Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Torture of a Hundred Pieces (pt. 2)


In his excellent biography of Georges Bataille, Michel Surya situated Bataille's ecstatic contemplation of photographs of the Torture of a Hundred Pieces in the Christian tradition of identification with the suffering of the Messiah. Thus, Bataille's meditative mimesis with the victim is contextualized in the history of (theological and philosophical) thought. Of course, this is perfectly appropriate for a book which aims to be an 'intellectual biography'.

In the previous post of this series, I hypothesized that it is also possible to situate Bataille's meditative mimesis in the context of the literary and aesthetic history of Black Romanticism. This enables me to explore the context even further, examining the historical backgrounds of this literary movement and its relevance to Bataille's grisly ecstasies.


The development of Romanticism occurred in the context of the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and Colonization. The socio-cultural, political and economic changes that these historical developments entailed, informed the literary genre. Colonial expansion brought about encounters between colonialists and foreign peoples and places, and Romanticism as a genre arose partly as a response in writing to such encounters.

In the process of colonial expansion, two diametrically opposed but interconnected views of foreign peoples emerged. In one of these a pastoral ideal, which earlier generations had placed in a mythical or classical past, in a real, was situated in an exotic yet visitable landscape. A salient example of this tendency is Gaugain's representation of Tahiti as an earthly paradise. In the other, the exotic people are savage: they transgress all symbolic boundaries, especially the boundaries imposed by utilitarianism, morality and rationality. That, according to Michael Taussig's 1986 ethnography "Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. A Study in Terror and Healing", Colombian colonialists saw Amazonian Indians as violent and cruel cannibals, can be seen an example of this second tendency. As Taussig's ethnography shows, the two tendencies are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they are intertwined. The exotic people are a savage anti-self of the colonist, at once attractive and repulsive. This anti-self is not well-defined and clear-cut, but swathed in what Taussig calls 'epistemic murk': it is the unclear, murky nature of the wildness ascribed to exotic people in colonial fabulation that gave their 'otherness' such a powerful, obsessing hold on the imagination of the colonists.

Black Romanticism used this contradictory view of exotic people for its own perverse purposes. In this literary genre, foreign peoples and places were painted as exotic, erotic, attractive and repulsive. Mario Praz's classic 1930 book on Black Romanticism, The Romantic Agony, provides many examples of this.


In 1905, China was not a colony in the strict sense of the word. Nevertheless, China and her people were very much under Western domination following the repression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and several major cities were controlled by Western troops. The Western view of China and the Chinese was undoubtedly strongly influenced by 'murky' colonial constructions of the colonized, exotic Other as at once attractive and repulsive.

The Chinese were at once represented as at once venerable, intelligent, cultured and aesthetically refined, and as decadent, cruel and addicted to opium. The portrait painted of the fictitious villain Fu-Manchu in Sax Rohmer's 1913 novel 'The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu' neatly encapsulates this bifurcated image:

"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."

This attractive and repulsive Other was eroticized. A BDSM blog post on the 1932 film The Mask of Fu Manchu: "This is classic Orientalist BDSM fantasy, a dreamworld of magic, cruelty and sensuality. The nominal heroes are such passive drips (who incidentally regard other cultures with contempt) and the nominal villains are so charismatic and powerful that ones sympathies are almost reversed 180 degrees. All of this serves as a vehicle for male and female masochistic fantasies of bondage, captivity, mind-control, same sex action, medical procedures, deathtraps and more."

In the early twentieth century, the idea that the Chinese experienced a cruel delight in exquisitely refined torture was widespread. The cruelty of the Chinese was represented by photographs of executions that were diffused through modern mass media such as illustrated journals or postcards. In this website, specialized in representations of early twentieth century Chinese torture (!), you'll find many such photographs and postcards: Faces of Death avant la lettre.


In Bataille's oeuvre, one can find several instances where he appropriates colonialist discourse on the Other and transvaluates it, turning the moral structure of the colonialist view of the colonized topsy-turvy. In this sense, Bataille's take on colonialism can be characterized as carnivalesque.

One example of this strategy can be found in Bataille's Critical Dictionary, which was published in Documents, the journal which inspired this blog. In an entry in the Critical Dictionary (Documents 6, 1930) on the Hindu Goddess Kali, Bataille makes extensive use of Katherine Mayo 1927 book "Mother India". This book, though written by an American journalist, took a strong pro-colonialist stance, arguing that India was not ready for independence. It painted a sensationalistic picture of India: bloodthirsty sacrificial rites to Kali, child marriage, superstition, widow burning, young pregnancy, temple prostitution dominate Mayo's book. Bataille's Kali entry in the Critical dictionary transvaluates Mayo's blood-soaked description of Kali worship, exalting that which Mayo finds abject. In Documents, a similar strategy is applied to W.H. Seabrook's sensationalist book on Haitian Voodoo 1929 "The Magic Island".

What do we see if we situate Bataille's ecstatic contemplation of photographs of the Torture of a Hundred Pieces in the context of colonialism?

Bataille's meditative mimesis appropriates what is abjected by colonialism in Chinese culture and exalts it: the eroticized experience of a delight in exquisitely refined torture. Like the colonial construction of the Other, Bataille's position with regards to the torturer and the tortured is swathed in 'epistemic murk': he described his experience both as sadistic and as masochistic.

Bataille's ecstatic contemplation of torture is a carnival of colonialism, in which the colonial hierarchy of values is turned topsy-turvy. Western disciplining rationality is sacrificed to ostentatious Chinese cruelty, "hideous, crazed, lined with blood, as beautiful as a wasp".


Marco Milone said...

Interesting post!

fishskull said...

I also wonder about the age of the Chinese Empire in comparison with the relatively young European colonial empires that took part in the concessions systems. In the early 18th Century the Manchu emperors were in a strong enough position to rebuff the trade overtures of British officials. By the late 19th Century China was in a much weaker position but many Europeans were aware of the history and wealth of the Middle Kingdom.
Thus Fu Manchu is portrayed as a possessor of knowledge and wealth far older and richer than that of Europeans.
Fast forward to the 21st Century and contemporary American fears of a resurgent China (economically and politically) as well as the continuing theme of the cruelty and rapaciousness of the current government.