How many licks: another effort at explaining Bataille

How many licks does it take till you get to the center of the
-Kimberly Jones

While it's true that LI enjoys the infradig like a boorish moviegoer enjoys an obnoxious ringtone, perhaps we should have been a bit more explicative vis a vis Georges Bataille in our last post. It might just be the case that not all readers of LI have immersed themselves in Bataille’s O.C. So we looked around yesterday for Bataille’s 1933 essay, The Psychological Structure of Fascism. Surprisingly, it is not to be found, in French or English, on the web. Somebody is holding tight to that copyright!

Boris Souvarine published Bataille’s essay in La Critique sociale. Souvarine moulders in the memory hole, now, but in the thirties he and a few likeminded souls – including the surrealists, one should remember (I forgive Breton a lot for punching out Ilya Ehrenburg in 1935, God damn it) – created the cold war anti-communist left. Of course, it took the cold war itself to make this political variety viable, but when the language flew at innumerable international conferences in the fifties, it would sound much like the language Souvarine used in his bio of Stalin. Souvarine’s group, the Cercle communiste democratique, included Simone Weil – which is perhaps how Bataille met her. Bataille used Weil for the character ‘Lazare’ in The Blue of Noon. (Sky Blue) It is funny to think of Weil, who has been the object of an intense Catholic cult for decades, and Bataille together. But a woman who practiced putting pins under her fingernails in Barcelona in 1934 (the year of a worker’s revolt), so that she could bear up under torture when the reactionaries captured her, was sure to get Bataille’s attention. For the CS, he wrote three articles that Francois Furet justly calls among the “most interesting ever written on political thought”: La Notion de Depense, La probleme de l’Etat, and finally La Structure Psychologique du Fascisme.

The Psychological Structure of Fascism was translated in 1979 by John Brenkman for New German Critique – it took that long to travel to America. But it was known to Benjamin, Adorno, Sartre and, in the sixties, became one of the classic texts in France, a reference point for Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, the Lacanians, the whole Family. So it has been a busy pollinator.

I’ll use the rest of this post to describe and quote from it, then I’ll go on and on and on about it in some other post. In LI’s campaign against happiness triumphant, Bataille’s concepts, percolated through our wary experience, do play a big part.

Bataille sets the terms of this essay by dividing the socius into two parts, or rather ideal tendencies – one is the ideal tendency to homogeneity, the other to heterogeneity. Homogeneity encompasses the classic economist (and Marxist) sense of the system of production:

“Production is the basis of social homogeneity. Homogeneous society is productive society, namely useful society. Every useless element is excluded, not from all society, but from its homogeneous part. In this part, each element must be useful to another without the homogeneous activity ever being able to attain the form of activity valid in itself. A useful activity has a common measure with another useful activity, but not with activity for itself.”

The common measure, in this situation, takes on a more than metric force. The common measure is money, of course. And the homogeneous tendency is embodied in the homogeneous individual, which is the homo oeconomicus of the classical school, set loose upon the landscape and marrying and giving in marriage and, in all things, tending to the middle. “In industrial civilization, the producer is distinguished from the owner of the means of production, and it is the latter who appropriates the products for himself; consequently, it is he who, in modern society, is the function of the products; it is he – and not the producer – who founds social homogeneity.” So far Bataille will go with the classic Marxist model, but he is already substituting another form of socialization – social homogeneity – for the classical Marxist notion of exploitation. This seemingly small shift determines the larger theme in the essay, which portrays the violence at the center of the socius not as a struggle between classes, but a struggle between asymmetrical functions – on the one hand, the homogenizing function, on the other, the heterogeneous function, the useless. The proletariat, in this picture, is placed on the side of the heterogeneous merely as a temporary ally – there is no intrinsic reason that a better rearrangement of the distribution of the social product – Keynesian economic policy, for instance - won’t bring him over to the side of social homogeneity.

Here Bataille makes his first thrust at Marxism, although the swordplay is muffled enough that only those who have the ears to hear it – who are familiar with the dreary 30s idea that Marxism is “scientific socialism” – will catch what is happening:

“Thus, the heterogeneous elements excluded from the latter [the homogeneous field] are excluded as well from the field of scientific consideration: as a rule, science cannot know heterogeneous elements as incompatible with its own homogeneity as are, for example, born criminals with the social order – science finds itself deprived of any functional satisfaction (exploited in the same manner as a laborer in a capitalist factory, used without sharing in the profits.) Indeed, science is not an abstract entity: it is constantly reducible to a group of men living the aspirations inherent to the scientific process.”

Bataille’s second move is to fill in the dynamic of exclusion. Here, I think, Bataille foreshadows what I’d call the dialectic of vulnerability that formed the global culture of the Cold War era, and that remains with us in a more farcical form, as the War on Terror.

“As a rule, social homogeneity is a precarious form, at the mercy of violence and even of internal dissent. It forms spontaneously in the play of productive organization but must constantly be protected from the various unruly elements that do not benefit from production, or not enough to suit them, or simply, that cannot tolerate the checks that homogeneity imposes on unrest. In such conditions, the protection of homogeneity lies in its recourse to imperative elements which are capable of obliterating the various unruly forces or bringing them under the control of order.

The state is not itself one of these imperative elements; it is distinct from kinds, heads of the army, or of nations, but it is the result of the modifications undergone by a part of homogeneous society as it comes into contact with such elements.”

The state, in Bataille’s schema, doesn’t exist as a homogeneous constant, but as a variable that functions to enforce homogeneity, either through command and control authority – in the despotic form – or by coordinating with the ‘spontaneous’ enforcement of homogeneous norms in democracy. But here’s the thing for Bataille – in 1933 – in an era in which democracy seemed to be failing some essential test of social experience: the state can be captured by heterogeneous factions. Before fascism exists as a fact, it exists as a possibility inherent in the state:

“Even in difficult circumstances, the State is able to neutralize those heterogeneous forces that will yield only to its constraints. But it can succumb to the internal dissociation of that segment of society of which it is but the constrictive form.”

Oh oh. I can see that I am going into post nova – I could go on like this for pages, thus destroying the patience of the blog reader, accustomed to reading short, spiffy paragraphs, usually about Paris Hilton, pro or con. Oops. Well, I will continue this later.


amie said…
LI, what no comments to this post? How strange after the erudite comments to your previous one?

Anyway, thanks for working through this "text" by GB which is so fucking relevant to the powers and scribes today, and their ass-up rationality.

I do hope you'll extend the post.

PS - Breton smacking Elya is all great, but hey I also do appreciate Nadja...
roger said…
Amie, though I think we both enjoy Nadja, we both obviously enjoy a well delivered crack to the jaw too - as per your comment!
I'd forgotten just how amazing Bataille could be! I certainly am going to have to follow this essay back to the trail I am making out of all my detours, moving towards some obscure end.
Qlipoth said…
Whose jaw was cracked? Can't say I noticed anything. And I'm not yet convinced that 'erudition' must necessarily include a profound knowledge of the works of Bataille.

But I look forward to being educated here.

Maybe some erudite Bataillean could start by telling me exactly what the word "kinds" is doing in this passage?

"The state is not itself one of these imperative elements; it is distinct from kinds, heads of the army, or of nations..."

Merci bien.

PS Roger, your last post (inspired by a largely-fictional movie 'romp' that vaguely alludes to Wilhelm Reich) was entitled "the decline of degradation, or abjection kitsch". You said a few things about something you call "transgression", and you described your youthful response to a story about an eye being stuffed up a vagina. And that was about it. So I'm a bit nonplussed that you call your current post "another effort at explaining Bataille".

But I'm all agog, seriously.
Qlipoth said…
Eureka - it's "kings". Alles klar.