On Georges Bataille: "The Accursed Share" versus Sado-Masochistic Aestheticism and Shock Marketing

Georges Bataille black and white photo portrait

A critique of French philosopher Georges Bataille (10 September 1897 – 9 July 1962) by Stuart Wise: January 2008. © 2019 Dialectical Butterflies.

Submitted by Fozzie on December 23, 2023

Bataille's most important work The Accursed Share was originally published in its complete form as Le Part Maudit by Editions Minuit in 1967 though many sub-sections had escaped in passages published here and there in magazine form years previously going back to the early 1950s. It must have seemed the predictions in the book were coming true a year later in the French uprising of May 1968 when Bataille's discussion of surplus potlatch morphed into the revolutionary festival of the oppressed. However by then far more coherent developments based initially on the theory of what to do with the surplus were available and it is somewhat unfortunate Bataille's major work was to be eclipsed by events. If by 1967 the work of The Accursed Share was already done, thereafter and post '68 it is the book's vagaries that become influential, Bataille in general having a huge influence on post-modernist nothingness. The worst of Bataille - and their was much - became the endless, evasive tedium garnishing the hip ideology of counter revolution which followed though this depended more on other aspects of Bataille's oeuvre which will be discussed here shortly.

The Accursed Share is prefixed with a quotation from Blake 'Exuberance is Beauty' but really much of the book is taking up with a discussion of energy and so a further aphorism from Blake would have been exactly right: 'Energy is Eternal Delight'. Rereading the book carefully this time I was forcibly struck by the fact there is a lot of science in it, not quite 'hard' science but not soft either and that his discussion of energy and of the biosphere anticipates Lovelock because he treats energy, which he says ultimately derives from light (and which in a manner of speaking includes gravity), as a constant of the organic and inorganic. It's what happens to it, how it evolves, changes, transformed and is consumed, whether in a good or bad form, that is the critical factor. So it would not surprise me if The Accursed Share begins to attract a readership once more, a different sort of readership to that of ex-artists (who were the first to grasp the revolutionary significance of Bataille's ideas) composed of economists, ecologists, geologists and scientists particularly physicists like Freeman Dyson who as we know is spellbound by Blake's dictum. (And so much of Blake is spellbinding and The Accursed Share was the push that I needed to finally acknowledge that Blake was the greatest, the most consistently revolutionary, the most experimentally minded of all the Romantics. The closest to the nascent industrial proletariat and to industry, he was the last social visionary known and published who genuinely did 'see' things, (there were many others whom alas had no profile) that part of him disappearing underground to reappear for example amongst the miners like in my elderly uncles and aunts as it vanished amongst 'the poets' except as affectation, but without that brilliantly scary capacity among individuals liberally ensconced among the industrial working class to 'see' adding to social critique as it so palpably did in Blake. And what was true of Blake was also true of many individuals among the dispossessed of the English revolution of the 1640s). Moreover it was also a vision of wildness encompassing sexual and social longings and liberation as an indivisible whole that was common to a scorned "irregular Methodism".

Bataille had also been in consultation with a scientist George Ambrosini, a research director at the X-ray laboratory. Bataille explicitly says that without Ambrosini "I could not have constructed this book". In fact France played a crucial role in the discovery of X-rays (Madame Curie) and in the build up to understanding how nuclear fission works (Louise Meintner) and Bataille and Ambrosini must have discussed the finer points of atomic theory with Bataille acting as the junior partner. As a generous and remarkable footnote of relevance to the present by Bataille concedes "This book is in large part the work of Ambrosini. I personally regret that the atomic research in which he participates has removed him, for a time, from research in general economy. I must express the hope that he will resume in particular the study he has begun with me of the movements of energy on the surface of the globe" (my emphasis) The collaboration between Bataille and Ambrosini doesn't quite come off. But what should have been a portent of things to come and something to be taken to a much higher level, is now as far away as ever and it is as though this fruitful collaboration never existed, a mere one off and never to be even remotely countenanced when contemporary conditions are crying out for a cooperation of the best there is. No single individual is capable of uniting all knowledge into a coherent revolutionary whole and we are condemned to trying as best as we can.

The sense of apocalypse that pervades the book, of a sudden and catastrophic release of energy, is that of the atomic bomb. Bataille must have known of the first and second law of thermodynamics and their universal relevance though never mentions them specifically. And yet the entire book is about energy as an overlooked category of political economy, indeed the basic category implying energy as work by which he largely means the work of the industrial proletariat, and what is then done with the surplus, surplus energy rather than surplus value (Bataille appears to avoid the concept as too limiting). And yet there are significant glimpses of other forms of energy, that of light, of photosynthesis, the energy of the biosphere including its geology, all of which comes as a revelation to modern sensibilities now attuned to the immanence of another form of apocalypse, nature's apocalypse arising from the capitalised burning of fossil energy the most essential qualification of all regarding the burning of fossil fuels and the one that can never be accurately discussed.


In a biography of Bataille by Nick Land entitled The Thirst for Annihilation Land wrote that the crucial themes traversing Bataille work were laughter, excrement and death exhibiting themselves as all encompassing, irreconcilable and irreducible as Bataille himself. The trouble is Bataille was also something of an exhibitionist and though never a pre-celebrity, liked to shock for the sake of it. Nonetheless it meant he became a very easy target for the vast extent of post modernist recuperation.

In 1928 Bataille pseudonymously published a porno novel The Story of the Eye. Around this time or in response to the book, Breton called him an obsessive and an excremental philosopher. For certain the conflict between these two was quite something. But ever since the late 1960s and early 1970s the greater lucidity of Andre Breton in comparison to Georges Bataille has melted into the background and a shift utterly related to the reactionary nature of these abysmal times. Bataille came to constantly deploy the notion of 'transgression' especially transgression against any form of sexual morality at the same time as he fought shy of discussing anything to do with 'transcendence' more particularly transcendence of the fundamental basics of a society increasingly rotten to the core. It is a necessary distinction to make because the last decades of the 20th century - and since - transgression in terms of changed behaviour in everyday life has become something which capitalism has quite happily been able to take on board, indeed becoming its very lifeblood. The shock value of transgression has thus become greatly weakened even helping the money-making machine on its apocalyptic way as it careers headlong towards the brink of the greatest precipice in human history. Transcendence, especially social revolutionary transcendence was fundamental to Breton and even as he got older - though in a highly contradictory manner - he at one and the same time became more ridiculously mystically artistic (e.g. nervous of the shamanic objet d'art he'd collected in his apartment thinking they had profound powers) and more lucid (e.g. his contribution to the short but to the point surrealist text on the 1956 Hungarian revolution which strongly supported the sovereignty of the workers councils). Bataille, though always interesting and often very sharp indeed lacked that fundamental clarity. However his writing always breathes life eschewing the academism (and academic role) that destroyed Foucault and the even more miserable plethora of post modernists that were to follow e.g. Bataille's first wife married Lacan and Derrida also was deeply influenced by Bataille. As for Foucault he never even dared go as far as Bataille and Foucault's notion of "limit experience" was merely a dilution of transgression. For Foucault, "limit experience" was the derring-do of an acid trip driving out into the Arizona desert listening to Schoenberg! (Wow, the audacity of such a thing). As for us "limit experience" we could perhaps say was the day we ended up working on an IRA building site where some of the guys openly talked of soldiers they'd shot from Belfast's Divis Flats thinking we were from N. Ireland and as meek northern English specimens shaking and keeping our damned mouths shut. Well, if not "limit experience" it was also 10 times more hairy than chance encounter!

Nonetheless today in comparison to Andre Breton, Georges Bataille's much mitigated influence is seemingly everywhere especially in that whole slew of installation artists and safe marketable seeming provocations that never really question the artistic paradigms, roles and other representations of the old order. For certain it sits comfortably in an art gallery and well before the 1997 major exhibition in the Pompidou centre in Paris called Formless devoted to a rereading of Bataille ideas as explanation and adjunct to a diverse range of post-war art. This exhibit though was finally to artistically canonise Bataille.

It's not as if the professional pundits aren't completely unawares of some of this; it's just that they haven't got to mention these essential truths too much, for if they did they'd be out of their professional dissimulators jobs pretty darned quick. Nonetheless occasionally they have to insert a few telling lines as you have to keep on board a certain veracity but it is a tightrope they walk. Consider some of the following in relation to the exhibition: 'Undercover Surrealism: Miro, Masson, and the vision of George Bataille' put on at London's Hayward Gallery and elaborated by that snaked-tongued cultural journalist Adrian Searle in The Guardian (11/5/06)

The exhibition was basically centred around Documents edited by Bataille along with Michel Leiris running to 15 issues between 1929/30. They dreamed of setting up editorial office in a particularly decrepit Paris brothel the prostitutes being enlisted in the editorial teem.

If Bataille is known today to a general audience, it is as a pornographer. Undercover surrealism celebrates the perverse, the contrary, the deliberately incongruous, and the arcane. The show was a cabinet of curiosities and at times a chamber of horrors. Catholic kitsch passion bottles were displayed in the same section as Picasso's 'Three Dancers'.

The exhibition was the brain child of art historian Dawn Ades and part of the team that created the 1978 'Dada and Surrealism Reviewed' in the Hey-word gallery and included a small section devoted to Bataille. Picasso had an entire issue of Documents devoted to him. Bataille remarked Picasso was a man "who could love a canvas as much as a fetishist loves a shoe". According to Searle it was surprising how little remains genuinely shocking. Mostly the frisson of transgression has died away, if only because we have seen so much. As with so much that was once deemed beyond the pale, the thrill has gone, or at least has found its market niche gone mainstream---. The most abject pornography imaginable is but few clicks away on the internet, while surrealism has been thoroughly co-opted by the advertising game. "One final point: it is the photographs rather than the conventional art that still provokes recoil like those taken in a slaughterhouse". (Adrian Searle, the Guardian 11/5/06)

And then we have others adding their ten penneth cultivating the Bataille legend of sheer mystique.

Consider Thomas Sutcliffe in the Independent January 2007 writing on the Chapman Bros' exhibition at Tate Liverpool:

'There were lots about Bataille and Deleuze etc. But no mention of the commercial enterprises that exist to satisfy all teenagers appetite for the gross and morbid. I was reminded - of - the horror comic constructions kits that were popular when I was young. Is Bataille really a bigger influence? Great chunks of aesthetic DNA had been excluded from the essays about their work.'

Consider journalist Johann Hari 5/2/2007 on The Art of Subverting the Enlightenment

'If a single work of modern art has penetrated our distracted consciousness in the past decade it is the penis-nosed, vagina mouthed child-mannequins designed by Dinos and Jake Chapman ---The Chapman brothers offer a kind of punk art that spits in your face punches you in the stomach and nicks your wallet while you are puking on the floor'.

Hari describes himself as 'staggering around their retrospective in Tate Liverpool'. Hari sees them as anti-Enlightenment even equating them with fascism and definitely exemplifying the irrationality of the times. However, the reality is far more banal. They are the perfect expression of capitalism - emptily provocative, shallow, pseudo-profound and animated by the all consuming desire for money and fame no different from the Gallagher brothers. Jake Chapman has declared 'The Enlightenment project ' virulently infects the earth'. He says this not because he believes it or that he agrees with Horkheimer's denunciation of the Enlightenment but because it pointlessly shocks - just like his reply to the question: 'Does Bataille's formulation of the conception of transgression relate to the way that work like your own is sometimes suggested as being part of a necessary force' to which he replied: 'Yes - a good social service like the children who killed Jamie Bulger'. The only possible result: - An increase in the personality price rating of this enfante horrible of art whose sole concern is the amassing of wealth through the media savvy milking of the shallowest notoriety. Hari points out 'foolish critics' (i.e. duped critics unable to see the obvious) have praised the 'moral anger' in the Chapman's work but to Hari this is immoral anger, celebrating injustice and cruelty as 'transgression' and remember a favourite concept of Bataille's who is the 'the Chapman's intellectual hero'. Bataille more than anyone else has been responsible for the latter day cult of De Sade as pornographer, post-modern shock jock and tasteless advertiser and which is designed for one purpose only - to mask the fact De Sade was at times a genuine revolutionary. Despite Bataille's pretending to be more De Sade than De Sade was himself, the only achievement of the 20th cult of De Sade has been to take him out of the Bastille and lock him up instead in the myriad bastions of museums of modern art. Hari obviously hates De Sade just as any English moral philosopher would be honour bound to (shades of Bertrand Russell here), simplistically accepting without question the conventional wisdom that De Sade was - well - no more than a sadist enjoying killing and torture for its own sake, forgetting he courageously spoke out against the death sentence at the height of the terror as well as describing the totality of all forms of sexuality, the 'nice' ones and the 'nasty' ones. Now both stances took courage - enormous courage.

Hari however is right to hate that other disciple of Bataille, Michael Foucault: 'In a telling parable about post modernism, Foucault went to Iran in 1978 to witness the incipient revolution---. He was searching for a new intellectual project. He found it in Ayatollah Khomeini! As Hari says had Foucault stayed on in Tehran he would have been eventually hanged for his homosexuality. Jake Chapman had objected to the opposition to the blowing up of ancient Buddhist sculptures by the Taliban - and which the Chapman Bros' supported - as 'strange' describing it as 'live, vital religious opposition to something that has a direct and local meaning to them'. To which we would reply why not blow up all of the Chapman brothers works, Dinos and Jake included for they are their 'art'. Without them it is meaningless junk because the artist today is the art. Now that would have more than a local meaning for its truth would resonate across the globe and would be a blow for universal freedom.

They also made a mint at the Frieze art fair, perhaps around £250.000 for a few hours crap work and that's is by the by merely a day's trading and a price far above your average seller of vegetables in disappearing trad style markets.

Consider also Louise Jury, arts correspondent to The Independent 1st August 2006 on the ICA exhibition of Juvenilia: August 2006. Dinos Chapman exhibited a papier-mache money-box pig made when he was eight. 'The Chapman Brothers' principle capacity in recent years has been to shock, whether through sexually mutated child mannequins or the doctoring of an edition of Goya's etchings'. Need we go on ad nauseum?

Regarding Bataille and his huge influence, let's deal in particular with Genesis P-Orridge and his partner, Lady Jane Breyer (now deceased) seeing they obviously come to mind. Indeed the very title 'Lady' is hardly ironic because they really did/do worship the established hierarchy and both fairly recently performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London. This very life style orientation bears all the hallmarks of Bataille's influence - realised in the flesh as it were - especially the afore mentioned 1920s novel, The History of the Eye which in itself is also Lautreamont without somehow his name never in the frame. The latter's presence is there in the dismembered self of body parts, the recombinant recombined DNA human being, the chromosome reconstructed human being and the bizarre reflection on Darwinism and natural selection. (The original Songs of Maldoror appeared two years after The Origins of the Species and in the same year as Mendel's discoveries which ultimately would lead to the analysis of DNA and its aesthetic, spectacularised equivalent which Porridge is part of. And perhaps too it's worth remembering that Breton hated the fact Isodore Ducasse had deployed the aristocratic non-de-plume Comte de Lautreamont though this was possibly an ironic wave in the direction of Lord Byron). However, it only needed Orridge and deceased partner to take Bataille's aestheticisation of De Sade and Lautremont a step further - a seemingly but only seemingly - more radical step for it to become 'real' as each swapped living tissue which the couple epithetically styled 'pandrogyny'. Essentially Orridge and deceased partner are about making a fashion statement out of body parts and always and despite the social workery tinge of helping poorly children is always with an eye to potential money making by keeping the whole reconstruction/deconstruction within the safe orbit of the gallery system exactly on the lines of creeps like the Chapman Bros, Stewart Home etc. Orridge's is no longer about clothes promo but promoing flesh leaving behind their older vanguardisms like industrial music - because industry is now passé - and body parts, concomitant essentially with a growing absence of feeling, is now the thing.

However, the living death of market appeal is nothing as linear and clear-cut as this because like so much else nostalgically pointing to the demise of creativity especially emphasised on the pop circuit who constantly reform their pop groups for yet another in memoriam final act and curtain repeated ad infinitum. Obviously such post festums are preludes to accruing more dosh so Porridge put together industrial music's Throbbing Gristle for a 'final' concert in 2004. The reunion - the pointless reunions - clearly mark the utter deadness of the age whether in the pop milieu or a lot more sadly - as we really cannot expect much else from a pop world on its last legs - the last Rebel Worker, the last King Mob, a revamped situationist group get together - and so on. The sentimentality of all this is truly astounding, especially as the latter examples involve no crude money making beyond ridiculously imitating the style of those who do.

After the failure of his hedge funds in the late 1990s, Michael Milken saw new money making prospects in the emerging bio-economy as a source of futures trading. A decade later and Orridge and Co are the artistic counterpart of Craig Venter's publicity mad machine purveying the potentiality of life forms as pure capitalism and stock market quotation. Doubtless there will be many more followers: I cyborg as a fashion statement.

However, rather than go into Craig Venter here and quite what a monster the guy is dwarfing any Dr Frankenstein in his grotesque billionairing it is best to refer to the next section on the bio-economy and not its pale Orridge-like reflection. One further point, the bio-engineering text deals with Das Kapital. Bataille's take on Marx and social revolution was very limited, even verging on the appalling. Unlike the deeper reflections around Breton which tentatively pointed towards the greater coherence of Lettrism, International Lettrism and the Situationists regarding the central questions of our age, Bataille was largely to equate Marx with the state, especially the Stalinist state as filtered through the crap the French Communist party put out which he half supported or thought of as an inevitable next step throughout the whole of Europe. Yes, sadly it was all this despite Bataille's slight incursions into Trotskyism in the late 1920s which from then on he was unable to develop. It was to prove a fatal limitation and Bataille's downfall in terms of a future worth remembering.

Above: A Portuguese Remembrance (Lembrando) of Stuart Wise in a 2022 edition of Flauta da Luz (The Enlightened Flute)