I sink therefore I am - Carolyn J. Dean

even since he [Nietzsche] became famous has he ever been anything but an occasion for misunderstanding?--Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share

At the current juncture in the history of studies "on Bataille,"admiration and indebtedness have given way to admiration constrained by ambivalence and indebtedness complicated by a desire for accountability. This special issue provides an opportunity to work through these inevitable critical shifts, symptoms of an immeasurable debt to a writer from whom we have necessarily taken distance. It is also an occasion to ask about our own investments in the renewed production of Bataille. During his lifetime (1897-1962), Georges Bataille was called many names, including a "pornographer" and a fascist, and when he died he became a cult figure among some intellectuals, for whom he represented an eclectic and unappreciated thinker.

Since his untimely death, Bataille has become very famous. Now, according to Jürgen Habermas, this former librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, editor of Critique, author of covertly circulated erotic books and other works that did not sell well, stands first in a line of French intellectuals leading from "Bataille via Michel Foucault to Jacques Derrida".
Bataille's remains are located in the posthumanist pantheon: his work is joined to the giants of the French philosophical, psychoanalytic, and literary heritage, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Maurice Blanchot; he has been the subject of countless literary exegeses and even of a prizewinning biography [see Surya]. Bataille no longer has the merit of being unknown. But who is the Bataille we pretend to know? He is the one with whom many critics identify, yet his work is necessarily misunderstood, sometimes (but not always) in the interests of preserving its insights. Critical work on Bataille naturally emphasizes his theory of dépense (expenditure), his mysticism, his attraction to the sacrificial, sadomasochistic erotics of fascist politics, and tends, viscerally if implicitly, to identify with Bataille's refusal to be hard in the conventional sense--his repudiation of impermeable, phallic masculinity and its association with moral resolve. In 1945, Bataille wrote that he was the "contrary of him who tranquilly watches the dismasted vessels from the shore, because in fact . . . I cannot imagine anyone so cruel that he could notice the one who is dismasted with such carefree laughter. Sinking is something altogether different, one can have it to one's heart's content. . ."

In 1966, a sensitive critic wrote: "Bataille's cogito, thus, reads: 'I sink therefore I am'" [Hollier 138]. In other words, Bataille was no proponent of a sink-or-swim philosophy, but of "the hard desire to endure"--words he wrote to describe Vincent Van Gogh, whose self-mutilation was, from Bataille's perspective, the necessary precondition of his art. This hard desire is paradoxically the hard labor of unbinding the self, a project that entails yet moves beyond empathizing with those caught in the storm: Bataille insisted that creation required symbolic castration rather than the phallic virtue of the moral man or the swollen pride of those who volunteer heroically for the rescue mission ("Heroism," he said, "is an attitude of flight").

As countless critics have demonstrated, even Bataille's most relentlessly hard-core texts use sexuality as an allegory for the self-shattering of the phallic body. The sacrificial constitution of the man who would sink--for this Bataille was giddily embraced after his death. By 1990, when Yale French Studies devoted a special issue to him, the embrace was equally enthusiastic, but giddiness had given way to some defensiveness. Those theorists who did not admire Bataille equated his repudiation of phallic virtue with the ego-dissolving sublimity of fascism. After all, some of his friends and intellectual heirs had been subjected to public scrutiny for their anti-Semitic, often fascist sympathies. Implicitly defending Bataille, the editor of that special issue insisted on Bataille's "ethics" of sacrifice.

He claimed that Bataille held "onto the possibility of an ethics" through a paradoxically "incessant repositing of the ethical" [Stoekl 2, 5]. This account of Bataille's ethics avoids the problem that the ethics of sacrifice in Bataille's work turns out to be identical to the sacrifice of ethics. This reading resurrects Bataille as a man of principled equivocation. To the extent that some recent accounts of Bataille directly or indirectly transform his performative renunciation of ethics into a substantive declaration of the ethical, they mistake the performative dimension of the text for an ethical position. In order to defend Bataille's insistence on the perpetual sacrifice of the stable meaning embedded in phallic virtues and bodies (his contention that meaning is historically contingent and internally unstable), his friends now transform aporia into the aim and summit of analysis. By idealizing aporia, this reading hypostatizes it. Isn't this elevation to a privileged place in the pantheon, this restoration of manly principle and lucidity, exactly the sort of "position" that Bataille would have found unbearable? But how to preserve Bataille's critique except as an aporia?

Cynical feminists never doubted that his admirable repudiation of phallic virtue was but another stage in the history of "man." Now shorn of his illusory armor--war, beginning with the Great War that so traumatized Bataille, was no occasion for glory--he refashions virility as self-loss, embraces castration in his quest for self-restoration. The pain is there, but tragic manliness still reserves the prerogatives of manhood for itself. Other critics are justifiably disturbed by Bataille's proximity to the politics of self-dissolution, all the while rightly insisting that aporia is not a figure for suicide (you sink so you can swim and vice versa--the point is not to drown). But when hard decisions have to be made, equivocation--since aporia implies the impossibility of taking a position--is not a tenable posture. Perhaps Bataille's insistence on equivocation, his refusal to ask (as he made so clear in a letter to Roger Caillois in 1946: "morality . . . to what end" [Lettres 137-38]) would eventually become unbearable for a generation bearing the legacy of genocide. Perhaps his insistence on self-loss as a form of self-recognition would, after repeated atrocities committed in the name of the nation, become suspect. What, after all, was Bataille for? What was he against? If he did not want to relinquish the privileges of manhood, he was against phallic hardness. This opposition is more of a critical accomplishment than it might seem, especially in light of the fact that Bataille's longing to unbind the phallic self is the very desire that has rendered him suspect. After World War II democratic men sought to sustain the virtues of hardness even though the Nazis had celebrated the same quality. In his 1943 Posen speech, Heinrich Himmler praised his men for being "hard" and scandalously linked hardness to the "integrity" required of mass murderers. But antifascists interpreted fascists as soft--Theodor Adorno, we recall, said that the "tough guys are the truly effeminate ones. . . ."

This claim has plausibility except for its theory of causality, in which homosexuality and femininity more generally account for fascism. Extreme hardness disguises extreme softness; as Adorno put it, "Homosexuality and Totalitarianism belong together". To be evenhanded, then, to be judicious and ethical and make the right decisions, requires just the right amount of hardness and, moreover, requires a world of balanced men who never sink, know when to swim against the stream and when to float. But by what historical miracle are such men produced if not by the fantasy of a world without the longings ascribed to women and those "women" masquerading as men? Bataille's work is an unequivocal reminder that this ideal manliness is no miracle, but a cultural fantasy. His complicated relationship to fascism notwithstanding, Bataille was no fascist. He was simply not man enough.

About Ikhbayar Urchuud

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