Ecstasy : Stephen Bush

Marc Handelman / 1937
Marc Handelman / 1937

Ecstasy / Stephen Bush

Ecstasy is disruptive, unusual, episodic: the term typically denotes the momentary puncture of our ordinary ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. But it might very well also be an ongoing condition. Some philosophers and social theorists have characterized subjectivity as permanently ecstatic. They say we are in some sense always outside ourselves. Neither our skin nor the limit of our consciousness delineates that which is us from that which is not. We are constituted in significant part by the natural and social environment in which our bodies are situated. We are in our environment not as “coins are in a box, but as a plant is in the sunlight and soil … continuous with their energies,” as John Dewey says.1 We are constituted by our relationships with other people, by our involvement in social institutions and social practices, and by the stories we tell about ourselves, and which others tell about us. We inhabit our environment in diffuse and dynamic manners.

This permanent or structural ecstasy is clearly political. Acknowledgment of our ecstatic constitution could lead us to an appreciation of our dependence on other people and the natural environment. We might come to accept our vulnerability to forces we cannot control, to reconcile ourselves to the ineradicable risk of harm. If we give up the quest for a sharply bounded self, we permit, perhaps even welcome, the incorporation into ourselves of the strange and unfamiliar. The so-called ‘sovereign subject,’ much criticized by feminists, poststructuralists, and democratic theorists, is an ideal that is premised on the denial of the openness, vulnerability, and dependence that permanently ecstatic subjectivity involves. Critics of sovereign subjectivity point out the various ways in which idealizing invulnerability and independence lead one to react violently to any perceived threat to one’s integrity. In rejecting the exclusivity of sovereign subjectivity, some political theorists have advocated an ideal of “eccentric” or “decentered” subjectivity.2 Decentered subjects are “plural, differentiated, and conflicted,” in Bonnie Honig’s words. They are capable of participating in a politics of “openness,” negotiation, and “renegotiation.”3

But what about episodic ecstasy, as opposed to the structural or permanent kind? Does it have political relevance? Ecstasy in this sense has barely registered as a concept in the history of political theory, but that is not to say that worries about its political implications haven’t been expressed in the Western tradition. One such worry is that it is quietistically apolitical. The mystics’ raptures dislocate them from the public world; they swoon in private interiority, leaving social structures intact and unchallenged. A very different concern is that ecstasy is all too political in its ramifications: the collective effervescence of fascistic ecstasy fuels nationalist rallies and solidifies exclusive group identities. In that case, rapture works in support of political authority, that of the dictator. In other cases, though, ecstasy can undermine the powers that be. In Phaedrus, Plato says that there are divine as well as human madnesses: the inspiration of the prophet, mystic, and poet versus the crazed pronouncements of the insane (265a-b; 244a-245b). Ecstatic states, then, are ambiguous, they can be a sign of human disorder or divine ordination, and the task of discerning the authentic from the spurious is not at all straightforward. The threat is pronounced, since whether genuine or not, the prophet’s ecstatic message purports to circumvent priests and kings and convey messages straight from the divine. In the Christian era, this subversive potential hardly went unnoticed to church authorities. Such is the power of ecstasy that seventeenth-century Protestant theologian Friedrich Spanheim could equate “the licentiousnesse of Enthusiasts” with “Anarchy and intollerable disorder,” so severe that it threatened that “Churches and common-wealths might fall to the ground.”4 And the Inquisition, for its part, worked fastidiously to expose false mystics.

In the modern era, numerous artists, authors, and poets have recognized the subversive possibilities in ecstasy, as they have explored its potential as a force opposed to reason, law, and order. What then are the political possibilities associated with episodic ecstasy? The structures in which reason, law, and order consist too frequently serve the interests of the strong over and against the weak. If ecstasy disrupts order, then, it warrants our attention. In the first case because law and order work best when political subjects are habituated to conform to them. Ecstasy, though, orients subjects in other ways, its proponents claim. Furthermore, there are questions as to how subjects may achieve a recognition of themselves and others as structurally ecstatic, in the sense discussed above. If we regard ourselves as more independent and distinct from our environment than we actually are, our ways of perceiving, acting, and valuing will fail to apprehend properly the environment around us and our relation to it. Given that powerful social, economic, psychological forces work to form people into sharply bounded selves, by what avenues can one come to appreciate one’s interdependence with one’s social and natural environment? Might temporary ecstasy contribute to such an appreciation? Finally, we must ask about the limits of disruption. We can equate order with the injustice of the status quo, but a life devoid of order would be unintelligible and pathological. What sort of relation between order and the anarchy of ecstasy is feasible? These are the initial questions confronting an investigation of ecstasy as a political concept.

Among those who have pit ecstasy against order, Georges Bataille (1897-1962) stands out; he is the philosopher of ecstasy par excellence. In this essay, I will explore the political implications of his understanding of episodic rapture. Some have thought that Bataille has no constructive proposals, that the import of his thought is strictly critical.5 According to one interpretation of his career, he took a quietistic turn in World War II, leaving behind his pre-war activist sensibilities to attend to mystical inwardness for the remainder of his life. Bataille, however, challenges this assessment of his efforts. Just after World War II, he writes in The History of Eroticism that his intent is to ascertain “the underlying meaning of political problems,” in hopes of giving “economic, military and demographic questions a correct solution.”6

For Bataille, the fundamental problem—and it is a problem that is political, ethical, aesthetic, and existential—is instrumentalization.  Bataille refers to the attitudes, actions, and ways of perceiving characteristic of our normal daily life variously as the realm of “project,” “work,” or “activity.” He also calls this the “profane” world. The profane realm involves future-oriented, means-end activity, governed by utilitarian values. In our projects, humans are “relegated to the level of things … where what matters is no longer the truth of the present moment, but, rather, the subsequent results of operations.” A “degradation” occurs when “the subject leaves its own domain and subordinates itself to the objects of the real order as soon as it becomes concerned for the future.” As things, the value of each of us is reduced to the “use that it has”: utility governs the way we regard each other, ourselves, and the objects around us.7 This is a world in which everything is servile and subordinate. We are collectively involved in ongoing efforts to secure basic needs such as food, drink, and shelter for ourselves and for any dependents for whom we care. We engage in economic activities of producing goods and delivering services. We do so to acquire money that we can use for basic needs, present and future, and for those pursuits and comforts that go beyond the bare necessities of survival. We perform domestic chores to keep our living spaces organized. We receive specialized training for a profession, acquiring the skills needed to serve the ends of professional institutions. We occupy particular roles in our institutions, roles that are governed by norms that accord with the institution’s purposes. We invent and employ tools to assist us in realizing our goals. Language and reason are wrapped up with our instrumental, future-oriented activities, so much so that they are paradigmatic aspects of the realm of project. Bataille associates the realm of project with “words,” “language,” and “discourse.”8 With language, we name each other and the things around us, and we classify our surroundings into types so that we can manipulate objects and coordinate our actions with other language-users. The instrumentalizing features of our actions, reasoning, and speech lead us to think of ourselves as sharply distinct from one another. They instill in us attitudes of taking ourselves as independent and separate, discontinuous with and disconnected from each other.9 In our ordinary affairs, we take ourselves to be as coins in a box.

Instrumentalization affects not just how we treat ourselves, other people, and objects, it pervades our perceptive faculties: how and what we sense. In “Method of Meditation,” Bataille refers to our discursive understanding as interwoven into a phenomenological “tissue” that serves as the “apparatus of vision.” Bataille says, “A car, a man enters a village: I see neither one nor the other, but the tissue woven by an activity of which I am a part.”10 As we perceive, our discursive understanding organizes our attention and our classificatory responses to our environment in a way that accords with the instrumental valuation that is characteristic of “activity.” The visual apparatus is “tissue” because the discursive understanding connects the sensible objects we perceive to each other. We see things in relationships with each other, and these relationships are determined by our practical ends.

But, we might ask, what is so bad about instrumentalization? Social life would be impossible without practical ends, and we necessarily incorporate other people and objects into our pursuit of those ends. Immanuel Kant, for many, has supplied the decisive word on the topic. He insists that we must always treat people as ends in themselves, but allows that it is permissible to treat them as a means to an end simultaneously while taking them as an end in themselves. One can, according to Kant, instrumentalize people in such a way that respects their dignity as rational, autonomous persons.11 Bataille’s oeuvre refuses this principle. For Bataille, if one is instrumentalizing people, one is always valuing them partially, derivatively, and deficiently. One subordinates them to ends beyond themselves and thus misperceives their true value. When a person treats humans as an object for use, Bataille says, we treat them “as if they only had value for him and none for themselves.”12 A proper regard for the other’s value, for Bataille, goes well beyond mere Kantian respect.

For Bataille the problem of valuing one another deficiently has definite political ramifications. The practical, emotional, and perceptual dispositions involved in work are the same involved in war, slavery, and exploitation. In all these cases, we treat others as subordinate to our aims, agendas, and ends. In rejecting the Kantian principle, Bataille repudiates the idea that a regard for others’ dignity while in the process of instrumentalizing them is politically sufficient. Respectful instrumentalization does not challenge the utilitarian dispositions that so readily activate in disrespectful ways when our ends cannot be achieved respectfully. Indeed, contemporary societies, shot through with instrumentalization, hypocritically profess their commitment to dignity and equality even as they wage war indiscriminately abroad and impoverish their masses domestically.13

Bataille’s project is to contest utility. He confronts the hegemony of the teleological orientation by proposing ways of apprehending one another’s non-derived and insubordinate value. Our practically oriented, phenomenological “tissue” keeps us from seeing things in their true value, so Bataille can say, “In a sense, the condition in which I would see would be on leaving, on emerging, from ‘tissue.’” But instrumentalization is so deeply installed in our habits of thought, action, and perception that breaking from it is nearly impossible. Indeed, it is only when we die that we achieve a decisive break from the realm of project.14 In the meantime, on this side of our final exit from utility at expiration, Bataille proposes momentary and partial breaks in the form of ecstatic rupture. The value that we apprehend in ecstasy is opposed to the profane world of project and work. Bataille refers to these rapturous moments as “communication” and “inner experience,” and these states of mind are for him the “sacred realm.” In these sovereign instants of immediacy, we are not oriented toward the future or the goals and ends that reside there. The crucial thing if we are to perceive the value that is non-subordinate, underived, and non-instrumental is to regard people and objects in a way that “serves no purpose.”15 If the hallmarks of the world of project are productivity, acquisition, and reason, those of sacred ecstasy are expenditure and irrationality. In ecstatic episodes, we perceive our interconnectedness—our commonality and continuity—with each other and with the world more generally. It is in the apprehension of this interconnectedness that non-instrumental value lies. In ecstasy we apprehend the non-instrumental, sovereign “intimate value” that things have in themselves.16 Inner experience, Bataille says, is “the negation of other values, other authorities,” it is “itself positively value and authority.”17

The ecstatic break from our normal sense of ourselves does not come easily. We rely upon a sense of our self as bounded, discrete, and exclusive in order to navigate our daily affairs. Our self-protectiveness makes us resistant to an experience of continuity with our environment. It takes psychic violence, a laceration of the self and a tearing of its phenomenological tissue, to break us out of this sense of ourselves. In other times and places, religious festivals were the occasions for sacred ecstasy. Their sacrificial rituals consumed items that otherwise would have been productive, removing them from the realm of project and work. Spectators apprehended the existence and possibility of non-utilitarian, non-teleological value in the destruction. Bataille thinks that this sort of religiosity is unattainable in his secular context. The days of the religious festival are long gone, for him and his peers, and he does not nostalgically call for a return to the gods of the festival. Instead, he takes as one of his primary tasks the conception of the sorts of encounters with the sacred that are possible for his contemporaries. He attends to such things as poetry, modern art, comedy and laughter, sexuality, and spectacles of violence and death. These do not conform to the standards of our everyday activities. Poetry is constituted by language that does not serve normal discursive ends; it opposes ordinary ways of circulating meaning. Modern art, abstract in form, does not figure the world accurately or usefully. The comic ridicules convention in order to elicit laughter, a vocal expression without semantic content. Sexuality expends energy that could have been put to productive uses, and it has its own characteristic form of ecstasy. Spectacles of violence and death shock us by revealing our vulnerability and our inescapable destiny. Of course all of these—poetry, art, laughter, sex, and violent imagery—can be and usually are caught up in relations of commerce and instrumentalization. But they invite us to regard them otherwise—not as a tool, a means to some other end. They make it possible for us to consider them as resistant to instrumentalization, as they challenge our attachment to a world that is reasonable and articulable. They elicit rapturous moods.

Spectacles of death and violence are of particular importance to Bataille as occasions for the break into ecstasy, whether these spectacles are witnessed first-hand or represented in photography, art, literature, or imagination. Of course it is possible to witness such spectacles without the rupture of one’s subjectivity. In warfare, killing is very much an aspect of the realm of project. Combat killing is a means to the end of acquiring territory, defending it, or gaining political advantage. Soldiers can and do kill berserkly, no doubt, but the overall institution of warfare is conducted in accordance with goal-driven strategies and tactics, in contrast to sacred rituals that have ecstasy as their only aim.18 And in any context, one can regard violence in accordance with one’s preexisting desires, aversions, and classificatory concepts, as happens when one is desensitized or when one exults in the death of a hated foreigner.

But Bataille thinks that in other instances, the apprehension of violence and death catches us off guard and puts us outside our normal range of emotion and thought. We encounter others differently, not as persons defined by a social role and the expectations and norms we attach to the role. We apprehend them independently from their institutional context, and we perceive directly that people have value distinct from their relation to our plans and projects. We rend the phenomenological tissue and see. The ecstatic disruption of our utilitarian habits causes us to register, in a visceral, direct way, the value of the other and the commonality of the other with ourselves. In this state of mind, we forego mastery and undergo a painful loss of power. The mastering self that would configure its surroundings into conformity with its will is undone. As we regard victims with horror and fascination, we see their suffering and death as resolutely pointless, not as something that has meaning in a larger narrative.19 If we apprehend the victim properly, the encounter with death is inarticulable: the incomprehensibility of the destruction of all that is dear enjoins silence. For the victim, death brings to ruin plans, goals, and everything of value. The spectator, in the moment of ecstatic horror, can experience a commonality with the victim, and indeed, with all humanity, based in our common end in death. This is a community of sorts, say Bataille and, following him, Jean-Luc Nancy. To be sure, community is a dangerous political concept. Communities exclude, and do so along violence-prone boundaries such as village, tribe, and nation. A sense of community that has death as its basis, though, is a community among mortals, not along bloodlines. Fascist community, including its rituals of collective effervescence, does not count as community in Bataille’s and Nancy’s sense; it is instead the annihilation of community.20

Ecstasy destabilizes our ordinary way of valuing other people, but it does not do so totally or permanently. It passes and comes to an end; we return to our normal state of mind. But the experience is not without its lasting effects. Not everything is the same. We do not forget the overwhelming emotions and the strangeness of the ecstatic moment. The glimpse of a community with all humanity, based in death, casts into doubt the ultimacy of our economies. It undermines the social classifications we utilize to differentiate members of society. Thus, Bataillean ecstasy has politically significant consequences. It might seem strange to speak of them, since this ecstasy must be pursued as an end in itself, not for its consequences. It is premised on the rejection of teleology and instrumentalization, so it cannot itself be pursued as a means to some further end. It wouldn’t work to pursue ecstatic immediacy for the sake of its political consequences, but the consequences can be valuable in their own right.

Bataille is not unaware of these consequences. He thinks that those who understand the values of the sacred realm achieve certain “perspectives” distinct from those wholly invested in the realm of project, a “consciousness” that affects how they view politics.21 This perspective involves a certain relinquishment of the need to control history. Such a need for control is itself at the heart of the horrors of war and oppression, since the overly anxious concern for security, the need to “secure the future,” drives civilizations to war. Bataille wants to acknowledge our inability to secure the future, to accept our vulnerability to risk and injury. This attitude does not forego the attempt to influence history altogether, but it works against the slope that goes from influencing others to coercing them to dominating them to eradicating them. The drive to do away with suffering “at all costs” is itself a sure plan for the infliction of new evils: violence for violence. Bataille acknowledges that ultimately one must proceed, in the realm of project, with the tasks of “doing away with what [suffering] one can.”22 But first, he thinks, one must encounter the suffering other silently, relinquishing one’s drive to master the situation.

Is Bataille guilty of thinking that death and violence elicit one sort of response, psychic laceration, in all of us, more or less ineluctably? Spectacles of death, after all, stimulate a broad range of very different sorts of responses in different sorts of spectators. Hasn’t Bataille done just what Susan Sontag wisely warns us not to do, when she says, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain”?23 Sontag’s study of spectacles of violence, Regarding the Pain of Others, charts the range of responses to violence: horror and disgust, sadistic pleasure, voyeuristic fascination, apathy, compassion, and pity. There is no single, inevitable reaction to suffering.

Bataille recognizes that the same imagery can elicit different responses in different subjects, or even the same subject at different times. At times imagery of torture shocks him, fostering the ecstatic undoing of his psyche. At other times, though, no such effect is forthcoming. He becomes desensitized and responds with disinterest. “The sight of torture overwhelmed me, but I quickly became indifferent to it.”24 For some spectators, imagery of suffering elicits aggression, either in retribution or to protect against future attacks. By any means necessary. “At all costs let us do away with it.”25 Rectifying political violence all too often inflicts new violence, and suffering begets suffering. If our response to violence remains within the system of attitudes and dispositions that produced it in the first place, then we are too ready to treat our opponents as objects for us to manipulate and destroy. “The ‘civilization’ that [the civilized person] opposes to the savagery of wars is this same civilization … that … is itself the cause of wars.”26

Bataille proposes a process of preparation in order to achieve the conditions for the proper apprehension of the spectacle of violence. He refers to this as a project that has as its end “to emerge … from the realm of project,” acknowledging that paradoxically, one must engage in a teleological practice in order to do away with teleology.27 Bataille employs specific techniques toward the achievement of ecstasy, influenced by Christian practices of meditating on the suffering of Christ on the cross and Buddhist practices of meditating on bones. But he extracts the practices from the soteriological (teleological) narratives in which they were originally situated. He calls for “dramatization,” which is a willed attitude of speechless self-abnegation. Dramatization employs the imagination in relation to imagery of suffering. It is the imaginative “projection” of oneself onto the suffering other, involving the embrace “of a dramatic loss of self.”28 One cultivates in oneself the ability to attend to people (and poems and paintings) non-discursively. This is Bataillean ecstasy in its most intentional form. He thinks ecstasy can occur in unintentional and unsought encounters, as well, and in greater or lesser degrees. But his intentional pursuit of ecstasy speaks of his acknowledgment that the imagery of suffering in and of itself does not reliably generate any single psychological response. The imagery of death may seem to have lost all ethical and political significance in the age of electronic technology and transnational commerce, but the practices Bataille describes seek to reinvest death with significance through the intentional cultivation of mental and affective habits that orient one toward suffering in specific and disciplined ways. The results of these encounters with suffering are moments of self-abnegation that make one in general less prone to exercise coercive control to protect one’s self, community, and country from risk.

In his own practices of dramatizing the loss of self, Bataille would use photographic images, in particular, of a man being executed by dismemberment. Bataille describes the man, as his limbs are being cut from him, as “beautiful.”29 In his fiction, most famously in Story of the Eye, he writes of highly sexualized violent assaults.30 In attaching beauty and desire to suffering, he opens himself to the objection that he is eroticizing death and violent suffering. Construing suffering as an object of desire presents all manner of dangers: sadism, voyeurism, cruelty, and the like. As much as we might want to deny it, scenery of devastation exercises an attractive pull on our attention. “We … have an appetite,” Sontag writes, “for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation,” whether this appetite is expressed in outright desire and pleasure or mere fascination.31 This is not true for everyone of course, but it is for a great many of us, and our visual culture, both ‘high’ and ‘low,’ reflects it. Bataille would have us admit to ourselves that we are attracted, as well as repulsed, by the suffering of others, and that there is a measure of cruelty in this, and in us. Subjects who see cruel impulses only in others, not in themselves, will support a politics that is paternalistic and punitive. Bataille contests such conceptions of the self.32

Though it opposes the violence of instrumentalization, ecstasy is not itself non-violent. The realm of project has its violence, stemming from the need to control and master, but the realm of continuity has its own sorts of violence. The violence characteristic of ecstasy, at its extreme, is that of the Bacchae: destructive frenzy that has no regard for the rules and norms that supervise our violent urges in everyday life. In ecstasy, we forego control, and we forego the desire to subordinate others to our manipulations and calculations. But we do so by abandoning self-control, and this abjuration can be just as destructive, or more so, as remaining continent. A blow is a blow, whether it stems from a measured or unmeasured state of mind. Violence, then, is ineradicable. Bataille warns us against utopian dreams of eliminating violence from human affairs or human psychology. It is a persistent aspect of the human condition, whether it stems from our immediate, unconstrained impulses or from the reasonable practices that constrain our impulses.

Bataille does think, however, that there are better and worse ways to respond to the violence that is “the deep truth at the heart of man.”33 And his constructive proposal for political life has to do with how we thinks we should bring into right relationship our instrumental activities and our ecstatic moments. To see this, we have to gain an appreciation for the necessary importance that Bataille attaches to our projects. If Bataille has nothing positive to say about production and acquisition, if his agenda is just expenditure and irrationality, then his contribution to political thought would be strictly negative. His demand that we properly acknowledge our destructive drives might serve as a worthy foil, a helpful challenge to our political ideals, but not as a constructive resource in its own right. Siding with ecstatic destruction over and against stability is not a viable politics. Politics has as its concern ordering social goods, whereas Bataillean ecstasy is set against both goods and their order. You cannot build a society on an interminable earthquake.

This estimation of Bataille overlooks crucial aspects of his philosophy. It is true that he sets himself against productivity and acquisition time and time again, and thus it is easy to miss his endorsements of the necessity and value of project. We must pay close attention to what he says about the religious societies and their festivals; he regards them as examples of how to relate the realm of project and the sacred realm. During sacrificial festivals, the community came together ecstatically to witness the destruction of items, whether humans, non-human animals, or inanimate objects. These items were of value in the profane world, so the rituals counteracted utilitarian operations. The religious society threw itself wildly into its excessive festivals, to be sure, but then the people returned to daily life and its calm. They affirmed the sacred value of their festivals, but they also affirmed their productive activities. Bataille does as well. In the last analysis, he does not deny the necessity and importance of project; he just insists that our teleological activity needs to be counter-balanced by ecstatic occasions. “The servants of these cruel gods” of sacrificial festivals “were careful deliberately to set a limit to their ravages; they never scorned necessity nor the orderly world it rules.” The “anxious life” of the realm of project and the “intense life” of ecstatic community “were protected from each other by religious practices. The profane world would continue, founded on useful activity, for there could be no food and no consumer goods without it … the two [realms] were kept apart.”34 Bataille does not himself endorse the cruelties of human sacrifice (“acts as horrifying as these were rare; they were not essential to the sacrifice but they underlined its significance”), but he thinks we need to learn from the way that religious societies acknowledged both the necessity of productive, acquisitive activity and the importance of striking periodic and temporary blows against that very activity. Bataille’s remarks on religious festivals affirm the profane realm as a legitimate and essential aspect of human existence: religious festivals that access sacred ecstasy through frenzy must not be so destructive as to render the profane world impossible.

We see again Bataille’s aim of bringing project and ecstasy into proper relationship in his analysis of the marquis de Sade: “No one would suggest that the cruelty of the heroes of Justine and Juliette should not be wholeheartedly abominated. It is a denial of the principles on which humanity is founded. We are bound to reject something that would end in the ruin of all our works. If instinct urges us to destroy the very thing we are building we must condemn those instincts and defend ourselves from them.”35 Bataille speaks of the “need of the normal man of today to become aware of himself and to know clearly what his sovereign [ateleological] aspirations are in order to limit their possibly disastrous consequences; to accept these if it suits him but not to push them any further than he needs, and resolutely to oppose them if his self-awareness cannot tolerate them.”36 Rituals and festivals brought people into ecstatic continuity with each other. Of necessity the festival comes to an end, however. Then normal life resumes. Religious rituals managed the boundary between the sacred and the profane in such a way as to allow for both the profane world and the sacred world to exist, in cyclical succession. The profane world needs the sacred festival to give an outlet to the desires the profane world prohibits and to counter the reign of utility. The sacred festival needs the profane world to furnish a setting for the ecstatic rupture from work and project. What the oscillation between profanity and sacredness accomplishes, for Bataille (and for Roger Caillois, Marcel Mauss, and Émile Durkheim as well), is the ongoing stability of the society. A punctuated stability, to be sure, a stability interrupted by moments of disarray, but this is a better sort of stability than societies that strive for the unachievable ideal of unbroken stasis.

Thus, Bataille would acknowledge the necessity, despite their problematic features, of our ways of valuing and perceiving in the realm of project. But religious societies understood that the values in our projects are not ultimate, that another sort of value exists, a value opposed to utility. In their sacrificial destruction of resources that otherwise would have been put to productive uses, they expressed their bond with one another as companions who have non-instrumental significance. The problem with modern societies is that without sacrifice and religious festival, they cannot bring into proper relation production and ateleology. Bataille’s aim for his contemporaries is that they would find their own activities in which to acknowledge and express their ateleological urges and to experience non-utilitarian value, but without letting these undermine their social practices and institutions. In all of this, Bataille exhibits his conservative side. That is to say, he has a concern for the preservation of stability and order, on both the societal and personal level. To be sure, conservative here is a relative term: the sort of social order he wants to see preserved is a classless society, in which disparities of rights, wealth, and property have been minimized or eliminated.37 In his day and in ours the economic path to that sort of arrangement would be anything but conservative. But the order that would be characteristic of that sort of socialist society would be one that Bataille would want to preserve.

We have rejected the idea that Bataille’s philosophy is strictly one of ruination, but another concern remains. Isn’t his humanism, in its basis in a community oriented toward death, naïve? Our technological and capitalist visual culture is supersaturated with suffering, real and fictional; can death really elicit the sort of response that Bataille thinks it can? Could it ever have, in any era? We use imagery of violence to contest warfare, but also to justify it. Powerful media corporations and nation-states censor imagery to allow the public to access only those spectacles of death that serve the purposes of profit and patriotism. As Sontag says, even supposedly commendable responses to suffering, such as compassion, can serve as the “mystification of our real relations to power” by occluding the fact that the spectators’ “privileges are located on the same map” as the victims’ suffering.38 In the end, Sontag has no firm conclusions to offer on how we are to witness others’ suffering. Photographs of violence “haunt us,” she admits, but she does not want to tell us much about what this haunting involves or how we are to respond to it. The final lesson of Regarding the Pain of Others is a note of warning: the dead do not care about our response to their suffering. They do not need us, not anymore. Spectators who have not themselves undergone violence should not presume to understand. No photograph can deliver that sort of knowledge.39 Sontag’s book, then, amounts to a strong caution against putting spectacles of violence to moral or political uses.

The avoidance of suffering, though, has ethical risks of its own. A number of cultural theorists have made a case for critical attention to the politics of violent imagery. Judith Butler and Ariella Azoulay, in particular, have recently made important apologies for the ethical potential of violent photography. Both think that there are legitimate purposes to apprehending spectacles of suffering. Both deny that photographs in themselves have any sort of “magical moral agency,” in Butler’s terms, to engender any particular response in spectators.40 We might think photographs have this power if we limited our purview to the photograph and the spectator, in isolation from the surrounding context. But Butler and Azoulay both contest this sort of analysis. In her essay, “Torture and the Ethics of Photography,” Butler calls attention to the “frame” of the photograph, the larger social, cultural, political, and economic context in which photographs are produced and circulate. Her critical point is that powerful entities like nation-states and their militaries frame photographs in such a way as to make certain lives grievable and others not worthy of emotional attention. Her constructive point is that certain ways of viewing photographs allow for an appropriate apprehension of the horror of violence. “There are ways of framing that will bring the human into view in its frailty and precariousness, that will allow us to stand for the value and dignity of human life, to react with outrage when lives are degraded or eviscerated without regard for their value as lives.” A result of this could be “an alteration of our political assessment of the current wars.” On the other hand, there are ways of framing that “foreclose responsiveness.”41 Butler discusses, as a successful example of framing, an exhibition at the International Center for Photography that, by informing the spectator about the publication and circulation of the Abu Ghraib torture photographs, countered the sadistic motives of the photographers.42 Azoulay’s account regards the object of analysis not as the photograph itself, but as what she calls the “event of photography,” which includes the camera, photographer, and what is photographed, but also the photograph and its various relations to its various spectators.43 Keeping these complex relations in mind allows us to relate to photographed victims in a “civil” manner, that is, to regard them not with “empathy,” “pity, or “compassion,” but as fellow citizens who address the spectator and call on the spectator to acknowledge them as such.44 Citizenry here does not narrowly refer to a one’s country of origin, but bespeaks the need to regard others as fellow participants in transnational political arrangements. A civil attitude regards one’s fellows as co-agents in respect to the common goods that make up a public, pluralistic world.

Butler and Azoulay challenge the idea that photographs of violence can have no place in a consumerist visual culture, and it is important to consider them alongside Bataille for this reason. There is more to say, though. While it not the case that their cultural theories involve Bataillean ecstasy, there are important points of connection between their accounts and his. Ecstasy is a crucial aspect of Butler’s account of subjectivity. This comes up in the “Torture and Ethics of Photography” essay only briefly, in a reference to Emmanuel Levinas and his claim that to encounter the face of the other is to undergo ethical responsibility for the other.45 As Butler discusses at greater length in Parting Ways and Giving an Account of Oneself, for Levinas, an encounter with the face of the other involves an ecstatic relation in which one’s center of gravity is outside oneself. Butler’s appropriation of Levinas, though, is concerned mostly with structural ecstasy, not the occasional sort.46 And in fact, in “Torture and the Ethics of Photography,” Butler insists that the “shock” of viewing violent spectacles is not the source of ethical value. Instead the ethical potential lies in the capacity of photographs to induce mourning.47 For Bataille, on the other hand, the shock is crucial to elicit psychic laceration.

Perhaps it is to be expected that Butler’s presiding interest in structural, as opposed to occasional, ecstasy would lead her to dismiss the possibilities of shock. However, she is not entirely dismissive of the occasional. She, like Bataille, is interested in the formation of subjects into non-sovereign subjects, who forego the “fantasy of impossible mastery” and who regard our responsibility to others as a “persistent challenge to egoic mastery” and its “self-preservative aims.”48 For Butler, this formation comes about through proper responses to others who speak to us, place demands on us, interfere with us, and expose themselves to us as vulnerable. All these interactions indicate that we are not enclosed and self-sufficient. They do so in an ongoing way that involves structural ecstasy, a persistent, vulnerable openness of the self to the insertion of the other. But at times Butler does seem to speak of the other’s claim upon us as occasional, and so, perhaps, as a stimulus for occasional ecstasy of one sort or another, in “moments of interruption, stoppage, open-endedness.”49 Furthermore, she speaks of these events in similar terms as Bataille, when she says that “our willingness to become undone in relation to others” is both “a primary necessity” and “an anguish, to be sure.”50 Why then does Butler think that the shock of beholding a photograph of torture does not serve as one of these moments of anguished undoing? It is true that the photographed victim does not address us the way that one who speaks to us and acts upon us does. Photography lacks that immediacy. But the cultivation of the capacity to apprehend the photographed other in ways that undo the spectator in silent shock is surely a way to cultivate the sort of non-mastering attitudes that enable us to respond to the present other’s incursions on the self.

To return to Azoulay, we find that her account of what she calls the “civil gaze” has interesting parallels with Bataillean ecstasy. The civil gaze, for Azoulay, is a way to apprehend the value of the other that is distinct from our ordinary ways of perceiving. Ordinary perception, she says, consists of the “orienting gaze,” perception governed by the needs of survival, and the “deliberate gaze,” characteristic of “goal-directed” professional activity.51 The civil gaze does not seek to instrumentalize its objects like the orienting gaze and the deliberate gaze do. It is “not a means to an end and does not manufacture any kind of products.”52 It seeks “dislocation” from the control over objects that typifies the orienting gaze and the deliberate gaze.53 However, in significant ways, the civil gaze is not ecstatic, in the Bataillean sense. It involves investigation and interpretation to determine the civil conditions surrounding a photograph, whereas Bataillean ecstasy renounces discursive knowledge.54 Though it differs from the orientating gaze and the deliberate gaze, the civil attitude is not opposed to them, whereas ecstasy for Bataille has value because and insofar as it is opposed to instrumentalizing attitudes.55 The point to observing violent imagery, according to Azoulay, and Butler, is to draw our attention to the particular political situation of the victim: whether that of Arabs in United States custody or of Palestinians under the control of the state of Israel. Bataille’s aim is different. He attends to suffering in order to remove the victim from the particularities of social classification and political narrative.

Azoulay’s understanding of the gaze is influenced by Hannah Arendt, and it is worth getting some clarity on how Bataille’s idea of ecstasy relates to Arendt’s of action. In The Human Condition, Arendt delineates three distinct types of human activity: labor, work, and action. Labor is devoted to securing the basic necessities of living. Work, on the other hand, is creative and seeks to go beyond our immediate needs to construct the artifacts and institutions of an enduring society. Action is the domain of the political, it concerns speech and deeds that reveal the personal and individual character of agents to one another. These three correspond respectively to Azoulay’s gazes: orienting, deliberate, and civil. For us, the point on which to compare Bataille and Arendt has to do with the way she, like he, presents action as non-instrumental, in distinction from labor and work. The space of politics, those events in which agents divulge their unique selves to one another in respect to their common, public world, is an end in itself, not a means to some other end.56 It transcends “mere productive activity.”57 It is not characterized by the norm of mastery, unlike the mode of work.58 Both Arendt and Bataille are promoting an idea of the subject as non-sovereign. Like Bataille, Arendt thinks that instrumentalization is inevitably violent. When collective human activity is given over to means-end rationality, “murderous consequences” will be the result: “As long as we believe that we deal with ends and means in the political realm, we shall not be able to prevent anybody’s using all means to pursue recognized ends.”59

Despite these important similarities, Arendt’s action is quite different from Bataille’s communication, and the difference illuminates also the divergence between Bataille and Azoulay. Action, for Arendt, is closely linked to speech, because it has to do with self-expression and self-revelation, on the part of the agent, and receptive hearing, on the part of the other. For Bataille, however, ecstasy is non-discursive and disruptive to the self, not expressive of the self. Furthermore, Arendt’s action is future-oriented, even if it is not instrumental. Acting starts a process, it begins something new, in the public world of common goods, even if what it begins cannot be mastered or predicted by the agent. It requires, has as one of its “potentialities,” forgiveness and promise-making. Forgiveness is required for those consequences of one’s actions that one did not intend, and promising is necessary to orient and transport ourselves into an unpredictable future without losing our identity in the “ocean of uncertainty” that awaits us.60 Its investment in language and its futurity mean that Arendt’s action transpires squarely in Bataille’s realm of project, and it is implicated in means-end rationality even if it is not itself instrumental. And if we were to wonder where Bataillean ecstasy fits in Arendt’s scheme, he belongs in a category she mentions briefly as the alternative to the vita activa of labor, work, and action: the vita contemplativa. In contemplation, the subject undergoes the “experience of the eternal,” whether the theōria of the Greek philosophers or the mystical beatific vision of the Christian tradition. Arendt, like Bataille, thinks of this experience as a sort of death of the subject. Unlike Bataille, she thinks it is politically inconsequential, it has “no correspondence with and cannot be transformed into any activity whatsoever.”61 For Bataille, ecstasy cannot be pursued for the sake of its political consequences, it must be an end in itself, but he is cognizant of its political consequences. The political consequences are to engender precisely the sort of non-sovereign subject that Arendt prizes: one who seeks to affect, but not master, the public world.

Butler, Azoulay, and Bataille share the ideal of subjects who recognize themselves as non-sovereign. For Butler and Azoulay, violent photographs contribute to that achievement when they are approached with consideration for their frame and socio-political context. Bataille would not have a quarrel with this. This sort of engagement with imagery of violence takes place squarely in the realm of project, and Bataille recognizes this realm as necessary. Alongside this, though, he would have us encounter the photographed other in a very different way. He wants the encounter with imagery of suffering to cut deeply into the subject, undoing, even if only for a moment, the subject’s dispositions to instrumentalize, to explain, to inquire, and to plan. Discursive understanding should cease, even if only for a moment, before the suffering other. With the cultivation of a disciplined attention, one might experience one’s commonality with suffering, dying humanity. A proper appreciation of ourselves as structurally ecstatic only comes from the apprehension, in moments of ecstasy, that there is one horror that is “everywhere the same”: every human, regardless of her or his political situation, is doomed to die.62


Stephen S. Bush is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University.


Published on March 4, 2017

1. John Dewey, The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924, Volume 14: Human Nature and Conduct, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 296.

2. Teresa De Lauretis, Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2007), chap. 7.

3. Bonnie Honig, “Difference, Dilemmas, and the Politics of Home,” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, ed. Seyla Benhabib (Princeton University Press, 1996), 272–73.

4. Quoted in Michael Heyd, Be Sober and Reasonable: The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries (New York: E.J. Brill, 1995), 40.

5. For example, Alexander Nehamas, “The Attraction of Repulsion,” The New Republic 201, no. 17 (October 23, 1989): 36.

6. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vols. 2 and 3: The History of Eroticism and Sovereignty, trans. Robert Hurley (Zone Books, 1993), 17; Œuvres Complètes, vol. 8 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 12–13.

7. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, trans. Robert Hurley, vol. 1 (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 57–58; Œuvres Complètes, vol. 7 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 62–63.

8. Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1988), 22, 112; Œuvres Complètes, vol. 5 (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), 35, 141.

9. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 1:192f15; Bataille, Œuvres Complètes, 1976, 7:63.

10. Georges Bataille, The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, ed. Stuart Kendall, trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 85; Œuvres Complètes, 1973, 5:205.

11. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Patton, Harper Torchback Edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 96.

12. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 1:57–58; Œuvres Complètes, 1976, 7:62–63.

13. Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vols. 2 and 3, 424; Œuvres Complètes, 1976, 8:450–51.

14. Bataille, Unfinished System, 85; Œuvres Complètes, 1973, 5:205.

15. Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 28; Œuvres Complètes, 1976, 7:298.

16. Bataille, The Accursed Share, 1:56; Œuvres Complètes, 1976, 7:61.

17. Bataille, Inner Experience, 7; Œuvres Complètes, 1973, 5:19.

18. Bataille, Inner Experience, 45; Œuvres Complètes, 1973, 5:58.

19. As Amy Hollywood says, “We should distinguish between two conceptions of political action: one that would contest power and injustice through narrativization, and one that would contest those very narrativizations themselves in the name of that which is unassimilable to redemptive political projects—the bodies of those who can never again be made whole.” Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 84.

20. It is a denial of community in refusing to regard all mortals as community. Jean-Luc Nancy, drawing on Bataille, recognizes the contrast between fascism and Bataillean community. “Only the fascist masses tend to annihilate community in the delirium of an incarnated communion. Symmetrically, the concentration camp—and the extermination camp, the camp of exterminating concentration—is in essence the will to destroy community.” Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, ed. Peter Connor, trans. Peter Connor et al. (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 35.

21. Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vols. 2 and 3, 190; Œuvres Complètes, 1976, 8:163.

22. Georges Bataille, “Concerning the Accounts Given by the Residents of Hiroshima,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth, trans. Alan Keenan (Baltimore, Md.; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 229, 232; Georges Bataille, Œuvres Complètes, vol. 11 (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), 180, 185.

23. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 7.

24. Georges Bataille, Guilty (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2011), 31; Œuvres Complètes, 1973, 5:272–73.

25. Bataille, “Concerning the Accounts,” 232; Bataille, Œuvres Complètes, 1988, 11:185.

26. Bataille, “Concerning the Accounts,” 229; Bataille, Œuvres Complètes, 1988, 11:181.

27. Bataille, Inner Experience, 46; Œuvres Complètes, 1973, 5:60.

28. Bataille, Inner Experience, 117–18; Œuvres Complètes, 1973, 5:137.

29. Bataille, Inner Experience, 119; Œuvres Complètes, 1973, 5:139.

30. Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye, trans. Joachim Neugroschel, 1st City Lights ed. (San Francisco, Calif.: City Lights Publishers, 1987); Histoire d’œil, in Œuvres Complètes, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1970).

31. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 97.

32. For more on acknowledging our own cruelty in our attraction to suffering, see Stephen S. Bush, “Sovereignty and Cruelty: Self-Affirmation, Self-Dissolution, and the Bataillean Subject,” in Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion, ed. Jeremy Biles and Kent Brintnall (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 38–50.

33. Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco, Calif.: City Lights, 1986), 184; Œuvres Complètes, vol. 10 (Paris: Gallimard, 1987), 183.

34. Bataille, Erotism, 181–82; Œuvres Complètes, 1987, 10:180. Also, “I do not mean that such systems [based on concern for the future] should not be defended, nor that one can simply give up being concerned for the future.” Bataille, “Concerning the Accounts,” 229; Bataille, Œuvres Complètes, 1988, 11:181.

35. Bataille, Erotism, 183–84; Œuvres Complètes, 1987, 10:182.

36. Bataille, Erotism, 185; Œuvres Complètes, 1987, 10:184.

37. Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vols. 2 and 3, 188–189; 281; Œuvres Complètes, 1976, 8:162–63, 322–23.

38. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 102–3.

39. Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 125–26.

40. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London; New York: Verso, 2009), 91.

41. Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, 77.

42. Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, 95–96.

43. Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, trans. Louise Bethlehem, English-language Edition (London; New York: Verso, 2012), chap. 1.

44. Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, trans. Rela Mazali and Ruvik Danieli (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 17, 25, 85.

45. Butler, Frames of War, 77.

46. Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 38, 41; Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 83–101.

47. Butler, Frames of War, 96–98.

48. Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 64–65, 92.

49. Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 64.

50. Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 136.

51. Azoulay, Civil Imagination, 67–74; 107.

52. Azoulay, Civil Imagination, 68.

53. Azoulay, Civil Imagination, 72–73.

54. Azoulay, Civil Imagination, 76, 121.

55. Azoulay, Civil Imagination, 107, 119.

56. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 229–30.

57. Arendt, The Human Condition, 180.

58. Arendt, The Human Condition, 144, 234.

59. Arendt, The Human Condition, 229.

60. Arendt, The Human Condition, 236–37.

61. Arendt, The Human Condition, 20.

62. Bataille, “Concerning the Accounts,” 228; Bataille, Œuvres Complètes, 1988, 11:180.