For better or worse, humans are materialistic beings. As beings entrenched in matter, we have both needs and fixations grounded in our material circumstances. Traditional religion and much of classical philosophy have typically eschewed this “looking downward” in favor of transcendence, but materialism’s existential and economic salience remains a highly relevant topic thanks to Marx, Weber, Marcuse, Deleuze and Guattari, and others. However, while general contemporary definitions of materialism tend to connote negative aspects of our humanity such as selfishness and hedonism, I’d like to advocate a more positive general view of materialism—one that primarily aims at lifting the sociopolitical taboo of claiming oneself to be a materialistic being and acknowledging the economic necessity of redistributing the matter and energy available to us. This is by no means a novel view. But I think it’s worth re-discussing primarily in the terms of Georges Bataille, an early 20th-century writer, theorist, and philosopher, due to the broad philosophical scope of the terminological framework he offers.
To be clear, this piece engages with the term materialism in its broad philosophical sense: that of focusing on matter as the ordering principle of our physical existence. The connotation of materialism referring to an unhealthy obsession with physical goods does not apply here. Indeed, the teleological purpose of materialism, which, depending on who you ask, is often as benign as “raising the standard of living”—a goal espoused by Bataille in Volume I of his economic treatise The Accursed Share. While I disagree with his praxis of an almost frenzied worship of materiality in seeking out “limit-experience” (a less tempered approach to engaging with the abject than Kristeva’s), he nonetheless offers insight into the development of a more positive general view of materialism. Primarily, Bataille philosophically makes possible the disruption of established, privileged hierarchies of materialism.
First, in Visions of Excess, Bataille opines that his contemporaries’ definitions of materialism are inaccurate because that they are actually idealistic, not materialistic. “Dead matter, the pure idea, and God,” he writes, “in fact answer a question in the same way…the question of the essence of things.” What he means here is that many approaches to materialism tend to mythologize matter in such a way that it is substituted for God. For Derrida this is the transcendental signified, for Barthes myth, and for (Kenneth) Burke the mythic image. For Bataille, then, true materialism is about striving to disrupt the idealistic ontological hierarchy posited by idealistic materialisms in favor of treating matter as ontical and base, which breaks up hierarchy itself. This approach he calls “base materialism.”
So what the hell does all that actually mean? Well, it means that Bataille wants to have it both ways—to be able to submit to the preeminence of ontic matter without submitting to an ideal of that matter. In place of a materialist conception of a society in which, say, stockpiling capital is an ideal and the hierarchy of capitalist production is the means of upholding this ideal, Bataille would posit that that society has its antithesis in traditional economies in which widespread, long-term economic planning is neither possible nor ideal. Neither type of society, capitalist nor traditional, allows for matter to exist simply as it is. Instead, both opt to coax matter into predetermined categories and systems of relation that are upheld as de facto ways of living.
However, there are obvious issues with treating objects as purely ontical, which is what Bataille does. As Heidegger argues in Being and Time, once a subject (a person) engages with matter, that matter is no longer external to the subject, but rather becomes ready-to-hand—part of the subject’s status as an ontological being, or Dasein. When I pull my phone out to make a call, the phone temporarily ceases to be a purely ontical thing and crosses over into the realm of my ontological subjecthood. This condition of the ontic crossing over into my ontological subjecthood is held in suspension vis-a-vis a specific object whenever I am not directly considering or engaging with it, but the condition is nonetheless omnipresent.
Bataille desires an almost wholesale rejection of ontology because he sees ontology as being dependent upon the ontic. For him, matter does not submit to essence; the ontic does not conform to the whims of the ontological. To him, it’s the other way around due to the “helplessness of superior principles.” In other words, essence requires the precondition of materiality, not the other way around.
So yes, Bataille’s philosophy can be, as I stated earlier, chaotic, seeing as his concept of base materialism is by definition “disruptive.” Still, without needing to accept his proposition that we reject ontology in favor of “pure” matter, we can still reclaim the value of disrupting the hierarchical order of things by accepting that matter, as object, has no preference—that we cannot assume every is implies an ought, as Ayn Rand argued.
Obviously, when we engage with tools, machinery, and the environments around us, our relations with matter affect our status as Dasein. However, we cannot treat matter as though it is preordained to be used in a certain way in every situation. Instead, we should reexamine our preconceived notions concerning how it should be used, striving to take contingency and context into account in every decision instead of adhering to rigid ethico-hermeneutic schemata. This is what Bataille’s base materialism allows us to do by liberating matter from ideality. (This isn’t to say that idealism is always bad, or that it’s even possible to live well without having a personal system of ideals—it’s simply important to question whether the violence, figurative or literal, stemming from enforcement of a given ideal is worth the damage it causes.)
General Economy & the Accursed Share
The view of materialism I’m trying to advocate emphasizes that materialism is positive for the well-being of the human subject and and accomplishes this by disrupting hierarchy. To illustrate how this can apply to the real world, let’s turn—as Bataille does in Volume 1 of The Accursed Share—to economics, and specifically capitalism. Indeed, capitalism often exemplifies materialism in the sense that he warns against, as it idealizes matter in ways acceptable to its ideological motives while asserting its ideals as nature.
Bataille’s concepts of the general economy and the accursed share are critical to developing a positive view of materialism because they replace the economic ordering principle of scarcity with one of excess. Bataille operates under the assumption that there is an excess of energy on the earth because he believes it necessary to do away with the traditional, scarcity-focused notion of a restrictive economy, which is an “isolatable system of operation.” His concept of a general economy broadens the scope of the economy to include anything having to do with “the play of living matter in general.” Birth, growth, reproductive functions, and death all play an integral role in this play of matter, increasing the productivity of humankind exponentially as an economy develops up to its full potential, which Bataille says is limited chiefly by “terrestrial space.” At this point, what has always been the case becomes abundantly clear:
From the first, the excess energy, if it cannot be used for growth, is lost.
This loss of energy is a condition brought to the fore by the concept of the general economy, whose strength is its capability of explaining the patterns of the restrictive economy without isolating them from the world that gives them context. Because of this focus on a general economy, Bataille is able to argue the following:
If a part of wealth…is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return.
This excess part of wealth is what Bataille calls the “accursed share.” Thus, “the possibility of growth is itself subordinated to giving,” because if we fail to get rid of our excess wealth by distributing it among those who have less, then our only option will be to lose it for no reason at all. Why? Because an economy cannot grow beyond certain limits—such as consumption rates, education levels, politics, and ideological frameworks—which are in turn contingent upon, as Bataille states, terrestrial space, or Earth and its play of matter, resources, energy.
Violence & Excess
It’s true that energy invested in capital in industry is meant to, and typically does, return exponential wealth. However, that only remains the case until an economy’s growth drastically slows due to the limits mentioned above. Even when such a slowdown occurs in the US, the wealthiest earners capture a massive portion of the following growth. Indeed, data covering the last few decades in the business cycle (since the ‘70s) show that after a downturn in the business cycle, the top 10% of earners has received most of our economy’s growth. In fact, in the period between 2009 and 2012, the top 0.01% of earners received over 30% of all economic growth. This was mostly due to capital gains, which the wealthy have much easier access to than average Americans, but the fact remains that the way our economy is structured abets the wealthy by giving them a way to reliably “bounce back” following a recession. Thus, the wealthiest Americans are able to put much of their wealth toward building capital so that their future gains will grow exponentially.
There is more to this issue, however, than the obvious ethical and moral problems with such vast inequality, or even than the structure of the capitalist system that enables such problems to exist in the first place. According to Bataille, history has shown us that the failure to “nonproductively squander” (in this case, nonproductively means “not put toward economic production”) the accursed share through acts like building architecture, donating to charitable causes, redistributing income, investing in the arts, and so on results in explosive consequences: a release of excess energy. So, in the case of the data above, the accursed share comprises the wealth that cannot be put toward the growth of an individual’s assets. According to Bataille, failure to squander this excess wealth means that it will eventually be released in an act of violence.
When economies put all of their energy toward production, Bataille says that the deferral of this violence, which comes in forms such as civil unrest and war, maintains an increasingly small margin of error. Countries that have undergone rapid industrialization just prior to massive wars—such as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and the United States before World War II—are an obvious example. In these instances, the great excess of capital and military technology necessitated conflict in order to slough off the accursed share since it was not being squandered in other ways.
The point of all this is that failing to acknowledge the influence of materiality on the lives of everyone, and subsequently ignoring historical trends showing that production has limits, both lead to the transgression of these limits, beyond which economic and physical violence erupt. Bataille’s theory underscores the condition that if wealth, or energy, is not redistributed within the general economy, an increased share of conflict is the result. Matter is not preordained to be used toward certain ends. The world itself does not favor capitalism, socialism, libertarianism, or any other ideologically derived economic system. To believe this is to mythologize, to succumb to ideality and ideology without interrogating and renegotiating them. What we should focus on instead is comparing the consequences of different possible paths—acknowledging that the needs of production and the false promises of deferred benefits do not outweigh the immediate material needs of individuals.