The goal of this essay will be the explanation of Georges Bataille’s base materialism.
Base Materialism Contra Materialism
Base materialism has nothing to do with materialism proper i.e. a monism that holds the belief that all things are matter. In his essay Materialism, Bataille critiques materialism as nothing more than a senile idealism. He believes this for three reasons. The first is the fact that materialism doesn’t solve the ‘problem of place’. For example, Max Stirner’s critique of Ludwig Feuerbach in The Unique and Its Property critiques the fact that Feuerbach’s concept of ‘Man’ does not solve for the alienating effects of ‘God’ i.e. the place which God resided in, which alienated the unique subject, has just been replaced by Man. Both of these concepts alienate the unique subject and are really no different to Stirner. Bataille sees the same thing with materialism, it just replaces ideas with matter. It still holds a monistic view of reality. To solve the problem of place, Bataille’s materialism is a ‘dualist materialism’ (of the sacred and profane(?)). The second reason Bataille rejects materialism is because it sees matter as ‘dead matter’ which is an “ideal form of matter”. It doesn’t escape idealism on the ontological level. The third reason for rejection is the inherent “moralism” of materialism. What I mean by this is that, for Bataille, materialism has a prescriptive claim, a claim about how something should be, inherent to its conception of matter, which is its foundation. Dead matter which is the ideal form of matter that materialism holds is what matter “should be”.
Base materialism, from the perspective of Bataille’s critique of materialism, is nothing more than a materialism which has escaped the monistic binary of idealism contra materialism. It is a materialism without materialism. By escaping the monism of materialism and then rejecting the idea of an ideal form of matter, base materialism extracts matter “from the philosophical clutches of classical materialism, which is nothing but idealism in disguise”. It also escapes the presupposed normative “measure” of materialism.
For base materialism, “[i]deas are prisons”. But ideas are not the only prison that base materialism breaks out of. Base materialism liberates matter from “all ontological prisons”, from de-classifying it as ideal matter, or, in other words, it no longer views matter as a thing-in-itself. Base materialism is a materialism which does not entail an ontology.
In Formless: A User’s Guide, Bois then puts forward a question. If base materialism doesn’t have an ontology of matter then what is its basis upon which it builds itself? In Bataille’s essay Base Materialism and Gnosticism, Bataille uses the dualism of Gnosticism’s “Manichaean division of everything” which represents “one of the most ancient forms of lowering sought Bataille” as the wood in its foundation. But Gnosticism’s dualism inherent to base materialism which makes base materialism also a dualist materialism, is not its only foundation. In Materialism, Bataille also mentions Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis as another starting point for base materialism.
The Importance of Dualism to Bataille’s Dualist Materialism
The dualism of Gnosticism divides all things into high and low, and Bataille contrasts this with idealism’s monism of spirit as that which is ‘high’ and base materialism’s ‘dualism of base matter’ as that which is ‘low’. But base matter is then that which is base i.e. that which is lower-than-low. It is this dualism that allows him to articulate what base matter “does” in the form of a logic.
“The dualism of Gnosticism is re-formulated by Bataille as the rupture of base matter from the high, and this means that neither the ideal nor matter can ever form a stable monist system”.
Base Materialism as a Logic
Base materialism has a logic inherent to it. Benjamin Noys articulates the logic of base materialism as “whatever is elevated or ideal is actually dependent on base matter, and that this dependence means that the purity of the ideal is contaminated”. The ideal tries to excrete and remove base matter from itself but this only makes base matter abject as “base matter is the basis of the ideal”. Noys gives the example of the big toe which Bataille covers in his essay The Big Toe but this is far too obvious of an example. I will forward the example of capitalism as a perfect example of base materialism in terms of our current understanding of base materialism thus far in this essay. The elevated ideal or ‘the high’ of capitalism is the bourgeois class. The base or ‘the low’ of capitalism is the working class (in the modern usage). The bourgeois class and the middle class (which in this example can represent classical materialism) constantly try to exclude and remove the working class from their world as they are seen as ‘dirty’, ‘untouchables’, base. But the working class is also needed by capitalism and therefore also needed by the bourgeois and middle class. It is in this way that the working class is abject as it is constantly excluded but always comes back as capitalism requires labor-power for production which constitutes it as a restricted economy. The working class’ labor-power makes capitalism possible just like “base matter is what makes the very structure of the high/low opposition possible in the first place”.
To the high, base matter is what is low. But, like I said before, base matter is lower-than-low. Base matter is the “origin of the high” and this means that base matter accounts for the “interdependence of the high and low by being what they share”, thus putting base matter in “the position of being both high and low”.
Base matter is also “exterior to this opposition… but in an unstable position… between the two, sliding between them and destabilising the opposition”.
Base Matter as a (Disruptive) Third Term?
Noys holds that because base matter “undercuts the opposition of high and low without… becoming a dialectical synthesis of the opposition”, it can be thought of as that third term which disrupts the dialectic. Base matter undermines all oppositions, including the oppositions of philosophy. Base matter is heterological in that it resists, for example, philosophy’s appropriation. It is in this way that “[p]hilosophy is the ‘test case’ for base materialism”. And this is where I see the magic and radical potential out of Bataille’s work which is heterological and base. This is why Bataille eludes all critique because what he speaks of is the unspeakable, he tries to communicate the incommunicable. This realization brings me to the edge of tears. The limit of all thought is found in Bataille. For those who hold positions that they defend and search for the truth, Bataille is the very end. He is the very end not because he is the most true or true at all. But what he communicates not only cannot be critique but also is an auto-sacrificial discourse that sacrifices its concepts before they can be conceptualized. “Bataille is nothing but a protest against all signification of his own discourse”. Bataille isn’t just the end, or the limit. Bataille is the transgression of the limit.
Bois actually challenges the idea that there is a third term. Bois says, “[f]or Bataille, there is no third term, but rather an ‘alternating rhythm’ of homology and heterology, of appropriation and excretion”. But I think Bois is wrong, and turn in favor of Noys interpretation. I think Bois is wrong because for Bataille, matter is non-logical difference.
Base Matter as Difference
Theorists such as Nick Land and Scott Wilson both try to use base matter for their projects, and it is in the very fact that they are trying to use base matter, which is heterological (because it is (non-logical) difference), that they fall prey to repeating the same gesture as philosophy as well as all discourses: they repeat the gesture of attempted homogenization.
“[F]or Bataille matter only exists as difference, not as the base for a new anti-philosophy”. “[B]ase materialism is certainly not the key for Bataille or the master-signifier for his work”. Bataille does not have a master-signifier for his work, like Jean-Luc Nancy said earlier in this essay, Bataille’s work is a protest against signification itself. These latter quotes have an implication which is important. The implication is something that many readers of Bataille fall to (and I am guilty of this as well)*: trying to make an ideology, a doctrine, something to follow, etc. out of Bataille is not possible, rather it is impossible. Only when one goes towards the limit, and transgresses it,** does one “follow” Bataille. This is the first paradox of trying to be a ‘base materialist’ or a ‘Bataillean’: one can only be these sacred descriptions in their dissolution, for example, in communication with the other. Thus, one cannot BE a Bataillean or base materialist, because, again, it is only when one is NOT, precluding BEing anything, can they be ‘Bataillean’. Again, this is to say that one cannot be a ‘Bataillean’, though my writings do try to be Bataillean, via the use of Bataille’s auto-sacrificial concepts. Noys says this quite simply [emphasis mine]: “[t]he paradoxical result is that we cannot produce a base materialism, we cannot be base materialists, or exist in or as base matter, the more we specify base materialism the more we cancel it out”. This reflects Jason DeBoer’s interpretation of Bataille, the interpretation of Bataille that prompted me to actually start writing and reading Bataille more in depth in October of 2020 and one I love, quite nicely. “Georges Bataille organizes his writings around many core concepts or ideas” that have “a brief enunciation that creates an impact in the reader, then disappears before becoming fully ensnared within the parameters of conceptualization”.
For Bataille, matter is “nonlogical difference that represents in relation to the economy of the universe what crime represents in relation to the law”: (a) transgression.
Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939. Edited by Allan Stoekl. Translated by Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie Jr.. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Bois, Yve-Alain, and Rosalind E. Krauss. Formless: A User’s Guide. New York, NY: Zero Books, 1997.
DeBoer, Jason. “Bataille Versus Theory.” Bataille Versus Theory, an essay by Jason DeBoer. Fierce Language, 1999. https://web.archive.org/web/20110707075532/http://www.absintheliteraryreview.com/archives/fierce2.htm.
Nancy, Jean-Luc, and Katherine Lydon. “Exscription.” Yale French Studies, no. 78 (1990): 47–65. Accessed April 26, 2021. doi:10.2307/2930115.
Noys, Benjamin. “Georges Bataille’s Base Materialism.” Journal for Cultural Research 2, no. 4 (1998): 499–517.
[1–2]: Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie Jr. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 15.
[3–6]: Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York, NY: Zero Books, 1997), 53.
: Ibid., 54.
: Benjamin Noys, “Georges Bataille’s Base Materialism,” Journal for Cultural Research 2, no. 4 (1998): pp. 499–517, 503.
[9–10]: Ibid., 500.
[11–12]: Ibid., 501.
: Ibid., 501–502.
: Ibid., 502.
: Ibid., 510.
: Nancy, Jean-Luc, and Katherine Lydon. “Exscription.” Yale French Studies, no. 78 (1990): 47–65, 62.
: Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York, NY: Zero Books, 1997), 71.
: Benjamin Noys, “Georges Bataille’s Base Materialism,” Journal for Cultural Research 2, no. 4 (1998): pp. 499–517, 503, 512.
: Ibid., 514.
: *(I want to clarify that all of my work is just experimental and tries to have some “insights” on Bataille through the sheer amount of writings. Just one new “insight” on Bataille would make all of this work worth the time I’ve put into it.)
: **(like a runner breaks a ribbon for a glorious victory, or like a window which someone jumps out of, breaking the glass, disrupting the homogeneous composition of the window into multiple different pieces.)
: Benjamin Noys, “Georges Bataille’s Base Materialism,” Journal for Cultural Research 2, no. 4 (1998): pp. 499–517, 503, 515.
: Jason DeBoer, “Bataille Versus Theory,” Bataille Versus Theory, an essay by Jason DeBoer (Fierce Language, 1999), https://web.archive.org/web/20110707075532/http://www.absintheliteraryreview.com/archives/fierce2.htm.
: Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie Jr. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 129.