore and produce purer sacred experiences.  The sacred is subversion: it is the glorification of taboo. The true revolution against the Bourgeoisie for Bataille, was not an overhaul of what they glorified, but the glorification of that by which they were horrified. Bataille became obsessed by ideas such as the solar anus and the big toe.

And yet in his work at the College, Bataille tried to take these subversive, obscure ideas and render them socially useful; he wanted to use his ideas to explore ways of forming new bonds beyond class prejudice. These ideas were not always subversive or obscure. He had considered creating myth around the person of Nietzsche. Through his life and his works, Nietzsche had made himself worthy of veneration. Similarly we can see how in popular culture today we have myths and corresponding ways of seeing the world based on figures as varied as William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, Winston Churchill and even Phillip Larkin. But putting forward these figures fails to highlight the paradox of using somebody as subversive and divisive as Nietzsche to encourage social unity.

It is possible to suggest, circa our third question, that Nietzsche would allow for religion to simultaneously serve the needs of individuals and unite people. Nietzsche is radically subjectivist. Yet by glorifying a single figure that calls us all to embrace our subjectivity, Bataille is simply uniting under the one the differences of the many and hence creating a new Christ.

In a time of super-diversity however, perhaps this uniting under the one the differences of the many is exactly what we need. Whether the “one” is the Church of England, or some other, new, very new, idea is another question entirely. I wonder if the reader can guess at Bataille’s answer…


Timothy Stacey

Works Cited

Baker, Chris, ‘Blurred Encounters?’ in Faith in the Public Realm (ed. Adam Dinham, Robert Furbey, Vivien Lowndes), The Policy Press. Bristol, 2009

Bataille, Georges, ‘The Sacred Conspiracy’ in Georges Bataille; Visions of Excess; Selected Writings, 1927-39 (ed. & trans. Allan Stoekl), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985

Berman, Russell, freedom or Terror, Hoover Press, Stanford 2010

Habermas, Jurgen, ‘”The Political”: The rational meaning of a questionable inheritance of political theology’ in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, Columbia University Press, New York 2011

Noys, Benjamin, Georges Bataille, Pluto Press, London, 2000

Stoekl, Allan, ‘Introduction’ to Georges Bataille; Visions of Excess; Selected Writings, 1927-39 (ed. & trans. Allan Stoekl), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985


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