German Idealism and its discontents

Tag: julia kristeva

Looking Downward: Bataille and the Case for Materialism


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.

Georges Bataille

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.

Looking Downward

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.

Transforming Abjection: How a Photo Can Change Us

The Hatred of Our Times

On December 19, 2016, a lone gunman shot the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art exhibit in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Accompanying the breaking story by the New York Times was a striking photograph of the gunman. In the photo, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a 22-year-old off-duty police officer, is sharply dressed in a black suit, standing over the body of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador. One hand clutches a handgun, and the other is poised in the air as if a lightning rod. “Do not forget Aleppo!” he shouts in the video footage of the incident, pacing near the fallen ambassador like a jungle predator.

The gunman, Mevlüt Altıntaş, standing over the body of the fallen Russian ambassador

It is this photo that has endured the subsequent explosion of media coverage of and political upheaval over the act, which was quickly denounced as an act of terrorism, though the gunman was linked with no known terrorist organizations. Indeed, the photographer who took it, Burhan Ozbilici, earned the 2017 World Press Photo of the Year Award for what award jurist Mary Calvert hailed as “an explosive image that really spoke to the hatred of our times.”

As with other photos of  similar watershed moments in history, there is something electric about this image that not only haunts, but also titillates us. Separated from the moment at which the photo was taken by distance and time, many of us are probably less repelled by the plainly presented violence and hatred so much as we are magnetized. By what? Perhaps we are drawn by the promise of a glimpse into the sublimity of pure passion—by the promise of a dark mystery opening up, only to divulge a deeper mystery still.

Abjection and Voyeurism

Julia Kristeva calls this sensation “abjection,” a concept that goes beyond schadenfreude, sadism, and even catharsis in its primordiality and complexity. The abject, she writes in Powers of Horror, “draws [us] toward a place where meaning collapses.” When the abject—or that sensation that is too horrific for words, which can manifest in anything we find repellent, ranging from a glimpse of a cockroach to a photograph of a corpse—brings us to the boundaries of our own humanity, the structures of society that we believe to represent an ordered reality crumble away. This dissolution causes us to momentarily lose grasp of our distinction between ourselves as human beings and the “object,” or lifeless matter, The abject is, in short, an involuntary reaction to any terrible image or act that “disturbs identity, system, [and] order,” as well as “borders, positions, [and] rules.”

So why are we so drawn to images such as the World Press photo of the year, for all its upsetting qualities? For one, it can, somewhat ironically, make us somehow feel more alive through a process of catharsis. Susan Sontag discusses this notion as a kind of voyeurism in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others. She writes that “there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up [photo] of a real horror,” that in only looking and not doing anything to alleviate horror, “[we] are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” By taking on the role of a voyeur, separated by time and space from the act or aftermath depicted in an image, we become something of a victor—a survivor.

Transforming Abjection

As Kristeva points out, this is a notion of catharsis that we inherited from Aristotle. Through a “mimesis of passions” during which we engage with the very emotions we wish to divest ourselves of, “[our] soul reaches orgy and purity at the same time.” Aristotle, however, did not go so far as to endorse this process in relation to the abject. If we mimic the passions of chaos and degradation wrought by abjection, Kristeva writes, we attempt to cleanse ourselves of the abject by locking ourselves in engagement with it. This is what we do on a regular basis when  we give in to the fraction-of-a-second conflict of whether or not we should click on a link to a particularly lurid news story (like the one I’m currently writing about). We want to be revolted, moved, and “purified” by the abject all at once. The irrational, pre-ontological drive to do so is ingrained in all of us.

But this process of entangling ourselves with the abject does not get rid of it, and repetition of the impure does not necessarily bring with it knowledge of how to detach ourselves from impurity. This is what Aristotle opposed: the tendency to chase the violent/sexual gratification of the abject without any consideration for whether or not we are attaining new knowledge of our conditions, motives, and fears. Later in her essay, Kristeva advocates literature as a privileged means of purifying the abject through catharsis. Earlier on, though, she writes a more universal statement:

“Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance.”

By mindfully examining the abject in everyday life—in first-hand experiences or in image, video, text, etc.—we can influence how the abject is “reborn.” But first we must allow it to break down the structures of meaning and order so we can be humbled,  reexamining what we hold to be significant. Only once we have been humbled can we pick up the pieces of our world so we can reconstruct new and better ways of engaging with it.

So how can something like the image of an assassin standing triumphant over another man’s body help anyone? Is it worse to take Altıntaş, the gunman, at his word—to remember and be enraged by what’s happened in Aleppo—or to merely forget injustice? After all, as Sontag writes, when presented with photographs of suffering that are too vast, too global for individuals to feel they have a chance of alleviating, “[their] compassion can only flounder—and make abstract.” This sense of smallness in the grand scheme of things is a product of abjection, but we don’t have to leave it at that. Indeed, to do so would be to normalize an Evil that is abnormal. Instead, we should treat abjection not as it is, but as the thing it has the potential to be: a means of rejecting the normalization of suffering and horror. To do this, however, we first have to confront and reconstruct the very things that horrify us.


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