For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939

by Bataille, Georges (1985)


Since the publication of Visions of Excess in 1985, there has been an explosion of interest in the work of Georges Bataille. The French surrealist continues to be important for his groundbreaking focus on the visceral, the erotic, and the relation of society to the primeval. This collection of prewar writings remains the volume in which Batailles’s positions are most clearly, forcefully, and obsessively put forward.This book challenges the notion of a “closed economy” predicated on utility, production, and rational consumption, and develops an alternative theory that takes into account the human tendency to lose, destroy, and waste. This collection is indispensible for an understanding of the future as well as the past of current critical theory.Georges Bataille (1897-1962), a librarian by profession, was founder of the French review Critique. He is the author of several books, including Story of the Eye, The Accused Share, Erotism, and The Absence of Myth.

Key Passage

Class Struggle: In trying to  maintain sterility in  regard to  expenditure,  in conformity with a reasoning that balances accounts, bourgeois society has  only managed to develop a  universal meanness. Human life  only rediscovers agitation on the scale of irreducible needs through the  efforts of those who push the  conse­quences of current rationalist conceptions as far as they will go.  What remains of the traditional modes of expenditure has become atrophied, and living sump­tuary tumult has been lost in the unprecedented explosion of class struggle. The components of class struggle are  seen in the  process of expenditure, dating back to the archaic period. In potlatch, the rich man distributes products furnished him by other,  impoverished,  men.  He tries to rise above a rival who is rich like himself, but the ultimate stage of his foreseen elevation has .no more necessary a goal than his further separation from the nature of destitute men. Thus expenditure,  even though it might be a social function,  immediately leads to  an agonistic and apparently antisocial  act of separation. The rich man con­sumes the poor man's losses,  creating for him a category of degradation and abjection that leads to slavery.  Now it is evident that, from the endlessly trans­mitted heritage of the sumptuary world, the modern world has received slavery, and has reserved it for the proletariat. Without a doubt bourgeois society, which pretends to govern according to rational principles, and which, through its own actions,  moreover,  tends to  realize a  certain human homogeneity,  does not accept without protest a division that seems destructive to man himself; it is in­capable,  however,  of pushing this resistance further than theoretical negation. It gives the workers rights equal to those of the masters, and it announces this equality by inscribing that word on walls. But the masters,  who act as if they were the expression of society itself, are preoccupied-more seriously than with any other concern-with showing that they do not in any way share the abjection of the men they employ. The end of the workers' activity is to produce in order  to live,  but the bosses'  activity is to produce in order to condemn the working producers to a  hideous degradation-for there is no  disjunction possible be­tween, on the one hand, the characterization the bosses seek through their modes of expenditure, which tend to elevate them high above human baseness, and on the other hand this baseness itself, of which this characterization is a function. In opposition to this conception of agonistic social expenditure,  there is the representation of  numerous bourgeois efforts to  ameliorate the  lot  of  the workers-but this representation is  only the expression of the cowardice of the modern upper classes,  who no longer have the force to recognize the results of their own destructive acts.  The expenditures taken on by the capitalists in order to aid the proletarians and give them a chance to pull themselves up on the social ladder only bear witness to  their inability (due to  exhaustion) to  carry out thoroughly a sumptuary process. Once the loss of the poor man is accomplished, little by little the pleasure of the rich man is  emptied and neutralized;  it gives way to a kind of apathetic indifference. Under these conditions, in order to main­tain a neutral state rendered relatively agreeable by apathy (and which exists in spite of troublesome elements such as sadism and pity), it can be useful to com­pensate for the expenditure that engenders abjection with a  new expenditure, which tends to  attenuate it.  The bosses'  political sense,  together with certain partial developments of prosperity, has allowed this process of compensation to be, at times,  quite extensive.  Thus in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and in partic­ular in the  United States of America,  the  primary process takes place at  the expense of only a relatively small portion of the population:  to a certain extent, the working class itself has been led to participate in it (above all  when this was facilitated by the preliminary existence of a class held to be abject by common accord,  as in the case of the blacks).  But these subterfuges,  whose importance is in any case strictly limited, do not modify in any way the fundamental division between noble and ignoble men.  The cruel game of social life  does not vary among the different civilized countries, where the insulting splendor of the rich loses and degrades the human nature of the lower class. It must be added that the attenuation of the masters'  brutality-which in any case has less to do with destruction itself than with the psychological tendencies to  destroy-corresponds to  the general atrophy of  the  ancient sumptuary processes that characterizes the modern era. Class struggle, on the contrary, becomes the grandest form of social expen­diture when it  is taken up  again and  developed,  this time on the part of the workers, and on such a scale that it threatens the very existence of the masters. (p.125)


Bataille, Surrealism, French, Critical Theory, Excess, Twentieth Century, Philosophy


Visions of Excess, Bataille Citations

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