Academic journal article The Comparatist

Georges Bataille, Gender, and Sacrificial Excess

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Georges Bataille, Gender, and Sacrificial Excess

Article excerpt

Excess cannot be philosophically founded, since excess exceeds foundation: excess is the very thing for which being is, first and foremost, beyond all limits.

Georges Bataille, Madame Edwarda

There are likely few authors for whom the concept of excess is more singularly significant than Georges Bataille (1897-1962). All throughout his diverse writings, which include political and philosophical essays, fiction, poetry, and letters spanning more than three decades and twelve volumes of collected works, "excess" is a notion characterizing everything from his mystical ontology in works like Erotism to his spectacularly graphic erotic fiction in works like My Mother and Story of the Eye. Indeed, his multivolume work The Accursed Share presents a veritable cosmology and world history of excess, tracing the ineluctable operation of useless consumption or "unproductive expenditure" throughout human history and civilization, which is to be found principally in those perennially prodigal human actions with no greater purpose, like play, art, luxury, and even religion. For Bataille, these forms of wasteful activity represent not only desirable pursuits for humanity, but indeed the purpose and ultimate end of all human endeavors, representing even the defining element of human identity itself. "Man is the most suited of all living beings," he writes, "to consume intensely, sumptuously, the excess energy offered up by the pressure of life to conflagrations" (Accursed Share 37). The prodigal waste of one's own excess energy and resources, therefore, finds its natural conclusion in the expenditure of life in the assent to exceed even life itself, above all, in death. It is for this reason that "life's intimacy," he writes, "does not reveal it's dazzling consumption until the moment it gives out" (Theory of Religion 47).

As a spectacular and shared revelation of "life's intimacy" in the moment of its "dazzling consumption," sacrifice for Bataille represents the quintessence of life itself expended and consumed unproductively, precisely in the manner of gifts and luxuries. The wasteful excesses of luxury are analogous to sacrifice insofar as they, like a gift, "give up" or "give away" the use-value and exchange-value of some precious commodity and transmute it into a form of useless expenditure, not unlike excremental waste. As he explains in an oblique reference to Freudian dream symbolism in his 1933 essay "The Notion of Expenditure":

Jewels must not only be beautiful and dazzling ... : one sacrifices a fortune, preferring a diamond necklace; such a sacrifice is necessary for the constitution of this necklace's fascinating character ... When in a dream a diamond signifies excrement, it is not only a question of association by contrast; in the unconscious, jewels, like excrement, are cursed matter that flows from a wound: they are a part of oneself destined for open sacrifice. (Visions 119)

Having been delivered from what he terms a "restricted economy" of conservation, exchange, growth, and accumulation, luxury represents a form of expenditure that occupies what he terms a "general economy" of gifts, prodigality, expenditure, and excess. Thus, luxurious excesses possess an inherently sacrificial character. "This is so clearly the precise meaning of sacrifice," he writes, "that one sacrifices what is useful; one does not sacrifice luxurious objects ... Depriving the labor of manufacture of its usefulness at the outset, luxury has already destroyed that labor; it has dissipated it in vainglory ... To sacrifice a luxury object would be to sacrifice the same object twice" (Theory of Religion 50). Once delivered into a general economy of wasteful excess, therefore, the sacrificial object cannot be reappropriated into a restricted economy of usefulness and productivity, despite the usefulness implied in its manufacture. Such would contradict both the very purpose of the sacrifice itself and the object's destructive transformation into useless excess. …

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