A Response to Jean-Joseph Goux’s Critique of Georges Bataille

  1. “Until the birth of capitalism[,] every society is one of sacrificial expenditure. Whether in the potlatch of primitive tribes … the bloody sacrifices of the Aztecs, the building of the Egyptian pyramids, or even the opposing paths of peaceful Tibetan lamaism and war-like Islamic conquest … With the birth of the bourgeois world a radical change takes place. Productive expenditure now entirely dominates social life”.[1]
  2. “What happens to the demand of the sacred in capitalist society?”.[2]
  3. “How do we reconcile the affirmation that capitalism represents an unprecedented break with all archaic (pre-capitalist) forms of expenditure and the postulate of the necessary universality of spending as pure loss?”.[3]
  4. “[H]asn’t contemporary society undergone a transformation of the ethic of consumption, desire, and pleasure that renders the classical (Weberian) analyses of the spirit of capitalism (to which Bataille subscribes) inadequate?”.[4]
  5. “[I]t is no less true that advanced capitalism seems to exceed the principle of restricted economy and utility that presided at its beginning. No society has ‘wasted’ as much as contemporary capitalism. What is the form of this waste, of this excess?”.[5]
  6. “Gilder undertakes to demonstrate that contemporary capitalism is no less animated by the spirit of the gift than the primitive tribes described by ethnographers”.[6]
  7. “The most elaborated forms of capitalism are simply more elaborated forms of the potlatch”.[7]
  8. “The current notion of a self-interested, parsimonious capitalism, motivated only by the interest of material gain, is erroneous”.[8]
  9. “At the origin of capitalism is the gift, not self-love and avarice”.[9]
  10. “The conceptual basis of this seemingly paradoxical affirmation is a classical economic principle known as Jean-Baptiste Say’s Law: ‘Supply creates its own demand.’ Such is the modern, contemporary form of the potlatch. The essence of capitalism consists in supplying first, and in obtaining an eventual profit later”.[10]
  11. “The capitalist invests (he supplies goods and services), but he is never sure of the return, of the recompense for his supply”.[11]
  12. “This movement, says Gilder, is the same as the potlatch, where the essence of the gift is not the absence of all expectation of a counter-gift but, rather, a lack of certainty concerning the return”.[12]
  13. “Thus capitalism would be in essence no less generous than ritual tribal exchange”.[13]
  14. “Supply precedes and creates demand: this means that there is no prior definition of need, no natural and pre-established demand founded on essential and rational exigencies that could be fixed in advance”.[14]
  15. “[T]he capitalist economy is founded on a metaphysical uncertainty regarding the object of human desire. It must create this desire through invention of the new, the production of the unpredictable. It supplies in order to create desire, instead of satisfying a desire that would already be known by the person who experiences it” [emphasis added].[15]
  16. “[F]or Gilder it is because capitalism is irrational (always suspended in uncertainty, the uncalculable, the indeterminate) that it is superior to all other forms of society”.[16]
  17. “Criticizing the ‘the secular rationalist mentality’ … he praises the spirit open to the paradoxes of chance and gambling”.[17]
  18. “For in the end, … profit resides in chance”.[18]
  19. “The ultimate metaphysics of capitalism is the theology of chance”.[19]
  20. “Capitalism is irrational (in the last analysis it can rely only on a theology of chance — ultimately opening to the divine, to creativity and to the future), and this is why it is superior to all rationalist (hence socialist) pretentious to master the process of production and consumption, and consequently to prejudge human desire, to mortgage seduction”.[20]
  21. “In the capitalism of abundance the distinction between luxury and non-luxury has become indeterminable … it is only in a regime of luxury, where everything is superfluous, that demand cannot be assigned and becomes open to possibilities that are less and less predictable”.[21]
  22. “It is only in a regime of surplus consumption that the subject (the client who chooses) does not know his own desire, and that supply (founded on still unknown, still unimagined technological and aesthetic possibilities) must necessarily precede demand”.[22]
  23. “The distinction is no longer between the necessary and the superfluous, but between several as yet unimagined possibilities. This is why seduction, the aestheticization of merchandise, plays a primordial role. It is vital for this supply economy to deny the naturalness of needs — including the very notion of need and utility”.[23]
  24. “The capitalist cannot count on an assured, calculable profit from his investment. He agrees to spend money and to spend himself in a project that is always aleatory”.[24]
  25. “Gilder sees the noble and glorious side of the entrepreneur; he makes of him a gambler who sacrifices in order to ‘supply’ with an always uncertain result: wealth or bankruptcy. It is in so gambling that he earns his rank”.[25]
  26. “No, capitalism is not rational calculation (individual or collective) but indeterminable, undecided play, and therein lies its grandeur, its profound ontological truth, and its harmony with the mysterious origins of things”.[26]
  27. “Everything happens as if the traditional values of the bourgeois ethos (sobriety, calculation, foresight, etc.) were no longer those values which corresponded to the demands of contemporary capitalism. And it is in this way that Gilder’s legitimation (which lends almost a sense of tragic heroism, of sovereign play, to the creation of businesses) can so echo Bataille’s critiques of the cramped, profane, narrowly utilitarian and calculating bourgeois mentality”.[27]
  28. “The entrepreneur can no longer count on petty calculation, on the expected profit, at a time when supply must create demand (as in artistic activity or any work of genius, stresses Gilder) and not merely satisfy it”.[28]
  29. “[T]his ‘post-bourgeois’ capitalism that at once contradicts Bataille’s sociological interpretation and confirms his ontological vision”.[29]
  30. “Daniel Bell has convincingly shown that with the development of mass consumption and mass credit (which he situates in the 1930s) the Purtian ideology of early capitalism entered into contradiction with an increasingly hedonist mode of consumption favoured by capitalism. The entrepreneur’s need to revive seduction, to respond to competition with promises of ever more complex pleasures, inscribes him in a consumerist ideology directly at odds with ‘bourgeois’ virtues of sobriety, thrift and hard work that had assured the development of production enter into contradiction with the ethical liberation (even moral licence) necessary to consumption. Bataille does not seem to have foreseen this conflict born of abundance and the extraordinary sophistication of production”.[30]
  31. “Bataille did not imagine the paradoxical situation of post-industrial capitalism where only the appeal to compete infinitely in unproductive consumption (through comfort, luxury, technical refinement, the superfluous) allows for the development of production”.[31]
  32. “This substantive, actually consumed apple must remain a simple ‘nomenon’, inexistent and without interest compared to the ‘phenomenon’, the spectacle of the apple, which alone is at stake in the sale. But that does not prevent this very spectacle, this abstract aestheticization of the merchandise, from going hand in hand with an ideology of consumption that seems to transgress utility-value”.[32]
  33. “[I]t is in truth impossible to separate productive consumption from unproductive squandering”.[33]
  34. “Is it useful or superfluous to manufacture microwave ovens, quartz watches, video games, or, collectively, to travel to the moon and Mars, to photograph Saturn’s rings, etc.?”.[34]
  35. “It is false that when economists speak of the use-value of goods, they suppose that the goods must first have had ‘utilitarian’ value in order to have exchange-value. In economics, use-value and utility were separated from the start, from any moral evaluation concerning their legal or illegal ‘utility’, or the very possibility of their having ‘use’ at all in the current sense”.[35]
  36. “Moreover, when Bataille attacks ‘the principle of classical utility’, he first reduces it prudently to ‘current intellectual representations’; that is, he reduces it to the most conventional notion of utility. In the fragments that he has left on ‘the limits of the useful’ he has perfectly grasped ‘the moral indifference of capitalism’; ‘The greatest moral indifference reigns from the start, and does not stop reigning in the use of products’ … Does this observation not contradict the ‘utility principle’ that he denounces in ‘The Notion of Expenditure’?”.[36]
  37. “Let us reiterate that it would be useless to look for any kind of normativity in the notions of ‘use-value’ or ‘utility’ as political economy defines them”.[37]
  1. I want to start with the fact that the model of the general economy is the Sun. The Sun expends without return. Thus, if a practice has a return, then it doesn’t fit the model of the general economy. Bataille doesn’t have an ideal society because his “ideal society” is humanity’s collective dissolution into the solar flow. Thus, no society has been “of sacrificial expenditure”. The potlatch was productive consumption as it produced social capital. The sacrifices of the Aztecs were to the Atzec Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, so the Sun would come back up the next day and so they could live-these sacrifices came out of the Aztec’s fear of death, nothing could be more servile. The Egyptian pyramids were built so that the pharaoh could enter into the next life, it had use, it had utility to someone, and its construction is predicated off the servility of the thousands who labored and worked to build it. The monasticism of the Tibetians is nothing more than an asceticism which reinscribes the restricted economy. Islamic conquest is an act of utility, they are trying to spread their religion-what they are doing is praxis, it is definitionally productive.
  2. It is still there, latent within us. We follow the laws of the general economy, we will enter into the sacred soon enough.
  3. Again, capitalism, like all restricted economies, follows the laws of general economy. Just because capitalism isn’t a system exclusively of expenditure doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually expend.
  4. Maybe. I can’t say that I entirely subscribe to Weber, but I will say that if capitalism has an ethic of consumption, then it is never an ethic of expenditure.
  5. Capitalism hasn’t wasted anything. If Goux is trying to argue that because overproduction exists in capitalism then it is the general economy, then he is naive. Capitalism is still accumulating. But with the ecological crisis on the horizon, capitalism is about to meet its limit, don’t worry.
  6. Okay? As I have already said, the potlatch has a return of social capital. It isn’t an example of the general economy. “The gift does not mean anything from the standpoint of general economy; there is dissipation only for the giver”.[38] This “loss” in potlatch is a restricted loss in that it is from the perspective of humans and is teleological in intention. Bataille even recognizes that the potlatch has interest rates! “In a sense the presents are repaid with interest. Thus the gift is the opposite of what it seemed to be: To give is obviously to lose, but the loss apparently brings a profit to the one who sustains it”.[39] See, for Bataille, the ideal potlatch is a potlatch in which players in this game of potlatch “could not be repaid”, i.e., a potlatch without return.[40] A potlatch with a gift that can not be repaid, a potlatch of the Sun. Thus, the Sun is still the model of the general economy! Bataille went beyond the gift! This point as well as our first point is furthered by the words of Michèle Richman in their work Reading Georges Bataille: Beyond the Gift, she says, “[i]n his formulation of the general economy Bataille counters the diminished impact of potlatch by reasserting a unilateral gesture of dépense. The sun that figures in La Part maudite is the eternal exemplar of a munificent outpouring of energy which gives without demanding a return”.[41]
  7. The potlatch is still stuck in the restricted economy, and thus, so is capitalism (see my response to Goux’s sixth point).
  8. This is predicated off the idea that capitalism is based upon the gift, which I will address in the next point.
  9. The basis of capitalism could be the gift. EVEN IF it is, this doesn’t implicate Bataille to be a capitalist because, for Bataille, the general economic gift is unilateral. The gift of capitalism will always be reciprocal. It will be reciprocal because of what Goux says in his tenth point.
  10. Now, I would prompt the reader to question the validity of Goux’s characterization of Say’s law. But setting that aside, it should be noted that Goux takes Say’s law to mean that the supply of something will lead to its demand. I want to make another note that Goux is trying to show that, just like in gift-exchange, an obligation to give back is made by supplying commodities: reciprocity becomes the principle of capitalism.
  11. This is where Goux makes a fatal mistake. If supply creates its own demand through supply, then the supplier is never taking a risk. They will always make a profit. They may never know how much profit, but they know it will have a return.
  12. And Goux confirms our eleventh point by explaining that the counter-gift of demand to supply will always come but the only question is how much will come. We can answer this question with the fact that commodities will always have surplus value as labor is required for production, and thus we know that the counter-gift will always come in the form of profit.
  13. Again, this is not a critique of Bataille as Bataille doesn’t care for reciprocal gift exchange but unilateral gift exchange. Baudrillard even says this when he counterposes symbolic exchange, which is always reciprocal, against general economy, which is always unilateral.
  14. This is one of the weirdest points Goux makes. It is clear that he is trying to make the point that capitalism starts with excess and not necessity, as the general economy does, but he fatally misses a key part of capitalism and restricted economics: production. Commodities, aka supply, do not come from nothing, they require the negativity of labor to come to be. Commodities are nothing more than objects of congealed negativity. Thus, capitalism does not start from an affirmative excess, but from a negative scarcity.
  15. There is no uncertainty within capitalism, as one knows they will always have a demand, there is no gambling in capitalism. As Goux even says, there must be production, production of the new. Goux accidentally admits that capitalism requires production on the level of desire.
  16. If capitalism is irrational, it can only be irrational because of its necessity of production, which is nothing more than the rational par excellence. Thus, capitalism, being based upon productive negation (labor; work), is rational.
  17. What gambling is there in capitalism? If we know that supply creates its own demand then what risk is being taken? And let’s say that supply doesn’t create its own demand. In this case, there is still no risk because the entrepreneurs would always be supplying something wanted, something that will return a profit.
  18. Profit has its origin in surplus value, and thus in production. Profit resides in negativity not affirmation (which is where chance resides). Capitalism once again finds itself imbued in the restricted economy.
  19. Once more, I will say that capitalism is the theology of production, and thus also the theology of rationality.
  20. Capitalism again is not irrational, as the reasons Goux and George Gilder say it is irrational hold no water.
  21. This makes no sense. Is the “luxury” of the first world not determinably different from the “non-luxury” of the third world? Poverty is still an issue, even Bataille says this, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand that capitalism, being a form of restricted economy, has to deal with the distribution of scarce resources.
  22. Again, this only proves that the capitalist, producing the supply, is taking the most rational of actions as he is certain that he will always garner profit, always garner a return, as supply creates its own demand.
  23. But again, capitalism must produce the supply. It has this necessity to prompt production at its basis. Scarcity is never denied but ideologically propagated through, for example, school in capitalism. Capitalism must always remind consumers that they must work to buy, that their money is never infinite, that if they do not work then they will die. This is not to say that there is structural coercion within capitalism. I do not desire to enter into that debate, but the former points must be noted.
  24. But they can! If supply creates its own demand then the capitalist will always know they will have a return, which must always come in the form of a profit. If supply doesn’t create demand, and demand creates supply, then the capitalist can always supply that which is demanded.
  25. But there isn’t always an uncertain result? Is there not always demand? Always wealth? Is a supply without demand not impossible according to Goux’s characterization of Say’s law, which is still a questionable characterization. Is bankruptcy not impossible for Goux and Gilder’s capitalism?
  26. But this is not true! People always know they will get a return (a demand and therefore profit). The capitalist is doing the most rational actions, no? Is the capitalist not doing this action out of the fear of death? Is the capitalist not servile? It seems to me that capitalism is the opposite of general economy, that Ayn Rand is the opposite of Georges Bataille.
  27. But nothing happens as Goux and Gilder say it does!
  28. But supply creates demand, does it not?! Can the entrepreneur not count on the counter-gift, or is this not the potlatch?
  29. But it doesn’t! It confirms that the bourgeoisie is being rational, and that capitalism is ontologically based on utility.
  30. Now, let’s say that Goux, Gilder, and Daniel Bell are correct. Let’s say that capitalism is a system of mass consumption and mass credit. Nothing is different! Capitalism is still what creates discontinuity! Capitalism is still rational. I say this because capitalism, to Goux, Gilder, and Bell is a system of mass consumption DEPENDENT on mass credit. Now, credit is nothing more than debt. This is important because not only is the capitalism predicated on debt, but so is “[t]he capitalist money system”, and this important because we can now say that both capitalism and its money system, being based on debt, are based “on a temporal structure, which posts the ‘predominance of the past over the future’”.[42]
  31. But none of this is unproductive consumption! Buying (“consumpting”) something for a better couch, which could be seen as “a luxury”, and this couch would be used. Technical refinement too is about use!
  32. Consumerism though doesn’t transgress “utility-value”. Consumerism says “BUY! BUY! BUY! Buy this Supreme T-shirt so your peers think you’re cool. Sign-value is king!”. But again, we can see that the purchase of this shirt has the return of social recognition. This seems to reflect the potlatch, but I would say that consumerist capitalism is the potlatch but with no possibility of genuine loss.
  33. Now why does Goux say this? He says this because he believes that things such as tobacco, alcohol, pleasure trips, and movies are unproductive consumption. But I will say that these things are only unproductive if they are not productive, and if they do not serve a useful end. Now, it is true that Bataille has said that one can lose themselves in alcohol or smoking, but if one does this for pleasure and does not lose themselves, then it is a productive consumption, and if one buys these things for pleasure then it operates off utility. People buy these things for pleasure or because of say addiction. These purchases and subsequent consumptions are within the restricted economy, they are productive consumptions.
  34. Yes. All of these things serve a use. Microwave ovens cook food. Quartz watches tell time. Video games are fun. Traveling to the moon and Mars, and photographing Saturn’s rings gives us new knowledge, turning the unknown into the known.
  35. Commodities must have use-value to even be a commodity.
  36. No. I don’t see how it does. Bataille is saying that utility leads to the termination of the ethical. And he continues this argument when talking about the moral indifference of capitalism and the use of products.
  37. And that is exactly why Bataille looks, and finds, for normativity inside of utility and uselessness. He looks for it because it is a useless operation.

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

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

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