bttm iX., cheg6 d'un coun sur Hegel...

Paris 6 December 1937

George Bataille

Translated by Nicola Fisher

EDITORIAL NOTE: To the best of our knowledge this is the first UK translation' of the following text, a crucial document for the development of Hegelian, Marxist, existentialist and post-structuralist thought. We issue it here with the permission of Gallimard, publishers of Bataille's Q e u v r e ~ For further translated material from Bataille, covering the same . period as the 'Letter', see his Yisions of F x ~ e s s : S a t e d W r ~ m 1 1 9 9 7 - 1 9 a (Manchester University Press 1985, reviewed in Common Sense no. 3).

m.

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The 'X' of Bataille's title is Alexandre Kojdve, a Russian emigre and reputed Stalinist who later became a bureaucrat in the EEC. Between 1933 and 1939 he taught a course on Hegel's of at the Sorbonne, and to the his lectures published in 1947 under the title of M - were attended at various times by, amongst others, Q u e n e z later edited them for publication), Lacan, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre. Even Hannah Arendt is said to have dropped in as a tourist, and Walter Benjamin lurks somewhere on their fringe.

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A central theme of KojBve's Hegel-interpretation is that of the which Hegel m Kojdve) believed to have been inaugurated with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Kojdve, unlike numerous more recent commentators, takes this apocalyptic theme seriously and thus finds himself attempting to imagine what the character of a post-historical 'work' world might be. His first-off version is to envisage it as a condition in which desire is definitively satisfied, all histor.ical 'work' having been already done.

fights about recognition as in Hegel's MasterISlave dialectic . as when we expend resources economically in order to maximize benefits: this is "workmanlike" expenditure) or unproductive (as when we throw resources unconstrainediy towards our pleasure or our honour as our gods: Bataille's example is primitive potlatch). for in the second edition of he revised his view that post-history to the qaadiag of his 1 entails the annihilation of Man. is a central concern of Bataille's writings from beginning to end. in order to obviate the possibility of a regression from post-history into history. far from abolishing this humanity. i. Kojdve sets out to clarify this notion of formal recognition through a series of Japanese examples: 'the Noh theatre. atlvltJL. always -sse~. humanity has forever. Expenditure may be either productive (re-serving and con-serving. the art of bouquets of flowers'.But.the end of history need not equate with the annihilation of Man (of negativity). - The theme of a negativity. how could recognition devolve from questions of substance into question of form alone? But. intervenes. Once all historical work has been done a scoring-through of the sacred is the mirror-image of humanity which. . Throughout h w . a -1t6 (historically) to do. the resource left to negativity without employment.e...and this is the central argument of his he urges that we can perfectly well imagine an unworkmanlike 'Letter' . breaks into the space of the sacred. However fanciful his examples. . Besides 'desire'.. to reclaim as its own. i. in his own phrase. had an impact upon Kojdve. an end of history. it is as though Kojdve is struggling to integrate Bataille's .of .h i s t o r y nothing but plays of recognition are at stake. perhaps. the ceremony of tea. confronts it with itself and brings it into its own. otherwise. his second-edition point is that since 'Man' is not just a desiring but also a recognitive being. and continually. Transgression is. If humanity equates with negativity. In the first place he stresses that Kojdve had construed desire as . a category he construes as including both the highest (as in the Catholic mass which devours God's body) and the lowest (as when children are forbidden to play with shit): the sacred is everything that is taboo. of man or. It is to this second sense of expenditure that Bataille reserves the term "expenditure" Such expenditure. To be sure his conception of post-historical existence still turns upon the idea of an end of historical since. properly so-called. according to Bataille. conception of m v 1 t 6 The above comments are intended only to contextualise the 'Letter' of Bataille translated below. sans BmplPl which has nothing more negativity. eloquent term. Expenditure. in other words. as a reaching beyond oneself to something that one is not-yet. And then in the second place . history for Kojdve entails a 'the definitive annihilation of Man properly so-called'. "without employment" or "out of work". In case the theme of an end of history . or humanity. It is at this point that Bataille. arguably Kojdve's most brilliant pupil. a further central theme in Kojdve's Hegel-reading is that of 'recognition': and now. it is recognition (or mutual acknowledgement between human individuals) which governs post-history's play. into his own thought. since he has previously defined 'man' desire.. . by breaking through into the sacred in Bataille's whether through ritual or childishness. post-historically.turned upon points of substance. it follows that an end of . but during m . sansDhrase. But what form might such a negativity take? Bataille thinks this question through by discussing what he terms s p e n d i t u r e .e. nonetheless. All of this.

One way of focussing the issue upon which Bataille and Kojeve join combat is to ask: minus a summoning of the end of a history which (as Hegel reported) amounts to chariots riding roughshod over skulls. The question you put to me comes back to knowing whether or not I am insignificant. e. my own experience. ' . as the way I see myself varies.. (I was ill disposed to accept this and. I wish Hegel had foreseen that possibility: at least didn't he put it at the imagine that my life outcome of the processes he described. I - or its miscarriage. I don't connect it with the possibility of vanity. and it can happen that I forget. I often asked myself that.like an exceptional difficulty in getting myself "recognized" (in the same way others are "recognized") have led me seriously but cheerfully to the hypothesis of an irrevocable insignificance. where can we imagine we should go? MY DEAR X. Such as it may be. in comparing my life to that of more remarkable men. Some facts . the question then arises as to whether the negativity of one who has "nothing more to do" disappears or is subsumed under "negativity out of work" .) If the act (the "doing of things") is - as Hegel says - negativity. I acknowledge (as a plausible supposition) that as of now history is completed (near to a final outcome). Bloch and Benjamin. Personally I can only decide on the one sense. This doesn't trouble me.. as it were. only resigned myself to it after it was forced upon me. Yet I wouldn't be human if I .apocalypse . In trying me you have helped me express myself with a greater precision.g. as you have seen. in a life full of hardship. could "recognize" a blacked out peak. haunted by a negative response.should seem exorbitant it is worth pointing to other theorists. Beyond this. better still. My way of seeing things has always been other than yours . that it could be mediocre. the open wound my life is - this alone constitutes the refutation of Hegel's closed system. who dwelt on the same figure of thought around the same time.. has brought me to think that I had nothing more "to do". I have often told myseif that at the peak of existence there couldn't be anything negligible: nobody.. my own being exactly this "negativity out of work" (I could not define myself better).

the worst response is to closure. is negativity "recognized" as such. bitter and vindictive: thus my negativity has be retrieved). in such cases where that response is prolonged. the negativity which belongs to me didn't give up work until that moment when there wasn't any work: the negativity of a man who has nothing more to do. for negativity has no issue. and that's all it is: finding myself before you I have no other justification for myself than an animal caught growling in a trap. This fact is not just the property of art: better than a tragedy. But this need cannot be indefinitely duped by the delusions of art. if it is true that it does become something. Quite the opposite . My saying this must make you think a misfortune has befallen. Whatever ill he suffers from this. and that which remains possible at the end. It shows that negativity can be objectified. and only affirmation is "recognized". In what concerns me. But the fact - which seems incontestable - that a negativity turned away from action would express itself as work of art is no less charged with meaning given the possibilities remaining to me. as well as comically negligible.a solution so convenient that no one waited till the final crisis to adopt it. He has understood that his need to take action is left no further work. the sense of sin no longer has a hold over him. forms not at the outset in myself but in others. our man knows that henceforth nothing can be avoided. Also isn't there a fundamental difference between the objectification of negativity. not that of a man who prefers to talk. Most often negativity without power becomes the work of art: this metamorphosis whose consequences are real usually responds ill in the situation brought about by the culmination of history (or the thought of that culmination). But since this solution has already been discovered. or. . In truth its no longer a matter of misfortune or life. what religion makes of negativity is an object of contemplation. I am there in the forms which it engenders. when evasion is no longer possible (when the hour of truth arrives). He is in front of his own negativity as if before a wall. not finding an answer to the question of who he is in the work of art. can only become the man of "negativity recognized".the man of "negativity out of work". A work of art responds by evasion. Yet neither in the work of art. nor in the emotional elements of religion. In effect. only what has become of "negativity out of work". it never responds to a particular situation.just accepted it without having tried not to sink beneath it (in accepting I would have too much chance of becoming. such as was known in the past. or a painting. sooner or later his recognition takes place: as negativity empty of content.it is introduced into a system which annuls its. its effects have already been exhausted: the man of "negativity out of work" hardly takes any notice of it: given that our man is the consequence of what preceded him. The temptation still arises to reject this negativity as sin .