Base Materialism: Bataille, Land, and Harry Potter

It’s like some old joke: “What do Bataille, Land and Harry Potter have in common?” Punch line: they cannot speak the name of that “which cannot be named”. Well, of course, this is a ruse, for the truth of it is that they all name it, yet do they? What is materialism? More specifically what is libidinal materialism? Or, closer yet, What is base materialism? And, to top it off: What is more disgusting than asking for the name of Lord Voldemort, he-who-must-not-be-named?  Hyperbole, superbole? A switch and bait routine between high/low, ideal/material, oppositions to the nth… The whole point of this exercise is nothing, nothing at all is represented here; for every name that we use to qualify that which cannot ever be named, because to name it is to distort it, reduce it, qualify it, measure it, bring it under the sway of language and all the oppositional movements of that linguistic atrocity of the reasoning mind. The naming that Bataille performs is closer to the form of an unnaming, a negating of all positing whatsoever, that Basilides the Gnostic long ago performed (Hippolytus):

There was a time, says he, when there was nothing; not even the nothing was there, but simply, clearly, and without any sophistry there was nothing at all. When I say “there was” he says, I do not indicate a being…

Since therefore there was nothing, no matter, no substance, nothing insubstantial, nothing simple, nothing composite, nothing imperceptible (non-subjective), no man, no angel, no god, nothing at all that can be named or can be apprehended by sense-perception, nothing of the mental things and thus (also nothing of all that which can be simply described in even more subtle ways) the non-existent God … without intelligence, without perception, without will, without resolve, without impulse, without desire, wished to make a world. I say “he wished,” he says, for want of a word, wish, intelligence, and perception being excluded. By “world” (I mean) not the flat, divisible world which later divided itself, but the world seed…

This naming that is an unnaming, a negation of all positive knowledge whatsoever, brings us to that which if named is itself an unnamed name, a hyperbolic manifestation of that “which can never be named”. So base materialism exists (but to say ‘exists’ is a falsification) beyond either our idealism or materialism because it is not a positive knowledge, does not exist within the logical tabulations of our mathematical instruments of theory or practice. It is this that divides philosophy from itself, like the fissure over some endless ice-fault, one that separates “the theohumanists” those “croaking together in the cramped and malodorous pond of Anthropos – from the wild beasts of the impersonal” (137).2 As Land, says, continuing:

The former are characterized by their moral fervor, parochialism, earnestness, phenomenological dispositions, and sympathy for folk superstition, the latter by their fatalism, atheism, strangely reptilian exuberance, and extreme sensitivity for what is icy, savage, and alien to mankind. (137)

Benjamin Noys at the end of his essay tells us that Bataille’s “work demands a re-thinking of the very possibility of materialism rather than the production of a new materialism”.1 He finishes somewhat like our he-who-cannot-be-named, saying:

Matter as difference is never stable, and can never remain trapped within the closure of philosophy. The paradoxical result is that we cannot produce a base materialism, we cannot be base materialists, or exist in or as base matter, and the more we specify base materialism the more we cancel it out. (515)

Deleuze warned us time and again of an illusory alternative that Representational thought presents to us:  either there is difference which is a difference of negation (opposition or limitation), or we have to settle for an undifferenciated abyss (a black nothingness).  Deleuze rejects this alternative of either undifferentiated unformed matter or differentiated formed matter. Rather, to find ‘difference’, we must reach a field of unformed matter that is itself, differentiated…

Now we can understand why Bataille found Gnosticism so congenial to his strange movement toward a base materialism, it is something that cannot be represented within the logic of onto-theological discourse; it remains an excess, an “active principle having in its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness, and as evil“(47). 2 (Yet, remember this darkness is more like the gnostic foremother, the tohu-bohu of unformed matter that is already differentiated awaiting the spark to ignite it into existence; and, for Bataile evil is above all “creative action”, the power that instigates and disturbs this darkness.) Against any form of ontology Bataille shreds both idealism and materialism as they have come down to us: those twin and duplicitous cohorts of a war, an agon that has played itself out on a philosophical stage from the beginning. Yet, in such unlikely worlds of a heretical and criminal religion, Gnosticism, we discover in its psychological process, a singular truth: materialism need not imply an ontology of the thing-in-itself. Matter is not bound by the limits of reason, it is an excess that exists beyond my thought, my Ideas of it, and can never be reduced to its ambiguous forms: “…for if I proceeded in that way matter limited by my reason would soon take on the value of a superior principle (which this servile reason would be only to happy to establish above itself,l in order to speak like an authorized functionary)” (51). That is why base matter is external and foreign to idealist discourse, even a material idealism, transcendental materialist or transcendental empiricist; and “it refuses to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations” (51). It is for that reason that a non-representational movement that is neither an inversion of idealism, nor a positive production of a new materialism, breaks free of linguicity and forges links to an “intransigent materialism” that has a “recourse to everything that compromises the powers that be in matters of form, ridiculing the traditional entities, naively rivaling stupefying scarecrows” (51). Too bad that Bataille wasn’t around for the Nobel Prize of 2011:

In 1998, cosmology was shaken at its foundations as two research teams presented their findings. Headed by Saul Perlmutter, one of the teams had set to work in 1988. Brian Schmidt headed another team, launched at the end of 1994, where Adam Riess was to play a crucial role.

The research teams raced to map the Universe by locating the most distant supernovae. More sophisticated telescopes on the ground and in space, as well as more powerful computers and new digital imaging sensors (CCD, Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009), opened the possibility in the 1990s to add more pieces to the cosmological puzzle.

The teams used a particular kind of supernova, called type Ia supernova. It is an explosion of an old compact star that is as heavy as the Sun but as small as the Earth. A single such supernova can emit as much light as a whole galaxy. All in all, the two research teams found over 50 distant supernovae whose light was weaker than expected – this was a sign that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating. The potential pitfalls had been numerous, and the scientists found reassurance in the fact that both groups had reached the same astonishing conclusion.

For almost a century, the Universe has been known to be expanding as a consequence of the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. However, the discovery that this expansion is accelerating is astounding. If the expansion will continue to speed up the Universe will end in ice.

The acceleration is thought to be driven by dark energy, but what that dark energy is remains an enigma – perhaps the greatest in physics today. What is known is that dark energy constitutes about three quarters of the Universe. Therefore the findings of the 2011 Nobel Laureates in Physics have helped to unveil a Universe that to a large extent is unknown to science. And everything is possible again.3

Maybe Harry Potter can tell us about the missing … oh, almost, forgot, that “which cannot be named”. Or should we now say “that which is unknown to science?”

1. Benjamin Noys. Georges Bataille’s Base Materialsm. (Cultural Values Volume 2 1998)
2. Nick Land. The Thirst for Annihilation. (Routledge 1992)
3. Nobel Prize.Org Press Release (here)

2 thoughts on “Base Materialism: Bataille, Land, and Harry Potter

  1. “The snowball is a model for the soul because billions of souls are embedded in it, though none can dominate or even characterize it. In this the snowball is like the humblest soul that ever walked the earth. The rapacious, the raw, are its satellites. It wants you to believe its core is the outermost shell of the universe, which may or may not be true. Each of us has the choice of believing it, but we cannot believe in both things without becoming separated from our core of enigma, which soldiers on in good times and bad, protecting us alike from the consequences of inaction and misguided enthusiasm. The snowball would melt before it would release us from our vows.”
    from “Coma Berenices” by John Ashbery

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  2. “In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only word that must not be used?”

    I thought for a moment. “The word chess,” I replied.

    “Exactly,” Albert said. “The Garden of Forking Paths is a huge riddle, or parable, whose subject is time: that secret purpose forbids Ts’ui Pen the merest mention of its name. To always omit one word, to employ awkward metaphors and obvious circumlocutions, is perhaps the most emphatic way of calling attention to that word.

    – from “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Borges

    Bataille, Land, and Harry Potter walked into a dimly-lit room. “What does one call this sort of establishment?” asked Bataille, perching himself on a stool at one end of the long zinc countertop. “You mean this sort of place?” replied Land as he ordered a Scotch and soda from the man behind the counter. “Right: what is it called, this sort of room?” Potter reiterated, taking his first tentative sip of butterbeer and glancing at the quiddich game being broadcast on the small television mounted high on the wall…

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