Published on September 26th, 2011 | by Harmonist staff8
Georges Bataille and the Devouring Economy of Nature
No doubt most readers of The Harmonist are familiar with Bhagavad Gita, the famous and sublime conversation between the ancient warrior Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna. We learn through the unfolding dialog of the Gita that Krishna is the human manifestation of the Supreme God and the true friend of all beings. Krishna is the beneficiary of every kind of love that reveals the best in each of us. It is all the more striking then when Arjuna, while talking to God in the person of his intimate friend and overcome in a rapture of mystical vision (BG 11.24-31), unsettlingly describes him thus:
Having seen your mouths made frightening by many teeth and glowing like the fire of universal destruction, I have lost my sense of direction and find no comfort. . . . All the worlds rush into your mouths, just like moths swiftly entering a blazing fire to be destroyed.1
In response to Arjuna’s dismay, Krishna speaks the famous line quoted in shock and awe by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer upon witnessing the fulfillment of his scientific work and invention, the first atomic bomb:
I am time, powerful destroyer of the world, who has come forth to annihilate everyone.2
While we usually take the apocalyptic image of flaming mouths to represent the principle of time, which spares no one, I’d like to suggest something more; that is, that the universe itself is all-consuming, that it spends itself. Further, that we humans are inextricably involved in this consumption and that without participating in it through ways of sacrifice, that is, through conscious consumption such as that described in Bhagavad Gita, we cannot avoid rushing into the mouths of unnecessary horror and waste of which Oppenheimer’s invention is one manifestation.
Parallel to the Gita in some ways are the ideas of a modern French writer named Georges Bataille (1897-1962), whose views are not only interesting but offer insight into the current predicament of the West and are charged with urgency in confronting the crisis of Modernity.
Bataille’s metaphysical conception is a kind of mystical materialism. For him, “matter” is the substratum of the universe; but it is a notion like the materia prima of Western mysticism or the Indian concept of prakrti: dynamic and ineffable nature. Unlike the scientific concept of matter, his matter can be intuited but not empirically quantified or rationally explained. It is infinite, infinitely abundant, and ever-expanding. The sun, he thinks, the center of our immediate universe, is the central metaphor for his idea of matter, the center of its “economy.” The sun is both the source of energy and also pure consumption; a blazing mass, it devours itself and hurls its energy in all directions, sustaining life everywhere.
Taking on endless forms, life, like the solar energy (or as the solar energy as Bataille might put it) fills every recess of space: every region, every geographical condition, the land and sea, even to the bacteria in our guts. As it expands in space, it also extends through time, for nature is continually killing off all living beings to make room for new ones. In a sense, death is part of the generous expenditure of nature. It is an overflow of nature. As living beings, we are both spenders and the spent. We are spenders only as long as we can absorb energy for our own growth, and after which, we are literally spent. It is awareness of the tension between the finite individual and infinite nature that constitutes the problem of the human. Bataille says:
I will begin with a basic fact: The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g. an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.3
Bataille calls this excess “the accursed share,” for as suggested above, it is potentially problematic. According to Bataille, a society must find a way of draining off energy in excess of what it needs or risk being destabilized and destroyed by that very wealth. It may seem counterintuitive in our age of impending scarcity with predictions of economic collapse and dwindling resources how we could have “too much energy,” but our resource problems are ironically a result of our civilization’s strategy of dealing with its wealth.
Bataille’s book The Accursed Share details how various human societies spend energy, whether through elaborate gifting ceremonies, warrior culture, monasticism, or capitalist industry. Basic features of human collectivity including religion, art, war, and time spent doing nothing, but also celebrations, pageantry, spectacle, entertainment, sports, dancing and music, eroticism (vs. procreative sex), and many others including even human sacrifice and prolonged mourning all constitute a “useless” expenditure of wealth. Human endeavor falls into two classes: the productive, which is concerned with growth and maintaining the lives of individuals, and the consumptive, which dissipates the energy beyond what can be “used.” We are impelled, even against reason, to engage in “consumptive” activity not just because it’s fun but because it is one with the essential nature of existence of which we are inseparable.
Interestingly, Bataille shows how Modernity, the core value of which he takes to be capitalism (with it’s alienating individualism), is entirely rooted in productive values and language against pre-modern times and cultures, which were attentive to the values of consumption. Prior to Modernity, in later medieval times, the increase in European wealth was applied to religious culture: cathedral building, monasteries, pilgrimages, crusades, numerous holy days (time spent feasting and not working), and in general, time spent (again, not working) in acts of personal piety, attending daily mass and the like. After the Reformation, and especially after Calvin, the idea that religious observances would bring spiritual merit in the eyes of God lost traction for many Europeans, for as Luther preached, Salvation is obtained by grace alone and never by pious works. The reformers also preached that simple work was noble and that worldly prosperity could be taken as a sign that one was blessed by God, an indication in the predestined scheme of life that one was “elect” or chosen by God to be saved.4
Thus begins what later came to be called by German sociologist Max Weber, the Protestant Work Ethic, one of several motivating ideologies behind the rise of capitalism.5 Building on Weber’s theories, Bataille suggests that the Protestant reformers had unknowingly shifted the means of wealth expenditure from religious culture (and also games, singing and dancing, gambling, and eroticism, which leaders like Calvin sought to suppress with totalitarian zeal) into the means of production itself: more industry, business, restraint, frugality, fiscal discipline. Since then, Western civilization has been obsessed with the ever-increasing expansion of commerce, industry, and the control of nature to ensure the survival of the individual.
Equally notable is the explosion of violence that the Reformation unleashed (much to the shocked horror of the early reformers), costing the lives of millions in over a century of religiously justified warfare and persecutions. Even beyond the 17th century we must note the untold misery and death later inflicted by Europeans through colonization, slavery, and genocide throughout the world to support the West’s productive values.
We begin as spenders and end being spent. But as Bataille demonstrates, there are many ways to engage in the sacrificial economy of nature. Knowing this, we are left with a choice between conscious sacrifice and blind waste as monstrous as the atomic bomb. He says:
We can ignore or forget the fact that the ground we live on is little other than a field of multiple destructions. Our ignorance has only this incontestable effect: It causes us to undergo what we could bring about in our own way, if we understood.6
We must seek out pure acts of expenditure that have no benefit to our immediate survival, which undermine our sense of individuality, which go against pragmatically oriented reason; we must learn to give freely and understand actual sacrifice in the midst of life or have it imposed on us as we rush past teeth of fear into the flaming mouth of destruction. We are already impelled to do so as this is what connects us to the nature of life itself. On this topic the Gita has much to say. In fact, Bhagavad Gita can be read as a solution to Bataille’s problem of the accursed share, and moreover one that takes us well beyond his concept of mystical materialism to an intimate knowledge of the enjoyer of all sacrifice himself, as our own friend.
- Swami Tripurari, The Bhagavad Gita It’s Feeling and Philosophy (Mandala, 2001). Verses 11.25, 11.29 [↩]
- Ibid., BG 11.32 [↩]
- Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share Vol. 1 (1967). Trans. Robert Hurley (Zone, 1991). p. 21 [↩]
- Will Durant, The Reformation, A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300-1564 (Simon and Schuster, 1957) [↩]
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Trans. Talcott Parsons (Charles Scribner, 1958) [↩]
- Bataille, The Accursed Share Vol. 1. P. 17 [↩]
Excellent, Gaura Krsna! Thank you. It reminds of a point Swami makes in his commentary on the first chapter of the Gita: Whatever you are not willing to give up you will anyway lose.
Hi, Gaura Krishna. Bataille knew the Bhagavad-gita, just like Camus, Sartre, Ponty or Breton. These personalities were recognized as great philosophers and were contemporaries of Georges Bataille. Sometimes they were good friends. But they did not care at all for the the tenets of Bhagavad-gita. They were atheists. So, when we hear that one of them came closed to the the vaisnava teachings, we are quite enthusiast. But Bataille was an anti-vaisnava. I thought stressing this point because you did not mention clearly this aspect of his personality. Although, since these philosophers were of a brilliant intelligence and leaders amongst the intellectuals, it is sad they did not speak more loudly about the Bhagavad gita, to help the world understanding. We are happy because Robert Oppenheimer did by chance pronounce a sentence from the holy book, but that’s meager… (a quote I heard many times but never get across such statement.) It is not a great achievement to come close to the realizations as describe in the Bhagavad gita about material nature. So many religious persons have done so in the past, even the advaitists praise the BG, but we know they are envious of Krishna and they are only interested in the own agenda. We call them mayavadis and we don’t like their stand. So what to speak of G. Bataille! Aziz
It sounds like your objection -if I hear you correctly- is that we shouldn’t accept non-vaisnava interpretations of Bhagavad Gita. I agree. That’s the teaching that I’ve understood. Perhaps I should have been more clear that Bataille himself did not comment on Gita, nor was he, as far as I know, influenced by it. The connection between his ideas and perspectives on sacrifice in the Gita is my interpretation and one that could be very wrong, although someone would have to show me how.
Otherwise it seems you are saying that I neglected to mention that Bataille is a demon. Actually, I didn’t mention anything about Bataille, either about his life, the scope of his work, his influence on other thinkers, etc. because I didn’t think it was relevant to what I was doing in my article. What I did was cherry pick his most accessible and influential idea as he expressed it in one particular book. I didn’t examine Bataille’s spiritual standing, or even the man himself because I’m interested in his main idea rather than putting him forward as an acarya. We shouldn’t be confused to think he is offering transcendental insight. His writing is entirely preoccupied with the organic grist in the grinding stone of earthly life.
Unless someone calls his/herself an atheist I would be a little careful about applying this label. I think it’s wise to allow for many shades of many conceptions of the absolute, and it may not be clear in the context of thinkers like Bataille what theist or atheist even refer to. In fact Bataille was very interested in spirituality although personally I find his ideas about this weird/scary/unreadable but I don’t think it really matters. It’s adequate to call him a non-devotee. So what? I’m simply borrowing his idea about material nature and giving him due credit.
You mention that “coming close” to understanding material nature as described in the Gita is no big achievement. I have to disagree. In fact it may be impossible without the devotees. One of the things the devotees do is to make sense of the sastra and impart it’s meaning and relevance to us and they can use any and all things in their path to do so. Ideas are just another thing, just like cars and cell phones, just like recording CDs, printing books, and posting on the internet.
Ideas are valuable because they allow us perspectives on the mental construct that is our world. New perspectives allow us to see things we hadn’t before and to find solutions to problems. We have a big problem and the best perspective is Krishna consciousness, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make use of lesser insights, especially if they are specific to the cultural construct we live within. These can be helpful in bridging the distance between the world Arjuna lived in and our own. I am not very good at presenting sastra, but I know many devotees who are and so I wrote this piece to pass on some workable perspective to those who know what to do with it. (And also for anyone ending up here while doing a search on Bataille. Try this: Gaudiya Vedanta.)
Well said. And I think articles like this are very desirable in the context of a site like this, and further, that their appeal would be greatly diminished if we could not refrain from detailing all the deviations from Gaudiya siddhanta that we find in people who have no affiliation from which to deviate. 🙂
That being said, I do appreciate Aziz’s participation here, truly.
I haven’t read all the way down the comments yet, but do we really have to think that if someone is not a Gaudiya Vaisnava, then we are suddenly above them and they are a lesser philosopher? That is just so obviously group ego at work, and that’s why such a ludicrous idea is not challenged more often. Rather it is given credence, though somewhat begrudgingly, by persons as smart as Gaura Krishna.
There is no question of interpretation of BG here, you understood me wrongly. Never Bataille made such attempts. You may write that Batailles’ speculations are parallel to the BG teaching, then I should put in perspective your strange comparison: they just going on different directions. What I really said was that Bataille did not manifest a serious curiosity for the BG, although he got a ‘little’ interested in India scriptures and mysticism. However his main quest was sex and Tantrism. Grosso modo.
I did not say that Bataille was a demon. Neither had I said you should not talk about him on this forum. Since I am also a demon, this argument will be dishonest from my side.
It never works well when you try to separate an auteur from his work, like you’re suggesting. It is a famous amongst people to think like that but I am in opposite to this mental disposition. What is written in a book is a projection of the mind and may be separated only artificially, with major flaws in understanding “his main idea”. Therefore you don’t see that Batailles’ philosophy is a pure product of materialism and atheism, mixed with glorification of vices and dirtiness. The pig was his pet animal. You may understand why… For him, to break traditions and believe in God was the way to transcend taboos and laugh at death. Nietzsche’s and, to a certain point, Sade were his references for his erotic passion and sexual phantasms.
If you read more about his work (which is not really an advice) you’ll find that you can cut his atheism with a knife so thick it is. But if you ”don’t think it really matters”, then of course, I have nothing to say, except that your readers will be deprived of these facts. I don’t understand why you are reluctant to take my words on his atheism, but it is up to you. At least, please, don’t make ignorance as an alternative, read more of his books if you don’t want to appear irresponsible. Since you disagree with me on how to present his ideas, I manifest also to you mine: Bataille is not a spiritualist of any kind; he is just a depraved person. That is my point of view from what I know from him.
Ideas are not comparable to cell phones, there are not same. A mantra and an object have two different vibrations. I regret to know that you need and fill enliven by reading Bataille’s book on the facets of prakriti… (smile) Anyway, Gaura Krishna Das, Georges Bataille, to my humble view, is not someone regarded as particularly helpful to understand life, what to speak of vedic scriptures. He is considered odd and old by the intellectual community. Although it may be not the case in América, I don’t know.
Surely there is some truth to that. I think that in some respects atheism is often as spiritually correct as religious fundamentalism, sometimes more, although neither gets it entirely. Overall I think that Bataille’s ideas presented in the article are worthy of discussion despite his moral character and materialistic conclusions presented elsewhere. As Gaura Krsna comments, one’s ideas, however isolated from one’s conclusions, may unto themselves have spiritual currency when discussing spirituality. If such ideas help one to understand the significance of an aspect of the philosophy found in the Gita, there is certainly value in pointing that out. But it is also valuable to pint out the downside of Bataille’s philosophy in general.
Dear Swami Tripurari, thank you for your advises. Pardon me if I am so passionate when I speak. It seems I did not explain myself clearly enough. Instead, I like very much these kind of articles about thinkers who are drawing the structures of the cosmos and explaining its psyche; I love books and to study history. I learned by myself English just to read Srila Prabupada’s books. I am not very religious, but my femme and I have been completely enamored with the way he described India and its Gods. I know you from the past. I liked very much your way of thinking and writing. I heard some of your lectures and read here and there about you. You were famous. But that is long time ago. So I feel very honor to be able to tell you that directly. Thank you for your dedication and the work you are doing. So, again, I am sorry for the way I spoke. It is not at my age, however, that I will change. In fact, I was glad to talk with devotees about Georges Bataille. It is so rare. I don’t know much about him. But for what I can remember, his books were not my cup of tea. I did not like not like René Girard either, on the same subject, the sacrifice. About the sacrifice, if you allow me a last observation, since the example was given by Gaura Krishna dasa, Bataille’s view on rituals were that a sacrifice is necessarily violent, and the more violent the better it is for purification (from what, this I am not sure anymore, since his mystical approach was devoid of personal gods.). That was his conclusion on the reason why religions were using sacrifices, from what I can recall, to transgress the laws, all kind of laws, and create chaos. All these theoreticians were meat eaters by choice. These ideas of using rituals and precepts of religion to destroy the social order for the beneficial progress of civilization are not in the Mahabharata. It is a residue of their paradigm on evolution. You may correct me. Bataille was a sociologist(?) of his time (Sartre, Breton, Picasso, Dali, Foucault, Freud, Nietzsche and so on. ) They wanted to understand the world with their own brain. The motor of their motives was to fight authorities, religion and God. It was a reaction to the foolishness of the Judeo-Christian grips. But they went from one extreme to another. Their ideas were dark like death. Revolutions, Communism, Dadaism, surrealism, spiritism, they were fascinated by Rimbaud or Baudelaire, these poets “maudits”. So stupid, I find these models. (I was brought up in a Muslim culture, maybe this is the reason I react like this. But Srila Prabupada’s teaching reinforced it.) It is a period in Europe I am familiar with. Younger, I was passionate by these authors. Therefore, in his philosophy, Bataille’s mind and writing are pretty much influence by his time. If it was not for Schopenhauer to have stress the importance of the Upanishad, they will have care less for putting their nose into them. As a sociologist, Bataille analysed some works related to gods and sacrifices, then produces a structural concept he believes sacrifices were held for. In the Mahabharata, the sacrifice in itself was conducted by brahmanas and it was celestial, with demigods attending. The ultimate goal was to create a condition for everyone to get self realize and quit this material world. For G. Bataille there is no spiritual world. He is concerned only with saktas interest, at best. But that subtlety of the vedic culture is still far away from his mystic thoughts (because that is all what is it, thoughts; not science: philosophy, psychology, anthropology, are not science, like understood for example by Karl Popper). Bataille refers mainly to others types of sacrifice, of lower grade, like those of the Incas, the Jews or the Druids. They were bloody, horrible and savage, in the name of gods. In India also we find them, but not in the context of the Mahabharata. We must stress also how in Vedic time was important and advanced the science of rituals and mantras. It was however starting to decline. It was much more scientific than in other civilizations. Bataille did not know India. His understanding was poor. Therefore I think his thoughts and analysis were not so great. Maybe I am missed your point. If you think I am wrong, tell me, please. I speak like if I was familiar with Bataille’s work, but I am not. I know you are knowledgeable on these matters. I’ll be happy to hear from you and everyone else also. In any case, that will be my humble contribution to Gaura Krishna dasa’ article.
Hoping you are doing well with your health and that you are happy, Aziz