The Subversive Image (Part 1)
In the Story of the Eye the narrator, a thinly veiled adolescent Bataille, experiences obscene images that flash through his mind and ‘these images were, of course, tied to the contradiction of a prolonged state of exhaustion and an absurd rigidity of my penis’ (SE, 30). All of Bataille’s subversive images share this contradictory structure of exhaustion and sexual excitement (jouissance). They at once exhaust the possible functions of the image and subvert it with a jouissance which touches on death and that the image can only indicate but not represent. He pursued these multiple images across various media, including painting, photography and writing to the point where we can find no clear distinction between the pornographic tableaux described in his novel Story of the Eye (1928) and the photographic images Bataille commented on in the journal Documents (1929–31). I want to trace Bataille’s subversion of the image through his analysis of specific images to his subversion of vision itself. Documents is the beginning because here Bataille not only writes on images but works with images: Documents is a multimedia production. It engages with Bataille’s other works at the time and also with his later works, prefiguring his fractured and condensed writings which work by producing images of thought. It also raises the question, why has Bataille had so little impact as a writer on the image?
Perhaps the reason for Bataille’s lack of impact is that his subversion of the image can never be assimilated by a theory of the image. It is this impossibility of a theory of the subversive image that is first sketched out in Documents by Bataille and his companions. At the centre of Documents is a series of entries written for a planned critical dictionary, with Bataille and Michel Leiris writing most of the entries until the magazine ceased to exist in 1931. Although this meant that the critical dictionary remained incomplete, from the beginning it was always intended to be incomplete. The incompletion of the critical dictionary was a critique of the tendency of dictionaries to try to define all the significant words in a language by freezing their irruptive energies into stable meanings. For Bataille ‘A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words but their tasks’ (VE, 31)
Instead of being organised by meaning the critical dictionary was organised by the tasks of words, trying to release their irruptive energies. This release often involved a play between the critical dictionary entry for a word and its accompanying image. Moreover, the entries were not originally placed alphabetically (although they have been now in EA) but worked together with their accompanying images in a disjunctive, non-hierarchical ‘structure’. The tasks of words would be explored through the selection of words analysed which ranged from the question of materialism (EA, 58) to a discussion of Buster Keaton (EA, 56). Through this selection process links are made between the tasks of words and a strange ‘logic’ emerges where Keaton’s sang-froid could be the basis of a materialism of ‘raw phenomena’.
After only the first issue of Documents one of the co-founders wrote to Bataille that ‘The title you have chosen for this journal is hardly justified except in the sense that it gives us “documents” on your state of mind.’1 However, the journal is far more than a catalogue of Bataille’s own state of mind and personal obsessions. Through the critical dictionary he intervenes into the founding classifications that define the meaning of our world. The critical dictionary subverts these classifications by shifting from a word’s meaning to its tasks and effects. These effects are also visual, coming through the images that accompany the ‘definitions’ in the critical dictionary. Bataille and his co-writers are pursuing images that overwhelm the viewer. For Bataille the ‘noble parts of a human being (his dignity, the nobility that characterises his face)’ (VE, 78) cannot ‘set up the least barrier against a sudden, bursting eruption …’ (VE, 78). The critical dictionary registered these bursting eruptions as chance instants in which the image would rear its head and shatter the calm world of the dictionary. The destruction of the classifications of the dictionary would then affect the order of language and of the world itself. Far from being documents of Bataille’s state of mind these are documents of sudden bursting eruptions that are impossible to classify.
The critical dictionary is an act of ‘sacrificial mutilation’ (VE, 61–72) of the classical dictionary. It is ‘charged with this element of hate and disgust…’ (VE, 71) for the tranquil orderings of a world bound by meaning. In Documents, however, there is an anomalous image which appears to remain within this world of meaning. It is a photograph taken in 1905 of a provincial wedding party lined up in two regimented rows in front of a shop (EA, 99) which accompanies an essay by Bataille called ‘The Human Face’. The image is anomalous to the critical dictionary because it is so utterly conventional; it is an image out of place. Why is it there when for Bataille ‘The mere sight (in photography) of our predecessors in the occupation of this country now produces, for varying reasons, a burst of loud and raucous laughter; that sight, however, is nonetheless hideous’ (EA, 100)? What fascinates Bataille is that this conventional image should provoke this reaction, a reaction which combines contradictory experiences of laughter and fear. These supposedly incompatible effects are brought together in this image and make it unforgettable. Although we may laugh at the wedding party it still haunts us with a fear that remains with us even in our most acute moments of pleasure. Bataille comments that it forces a youth to confront ‘at every unexpected moment of rapture the images of his predecessors looming up in tiresome absurdity’ (EA, 100).
Lodged within the critical dictionary, lodged within its images of base eruption, is this haunting image of propriety. It is an image that has the power to destro your rapture and to limit the subversive image. The image of the wedding party always threatens to loom up before the subversive image and put an end to the subversion that it promises. What is worse is that these ghosts from the past are not the powerful monsters that once terrified us but banal representations of the provincial bourgeoisie. Once we had to be held in check by horrifying phantoms that possessed a terrible power; now, ‘The very fact that one is haunted by ghosts so lacking in savagery trivialises these terrors and this anger’ (EA, 100–1). The ghosts of our ancestors destroy the subversive image in two ways: firstly, they block any effect of rapture by appearing be fore us a tourmoments of pleasure and secondly, they make the horror they causeus appear trivial. Bataille has to counter this neutralisation of the subversive image or his subversion of the image could always be accounted for as the results of his own personal obsessions.
He subverts this image of propriety by exposing it to the violent irruptive forces that it is trying to hold in check rather than by attacking it from an exterior critical position. The irruptive forces threaten to break apart the image if ‘we acknowledge the presence of an acute perturbation in, let us say, the state of the human mind represented by the sort of provincial wedding photographed twenty-five years ago, then we place ourselves outside established rules in so far as a real negation of the existence of human nature is herein implied’ (EA, 101). To read the image in this way is to read the rigidity of the wedding group lined up in rows and organised around the bridal pair not as symbolic of a banal power but as the desperate attempt to control and limit the irruptive forces which circulate around and through the bridal pair. In reading the image to the limit of the frame Bataille detects an ‘acute perturbation’ that shakes the hold that this image has over us.
This ‘acute perturbation’ is found through the image and it threatens to negate the image of human nature on which the power of the photograph rests. The wedding photograph presents ‘the supposed continuity of our nature’ (EA, 102), the safe passage from one generation to the next represented by a bridal pair surrounded by their families and friends. The image is a promise of the continuation of the family and also of society. Yet the image is split by the violence which is condensed within it, and this family gathering can be seen both ‘as representing the very principle of mental activity at its most civilised and most violent, and the bridal pair as, let us say, the symbolic parents of a wild and apocalyptic rebellion …’ (EA, 101–2). The height of civilisation that the bridal pair incarnates is not the calm transmission of a heritage but a violent repression. Violence is present within what presents itself as civilised non-violence. Bataille agrees with Freud’s argument in Civilisation and its Discontents (published at almost the same time, 1929–30) that the progress of civilisation demands the increasing violent repression of our violent and sexual drives.2 Like Freud, Bataille recognises that this control can never be complete and often the stronger the repression the more violent the eruption of our ‘civilisation’ elsewhere, as both of them witnessed in the slaughter of the First World War.
The image is split by the violence that is required to organise it as a stable image, but this violence also splits open the image. In the bridal pair Bataille not only finds the principle of ‘civilised’ mental activity but also the parents of a ‘wild and apocalyptic rebellion’. This counter-violence against civilisation is parasitic on the violence that civilised society imposes on irruptive forces. It opposes the supposed continuity of human nature by exposing the bridal pair as ‘monsters breeding incompatibles’ (EA, 102). As Bataille shatters the continuity of human nature he releases the subversive forces that the photograph has condensed and attempted to control. In this act of violent rejection the depth of the monstrosity of our ancestors is revealed beneath their trivial appearance. Bataille subverts the most ‘normal’ of images, the image of a ritual that is supposed to express and secure the continuity and progress of the generations.
The ‘normal’ image is now exposed as monstrous, by exposing its production of ‘normal’ human nature as an operation requiring massive surplus violence. Human nature is no longer purely natural, a given fact, but it is a complex arrangement of violent irruptive forces forced into stability. Bataille’s work on this image is close to the satirical gestures of the surrealist film-maker Luis Buñuel. Buñuel’s vicious parodies of the ‘exterminating angel’ of bourgeois conformity3 are mirrored in the frantic violence with which Bataille demolishes the image of the wedding party. However, Buñuel would eventually be seduced by ‘The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie’, as one of his later films was entitled.4 Bataille resisted the ‘charm’ of bourgeois power by not limiting his parody to the bourgeoisie but by taking it to the point where ‘the world is purely parodic’ (VE, 5).
Bataille resists the danger of parody becoming dependent on what it has parodied by making parody a ‘principle’ of existence. In doing so he dislodges the concept of human nature, whether bourgeois or otherwise. Bataille is not a humanist, not even a radical humanist who probes the limits of human nature to recover what is ‘really’ human. His work has been used by Michael Richardson to supply a new social theory of the emergence of the human,5 but this is a misreading. Bataille is probing the limits of the human to the point where the concept of human nature breaks down:‘Where you would like to grasp your timeless substance, you encounter only a slipping, only the poorly co-ordinated play of your perishable elements’(IE,94). The concept ofhuman nature is our attempt to grasp a timeless substance theoretically, but all we grasp are perishable elements that slip from our hands. The individual is carried away in a play of perishable elements which cannot be organised by a theory of human nature. Bataille cannot provide a new or ‘radical’ social theory6 but subjects social theory to parody that cannot be contained within the confines of theory.
His negation of human nature is not based on belief in ‘an order excluding total complicity with all that has gone before’ (EA, 101). Bataille is not a writer of radical breaks because these breaks are violent gestures of division and purification. To destroy all complicity with what has gone on before would involve purifying ourselves of the past. The break is dominated by a belief in a new pure state, a new pure human nature (for example, Che Guevara’s ‘new socialist man’). Bataille’s violent class rhetoric of the 1930s does call for the destruction of the bourgeoisie but it is not clear that he means mass physical destruction. He is not a writer of purification but a writer of the principle of contagion and contamination (CS, 109). Rather than negating human nature with a break from all that has gone before we negate it by an act of contamination of its purity and propriety. We do not flee the ugliness of our ancestors but we are attracted by it: ‘There is absolutely no thought of dispensing with this hateful ugliness, and we will yet catch ourselves some day, eyes suddenly dimmed and brimming with inadmissible tears, running absurdly towards some provincial haunted house, nastier than flies, more vicious, more rank than a hairdresser’s shop’ (EA, 106).
It is not a matter of destroying the image, of creating a ‘pure’ subversive image, but of embracing what is hateful and ugly in that image. We are pulled back into the image, running into it out of control. The irruptive forces revealed by Bataille flow out of the image and then flow back into it, disrupting its propriety. However, once Bataille has drawn out these irruptive forces is it not possible that they could be assimilated and put to use by science or philosophy? Could they not be analysed conventionally? These irruptive forces do not settle within the conventional, and the classifications of science or philosophy would be variations on the dictionary classifications which work through imposing meaning. Like the dictionary, science divides up the world into discrete units, trying to impose ‘a mathematical frock coat’ (VE, 31) on the world. Philosophy, on the other hand, tries to contain these forces within metaphysical wholes. What remains is the leftover, the remainder, which cannot be assimilated. The event of eruption is like ‘a fly on an orator’s nose’ (EA, 102), whose comic effect of ‘acute perturbation’ mocks the discourses of knowledge.
Philosophy is more audacious because it tries to control the moment of irruption within itself by assimilating it within, but ‘It is impossible to reduce the appearance of the fly on the orator’s nose to the supposed contradiction between the self and metaphysical whole’ (EA, 103). If the fly could be reduced to the position of contradiction then it would simply be a negative moment of the metaphysical whole. It would have escaped the image only to have become part of philosophy. Although Bataille had yet to attend Kojève’s lectures on Hegel he was already aware of some rudiments of Hegel’s philosophy. He knew, probably from the use of Hegel’s dialectic in Marxism, how Hegel would use contradiction as a means of bringing any negative moments within absolute knowledge. The fly refused to remain in the contradictory position, and so the subversive image could not be controlled by a dialectical contradiction. The eruption that explodes out of the wedding party photograph and plunges us back into it also shatters the principle of human nature. At the same time it drags philosophy and science into this turbulent play of forces, subverting them along with the image.
With a rapid movement that is dizzying Bataille moves from the image to science and philosophy, and in doing so he suggests the hidden continuity between science, philosophy and society. What they share is a common repression of the violent irruptive forces on which they depend, but which they cannot fully control. In each case violent forces are repressed and controlled by acts that are themselves violent but which dissimulate this violence. It is this that makes them vulnerable, so when a fly lands on a human face which is trying to present itself as serious and knowledgeable it provokes laughter. There is no fly visible in the photograph Bataille discusses but he can see the fly buzzing around by sliding rapidly through the image. In the flight of the fly in and out of the image the highest of human concerns are dragged into the dirt as the fly is attracted by the odour of the rank and vicious. The fly is a provocation to the image because it cannot be found there. It does not settle within the frame of the photograph but flies out of it, buzzes around it and taunts it like the presence of the acute perturbation that disturbs the calm surface of the image. In this sense it has a virtual presence, neither actually appearing in the photograph yet not completely absent from it either. It is the haunting possibility of the subversive image that rests ‘in’ the photograph but only in so far as it is always spilling out of it.
As the fly escapes from the image of the wedding party it moves on to more explicit images of eruption. The photographs of slaughterhouses at La Villette in Paris by Eli Lotar break a taboo on presenting violence. Bataille notes that ‘In our time, nevertheless, the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a plague-ridden ship’ (EA, 73). Eli Lotar has put us back into contact with this work of death through images of animal carcasses, butchers and smears of blood. What these images also reveal is that this violent slaughter, on which many of us non-vegetarians still depend, has become a mechanical and technical activity. In one of the photographs a line of severed animal legs rests against a wall in an ordered arrangement that represses the violence of the slaughter (EA, 74). We are doubly alienated from the slaughter-house: firstly, we do not wish to see what happens there and secondly, its activities turn death into a productive and neutral event.
This limitation of violence is not a sign of the progress of ‘civilisation’. ‘The curse (terrifying only to those who utter it) leads them to vegetate as far as possible from the slaughterhouse, to exile themselves, out of propriety, to a flabby world in which nothing fearful remains and in which, subject to the ineradicable obsession of shame, they are reduced to eating cheese’ (EA, 73). Our exile from the slaughterhouse does not put an end to the violence but transforms it from something sacred to a technical activity from which we can hide ourselves. This transforming of death into a secret, technical operation has been one of the factors at work in the ‘slaughterhouses’ of human beings in the twentieth century. Bataille’s response is to use these images of the slaughterhouse to break the taboo that protects us from an intimate contact with death. By breaking this taboo he challenges the distance which allows us to transform slaughter into a technical activity, and he puts us into contact with a different experience of death.
Bataille is also nostalgic for a past that is supposed to have achieved a sacred relationship with death, where in the act of sacrifice we found ‘a primal continuity linking us with everything that is’ (E, 15). He is contrasting the practice of joy before death with the organisation of death into productive meaning. This desire for an intimate experience of death finds its most disturbing form in an image, the photograph of the Chinese torture victim. Although it is contained in his final book The Tears of Eros (1961) Bataille had possessed the image since 1925, when it had been given him by his analyst Dr Adrien Borel (and this might indicate the unconventional nature of Bataille’s analysis). It shows a Chinese man undergoing death by cuts: ‘The Chinese executioner of my photo haunts me: there he is busily cutting off the victim’s leg at the knee. The victim is bound to a stake, eyes turned up, head thrown back, and through a grimacing mouth you see teeth’ (G, 38–9). Bataille never commented on it in Documents and it is the hidden secret of Documents. However, it is no longer secret and has become part of the counterculture appropriation of Bataille circulating on the Internet.
If the wedding party of ‘The Human Face’ is the most conventional image in Bataille then the Chinese torture victim is, for Bataille, ‘to my knowledge, the most anguishing of worlds accessible to us through images captured on film’ (TE, 206). He returned to it again and again, in Inner Experience, in Guilty and in The Tears of Eros, as if unable to turn away from it. In his final work Bataille wrote, ‘This photograph had a decisive role in my life. I never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic (?) and intolerable’ (TE, 206). It is decisive because Bataille finds in it an image of an ecstatic death that tears at the limits of the image and provokes his ‘last shuddering tears’ (TE, 207). Bataille’s use of this image makes him vulnerable to the criticism that Adorno made of Heidegger – that he offers ‘a regression to the cult of death’.7 Certainly it is a disturbing, even sickening, image, but it cannot be rejected and should not be celebrated. It reaches us through its violence, and in its violence it demands a response from us.
It firstly provokes complex effects, and this provocative complexity indicates that the image is not unequivocal. Bataille cannot be certain that it is the image of ecstatic death that he desires. The strange beatific grin on the face of the torture victim may not be joy before death but the result of the administration of opium used to prolong or relieve the suffering of the victim (TE, 205). There is an undecidable moment where the grin is indistinguishable from a grimace. This undecidable moment undoes Bataille’s claim for a direct access to the ‘sacred horror’ of eroticism. Rather than having direct access Bataille is forced to interpret the image, and no image, including this one, can offer direct access to the impossible. Instead the impossible emerges in the undecidable oscillation between the grin and the grimace, a decisive moment of reading when any decision lacks a secure foundation.
The image is not only equivocal but it also has tasks for Bataille; it is an opening to a communication with the suffering of the Other. It cannot be passively contemplated because it draws us in by taking us outside of ourselves. It is an experience of ecstasy as ekstasis (standing-outside) that leaves us undone: ‘The young and seductive Chinese man of whom I have spoken, left to the work of the executioner – I loved him with a love in which the sadistic instinct played no part: he communicated his pain to me or perhaps the excessive nature of his pain, and it was precisely that which I was seeking, not so as to take pleasure in it, but in order to ruin in me that which is opposed to him’ (IE, 120). Bataille is not a sadist, nor is he celebrating death, but for him this image of pain makes a communication possible. This image is decisive because it so profoundly overflows its limits, and it catches us up in the movement of death.
By drawing us into the movement of death the Chinese torture victim does not leave us at a safe distance from death. This is in contrast to Christianity which admits the suffering body of Christ but has a tendency to ‘wholly and irreversibly obliterate the tortured body’.8 Bataille thought that ‘the success of Christianity must be explained by the value of the theme of the son of God’s ignominious crucifixion, which carries human dread to a representation of loss and limitless degradation’ (BR, 170; VE, 119). Christianity has exploited this suffering through art, with endless studies of the crucifixion but these representations of ‘loss and limitless degradation’ have always been contained by the narrative of the crucifixion in which Christ’s suffering redeems us. Christianity is a cult of death which denies the power of death through the resurrection and through the imposition of religious meaning on death. The image of the Chinese torture victim restores Christ’s suffering body to a degradation without return or benefit.
The Chinese torture victim also challenges the reduction of death to meaning by Hegel, who draws on Christian thought. In particular, Hegel uses the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as the image of a passage from the infinite to the finite and again back to the infinite. The Chinese torture victim disrupts this circle of spirit by dragging it back down into the suffering body. Bataille resists the dialectical reduction of Christ’s pain by an image of suffering that does not lead to meaning. Bataille found the attempt to put the divine to death in the crucifixion of Christ comical (BR, 282). Hegel uses it to add on to the infinite ‘a movement towards the finite’ (BR, 282) that will eventually return to infinite, but for Bataille to make the divine finite is a cause for more laughter. In laughing at death, which does not mean mocking suffering, we become close to the pain of the Other in the paroxysms of laughter which seamlessly turn into sobbing. This is no ‘cult of death’ but a demand to experience death as an event that shatters us.
The Chinese torture victim photograph has complex effects: it forces Bataille into reading the image, it opens communication, and it intervenes into the Christian and Hegelian reductions of death. It also complicates Bataille’s nostalgia to experience death intimately. As we have seen we can never touch on this fusion with the Other directly but only through a mediated contact, a reading. The fantasy of an unmediated direct contact is a result of this necessity of mediation rather than an existing possibility. The image is one of the most powerful ways in which this impossible desire can be sustained because it gives us such a powerful illusion of clarity. Bataille ruptures this illusion by revealing the impossible part of the image that destroys clarity. This involves ‘nostalgia’ because it opens a different relation to death through the past, a critical relation that passes through the impossible. In doing so Bataille can refuse the idea that we could ever successfully quarantine death and also the idea that we could experience death as such. Instead, the image is an eruption into which we are dragged and where we fall from our position of security, but only through reading.
to be continued...
The Chapter 1 of the book Georges Bataille (A Critical Introduction) by Benjamin Noys is published in OnScenes with permission of Professor - Benjamin Noys
Benjamin Noys is Professor of Critical Theory and coordinator of the MA English Literature. His research focuses on critical and literary theory, with particular interest in the avant-garde, film, and the cultural politics of theory. His recent work includes the books The Persistence of the Negative (Edinburgh University Press 2010) and Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (Zero Books 2014), both dealing with the state of contemporary theory. Recent and forthcoming articles and chapters include ‘Happy like Neurotics: Roland Barthes, Ben Lerner, and the Neurosis of Writing’, College Literature 45.1 (2018), ‘Matter against Materialism: Bruno Latour and the Turn to Objects’, in Theory Matters: The Place of Theory in Literary and Cultural Studies Today (2016), and pieces on drones, libidinal economy, intoxication and accelerationism, the ontologies of life, American literature, and the philosophy of art. He is currently completing a book on contemporary politics and developing a future project on neurosis.
He is External Affiliate of the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought, Goldsmiths, University of London, contributing editor of Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, a member of the advisory editorial board of Film-Philosophy, and a corresponding editor of Historical Materialism.
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