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  • Introduction
  • Carolyn J. Dean (bio)

. . . even since he [Nietzsche] became famous has he ever been anything but an occasion for misunderstanding?

—Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share

At the current juncture in the history of studies “on Bataille,” admiration and indebtedness have given way to admiration constrained by ambivalence and indebtedness complicated by a desire for accountability. This special issue provides an opportunity to work through these inevitable critical shifts, symptoms of an immeasurable debt to a writer from whom we have necessarily taken distance. It is also an occasion to ask about our own investments in the renewed production of Bataille.

During his lifetime (1897–1962), Georges Bataille was called many names, including a “pornographer” and a fascist, and when he died he became a cult figure among some intellectuals, for whom he represented an eclectic and unappreciated thinker. Since his untimely death, Bataille has become very famous. Now, according to Jürgen Habermas, this former librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, editor of Critique, author of covertly circulated erotic books and other works that did not sell well, stands first in a line of French intellectuals leading from “Bataille via Michel Foucault to Jacques Derrida” [Habermas 14]. 1 Bataille’s remains are located in the posthumanist pantheon: his work is joined to the giants of the French philosophical, psychoanalytic, and literary heritage, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Maurice Blanchot; he has been the subject of countless literary exegeses and even of a prizewinning biography [see Surya]. Bataille no longer has the merit of being unknown.

But who is the Bataille we pretend to know? He is the one with whom many critics identify, yet his work is necessarily misunderstood, sometimes (but not always) in the interests of preserving its insights. Critical work on Bataille naturally emphasizes his theory of dépense (expenditure), his mysticism, his attraction to the sacrificial, sadomasochistic erotics of fascist politics, and tends, viscerally if implicitly, to identify with Bataille’s refusal to be hard in the conventional sense—his repudiation of impermeable, phallic masculinity and its association with moral resolve. In 1945, Bataille wrote that he was the “contrary of him who tranquilly watches the dismasted vessels from the shore, because in fact . . . I cannot imagine anyone so cruel that he could notice the one who is dismasted with such carefree laughter. Sinking is something altogether different, one can have it to one’s heart’s content. . .” [OC 6:358]. In 1966, a sensitive critic wrote: “Bataille’s cogito, thus, reads: ‘I sink therefore I am’” [Hollier 138]. In other words, Bataille was no proponent of a sink-or-swim philosophy, but of “the hard desire to endure”—words he wrote to describe Vincent Van Gogh, whose self-mutilation was, from Bataille’s perspective, the necessary precondition of his art. This hard desire is paradoxically the hard labor of unbinding the self, a project that entails yet moves beyond empathizing with those caught in the storm: Bataille insisted that creation required symbolic castration rather than the phallic virtue of the moral man or the swollen pride of those who volunteer heroically for the rescue mission (“Heroism,” he said, “is an [End Page 3] attitude of flight” [OC 5: 347]). As countless critics have demonstrated, even Bataille’s most relentlessly hard-core texts use sexuality as an allegory for the self-shattering of the phallic body.

The sacrificial constitution of the man who would sink—for this Bataille was giddily embraced after his death. By 1990, when Yale French Studies devoted a special issue to him, the embrace was equally enthusiastic, but giddiness had given way to some defensiveness. Those theorists who did not admire Bataille equated his repudiation of phallic virtue with the ego-dissolving sublimity of fascism. After all, some of his friends and intellectual heirs had been subjected to public scrutiny for their anti-Semitic, often fascist sympathies. Implicitly defending Bataille, the editor of that special issue insisted on Bataille’s “ethics” of sacrifice. He claimed that Bataille held “onto the possibility of an ethics” through a paradoxically “incessant repositing of the ethical” [Stoekl 2, 5]. This account of Bataille’s ethics avoids the problem that the ethics of sacrifice in...