original: April 16, 2015
Bataille argues that the world of work (civilized society) poses human beings as objects among others, like tools designed to have function or a goal, objects that can fall into disuse. In his view, out of all the horrors society imposes on our being, this is the worst or the core one, for it forces us to constantly and exclusively think of our being as own-being, as having a duration in time, with all the name-tags and identity-crises that follow from this concept of self.
This posing or assumption of ourselves as individual, delimited objects, determined by social work value, is at the root of our sense of subjugation and alienation, our separateness from others and from the universe. It functions as an ‘unshakable’ norm of social interaction: we are each isolated beings with our own past that we must preserve and our own future for which we must constantly take precautions. This separate being is thus conservative of itself, cautious, preservative of its ‘own’ interests above all else. To question this, like Kafka or Bartleby, is deemed juvenile or insane, a ‘giving up on oneself’, and evil. For that social self to function, it needs to ensure its ‘duration’ in time as a social object, possess and protect itself as private property. By that token, it is trained to avoid risk, outburst, excess, and instead submit to regulatory procedures. For this object is evidently a servile one: it is subordinated to the use that rational, goal-oriented, accumulation-oriented society puts it to (and not only in the sphere of employment). This separate being is then the locus of anguish over our own prolongation, the anguish of dying, for death pertains precisely to the end of duration of this separate being.
The separate being, then, is also the locus and focus of our energetic economy: the calculations we make regarding energy and time expenditures. The need to persevere in separateness effects cycles of energy, and how energy is consumed and expended, in the direction of the particular. The human body cannot act in the world of work without a regulation of energy cycles: hours of sleep, types and times of meals, exertions of physical and/or mental energy at specified times, exercise and hygiene, weekend leisure as preparation for the work week… and this is only the beginning, once we start to consider all the social-symbolic energy connected to ‘locating’ one’s separate self in the social space of other separate selves. All this regulation, the imperative to be “regular,” is geared to have us function like a “well-oiled machine,” i.e., to run the maintenance routines of selves and bodies such that the past-present-future continuum of separate, isolated beings isn’t jeopardized; so that their role- and aim-oriented lives undergo as few hiccups as possible and do not clash too often with the other isolated beings’ road-schedules, work-schedules, marriage-schedules, retirement-schedules, and so on. The goal of this maintenance is to keep our social standing and uphold the rational and logical structure of the world.
The threat that hangs over all this and under-girds it is, no surprise, the threat of death and poverty, threat of loss of standing, of sustenance, of socio-economic or physical integrity as an isolated, self-same, (and in this set-up necessarily) proud, self-displaying, self-defensive being. If we were not caught in servile “regularity,” society would not recognize us, and neither would anyone else, precisely because there would be no one, no me-separate being to recognize. We would not “be” in the sense that we are regulated to experience being; we would not-be; we would “effectively” be dead; in relation to society and history, we would be useless (the accursed share). The argument of a “necessary future for ourselves” that shackles us interminably to anguish and all the measures meant to stave it off would dissolve and disappear.
This abandonment of efforts to preserve the separate self into the future implies, however, acceding to anguish to the point of laughter, ecstasy, tears—and dying (ellipsis to Paul’s, “I die daily”). There is what Bataille calls the sovereign moment: a moment insubordinate to language, social worth, stable meaning, the duration of separate entities and integrity of the constructed world whatever its form. The sovereign moment—arising, essentially, not from labor but chance—is foreign to the activity- and maintenance-oriented regulations of self-isolating society, since here there is no longer some “one” to persevere. This loss or dissolution, halt of knowledge and function, exists for Bataille as a return to “intimacy”: the distinctions that once separated me from my fellow human beings and from the entire universe no longer hold and I communicate or rather am communication (elsewhere, loyalty). Such is sovereignty: NOTHING: the exuberance of a useless expenditure that is not regulated and, more importantly, not owned or used up by anyone. It is rather the crossing-over of consciousnesses, so that its ‘electricity’ is all there is in motion, no isolated ‘bulb’ needing to shed its ‘own’ light. Theoretically, it is the difference between a particular economy, where energy is the possession of set beings, which they expend for the sake of self-preservation, and general economy, where energy is continuous, without ownership, and can be squandered exorbitantly without any thought of saving it for any future.
Bataille’s contention is not that we jump by a leap of faith or force of will outside of our isolated being. Any attempt contradicts the sovereignty of the moment; it accesses us like a strike, like tears. In this “return to intimacy,” this dissolution, dispossession, destruction or fiery consumption of ourselves—of everything that ties the anguished being to death, since here death is nothing (and the contiguity here with sovereignty is not accidental)— there is an unleashing of energy that is unimaginable to any knowledgeable subject of action in the world, who would durate. Intimacy means the subversion, the ‘transformation into light dust’ of the separate being and all its regulations: it is thus nothing less than a testing of the limits of the possible. How far can energetic resources that aren’t yours and are beholden to no one be pushed? This unleashing of an energy is general or generic and uncontainable, for the only thing that ever contained it was what we “falsely,” normally and conventionally, held ourselves to be (and let’s not kid ourselves, this illusion is inescapable: we cannot not “traverse the fantasy”).
In the continuity of being, where our discontinuity with being reaches its zero limit and the “intimate dark” dawns; in this world where there is nothing to anticipate because death is nothing and you are nothing, “Exuberance is beauty” (William Blake) and, “What is intimate, in the strong sense, is what has the passion of an absence of individuality, the imperceptible sonority of a river, the empty limpidity of the sky…” (Bataille).