This post is a response to an article posted over at Indecidibles titled The Room of the Poet. The basic question posed there is this: how is one “confined” to the intense stream of thoughts and emotions within themselves (in their “private room” or “consciousness”) to express themselves in the language of the marketplace, on the plane of the everyday? NMMP writes, “The interior man is condemned to silence —or at least to an empty language that fails at communicating the true nature of his experience.” And yet obviously, this can be shared. NMMP shares it, and so do the authors he studies, through writing. I would like to explore in this post what happens to that “interior man” once he sets to writing. NMMP has indicated the direction I’d like to take, first by alluding to Bataille, but also in his final paragraphs, where he writes:
Writing, as an act of the mind, is private and interior —but, as an act of language, communication and exteriority are inscribed in its very essence. One is safe in assuming that Malte does most of his writing in his room —“Now I am sitting in my room, I can try to reflect calmly on what has happened” — and yet his writing is full of vivid descriptions of cityscapes and city people. When writing, Malte is at the same time in his room and out in the world. He has achieved what Baudelaire termed “incomparable privilege of the poet,” the ability to be, at will “himself and an other.” That privilege, of course, is nothing else than the ability to be interior —that is, an individual— and exterior at the same time.
It is with this notion of being oneself and another, of being interior and exterior at the same time, that I set off, using Bataille’s work as a guide. There is a paradoxical point where solitude coincides with a sense of non-being, but where there also exists an awareness of not-being. It is at this point of awareness that only communication is generated thereby. Alas, it is but the communication of silence, a blank and nearly meaningless space, and yet a space where a community insubordinate to utility, and not subordinated by it, is finally given a chance to exist. Bataille summarizes all of this with his simple sentence: “Writing is powerless.”
But we begin with what writing does to the ‘interior man’: it brings him in contact with his own exterior. Writing is not only a way for the ‘individual’ to communicate his ‘inner experience,’ but to abolish the very idea of that (bourgeois) “self-enclosed” individual as such. We are driven to write because of the solitude and isolation of our position, our inability to share our ideas briefly or transparently, etc.; but at the limits of this activity, we are lead to the “ocean” of common experience: we dissolve, we cease to imagine ourselves and others as distinct individuals, and it begins to dawn on us that we ‘are’ but a hyper- or ex-static “crossing-point” of (the impossibility of) communication. To say it a different way, it’s not only that ‘personal interest’ (even that of communicating my experiences) starts to flourish in a way that might involve and reach others, but that the very drive of and/or basis of ‘personal interest’ starts to change. This doesn’t abolish the solitary person, but simply redefines it’s being. Ones attitude to objects changes, as well as ones attitude toward activities, goals, urgencies and responsibilities. Also, possession of any sort drops out of the picture. What transpires instead is the unleashing of passions undetermined and unconstrained by the ‘interior one’, and this is communication.
In short, we are “we” before we are “me,” such that the whole presumption of an anguished, self-enclosed individual comes to provoke nothing but laughter. But of course, it is not so simple as this idealistic vision of self-effacement would seem, and this laughter isn’t without its own accompanying brand of anguish. What one must ask is what exactly, or who exactly, would be erased? One begins to sense that the erased-one was not even there to be erased in the first place. Much like the emergence of the private room in the history of architecture and family houses, one senses that the ‘interior man’ is also a historically contingent construction, albeit a powerful and pervasive one. The task of consciousness is to pierce this contingency. What renews anguish, however, is the contingency of this piercing; or rather, the contingency of what consciousness, when it pierces this contingency, has to “say for itself.”
For Bataille, this involves recognizing the ways in which this self-enclosed individual is based in the discourse of utility. This discourse of utility exists beyond the marketplace, extending through all the words, categories, and concepts of language, right down to the very structure of time. One finds that this discourse, its categories, and the way it structures time in fact structures experience as well. It is against any submission of language to utility that Bataille can write, “I can see only a boundless opposition, and a severity of method applied without respite, as taking up the stake”– and all of this in the name of the impossible reaching toward the completion of being. Contingency, and thus anguish, inevitably returns when we speak of this reaching, precisely because the only language we have to resist and oppose the language of utility is the language (and its concepts, categories, etc.) borne of utility itself.
To thoroughly and persistently negate the discourse of utility is not to escape it, but to confront it head on, and to bring language as such to its limits. It’s not as if we reach some ideal-transcendental point from which my whole experience starts to appear to me to be some kind of Universal Mission, where I am just a vessel for the explication of some Common Truth. Far from it, there is only the splintering of “me,” indefinitely and unto death, for the activity and helplessness of writing always brings us to the ugly and indifferent face of silence. The world ignores what is said from the position of silence precisely to the extent that it is “useless.” And since words written from the position of silence are nonetheless written with the words of utility, they easily enter back into the cycle of utility no matter how vehemently it tried to negate it. To quote Bataille at length on this point:
“I succumb to the use of words like to be, effect, succumb, use. In being assembled together, these words, through the very process that links them, announce my servitude. And it is not enough to recognize it for it to cease to exist. In fact, even the writer who is most against discourse (i.e., ‘the order of things’ and the servile language which expresses it) cannot be content to turn his back. He is constrained to express himself on the level of discourse; he is constrained to have an intellectual position. But this is something painful for him, and he does it unwillingly, grinding his teeth and giving way to impatience. The knowledge that he should remain quiet commits him to vaticinate.”
The anguish that thus accompanies self-effacement is dual: not only does one realize that the “one” one effaces was a contingent construction to begin with (and even the most emphatic expression of our consciousness of this contingency is reduced to an ‘intellectual position’), but that these categories and constructions are strictly “escapable” only in the present-silence. But, and perhaps even worse: there is still a one who experiences silence. This present-silent-one is inexpressible in the discourse of utility, impossible to communicate.
There is a real frustration here that no amount of euphoric writing can solve. The constraints placed on expression by discourse of things is compounded by the stark realities of the world in which that discourse runs unimpeded: we wake up to a world in which few read (and astronomically fewer have the patience or awareness to read what is written from the point of silence), where most satisfy themselves with the quotidian, where surface meanings suffice for day to day “happiness.” But we also wake up to an intellectual milieu where the words-of-silence are merely summarized, reduced, or polished into a neat theory, and thus returned to the realm of utility in the guise of academic research. This seems to render them even more powerless to affect the kind of consciousness that these texts call for and have the potential to summon. It is against this pervasive trend that Jean-Luc Nancy has called for the “end of commentaries” (and in an essay devoted to Bataille especially). Nancy has also invented the concept “exscription” to denote what cannot be read in a writing, what cannot be inscribed; in other words, that part of the writing that is the thing-heart-itself of the one who speaks silence from its position. He has invented this term with Nietzsche and Bataille in mind especially, calling for us to read from the heart, outside of utilizing these authors for our concepts of modernity, nihilism, values, or what-have-you. It is not that these concepts are unimportant or that they aren’t worth dealing with. It is a matter of our attitude towards them, for it is imperative that we “suspend their sense” (i.e., call ceaselessly into question what we’ve been told they mean) before we can make sense of them. It is a call to read in the way that Bataille has already called us to read Nietzsche, namely, that one must bleed along with the author, we must feel that silence which is impossible to write.
To read is to risk, and to write is to risk, precisely because it ruptures our being, draws us to the absolute outside. It proves to us that this “absolutely outside myself” is, from the get go, strangely enough, “my-our-self.” Thus, it seems imperative that we contrast, at least conceptually, the idea of “using language to communicate my inner experience” with the idea of renouncing language all together. Bataille says this forcefully, his categorical imperative, as it were: “I cannot consider someone free if they do not sever the bonds of language within themselves.” It is in renouncing language “within” language (or rather without!) that the entirety of Bataille’s work traverses silence at the limit and summons the impossible. This “infinite difficulty recalls the wretchedness–and the muteness– of giving birth.” It is gives consciousness to, “an impersonal state of mind, [which is] constituted by denying the supreme values of categories of language: it is a horror of ways of life made explicit by discourse.” Bataille’s whole body of work is oriented toward an emancipatory language that is not submitted to any concept of utility– whether that is the quotidian utility of an advertising language, or the literary utility of expressing an ‘inner experience’, or even the goal of emancipation itself. If language must not be used in a utilitarian way, then it can’t even be ‘utilized’ towards expressing the potentials or realizations of the complete man. It is here where the paradoxes of Bataille’s position show themselves most clearly, and the anguish of his powerlessness comes into true relief. But as Zarathustra has said, what matters most is honesty, which is translated by Bataille as nakedness, or risk. And as he says, “writing is like a chaste woman undressing for an orgy.” In a word, it is the dilemma of being open, being opened, even of being-opening as such.
(If there is any discourse with which Bataille contrasts himself, it is the Christian discourse of the salvation of the individual soul. As with Nietzsche, it is this attack against a notion of salvation that the notions of ‘uber-man’ or complete-being must be understood, for they seem to lend themselves to an equivocation. But to surpass man is far from saving him, for the project of salvation is as utilitarian as any, perhaps even a prime source. If anything, to surpass or overcome man is to throw him ever more violently into his abyss where every meaning, every valuation, every word is put at risk– with no hope of a “happy ending,” save a prolonged crucifixion by pen. What here is involved is not simply the fate of the ‘one’ (who, as we’ve pointed out, is a thoroughgoing construction); it is rather the overcoming or surpassing of the very conditions that make possible such a ‘one.’ It is a struggle to begin to speak with another more honestly and nakedly. It is to stare into the gaping abyss of death, and for a precise reason: death undoes every human truth, and thus the undoing of human truth is the truth. The one “access” to this undoing is “death.” It is here where community and its impossibility collide.)
Bataille refers to writing as a moment of decline from the summit (or limit) experience of reaching-completion, which can only be a kind of silence. He describes writing as a kind of falling asleep, just at the moment when one has just woken up (died). But I think that all of this is just to emphasize that what’s written must itself be on par with realization— and not with ‘a’ realization, but with realizing as such. The writing must be that– or rather, it must be or clear a space where it can be nothing but a space for realization. Nothing, per se, occurs there. In a sense, it must accomplish itself as an object, without words: mute. It must be like a strike to the head that causes us to forget something, or a scent that turns our head and causes us to change direction. It must “say silence,” “communicate the powerlessness of the complete person,” as such. And alas, exactly, this is what no piece of writing (alone) can do.
It is the lack of criteria for accomplishment (how could we ever know we had “said silence”?) that reduces anguish to a laughable vanity (even as anguish is the point of profoundest communication with the totality of beings); and ecstasy to an impossibility (for it represents the point where the whole of my being is nothing but a shared being). We reach a point where writing, which had once solved the dilemma of expressing ones ‘inner self,’ becomes once again a place of infinite difficulty; but this time, it’s redoubled, because the very medium of thought and communication– language– has been brought by silence to the foreground of this difficulty, for silence makes language appear eternally absent (language as “revenant,” to use Derrida’s phrase). And yet, nonetheless, nakedness and human impossibility come to show their faces here as such, in a realized way, qua a non-utilitarian language, where language is not even utilized, where silence, death, and language… and above all we, converge.
Why? Because in all this there is finally a chance for friendship, for connection beyond a utilitarian or sheltered one, in a way that allows us to share a consciousness of human potential and/or becoming, and to participate it in our own singular ways insofar as we each must “speak our truth,” i.e., our silence. Bataille’s non-utilitarian aim recalls Kant’s: to think of oneself, and of humanity, as an end-in-itself, and never as a means to another end. It is in this kind of silence-writing (surely extended throughout the whole history of the written word and not at all monopolized by Bataille, even if in his work it seems brought to a moment of intense consciousness) where we begin to see that we resemble:
“There is nothing that calls for a change in those who read me, except in this: they could learn from me that they resemble me.”
It is here that the ‘lucidity of consciousness’ (as opposed to ‘writing well’, etc.) becomes the only matter, the only criteria, and of course without criteria. It is my feeling that only in this way do we reach one another, through a naked discourse untouched by the corrosiveness of utility. It means nothing less than redefining, or rather undefining, what it is to be “human,” to be “one.” It means rethinking “personal expression” in a way that transforms it towards an immanently social purpose, by way of an experience of the social as being (“within”) oneself. In a lecture given on Surrealism and Religion, Bataille said, “I believe one cannot insist too strongly on the necessity of binding consciousness to depersonalization.” It is clear to me that his whole work pursues this insistence, though not to abolish the person, but simply to surpass the quotidian notion of it and to reach toward a more profound and vital completeness in what we are. If we are to retain any hope in ourselves and our community, we too must pursue it.
Notes for a follow-up essay would need to address this final question of community and its link to “uselessness.” Bataille has been pressed to paradoxical formulations such as, “absence of community, must be the foundation of any possible community, [such that] the state of passion… can become lucid, to the extent that… the community which is closed in on itself must be transgressed by consciousness.”
I am appreciative for NMMP’s essay and the chance it has given me to discuss Bataille’s work. Perhaps obviously, I am a fervent reader of his work who finds his level of lucidity, especially in his “Summa Atheology” (trilogy of Inner Experience, Guilty, and On Nietzsche) to be unmatched. That said, all of the quotes shared here come from the book “The Absence of Myth” (Bataille’s writings on Surrealism) due to my being away from my library. Incidentally, I hadn’t known the extent of Bataille’s ties to the Surrealist figures before reading this book. What’s fascinating is his under-the-radar, and somewhat after-the-fact, theorizing of Surrealism. At one point he says, “Surrealism is a mutism,” indicating just the extent of its impact on him.