Georges Bataille: The Smokestack

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In 1929 Bataille would see in the smokestack the monstrosity of abstraction at the heart of modernity, a disease of the mind that still guides the dreams of those engineers of a posthuman transcendence who seek a future without-us, a future where humans become machinic and enter the ultra-abstractions of an affectless world, indifferent and apathetic. Born of metalloid nightmares of an Idealism run amok: fearful of death, seeking the immortalization of egoistic myths of an outmoded psychology of duration and identity, forgetful of the entropic effect of time that drives it all we wander the Hollywood dreamlands of a bloated and mortuary aestheticism founded on nothing more than the fetid desires to escape ourselves and enter the very abstractions that would deign destroy us. Bataille reminds us of the memories of his childhood:

When I review my own memories, it seems that for our generation, out of all the world’s various objects first glimpsed in early childhood, the most fear-inspiring architectural form was by no means the church, however monstrous, but rather certain large smokestacks, true channels of communication between the ominously dull, threatening sky and the muddy, stinking earth surrounding the textile and dye factories.

Today, when the truly wretched aesthete, at a loss for objects of admiration, has invented the contemptible “beauty” of the factory, the dire filth of those enormous tentacles appears all the more revolting; the rain puddles at their feet, the empty lots, the black smoke half-beaten down by the wind, the piles of slag and dross are the sole true attributes of those gods of a sewer Olympus. I was not hallucinating when, as a terrified child, I discerned in those giant scarecrows, which both excited me to the point of anguish and made me run sometimes for my life, the presence of a fearful rage. That rage would, I sensed, later become my own, giving meaning to everything spoiling within my own head and to all that which, in civilized states, looms up like carrion in a nightmare. I am, of course, not unaware that for most people the smokestack is merely the sign of mankind’s labor, and never the terrible projection of that nightmare which develops obscurely, like a cancer, within mankind. Obviously one does not, as a rule, continue to focus on that which is seen as the revelation of a state of violence for which one bears some responsibility. This childish or untutored way of seeing is replaced by a knowing vision which allows one to take a factory smokestack for a stone construction forming a pipe for the evacuation of smoke high into the air-which is to say, for an abstraction. Now, the only possible reason for the present dictionary is precisely to demonstrate the error of that sort of definition.

It should be stressed, for example, that a smokestack is only very tentatively of a wholly mechanical order. Hardly has it risen toward the first covering cloud, hardly has the smoke coiled round within its throat, than it has already become the oracle of all that is most violent in our present-day world, and this for the same reason, really, as each grimace of the pavement’s mud or of the human face, as each part of an immense unrest whose order is that of a dream, or as the hairy, inexplicable muzzle of a dog. That is why, when placing it in a dictionary, it is more logical to call upon the little boy, the terrified witness of the birth of that image of the immense and sinister convulsions in which his whole life will unfold, rather than the technician, who is necessarily blind.1

The image of the blind technician of modernity is the frayed shadow cast upon futurity by that first lord of time, the Demiurge, the blind artisan and potter of this dementia we all now live in… and, this, too, is illusion. As Bataille would define it most materialists have been hoodswinked by Idealism:

Most materialists, even though they may have wanted to do away with all spiritual entities, ended up positing an order of things whose hierarchical relations mark it as specifically idealist. They situated dead matter at the summit of a conventional hierarchy of diverse facts, without perceiving that in this way they gave in to an obsession with the ideal form of matter, with a form that was closer than another to what matter should be. Dead matter, the pure idea, and God in fact answer a question in the same way… a question that can only be posed by philosophers, the question of the essence of things, precisely of the idea by which things become intelligible. (Visions of Excess, p. 15)

Against Plato, formalism and humanism among other illusions Bataille would turn toward base matter borne of a teratology of the uniqueness and monstrosity of humanity, and the derisive indifference of the natural in man and Nature that defines us as unique celebrants of this monstrous universe of catastrophe and collapse.


  1. October 36: Georges Bataille – Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-Knowing – Spring 1986 by Douglas; Krauss, Rosalind; Michelson, Annette Crimp (Author)

4 thoughts on “Georges Bataille: The Smokestack

  1. Where is the great architecture of today? Have the ‘bean counters’ sucked all the aesthetics out of it in the name of functionality and cost? Have the great cathedrals and civic buildings with their magnificent sculptures, columns and facades been replaced by the Golden Arches of McDonald’s and the box store fashion of Walmart?

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