- Gasoline Essence
Georges Bataille—radical economist, surrealist pornographer, and theorist of expenditure—was a major influence on French critical theory in the latter half of the twentieth century, but in recent years, his works have received less attention than they deserve. These days, they tend to be read more as source materials for interpretations of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva than as original and transformational works in their own right. Allan Stoekl sets out to address this gap in the appreciation of Bataille with this wide-ranging and rigorous study of Bataille's entire corpus, from his early surrealist essays to his transgressive fictions and finally his grand multi-volume works of theory, the Somme Athéologique and The Accursed Share (1949). In the process, Stoekl makes a strong case that some elements of Bataille's thought are even more relevant in the twenty-first century than they were in his own era.
Bataille is in many ways an anti-systematic thinker, yet his works all seem to be part of a relatively unified project, one aimed at breaking the human subject out of received notions of autonomy, separateness, and self-aggrandizement in favor of a free-flowing, transgressive, and radically embodied movement that he associates with moments of degradation, sexual ecstasy, and religious fervor. Key to his lifelong project is the idea that the unfettered expenditure of energy is the defining mode and goal of human existence. For Bataille, energy must always move toward its expenditure through orgiastic performance, sacrifice, or other bodily actions, and if this process is interrupted through the accumulation and containment of energy, the result is a potentially disastrous buildup that will eventually break out into violence. His writing expresses various ways of embracing the human need for expenditure, a need that trumps all attempts to systematize and contain the subject or even the natural world. Often, Bataille's work is focused on finding various ways to evade the systematizing impulse altogether in favor of a focus on transgressive vectors of energy.
It is Bataille's theory of energy that Stoekl adapts most convincingly to our contemporary situation, though he also adeptly examines many other related aspects of Bataille's work here, especially on the subjects of ethics, religion, and the city. Energy, of course, is the looming issue of the present day and the immediate future. The system that humans have been enmeshed in since the nineteenth century, which Stoekl identifies as an energy regime based on the burning of fossil fuels, is coming to an end. This looming threat, often identified with "Hubbert's Peak"—the moment when we truly recognize the finitude of our oil supply—provides for Stoekl an opportunity to reconsider the meaning of modernity in relation to our accustomed habits of energy use. A time of coming scarcity forces us to envision how we will deal with our heretofore unstoppable proclivity for energy expenditure. Stoekl's assessment of this situation is blunt and persuasive: "There is virtually no point any more in trying to work out a critique of modernity: depletion does it for us, relentlessly, derisively, definitively."
Readers of Bataille might initially wonder what his work could possibly have to say about this state of affairs since he simply does not believe in depletion. For him, energy is always excessive, abundant. However, Stoekl makes a brilliant move here to effectively make use of Bataille's wrongness, showing how his lack of foresight into the possibility of an energy crisis makes his thought the perfect vehicle for a critique of our present preoccupations in the face of this crisis.
If we agree that Bataille was indeed mistaken when he did not foresee an era of fossil fuel depletion, then the question becomes, "What are the options left for us in this newly recognized state of imminent energy decline?" So far, the overwhelming response to this situation has been an increased focus on conservation to such a degree that the term has become virtually synonymous with ethical environmental action...