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ArtPrintCritical dictionary

Georges Bataille

José Bragança de Miranda

Leaving the biographical aspects aside, Georges Bataille is one of the most influent names of twentieth-century thought and art. His work left important marks in philosophy, fiction, art and economics, being largely influent still today.


Strongly marked by Hegel and Nietzsche's thought, this author - referred by many as connected to the emergence of postmodernism - is, in fact, inscribed in a synthetic form of modernity, characterized by the articulation between rationalism and romanticism, already announced in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Bataille attended Alexandre Kojève's famous classes on the Hegelian phenomenology between 1933 and 1939. The Hegelian speculative project corresponded to the synthesis of these two forms of experience, closing history in a circle where the overcoming of the constitutive dichotomies of Western metaphysics is played - that of subject and object, of concept and image, and, above all, of culture and nature. Post-Hegelian thought tended to interpret this synthesis from a total determination of rationalism, a little like Karl Marx and Nietzsche had already done. It is within this circle that Bataille's intellectual strategy is developed, in a kind of guerrilla war on all fronts of the real. Instead of a jump towards nature or the flesh, the question is to use its potentialities against the historical forms which were shaped. In this sense, it can be said that this important writer creates an original form of primitivism, linked to excess, to what life has of overflowing, through a series of strategies that turned out to be very influent, and that resemble the defence of the inversion of platonism proposed by Nietzsche: where Plato affirmed the ideal, Nietzsche opposes matter, to the soul he opposes the spirit, to paradise the Earth, etc. This strategy is already noticed in what Bataille defines as "base materialism", which forms the whole of his program in the journal Documents (1929-1930), where he acquires his very own, characteristic style. Since always connected to publishing, in 1946 he begins the publication of the journal Critique, published uninterruptedly until today, and where the main French authors were published, such as Maurice Blanchot, Roland Barthes, Pierre Klossowski, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, among many others. A crucial example of this "lowering" of the ideal is the short essay from the 1930s on the big toe of the foot, which Bataille turns against the erect body, revealing something that is essential in his strategy - the resort to the fragment against totality; to horizontality against verticality, which serves as the basis of his radical criticism of architecture. This type of standpoint implies a - perhaps excessive - confidence in the dominance of the normal and utilitarian forms of life, which never gets to being targeted on its whole, a trait which clearly withdraws him from marxism. The closeness to Jacques Derrida's theses of deconstruction is clear in this respect. With a vehement and aphoristic style, it is in fiction that Bataille takes to the extreme the critique of the ideal and of normality, regarded by him as a statistical average that transforms everything that exceeds the "average" into monstrosity. Therefore the strategy of turning the monstrous, or the abject, against mathematical or aesthetic idealization. Exemplar within this context is the fiction History of the Eye (1928), where the obscene and the abject are taken to the extreme, contaminating the whole narrative, although in the theoretical part of his work there is greater balance between horror and ecstasy, between normal life and excess, as confirmed in books like Eroticism (1957), Inner Experience (1954), and even in his books more connected to primitivism, such as The Damned Part (1949) or Lascaux or the Birth of Art (1955). In every case, the question is to combat the historical forms of sexuality, economics or industrial objects, disturbing them by the apparent "defence" of death, human sacrifices and horror. Insistence on these themes tended to distort the impeccable logic of Bataille's thought, leading authors such as Julia Kristeva, Rosalind Krauss or Yves-Alain Bois to make it the model of the aesthetics of "abjectness" and "shapelessness". However, these themes are inscribed in a more complex standpoint whose assessment is still under way. In fact, a thought is alive when it is not easily controllable. This is still a Bataillean lesson.

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