Issue #33 July 2020

Sovereign Disregard: On Bataille’s Accursed Share

Alfred Stieglitz — “Georgia O’Keeffe — Hands” — (c.1919) — (detail)

In his late work on sovereignty, , Georges Bataille argues that the modern revolutions, bourgeois or communist, were anti-feudal: they sought to destroy the privilege of kings and God — both the these figures manifested against the common man, and their sumptuous of resources. From feudal lords to ideal divinities, figures of sovereignty were accused of exploiting the common man, denying material conditions and exerting an undeserved power over things. On this basis the revolution gathered: “These masses have never united except in a radical hostility to the principle of sovereignty” (288); “The rebel is defined by the categorical no he opposes to the world of sovereignty as a whole” (252).

What characterizes traditional sovereignty, which the modern rebel rejects? A squandering of resources in excess consumption in the presentscorn for useful activity; benefiting from property without laboring for it; and giving exorbitant gifts, indulging in luxuries beyond measure — whether by palaces, churches, gardens to inspire , or by surpluses to win the challenge for .

By definition, the sovereign does not “labor is the exact opposite of the sovereign attitude” (283). Not only are sovereigns free from the necessities that rule the work world, they also enjoy to no purpose what has been produced. The sovereign’s symbolic role is therefore separate from whatever practical ‘governing’ they may do, however much these aspects get mixed up — for example, in the classic theological problem: why did God, who is not constrained by any necessity, create and order the universe? The “perfect God,” constrained to uphold order in the universe, is for this reason sovereign but constrained and servile. By contrast, for Bataille, the sovereign qua sovereignty possesses an utterly attitude. They are not subordinated to any goal, neither the maintenance of order (cosmic or worldly) nor individual survival, for “subordination is always grounded in the alleged need to avoid death” 222). At the limit, the sovereign denies the boundaries of the individual and risks death in the moment, preferring symbolic prestige over personal survival (220), magnificence over life (353). No caution or concern is exercised for the sake of benefit or pay-off. Its existence is thus antithetical to the world of work, to the maintenance of society, and to concerns of rational accumulation and survival. Bataille links directly to joy: “The truth is that we have no real happiness except by spending to no purpose” (178); “Life beyond utility is the domain of sovereignty” (198).

In sum, the sovereign stands opposite to all ends — accumulating material goods, accomplishing useful works, being something, and so on, for it is oriented to a totally — the magnificence of the splendor of total futility, of unlimited loss.

The modern revolt against sovereign privilege is a revolt against these freedoms and the subjective principles that underlie them. It is a revolt against the aloofness of those who benefit from labor and squander its products without working for them. Modernity, from this perspective, is a shift in priority, a move away from splendor to efficiency, from leisure to industry, industriousness, business and “busy-bodiness” — above all, the of productivity and accumulation against sovereign loss and display. Surpluses are not but reinvested into developing the means of production. The useless and aspect of the sovereign is deemed irrational. Capriciousness and spontaneity are progressively eradicated from humanity’s set of values — or they are manipulated by the culture industry into patterns of consumption that reinforce the dominant productive modes (see Guy Debord’s and Theodore Adorno’s ). “Value” itself changes from a subjective apprehension to a material status. In contrast to feudal society, structured around the dignity of sovereigns, and development of means of production structure modern society and consciousness. This is can be summarized as the rule of profit: the law of value which reigns under capitalism (see Antonio Negri’s ). As the excesses of the feudal order are excised and the value of sovereignty annulled, a utilitarian world emerges more and more: an operational world geared to anticipated results, without but only sequential durations.

Once one asserts that man is a rational actor — an economic being, a whose essence is to secure, save, accumulate, and profit to survive — what is lost is the question of sovereign subjectivity, useless expenditure, and life lived immediately without concern for the future. It is a loss of the magnificence of “not-doing,” of the marvelous, wondrous, and uselessly playful, of that which cannot be anticipated or be the result of a calculated effort (226). Put in abstract terms, it is the loss of an experience of NOTHING, of being without producing anything, of a non-servile, existence.

And yet this question, tied to what lies deepest in the human heart, cannot be erased. Humanity balks at its reduction to workerhood and its servile insertion into a world of subjugated practices, servile ends, and social utility. The world of useful works is left with a void that only sovereign moments can fill. No more than the mere survival of bare life, accumulation is not enough to satisfy ends — the desire for joy tied to fruitless excess, the wondrous and futile. From there comes an inexorable desire to of subordination of every sort and exist freely — in for the rationally-ordered world.

· · ·

In the feudal era, Bataille argues (282–7), it was possible for the masses to accept their servile existence because they continued to in the glory of the kings and gods that fascinated them. Lords and office holders under the sovereign received not just use of land and property but a share of grace, of sacred existence. More broadly, humans long understood their labor as a service to the gods, who never toil and work.1placeholder What the feudal people traded in with the toil of their body, they received back in communion with the and/or some meaningful insertion into the order of things, the cosmopolitical. Proximity to the king especially meant sharing in the king’s grandeur — this is the meaning of “nobility” — just as in the religious world one ascends a hierarchy of holiness, of God’s administers and angels, coming closer and closer to God and sharing in God’s divinity. The challenge brought against traditional royal and priestly structures — remember that the Reformation coincided with anti-feudal revolution — changes the status of servility and labor, as well as the location of splendor, which I will now discuss.

One could argue that the dynamic between noble and king is similar to the glorification of the “rich and famous” by the masses. Likewise, one finds analogies to religious liturgy in music festivals, the stage of contemporary , or in competitive king-making reality TV programs. However, the sovereignty one finds in these modes of glorification is indirect, indeed laughable. Celebrities serve a supreme form of servility — entertaining the public — and if they fail in this the fall from grace is fast. The business man is similarly stricken to a wide variety of social norms and prohibitions, laws and behaviors, that render him least free and creative. The sovereignty of a billionaire is degraded: it comes not from — the squandering that challenges and attains dignity — but — a false dignity tied to the world of things and material possessions, swag bags and bling. It is not at all the of the given but an into the given that takes advantage of their subordination. What the masses worship in the rich is therefore vastly unlike the adoration members of the court might have owed the king. A certain symbolic function has been emptied out. What is left to glorify in the rich and famous is but the arbitrariness of the social ordering of fortunes in general.

Nevertheless, today, ; the concrete reality of freedom from the necessity to work; and, in a disreputable fashion, the continued wars of rank between humans In a similar vein, the best-selling way to convince people of their nearness to God nowadays is to tie material wealth directly to spiritual wealth: the prosperity gospel. Though the semblance of freedom afforded by wealth is usually only desperately attained (unless by chains of privilege, luck of birthplace, inheritance, etc.); and though affluent strata of persons continue to work and accumulate wealth well beyond necessity, fortune still represents the prospect of sovereignty, the freedom to . But that principle is a sham: fortune is ceaselessly taken back up into the program of accumulation. It is a freedom situated in the future, just as rank by mass fame is little more than conformity to class norms and stocks of fashion.

Amassing wealth, maintaining savings accounts, watching the stock market, lowering taxes, stocking retirement funds, and so on, continue to matter because, ideologically speaking, the degraded freedom of capitalist reality. Retirement, for example, is envisioned as a future time of freedom from labor, security from work, and leisurely spending. When the body’s usefulness to the world economy is gone, and there is no more chance to earn, one’s investments should be enough for survival past one’s working age; so goes the logic that is universally set in motion by pensions, social security, and 401K’s — signs of working adulthood all shaped by a definition of the human as worker and of freedom as bound to financial freedom. Fortune is meant to equal freedom from work or at least foreshadow it; and so it retains hints of the Sacred.

No matter how it is for the average individual to “get rich,” the margin of freedom that surplus money afford the “winner” shimmers in the popular imagination like the last semblance of sovereignty left. At the same time, it is clear that here fortune has lost its tie to the present moment, nothingness, and freedom.

The logic of accumulation gives primacy to ends; subjective elevation is tied to objective status. Competition for continues on the basis of . Material goods are gained as though goods directly conferred sovereign dignity — when really there is nothing about possession, which on the contrary represents attachment to the world of subordination. One thinks here of the proverbial entrepreneur who works all his life and gets all the luxuries he could want, yet once he retires falls into a suicidal depression. This points up how the subjective end can be totally missing even when objective ends are reached. From the perspective of non-servility, the rich remain to riches — to investments that place the future above the present, forestalling subjective destitution and encounter with death. Sovereign thought thus rejects rank and social standing, opting instead for the of the bottom of the social ladder (423).2placeholder

Alfred Stieglitz — “Georgia O’Keeffe — Hands and Thimble” — (c.1919)

There is much hypocrisy and foolishness in the rich when they lecture the poor about saving and retirement. Obviously, a life lived with an eye on freedom in the future is constraining, lifeless, and profoundly unsovereign. Telling someone who is living paycheck to paycheck to tighten the budget, add austerity measures, don’t waste money on anything extra, and so on, amounts to saying: stop pretending you have any margin of capricious sovereignty left; remember that you are poor and exist to work; accumulation of wealth is your only chance at being free (though they only really mean financial freedom).

No doubt, there is a shred of truth in those adult-world threats, though the adult interprets the threat with fear and cowering. All luxurious spending, all sovereign acts, forgetting to budget in the future — this does put your very at risk. Capitalism, the world of practice, thrives off of this biological blackmail, accentuating the horror of death as if it could erase it — whereas it can only try to dissimulate it (see Baudrillard p. 147ff). However, people do refuse servile existence and the threats of the capitalist. One goes into debt, does drugs or drinks, embraces the void despite what it jeopardizes (cf. Trocchi, ), seeks erotic adventure and love, one takes on lives that nearly guarantee poverty, one pursues lost causes, crazy ideas, lives on the streets… In other words: one One refuses servility and utility and risks without concern for future — even if this means and The wisdom of the profligate drop-out against the rich and secure lies in understanding that the sovereign, is and than anything fortune in itself could bring.

Sovereign subjectivity repudiates any reduction of being to thinghood and to necessities of order and duration. The object I am, this limited being, can only be destroyed in affirming the subjectivity of being, which has nothing individual or personal about it, contrary to the archaic and theological concept of it. The game of fortune is just one more servitude: means, not an end. Sovereignty “belongs only to the totality” (386). Fortune doesn’t buy joy because in general does not equate to but more importantly, because It cannot easily be disentangled from misfortune. Happy tears and sad tears circulate together in the splendorous sovereignty of the totality.3placeholder Our tie to sovereign magnificence is a tie, equally, to horror, such that the difference between joy and anguish wavers in sovereign consciousness of loss. If the lessons on sovereignty are to be believed, it is by useless negativity, a rejection of useful activity, a risking of death, and a that sovereign dignity is attained — yet now in silence, without rank or superiority, without assuming any of the functions of power formally associated with sovereigns in relation to the world of things. “No cause, no commitment issue from an empty generosity, with which no expectation is connected” (370). The sovereignty at stake is thus impotent, ridiculous, awake in a defenseless of oneself, a reckless giving and dissolution in totality. Here is revealed a limit where being flows into non-being, life into death, and “self” into the continuity of an immense, indifferent emptiness.

· · ·

And yet, the rich represent for many the possibility of one day being free. Regardless of how false or distorted this perception, this ideology subjugated to fortune, one views accumulation (saving, investment, etc.) as the way out of servile life. The irony is that one tries to free oneself through the very system to which one is enslaved. Then a belief in a merit-based system is needed: those who work hard, persevere, best plan for the future, are those most worthy to come out on top. Well, coming out “on top” in bourgeois capitalist society does not mean radiating sovereign dignity or attaining a It means attaining an objective end that shines like a pile of coins, the drab glory of material possessions. Here the relationship is the inverse of traditional sovereignty, where it was not saved wealth that brought rank, but rank that brought expendable wealth. After the collapse of traditional sovereignty, sovereignty is found not in things but in their dissolution — not in fortune but where fortune is nullified, destituted.

One could view resistance to socialist and worker’s movements in the USA from this angle: resistance arises not because they are anti-capitalist , but because they imply a potential robbery of the only form of sovereignty that to be left in the capitalist world. The reduction of social inequality — expanding the destruction of the royal classes of the feudal era — tantamount to getting rid of fortune, of the chance to rise from poverty, and so of experiencing some modicum of (at least financial) freedom. That this be attainable without some personal fund — more surplus than the others — sounds implausible to the average ear. Moreover, the wrought would seem to prevent altogether. The fear is perhaps that everyone would be delivered into service of the objectivity of power: State machinations, distribution lines, education and production for the sake of the masses, and so on, with one’s autonomy gone. The unwillingness to pay taxes is already tied to the disgust at letting someone else choose how one’s own resources will be spent or wasted.

If, in the extreme, all one’s income went to public service, one would have zero income left to squander and, moreover, no free time from work. Higher taxes would mean renouncing the little margin of financial freedom one has left. Any why, one asks? For the sake of an abstract humanity of workers? By what right are we to care about our fellow humans — whether or not we benefit from them? Isn’t this duty just another form of servility and moralism? One hears the conservative bent behind this defense of personal fortune. And yet: higher wages, more expendable income, funds to not work — aren’t these the aspirations of every worker, in their refusal to be defined by the labor which exploits their free time. The aspiration of every human being who, most basically, yearns for a reprieve from useful activity, for sovereign glory?

It is common to argue that younger generations are more interested in socialist movements because the prospect of owning a home, living without debt, and retiring comfortably are less and less credible. The bourgeois way of affording (a semblance of) sovereignty in a world based on accumulation seems, with the rise of precarious labor and insurmountable debt, attainable only for a select few. Arguments for free healthcare, higher wages, and relief from student loan debt follow the same trajectory. All these struggles lie on the side of increasing fortunes for all, however that increase is construed; and so they fight for a reduction in wealth inequality, an equalization in the distribution of expendable resources — political goals that Bataille stresses are the only solution possible for our world (188–91). For, in practice, it seens senseless to renounce the advantages that fortune, however slight, affords our sovereign chances. Only the rarest of affluent individuals would choose, instead of living the marginally profligate life, to renounce their sovereignty entirely and devote their efforts to workers. Indeed, would they do so? What morality underlies such a sacrifice? What is the value of a society where everyone serves everyone else, and no one is free to ?

· · ·

There is a morality of unselfishness involved, then, when someone decides to support a worker’s movement, though material necessity does not force them to do so. Bataille has in mind the marginally more privileged bourgeois who forfeits the surplus time and fortune that otherwise seem to make sovereign life in our time possible. He speaks at length about how communism demands the a willingness in each communist to sacrifice their own freedom for the sake of the social. It represents a sovereign acceptance of servility in the name of the working man. Yet he also points out that this unselfishness can only go so far:

The higher cultural refinements do not count, when all that counts are the concerns of the working-class. Bataille touches here on the that inevitably affects anyone who, on the one hand, cares for the transformation of society, while on the other (to put it crudely), has better things to do than shackle their life energy to social concerns and others’ welfare. This non-working-class value judgment contains no malice or belittlement; it is no more pro-bourgeois than it is anti-working-class; it easily coexists with views in solidarity with oppressed humanity’s plight. Rather, it bespeaks a fundamentally impulse in the human soul, an indifference to the established world similar to nature’s own indifference to human works, one that extends all the way to indifference to oneself as a social individual, as a delimited biological being. There is an energetic drive in us which compels beyond concern for the organized, an inhuman joy in wasting ourselves to no purpose, in surrendering to the unanticipated at the limit of death. These are allurements not worked for, luxuries like poetry and painting, wandering the forest, the pleasure of sex and romance, drugs and drunkenness, mystical delirium and festiveness — all ecstasy-inducing activities that contain little by way of revolutionary activism. In that regard, they symbolize a “defect,” for they further tacit complicity with and entanglement in capitalist reality, if only by not actively combating it. They fail to place working-class humanity and its needs before the passions of humanity as such.

A gap thus separates the unselfishness implicit in the communist program and the apparent selfishness of pursuing “negligible refinements” in one’s margins of freedom (331). The first renounces its own interest, its own subjective end, for the sake of social betterment, referring its action to the objectivity of power, even in resistance. The other, rooted in an acephalic and passionate humanity, points to a quest for the limits of the possible, for a subjective end not dependent on power or fortune or material status. Torn between these two political options — for Bataille the only two: Communism and Nietzsche (368) — the individual cannot help but feel guilty for everything that runs contrary to its stated social concerns, so much so that those very refinements are denounced, even abandoned, since what are they worth in comparison to the mine worker’s trouble? Spending to no purpose, disdaining utility, refusing to play by the rules of ordered discourse and the serious world, in short, breaking the law, transgressing the world of — all this has something irrevocably and irredeemably juvenile about it, not to mention powerless. A useless exuberance, from the perspective of the class struggle, is evil. It violates the social-revolutionary contract. And yet, if humanity gave up its sovereign expression, its tiger leap into the abyss, its penchant for limitless insubordination, would there be any humanity left?

The bogeys erected against the socialist line, erected against more equal development and sharing of wealth, are clearly false. They can be explained, at least in part, by the modern misconception about the link between fortune and sovereignty, as discussed above: the mistake of associating prestige to objective rather than subjective ends. We can stand unreservedly in solidarity with the masses’ struggle and endorse a program of resource redistribution that would give each individual more chances — not to succeed on the capitalist job market, but to waste everything. This is the political beginning to honoring the subjective end at stake in each person. At the same time, from another angle at the problem, one sees emerge here an even more radical — put in the accusatory, a defense of unconcern for society, for humanity defined as useful laborer — a defense linked to the inalienable desire for existence: free of work, free to waste, free of others, free of servility; a defense of “negligible refinements” and “morbid sensitivity” that confirms and fulfills the subjective end: “I am NOTHING,” outside the domain where real action alone has weight. Fulfilling that end entails a loyalty that transcends utility in the name of the exorbitant gift, in the name of an empty generosity without expectation.4placeholder

If a person does not have to work, or if they do and still choose to squander, if a person gives beyond the possibility of reciprocity, exists in the moment without concern for tomorrow, they will inevitably confront — in themselves and from others — a moralism of usefulness-to-the-masses. That moralism induces for the waste of sovereign existence. It indicts the joy that comes at the expense of a sacrifice for their good. It accuses, correctly, of apathy (178ff.). The appeal to continued servility and to sacrifice the present for the future is unabating, for it is the principle of practical, social life, right down to the norms of language. One is solicited to give up the immense emptiness that , for the “something” others think they are or should be. Deep down, each of us repels this verdict; but the sovereign thinker is never spared bouts of self-contempt for what can only appear, from the activist’s perspective, as selfishness. Only in those rapturous moments of sovereignty we pursue, in their ballooning, do we see that guilt evaporate — moments when life consumes itself in a fever fit of laughter, and

Alfred Stieglitz — “Georgia O’Keeffe — Hand” — (c.1919)

At the heart of Bataille’s thinking, and where it begins to navigate the rift I have just outlined, is an understanding that indeed, that sovereignty and are the same It is no solipsistic issue, a joy enclosed on itself, no more than Bataille, in his own pursuit, left behind nothing for his fellow man. “‘Oneself’ is not the subject isolating itself from the world,” he writes in “but the place of communication, of the fusion of subject and object” (9). In those tumultuous pages, he tries to show the essential unity between inner experience, ecstasy, nudity, sacrifice, non-knowledge, communication and being, affirming finally that “existence is ” (98). This primary communication “is a simple ‘given’, the supreme appearance of existence, which reveals itself in the multiplicity of consciousnesses and in their communicability” (200). It is felt most profoundly in “emotions of sensuality, festivity, drama, love, separation and death,” when our daily occupations cease (201). Unlike the practical world, which is based on the intelligibility of objects, this supreme appearance shows the and of all that is, and with it the impenetrability of ourselves, of our consciousnesses we nonetheless share. Bataille calls “alienated” consciousness that of clear and distinct objects, including of other humans as objects, as intelligible — e.g., as workers. The sovereign moment instead reveals consciousness to be a : “The scandal is the fact that consciousness is consciousness of another consciousness, that is, the look of another look” (200). In other words, removed from the normal, peaceful intelligibility of objects, consciousness is already the intimate glow of a powerful communication that takes place where knowledge fails, where the isolation between individuals breaks down, where the separateness of things no longer holds.

Consciousnesses interpenetrate and combine unlimitedly, and yet this is intellectually impenetrable, for it is not an objective state and subjectivity is not a thing. About the sovereign moment, about sacred subjectivity, That is why Bataille always turned to liminal moments of mysticism, erotism, sacrifice, and poetry, when the knowing self loses itself, when it is electrified and thrust into the void, delivered over to an uncontrollable circulation of , unpossessable and without owner. Weeping, laughing until we gasp, losing ourselves in the beloved, in anguish and ecstasy, fused in the continuity of being — in such moments, the operation of knowledge the operations of thought are . Sovereign is “the miraculous moment when anticipation dissolves into NOTHING, detaching us from the ground on which we were groveling, in the concatenation of useful activity” (203). The light of discourse, too, plunges into darkness. Unlike Hegel, who sees subjectivity culminate in the identity of subject and object , Bataille sees it in the object’s disintegration, when the very discourse “dissolves into the NOTHING of unknowing”:

There is a loyalty to others at stake here, one which honors subjective ends above objective ends, sovereign magnificence over improvement of material conditions. At stake is an of sovereignty irreducible to any real entity or state of discourse, including that of absolute knowledge. It is a loyalty to that unknowing which, in sovereign moments, escapes death in death and reveals the sacred dignity and continuity of being as radically insubordinate and free. The sovereign thinking that awakens from reason’s slumber is encountered in the of all sovereign moments in their limitless communication, in that place of death “where excessive beauty begets excessive suffering, where all the cries that will ever be heard are mingled, cries whose powerlessness, in this awakened state, is our magnificence” (370). That secret magnificence is ours, beyond the utility of rational words and the workings of power.

No matter how many sovereigns and their privileges are destroyed — as they should be — the desire for sovereignty remains in us. The subject longs to recover for itself what the sovereignty of kings and gods once obscured, what fortune and rank in an era of accumulation degrade: the magnificence of subjective union with a continuous universe, at the price of death, the dawning “I am NOTHING.” It is a desire for the secret magnificence of consciousnesses communicating with each other, shared at last and interpenetrating through their very impenetrability, conscious that “what is” is unintelligible, and that thought’s destiny is to dissolve in the unknown, laughter and tears. It is a desire for the miracle beyond need, for sovereign life beyond the necessary defined by suffering (199). This obscure desire leads wherever powerful communication leads: passionate acts, capricious behaviors, squandering attitudes, drunkenness, groping blind, getting lost in the dark, works of art, unplanned futures not in accord with rational anticipations, anything thrust into sex, mysticism, laughter, poetry, deathwherever our inter-individual borders dissolve in rapture with another and with the cosmos, in tragicomic joy. Without this leap above utility, this loyalty to powerful communication, to the emotive sensuality of the rended and real, the world we live in could not be complete, for without it humanity loses its link to the free essence beyond it, which alone confers on it its sovereign, sacred dignity as free.

Timothy Lavenz is an independent writer, translator, and researcher with a B.A. in creative writing and philosophy from the University of Iowa and an M.A. from the European Graduate School on the concept of messianity in the work of Laruelle, Derrida, Agamben and others. His philosophical essays have appeared in Kunst und Kirche and Oraxiom, his poems in The Susquehanna Review and Sequestrum (forthcoming). His current focus is on translating Pascal Quignard and developing poems and stories. An archive of a sampling of his writings can be found at His passion is to innerve the ghosts of words and ideas by setting the ear of language aflame.

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, NY: Zone Books, 1991.

Bataille, Georges. Translated Leslie Anne Boldt. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1988.

Bataille, Georges. Translated Alastair Hamilton. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 2001.

Patočka, Jan. Translated by Erazim Kohák. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1996.


Jan Patočka speaks of this time when human activity is given over to servicing the gods through work as “pre-history” in his (p. 16ff). Bataille appears to refer to the same conception as “history,” writing, “If history has some goal, sovereignty cannot be that goal” (281). For both, work and the maintenance of society — which is always “theocratic,” Patočka says — intends to keep freedom, sovereign indifference, and authentic existence at bay. A fruitful follow-up to this essay would engage Patočka’s book at length.


Giorgio Agamben writes at length about a power to unwork the work (). See p. 263, “Toward a Theory of Destituent Potential.”


Note that “totality” in Bataille’s argument is not the social totality, not what Adorno had in mind with the phrase “the whole is false.”


This notion has been fruitfully reprised by Baudrillard as “symbolic exchange.”


July 2020


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Sovereign Disregard: On Bataille’s Accursed Share

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