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Théorie de la religion by Georges…

Théorie de la religion (edition 1948)

by Georges Bataille, Thadée Klossowski (Sous la direction de)

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243247,405 (3.74)3
Title:Théorie de la religion
Authors:Georges Bataille
Other authors:Thadée Klossowski (Sous la direction de)
Info:Gallimard (1986), Poche, 159 pages
Collections:Catalogue, Your library
Tags:philosophie, religion, anthropologie, France, FR

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Theory of Religion by Georges Bataille



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Bataille, Kojève, Nietzsche

It is remarkable that none of the previous reviews here on Amazon mention Alexandre Kojève. At the end of this book Bataille lists several authors who provided 'reference points' that guided his steps. The note for Kojève, and his "Introduction à la lecture de Hegel", is twice as long as the next longest entry. (Others here singled out by Bataille are: Georges Dumézil, Emile Durkheim, Sylvain Lévi, Marcel Mauss, Simone Pétrement, Bernardino De Sahagún, R. H. Tawney, and Max Weber.) Of Kojève's book Bataille says, "The ideas that I have developed here are substantially present in it." Now, even though their two positions are not reconcilable, and Bataille does not expect them to be reconciled, Bataille says of Kojève's "Introduction" that, "[n]o one today can claim to be educated without having assimilated its contents. (p. 124)"

Note also that the long Epigraph that Bataille places at the beginning of this book comes from Kojève. This epigraph ends thusly:
"In contrast to the knowledge that keeps man in a passive quietude, Desire dis-quiets him and moves him to action. Born of Desire, action tends to satisfy it, and can do so only by the 'negation,' the destruction or at least the transformation, of the desired object: to satisfy hunger, for example, the food must be destroyed or, in any case, transformed. Thus all action is 'negating'." (Kojève, "Introduction to the Reading of Hegel", p. 4 of the English translation.)

Who exactly is Alexandre Kojève? Well, it is he, not Fukuyama, who is the originator of the so-called 'End of History' debate. In the lectures that became his "Introduction à la lecture de Hegel" Kojève interpreted Hegel to the cream of pre-WWII French intelligentsia in a dramatic manner that his auditors, Bataille included, found electrifying. These lectures on Hegel, which took both Marx's materialism and Heidegger's understanding of Death into account, mark the beginning of existential Marxism in France. The story he tells is of unrequited Desire fighting for Recognition while working its way through the world, and thus blindly (until Hegel) changing that world in a process that inevitably leads to the Universal State. According to Kojève, Hegel is the first one to see this. Technically, for Kojève, History 'ended' with Napoleon. There is nothing beyond the "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" of the French Revolution; what Napoleon was doing and what has been happening since Napoleon in our current 'post-history' is nothing more than the spreading of the ideals of the French Revolution throughout the world. For Kojève, there simply isn't anything else to do. And when this Work is finally Done? The "Universal Homogenous State" (UHS) rises, forever...

Now, for Bataille, Kojève's interpretation of Hegel is the only authoritative understanding of our real workaday historical world. However, for Bataille, this world was never, and could never be, enough. So then, what could be 'enough'? Bataille believed that the lost intimacy of (especially primitive) religion was once, long go, 'enough'; and, who knows, perhaps he thought it could be so again!

But first, I want to stress that Bataille is not calling for some sort of return to a pre-human 'animality'. Animalistic apathy, this immanent moving in the world as 'water within water' (as Bataille characterizes it, p. 23) is not at all what our author is after. He doesn't want to be merely 'one with nature', he wants to enjoy, fear and reflect on nature too!
"Moreover, the animal accepted this immanence that submerged it without apparent protest, whereas man feels a kind of impotent horror in the sense of the sacred. This horror is ambiguous. Undoubtedly, what is sacred attracts and possesses an incomparable value, but at the same time it appears vertiginously dangerous for that clear and profane world where mankind situates its privileged domain. (p. 36)"

It is this 'vertigo', at once joyful and fearsome and thought-provoking, that Bataille is pursuing in this book! There are two worlds:
"The reality of a profane world, of a world of things and bodies, is established opposite a holy and mythical world. (p. 37)"
"The real world remains as a residuum of the birth of the divine world: real animals and plants separated from their spiritual truth slowly rejoin the empty objectivity of tools, the mortal body is gradually assimilated to the mass of things. Insofar as it is spirit, the human reality is holy, but it is profane insofar as it is real. Animals, plants, tools, and other controllable things form a real world with the bodies that control them, a world subject to and traversed by divine forces, but fallen. (p. 38)"

In the profane world (this is Kojève's World) we tend to become the tools of our own tools, that is to say, the means of our own purposes. Take, for example, a farmer, "during the time when he is cultivating, the farmer's purpose is not his own purpose, and during the time when he is tending the stock, the purpose of the stock raiser is not his own purpose. The agricultural product and the livestock are things, and the farmer or the stock raiser, during the time they are working, are also things. (p. 42)" One suspects that for Bataille even our concerted action to bring "liberté, égalité, fraternité" to all the world also turns us into mere things...

So then, how did our poor farmer long ago escape his fate? - Sacrifice! "Sacrifice destroys an object's real ties of subordination; it draws the victim out of the world of utility and restores it to that of unintelligible caprice. (p. 43)" Readers of Bataille are not mistaken to find Nietzsche's 'Amor Fati', Chaos, and Dionysus precisely here:
"The sacrificer declares, 'Intimately, I belong to the sovereign world of the gods and myths, to the world of violent and uncalculated generosity, just as my wife belongs to my desires. I withdraw you, victim, from the world in which you were and could only be reduced to the condition of a thing, having a meaning that was foreign to your intimate nature. I call you back to the intimacy of the divine world, of the profound immanence of all that is.' (p. 44)"

In the profane world there is work and property, mine and yours, friends and enemies; in the intimate world of myth and sacrifice there is a violent, but blessed, unanimity. Now, in arguing that the real profane world isn't enough I don't think we should hear Bataille to be claiming that the 'intimate order' is Actual; rather, and this is perhaps even more profound, he believes it is Necessary! But the real profane order "does not so much reject the negation of life that is death as it rejects the affirmation of intimate life, whose measureless violence is a danger to the stability of things, an affirmation that is fully revealed only in death. The real order must annul - neutralize - that intimate life and replace it with the thing that the individual is in the society of labor. But it cannot prevent life's disappearance in death from revealing the invisible brilliance of life that is not a thing. (pps. 46-47)"

The 'invisible brilliance of life that is not a thing' - this is poetry! For Bataille, the profane world (and make no mistake upon this point, he means any profane world, whether capitalist or communist, ancient or modern) must turn us into things. But don't we love this ordinary life? After all, we cry at funerals. "Far from being sorrowful, the tears are an expression of a keen awareness of shared life grasped in its intimacy. (p. 48)" Death isn't only pain; it is a Revelation that there is something else besides this everyday life, and as such, it always borders on poetry. Many of these books of Bataille can be regarded as a first attempt at a new form of sacred poetry that speaks to our secular (and now postmodern) times.

In still another way Sacrifice breaks out of the profane world. "Sacrifice is the antithesis of production, which is accomplished with a view to the future; it is consumption that is concerned only with the moment. (49)" There is your opposition! Sacred vs. the Profane means the useful vs. the useless. Farther down this same page we read,
"[...] in sacrifice the offering is rescued from all utility.
This is so clearly the precise meaning of sacrifice, that one sacrifices what is useful; one does not sacrifice luxurious objects."

So, sacrifice is the antithesis of production. It is a prayer. The hope that there is something beyond production; something beyond being a cog in a wheel that is itself a cog in a larger wheel... and so on, forever.
"Sacrifice is made of objects that could have been spirits, such as animals or plant substances, but that have become things and that need to be restored to the immanence whence they come, to the vague sphere of lost intimacy. (p .50)"

This 'intimacy', what does that mean to our author? "Paradoxically, intimacy is violence, and it is destruction, because it is not compatible with the positing of the separate individual. (p. 51)" So the intimate order is the end of both individuality and our profane existence. But how is it that both the intimate and the profane occur in human experience? Bataille explains that Man,
"is afraid of death as soon as he enters the system of projects that is the order of things. Death disturbs the order of things and the order of things holds us. Man is afraid of the intimate order that is not reconcilable with the order of things. Otherwise there would be no sacrifice, and there would be no mankind either. The intimate order would not reveal itself in the destruction and the sacred anguish of the individual. (p. 52)"

Bataille is claiming that the intimate order is an anthropological category that will subsist so long as Man, desiring Man, exists. But we no longer Sacrifice; is the intimate order now only encountered in death?

No, Sacrifice is violence; carried to its extreme, which is where violence always tends, it is the end of our humanity. "But if man surrendered unreservedly to immanence, he would fall short of humanity; he would achieve it only to lose it and eventually life would return to the unconscious intimacy of animals. The constant problem posed by the impossibility of being human without being a thing and of escaping the limits of things without returning to animal slumber receives the limited solution of the festival. (p. 53)"

You see, the Sacred is dangerous: "The sacred is exactly comparable to the flame that destroys the wood by consuming it. (p. 53)" The Festival, however, is a 'controlled burn': "there is an aspiration for destruction that breaks out in the festival, but there is a conservative prudence that limits and regulates it. (p. 54)" The festival is thus a (partially) unintelligible Joy that does not destroy us. That is to say, it is both useful and useless. "The festival is tolerated to the extent that it reserves the necessities of the profane world. (p. 54)" Now, the festival is not a recovery of our lost intimacy, it is a compromise between 'the sacred' and 'the profane'; and, according to our author, it is upon the compromise between these two that all History has been built.

We have now traversed almost half of this book. I will stop here and leave it to the interested reader to pursue it further. (I believe Amazon still limits review length.) Bataille at this point now turns from primitive history to our 'civilized' history of War, Empire, States and Capital. It is the history of how the profane has 'overcome' the sacred: "The millenial quest for lost intimacy was abandoned by productive mankind" (p. 92). And it is a signpost pointing to the way we might regain this lost intimacy. All this is, I thought, the more interesting part of the book but this review is already longer than I intended it to be. - And I still want to digress and speak a bit more of the relation between Kojève and Bataille.

Now, regarding that, I believe that the internal war that Bataille fought was between Kojève's sui generis Marxism and Nietzsche.
"Nietzsche's position is the only one apart from communism", (Bataille, Accursed Share, p 373).
Indeed, I would argue that many of these books of Bataille can be seen as one long meditation on the possibility, a possibility that perhaps Bataille never himself fully believed, that both Kojève and Nietzsche were somehow right! Now, one of the things that makes the "Theory of Religion" so difficult to understand is that Bataiile is doing a sort of 'double accounting'. He wants to explain the sacred and secular history in a manner that will be both Nietzschean and Kojèvean (i.e., Hegelian) at the same time. Its occasional opacity testifies to the difficulty... Briefly, Bataille thinks of the profane world as Kojève did, and he thinks of the Sacred (i.e., the intimate order) in his own uniquely Nietzschean manner. I suspect that this is why no reviewer before me here on Amazon even mentioned Kojève. They were interested in what Bataille had to say regarding the 'intimate order'.

Kojève basically tells Bataille that even if one does not find (his Hegelian) Truth satisfying this is not sufficient cause to be satisfied with dreams or lies. Kojève is always speaking of Reality, of what is actually being done in our secular world. Kojève worked after the War, if I remember correctly, in the French Ministry of Economic Affairs; he was a very practical person. To him, Bataille is but another Hegelian 'Beautiful Soul', chattering on endlessly about nothing at all.
(For the origin of the term 'beautiful soul' look to Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind:
"Its activity consists in yearning, which merely loses itself in becoming an unsubstantial shadowy object, and, rising above this loss and falling back on itself, finds itself merely as lost. In this transparent purity of its moments it becomes a sorrow-laden 'beautiful soul', as it is called; its light dims and dies within it, and it vanishes as a shapeless vapour dissolving into thin air." (From the old J.B. Baillie translation, pps. 666-667. Also see pages 675-676.)

Bataille never really found an answer (I mean to say he never found an answer the profane world would acknowledge) to that rebuke. But I believe (and the following is not Bataille's point, it is mine) that Nietzsche did. His genealogical method demonstrates that our understanding of History, of any particular history, can change; that is to say, past events can (eventually, but only in certain circumstances) be given different meanings. Granting this means that the Hegelian Circle of Absolute Knowledge can never actually be closed. Why? Well, the Hegelian Philosopher can never know where History has (or will) lead us because he can never be certain that our interpretation of that History will not change, or has not (unknown even by him) already changed. Thus the Hegelo-Kojèvean Sage, who wishes to recount the phenomenological History, those dialectical steps that inevitably led to himself and his Absolute Knowledge, will eventually find himself incapable of doing so because that History (the specific past he recounts) is forever changing too. This (occasionally actual but always potential) Nietzschean genealogical reduction means that the historical ground (known dialectically and phenomenologically) is forever crumbling away beneath our feet...

Roger Caillois, who along with Bataille and others formed the so-called 'College of Sociology', recalls that it, "was at Bataille's on the rue de Rennes that we explained our project to Kojève ... Kojève listened to us, but he dismissed our idea. In his eyes we were putting ourselves in the position of a conjurer who wanted his magic tricks to make him believe in magic." (This vignette is recounted in Bataille, "The College of Sociology", p. 86) So yes, from the view of the profane world Kojève is right; a stage magician that believes in his own magic tricks is genuinely insane. However, we should note, again from the very same practical profane position, that if a stage magician were to believe that the audience wants to believe in magic he would not be insane at all...

But how could the profane Kojèvean world ever accept Bataille's Sacred? "As long as History continues, or as long as the perfect State is not realized [...] the opposition of these two points of view (the 'philosophical' and the religious or theological) is inevitable." (Kojève, "Introduction to the Reading of Hegel", p. 72) Kojève knew full well that if his UHS did not rise then religion is, and must be, a permanent constituent of human social reality. You will of course note that the Universal Homogenous State, the State in which "liberté, égalité, fraternité" have all been fully realized and universal satisfaction has been achieved, has yet to arise. So long as it doesn't one could thus argue, on perfectly secular Kojèvean grounds, that one could expect to always encounter some type of religion.

Did Kojève ever take Bataille seriously? Well, perhaps. In answer to Bataille, or so I've heard it maintained, Kojève, in the enigmatic "Note to the Second Edition" (Kojève, "Introduction to the Reading of Hegel", p. 159ff), announces that even after the UHS rises something that could be thought of as 'religious sentiment' could survive. Kojève rather dismissively refers to these behaviors as Snobbery! This is because, by definition, in the UHS there can no longer be any (properly speaking) historical action. Snobbish behavior has no historical import, thus it too, like Sacrifice, can be considered an 'unintelligible caprice'. But so long as there is Desire there will be Action. This is why Bataille included this specific Kojèvean quote (mentioned above, "Born of Desire, action...") as the epigraph to his book. I should, in fairness, also mention that others say that this Note on snobbery, far from being a concession to Bataille, was little more than a joke that Kojève found amusing to tell...

There is included in the material collected in "The College of Sociology (CS), (pps. 89-93)" a letter Bataille wrote Kojève in 1937. In this letter Bataille introduces his notion of 'unemployed negativity'. If to be Human is to Act, and if Action ceases in the UHS, then what happens to activity? (Recall that all action is 'negating' according to Kojève.) It becomes 'unemployed'. "Most often, negativity, being impotent, makes itself into a work of art. (CS, p. 90)" So what exactly has changed? There has always been Art. Ah, but in the UHS we know that historical action is impossible. (And we should add, that in our current post-history, historical action is becoming increasingly impossible.) That is new; "the man of 'unemployed negativity' [,,,] become(s) the man of 'recognized negativity'. (CS, p. 91)" Man now knows that "his need to act no longer has any use. [... he is] a negativity empty of content." What does the Man of 'recognized negativity' do? He transgresses! His 'science' now "brings into play representations extremely charged with emotive value (such as physical destruction or erotic obscenity, an object of laughter, of physical excitation, of fear and of tears.)" But why?

There is nothing left to do. Man enacts these various transgressions "within the eruption of time that nothing changes. (CS p. 92)" The only thing left to do "is to satisfy the portion of existence that is freed from doing: It is all about using free time." With transgression there is (in some sense) revolt, and there is certainly crime. But these activities only effect oneself. The Man of recognized negativity "if he does not make a virtue of crime, he generally makes the virtue of the crime...". So you see, the pursuit of the 'Transgressive' is what one does while history is ending or has ended. This Transgressive can be pursued in the 'lost intimacy' of the Sacred, in sex revolution, or even in crime. But it changes nothing, it "is all about using free time." Transgression is not in any historical sense revolutionary; it is what one does when Revolution has become impossible, if not irrelevant. For those (increasingly few) who still think 'historically', it is thus not imprecise to call 'the transgressive' conservative!

I hope I have shown that the engagement with Kojève was foundational to Bataille's thought. Against him, Bataille always had recourse to (his unique understanding of) Nietzsche. It is within the struggle between these two that Bataille's transgressive thought rises.

Be all that as it may, the most important point of this superb book is that Human Desire, which, contra Kojève, Bataille persuasively argues can never be satisfied, requires the 'lost intimacy' of religion. Only this bottomless Sea could ever hope to quench the thirst of our unspeakably avaricious Desire... Four and a half stars for a brilliant discussion of the anthropological necessity, and historical development, of religious activities and sentiments. ( )
3 vote pomonomo2003 | Oct 27, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0942299094, Paperback)

Theory of Religion brings to philosophy what Bataille's earlier book, The Accursed Share, brought to anthropology and history; namely, an analysis based on notions of excess and expenditure. Bataille brilliantly defines religion as so many different attempts to respond to the universe's relentless generosity. Framed within his original theory of generalized economics and based on his masterly reading of archaic religious activity, Theory of Religion constitutes, along with The Accursed Share, the most important articulation of Bataille's work.Georges Bataille (1897-1962), founder of the French review Critique, wrote fiction and essays on a wide range of topics. His books in English translation include Story of the Eye, Blue of Noon, Literature and Evil, Manet and Erotism.Robert Hurley is the translator of The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault and cotranslator of Anti Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Distributed for Zone Books.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:45 -0400)

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Editions: 0942299094, 0942299086

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