What is life?

To the historian, writer, and occultist George Bataille, life is a ‘door into existence’ revealing to us one simple, incontrovertible fact—that existence is movement.

A flow of energy radiating from the sun—’the source of life’s exuberant development’—circulates wildly across the surface of the globe, connecting each living being intimately to one another (‘as the tiger and his prey’) and to existence itself in a single, continuous totality of being: ‘Life is a door into existence: life may be doomed but the continuity of existence is not.’

Continuity: the totality of being

On Earth, ‘in conflagrations befitting the solar origins of its movement’, a play of energy ‘that no particular end limits’ breathes life into matter ‘scarcely distin­guished from the immense flux of the world.’ Part of one continuous existence, all living beings have—and are connected by—an immanence without a clear limit (‘an indistinct flow of being into being – one thinks of the unstable presence of water in water.’) Individual beings are caught in a turbulent movement of energy across ecosystems and food chains: ‘the grass grows out of the solar energies, the fawn grows out of the grass, the wolf feeds on the accumulated forces of the fawn’s, and so on.’

A ‘superabundance of energy on the surface of the globe’ creates biological pressure, challenging living beings to survive: to seek ‘elements around it which are immanent,’ and to establish ‘relatively stable relations of immanence.’ From the abundant flux, living beings ‘receive this energy and accumulate it’—‘for living matter in general, energy is always in excess’—and in turn produce an excess of their own. (‘As a rule an organism has at its disposal greater energy resources than are necessary for the operations that sustain life.’)

From an excess of energy, ‘each isolated entity on earth, in all of living nature, tends to grow,’ spending energy and resources ‘either for an increase through reproduction or for its individual growth.’ Continuity—a meaningless flux of energy ‘whose principle is loss’—demands expenditure from every living being, without which ‘neither growth nor reproduction would be possible.’ Through pressure and time, ‘taking into account a constant relation of the biomass to the local climatic and geological conditions, life occupies all the available space.’ Even in the planet’s most inhospitable conditions, the ‘myriad forms of life adapt it to the available resources.’

For living beings, existence is continuous movement—the accumulation and expenditure of energy—but ‘the movement of growth runs up against limits at every stage of life.’ Energy, even in excess, ‘cannot contribute to a growth for which the “space” (better, the possibility) is lacking.’ ‘If a system (e.g., an organism) can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically’—the energy must be squandered. ‘Only the impossibility of continuing growth makes way for squander … excess does not begin until the growth of the individual or group has reached its limits.’

Ecosystems, communities, and societies—the structures of life—adhere to the same principle. ‘In every social organization, as in every living organism, the surplus is distributed between the growth of the system and pure expen­diture, of no use either to the maintenance of life or to growth.’ Everything that lives must squander, and first among them ‘man is the most suited of all living beings to consume intensely, sumptuously, the excess energy offered up by the pressure of life.’

The organism: the limited being

From the perspective of continuity, ‘every isolable element of the universe always appears as a particle that can enter into composition with a whole that transcends it.’ However, ‘in the complexity and entanglement of wholes, to which the human particle belongs, this satellite-like mode of existence never entirely disappears. A particular being not only acts as an element of a shapeless and structureless whole … but also as a peripheral element orbiting around a nucleus where being hardens.’ The totality of being is ‘only found as a whole composed of particles whose relative autonomy is maintained.’

These “particular” beings, organisms, are ‘separated from processes that are similar to it; each organism is detached from other organisms: in this sense organic life, at the same time that it accentuates the relation with the world, withdraws from the world.’ In the particular form of being, one’s existence is limited—eventually, it will end. ‘Nothingness is the limit of a being. Beyond definite limits – in time, in space – a being no longer exists. For us, this non-being is full of meaning: I know that I can be annihilated.’

Autonomous beings with finite lifespans, every organism can reproduce its own existence. ‘Reproduction implies the existence of discontinuous beings. Beings which reproduce themselves are distinct from one another, and those reproduced are likewise distinct from their parents.’ Each organism is a singular satellite—‘He is born alone. He dies alone. Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity.’

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In that organisms are part of continuous existence, they possess relations of immanence. ‘Every organism depends on the contribution of others, and if this contribution is favorable, it extracts the necessary energy from it.’ In that organisms are discontinuous, and limited by nothingness, they possess relations of transcendence as well. ‘The transcendence of the being is this nothingness. It is only as if it appears in the beyond of the nothing, in a certain sense as a given fact of nothingness, that an object transcends us.’

‘The world in which men move about is still, in a fundamental way, a continuity from the subject’s point of view,’ but continuous existence—the world of intimacy—‘establishes reality, which it is not, as contrary … a world of things and bodies, is established opposite a holy and mythical world.’ For the subject, a being with both continuous and discontinuous existence, ‘not only do these various worlds exclude and ignore one another, this incompatibility also concentrates in a single individual.’

To a subject, things (objects) appear transcendent. An object ‘has a meaning that breaks the undifferentiated continuity, that stands opposed to immanence or to the flow of all that is – which it transcends. It is strictly alien to the subject, to the self still immersed in immanence.’ The object is transcendent to the subject in that ‘the limits of the subject are reflected in the choice of its object.’

Though transcendent, ‘to the extent that I grasp in that object the extension of the existence that is initially revealed in me, the object becomes immanent for me.’ Bound intimately, ‘the choice of the object occurs in such a way that the subject is unable thenceforth to conceive of itself without the object and, reciprocally, the object separate from the subject becomes itself inconceivable for the latter.’ The object ‘becomes continuous with respect to the world as a whole but it remains separate as it was in the mind of the one who made it.’

Selfhood: the conscious being

‘Consciousness is distinctly determined in the measured reflection of the world of things.’ In the reality of discontinuous existence, objects are held to be useful and are measured by their utility. ‘Insofar as tools are developed with their end in view, consciousness posits them as objects, as interruptions in the indistinct continuity.’ Reflecting inwards, the subject, too, ‘is no longer characterized by intimacy, insofar as he is defined by things, and is himself a thing, being a distinctly separate individual.’

The human being, unique among organisms, is a subject in a world of objects. The animal, however, ‘can be regarded as a subject for which the rest of the world is an object.’ Unlike humans, who have placed themselves into their discontinuous existence, ‘animality is immediacy or immanence’—‘the animal is in the world like water in water.’ As two different subjects, ‘man and animality are set against one another in a laceration that exposes the whole of divided being.’

‘The negation of nature (of animality) is what separates us from the concrete totality: it inserts us in the abstractions of a human order.’ In rejecting our animality, we define what it is to be human. ‘Man negates himself; he trains himself; he refuses, for example, to give to the satisfaction of his animals needs, that free course on which the animal placed no restraint.’ Favoring a world of useful objects, ‘in the end, the reality principle triumphed over intimacy.’

To the discontinuous being, continuous existence ‘is truly alien to ordinary reflection in that it includes at the same time objective reality and the subject who perceives the objective reality. Neither the object nor the subject can form by themselves a totality that involves the whole.’ Perceiving of totality, ‘which exceeds on all sides the reduced world of thoughts, I know that it is made up of distances and opposites’—but complete understanding fails in that ‘the intellect, with its first impulse it abstracts, separating the object of reflection from the concrete totality of the real.’ In limbo ‘between continuous and discontinuous existence, what is at play is the stability of self-consciousness, and thus of selfhood.’

The reality of discontinuous existence—the real order—‘does not so much reject the negation of life that is death as it rejects the affirmation of intimate life, whose measureless violence is a danger to the stability of things.’ The real order ‘creates the possibility for stability. It is the realm in which the self wants to survive and be a center of meaning.’

For human beings, such meaning is only possible through stability. ‘Something is meaningful if it has stability, if it becomes like a gravitational center that draws other objects towards it. Such a thing is impossible in the continuous existence, since there is no center but only a movement of forces.’ Through work—a serious relation with the real order—human beings accumulate and ‘strive to master the exuberant energies to create something stable and meaningful.’

Engaged by the world around us, we undertake a methodical survey of our surroundings. ‘In science the scientist himself becomes an object exterior to the subject, able to think objectively (he could not do this if he had not denied himself as a subject to begin with).’ We can perceive of the whole, but only ‘insofar as its developments reduce it to abstraction, from which the concrete fact remains manifestly distinct.’ (‘The difficulty of making distinct knowledge and the intimate order coincide is due to their contrary modes of existence in time. Divine life is immediate, whereas knowledge is an operation that requires suspension and waiting.’)

The immanence of continuity can never be completely understood; ‘even psychoanalysis is obliged to define it scientifically as that element from the outside which is unassimilable.’ This pursuit of divine knowledge ‘consummates man’s estrangement from himself and realizes, in the case of the scientists, the reduction of all life to the real order. Thus knowledge and activity, developing concurrently without subordinating themselves to one another, finally establish a real, consummate world and humanity, for which the intimate order is represented only through prolonged stammerings.’

Transgression: the sovereign being

‘Man has built up the rational world by his own efforts, but there remains within him an undercurrent of violence. Nature herself is violent, and however reasonable we may grow we may be mastered anew by a violence no longer that of nature but that of a rational being who tries to obey but who succumbs to a stirring within himself which he cannot bring to heel.’

Despite serious work, one’s discontinuous existence is occasionally punctured by moments ‘in which the seriousness of the stable selfhood is broken.’ Continuous existence demands loss (expenditure) from every being—its ‘intimacy is violence, and it is destruction, because it is not compatible with the positing of the separate individual.’ Placed back into the immanence of our continuous existence, ‘it is clear that there is most violence in the abrupt wrench out of discontinuity’—‘there can be no breaking of the order of separate things, no intimacy, without violence.’

In the loss of the real order, ‘in the violence of passions and desires, what appears is the dissolution of a selfhood.’ Continuous existence—the world of intimacy—‘is the limit of clear consciousness; clear consciousness cannot clearly and distinctly know anything concerning intimacy.’ Without consciousness or selfhood, ‘man is no longer anything but a part of being, and his life, engaged in the game of creation and destruction that goes beyond it, appears as a degraded particle lacking reality.’

‘It seems to me that the totality of what is (the universe) swallows me, I can’t distinguish myself from it; nothing remains, except this or that, which are less meaningful than this nothing. In a sense it is unbearable and I seem to be dying. It is at this cost, no doubt, that I am no longer myself, but an infinity in which I am lost…’

The loss of selfhood—akin to the feeling of death—‘is precisely what evinces the isolated, individual character of anguish. There can be anguish only from a personal, particular point of view that is radically opposed to the general point of view.’ Each being that lives is ‘afraid of death as soon as he enters the system of projects that is the order of things. Death disturbs the order of things and the order of things holds us.’ The real order is sterile and safe, but ‘the divine world is contagious and its contagion is dangerous.’

The danger of losing one’s selfhood—even one’s life—is not completely avoided. ‘On the contrary, it is the object of a strong unconscious attraction.’ As discontinuous beings, we are ‘individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity.’ What we desire most is not ‘for satisfaction of the self, but for the breaking apart of limits … to lose oneself in the chaotic energies of life.’

Acéphale, a secret society founded by Bataille

Eros, for instance—the pursuit of a pleasure ‘so closely connected with ruination that we have named the moment of its paroxysm la petite mort’—creates for the discontinuous being ‘a feeling of profound continuity,’ a ‘disequilibrium in which the being consciously calls his own existence in question.’ Unconsciously undermining one’s stable existence, ‘desire demands the greatest possible loss.’

In desire ‘what is sought is the transgression of limits, and thus the death of selfhood.’ The subject ‘breaks away from all restraints, where the categories of good and evil, of pleasure and pain, are infinitely surpassed’ and escapes into a ‘different world where objects are on the same plane as the subject, where they form, together with the subject, a sovereign totality which is not divided by any abstraction and is commensurate with the entire universe.’ As the stable selfhood dissolves into the immanence of continuity, the world of things is consumed by intimacy—‘The destruction of the subject as an individual is in fact implied in the destruction of the object as such.’

The sovereign subject is the one who, facing annihilation, ‘loses himself deliberately’ without concern ‘each time simple death is revealed to dread.’ There is no anguish, for ‘anguish is meaningless for someone who overflows with life, and for life as a whole, which is an overflowing by its very nature.’ In embracing nothingness—the limitation of being—‘sovereignty designates the movement of free and internally wrenching violence that animates the whole, dissolves into tears, into ecstasy and into bursts of laughter, and reveals the impossible in laughter, ecstasy, or tears.’

There is a law given in nature ‘so simple as to defy ignorance. According to this law, life is effusion; it is contrary to equilibrium, to stability. It is the tumultuous movement that bursts forth and consumes itself. Its perpetual explosion is possible on one condition: that the spent organisms give way to new ones.’ Death annihilates the limited being, but ‘leaves intact the general continuity of existence.’

For animals, subjects who embrace their intimacy, life and death are not seen as separate. ‘Death is nothing in immanence, but because it is nothing, a being is never truly separated from it … death has no meaning, because there is no difference between it and life.’ When one animal is killed by another, ‘this continuity is not called into question, but rather the identity of desires of two beings set one against the other in mortal combat.’ For humans, subjects who negate their animality, ‘death reveals life in its plenitude and dissolves the real order’—death provides a closure to discontinuous existence. ‘The death that delivers me from the world that kills me has enclosed this real world in the unreality of the me that dies.’ As the source of discontinuity, ‘continuity is independent of death and is even proved by death.

Death is ‘at once the source and the repulsive condition of life.’ Present in life’s genesis, ‘sperm and ovum are to begin with discontinuous entities, but they unite, and consequently a continuity comes into existence between them to form a new entity from the death and disappearance of the separate beings.’ Even in life’s exodus, death is a ‘putrefaction inevitably full of life: would there be a young generation if the cemeteries did not fill up to make room for it?’ The death of a loved one is a tragedy for those who live, but ‘the splendors that anguish and death command don’t mean anything different than the most beautiful flowers and the strongest upwellings of spring vigor. They don’t sunder death from a youth often rich in anguish, but rich through an excess of blood.’

Economy: the pursuit of being

From birth to death, the depth and breadth of human behavior ‘taken as a whole is usually studied as if it were a matter of an isolatable system of operation.’ The conscious being, unable to understand existence in its totality, ‘reduces operations, in science as in life, to an entity based on typical particular systems (organisms or enterprises). Economic activity, considered as a whole, is conceived in terms of particular operations with limited ends.’

In this view, formulated as a principle of utility, energy is ‘to be accumulated for a purpose’ and consumed as one is ‘engaged in processes of expenditure.’ Utility, on one hand, ‘is limited to acquisition (in practice, to production) and to the conservation of goods; on the other, it is limited to reproduction and to the conservation of human life.’

Economics, in studying how decisions are made, concerns itself with the processes of consumption—productive expenditure, or ‘the use of the minimum necessary for the conservation of life’—and of ‘production and acquisition that are opposed to it.’ Holding rational self-interest as the foundation of human behavior, ‘classical economics imagined that primitive exchange occurred in the form of barter.’ However, writes anthropologist David Graeber, ‘for there to be even a discipline called “economics,” a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes, or cloth for spears, it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death.’

The ceremony of potlatch, practiced by indegenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest, is the ‘solemn destruction of riches’ in which rival chieftains ‘break their canoes to pieces,’ ‘slaughter highly valuable dog teams,’ and ‘cut the throats of slaves.’ To describe this ritual in economic terms would be impossible ‘if by economy one understood a conventional set of human activities […] There would be no potlatch if, in a general sense, the ultimate problem concerned the acquisition and not the dissipation of useful wealth.’

‘It is necessary at this point to note a dual origin of moral judgments. In former times value was given to unproductive glory, whereas in our day it is measured in terms of production: Precedence is given to energy acquisition of energy expenditure.’ The logic of stable, discontinuous existence—and of Western civilization—is one of self-preservation, ‘the assumption that life is the life of the self.’

Civilization ‘recognizes the right to acquire, to conserve, and to consume rationally, but it excludes in principle nonproductive expenditure’—writes Nietzsche, ‘the very essence of all civilization is to produce a tame and civilized animal, a domesticated animal, from man.’ To affirm that waste is not only acceptable—but necessary—‘is to go against judgments that form the basis of a rational economy.’ Understanding the squander of potlatch ‘requires thinking on a level with a play of forces that runs counter to ordinary calculations […] a reversal of thinking – and of ethics.

Classical economics is restricted in its ability to capture the full range of human activity—‘limited to the pursuit of profit are isolated or limited problems.’ ‘Should we not, given the constant development of economic forces, pose the general problems that are linked to the movement of energy on the globe?’

The notion of a general economy—placing ‘the system of human production and consumption within a much larger framework’—is a perspective in which ‘the “expenditure” (the “consumption”) of wealth, rather than production, is the primary object.’ What a general economy defines first ‘is the explosive character of this world’: a reading of society ‘from which a human sacrifice, the construction of a church or the gift of a jewel were no less interesting than the sale of wheat.’

The nonproductive expenditures of society—‘luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts […]—all these represent activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, have no end beyond themselves.’ As with potlatch, ‘one would not arrive at the real cause in this instance if one did not first perceive the general law of economy: on the whole a society always produces more than is necessary for its survival; it has a surplus at its disposal. It is precisely the use it makes of this surplus that determines it: The surplus is the cause of the agitation, of the structural changes and of the entire history of society.’

‘In the universe as a whole, energy is available without limit, but on the human scale which is ours, we are led to take account of the quantity of energy we have at our disposal. We do this spontaneously, but in return we should recognize the need to consider another fact: we have quantities of energy that we are obliged to spend in any case.

Engaged in serious work, we patiently accumulate energy and resources, hoping to create a stable existence and withstand the violence of continuity. However, in that continuous existence demands loss—that every being dispose of its surplus—its violence is inescapable. ‘Thus this surplus is always an accursed share, because it is a remainder—and a reminder—of the fact that life is overflowing, and not to be contained within limited existences.’ Eschewing civility, ‘we are constantly tempted to abandon work, patience and the slow accumulation of resources for a contrary movement, where suddenly we squander the accumulated riches, where we waste and lose as much as we can.’

‘The truth is that we have no real happiness except by spending to no purpose, and we always want to be sure of the uselessness of our expenditure, to feel as far away as possible from a serious world, where the increase of resources is the rule.’ ‘If we are in search of an object of possession, then we can only propose to look for things, since only things are within the province of activity and the search always commits us to activity.’ ‘Where we think we have caught hold of the Grail, we have only grasped a thing, and what is left in our hands is only a cooking pot… Man’s current quest does not differ from those of Galahad or Calvin either in its object or in the disappointment that comes once the object is found.’

‘In the immediacy of the animal impulse, the object of desire is already given’, but the serious being ‘will only catch hold of things and will take the shadow which they are for the prey he was hunting.’ If this is the case, ‘how can man find himself – or regain himself – seeing that the action to which the search commits him in one way or another is precisely what estranges him from himself?’

‘Man is everlastingly in search of an object outside himself but this object answers the innerness of the desire.’ It is ‘first known by the subject as other, as different,’ but ‘it cannot prevent us from seeing that desire has the desirable as its object.’ The desire of the other ‘cannot be defined in a precise way. In its form it is always an arbitrary conception of the mind.’ ‘The other’s desire is desirable insofar as it is not known as a profane object is, from the outside.’ To the serious being, the other’s desire ‘has the meaning of delight, and this object, whatever one might say of it, is not inaccessible’—to possess it, however, ‘it must no longer exist for itself but for the other’s desire.’

Sovereignty holds the answer to ‘the desire that man always had to find himself, to regain an intimacy that was always strangely lost.’ Through transgression—such as Eros or religious devotion, whose ‘experience reveals the absence of any object’—and the loss of selfhood it entails, ‘the real order is subordinated to the search for lost intimacy.’ Each individual differs ‘in their ability to sustain great losses of energy or money – or serious threats of death,’ but the sovereign individual is the one who can embrace this loss. ‘I know that mystics only spend apparently small amounts of energy in their devotional demonstrations. But we would be mistaken not to take them at their word: their life is aflame and they consume it.’

‘In the embrace the object of desire is always the totality of being, just as it is the object of religion or art, the totality in which we lose ourselves.’ In Eros and all forms of transgression, ‘the object gives the subject what it lacks in order to feel replete with the totality of being, so that at last it no longer lacks anything.’ To possess such object ‘does not imply death, but […] a total blending of two beings, a continuity between two discontinuous creatures.’ ‘At the most intense moment of fusion, the pure blaze of light, like a sudden flash, illuminates the immense field of possibility, on which these lovers are subtilized, annihilated, submissive in their excitement to a rarefaction which they desired.’

Sovereignty is a question ‘of arriving at the moment when consciousness will cease to be a consciousness of something; in other words, […] a consciousness that henceforth has nothing as its object’—an object whose desire is the embrace of non-being, and whose possession ‘restores us, not to nature (which is itself, if it is not reintegrated, only a detached part), but rather to the totality in which man has his share by losing himself.

Works cited

Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share, Volume I. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, NY: Zone Books, 1991.

— The Accursed Share, Volumes II and III. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, NY: Zone Books, 1993.

— Erotism. Translated by Mary Dalwood. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1986.

— On Nietzsche. Translated by Stuart Kendall. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2015.

— Theory of Religion. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, NY: Zone Books, 1992.

— Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Translated and edited by Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2014.

Minguy, Thomas. “Erotic Exuberance: Bataille’s Notion of Eroticism.” PhænEx 12, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2017): 34-52.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Michael A. Scarpitti. London, England: Penguin Books, 2013.

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