A Response to Jürgen Habermas’s Critique of Georges Bataille
I want to line out Habermas’s critical comments on Georges Bataille one by one and then let Andrew Stein give elaboration on each one, then I will, with the help of Andrew Stein rebut each critique.
So, let’s start with the first critique. Andrew Stein is right when he says that Habermas’s main critique of Bataille is “Bataille’s notion of sovereignty” and its supposed “ahistorical” nature. This is evidenced when Habermas says, “the question arises as to how Bataille would explain the revolutionary transition from the cooled-off, totally reified society to a renewal of sovereignty”; “[Bataille] must explain two things: for one, the world-historical process of societal rationalization; for another, the expectation that total reification will be overturned into freedom”; “Bataille has to explain the adventuresome upheaval of Stalinism into a libertarian socialism without recourse to the thought-figure of an intrinsically dialectical movement of reason”.
Now for the second critique. Habermas holds that Bataille is “a crypto-fascist and irrationalist because of his fears that the resurgence of this anti democratic, authoritarian spirit in Germany is connected with the current German embrace of French thought and the tradition of anti-enlightenment aestheticism”. This is evident when Habermas says, Bataille “is concerned to break out of the prison of modernity, out of an Occidental rationalism that has been victorious on the scale of world history”; “[i]nto this rationalized world irrupt the fascist Führer and his entranced masses. It is not without admiration that Bataille speaks of their heterogeneous existence”; “Bataille has difficulty making plausible the distinction … between the socialst revolution and the Fascist take-over of power”; “the question arises as to how the subversively spontaneous expression of these forces and the Fascist canalizing of them really differ”.
Now to rebut the first critique. The issue is the fact that Habermas rejects dialectical analysis which will not do. We need to note that Bataille sees play (sovereignty) and work (thinghood) in dialectical opposition. So, as much as Habermas doesn’t want Bataille’s answer to historical question to be dialectical. It must be. Now, why does this result in the more preferable option of sovereignty? Quite simple. It is Bataille’s conception of dialectics as never reaching completion but rather reaching non-knowledge in which the dialectic “restarts”. Non-knowledge is conceptually “equivalent” to sovereignty. One could even argue in a more Hegelian fashion that the conflict of the slave and master that is history, following Bataillean dialectics, will end not with the slave emancipated but rather with the sovereign.
Now to rebut the second critique. Firstly, the distinction between the fascist and socialist revolution is quite simple. Socialist revolution, for Bataille, is class struggle as social expenditure. The fascist take-over is not. Secondly, Bataille’s base materialism makes it impossible for him to be a fascist because fascism is an ideal form of organization (for fascists). The reason this is important is because “[Bataille] treated the ideal with contempt”. “Bataille increasingly foregrounded Nietzsche in his attacks on Nazism”. Obviously, the concept of decapitation which is so central to Bataille, makes any idea of a leader or head impossible. I will respond to the idea of Bataille being a fascist more in detail a later essay that will respond to Richard Wolin’s critique of Bataille. Now, let’s look at Bataille’s accused irrationalism.
Andrew Stein notes that Bataille did not critique rationalism, but specifically he critiqued “Enlightenment rationalism as normative”. He also notes that the answer to the question of if Bataille was a rationalist or an irrationalist “depends on how one defines reason”.
Andrew Stein counters the claim that Bataille was an irrationalist by recognizing that “[r]eason had a threefold purpose in heterology”. “[F]irst as difference — to contrast with the heterodox experience, and thereby reveal the ecstatic in sharper clarity”. “Second as analysis — to comprehend the structure of mechanisms of heterodoxy so that these experiences could be institutionalized and perpetuated through myth and ritual”. “Third, as limit — to act as a barrier to ecstasy, capable of arousing and intensifying the ecstatic state that appeared as an erotic eruption or an overcoming, just as, to use a romantic metaphor, the spurning of a lover can arouse desire”. Thus, reason wasn’t excluded at all, rather, Bataille had reason to have the role “of a stimulus to ecstatic states, not as the censor or policeman of excessive experiences”. Rather than Bataille arguing contra reason, he only argued that “ecstatic estates were the end of human existence” which therefore means that reason was insufficient in accounting “for the totality of experience”.
Still on the issue of reason, it is “[i]n Bataille’s reasoning” [emphasis mine] that “reason loses its place of pre-eminence as the crowning faculty that revealed truth and repressed error without becoming nothing”. This sounds similar to how Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons responds to Sartre’s critique of Bataille when she says that Bataille used “reason as the privileged tool of deconstruction”. If Bataille is a rationalist then, he would be a rationalist that uses reason to go beyond rationalism! Now, what Boldt-Irons has just said is also a response to Habermas’s charge that “Bataille undercuts his own efforts to carry out the radical critique of reason with the tools of theory,” because it isn’t a critique of reason by way of theory but rather a deconstruction of rational structures by way of reason. In this sense, reason is the most important part of the Bataillean “system” as does this not reflect the concept of inner experience which is the project out of project, or, in other words, the use of reason to escape the rational?
: Andrew Stein, “The Use and Abuse of History: Habermas’ MisReading of Bataille,” Symplokē 1, no. 1 (1993): pp. 21–58, 22.
: Jürgen Habermas, “The French Path to Postmodernity: Bataille between Eroticism and General Economics,” in Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998), pp. 167–190, 171.
: Ibid., 181.
: Ibid., 185.
: Andrew Stein, “The Use and Abuse of History: Habermas’ MisReading of Bataille,” Symplokē 1, no. 1 (1993): pp. 21–58, 23.
: Jürgen Habermas, “The French Path to Postmodernity: Bataille between Eroticism and General Economics,” in Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998), pp. 167–190, 168–169.
: Ibid., 173.
: Ibid., 175.
: Andrew Stein, “The Use and Abuse of History: Habermas’ MisReading of Bataille,” Symplokē 1, no. 1 (1993): pp. 21–58, 28.
: Ibid., 41.
: Ibid., 43.
: Ibid., 50.
: Ibid., 53.
: Ibid., 54.
: Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons, “On Bataille: Critical Essays,” in On Bataille: Critical Essays (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), pp. 1–38, 6.
: Jürgen Habermas, “The French Path to Postmodernity: Bataille between Eroticism and General Economics,” in Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998), pp. 167–190, 188.
Boldt-Irons, Leslie Anne. “Introduction.” Introduction. In On Bataille: Critical Essays, 1–38. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Habermas, Jürgen. “The French Path to Postmodernity: Bataille between Eroticism and General Economics.” In Bataille: A Critical Reader, edited by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, 167–90. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998.
Stein, Andrew. “The Use and Abuse of History: Habermas’ MisReading of Bataille.” symplokē 1, no. 1 (1993): 21–58.