Georges Bataille: The Intimacy of the Sacred

Today I kept thinking back to those lectures by Alexandre Kojève on Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit that he presented to the world from 1930 to 1939. Most of the major intellectuals of the era would attend these lectures: Jean-Paul Sartre, Jaques Lacan, Georges Bataille, Simone Weil, etc.. Below I discuss Bataille’s relation to and against Hegel’s dialectic, and his own preference for a non-dialectical and formless thought based on immanence over transcendence, sacred over profane thought: and, the return of the intimate order of immediacy.

Warning: Up front… this post is more specialist. If you’re not versant with Hegel or Bataille you might want to pass. It would take me a great deal of time to set the stage for the conflicts between the two thinkers approaches. This one deals with a specific reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as seen through Alexandre Kojève’s lectures. So if you’re not well read in these areas I’d just pass by on this one… 🙂 I make no qualms about it. I’m jumping into the midst of the argument rather than setting it up with a lengthy explanatory opening…

We know that 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 labour, 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).

The point being that as the slave transforms the world of objective things he creates the conditions that spawn within him the revolutionary need for recognition, etc.. Having once been a slave to the terror of death (from the Master and the Natural World), this slave, through work, creates a world that is the reflection of his own most 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.

It’s in this notion of formalism, of self-reflecting objectification through work of a substantial formalism, and the objectifying self-reflection of spirit in the objects of its labours that will of course intrigue Marx later on to reverse this into his own modes… that is another story.

The story I want to relate – more as a spur to thought, than a thought itself is Georges Bataille’s acceptance of aspects of this and rejection of others. Bataille, along with a whole generation of other thinkers from 1930 onward would attend these lectures by Kojeve. But unlike many of the others Bataille would argue against the dialectic in favor of a non-dialectical approach which would exclude both the notion of Hegel’s “recognition,” and his notion of “sublatiion” or synthesis.

Bataille in his Theory of Religion will see in Death, neither a Master nor the driving force of terror shaping human productivity, rather he will speak of “death’s definitive impotence and absence”. (40) Doing so Bataille refuses Hegel’s movement of recognition and its drive toward a telos of final satisfaction or synthesis, replacing it with the “logic of identification and unsatisfied desire”.1 Instead of following Hegel, Bataille just at the point where Hegel’s self-negation kicks in and the path toward recognition would be forged, truncates this and enacts a contrary movement, a movement opposed to this self-perfecting elaboration of objective spirit into absolute knowledge. Rather, Bataille will see in the moment of wavering between the state of being a slave but not yet a master is the liminal zone of the sacred monstrum.

Whereas for Kojève there is liberation into self-recognition, autonomy, and satisfaction; for Bataille self-negation entails no ultimate telos, no goal, no satisfaction – and, rather than the Hegelian logic of recognition there is the logic of identification and the agonistic war of desire interminable. (24) As Biles relates it the Kojèvean master/slave dialectic (his reading of Hegel) is replaces by Bataille with the dualistic opposition or agon of the sacred and profane, the “world of animal immanence and the human world of technology and transcendence” (25). As Biles suggests Bataille will undo the “Hegelian synthesis through a maintenance of antinomies” (25).

Bataille seeks to erase the goal of transcendence and return us to the animalistic immanence of the monstrous sacred where we reenter the world like “water in water” (TOR, 19), a realm of “pure immanence” and continuity.2 For Bataille self-consciousness was neither a mistake as some assume, nor an error but rather a product of thought and distinction. Self-consciousness arose out of utilitarian production of tools for use in hunting and gathering, and the very construction of tools and the knowledge of their use would in turn rearrange the ways we defined our modes of being in the world. As Bataille would say it “the  day we  see  our­ selves  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.”(TOR, 31).

Yet, unlike Kojève’s Hegel who would impart self-consciousness as the great liberator that shaped the course of history, time, and self-negating mastery over nature and civilization, Bataille would remark that this “bringing  of  elements  of  the  same  nature  as  the
s ubject,  or  the  subject itself, onto  the  plane  of objects is always  precarious, uncertain,  and  unevenly  realized”.(TOR, 31). Bataille would hold forth that rather than overcoming our ancient animal heritage in some liberation of self-negation and self-relating consciousness and mastery that we are rather situated in the gap between continuity and discontinuity, bound to neither a world of pure mastery and self-overcoming nor to the escape back into the natural oblivion of pure immanence. Instead we are in the negation of negation, caught between two antagonistic worlds, two powers to which we suffer in pure terror and ecstasy.

One remembers Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus where they ask,

(What if one became animal or plant through literature, which certainly does not mean literarily? Is it not first through the voice that one becomes animal?)

Their point being that Literature is an assemblage. It has nothing to do with ideology. There is no ideology and never has been. All we talk about are multiplicities, lines, strata and segmentarities, lines of flight and intensities, machinic assemblages and their various types, bodies without organs and their construction and selection, the plane of consistency, and in each case the units of measure. (TP, KL 295) It would take me too far afield to tease out the meanings in this passage, let us only mark the notion of a “plane of consistency”:

The plane of consistency (grid) is the outside of all multiplicities. The line of flight marks: the reality of a finite number of dimensions that the multiplicity effectively fills; the impossibility of a supplementary dimension, unless the multiplicity is transformed by the line of flight; the possibility and necessity of flattening all of the multiplicities on a single plane of consistency or exteriority, regardless of their number of dimensions. (TP, KL 389-392)

This flattening into the plane of consistency is Bataille’s pure immanence: “In  a  sense,  the  world  is  still,  in  a  fundamental  way, immanence without  a  clear  limit  (an  indistinct  flow  of being  into  being – one  thinks  of the  unstable presence  of water  in  water).” (TOR, 33). For Bataille it is this movement or tendency from the pure plane of immanence toward the profane world of work and utility in which the logic of recognition and satisfaction are the outcome, and the counter-operation of a tendency or disposition toward an undoing and logic of identification and antagonistic desire seeks the path of immanence in the sacred rather than transcendence in the secular order of culture and civilization that is precarious and uncertain, a wavering between ecstasy and horror.

Yet, as Biles maintains the return to immanence is not an exact reduplication of animality, not a return of the Same, but rather to a world that coexists with the profane world rather than obliterating it or erasing it in an eliminative gesture. Instead of  Kojève’s path of mastering animality and one’s transition to “autonomy,” Bataille seeks to undo and cut the ties to the telos logic of the slave/master dialectic altogether through an evasion of goals and final mastery by entering the sacred realm of immanence. Yet, to attain this is for Bataille to understand what Sacrifice entails:

The  principle  of sacrifice  is  destruction,  but though  it sometimes  goes  so  far  as  to  destroy  comp1etely  (as  in  a holocaust),  the  destruction  that  sacrifice  is  intended  to bring  about  is  not  annihilation.(TOR, 43).

Instead of annihilation, “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.” (TOR, 43) In this way we can tie this notion of Bataille with the recent work of Andrew Culp’s whose rehabilitation of the destructive force of negativity by cultivating a “hatred for this world,” offers us a parallel to the ongoing malaise we find ourselves in within our current social, cultural, political dissatisfaction with neoliberal globalism.4 The world Culp is speaking of is not the literal planetary or natural continuum but rather the artificial Human Security Regimes of our global neoliberal order within which we are all enslaved in the master/slave dialectic. As Culp argues,

[the] politics of destruction, which has too long been mistaken for deliberation but is instead exemplified by the war machines of popular insurrection whose success is registered by the streets themselves— consider the words of the Invisible Committee in To Our Friends: “Like any specific strike, it is a politics of the accomplished fact. It is the reign of the initiative, of practical complicity, of gesture. As to decision, it accomplishes that in the streets, reminding those who’ve forgotten, that ‘popular’ comes from the Latin populor, ‘to ravage, devastate.’ It is a fullness of expression  .  .  . and a nullity of deliberation”. By showing the nondurability of what is taken as real, so-called reality itself, communist politics is a conspiracy that writes the destruction of the world. (DD, KL 502-508)

Yet, unlike Culp who seeks a popular insurrection against the Master’s, Bataille offers another path of evasion that seeks to destroy our ties to the Master/Slave dialectic altogether and cut our subordination to the logics of work and utilitarian modes of being; instead, for Bataille we must separate ourselves out, escape the very terms the Master’s have imposed on us, seek to destroy the ties that have bound us to their logic before we can return to the “intimacy” of the sacred.

I quote below an extended passage on this intimate return to the sacred:

The  major weakness  of dualism  is  that it  offers  no  legitimate  place  for  violence  except  in  the  moment  of pure transcendence, of rational exclusion of the sensuous
world. But the divinity of the good cannot be maintained at that degree of purity; indeed, it falls back into the sen­suous world. It is the object, on the part of the believer, of a search for intimate communication, but this thirst for intimacy will  never be quenched.  The good is an exclu­sion of violence and there can be no breaking of the order of separate things, no intimacy, without violence; the god of goodness is limited by right to the violence with which he  excludes  violence,  and  he  is  divine,  open  to  intimacy, only  insofar as  he  in  fact preserves  the  old  violence within him,  which he  does  not  have  the  rigor to  exclude,  and to this  extent he  is  not the god  of reason, which  is  the  truth of  goodness.  In theory this  involves  a  weakening  of  the moral divine  in  favor of evil. (TOR, 80-81).

It is the violence against subordination to the profane power of the Master’s authority and world of the profane that opens us to the relations of intimacy:

In  the  divine  disorder of crime,  I  call  for the violence  that will restore the destroyed order. But in real­ity  it  is not  violence  but  crime that  has  opened  divine intimacy  to  me.  And,  insofar  as  the  vengeance  does  not become  an  extension of the irrational  violence  of  the crime,  it  will  quickly close  that  which  crime  opened.  For only  vengeance  that  is  commanded  by passion  and  a taste for untrammeled  violence  is  divine. The  restoration of the lawful  order is  essentially subordinated to  profane  reality. (TOR, 81).

The destroyed order is that of the order of intimacy itself. “Through medi­ation  the real  order is  subordinated to the search for lost intimacy,  but  the  profound  separation  between  intimacy and  things  is  succeeded  by a  multiplicity  of confusions.” (TOR, 84-85) Yet, it is this maintaining of the “disorder of things” that is Bataille’s strategy:

Under the sover­eignty of morality, all  the operations  that claim to ensure the  return  of the  intimate  order  are  those  that the  real world  requires:  the  extensive  prohibitions  that are  given as the precondition for  the return are aimed  primarily at preserving the disorder of the world of things. (TOR, 85)

Ultimately not only are the violences that morality condemns set free on all sides, but a  tacit debate  is  initiated between the works of salvation, which serve  the  real  order, and those  works  that  escape or evade it…

I’ll need to return to this in a new post to describe the notions of Death, Sacrifice, Intimacy, and Evasion in more depth, but that is for another day.

  1. Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University, 2007)
  2. Bataille, Georges, Theory of Religion. (Zone Books, 1989)
  3. Gilles Deleuze; Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus (Kindle Locations 294-295). A&C Black. Kindle Edition.
  4. Culp, Andrew. Dark Deleuze (Forerunners: Ideas First) (Kindle Locations 73-74). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.


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