Georges Bataille is one of the great heterodox figures of modern thought, and a source of inspiration for Blanchot, Foucault, Derrida and many others. His career leads him from surrealism to pornography, from the analysis of fascist politics to the journal of a mystic experience, from a critique of economics to a theory of religion. This course will trace this itinerary, focussing on the more philosophical writings, especially the semi-autobiographical works, Inner Experience and Guilty. The course will also look at Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on political community, which takes its point of departure from Bataille.
Early life: Bataille’s participation in the surrealist movement, his work as editor of Documents, and his novella The Story of the Eye.
In order to give a historical perspective, we will consider the early Nietzsche, especially The Birth of Tragedy. In the idea of the Dionysian, as a challenge to the modern liberal democratic culture, we can see anticipations of certain ideas developed by the surrealists, and even more by Bataille.
The main focus will be on the theoretical texts of the 1930s, in which Bataille first developed his own philosophical concerns: “The Psychological Structure of Fascism”: “The Use-Value of D.A.F. Sade” and especially, “The Notion of Expenditure”.
The encounter with Hegel: we will discuss the lectures on Hegel by Alexander Kojève in the 1930s, which exercised a great influence over French thought in 30s and 40s, and over Bataille in particular. We will then read some of the texts, now included in Guilty as a kind of theoretical appendix, in which Bataille engages directly with the position that emerges from Kojève’s lectures: the letter to Kojève on ‘unemployed negativity’ and the fragments on ‘knowledge, effectuation and questioning’ and on ‘the opposition of man and nature’. We will also introduce Derrida’s analysis of the relation between Bataille and Hegel in ‘Restricted and general economy’ in Writing and Difference.
Bataille’s publishing and other activities in the 1930s: the formation of the anti-fascist group Contre-Attaque, the production of the journal Acéphale (and the formation of a secret society under the same name), and then the lecture-series known as the College of Sociology.
We will then go on to study Guilty, a kind of journal of a mystic experience, a ‘spiritual adventure’ at any rate, dating from 1939-1940. This work will enable us to work towards an understanding of the particular ethos that characterizes Blanchot’s thought. In weeks 3 and 4, we will consider a series of topics and concepts in which Bataille condenses this ethos: contestation, non-knowledge, communication, ecstasy – and study the contrast in which Bataille places them to religion, poetry and the aesthetic, as limited forms of the same experience.
This week will continue many of the themes of week 3, studying Inner Experience, a text which, like Guilty, combines philosophical meditation and personal narration in a unique diary-like form. The lecture will follow the movement of the journal, studying certain sections in detail, and discussing their ambiguous status, the mixture of philosophy, religious experience and confession. Themes to be discussed include anguish and laughter, singularity and community, birth and chance, and others.
We will conclude by discussing some of the wider social and historical themes taken up in The Accursed Share and The Theory of Religion. These works are closer to the format of the argument, and return to some of the social themes first developed in texts such as “The Notion of expenditure”. Themes include religion, sacrifice, the gift, transgression, festival and the place of expenditure and waste in economic systems. We will consider also Jean-Luc Nancy’s approach to the themes of individuality and community in Bataille (Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community).
“The Notion of Expenditure” (in Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939) is a good introduction to key themes of Bataille’s thought. Those wishing to do further preparatory reading could make a start on Guilty or Inner Experience, or read some of Bataille’s literary works, such as The Story of the Eye, Madame Edwarda or Blue of Noon.
Level of Difficulty: Introductory