Bataille's Nature of Surplus

It is difficult to proscribe the intent of moralizing when one reads Bataille.

In what becomes, at first glance, an investigation of notions of excess, a constantly doubling and re-doubling of nature, of economies, of states-of-being to degrees which demand recognition, Bataille proposes the “accursed share,” that thing which exists as “surplus,” and illustrates how this excess has traditionally been spent – on luxuries and war.

What if, asks Bataille, this surplus could be spent on other things? This is, after all, how nature deals with its overabundance of excess energy – in the form of larger and more leafs, the tiger who finds himself at the “summit” of the “field of slaughter,” the sun.

Yet this is not, in fact, what Bataille really seeks. “I insist on the fact that there is generally no growth but only a luxurious squandering of energy in every form!”

We waste, but it is because waste, the squandering of the excess, is the natural – and only – state of universal being. Thought not always constant, it always is.

And here our attempts to moralize our positions within this system become not only obtuse, but confused. If this is the state of things, the natural process by which life exists, how can squandering – any squandering – be wrong?

Of course, warranting war (at the least) under such rhetoric becomes a dangerous exercise. If we use the idea of war as a point where our accursed share turns from a natural position to an unnatural one (if even those are the right words to use), then we open the door for investigating our own complicity in other forms of unnatural (so to say) expenditure.

Bataille is clear about this possibility when he talks of “burdensome forms of life.” Yet we still teeter on the line. “Eating, Death and Sexual Reproduction” are “The Three Luxuries of Nature.” It isn’t until we hit the wall of “Extension Through Labor and Technology, and the Luxury of Man” that the excess takes a turn for the worst.

It is at the beginning of industrialization that Bataille sees our hands grow busier. For the first time in history we not only used the excess energy that was ours due to the position of the earth relative to the sun, but we began to produce an excess. At this point it was only inevitable that not only could we not use what we had to begin with, and that it was our lot to devise ways of using that excess, but that those ways would in their turn produced even more. An exponentially increasing function became multiplied boundlessly.

What options are left for a people who are no longer concerned with “develop[ing] the productive forces,” and seek only to “spend their products sumptuously”?

As much as incorporating the evidence of world war would further illustrate the point, it almost seems an act in regression. A better point of entry might well be the current state of “productive forces” within the United States.

We have (and I doubt this is refutable) become the penultimate (dare I say, a macabre harmfully out-of-control incarnation of the tiger?) spenders of our excess to the point, as Bataille states, of no longer concerning ourselves with production. There is a delicate balance here which needs to be addressed.

Much as The Marshall Plan sought to ameliorate the post-War European problematic of importation without exportation (or any sort of trade, really), the United States is becoming dangerously close to finding itself in a similar situation. We are no longer producers – we are, quite simply, consumers.

Where does this conundrum fit within the rhetoric of Bataille?

That our accursed share, our excess energy must still be spent, is clear. But what happens when we no longer use that excess toward consumption of luxury? What happens when we no longer use that excess toward Marshall-esque global endeavors (would not the AIDS pandemic in Africa be the most reasonable place to start, with a potlatch-like donation of drugs?)?

Only two possibilities (so it seems, as always) exist: war (which, as we have seen, is still viewed by many as the most viable use of the excess), or the use of our excess toward the further consumption and spending of the excess of others.

Just as the age of industrialization marked the beginning of an increased period of excess (or, the production of an excess which had to be dealt with – an excess of excess), we have managed to find a way to even further our levels of excess while at the same time loose viable alternatives to naturally spending it, while at the same time adding to the excess (via production) of the other nations of the world, while at the same time coming closer to the possibility of war as the only outlet, while at the same time actualizing the end of this society.

As stated earlier, it is difficult to keep oneself from moralizing the situation. So much of the idea of the accursed share comes from “the circulation of energy at this point in the universe,” so much of it seems our natural lot. That it is our hands which have engaged our hands further points to a self-created position – our lot is our fault.

But at a point, and this is a point which has yet to be reached, moralizing (and with it, acceptance and blame) must be reduced to the same terms which the tiger seems to understand. This is what it is, and it is where we go from here that matters most.