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Bataille, Aesthetics, Erotics, and the Real

Lecturer: Tim Themi

Originally Taught: Winter School 2018

These lectures explore the development of Bataille’s interventions into aesthetics and his linking of it to an erotics and a heterogenous real. We introduce his definitive philosophical texts and examine them alongside his commentaries on various artistic works––including his own––from dissident surrealism to the cave paintings of Lascaux. The aim will be to theorise a possible criterion for aesthetics based on Bataille’s many fascinating oeuvres in it as both a creative artist and a rigorous scholar.

Course Schedule

1. Genealogy of Erotics through Taboo & Transgression

This lecture explores the history of the taboo-transgression relation outlined in Bataille’s culminating works. It documents our shifting structures of jouissance, or enjoyment of transgression, through four historical epochs: the initial Palaeolithic transition from animal to human, the flourishing of the archaic-classical Greek, and the eventual condescension of the Christian and the modern. We enumerate the consequences of these shifts for an ethics, erotics, and aesthetics, and look at one of Bataille’s novellas and his commentary on it as an analytical example. Readings discussed include Bataille’s Madame Edwarda (1941); The Accursed Share Vol II: History of Eroticism (1950); “Preface to ‘Madame Edwarda’ (1956)”; Eroticism (1957); and The Tears of Eros (1961).

2. Psychoanalysis, Formal Linguistics, & Story of the Eye

With a basic framework of Bataille’s thought established, this lecture returns to Bataille’s initial and most famous literary work, the surrealist Story of the Eye of the late 1920s. We explore its later discussion from a linguistics perspective by Roland Barthes, but also from a psychoanalytic perspective by Bataille himself making use of his sessions with Adrien Borel, the analyst he sought treatment from in the same period. Lacan’s formal interventions into psychoanalysis and Bataille’s later writings on De Sade are also used to frame the violence of the text. Readings include Bataille’s Story of the Eye (1928); “W.C. Preface to Story of the Eye from Le Petit (1943);” “De Sade’s Sovereign/Normal Man” (1957)”; Lacan’s “Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud (1957)”; Barthes’ “Metaphor of the Eye (1963)”; and Lacan’s Seminar XI, Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964).

3. Dissident Surrealism, Lascaux Caves, & Nietzsche’s Accursed Sovereignty

Heading into 1930, this lecture explores Bataille’s editorship of the art journal Documents which gathers all the surrealists with whom surrealist founder, André Breton, had fallen out. We examine Bataille’s reputed transformation of the question of aesthetics from this polemical period, and contextualise its critique of beauty and the high-low distinction in terms of his later captivation with Palaeolithic art. We also situate Bataille’s critique in light of earlier interventions into aesthetics made by Nietzsche, whose life for Bataille attains an accursed sovereignty itself akin to a great work. Readings include Bataille’s “Big Toe,” “Formless,” “Rotten Sun,” “The Language of Flowers” and “Base Materialism,” in Documents (1929-31); On Nietzsche (1945); Accursed Share, Vol III: Sovereignty (1953); Lascaux, or the Birth of Art (1955); and The Cradle of Humanity: Pre-historic Art and Culture (2009).

4. Positive Surrealism, Modernism, & Nietzsche’s Affirming Psychoanalysis

This lecture considers Bataille’s positive reappraisal of surrealism after the war by linking its techniques of free-association to the modernist concern for the new. We explore the continuities and discontinuities between Nietzsche and Freud at the interface of philosophy with the birth of psychoanalysis, both of whom exerted a profound influence on the cultural modernism of which Bataille and surrealism were part. We consider how Bataille’s emphasis on Nietzsche enables a space for a more affirming psychoanalysis, which can naturally flow on to stabilise a more positive criterion for a new aesthetics. Readings include Bataille’s “On the Subject of Slumbers (1946)”; “The Absence of Myth (1947)”; “Notes on the Publishing of ‘Un Cadavre (1947-)’”; “The Surrealist Religion (1948)”; “Surrealism and How It Differs from Existentialism (1948)”; and Paul-Laurent Assoun’s Freud and Nietzsche (1980).

5. Literature, Poetry, Promises of Happiness & Evil

The course concludes with Bataille’s mature reflections on literature, many of them published in the scholarly journal Critique he edited after the war until his death in 1962. Bataille’s final formulation of the taboo-transgression relation, linked to two very different promises of happiness and a complicity with evil––particularly in poetic literature––will be found as central to his vision for the arts as a whole. Lacan’s epistemic triad of the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real will also be adopted to augment Bataille’s placing of art as separately included in the world as happily heterogenous. Readings include Bataille’s “André Masson” (1946); “From the Stone Age to Jacques Prévert (1946)”; “Happiness, Eroticism, and Literature (1949)”; “René Char and the Force of Poetry (1953)”; “Emily Brontë” and “William Blake,” in Literature and Evil (1957); and Lacan’s Seminar XXIII, The Sinthome (1976).

Primary literature: Several of Bataille’s contributions to the Documents journal are in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings (1927-39). Many of his post-war articles on literature are in The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism. Bataille’s other primary texts are readily available from the usual outlets, with his 1957 Eroticism forming the most accessible summation of his key themes.

Secondary literature: Mark Hewson, Marcus Coelen, eds., Georges Bataille: Key Concepts (2016). Tim Themi, “Bataille and the Erotics of the Real,” Parrhesia: Journal of Critical Philosophy 24 (2015): 312-35 (open access,

Level of Difficulty: Introductory/Intermediate