Monday, January 14, 2008

Mauss / Bataille (part 4)

There is a strong thematic unity between the teachings of the great French ethnologist Marcel Mauss and the work of the so-called 'philosopher of evil', Georges Bataille. This is the fourth in a short series of posts in which I take up the relations between the writings of the two men.

Bataille abandoned the attempt to found a religion based on Maussian theory when the war broke out. Probably, several different reasons caused him to change course.

First, his closest friends and collaborators - Michel Leiris and Roger Caillois - became increasingly critical of Bataille's endeavors and in the end quit Acéphale. Bataille felt abandoned by his friends.

Second, some aspects of Durkheim's sociology became increasingly problematical as the confrontation with fascist ideology became more intense. Durkheim's maxim "Society is to it's members what a god is to the faithful" assumes a completely different aspect when seen under the light of totalitarianism.

Finally, a more rigorous analysis of the meaning of the meaning of sacrifice in a world whose God is dead drove him in a direction that was not new, but more awe-inspiring.

If God in Durkheimian thought is coeval with the social, the death of God equals the death of the social. If there was no hope of resurrecting God, there was no hope of revitalizing society through sacrifice - human or otherwise. Communication through sacrifice with either an elective community or with society as a whole, had become impossible. God himself had been sacrificed - not with an eye to periodic renewal, as with the agricultural deities analysed by Mauss - but irreversibly.

But this did not mean Bataille abandoned Maussian sacrifice. Rather, he reinterpreted sacrifice as a procedure which consists in establishing (through the mediation of a victim) a means of communication between the profane world and an absence - the absence of God and the social. Communication is sought with the unchained, the disorienting, the vertiginous, an infinite nothing, an empty space, something colder, night.

In this un-social (the Durkheimian undead) sacrifice, the sacrifier and the victim are one and the same person: "Je suis la plaie et le couteau!" (Baudelaire).

And rather than the abandonment by his closest friends and collaborators and the restrictions war put on social life, I feel this profound absence of the social is the true cause of Bataille's inward turn during the war.

Post scriptum

Ceci alerted me to a book by Michèle Richman: "Sacred Revolutions: Durkheim and the Collège De Sociologie", which I wasn't aware of and ordered straight away (here). Thanks Ceci!

1 comment:

Passionate Ornithology said...

and in turn, thanks for alerting me to this book!