- Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux)
If there is a single term poststructuralism could not live without—at least within the intellectual circles associated with the review Tel quel—it is “transgression,” inherited from Bataille. “God-meaning,” Philippe Sollers writes in an early essay, “. . . is a figure of linguistic interdiction whereas writing—which is metaphoricity itself (Derrida)—transgresses . . . the hierarchic order of discourse and of the world associated with it” [“La science de Lautréamont” 808, my emphasis]. In their Dictionnaire des sciences du langage Ducrot and Todorov declare grandly that text “has always functioned as a transgressive field with respect to the system according to which we organize our perception, our grammar, our metaphysics and even our science” [443–44, my emphasis]. They describe the advent of poststructuralism as a “Copernican revolution,” and it became customary to characterize the before and after of this break by referring to Bataille’s distinction between “restrained” and “general” economies.
An influential essay by Foucault, “Préface à la transgression” (1963), might be considered the opening move in what would become Tel quel’s appropriation of Bataille. Foucault’s essay examines Bataille’s L’érotisme (1955), a study that theorized transgression in a complex elaboration which articulated philosophical discourse (Hegel/Kojève) with a “sociological” discourse of the sacred (Caillois). Foucault’s reading of the text removes the transgression of eroticism from both these discursive horizons and moves it toward late Heidegger (an ontology of the limit) and Nietzsche. If one of Bataille’s most radical gestures was to insert the ethnographic distinction sacred/profane into philosophical discussion, Foucault’s analysis reinscribes transgression within the intertextual field of philosophy, radicalized, of course, through the inclusion of the “marginal” figure, Nietzsche, and the philosopher who announced the end of philosophy, Heidegger. Foucault’s rewriting of Bataille may read philosophy against itself, may even propose the transgression of philosophy; nevertheless, it is structured by the vicissitudes of philosophical discourse. Bataille on the other hand had confronted philosophy with something radically other—tout autre.
In “Préface à la transgression,” Foucault defined transgression as “a gesture concerning the limit.” He presented it as a flash of lightning, an image that not only figures transgression but also emblematizes the move into what will become the philosophical register of poststructuralism. It traces a line, a line that figures the Heideggerian ontology of limitation, the coming into being (or appearance) of beings on the horizon of Being; it suggests the limit of the ontological difference between Being and beings.
Anticipating Derrida through Heidegger, Foucault analyzed transgression as an event of difference, alluding to Blanchot’s “principe de contestation” and to a Nietzschean notion of affirmation. “Might not the instantaneous play of the limit and transgression be today the essential test of a thinking of ‘origin’ which Nietzsche bequeathed to us . . . a thinking that would be absolutely, and in the same movement, a Critique and an Ontology, a thinking that would think finitude and being?” [Foucault 759]. Transgression becomes identified with a “philosophy of eroticism” (which plays on Sade’s “philosophie dans le boudoir”), a gesture that transvalues philosophy from the realm of cognitive or rational activity to “an experience of finitude and of being, of the limit and of transgression.” The [End Page 6] “philosophy” of eroticism is thus a “test/ordeal [épreuve} of the limit,” one that “no dialectical movement, no analysis of fundamental laws [constitutions] and of their transcendental foundation [leur sol]” can help us think. Foucault then asks a rhetorical question that could be said to structure much of the discourse of theory in the next decade: “Would it be an exaggeration, to say,” he asks, “. . . that it would be necessary to find a language for the transgressive that would be what dialectic has been for contradiction?” .
In this way Foucault established transgression as an alternative to the machine of dialectical contradiction. Attuned to the recent discoveries of structuralism, which had begun to reverse the conventional understanding of relations between the subject and language (the subject is no longer considered master of his or her language but structured by it), Foucault announced that “the gesture of transgression replaces the movement of contradiction by plunging the...