Issue #69 February 2024

A Locus of Contradiction: On Georges Bataille’s Sovereignty

James Ensor, "Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles", (1899)

“Sovereignty is NOTHING,” writes Bataille in the third volume of The Accursed Share (1976).1placeholder Supreme power or authority constitutes a most general and rather narrow aspect of sovereignty – in Bataille’s philosophy, the word points up a vague “beyond” of human capacity, an abstract conception that resists the very attempt to register its abstractness. A sovereign experience – an experience of NOTHING – is a “subjective experience of an objectlessness,” Bataille says elsewhere in the book, that can be located “at the very point where knowledge and unknowing are both actual, knowledge being implied in the objectivity of experience, unknowing being given subjectively.”2placeholder These statements seem to be formulated on the strength of a fallacious reasoning: a subjective experience of an objectless NOTHING, wherein the unknowing is informed by the authority of knowledge. It is only common in Bataille’s writing that an impulse to self-contradict undermines the rationale of his argumentation – this struggle is in fact testimony to the difficulty, or one might say the treachery, of ascribing meaning to non-meaning (whose meaning is untranslatable to words).

The above conclusion is all but identical in the theses of other heterogeneous concerns. The heterogeneous, which forms the core of Bataille’s thought, is opposed to “any homogeneous representation of the world […] any philosophical system.”3placeholder To be precise, all perceivable reality consists in the homogeneous, which signifies “the commensurability of elements and the awareness of this commensurability: human relations are sustained by a reduction to fixed rules based on the consciousness of the possible identity of delineable persons and situations…”4placeholder Elements that are unassimilable to such formulation are marked by their heterogeneity, the access of which calls for a total renunciation of human consciousness.

It will be fruitless to speak of the heterogeneous if a certain leeway is not allowed: that an approximation of the heterogeneous proper, no doubt inflected with elements of the homogeneous, is to be treated, in light of the insurmountable difficulties, as the real deal. Any activity that places itself squarely in the service of death – into which the heterogeneous proper, as a rule, will be realised – or that evinces an orientation away from profane life, is a model of this approximated heterogeneity, such as violence or eroticism. It is to death that these activities ceaselessly aspire, and, except in rare moments of recklessness, just before the borderline, they invariably stop, as the tenacity of life asserts itself.

The sovereign is usually interchangeable with the heterogeneous in Bataille’s texts. A sovereign experience is decidedly extraneous to the world of things.5placeholder It amounts to a “life beyond utility,” a life that concentrates on the enjoyment of the “present time without having anything else in view but this present time.”6placeholder With no future and only a vague and distant memory of the past, sovereignty is emptied of value, of sense, of object, and of everything else that would enslave it to necessity and an ontological presence; sovereignty aims at nothing other than itself.

The interest of gaining access to sovereignty would therefore consign the notion to what Bataille had called a “locus of contradiction”: “embodying the subject, it is its external aspect.”7placeholder Dispensing with externalisation, sovereignty acquires a non-materiality that can only be approached internally – “only an interior communication really manifests its presence.”8placeholder In Bataille’s later writings, the interior communication, or “inner experience,” as it is more commonly called, constitutes not only a plausible mechanism for grasping the essential character of the heterogeneous, it becomes a synonym of heterogeneity itself. Another recurring synonym is immanence, which denotes a quality peculiar to animality. Bataille contends, in Theory of Religion (1973, published posthumously), that relationships between animals are characterised by a lack of inborn need and ability to transcend themselves, thus “every animal is in the world like water in water.”9placeholder In other words, the animals are on a level with the world of undifferentiated continuity (in that they are continuous physically with the space they inhabit), with the world of immanence.10placeholder

Inner experience is also the title of Bataille’s 1943 book, L’expérience intérieure, the first full-length work to carry his name on its cover. “Inner experience cannot have its principle in a dogma (a moral attitude), in a science (knowledge cannot be either its goal or its origin), or in a search for enriching states (the aesthetic, experimental attitude), it cannot have any other concern or other goal than itself,” writes Bataille in the opening of the book.11placeholder In practice, inner experience cannot but posit its own principles: “To get out through a project of the realm of the project” or the compulsion of “discursive reason.”12placeholder The pure abstractness of the concept is underlined: an inner experience can either exist on its aporetic basis or not exist at all. In a deleted note, Bataille confesses to the ongoing difficulty of maintaining a tenable position: “as ‘inner experience’ exists at the heart of the possible, there is no definition that I can give that is not linked to the necessity, of which I have spoken, to question everything without measure.”13placeholder

The struggle with the definition of inner experience refers, in turn, to the impossible conception of sovereignty: it is a subjectivity that must not be affirmed as such, that can only exist in the condition that “it should never assume power, which is action, the primacy of the future over the present moment, the primacy of the promised land.”14placeholder This latter aspect marks the divergence of the concept from its philosophical analogues – Schopenhauer’s Will to Live, say, which places a premium on self-preservation, and Nietzsche’s Will to Power, whose sublimated expression, whilst eschewing the exercise of power, consists in individual potentialities and life’s multiplicity (in Nietzsche’s theory, a free spirit is an immoralist who strives for the highest of culture and creativity). From an empirical view, sovereignty is a fraught affair necessarily put up against its inevitable power-lessness. In the preface to On Nietzsche (1945), Bataille enlarges on his thought on human entirety, which stands opposed to the Hegelian totality:

“Human entirety can’t be transcended (that is, subdued) by action, since it would lose its totality. Nor can it transcend action (submit it to its ends), since in this way it would define itself as a motive and would enter into and be annihilated by the mechanism of motivation.”15placeholder

The notion would later evolve into “sovereign man,” a theoretically improbable compound that demonstrates Bataille’s closest attempt to reify the sovereign. “A sovereign man,” says Bataille “lives and dies like an animal. But he is a man nevertheless.”16placeholder Death is the reason for a sovereign man’s eventual failure to lead the existence of an animal, to whom the realm of the heterogeneous, because of its presumed incapacity for self-transcendence, is readily and unknowingly attainable. A sovereign man is ultimately condemned to a game of charades, whose rule prescribes that “he [the sovereign man] is essentially the embodiment of the one he is but is not. He is the same as the one he replaces; the one who replaces him is the same as he.”17placeholder That is to say, a sovereign man does not really possess true sovereignty but, under a parodic framework, he is to be seen as that which he is essentially not, namely, a sovereign man, who represents the “image of adult play, whereas we ordinarily only have an image of juvenile play (suited to children).”18placeholder

This “adult play,” deftly masking its failure – failure to invoke the ingenuousness of a juvenile play, which is closer in spirit to animality – with ingenious subterfuges, offers a solution, artful and deceptive, to the general ungraspableness of heterology.19placeholder It assumes various forms, the majority of which involve issues of language and representation. Sovereignty being their ultimate goal is inexorably bastardised into its earthly alternative – power. In the following, I will be looking at two famous paradigms of power which figure prominently in Bataille’s conception of sovereignty.

· · ·

Starting with Albert Camus’s Rebel. In this 1951 essay, Camus defines a revolt as an epochal event “born of the exhibition of irrationality in the face of unjust and incomprehensible conditions.”20placeholder The goal of any revolt, whatever its varying motives, is for its members to be freed from servitude, to be bestowed the inalienable right as an individual. For a revolt to succeed, the irrational elements, which serve conveniently as the movement’s initial impetus, must in time be eradicated – Camus says: “an element of realism is necessary to any morality. Completely pure virtue is murderous; equally, an element of our morality is necessary to all realism: cynicism too is murderous […]. Revolt […] sets us on a path of calculated culpability.”21placeholder Such realism, viewed in a more practical light, ultimately comes to bear on another salient factor: solidarity, or fellowship, and on the strength of the promise that the success of a revolt would bring in greater benefits for all.

Camus proposes this as the central doctrine of most revolts: “I rebel therefore we exist.”22placeholder The movement, despite its explosive beginning, always takes on qualities of an enterprise as it unfolds. Morality and order are the requisites for this later development. Bataille, in his review of Camus’s book (“The Age of Revolt”, 1951), concedes that a revolt “as it attacks morality – to the extent that morality becomes the base of the established order – is no less, from the first moment, engaged on a moral course.”23placeholder The initial impetus of a revolt then, Bataille continues, transforms itself into a “value that goes beyond vulgar interest: it is a benefit more precious than the advantage, or the favourable condition, of life; which even exceeds life (and is distinct from it), since we are ready to sacrifice life in order to preserve it.”24placeholder This value, in Camus’s text, is assumed to be intrinsic in the formative character of a rebel, for a rebel is one who is “willing to accept the final defeat, which is death, rather than be deprived of the last sacrament which he would call, for example, freedom.”25placeholder At least in thoughts and spirit, a rebel, one might say, reveals glimmers of a sovereign man – the context for this, it should be noted, is significant: the rebel is more or less a part of a collective whole, a part of a movement whose operation hinges on the interplay between action and power, on the necessity of solidarity and accord between the members.

In contrast, sovereignty, as Bataille formulates it, is an exclusive right of the individual: “Solidarity with everybody else prevents a man from having the sovereign attitude. The respect of man for man leads to a cycle of servitude that allows only for minor moments of disorder and finally ends the respect that their attitude is based on since we are denying the sovereign moment to man in general.”26placeholder In this sense, the concept can be said to be rooted in a Sadeian monism: solitude – the solitude that originates from the categorical rejection of conformism – is the sole key to true sovereignty.27placeholder This is the central motif of Bataille’s early tribute to the infamous author, “The Use Value of D. A. F. De Sade” (1929), in which Bataille suggests that the respectful attitude to the person of Sade is neither to eulogise nor to revile him, but, in the interest of safeguarding his sovereign status, to banish him, as it were, from the literary scene, if not from history altogether, thereby converting him to a “foreign body.” In terms of responding to the imperatives of the sovereign proper, however, to what extent is the foreign body able to hold up its “foreignness” – or to hold up in the name of the foreignness? And, more importantly, since the foreign body must not be recognised as such, would it still retain its foreignness, as in relation to other common beings? To put it more simply: would it even be necessary to posit a foreign body when the sovereign proper calls for an end of relativism? These questions must have been brewing in the mind of Bataille, for later, pondering on the legacy of Sade, he underlined the apparent inconsistency between the author’s anti-social propensities and his feverish, though unavowed, desire to be accepted by a society he so flagrantly and purposely outraged.28placeholder As Maurice Heine, Sade’s biographer, also pointed out, an inability to part with rationalism prevented Sade from plunging headlong into utter and boundless abandon.29placeholder

James Ensor, "Masks", (n.d)

Still, one cannot deny Sade his share of the sovereign quality, if only in his reckless execution of an objectionable impulse. The same can be said about revolt, the nature and inclinations of which are sovereign to a certain extent. In a 1944 essay for the French newspaper Combat, Camus remarks that a revolt is “first of all about the heart.”30placeholder Once the revolt evolves into the stage of a large-scale revolution, the “spontaneous impulse” is transformed into a “concerted action,” thereby assimilating the event into the course of time and history.31placeholder The context here is the French Resistance, whereas in The Rebel a particular focus is on the French Revolution; writing the former essay in the midst of political unrest, Camus, evidently much affected by the furore and the burning need to make known his conviction, calls for a movement that starts from the basis of a “clear idea,” which will and must be eventually translated into a “historical experience.”32placeholder With The Rebel, the underlying purpose is less to provide new insights than, now that the historical milieu has undergone transformations brought on by the War and the Resistance, to synthesise and to modify prior claims. Scholars have drawn attention to this marked transition of the two texts. Mark Orme, for instance, observed that The Rebel reflects Camus’s increasing familiarisation with Hegel, whose theses (the master/slave dialectic, most obviously), appear to have overridden those of Nietzsche, a dominant influence in Camus’s early writing, in shaping the thrust of his argument.33placeholder A reason for that, Maurice Weyembergh suggests, was because Camus’s ethical system at this stage was much too developed and rigorous to reckon with the disruptive energy of the Nietzschean amoralism.34placeholder The conceptual model of Hegel’s dialectics, with their emphasis on the contrast between affirmation and negation, helped locate Camus’s theory further into the nucleus of moral philosophy. In the words of Philip Thody, Hegel emerges as the “real villain of The Rebel,” the one responsible for the theoretical formalism which confers on the conception of revolt a misplaced dignity, attenuating its volatile character to something close to a clinical soberness.

But in view of the conclusion of Camus’s argument, that revolt is destined to be a product of the contradiction between mankind’s quest for self-enlightenment and the fundamental meaninglessness of human existence (the drift of his absurdism), hence its struggle to attain transcendental ideals (or sovereign values), the essay’s constricted framework in itself represents a rather serviceable complement. Contrary to this approach were the series of revolts staged by the Surrealists, which, Bataille argues, did not ultimately go beyond their original “strong affirmations.”35placeholder André Breton sketched out only cursorily Camus’s emphatic moral position in his manifestoes, perhaps out of fear of enslaving the movement of Surrealism to a too rational sensibility. Such was the charge that Breton levelled against The Rebel, for Camus’s clear thinking was in every respect antithetical to the fundamental attitude of Surrealism, which valued above all the inner turmoil of human thoughts.36placeholder The Surrealists were known for their rebellious streak that did not go beyond the emptiness of audacious, incendiary rhetoric.37placeholder Yet, in regard to the turn of mind with which the subject of revolt is treated, Surrealism, Bataille suggests in “The Age of Revolt,” displayed the “most visionary (and sometimes the most felicitous) expression of this elementary state of mind” as opposed to Camus’s clarified and austere way of thinking.38placeholder This is not to say that the Surrealists acquired a better understanding of the concept – Bataille credits The Rebel for extending its scope beyond the ideological aspects of revolt to include, above all, the metaphysical concerns that arise once the movement is carried beyond its early phase of subversive acts. At that point, a mind that is roused by unrestrained anger will experience the absurdity of its attitude, which leads to the submission of this ethical truth: “the general existence of a good which is worth all the problems of revolt.”39placeholder But, again, the recognition of the “good” implies that the movement is thereupon capable of only going insofar as it attains its “will to exist in a sovereign way.”40placeholder

· · ·

In Camus’s revolt, a rebel cannot truly triumph if the circumstance demands that he must ultimately fill the void of the authority that he negates. But this is the destiny that every rebel must bow to in the hope of seeing through the movement – to retain that illusion of the sovereign, a rebel inevitably fails in his mission. This self-defeating structure is inherent in any power relation of the social hierarchy, and has arguably its most exhaustive investigation in Hegel’s master and slave dialectic. Hegel considers the fates of the master and the slave to be one of voluntary and conscious choice: the master, at a pinch, invariably chooses death over conformity, whilst it is typically the other way around with the slave. The seemingly immutable rule is to be reversed when the master, in the secure knowledge of his yet unchallenged superiority, becomes unknowingly and increasingly dependent upon the help of the slave. The master, whose authority is solidified on the grounds of his co-existence with the slave, is unable to attain to the state of the sovereign proper (in Hegel, the term is “absolute knowledge,” which, with self-consciousness as its basis, differs in kind from Bataille’s sovereignty), which might come within the grasp of a slave in revolt. For Bataille, the sovereignty of the master is essentially an “inconsequential” one, since “retribution is paid despite it and by whoever contradictorily uses his sovereignty as a thing which he possesses.”41placeholder Likewise, the slave, in the victory of the revolt, is bound to repeat the mistake and the fate of the overthrown master, if the slave does so much as acknowledge his or her new-found power.

It is essential to Bataille’s sovereignty that its representation, or the attempt to represent it, though ultimately futile, should not be reduced to, or centralised in, a single agent. “Sovereignty has many forms,” Bataille declares, “it is only rarely condensed into a person and even then it is diffuse.”42placeholder A sovereign act is characterised by its dogged contestation of authority, but not in the same manner as that of a revolt, wherein the power of control merely changes hands. In definition, sovereignty is NOTHING; to explicate this NOTHING, as Bataille has been hard put to resist in his work, entails, according to Paul Hegarty, turning sovereignty into a “form of process.”43placeholder In this respect, Bataille’s conceptualisation echoes somewhat the central syllogism of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) – but whereas Hegel posits Spirit, also known as absolute knowledge or absolute Being, as the prescribed end of a process, Bataille parodies such process, to the extent that its substance “fall(s) away, becoming nothing instead of something.”44placeholder

As antipodal as their philosophical methodologies and foundations may appear to be, Hegel, perhaps second to Nietzsche, had assumed a major influence in the development of Bataille’s thoughts. Bataille’s writings, from the early days when he was introduced, much to his frustration, to the philosophy of Hegel through Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on the Phenomenology, which Bataille attended desultorily from 1934-39, had been, in the main, a sustained and violent response to “Hegel’s closed system.”45placeholder As Benjamin Noys observes, Bataille’s arguments usually take the form of “an expression of irruptive forces against Hegel’s desire to control these forces.”46placeholder In Inner Experience, Bataille writes of Hegel’s fear of going to the extreme: “Hegel, I imagine, touched the extremity […] I even imagine that he elaborated the system to escape (each kind of conquest, undoubtedly, is made by a man fleeing a threat). In the end, Hegel arrives at satisfaction, turns his back on extremity.”47placeholder The writer who braved the extreme, who was the writer par excellence of sovereignty in Bataille’s estimation, was Nietzsche, whose talent is “the gift that nothing limits; it is the sovereign gift, that of subjectivity.”48placeholder And yet, this gift of sovereignty – the putting at stake of one’s subjectivity – must also, especially when it occurs in a writing, be affirmed as it is before it dissolves into NOTHING. In other words, the writing of sovereignty inexorably generates the presence – or the non-presence – of NOTHING, insofar as this NOTHING is appropriated into a “something,” which, in turn, presumes a contradictory means of reaffirming NOTHING. Bataille’s own statement of this is no less convoluted: “I no longer anticipated the moment when I would be rewarded for my effort, when I would know at last, but rather the moment when I would no longer know, when my initial anticipation would dissolve into NOTHING.”49placeholder

To anticipate the result wherein the “initial anticipation would dissolve into NOTHING” is rather a circuitous way of admitting that sovereignty is both an actual phenomenon and an end of a process (the “something” instead of NOTHING). It is therefore important that a “hatred of all guarantees” must precede the pursuit of sovereignty, since true sovereignty, in essence, “serves no purpose” and is at the same time the “coming apart and the completion of human being.”50placeholder For Bataille, the “completion of human being” is necessarily predicated on the “coming apart,” the withdrawal of human consciousness; hence the impossibility of granting the concept any legitimacy: “Death quenches my thirst for non-knowledge. But absence is not rest. Absence and death are without reply within me and, without fail, absorb me cruelly.”51placeholder It is in light of this irreversible double bind that Bataille examines Hegel’s “completed man”:

“Completed man was for him [Hegel], necessarily “work”: he could be that man, himself, Hegel, being “knowledge”. Knowledge “works,” which poetry, laughter and ecstasy do not. But poetry, laughter, ecstasy are not completed man, do not give satisfaction”. Short of dying of them, one leaves them like a thief (or as one leaves a woman after making love), dazed, stupidly thrown back into the absence of death: in distinct knowledge, activity, work.”52placeholder

Jacques Derrida centred his famous essay, “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve” (1967), on this elementary difference of theoretical approaches: Hegel’s insistence on meaning and rigor vis-à-vis Bataille’s submission to non-meaning and the tumult of ideas. In Hegel’s theory, the risking of life is to the master a “constitution of meaning,” an “obligatory stage of self-consciousness and phenomenality”; the victory of the master thereby consists in the imperative of staying alive long enough to experience and to reap the profit (absolute knowledge) of the master’s close brush with death.53placeholder In his essay, Derrida considers the supremacy of the master a primarily empty, almost specious attainment: “To stay alive, to maintain oneself in life, to work, to defer pleasure, to limit the stakes, to have respect for death at the very moment when one looks directly at it – such is the servile condition of mastery and of the entire history it makes possible.”54placeholder The consciousness of the master, which, Hegel contends, will culminate in a “real and true independence” is, Derrida remarks, only constituted like that in a movement of recognition and through the mediation of a servile consciousness.55placeholder

For Hegel, a headlong plunge into death, such as that in a sacrifice, can only occur at the expense of the precious meaning – it is an instance of “abstract negativity,” a negativity that neither takes place nor manifests itself. Human consciousness is thus implicit in the quest for absolute knowledge, in contrast to what is required for Bataille’s sovereignty.56placeholder Given that death is inadmissible in Hegel’s formula, Derrida nonetheless discerns in it a covert intent of making “the seriousness of meaning appear as an abstraction inscribed in play.”57placeholder Play, as opposed to work, being in a way a form of incalculable, capricious communication, comprises both the precarious basis and the dominant concern of Bataille’s philosophy. The dualism between the playful and the serious refers to the fundamental division between play and work: “work is necessary for the full affirmation of play.”58placeholder Moreover, there is in work elements of play, and vice versa: in The Tears of Eros (1961), Bataille’s final book published in his life, the birth of art is attributed to “human play, true human play,” which was initially “work, work that became play.”59placeholder To play, in short, is to observe the seriousness of work without wholly submitting to it. It is significant, Bataille points out, that play “must cease at the moment when life is threatened,” if it is to assume itself a potent antithesis to work (but not potent enough to destroy work completely).60placeholder

Phenomenological validity was apparently what Bataille had struggled to justify with the conception of play: the very act of playing, grounded in a profane setting, is bound to be allied with a servile spirit, an implied purpose, or an end in view. A solution to the puzzle, once again, is to be found in the non-soluble: “the only object of my thought is play, and in play my thought, the work of my thought, is annihilated.”61placeholder In other words, the play of thought, in its failure to generate veracious play, is able nonetheless to release the thought from its chain to work. The definition of play is thereby amended to include this clause: that it has “as its end the indifference to every end, being only an occasion to show a soul beyond the concerns of utility.”62placeholder The focus here is on the latter part: play is “only an occasion to show a soul beyond the concerns of utility,” which suggests that it is less a monument to the sovereign proper than its presumed means or expression. Characterised by an indeterminacy that is also inherent in the concept of sovereignty (as opposed to the sovereign proper), play straddles the gulf between the homogeneous and the heterogeneous, a condition which, according to Edward S. Casey, “is not lasting” and is “closer to momentary leaping or spanning since it leaves the gap intact and must be continually reenacted…”63placeholder It is worth noting that Bataille used frequently the word “jeu,” which can be translated variously as “play,” “risk,” “game,” or “gambling”. Statements like “se mettre en jeu (put oneself in play)” and “met sa vie en jeu (put one’s life at risk)” basically carry the same import.

James Ensor, "Christ Tormented by Demons", (1895)

At the very least, one might say, a meaning that is inscribed in play betrays an inclination towards non-meaning, but not to the extent where it is ready to put its life on the line for the intended result. With Bataille’s reading of Hegel, on the other hand, the dialectical agenda is reversed, in the manner that, Derrida observes, the writing takes the form of a “simulated repetition of Hegelian discourse.”64placeholder As far as theoretical assurance is concerned, Bataille’s thesis, with its focus on an abstraction that resists the possibility of conceptualisation, is comparatively short of philosophical certitudes. It is only unavoidable that, in an attempt to read against Hegel, Bataille ends up being absorbed into the very system he opposes. His theory of sovereignty should therefore be considered in a new light: that knowledge or self-consciousness is the underlying principle of NOTHING; the non-meaning of sovereignty, Derrida suggests, accordingly “takes its responsibilities from the completion of history and from the closure of absolute knowledge, having first taken them seriously and having then betrayed them by exceeding them or by simulating them in play.”65placeholder Sovereignty’s resistance to writing that consists of a “founding basis or a principle of responsibility” will only result in its disintegration; unable to govern itself, the notion is likewise unable to generate its non-meaning.66placeholder

In the final analysis, neither Bataille nor Hegel were able to reveal, in their respective theories and methodologies, the essence of the sovereign proper. As Derrida concludes: “the one by giving it meaning through subjugation to the mediation of the slave – which is also to fail for having lost failure – and the other by failing absolutely, which is simultaneously to lose the very meaning of failure by gaining nonservility.”67placeholder What Bataille and Hegel achieved at the most was to signal a viable process – viable only on the impossible condition that human consciousness must concomitantly dissolve.

· · ·

Bataille’s philosophy as a whole is committed to and restricted by this unrealised goal of materialising the viable process into an objective reality. The heterogeneous, intrinsically incompatible with representational matters, cannot be illustrated by way of exposition, which reduces this abstraction to an isolable operation, from which the concrete facts remain underdeveloped at best. No dialectic is able to fully accommodate its volatile character: “In the world of play philosophy disintegrates,” Bataille pronounces in Eroticism.68placeholder

The play of the heterogeneous is a mindless play, uncalculated and profitless, destined for an imminent and irrevocable self-loss. Violence, eroticism, and sovereignty are all work, “work that became play.”69placeholder This homogeneous play, or “human play,” as Bataille calls it in The Tears of Eros, prefigures death in its climax, of which the negation of objective reality amounts to no more than a token gesture. In other words, a simulation of play is what we are capable of producing, as long as our thraldom to work still defines us.

Human life is bound to be servile. In Bataille’s philosophy, an aspiration towards extremity forms the basic expression of a deliverance from servitude. Sade, a proponent of such attitude, sees sovereignty as naturally accompanied by an untrammelled licentiousness. Sade’s radical practice was criticised by Bataille for its failure of defying the law of language, as Sade’s writing, especially that in his fictional work, invariably takes the form of a florid, overcharged prose. Prolixity distances one from the “summit,” whereon reason falters. Regardless, it will not be a “summit” if the notion is not given some degree of cognition. Language therefore is indispensable, as a means of access to the superficial aspects of the abstraction (a “summit” that cannot be reached) and the medium through which the abstraction is concretised – the “what should be” standing in for the “what is.”

Faced with the quandary of succumbing to the primacy of language and maintaining a simulated absence of language, Bataille ultimately made do with a proposition that failed to adhere to the rigor and the logical basis of a dialectical thought. But it is a sound proposition all the same in terms of philosophical subjectivity: the heterogeneous is at once theoretically opposed to and rooted in the homogeneous. In Bataille, an author is an archetypal “sovereign man,” embodying the one he is but is not.70placeholder Dominance in a creative realm may come close to resemble sublimity in a sense, but so long as it is exerted, in a way that the authorial presence is inevitably there, it simulates sovereignty without getting at its core (which would require non-action). To be sure, literature serves as a testing ground for the distillation of the heterogeneous into present-day society: Bataille writes in Guilty (1944) that poetry, which he qualifies as the most emblematic of such practice, is a “drawn arrow” whose object is “neither the arrow nor the goal but the moment when the arrow is lost, dissolves in the night air; to the point that even the memory of the arrow vanishes.”71placeholder A poem that aspires to the sovereign must accordingly cure itself of the urge to speak – it must pledge itself to the silence of the night.

In his writing, Bataille frequently opts for a style that oscillates between two polarised impulses: to succumb to order and meaning and to resist them. What emerges is often a ruptured sort of writing wherein language is less a mode of expression than that of deliberate obfuscation. Yet in the midst of this fandango of sense and semi-sense, words are allowed to play, to assume themselves as creative constructs rather than mere tools. True sovereignty cannot be attained as a consequence but whose simulated form may be evoked. The process, rather than the result, which invariably negates the premise, is thus the key. And at the heart of the process is the struggle, the agony, the avowed failure of gaining ascendancy over what Bataille described as the “discursive real,”72placeholder which, by implication, is the consciousness that amounts to the “perfected death,”73placeholder the anguish that precedes the final loss of control.

In Bataille’s theory, language inexorably re-emerges as a showcase for the conjuring-up of the heterogeneous. “Speaking,” writes Bataille in Guilty, “sinking into one’s own words is necessary in the search for paths of access…”74placeholder Conversely, a communication that foregoes the necessity of language – a “sovereign process,” as Bataille had termed it75placeholder – would culminate in a “nothingness…[that] does not exist.”76placeholder A total negation is in theory the presumed end and sole purpose of the sovereign proper, but without “being,” says Bataille, nothingness “could not attract us,” nor could it signify a relativity which presupposes such negation.77placeholder If sovereignty in an elementary sense is equivalent to supreme power, it is a power that is naked of force, of action, and of the ability to transcend. A sovereign act suggests a forward movement, a defiant spirit that might have precipitated the whole movement to its destruction had the need for restraint not asserted itself in time. Bataille, unable to write sovereignly, nevertheless succeeds in making a display of his failure, which in this limited context can be taken as a partial achievement. For this very failure homes in on the reality of the sovereign proper: that it will always remain in a state of suspension.

Tung-Wei Ko recently graduated from the University of Kent with a PhD in English. Her research focuses on Georges Bataille’s heterology and its thematic parallel with Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction. She is currently in the process of turning her thesis into a book. She also writes about film: Chelsea the Cinéaste.

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, trans. Michael Richardson. London: Verso, 2006.

———————- The Accursed Share: Volumes II & III, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 2017.

———————- The Bataille Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

———————- Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

———————- Guilty, trans. Stuart Kendall. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

———————- Inner Experience, trans. Stuart Kendall. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.

———————- Literature and Evil, trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Penguin Books, 2012.

———————- Oeuvres Complètes, VIII. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

———————- Oeuvres Complètes, XVII. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

———————- On Nietzsche, trans. Bruce Boone. London: Continuum, 2008.

———————- Theory of Religion, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 2012.

———————- The Tears of Eros, trans. Peter Connor. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989.

———————- The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

———————- Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, trans. Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen H. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Camus, Albert. Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

———————- The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage International, 1991.

De Beauvoir, Simone. Philosophical Writings, ed. Margaret A. Simons with Marybeth Timmerman and Mary Beth Mader. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.


———————- The Marquis de Sade: An Essay by Simone de Beauvoir, trans. Annette Michelson, Cemal Sureya and Paul Dinnage. London: New English Library, 1953.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge, 2001.

Hegarty, Paul. Georges Bataille: Core Cultural Theorist. London: SAGE Publications, 2000.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Andrew J. Mitchell and Jason Kemp Winfree ed. The Obsessions of Georges Bataille: Community and Communication. New York: SUNY Press, 2009.

Noys, Benjamin. Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Orme, Mark. The Development of Albert Camus’s Concern for Social and Political Justice. Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007.


Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: Volumes II & III, trans. Robert Hurley. (New York: Zone Books, 2017), p. 256. The book was published posthumously in volume 8 of Bataille’s Oeuvres Complètes, by Editions Gallimard.


Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: Volumes II & III, p. 202, 234.


Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, trans. Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p. 97.


Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, pp. 137-88.


The duality of the homogeneous and the heterogeneous automatically generates the duality between life and death, which Bataille preferred to term the world of things and the sacred world. The world of things is characterised by its primacy of production and conservation, whereas the sacred world is that of excess and waste.


Bataille, The Accursed Share: Volumes II & III, p. 198 & 199.


Bataille, The Accursed Share: Volumes II & III, p. 245.


Bataille, The Accursed Share: Volumes II & III, p. 245.


Bataille, Georges. Theory of Religion, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 2012), p. 19. Numerous scientific researches in zoology, nevertheless, have shown that animal individualism is possible even amongst small creatures. See David Mazel ed. A Century of Early Ecocriticism (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011) and Long, William J. How Animals Talk (New York: Dover Publications, 2009).


Other synonyms include “lost intimacy,” which is more often used in its theological sense of a state of grace which stands as the ultimate goal of spiritual pursuit. “Sacredness,” which is the preferred term in Bataille’s early writings on surrealism. “Evil,” the subject of Bataille’s 1957 book, Literature and Evil, whose premise is partly a response to the Nietzschean evil.


Bataille, Georges. Inner Experience, trans. Stuart Kendall (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014), p. 13.


Bataille, Georges. Inner Experience, p. 52.


Bataille, Georges. Inner Experience,, p. 216.


Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil, trans. Alastair Hamilton (London: Penguin Books, 2012), p. 136. In a commentary about René Char, Bataille says: “[…] what is sovereign is indefensible: in wishing to defend it, one betrays it.” Bataille, Georges. The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, trans. Michael Richardson (London: Verso, 2006), p. 96.


Bataille, Georges. On Nietzsche, trans. Bruce Boone (London: Continuum, 2008), p. xxx.


Bataille, The Accursed Share: Vols II & III, p. 219.


Bataille, The Accursed Share: Vols II & III, p. 222.


Bataille, The Accursed Share: Vols II & III,  pp. 222-23.


The word is commonly used in Bataille to signify the science of the heterogeneous.


Camus, Albert. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage International, 1991), p. 21.


Camus. The Rebel, p. 366.


Camus. The Rebel, p. 250.


Bataille. The Absence of Myth, p. 161.


Bataille. The Absence of Myth, p. 161.


Camus. The Rebel, p. 15.


Bataille, Georges. Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books), p. 171.


According to Sade, fraternity is a baseless idea conceived by the intellectually inferior: “Now I beg of you to tell me whether I must love a human being simply because he exists or resembles me and whether for these reasons alone I must suddenly prefer him to myself?” (Quoted in De Beauvoir, Simone. The Marquis de Sade: An Essay by Simone de Beauvoir, trans. Annette Michelson, Cemal Sureya and Paul Dinnage (London: New English Library, 1953), p. 144). Solitude is preferred because it represents a static plenitude, a pure absence. By the same token, Bataille insists that sovereignty must be accompanied by silence.


For discussions of this, see, for instance, Literature and Evil, pp. 97-100, and Eroticism, pp. 164-77.


See De Beauvoir. The Marquis de Sade, p. 66.


Camus, Albert. Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 156


Camus. Camus at Combat, p. 156.


Camus. Camus at Combat, p. 168.


Orme, Mark. The Development of Albert Camus’s Concern for Social and Political Justice (Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007), p. 155.


Orme, Mark. The Development of Albert Camus’s Concern for Social and Political Justice, p. 155.


Bataille, The Absence of Myth, p. 159.


Breton: “[…] I believe in the pure Surrealist joy of the man who, forewarned that all others before him have failed, refuses to admit defeat, sets off from whatever point he chooses, along any other path save a reasonable one, and arrives wherever he can.” Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen H. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), p. 46. For Breton’s criticism of The Rebel, see Patri, Aimé, “Dialogue entre André Breton et Aimé Patri à propos de l’Homme révolté d’Albert Camus”, Arts, 16 November 1951, pp. 1-3.


Breton claims in Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929) that the “simplest surrealist act consists in descending to the street with revolver in hand and shooting at random, as fast as one can, into the crowd.” Bataille, The Absence of Myth, p. 94.


Bataille, The Absence of Myth, p. 160.


Bataille, The Absence of Myth, p. 161.


Bataille, The Absence of Myth, p. 169.


Bataille, The Absence of Myth, p. 172.


Bataille. The Accursed Share: Vols. II & III, p. 221.


Hegarty, Paul. Georges Bataille: Core Cultural Theorist (London: SAGE Publications, 2000), p. 72.


Hegarty, Paul. Georges Bataille, p. 72.


Bataille, Georges. The Bataille Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), p. 296.


Noys, Benjamin. Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto Press, 2000), p. 7.


Bataille. Inner Experience, p. 48.


Bataille. The Accursed Share: Vols. II & III, p. 370.


Bataille. The Accursed Share: Vols. II & III, p. 208.


Bataille. Georges. Oeuvres Complètes, VIII (Paris: Gallimard, 1987), p. 651.


Bataille. Inner Experience, p. 111.


Bataille. Inner Experience, p. 111.


Hegel: “[…] trial by death, however, cancels both the truth which was the result from it and therewith the certainty of self altogether.” Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 233.


Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 322.


Derrida. Writing and Difference, p. 322. Hegel. Phenomenology, p. 237.


Simone de Beauvoir’s description of Hegelianism is apt: “According to his system, the instant is conserved in the development of time.” De Beauvoir, Simone. Philosophical Writings, ed. Margaret A. Simons with Marybeth Timmerman and Mary Beth Mader (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), p. 290.


Derrida. Writing and Difference, p. 324.


Bataille, Georges. Oeuvres Complètes, XVII (Paris: Gallimard, 1987), p. 115.


Bataille, Georges. The Tears of Eros, trans. Peter Connor (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989), p. 47.


Bataille. Oeuvres Complètes, XVI, p. 116.


Bataille, Georges. The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. 129.


Bataille. Oeuvres Complètes, XII, p. 106.


Casey, Edward S., “Bataille: Discerning Edges in the Art of Lascaux” in Andrew J. Mitchell and Jason Kemp Winfree ed. The Obsessions of Georges Bataille: Community and Communication (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), p. 171.


Derrida. Writing and Difference, p. 329.


Derrida. Writing and Difference, p. 341.


Derrida. Writing and Difference, p. 334.


Derrida. Writing and Difference, p. 335.


Bataille. Eroticism, p. 275.


Bataille. The Tears of Eros, p. 47.


Bataille. The Accursed Share: Vols. II & III, p. 222.


Bataille, Georges. Guilty, trans. Stuart Kendall (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011), p. 85.


Bataille. The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, p. 206.


Bataille. Guilty, p. 5.


Bataille. Guilty, p. 100.


Bataille. Literature and Evil, p. 161.


Bataille. Guilty, p. 143.


Bataille. Guilty, p. 6.


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