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  • No Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye: Transgression and Masculinity in Bataille and Foucault
  • Judith Surkis (bio)

In August 1963 Critique published an “Hommage à Georges Bataille,” a special issue commemorating the death of its founder. How did the volume’s contributors go about the seemingly tricky business of pledging fealty to the philosopher of sovereignty? How did they profess loyalty to, in effect recognize, the sovereign subject known to insistently refuse masterful identity?

Apparently undisturbed by this difficulty, the articles written by Bataille’s acquaintances—Alfred Metraux, Michel Leiris, Raymond Queneau, André Masson, and Jean Piel amongst them—establish an explicitly fraternal relation to their contemporary. Piel begins his homage with an account of their initial encounter chez Queneau in 1927, noting his “impression of extraordinary fraternity, an impression which, through our last meeting days before his death, never diminished” [721]. Intermingling intellectual and personal history, these occasional pieces remember Bataille in a variety of contexts: the awakening of his interest in ethnology and work on Documents in the 1920s, his early “confrontations” with Hegel and work on Critique sociale and Contre-attaque in the 1930s, his sensitivity to events and developments in post-World-War-II Europe. While significantly diverse in focus, these articles manifest a similar approach, at once biographical and autobiographical, detailing the unfolding of shared intellectual amitié in favorite cafés, apartments, and studios. Bataille emerges here as a historical subject whose interests and investments, while multiple and, to use Leiris’s metonym, even “impossible,” are repeatedly linked to a variety of intellectual and political milieux.

Michel Foucault’s “Preface to Transgression” assumes a more reverential tone than the pieces written by members of Bataille’s own generation. While framed as an explicit “homage” in its recognition of a certain debt to Bataille, Foucault’s essay also plays upon the contradiction of pledging loyalty to a “sovereign” who repeatedly renounces his own claim to mastery. Bataille’s death becomes an occasion on which to herald the “breakdown” and “shattering” of the masterful philosophical subject conventionally assumed to be in control of the “natural” language of dialectics [42–43]. For Foucault, a new possibility for philosophy is seen to arise in “the non-dialectical language of the limit which arises only in transgressing the one who speaks” [44], a transgression repeatedly performed, according to Foucault, in Bataille’s own writing and metaphorically enacted in and by his death. Bataille had, after all, proclaimed in the conclusion to Erotism: “To give transgression to philosophy as a foundation (it is the approach of my thought) . . .” Bataille’s theory of transgression aims to evoke a “world of play” in which “philosophy disintegrates” [275]. Yet, if the disintegration of philosophy in and through transgression is already Bataille’s “project,” we might inquire into why Foucault frames his article as a preface. [End Page 18]

In introducing this presumably already achieved transgression, the “Preface” affects a curious, alternating temporality, a certain confusion of anteriority and posteriority. 1 At once following and preceding Bataille, Foucault remains out of sync and hence unable to coincide with Bataille in the shared amitié inscribed by the author’s contemporaries; it would appear that this generational gap introduces a certain shift in the recollection of Bataille’s legacy. Following in his footsteps, Foucault appropriates one of Bataille’s own disorienting gestures—the tactical use of prefaces, itself mentioned in the “Preface” [43]—in order to dislodge Bataille from his anterior position; instead, Bataille comes to epitomize the transgression predicted by Foucault’s “philosophical” preface. Bataille’s (and, by implication, Foucault’s own) “location” becomes confused and obscured; as I hope to show, Foucault is invested in achieving this state of indeterminacy for both himself and Bataille.

To honor Bataille in death assumes a double significance for Foucault: it represents a “transgression of the philosopher’s being” which “has sent us to the pure transgression of his texts” [40] and simultaneously allows Foucault to sacralize Bataille. “Pure transgression” becomes liberated from the historically located being of the philosopher. And further, since the language of transgression is linked by Foucault to the “death of God,” Bataille becomes, in a sense, “deified” in the announcement and celebration of...