A Response to Richard Wolin’s Critique of Georges Bataille

06/08/2021

Let’s start by going down Richard Wolin’s critique line by line:

  1. “One of the intellectual traits tied Bataille most closely to the German young conservatives was his aversion to Reason”.[1] Now, Wolin says this for two reasons. Firstly, “[i]n Bataille’s thought, reason promotes the values of a ‘homogeneous society’”.[2] Secondly, Bataille’s rejection of civilization and the civilized attitude.
  2. “The cultural attitudes of Spengler and Bataille are linked by an aesthetics of violence”.[3] Now, Wolin says this for a single reason. He quotes Bataille where Bataile says, and I’m paraphrasing, that the life of man is a war and thus, life is completed in death.[4]
  3. “In the worldview of both Bataille and German young conservatives, war plays an indispensable, positive role. It dissolves the principium individuationis: the principle of subjectivity … [Bataille] celebrates the nonutilitarian nature of military combat as a type of aesthetic end in itself”.[5] Now, Wolin finds this problematic because the aesthetic celebration of violence, combat, and war is “the essence of fascism”.[6]
  4. Wolin argues two things: 1. Bataille endows premodern forms of life “with a utopian normative status,” because we long to expend (expenditure is destabilizing), and therefore he wants to return to a primitive mode of living[7] and 2. Bataille wants to return to a primitive mode of living in order to solve for the “social instability” of modern society as primitive orders are “socially stable”.[8] He then points out that this is a contradiction.
  5. Bataille is then accused of being the genealogical precursor to French poststructuralism.[9] Firstly, Wolin argues that Bataille’s community “embraces an aesthetics of transgression as the norm for social action”.[10] Secondly, Wolin then argues that this means Bataille has nothing to offer to the realm of the ethical because of his conception of transgression.[11]
  6. Wolin argues that Bataille, firstly, misconstrued “the historical parameters of ritual practice,”[12] and, secondly, makes the deceptive claim “that sacrifice has no end beyond itself”.[13]
  7. “In truth, only those who possess great wealth can afford to destroy it. Consequently, the option to engage in potlatch does not exist for society’s lower classes. Like sacrifice, potlatch is implicated in the reproduction of social hierarchy. Such acts reinforce the status and prestige of those who destroy their wealth. In nearly every case, the practitioners of potlatch belong to the upper strata of society. Those who are forced to passively endure the potlatch are in effect humiliated. Through such acts, their lowly social rank is reaffirmed. The same is true of gift-giving”.[14]
  8. “Bataille refuses to distinguish between the political and economic aspects of democratic society. For example, it would be more accurate to argue that whereas economic action is goal oriented and utilitarian, the end of democracy is self-determination”.[15]
  9. Wolin argues that “‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’ … barely veiled admiration for the energy and vitality of Europe’s youthful fascist states,”[16] and he says this for a few reasons: 1. “[Bataille] glorifies fascism as a breakthrough of vital, heterogeneous forces”;[17] 2. Bataille holds that Fascist leaders are sovereign;[18] 3. “Bataille’s endorsement of fascist politics culminates in the following glowing encomium: ‘Heterogeneous fascist action belongs to the entire set of higher forms. It makes an appeal to sentiments traditionally defined as exalted and noble and tends to constitute authority as an unconditional principle, situated above any utilitarian judgement’”;[19] 4. “[fascism] reintroduces an aesthetic politics that foregrounds the values of an ecstatic community prized by Bataille: charisma (‘sovereignty’), violence, and martial glory … fascism allows for the reprise of an ecstatic politics amid the forlorn and disenchanted landscape of political modernity”.[20] Fifthly, Wolin further believes that Bataille’s politics during the 1930s were fascist because “[Bataille] believed in the need for a spiritual elite to restore the dimension of social solidarity that was wanting in modern society”.[21]
  10. Wolin holds that Bataille’s involvement with the group Counter-Attack is the clearest proof for Bataille’s fascism.[22] He argues that even though Bataille was trying to use the libidinal energy of fascism against fascism, it is hard to define the line between using “fascist means” and becoming a “fascist cause”.[23]

Now for my responses:

  1. But this is not true. He had no aversion to reason. In fact, he used reason as a deconstructive tool (for more on this see the essay A Response to Jürgen Habermas’s Critique of Georges Bataille above). Now to go against each of his reasons for this claim. Firstly, this is not true. Andrew Stein holds that reason, if anything, was a stimulus for the heterogeneous (see above A Response to Jürgen Habermas’s Critique of Georges Bataille). Secondly, now when Bataille says this, he does not mean he rejects reason because, as we know, reason is a stimulus for the heterogeneous. The civilized attitude, in the sense of Bataille’s usage, is the teleological attitude. Thus, if reason is a stimulus for escaping teleology, for sovereignty, is it not then Wolin who is opposed to reason and not Bataille?
  2. This doesn’t tell us anything, and I don’t even consider it a critique. For, when we think about violence in relation to Bataille, we must think about what violence is for Bataille, or rather what is violent for Bataille. For Bataille, silence is violent, eroticism is violent, expenditure is violent, play is violent, sovereignty is violent, laughing is violent. Nothing here is “violent” in the conventional usage. Now, there are people like Gilles de Rais that are considered sovereign, but to this I say that actions like murder, for example, can never be sovereign in the context of de Rais or for the most part. One must latently understand Bataille’s reading of Gilles de Rais. With our latent understanding, we realize that Gilles de Rais cannot be sovereign because he is. In other words, it is because men act in order to be that one cannot be and be sovereign. As being is the opposite of Being. Now to respond to why Wolin believes this. Firstly, when Bataille speaks of death he doesn’t always, or maybe at all, mean “biological death” but rather death in the sense of the subject’s “dissolution” in ecstasy or in moments of eroticism. Now, let’s “test” Wolin here. If moments of eroticism, for example, are moments of death, and they are, is losing yourself in a kiss violent in the conventional sense? Obviously not.
  3. Now, what Wolin is doing here is quite sneaky. I say this because he is correct in what he says. But he is not correct in terms of what he thinks it means. In other words, he doesn’t understand Bataille’s conception of war. Firstly, any moment of sovereignty is going to lead to the dissolution of the subject. But this doesn’t mean anything as losing yourself in a kiss would then be war, which it is. Bataille does not see war in the conventional sense. Bataille sees war as ontological. Bataille says that “Conflict is life … A living man regards death as the fulfillment of life … war cannot be reduced to ideological expression … Fascism enslaves all value to struggle and work. The sort of Church which we are defining must be linked to values that are neither military nor economic; for existence means combat against a closed system of enslavement. It remains nevertheless alien to national interest and the grandiloquence of democracy … The values of this Church must be of the same order as those traditional values which place Tragedy at the summit (of existence)”.[24] Firstly, we note that war is not the “exhaust pipe” of an ideology and therefore it is not of fascism. Secondly, we note that Bataille actually sees fascism as a system of enslavement. Thirdly, we note that Bataille sees existence as war, therefore war is ontological. Fourthly, we note that Bataille sees war as combat against systems of enslavement and therefore war is combat against fascism.
  4. Now, this is a strawman. Both of Wolin’s claims are wrong. As we know very well, as it has been established in past essays (see the following essays above: A Treatise on Atheology, A Response to Teresa L. Ebert and Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s Critique of Georges Bataille, A Response to Jean-Joseph Goux’s Critique of Georges Bataille), Bataille does not see “primitive” modes of living as desirable in terms of wanting to return to them,[25] nor did he see them as doing general economic (unproductive) expenditure (which has as its model the Sun).
  5. Firstly, Bataille’s community is and is not, and this is what is important. Bataille’s community is not a community in the conventional understanding of the concept. Rather, Bataille’s community is ontological in that subject and object come together in a movement of fusion (penetration) and then there is the reaction of explosion (ejaculation) in which the community falls apart. So, Bataille’s community has no social norm because there is no society, there are no subjects to constitute a society. Secondly, Bataille, in the light of this, does have something to offer to the realm of the ethical. Transgression as the affirmation of affirmation allows Bataille to enter his concept of transgression into the (meta-?)ethical realm. For more on what Bataille has to offer to the realm of the ethical see the following essays above: On (Georges) Bataille and Personal Essays, ANGUISH: Some Thoughts on Anguish and (the Very Un-Kantian Base of) Capitalism, Capitalism Ought to be Rejected, A Quick Note on the Potential Bataillean Justification for the Moral Disregard of Humans, The Bataillean Position on Abortion, Mysticism and Morality, Solar Ethics: Bataille’s Copernican Ethical Revolution and Solar Economics as (Meta-)Ethics, The General Economy of Meta-Ethics and the Restricted Economy of Ethics.
  6. Firstly, Bataille purposefully doesn’t try to have accurate ethnography and even if he did, it wouldn’t matter because these could just be treated as hypothetical actions that represent what he is trying to construe. Now, I do not care for the historical (empirical) backing for general economy, but I do care for the theoretical backing for general economy because it is completely sound. Secondly, when Wolin says that Bataille only looks at the aspects of these past ritual events “that serves his purposes,”[26] he isn’t making an argument but rather confirming our thesis that Bataille is not trying to be accurate.
  7. This is a strawman. Firstly, Bataille argues that class struggle can be a form of expenditure. Secondly, Bataille does not hold the potlatch with return or similar forms of gift-giving to be “truly” unproductive expenditure.
  8. The reason Bataille doesn’t make a distinction is because both the economic and the political of liberal, capitalist, and parliamentary forms of democracy are both homogeneous. Wolin’s only argument against this is that democracy’s end is self-determination. This makes me laugh, but at the same time I feel anger in response to his claim. Wolin is naive, truly naive. He seems to be a capitalist in this regard, or at the very least, someone who supports democractic modes of political organization. It is ironic that Wolin charges Bataille with fascism because it is actually Wolin who is the fascist; “[f]ascism is not so much a symptom of political desperation, as of libidino-religious numbness, a kind of anti-poetry on the streets. Like all policy-obsessed behavior patterns it is rooted in the humanist dead-end characterized by hysterical struggle for autonomy: self-determination, national self-management, master-races, autarky … all attempts to seal the blister from within, to hide from the ocean. The thought that there might be a political response to fascism makes me laugh. Shall we set our little fascism against their big one?” [emphasis mine].[27]
  9. Firstly, it must be noted that fascism may have been heterogeneous but only in the form of pure heterogeneity which is able to be and is homogenized. For example, the state is not a homogeneous imperative element for Bataille. But the state is a pure heterogeneous element that is used to further strengthen the system. Fascism, being a pure heterogeneity, is actually less a heterogeneity than a homogeneity in that it excludes the disgusting and base impure heterogeneity. Thus, in truth, we have to ask ourselves this question: “once the fascist order comes or if it begins to rise, is it not already no longer other, no longer heterogeneous?”. Secondly, if Bataille saw these leaders as “sovereign,” which I’m not sure he did, then it would be in the sense of archaic sovereignty, not in his more ontological concept of sovereignty which is NOTHING. Thirdly, I want to laugh. Wolin completely misunderstands what Bataille is doing here. Bataille is doing the most explicit denouncement of fascism here. I say this because of Bataille’s base materialism. Base materialism recognizes the fact that high is always contaminated by the base and that its attempt to exclude the impure heterogeneity that is the base will always lead to the debasing of itself. Thus, just like surrealism, fascism is idealist and a failure before it even starts for Bataille. Fourthly, the idea that fascism is what Bataille was talking about when he talked about his concept of community is truly an untenable claim. Community is the opposite of fascism in every way. Subjects break down in community, they break down into a community. In fascism there are subjects. It is that easy to show how the two are nothing alike. But I’m sure you want more differentiation or maybe elaboration. So, here you go. Wolin holds that fascism and Bataille’s conception of community are the “same” because of three concepts “central” to both: 1. Charisma 2. Violence 3. Martial glory. Looking at charisma, it is not hard to notice that Wolin completely misinterprets Bataille’s concept of sovereignty as charisma. There is no charisma in sovereignty as there is no subject to be charismatic. We need not go over violence or martial glory as I have already shown how Wolin misinterprets Bataille’s conception of them (see answer to point 2 for violence and point 3 for martial glory). Lastly, Bataille was not an elitist. Base materialism makes any claim that Bataille is an elitist untenable. For more on Bataille not being able to be an elitist, see the essay A Response to Ishay Landa’s Critique of Georges Bataille above.
  10. Benjamin Noys responds to this point quite nicely. Noys argues that “Counter-Attack attempted to use the popular energies that fascism had aroused among the masses against fascism”.[28] Thus, the fine line appears in the very act of using fascism against itself. And we must also ask “what are they using from fascism?”. It is clear that what Counter-Attack wants to use is not necessarily things like the state or a central leader, but rather Counter-Attack wants to use the psychological and libidinal energetic effect on the masses, which allowed fascism to so easily rise, for the left, so it too can easily rise. Lastly, it is to be noted that the energies of fascism that Bataille wanted to use against fascism was mythology. There is hardly anything problematic within Bataille’s more mythical writings.

References

[1–2]: Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance With Fascism, From Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 159.

[3]: Ibid., 160.

[4]: Ibid., 160–161.

[5–6]: Ibid., 161.

[7]: Ibid., 162–163.

[8]: Ibid., 163.

[9]: Ibid., 164.

[10]: Ibid., 165.

[11]: Ibid., 164–165.

[12–13]: Ibid., 170.

[14]: Ibid., 171.

[15–18]: Ibid., 173.

[19–20]: Ibid., 174.

[21]: Ibid., 177.

[22–23]: Ibid., 180.

[24]: Georges Bataille and Annette Michelson, “The Threat of War,” October 36 (1986): p. 28, https://doi.org/10.2307/778545.

[25]: Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume I: Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1991), 170.

[26]: Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance With Fascism, From Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 171.

[27]: Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism (an Essay in Atheistic Religion) (London, UK: Routledge, 1992), 196–197.

[28]: Benjamin Noys, Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (London, UK: Pluto Press, 2000), 8.

Bibliography

Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume I: Consumption. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, NY: Zone Books, 1991.

Bataille, Georges, and Annette Michelson. “The Threat of War.” October 36 (1986): 28. https://doi.org/10.2307/778545.

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

Noys, Benjamin. Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction. London, UK: Pluto Press, 2000.

Wolin, Richard. The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance With Fascism, From Nietzsche to Postmodernism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

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