Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Glass Half-Full


Excerpt from a paper by David L. R. Kosalka on Georges Bataille and the Notion of Gift

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. But this surplus has more than one outlet, the most common of which is growth. And growth itself has many forms, each one of which eventually comes up against some limit. Thwarted demographic growth becomes military; it is forced to engage in conquest. Once the military limits is reached, the surplus has the sumptuary forms of religion as an outlet, along with games and spectacles that derive therefrom, or personal luxury.

Moreover, therein lies his primary challenge to traditional economics. In contrast to the classical notion of scarcity driving economic activity, he proposed a law of surplus. While classical economic thought emphasized the need for an efficient utilization of resources to fight the ravages of the scarcity of economic resources, he analyzed history in terms of the expenditure of excess energy and production. This put into question many of the classical historical assumptions, those of war as the competition among nations over scarce economic resources or that of the state as a Hobbesian limit placed on the competition of individuals fighting over those same resources. The impact of this refutation of classical economics cannot be underestimated.

The way a given society chooses to annihilate the excess energy it produces is of the utmost importance. It is around this expenditure that a culture is defined. Whether a society is aggressive, imperialistic, or non-violent all depends on the form the society gives to expenditure of surplus energy. Each society had a defining choice on how it would expend excess resources, building its values on an economically useless expenditure. The artifices of religion and art all form around this essential cultural activity, acting as recipients and modes of expression of the basic embodiment of surplus. Be it a church with its corps of people removed from economic activity, or a frugal dedication of energy in terms of a military structure dedicated to expansion, they all have their origins in the same need to find a channel for excess production.

It is within this general economic context, then, that Bataille begins an explication of the gift which first of all fundamentally related to a type of sacrifice. To understand Bataille’s notion of the gift, however, it is first necessary to see his conception of sacrifice and then how that relates to the gift. In a rational economy goods and production are either designated for meeting the general life needs of the populace or for the process of growth. All production then is designed with the future in mind, as part of a process of growth and expansion in which all objects are pre-ordained and understood as means towards the end, of the future telos of the economy. “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.” In the ritual destruction of material in the form of sacrifice, however, these goods are removed from that process, from that orientation towards a future telos. They are no longer seen as objects directed towards the use of the overall cultural system, but are seen in and of themselves, free of utilitarian domination.

Symbolically, along with the object itself, the one who offers the sacrifice is seen as removed from the demands of utility and consequently as possibly a sovereign subject. Those who offer the sacrifice are not completely dominated by the needs of the system or the process, but, rather, can exist free of their constraints in the moment of the sacrifice. Bataille examines these notions in light of Aztec sacrifice. While to modern sensibilities the immense level of human sacrifice in that culture seems an abomination, it represents the nature of sacrifice. In the words of Bataille, “The victim is surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth. And he can only be withdrawn from it in order to be consumed profitlessly, and therefore utterly destroyed. Once chosen, he is the accursed share, destined for violent consumption. But the curse tears him away from the order of things; it gives him a recognizable figure, which now radiates intimacy, anguish, the profundity of living beings.”

Those captured in war were sacrificed in place of the individuals of a particular culture. An immense symbolic tie was created between the victim of the sacrifice and those for whom the victim was a substitute. An immense level of intimacy is infused in the relationship with the victim. The victim is treated like a son, a daughter, or even as a king. By killing the associated victim, that victim is removed from the realm of the object. He can no longer be used for anything, and becomes simply itself, a sovereign subject in its absolute uselessness, and by association so is the one who offers the sacrifice. They enter the realm of the sacred, of the free subject who is not subordinated to the demands of useful production. “The world of the subject is the night: that changeable, infinitely suspect night which, in the sleep of reason, produces monsters. I submit that madness itself gives a rarefied idea of the free ‘subject,’ unsubordinated to the ‘real’ order and occupied only with the present.”

The notion of the gift in Bataille is closely related to that of sacrifice. Bataille basis his comments on the nature of the gift on the essay by Marcel Mauss, first published as “Essai sur le Don” in 1950 . Marcel Mauss (1872 – 1950) was the literal heir of Emile Durkheim and deeply involved in Durkheim’s project of sociology. While substantially a work of objective anthropology, the impact of the work, as Mauss makes clear in comments in his conclusion, was to be a critique, indeed an alternative vision, to utilitarian visions of capitalism. As Mary Douglas has argued in her foreword to the translation of the essay, “The Essay on the Gift was part of an organized onslaught on contemporary political theory, a plank in the platform against utilitarianism.”

At the heart of the essay lies a critique of anthropologists’ reading of gift-giving as a form of rational economic exchange. He berated anthropologists for imposing on other cultures preconceived models concerning the necessity and universality of economic exchange. Considering the analyses of gift exchange given by many of his contemporaries, Mauss argued that “current economic and judicial history is largely mistaken in this matter. Imbued with modern ideas, it forms a priori ideas of development and follows a so-called necessary logic.” Nevertheless, he found different aims than utilitarian economics had in its considerations of different systems of gift-giving. “Thus one section of humanity, comparatively rich, hardworking, and creating considerable surpluses, has known how to, and still does know how to, exchange things of great value, under different forms and for reasons different from those with which we are familiar.”

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