A Critique of Baudrillard and a Prolegomena to Any Future Bataillean Metaphysics



The sun’s energy ravages me. My hair begins to stand. My body shivers. My motivation and inspiration is lost, so back to theory and critique.

I have just read Passion & Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory by Steven Shaviro and his words on Bataille strike me.

I fade away in the music, like Nietzsche I hear. Shivers are sent down my spine. The vocals make my brain melt. I have no faith in God in the moment I lose myself. Though, I am not the typical atheist.

What particularly interests me about Shaviro’s book are his writings on Baudrillard.

Baudrillard’s Critique of Bataille

In my essay Solar Econ 101 (see above), I examined Baudrillard’s charges of naturalism in Bataille and again extended Bataille’s axiomatic cosmology of solar economics against Baudrillard.

After reading Passion & Excess, I have found more ways to do this.

Shaviro gives a rundown of the critique of Bataille that Baudrillard makes in When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy. I will provide my own. Basically, Baudrillard sees excess not as a real or natural phenomena, but rather as a product of symbolic exchange.[1] Quite simply, I see no issue with what Bataille has put forward. Bataille is putting forward something wrapped in metaphysics. Though, throughout all of my time with Bataille, I have never extracted a metaphysics. Some things seemed too simple to be true. Shaviro says that there is a “[m]etaphysical ambiguity that haunts Bataille” and I couldn’t agree more.[2]

For Shaviro, “Bataille cannot avoid a metaphysics of energy” and this is also true.[3]

The issue is that for Bataille, matter is energy and it is also base.[4] So Bataille’s metaphysics is a metaphysics of base matter. Yes, and this where the contradiction ensues. For Bataille, base matter cannot be used for a metaphysic. So, is that the end? Is Bataille’s inability to have a metaphysics mean Baudrillard’s critique of his metaphysical presuppositions (which he cannot prove) refute Bataille’s general economy (and therefore his entire system (according to certain interpretations such as Hegarty’s in Georges Bataille: Core Cultural Theorist or Richman’s Reading Georges Bataille: Beyond the Gift)) in favor of Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange? This is ironically wishful thinking for someone as cynical as Baudrillard. Through my interpretation of Shaviro’s Bataille, Stoekl’s Bataille, and Land’s Bataille, I will provide the possibility for a Bataillean metaphysics.

Prolegomena to Any Future Bataillean Metaphysics

Bataille’s metaphysics is a metaphysics of energy and expenditure. Looking at Shaviro’s Bataille, there are two types of expenditure: expenditure which escapes representational (primary expenditure) and then expenditure which is representational (secondary expenditure).[5] Entities “are represented in terms of the intrinsic energies that constitute or invest them”.[6] Representation is homogeneous. It is this secondary expenditure which stabilizes existence, allowing it to be represented as homogeneous. This is possible because secondary expenditure is conservative, restricted. In primary expenditure, all entities and their representation are “annihilated” or dissolved, and they fall back into the dynamically unstable and incomprehensible heterogeneous existence. Just like Kant’s noumena, we cannot comprehend heterogeneous matter, but we can apprehend it i.e., we can “know” “about” it, yet we cannot “know” it.

“Expenditure has no proper essence, and no place within Being. It exceeds the formulations of metaphysics and ontology no less than the circuits of the capitalist economy”.[7] We can again apply the summit and decline model (and therefore also the model of the general economy) to our current conversation of a potential Bataillean metaphysics.

It is in expenditure’s decline that representation becomes the “privileged expression” of existence.[8] In this way, we can say that once primary expenditure becomes secondary expenditure (i.e. the process of decline from the summit is taking place) things start to become conceptualized and homogeneous existence can be comprehended in utility. As we ascend toward the peak, reality starts to break down. Once at the peak, the subject and its object of experience are utterly annihilated and go back into the mode of primary expenditure where they dissolve into “the solar energy flow”.[9]

Communication contra Symbolic Exchange

Even if I cannot establish a Bataillean metaphysics, and I will try in the future, this still doesn’t mean that Baudrillard is right. Again, like I said in Solar Econ 101, Bataille’s solar economics is naturalist. Land and I both hold the position that this is no reason to object to Bataille’s solar economics.[10]

“‘Excess energy’ does not come from the sun (from nature)” Baudrillard declares![11] For Baudrillard, excess energy comes from “a continual overbidding in exchange — a symbolic process legible in Mauss, not that of the gift (this is the naturalist mysticism into which Bataille falls), but that of the counter-gift — the sole, veritably symbolic process and one which effectively implicates death as a kind of maximal excess — but not as individual ecstasy, always as maximal principle of social exchange”.[12] So for Baudrillard, the issue with Bataille is that the gift always leads to a counter-gift which happens in symbolic exchange.

Baudrillard’s latter argument is based on the idea that the gift invokes the counter-gift and we can see that this interpretation is correct as Baudrillard emphasizes reciprocity in symbolic exchange and even says verbatim “the unilateral gift does not exist”.[13] This is where Baudrillard starts and falls. Shaviro puts forward a great Bataillean response to Baudrillard’s argument. Shaviro, like Bataille, starts with communication.

For Bataille, we “wholly exist in communication (see my essays above for more nuance on communication than I will provide in this essay). Communication for Bataille isn’t “the passing of a neutral message between the poles of sender and receiver”.[14]

Communication is when two isolated beings, who are always on the edge of falling into the nothingness which is their exterior, come together in communion (hence communication) and risk themselves for (giving themselves) the other. Think of two lovers coming together in a kiss. Shaviro sees a laceration within communication. We are lacerated when we are isolated for Bataille, and we, being cut, give a piece of ourselves to the other (again, we give ourselves to the other). Shaviro, with great exposition, says, “I give myself over to the other, give him/her a gift which cannot be reciprocated because the “me” who would receive in return is no longer the one who initially gave”.[15] There is no reciprocity either, as “such a gift cannot even obligate the recipient, since he/she cannot hold onto it as property but is instead radically changed by receiving it, therefore unable to inscribe it in an economic register of debts and assets, profit and loss”.[16] This means that the unilateral gift does in fact exist, thwarting Baudrillard’s claim that it doesn’t. Communication isn’t reducible to symbolic exchange either. In fact, “[c]ommunication is disequilibrating and irreversible, hence irreducible to Lévi-Strauss’s, Lacan’s, and Baudrillard’s notions of ‘symbolic exchange’.[17]

In this way, we can say that Bataille’s general economy is not superseded, preceded, or exceeded by Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange, rather it is the other way around.

Again, like I said in my essay Solar Econ 101 (see above), it seems as if Baudrillard has poorly read Bataille.

Production and the Hyperreal

The last of Shaviro’s remarks on Baudrillard has to do more with critiquing Baudrillard and less with coming from the position of Bataille, but I find this interesting and so I will analyze it here.

Baudrillard holds that he has escaped the mirror of production, i.e the logic of production, and does not reinscribe the capitalist myth of productivism or production as the primary object of economic study (restricted economics) like Marx does. Baudrillard views post-modern society as one which supersedes the logic of production that, like I just said, “Marx saw as the primary feature of classical capitalism”.[18] Shaviro sees our hyperreal (post-modern) society and the logic of production which Marx analysed as “closely coordinated”.[19] He believes these two aforementioned logics are “neither incompatible nor mutually independent”[20] for 2 reasons:

  1. “Western prosperity rests on hyper-exploitation in the Third World”.[21]
  2. “Real commodity production and hyperreal simulation are alike forms under which heterogeneity is rendered ‘present’ and active. They are deployed in turn as strategies for averting catastrophic expenditure and reducing social life to universal necessity and serivility… [t]hat is to say, in both of these modes capitalism rationalizes society and nature by assigning them a head”.[22]

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy.” Translated by Stuart Kendall. Jean BAUDRILLARD, When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of the Economy, translated by Stuart KENDALL. Scapegoat, September 3, 2013. http://www.scapegoatjournal.org/docs/05/SG_Excess_044-049_F_Baudrillard.pdf.

Land, Nick. The thirst for annihilation: Georges Bataille and virulent nihilism: an essay in atheistic religion. Routledge, 1992.

Shaviro, Steven. Passion & Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory. Florida State University Press, 1990.

Stoekl, Allan. Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.


[1–3]: Steven Shaviro, Passion & Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory (Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Press, 1990), 49.

[4]: Allan Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 3. Note: Asger Sorenson says something similar to this in his essay on Bataille’s economics and I covered this essay extensively in my essay Solar Econ 101 (see above).

[5–6]: Steven Shaviro, Passion & Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory (Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Press, 1990), 50.

[7–8]: Ibid., 66–67.

[9]: Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism (an Essay in Atheistic Religion) (London, UK: Routledge, 1992), 88.

[10]: Ibid., 213.

[11–13]: Jean Baudrillard, “When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy,” trans. Stuart Kendall, Jean BAUDRILLARD, When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of the Economy, translated by Stuart KENDALL (Scapegoat, September 3, 2013), http://www.scapegoatjournal.org/docs/05/SG_Excess_044-049_F_Baudrillard.pdf, 47.

[13–16]: Steven Shaviro, Passion & Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory (Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Press, 1990), 94.

[17–22]: Ibid., 58.

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille