For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Theory of Religion

by Bataille, Georges (1989)


Theory of Religion brings to philosophy what Georges Bataille’s earlier book The Accursed Share brought to anthropology and history, namely, an analysis based on notions of excess and expenditure. No other work of Bataille’s, and perhaps no other work anywhere since Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, has managed to draw so incisively the links between man’s religious and economic activities. “Religion,” according to Bataille, “is the search for a lost intimacy.” In a brilliant and tightly reasoned argument, he proceeds to develop a “general economy” of man’s relation to this intimacy: from the seamless immanence of animality to the shattered world of objects and the partial, ritual recovery of the intimate order through the violence of the sacrifice. Bataille then reflects on the archaic festival, in which he sees not only the glorious affirmation of life through destructive consumption but also the seeds of another, more ominous order — war. Bataille then traces the rise of the modern military order, in which production ceases to be oriented toward the destruction of a surplus and violence is no longer deployed inwardly but is turned to the outside. In these twin developments one can see the origins of modern capitalism.

Key Passage

The Worker and the TooI:Generally speaking, the world of things is perceived as a fallen world. It entails the alienation of the one who created it. This is the basic principle: to subordinate is not only to alter the subordinated element but to be altered oneself. The tool changes nature and man at the same time: it subjugates nature to man, who makes and uses it, but it ties man to subjugated nature. Nature becomes man's property but it ceases to be immanent to him. It is his on condition that it is closed to him. If he places the world in his power, this is to the extent that he forgets that he is himself the world: he denies the world but it is himself that he denies. Everything in my power declares that I have compelled that which is equal to me no longer to exist for its ow~ purpose but rather for a purpose that is alien to it. The purpose of a plow is alien to the reality that constitutes it; and with greater reason, the same is true of a grain of wheat or a calf. If I ate the wheat or the calf in an animal way, they would also be diverted from their own purpose, but they would be suddenly destroyed as wheat and as calf. At no time would the wheat and the calf be the things that they are from the start. The grain of wheat is a unit of agricultural production; the cow is a head of livestock, and the one who cultivates the wheat is a farmer; the one who raises the steer is a stock raiser. Now, during the time when he is cultivating, the farmer's purpose is not his own purpose, and during the time when he is tending the stock, the purpose of the stock raiser is not his own purpose. The agricultural product and the livestock are things, and the farmer or the stock raiser, during the time they are working, are also things. All this is foreign to the immanent immensity, where there are neither separations nor limits. In the degree that he is the immanent immensity, that he is being, that he is if the world, man is a stranger for himself. The farmer is not a man: he is the plow of the one who eats the bread. At the limit, the act of the eater himself is already agricultural labor, to which he furnishes the energy (p.41)


Relgion, Bataille, French, Capitalism, Economics, Political Economics, Anthropology, History, Sacrifice


Theory of Religion, Bataille Citations

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