Friday, January 25, 2008

Mauss / Bataille (part 5)


Both Georges Bataille and Marcel Mauss put the body in the limelight of their oeuvre's theatre.

That for Bataille, the terrors and delights of the body were essential, needs no explanation.

But for Mauss too, the body was an important concern. In his classic 1934 essay "Les techniques du corps" ('techniques of the body'), Mauss analyzed the body as the locus of the social. He defined techniques of the body as 'the ways in which from society to society men know how to use their bodies'. These techniques spring from collective and individual practical reason rather than from mere mechanical repetition. For Mauss, the body was more than a mechanism to be used instrumentally. Provocatively for his age, the essay ends with a statement that there was necessarily a corporeal way of entering into "communication with God". Not only in the case of Chinese Taoism and Indian Yoga, but in general, we come to know the sacred in embodied ways.

So perhaps there is no better way to get to know these two thinkers than through juxtaposing their bodies and their corporeal habits.


Michel Surya's biography of Georges Bataille contains a description of that so-called 'philosopher of evil' by his close friend Michel Leiris:

"'His non-conformist mind [was] marked by what it was not yet customary to call black humor. (...) Somewhat thin, with a style both romantic and of his time, [he] possessed (in a more youthful form of course, and less discreetly) the elegance he would never loose. (...) His close-set, darkened eyes, brimming with all the blue of noon, went with his teeth that oddly suggested a forest animal, often uncovered by a laugh that (perhaps wrongly) I judged to be sarcastic'.

Neither 'flamboyantly attired' nor 'extravagant', elegant but conservatively dressed ('I always knew Bataille dressed in a very Bourgeois way'; 'there was nothing Bohemian about him'). There was nothing Bohemian about him, but, as photographs of the time show, he displayed an elegance that was close to dandyism, a cynical dandyism"


Marcel Fournier describes Marcel Mauss:

"Beginning students were 'dumbstruck when they heard his cavernous voice gushing from a mouth concealed under a thick beard, enumerating unfamiliar writings and authors'. (...) To them Mauss looked like a 'patriarch, a nonconformist, facetious at times, but someone who had never abandoned Messianism and was unquestionably gifted with a sort of second sight'.

At the Collège, and the École, people listened to Mauss as if he were Scheherazade. He loved to astonish and provoke his listeners, even deigning to display a dandyism in his dress that was not widespread among his colleagues. He would wear a lightweight tweed with large black and light-grey checks, a striped pearl-gray shirt with a long pointed collar, a lemon-yellow bow-tie. One day, when he was speaking of the distinctive characteristics of the different races, he lifted his trouser leg without a second thought, showing off his calf and exclaiming: "So you see, I'm one of the hairiest men in the world!"

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