Some Notes and Commentary on Death, Desire, and Mastery


Desire negates its object, and because of this Desire is negation. The subject is therefore negativity when it is Desire. This also means that the subject is defined by what it negates, or in other words, because the subject is just “pure negative-negativity without content”, its content is determined, its nature is defined, by the object which it negates.[1] Desire (self-consciousness) is a sort of mode of self-differentiation because it, improperly, views itself as separated from its object (we also have a sense of alienation from the “whole” because of this separation), or in other words, the subject-as-Desire (self-consciousness) views itself as its own independent reality/existence separated from objective reality (the “whole”). Consciousness realizes itself as self-consciousness via this differentiation, via desire. But consciousness, for Hegel and Bataille, does not realize itself as self-consciousness by having, for example, a natural object as the object of desire like an animal does. The animal doesn’t realize its consciousness as self-consciousness because its object never “transcends” the world, and because the subject necessarily defines itself, determines its content, by and in relation to that which it negates, it therefore will never see itself as “transcending” (seperated from) this world. What this means is that, for Hegel and Bataille, Desire must have something which transcends this world, or is negativity. This means that consciousness, to realize itself as self-consciousness, must have the Desire of the other as its object. The two subjects enter into a dialectical battle (which Bataille calls ‘the game’, Hegel calls the Master-Slave Dialectic, and Kojève calls the dialectic of recognition) and it is this conflict that allows these two subjects to be on their way to achieving an intersubjective existence. This also means that these two subjects are dependent on one another for their intersubjective existence and therefore must not negate each other. This leaves us in a situation where both subjects must be left alive (not negated) but at the same time, these subjects are still trying to exert themselves (their subjectivities) upon each other as they want to subordinate the other as their object in order to assert themselves as the subject. This is where Hegel’s ideas of ‘the Master’ and ‘the Slave’ come into play. The Master is the subject who, in this dialectical battle, asserts themselves as the subject, is the victor. Thus, the subject who loses this dialectical battle, is subordinated by the Master as their object, is the Slave. A question you may have is “why is one the Master or the Slave?”. This question has a simple answer: the subject’s relation/attitude towards life and death. The subject who doesn’t fear death and risks their life in this battle is the Master. This latter fact is because it is the subject who’s servility and fear of death makes them unwilling to risk their life in this battle, and it is this unwillingness that makes them resign to the Master’s exertion of themselves (the Master’s subjectivity). It is in the subject’s succumbing to the exertion of the Master’s self that this subject becomes the Slave. The Slave can also be conceptualized as fulfilling the purpose of the object for the Master, this purpose being self-differentiation from the immanent world, by the fact that the Slave is subordinated to work with the world in producing things for the Master’s consumption as the Master does not work but still consumes. This conception of the Slave as the Worker has allowed theorists such as Kojève to give Hegel’s concept of the Master-Slave Dialectic as an extremely Marxist “flavor”.

Now, many critics of Bataille try to say that Bataille’s concept of ‘the Sovereign’ and Hegel’s concept of ‘the Master’ are the same, and then try to launch a critique of Bataille off this false assertion. Gemerchak makes two important differentiations between Bataille’s concept of the Sovereign and Hegel’s concept of the Master: 1. The Master must still stay alive after they risk themselves in order to reach the truth of self-consciousness (Absolute Knowledge) and 2. The Master utilizes their risk as a way to subordinate the other to the position of the Slave (the Master makes the Slave work). I will make a third differentiation between Bataille’s Sovereign and Hegel’s Master: 3. The Master is doing teleological action, they are risking themselves for an end. It is in these three ways that Hegel’s Master is servile, not sovereign. The Sovereign does not have a teleological end, a purpose. The Sovereign does not have to do anything, they do not have to maintain their life. In fact, the Sovereign truly does not care if they die. They also do not try to subordinate the Slave to themself, they do not put the slave to work. The Sovereign has no power over the world because they are in a state of intimacy with the world, they are experiencing the immanence of every moment as if these moments were the most beautiful and sublime image. They give attention to all that is sacred and useless. The Master deals only with the profane, they only care for that which furthers themself, that which is useful.

I don’t think it is then hard to disagree with Kojève that consciousness is structured by death as, if we agree with Hegel, Bataille, and Kojève, it is the fear of death that constitutes our subjectivity (self-consciousness).

The Slave fails to negate, fails to become the subject, fails to maintain themselves (their negativity (themself as negativity)) in the dialectical battle. The Slave can only maintain their consciousness like all others: through negation. The Master negates via consumption. The Slave negates via work, via production. On the one hand, the Master negates the use of the object they consume (think Marx talking about the use-value of commodities being used up upon consumption in Capital Volume I). The Slave, on the other hand, negates via work, i.e. by way of negating “the independence of the given world to which it is bound”, by way of transforming and acting upon the world to which it is bound.[2] The Slave is thus also servile as they can only maintain their slavish consciousness by way of the servile operation of work. Could one then say that almost all under capitalism are Slaves and not Masters? Is the breaking out of the Master-Slave Dialectic the rupturing movement of the Sovereign? Yes! The Sovereign sits outside the dialectic, and laughs at the Master and the Slave!

The implication of the latter paragraph is also that the Master is the slave of the Slave in that the Slave only maintains their existence (as negativity) by belonging, being subordinated to the Master. The Master in this way is the object which the Slave has/uses to determine themself, their content. Gemerchak says “[b]ecause the recognition of the master’s self-consciousness comes from a slavish object [(the Slave)], the master’s truth is slavish consciousness… Master is thus constituted by servility”.[3] Kojève’s concept of ‘the Master’s existential impasse’ is the idea that because the Slave is below the Master, the Master’s recognition by the Slave means nothing, and it is in this way that the Master risked their life for nothing. We can look at this in a Bataillean way. The Master becomes a thing by reducing the Slave to a thing, or in other words, “one degrades oneself in degrading the other who mediates one’s desire, by turning the other into a thing”.[4] One becomes, or reduces themselves to, a thing by viewing (and therefore relating to) others (e.g., a rock, people, animals, etc. etc.) as things.

We could extend Kojève’s idea that death structures consciousness as a critique of Hegel in that self-consciousness is predicated off death and consciousness which cannot go together (as if you were dead then you wouldn’t be conscious) and therefore complete self-consciousness is impossible as one cannot know death. Death is outside the dialectic of Absolute Knowledge. One cannot know death as it, to Bataille, reveals absolutely nothing, it is unknowable.

Bataille sees the structure of Hegelian self-consciousness like a mirror in that it is the mirror-play of desire that “one becomes conscious of oneself in-and-through, if not as, an other (desire) that one desires”.[5] The Slave, it could be argued, knows death because it benefits from two moments: 1. If we look at how Bataille sees Hegelian self-consciousness as a mirror, we can say that the Slave, who has its negativity only because of the Master’s recognition, could see themself in (the mirror of recognition and see) the Master when the Master risks their life. The Slave can do this even without having to risk their own life. Gemerchak calls this ‘manifestation of death’, which the Slave sees manifest at the moment in which the Master risks their life, the Negative. 2. The Slave, seeing this “conscious appearance of death” (the Negative), has an “inner experience of trembling out of fear” for “the nothingness of one’s own negativity”.[6] This “double movement” of looking at mirrors (seeing the Negative), and going into an inner experience of trembling is “a ‘subterfuge’ of identification’.[7] In other words, the Slave identifies with the Master, who risks their life, and it is this game of mirrors, this process of seeing oneself (in this case the Slave) in the other (in this case the Master), that allows the Slave to become conscious of their own death, “one’s nothingness ‘revealed’ by the other”.[8] The Master in this case is the ‘other-object’ for the Slave. Gemerchak says that “death presensented in the form of an other-object (the master) gave the slave the impression of dying,” and then he parlty quotes Kojève, “or in Kojève’s words, the slavish consciousness ‘melted internally, it shuddered deeply and everything fixed-or-stable trembled in it… [an] absolute liquefaction of every stable support”.[9] For Gemerchak, it is “in this moment of absolute rending” that “the slave experienced an anxiety for its very being that the master did not have” and it is because of this that “[f]or the slave, then, death had become a conscious possibility”.[10] Gemerchak then says something quite interesting. He says that because for the Slave death has become conscious, that the Slave was in [emphasis mine] “a position to become fully human”.[11] I think it could be said that what is truly human is this anguish we have over death, this anxiety. For Bataille, animals do not have this anguish over death that humans have.

There is also an irony in the Master’s movements in that both of these movements undermine their position as master. We have covered how the Master’s recognition of the Slave makes the Master the slave of the Slave. But we should also look at how the Master undermines their own position by putting the Slave to work. The Slave, for Kojève (and Hegel (?)), find their self-liberation in work. For it is through work that the Slave can impose themself upon the world through transforming it, like we talked about earlier in this essay, and it is this very imposition, this very self-exertion of the Slave’s subjectivity upon the object, that allows the Slave to realize their own negativity. Hegel and Kojève, in this way, believe one can live death by way of work, and Bataille could not disagree more. The Master is internalized at the moment the Slave sees the Master risk their life and work becomes infused with the consciousness of death.[12] Thus for Hegel and Kojève is “productive negation” which is contra unproductive expenditure.[13] Hegelian sovereignty in this way is based upon servility and slavishness.


Gemerchak, Christopher M. The Sunday of the Negative: Reading Bataille Reading Hegel. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003.


[1]: Christopher M. Gemerchak, The Sunday of the Negative: Reading Bataille Reading Hegel (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), 43.

[2]: Ibid., 46.

[3–4]: Ibid., 47.

[5–7]: Ibid., 48.

[8–11]: Ibid., 49.

[12–13]: Ibid., 51.


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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