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PRINT October 1985

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Wiping up after Bataille. The perils of intellectual sanitation.

WITH THE PUBLICATION OF Visions of Excess Georges Bataille at last appears in English in all his complex richness. Even before his death, in 1962, his thought was exploited by intellectuals who had no messing with the dirty imagery in which it grew and which is its real flower. Nor did they share his sense of mission: to restore the sacred, “a privileged moment of communal unity, a moment of the convulsive communication of what is ordinarily stifled” This is made clear in his critique of Surrealism, which, he said, invests “low values (the unconscious, sexuality, filthy language, etc.) . . . with an elevated character by associating them with the most immaterial [higher] values.”

For Bataille, only sacred—obscene—imagery could free and express the repressed, low values possessing us all. (For him, only what “possessed” one was of fundamental interest.) Here is his basic choice for art, on which its destiny hangs: either to conceive “all of existence . . . as purely literary,” or to attend to “the real decomposition of an immense world.” “The servants of science have excluded human destiny from the world of truth, and the servants of art have renounced making a true world out of what an anxious destiny has caused them to bring forth.” Yet Bataille saw exceptions which told the “fantastic” human truth. These were “mythical” moments in art: Van Gogh, whose severed ear was his Icarian sign, showing the “equivalence of opposing elements” in him; André Masson’s acephalous figure (human life, Bataille thought “is exhausted from serving as the head of, or the reason for, the universe”), emblem of a secret society, advocating ritual sacrifice, to which Bataille and Masson belonged; the fascinating shit spot on the hero of Salvador Dali’s Lugubrious Game, 1929. In these examples art was not exhausted from its own “servile idealism” and Bataille demanded that it communicate human destiny again: “down with denigrators of an immediate human interest: down with all the scribblers with their spiritual elevation and their sanctified disgust for material needs!” For Bataille, authentic art was Icarian, rebelliously rising high only to be privileged to fall lower than science or politics.

Postwar French thought has a largely unacknowledged debt to Bataille. The major ideas of the supposedly “new human sciences,” particularly poststructuralism, originated in the fertile soil of Bataille’s sick mind. Sickness is the key to Bataille. Only at its most sublime did his pathology reflect an exalted obsession with death; more morbidly and mundanely, it was the pathology of anal fixation —“excremental fantasy”—that required psychoanalytic. cure. His first, scandalous novel, W.C. (1926), with a female hero named Dirty soiling a cast of aristocratic characters, upset Bataille himself to the extent that it led him to undertake such a cure. It didn’t succeed, at least not in his work, for all of it compulsively returned to the novel’s theme: the high brought low at its apogee, as if by fate.

What is the general validity of a vision spun out of a perverse, insane obsession with shit? Shit, of course, is death, but Bataille saw us oozing it with every thought, action, feeling. In a diarrheic stream of miscellaneous writings, Bataille offered numerous fantasies. He himself eventually stripped them oftheir lower nature, turning these pithy fruit into categories of psychosocial understanding. Torn between refined intellect and scatological feeling—between the scenic view of homogeneous society from on high and the “obscenic” view of the heterogenous body from below—his writing is a dirty dream with moments of great lucidity. Bataille’s development has three phases: (1) self-indulgence in violative images which seem to rise spontaneously from the unconscious; (2) clarification and objectivity, in which these primary mythical images are given secondary intellectual elaboration; and (3) psychopolitical, activist analysis, especially of fascism. His two most famous images, the erupting solar anus and the elevated pineal eye, become one in his horrendous extended dream narrative of the sacrifice of a female gibbon. She is buried alive upside down, so that her anus, projecting above ground, becomes the pineal eye whose anguished “tears” of shit are sucked by the sadistic, coprophiliac, but “elevated” Englishwoman who, with others, has sacrificially buried the beast. (Bataille defended the coprophiliac Marquis de Sade as a theorist of social sacrifice and revolutionary expenditure.) Extravagant fantasy such as this is always on the verge of breaking out in the midst of his more constipated intellectual texts, as if to defile them.

Bataille was a notorious marginal figure for every major development from Surrealism through Existentialism. He carried the critique of reason and the correlate romance with madness to an extreme. Bataille saw the duality at their center. Jean-Paul Sartre’s effort to rescue existence from everyday servility comes out of Bataille, who was obsessed with the way we are reduced to the servility of instruments by a bourgeois society that is interested in us only insofar as we are useful.

Bataille’s dirty philosopher’s stones were keys to the basic affective social contract. This is his key sociological idea: ceremonial expenditure for the psychological good of the community. Such wasteful expenditure, essentially a form of potlatch, a public orgy of destruction and decomposition, was to restore to individuals the heterogeneous material existence robbed from them by society, while at the same time, because it was a social ceremony, to bind them inescapably to the community. Bataille acknowledged the family as the root of social bondage, with its agonizing ambivalence between the homogeneous and heterogeneous. His sense of family has been traced to his conflict with his blind, syphilitic, finally insane father; this hardly invalidates his argument. He in effect recast in societal terms his personal Oedipal attempt to establish homogeneity within the family and his anxiety about existing in heterogenous separateness from it. Society, an inescapable extended family, eternally reenacts family conflict. Bataille’s writings show that the logic of the world and of the self are inseparable.

For Bataille, imagistic language was the ultimate excrement or orgiastic expenditure, and his obsession with language—the privileging, retention, and toying with it characteristic of French thought—is the key to his sense of existence. For him, language was the place where obsession worked itself out, where occurred the catastrophic explosion of higher consciousness, its collapse into the material (imagistic) unconscious. So long as language refused to surrender “to the standards of the salesman” it could reveal "lacerating truth:’

One can argue that Bataille, like de Sade, was wrong: before shitting, one has been nourished by the maternal breast, psychoanalytically the ultimate bonding “authoritative” body. Was Bataille’s obsession with seemingly independent defecation an avoidance of the more fundamental dependence on sucking? Did he want to turn mother’s milk into patriarchal shit? Certain questions are raised by reading Bataille. Perhaps most critically, can an imagistic language which seeks to revolutionize life, by bonding us to life’s obscenity, actually do so?

Bataille’s language, plunging into the bowels of life—at one Marxist moment it identified with the proletariat (the lowest class, who work directly with shitty matter)—has a certain pathos about it. It reflects the self’s attempt to appropriate its own excrement, to come full circle and declare its eternal infantilism. When Bataille describes the bed of love as the place where the truth of existence is discovered, he is really talking of the bed in which the mother embraces the infant and tolerates its every wish, declaring no feeling or behavior perverse: perfect utopia. Bataille wanted society to have the same tolerance of polymorphous, genuinely artistic language.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and writes regularly for Artforum.