Heterology or Scatology

‘La Notion de dépense’ is, however, a fairly schematic elaboration of Bataille’s thought concerning the sacred in the early 1930s. In fact, the whole development concerning potlatch and the gift can with hindsight be seen as an accessory element of his emerging theory of the sacred. It will be taken up in more extended form in later works. Rather than seeing Mauss’s account of the gift as the motor of Bataille’s thought, it is more accurate to see it as one element of the wider theory of heterogeneity that he develops in a complex of texts also written in the period from 1930 to 1933. These develop aspects absent from the text on expenditure such as the issue of attraction and repulsion, the duality of the sacred and, crucially, the extended analysis of imperative social forces and of authority. These texts respond, however, to the same demand to develop an analysis of social violence and a theory of its use.

The theory and practice of heterogeneity or of the heterogeneous object, which Bataille himself and the editors of Bataille’s Œuvres complètes have called ‘heterology’, is developed in a series of related texts probably written between 1930 and 1934.1 The notion of heterogeneity is close to that of the informe, which Bataille defined in an entry under this title for the Documents ‘Dictionnaire critique’ in December 1929 (I, 217). Heterology is also determined by what Bataille calls an ‘excremental psychology’ or an ‘intellectual scatology’ which has its origins, Bataille himself proposes, in his own phantasmic life as expressed in the text L’Anus solaire, dating from 1927 (I, 81–86). While it includes and draws on the sociological anthropology of Durkheim, Mauss and others, and on elements of Freudian psychoanalysis, heterology is oriented not only towards the analysis of affective social movements, but also towards practical and political action. The sacred, which in many instances in these texts appears to be synonymous with heterogeneity, is nevertheless situated within a wider social and psychological theory of heterogeneity, the ‘logical’ development of which must flow into politics. Heterology is the theoretical motor for most of Bataille’s output in the early 1930s, leading up to the explicitly political movement of Contre-attaque in 1935. The publications in which it is developed are disparate and incomplete, but a list of contents and a series of systematic tableaux indicate that, at one moment at least, Bataille considered an extensive and synthetic book on it, which was then abandoned (II, 168).

The field of the heterogeneous, Bataille elaborates, exists primarily in relation to the field of the homogeneous, which it encompasses. Indeed the relation between them is in one sense one of degree, heterogeneity being qualified as highly polarized, the homogeneous tending towards weak or zero polarization:

L’analyse de l’ensemble des données humaines montre qu’il faut distinguer une polarisation fondamentale, primitive, haut et bas et une opposition subsidiaire sacré et profane ou plutôt hétérogène (fortement polarisé) et homogène (faiblement polarisé). (II, 167)

[The analysis of the set of human facts shows that one must distinguish between a fundamental, primitive, polarization between high and low, and a subsidiary opposition between sacred and profane or rather between the heterogeneous (highly polarized) and homogeneous (weak polarization).]

This is to say that the heterogeneous object, to the extent that it can be referred to as an object, is either intensely high or low; the high and the low exist thus as a ‘fundamental polarization’ (II, 167) which the field of the heterogeneous includes. Two axes can thus be proposed: the axis of heterogeneity/homogeneity which marks differing degrees of heterogeneity or polarization, and the axis of high and low, pure or impure. As well as expressing degrees of heterogeneity and qualifications as high or low, the schema also allows the conception of movements along the axis of heterogeneity, while the division into high and low is fixed. Movement along this axis is generally in the direction of homogenization, and is moreover historical, history, in this account, moving in the direction of increasing homogenization. Homogenization, however, reaches a term when it encounters an irreducibly heterogeneous object.

The notion of an ‘altogether other’ object, or le tout autre is one which Bataille takes from the German Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto, who had used the term das ganz Anderes to refer to the ‘religious’ feeling of being confronted with something beyond the grasp of reason, which induces a feeling of awe and dependency.2 Bataille removes the term from the context of the psychological justification of religion in which it originates and reverses the logic: rather than the sacred being proved by and giving rise to subjective attitudes or fear and awe in the face of the foreign body, these attitudes are the basis of the notion of the sacred; the sacred object is a species of the heterogeneous object. Here Bataille also draws on the well-established anthropological and sociological thesis of the radical division between the sacred world and the profane world, developed in the work of Durkheim and Mauss but also in that of Frazer and Robertson Smith before them. The thesis whereby the sacred is not essentially qualified as the good but has become so for historically contingent reasons (also proposed by Otto),3 and whereby it is marked by an ambivalence such that it includes both ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ forms, also informs Bataille’s notion of the heterogeneous.4 It remains, however, that the sacred/ profane division, and the pure/impure division are secondary elements, subsidiary to the fundamental thesis of heterogeneity. This is where Bataille’s thought diverges from that of Durkheim and Mauss. Their idealist conception of the sacred as the conscious or unconscious affirmation by the community of its own sociality is distinct from Bataille’s materialist account of subjective attitudes towards the corps étranger. This is also where Bataille’s heterology of the early 1930s is informed by a partial reading of Freud and related psychoanalytic and psychological material, and where it draws on his own pathology (using this term guardedly) developed through an analytic take on his own phantasmic life.

Subjective attitudes towards the foreign body, whatever form it may take, are characterized by the opposed ‘polarized human impulses’ of appropriation and excretion (II, 58). Appropriation, of which the elementary form is oral consumption, is generally in the direction of the homogenization of the object, or rather, appropriation works through the homogenization of the object (chewing, in this instance) in order to establish a degree of identity (established according to conventions) between the subject and the object. Architecture is conceived as the appropriation of space by means of homogenization, such that there is a degree of sameness between a city and its inhabitants. Moreover, the very process of scientific and intellectual activity is in itself a process of appropriative homogenization, as exterior objects which are a priori inconceivable are substituted by concepts or ideas (II, 60). Appropriation and excretion are related to each other dynamically, moreover, such that they are expressed as ‘phases’; the process of appropriation gives rise to its ‘excretory phase’ which takes the form of production, and is also exemplified in selling. A large part of human activity is thus dominated by an appropriative psychology oriented towards homogenization. On the other hand, excremental psychology considers a class of objects which are completely heterogeneous, tout autre, and are inaccessible to appropriative homogenization. They can provoke either an impulse towards the ‘brutal’ expulsion of the object or they can be re-absorbed with a view to endowing the absorbing subject itself with an expulsive or projective ‘charge’ (II, 58). The sacred thus appears here as a qualification of a class of ‘totally other’ objects endowed with an expulsive power, to be expelled violently or absorbed.

The immediate, ‘brutal’ or ‘peremptory’ expulsion of the foreign body appears in this schema as in the service of appropriative homogenization. It is a provisional discharge which permits the continued functioning of appropriation. It is characterized as ‘neurotic’ (insofar as it is a defensive formation characterized by displacement) or as ‘thermidorian’ (insofar as it is a reactionary move) in Bataille’s tableaux of heterology. Expulsion ‘in the service of’ appropriation is thus dominated by a negative attitude of repulsion towards the object. In a historical and social context in which the appropriative impulse is dominant, the positive attitude of attraction towards the tout autre appears as pathological. For Bataille it is a question of affirming this pathology; he construes his own phantasms of anality as the basis of a mythology which can generate affective power. The texts related to ‘L’Œil pinéal’ (probably composed between 1930 and 1933 but developing figures from earlier) expose what Bataille calls a ‘fantaisie excrémentielle’ [excremental fantasy], in which he proposes that he may recognize himself, beyond the ‘chaînes dégradantes de la logique’ [degrading chains of logic] (II, 22). Fantasy, which Bataille equates with myth, is characterized by a willingness to overcome the fear (in other words the attitude of repulsion) of ‘les objets les plus répugnants’ [the most repugnant objects], and to submit to their attraction, ‘sans en être accablé’ [without being overcome] (II, 22). It is a question of taking one’s own pathology seriously. The qualification of fantasy or of myth as pathological, moreover, is produced by reason; its qualification as obscene or pathological in effect liberates it from the constraints of rational thought: ‘En ce qui concerne la science, sa répulsion, la plus forte que puisse être représentée, est nécessaire à la qualification de la partie exclue’ [As far as science is concerned, its repulsion, the strongest that can be imagined, is necessary for the qualification of the excluded element] (II, 24). Reason, in expelling mythical figures, at the same time endows them with ‘valeur significative’ [significant value] and liberates them from the religious or mystical contexts from which they derive, whose ends after all are to subject humanity to servitude; through this expulsion reason allows their free play. Bataille thus construes his own activity, his own thought, as something like the refuse (déchet) of reason, or the abortion of thought (‘l’avortement de la pensée’).5 His own phantasmic life, as explored in early texts such as Histoire de l’œil and L’Anus solaire, and developed analytically in ‘L’Œil pinéal’, which he recognizes as delirious (‘délirante’; II, 24), is itself the irreducible foreign body produced by reason. It follows that this is not an argument for a return to myth or to a primitive conception of the sacred, or an argument which denies that excremental fantasies are in themselves pathological; it is rather an argument which proposes to affirm the affective power of the pathological, endowed with affective power precisely because of the prohibition that is brought to bear upon it.

This may explain the attention devoted by Bataille in the early 1930s to medical, psychological and psychoanalytic literature on sexual and other pathologies,6 and, in the field of anthropology and the history of religion, to ‘scatalogical rites’. One of the unpublished fragments in the heterology complex focuses on various examples of the appropriation of the foreign body, or of a determination to submit to its attraction. These include the ‘Dusseldorf vampire’, a popular obscene song, and Malinowski’s account of cannibalism among the Trobriand islanders (see ‘Les propositions contenues ici …’; II, 73–76). But Sadean coprophragia is a particularly telling example, for Bataille, in that the collective excremental impulse expressed by Sade is the object of a ‘peremptory’ expulsion, limited in its effects to the field of fiction, by the Surrealists. Bataille’s schema of heterology is initially developed as a theoretical justification of his critique of the Surrealist ‘use’ of Sade (see the ‘Dossier de la polémique avec André Breton’; II, 51–109).

The emphasis here is on the lack of opening into action or into any practical effect. Bataille writes that the Surrealist positioning of Sade ‘au-dessus de toute valeur’ [above any value] is nevertheless limited by being nothing more than ‘une apologie brillante, verbale et sans frais pour une pratique

[a brilliant verbal, apology, without
any practical implication

(II, 56, my emphasis). It has no practical effect, as it is disconnected from reality (‘au-dessus de toute réalité’; II, 56). His tirade against the Surrealist affirmation that the effect of Sade can only be measured by poetry, ‘exempte de toute application pratique’ [exempt from any practical application], ambivalently suggests either that poetry as such is disconnected from any practical application, while a different ‘use’ of Sade or sadism can be effected, or that the Surrealist conception of poetry is devoid of practical effect, while another approach to poetry would not be (see Chapter 2, ‘Poetry’). The second reading raises the possibility of a poetry at the level of heterology, or of the ‘impossible’, which Bataille will pick up in L’Expérience intérieure and in his post-war writings. For the moment, however (in the early 1930s), a wholly ‘literary’ appropriation of Sade appears as a neurotic, defensive move, symptomatic of the impotence of contemporary humanity. Surrealism is thus labelled ‘une dépense thermidorienne’ [a thermidorian expenditure] in the heterology tableaux (II, 198).

In contrast, Bataille conceives of his own ‘intellectual’ activity as oriented towards change and towards action, towards practice. The various unpublished and incomplete fragments collected in volume II of the Œuvres complètes as the ‘Dossier de la polémique avec André Breton’ (texts written between 1930 and 1933) bear witness to a consideration on Bataille’s part of his own ‘use-value’ as an intellectual and as a writer and to the potential effect or lack of effect his interventions might have in the wider (non-literary) sphere of human servitude and impotence. He emphasizes his awareness that his deliberations will not be understood by any of his current associates, by any of his friends: ‘Je doute de la possibilité d’atteindre les rares personnes auxquelles cette lettre est sans doute destinée, par-dessus les têtes de mes camerades actuels’ [I am dubious about the possibility of reaching any of the rare individuals to which this letter is directed, over the heads of my contemporary comrades] (II, 54). Here, friendship is a false promise; the immediate audience of his ‘friends’ is confined, restricted and indifferent: ‘chacun de mes camerades ayant déjà confiné sa vie dans des limites restreintes’ [each of my friends having already confined their lives within restrictive limits] (II, 81). Bataille conceives of friendship as a mere convention which does not allow the expression of any other conception of human relations and limits him to an imbecilic mutism (‘une hébétude imbécile’; II, 82). In a letter to Leiris of October 1932 (Leiris is in the Sudan) Bataille responds to Leiris’s ‘disgust’ that his friends are not other than how they are, emphasizing his own disgust:

Mais peut-être ce qu’il y a de plus rebutant est que les rapports qu’on a avec les gens, on les a toujours conformément à des conventions telles que tout ce qui pourrait être autre est exclue. (CL, 72)

[But perhaps what is most repulsive is that the relations one has with people are always more or less according to conventions such that anything which might be other is excluded.]

Bataille writes, he says, in order to change the state of human relations:

Les raisons d’écrire un livre peuvent être ramenées au désir de modifier les rapports qui existent entre un homme et ses semblables. Ces rapports sont jugés inacceptables et sont perçus comme une atroce misère. (II, 143)

[The reasons to write a book can be brought back to the desire to modify the relations that exist between man and his fellow men. These relations are judged as unacceptable and are perceived as an atrocious destitution.]

He writes, therefore, in view of ‘une action quelconque’ [some form of action or other], but he is pessimistic about the reception of this writing by the immediate circle of his friends or any community in which he currently exists. Bataille underlines the necessarily aggressive interruption of friendship implied by his thought with the following deliberate and shocking image: ‘je ne puis rien faire de mieux de mes prétendus amis que d’imaginer odieusement qu’un jour un immonde sorcier nègre leur pétera dans la bouche’ [I can do nothing better with my so-called friends than odiously imagine that one day or another a hideous negro sorcerer will fart in their mouths] (II, 85). Writing must necessarily be in rupture with this friendship and this community, and destined for as yet ‘formless’ individuals or masses: ‘surtout […] des masses comparativement décomposées, devenus amorphes et même expulsées avec violence hors de toute forme’ [in particular relatively decomposed masses, which have become amorphous and even been expelled with violence outside any form] (II, 55). They will, however, exist at some point in the future, Bataille adds, since the social bond will inevitably be undone (‘étant donné que les liens sociaux actuels ne tarderont pas à se défaire’; II, 55). The practical effect of Bataille’s interventions, in other words, their reception, is considered as necessarily linked to social change. The practice of heterology necessarily implies an enunciation which cannot be received in the present.

Practical heterology, therefore, is the necessary product (in the sense of excretion) of theoretical heterology or, in a sense, of the theory of the sacred. The only level on which thought is permissible if it is not to justify human servitude is at the level of obscenity or scatology, a statement Bataille underlines in a striking figure: ‘comme penserait une bite s’il lui était possible de revendiquer ses propres besoins’ [as a prick would think if it were possible for it to make its own needs clear] (II, 85). Intellectual activity is permissible only if it leads into an irrecuperable practical obscenity, something like a burst of laughter or an excremental spasm, a protuberance.

Heterological theory ends with excrement, in other words. Philosophy, like science, is in the service of homogeneity; but unlike science it must take seriously the waste products of intellectual appropriation. The appropriative process of conceptual thought which operates through the substitution of foreign objects by concepts and ideas must by necessity end in an excretion (‘une phase terminale dans le sens de l’excrétion’ [a terminal phase in the direction of excretion]) when it encounters the irreducible waste products (‘déchets’) of the operation (II, 61). But philosophy envisages these irreducibly other elements as abstractions, as concepts, and thus effectively identifies the noumenal with the phenomenal. It is a question, for Bataille, of a positive absorption of waste not as an idea or a concept but as waste, or, to put it differently, an absorption of the excrement produced by philosophy. In a similar, but heretical and parodic, fashion to that in which Hegel/Kojève conceived of history ending with Hegel/Napoleon/Stalin, Bataille conceives of his own thought, and effectively of himself, as the excretory terminal phase of philosophy: ‘L’hétérologie se borne à reprendre consciemment et résolument ce processus terminal qui, jusqu’ici, était regardé comme l’avortement et la honte de la pensée humaine’ [Heterology limits itself to consciously and resolutely reaffirming this terminal process which up to now was seen as the abortion and the shame of human thought] (II, 63; my emphasis). Bataille’s response to Kojève and his designation of himself as the man of unemployed negativity is prefigured here.

Heterology, however, cannot proceed through objectification. It cannot know its excremental objects as objects since such an objectification can only proceed through negation: these objects are other objects. To know them as objects would be to proceed in the same way as objectifying science: ‘l’objectivation pure et simple de leur caractère spécifique aboutirait à l’incorportion dans un système intellectuel homogène, c’est-à-dire à une annulation hypocrite du caractère excrémentiel’ [the pure and straightforward objectification of their specific character would end in their incorporation into a homogenous intellectual system, that is to say a hypocritical annihilation of their excremental character] (II, 63). Heterology can thus proceed only via subjectivity, or to use Lacanian terminology, via a subjectification of excrement. Practical heterology proceeds along the road of a perverse embracing by its subject of waste, a subjectification wherein the subject absorbs and thus becomes the ‘object’ s/he considers. This schema prefigures the later figure of 1937, of the sorcerer’s apprentice being carried away by his own spells, or the sociology of the sacred becoming a sacred sociology. It is in the subjectivity — the perversion or pathology — of the heterologist that heterology is to be pursued. Theoretical heterology gives way to a practical heterology as the theory of the sacred gives way to its practice, both being considered as the terminal phase of the philosophical concept.

A partir du moment où l’effort de compréhension rationnelle aboutit à la contradiction, la pratique de la scatologie intellectuelle commande la déjection des éléments inassimilables. (II, 64; Bataille’s italics)

[From that moment when the effort of rational comprehension results in contradiction, the practice of intellectual scatology determines the rejection of the elements which cannot be assimilated.]

Philosophy gives way to a burst of laughter: ‘Eclat de rire de Bataille’ [Burst of laughter from Bataille].7

The heterologist is untimely, as Bataille’s pessimism about the reception of his work bears out. This untimeliness, however, does not solely concern the intellectual climate or indicate that it is only the conditions of meaning and comprehension which must change. Comprehension, again, is in the service of appropriation. A change in social conditions is necessary for the effect of practical heterology to be realized. Bataille awaits the potential reception of his intervention by ‘masses’ which are as yet unformed but will inevitably come into existence as the current social bonds are violently undone. He gives an account of the social division of the appropriative and excretory impulses wherein the lower social orders are enslaved by the appropriative morality of the exploitative class:

En effet dans la mesure où les diverses fonctions sont reparties entre les diverses catégories sociales, l’appropriation sous sa forme la plus accablante incombe historiquement aux esclaves. (II, 65)

[In fact to the extent that the various functions are shared out among the various social categories, the most arduous form of appropriation is historically incumbent upon slaves.]

However, in the same way that philosophical appropriation ends with the positive embrace of irreducible waste products, social appropriation (and the concurrent exploitation) ends with an excretory phase. Bataille conceives therefore of revolution as an inevitable ‘terminal phase’ of social development, which proceeds first through separation — the identification of an underclass as abject, miserable or in other words as irreducibly heterogeneous, excluded by the conventional morality of the upper class — and then by the expulsion of the exploitative class by the revolutionary group. The ‘abject’ underclass must in the first phase of this operation appear as tout autre, or as informe. The revolutionary class appears as sacred to the extent that it proceeds through a positive affirmation of its quality of irreducible heterogeneity.

Whether it is the recognition of the sacred that drives heterology or heterology which drives the affirmation of sacrifice, heterology thus appears as a theory of the revolutionary situation which necessarily gives way to a practice parallel to social revolution. Social affectivity appears as a result of the abjection which appropriative morality has induced; it has the same character as the sacred, as the exaltation produced in archaic sacrifices, in that it takes the form of a ‘charge’ which has a contagious force. If sacrificial rituals are on the one hand a mechanism for the absorption of this charge, they are also a mechanism for its limitation, its expulsion: the sacrificial victim is ‘sacrified’ (made sacred) but destroyed so as to effect a discharge of the affective force thereby induced. Affective discharge is a real human need; the issue is to ensure its free play in a situation not characterized by unequal distribution.

1 These are collected in II under the title ‘Dossier “Hétérologie”’. ‘La Structure psychologique du fascisme’, which I discuss further on in this chapter, is one of the very few instances in which Bataille’s heterology surfaces as a public, published intervention; the larger part of the heterology complex remains, as perhaps befits Bataille’s construal of its untimely reception (see below), unpublished and in all likelihood unread, until the late 1960s: ‘La Valeur d’usage de D. A. F. de Sade’ in L’Arc, 32 (1967); ‘L’Œil pinéal’ (one version) in L’Ephémère, 3 Sept 1967. The second volume of the Œuvres complètes, ‘Ecrits posthumes’, edited by Denis Hollier, which contains the ‘heterology’ dossier, was published in 1970.

2 See Rudolf Otto, Le Sacré, trans. by André Jundt (Paris: Payot, 2001). The book was originally published in German in 1917. The notion of das ganz Anderes is addressed on pp. 56–64 of this edition. Bataille uses the term tout autre in the text ‘La Valeur d’usage de D. A. F. de Sade’ (II, 56) and the term appears in German as das ganz Anderes in the same text (p. 58), parenthetically translated as ‘le corps étranger’.

3 See Le Sacré, p. 27: ‘Ce sacré (qui implique l’idée du bien et du bien absolu) n’est que le résultat final de la schématisation graduelle et de la saturation éthique d’un sentiment originaire et spécifique’ [This sacred (which implies the idea of the good and of absolute good) is only the final result of the gradual schematization and ethical saturation of an original and specific feeling].

4 See p. 189 for a discussion of Agamben’s critique of the notion of the ‘ambivalence of the sacred’, and the critique of Bataille in Homo Sacer that derives from it.

5 See Rodolphe Gasché, ‘L’Avorton de la pensée’ in L’Arc, 44 ‘Bataille’ (1971), 11–26

6 The list of books in the Bibliothèque Nationale consulted by Bataille while he worked there, included in XII, features a number of medical and psychiatric journals (e.g. L’Encéphale, journal des maladies mentales et nerveuses; Annales médico-psychologiques; Neurologisches Centralblatt) as well as works by eminent psychologists such as George Dumas and Emile Hesnard.

7 Jacques Derrida, ‘De l’économie restreinte à l’économie générale’, in L’Écriture et la différence, p. 376.

taken from the book http://www.mhra.org.uk/publications/P216 )

Foto: Sylvia John

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