Bataille avec et contre Žižek: Aporetic Materialism and the Passion of the Real

06/06/2021

Slavoj Žižek is the celebrity philosopher of our day. He is loved by many who are on many different sides. Ultimately, it is inevitable to have a certain level of respect for Žižek and his work. But he is not without problems.

For Žižek, Bataille is “THE philosopher of the passion of the Real”.[1] Now, this begs the question of “what is the passion of the Real?”. Now, obviously, I am no authority on any subject, nor do I claim to be; I know nothing! How this book of mine is to be received will be interesting, hopefully it will be critiqued, so I, wanting to respond, will read Bataille even closer, and when I release my second book, as a response to those critiques, a even finer interpretation of Bataille will be forged! Though, I doubt this book will garner much attention, just like Bataille’s work did during his lifetime. But let’s answer the question that has been posed. Essentially, ‘the passion of the Real’ is an experience which shatters the subject in the excessive violence of the Real. In this sense, Žižek may be right, assuming I am correct about what the passion of the Real is, though I may not be. If the passion of the Real means anything else, as Kennedy suggests it does, then Bataille is not the philosopher of the passion of the Real. But I would much rather use the term ‘base matter’ instead of the term ‘the Real’. Žižek goes to show how much of a Lacanian Bataille is, but we must ask ourselves the question “is it not that Lacan is Bataillean?”. What I mean by this is that it seems to me that Lacan took more from Bataille than Bataille took from Lacan, if Bataille even took anything. But of course, you may say that “Bataille is mentioned very few times by Lacan”. I would respond to this by saying “this is undoubtedly true, and it is this truth which proves my assertion”. Let me explain, within the work of Lacan, Bataille is the Real, is the base matter of Lacan’s work. Bataille is rarely spoken of, if ever, by Lacan. Does this lack of speech, this silence, not reflect our relation to the Real which is one of impossibility? One cannot speak of or conceptualize the Real, just like Lacan does not speak of or conceptualize Bataille. Is it not fair to say then that Žižek, in his “Lacanianism,” is actually more Bataillean then he would want us to think? I would say yes…

But Žižek’s “ties” to Bataille does not stop here. Let us go further, let us go deeper into the heart of the Real that undoes us in its traumatic and exuberant violence which is like the Sun.

Before I continue, I want to thank Kevin Kennedy for graciously emailing me a pdf of his essay The aporias of matter which was stuck behind a paywall I couldn’t pay as I do not have the funds to buy the book it is in. So, this essay, and my writings which involve his book on Bataille, are meant to be my return to him.

In their essay on Slavoj Žižek found within Slavoj Žižek and Dialectical Materialism, Adrian Johnston calls Žižek’s materialism a ‘materialism without materialism’.[2] Is this not exactly how we would describe Bataille’s base materialism? Does Bataille not also have a religion without religion, writing without writing, etc.?

Before we move forward in the comparative analysis of Žižek’s materialism and Bataille’s materialism, let us first look at Žižek’s critique of Bataille.

As always, let’s look at Žižek’s critique of Bataille line by line:

  1. “This notion of the modern, Cartesian subject qua the radical negativity of the double (self-relating) sacrifice also enables us to demarcate the paradoxical place of the theories of Georges Bataille, that is, of Bataille’s fascination with the ‘real’, material sacrifice, with the different forms of holocaust and of the excessve destruction of (economic, social, etc.) reality”.[3]
  2. “On the one hand, of course, Bataille’s topic is modern subjectivity, the radical negativity implied in the position of the pure transcendental subject. On the other hand, Bataille’s universe remains the pre-Newtonian universe of balanced circular movement, or — to put it in a different way — his notion of subjectivity is definitively pre-Kantian: Bataille’s ‘subject’ is not yet the pure void (the transcendental point of self-negating negativity), but remains an inner-worldly, positive force. Within these co-ordinates, the negativity which characterizes the modern subject can express itself only in the guise of a violent destruction which throws the entire circuit of nature off the rails. It is as if, in a kind of unique short circuit, Bataille projects the negativity of the modern subject backwards, into the ‘closed’, pre-modern Aristotelian universe of balanced circular movement, within which this negativity can materialize itself only as an ‘irrational’, excessive, non-economical expenditure. In short, what Bataille fails to take note of is that the modern (Cartesian) subject no longer needs to sacrifice goat’s intestines, his children, and so on, since his very existence already entails the most radical (redoubled, self-relating) sacrifice, the sacrifice of the very kernel of his being”.[4]
  3. “Incidentally, this failure of Bataille also throws a new light on the sacrificial violence, the obsession with the ultimate twilight of the universe, at work in Nazism: in it, we also encounter the reinscription of the radical negativity characteristic of the modern subject into the closed ‘pagan’ universe in which the stability of the social order is guaranteed by some kind of repeated sacrificial gesture — what we encounter in the libidinal economy of Nazism is the modern subjectivity perceived from the standpoint of the pre-modern ‘pagan’ universe”.[5]

Now for my response:

  1. Firstly, Kevin Kennedy notes that “this is a gross misreading of” Bataille’s theory of sacrifice because “sacrifice, for Bataille, is never a literal act, but rather always a simulated exposure to non-meaning, the giving of oneself to an encounter which always remains impossible”.[6] Secondly, Bataille does not see the modern Cartesian subject as the negativity of sacrifice because sacrifice is not negativity, it is affirmation.
  2. Firstly, Žižek has a horrible understanding of Bataille’s cosmology (which I will write an essay on later). For Bataille, the universe is not in balance, it is in disequilibrium, it is formless. Secondly, I can not say that I agree with Žižek’s interpretation of the Bataillean subject because it is not a positive force. The subject is a limit which is inscribed via negativity (of prohibition and work), though it is not inscribed by the negativity of sacrifice like Žižek says it is. Thirdly, the subject does not “express” itself in its violent destruction because it is in this dissolution that it stays silent. Fourthly, for Bataille, expenditure is not “materialized negativity” because expenditure is (im)purely affirmative. Fifthly, the subject does exist via negation but, again, sacrifice is not negation. The subject’s existence doesn’t entail the sacrifice of their being because the subject’s existence is a stabilization which is contrary to the destabilization that is sacrifice.
  3. Firstly, Bataille is not a nazi theoretically, logically, practically, effectively, etc.. Bataille doesn’t hold that there is sacrificial violence within Nazism because the violence of the Nazis was always teleological. In other words, the holocaust was not expenditure because the holocaust, for the Nazis, had the use-value of eliminating the Jews, Homosexuals, etc. which was useful for the end of reaching their supposed “utopia” which is nothing but the most servile and slavish “utopia” to ever be thought, as the thought of Hitler that is Nazism is the farthest thing from the thought of Nietzsche which is sovereign. Secondly, Žižek here presupposes that the subject and the social order which it exists in is stabilized by the double sacrifice which as we know is not true (see answers to point 1 and 2).

Now that I have responded to Žižek’s critique of Bataille, let us move on to a comparative analysis of their theories of materialism.

For Kennedy, Bataille and Žižek’s theories of materialism are quite similar. He says this for a few reasons:

  1. The similarity of Žižek and Bataille’s critiques of idealists and materialists.
  2. The similarity of Žižekian and Bataillean theories of subject formation
  3. The similarity of Žižek and Bataille’s theories of desire and the object.
  4. The way both see the subject as a stain on matter, therefore meaning matter is base/impure and not ideal/pure.
  5. The similarity of how Žižek and Bataille believe the realm that exceeds the discursive is formed.

The similarity of how Žižek and Bataille believe the realm that exceeds the discursive is formed.

Firstly, let us look at Žižek’s idea of the stain. For Žižek, the stain is “an inexplicable object or mysterious detail ‘that ‘sticks out’, that does not ‘fit’ into the symbolic network of reality’”.[7] Žižek gives the example of the Renaissance portrait titled The Ambassadors (see below):

Image 4 — The Ambassadors (painted by Hans Holbein in 1533)[8]

The skull on the picture, from the position of the front, is a stain on the picture, but, at the same time, from the position of the side, the rest of the picture becomes the stain on the skull. This is the relation of matter and subject. Matter is stained by the subject and the subject is stained by matter. This is why matter is never pure and always base, and this why, at the same time, the subject “comes from” matter and thus, Bataille and Žižek can still claim to be “materialists” even if the “matter” they convince of is a ‘matter without matter’. It is because of the fact that the subject stains matter that Žižek holds the position of an aporetic materialism in which the subject is “neither wholly inside nor wholly outside matter, challenging both the idealist, religious notion of the subject as a detached observer (spirit, soul, disembodied life force), as well as the naturalist, neurobiological conception of subjectivity as just another part of material reality (reducible to brain cells or neuronal processes)”.[9]

Kennedy notes something quite interesting, when he suggests “that Žižek dismisses Bataille’s work because the latter prefigures, and simultaneously subverts, Žižek’s twin notions of materialism and subjectivity, threatening thereby to undermine or stain their conceptual purity”.[10]

Žižek rejects the traditional materialist view that matter is something pure, stable, etc. and sees it as “shaped by the subject’s relation to it, which is essentially a relation of language”.[11] Bataille agrees with this, but he also adds the category of ‘raw phenomena’ (which is desire?).

Let us look at Bataille’s theory of subject formation. Kennedy holds that Bataille’s subject is formed out of the “fundamental tension between” the two realms of continuity and discontinuity.[12] Discontinuity in this respect could be reduced down to a realm of language, a regime of discursivity. This would have the implication that it is language that forms the subject. This shows even more of a parallel between Žižek, Lacan, and Bataille. Continuity then is that realm that exceeds language. If we see discontinuity as (the realm of) the subject and then continuity as (base) matter then we can understand this relationship between Bataille and Žižek further. The “Bataillean subject is thus constructed as a blindspot, a nothingness — or even a stain — at the heart of material reality”.[13]

Kennedy sees that it is this loss of continuity that causes the subject to desire to return to a continuous mode of being.[14] But achieving a return is impossible as a return would entail the subject’s undoing. I partly disagree with Kennedy on his conception of Bataille’s subject formation because of a few facts. Firstly, it is wrong because of the Hegelianism latent within Bataille’s conception of the subject. Bataille agrees with the master-slave dialectic and I think that Kennedy is leaving this out to create links between Bataille and Žižek that need not be created. This also means that continuity does exist contrary to Kennedy’s position that it has never existed. Secondly, Bataille’s principle of insufficiency is the principle of (isolate) being. This means that there is an ontological level to this. When Bataille speaks of Being (which is conceptually analogous to continuity), he does not speak of it as something that does not exist. If he did speak of Being as actually existing then God would be a fiction for Bataille. This is problematic for Kennedy because God does “exist” for Bataille as Bataille saw Sade, who held God as a fiction, as reducing the intensity of transgression by treating God as a fiction. Thirdly, I want to say that language does constitute the subject, as does work and taboo. But the subject arises out of desire. The subject arises out of the desire to be. Thirdly, Kennedy argues that continuity is not some noumenal realm but rather “a deeper reality beyond the phenomenon”.[15] I want to put forward Nick Land’s conception of base matter as a fanged noumenon, a noumenon which has been freed from the Kantian chain of being the category of nothing that is ens rationis. In other words, for Land, I would argue Bataille, and us, the noumenon goes from being a category of nothing to a category of NOTHING. Thus, base matter, and therefore continuity, is noumenal contrary to the Lacanian wails of Kennedy.

Kennedy then speaks of the Žižekian subject as arising out of symbolic castration and the lack of the Real, which does not exist. Thus, my first issue with Žižek is his use of castration in his theory of the subject and its formation (I will explain my issue with this later in this essay). Before we look at my second issue with Žižek let’s define symbolic castration. Kennedy defines symbolic castration as the event where the subject’s “presumed unity or completeness is traded in for the symbolic universe of meaning and sense”.[16] In other words, symbolic castration is the event where the subject arises, as Symbolic has risen, out of the loss (and therefore, in the future, the subject is constituted by the lack) of the Real. This is my second issue with Žižek then: he is not Hegelian enough. I do think it is important to note that the implication of the objet petit a being “the object which is shaped or distorted by the subject’s desires and fears” is the fact that the objet petit a is not the object of desire but rather the object in desire.[17]

Lastly, let us look at how Bataille goes beyond Žižek. As I mentioned earlier, my first issue with Žižek’s was his use of castration to constitute the subject. I take issue with this because it ultimately means that Žižek’s materialism doesn’t escape idealism because “Žižek ultimately stabilizes or purifies his theory by tying it to Freud’s theory of castration, thereby reducing the object of desire to the maternal Thing”.[18] Bataille’s base materialism still exceeds Žižek’s aporetic materialism without matter because “Bataille’s conception of matter … is not limited by castration”.[19]

Bibliography

Albarelli, Andrea. “The Ambassadors (1533).” Research Gate, January 2015. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-Ambassadors-1533-In-this-artwork-Hans-Holbein-depicts-a-perspectively-transformed_fig3_283556973.

Johnston, Adrian. “Materialism without Materialism: Slavoj Žižek and the Disappearance of Matter.” In Slavoj Žižek and Dialectical Materialism, edited by Agon Hamza and Frank Ruda, 3–22. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Kennedy, Kevin. “The aporias of matter: Bataille’s subjective stain and/at the origin of Žižek’s materialism.” In Stains/Les taches: Communication and Contamination in French and Francophone Literature and Culture, edited by Blake Gutt and Zoe Angelis, 181–199. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2019.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Ideology III: To Read Too Many Books Is Harmful.” Slavoj Zizek — Ideology III. Lacan.com, 1997. https://www.lacan.com/zizchemicalbeats.html.

— — — . The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. New York, NY: Verso, 2007.

References

[1]: Adrian Johnston, “Materialism without Materialism: Slavoj Žižek and the Disappearance of Matter,” in Slavoj Žižek and Dialectical Materialism, ed. Agon Hamza and Frank Ruda (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 3–22, 3.

[3]: Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters (New York, NY: Verso, 2007), 124.

[4]: Ibid., 124–125.

[5]: Ibid., 125.

[6]: Kevin Kennedy, “The aporias of matter: Bataille’s subjective stain and/at the origin of Žižek’s materialism,” in Stains/Les taches: Communication and Contamination in French and Francophone Literature and Culture, ed. Blake Gutt and Zoe Angelis (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2019), pp. 181–199, 184.

[7]: Ibid., 181.

[8]: Andrea Albarelli, “The Ambassadors (1533),” (Research Gate, January 2015), https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-Ambassadors-1533-In-this-artwork-Hans-Holbein-depicts-a-perspectively-transformed_fig3_283556973.

[9]: Kevin Kennedy, “The aporias of matter: Bataille’s subjective stain and/at the origin of Žižek’s materialism,” in Stains/Les taches: Communication and Contamination in French and Francophone Literature and Culture, ed. Blake Gutt and Zoe Angelis (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2019), pp. 181–199, 182.

[10]: Ibid., 184.

[11]: Ibid.

[12]: Ibid., 185.

[13]: Ibid., 187.

[14]: Ibid., 188.

[15]: Ibid., 189.

[16]: Ibid., 190.

[17]: Ibid., 191.

[18]: Ibid., 195.

[19]: Ibid., 195–196.

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Evan Jack

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