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Georges Bataille and the Intoxication of Destruction

Lecturer: Erin K Stapleton

Originally Taught: Summer School 2018

All thought is immoral. Its very essence is destruction.
- Oscar Wilde

This course explores the idea that destruction is, somewhat paradoxically, the foundational operation of culture. Beginning with the premise of entropic materiality, where the matter that cultural artefacts are formed from—and indeed all matter —is prone to deterioration: from the form (either as it appears, or the form we impose upon it) to formlessness, these lectures will map Bataille’s philosophical approaches to operations of destruction, in a mode not unlike Bataille’s own idiosyncratic and transdisciplinary approach, using a collection of cultural artefacts to illuminate each iteration. 

The course will begin by discussing Bataile’s approach to destruction and intoxication by investigating the influence of Nietzsche and other thinkers on Bataille in order to establish a theoretical framework through which to understand destructive modes in human culture. We will then discuss the relationship between architectural destruction and extinction in apocalypse narratives in the intoxicating premise of the destruction of the world. In the following session, we will discuss Bataille’s model of communication, in which the illusion of the cohesive self is put at risk for the sake of producing community, while the absence of communication produces a radical form of alienation from culture. We will then discuss Bataille’s anthropological understanding of social exchange through potlatch, sacrifice and execution, with a focus on the desire to eliminate waste in the form of execution, and in opposition, the excessive possibilities for transgression in erotic experience. The final session will focus on the archive, and the tension between the preservation of culture, and the necessary, destructive absence of that which has been excluded from the cultural record, the process of which is further complicated both by contemporary new materialist thought, and the disruption of digitalisation.

Suggested Pre-Reading:

  • Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share Vols. 1-3, The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge & Erotism: Death and Sensuality.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
  • Paolo Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age
  • Claire Colebrook, Death of the Posthuman & Sex After Life

Suggested further reading for each subsequent session will be indicated in lectures.

Course Schedule

Each two-hour session is structured around a loose dialectical relation, where the second destruction reverses the position of the first in the following pairings:

Destruction 1: A Theory of Destruction

Lecture 1 - The Impulse to Immortality

Lecture 2 - The Economy of Expenditure

Destruction 2: The World

Lecture 3 - Extinction: The Last Man and the Other Island

Lecture 4 - Exploding Monuments: Architecture

Destruction 3: Identity

Lecture 5 - Self-Destruction

Lecture 6 - Radical Alienation

Destruction 4: Bodies

Lecture 7 - Execution: Death without Waste

Lecture 8 - Eroticism and Transgression

Destruction 5: Art

Lecture 9 - Art and the Archive: How not to live forever

Lecture 10 - The Destroyers: Immortality, and Art as Self-Preservation