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French writer and critic Georges Bataille (18971962) remains a controversial figure within French intellectual life. While he exerted an undoubted influence on many later thinkers, such as Jean Baudrillard, his often disturbing prose has led many to question his sanity. Yet the images of horror and obscenity in Batailles writing play a crucial role as strategies of transgression within a world dominated by social norms and established hierarchies. Bataille seeks to untie such hierarchies and to expose them as fictions. He indulges in a form of counter-intuitive writing, which attempts to move beyond our inherited understanding of the world. Thus in his famous example of the solar-anus, Bataille presents an image of the sun excreting light. The sun and excrement both stand for creation and creativity. Too much sun only blinds the viewer. Architecture enters Batailles field of interest at both a metaphoric and a literal level. Architecture for Bataille allows for the possibility of metaphor, and forms such as the pyramid and the labyrinth are employed as metaphors for social structuration. On a second level, the hierarchies and interconnections of society can be seen to be encoded within the built environment. Architecture therefore serves as a literal manifestation of social structuration which cements the existing order. Bataille, as a theorist of transgression intent on overturning accepted norms, would have been opposed to whatever might propagate these norms. Bataille can therefore be read as a theorist against architecture. In Architecture, one of three entries for the incomplete Documents dictionary, Bataille echoes some of the themes of an early essay, Notre-Dame de Rheims, where he had described the physical fabric of the cathedral as the embodiment of Christian values. In addition to being a manifestation of social values, architecture may condition social behaviour. Not only is architecture the expression of the very soul of societies, but it also has the authority to command and prohibit. The Slaughterhouse and The Museum are the two further entries by Bataille. They give a more representative sample of the main body of his work. The slaughterhouse is the site of exclusion and the museum is the site of attraction. Yet for Bataille they are related. The slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a boat with cholera aboard, but this is only because humans have lost touch with the notion of sacrifice. The museum is linked to the slaughterhouse, in that the palace of the Louvre was only turned into a museum after the slaughter of the French royalty. The origin of the modern museum, Bataille observes, would thus be linked to the development of the guillotine. ARCHITECTURE Architecture is the expression of the very being of societies, in the same way that human physiognomy is the expression of the being of individuals. However, it is more to the physiognomies of official characters (prelates, magistrates, admirals) that this comparison

Rethinking Architecture


must be referred. In practice, only the ideal being of society, that which orders and prohibits with authority, expresses itself in what are architectural compositions in the strict sense of the term. Thus, the great monuments are raised up like dams, pitting the logic of majesty and authority against all the shady elements: it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak and impose silence on the multitudes. It is obvious, actually, that monuments inspire socially acceptable behaviour, and often a very real fear. The storming of the Bastille is symbolic of this state of affairs: it is difficult to explain this impulse of the mob other than by the animosity the people hold against the monuments which are their true masters. Moreover, every time that architectural composition turns up somewhere other than in monuments, whether it is in physiognomy, costume, magic or painting, the predominant taste for authority, whether human or divine, can be inferred. The great compositions of certain painters express the will to restrict spirit to an official ideal. The disappearance of academic construction in painting, on the other hand, leaves the way open for expression (even going as far as exaltation) of psychological processes that are most incompatible with social stability. It is this, for the most part, that explains the intense reactions provoked in the last half century by the progressive transformation of painting, which had, until then, been characterized by a sort of concealed architectural skeleton. It is clear, furthermore, that the mathematical regulation set in stone is nothing other than the culmination of an evolution of earthly forms, whose direction is given, in the biological order, by the transition from simian to human form, with this last presenting all the components of architecture. Men seem to represent only an intermediary stage in the morphological process that goes from apes to great edifices. Forms have become ever more static, ever more dominant. Moreover, the human order is bound up from the start with the architectural order, which is nothing but a development of the former. Such that if you attack architecture, whose monumental productions are now the true masters all across the land, gathering the servile multitudes in their shadow, enforcing admiration and astonishment, order and constraint, you are in some ways attacking man. A whole worldly activity, without doubt the most brilliant in the intellectual order, currently tends in this direction, denouncing the inadequacy of human predominance: thus, strange though it may seem, when it is a question of a creature as elegant as the human being, a way opensas indicated by the painterstowards a bestial monstrousness; as if there were no other possibility for escape from the architectural galley. SLAUGHTERHOUSE The slaughterhouse emerges from religion insofar as the temples of times past (not to mention the Hindu temples of today) had a dual purpose, being used for both supplication and slaughter. From this, without doubt (and this much can be adjudged from the chaotic appearance of the abattoirs of today), comes the startling coincidence of mythological mysteries with the lugubrious grandeur that characterizes the places where blood flows. It is curious to see an aching regret being expressed in America: W.B.Seabrook finds that current customs are insipid, remarking that the blood of sacrifice is not mixed in with cocktails.1 Meanwhile, today, the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a boat carrying cholera. In fact, the victims of this curse are not butchers or animals, but the

Georges Bataille


good people themselves, who, through this, are only able to bear their own ugliness, an ugliness that is effectively an answer to an unhealthy need for cleanliness, for a bilious small-mindedness and for boredom. The curse (which terrifies only those who utter it) leads them to vegetate as far as possible from the slaughterhouses. They exile themselves, by way of antidote, in an amorphous world, where there is no longer anything terrible, and where, enduring the ineradicable obsession with ignominy, they are reduced to eating cheese. NOTE
1W.B.Seabrook, The Magic Island, London: Marlowe & Co., 1989.

MUSEUM According to the Grande Encyclopdie, the first museum in the modern sense of the word (that is, the first public collection) would have been founded in France by the Convention, on 27 July 1793. The origin of the modern museum would thus be linked to the development of the guillotine. However, Oxfords Ashmolean Museum, belonging to the University, and founded at the end of the seventeenth century, was already a public collection. Museums have clearly developed beyond even the most optimistic hopes of the founders. It is not just that the museums of the world, as a whole, today represent a colossal accumulation of riches, but that all those who visit the museums of the world represent without doubt the most grandiose spectacle of a humanity freed from material concerns, and devoted to contemplation. It should be taken into account that the rooms and art objects form only the container, the content of which is formed by the visitors. It is this content that distinguishes a museum from a private collection. A museum is like the lungs of a cityevery Sunday the crowds flow through the museum like blood, coming out purified and fresh. The paintings are only dead surfaces, and the play, the flashes, the streams of light described by authorized critics occur within the crowd. On Sunday, at five o clock, at the exit of the Louvre, it is interesting to admire the stream of visitors, who are visibly animated by the desire to be totally like the heavenly apparition with which their eyes are still enraptured. Grandville has schematized the containers connections with the content in museums, through an exaggeration (superficially at least) of the links formed provisionally between visitors and visited. Similarly, when a native of the Ivory Coast places some polished stone axes from the neolithic period into a receptacle full of water, bathes in the receptacle, and offers fowl to what he believes to be thunderstones (fallen from the sky in a crack of thunder), he merely prefigures the attitude of enthusiasm and of profound communion with the objects that characterizes the visitor of the modern museum. The museum is the colossal mirror in which man finally contemplates himself in every aspect, finds himself literally admirable, and abandons himself to the ecstasy expressed in all the art reviews.