- The Black (W)hole of Bataille: A Genealogy of Postmodernism?
The reception of Georges Bataille, as Julian Pefanis observes, has been belated in the English-speaking world— and not only because it has been so slow to be translated. Until quite recently, Bataille has remained a shadowy figure; in a memorable metaphor Pefanis compares him with “a large dark body, maybe a black hole, whose presence in the heavens has been discernable in the erratic orbits of the visible planets: Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Baudrillard, and the rest” (42). Pefanis notes the groundbreaking importance of the collection Visions of Excess (1985); since then no fewer than seven new translations have appeared, including Inner Experience, The Tears of Eros, The College of Sociology, Guilty, Theory of Religion, and the first volume of The Accursed Share.1 Yet while Bataille’s texts may be said to have finally “arrived” in the Anglophone world (as the recent special issue of Yale French Studies on Bataille attests), there still remain a number of important texts whose full impact has yet to be felt—and of these, none is more massive than the final share of La Parte Maudite. Bataille did not fully complete this work, and died when only the first volume had appeared; the Gallimard editors (and Hurley) have made the best of what was left, but the result remains massive, sprawling, redundant—and brilliant. And, of all the black holes in the Bataillean sky (and indeed l’anus solaire precedes the “black hole” in the genealogy of the imagined universe), the last two volumes of what Hurley translates as The Accursed Share loom largest, the intensity of their gravity almost suffocating.
Such holes can swallow their authors whole; some incomplete magnum opus or another serves as the tombstone of many a writer—and none more fittingly than Bataille. Yet, if the lightness of his short essays, the delirious play of his pornographic novellas, are less in evidence here, there is nonetheless a compensatory and strangely lucid air of finality, an air reminiscent of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo; here the author weaves his own shroud, and ends by crumpling beneath it. To the very last, Bataille embodied what he called “the practice of joy before death,” and in its final sections the text burns and poisons with delight, like the half-eaten pages of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy in the mouth of the venerable Jorge in Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
No doubt there are other metaphors of depense with which one could hail this volume, but the question remains: What hole in the celestial void—that is, in the historical genealogy of post-modernism—do these translations of The Accursed Share (along with Bataille’s other works) fill? And, now that the penumbra of Bataille has lightened somewhat, what influence will it have on current re- theorizations of the postmodern? These are questions that Julian Pefanis sets out to answer in Heterology and the Postmodern, but before embarking on a critique of his work, a closer look at the final books of The Accursed Share is in order.
Unlike writers such as Baudrillard, for whom for whom the inheritance of depense leads to “the extermination of signs” (Pefanis 30), Bataille still maintains the question of expenditure from within functioning historical economies. The question of the reality-value of the structures he investigates is moot for Bataille, as it is for Foucault; both follow the Nietzschean dictate that a culture’s supposed or ostensible motives are as valuable (if not more valuable) for a genealogical inquiry as its actual ones (supposing indeed that they could ever be determined). Even if his ultimate destination is the “end of history” (190), Bataille begins with historically specific moments and cultures, in order to pinpoint the deeper structures of which they are symptomatic.
This process began in Volume I (which appeared in 1988 in a translation by Hurley that forms the companion to this book), where Bataille demonstrated the crucial role of sacrificing or destroying...