Another bit of cribbing from @k_punk_unlife that has raised some interesting questions for me this fine Sunday afternoon.
Taken from Fisher’s review of a Carlo Ginzberg lecture from 2004, originally posted on the Hyperstition blog [currently down but available here], Bataille and the College of Sociology receive a bit of a damning appraisal. Mark writes:
Between Baudelaire and Foucault lie Bataille and the College de Sociologie, but implicit in Ginzburg’s narrative was a total debunking of any claims that Bataille’s advocacy of cruelty, sacrifice and the transgressive was in any way ‘radical’. On the contrary, and as should be clear by now, the College’s withdrawal from reason, its conception of the cosmos as a gigantic cruelty machine, is part of a well-established reactionary tradition.
Bataille emerged in Ginzburg’s story as a figure frighteningly close to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man — a minor civil servant with fantasies that would be dangerous if they had any possibility of being enacted. Thankfully, they didn’t (‘Bataille was not a man of action,’ Ginzburg remarked, in a masterpiece of understatement). The story of Bataille’s ludicrous attempt to become a human sacrifice (he offered himself to three people, none of whom would kill him) is as comic as it is pathetic.
The connection between Bataille and fascism should by now be obvious: the same withdrawal from secularized modernity into a blood cult, the same ‘alphabet of unreason’ (Ballard). Naturally, it’s too quick, too crass, to say that Bataille was a fascist. But Ginzburg did more than enough to establish that it wasn’t for nothing that the Acephale group were accused of being ‘Surfascists’ (a name they themselves happily appropriated). The group had praised Hitler’s virile forthrightness and Bataille, Ginzburg said, had been bewitched by the phallic power of the Nazis. He sought, impossibly, tragically, to attain the ‘innocence of animals’, to sink into the porcine ignorance-bliss of a creature consciousness unburdened by intellect and reason.
I was aware of this post but never paid it much mind. I don’t know this Ginzberg but the appraisal of Bataille and the College offered up here is as batshit and reaching as an Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche appraisal of Nietzsche. And yet, perhaps this post is more worthy of acknowledgement, particularly given the fact that my book on Mark draws on Bataille quite extensively.
A few weeks back, Dominic Fox pulled on a similar thread that no doubt had this old post at the end of it, believing that many of the references in Egress to those French inter-war crazies are “disorientatingly inapposite”. This was coupled with a few reported comments from Owen Hatherley that Mark thought Blanchot a snob and Bataille silly.
At the time, I didn’t see why those opinions should have any bearing on the references used by another. A book that stuck to Mark’s own references would hardly be that interesting a read, or a book that I’d feel comfortable calling mine. And so, the only real thing I took away from these bitchy comments was that I could have perhaps clarified where my tastes diverge — sometimes pointedly — from Mark’s own in my book. (My response at the time was that I didn’t see the need and anxiously that drawing lines around things would only interfere with — and potentially undermine — the project at hand.) But I think it’s also worth explaining why Mark’s view of these thinkers — if his views had indeed remained the same since 2004 (personally, I have my doubts about that) — was sadly mistaken.
As far as I’m concerned, Mark’s appraisal of Bataille — at least at this time — is hypocritical and inaccurate — and all the more so in hindsight. Many of his (second-hand) critiques of the College above could just as easily be applied to the Ccru, for instance — and I’m sure some readers would nod along to that with glee. But what becomes apparent to me, very quickly, in reading Mark’s work, is that his critiques and his vigilance regarding the role of culture and aesthetics in constituting a political imaginary often come quite close to Bataille’s own.
On his visit to Portmeirion, for instance, Mark writes:
Like punk, Surrealism is dead as soon as it is reduce to an aesthetic style. It comes unlive again when it is instantiated as a delirial program (just as punk comes unlive when it is effectuated as an anti-authoritarian, acephalic contagion-network). Chtcheglov resists the aestheticization of Surrealism, and treats De Chirico’s paintings, for instance, not as particular aesthetic contrivances, but as architectural blueprints, ideals for living. Let’s not look at a De Chirico painting —- let’s live in one.
From the same post, Mark recalls a quip made by Iain Hamilton Grant:
Remember that Andre Breton thought that the British – with Edward Lear , Lewis Carroll and their ludic ilk – had little need of Surrealism, since they were already Surrealist. (Though it’s always worth bearing in mind, when thinking of Breton, Iain Hamilton Grant’s elegant put-down at Virtual Futures 94. Grant was incredulously pondering Jameson’s formulation, ‘Surrealism without the unconscious’. ‘What would that be? Breton I suppose…’ LOL)
This was Bataille’s critique of Breton also. Indeed, when Bataille embraced the “surfascist” insult applied to him — as Mark recounts with an air of horror — he did so because it situated him precisely where he wanted to be: above fascism whilst under occupation.
This was a far more preferable position than that of the Surrealists who had, as Bataille writes in his essay “The ‘Old Mole'”, “continued persistently to express their basic predilection for values above the ‘world of facts’ with such banal formulas as ‘revolt of the Spirit’, etc.” For Bataille — contrary to Ginzberg’s appraisal reported by Mark above — it was better to be “above” the mythological realm of the Third Reich than to be “above” reason.
Similarly, Bataille’s critique of the Surrealists also echoes Fisher’s critique of the hippies and the counterculture, who allowed their “revolutionary” aesthetics to disarticulate class struggle from any vaguely political gesture. Bataille again writes:
It is of course difficult to avoid a feeling of contempt for revolutionaries to whom the revolution is not, before all else, the decisive phrase of the class struggle. Nevertheless we are not concerned with ephemeral reactions, but with a verification of a general nature: any member of the bourgeoisie who has become conscious that his most vigorous and vital instincts, if he does not repress them, necessarily make him an enemy of his own class, is condemned, when he loses heart, to forge at once values situated ABOVE all those values, bourgeois or otherwise, conditioned by the order of real things.
As I argue in Egress, this critique finds its most pointed articulation in Bataille’s novel Blue of Noon, but the point of Bataille’s essay here (which, for what its worth, does not appear in my book) is precisely to psychoanalyse the bourgeois repressions that allow the Surrealists to embrace their superficial freedom. He writes:
With few exceptions, this is the pitiful psychology of bourgeois revolutionaries before the Marxist organisation of the class struggle. It leads to a representation of revolution as redemptive light rising above the world, above classes, the overflowing of spiritual elevation and Lamartinian bliss.
Here we find Bataille connecting Marx to a politics of below, preempting the Deleuzo-Guattarian “Geology of Morals” and its implicit relevance to a truly surrealist materialism, connecting the earth to the psyche and to class consciousness. Bataille continues, explaining his titular reference:
“Old Mole”, Marx’s resounding expression for the complete satisfaction of the revolutionary outburst of the masses, must be understood in relation to the notion of a geological uprising as expressed in the Communist Manifesto. Marx’s point of departure has nothing to do with the heavens, preferred station of the imperialist eagle as of Christian or revolutionary utopias. He begins in the bowels of the earth, as in the materialist bowels of proletarians.
There is a double-articulation here, of course, just as there is in Deleuze and Guattari’s version. To say that the proletariat must “wallow in the mud” is nonetheless to affirm the hierarchy of capitalism. This is arguably an attempt here to make the plane of revolution more horizontal, just as Nietzsche’s thought (through Zarathustra most explicitly) takes on a quasi-religious form when taking the view from the summit — viewing the world from above, on mountaintops that are, nonetheless, instances of ground raised up through tectonic movement. Embodying a sort of atheistic Buddha or the proto-communist Franciscan monks, Zarathustra’s appeal, then, is to a “highest poverty”.
The real problem with Surrealism, then, just as Grant reportedly quipped, is that it rises high only to forget about the low — it ascends beyond any real engagement with the Unconscious, for instance, or similarly dwells in the Unconscious without making contact with the political realm of action. For Bataille, in this same sense, Surrealism finds itself as little more than a “servile idealism” that rests impotently on nothing more than a “will to poetic agitation”. As above, so below — or don’t bother.
The Surrealists, obviously, did not like this attack and it created a vicious rift between Bataille and Breton that would persist all through the war. Taking this ‘Old Mole’ article — and perhaps Bataille’s other text, “The Psychological Structure of Fascism” — into account, they proceed to denounce Bataille was a surfascist, as if to say he is a hypocrite in taking a stand and looking down upon them. Again, Bataille would no doubt argue that this was his Nietzschean perspective — he cast judgement upon them from his “view from the summit” and was capable of doing so without abandoning the politics of below.
Stuart Kendall, in his translator’s introduction to Bataille’s On Nietzsche, has a particularly illuminating passage on the emergence of the insult that Bataille embraced. He writes:
The precise origin and intended meaning of the term “surfascism” remain in dispute. Henri Dubief attributes it to Jean Dautry as wordplay modeled on “Surrealism”. Pierre Andler has also claimed responsibility for it, and we encouter the term in a note on fascism he wrote in April 1936: “Just as fascism is only a definitive surmarxism, a Marxism put back on its feet, similarly the power that will reduce it can only be a surfascism. Fascism does not refer to itself as surmarxism, since it is called fascism. Similarly, surfascism will not refer to itself as surfascism. It is not forbidden to seek the name that surfacism will bear tomorrow.” Henri Pasoureau, for his part, claimed in a letter to scholar Marina Galletti that “the word surfascism had been invented by the Surrealists. It can designate both a surpassed fascism (positive) or an exacerbated fascism (negative).” As a charge leveled against [Bataille’s counter-surrealist group] Counter Attack by the Surrealist group, the term is clearly intended negatively, as an assertion that Bataille and his other collaborators — including Georges Ambrosino and Pierre Klossowski, among others — were “more fascist than the fascists.” There was more than a little truth to the accusation, and intentionally so. In a letter to Pierre Kaan written in February 1934, during the planning stages of Counter Attack, Bataille had said explicitly: “I have no doubt as to the level on which we must place ourselves: it can only be that of fascism itself, which is to say on the mythological level.”
The accusation of surfascism, in the very thick of his militancy against fascism, seems to have been just the provocation that would push Bataille not only to manifest his Nietzscheanism overtly but also to give it a central place in his political program moving forward. As he wrote to Roger Caillois weeks before the war began: “My insistence on claiming Nietzsche for myself alone indicates the direction I’m going.” The nature and continuity of this concern is my point here. Despite the chaos of the era and the apparent chaos of the texts, from the accusation of sur-fascism in 1936 to the writing of Sur Nietzche in 1944, Bataille’s thought betrays a profound, though not seamless, continuity. […]
Bataille’s Promethean push, in both Acéphale and On Nietzsche, would be to steal some fire from the Nazis — to steal Nietzsche back from them by demonstrating that he was neither bourgeois nor nationalist nor an anti-Semite.
It was with this understanding of Bataille’s trajectory in mind, having studied it for much of 2017, that I remember first making my case that Bataille was less antithetical to Mark than Mark himself may have at one time believed. I first said this in a reading group on Mark’s “Acid Communism” at Somerset House in London in 2018. It was Dan Taylor, at that time, who similarly brought up Bataille in orbit of some of Mark’s later works and, erring on the side of caution, I seem to remember that Dan invoked Bataille as a thinker that Mark would not have had a lot of time for. I remember interjecting and saying something along the lines of: whilst that may have been true, I think Bataille has more bearing on Mark’s work, particularly later on, than he may have been aware of.
Mark’s writings on rave and the fête, for instance, or on Lyotard and accelerationism, betray Bataille as a silent collaborator, who influenced many of those thinkers that Mark was more prepared to take seriously. I think this is especially true after the advent of Accelerationism. Noys’ critique that many post-’68 philosophers were fetishising a philosophical negativity, for instance, was roundly flipped by Mark in his essay “Terminator versus Avatar” in a positively Bataillean fashion. The essay begins:
In the introduction to his 1993 translation of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, Iain Hamilton Grant refers to a certain ‘maturity of contemporary wisdom.’ According to this ‘maturity’, Grant observes, Economie Libidinale was ‘a minor and short-lived explosion of a somewhat naive anti-philosophical expressionism, an aestheticizing trend hung over from a renewed interest in Nietzsche prevalent in the late 1960s’. Grant groups Lyotard’s book with three others: Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman and Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death. ‘Libidinal Economy has in general drawn little critical response,’ Grant continues, ‘save losing Lyotard many Marxist friends. Indeed, with a few exceptions it is now only Lyotard himself who occasionally refers to the book, to pour new scorn on it, calling it his “evil book, the book that everyone writing and thinking is tempted to do”.’ This remained the case until Ben Noys’ Persistence of the Negative, in which Noys positions Libidinal Economy and Anti-Oedipus as part of what he calls an ‘accelerationist’ moment.
He continues, a little later on:
Of the 70s texts that Grant mentions in his round-up, Libidinal Economy was in some respects the most crucial link with 90s UK cyber-theory. It isn’t just the content, but the intemperate tone of Libidinal Economy that is significant. Here we might recall Žižek’s remakrs on Nietzsche: at the level of content, Nietzsche’s philosophy is now eminently assimilable, but it is the style, the invective, of which we cannot imagine a contemporary equivalent, at least not one that is solemnly debated in the academy. Both Iain Grant and Ben Noys follow Lyotard himself in describing Libidinal Economy as a work of affirmation, but, rather like Nietzsche’s texts, Libidinal Economy habitually defers its affirmation, engaging for much of the text in a series of (ostensibly parenthetical) hatreds. While Anti-Oedipus remains in many ways a text of the late 60s, Libidinal Economy anticipates the punk 70s, and draws upon the 60s that punk retrospectively projects. Not far beneath Lyotard’s ‘desire-drunk yet’ lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again. But it’s now necessary to reverse the Deleuze-Guattari / Libidinal Economy emphasis on politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification: rather, it’s a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes.
It is my view that, if anyone exists at the heart of this endeavour, this project that Mark would carry forwards into his Acid Communism — and, as a soon-to-be-released project will demonstrate, accelerationism and its discourses were the most important influence on Mark’s emerging thought on Acid Communism — it is Bataille.
It is Bataille who exists at the heart of Lyotard’s reading of Marx and it is Bataille’s attacks of the fascist caricature of Nietzsche and on Surrealism that foreshadow Mark’s own accelerationist manoeuvres and capitalist-realist critiques — whether Mark liked him or not. In fact, it is Mark, in many respects, who I see carrying forward the original Landian mode of accelerationism, perhaps even more so than Reza’s Cyclonopedia, into new productive territories — precisely because he interrogates this mode rather than just LARPing it. It is sur-Landian to Reza’s fan fiction.
This is to say that, just as the Ccru has found itself derided for its appeals to a “macho neoliberalism” or a “Deleuzo-Thatcherism”, this negative appraisal is sidestepped by Mark and made positive, just as Bataille affirmed the positive reading of the surfascist insult for his own purposes.
In Fisher’s hands, accelerationism becomes a surneoliberalism proper, taking a view from the summit and reaffirming the importance of class struggle that the Ccru may have, at times, abstracted a little too much. His psychedelic reason collides with Bataille’s own project of a materialist surrealism that rejects the bourgeois impotence of a purely artistic movement. It was similarly Mark’s call for a “democracy of joy” that echoes the fury of Bataille’s own ethical call for a “practice of joy in the face of death”, as a rejection of neoliberalism’s Pod-person affectless cheeriness; its happiness at the expense of autonomy. It is also Bataille’s strange habit of joustin with his own agnosticism that foreshadows Mark’s own Spinozist call for a kind of atheistic religion.
Others might pour scorn on my own uses of Bataille (and Blanchot) in orbit of a Mark who publicly denounced them, but a decent familiarity with either thinker surely reveals that these lines were previously drawn in haste — by Mark especially. We needn’t do the same and remain in ignorance, especially at a time of great political confusion that echoes the time of the College of Sociology. The left once again finds itself maligned by a kind of mythological propaganda from the right, and whilst the College may not have been successful, and its forms may no longer resonate with society today, their militantly antifascist aims certainly do — and their surfascism especially.
Update #1: Ed Berger’s comment on this post — below, and given a post of its own here — is an essential addition to the above. I’d implore you to read it.