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Ecce MonstrumGeorges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form$

Jeremy Biles

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780823227785

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: March 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fso/9780823227785.001.0001

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Ecstatic and Intolerable: The Provocations of Friendship

Ecstatic and Intolerable: The Provocations of Friendship

(p.9) One Ecstatic and Intolerable: The Provocations of Friendship
Ecce Monstrum

Jeremy Biles

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In poor health, Georges Bataille, with the assistance of his friend J. M. Lo Duca, wrote the text that would accompany the images he had collected and arranged with scrupulous care during the previous two years. Among the dozens of images comprised in this book are four photos of a man undergoing the punitive process known as the lingchi, translated as “death by a thousand cuts” or the “hundred pieces”. This mode of torture and execution entails the dismemberment and evisceration of its victim. It is worth inquiring into the question mark that punctuates Bataille's description of the victim in this photo as “ecstatic” and “intolerable”. Despite the inability to decide upon the victim's inner state—which is, of course, unknowable—the horror of the photo gives rise to an ecstatic experience, for it is in the “violence of the image” that Bataille discerns “an infinite capacity for reversal” between antinomies, a revelation of the “fundamental connection” between “divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror”.

Keywords:   Lo Duca, divine ecstasy, reversal, violence, lingchi, extreme horror, torture

Intimacy is violence.

— Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion

The Tears of Eros

What is truth, apart from the representation of excess, if we only see that which exceeds the possibility of seeing what it is intolerable to see, just as in ecstasy enjoyment is intolerable?

— Georges Bataille, Erotism

Georges Bataille died in 1962, a year after completing his last book, The Tears of Eros, a lavishly illustrated essay on the history of eroticism. This book represents a visual and textual record of this writer's final days; the inevitability of death that had terrified and elated Bataille throughout his life had now given way to awareness of death's imminence. In poor health, Bataille, with the assistance of his friend J. M. Lo Duca, wrote the text that would accompany the images he had collected and arranged with scrupulous care during the previous two years.

(p.10) Among the dozens of images comprised in this book—ranging from bas-reliefs of copulating figures from the Aurignacian period, to Greek statuary, to the productions of surrealists such as Hans Bellmer and André Masson—are four photos of a man undergoing the punitive process known as the lingchi, translated as “death by a thousand cuts” or the “hundred pieces.” “Reserved for the gravest of crimes,” this mode of torture and execution entails the dismemberment and evisceration of its victim.1The shots were captured in Peking in 1905 and published by Georges Dumas in 1923. But Bataille's first exposure to these images, which he characterizes as “the most anguishing of worlds accessible to us … on film,”2 came through Dr. Adrien Borel, a French psychoanalyst who treated Bataille during the years 1925–27. Borel, employing a rather unorthodox strategy to approach the “virulently obsessive character” of his patient, made a gift of one of these photos to Bataille. Bataille credited the psychoanalytic treatment, during the course of which he received the photo, with liberating him from the series of “mishaps” in which he had been “floundering.”3

Bataille claims that “this photograph had a decisive role” in his life, that he “never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic (?) and intolerable.”4 Indeed, this horrific image remained the subject of his scrutiny until the time of his death. With this in mind, it is worth inquiring into the question mark that punctuates Bataille's description of the victim in this photo as “ecstatic” and “intolerable.” This question mark appears to refer to Dumas's Traité de psychologie, which Bataille discusses in his treatment of the photos.5 Dumas's physiognomic study analyzes the expressions of persons in states of extreme pleasure and pain. After commenting on the unclassifiable nature of the expression on the victim's face, Dumas avoids drawing any definitive conclusions, remarking instead that the expression is “paradoxical” and perhaps “ecstatic.”

The question mark in Bataille's text may thus respond to Dumas's own uncertainty regarding the ecstatic state of the victim. In apparent deference to Dumas, Bataille allows the question of ecstasy to remain open. This question mark could be read as disingenuous; it may be that Bataille is in fact certain that the image portrays a state of ecstasy, that the victim's face reveals not just torment, but rapture. This case is bolstered by Bataille's claim that “Dumas insists upon the ecstatic appearance of the victim's expression,”6 despite the fact that, as one commentator has noted, Dumas “really only mentions it on his way to concluding that the face cannot be read”—not (p.11) definitively, at least—in these terms.7 But further consideration may lead to a different conclusion. For instance, Amy Hollywood emphasizes that the conjecture concerning the victim's putative ecstasy, however tentative, is initially made by Dumas, and is “only reluctantly taken up by Bataille.”8

The very question of whether Bataille insists upon the ecstasy of the victim or is reluctant to accede to this hypothesis is in some sense also the response to the problem. The question mark points, finally, to Bataille's ambivalence and uncertainty about the voluptuous pleasure he clearly wants to attribute to this person being literally sundered limb from limb—something he nonetheless hesitates to proclaim with finality. Bataille comments that he “cannot imagine a more insane, more shocking form” of violence—but it is one that “stuns” him “to the point of ecstasy.”9 In other words, despite the inability to decide upon the victim's inner state—which is, of course, unknowable—the horror of the photo gives rise to an ecstatic experience, for it is in the “violence of the image” that Bataille discerns “an infinite capacity for reversal” between antinomies, a revelation of the “fundamental connection” between “divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror.”10

This point is noteworthy for two reasons. First, if Bataille discerns a “capacity for reversal” in the lingchi image, this revelation does not occur without regard for the plight of the victim; on the contrary, it occurs despite the victim's (merely apparent?) ecstasy. It is the suffering of the victim, the blatant “violence of the image” that throws Bataille into ecstasy, not the epiphenomenal aspect of bliss in the victim's countenance. It is true that there is “something undeniable in [the victim's] expression … which augments what is most anguishing about this photograph.”11 But it is no less true that attention to the suffering of the human being occasions ecstasy for Bataille. In other words, not until Bataille has actually identified with the victim, in some sense become the victim, does he experience the ecstasy that may (or may not) be evident in the visage of the man in the photo. If this human face is indeed the representation of ecstasy, it does not communicate that ecstasy until suffering is first experienced, until Bataille identifies with the violence and horror embodied in the victim.

The reversal from anguish to rapture, or the “identity of these perfect contraries” of ecstasy and horror, is important to note for a different but related reason.12 The reversal of which Bataille speaks is possible only so long as the element of excessive horror remains intolerable—that is, so long (p.12) as the horror is preserved as horror, so long as it is not overcome, interpreted, given a definitive meaning, or converted into a purely conceptual form. If the question of the possibility of ecstasy remains open, what is certain is that, for Bataille, the photo continues to be “intolerable”; its horror has never been neutralized, never converted, by way of familiarity, into banality. Across the decades in which Bataille contemplates this photo, it never stops obsessing him, never ceases to be excessive, nearly unbearable. Bataille, in short, never masters the image that he confronts.

This observation leads one to ask how something can be revisited, contemplated at length, approached with extreme attention,13 while also remaining intolerable. Frederic Jameson, glossing Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse's concept of “repressive tolerance,” describes a “universal neutralization”—a condition of exhaustion,

in the sense in which television performers speak of the ‘exhaustion’ of their raw material through overexposure. In this sense tolerance in our society can be said to be genuinely repressive, in that it offers a means of defusing the most dangerous and subversive ideas: not censorship, but the transformation into a fad, is the most effective way of destroying a potentially threatening movement or revolutionary personality.14

Jameson's remarks underscore Marcuse's claim that “universal toleration becomes questionable when its rationale no longer prevails, when tolerance is administered to individuals who parrot, as their own, the opinion of their masters, for whom heteronomy has become autonomy.”15 In light of Bataille's mounting readership and increasing recognition,16 we might also ask how to read Bataille today—how to approach his work in a way that neither neutralizes the potency of his thought through overexposure, nor treats as master this writer “known to insistently refuse masterful identity.”17

One (often implicit) contention of this book is that there are resources within Bataille's writings for evoking the “attitude of thought”18 required for reading Bataille in a way that maintains, and even exacerbates, his intolerability, and that resists the “repressive tolerance” that might threaten to neutralize his thought. The chapters that follow will each develop an account of Bataille's reading of another thinker or thinkers—philosophers, writers, and artists—with whom Bataille at once exhibits intimacy and antagonism. The practice elaborated in the course of this book invokes a reader willing to put himself at risk in reading.19

(p.13) This notion of risk recalls, but differs crucially from, the risking of one's life described in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Assuming, but also critiquing, aspects of the Hegelian master–slave dialectic, Bataille offers an account of a practice that enacts a sacrificial logic of identification that defies the seeming ineluctability of Hegelian recognition. Behind this sacrificial dynamic is an anthropological vision both indebted to Hegel and in contradiction with him—exemplifying the simultaneously intimate and agonistic dynamic that those who approach Bataille might enact in their readings of him.

Another important coincidence of proximity and opposition to Hegel is revealed in Bataille's very approach to contradiction. In Bataille's writings, contradiction is not avoided but frequently sought and intensified; Bataille's thinking, as Joseph Libertson points out, “proceed[s] and inspire[s] itself by contradiction.”20 Hegel, too, embraces contradiction, but of course to very different ends. Interpretations of the place of contradiction in Hegel's dialectical system diverge significantly; the concept of Aufhebung (commonly translated as “sublation”) is seen by some as the resolution or cancellation of contradictions, and by others as the lifting up and preserving of these contradictions.21 Whatever the interpretation, however, it can be said that for Hegel, contradiction is ultimately in service of the telos of the dialectical system, for the Aufhebung “is included within the circle of absolute knowledge, [it] never exceeds its closure, never suspends the totality of discourse, work … etc.”22 The prominent contradictions with which Bataille's writings are fraught, on the other hand, must be apprehended in a different manner. For Bataille, contradictions do not function within dialectical discourse, but rather confound discursive thought, if only fleetingly, refusing the synthetic moment and the aspiration to absolute knowledge.23

In his seminal essay on Bataille, “A Preface to Transgression,” Michel Foucault suggests that “perhaps one day [transgression] will seem as decisive for our culture, as much a part of its soil, as the experience of contradiction was at an earlier time for dialectical thought.” “We must find,” he asserts, “language for the transgressive which would be what dialectics was … for contradiction.”24 But the transgressive—that is, non-dialectical or non-discursive—form of language that Foucault announces already has contradiction lodged at its core,25 and indeed the citation from Bataille's Story of the Eye with which Foucault closes his essay betrays a coincidence of opposites, a dramatization of contradiction, to which Foucault seems blind: (p.14) “Two globes of the same colour and consistency were simultaneously activated in opposite directions …. This coincidence … gave me Marcelle for a moment.”26

If this passage exemplifies transgression for Foucault, it is not despite, but rather because of the contradictions it portrays and evokes. In other words, it is not simply the case, as Foucault would have it, that “the act of transgression replaces the movement of contradictions.”27 Bataille, as the passage from Story of the Eye makes clear, does not replace contradiction with transgression; on the contrary, contradiction is a condition of the possibility of transgression (a fact that has been largely overlooked by the poststructuralist school of thinkers who, following Foucault, have privileged transgression at the expense of contradiction).28

Derrida helps focus this point in his influential essay “From Restricted to General Economy.” Here he quotes Bataille's Erotism, which refers to the “contradictory experience of prohibition and transgression …. But transgression … dispels the prohibition without suppressing it.”29 That is, transgression is the experience of breaching the boundary of the interdiction in a way that, as Bataille repeatedly emphasizes, affirms the limit even as it is negated. If there is, as Bataille himself claims, a “Hegelian character” to the transgression, a moment that corresponds to that of the dialectical synthesis, it is an inverted or parodic form of the Aufhebung. Bataille is perhaps Hegelian, but also “less Hegelian than he thinks,”30 as Derrida says, for in place of the synthesis Bataille puts the experience of clashing contradictories. Neither cancelled nor precisely preserved, contradictories are, for Bataille, experienced as contradictory. And neither replacing contradiction with transgression nor remaining caught within the Hegelian paradigm, Bataille in fact exacerbates and exploits contradiction to achieve this inner experience, even and especially to the point of “laceration.” As Joseph Libertson claims, “the integrity of opposition, and the synthetic homogeneity which normally accompanies it, are supplanted in Bataille by a suspended moment of contamination which is not a resolution,” but a wounding “intensity.”31

Bataille is thus anti-Hegelian in his transgressive operations, where contradiction is experienced as a shattering force rather than a moment in the dialectical process—but he also betrays an intimacy with Hegel; to be sure, Bataille's thought bears the marks of a certain interpretation of the idealist philosopher. An examination of the influence on Bataille of Alexandre Kojéve's lectures on Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit will reveal the psychological (p.15) mechanics of recognition and mastery in Hegel's paradigm, as well the Bataillean “counter operation” that eschews these, replacing them with an extreme identification devoid of the imposition of power. This identification enlists a “sacrifice of form” that renders its willing victims neither masters nor slaves, but wounded individuals conjoined by a violence that is at once ecstatic and intolerable—an experience of intimacy and, strangely, friendship that Bataille deems sacred.

Master–Slave: The Problem of Recognition

In 1933, political philosopher Alexandre Kojève embarked upon a series of lectures the impact of which reverberated throughout the French intellectual scene. Attracting such luminaries as Jacques Lacan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Blanchot, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Claude Levi-Strauss, Pierre Klossowski, André Breton, and Bataille himself, these lectures stimulated an entire generation of thinkers, and for a time placed Hegel's formulation of the master–slave dialectic at the center of intellectual life. While Bataille's thoughts on the problems of mastery had already been catalyzed by his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche,32 his subsequent writing on mastery, slavery, sovereignty, and subjectivity is clearly (and indeed explicitly) indebted to Kojève.33

Kojève's idiosyncratic foregrounding of the master–slave dialectic in his reading of Hegel is perhaps his most noteworthy contribution, and it is this innovation which seems to have had the greatest influence on Bataille's thought. Indeed, it not only played a role in Bataille's conception of mastery and slavery in Hegel's work, but characterized his personal struggle for and against recognition, a struggle that now might be considered in light of Bataille's belated but increasing recognition. Bataille's relationship to Hegel and Kojève has been the object of considerable scrutiny, but I want to reveal a formerly unconsidered aspect of Bataille's engagement with the dynamics of the master–slave relationship. Doing so will ground my account of the agonistic mode of reading that defines Bataille's intellectual friendships. These friendships, enacted by Bataille in the broad realms of philosophical, literary, and artistic discourse that will be examined in this book, ultimately displace Hegelian recognition with an agonized sense of identification—an identification akin to that of the sacrificer and his victim.

(p.16) Explicating Hegel, Kojève begins with an exploration of the genesis of self-consciousness. He describes the man who is absorbed in contemplation, who loses himself in the object of his attention. Such a man “can be ‘brought back to himself’ only by a desire; the desire to eat, for example.”34 This desire is what transforms being, revealing to the subject its difference from the object that is opposed to it, different from it. The unsettling nature of desire compels man to take action to satisfy that desire. Taking up Kojève's example, to satisfy hunger, food must be destroyed, consumed; the satisfaction of desire can only be obtained by “the destruction, or at least the transformation, of the desired object.”35 Such desire, with its attendant negating action, is, however, “an emptiness”—for the destroyed, transformed, or assimilated “natural” object of the desiring subject leaves this subject in his animal state. The assimilation of a natural object thus does not transform the subject, the “I,” but rather preserves the I as natural. The subject obtains positive content only through the transformation of some “non-natural”36 object—in other words, some other desiring entity—to ascend to self-consciousness; the desire of the I must be directed toward “something that goes beyond the given reality,” some non-natural object: “Desire itself.”

Human desire, therefore, “must be directed toward another [human] Desire”;37 it yearns to be “recognized” by another. What distinguishes human desire from merely animal want is that the latter is always “a function of its desire to preserve life”—to maintain its existence intact, risking as little as possible. Human desire, on the other hand, demands a risk of life: “man's humanity ‘comes to light’ only if he risks his (animal) life for the sake of his human Desire. It is in and by this risk that the human reality is created and revealed as reality.”38 What is it that human desire wants to have recognized by the other? Hegel, on Kojève's account, claims that it is a value—that is, the desiring I wants to impose a recognition of his value on an other. To satisfy this wish for recognition, two desiring subjects necessarily come into conflict, each wanting to impose this value on the other, each wanting to procure the other's recognition. This conflict takes the form of a fight “to the death,” a fight “for pure prestige” in the pursuit of the satisfaction of having imposed one's own value as the “supreme value.”39

However, though this fight begins as a fight to the death, it is necessary that each adversary remains alive. If one or both adversaries die in the fight, the imposition of value cannot occur, and recognition is thereby precluded. (p.17) The desired recognition thus presupposes that the opposing subjects “behave differently in this fight.” One “must fear the other, must give in to the other, must refuse to risk his life for the satisfaction of his desire for ‘recognition.’”40 In short, one forgoes one's own desire in order to satisfy the desire of the other; one adversary retreats, abandoning his attempt for recognition, while the other is recognized. The former is the slave; the latter, the master.

As Kojève emphasizes, however, the recognition of the master by the slave “is not recognition properly so-called,” for the master is “recognized by someone whom he does not recognize.” He has, in other words, risked his life “for a recognition without value for him.”41 The master is recognized by a being whom he, the master, only recognizes as a mere thing or an animal, and not as an agent of human desire. Now this instance of misrecognition42 gives rise to a host of problems for the master. Without entering into the complexities that Kojève does so much to elucidate, it will be necessary to underscore some of the features of this failed recognition in order to bring them into relation with Bataille's thought.

First, Kojève states that “the truth of autonomous Consciousness is slavish Consciousness.” By this he means to bring to light the place of work in its relation to autonomous consciousness. The slave, in his work for the master, transforms the world; his action is the negating and transforming action that prepares an object for consumption or enjoyment by the master. The slave, though not allowed to enjoy the pleasure of consumption, is nonetheless the agent of transformation whose labor is the “source of all human, social, historical progress.”43 Moreover, it is just the slave's laborious subordination to the master that allows the slave to achieve self-consciousness. While the master is relegated to an existential impasse, unable to recognize the slave who recognizes him, the slave is granted, by his very status as slave, the possibility of overcoming this position of subordination. In his ability to recognize the privilege of the other, and therefore to see the possibility of being other than a slave, the slave is predisposed to the negating action of self-overcoming. Though the slave does not manifest this will to self-overcoming from the beginning, there exists a tendency toward this negation of the slavish I; the fight in which he was initially engaged “predisposes him to that act of self-overcoming, of negation of himself.”44 In relation to Bataille, this moment of negation in the dialectic is crucial, for it is here that a certain freedom from the form-imposing processes of work is evident, (p.18) and it is here that Bataille wants at once to affirm Kojève emphatically and to depart from Kojève (or Hegel) definitively. To understand this it will be necessary to examine the terms and movements described by Kojève in the remainder of his initial analysis of the master–slave dialectic.

The Rise of Forms

In what is perhaps at once Bataille's most sustained and terse appropriation of Kojève's reading of Hegel, his Theory of Religion, one finds an epigraph drawn from Kojève. The epigraph is taken from the opening lines of the lectures, in which the philosopher claims that “Desire is what transforms Being.” This citation concludes with these words:

In contrast to the knowledge that keeps man in a passive quietude, Desire disquiets him and moves him to action. Born of Desire, action tends to satisfy it, and can do so only by the “negation,” the destruction, or at least the transformation, of the desired object: To satisfy hunger, for example, the food must be destroyed or, in any case, transformed. Thus, all action is negating.

Bataille then begins the book proper with a note on “Where This Book Is Situated.” Here he claims that “the foundation of one's thought is the thought of another.”45 One may conclude that Bataille is here paying homage, above all others, to Kojève, whose words immediately precede Bataille's claim; it suggests that the opening remarks of Kojève provide the opening to Bataille's theory of religion.

It is thus all the more important to take notice of what constitutes the end of Bataille's book: a section designated “General Table and References.” Here Bataille cites the work of those to whom his book is most indebted. Among the references are Emile Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Marcel Mauss's The Gift, and Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For each of these references Bataille offers a brief description of their contents in two or three sentences. But in this annotated bibliography, the citation of Kojève's Introduction to the Reading of Hegel stands out; it is both substantially longer than the other references and is the only one to contain critical remarks. These remarks, appended to the book proper, provide, in explicit terms, Bataille's difference from Hegel's thought—a difference that, it could be said, animates his entire theory (p.19) of religion. Underscoring first his relation to Kojève, Bataille says that “[t]he ideas that I have developed here are substantially present in [Kojève's Introduction].”46 However, Bataille goes on to say that the differences between his theory of religion and the Hegelian analysis as rendered by Kojève “still need to be specified.” By way of specification, then, Bataille claims that

the main difference concerns the conception that makes the destruction of the subject the condition—necessarily unrealizable—of its adequation to the object. Doubtless this implies from the start a state of mind radically opposed to Hegelian ‘satisfaction,’ but here the contraries coincide (they only coincide, and the opposition in which they coincide cannot this time be overcome by any synthesis ….)47

Bataille thus characterizes his difference from Hegel as a state of mind, one that affirms the coexistence of contraries, and which refuses the satisfaction of synthesis.

The state of mind to which Bataille alludes brings to the fore the dualism that underlies his theory of religion and indeed his thought in general. It is the dualism of the sacred and the profane—and their rigorous distinction— that concerns Bataille, and that is admirably described by Kojève in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Kojève, however, valorizes a state of mind, or an “attitude of thought,”48 that Bataille finds unsatisfactory for its very tendency toward satisfaction; Bataille remains “opposed to Hegelian‘satisfaction.’”49 With this in mind, we may return to Kojève's lectures on Hegel.

Kojève claims, it will be recalled, that the slave is “predisposed” toward negating himself as slave—that he exhibits the tendency toward self-overcoming. This self-negating action is only available to the slave because he has first undergone “the fear of death, the fear of the absolute Master,” whose incarnation is the human master. Only the terror and dread inspired by the master conveys the “sense of power” that allows the slave to “attain the final perfection” of the “completed man.”50 This terror is crucial to the dialectical transformation of the slave into something “beyond himself.” As Kojève emphasizes, “it is not sufficient to be afraid, nor even to be afraid while realizing that one fears death. It is necessary to live in terms of terror. Now, to live in such a way is to serve someone whom one fears, someone who inspires or incarnates terror; it is to serve a master (a real, that is, human Master, or the ‘sublimated’ Master—God)” (27). The terror of man (p.20) in service to the master's laws is transformative. In other words, “by externalizing oneself, by binding oneself to others, […] one is liberated from the enslaving dread that the idea of death inspires” (28).51

This is to say that terror, if it is to be transformative, requires the educative-forming process of work. These two elements, terror and work, are essential to the dialectical movement by which the slavish consciousness frees itself from the master. In the labor produced under fear of the master, nature is transformed, and it is in this transformation that the slave himself is transformed. Initially subordinated to nature in his service to the master, the slave accepts “the instinct of self-preservation”—he submits himself to the laws of nature in submitting to the laws of the master. But by transforming nature, he also masters nature, liberating himself from its laws and from the laws of self-preservation that had first bound him to subordination. Thus labor has a liberating effect, one predicated on the repression of desires that seek immediate fulfillment. In repressing the instinct to consume immediately—an instinct that the master need not, and does not, repress—the slave transcends, or educates, himself; he “‘cultivates’ and‘sublimates’ his instincts by repressing them” (24).52 This repression of the instinct for immediate consumption is not available to the master, to whom objects, already prepared by the slave, are available for present assimilation. “For the Master … the immediate relation [to the thing] comes into being, through that mediation”—that is, through the slave's transformation of the thing (17).53

The deferral of the instinct for satisfaction underscores the temporal element of the dialectic, an element that distinguishes the master from the slave. Whereas the master consumes objects in immediate enjoyment, the slave “postpones the destruction of the thing by first trans-forming it through work; he prepares it for consumption—that is to say, he ‘forms’ it,” and in so doing, forms himself. Educating himself, the slave also forms himself by transforming the world. The outcome of this temporal deferral is the conferral of a form by which the object “gains permanence, precisely because, for the worker, the object has autonomy” (25).54

The attainment of form, this positing or production of the object as separate, distinct, and durable, is also a reflection of the slave—the “realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it” (25).55 By means of his work, then, the slave, having deferred immediate (p.21) satisfaction, obtains the satisfaction of realizing himself objectively as man—he is able to contemplate, in the autonomous product of his labor, his own image. The self-reflective subject that the slave now becomes is the “formed-or-educated” man, which Kojève describes as the “completed man who is satisfied by his completion” (25).56 The slave, having passed through slavish consciousness in the dialectical reversal engendered by self-negation, forms himself as something distinct and durable. He enters, by virtue of his labor, the world of objective reality—he recognizes himself in the world he has transformed by his work; in doing so, he achieves “his authentic freedom,” his “true autonomy” (27).57

The question of what constitutes as recognition the slave's recognition of himself in the products of his labor arises here. That is, what differentiates the former slave's recognition of himself in what are merely the objects of his labor—things—from the master's false recognition by the slave, who is himself a thing? The answer relies on the two elements that initially impelled the slave's self-negation: terror and work. The products of this work are, we have seen, transformed natural objects. Having been transformed, the objects are endowed with a kind of autonomy—they are no longer merely things, but the durable forms that have been imposed by the slave's “forming activity of work,” and thus reflect the slave. In contemplating his work, therefore, the slave recognizes himself: a self-reflective recognition. But this recognition would not be possible without the terror that stimulates the labor, which in turn transforms the natural world into the “real objective World, which is a non-natural World” (26).58 The terror inspired by the master, who is the incarnation of the terror of death, at the same time inspires the labor that binds the slave to the master. Without this terror of the other, the “terror remains internal-or-private and mute.” It is only by way of “externalizing oneself” that the terror ceases to be that of a madman, private and “purely subjective” (28)59 Terror vis-à-vis a master gives rise to the forming activity that shapes objects which in turn reflect their producer and allow for self-recognition.

The former slave recognizes his humanity in his own work. Having passed through slavish consciousness and into self-consciousness, he is finally afforded satisfaction. And having transformed a given natural world into his own image, the slave transforms himself, and in so doing enacts a “revolutionary overcoming of the World that can free him, and—consequently—satisfy him.” This “desire of revolutionary negation,” as (p.22) Kojève calls it, is engendered by the master, but is only realized and satisfied by the slave who “can transform the World that forms him and fixes him in slavery and create a World that he has formed in which he will be free” (29).60 In transforming the world the slave also creates new objective conditions that renew the fight for recognition. Having once been a slave to the terror of death and the hostility of the natural world, this slave, through work, creates a world that is the reflection of his ownmost value, and by which he seeks to impose this value on others in the renewed struggle for recognition. The creation of the technical world of work thus engenders and reveals the autonomous self-consciousness of the slave.

Kojève's description of the rise of self-consciousness through work is taken up by Bataille in his Theory of Religion. Here, Bataille recapitulates, while also significantly modifying, the movement of the coming to consciousness of humans, and with it the place of labor in the creation of the “real order” of the world of things. Like Kojève, Bataille distinguishes the world of animal life from that of human life, which arises from the former. Unlike Kojève, however, Bataille describes not a dialectical movement in which a satisfying resolution (or perfection) is obtainable, but rather the positing of two distinct worlds, those of the sacred and the profane, which can never be synthesized or resolved. Moreover, as we will see, Bataille subverts the dialectic of power as seen in the dynamic of the fight for prestige. While affirming Kojève's emphasis on the terror inspired by death as being a critical element in the life of humans, he rejects the Kojèvian formulation of death as the absolute master, speaking instead of “death's definitive impotence and absence.”61 In doing so, Bataille refuses the struggle for recognition and the satisfaction to which it is directed, replacing it with a logic of identification and unsatisfied desire. This identification is possible—as we will see below—at that point of self-negation which, as described by Kojève, sets the slave on the road to mastery, but which in Bataille corresponds to a sacred world where the very distinctions on which recognition relies are erased. In short, Bataille, in his attempt to undo recognition, truncates Hegel at the point of self-negation, refusing the satisfactions of his telic thought. Bataille enacts a contrary movement, a movement opposed to the self-perfecting tendency described by Kojève. He engages in a counter operation—a reversal in the attitude of thought, a resistance to the dominant tendency characterized by that predisposition toward the furtherance of the dialectic of recognition.

(p.23) Leaving Hegel

According to Kojève, the self-negation of the slave, arising from the predisposition to self-overcoming, sets the stage for the slave's move to mastery over nature, the world, and himself. This requisite moment of negation allows for the transforming activity by which the slave enters the reflexive domain of self-consciousness and self-identity. But before the fixity of form is achieved, before the satisfaction of perfection is obtained, the slave must undergo a terror in the presence of the absolute master, a terror that entails the “absolute liquefaction of every stable-support.”62 Elaborating this scene of dissolution, Kojève underscores the liberating nature of this terror, holding it in contrast to the fearless self-identity of the master. He claims that the master cannot go beyond himself, cannot change, but is fixed in his reified state of mastery, “tied to the given,” preserved “indefinitely in identity to himself.”63 His supreme value of mastery having been achieved, the master is left with no place to go. The slave, on the other hand, has understood in terror, though unconsciously, “that a given, fixed, and stable condition, even though it be the Master's, cannot exhaust the possibilities of human existence …. He did not want to bind himself to the Master's condition, nor does he bind himself to his condition as a Slave. There is nothing fixed in him. He is ready for change.”64

This liminal state, in which the human is no longer slave but not yet master, is what Bataille describes in his Theory of Religion as the sacred. Though the liquefaction to which the slave subjects himself in his self-negation resonates clearly with Bataille's theory, the slave in Kojève's account has at this very point “a positive ideal to attain; the ideal of autonomy.”65 This ideal of autonomy is the “final perfection,” the supreme satisfaction of completion that finds its expression in the “formed-and-educated” man, the man of the project. In other words, the temporal deferral of satisfaction culminates in supreme satisfaction; repressed desires are diverted into work, and work into the projects that afford the slave a mastery over nature and the ability to create the conditions for autonomous recognition, the final and supreme satisfaction. In short, the project is the way the slave can engage in the “overcoming of the World that can free him, and—consequently—satisfy him.”66 Therefore, according to Kojève, liberation, autonomy, and satisfaction are of a piece, and they are expressed in the “liberating Fight for recognition.”

(p.24) The case is quite different for Bataille. Though he employs the concept of self-negation, the negating process he describes is one that supposes no obtainable ideal. Moreover, Bataille's self-negation, I will argue, operates according to a logic of identification and exacerbated desire that rejects Hegelian recognition.67 Bataille develops his theory of religion on the basis of Kojève's Introduction—but from the outset the dialectical model that took the struggle for recognition between the master and slave as its point of departure is replaced by a dualistic conception that opposes the sacred to the profane, the world of animal immanence and the world of human technology and transcendence. In conceiving this dualistic model, Bataille engages in a counter operation, an operation dedicated to the undoing of the spirit of Hegelian synthesis through the maintenance of antinomies.68

The Counter Operation

If it is the case, as Kojève explains, that human self-consciousness comes into being as a mastery over nature, over the biological reality of animal life, then it could be said that Bataille seeks to sacrifice this self-consciousness, to induce the “sleep of reason that produces monsters,”69 and adopt an attitude of thought opposed to Hegelian satisfaction. Such a state of mind, according to Bataille, is the only one that provides access to humankind's total existence: an existence open to the extreme experiences of both life and death. Bataille's theory thus begins—and also ends—with animality, a world that he describes as one of immanence: “Animality is immediacy or immanence.”70 Elaborating this proposition, Bataille analyzes what takes place when one animal eats another. For the animal, “nothing is given in time”— there is no discernible difference between the animal eating and the animal eaten because there is no perception of duration through time that would allow for such distinctions. Echoing Kojève, Bataille claims that “there is no relation of subordination like that connecting an object, a thing, to man, who refuses to be viewed as a thing.” In the animal world, void of the sense of time in which objects endure, there is thus also “nothing … that introduces the relation of the master to the one he commands, nothing that might establish autonomy on one side and dependence on another.”71 There is thus a state of “perfect immanence,” or “continuity,” in which each animal “is in the world like water in water.”72

(p.25) Bataille's formulation calls to mind Kojève's notion of liquefaction—that moment of non-fixity, of formlessness, in the master–slave dialectic. But whereas for Kojève this moment is conducive to self-overcoming through negative action, for Bataille the state of immanence is one of unemployed negativity. This can be understood, however, only by first grasping the rise of human self-consciousness, of which, Bataille claims, Kojève's interpretation of Hegel is “the primary instrument.”73 It is therefore to Bataille's anthropological account and the development of the profane world that we must now turn.

Bataille, following Kojève, relates labor to the rise of self-consciousness, suggesting that “the positing of the object, which is not given in animality, occurs in the human use of tools.”74 The creation of the object induces an interruption in the continuity of animal life; it produces an element of exteriority in which one thing is distinguishable from another. Subordinated to the one who uses it, a tool is assigned a utility, and thus defines a sphere of discontinuous objects that Bataille describes as “a plane on which it is possible to situate clearly and distinctly” both things and other humans. He concludes with Kojève that we come to self-consciousness “the day we see ourselves from the outside as another. Moreover, this will depend on our first having distinguished the other on the plane where manufactured things have appeared to us distinctly.”75

But while employing the terms set out by Kojève, Bataille departs from Kojève on this point. Rather than claiming that the work that produces self-consciousness seeks to overcome or master nature, that realm of immanence, Bataille states that “this bringing of elements of the same nature as the subject, or the subject itself, onto the plane of objects is always precarious, uncertain, and unevenly realized.” This is a crucial divergence, for it is here that Bataille posits a dualism in place of a dialectic: “In the end, we perceive each appearance—subject (ourselves), animal, mind, world—from within and from without at the same time, both as continuity, with respect to ourselves, and as object,” or discontinuity.76 What he describes is the coexistence of two opposed attitudes of thought—one that expresses objectivity and discontinuity, and one that participates in immanence, or animal continuity.

This dualism reflects the dualism of the sacred and the profane, that opposition which, as Denis Hollier has said, “is the matrix of [Bataille's] thought.” Hollier explains that “existence is profane when it lives in the (p.26) face of a transcendence; it is sacred when it lives in immanence.”77 But this formulation needs qualification, for Bataille claims that “the sense of the sacred obviously is not that of the animal lost in the mists of continuity where nothing is distinct.”78 Why, then, might Hollier refer to existence in immanence as the sacred? The answer lies again in the notion of an “attitude of thought,” as Hollier puts it. “The animal accepted the immanence that submerged it without apparent protest,” Bataille writes, “whereas man feels a kind of impotent horror in the sense of the sacred.”79 What distinguishes the animal lost in the mists of continuity from the human who participates in that continuity is the human's very consciousness of discontinuity, the real order of objects, and the domain of individuality. Humans, unlike animals, are thus able to experience the movement from the profane to the sacred world of immanence.

Bataille's dualism consists, then, of two orders: the real80 order of objects, as constituted by the positing of things, and the unreal or sacred order of immanence and continuity. Each order is also connected to an attitude (a tendency or disposition) of thought. The former is represented in Bataille's account by the Hegelian attitude of synthesis, of the satisfaction contingent upon recognition and coming to full self-consciousness. The latter attitude of thought is expressed in Bataille's counter operation. It is a refusal to accede to a final form or a fixed state of self-identical individuality. The counter operation seeks instead to undo the profane logic of recognition, predicated on work and power over the other, and to put in its place identification.

The profane attitude of thought is proper to the world of things, the real order, and it sets out to subjugate nature. But in doing so, it “ties man to subjugated nature. Nature becomes man's property, but it ceases to be immanent to him.”81 That is, the attitude of thought implied by the creation of the world of tools, of things, effects a separation. “It is thus profane existence itself which produces separation, institutes itself as separate from the sacred, and the transcendence by which it defines the sacred in fact characterizes the profane itself.”82 It is the profane disposition of thought that produces the sacred realm as such. The sacred is not simply the realm of animality, but the realm of animal continuity experienced as a return to intimacy, as a return to continuity, away from the real order of things. The return is thus not a transition to an earlier state, but to a world existing simultaneously with that of the profane order. The distinction between Bataille (p.27) and Kojève is most apparent here. Whereas for Kojève the slave is freed from subordination to the master by a self-negating action that procures mastery over his animal existence, Bataille claims that it is the experience of continuity at the level of animality that is sacred. The sacred moment in the master–slave dialectic is for Kojève the beginning of the slave's autonomy. For Bataille, on the other hand, it marks that moment to which the already perfected, self-conscious man must return.

It is only through this return to immanence that the ties of subordination are broken, and it is only through this return that mastery is evaded. The distinction between the two notions of liberty at work here is noteworthy: Whereas Kojève describes a deliverance from slavery through the obtainment of autonomous perfection, Bataille, through a counter operation, seeks to undermine mastery and its requisite participation in the dialectic of power. This counter operation works through a principle of identification, enacted most dramatically through sacrifice.

The word “sacrifice” comes from the Latin sacer and facere (to perform or make sacred). According to Bataille, to make a thing sacred necessitates its destruction; indeed, it is the destruction of things that is the very principle of sacrifice. But as he says in a crucial passage in the Theory of Religion, “the destruction that sacrifice is intended to bring about is not annihilation. The thing—only the thing—is what sacrifice means to destroy in the victim. Sacrifice destroys an object's real ties of subordination; it draws the victim out of the world of utility and restores it to that of unintelligible caprice.”83 Indeed, for sacrifice to be experienced as a removal from the real ties of subordination to the unreality of the sacred world, a separation must be presupposed. Bataille emphasizes this experience of transition, claiming that “the sacrificer's prior separation [in] the world of things is necessary for the return to intimacy.”84 Sacrifice is therefore a sacrifice of clear self-consciousness, a violent reversal of the predominant tendency of thought, which posits the world of things. Bataille claims the return to intimacy implies a “beclouded consciousness,” in which the immanence between human and nature, subject and object, is affirmed. It is a movement—from the light of clear and distinct thought to the night of an animal lost in the mists of continuity—a night into which one enters consciously, and from which one inevitably returns.

So, sacrifice is a movement from the realm of objects, always hierarchized in terms of utility and subordination, to the domain of intimacy. But this (p.28) movement of fusion is no less an affirmation of distinction, of dualism—that is, it presupposes the distinctions posited by human consciousness, assuming the profane world that it seeks to dissolve. Hollier is helpful on this point:

Dualism starts precisely here, with the fact that there is no point … where the sacred and the profane cease being perceived as contradicting one another, even if at times they have to coexist and seem to be superimposed on one another. Moreover, this very point, this instant of the fusion of contraries, defines the sacred as such, and distinguishes it from the profane: the sacred confuses that which the profane opposes or distinguishes.85

The contradiction in this statement—that the sacred at once fuses what the profane had rendered distinct, and in doing so makes itself distinct from the profane—is not merely apparent. It is for this reason that Hollier claims “dualism is an untenable attitude in the long run.” In other words, if dualism is “not a dualist system, but a will to dualism, a resistance to system and homogeneity,” it is therefore impossible—“for system cannot help being monistic, and, since the exercise of thought is spontaneously systematizing and monistic, dualism results from the will bracing itself against this tendency, thought itself taking a stand against the movement proper to reason and its tendency toward conciliation, toward reduction,” and toward satisfaction.86 But it is just this untenability, this will to dissatisfaction with the inevitability of failure, that impels Bataille to take up this dualist thought, which I am here designating with Bataille's term as a counter operation. The counter operation of sacrifice is the enactment of an attitude of thought that is doomed to failure, dissatisfaction, and imperfection. But it is no less the means by which a resistance against the stultifying, formative effects of rational thought (as described by Kojève) is carried out. It is a state of mind opposed to Hegelian satisfaction, an attitude that remains imperfect and unperfectable, and resolutely so.

The question of how this counter operation works can be addressed only by examining the place of death in Bataille's writings, for it is the horizon of death that defines the attitude of thought under examination here. Again, it is in Kojève's terms but also against Kojève that Bataille addresses death and the anguish it induces. According to Kojève, fear of death initially renders man a slave in the fight for recognition: Fear makes him a thing. But Bataille reverses this notion, claiming that “man is not, as one might think, (p.29) a thing because he is afraid. He would have no anguish if he were not the individual (the thing) and it is essentially the fact of being an individual that fuels his anguish.” For Bataille, therefore, the anguish induced by death is not experienced as such until the individual perceives himself as just that—a thing in the world, an object that takes duration “as the basic condition of his worth.”87 It is with the advent of the profane world of things that the anguish of death becomes possible, for it is not until the world of distinct things has arisen in consciousness that the threat of death has any meaning, that death is perceived as a threat to the duration of a distinct individual. Bataille claims

[man] is afraid of death as soon as he enters the system of projects that is the order of things. Death disturbs the order of things and the order of things holds us. Man is afraid of the intimate order that is not reconcilable with the order of things. Otherwise there would be no sacrifice, and there would be no mankind either. The intimate order would not reveal itself in the destruction and the sacred anguish of the individual. Because man is not squarely within that order, but only partakes of it through a thing that is threatened in its nature (in the projects that constitute it), intimacy, in the trembling of the individual, is holy, sacred, and suffused with anguish.88

For Bataille there would be no sacrifice were it not for the anguish before death that threatens humans. Sacrifice, then, is at once an affirmation of anguish, and thus an affirmation of the profane or real order, and also the movement to dissolve the individuality that engenders that anguish before death. It is the refusal of, or resistance to, the profane conception of temporality, and an expression, through destruction, of what Bataille calls the “religious sensibility in time.”89

The religious sensibility in time mobilizes the counter operation of sacrifice. The attitude of thought implied here is not that of production and duration, but of expenditure and immediate consumption. The essence of sacrifice, which seeks to destroy what is a thing in the object, is not killing, but “relinquishing and giving”—relinquishing the tendency to form, duration, and perfection. It is also a gift of death90 that returns an object to the domain of intimacy. Sacrifice reveals that death is not (or not only) the negation of life, but the affirmation of intimate life, “the wonder-struck cry of life,” that “dissolves the real order” in a “dazzling consumption” at once joyful and anguishing. The anguish arises because sacrifice violates the (p.30) duration of the individual, discloses the “imposture of reality” to which individual life tenaciously clings. Sacrifice is joyful because it renders, in a “consumption that is concerned only with the moment,” what had been a mere thing, sacred. The counter operation of sacrifice thus expresses the “passion of an absence of individuality.”91


This absence of individuality is clear enough when thought of from the point of view of the sacrificed victim. But Bataille speaks of the anguish of those who witness sacrifice as well. “If one describes the individual in the operation of sacrifice, he is defined by anguish.”92 The distressing nature of sacrifice, claims Bataille, is attributable to the fact that the individual participates in the sacrifice—not merely as observer, but as victim. As he puts it, “the individual identifies with the victim in the sudden movement that restores it to immanence.”93

This moment of identification in sacrifice represents most clearly the effects of the counter operation of which Bataille speaks. It demonstrates the rage—understood not as anger, but as an intensity of passion—against what Bataille calls “man's reduction to thinghood,” and against the operation of perfection toward which Hegelian thought tends. It is a rage against these things, but nonetheless a rage that employs the lucidity that defines rational thought and culminates in self-consciousness. Indeed, only through self-consciousness is identification possible, but at the same time self-consciousness turns not away from itself, but, in identifying with an other, against itself, against the will to duration—it is the “reduction of the reduction.”94

Above all, then, this is a rage against form. It is a will to the destruction of form, where form is understood especially in the Hegelian–Kojèvian sense of the perfected human—autonomous, self-identical, stable, and durable. Not denying that human thought is predisposed to think in terms of system, reduction, and self-identity, Bataille works to resist, to revolt against this tendency. In his essay “The Big Toe,” he writes,

there is a bias in favor of that which elevates itself, and human life is erroneously seen as an elevation …. [M]en obstinately imagine a tide that will permanently elevate them, never to return, into pure space. Human life entails, in fact, the (p.31) rage of seeing oneself as a back and forth movement from refuse to the ideal, and from the ideal to refuse ….95

Rage is a desire to experience the laceration, the sacrificial wounding indicative of a move from the profane to the sacred. The identification that takes place in sacrifice expresses an attitude of thought that desires to return to the intimacy of sacred life—it desires not to be reduced to a thing, but rather to reduce the world of things to the world of immanence. This desire seeks not satisfaction, but the continual movement of resistance to satisfaction. It is clarity seeking momentary or partial obscurity, self-consciousness desiring dissatisfaction. In the end, identification with a sacrificial victim is just this expression of an attitude of thought that wills “a never resolved dissatisfaction.”96

The movement of unresolved dissatisfaction is untenable. It requires, therefore, constant provocation, a ceaseless risk—even the desire not to be satisfied remains unsatisfied. In this way it might be said the movement itself is intolerable because it does not endure. This is at once the boon and the curse of Bataille's dualist thought, and the impossibility of this dualism demands that it issue not in the form of a system or a doctrine, but as fomenting passion or rage. That said, the counter operation of which rage is a part is, if anguishing, also joyful. This operation, this movement against form, Bataille describes with the term “sovereignty”:

Sovereignty designates the movement of free and internally wrenching violence that animates the whole, dissolves into tears, into ecstasy and into bursts of laughter, and reveals the impossible in laughter, ecstasy, or tears. But the impossible thus revealed is not an equivocal position; it is the sovereign self-consciousness that, precisely, no longer turns away from itself.97

This notion of sovereignty thus stands in opposition to Hegelian mastery. More akin to the liminal stage in which the slave enters into self-negation is the sovereign movement of sacrifice, which denies the real order of things to which mastery is bound. In subjugating an other—a man, nature—mastery remains tied to that subjugated other; as Bataille says, “over-coming nature, as far as we're concerned, also means losing: because at that point we're satisfied by nature.”98 But in the sovereign, sacrificial movement of identification, the individual form is negated, and the sacrificer, like the victim, enters into the sacred realm whose experience had been suppressed (p.32) —a moment without duration, an intolerable moment revealing the absence of the I.


In opposition is true friendship.

—William Blake

The counter operation under discussion here is one of identification; it is a sovereign movement that resists the progress of the fight for recognition, the progress toward perfection. In the immediate consumption of sacrifice—the expression of the religious sensibility in time—the instinct to consume is not diverted or suppressed, but is at once indulged and enflamed. Sacrifice marks an expenditure “exactly comparable to the flame that destroys the wood by consuming it.”99

Though the counter operation is sacrificial in its movement, it is not limited to expression in sacrifice—that is, the literal, physical destruction of objects. It is evident in all those experiences that surpass the closed beings of individuals: excessive laughter, tears, ecstasy, and sometimes encounters with art. Perhaps above all, the counter operation is expressed in friendship: communication that stands most clearly opposed to recognition, and which, as much as actual sacrifice, consummates identification.

In fact, Bataille did not advocate blood sacrifice;100 rather, he found in the logic of sacrifice the key to sovereign existence: an attitude of thought contrary to that of reason, but also enabled by reason. Moreover, sacrifice affirmed for Bataille the dualism outlined above. At once an acknowledgment of separation—of the sacred from the profane, of the sacrificer from the victim—and a movement of fusion, sacrifice seeks to bring the individual as close as possible to death while remaining alive. As Bataille claims, “it is not a question of dying at all but of being transported to the level of death.”101

This failure to obtain a complete identification, an identification that would eradicate all distance and difference, is also the success of the sacrifice. The counter operation, even while seeking to rupture the self in identification with another, or with some image of violence, is yet one that is consummated in failure—the failure actually to die. For Bataille, the loss (p.33) must always be partial; it must fail to achieve a complete and total annihilation. Rather, Bataille's identification is a “little death,” an incomplete destruction. There remains some sense of self, some trace of the subject to experience the joy and horror of dissolution. As he claims in Guilty, “for the individual, partial loss is a means of dying while surviving. It's foolish to try to avoid the horror of loss. At the brink of what can't be borne, desire names this horror as possible. You have to come as close as possible to death. Without flinching. And even, if necessary, flinching.”102 To come as close as possible to death but to fail to die is the sovereign movement of identification. “It means,” says Bataille, “that defeat is success,”103 and the success of this defeat is the experience of joy.

There are many ways in which this impossible congruence of defeat and success may be manifested, but friendship is perhaps the one that most concerned Bataille.104 Friendship is the passion—even the rage—of identification, the truest sacrifice, the manifestation of sovereignty in which intimacy replaces all ties of power and subordination, all traces of prestige and recognition. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen puts it, “sovereignty does not … indicate the external superiority of one man over another, but much more precisely that which forms its intimate condition, that is insubordination”105—the insubordination, I would say, of friendship. Bataille suggests as much when he writes, “… friends until that state of profound friendship where a man abandoned, abandoned by all of his friends, encounters in life the one who will accompany him beyond life, himself without life, capable of free friendship, detached from all ties.”106

If Bataille associates friendship with insubordination and also with mortality, this is because the identification on which friendship relies is itself a sovereign expression of death—that is, the death of the closed, integral self. Bataille claims that the communication of friendship can only take place “through death, with a beyond of beings.” It demands a rupture, a decomposing wound that exceeds one's individual form. It would require, in fact, a kind of rage, a lacerating intensity of passion, issuing in measures of extreme joy and extreme pain. Friendship, says Bataille, is communication that “cannot proceed from one full and intact individual to another. It requires individuals whose separate existence in themselves is risked, placed at the limit of death and nothingness.”107 Friendship is a refusal of the self, and thereby an affirmation of one's own death in the wounding or death of another. Put otherwise, Bataille's friendship is experienced as the return (p.34) to the realm of intimacy, a return to the intimacy beyond the real ties of subordination—the intimacy that an experience at the level of death alone can afford. Friendship enacts that attitude of thought which rejects recognition and seeks to identify with the other, an intercourse between wounded subjects. From these wounds, painful and pleasurable, emanates rage in the form of laughter, “a trembling, a joyous shaking which jolts us with anguish.”108


Bataille sees photographs of horror and responds with ecstasy. But if he laughs in his raptures, it is not because he hovers over the misery of another as a master over a slave who is as good as dead, but because, in a state of extreme “identificatory passion,” Bataille is, for a fleeting moment, at once himself and the other. And if, after years of contemplation, he is able to laugh in the face of such horror, it is because, as Borch-Jacobsen puts it, “laughing with him, at one with his fall and identifying with him, we are dead. We are, like him, other than ourselves, senseless …. We laugh … because we are dead, because we are, laughing, ourselves the dead man.”109 Identifying with the other, our laughter is an experience at the level of death.

This laughter is a fearful thing. It is not, of course, the only response to horror, but it is a response only to horror—and the occasion of an identification in which one's own death becomes a matter of indifference, if only fleetingly. This is a matter of seeing oneself as absent, as already gone, even while staying alive. In identifying with the other who falls into death, laughter discloses one's “ultimate insignificance”; it reveals the sham of recognition. If, as Bataille says, “laughter is first the expression of an intense joy,” it is because joy is always joy in the face of death—and death reveals an absence of meaning, a ridiculous nullity that provokes us, that shakes us out of seriousness, out of the world of work and calculation, reason and recognition.

Referring to Bataille's ecstatic “interior experience,” of which laughter is one expression, Maurice Blanchot emphasizes the profound affirmation Bataille sought to communicate: “The interior experience affirms; it is pure affirmation, and it does nothing but affirm. It does not even affirm itself, (p.35) for then it would be subordinate to itself: it rather affirms affirmation.” He goes on to say that this experience “is the decisive Yes.”110 Significantly, in elaborating the sovereign affirmation expressed in this experience, Blanchot invokes the figure with whom Bataille exhibits an intimacy that culminates in identification: Friedrich Nietzsche. In appropriately paradoxical terms, Blanchot notes the measure of “extreme pain and extreme joy”111 that defines Bataille's ecstasies, and, I would suggest, his relationship with his predecessor, Nietzsche.

This relationship involves a communication not only of Nietzsche's philosophical thought, but also of his experience. And if it is true, as Blanchot claims, that Bataille's “entire work expresses friendship,”112 it is in his intimacy with Nietzsche that some of the contours of Bataille's notion of friendship are most pronounced, and its contradictions most potent. The following chapter will reveal the strange dynamics of this friendship, asking how Bataille's notion of sovereignty not only emerges in relationship to Nietzsche, but is enacted in his identification with the German philosopher. How does the friendship with Nietzsche, at once intimate and fraught with contradiction, dramatize the kind of agonized identification described in Bataille's revision of the Hegelian paradigm? What role does power, crucial to the master–slave dialectic, play in Bataille's reading of Nietzsche? I want to show how, through his sacrificial mode of reading and interpretation, Bataille is able to evoke a monstrous version of Nietzsche—to make of Nietzsche a sacred monster whose laughter is toxic and whose collapse into a powerless madness is, paradoxically, a potent polemical weapon. If Bataille finds in Nietzsche not only a philosophical precursor but also a friend, it is because for him, Nietzsche's texts communicate an experience at once ecstatic and intolerable.


(1.) Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros, trans. Peter Connor (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989), 204–7.

(2.) Bataille, The Tears of Eros, 205.

(3.) Georges Bataille, “Autobiographical Note,” in My Mother, Madame Edwarda, The Dead Man, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Marion Boyars, 1995), 218.

(4.) Bataille, The Tears of Eros, 206.

(5.) In fact, the photos appear in Georges Dumas's Nouveau traitè de pscyhologie (Paris: Fèlix Alcan, 1932), 2:283–86, as James Elkins points out in an unpublished manuscript, “The Most Intolerable Photographs Ever Taken,” 5.

(p.173) (6.) Bataille, The Tears of Eros, 205.

(7.) James Elkins, “The Most Intolerable Photographs Ever Taken,” 12. I take Dumas's description from this account.

(8.) Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 303, n. 2.

(9.) Bataille, The Tears of Eros, 206.

(11.) Ibid., 205.

(12.) Bataille, here and elsewhere, appears to use “reversal” (which implies succession) and “identity” (which implies simultaneity) interchangeably. This problem is addressed by Joseph Libertson, who argues that the “coincidence of simultaneity and succession in Bataille's formulation [of transgression] refers to a fundamental solidarity of prohibition and transgression which underlies their apparent alternation in a temporal perspective.” Proximity: Levinas, Blanchot, Bataille and Communication (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1982), 62.

(13.) The concept of attention will be addressed in chapter 4, in a discussion of Simone Weil. In this regard, the work of Jean-Luc Marion on the “saturated phenomenon” is also instructive. See especially Being Given (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

(14.) Frederic Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 109.

(15.) Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” in A Critique of Pure Tolerance, ed. Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr., and Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), 90.

(16.) In the area of literary theory, Bataille has long been an important figure. Critics and philosophers like Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes not only analyze Bataille, but also put his insights to use. See Kristeva's The Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) and Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975). Through these figures and others—such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze—Bataille has had a profound, if indirect, impact on critical theory and literary studies. Over the past two decades in America, increasing attention has been paid to Bataille's writings themselves, particularly with the introduction of numerous English translations of Bataille's most important works.

(17.) Judith Surkis opens her discussion of Michel Foucault's reading of Bataille by raising this issue: “In August 1963 Critique published an ‘Hommage à Georges Bataille,’ a special issue commemorating the death of its founder. How did the volume's contributors go about the seemingly tricky business of pledging fealty to the philosopher of sovereignty? How did they profess loyalty to, in effect recognize, the sovereign subject known to insistently refuse masterful identity?” Surkis's answer is that the contributors appear “undisturbed by this difficulty.” See “No Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye: Transgression (p.174) and Masculinity in Bataille and Foucault,” in Diacritics 26.2 (1996), 18. The present chapter of this book seeks to go some way in responding to the questions that Surkis raises.

(18.) My discussion below of the concept of “counter operation” will elaborate a certain attitude of thought in Bataille. This discussion is indebted to Denis Hollier's formulation of Bataille's dualist attitude of thought in “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille,” in Bataille: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 59–73.

(19.) Bataille claims, for example, that “ ‘[c]ommunication’ only takes place between two people who risk themselves.” Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche, trans. Bruce Boone (New York: Paragon House, 1992), 20. Chapter 2 will return to the place of risk in Bataille's practice of reading.

(20.) Joseph Libertson, Proximity: Levinas, Blanchot, Bataille and Communication, 64. Libertson is here specifically addressing “the sector of Bataile's text which describes … sacrifice.”

(21.) For a discussion of approaches to Hegel's concept of Aufhebung, see the entry on “Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1967), 3:435–50.

(22.) Jacques Derrida, “From Restricted to General Economy,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 275. Derrida's emphasis.

(23.) Denis Hollier affirms Bataille's simultaneous resemblance to and difference from Hegel when he writes that Bataille was “only ever Hegelian out of a taste for contradiction.” Hollier cited in Bois and Krauss, Formless: A User's Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 68 (emphasis in original).

(24.) Michel Foucault, “A Preface to Transgression,” in Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) 27, 31.

(25.) This is to argue against Foucault, who, alluding to Nietzsche, claims that “transgression opens onto a … world without shadow or twilight, without that serpentine ‘no’ that bites into fruits and lodges their contradictions at their core.” See “A Preface to Transgression,” 29.

(26.) Foucault cites Bataille's Story of the Eye in “A Preface to Transgression,” 39.

(27.) Foucault, “A Preface to Transgression,” 38.

(28.) Suzanne Guerlac discusses the prevalence of transgression in poststructuralist thought in her essay “Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux),” in Diacritics 26, no. 2 (1996), 6. Here she points out that “if there is a single term poststructuralism could not live without—at least within the intellectual circles associated with the review Tel Quel—it is ‘transgression,’ inherited from Bataille.”

(29.) Bataille cited in Derrida's “From Restricted to General Economy,” 274 (my emphasis).

(30.) Derrida, “From Restricted to General Economy,” 275.

(p.175) (31.) Joseph Libertson, Proximity: Levinas, Blanchot, Bataille and Communication, 12. Libertson's comments are within the context of a discussion of homogeneity and heterogeneity as they pertain to Bataille's notion of a “general economy.”

(32.) That Bataille was already engaged in thinking about the problems of mastery is evident, for example, in his 1929–30 essay “The Old Mole and the Prefix Sur,” collected in Visions of Excess, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 32–44.

(33.) For example, Bataille's essay “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” in Yale French Studies 78 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 9–29, is a direct engagement with Kojève, and Bataille cites a lengthy passage from Kojève's lectures as an epigraph to his Theory of Religion (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), in which his development of the notion of the self-conscious individual is patently indebted to Kojève. I discuss this aspect of Bataille's thought later in this chapter.

(34.) Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, assembled by Raymond Queneau, ed. Allan Bloom, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), 3.

(35.) Ibid., 4.

(36.) In the context of Kojève's account, the term “non-natural” applies to a human subject whose desire is directed toward the desire of another human subject. “Natural” denotes the rest of the world—everyday objects and artifacts, animals, and the “I” whose desire is directed toward merely biological satisfactions.

(37.) Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 5.

(38.) Ibid., 7.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) Ibid., 8.

(41.) Ibid., 19.

(42.) Misrecognition (méconnaissance) is a key concept for Jacques Lacan, who was himself so influenced by Kojève as to refer to him as his “master.” For an account of Lacan's discipleship to Kojève, see Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Lacan: The Absolute Master, trans. Douglas Brick (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).

(43.) Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 20.

(44.) Ibid., 21.

(45.) Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 9.

(46.) Ibid., 123.

(47.) Ibid., 123–24. Bataille goes on to claim of Kojève's introduction that “no one today can claim to be educated without having assimilated its contents.” This comment is undoubtedly as serious as it is ironic. While Bataille himself was educated by Kojève's lectures, it is on the point of education—that is, of work that “forms” Man—that Bataille registers resistance, as we will see below.

(p.176) (48.) I situate this section of my work alongside that of Denis Hollier, from whose essay “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille,” I draw the notion of a certain “attitude of thought” in Bataille. Bataille: A Critical Reader, 59–73.

(49.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 124.

(50.) Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 22–24.

(51.) Ibid., 28.

(52.) Ibid., 24.

(53.) Ibid., 17.

(54.) Ibid., 25.

(55.) Ibid.

(56.) Ibid., 25.

(57.) Ibid., 27.

(58.) Ibid., 26.

(59.) Ibid., 28.

(60.) Ibid., 29.

(61.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 40.

(62.) Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 21.

(63.) Ibid., 22–23.

(64.) Ibid., 22.

(65.) Ibid., 22.

(66.) Ibid., 29.

(67.) In his essay “From Restricted to General Economy,” Derrida examines the “sovereign renunciation of recognition” in the writings of Bataille (265). While my argument clearly agrees with Derrida's in its insistence on the displacement of Hegelian recognition, it also differs from his in some respects. Derrida, while rightly distinguishing mastery (“lordship” in this translation) and sovereignty, does not develop what I consider to be the lynchpin of the sovereign operation that counters recognition—namely, identification. In the following chapter I will argue, in a manner that moves beyond Derrida's discussion, that the “renunciation of recognition” is, for Bataille, not only the refusal to be recognized, but also the refusal to recognize others. For a discussion of the renunciation of recognition in Bataille that both resonates and is at odds with Derrida's, see Denis Hollier, “From Beyond Hegel to Nietzsche's Absence,” in On Bataille: Critical Essays, ed. and trans. Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 61–78. My own discussion of misrecognition is indebted to Hollier's analysis, in which the author claims that “if one remembers that Hegel's slavery/master opposition rests on the struggle for recognition, the non-recognition that marks the relationship to Nietzsche is no doubt the condition for getting around this alternative” (70).

(p.177) (68.) Joseph Libertson provides an illuminating discussion of subject formation, alterity, and the place of work as conceived within Bataille's “general economy.” In a manner that underscores Bataille's insistence on exploiting contradiction as a way of refuting the rational logic of the profane world of work, Libertson writes that “Bataille tended to observe and privilege the excessive or heterogeneous aspect of certain objects or contexts. … The phenomenality of these objects, in his eyes, exceeded their capacity of assimilation by a logic of non-contradiction whose principle of coherence was the notion of utility.” Proximity, 9.

(69.) Bataille cites here an etching by Goya on which are inscribed the words: “The sleep of reason produces monsters” (El sueño de la razon produce monstruos). See figure 3.

(70.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 17.

(71.) Ibid., 18.

(72.) Ibid., emphasis in original.

(73.) Ibid., 124.

(74.) Ibid., 27.

(75.) Ibid., 31.

(76.) Ibid., 31.

(77.) Hollier, “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille,” 65.

(78.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 35.

(79.) Ibid., 36.

(80.) Bataille, as I will discuss in chapters 3 and 4, also uses the term “real” in a very different manner, to designate not the profane world of work, but the base materialism that André Breton seeks to evade with his “surreality.”

(81.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 41.

(82.) Hollier, “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille,” 65.

(83.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 43.

(84.) Ibid., 44.

(85.) Hollier, “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille,” 65.

(86.) Ibid., 62.

(87.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 52.

(88.) Ibid., 52.

(89.) Ibid., 110.

(90.) Jacques Derrida offers an investigation of sacrifice and the gift of death that is indebted to Bataille in his book The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). In this text Derrida continues to expand upon his considerations of a “general economy,” as discussed in his 1967 essay on Bataille, “From Restricted to General Economy.”

(91.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 50.

(92.) Ibid., 51.

(93.) Ibid.

(94.) Ibid., 99.

(95.) Bataille, “The Big Toe,” in Visions of Excess, 20–21. Yve-Alain Bois notes the place of rage in Bataille, specifically as it emerges against dialectical thought: “To read into this back and forth movement [from refuse to ideal, and from the ideal to refuse] something like a dialectic at work … would be quite simply to ignore the motif of rage.” See “Dialectic,” in Formless, 69.

(p.178) (96.) Hollier, “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille,” 61.

(97.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 110–11.

(98.) Bataille, Guilty, trans. Bruce Boon (Venice: The Lapis Press, 1988), 104.

(99.) Bataille, Theory of Religion, 53.

(100.) At least, that is, not in his postwar writings, where his early interest in blood sacrifice is displaced by a quest for “inner experience,” in which the inner self is sacrificed. See Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy, 204–5.

(101.) Georges Bataille, “Joy in the Face of Death,” in The College of Sociology (1937–39) 325.

(102.) Bataille, Guilty, 93.

(103.) Ibid., 103.

(104.) In his Politics of Friendship, Jacques Derrida considers the contradictions and tensions within the philosophical tradition of friendship in a manner that recalls Bataille's account of friendship, showing that the tradition is fraught with binaries—such as self and other, friend and enemy—that collapse upon themselves. Politics of Friendship (New York: Verso, 1997).

(105.) Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, “The Laughter of Being,” in Bataille: A Critical Reader, 153.

(106.) Bataille is cited in Maurice Blanchot's Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). My italics. For further discussion of the relationship between friendship and obligation, see Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death.

(107.) Bataille, On Nietzsche, trans. Bruce Boone (New York: Paragon House, 1994), 19.

(108.) Borch-Jacobsen, “The Laughter of Being,” 149.

(109.) Ibid., 164.

(110.) Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 209.

(111.) Ibid., 211.

(112.) Ibid., 211.