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Affectivity and the Social Bond

Rethinking Classical Sociology

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Affectivity and the Social Bond
Transcendence, Economy and Violence
in French Social Theory

Tiina Arppe
University of Helsinki, Finland
Tiina Arppe 2014

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be identified as the author of this work.

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Arppe, Tiina.
Affectivity and the social bond : transcendence, economy and violence in French social
theory / by Tiina Arppe.
pages cm. -- (Rethinking classical sociology)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4094-3182-4 (hardback) -- ISBN 978-1-4094-3183-1 (ebook) -- ISBN
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Acknowledgements vii

Introduction 1

1 Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 11

2 mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 55

3 Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 105

4 Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 159

Conclusions  211

Bibliography  229
Index  245
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My interest in French social theory is long-standing and shared by a group of

colleagues, nowadays working mainly in the University of Helsinki but also in
other, completely non-academic settings, with whom Ive had the great fortune
to read and to discuss the important works of the French scene over the years
of this heterogeneous bunch I especially want to mention Elisa Heinmki, Ilpo
Heln, Timo Kaitaro, Turo-Kimmo Lehtonen, Hannu Sivenius, Sami Santanen,
Olli Sinivaara and Pekka Sulkunen, whose insight and erudition have been of great
inspiration along the way. I am particularly indebted to Susanna Lindberg whose
perceptive and thoughtful comments on the critical points of the manuscript helped
me to see my way through when working with the final version of the manuscript.
Of my international colleagues a special thank you is due to Camille Tarot, an
eminent expert on French sociology of religion, whose illuminating remarks and
unending hospitality I have had the privilege of enjoying over the years.
The institutional actors that have made this book possible are The Academy
of Finland which funded the project and allowed me to work for several years
in relative peace a rare luxury in the academic world nowadays and The
Department of Sociology of the University of Helsinki which offered me not only
the working space and the facilities, but also the academic community without
which no research would ever be possible. Of the other, more informal institutional
settings from which this book has greatly benefitted, I would like to mention two:
the Girard study group that assembled during the years 20112012, headed by the
indefatigable Olli Sinivaara, and the Summer School of the Finnish Association of
Researchers, headed by Kirsti Mttnen and Tuomas Nevanlinna for as long as
memory goes one of the last informal settings of the civilized world in which the
researchers of social sciences and humanities can meet, discuss The Fundamental
Questions (the ones that really matter) and have fun all night long during a whole
summer weekend.
I also want to thank my editors Neil Jordan and Aime Feenan from Ashgate
without their patience and diligence, but also their invaluable help in the concrete
copy-editing process, this book would probably never have seen daylight.
The last and the greatest thanks, however, goes to my daughter Kathleen who
must have used every ounce of her creativity and sense of humour to support her
absent-minded mother constantly bent over a book or a computer. No love should
ever be put on such trial. This book is dedicated to her.
This page has been left blank intentionally

Affectivity has become an important issue in sociology and social theory during
recent decades. For example, an entire affective turn has been proclaimed,1
which aims to readdress questions linked to gender, the body and otherness,
the role of affect and emotions in different micro-level interactions as well as
in larger historical transformations. This growing interest in affectivity was
already mirrored in the sociology of emotions, a broad field of related themes
and research agendas that appeared in the European sociology during the 1990s.2
Yet the problem is by no means a novelty in the domain of sociology, quite the
contrary. In fact we might claim that the role of affectivity in human sociality has
been a matter of controversy in sociology since the foundation of the discipline
in nineteenth-century France. Some sort of affective element seems to be needed,
if the association of human beings is to be founded on something other than a
simple rational calculus of utilities, be they individual or collective. At the
same time affectivity seems to be placed in a perilous no-mans land between
several disciplines (biology and psychology most obviously, but also economic
and political theory) from which the emerging sociology wanted to distinguish
itself at all costs the heroic efforts of mile Durkheim in this respect are well
known.3 In other words, affectivity has been the focal point of precisely those
disciplinary tensions from which sociology as an autonomous field once emerged

1 See Clough and Halley 2007 and Clough 2008.

2 See for instance Kemper 1990; Wentworth and Ryan 1994; Barbalet 2002 these
are just few examples of a vast ocean of studies published in the field during the recent
decades. It is not easy to make a clear-cut distinction between the concept of affect,
crystallized in the notion of the affective turn, and that of emotions, conceptualized
in the sociology of emotions partly we seem to be dealing with overlapping problems.
However, should one try to pinpoint a single differentiating feature then one could claim
that there is a certain difference of emphasis, related to the degree of individuation and
of consciousness: whereas the sociology of emotions is more concentrated on the felt
(and in this sense conscious) subjective/individual states of emotion, the proponents of
the affective turn are more interested in a pre-individual bodily forces augmenting or
diminishing a bodys capacity to act (Clough 2008, 1) and the related (biomedical, digital)
technologies enabling the manipulation of these forces.
3 Durkheim, also known as the father of scientific sociology, sought to separate
the newborn discipline most of all from psychology and biology (or rather, the Spencerian
version of evolutionism) by demanding in his The Rules of Sociological Method that social
facts should be explained exclusively by other social facts see Durkheim 2010 [1894],
2 Affectivity and the Social Bond

and which even nowadays characterize the discussion of the problem, albeit under
the more positive label of interdisciplinarity. However, the form that the problem
of affectivity took or the shape in which it was introduced to the emerging field
of sociology also had its roots in the history of modern philosophy and political
Schematically put, in the tradition of modern social and political theory human
affectivity has been regarded from two different angles.4 In its positive form it
has often been denoted by the term sentiment, in its negative form by the term
passion. Whereas the seventeenth century was saturated with passions, so that
every self-respecting philosopher, moralist and physician had a list of harmful
passions that man should avoid,5 the eighteenth century was dominated by the
search of happiness, sentiments and sentimentality.6 Sentiments were the benign
form of affectivity, mediated by reason and generally identified with the good a
paradigmatic example is the Durkheimian theory of collective sentiments, most
visible in his theory of religion7 that constitute the foundation of social cohesion.
By contrast passions were typically considered an alien, as if exterior, force that
subjugates the rational subject and, as such, entails the idea of the passivity of the
soul (or its rational part) this is the paradigmatic Cartesian conception dominated
by a constitutive dualism between the spiritual and the corporeal.8
The same ambiguity between two different types of affectivity is repeated in
modern political theory. The positive bond between men was ultimately based
on sentiment (the postulate of the natural sociability of men, common in the
social contract theories) whereas the relationship between passions and sociality
was mostly seen in a negative manner: the basic motivation for the constitution
of the political society is precisely mens desire to protect themselves from the
destructive consequences of the passionate element equally implicit in their
nature. This is the Hobbesian starting point of the modern political philosophy: in
a hypothetical state of nature, preceding the formation of the political authority
(or Leviathan, the mortal god), men free and equal by their capacities inevitably
end into conflicts and rivalry over the objects of their desires, the result being

4 Needless to say, this is a grossly simplified way of presenting an extremely complex

network of notions denoting different forms of affectivity in the modern philosophical and
political thought on the history of the notions of passion, sentiment and energy on
this field, see for instance Bodei 1997; Mauzi 1960; Delon 1988.
5 See Talon-Hugon 2002, 7.
6 See Mauzi 1960.
7 See Durkheim 1990 [1912].
8 See Descartes 1970 [1649]; Talon-Hugon 2002. It should be noted, however, that
contrary to most of his predecessors and also his followers Descartes considered passions
to be a useful mechanism for the body: they were the only means to get the soul, cut off
from the body, to take an interest in its fate and its well-being. In this sense the function
of passions in Descartes theory was to bridge the gap between the body and the soul and
thereby restore their unity.
Introduction 3

the famous warre of every man against every man.9 The only stable solution to
this chronic state of insecurity is the social contract by which men, urged by fear
and reason, confer their power and strength to one sovereign actor who thereafter
oversees the obedience of laws and punishes violators. Although the social contract
theories propose different solutions as to the identity of the contracting parties and
the nature of the sovereign actor, in the post-Hobbesian tradition the motive for
quitting the state of nature is almost always the insecurity caused by unrestrained
However, this strongly dualistic picture of human affectivity was nuanced
during the following centuries. Already the emergence of psychology as an
autonomous discipline in the seventeenth century altered the Cartesian conception
and the psychology of passions, since no one saw the soul in a similar manner
anymore that is, chained to a body and yet separated from it. The pioneers of
the domain, such as Christian Wolff, John Locke and tienne Bonnot de Condillac
sought to explain the passions starting from the soul, not from the body.11 But at
the same time the problem of regulation got more complicated: if the source of
passions is inside the consciousness itself, from whence does the consciousness
get the necessary force to fight them? Although passions were transferred from
the body to the soul, they still seemed to subjugate the conscious subject and
free will under an alien power. In other words, the split between the conscious/
rational and non-conscious/irrational had not vanished, it had only changed locus,
and was in a certain way institutionalized with the birth of psychoanalysis at the
end of the nineteenth century for Freud ego (das Ich) was no longer a master
in its own house.12 On the other hand, the eighteenth century also exalted the
creative energy of passions, their unrestrained force which was seen as the source
of everything new (a case in point being late-eighteenth and the early-nineteenth
century Romanticism).13 The attempt to regulate human passions thus goes hand
in hand with the exaltation of their violent extravagance, but a consensus is found
in the middle way: although necessary because of the energy they give to the soul,
passions were regarded as an insufficient foundation for the collective life; politics
can only be based on reason.14
Yet there is also another factor behind the demise of Cartesian dualism in
the realm of affectivity, although one might claim that the spirit of Cartesian
scientific anthropology itself paved the way for this change: in the eighteenth
century biology started to replace rationality as the foundation of human thought

9 Hobbes 2010 [1651], 79.

10 The only exception is certainly Jean-Jacques Rousseau for whom man in the state
of nature lives ignorant, but happy and isolated from his fellow beings, and the harmful
passions are only born with the constitution of society see Rousseau 1905a.
11 Talon-Hugon 2002, 253.
12 Freud 1940, 11.
13 See Dlon 1988, 349.
14 See Dlon 1988, 352353.
4 Affectivity and the Social Bond

and action. As a consequence, the spirit was no longer seen as transcending nature,
but rather as emanating from it.15 Although Descartes (together with Hobbes and
Spinoza) already wanted to remove the problem of passions from the ancient
tradition of moral philosophy (where they had been located in the domain of
wisdom) and bring them into the realm of discursive knowledge, this realm
was for him by no means that of the biological.16 The mechanical world view of
the seventeenth century saw the universe of passions rather from the viewpoint
of physics (Descartes, Hobbes) or geometry (Spinoza): like astronomy that had
discovered the order governing the trajectory of meteors, the new astronomers of
passions wanted to reveal the hidden order of perturbations agitating the soul.17
By contrast, the biological approach of the nineteenth century placed all life on
the same continuum, the basis of which was organic and which emphasized the
influence of the environment on living organisms. As a consequence, not only the
theories treating society as a gigantic organism, with its proper states of equilibrium
and disequilibrium, proliferated, but human affectivity was also placed on the same
line with that of other living creatures. For instance the Freudian psychoanalysis
that conceptualized the basis of human affectivity in terms of libidinal energy and
leaned heavily on a theory of instincts of Darwinian inspiration had strong roots
also in biology.18
The last historical point that should be emphasized in this context concerns
the relationship between affectivity and economy. In the Hobbesian tradition of
political theory the regulation of passions was realized through a contract, that
is, by juridical means. However, in the Anglo-Saxon economic theory of the late-
eighteenth century another type of solution to this problem was formulated. This
solution was developed by Adam Smith who, inspired by Mandevilles famous
idea that private vices make the public good, gave one of these vices, namely
greed, which he baptized as interest, the power to channel and thereby to temper

15 Mauzi 1960, 641.

16 In this sense Hobbes materialism which denied to the spirit (the soul) any
specificity was perhaps closer to the biological approach, but his way of understanding
human passions was purely mechanical, not organic: the material processes mechanically
produce the psychological motivations; it is precisely these motivating forces, produced by
the mechanical movements of appetite/aversion or attraction/repulsion (matter in motion)
inside of us, that Hobbes calls passions. See Hobbes 2010 [1651], chapter VI.
17 Talon-Hugon 2002, 14.
18 See for instance Sulloway 1979 and Ellenberger 1970, 236237. Another notable
influence from the natural sciences in this context was the principle of constancy which
dominates the Freudian conception of the economy of the psyche, based on the avoidance
of excessive excitation. As Sulloway points out, the Freudian emphasis on the dynamic,
the instinctual, and, above all, the nonrational in the human behaviour was very much due
to the enormous influence that the Darwinian theory of evolution had on psychoanalysis,
although Freuds earlier work was rather marked by a more mechanical type of biologism
(the neurophysiological model) see Sulloway 1979, 131, 235236 and 267.
Introduction 5

the other more destructive passions.19 In Smiths version one should speak rather
of satisfaction than of regulation in the strict sense of the term, since all the other
passions (in particular the desire for recognition that constitutes the most important
motivating factor in the human psyche for Smith) found in the interest a channel
of expression and in this sense also of satisfaction. The channelization of passions
via interest also implied a certain democratization of the Hobbesian passion
which was essentially the vice of the warlords (the belligerent aristocracy): by
following freely their interests in the market, the merchants but also the common
people contributed to the welfare of all. Interest thus constituted a non-violent and
completely immanent manner of regulating the potentially destructive affective
impulses of man.
This is schematically presented the historical background against which the
problem of affectivity is seen in this study. I will analyse the problem both from
a structural (or thematic) and a historical angle, such as it appears in the works
of four major French social theorists, Auguste Comte, mile Durkheim, Georges
Bataille and Ren Girard. The rationale behind the choice of theorists is likewise
twofold, including both thematic and historical reasons. The first and rather self-
evident reason is that affectivity, whether in the form of instinct, tendency,
sentiment, passion, attraction, repulsion or desire, constitutes a central
element in each theorists way of seeing the nature of the social bond. However,
besides this loose thematic connection there are a number of other, more specific,
points that these theories have in common. First of all, they are all theories about
origin, either in the logical or historical sense of the term: affectivity is first and
foremost invoked as the impulse giving birth to the social bond, and thereafter
as a factor of social integration contributing to its maintenance. However,
each theorist also attempts to combine the immanence of affectivity with some
form of transcendence20 which is, moreover, generally related to the viewpoint

19 See for example Smith 1977 [1776], book I, chapter 2. Unlike the other passions
greed was regarded as a rather monotonous and, therefore, relatively harmless passion
which always led to the same result on the relationship between passion and interests in
Smiths theory, see Hirschmann 1977.
20 This is also the main reason why I have deliberately left out the whole tradition of
mass psychology that emerged in France at the end of the nineteenth century, notably the
theories of Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon both shall be discussed shortly in relation
to Durkheim and Bataille. Apart from the fact that these theories drew from a slightly
different scientific body than the theorists here analysed (notably from the French tradition
of raciology, most famously represented by Paul Brocca, and the Italian criminologists like
Sighle and Lombroso, and the cultural evolutionism dominated by the idea of heredity
in Le Bons case, from the psychological theories of hypnotism and suggestion in Tardes
case), they gave affectivity a completely immanent interpretation that excluded a priori the
idea of a social or, for that matter, any other sort of transcendence. On the French tradition
of mass psychology, see Moscovici 1981; on its historical background, see Muchielli 1998;
an excellent introduction to the whole tradition in France as well as in the United States has
recently been written by Christian Borch (2012).
6 Affectivity and the Social Bond

of regulation: left in its own immediacy or immanence affectivity is seen as a

dangerous and potentially destructive force that can only be held in check by an
exterior force. This constant menace of violence constitutes the third factor present
in all the theories considered, and it logically leads to the fourth theme to which
affectivity is connected, namely a crisis that cannot be resolved with traditional
political means. In other words, affectivity, as indispensable as it seems to be for
both the constitution and the maintenance of the social bond, is in these theories
paradoxically also the most important factor menacing it.
This is where the historical angle becomes important, because the theorists
considered are also situated at the heart of two important historical transformations
concerning the discursive framework in which the problem of affectivity is placed
in social theory. The first one has to do with regulation affectivity, the second
one with its locus or its subject. Whereas the Hobbesian tradition of political
theory had regarded affectivity first and foremost in the framework of regulation,
as a problem concerning the constitution of the political authority, and tried to
solve it by juridical means (the social contract), emerging French sociology
emphasized the role of affectivity in the constitution of the social bond, in other
words, its function as the foundation of human integration, and accordingly
searched for a solution to the problem of regulation in the morphological and
normative structure of society. Moreover, the origin of affectivity itself was no
longer posed in terms of a metaphysical human nature like in the social contract
tradition, but instead seen in the framework of the new discourses that emerged
in biology and psychology: human affectivity was placed on the same organic
continuum with the living nature, and the specific difference located primarily
in the human psychological structure. It is this psychological structure which is
the centre of another transformation that, at the end of the nineteenth century,
positions affectivity not only inside the human psyche, but also in a spot that the
individual cannot control, namely the unconscious.21 This inaccessibility to the
individual consciousness and the ensuing idea of a hidden structure of dominance
constitutes the common point of the sociological theories here analysed and the
psychoanalytic theory born at the end of the nineteenth century. The difference
resides in the alleged subject of this structure for Freudian psychoanalysis, it is
the unconscious located in the individual psyche, for social theorists, a collective
subject the constitution of which varies depending on the theorist, but which for
each of them surpasses the individual.

21 Although Freud in fact excluded affects from the unconscious as such, seeing it
rather as a network of repressed representations, or of mnemonic traces, the symptoms
produced by the repression were first and foremost of an affective nature (anxiety, hysteria,
neurosis etc.). Also the basic dynamics of the psyche especially in Freuds early theories
on hysteria were based on a model in which the inhibition of the conscious discharge led to
a damming up of affects in a portion of the mind inaccessible to consciousness see for
instance Sulloway 1979, 63.
Introduction 7

The differing historical contexts of the theorists obviously also affect the
discursive environment and the theoretical constellations in which the problem
of affectivity is placed in each case and the conceptual tools with which it is
addressed. The danger of asynchronous or disproportionate comparisons seems
difficult to avoid with such glaringly different thinkers as, for instance, Auguste
Comte and Georges Bataille. On the other hand, since the book only deals with
four theorists, any genuine history of ideas seems to be excluded beforehand,
because there simply isnt enough material to allow for the establishment of strong
historical currents of thought. However, the aim of this study is not so much to
demonstrate a solid historical relationship between the theorists in the traditional
sense, that is, by showing in which way each of them has influenced the others,
although there is necessarily a certain amount of this kind of classical historical
analysis included in it as well. Rather, the objective is to trace a line of continuity
between themes, imageries and approaches in order to see how the relationship
between the central concepts has changed in function of the differing historical
and theoretical references, and especially through what sort of forms the pivotal
axis, constituted by the notions of affectivity and of transcendence, has been
articulated in each case. What are the principal domains on which affectivity has
appeared and the instances of transcendence through which it has been mediated
in each theory? What is the ultimate subject of the sociological transcendence and
how is it constituted?
This leads to the three principal hypotheses on which this study is based. First
of all, I claim that the theories here analysed are all influenced by a more general
transformation in the conceptualization of human affectivity that can be placed
approximately in the same period of time, namely the nineteenth century, as the
emergence of the new and extremely influential scientific discourses in economics,
biology and psychology. In consequence, the passions of the seventeenth century
are progressively transformed from an obscure and diabolical power into
objective forces which animate the human psyche (be it individual or collective).
Secondly, although this scientific aspiration is clearly visible, especially in
Comtes and Durkheims way of understanding the specific nature of human
affectivity, the Hobbesian thread is still present in that the problem of affectivity is
posed primarily in the framework of crisis and regulation. Thirdly, although French
sociological theory seems to follow in Hobbes footsteps also in its persistence in
the need of a transcendental instance for the regulation of affectivity, the manner
in which this regulation is realized is also deeply influenced by the economic mode
of discourse in the sense that affectivity is largely seen in terms of forces and
energies to be put into productive use more specifically, to be channelled in a
way which contributes to social integration. It is precisely this combination of
the transcendental and the economic (the immanent) that, I claim, characterizes
a specifically modern sociological approach to human passions, in which the
integration of society is founded on its affective regulation through the social.
The ultimate objective of the book is to reflect not only on the theoretical but
also the political implications of a sociological theory that seeks the foundations
8 Affectivity and the Social Bond

of society in human affectivity: is not this type of strong, emotive bond also open
to dangers always implicit in affectivity? But on the other hand, can a theory
of the social bond do without this accursed part, since we always seem to be
dealing with affectivity when using the very term bond? From the angle of social
theory, the most difficult problem concerns the conditions of an exterior point
or structure which would not be reduced to the immanence of affectivity. This
question is all the more urgent because of the demise of the ancient instances of
transcendence, such as religion that has definitely lost its grip on the soul of the
Western consumer, now driven solely by his endless desires in a universe where all
exterior vantage points seem to have vanished. This basic condition of modernity
has been given varying characterizations in nineteenth-century philosophy and
social theory: simulation,22 Technik,23 homogeneity24 etc. Although the
possibilities of transcendence are at best marginal (that is, opened up only at the
margins of the system), requiring a reflexion on the conditions of possibility of
the modern society itself and rising only from the inside of its organization, it is
on this condition alone that we can ever hope to conceive a turn not a return or
turning back, but another perspective on the possibilities of being (being together,
in particular). In this situation the development of new theoretical openings is
vital not only because of the inner anguish (depression or rage) of the individuals
turned into consuming bodies, but also because the desiring machines, guided
exclusively by the invisible hand of economy (and the horizon of infinity opened
up by technology), are in danger of destroying the conditions for the survival of
human culture on the planet.
Before concluding a short terminological remark is in order: Affectivity
as such does not figure among the historical terms used by any of the theorists
considered; it is a theoretical construction which I have elaborated in order to
grasp the totality of the terms involved. I use affectivity as a generic category
which designates by-and-large the capacity or the disposition, common to all
living creatures, of being affected.25 This means that the notion of affectivity here
utilized is broader than that of emotions or of affects used in the contemporary
sociological discussion: instead of emotions or affects the classics talked about
passions, energies, effervescence, impulses and desires. If one should
want seek a common denominator for these categories then it would perhaps be the
emphasis laid on the non-voluntary, mostly preconscious and above all collective

22 See for instance Baudrillard 1981 and 1983.

23 See for instance Heidegger 2000 [1954].
24 See for instance Bataille 1970f [1933].
25 The French dictionary Le Trsor de la langue franaise gives among other possible
meanings the following definition to the term affectivit: Facult dprouver, en rponse
une action quelconque sur notre sensibilit, des sentiments ou des motions [Faculty of
experiencing sentiments or emotions in response to any action on our sensibility] another
definition is simply Ensemble des sentiments et des motions [The totality of sentiments
and emotions].
Introduction 9

nature of the states in question. However, my intention here is not to construct an

exhaustive definition, but to find a term broad enough to cover all the possible
sub-categories encountered in other words, the function of the term affectivity
is here more heuristic than definitional strictly speaking.
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Chapter 1
Auguste Comte:
Passion Sublimated into Love


The case of Auguste Comte is a curious one. After having devoted the first 20-odd
years of his career to the development of a doctrine almost entirely limited to the
epistemological domain, in the 1840s he suddenly seems to undergo a complete
change of mood, beginning to stress the preponderance of sentiments over reason
in individual as well as social existence. And, as if this were not enough, after
having bitterly criticized his predecessor and former mentor Saint-Simon for his
religious and sentimental tendencies,1 he now proposes to turn his own positivist
theory into a religion, based on none other than the universal love of humanity.
The most popular explanation for this apparently illogical volte-face was
for a long time the one promulgated by John Stuart Mill, a former admirer and
sympathizer of Comtes positivist theory. According to Mill this unscientific
deterioration2 in Comtes thought was due to an unfortunate and bitterly one-
sided love affair with a young woman, Clothilde de Vaux, who tragically died of
tuberculosis in 1846, the relationship never actually having been consummated.
This narrowly biographical and psychological interpretation was undoubtedly lent
some support by the long letter of love and devotion Comte himself annexed to
the first volume of his four-part Systme de politique positive, the chef-doeuvre of
his later years, as well as by the various references and acknowledgments made to
Mlle de Vaux throughout the text.3
However, most of the commentaries published during the last decades have
disputed this alleged break between the reasonable father of positivism and the
crazed religious reformer,4 emphasizing the essential continuity in Comtes
thought: his ideas of the necessity of a profound moral and political reform date as

1 See Benichou 1996, p. 737 and Pickering 1993, pp. 422423.

2 See Mill 1961 [1866], p. 132.
3 See Comte 1851, Prface, pp. 812 and Ddicace, pp. IXXI; this dedication is
furthermore followed by a novel written by Clothilde de Vaux that Comte wanted to make
public as a token of his devotion and proof of the intellectual and moral character of Mlle
de Vaux.
4 This is the way Pickering (2009b, p. 3) formulates the caricatured image given of
Comte by the proponents of this line of argument. For a detailed and sound analysis of the
relationship between Comte and de Vaux, see also Pickering 2009a, pp. 133229.
12 Affectivity and the Social Bond

far back as his first opuscules, written in the 1820s, and hence can by no means
be imputed to the hazards of his later personal life.5 On the other hand, nothing in
Comtes early writings hints at the predominant role later given to sentiments (love,
in particular) nor suggests that he might be willing to build an entire religion on
them.6 What we are used to referring to as positivism is the new epistemological
organization outlined in Cours de philosophie positive, a revolution in the domain
of knowledge, implying a transformation of the methods, the status, and the
hierarchy of sciences. Comte, who was fiercely anti-Catholic, even believed that
religion was in its demise.7 In his Discours sur lesprit positif, written in 1844, he
still speaks of this great intellectual communion which becomes the necessary
foundation for every true human association8 and firmly emphasizes the essential
incompatibility of the great mental revolution brought about by positivism with
any religious endeavour.9
However, only a few years later the emphasis has definitely shifted. In
the Discours sur lensemble du positivisme published in 1848 Comte boldly
announces that positivism finally constitutes a complete and homogeneous system
concentrated in the cult of Humanity,10 which turns it into a true religion.11
Several explanations have been given for this shift. Firstly, it must be stressed that
Comtes critique of religion is above all directed towards theology and metaphysics
as being equally erroneous forms of belief: the explanation they give of the reality
is simply false (a supernatural will or a personified abstraction like ontology
lurking behind the phenomenal reality) and, therefore, must be replaced by a
correct, scientific (positive) explanation, relying only on facts and seeking the
laws governing reality instead of causes explaining its alleged origin.12 Secondly,
Comtes particular target is Christianity which he criticizes first and foremost for
the individualistic and egoistic goal that the Christian doctrine of salvation gives to

5 See for instance Comte 1970a [1822], pp. 117118 and Comte 1970b [1826];
Pickering 2009b, pp. 46; 1993, 205206.
6 Furthermore, what Comte seems to have meant by faith, is something more akin to
a strong public opinion, hierarchically organized around an unquestioned central authority,
than a religious belief in the strict sense: [] Faith, that is, the disposition to believe
spontaneously, without prior demonstration, to the dogmas proclaimed by a competent
authority; which is, in fact, the indispensable general condition allowing the establishment
and maintenance of a true intellectual and moral communion (Comte 1970b, p. 388).
7 See for instance Gane 2006, 43.
8 Comte 1844, pp. 2627 italics T.A. Except for the Catechism of Positive Religion
(English translation from 1858), all quotations from Comte are translated from French by
9 Comte 1844, p. 32.
10 Comte 1848, p. VII.
11 Comte 1848, p. 324.
12 See for instance Comte 1844, pp. 912; see also Gane 2006, p. 87.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 13

mans existence, hence depriving human morality of any social character or goal.13
By contrast, he fully recognizes the ennobling impact of Catholicism on the mores
of the Middle Ages (especially chivalric courtesy and the high regard shown to
women), as well as the value of the striving towards moral unification and spiritual
authority, essentially linked to religion.14 He also praises the Catholic Church for
the separation it instigated during the Middle Ages between the spiritual and the
temporal authority (or between ethics and politics), seeing it as an indispensable
condition for all subsequent attempts to systematize morality independently of
(and sheltered from) any temporary impulses15 unfortunately these attempts
were long doomed to remain fruitless because of the chimerical nature of the
theology (and later of the philosophical metaphysics) on which they were based,
a state of affairs Comte himself intended to amend by replacing the remnants of
theology and metaphysics with the positive science. Hence, it is not religion per se
that Comte condemns, only its epistemological part.
Thirdly we may refer to the specific historical and political situation in which
Comte was developing his project of the new positivist religion: such religious
tendencies were very much in vogue in France during the first part of the nineteenth
century. This religious revival covered the whole political spectrum from neo-
Catholics to socialists; what it promulgated was precisely the Comtean type of
religion, characterized by fraternal love and moral regeneration from below,
submission and obedience instead of liberty.16 On the other hand, the religious
turn of Comte was also a strategic move on his part, an attempt to rally new
supporters to the positivist cause: women, whom he associated strongly with
noble sentiments (especially love) and religious tendencies, but also workers, who
in his mind represented energy and common sense,17 unspoiled by too much
theoretical education (which Comte regarded as dangerous and corrupting in its
present form).18 In sum, Comte like many romantics before him19 was in search of
a strong spiritual power which could fill the void left by God and the crumbling
Church and which he saw as an indispensable condition of a solid temporal power,

13 This moral individualism is a feature shared by both theology and philosophical

metaphysics see for instance Comte 1844, pp. 4243.
14 See Comte 1848, pp. 23 and 1844, p. 30.
15 Comte 1844, p. 37.
16 Mike Gane (2006, pp. 8789) and Mary Pickering (2009a, pp. 299300) have
analysed this religious boom in a more detailed manner.
17 See Comte 1844, p 3.
18 See Pickering 2009a, pp. 338339 and 2009b, p. 4. The principal enemy and rival
of Comte in the Discours sur lensemble du positivisme (1844) was neither socialism nor
communism, but Catholicism which he wanted to challenge and replace with his positivist
religion. This somewhat surprising priority is undoubtedly explained by the strong religious
atmosphere animating also the French left-wing political movement at the time: what
workers were yearning for was first and foremost moral unity, and this is what Comte was
trying to offer them.
19 On this, see Benichou 1996, 718.
14 Affectivity and the Social Bond

equally needed for the political reconstruction of the society for which he was
striving. All things considered the project of a positivist religion was in no way
bizarre or nonsensical Comte simply carried out a program he had conceived a
long time ago, and, as a good opportunist, picked up the forms and tendencies in
vogue at that particular historical moment.
However, the attempt to turn positivism into a religion also entails several
consequences which not only seem to be at odds with the strong scientific
aspiration of the epistemological systematization Comte had emphasized earlier,
but also undermine the whole idea of an active politics understood in any
traditional sense of the word. These problems seem to stem, by-and-large, from the
same origin: Comtes attempt to ground his new moral system strongly on science,
and especially on biology. This project of scientific foundation is nowhere more
evident than in his way of seeking the basis for the positivist religion and politics
in human affectivity.
In this chapter I will first analyse the instinctual and biological basis of Comtes
theory of affectivity, including the cerebral physiology on which it is based, as well
as the relationship between individual and social (or species) point of view. I will
then focus on the relationship between social structure and affectivity, discussing
the social toposes or institutionalized forms of affectivity in Comtes theory.
Before concluding I will examine the positive religion and the great subject of the
Comtean philosophy of history, namely Humanity, and the relationship between
death and affectivity in the positive religion. In the concluding section I will look
closer at the problems involved in Comtes theory of affectivity and its relationship
to his philosophy of history; I will also discuss the implications of the Comtean
politics of love to the modern theory of politics, understood in the Hobbesian
manner as a means of controlling mans harmful passions.

Human Nature and the Paradoxical Dynamics of Instincts

Despite the fact that Comte was by no means a vulgar materialist20 and that he
emphasized the relative autonomy of the laws governing moral and political
phenomena,21 the essence of his whole positivist endeavour was to find a scientific

20 On the other hand, Comte was not a vitalist either on this, see for instance
Pickering 2009a, 313; Sinaceur 1975, 661.
21 See for example Comte 1975b [183942], 724; Grange 1996, 74; Pickering 2009a,
350. Comte emphasized that each essential order of phenomena had its own governing laws
and should be examined accordingly. The Comtean conception of the hierarchy of sciences
is based on an encyclopaedic model in which the absolute, objective point of view, typical
of the encyclopaedic form, is replaced by a historical continuum, comprised of ever more
complex and complete states in which each state comprises all the preceding ones, the
final state constituting the universal and definitive attachment or synthesis of all different
positive speculations (Comte 1975b, 700; see also Grange 1996, 9096). However, as
Juliette Grange points out, it is important to notice that although this model allows Comte
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 15

foundation for morality and politics, the natural laws of the social order.22 And
although this foundation was in principle constituted by the totality of sciences,
ranging hierarchically from astronomy to mathematics, from physics to chemistry,
it is biology that Comte places closest to sociology, the most complicated and
noble of all sciences in his hierarchy.23 It is also biology that offers Comte the
basis for understanding the particular constitution of human sociality and the
significance of affectivity therein.
Unlike most of the preceding seventeenth and eighteenth century conceptions
concerning human nature, the Comtean theory of affectivity is not based
on a dualism between animal and human existence. On the contrary, animals
are situated on the same biological level with humans: they share most of our
affective and intellectual capacities, the only difference being that of degree, not
of quality. The erroneous demarcation which the earlier philosophical metaphysics
had postulated between human and animal existence is, in Comtes opinion, also
largely responsible for the supposed preponderance of reason over affectivity
in the intellectual physiology of man a postulate he himself wants to reverse.
Human nature is by no means the sort of spiritual unity, revolving around the
knowing subject that the Cartesian metaphysics had assumed, on the contrary: it
is constitutively multiple, ceaselessly driven in opposite directions by numerous,
independent forces between which the equilibrium is but painfully established.
Hence, the only possible object of a positive research is in these conditions the
general equilibrium between these diverse animal functions, characterizing
the normal state of the organism. The famous I of the philosophers is only an
indirect and extremely abstract notion resulting from the sentiment concerning
such a harmonious state, denoting the universal consensus of the organism as
a whole.24 As soon as we abandon the idea of a qualitative difference between

to organize all sciences in a single series according to their growing complexity (here again,
following the model of biology), this does not entail a linear conception of progress; on the
contrary, each element of the series is conceived as a singular, original, and discontinuous
unity, which comprises and reorganizes the preceding elements and, by consequence, is not
to be considered their product (Grange 1996, 107108).
22 Comte 1852, 265.
23 Not only are sociology and biology linked by the fact that they both study the
most complex order of phenomena, the organic domain, but biology also constitutes the
heuristic supermodel on which Comte bases much of his social theory, especially in the
Systme. For instance, the division between social static and social dynamic corresponds
to the biological distinction between anatomy and physiology (whereas in the Cours the
model for this distinction is taken from mechanics), whereas the distinction between order
and progress correlates with the biological distinction between organization and life; these
analogies are often extended even to the details of the social system (see for instance Comte
1852, 281, 289290), as anyone reading the second volume of the Systme de politique
positive will inevitably notice see Comte 1852, 263338; see also Petit 2003.
24 Comte 1975a [183942], 858. Consensus is here to be understood in the
physiological sense of the term, denoting a general agreement or concord of different parts
16 Affectivity and the Social Bond

human and animal nature, the alleged supremacy of reason collapses, leaving us
with a completely different economy of human capacities than that presupposed
by most of the social and political philosophy following in Hobbes footsteps.
Instead, the great demarcation line of the Comtean theory of affectivity is the
division between the organic and the inorganic (or the living and the inert),25 and
inside the organic domain, the dichotomy between the vegetative and the animal
life. For Comte, there is a radical discontinuity between the living (life) and the
inert (death). Life is not a universal phenomenon dispersed over nature, or the
totality of functions resisting death, like Bichat would have had it. Instead, it is
a relationship of an organism to its environment, equilibrium which Comte calls
consensus. Death, in turn, is not a dramatic void, but simply a rupture of this
equilibrium.26 The fundamental vitality, characteristic of the organic domain
alone, is constituted by the continuous material renovation of the living organisms,
implying an exchange with the environment. This is what Comte calls the
nutritive life which is the result of a sufficient conflict between the absorption
and exhalation that each living mass exercises ceaselessly on the corresponding
milieu.27 Although superior organisms are not reducible to this vegetative life
alone, it nonetheless constitutes an indispensable foundation of their existence:
every organism becomes inert and finally dissolves without a sufficient material
renovation. This great biological law already constitutes the first general condition
of the true social existence, because it implies a constant and active concern of
each living organism for its own self-preservation; it thereby contributes indirectly
to the development of benevolent affections by offering these altruistic impulses
a practical goal which fights against their spontaneous inertia.28
Although vegetative life, which transforms the inorganic materials directly
into organic substances, constitutes the basis of all organic life, animal life is
characterized precisely by its incapacity to carry out this transformation and hence,
the necessity for animals to seek living nourishment.29 In other words, animals,
more dependent on their milieu in this sense, are forced to move about, which in

or organs of the body in effecting a given purpose (Oxford English Dictionary); Comte
also uses the term sympathy in the same sense.
25 See Comte 1851, 573 this great dualism separating biology and cosmology
comes from Bichat.
26 See Grange 1996, 198200. As Sinaceur (1975, 662663) points out Comte de-
psyhologizes the relationship to the inert by instituting a radical rupture between life
and death. This epistemological gesture makes it necessary to conceptualize the concrete
connections between the two a task which Comte carries out with the help of the concept
of the milieu. The inert [] comprises the conditions of existence which life presupposes
but does not create. Their interaction allows this participation without conflict, this
regulated and regular struggle with the milieu (Sinaceur 1975, 663).
27 Comte 1851, 586.
28 Comte 1851, 588.
29 Claude Bernhard later showed that animals are capable of synthesizing substances
such as sugar which were formerly thought to be of vegetative origin.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 17

turn leads to the development of their nervous and muscular system (irritability
and sensibility). The mode of life resulting from this necessity is what Comte
calls the life of relationship (la vie de relation) more vulnerable but also
more open to the influence of the milieu. Another important difference between
the nutritive life and the life of relationship is the continuity of functions typical
of the first, as opposed to the intermittence of functions, due to the alternation
of activity/passivity (waking state/sleep), characteristic of the second. In animal
life the active exercise of different functions contributes to the development of
habits which, in turn, constitute the foundation of the individual improvement
(and, hence, of all education). This is how the nutritive necessities of animal life
progressively pave the way to a superior mode of life, which is not directly bound
to the egoistic search for nutrition and thereby spontaneously generates the first
social needs and feelings. These in turn stimulate the intelligence characteristic
of each organism by proposing a destination which is no longer purely individual
and inciting it to push its calculations beyond its actual needs, thereby creating
a connection between the past and the future and also the first seeds of moral
discipline. This is how the chain of events could be resumed on a diachronic level.
Here the altruistic or benevolent affects would seem to gradually develop out of a
primitive egoism, based on the nutritive necessities, so that the exercise of egoistic
instincts gradually develops functions transforming egoism itself.30
However, from a synchronic point of view sociability seems to constitute an
integral part of human cerebral physiology and an indispensable prerequisite for
the whole Comtean dynamics of instincts. Leaning on the studies of the French
animal behaviourist Charles-Georges Leroy and the German phrenologist Franz
Joseph Gall, Comte takes the innateness of altruistic impulses to be a scientifically
proven fact:

The essentially spontaneous sociability of the human species, by virtue of an

instinctive inclination towards life in common, independently of all personal
calculation, and often in spite of the most energetic individual interests, could
henceforth in no way be contested [].31

The explanation for this apparent discrepancy is to be found in Comtes view

concerning the threshold of humanization, constituted precisely by the transition
from the animal mode of existence (dominated by the nutritive necessities) to
the life of relationship, characteristic of human beings.32 In mans case the
physiological (the dynamic) takes precedence over the anatomic (the structural),
because the life of relationship modifies human anatomy; but, on the other hand,

30 See Comte 1851, 596600. This is also the basis of the entire Comtean morality:
To live for others thus becomes the natural rsum of the entire positive morality of which
biology must already sketch out the universal principle [] (Comte 1851, 700701).
31 Comte 1975b [183942], 177.
32 See Comte 1851, 620.
18 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the mode of existence made possible by the anatomic changes, in turn, affects the
human brain (these are precisely the modifications described by Gall). The passage
from animality to humanity (or, as Comte puts it, to sociality) is even more directly
accomplished by the interior modification of the brain functions, giving birth to
moral and intellectual capacities which constitute the indispensable centre of
the life of relationship, the end point of exterior impressions and the source of
voluntary reactions.33 Although these same functions can also be found in other
animals their exercise is always oriented (and restricted) to purely individual
concerns (organic needs). Therefore, even though many other animal species
are endowed with sociability this aptitude is fully developed only in humans,
amongst whom the two characteristic attributes of sociability, namely solidarity
and continuity, are clearly visible.
Thus, unlike Rousseau, for whom the development of sociability goes hand in
hand with that of reason and hence cannot be conceived without society,34 Comte
completely agrees with the thesis concerning the natural sociability of man. But
contrary to the political theory of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,35 for
him this is not a philosophical postulate, required for the constitution of a juridical
pact called the social contract or of a political entity called the state, but rather
a necessary condition for the natural evolution of the human species. Not only
does Comte refute any approach that would make an abstraction like individual
as its starting-point,36 he also considers man to be an intrinsically social animal.
However, the sociality which Comte has in mind is, in a sense, already inscribed
in the evolutionary conditions of the human species both as the natural
environment of man (the social as a relationship, an opening towards others as a
structural feature of the human environment) and a feature of his instinctual and
intellectual economy, indispensable for his evolution (or his progress, which is a
historical epithet), as we shall see. This is why the biological and the sociological
are intrinsically linked in Comtes thinking. If the characteristic environment of the
human individual is indeed the social, necessarily marked by the laws of collective
evolution, then the consideration of these laws cannot but bear an impact on the
study of his vital functions: in this sense man, in his very individuality, is a
mode of inscription of the social reality into the order of the living.37 In order to
explain humanity, biology is therefore obliged to seek the help of sociology, the

33 Comte 1851, 620.

34 See Derath 1948, 1314.
35 For instance Pufendorf and Grotius who sustained the idea of the natural sociability
of man, whereas Hobbes and Rousseau were against it on this, see Drath 1995, 4142
and 5657.
36 Following Juliette Grange (1996, 221) we might even claim that for Comte there
is no human individual of course there are individual human bodies, constituting the
necessary biological and material basis of life, but real human life is first and foremost
spiritual (religious) and collective in nature.
37 See Karsenti 2006, 1922.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 19

only science devoted to the study of the historical forms and the structural modes
of human sociality.38
Hence, for Comte there is no human nature in abstracto, independently of the
milieu, which in mans case is constituted not only by his material environment
but also by his relationships to his fellow beings. This is where he is clearly on the
side of the Scottish philosophers,39 especially Ferguson who explicitly contested
Rousseaus idea of the state of nature in which scattered individuals would live in
a solitary state; Ferguson criticizes the substitution of hypothesis for reality, for
him society is as old as an individual:

Mankind are to be taken in groups, as they have always subsisted. The history of
the individual is but a detail of the sentiments and thoughts he has entertained in
the view of his species; and every experiment relative to this subject should be
made with entire societies, not with single men.40

Although Comte was not quite of the same opinion, since for him the most
primitive form of the social relationship was already the family bond41 (which
constitutes a mediation between the individual and society, properly speaking),
he nonetheless praised the historical and empirical spirit with which the Scottish
moralists approached the question, judging the former theorizing over the subject
as mainly metaphysical and literary speculation.42
Another important idea which Comte adopted from the Scots was their
conception concerning the natural sympathy of humans for their fellow beings,
in other words, mans natural sociability. Now this was indeed a very significant
idea for Comte, since it constitutes the cornerstone of his entire economy of
affectivity. According to Comte the greatest flaws of the former philosophical
and moral metaphysics in this respect had been the excessive emphasis given to
intelligence at the expense of sentiments and the exaggeration of the importance

38 See for instance Comte 1851, 621622.

39 Although Comte fervently contested the possibility of any individualistic
psychology (consciousness cannot observe its own functioning, see e.g. Comte 1975a
[183942], 853), he was already in his Cours very much attracted to the ideas of the Scottish
moralists (Hume, Ferguson and Smith) on this, see Pickering 1993, 305313.
40 Ferguson 1767, 56. Here Ferguson is explicitly referring to Rousseau; see also
Leigh 1986, 15.
41 See for instance Comte 1975b [183942], 183184.
42 This conception must also be seen as part of Comtes general belief in the growing
tendency towards positive theories in politics during the nineteenth century. See for
instance Comte 1970c [1826], 340341. It is equally linked to the synthetic character of his
positivist theory, especially prominent in the Systme, in which the complicated can never
be inferred from the simple. See also Comte 1975b [183942], 183: Since any system
necessarily has to be formed of elements that are essentially homogeneous with it, the
scientific spirit does not allow considering the human society as being truly composed of
20 Affectivity and the Social Bond

of egoistic drives in human psychology.43 These are the very premises he sets
out to refute. Not only is the alleged dominance of intelligence biologically and
scientifically unfounded, our daily experience also shows that human beings are
more often driven by their affections, inclinations, and passions44 than by their
intelligence. Far from springing from our intellectual capacities these impulses
are indispensable for the awakening and the continuous development of our
intellectual faculties in the first place. Indeed, not only is reason in a subsidiary
role as a determinant of our actions, but it also needs affectivity in order to find
a permanent goal and a determinate direction for its activity. Without these our
intelligence would soon succumb to its native lethargy and get lost in vague and
incoherent abstract speculations.45 Thus, the role of affectivity is to supplement
the inherent deficiencies and lack of energy of the intelligence.
This is also where phrenology and brain physiology come into play. What
distinguishes man from the superior animals is that his organization gives rise
to particularly complex moral and intellectual phenomena of which the brain is
the centre. The centrality of the brain is no more to be conceived as the unity of
the I or the soul, postulated by metaphysicians and theologians. Instead, it is
constituted by a plurality of distinct and radically independent functions, each
having its own seat in the brain, so that the presupposed unity of the subject is
nothing but a product of the organisms general striving for equilibrium, a mere
result of a more general tendency characterizing the vital functions of all animals
not some sort of metaphysical foundation separating humans from the rest of
For Comte the huge advance brought along by Gallian phrenology was
to emphasize the constitutive plurality of the brain functions instead of the
anatomical unity of the brain, postulated by former physiologists who had also
reserved this organ exclusively for the intellectual functions. By the same token the
centre of affectivity was transferred to the brain, whereas the former medical and
physiological conceptions for instance, those proclaimed by Cabanis and Bichat
had located passions in the organs of vegetative life (the intestines, entrails,
heart, lungs and stomach etc.).46 Hence, with Gallian brain physiology the method
of positive, observation-based science was not only extended to a domain which
until then had been left to metaphysics and theology (Descartes, for instance, did
not want submit the intellectual and moral phenomena to his positive method,

43 See Comte 1975a [183942], lon 45 and Comte 1975b [183942], lon 50.
44 As such, the term passion designates for Comte the highest normal degree of any
moral tendency, the state nearest to mania properly speaking, where the faculty would gain
a sufficient preponderance to determine this irresistibility which characterizes the abnormal
state (Comte 1975a, 856, note).
45 Comte 1975b [183942], 179.
46 This transition of the affective centre is for Comte the necessary condition for the
construction of a scientific conception of morality, which is the ultimate goal of his whole
positive politics (see Comte 1975a [183942], 881 and 1851, 670).
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 21

but left them to metaphysical philosophy), but it was also brought to bear on the
premises which had until then inscribed the metaphysical superiority of the human
being into the core of his anatomy.47
Comte also refuses to accept the former affective hierarchy in which impulses,
subjugated to intellect, had been reduced to either altruism or egoism, and egoism
promoted to the top as the sole (reasonable) motivation of human behaviour.
Instead, he proposes a plurality of affective faculties, placing them on the same
level with intellectual faculties and substituting a new hierarchy for the former
one. In this new energetic scheme the place of a faculty is determined by the
energy it contains. The greater the energy, the less noble the faculty is judged to
be. The same principle, based on the alleged coefficient of energy ascribed to each
faculty, applies across the scale, between intellectual and affective faculties, on
the one hand, and between the different sub-faculties in each group, on the other
(for instance, between egoistic and altruistic impulses, both belonging to the group
of affective faculties). The more we approach the highest intellectual functions,
the less energetic they get. This physiological fact is, in turn, also reflected in
the Gallian anatomy of the brain: the affective faculties common to all animals
occupy the entire posterior and middle region, whereas the intellectual faculties
only occupy the anterior (the less developed) region (which gives the necessary
preeminence of the affective faculties an unshakable scientific basis).48
This new scientific economy of affectivity leads directly to the question
which Comte calls the crucial problem of mankind:49 in the affective constitution
of man the egoistic drives tend to dominate, because their natural energy is greater
than that of the more timid and languid altruistic impulses. The continuous
problem of social existence (and hence of all politics properly speaking) is to

47 See Clauzade 2009, 119120. Comte also sees the Gallian brain physiology as
the scientific substitute or explication of the eternal (theological) struggle between grace
and nature, postulated by St Paul: this battle is replaced by the opposition between the
anterior and the posterior regions of the brain, the former acting as the seat of the altruistic
impulsions and the latter harbouring the egoistic ones (Comte 1966, 136).
48 Comte 1975a [183942], 866. The status of phrenology in Comtes system is by no
means a subsidiary one. On the contrary, it could be said to constitute the basis of his moral
theory, since in a way Comte naturalizes the human mind: in other words, for him there is
an identity between the brain phenomena, on the one hand, and the intellectual and moral
phenomena, on the other. However, this does not imply an ontological stance: Comte rejects
the possibility of any a priori conception of the mind, since for him the scientific approach
allows only an a posteriori -type of approach, based on observation (this is also what led
him to refuse the sensualist physiology, understood as an ontological foundation for the
study of the mind, represented by Cabanis and the ideologues on this, see Clauzade 2009,
2751). From this point of view, the interest of Galls phrenology for Comte lies precisely
in the chance to develop an organic science of the mind, which fulfils the philosophical
condition concerning the a posteriori -approach towards mental phenomena.
49 See Comte 1851, 692: to subordinate, as far as possible, the personality to
sociality, relating the whole [tout] to Humanity.
22 Affectivity and the Social Bond

make the altruistic impulses prevail over the egoistic ones. However, contrary
to many philanthropic endeavours seeking to ameliorate the fate of mankind,
Comte does not condemn egoism, quite the contrary. Egoism is necessary for the
survival of any living being, since it is directly connected to our most elementary
(animal) needs. This is why it tends to dominate the existence when the latter is
reduced to ensuring the necessary provisions for the survival of the individual (the
alleged situation in the early stages of civilization). But, on the other hand, it is
also an indispensable motor of any social existence, since it gives the necessary
impetus for all practical action. Here Comte resorts to a conceptual argument: the
very notion of general interest would be devoid of meaning without a preliminary
notion of a particular interest. We can only wish for others the things we first desire
ourselves.50 Anyone wanting to suppress the instinctive egoism in human beings
would, therefore, destroy their moral nature instead of ameliorating it, since the
social affections, henceforth deprived of an indispensable direction, would soon
tend [] to degenerate into a vague and sterile charity, inevitably devoid of
any great practical efficiency.51 All in all, the two most developed attributes of
humanity, intelligence and sociability, seem to lack sufficient energy and direction,
which only the affective impulse, and more particularly, the egoistic penchant is
able to give them. Thus, in the affective economy of the individual the egoistic
instincts naturally dominate the more noble altruistic inclinations, very inferior
as to their perseverance and energy compared to these purely personal drives.
And yet, in spite of their original weakness and of this rather desperate
initial position in the inner economy of human affectivity, the social impulses
manage to persevere.52 Comte offers several explanations for this somewhat
surprising state of affairs. The first one links the survival of the altruistic impulses
to mans natural (social) environment: in the conditions of the life in common
these impulses get continuous exercise and instead of atrophying because of
insufficient use are thereby progressively inscribed into habits, giving them a
sort of stability.53 The second is to be found in their moderating function with
regard to the more energetic, yet rudimentary, egoistic drives. In fact, the altruistic

50 This conceptual derivation is abandoned later in the Systme where altruism

is defined as an absolutely original sentiment, only enlightened by the intelligence (see
Clauzade 2009, 173).
51 Comte 1975b [183942], 181.
52 Here Comte follows the Lamarckian principle according to which an instinct
which is not exercised will gradually atrophy. Another idea which Comte borrows from
Lamarck is the hereditary nature of acquired characteristics hence the acquired sentiments
of sociability will be inherited by the next generation. See Comte 1851, 608609; Pickering
2009a, 345; Clauzade 2009, 182183.
53 In Comtes system instincts constitute a mediation (which Comte calls the
intermediate vitality) between the exterior impressions and muscular reactions. Without
the mediation of instincts there would be no animal spontaneity (which is most of all
characterized by the determination of inner motives), which would mean a return to the
Cartesian universe of animal-automates on this, see Comte 1851, 602.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 23

impulses share this restraining function with intellectual faculties, and hence fulfil
a homological function in the inner economy of affectivity as the latter do in the
more general economy of human faculties. Indeed, the two can be seen as mutually
supplementing their common social insufficiency so that the more benevolent
man becomes, the more intelligent he will be in social practice, both because he
will then spontaneously make better use of his real intelligence and also because
his intelligence will then be less absorbed in trying to control the spontaneous
preponderance of the egoistic tendencies. The only real problem in this respect is
the too-feeble intensity of this moderator.54 The third explanation springs directly
from the inner economy of affectivity and the necessary consensus (harmony)
between the different impulses. According to Comte this vital harmony can only
be gained by subordinating the diversity of impulses to one dominating tendency
which can be either the egoistic or the altruistic one. However, not only does the
dominance of the altruistic (superior) inclination constitute the only regime
compatible with the social state, but even in the individuals case it constitutes
a more complete, easier, and more lasting unity than the one dominated by the
egoistic (inferior) inclination. The egoistic instincts, based on purely interior
motives, would leave the individual at the mercy of his own interior impulses, too
numerous and too varied to offer any fixed direction for his action or any sort of
inner stability for his being. This is why the individual has to subordinate himself
to an exterior existence, which is possible only when his actions are dominated
by the social instincts disposing him to live first and foremost for others. Any
individual, human or animal, living only for itself would be condemned to a
continuous oscillation between an ignoble torpor and a disordered agitation:55

The principal progress of any living being has to consist in perfecting this
universal consensus56 in which resides the essential attribute of vitality. This
is why even the personal happiness and merit are everywhere dependent on the
just ascendancy of the sympathetic instincts. To live for others thus becomes the

54 See Comte 1975b [183942], 181182.

55 Comte 1851, p. 700.
56 In the Comtean physiology it is precisely the affective region of the brain (not
in direct contact with the exterior world) that guarantees the consensus between different
functions of the organism and, as such, represents the common vegetative basis of the life
of relationship. As the guardian of continuity it must remain active even when the rest of
the organism (the motor and the sensory apparatus) is asleep. This is also why the animal
spontaneity resides precisely in the affective region that is the least dependent on any
exterior relationship. In the Comtean tripartite model in which the social existence as well
as the brain functions are divided into the spheres of action, intelligence, and sentiment, it
is thus affectivity which guarantees the unity of moral existence, whereas intelligence and
action open up a direct relationship to the objects of the exterior world. See Comte 1851,
685686 and 728.
24 Affectivity and the Social Bond

natural rsum of the entire positive morality of which biology must already
sketch out the universal principle, thus better cleared from diverse perturbing

This is where the altruistic impulses start to break out of the biological immanence
of Comtes physiological speculations. In fact, Comte needs altruism not just
for the individual, but above all for the social regulation of egoism (whereas the
unifying function is fulfilled by the affective region in its totality; see note 53).
And this is not a biological necessity in the strict sense, since most other animals
happily live their lives at the mercy of their inner impulses (although they possess
the same high functions of intelligence and of morality as humans do, the exercise
of these faculties remains in most cases on a purely personal level, attached to the
organic needs of the individual).58 Only human beings are able to transcend this
primitive egoism and further develop their initial sociality to the point where it
becomes inscribed both in the conditions of their biological evolution (in the form
of the natural milieu constituted by others) and in their habitual make-up. But how
does this transcendence come about?
In mans case the social implies a radical inversion of the whole individual
(animal) affective economy, since it develops the feeblest (social) instinct at the
expense of the most energetic (egoistic) one. According to Comte, the crucial
problem facing mankind and the primary condition of pulling it out of its still
persisting state of anarchy, hindering its progress, is to make the altruistic impulses
prevail over the egoistic ones in spite of the greater natural energy of the latter.
This is partly taken care of by the sort of cunning of instincts earlier described:
egoism supplements altruism with the energy that the latter lacks, and transfers
the resulting modifications in the habits, thereby progressively turning these
changes into a permanent part of mans species-specific (bio-cultural) makeup.
However, it is difficult to see how this infra-organic process of supplementation
could ever transcend the individual level: that is, how it would be able to produce
anything other than a maintenance of the energetic status quo indispensable for
the vital consensus needed in order to prevent the individual from succumbing to
the ignoble oscillation between agitation and torpor, brought about by unlimited
(unrefined) animal egoism. Instead, the sort of social progress and perfection Comte
is projecting to the final positive state of humanity, constituting the fulfilment of
his philosophy of history, requires not only that intelligence and sociability should
take a more important role in the human physiology,59 but also necessitates an
environment constantly obliging man to the exercise of his altruistic instincts and
an exterior support for affectivity, rallying the altruistic instincts and regulating the
egoistic ones, which biology alone is unable to provide.

57 Comte 1851, pp. 700701.

58 Comte 1851, p. 620.
59 See Comte 1975b [183942], 180.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 25

This is why the social also implies a change of level in the analysis: the
development of civilization is a collective phenomenon, affecting the whole
species, whereas the organization is a biological reality of which the single
individual is the carrier. When positive science shifts its focus from the
discontinuous classifying of the species according to their dignity (with humans
occupying the top of the hierarchy) to the continuous development of a given
species (humanity), the comparative method of biology has to be replaced by the
historical (sociological) one.60 Because the relativity of our intellectual operations
also escapes the biological approach, which remains stuck with the organic posed
as a static absolute, the position of the sociological and historical point of view is
further strengthened by the growing influence of intelligence in human evolution.61

[] after a more profound assessment it must be admitted that biology could not
be completely constituted without the predominant intervention of sociology;
for whereas by its inferior extremity it touches the inorganic science in the
elementary study of vegetative life, by its superior extremity it belongs to the
final science of social development in the transcendent study of the intellectual
and moral life.62

From the beginning of the 1840s Comte gradually seems to accord a growing role
to the sociological point of view, which also entails a growing critique of Galls
theory.63 In a way, this transformation is already inscribed in his method because
the functioning of the brain can only be observed indirectly, by the results, the
biological approach cannot be extended to the social and historical domain proper.
This tendency is further sustained by the Comtean notion of human nature. Not
only did Comte share the preformationists conception of the origin of social
development (history as a development of a pre-given form, in Comtes case, of a
fixed human nature), but also his idea of human nature was in addition inspired by
the Aristotelian (teleological) notion of nature, giving the preformed entity also a
social destination (the telos of human nature being the full realization of its inner
sociality). In other words nature in Comtes theory is both a biological and a
sociological concept: human nature inscribes the social telos itself in the core
of the biological, making the surpassing of the biological by the collective an

60 This is also why Comte wants to replace the vague and irrational notion of Man
(lhomme) with the notion of Humanity which alone characterizes our real (social) nature,
constituting the fundamental type of the overall construction. Sociology alone is capable of
providing the true type of the biological hierarchy. (See Comte 1851, 658.)
61 See Comte 1975b [183942], 180 and Clauzade 2009, 186200.
62 Comte 1975b [183942], 765 italics T.A.
63 See Comte 1851, 728733. Having founded sociology I finally realized that the
genius of Gall had been unable to construct a true physiology of the brain, since he did not
have at his disposal the knowledge concerning the laws of collective evolution which alone
should provide both the principle and the goal of this physiology (Comte 1851, 729).
26 Affectivity and the Social Bond

essential feature of the Comtean system.64 A further step in the same direction is
the refusal to take the individual as a starting point of the analysis, which directly
implies the necessity of sociology.
What Comte seems to retain from biology, is the very form and economy of his
organic synthesis based on brain physiology: a strongly centralized structure held
together by an affective consensus, informing the intelligence and triggering the
action. In the subjective synthesis developed by the Systme, the inner consensus,
constituting the indispensable condition of the vitality of any living organism, is
transformed onto the social level, as the principle of unity sustaining the whole
Comtean morality.65

Affectivity and Social Structure

In Cours de philosophie positive Comte still tended to give the social affections
(altruism) an auxiliary role: their function is mainly a moderating one, tempering
and restraining the personal (egoistic) affections in the individual physiology.
The same tendency is even present in his Discours sur lesprit positif (1844) in
which intelligence (and not affectivity) seems to be given the primordial position
as the foundation of spiritual unity and the only possible source of mental harmony
capable of systematizing society.66 However, the mental and the moral are already
so closely connected that the new order to be established is necessarily both at the
same time. And whoever says morals is inevitably speaking about sentiments,
since the two cannot really be separated in Comtes thinking, at least from the
mid-1840s onwards: [] the social sentiment [is] the first necessary basis of
all sane morality.67 The moral point of view thus becomes the scientific link and
the logical regulator of all other aspects of the new positive order. Comte even
presents the idea of an exact science of morals ( la Spinoza) in which the real
influence (direct and indirect, private and public) of each act, habit, tendency, and

64 See Clauzade 2009, 177180; Karsenti 2006, 2022. As Laurent Clauzade (2009,
180188) points out, the whole organization of Comtes encyclopaedia of sciences gets
reversed by this move, since it is based on the idea that the superior sciences in the hierarchy
are conditioned by the inferior ones. Although a superior science has to lean on the results
of the inferior sciences, it must not itself depend on a superior science this is the basic
rule of the objective method. To make the theory of human nature depend on sociology is
in flagrant contradiction of this principle, and in fact reverses the former methodological
principles of positivism: with the superior modes of animal existence, explanation must
lean on the organism that occupies a higher place on the hierarchy. Analogically, in order
to explain the superior phenomena of individual human existence, one has to resort to the
organism which is higher on the ladder, that is, society.
65 See Cherni 2003, 5058.
66 Comte 1844, 26; see also Clauzade 2007, 174. Here Comte even presents the
actual crisis as being primarily of a mental character op. cit. 5661.
67 Comte 1844, 72.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 27

sentiment would be precisely determined, producing as its natural corollary the

corresponding rules of conduct best suited for the universal order.68
In the Comtean system the laws governing morality belong to the larger domain
of social static, whereas those directing historical development and politics
belong to the social dynamic. However, since progress is for Comte essentially
a gradual development of order,69 there is an intimate connection between the
two domains. The social static examines the fundamental laws governing human
existence at all times and in all places, in order to systematize the dynamic laws of
social progress.70 As has already been noted, the development of the sympathetic
instincts is by no means an automatic process: the social organization can and,
indeed, has been based on ideas which tend to support the egoistic instincts
instead of the altruistic ones. For Comte the most flagrant example of this is the
theological metaphysics with its individualistic and egocentric morality which has
managed to keep mankind in its grip for centuries. The role of intelligence and
belief in the development of the affective dispositions should, therefore, not be
Comte also proposes a structural/epistemological explanation for this state
of affairs: in order to constitute a durable, unifying bond our social affects need
an exterior (objective) support, furnished precisely by knowledge of the laws
governing the social environment. Therefore, the only way to reach an affective
harmony is to subordinate human existence to such an exterior force, constituted
by the positive science and reason and transmitted by the positivist religion, alone
capable of offering the altruistic instincts the support they need in order to guide
action and to discipline the opposing egoistic instincts.72 This is the tripartite
model which governs the whole Comtean system from the individual (organic) to
the social and even the methodological level: unity is guaranteed by the sentiment,
whereas intelligence and action connect the living being (the human existence) to
the objects of the exterior world.73 In this way, the speculative synthesis associates

68 Comte 1844, 70. This is precisely what Comte is proposing as his great discovery
in his letter to John Stuart Mill in 1845 when mediating the conditions of a new spiritual
authority capable of establishing a terrestrial morality: This exceptional mediation has led
me to see clearly that the second part of my philosophic life must differ notably from the
first, especially in that sentiment must take a role [] that is as large as that of intelligence.
The great systematization reserved for our century must, in effect, comprise all sentiments
as much as all ideas (Comte to Mill in his letter of 14.7.1845, cited from Pickering 2009b,
161). As Pickering (2009b, 161) points out, the discussion of sentiments invariably involved
the reorganization of morality and society and also laid the basis for political reorganization.
69 See for instance Comte 1852, 41.
70 See Comte 1852, 23.
71 On this, see for instance Comte 1844, 6062. It is precisely in order to explain
this history that Comte resorts to his famous theory of the three states, which is first and
foremost a theory of the epistemological development of mankind.
72 See Comte 1848, 2223.
73 See Comte 1848, 31; 1851, 685686.
28 Affectivity and the Social Bond

mans noblest interior impulses to a powerful exterior stimulus, paving the way to
the affective synthesis.

To its subjective principle, that is, the preponderance of the sentiment, the
positivism thus associates an objective basis, the immutable exterior necessity
which alone really allows subordinating the totality of our existence to sociality.
The superiority of the new systematization over the ancient one is even more
evident in the second aspect than in the first one. For in theologism this objective
bond was merely a result of a spontaneous belief in supernatural wills.74

As we can see, the whole affective economy of the Comtean system is dominated
by a double effort: to get the harmful passions75 under control and to concentrate
the sociable affects so that their energy constantly grows, not only restraining
and surpassing that of the personal instincts, but also constituting a qualitatively
different affective force (namely love) which is structurally open to the outside
(although not primarily towards others, as we shall see).76
For the altruistic instincts to gain the upper hand in social development,
two things are needed: social structure which constantly urges man to develop
his altruistic tendencies and an exterior, spiritual centre capable of regulating
the naturally stronger egoistic tendencies and rallying the weaker, social ones.
Such a social organization would allow the altruistic sentiments to develop freely,
constantly stimulating them and to a certain extent suppressing the opposing
personal instincts in order to avoid conflicts that their unhindered development
would generate.77 On the other hand, the maintenance of the social order and
the unification of the collective affectivity require a centre, which disciplines
and directs, concentrates and binds affectivity, and perpetuates the benevolent
sentiments through education.
It is most of all in the second volume of the Systme that Comte sets out
to develop his theory of the social organization best suited to this end. First of

74 Comte 1848, 2324. Even if the great human systematization is essentially

affective in its subjective principle, it finally must depend on a speculative operation, alone
capable of providing it an objective basis by attaching it to the overall exterior economy
to which humanity is both subjected and which it can nonetheless modify. This is why
the central node of the positivist synthesis is precisely the correct theory of the human
evolution (both individual and collective), which for Comte is the theory of the three states.
(See Comte 1848, 31.)
75 It is noteworthy that when talking about the egoistic tendencies and the danger
they potentially represent Comte is constantly using the term passion see for instance
Comte 1844, 70; 1848, 16; 1852, 393; 1966, 248.
76 Love as the principle, order as the base and progress as the goal; such is [] the
fundamental character of the final regime that the positivism inaugurates by systematizing
our entire existence, personal as well as social, by an inalterable combination of sentiment,
reason and activity (Comte 1848, 315).
77 See for instance Comte 1844, 75.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 29

all, although the priority given to the common vegetative (biological) basis of
all life is what allows Comte to put affectivity at the forefront of his theory, the
preponderance of altruism and intelligence over egoism is only possible thanks to a
sociological process of transformation undergone by human activity.78 In Comtes
theory this transformation takes place primarily in the economic domain more
precisely, in a process of primitive accumulation and transmission of capitals by
which individuals spontaneously ascribe a social destination to their activity.
The economic domain is exclusively concentrated on the satisfaction of material
needs. Indeed, the effective predominance of the egoistic instincts is mostly due
to the continuous excitation they get from the physical needs.79 Since our most
immediate needs are always of an individual nature, the practical (economic)
existence necessarily has the same character. However, the perfectibility of
humanity resides precisely in its ability to build its moral development upon
the very same fatality which at first seems to condemn it to the most brutal
egoism (the domination of man over his nature is, according to Comte, the best
measure of human perfection).80 As soon as human activity assumes a social
character requiring cooperation, altruism receives exterior support and is thereby
progressively strengthened through habitual action.81
In order to describe this change Comte formulates two laws governing the
economic or material sphere of human existence. The first, subjective, law presumes
that each individual is able to produce more than he consumes, whereas the second,
objective, law states that the materials obtained in this way can be conserved for
a longer period than that needed for their reproduction. It is the combination of
these laws that allows the accumulation of material wealth. On the other hand,
Comte presumes that for wealth to be used effectively, it has to be accumulated,
transmitted in the hands of a single owner; otherwise the material needs would
inevitably give the human existence an egoistic character. The transformation of
this primitive (egoistic) impulsion is possible, so Comte believes, because each

78 On this, see also Clauzade 2009, 178.

79 Comte even sketches out a hypothetical state in which there would be no need
for activity, since all our material needs would be fully satisfied. In these circumstances a
couple of generations would suffice to also effectively modify the cerebral constitution of
man, augmenting or diminishing the mass of the affective organs which would thereby get
exercise (the sympathetic instincts) or grow numb (the egoistic instincts). In the lack of
any pressing practical concerns the intelligence would be entirely concentrated on aesthetic
works, which, in turn, would lead to the virtual preponderance of art over science and
industry. As to the active dispositions of man, they would be exclusively directed to various
playful manifestations, such as feasts and games. What is noteworthy in this context is the
fact that the social structure and hierarchy would seem to return to a curiously natural path:
the dominance of the sympathetic instincts would lead to a more complete development of
the family life at the expense of the social life, and the social hierarchies (based on material
predominance) would be replaced with personal merits. (See Comte 1852, 141148.)
80 See Comte 1848, 349.
81 See Comte 1852, 149150.
30 Affectivity and the Social Bond

producer, ceasing to direct his activity towards the satisfaction of his immediate
personal needs, thereby spontaneously ascribes a social destination to it. This is
how the accumulation of capital in fact pushes each active individual to work first
and foremost for others. The beneficial effects of this process and of the ensuing
division of labour have not yet had the chance to penetrate consciousness because
the activity of mankind has not been sufficiently systematized and has, therefore,
not given each individual cooperator a just feeling of his or her social dignity.82
Comte also offers a physiological explanation for the fact that an activity
which, primitively sprung from egoistic motives, can lead indirectly to a
sympathetic reaction and thus strengthen the altruistic tendencies of man. This
explanation is based on the division of the affective domain of the brain into social
and personal instincts.83 The social instincts (or affective motors) are three in
number: attachment, veneration, and benevolence (or universal love), whereas the
personal motors are no less than seven, sub-divided into instincts of both interest
and ambition. The instincts of interest comprise the nutritive, the sexual and the
maternal (instincts of conservation, related to the vegetative life), the military
and the industrial (instincts of perfection, related to the animal life), whereas the
instincts of ambition include the needs of both domination (temporal ambition)
and acceptance (spiritual ambition). According to Comte, there is a special and
spontaneous connection between the three social instincts and some of the personal
instincts, the superior energy of which can in this way contribute to dissipating the
initial lethargy of the feeble instincts. This is especially the case with the sexual
and maternal instincts which have the propensity to stimulate all three social
instincts, as well as with the needs of domination and acceptance (which Comte
also calls pride and vanity84) which should be tolerated in the economic sphere

82 See Comte 1852, 150161. Comte also believes that the proletariat, women and the
small number of priests, sincerely pure of any claim to sharing, feel that the concentration
of capital and the security of their employment greatly contribute to their civic efficacy,
and hence renounce all material claims. Workers would be paid enough to guarantee the
complete development of their domestic existence, whereas the service of humanity (the
priesthood) is strictly without material compensation, the active class being collectively
charged with supporting the contemplative class and women. The generous compensation
of the owners is justified not only by their vital contribution to the public good, but also
by the fact that since the egoistic instincts are allowed to reign among the capital-owning
class, their overexcitement is bound to produce a stronger tendency towards extravagant
pleasures. What is fitting for the master is not fitting for the servant. (See Comte, 1852,
83 These are the famous cerebral tables (tableaux crbraux) of Comte, of which
there are no less than 12 (the preliminary sketches included). Since I am not primarily
interested in the cerebral physiology of Comte here, I will only mention the main affective
features of the principal version of the Comtean table (see Comte 1851, 749; and Comte
1966, 138139). For a more extensive presentation of Comtes brain physiology, see
Clauzade 2009 (for the brain tables, see ch. 8).
84 See Comte 1851, 698. Let us note in passing that here Comte also rejects theories
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 31

in particular, since they constitute an important motivating factor for the active
population (i.e. the captains of industry).
However, the spontaneous strengthening of the social instincts through
habitual action (for instance cooperation) would not alone be sufficient to
generate the transformation leading to the habitual subordination of altruism to
egoism. The influence of the outer, material necessities and the ensuing egoistic
needs must be supplemented with inner dispositions directly destined for the
development of the social instincts. In Comtes system this interior impulsion is
produced by the habitual cooperation of two influences, of which one is moral
and the other intellectual. The moral influence is crystallized in the family where
the sympathetic affections can spontaneously flourish, whereas the intellectual
influence consists of a sufficient appreciation of the exterior world dominating
us and of the modifications we can hope to introduce in it. These two forces are
respectively developed by the domestic and the political existence.85
For Comte, the family constitutes both the source of moral education and
the natural basis of political organization. The beneficial moral influence of the
domestic sphere stems from the fact that it represents the only habitual transition
capable of freeing men from the domination of the personal instincts and elevating
them gradually to true sociality. On the one hand, the transitional position of the
family is based on its peculiar affective economy: basically egoistic instincts (for
instance, the sexual and the maternal instincts) are mixed with altruistic impulses,
thus enhancing the energy of the resulting domestic affections that would be much
feebler without this beneficial intermingling. On the other hand, family life also
modifies our affective constitution, because the relationships around which it
revolves are both sufficiently intimate and varied to cultivate all our sympathetic
Comte specifically analyses four different types of intimate relationships
which he then couples with the three social instincts (attachment, veneration, and
benevolence).87 Attachment is the affective bond characterizing the relationship
between two individuals, typically siblings or spouses (in some cases also the
bond between humans and other animals, for instance, dogs), veneration defines
the relationship of the child towards his parents, and benevolence is the specific
feature of fatherly love. Although the objects of attachment and veneration are
most often particular individuals (parent, sibling, spouse), these affections already
contain an element of generality opening to sociality proper: veneration ennobles

which attempt to attribute mans sociality to his need for acceptance (vanity), whereas for
Comte it is the other way round (vanity presupposes sociality and hence cannot explain it).
85 See Comte 1852, 204205.
86 See Come 1852, 204205.
87 See Comte 1852, 176. Attachment and veneration are confined to the private
sphere whereas benevolence, the highest form of affectivity, can flourish fully only when
focused on the collective subject (although its embryonic form can be already perceived in
the familial sphere).
32 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the involuntary subjugation by teaching the child to love his superior, whereas the
attachment between siblings, at least when it is pure, cleansed of all competition
and jealousy, constitutes the domestic affection best suited to be expanded
outwards.88 However, amongst the domestic affections it is fatherly love which
has the most natural aptitude to develop the vastest and supreme form of social
sentiment, inciting us directly to satisfy the needs of our fellow beings. As sons
and daughters, we learn to respect our superiors, as siblings we learn to cherish our
equals, but only paternity teaches us to love our inferiors. Whereas the particular
domestic affections (attachment and veneration) are more linked to the immediate
solidarity inside the familial sphere, it is fatherly love which gives us the sentiment
of continuity between generations by extending the affective relationship we retain
to our past also towards the future.89
Among the immediate intimate relationships marriage is a case apart. For
Comte it is the strongest of all domestic affections, because in fact it constitutes
the synthesis of all three social instincts, the cultivation of which remains too
isolated in other domestic relationships. More tender than the fraternal friendship,
marriage inspires a veneration which is purer and more vivid than filial respect
and a kindness which is more active and more devoted than paternal protection.90
But the most important reason for Comtes apotheosis of marriage is, again, to
be found in its role in the inner economy of affectivity: marriage is the domestic
regulator of (sexual) egoism. The model of this economy faithfully follows
Comtes speculations on the general relationship between egoistic and altruistic
instincts: the egoistic impulse serves as the energizing factor, while the altruistic
impulse with which it is mixed acts as a moderator, ennobling and refining this
primitive force. Marriage is naturally connected to the most powerful of all
egoistic instincts, namely sexual desire. This also explains the greater intensity
of conjugal affection compared to the other forms of domestic affection. But
more importantly, marriage creates an institutionalized space consecrated to the
refinement and control of egoism which is the kernel of the whole of Comtean
morality. By itself, without the help of the altruistic inclination already present
in human nature, the egoistic (sexual) impulse would be incapable of producing
anything resembling the conjugal affection for which it only paves the way. Once
sexual desire has given the necessary impetus for conjugal attachment, the latter
subsists and grows by its own charm, independently of any brutal satisfaction,
following the law common to such cerebral reactions.91
It is also thanks to this refinement that the conjugal attachment is capable of
fortifying the two other domestic affections (veneration and benevolence), because
each partner finds him- or herself both protector and protected. However, Comte
also extends the affective economy developed on the basis of brain physiology to

88 See Comte 1852, 185186.

89 See Comte 1852, 189190.
90 See Comte 1852, 186187.
91 Comte 1852, 188.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 33

the division of labour between the sexes. The protection enjoyed by the two sexes
is not identical, nor is the protection provided by each. While the security offered
to women is of a purely material nature, linked to the perils of the exterior world
(and entails a payment, namely the total renunciation of liberty), men are protected
from an inner, organic enemy, that is, the natural egoism of their sexual desire.
The division of labour between the sexes is clear-cut and essentialist: men are the
active and women the affective sex. And it is precisely the natural egoism of the
active, material existence that necessitates the continuous gentle influence of the
affective sex (curiously enough women seem to be completely devoid of egoistic
impulses Comte never so much as touches upon the question).92 The task of the
nourishers of social affectivity is none other than to preserve their more egoistic
mates from the inherent corruption of the practical and theoretical existence
which is the lot of the active sex. In the end, the positivist theory of the family is
reduced to systematizing the spontaneous influence of the feminine sentiment on
the masculine activity.93
This, in short, is the way in which affectivity and especially the egoistic
instincts are regulated from the point of view of the social structure (from the
angle of solidarity or social static, as Comte calls it). Social structure contributes to
the moderation of egoism by control and habituation: control principally operates
through reorientation, that is, by subjugating and rechannelling the affective energy
of egoism to serve altruistic ends, whereas habituation consolidates this process
through repetition, fixing the energy reoriented to the daily practices of social
life and thus contributing to the progressive strengthening of altruistic instincts
in society. These processes can be seen as two consecutive moments on the same
continuum, but they can also be regarded as two simultaneous, though slightly
different, strategies for taming the harmful passions: whereas control operates more
in the inner (physiological) economy of affectivity, habituation creates an exterior
environment favourable to the maintenance and perpetuation of altruism.94 Since

92 Comte has an extremely idealized and desexualized conception of the affective

sex: women are thoroughly altruistic creatures, devoid of any earthly lust (be it sexual
or related to power) and entirely devoted to the emotional education and nurturing of
their offspring, strictly excluded of any occupation except for this sacred task. The ideal
marriage is, as far as possible, purged of sex (since sexuality represents the egoistic drives)
and instead based on the mutual spiritual growth and respect between the spouses. Comte
even fantasizes about freeing part of the population altogether of reproductive duties,
partly for eugenic reasons (avoidance of debility, for instance). See Comte 1966 [1852],
93 Comte 1852, 204. As Wernick (2001, 147) points out, in Comtes theory men
and women have an inherently different moral formation: men, dominated by their
sexual instinct, seek immediate gratification, whereas women, desiring motherhood, are
instinctually disposed to self-sacrifice and family solidarity (i.e. to unselfish love).
94 The creation of such an environment is further facilitated by the natural aptitude of
the altruistic penchants to a more complete blossoming, because everybody can partake in
them simultaneously without any conflict, even getting an additional satisfaction from this
34 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the noblest instincts are also the less energetic ones, they need both interior and
exterior backing in order to survive. The interior support is paradoxically offered
by the egoistic instincts themselves since they lend their energy to the altruistic
impulses by intermingling with the latter and thereby supplementing them in a
beneficial way.
However, it has been pointed out that the very possibility of rechannelling
affective energy from one instinctual channel to another seems to be jeopardized
by the Gallean brain-physiology sustaining the Comtean model. One of Galls main
theses, to which Comte clings at least in its general form, is the theory concerning
the anatomic localization of different brain-functions in which each instinct
occupies a separate physiological locus in the brain.95 This makes any effective
distribution or communication of energy between the different loci difficult, if not
downright impossible. The organic enclosure of the instincts can, moreover, be
claimed to prevent any idea of a common energetic basis from which they might
emanate. The difficulty is further increased by the Lamarckian principle adopted
by Comte, according to which an instinct will gradually atrophy if not continuously
exercised, and which seems to block off any notion of sublimation (the transfer
of energy from a blocked instinctual channel to another one).96 Although Comte
hints at this possibility in passing,97 he never develops a more systematic theory
True as this may be from the individual perspective, from the angle of social
structure, by contrast, the process of supplementation operates rather by mixing
different and even heterogeneous impulses than by a transfer of energy from one
channel to another. The energy of sexual desire, for instance, while remaining
identical to itself, that is, enclosed in its proper physiological (egoistic) niche,

cooperation. This aptitude also partly compensates the lesser energy of the social instincts.
See Comte 1851, 699.
95 Although, as Clauzade (2001, 164175) points out, Comte also firmly criticizes
the theory of localization presented by Gall, only accepting it in its general, three-zone form
(the division of the affective and the intellectual faculties in three different regions of the
brain, the anterior, posterior, and middle). From this perspective, the original contribution
of Comte is precisely to sketch out a phrenology in which the anatomy and the localization
become minor and subordinated problems, whereas it is really physiology which determines
the classification of the faculties.
96 It is Andrew Wernick (2001, 145) who has pointed out these difficulties.
97 See Comte 1851, 696.
98 However, although the inscription of the egoistic instincts into the requirements
of the vegetative existence prevents them from ever fading away completely (even with the
growing impact of the social penchants), their position in the affective economy of Comte
is not quite symmetrical with that of the altruistic instincts: they do not seem to possess a
proper charm, characteristic of the latter, nor does their diminution or displacement seem
to cause any major frustration or perverse secondary effects. Hence, the domination of
altruism can, in principle, be perfectly harmonious, once the egoistic passions are under
control. (See also Wernick 2001, 145.)
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 35

boosts and invigorates the affective relationship between the spouses from the
outside as if it were, thereby supplementing it with the energy it would be lacking
in and by itself, and thus contributing to the maintenance of the correspondent
domestic affection. From the dynamic angle, the perfection of the domestic
affections the sole spontaneous intermediaries between altruism and egoism99
equals their becoming increasingly social without losing any of their intensity.
This is exactly what happens when the impact of society on the family grows with
the progress of humanity.
This is why the social milieu is so vitally important to Comte. The egoistic
instincts tend to rule when the individual draws from himself the principles of
his conduct. However, the full development of sociality opens up a new form
of continuous existence, in which the outside (the social milieu) covers the
inside (the individual organism) without merging with it, without letting itself
to be caught up in the egoistic maintenance of the individual organic existence,
oscillating between an ignoble torpor and a disordered agitation. Thus, although
the elementary requirements of the vegetative existence continue to dominate
the life of the human species, they do so in a manner which is indirect, tending
towards the opposite regime when each individual lives for the others in short,
when the satisfaction of these needs becomes collective, their influence becomes
ennobled.100 The whole point then is to find a way to increase the influence of the
social over the personal without diminishing the energy of the latter. This, in turn,
is only possible by creating an artificial order (religion), the principal function of
which is to systematically cultivate and strengthen the naturally weaker (social)
impulses and hence, to diminish mans dependence on the vegetative (egoistic)
regime as a whole in short, to find a way to make the energy of the egoistic
impulses work for altruistic ends.101
Ultimately, this also means that the energetic grading of the faculties in
the stronger/feebler, lower/superior ones is not sufficient per se, but has to be
complemented with other logic which distinguishes faculties on the basis of their
regulatory function or their capacity to orientate action by designating ends to it
(the very capacity Comte denied the intellectual faculties and altruistic instincts
in his energetic model because of their lower intensity). In short, what is needed
is a transition from the energetic model, emphasizing the equilibrium between
instincts, to another model stressing the role of the consensus and taking into
account the functional finality of each faculty in an integrated and unified system

99 Comte 1852, 184.

100 See Comte 1851, 690691 and 1852, 273; Karsenti 2006, 179181. The
problem is rather the quasi-teleological structure of Comtes argumentation which already
presupposes the existence of the social milieu without being able to explain how exactly
this comes about.
101 As Clauzade (2009, 277) points out, the paradox of positivism is to emphasize the
significance of the biological while at the same time setting its negation as an ideal.
36 Affectivity and the Social Bond

(which subjective synthesis alone is capable of producing).102 The specific feature

of the Comtean system is that the maintenance of this affective unity also requires
the intervention of the symbolic and the historical: the social affect has to be
exteriorized in a symbolic form, implying a faith and a ritual, so that it can be
sanctified and perpetuated, extended on a temporal continuum comprising the
past, present, and future in one single (sacred) synthesis. In the Comtean system
this synthesis revolves around two central poles: positivist religion, acting as
the institutional regulator of the social affect (love), and Humanity, constituting
the subject as well as the object of this affect and extending it to eternity (both
retrospectively and prospectively).

Religion of Humanity and Politics of Love

While the material necessities of existence accommodate us to wise submission

and discipline which constitute the basis of true morality, family life in turn offers
a natural milieu for the development and blossoming of our social instincts. But the
material necessities have yet to be systematized and sanctified as the general basis
of our perfection,103 just as the sphere of our sociality needs to be extended beyond
its natural (familial) limits for the constitution of positive morality.104 According to
Comte this intellectual and affective synthesis can only be operated by an exterior
force, fulfilling the same unifying and organizing function on the social level as
the brain does on the individual level. And again, in Comtes system, the question
poses itself first and foremost as a problem concerning affectivity: in order to
constitute a durable, unifying bond our social affects require an exterior (objective)
support they have to be rallied around a central, institutionalized force which
concentrates and exteriorizes them in a symbolic form, thus guaranteeing their
continuous exercise (and progressive habituation) in daily practices and rites.
This is the bonding function Comte gives to religion: by establishing a general
uniformity of mores and opinions it creates the basis of a moral continuity.105
In addition to this unifying function religion also has a regulative function: it
offers the altruistic instincts the support they need in order to guide action and

102 This point has been made by Laurent Clauzade (2009, 174).
103 Comte 1852, 168. The economic or industrial domain only offers the necessary
conditions for the progressive perfection of mankind. The material necessities cannot per se
operate the intellectual and affective synthesis needed for the new positive order.
104 See Comte 1852, 372373.
105 See Comte 1852, 217219. Whereas language, for Comte, serves to attach
the different social unities to each other, to communicate emotions (of which only the
sympathetic ones are fully transmissible, as usual) and to represent the unity in this way
created, religion in turn serves to institutionalize it. Moreover, the development of language
and of religion follows analogical lines: both emanate spontaneously of the very functions
they are destined to regulate, both have their roots in affectivity, but are constructed by the
intelligence, which assists, completes and develops the original affective impulse.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 37

to discipline the egoistic instincts. In short, religion represents the same sort of
normal state of consensus for the soul as health does for the body (consensus
being understood here in its physiological sense, as the mutual dependence or the
inner cohesion between different parts of the organism).106
From an epistemological point of view it may seem odd that the positivistic
project should need a religion in order to promote a social order based on
the rejection of God or of any supernatural authority for that matter (the only
epistemic authority accepted being science based on objective laws). This state
of affairs becomes more understandable, however, if we take a closer look at
the epistemological constitution of Comtean religion. To begin with, Comtes
relativistic conception of science can, with certain reservations, also be extended to
his idea of religion. Comte strongly emphasizes the historical and relative character
of scientific knowledge. Science is based on laws that are essentially empirical
generalizations or hypotheses, concerning bundles of relationships between
observable phenomena, not causal explanations. Science itself is, therefore, a
thoroughly historical structure, subject to continuous modifications and, as such,
also dependent on social consensus. Only a collective subject (following Kuhn
we might speak of the scientific community here) can, therefore, be the bearer
of sciences claim for universality, the only possible universality being for Comte
subjective (not objective) in nature.107
The importance of hypotheses and heuristic fictions, the subjective character
of the universality involved and the collective nature of the scientific subject are
all features which science shares with religion. In a sense it could even be claimed
that it is precisely Comtes epistemological relativism which opens up to religion,
since the latter is the form which sociology adopts when it proposes itself as the
synthesis of all human knowledge, the ultimate regulating idea of which is the
endless perfection of mankind.108 This is why Comte could, in 1849, consider
scientific knowledge to be a fundamental introduction to religion.109 From the
cognitive point of view religion is essentially constituted by belief or public
opinion, which is the same thing: there is no fundamental difference between
the two.110 For Comte public opinion is the spiritual form of the physiological
consensus (a general agreement of different parts of the body in effecting a given
purpose), a sort of inner milieu of society giving rise to the common spirit which

106 See Comte 1852, 8.

107 On Comtes conception of science, see for instance Grange 1996, 4655.
108 See Grange 1996, 151.
109 Comte to Lafitte, October 18. 1849 cited from Pickering 2009a, 297.
110 This is how Comte defines faith (la foi) in his early writings: The faith, that
is, the disposition to believe spontaneously, without prior demonstration, to the dogmas
proclaimed by a competent authority ; which is, in fact, the indispensable general condition
for allowing the establishment and maintenance of a true intellectual and moral communion
(Comte 1970b [1826], 388).
38 Affectivity and the Social Bond

holds society together.111 On the other hand, the Comtean faith also has an exterior
object which is not, however, a transcendental and unfathomable being (like the
Christian God), but a real, existing, and historical entity, namely Humanity. It is
precisely from the mutual interaction of these two parts (interior/exterior) that
the positivist religion draws its force.112 The doctrinal part of positivist religion
is thus by no means reduced to the prevailing state of scientific knowledge, but
also includes a properly religious part, including the nine sacraments113 and the
dogma of Humanity.114 It is only such doctrinal sanctification of the social affect
which can create a community of opinions capable of uniting larger groups than
those resulting from affective sympathy or active cooperation alone.115
The religious state (tat religieux) thus rests upon a permanent combination of
two equally fundamental conditions, loving and believing, which have to converge
in a natural manner. While moral harmony is established by subordinating egoism
to altruism, mental coherence rests on the predominance of the exterior world.
This, according to Comte, is the true meaning of the term religion which he
understands as the perfect coordination of the inner motors and the voluntary
submission of their totality to the laws of the exterior universe. The term religion
indicates the unity characterizing our existence, social as well as personal, when
all its parts (physical as well as moral) habitually converge towards a common

The individual being [Ltre] thus finds itself bound/connected, in the interior
and towards the exterior [en dedans et au dehors], by the total convergence
of its sentiments and its thoughts towards the superior power which determines
its acts []. [T]he true unity consists of binding the inside and rebinding it to
the outside. This is the final issue of the great positive dualism between the
organism and the milieu, or rather, between man and the world [].116

The term connotes the twofold connection [double liaison] encapsulating the
entire abstract theory of our unity. In order to create a complete and durable
harmony, the inside [le dedans] has to be bound together by love and then
rebound to the outside [le dehors] by faith.117

111 See Grange 1996, 332. These considerations may help to understand why, in the
mid-1840s, Comte seems to have rethought his former position of replacing religion with
the positive science and, instead, began to consider scientific knowledge as a fundamental
introduction to religion.
112 See also Wernick 2001, 6566 and 7172.
113 See Comte 1966 [1852], 177/1858, 128.
114 In the midst of this growing divergence [that of the laws governing the universe
T.A.], the dogma of Humanity gives unity to our conceptions, the only unity that can be
given, the only bond that we really need (Comte 1966 [1852], 93/1858, 162).
115 See Comte 1852, 34849.
116 Comte 1852, 18. See also Comte 1966, 59.
117 Comte 1966 [1852], 62.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 39

Like any genuine founding-father of a new religion, Comte understood that the
constitution and maintenance of a shared body of beliefs and mores requires
an extensive system of education, guaranteeing the temporal continuity of the
(positivist) doctrine.118 In this respect he also followed in the footsteps of many
Enlightenment theorists (for instance Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot who all
emphasized the role of education in the constitution of a new social order). Only,
instead of harnessing education to the service of reason, Comte utilizes it in the
transmission of a religious doctrine which subjugates reason to affectivity (that is,
to the strengthening of mans altruistic instincts) a solution no genuine proponent
of the Enlightenment would have accepted. The Comtean religion is essentially
nurtured and transmitted by two social categories: women and priests.119 While
women are responsible for the affective promotion of altruism inside the familial
sphere, the priests attend to the cognitive transmission of the positivist doctrine
(culminating in the love of Humanity) in institutions designated for this purpose.120
Besides this positive function of transmission and promotion, the common task
of women and priests is to moderate, through sentiment and intelligence, the
influence of the material power dominating the economic (practical) sphere where
the egoistic instincts are allowed certain latitude.121 However, since women are by
principle excluded from political and social power122 and their educative function
therefore restricted to the familial (private) sphere, the priesthood is also charged
with a public function of regulation only, this regulation is mainly carried out
by submitting intelligence in the continuous service of sociability, not by targeting
affectivity directly. But it is also important to see that positivist science is, in the

118 This conception is, again, completely in line with the ideas of young Comte: The
action of the spiritual power consists essentially of establishing, by means of education,
the opinions and the habits which must direct men in the active life, and thereafter of
maintaining, by means of a regular and continuous moral influence, exercised either on the
individuals or the classes, the practical observation of theses fundamental rules (Comte
1970b [1826], 385).
119 The third, practical or action-orientated class seems to be a mixture of two
groups: workers and industrialists or owners of property. In the 1840s Comte still counted
on workers as the executors of the positivist transformation, but after 1853, after the lack
of response on the part of the leaders of the revolutionary movement to his pleas, he seems
to have transferred his hopes more to the conservative side, addressing his appeals to
aristocrats, the industrial class and the owners whom he saw as the material providers of the
positivist regime. On this, see Pickering 2009b, 394415.
120 In fact women and priests represent the same sort of loci or regions on the
level of the social structure as those Comte designated for the brain in his physiology: while
the affective impulses find their quasi-natural locus in women, the speculative influences
are in turn concentrated in a natural centre constituted by the priests. (Comte 1852, 208.)
121 See Comte 1852, 208209.
122 Comte strictly denies women any work outside the domestic sphere and
completely excludes them from all exercise of temporal power, apparently in order to keep
them apart from any danger of contamination by the egoistic instincts see Comte 1852,
40 Affectivity and the Social Bond

end, harnessed to serve the ultimate goal of religion, that is, the inner unification
(consensus) of the social organism which would soon dissolve without this
constant morality.123
Apart from education which attends to the temporal continuity of society, the
dynamic maintenance of the inner consensus of the social organism also requires
a specific symbolism, reflecting the underlying belief system and constantly
regenerating it in ritual practice. Like the revolutionaries of 1789 Comte sketches
out a whole new ritual organization with its feasts and celebrations to mark the
significant moments of the annual cycle, starting with a revision of the calendar
system itself.124 It is noteworthy that he not only foresees various specific features
of the public cult, such as the location of temples, the figurative details of the
memorial statue, or a sophisticated calendar with special feasts for each important
social institution and each great hero of Humanity (including great men from
different walks of life, such as Cesar, Descartes, Saint Paul or Shakespeare, after
whom he renames the months of the year); but he also sketches the details of the
private cult (personal as well as domestic), with its nine sacraments, guardian
angels (mother, wife, daughter) to be adored as well as the rhythm and relative
length of the daily prayers. The regulation exercised by the positivist regime is
thus extended even to the minor details of the everyday life of its inhabitants.
The concentration of sociable affects and their continuous exercise is in this way
guaranteed by the common ritual practices, creating an extremely strong and
homogeneous bond between the members of the Comtean religion.
This is why the true, social universality in the Comtean sense is only possible
by means of a religion: since it is deeply rooted in shared beliefs and mores, it
can never be based on politics (government) alone. This observation both brings
Comte closer to and separates him from Rousseau and other proponents of a
civil religion. As Rousseau points out in The Social Contract, no state has ever
been founded without a religion125 a curious and much debated conclusion to
his own political theory.126 However, when Rousseau discusses civil religion, his
point of view is entirely that of the juridical and political discourse; he is studying

123 Comte 1852, 332.

124 The detailed description of these reforms is given in Comtes The catechism of
positive religion (See Comte 1966, 172198.)
125 Rousseau 1964a [1762], 286. An analogous principle can be found in Comtes
Catchisme, only extended to the level of social order itself: No society can exist and be
developed without a priesthood in some form or other (Comte 1966 [1852], 206/1858,
126 See for instance Beiner 1993; Derath 1962; Critchley 2009. It is unclear what
this sort of confession actually adds to the juridical foundation proper of the Social Contract
and of the General Will, and the subject has been under a lot of debate. This leap to an
artificial religion is all the more curious since Rousseau poses himself elsewhere as a
fervent proponent of a natural religion, based on the individual sentiment and a direct,
personal experience of a supreme creator, embodied in the exquisite sentiments of the
Savoyard Vicar.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 41

the prerequisites of civil society, not the norms or the mores which he, indeed,
saw as the immanent basis of any state, but only insofar as they constitute the
veritable foundation of positive law,127 not as such (that is, as directly involved
in the constitution of political society at least not in this context). It is also
from this perspective that he fixes the nature and the few positive dogmas of his
minimalistic and purely civil confession which he sees rather as the expression of
the sentiments of sociality without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a
faithful subject128 than a truly religious doctrine in any meaningful sense of the
word. What is more, Rousseaus civil religion is perceptibly limited to the strictly
doctrinal aspect of religion, devoid of any ritual practice which would make
it an integral part of the everyday life of civil society. The religion Rousseau is
proposing in fact seems to be little more than a formal, though solemn, expression
of social sentiment, the essential content of which is reduced to the sanctity of the
social pact, that is, of the juridical and political foundation of a just society.
Indeed, it has been suggested that the whole point of Rousseauan civil
religion, very minimalistic and non-religious by nature, is to imply the final
incommensurability of politics (always sectarian) and of a true (Christian) religion
(always universalistic).129 The contradiction with the Comtean doctrine is even
clearer if we look at the Geneva Manuscript, where Rousseau explicitly refutes any
possibility of founding political order to the universal benevolence (brotherhood)
promoted by Christianity, criticizing it for placing unrealistic expectations
on human nature. On the other hand, the general will could be interpreted as
proposing just the kind of collective egoism (amalgamating individual interest
with the interest of the polis) against which Comte explicitly warned in connection
with Christianity.130 Yet, Rousseau specifically mentions love in this context: it is
as though, in spite of the essentially reasonable nature of the general will, the
central feature of which is to reason in the absence of passions,131 Rousseau would
still seek to beef up the resulting juridico-political structure with an affective
support based on love. However, it is important to notice that the love Rousseau is
referring to in this context has a very specific object, namely the laws:

127 On this, see for instance Goldschmidt 1983, 706707.

128 Rousseau 1964a [1762], 290. The dogmas of this confession are limited to those
concerning the existence of a benevolent Deity, the eternal life, the happiness of the just and
the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the Social Contract, and of the Laws.
129 See Beiner 1993, 637.
130 See for instance Comte 1966 [1852], 158. For Comte the Christian precept of
loving your neighbor as yourself was just another way of sanctifying the fundamentally
egoistic motives of the alleged brotherly love.
131 Indeed, that the general will is in each man an act of pure understanding that
reasons in the silence of passions about what man may demand of his neighbor, and what
his neighbor has the right to demand of him, nobody will deny (Rousseau 1964b [1887],
108 Rousseau is here paraphrasing the famous definition given by Didrot of the natural
law in his Encyclopdie).
42 Affectivity and the Social Bond

While it [the Sovereign] can compel no one to believe them [the laws], it can
banish from the State whoever does not believe them it can banish him, not
for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and
justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty.132

This is a capital difference compared to the system of positive politics that Comte
has in mind: in Rousseaus polis love has nothing to do with the actual foundation
of civil society which is strictly juridical, based on the General Will alone. If love
there is, its sole object here is the law. It is precisely this juridical conception, based
on the rights and the duties of individuals toward each other, that Comtean positive
politics wants to push aside by replacing it with a Religion founded directly on
affectivity. If we follow the general idea of Rousseaus social contract, stated in the
Geneva Manuscript, according to which the only genuine fundamental law that
flows immediately from the social pact, is that each man in all things prefer the
greatest good of all,133 then we might say that it is precisely this law that Comte
wants to perpetuate not only by uprooting it from its former juridical ground and
by anchoring it instead in the human biological constitution (human nature) by the
name of altruism but also by sanctifying it as the ultimate telos of his philosophy
of history which ends up in a state dominated by the universal love of Humanity.
In the Comtean system religion is the institutional organizer of a very special
kind of social affect, namely love. It is precisely through love that intelligence
and action are connected to affectivity, which would otherwise remain enclosed
in its physiological niche, without direct contact to the exterior world. Love is
an opening to the outside, to a form of (social) continuity which surpasses the
biological one, an inclination to step outside of oneself, towards the other. On the
other hand, Comte emphasizes the connection between love and freedom: love
is the indispensable basis of any durable union between independent creatures.
The social can only manifest itself in its individual (biological), materialized
instances; this is why love, the supreme form of the social instinct, must be a free
and voluntary act of individuals. This individual freedom can even be seen as a
necessary condition for a loving relationship marked by a certain hierarchy: it
is precisely by serving the others, voluntarily putting himself at the disposal of
the others, that the individual is elevated above his biological (organically bound,
dependent) existence, since he submits or pushes aside his egoistic inclinations in
favour of his feebler, social, or altruistic instincts.134

132 Rousseau 1964a [1762], 290 italics T.A.

133 Rousseau 1964b [1887], 150.
134 This the interpretation proposed by Karsenti (2006, 181183) who takes as an
example the analysis Comte offers for the love between a dog and his master (see Comte
1851, 612613). However, as Karsenti points out, this interpretation presupposes that
service is distinguished from servitude and seen as a voluntary participation in the action
of the other, since love always constitutes an impulse to action. This means that [in the
society of one another] we exist in an independent manner, participating freely in a joint
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 43

Love is also the other name Comte gives to universal benevolence which
differs from the other social affects (attachment and veneration) at least in two
important respects. Firstly, it is more extended in scope, since its object is virtually
unlimited (Humanity); and secondly, it is hierarchically structured because always
directed towards a superior being. The extended nature of Comtean love is, of
course, a necessary characteristic of an affect which is supposed to constitute
a universal binding force on which a global social order is to be based. On the
other hand, this horizontal extension simultaneously leads to the enfeebling of the
corresponding energetic impulse,135 making the need of an exterior support all the
more palpable. However, the same enfeebling also characterizes the Great Other
constituting the exterior support or the object of this sentiment: it becomes more
abstract and devoid of differentiating features, more diffused as it were, whence
the need of a constant ritual and symbolic revival.
The hierarchical nature of the universal benevolence is already inscribed
in Comtes model of the familial affective bonds which are strongly marked
by patriarchal hegemony (the point of view of a married male or the head of
the family).136 Love, for Comte, always signifies following the direction of
a superior being. This is why it is, in the normal state of religious consensus,
profoundly marked by another social affect, namely veneration: In fact, for the
submission to be complete, love has to be combined with respect.137 Discipline
and submission play a capital role in the Comtean analysis of social affectivity in
at least three different senses. Firstly, in the overall affective economy of Comtes
system the egoistic instincts are not the only ones in need of continuous control:
the altruistic instincts also have to be directed and channelled towards a superior
entity, a centre which disciplines and concentrates the social affectivity, binding
it to itself. Secondly, on the individual level love as such is impregnated with this
submissive aspect precisely because of its altruistic nature: the one who loves in
fact civilizes, educates himself by reaching beyond the egoistic (purely biological,
material) needs inherent in his being. Finally, from the species point of view the
collective and habitual submission develops in us the instincts of veneration and of
attachment, thereby strengthening the social milieu even further and contributing
to the progressive habituation of the altruistic tendencies.138
However, as Comte points out, in order to be effective the affective discipline
has to preserve the liberty of those it subjugates, that is, the submission must be
voluntary. Such a relationship, combining love with respect, is typical not just of
the attachment between the members of the family, but even of the sentiment of
universal benevolence, characterizing the relationship of each individual to the

action, since loving can only be a free act and never result from any sort of imposition
(Karsenti 2006, 182183).
135 See Comte 1852, 139.
136 See also Wernick 2001, 126.
137 Comte 1852, 16.
138 See Comte 1852, 401.
44 Affectivity and the Social Bond

Supreme Being (Humanity). The extension of the loving relationship is, however,
only possible on the condition that the goodness of the supreme power modifies
the direct exercise of its authority: every individual submitting to its power has to
realize also intellectually the truly universal character of its benefits. In this way
the social milieu constituted by Humanity feeds back to its constitutive parts
in a beneficial manner, strengthening the positive bond even further. This also
explains the inherent variations of our successive opinions regarding the exterior
order these opinions are always relative, depending on the effectiveness of the
feedback relationship between the Supreme Being and its individual parts. The
degree of unity between the intellectual (faith) and the moral (love) components
of the religious (subjective) synthesis constitutes for Comte the main measure of
human perfection, their relationship being not that of a static equilibrium but a
continuous movement, always tending towards a greater degree of union.139
Thus, Comtean love is not encapsulated in the Golden Rule (love thy neighbour
as thyself), or in any analogical juridico-ethical principle taking individual as
its starting point. More importantly still, it is not a precept, an abstract rule of
conduct dictated by the individual conscience or even by a collective subject (the
general will, for instance), but an instinctual inclination inscribed in human nature.
However, in order to get the upper hand in the human instinctual economy, so
that each individual habitually and as if spontaneously lives for others instead
of himself, this inclination needs an exterior support not only an institution
attending to its symbolic renewal and habituation (the Positive Religion), but also
an exterior object to which it can be projected and condensed. This object in the
Comtean system is Humanity.
Humanity, the supreme object of individual love in the Comtean system, is
a very particular entity. It is by no means identical to the mass of actually living
human beings, since it also comprises past and future generations. Thus, Humanity
is itself a product of human history and especially of the historical imagination: it is
in large part constituted by a process of collective remembrance, the object of which
is its own development. This is why Humanity is organically intertwined with the
religion which fabricates, recollects, and sanctifies this historical process. In this
sense it cannot exist without the continuous and conscious work of maintenance,
performed by the empirically existing individuals on whom its objective reality
depends. Humanity constitutes the foundation of historical (subjective) continuity,

139 See Comte 1852, 1619. This dynamic dimension eventually opens up to Comtes
law of three stages. It is important to notice that the feedback relationship between the
social organism and its milieu is also a determinant factor in the very concept of progress
as understood by Comte: without feedback there would be change, but no progress, since
the latter always consists in the amelioration of the order as a result of modifications
related to a common end. On the other hand, since progress is for Comte only evolution or
development of order without any genuine creation, this naturally entails that the limits of
normal variation should be carefully fixed. (See Comte 1852, 3842.)
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 45

since it binds together the past, present, and future.140 In this sense it is both a fiction
and the meta-historical condition of fictitiousness, since the fiction of Humanity
opens up a space in which the temporality of (collective) narration can first unfold.
This paradox is crystallized in Comtes idea of new fetishism, a new sort
of harmonious relationship between man and the world which he saw as the
ultimate (post-political) telos of his positive religion. The new religion has, in
fact, a double object of veneration: Humanity (Le Grand-tre) and the Universe
(Le Grand-Milieu), which both require the love of mankind. It is through the
relativity brought into play by the knowledge concerning its own history and the
moral auto-transformation it accomplishes on the basis of this very knowledge that
humanity finds a new form of belief which Comte calls the new fetishism.141 In
this belief system the religious regulation of human relationships is the condition
of the unity and equilibrium of the universe. From the cognitive point of view this
unity and equilibrium is essentially a regulatory idea, a forever-open and unending
process of its own accomplishment. In this sense Comtean Humanity is essentially
of a fictive character: although it is based on the progress of the sciences and
on knowledge concerning their history, it also belongs to the realm of faith and
belief, because it is partly founded on a religious and poetic intuition concerning
the indispensable harmony between man and the world. As a real, historical
process of mutual adaption and search for equilibrium between Humanity and the
Universe it cannot do without the religion which sanctifies it as the telos of its own
This leads directly to the most peculiar feature of Comtean Humanity, namely
the fact that its principal mode of existence is not objective but subjective. The
subjective nature of Humanity is not only linked to its fictive and historical character
as the vehicle of social continuity it is also intimately connected with death. In
Comtes system each individual has, in fact, two existences: one, objective and
temporal life on the earth, and another, subjective and eternal existence in the
memory of those actually living. Humanity is precisely this virtual and eternal
subjectivity which comprises both dimensions the living as the bearers of
memories of those who have been and past (as well as the future)143 generations as

140 A feature which Comte sees essential for the human sociability, exceeding the
objective solidarity of animal societies precisely by the cooperation over generations
(see Comte 1852, 361). In this sense religion is above all the regulator of the subjective
continuity (i.e. the social instance operating the synthesis of the past, present, and future).
141 See Comte 1852, 367368.
142 On this, see Grange 1996, 151153. Or as Wernick (2001, 178) puts it, the
sociolatric belief that universal sympathy without mirrors universal sympathy within is
not given directly by reason, nor can it be justified by the strict operations of a phenomenal
science: It involved an attribution, inspired by faith, whose effects were moral and whose
cognitive status was empathically fictif.
143 Although Comte includes also the future generations in his concept of Humanity,
he actually talks very little about this prospective dimension, concentrating almost
exclusively on the relationship between the actual/present and the past generations. On
46 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the objects of these mental images. The principal mode of existence of Humanity
is thus immaterial, since it resides most of all in the mind of the living, the action
of whom it regulates retroactively. This virtual character is further accentuated by
the fact that entry is by no means free: not just anyone gets in only those who
have served Humanity deservingly during their lifetime get accepted:144

Properly speaking, no man can almost ever become an organ of Humanity

except in this second life. The first one constitutes in reality only a trial, destined
to merit this final incorporation Thus, the individual is by no means yet a
true organ of the Great-Being; but he aspires to become one with the aid of his
services as a distinct being Incorporated in the Supreme-Being he becomes
truly inseparable from it. Subtracted from that moment on from all physical laws
he only remains subject to the superior laws that govern directly the fundamental
evolution of Humanity.145

The individual thus serves Humanity as a living being during his life and as
an organ after his death which finally transforms (or rather, transfigures) his
objective existence into a subjective, eternal life. The whole of human education
has to prepare each and every one to live for others in order that each would
get an opportunity to re-live in others. Furthermore, since Comte thinks that the
relative proportion of the dead compared to the living increases over time,146 their
weight gets heavier all the time. In a sense the dead are a fatality which could be
compared to the factors of the physical environment shaping the life of the living;
on the other hand, they constitute the foundation of human historicity, of the over-
generational (subjective) temporality perforating the biological (the physical)
both backwards and forwards, preventing the reduction of society to its objective
(present) foundation. The Humanity of Comte is not a transcendental subject in the
Kantian sense or a static absolute rather, it is the process of its own becoming
or the becoming-Humanity of the empirical individual (in Comtes sense we only
become subjects by ceasing to be individuals). This is why Humanity can never be
completely present in its phenomenal, actual form. It is constantly in the making

the cognitive level this would entail a more profound analysis of the status of imagination,
on the affective level an enquiry into the specific nature of the relationship we can have to
generations not yet born, and from actions point of view a specification of the proactive
effect of future generations to our current action.
144 In Comtes plans the actual decision or consecration was to be made
posthumously by the priesthood seven years after the death of those concerned (See Comte
1966 [1852], 182).
145 Comte 1852, 6061.
146 See Comte 1852, 61. Thus the true sociality consists more of the successive
continuity than of the actual solidarity. Those living are always, and ever increasingly,
necessarily governed by the dead: such is the fundamental law of the human order. (Comte
1966, 79.)
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 47

and the subjectivity of human beings depends on their access to this ever-living,
self-modifying entity, a virtual subject in action.147
Interpreted through affectivity rather than through intelligence (as remembrance),
the cult of the dead may also be seen as a sort of solution to the problem of how
to love an abstraction like Humanity, since love always requires a definite, limited
object: to love humanly, in a manner which transcends the level of a simple
immediate attachment, is to love those to whom we are no longer attached by any
objective bonds. Our sole authentic love as individuals living in society would
thus be the love of those who are dead. The real (objective) life of the dead is
the activity of the living governed by them, whereas the authentic (subjective)
life of the living is the cult they offer to the dead.148 The past interpreted in this
sense, as the action of the dead inside of us, becomes fully present and by the same
token generates a temporal continuity in which the future is thereafter situated.
On the other hand, the dead also constitute an important regulator of the mundane
affective tumults: since their relative weight compared to the living increases all
the time, the agitation and the perturbations characteristic of the life of the latter
tend to evaporate little by little so that in the end death, the inevitable successor of
life, becomes the principal source of its systematization.149
However, this also leads to a strange and rather unhappy situation in the domain
of morality, since in fact it turns mans social impulses into an obligation. Altruism
becomes a burden, a continuous striving to which every moment of individual
existence is to be devoted even though each individual is presumed to choose this
act of love deliberately. The dead need us, without our contribution they would
die.150 The act that is supposed to represent the purest unselfishness, a gift given
from the goodness of the heart (unconditional benevolence), becomes a daily duty
governed by an iron discipline, the modes of which are dictated beforehand even to
the tiniest detail (one only has to take a look at the list of the ritual practices listed
in the Catechism of Positive Religion in order to become convinced, although
Comte tries to assure his readers that this is not the case).151 The life of the citizen
in Comtean society resembles that of a monk who sacrifices his existence to the
service of the supreme Go(o)d.

147 See Karsenti 2006, 199. In this sense subjectivation or becoming-subject of

the individual is a never-ending, unachievable process: The real cohesion can actually
be realized only in the element of time, and in consequence, in marching along [] The
subjectivity to which Humanity gives us access can never be absolutized [].
148 See Karsenti 2006, 186187. This is also the sense Karsenti gives to the idea of
incorporation or organicity in the sociological domain.
149 See Comte 1852, 466.
150 Interpreted in this sense the Comtean fetishism would in fact come quite close to
the symbolic exchange of the primitive societies described by Baudrillard (1976, 202220).
151 See Comte 1852, 67: Besides the decisive support which it [= the altruistic
regime] naturally gets from the exterior order, it by no means requires the total sacrifice of
personality, only its eventual subordination to sociality. The religion of Humanity ennobles
even the rudest instincts as it disciplines them. In a rather iron-like manner, one might add.
48 Affectivity and the Social Bond

But this is not all. Comtean love is not only hierarchically structured, always
directed towards a superior being; it is also closed so that in the last instance each
individual gets his affective energy from the relationship to the Great Other (Le
Grand-tre) that each of them is affected by, but affected in solitude, much like by
the Christian God.152 The solitary nature of the relationship is not essentially altered
by the fact that it is mediated, particularized by a number of saints (the dead or the
Heroes of Humanity), since the latter are but instances of this great homogeneous
body. Comtean love is not contagious or horizontal it is thoroughly aseptic and
vertical, clean and pure in every sense of the word. The nature of the social bond
it creates is strangely solipsistic, engaging each individual in a constant work or
reproduction of this consensual relationship and the Great Fiction sustaining it, but
in a curiously mechanical and isolated manner, without the slightest reciprocity
or dialectic of mutual recognition either on the part of the co-worshippers or the
object of worship.153 Altruism does not entail a direct relationship to others, but on
the contrary even the most private relationships have to be mediated by the idea of
Humanity which becomes the primary object of individual identification.154
In these circumstances it is justified to ask what becomes of politics politics
understood either as a discussion and governance of common affairs, or indeed,
like many of the natural law theorists saw the question, as a mode (or even a
technique) of restraining the harmful passions inherent in human nature. It
is commonly agreed that in Comtes system politics as an autonomous sphere
collapses or rather is incorporated into religion.155 Indeed, in Comtean sociocracy
politics seems to become obsolete in the sense that both the organic integration of
society and its highest decision-making functions are trusted to positive religion
and its representatives (the priests) only concrete administration is left to a
political class, the nature of which Comte, however, does not specify (he speaks
vaguely of the chiefs, the government, and the state).
It is also unclear whether a concrete executive instance will still be needed
in the final stage of positive integration: on the one hand, Comte seems to retain,
for instance, the possibility of resorting to institutionalized violence, on the other
hand, he tends to assume that it will become unnecessary because of the general
homogenization of mores and the affective regulation, based on spontaneous

152 See Wernick 2001, 206.

153 Wernick (2001, 150) quite justifiably compares the Comtean love to a beam
from a lighthouse: There is no between, no mutual implication, which might connect,
other than mechanically, the terms which it binds together.
154 The atomized character of the Comtean social bond is epitomized in his fantasy
about the virgin-mother, involving the idea of women being capable of autoprocreation
see Comte 1854, 276; Clauzade 2009, 309313.
155 See for instance Pickering 2009b, 194; Kremer-Marietti, 1970; Wernick 2001,
210214 (although Wernick sees the relationship rather the other way round, that is,
religion becomes political through and through since it is essentially understood as a body
of practices through which society is first realized).
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 49

veneration of the religious order.156 However, what Comte understands by

government is rather the physiological dynamics of the social body seen as a
combination of collective forces, not a juridically created and maintained order
between individual agents. If there is coercion, it comes from the normative power
of social forces (public opinion, uniformity of mores), not from an administrative
organ specifically created and authorized to enforce the law. Since a function can
be correctly discharged only by its proper organ, any combined action of man
requires a force specially destined to reintegrate the diverging agents and to bring
them back to the general views and sentiments. On the other hand, these forces
are themselves a natural result of the inequalities that human progress always
Comte sees the transformation of the personal ambitions of the few (some
leading families) as the basis and origin of human government: when the common
need of repression and of direction, resulting from the separation of social tasks,
is habitually transformed and channelled in social inclinations (in a way which
benefits the whole society),157 the government is born in a natural manner: It is in
this way that the principle of cooperation, on which the political society properly
speaking is based, generates in a natural fashion the government, the duty of which
is to maintain and develop this society.158 Although social cohesion is in general
based on the universal faith and on the habituated social instincts, its natural
foundation is the material force. This is why the political structure of Comtean
society is the city-state (la cit): it represents the largest political society that can
exist without oppression. For any prolonged domination, three factors are needed:
an intellectual guide, a moral consecration, and a social regulator. The only way
to satisfy this threefold need is to superimpose upon the political (civil) society a
more general and more noble association, produced by positive religion, alone
capable of creating a universal, organic connection between the city-states.159
This is basically the solution Comte proposes to the Hobbesian problem of
order: the regulation of the harmful passions of man (in Comtes case the egoistic
tendencies inherent in human nature) requires a common faith to a trans-individual
telos of all human progress and the concentration of affectivity around an
artificially-produced representation of this telos: the conservation and perfection
of the Great Other (Le Grand-tre), always in progress. In the end each
individual spontaneously accomplishes the triple office of knowing, loving, and
serving Humanity a task which the positive religion in turn systematizes by the
dogma, cult, and regime it institutes.160 All citizens are morally engaged as public

156 See Comte 1852, 32 and 417419.

157 The principles of this transformation were specified in the preceding sub-chapter
see pp. 2223.
158 Comte 1852, 299.
159 Comte 1852, 303306.
160 See Comte 1966, 93.
50 Affectivity and the Social Bond

servants of the social, since this is what social harmony requires.161 Thus, although
the great human problem (the regulation of the mans egoistic tendencies) is
biological in essence, its solution is social. Politics has only an auxiliary role in
this constellation. Furthermore, politics is not at all understood in the juridical
mode, as a discourse determining the rights of each party in the framework of
a social contract, such as in the preceding natural rights tradition, but first and
foremost as a technique of governance, the fundamental aim of which is to serve
the common end of human history (i.e., the perfection of Humanity).

The tendencies of the heart towards the universal love have finally been
systematized by the spirit that shows each citizen his proper office in the totality
of human order, and his normal relationships to all other social functions.162

In sum, it is precisely the biological/physiological economy of affectivity which

constitutes the immanent background of the whole Comtean system: without the
egoistic instinctual motor human activity and intelligence would have no goal and
no motivation. But on the other hand, were egoism given free reign, man would
be left at the mercy of his inner impulses, his existence oscillating between an
ignoble torpor and a senseless agitation. The problem is of channelization and
just measure, and these can only be given socially, from outside an individuals
instinctual structure. To this end, the outside (i.e. the social milieu) must be
strengthened, since the social instincts are the naturally weaker ones. However, this
is not possible without an artificial instance, concentrating the social instincts and
rallying them around a symbolic representation which postulates a common end to
action but by the same token, and by the very same move, restraining the egoistic
tendencies, albeit without violence and without direct political intervention. This
artificial instance, operating both the unification of the social impulses and the
non-violent, symbolic and normative regulation of the egoistic tendencies, is
Humanity. Although Comtean Humanity is immanent in the sense that it is entirely
dependent on the individual (living) beings who keep it alive (ever present) and
effective through their activity, it is nonetheless transcendental in the sense that
neither its constituent parts nor its normative power can be reduced to the presence
of those whose activity produces its actual form. The great human problem then
is to subordinate, as much as possible, the personality to sociality and to relate the
whole to Humanity.
The major question here concerns the interpretation given to the Comtean
principle of transcendence, namely Humanity. If it is seen essentially as the real
history of the social organism in its process of development,163 then the whole
dimension of the politic has to be rethought: either as a politic of the organic
(the spirit understood as one of its modalities) or a politic of the spirit (the

161 Comte 1852, 410.

162 Comte 1852, 397.
163 Karsenti 2006, 147.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 51

spirit conceived essentially in the framework of the cerebral physiology, i.e.

as an organism in continuous interaction with its environment and hence in an
endless process of development). However, in this interpretation transcendence is
completely absorbed in an immanence which is biological and historical at the same
time, since entirely comprised of individuals who not only actualize Humanity in
their daily activity (through the religious cult) but who, in and by themselves, are
seen as a mode of inscription of the social reality into the order of the living.164
Seen as a history of the successive phases of the development of human spirit, this
constellation has undeniable affinities with the Hegelian philosophy of history,
especially regarding the teleological (Aristotelian) conception of nature to which
they both subscribe.165 However, the biological foundation of the Comtean model
separates it from the Hegelian phenomenological framework, marked by the
problem of the liberty of the spirit (history as affirmation and recognition of this
liberty). On the contrary, Comtes aim is to set limits to the idea of an indefinite
perfectibility by naturalizing the spirit: development is related to and limited
by a biological foundation, the human nature, defined in organic terms. As a
consequence, the evolution of the spirit can be thought as biological development
starting from a given organic basis, so that the history of the human spirit is at the
same time the history of its biological development, that is, a process which is
necessarily of a finite nature.166
However, seen from the subjective (sociological) angle, the subject of this
process, namely Humanity, is never realized objectively on the phenomenological
or historical level, since it is nothing but a common term denoting the multiple
individual presences approaching indefinitely the same end (i.e. the perfection of

164 Karsenti 2006, 19. In Karsentis interpretation the sociocratic heritage, although
concretely taken care of by individuals (the functionaries of Humanity), is still social in the
sense that it is a mode of transmission which is socially regulated, albeit in a completely
immanent fashion, through each member to whom the decision to serve the collective
subject belongs (Karsenti 2006, 149).
165 See Clauzade 2002, 5.
166 Thus, although there seems to be some controversy on the subject (see for
instance Grange 1996, 228229; Karsenti 2006, 113), there is indeed a sort of end of
history in the Comtean history of the spirit, this end being the positive stage. Inside of this
final stage an ever increasing development of the human spirit remains an open horizon, but
the stage itself, in its very positivity, is irreversible and final. The Comtean philosophy of
history (if such a term is accepted) is by no means an open process, since it carefully fixes
both the phases and the unfolding of its own movement. In fact, it is precisely because it
can be related to a nature accounting for its development that the evolution of the spirit
has the character of an invariable law, the stages of which are determined in an irreversible
manner. However, this does not mean the exclusion of all possibilities of intervention to this
process, although it leaves a constant tension to the relationship between the spontaneous,
innate development of human nature and the conscious, moral efforts destined to advance
this automatic and as if natural process (See Clauzade 2001, 78 and 2009, 278280; on the
relationship between the notions of perfection and development in Comtes positivism,
see also Macherey 2004, 287292.)
52 Affectivity and the Social Bond

this virtuality). The Comtean morals, attached to an anthropology the epicentre

of which is the sociologically reformulated cerebral physiology, is the politics of
the becoming-subject of each individual.167 Thus, the real subject of Comtean
politics would be Humanity seen in the process of its own becoming, a virtual
entity never actually present. This leaves us with the inevitable question not only
as to the mode of efficacy peculiar to the aforementioned politics (which, in the
end, would seem to be little more than a sanctification of certain course of history),
but perhaps most of all as to its subject. Even though the modification of the course
of history is by no means impossible (provided there is sufficient knowledge of the
laws guiding it), the alleged subject of this intervention is unclear to say the least:
would it be effectuated by the existing members of mankind (constituting only a
small portion of Humanity and besides only granted entry to it after their death),
an enlightened class (the priests) or perhaps by one individual who would then be
placed in the same position as the legislator of Rousseau or Hegel himself after
having written the Phenomenology of the Spirit (that is, both as a transcendental
guarantee of the system and a concrete individual part of it)?168
From the historical point of view Comte is manifestly in search of the same kind
of ideal, organizing source of social cohesion and regulation which characterized
most of the utopian tendencies of eighteenth and nineteenth-century France. In his
diagnostic the roots of modern anarchy lie precisely in the insufficient regulation
of the perturbing passions (the egoistic impulses) and in the lack of mental and
moral systematization which positive religion alone is capable of accomplishing.
The subjective synthesis, which only the science of human society can operate,
implies knowledge concerning the aims (values) of humanity as well as elevation
of the social sentiment (attaching the individual to these aims) to the position
of supreme value. In this sense Comte is entirely in line with the other utopian
thinkers of roughly the same epoch (such as Condorcet, Fourier, or Saint-Simon)
who all wanted to combine positive science and moral ends in a way which would
inscribe a human future in the development of the material universe itself (either
as a purely natural necessity or as a providential plan).169
On the other hand, the Comtean system also epitomizes a more far-reaching
shift in the conceptualization of human affectivity, as well as of the methods
best suited for its control. Whereas the former tradition of political theory (from
Hobbes to Rousseau) had seen passions as an integral part of the individual
psycho-physiological constitution and dealt with them by juridical means, allying
in this with the allegedly rational part of the individual soul, Comte shifts the
emphasis from the individual to the collective, rejecting the psychological,

167 Karsenti 2006, 212.

168 This is precisely the status of the Great Priest (Le Grand Prtre) Comte was
planning for himself as the only individual entitled to the membership of Humanity already
during his objective life.
169 On the historical and ideological background of the eighteenth and the nineteenth
century French utopian thinkers, see Benichou 1996, 651805.
Auguste Comte: Passion Sublimated into Love 53

voluntaristic approach altogether. Instead, he takes his starting point from biology,
seeing the affective economy of human beings as part of their species specific
physiological make-up which sets sociality as the specific characteristic of man. It
is precisely the artificial fortification (surpassing the biological, or rather, giving
the biological human nature a social destination) of this natural/biological feature
which constitutes the basis of the whole system of affect-regulation envisioned by
Comte. This also implies a profound transformation compared to the former model
of control: the politico-juridical scheme, based on a contractual and voluntary
arrangement between individuals and a transcendental (juridical) instance, is
replaced by a new mode of regulation which, instead of hampering mans harmful
passions with coercive or contractual means, aims at channelling them by a non-
repressive, normative integration. Comtes theory is a case in point: affective
control is realized by combining normative and symbolic elements in a system,
the foundation of which is ultimately a moral unity based on a common faith and
its ritual reproduction. As a consequence the perturbing passions are regulated in
a productive way: their energy continues to motivate both the individual activity
and a limited sector of society (the material or the industrial sphere), but it is
constantly restrained and channelled by a symbolic (religious) organization, setting
a common end (the perfection of Humanity) to the collective endeavour. What is
noteworthy, however, is the fact that Comte should feel obliged to construct a
quasi-transcendental, unifying authority as a general guide and support of this
process. This is in fact also the case with his more renowned successor, mile
Durkheim, also known as the father of French empirical sociology.
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Chapter 2
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed
into Force and Symbol

mile Durkheim is often presented as the father of scientific sociology, mostly

thanks to his pioneering work on the sociological method.1 Durkheims ideas
on social explanation and treating social phenomena as facts comparable to
those studied by natural sciences have, in turn, been seen as typical of his early
positivistic period, characterized by the emphasis given to social morphology
(or the facts related to the social infrastructure) in sociological explanation,
prominent for instance in his study on the division of labour in society (1893).
These Comtean influences were allegedly pushed aside by his more idealistic
period which started with a much-quoted revelation concerning the capital role
of religion in society:2

It is only in 1895 that I had a clear sentiment of the capital role which religion
played in social life. It was this year that, for the first time, I found the means to
approach the study of religion sociologically. This was a revelation to me. That
course in 1895 marked a dividing line in the development of my thought, so
much so that all my previous research had to be freshly undertaken in order to
be harmonized with these new insights.3

Arguments for and against this epistemological rupture have proliferated ever
since it was first presented;4 while some deny it altogether,5 others have tended to
turn it into an epoch-making feature also in the academic Durkheim-reception.6 This
alleged rupture has, moreover, been associated with other major transformations
in Durkheims thinking, including a growing attention to spiritual factors, that
is, phenomena related to the collective consciousness (such as representations,
ideas, etc.) at the expense of the morphological (or structural) factors (such as

1 Durkheim 2010 [1895].

2 Talcott Parsons is perhaps the most well-known proponent of this interpretation
see Parsons 1968 [1937], 307308 and 444445.
3 Durkheim 1975a [1907], 404.
4 Presumably by Georges Davy in 1911 on this see Pickering 1984, 48.
5 See for instance Rawls 1996. For more prudent stances against any radical break
in Durkheims thought, see for instance Wallwork 1985; Steiner 2000, 2125; Pickering
1984, 5051; and Tarot 1999, 241242.
6 See Smith and Alexander 1996. For less encompassing affirmations of the break,
see for instance Nisbet 1972, 86; Fish 2005, 18; Besnard 2003, 91 and Karsenti 1997, 42.
56 Affectivity and the Social Bond

demographic or institutional facts)7 and a transition from a synchronic model of

explanation to a diachronic one, based on original (religious) causes instead of
contemporary structural factors.8
Several attempts to explain this rupture have been made, either by stressing the
continuity and mediating role of some of Durkheims key concepts and ideas or by
showing the presence of idealism already in his early work9 and/or the continuous
interest he showed in morphological factors in his later theory of religion.10 If we
look at the Durkheimian theory taking the problem of affectivity as a starting point
the impression of some sort of rupture is further strengthened: while affectivity is
already present as a theme in his pre-1895 work (for instance in the 1893 study on
the division of labour, in which Durkheim sees the problem of cohesion in modern
societies more in terms of social organization than in terms of affective energies
or forces), it is first and foremost in the 189596 lectures on socialism and the
1897 study on suicide that it seems to become one of the key problems in modern
societies. This new concern can also be read in the 1902 preface to the second
edition of The Division of Labor in Society: here Durkheim explicitly frames the
problem of social cohesion as that of controlling human passions, which he then
attempts to solve by means of social structure (instead of instituting a political
authority, like the social contract theories before him).11 Although affectivity is
in no way the key factor of Durkheims interpretation of the division of labour in
1893, 10 years later it constitutes the implicit background of his entire conception
of the dangers caused by the lack of (moral) regulation and the ensuing state of
anomie in modern societies.
There is also another interesting shift in Durkheims writings, regarding
both the methods of controlling affectivity and the role of affectivity given as
the foundation of sociality: whereas in the earlier texts (The Division of Labor in
Society, Socialism, in part also Suicide) affectivity is seen pretty much through the
lens of the Hobbesian tradition, as a harmful and dangerous force to be controlled,
in the theory of religion (as well as in the texts concerning morality) it becomes
the most important factor of integration and of the recreation of the social bond.

7 See Davy 2003 [1950], 1920; Pickering 1984, 48; and Parsons 1968 [1937].
8 See Lacroix 1974.
9 On this, see for instance Fish 2005, 105.
10 See Tarot 1999, 241242; Tarot also stresses the changing emphasis given to
the idea of the symbolic in explaining this rupture, which he sees more as a structural
problem immanent in the Durkheimian sociology than a diachronic change or evolution in
Durkheims thinking. In his theory of religion Durkheim no longer sees the symbolization as
a projection on the outside world of a social order which would preexist in the morphological
features of society, but rather as a process through which a group in a certain environment
creates itself by fixing its representations, but also creates and fixes these representations by
exchanging them in sensible forms. In other words, society does not pre-exist the process of
symbolization but creates and fixes itself with it. (Tarot 1999, 242.)
11 See Durkheim 1960a [1893], Prface de la seconde dition, IIVIII.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 57

Although some commentators12 have paid attention to this shift, what has passed
unnoticed is the fact that this transformation is, in Durkheims texts, further linked
to a distinction between different types of affectivity: individual desires, collective
passions/effervescence, and collective sentiments. While the two former represent
affective energy in its unbound, potentially insatiable, and eruptive state, the
collective sentiments are not only mediated by collective consciousness, but
also fixed in a symbolic form (representations). The problem of affectivity is
further complicated by an anthropological postulate concerning the dual nature
of man (homo duplex) which seems to relegate the harmful passions and egoistic
tendencies to mans individual, biologically-determined existence. The status of
the homo duplex hypothesis is, however, likewise ambivalent in Durkheims work:
whereas the theory of the social division of labour emphasizes the abnormal
character of the insatiable forms of human lust, the theory on suicide rests upon
a firm division of the human nature in two parts, one of which seems to be
constitutively at the mercy of its own, virtually limitless desires.13
In this chapter I will first analyse Durkheims conception of human nature,
especially the homo duplex hypothesis and its ontological and epistemological
status in his theory. I will then turn to examine the lectures on socialism and
the theory of suicide as well as the particular economy of affectivity Durkheim
develops in these analyses, based on the Hobbesian-type of control mixed with a
classical (rather mechanistic) dynamic of forces. Finally, I will analyse Durkheims
theory of religion and the shift to another type of affective economy, based on a
symbolic channelization and integration of the collective effervescence which, in
Durkheims theory, functions as a founding (energetic) moment of society. In the
concluding section I will briefly discuss the nature of the Durkheimian collective
subject, the particular form of transcendence it entails and the implications of
the Durkheimian model of affective regulation for his conception of the specific
problems facing modernity.

Homo Duplex and the Human Desire

Durkheims conception of human nature is intimately linked with his understanding

of the specific status of society and of social facts in the physical world and, on the
other hand, with his perception of the psychological epithets of this particular entity
(society). Much like Comte Durkheim wants to extend scientific rationalism to the
social facts which are natural in this epistemological sense, that is, submitted
to the very same determinism as the facts studied by the natural sciences.14 This
also means that the social world is to be seen as part of the organic world not an

12 Notably Philip Steiner 2000, 5963.

13 This remark was made by Hawkins 1977.
14 See Durkheim 1960a [1893], 381 note 1; 1975a [1915], 109118. As Camille
Tarot (1999, 75) points out, it was precisely on the same epoch that Freud extended the
58 Affectivity and the Social Bond

artificial organization resulting from a social contract and depending essentially

on human will, but an entity which belongs to the same continuum with other
natural phenomena, although it constitutes a reality which has its own particular
characteristics. In this basic sense Durkheim seems to subscribe to ontological
monism: the social is but one specific order in the kingdom of nature.15
However, even if the world is one, subjugated by all parts to identical laws,
man in the world is double, because unique in his specifically human sociality,
which also makes the social world produced by him unique in its genre. Although
the social world does not result from a contract between free and independent
individuals, it is nonetheless the product of the social man, by means of which
he elevates himself above the amoral and chaotic nature not the natural order
following the laws of causality, but nature understood as a hypothetically pristine
physicality purified of all influences of the social. Thus, we are actually talking
about two different explanative angles in this context: the structural angle
regarding the relationship of the social world to the natural world and the genetic
angle concerning the origin of the social; but also about two different senses
given to the word nature according to the angle assumed: nature as a causal
(structural) order comprising the entire universe (the social order included) and
nature as a hypothetical pre-social state postulated by the social contract theories,
the chief opponents of Durkheim in his theory concerning the origins of society.16
The same is true for the social and sociality. Although Durkheim regards
sociality also as a natural propensity, which humans share with several other
species, in its specifically human form sociality is a result of civilization. This
is precisely the feature which distinguishes man from other animals. Mans
sociality is first and foremost a result of his life in the social environment which
turns this propensity into his second nature.17 Thus, to look for the causes on

principle of determinism to the entire psychic life (slips of the tongue, dreams etc.),
encountering much of the same criticism as Durkheim did on his side.
15 See Durkheim 1975b [1915], 109.
16 See for instance Durkheim 1960a [1893], 381 note 1.
17 In fact, Durkheim never ceases to emphasize that society is not an agglomeration
which isolated individuals would have established either by an act of free will (for instance
by a contract) or out of some natural propensity to do so: the collective life is not born out
of the individual life, on the contrary, the individual is a product of the social (see Durkheim
1960a [1893], 264). This is an idea which is also strongly influenced by biology, although
Durkheim by no means thinks that society as such could be derived from biology, quite the
contrary: the social constitutes a sui generis -type of existence, a surplus which is added
on the material universe and hence in no way reducible to it. However, what he does seem
to take from the organicistic discourse of the time (from the biologist Edmond Perrier,
in particular), especially regarding his early theory of the division of social labour, is the
idea of individuation: the I is a product of (biological) evolution, but at the same time it
generates a new type of order (that of the psychic facts) precisely by distinguishing inside
itself the material (corporeal, organic) from the spiritual (mental, psychic), which, in turn,
is the basic idea sustaining the entire homo duplex configuration (on the influence of the
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 59

which civilization depends also means to search for the conditions of that which,
in man, is most specifically human.18 On the other hand, Durkheim is not of the
opinion, common to Comte and to a certain extent also to Rousseau, that sociality
would exist in human beings as a germ which would then be perfected either
with the development of civilization19 or with the establishment (by a social
contract) of an equitable political society, providing favourable conditions for
mans happiness and perfection. The Durkheimian social is a rupture, a leap
which cannot be derived from any natural inclination, however developed or
perfected it might be.20
So even though there is a kind of developmental angle to the social in the
sense that it constitutes the second nature of man, the importance of which
allegedly grows with the historical progress of society (this is the main thesis of
the Division of Labor in Society), this is not the primary signification of sociality
in Durkheims theory. In a sense sociality as a psychological inclination does not
even exist before the constitution of society, since the individual consciousness is
a product of society (the collective consciousness), and not the other way round.21
However, the anthropological significance of Durkheims argument can be carried
even further by claiming that society is not only anterior to the individual, in a
sense it is anterior to man himself: what Durkheim is after is the passage from
nature to culture a passage which man has not created, but which he has
been subjected to and of which he has become conscious only retrospectively.22
Society in this sense is the condition of the possibility of the humanity of man.

organicistic discourse on Durkheims theory of the division of labour, see Vatin 2005; see
also Durkheim 1960a [1893], 264). Whether this would entail that the whole sui generis
nature of the social is ultimately nothing but an individual (mental) projection is another
and more complicated question.
18 Durkheim 1970b [1914], 314315.
19 This is the Comtean solution which also implies the Aristotelian notion of nature
as the development or perfection of an essence already present in an embryonic state in each
life form considered. On this, see Clauzade 2002; and Macherey 2004.
20 See also Durkheim 1975c [1913], 4344.
21 This is the whole point of Durkheims critique of Herbert Spencer and his
individualism see Durkheim 1960a [1893], 341342.
22 This is the interpretation proposed by Camille Tarot (see Tarot 1999, 7879). On
the other hand it might be argued that since this passage is necessarily an unconscious
one, the Durkheimian theory is not ideally equipped to deal with it because of the classical
model of representation on which it is based (entailing a two-pole relationship between
a subjective consciousness and an object of representation on this, see Karsenti 1997,
5862).This was also one of the critical points which Lvi-Strauss addressed to Durkheim
in his 1947 presentation of the French sociology: since Durkheim does not admit the
existence of any unconscious level which would mediate between the blindness of history
and the finality of human consciousness, his theory is characterized by a sharply dualistic
relationship between the individual (seen only as a bundle of desires, tendencies and needs)
and the social (a massive transcendence which the individual is subjected to). On this, see
Lvi-Strauss 1947, 527529.
60 Affectivity and the Social Bond

This anthropological interpretation fits in the logic of the structural argument: even
though sociality does not belong to the original constitution of man as a natural
inclination, man can only attain his true nature (that is, the pure nature surpassed
and transfigured) by the sui generis type of synthesis constituted by society. It is
exactly in this sense that society is transcendental in relation to individuals: it is
the condition of the possibility of mans true nature (humanity) which would not
exist without it. Man is a social animal through and through, but not in any simple,
natural way.23
Thus the social as understood by Durkheim constitutes a sui generis force not
reducible to the natural properties of the individuals:

elevating the individual above himself, transporting him into a milieu other than
that in which he passes his profane existence, making him live a very different
kind of life, higher and more intense.24

In this sense the properly human mode of existence produces a synthetic entity
(society) that reverses the order of nature and subordinates the exterior (natural)
forces to social forces. The progressive growth25 of the empire of the social elevates
man above nature, thereby:

stripping them [the natural objects] of their fortuitous, absurd, and amoral
character [] For man can only escape nature by creating for himself another
world from whence he dominates it: this world is society.26

However, what should be noted in this context is that the nature which man
escapes and which is opposed to the transcendence of the social cannot be the
causal order of the universe one does not escape causality, nor transcend the

23 This is also one of the reasons why Durkheim praises Rousseaus account of
the birth of society in the Second Discourse: Rousseau does not try to infer society from
any natural propensity of the individual, but understands its specificity as a regime which
surpasses the individuals (Durkheim 1953 [1918]; see also Fourier 2007, 149150). I will
return to this question in the concluding section of this chapter when discussing the specific
nature of Durkheims social subject compared to the general will of Rousseau and the
Humanity of Comte.
24 Durkheim 1975c [1913], 23 translation T.A.
25 What is confusing in this respect is that Durkheim constantly mixes up the two
angles: the transcendental and the historical, or the structural and the genetic; while insisting
on the sui generis nature of the social forces he also wants to imply that their development
can only be progressive but either the social is a rupture to the natural order or it is not,
one cannot have it both ways. This is precisely the point Lvi-Strauss is making when
arguing for the a priori nature of the symbolic as the condition of the social. See note 23
26 Durkheim 1960a [1893], 381.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 61

natural law.27 The nature Durkheim is referring to, or rather, the nature he is
constructing here, is precisely the pre-social domain of the genetic argument: a
naked and potentially hostile reality which man has to conquer in order to be
a man (that is, a human being) an entity not only to be transcended but also
transfigured. Man is man only because he is civilized.28
These are precisely the nature and society which play the principal part in
the Durkheimian version of the homo duplex principle: not the causal, objective
nature outside, but the savage, a-social nature inside; not the natural, species-
specific sociality of man, but the transcendental, synthetic order which he
carries inside as his second (sublated or transfigured) nature. The most clear-cut
formulations of this principle in Durkheims work are undoubtedly to be found
in his two texts Le problme religieux et la dualit de la nature humaine and
Le dualisme de la nature humaine et ses conditions sociales published in 1913
and 1914 respectively, that is, almost at the end of his intellectual career.29 In
these articles Durkheim establishes an inner split which cuts human nature into
two constitutive and antagonist parts: an intelligent, moral, and social part,
sustained by the spiritual being of man, and a sensual, a-moral, and egoistic part,
concentrated in his corporeal being. The dualism is, first and foremost, represented
as one between two aspects of our psychic life, corresponding to the old formula,
Homo duplex which is then said to be verified by the facts:

Indeed, far from us being straightforward, our internal life has something like a
double center of gravity. On the one hand there is our individuality, and, more
specially, our body that is its foundation; on the other, everything that, within us,
expresses something other than ourselves.30

However, Durkheim also insists that this division of the human psyche corresponds
to an objective reality, namely the antithesis between the individual and society.

27 On Durkheims tendency to mix up the empirical (scientifically falsifiable and

changing) nature with the metaphysical (inalterable and eternal) nature, see also Vowinckel
2000, 450451 and Arppe 2005, 14.
28 Durkheim 1970b [1914], 314 /2005, 34.
29 The first is actually a discourse given before a philosophical audience (Socit
franaise de philosophie) followed by a public discussion (see also Lukes 1973, 506511);
the second is an article published originally in the revue Scientia in order to elaborate on
what Durkheim considered to be the founding principle of his Elementary Forms (namely
the constitutional duality of human nature see for instance Fourier 2007, 834) this hugely
controversial text has even been considered self-contradictory to the point completely
beyond rescue (Watts Miller 2010, 142); but the same thing can, indeed, be said of the
whole homo duplex thesis, a source of great embarrassment among the Durkheim scholars
(see in particular Paoletti 2003, 148). What is attempted here is a reflective reading of the
two texts in light of a more general economy of affectivity which, so it will be argued, is to
be found in Durkheims theory.
30 Durkheim 1970b [1914], 318/2005, 37.
62 Affectivity and the Social Bond

The social then penetrates the individual consciousness so that it is actually

made of two beings or rather two groups of states of consciousness: the first are
individual and have their origin in our organism which they also reflect, while
the second are of social origin and represent society inside of us.31 In fact, this is
the very manner in which society realizes itself in and through individuals: when
penetrating the individual consciousness it generates a system of sui generis type
of representations expressing the social being and by so doing adds a new kind of
psychic being to our individual being.32 This is also the reason why the mutually
antagonistic principles or states can nonetheless mingle with each other (society
can only exist through the individuals constituting it even though it creates a new
sort of psychic entity, the properties of which are not reducible to those of its
constituent parts).
But here we run into problems: either the duality is merely that between two
psychic spheres, and what it reflects is a mental representation of an allegedly
real state of affairs (whether this representation is a collective or an individual
one is yet another question); or it is an ontological duality which represents the

31 This same configuration, conflating the origin and the contents, is also typical
of the Durkheimian notion of categories (his famous answer to Kant): not only are the
categories of understanding (such as time, space, causality, etc.) of social origin, but they
also represent society, its morphological and ritual features. This implies quite a strong
cognitive stance, though Durkheim himself does not see any particular problem in his
argument, quite the contrary (see Durkheim 1975c [1913], 4849). The problematic
nature of this position is perhaps even more evident when the origin of a particular state
of consciousness is conflated with what this state presumably reflects. There is no
specific reason why a mental state produced by the organism should also reflect the state
of the organism: for instance, while sexual desire is (also) a mental state produced by the
organism (at least partly), who can plausibly distinguish the organic from the cultural/social
components involved? And even more importantly, what would be the point of such a rigid
32 See Durkheim 1975c [1913], 35. Here one might get the impression that the sui
generis being Durkheim is talking about is, in fact, nothing but another type of psychic
state in the mind of the individuals, so that the individual consciousness would in fact be
constituted by two sorts of states: the individual and the social ones. However, Durkheim
firmly insists on the exterior nature of the causes which have produced society (see
ibid., 4344 the nature of these exterior causes is further elaborated in his theory of
religion, I will return to this problem in the third subchapter). Another problem would be
the peculiar coercive capacity exercised by these social states over the individual ones,
since Durkheim does not recognize the existence of any unconscious instance: how can I
consciously exercise an authority over myself? The situation is further complicated by the
affective economy implicit in the homo duplex principle in which the individual has to wage
a continuous battle against his own virtually bottomless desires this battle can only be
successful if supported by an exterior force which is greater than the force of the individual
desire. Also, in order to have any permanent effect on the individual consciousnesses
society must be materialized in specific symbols. I will return to these problems in the next
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 63

organic and the social realities respectively (the states of the individual organism
vs. the states of the collective consciousness). Since one of the pivotal points of
Durkheimian sociology is to show the thoroughly social nature of the human
individual, the second interpretation simply does not seem very plausible
indeed, it is disputed indirectly by Durkheim himself when he states that the
duality itself is a consequence of mans sociality33 (and, therefore, would not exist
without it). On the other hand, if the duality itself is a collective representation,
that is, of social origin, then it cannot very well be part of human nature, unless
this nature is, in fact, coextensive with the social. But in that case, to talk about
nature in a purely organic sense is misleading, since there is no such thing apart
from the social as far as human beings are concerned. By contrast, if the duality
is an individual representation, then we would still have to explain why it seems
to be universally valid, as Durkheim boldly claims. The duality indeed seems to
generate more problems than it solves.
Another thing that strikes the eye in this context is the fact that affectivity as
a whole is relegated to the a-social, individual, and corporeal sphere of human

It is evident that passions and egoistic tendencies derive from our individual
constitution, while our rational activity, whether practical or theoretical, is
closely dependent on social causes.34

The Durkheimian version of the homo duplex principle makes no reference to

any sociable, benign affectivity which would act as a counterpart to the egoistic
passions of man. On the individual level the opposite of egoistic appetites is here
defined rather in a negative fashion: disinterestedness, renunciation, sacrifice of
the self (all the classic qualities of Kantian moral philosophy). The fusion of the
individual consciousnesses, responsible for the generation of social synthesis,
is presented as an energizing momentum, but one which produces its effects in
an almost mechanical manner, like nuclear fusion once the necessary conditions
are brought together. Although Durkheim does admit that not just any kind of
fusion will do, he passes over any further elaboration of these necessary conditions
(except for a vague reference to a certain degree of unity, intimacy, and intensity of
the forces released).35 And although he does mention the existence of impersonal
affective states in passing,36 he not only omits to tell his audience what sort of
states he is referring to, but also discreetly pushes aside the question concerning
the exclusively egoistic nature of affectivity in his presentation.

33 Simply because he is social, man is therefore double, and between the two beings
that reside within him there is a solution of continuity, the very same which exists between
the social and the individual [] (Durkheim 1975b [1913]; see also Lukes 1973, 507).
34 Durkheim 1970b [1914], 330/2005, 44.
35 See Durkheim 1975c [1913], 41.
36 See Durkheim 1975c [1913], 4142.
64 Affectivity and the Social Bond

On this specific point Durkheimian dualism also fundamentally differs from

the Comtean egoism/altruism scheme. While for Durkheim egoism is to a certain
extent a natural instinct of the human individual, there is no natural altruism
to compensate it even in the Comtean-style weak version, that is, as a latent
tendency to be cultivated and strengthened; what Durkheim opposes to the
egoistic appetites and passions are not the altruistic tendencies, but religious
and moral activity (another formulation of the same opposition is the one between
sensations or the appetites of the senses and conceptual thinking or reason).
The Durkheimian society is not that of a progressively ennobled affectivity, but
that of affectivity surpassed and transfigured. On the other hand, the natural
egoism of man is only natural as far as he is a man, that is, an animal who has
transcended his own animality and the natural affective economy it entails thus
we are not talking about the same biologically-rooted egoism (based on material
needs) which can be found at the heart of Comtean affective dynamics. Mans
nature in the Durkheimian scheme is already the raw (biological, purely organic)
nature surpassed. This is why his a-natural egoism cannot be restrained by natural
means (by an opposed, but equally natural inclination to altruism) nature is not
sufficient here, it must be supplemented with something else (I will return to the
specific nature of this supplement in the next subchapters.)
What could be regarded as surprising in this context, however, is that the
importance of the homo duplex principle and the inner egoism of the human
individual it entails seem to grow from Durkheims early writings to his later
work.37 In his 1893 theory on the division of social labour Durkheim does not
express any strong views about the division of human nature or mans psychic
apparatus into two opposed parts; quite the contrary, he emphasizes the influence
of society in determining not only the individual states of consciousness,38 but
also the general equilibrium between the individual desires and a healthy social
structure: in a normal situation the individual finds his happiness in realizing his
nature so that his needs and the means for their satisfaction spontaneously balance.39
And although he does postulate the existence of representations, sentiments, and
tendencies the origin of which is in the organism and which can, therefore, be
regarded as independent of society,40 this first foundation of all individuality does
not play an important role in his overall theorizing about affectivity or its status
in the creation and maintenance of social cohesion. All-in-all Durkheim seems
to regard the affective constitution of the individual as a relatively flexible thing,
which varies according to social circumstances so that the individual desires and
needs are largely generated by society.41 What is more, at this stage of his work
Durkheim even seems to question the very basis of any homo duplex type of idea:

37 This observation has been made by Hawkins (1977) in particular.

38 Durkheim 1960a [1893], 342.
39 Durkheim 1960a [1893], 369.
40 See Durkheim 1960a [1893], 175.
41 See Durkheim 1960a [1893], 369370; and Hawkins 1977, 235.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 65

But to speak rigorously, these two sides of conduct are found present from the
beginning in all human consciences, for there cannot be things which do not
reflect both of these aspects, the one relating to the individual alone and the other
relating to the things which are not personal to him.42

There is one sense, though, in which egoism does play a part also in Durkheims
early theory on the division of labour, namely that of the growing importance of
individualism as a social value. However, here egoism (implicit in individualism)
is considered in two different senses, neither of which is that of an affective force
inherent in mans organic constitution (the importance of which is, on the contrary,
considered to diminish as society progresses).43 Firstly, it is seen as a psychic
sphere constituted by exclusively personal sentiments and representations, the
significance of which varies in reverse relation to the proportional weight of the
collective consciousness as soon as the domain of strictly physical necessities is left
behind. Hence primitive societies, characterized by mechanical solidarity between
homogeneous parts, are also dominated by a strong collective consciousness
(leaving very little latitude for individual initiative), whereas modern, differentiated
societies (in which the organic solidarity based on a developed division of labour
is prevalent) witness a weakening of the collective consciousness as a source
of social cohesion. Secondly, egoism is regarded as a social value, which gains
increasing ground in modern societies, so that it is introduced even at the heart
of the superior representations (for instance, everybody has his own, personal
manner of being altruistic).44 Either way, in the original text of 1893 egoism is not
regarded as an affective or organically based force to be controlled at the risk of
social chaos; rather it is seen as a historical value related to the advanced forms
of human consciousness.45 The risks to social cohesion reside primarily in the
abnormal or morbid forms of the division of labour, not in individual or collective
affectivity as such, and the stabilizing and pacifying effect of the division of labour
(its ability to act as a vehicle for social solidarity) is due more to structural than to
moral factors in a strict sense (the density and the volume of the population most

42 Durkheim 1960a [1893], 175/1964, 198 italics T.A.

43 See Durkheim 1960a [1893], 336339.
44 Durkheim 1960a [1893], 175176.
45 This is precisely Durkheims critique against the Spencerian, biologically based
conception of egoism see Durkheim 1960a, 173176.
46 It is first and foremost due to the general equilibrium between man and his social
environment to which moral factors contribute rather in an indirect manner. However, the
scope and significance of what could be called moral in this context is very large. On one
hand, Durkhem seems to consider moral rules more as a reflection of the basic foundations
of solidarity than a factor directly influencing them. On the other hand, everything that
generates social solidarity is defined as moral; and since in modern societies the division
of labour tends to become the essential condition and source of solidarity, it also becomes
the foundation of moral order. However, the division of labour is not considered as a moral
66 Affectivity and the Social Bond

However, in the second preface written to this work in 1902 the overall concern
of Durkheim and his conception of the dangers menacing modern societies seem
to have shifted the emphasis is now none other than that of human affectivity

It is this anomic state which is the cause, as we shall show, of the incessantly
recurrent conflicts, and the multifarious disorders of which the economic world
exhibits so sad a spectacle. For, as nothing restrains the active forces and assigns
them limits they are bound to respect, they tend to develop haphazardly, and
come into collision with one another, battling and weakening themselves. []
Human passions stop only before a moral power they respect. If all authority of
this kind is wanting, the law of the strongest prevails, and latent or active, the
state of war is necessarily chronic.47

Here the advanced division of labour is presented as the new source of social
cohesion which, by making the different parts of society structurally dependent
on one another, prevents the uncontrolled proliferation of harmful passions that
the free competition dominating the economic sphere would otherwise inevitably
generate. In other words, from a spontaneous equilibrium between mans desires
and his means of fulfilling them Durkheim has now moved to a model emphasizing
the indispensability of a moral power keeping human passions in check. This shift
of emphasis corresponds to a new theory concerning the specific nature of human
desire which is first presented in the lectures on Socialism, held in Bordeaux 1895
96, and then further extended to the study on suicide, published in 1897. Both
works take as their starting point a model in which the constitutive nature of mans
desire is to be insatiable, but not in a biological or organic sense. Furthermore,
human desire is actualized in a complex social dialectic seemingly excluding any
simple dichotomies concerning the organic vs. the social constitution of man, as
we shall shortly see.

Regulation vs. Generation of Passions: Between Equilibrium and Excess

In his 189596 lectures on socialism Durkheim makes an important observation of

which his own theory could be considered a case in point: the nineteenth-century
social theories are characterized by a progressive withdrawal of the political
questions (that is, questions directly linked to the form of government) and their
replacement by social questions which Durkheim defines as problems generated by
the economic state of modern societies. He then places this state of affairs directly

force per se, only as a structure or vehicle through which the vital equilibrium generating
solidarity is produced an organizing principle rather than an energizing force. See
Durkheim 1960a [1893], 393394 ; and Hawkins 1977, 234.
47 Durkheim 1960a [1893], Prface la seconde edition, III/Durkheim 1964, 23.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 67

in the framework of his own theory on the division of labour by claiming that as
long as the foundation of social life was in the beliefs and common traditions (as
in the societies of mechanical solidarity), it was the government that incarnated
this foundation and thus constituted the centre around which society was unified.
However, in big modern societies where social life is based on economic relations,
social unity is, first and foremost, a result of the solidarity of interests; of a
structural interdependence between closely intertwined functions of which the
government offers but one example. The government can, therefore, no longer
fulfil the same moral (unifying) role as it once did. But instead of sticking to this
multiplicity of interests and functions as the basis of social equilibrium, Durkheim
starts to elaborate a theory in which the unification of society revolves around a
new centre. What is noteworthy is that from the mid-1890s onwards he seems
to place this centre more and more in the domain of morality and of collective
representations. Yet, what these two domains (the moral and the symbolic) reflect,
organize, and channel, is none other than human affectivity.
This new emphasis begins to show in the study on suicide, published in
1897. Here, besides the morphological factors, another type of explanative
factor progressively emerges, which starts to increasingly capture Durkheims
attention in order to become, by the end of his career, the very foundation for his
explanation of the origin of society this factor could be qualified as energetic or
affective. It is particularly pertinent in the analysis of the anomic suicide where
Durkheim presents an entire theory concerning the nature of human desire and its
specific character compared to the animal need, as well as the type of equilibrium
necessary to mans happiness. The anthropological foundation of this theory,
however, is already laid in the lectures on socialism held in Bordeaux in 189596.
Durkheim elaborates his conception of the specificity of human desire when
discussing the industrialism of Saint-Simon, especially the principle he attributes
to the latter of putting industrial (economic) interests above everything else and
hence depriving them of all limits, when they should on the contrary be limited
from the outside, by moral forces surpassing, containing, and regulating them
(for Durkheim, this is the only way of making the economic functions cooperate
harmoniously and of maintaining them in a state of equilibrium). This is where he
brings up a general law regulating the normal state of the desires and appetites
of all living creatures, namely that they are limited. This limit is, in Durkheims
argument, set teleologically, that is, by the end/the object toward which the desire
is directed, so that an unlimited desire is, in fact, self-contradictory since it would
have no end/object. The same premise can also be presented in a temporal form: a
desire must find satisfaction, otherwise it will not last (have any sort of permanence
in time). Insatiability is also a sign of morbidity in mans case: a normal human
being ceases to be hungry when he has ingested a certain amount of nourishment,
only the bulimic transgresses these limits.48

48 See Durkheim 1992 [1928], 224.

68 Affectivity and the Social Bond

However, here Durkheim brings in two supplementary considerations to

complicate this rather straightforward teleological economy of desires. The first
one is at least seemingly organically based and has to do with the greater
reflexive capacity of human beings compared to other animals: whereas with other
species the limits of desires are instinctively based and, therefore, automatically
extinguished as soon as the need which has triggered the chain of impulsions
is satisfied, in mans case the capacity for reflection opens up new anticipatory
horizons with other possible objects/ends, opening up a fresh vertical chain of
desire. The properly human desire emerges first when the purely organic physical
needs have been satisfied and this desire is potentially infinite, since it is, right
from the start, more spiritual in nature and, therefore, knows no organic limit.
It should be noted, however, that here Durkheims reasoning proceeds from
a different ground compared to the preceding argument. The supplementary
condition which he brings in is not teleologically set from the inside of a single
desire: the elementary logic of the desire, the fact that it is always directed towards
an end, remains the same what changes is the potential quantity of these ends. The
virtually infinite character of human desire is due to the uncontrolled proliferation
of desires, caused by the reflexive capacity of man.
The second supplementary condition is linked to the preceding one. Since the
human desire knows no automatic or organic limit, because the reflection always
projects other, better, and more desirable ends to be satisfied, it must be limited
from the outside if not, the insatiable desires will soon become morbid (like
bulimia) or a source of constant personal torment (because of the infinite number
of desires to be fulfilled). Here Durkheim subtly brings in a consideration that
inevitably leads to the problem of social justice: how is one to fix the quantity of
well-being, of comfort and luxury that a human being should not surpass? Because
of the non-organic, non-instinctual nature of these desires their limit cannot be
found in the individual, his physiological or psychological constitution. In short,
the limit must be set by something that differs from the desire itself, from which it
follows that these desires cannot be thought of as the sole end of society (like the
economic liberalists would like to think), because they have to be subordinated to
an end which surpasses them and by the same token limits them.49
However, here Durkheim mixes two different types of argument (although the
general framework, emphasizing the regulation of affectivity, remains the same):

1. The one referring to the inner nature of human desire: it cannot be

organically or naturally limited, since it is not based on physical needs, but
is already more spiritual in nature (due to the greater reflective capacity of
man). From this it follows that the desire must be limited by a non-organic
and, therefore, non-individual entity which is situated outside the desire
itself and is different from it. If not limited, the desire will lead either to
individual pathologies (such as bulimia, if we stay inside a single desire) or

49 See Durkheim 1992 [1828], 225.

mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 69

to constant personal torment because of the structural insatiability caused

by the infinity of desires.50
2. The one based on the uncontrolled proliferation of multiple desires: human
reflexivity creates an endless chain of always new desires, projecting a
future of infinite lust before us. However, besides the personal torment
this situation causes, it also generates envy and social conflicts because no
justifiable limit is set to competing desires. Here it is no longer a question
of the inner insatiability of a particular desire, but of a collision with the
social environment, constituted by equally endless chains of desires. This is
the Hobbesian situation par excellence, the solution of which necessitates
the mobilization of an extra-individual, moral authority, able to create a
general sentiment of justice, to convince the majority of men that they have
no more and no less than what they rightfully deserve.

The first line of argumentation is based on the ontological properties of the

desire (non-organic, spiritual) and of the instance or entity (non-natural, supra-
individual) allegedly needed for its control. However, it also entails that the limit
set to the desire is conceived in an exclusive fashion, that is, as setting the object
and the subject of limitation qualitatively apart from each other (the instance which
limits the desire is of a different nature than the desire itself). This is the reasoning
that ultimately leads to postulating society as a transcendental (regulative) entity
in relation to the individuals constituting it. The second line of argumentation
revolves around moral considerations generated by a plurality of desires, that is,
by the social environment constituted by other individuals with a similarly infinite
number of potential desires. Here the physical limit of an individual desire is de
facto set by other, competing desires, turning the problem of limitation into that of a
just measure. This problem can no longer be solved by ontological considerations;
it involves the postulation of a moral authority which has to generate a sentiment
of justice in the individuals subject to its power.
However, what Durkheim seems to leave open is the question concerning the
generation of the potentially endless desires: whereas in the theory of the division
of labour the question was in no way important, because of the spontaneous
equilibrium between mans needs and his means, here the supplementary premises
which turn the human being into a creature of insatiable lust, also increase the
theoretical weight of the problem concerning their origin. There are in principle
two possible answers to this question: either the endless desires are organically
based or they are socially produced. The answer, however, is less clear than it
might seem to be at the first glance.51 Although these desires transcend the level
of physiologically-based needs, their origin still seems to be in mans greater
capacity of reflection. Durkheim does not specify in which sense he is talking

50 On such a problem of limitation in Durkheims theory, see also Paoletti 2003,

51 See for instance Hawkins 1977, 237; and Paoletti 2003, 132.
70 Affectivity and the Social Bond

about reflection here, he only refers to the more awakened nature of human
reflection compared to the corresponding capacity of other species.52 What does
seem obvious, however, is that reflection is not used in the Kantian or philosophical
sense here, that is, as a transcendental capacity of the subject, nor does Durkheim
evoke in any way his later theory of the social constitution of reason itself in this
context here reflection is clearly utilized in a more anthropological sense, as a
physiologically-rooted species-specific feature. If we accept this interpretation, the
insatiability of human desire is indeed due to natural (organically based) causes,
albeit in a mediated fashion, that is, through the active exercise of a capacity which
already sets man apart from other animals.
Durkheims model of human desire could be compared to that of Rousseau
in the Second Discourse where imagination plays exactly the same role in the
generation of harmful passions as reflection does in Durkheims scheme.53 In
Rousseaus hypothetical state of nature, mans passions are few and never exceed
his physical capacities: according to Rousseaus famous formulation, the only
goods he knows are food, a female and sleep.54 This theoretical human being
(man as Rousseau imagines him before all social influences) has but two original
passions: love of self (lamour de soi) and compassion (la piti) both have
their roots in pure animal impulsion, that is, the instinctual constitution which
man shares with other animals and which precedes the development of his
reason. However, although sensibility constitutes the source of all passions, it is
imagination which determines their direction. It is also imagination which turns
the passions of man into vices as soon as society is constituted only the gathering
together of men can feed it and give it free-rein in a way which was not possible
when human beings lived alone and apart from each other. This physical proximity
is at the origin of the proliferation and multiplication of passions and their
consequent exacerbation.55 This is how envy and comparison are born, resulting in
universal competition and rivalry; the love of self degenerates into self-love and
the original compassion of man, his natural repugnance to see the suffering of his
fellow beings, atrophies. The roots of human degradation are to be found precisely
in the ensuing affective frenzy which destroys the original equilibrium, peace, and
harmony resulting from the just measure between the needs and capacities of man.
The dependence on things is replaced by a dependence on other men as heated
passions augment human needs beyond measure, leading to slavery and all sorts

52 See Durkheim 1992, 224225.

53 In fact, the Durkheimian scheme can in many ways be seen as an inverse image
of the model Rousseau is proposing of human passions in the Second Discourse on this,
see Arppe 2005, 1519.
54 Rousseau 1905a [1754], 91.
55 See Rousseau 1905a, 102 and Rousseau 1905b, 388, note 1 on the respective
roles of imagination and reason in Rousseaus moral thinking, see also Derath 1948, 107111.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 71

of abuses. It is easy to see why the control of passions has been regarded as the
central problem of Rousseaus entire political system.56
In contrast to Rousseau, Durkheim sees human desire as being more spiritual
in essence than the purely organic (animal) need because of mans reflective
capacity. But also, when explaining the origin of the multiplication of desires
Durkheim resorts to the capacity of reflection rather than to imagination.57 And
instead of the social milieu or the physical proximity of other men emphasized by
Rousseau, he attaches reflection to the constitutive excess which animates human
desire from the inside, causing it to exceed its limits, to overflow all by itself to
ever-new objects. Reflection operates inside the individual, causing him to yearn
for ever more, because his reflective capacity performs its projective work in a
quasi-automatic fashion. The social environment has only a subsidiary role in this
proliferation; at best it can offer mans lust some new incentives (that is, it can play
a part in determining the specific, historical contents of the desire), but it is in no
way at the origin of its constitutive excess, the very mechanism that keeps it going.
This becomes blatantly clear from the manner in which Durkheim pushes aside the
social considerations that might affect the inner logic of the desire:

And besides, even apart from any feeling of envy, excited desires will tend
naturally to keep outrunning their goals [stendre au-del de la limite quils
auraient aim atteindre, et la dpasser], for the very reason that there will
be nothing before them which stops them. And they will call all the more
imperiously for a new satisfaction, since those already secured will have given

56 See for instance Derath 1948, 74138.

57 In Rousseaus scheme imagination is already present in the state of nature, albeit
in a very rudimentary form in order to blossom it needs to be nourished by the social
environment, the physical presence of other men. Although reason (and reflection) is likewise
only activated in society, this happens much later and on different grounds. However, it
should be noted that imagination is also an indispensable condition of compassion, since
without it man would never be able to place himself in the position of the other thus
compassion, although a primitive passion in man, would remain eternally passive, if not
awakened by imagination which turns it on so to speak. He who imagines nothing senses
no-one but himself; he is alone in the midst of humankind. (Rousseau 1905b, Chapter
IX cited in Derrida 1967a, 265). As noted by Jean Starobinski (1971) and by Durkheim
himself (1953 [1918], 123124), the status of compassion in Rousseaus text is ambivalent,
because it is presented both as an original passion, preceding imagination and reflection
(Second Discourse), and as a social affection which presupposes the existence of society
(Essai sur lorigine des langues). Although Durkheim explains this paradox by claiming
that it only concerns the extension of compassion to the whole humankind, he does not
make a clear distinction between imagination and reflection in this context, on the contrary.
However, this distinction can be regarded as the central nerve of Rousseaus entire scheme
(on this, see Derrida 1967a, 259264 for Derrida imagination is no more and no less
than the becoming-human of the compassion itself: If we desire beyond our capacity of
satisfaction, the origin of this surplus and this difference is called imagination Derrida
1967a, 263).
72 Affectivity and the Social Bond

them more strength and vitality. [] What is needed if social order is to reign is
that the mass of men be content with their lot. [] And for this, it is absolutely
essential that there be an authority whose superiority they acknowledge and
which tells them what is right. For an individual committed only to the pressure
of his needs will never admit he has reached the extreme limits of his rightful
portion. [] And since in our hypothesis these needs are limitless, their exigency
is necessarily without limit.58

As we can see, not only does desire naturally strive to pass its limits, but it also tends
to grow in force and gain new energy by the sole fact of being satisfied ultimately
it would not even need any social incentives, since it grows like a snowball with
every new satisfaction it gains. Even if human desire is more spiritual than animal
need, its unlimited/excessive character can, indeed, be regarded as a disposition of
human nature, namely the consequence of a natural inclination of the individual to
seek satisfaction for a virtually endless number of his desires. Social environment
here plays a role only when the desire has to be limited (regulated), but it does
not affect its generation or its inner logic (sort of autogenous proliferation and
exacerbation) in any direct way. Thus, unlike Rousseau, Durkheim does not regard
the multiplication of passions as a direct result of comparison, concurrence and
envy caused by the proximity of individuals in the social environment but, on
the contrary, as a consequence of the constitutively excessive logic of the human
desire when it is left to follow its spontaneous course.59
But why does Durkheim persist in searching the origin of the ever-increasing
lusts in the inner logic of the desire rather than the social environment, when even
Rousseau, the allegedly individualist philosopher, emphasizes the significance of
the group in the generation of desire? One is tempted to look for the answer in
the very same reasons (or rather, fears) which made Durkheim opt for reflection
instead of imagination as the source of the insatiability of desire. Imagination is a
murky power, since it can be fomented by anything and spread out in any direction,
vertically as well as horizontally. As a faculty of images and appearances, it is not
mediated by reason but operates by pure association, contagion and proximity,
the logic of metonymy rather than that of metaphor (or symbol). Imagination
is the source par excellence of comparison, competition and envy, because it is
based on the logic of imitation rather than that of representation. And this is the
ultimate risk not only for its social control, but also for the social theory itself.
Imitation is dangerous because it completely flattens down the scheme based on
the transcendence of the social: it passes on like a contagious disease from one

58 Durkheim 1992 [1928], 226/1967, 242 italics T.A.

59 This definitely seems to be Durkheims conception in the lectures on socialism and
even in Le Suicide, although the picture gets more complicated because of the collective
passions that step into it it is only in his later theory of religion that Durkheim really
develops his conception of the social constitution of mans reflexive capacity itself (see
Durkheim 1990 [1912], 523;1970b [1914]).
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 73

individual to another, spreading uncontrollably, without any need of mediation by

a transcendental authority. It is perilous since it has no stable centre from whence it
could be regulated it is amorphous, infinite and nothing can stop it since nothing
escapes it, it has no outside and no depth: it is the movement of pure appearance,
capture by images. This is precisely why the social bond cannot be based on
imitation alone not only the epistemological but also the moral consequences of
such total immanence would be disastrous in Durkheims mind.60 It is noteworthy
how quickly he passes over the potential influence of the social environment in
the generation of human desire ( even apart from any feeling of envy ) and
rushes forward to show that the inherently excessive logic of human desire is
alone sufficient to account for the generation of ever-new desires.61
What has definitely changed in the lectures on socialism compared to the
former theory of the division of labour is the natural or spontaneous equilibrium
between the individual desires and the social structure: the natural affective
state of human individual is now that of a virtually endless desire which has to
be limited from the outside, by something extra-organic and extra-individual. In
other words, even though mans physical nature (that is, his reason as a species
specific physiological capacity) does play a part in the generation of his desires,
their regulation cannot be left to the individual because of this very reason: alone
the individual has no way of resisting his inner impulses multiplied indefinitely
by his reflection. This is the idea, the consequences of which Durkheim develops
in his theory on suicide, published in 1897, especially in his analysis of so-called
anomic suicide.
The basic hypothesis of the insatiability of human desire is repeated as such,62
but this time the emphasis is on the moral consequences caused by the multiplicity
of desires, which turns the question concerning the limit of human passions into a
normative problem:

But how determine the quantity of well-being, comfort or luxury legitimately

to be craved by a human being? Nothing appears in mans organic nor in his
psychological constitution which sets a limit to such tendencies. [] Irrespective
of any external regulatory force, our sensibility is in itself an insatiable and
bottomless abyss.63

60 What lurks behind is the entirely immanentist conception of society promoted by

Gabriel Tarde see for instance Fournier 2007, 325326; Besnard 2003a; Lukes 1973,
302313. The discomfort of Durkheim before the Tardean idea of imitation in Le Suicide is
convincingly demonstrated by Besnard (2003a, 7581).
61 It is in Le Suicide (1897) that Durkheim launches an explicit attack against
imitation (although the real target is perhaps Gabriel Tarde rather than imitation as such).
62 Durkheim 1960b[1897], 272275.
63 Durkheim 1960b [1897], 273/1968, 247 italics T.A.
74 Affectivity and the Social Bond

The answer to the problem of regulation/limitation of passions cannot be found in

human nature since it remains the same from one individual to another, whereas
the limit is essentially malleable: it must respect the requirements posed by the
social hierarchy which means that it must vary according to the living conditions,
different professions, relative importance of the services rendered and so forth.
The needs in question are not physical but moral needs; this is why they will only
obey a moral authority.
What strikes the eye in this context is the zeal with which Durkheim insists
on the morbidity of the infinite desire: deprived of a fixed goal or, which in his
opinion is the same thing, in the pursuit of an infinite and therefore unattainable
goal, the individual is condemned to a state of perpetual unhappiness. Even if,
against all odds, he might temporarily imagine himself satisfied, this is but an
illusion, because no hope can survive repeated deceptions. Thus, the more one
has the more one wants, since satisfactions obtained can only stimulate instead
of fulfilling needs.64 However, here again Durkheim seems to confuse the object
of a single desire and the infinity of multiple desires: what the individual projects
before him when desiring something is by no means the infinity as a goal, but
each time a different single object which he might well get and then move on to
crave yet another thing. Infinity is the objective result of the repetitive nature of
the process, continuing on and on in a never ending series, it has nothing to do
with the specific nature of the goal of a single desire.65 This process may well seem
morbid in the eyes of the social scientist observing it from the outside, whereas
the individual in the rat race can easily go on forever, driven as he is by ever
new lusts. This, moreover, is precisely his normal situation if he is left to follow
this movement all by himself. Morbidity is clearly defined here against an ideal
(normative) state of equilibrium, established beforehand by the social scientist.66
The idea of equilibrium is indeed evoked when Durkheim discusses the
spiritual nature of the force needed to set a limit to human passions: the state of
equilibrium characterizing the animals dormant existence was originally broken
by the awakening of conscience only conscience can, therefore, furnish the
means of its re-establishment. Hearts cannot be touched by a physical restraint;
instead, an experience of justice is needed in order to stop the bad infinity opened
up by reflection. This experience can, in turn, only be sanctified by an authority
which is external to individuals but at the same time spiritual in nature and which,

64 Durkheim 1960b [1897], 274/1968, 248.

65 The same goes for Durkheims way of concluding that the needs in question are
not physical but moral needs. But what, in fact, defines a moral need? Is it the fact that it is
directed towards moral goals (has morality as its object) or the fact that it is more spiritual
than the physical needs precisely because of its virtual infinity (due to human reflection)?
And if so, why would an infinite need be qualified as moral? From this Durkheim
immediately concludes that the regulating force must also be of moral nature.
66 It should not be forgotten that Durkheim, following Comte, sees the pathological
and the normal as two points situated on the same quantitative continuum, the former being
only an excessive or extreme form of the latter.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 75

of course, is none other than society itself. Besides the restraining authority
society also provides a positive though tacit knowledge of the prospective rewards
attached to each particular group of tasks; this knowledge is due to an obscure
sentiment residing in societys moral consciousness concerning the relative value
of different social services, and hence of the degree of comfort appropriate on the
average to workers in each occupation.67
It is interesting to notice the importance given to affectivity in this context:
not only does the exterior constraint or the authority of society require an affective
supplement, an individual experience or a feeling of justice, but this feeling is
also nourished by an obscure collective sentiment concerning the norms of a
legitimate allocation of rewards, residing in the moral consciousness of society.
It is precisely this obscure feeling, this dim perception68 that prevents the birth
of comparison, envy and competition, because it is rooted in the depths of the
collective subject and is, therefore, endowed with a special authority which then
gets codified in institutions and laws. It is this common sentiment that guarantees
that the individual feeling of justice is born in the first place, because it cannot be
created by force (hearts will only listen to the voice of affectivity).
However, although the sentiment of justice can only be born in a social
environment, this inter-individual dimension is not at the heart of Durkheims
theoretical constellation. On the contrary, it is the authority of the social (the
big Other) that always mediates the eventual impact of the environment (others)
and thereby generates the sentiment of justice without which the regulation of
the individual desires would not work.69 The capital question in this case is, of
course, whether the individual feeling of justice and the obscure sentiment
concerning the legitimate allocation of rewards in society are one and the same
thing: is there really an entity that could be named collective consciousness,
harbouring affective moods and obscure sentiments of all sorts, or is it only the
voice of the established norms we are hearing inside of us? A sensible and easy
answer to this question would undoubtedly be that these two sentiments are one
and the same thing but this, in Durkheims mind, would leave open the question
concerning the coercive power of society, its capacity to make the individual will
bow. Society can only have such power over the individual if it is regarded as a
force which transcends, surpasses the individual. And as long as we stay on the
level of consciousness as Durkheim definitely does only an exterior force can
do this (an individual consciousness cannot coerce itself).70

67 Durkheim 1960b [1897], 276/1968, 249.

68 Durkheim 1960b [1897], 276/1968, 249.
69 In a way society resembles a trade union which prevents the establishment of
wild individual contracts and the inevitable feelings of jealousy they generate by a huge
collective agreement binding each and every one only in this case society accomplishes
this by its moral power or force, not by a social contract like in the natural law tradition.
70 The coercive power of society is particularly emphasized in Les rgles de la
mthode sociologique, but the same emphasis is also present in Le Suicide.
76 Affectivity and the Social Bond

This is why in Durkheims theory the legitimacy of society, its moral character
and coercive power can never be completely separated from its objective nature
as a particular type of force. The social subject of Durkheim cannot be reduced
to interiorized norms.71 It is also an exterior power, the regulative capacity
of which is due both to its physical and its moral superiority: the fact that it is
greater in force, because constituted by a mass of individuals, but equally thanks
to its capacity to act as an authority to the individual will. These two properties
are, moreover, related: it is because of its emergent properties, born out of the
association, the chemical synthesis of individual consciousnesses, that the
collective consciousness constitutes a specific power which superimposes itself to
individual wills. This is the famous sui generis nature of the social subject, which
resides in the very combination of its constituent parts the thing that constitutes
the sociality of the social, its particular form of transcendence in relation to its
raw material, the individuals.
In his earlier theory of the division of labour Durkheim had relied largely on a
physiologically based auto-regulation of human affectivity. He had defined human
happiness and indeed human pleasure with a model accentuating the happy
medium within which each sensation must remain in order to be experienced as
pleasant. This conception implies a sort of auto-regulation of desires, resting on
a mechanical (quantitative) notion of the limits beyond which a sensation ceases
to be perceived as qualitatively different.72 However, in Suicide this physiological
model is replaced by another one which emphasizes the social character of the
limit: the specific feature of human desire is precisely its virtually unlimited
nature, its lack of any auto-regulative capacity, and this is why it needs exterior
regulation. It is this collective authority that fixes an end and a goal (that is, a limit)
to individual passions in Durkheims scheme.73
However, this collective authority can be considered from two different angles:
either as an autonomous force exterior to individuals and partly independent of their
conscious will, or as an authority the source of which is the collective sentiment
concerning the legitimacy of social norms. In order to be effective the limit set to
human desires must be experienced as just. This is why the limit is neither natural
nor mechanical: we are dealing with moral needs which know no natural limit,
and a social milieu where envy and comparison can only be avoided if there is a

71 Otherwise it could be considered as the social correlate of the voice of nature that
Rousseau is talking about when referring to the natural necessity as a providential order
instituted by God (an order which man follows when listening to the inner voice of his own
nature) see for instance Rousseau 1905 [1781], 389 and Drath 1948, 1819.
72 On this, see for instance Paoletti 2003, 132136; Besnard 2003b, 108.
73 This is the new feature which he proclaims his theory has in comparison to
Rousseau, who still postulates a natural equilibrium between the needs and the capacities
of man and sees each deviation from this natural state as a source of misfortune. The
novelty brought about by social life is precisely the substitution of the so called natural
needs by other type of needs (the moral ones), the satisfaction of which is not required for
the physical survival but is nonetheless just as legitimate. See Durkheim 2003 [1950], 166.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 77

collective sentiment concerning the legitimate portion due to each. It is the failure
of this sentiment, its temporary incapacity to give the necessary support for the
individual feeling of justice that leads to the anomic suicide in Durkheims famous
typology.74 But on the other hand the collective sentiment only fails because of the
lack of exterior limits set by an objective force. It is precisely this force, the force
of the collective consciousness transcending the individual, on which Durkheim
concentrates when seeking to explain the social regulation of affectivity. When the
normal limits, that is, the social scale determining the allocation of resources, get
disturbed (for instance, during deep economic crises but also during an abnormally
rapid economic growth), collective energy gets liberated:

So long as the social forces thus freed have not gained equilibrium, their
respective values are unknown and so all regulation is lacking for a time. The
limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible, what is just and
what is unjust, legitimate claims and hopes and those which are immoderate.
Consequently, there is no restraint upon aspirations.75

Here Durkheim resorts to the concept of equilibrium between forces (instead of

a happy medium between the two extremes of the same affective continuum),
like many observers have pertinently noticed.76 However, what this disturbance
(brought up by a social crisis, abrupt economic transitions etc.) causes is that social
forces, formerly bound by normative restraints, are set loose. Equilibrium here
equals a bound state of social energy and, as it appears, this energy is of affective
nature. Desires are set free which means that they are again left at the mercy of the
excessive logic (the bad infinity) of the individual desire. But the precise nature of
the instance or the force which is supposed to bind them is still not clear: what
sort of force or instance are we talking about? Is it of psychological, physical
or symbolic nature or maybe all these at once? What is the exact location or
substratum of this force?
The situation gets even more complicated at the end of the study where
Durkheim brings into play another type of collective force or, to be more
precise, a collective form of affectivity which he then uses as an explanation of
the variations perceived in the suicide rates. Here he talks about huge affective
fluxes, currents and tendencies that have their own existence and affect the
individual from without. Although these currents are ephemeral and whimsical
they come and go without assignable reasons they seem to get entire populations
in their grip. These big affective tendencies or moods are like cosmic forces or

74 See Durkheim 1960b [1897], 280281/1968, 252253. Anomie is precisely the

pathological state in which the social norms fail to give the necessary support for the
individual sentiment of justice.
75 Durkheim 1960b [1897], 280281/1968, 253.
76 See for instance Besnard 2003b, 109115; Paoletti 2003, 130.
78 Affectivity and the Social Bond

electric currents although they are invisible, their reality is demonstrated by the
uniformity of their effects:

Since, therefore, moral acts such as suicide are reproduced not merely with an
equal but with a greater uniformity, we must likewise admit that they depend on
forces external to individuals. Only, since these forces must be of a moral order
and since, except for individual men, there is no other moral order of existence
in the world but society, they must be social. But whatever they are called, the
important thing is to recognize their reality and conceive of them as a totality of
forces which cause us to act from without, like the physico-chemical forces to
which we react. So truly are they things sui generis and not mere verbal entities
that they may be measured, their relative sizes compared, as is done with the
intensity of electric currents or luminous voci.77

These affective moods or currents have their own quality and intensity which
is independent of the specific psychological features of the individuals. The
collective passions or suicidogenic currents (as Durkheim also calls them)
here constitute the cause of the suicide. All of a sudden Durkheim seems to have
completely forgotten his idea of the anomic suicide as an abyss of individual desire
in the absence of social norms (limitations) as well as his claim that the force of
individual passions can only be regulated by a greater force (that of society). The
problem of limitation/regulation becomes singularly complicated, because we are
now faced with collective instead of individual passions. How are these collective
moods to be regulated? The passions which are limited/regulated by society are
not clearly distinguished from the social force which should be limiting them in
other words, the object and subject of limitation are not sufficiently separated or
their relationship remains unclear.78 From whence does the social get the force to
resist the collective passions the source of which is within it?
Against the obscure, free-floating collective affectivity society could, in
principle, oppose its moral force, but this would again suppose that the moral
quality of the social could be clearly distinguished from its affective quality, and
this simply doesnt seem to be the case. The moral and the affective are intertwined
in Durkheims theory in spite of the fact that morality as a system of collective
representations also transcends the individual.79 This intertwinement is not to be
understood as one touching only the conscious motivations of individuals, the

77 Durkheim 1960b [1897], 349/1968, 309310.

78 This problem has been extensively analysed by Besnard (2003b, 109115) and
Paoletti (2003, 120147).
79 This is one of the things which seem to separate his notion of morality from
that of Kant whose transcendentalism has undeniably influenced his views on morality
(for instance the exterior and coercive nature of moral rules). On the role of sentiment in
motivating morality in Durkheims and Kants respective views, see Watts Miller 1996,
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 79

feelings of attachment or respect that the individual might harbour in relation to

society; instead, it operates on the level of the constitution of moral categories
themselves as we shall see later on when discussing Durkheims theory of religion.
In Suicide the mixed nature of morality as an affective force and a collective
representation is manifest in the fact that the suicidogenic currents are treated
sometimes as cognitive, ideological vogues (currents of opinion, even moral
ideas),80 sometimes as affective tendencies (living sentiments, collective
impulses, collective passions81), both aspects being then conflated under the title
of moral reality.82
There is, in fact, a germ of an answer to this problem, which Durkheim himself
refers to at the end of his study although he does not develop the idea any further
in this context.83 In fact collective affectivity seems to exist in two different forms.
On the one hand, there is obscure, free-floating energy,84 all sorts of currents which
come and go, cross and mingle in a thousand different ways, a large collective life
which is at liberty.85 On the other hand, there is another sort of affective energy
which is fixed, crystallized in a material or symbolic form and which manifests
itself in institutions, laws, myths, moral norms and so forth. This is precisely the
organized affectivity which regulates the potential endlessness of individual desire:
society reacts with the energy or force that is fixed in moral rules and collective
representations. But what we find at the bottom of these fixed or coagulated forms
is affectivity all the same:

Beneath all these maxims are actual, living sentiments, summed up by these
formulae but only as in a superficial envelope. The formulae would awake no
echo if they did not correspond to definite emotions and impressions scattered
through society.86

80 Durkheim, 1960b [1897], 355363/1968, 321.

81 Durkheim 1960b [1897], 345, 356/1968, 307, 31316.
82 Durkheim, 1960b [1897], 356/1968, 315.
83 See Durkheim 1960b [1897], 355/1968, 315.
84 This form of social affectivity is already mentioned in The Rules of Sociological
Method where Durkheim refers to social currents which he qualifies as unconscious:
Thus individuals who are normally perfectly harmless may, when gathered together in
a crowd, let themselves be drawn into acts of atrocity. And what we assert about these
transitory outbreaks likewise applies to those more lasting movements of opinion which
relate to religious, political, literary and artistic matters, etc., and which are constantly being
produced around us, whether throughout society or in a more limited sphere. Durkheim
2010 [1895], 104/1982, 53 italics T.A.
85 Durkheim, 1960b [1897], 355/1968, 315 italics T.A.
86 Durkheim, 1960b [1897], 356/1968, 315.
80 Affectivity and the Social Bond

The question is whether this fixed energy could also be used to regulate the free,
non-bound collective affectivity87 which seems to be the dangerous one, since it is
presented as the ultimate cause of the suicides.88 However, in Suicide Durkheim
does not present the problem of regulation primarily in these terms. Rather, in his
scheme the different currents of opinion only become suicidogenic when one
of them exceeds a certain degree of intensity and, in consequence, individualizes
itself thus breaking up the former equilibrium in which these tendencies mutually
limited one another. This intensification is, in turn, related to the manner in which
individuals are associated or organized, so that it is particularly prone to happen
when the social organization undergoes rapid change or, alternatively, in more
confined surroundings, like the army, closed religious communities etc. So it is not
the lack of articulation, the unbound state of collective energy which is dangerous
per se, but the excessive growth, intensification of a singular mood at the expense
of others. The remedy against this threat is again sought in the fortification of the
social structure (the famous intermediary groups, like corporations, assuming the
regulative function especially in the economic domain).89 Egoism and altruism as
well as optimism and pessimism (the different currents deriving from these moral
states) are both needed, as long as they stay within sensible limits:

The taste for happy expansiveness must be moderated by the opposite taste; only
on this condition will it retain measure and harmonize with reality.90

However, after having fortified the social castle against these unwanted turbulences
with the help of the intermediary groups, Durkheim goes on to affirm that a certain
oscillation of the collective moods is, in fact, the normal and even desirable
situation: it allows the required tendency or mood to be mobilized at need and

87 In fact, Durkheim discusses the question concerning the material intermediaries

of affective energy, but only on the individual level, as far as these material forms have an
undeniable (restraining or regulating) effect on individual consciousness. See Durkheim
1960b [1897], 355/1968, 314315.
88 In fact, the distinction between the free-floating affective energy and the collective
affectivity coagulated in a material or symbolic form has undeniable affinities with Freuds
idea of the difference between the free and the bound psychic energy see Freud 1966
[1895] and 1953 [1900]; on the evolution of Freuds distinction, see for instance Laplanche
and Pontalis 2002, 133136 and 221224. Although Freuds distinction operates inside
the individual psyche, his general idea of its energetic economy is based on a very similar
set of ideas which Durkheim here applies to collective affectivity: the free psychic energy
(proceeding towards discharge) gets bound by an energy which is already fixed (blocked
and accumulated). On the other hand, the idea of an energetic economy was very much
in the air both in thermodynamics and in experimental psychology, so it is not completely
surprising that similar veins of thought can be found in theories that might contradict each
other in other respects.
89 Durkheim, 1960b [1897], 434442/1968, 378384.
90 Durkheim, 1960b [1897], 419/1968, 366.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 81

thereby contributes to the maintenance of general harmony, because a tendency

does not limit itself, it can never be restrained except by another tendency.91 In
other words, the idea of equilibrium has not vanished, it has only changed locus:
whereas in the beginning of his study Durkheim still seems to regard this balance
as a happy medium of one single variable which can then be disturbed by an
excess on either of its two ends (for instance, egoistic and anomic suicides as
the extreme ends of the continuum describing social integration), at the end of
the book the equilibrium is more like a meta climate92 that must be maintained
by clever engineering or rather tempering of the local lows and highs.93 The
oscillation of these pressures represents the normal situation, and yet it has to be
controlled, because the equilibrium between these tendencies is normal (that is, it
represents the healthy, balanced state of the social body).
A further point which is left unclear is the part that the individuals (the social
actors) play in the constitution and change of these collective moods. On the one
hand, Durkheim seems to use the oscillation of individual moods (the allegedly
normal variations of joy and melancholy) to justify the normality of similar
variations in collective tendencies, but on the other hand he considers these
tendencies to be sui generis realities, that is, in no way reducible to their constitutive
parts. In other words, the individual states are used as a psychological justification
for the variations of the social mood, but at the same time the individual actor
himself is deprived of any real part in the phenomenon described. He is tossed
around helplessly by the collective currents that just come and go somehow above
his head.94
All in all, Suicide seems to end in a curiously autogenous dynamic of
collective passions in which the mediation between the individual and the social is
ultimately one-sided: the omnipotent collective currents dominate, individuals are
like passive puppets in their grip. Moreover, in Suicide Durkheim sees collective
passions principally as a force that the norms and the maxims of society reflect
in other words, the function of representations is first and foremost to express
a reality which they do not affect.95 It is only in his theory of religion that he
develops a more sophisticated notion of social symbolism in which the symbols

91 Durkheim, 1960b [1897], 419/1968, 366.

92 The consequences of this change of model for Durkheims explanation of suicide
have been extensively analysed by Besnard (2003b).
93 For instance, the melancholic tendency which constitutes the indispensable
counterweight for an excessive optimism is maintained and nurtured in closed groups
which serve as its substratum unfortunately, it is also in these groups that ideas of
suicide easily take root (see Durkheim, 1960b [1897], 419420/1968, 366). One cannot
help thinking that here the suiciders represent what the French would call la part du feu,
the part that must be sacrificed for the sake of the totality (in this case, for the well-being
and equilibrium of the social body).
94 On this, see also Paoletti 2003, 124125.
95 See Durkheim 1960b [1897], 245/1968, 226227.
82 Affectivity and the Social Bond

also influence the affective moods that is, in which they act in a feed-back
relationship with the very same affectivity which gave birth to them.

Religion and Collective Turmoil or Affectivity Domesticated

Durkheims theory of religion, presented in his 1912 magnum opus Les formes
lmentaires de la vie religieuse, is divided into two parts, one discussing religious
beliefs and the other concentrating on ritual practices. It is notably in the second
part that affectivity plays a key role. In distinction to Suicide where the emphasis
is clearly on the social regulation of collective passions, Les formes has been
regarded as a work in which Durkheim analyses collective affectivity first and
foremost as a force of social integration.96 What has been less noticed, however,
is that affective regulation here operates through integration and that the vehicle
of conversion or transfiguration of the free-floating, turbulent affectivity into
a self-conscious social sentiment is none other than the affective energy bound,
crystallized in symbolic form. In other words, the channelization of affectivity
is ultimately done by affective means, although affectivity appears in two (if not
three) different modes in Durkheims theory.
Whereas Suicide is a book dominated by passions, Les Formes is most of
all known as the theatre of collective effervescence.97 In Durkheims theory this
affective turmoil also constitutes a heuristic model for the birth of the symbolic
itself. Although Durkheim firmly rejects any attempts to find the first origin of
social institutions,98 he constantly uses the most primitive known religion of the
time, namely the totemism of Australian aboriginals, as indirect evidence of how
everything must have happened.99 In the following much-cited paragraph the
corroboree of the Australian Arunta tribe functions as a sort of original scene
from which society and religion seem to have emanated:

The very fact of the concentration acts as an exceptionally powerful stimulant.

When they are once come together, a sort of electricity is formed by their
collecting which quickly transports them to an extraordinary degree of exaltation.
Every sentiment expressed finds a place without resistance in all the minds,

96 See in particular Steiner 2000, 5963.

97 Durkheim also uses other expressions, like over-excitation, exaltation, energy,
frenzy and even delirium, denoting more-or-less the same thing.
98 See Durkheim 1990 [1912], 1011/1947, 8. It is noteworthy that immediately after
he has denied the possibility of finding any absolute historical origin of religion, Durkheim
goes on affirming that as far as institutions are concerned, nature spontaneously makes the
same sort of simplifications at the beginning of history as the physicists do in order to get
rid of the secondary characteristics of the phenomena they are studying.
99 This confusion between the logical and the historical origins in Durkheims
sociology has been amply criticized; see for instance Lvi-Strauss 1947, 524526 and
Lukes 1973, 455458.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 83

which are very open to outside impression; each re-echoes the others, and is
re-echoed by the others. The initial impulse thus proceeds, growing as it goes,
as an avalanche grows in its advance. And as such active passion so free from
all control could not fail to burst out, on every side one sees nothing but violent
gestures, cries, veritable howls, and deafening noises of every sort, which aid
in intensifying still more the state of mind which they manifest. And since a
collective sentiment cannot express itself collectively except on the condition
of observing a certain order permitting co-operation and movements in unison,
these gestures and cries naturally tend to become rhythmic and regular; hence
come songs and dances. [] How could such experiences as these, especially
when they are repeated every day for weeks, fail to leave in him [the individual,
T.A.] the conviction that there really exist two heterogeneous and mutually
incomparable worlds? [] So it is in the midst of these effervescent social
environments and out of this effervescence itself that the religious idea seems
to be born.100

The first thing that hits the eye is the electrifying and contagious nature of the
affect. Not only is the affective state extremely intense, it also spreads out like
wildfire: an individual gesture or a cry is immediately repeated and echoed by every
member of the group. In other words, the whole process works on a powerful and
quasi-automatic imitation the very same imitation which Durkheim so fiercely
criticized in Suicide when attacking Gabriel Tarde. However, in spite of the
apparent inconsistency this does not imply a major change in Durkheims earlier
views, nor does it mean that he would now subscribe to Tardes theory of the
social as an immense network of imitative currents.101 Although contagiousness
is an important idea in Durkheims theory of religion, it does not operate on the
same level of immanence as the Tardean notion of imitation. Firstly, contagion
does not imply an ontological postulate about the nature of the universe like the
Tardean imitation does, because it is limited on the affective and psycho-social
sphere of human existence; and secondly, it is embedded in a theory concerning
the constitution of the symbolic which is the indispensable instance needed for
the affective contagion ever to be able to constitute anything that we might call

100 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 308313/1947, 215219.

101 On the general differences between the crowd psychology of Le Bon and Tarde
on one hand, and the theory of effervescent assemblies of Durkheim on the other, see for
instance Pickering 1984, 395403.
102 The two contexts in which Durkheim uses the term contagion are the
contagiousness of the sacred as a force, on one hand, and the contagion (in the sense of
mixing up) between the emotions evoked by a thing and the material symbol of the thing,
on the other. In the end, these two turn out to be one and the same thing, since the sacred as
a force is nothing else but society objectified (and then materialized in a symbolic form) by
the individual consciousness.
84 Affectivity and the Social Bond

The distinguishing feature of the Durkheimian contagion is precisely the

symbolic fixation it involves. In order for the individual affects (sentiments) to
become socially relevant, they first must be materialized in the form of common,
meaningful symbols. In other words, the flow of affective contagion must be
stopped, fixed, and concentrated in a material form. It is this material form which
then starts to act as a symbol of the collective turmoil and which, in turn, enables
the birth of a sui generis type of collective affectivity, a social sentiment not
reducible to its constituent (individual) parts.103 This configuration completely
differs from the Tardean imitation that never exceeds the individual level. The
imitation Tarde is talking about is completely horizontal, flat so to speak: there is
nothing behind, no hidden content, and no transcendence as empty as it might
be.104 The ultimate referent of the process are the physiological laws governing
the universe (the beliefs and desires of the Tardean individual have their deepest
sources beneath the social world, in the living universe, [le monde du vivant]).105
The social is nothing but a gigantic web of mutual (inter-individual) magnetisations
populated by a bunch of somnambulists (this is the metaphor Tarde himself
uses).106 By contrast, in Durkheims scheme the inter-subjective relationship is
never immediate; it is always mediated by a transcendental (symbolic) instance,
namely the social.107

103 On the nature of this affective synthesis, see for instance Durkheim 1974a
[1898], 40/1974b, 26: [P]rivate sentiments do not become social except by combination
under the action of the sui generis forces developed in association. In such a combination,
with the mutual alterations involved, they become something else. A chemical synthesis
results which concentrates and unifies the synthesized elements and by that transforms
them. See also Sousa Fernandez 2008 and Arppe 2005, 10.
104 As Laurent Muchielli (2004, 65) has pointed out, the same also seems to apply
to the individual in Tardes theory (this is where he might be claimed to be even more
deterministic than Durkheim). On a psychological level the individual is nothing but an
empty envelope, transporting the social currents or ideas he has received by imitation; and
society for Tarde is nothing but an enormous imitative network which ultimately follows
the great movement of undulation animating the entire universe (see also Tarde 2001
[1890], 205).
105 Tarde, 2001 [1890], 205.
106 Tarde, 2001 [1890], 136.
107 But this is not all, since for Durkheim the meaningful symbols or collective
representations also ultimately represent the same thing, namely society itself. This is the
idea Durkheim had elaborated already in his 1903 essay on the social origin of human
classificatory function written together with Mauss. Not only are the notions such as space
or hierarchy of social origin in the sense that they have been socially constituted, but they
have also originally represented social divisions. The notion of genus, for instance, is born
out of social divisions (phratrias) and that of hierarchy originally represented the social
hierarchies between groups (Durkheim and Mauss 1974 [1903], 8384). What is noteworthy
in this context is that the idea of the affective basis of these symbolic classifications is
already strongly present in the 1903 essay: all sorts of affective elements participate in the
constitution of collective representations, so that their most fundamental characteristics
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 85

It is precisely this idea of the genesis of collective symbolism that Durkheim

elaborates a few pages later in a paragraph which also constitutes the strategic
locus of conversion between the free and the bound affective energy:

In fact, if left to themselves, individual consciousnesses are closed to each other;

they can communicate only by means of signs which express their internal states.
If the communication established between them is to become a real communion,
that is to say, a fusion of all particular sentiments into one common sentiment,
the signs expressing them must themselves be fused into one single and unique
resultant. It is the appearance of this that informs individuals that they are
in harmony and makes them conscious of their moral unity. It is by uttering
the same cry, pronouncing the same word, or performing the same gesture in
regard to some object that they become and feel themselves to be in unison.
[] [Collective representations] presuppose that minds act and react upon one
another; they are the product of these actions and reactions which are themselves
possible only through material intermediaries. These latter do not confine
themselves to revealing the mental state with which they are associated; they aid
in creating it. Individual minds cannot come in contact and communicate with
each other except by coming out of themselves; but they cannot do this except
by movements. So it is the homogeneity of these movements that gives the group
consciousness of itself and consequently makes it exist. When this homogeneity
is once established and these movements have once taken a stereotyped form,
they serve to symbolize the corresponding representations. But they symbolize
them only because they have aided in forming them.108

What the above cited passage brings forth is, in fact, a scheme of conversion
in which the free, uncontrolled affective energy (movements, cries, gestures) is
converted into a fixed, symbolic form with the aid of material intermediaries (for
instance, the totemic animal or plant or its carved image or statue in the ritual).
Material intermediaries, on the other hand, not only serve to express the affective
state of the individuals, they also participate in creating it in other words, there is
a feed-back relationship from the initial affective state to the material object which
then starts to act as a symbol of this state and thereby serves to intensify it.109

ultimately express the manner in which they affect the social sensibility. The differences
and resemblances that determine the fashion in which they are grouped are more affective
than intellectual (ibid., 86). It is precisely this affective basis that for Durkheim and Mauss
explains the empirical variations in the categories of different cultures.
108 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 329330/1947, 230231 italics T.A.
109 In this sense we can claim that the whole turmoil -scheme, as far as it implies
a theory of the birth of the symbolic (and the social), is based on the conversion of the
free, uncontrolled affective energy into a fixed, controlled, material form collective
effervescence is the conceptual tool which Durkheim uses to operate this conversion in
his theory. Pickering (1984, 385390) has used a similar distinction, dividing collective
effervescence into two types, the creative (wild, uncontrolled) and the re-creative
86 Affectivity and the Social Bond

This is how Durkheim explains the birth of the symbolic: movements, gestures
and cries are associated with and fixed to material intermediaries which then
start to symbolize and fortify the collective state that these movements and cries
express.110 This scheme functions on the externalization of the internal (individual)
states into (collective) movements which then assume a homogeneous form. But
this homogenization can only happen in relation to an exterior object (the totem).
So in fact the exterior object functions at the same time as a catalyst, a point of
concentration and a converter of the affective energy which it then transforms into
a collective (self-conscious) form.111
However, there is also another type of transference at work in this scheme
namely the non-conscious psychological operation in which the force of society gets
associated with the totem and which Durkheim describes in the first of the above
cited paragraphs. This is an operation which completely escapes the participants
themselves although it happens in their minds and which Durkheim explains
by a transference of sentiments: the idea of a thing and the idea of its symbol are
so closely united in the mind that the sentiments they trigger become commingled.
And since society itself is an entity far too abstract to provoke such intense
sentiments, they become connected to some object that is sufficiently concrete
and simple.112 This explains the special status of the totem (usually an animal or
a plant) that becomes associated with the state of over-excitement invoked by the
Thus, what is originally needed is an object around which the individual
gestures and cries become concentrated and thereby get homogenized this

(controlled, ritual) one, when analysing the Durkheimian effervescence as a more general
theory of social creativity.
110 The explanation in itself is, of course, a logical circle like all genetic explanations
of the symbolic. Here the symbolic already presupposes certain homogeneity of movements
and gestures, that is, an intentional effort to move and to gesticulate in the same rhythm. But
how could this common intention come about, if the consciousness observing these gestures
and cries did not already interpret them as signs of the very communion (unanimity, common
sentiment) that they were supposed to establish? Since the individual consciousnesses
can only communicate with each other by means of material intermediaries, the gestures,
movements and cries are always already interpreted as signs, part of a signifying network,
and as such they cannot explain its origin.
111 In fact, the whole process resembles more a chemical conversion than a
psychological transference. On the argumentative level the scheme is overdetermined
by the affective conditioning given in the beginning: If the communication established
between them is to become a real communion which teleologically preconditions the
whole subsequent reasoning.
112 This is a very typical example of the sort of petitio principii -reasoning that
Durkheim so often resorts to in his book the whole argument presupposes that society
really is the thing which the totem represents, otherwise it would not work. In other words,
in order to conclude that there really is a symbolic substitution at work here, that society
is replaced by the totem because of its excessively abstract character, we already have to
presume that society is the real object of representation in the first place.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 87

object is then turned into an emblem by a psychological process of affective

transference.113 It is only on this condition that is, by exteriorizing the inner
affective states in a concrete form that a real collective sentiment, or as Durkheim
puts it, a fusion of all particular sentiments into one common sentiment, can be
constituted. And this sentiment is something without which no society is possible:
no society can do without a common sentiment of its own unity.114 On one hand,
this sentiment is channelled and fixed in collective representations (the so called
material intermediaries) that also guarantee a certain continuity and permanence
for it.115 On the other hand, this process of conversion also gives the wild,
unrefined affectivity a conscious form: sentiment is something which is already
mediated by reason (sens), it is a sublimated form of the amorphous, chaotic
agitation. Thus, the affectivity produced by the conversion is no longer the quasi-
natural impulsive energy of the initial turmoil. In this sense the social (exteriorized
and symbolized) affectivity also constitutes a sui generis force which cannot be
reduced to the natural affective state of the individuals. The properly human
mode of sociality produces a synthetic entity (society) which reverses the order of
nature and subordinates the exterior (natural) forces to social forces. And it does
this precisely by fixing these forces into a symbolic form.116
What Durkheim is presenting in the above-cited paragraph is, in fact, an
original scene describing the birth of culture: the transformation of the natural
into the social (which here equals the cultural). At this stage the signs expressing
the interior state of the individuals are physical movements (they cannot do this
except by movements), not linguistic signs. These physical reactions117 are a
constitutive part of the system of collective representations it is even this very
feature that distinguishes them from the individual representations according

113 See also Durkheim 1975c [1913], 41.

114 See for instance Durkheim 1990 [1912], 536/1947, 375.
115 The affective continuity is thus guaranteed in two ways: firstly, by fixing the
intensive and therefore ephemeral (collective) affectivity in a material form that carries or
preserves it even when this intense emotion has passed by; and secondly, by reinvigorating
the affective energy in this way preserved every now and then in the very source in which
it was born.
116 Susan Stedman Jones in fact presents a very similar interpretation of the concept
of representation in Durkheims theory (see Stedman Jones 2000b). This interpretation is
based on the idea that the representative function of Durkheim is a (Renouvier -inspired)
modification of the Kantian a priori: part of experience is crystallized in a more permanent
form which then acts as a mould for new experiences, just like the Kantian categories
of understanding (although in a historicized and de-universalized form that, of course,
also entails the abandon of the Kantian transcendentalism in its demanding sense). What
Im claiming here is that this epistemological model is based on an affective supplement
that provides both the energy, the impetus indispensable for the generation of the whole
symbolic (representative) system and the partly uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) element
that the system tries to canalize and to convert thereafter.
117 Durkheim, 1990 [1912], 330/1947, 230.
88 Affectivity and the Social Bond

to Durkheim. The movements in question are thus not limited to revealing the
mental state to which they are associated: they participate in making it.118 This
means that we are in fact dealing with a more elementary scheme of signification
than what was found in the paragraph describing the transference of sentiments
into the totemic symbol: here the smallest signifying unit is the movement which
progressively assumes a unified and rhythmic form, a homogeneity and order that
constitutes the very foundation of the sociality of the social sentiment. Without
this common direction, rhythm and intention, there would be no social sentiment,
only chaotic, non-orderly individual agitation.119
However, this means that the brute energy of the initial turmoil has not only
been channelled, it has also been elevated and transfigured. These are the very
terms Durkheim himself uses when talking about the effect which society has on
the individual: it transfigures120 his being, elevating the individual above himself,
transporting him into a milieu other than that in which he passes his profane
existence, making him live a very different kind of life, higher and more intense.121
In the history of philosophy this is precisely what reason does to human beings
since the times of Plato: it elevates them above their purely sensuous existence
only in Durkheims case this elevation is due to society (without which no reason
would be conceivable) and it involves an affective element, since life in society is
not only more elevated but also more intense. This is the point where Durkheims
endeavour essentially departs from the rationalist tradition which from Plato to

118 Although Durkheim is not talking about language, but of representations or

symbols, as noted by Tarot (1999, 240241) and Karsenti (1997, 210211) respectively,
his analysis bears interesting resemblances to the theory of Rousseau on the language of
gestures as the first form of human language. On this, see Arppe 2005, 2224.
119 There is no mention as to how exactly this homogeneity has come about. The
simplest explanation would again be the direct, horizontal imitation. Characteristically
this is not the solution Durkheim goes for the affective regulation must pass through an
exterior instance which in this case is the totem. But why exactly the participants would
begin to move in unison in the presence of this particular object in the first place is not
explained. Instead, Durkheims reasoning follows the familiar teleological path: since the
collective expression of the common sentiment presupposes a certain order permitting
movements in unison, these movements naturally tend to become rhythmic and regular. In
other words, from the fact that the birth of the social necessitates something, the emergence
of this something is inferred.
120 One can readily conceive how, when arrived at this state of exaltation, a man
does not recognize himself any longer. [] Feeling himself dominated and carried away
by some sort of external power which makes him think and act differently than in normal
times [] And as at the same time all his companions feel themselves transfigured in the
same way and express this sentiment by their cries, their gestures and their general attitude,
everything is just as though he really were transported into a special world [] (Durkheim
1990 [1912], 312/1947, 218 italics T.A.). I have here modified the English translation that
misses the connotation by translating the verb transfigurer simply by transform.
121 Durkheim 1975c [1913], 23.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 89

Kant has expelled passions outside of (pure) reason.122 The difficulties of his attempt
are related to the ambiguous nature of the substratum or subject of this process.
One of the aspects of this ambiguity lies in the conscious vs. non-conscious nature
of the social subject; the other can be located between its symbolic and affective
dimension (its status as a representation as well as a force).
In the above cited passages the result of the initial affective turmoil is a distinctive
sentiment that the group gets of its own unity. The conscious character of this
sentiment is emphasized by the very notion of reprsentation without which it
would not be possible. This is a concept that Durkheim had already elaborated in his
earlier texts, notably in Reprsentations individuelles et reprsentations collectives
(1898) which is one of his most systematic efforts to specify the ontological status
of the social subject, its psychological constitution and the relationship between
the individual and the collective psyche. Here Durkheim elaborates the idea of
a non-conscious representation, that is, a representation which is ignored by the
individual subject and which would therefore allow extending the psychological
life beyond the actual (individual) consciousness, thus guaranteeing it a sort of
continuity independent of physiology (the present state of the nerve centres).
However, the notion of non-conscious or unconscious representation leads to
the difficult question concerning its subject, i.e. the agency to which it represents.
Durkheim admits that the notion of an unconscious representation and that of a
consciousness without the apprehending I (moi) are more-or-less equivalent,123
but either way the conceptual difficulty remains: representation cannot be its proper
foundation. Indeed, the problem is inherent in the concept itself: representation is
a two-placed relationship comprising a subject for whom something is represented
and an object that constitutes its content. However, as Bruno Karsenti points out,
the concept of representation becomes untenable in a situation where some mental
or psychic states are conceived as constitutively unconscious, that is, when their
becoming apprehended does not entail an apprehending entity or subject to which
they would be present.124 The concept of collective consciousness, precisely

122 Although Kant did grant affectivity a role in sustaining the aspirations and
principles of practical reason, he nonetheless regarded some affective states, notably passions
(Leidenschafte) and emotional agitations (Affekte), as pathological and out of (reasons)
control (see in particular Kant 1820 [1796/97]). This is a crucial difference compared to
Durkheim, for whom the control of passions is no longer a problem of individual moral
psychology but requires another kind of subject or substratum and other sort of means.
123 Durkheim 1974a [1898], 37 note 1.
124 See Karsenti 1997, 5253. Although, as Susan Stedman-Jones (2000a) points
out, Durkheims notion of representation is influenced by Renouviers theory, which is
not based on the concept of reflection (representation as a mirror-like reflection of an
exterior reality) but rather emphasizes the constructivist character of representation
(representations as shared cognitive assumptions that constitute the reality), the subject-
object -relation still remains at the basis of the representative construction itself:
representation implies that something is represented to consciousness, brought before
it so to say (cp. the Kantian notion of Vorstellung) whether this consciousness is an
90 Affectivity and the Social Bond

because it exceeds the limits of the individual psychic apparatus, offers Durkheim
a solution to the problem concerning the substratum required for the individual
unconscious representations. In fact, the unconscious representations are such
only for the individual once related to their true substratum (the collective
consciousness) they cease to be so. The unconscious representation can thus be
interpreted as the psychological mode in which the collective representations exist
in the individual consciousness. This is why the unconscious phenomena are, in
Durkheims scheme, finally just a mark of the transcendence of the social on the
individual level. The unconscious if such a substantival use is at all possible
in this context is thus reduced to being but a shadow or a double, imprinted in
the individual consciousness by another, superior form of consciousness not an
autonomous psychic sphere with its own laws which would be irreducible to the
logic of consciousness.125
The reality of this superior psychic entity is, however, entirely dependent of
its status as an exterior (and specifically social) force.126 The whole constellation
thus seems to rest on another ambiguity, namely the ambiguous status of the
collective subject as a representation (be it conscious or unconscious) and an
effective, acting force. It is precisely here that affectivity again steps into play,
since the initial collective impetus or force which gives birth to the whole system
of representations is none other than the affective turmoil. In the original scene
that Durkheim sketches out in his book, the birth of collective representations
takes place in a sort of primitive heard a formless group of individuals
with no sense of unity or collective identity. The awakening of this amorphous

individual or a collective one and whether the relationship between the object and the
subject is a clear or an obscure reflection doesnt change the basic constellation nor the
difficulty implicit in it. On the other hand, if the substratum or the subject of representations
is itself nothing but a bunch of representations, as Stedman-Jones suggests (2000a, 47
49), we are of course nearer the Saussurean or Lvi-Straussian conception of the symbolic
where the emphasis is on the structural network without a subject, whether transcendental
or empirical. However, in Durkheims constellation the subject does remain: it is precisely
the collective consciousness around which the whole process of crystallization and
fixation of the free affective energy is later concentrated. The collective consciousness is
not reduced to a network of representations, but it also constitutes a quasi-natural force,
here offering the final substratum for the representative chain and later (notably in the
theory of religion) sustaining the whole symbolic structure. The same is true of collective
representations which, apart from being epistemological beliefs/cognitive categories, are
also effective forces (real and acting elements) the affective nature of which becomes all
the more accentuated in Les formes lmentaires. The representational is never free from
the affective supplement in Durkheims theory; this is one of the differences between him
and Kant (and, of course, between him and Lvi-Strauss).
125 On this problem and the difference between the Durkheimian and Freudian
conceptions, see Karsenti 1997, 7778.
126 On the influence of Pierre Janets conception of the subconscious with its
emphasis on the psychic action, the influence of the milieu and the relative dependence of
the subconscious on the conscious see also Karsenti 1997, 5362.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 91

assemblage to collective consciousness of itself as a community happens through

the affective conversion earlier described: the source of the religious force is the
affective synthesis127 which gives the individuals the first social sentiment (that
is, the sentiment of their own unity as a group). However, this conversion which
petrifies the savage turmoil and transforms it into a conscious sentiment revolves
around one representation which constitutes a sort of arch-symbol of the whole
Durkheimian theory of religion. This collective representation is the sacred.
In many ways the sacred can be regarded as a condensation of the ambiguities
implicit in Durkheims conception of social affectivity. The first one is linked
to its status as a collective representation and an affective force, the second
one is connected to the interior ambivalence of this very same force. Since the
sacred incarnates society which is both the source and the content of collective
representations, it constitutes a sort of arch, the cornerstone of the entire structure,
the idea-force that opens up and organizes the entire space of representation,
splitting it into two opposed parts (the sacred and the profane). As the incarnation
par excellence of the social force (or more precisely, of the social as a force) the
sacred is co-substantial with the social itself. The social is originally nothing
else than this common affectivity sanctified, frozen or coagulated into a material
form, which gives the group the first sentiment of its own unity.128 However, the
sacred is also the name given to this material form, a signifier in a symbolic
structure dividing the world into two parts. In this sense it is not identical with the
social, although it has a privileged relationship with it because it has been directly
fashioned by the community itself (whereas the representations of the profane
are of individual making).129 Thus, it is both the affective force which begets the
system of representations and a part of the very same system, i.e. a collective
representation. In this metatheoretical sense the sacred is definitely ambiguous.
But there is also another ambiguity a more famous one better known as
the ambivalence of the sacred which is connected to the specific features of

127 In this sense the force in question is, indeed, exterior to individuals: it is only
actualized in function of their coming together.
128 On the original scene there is no social base independent of the affective, upon
which the affective could then be added as an emotional content (cf. Pickering 1984, 158).
This is why religion is for Durkheim not comparable to other symbolic systems reflecting
the social, such as the legal or the moral system, the mode, the political institutions, the art
etc. Religion has a privileged position in his system, because it represents the origin it is
born simultaneously with society, hence it has a temporally privileged position compared
to other social institutions. On the other hand, it is something more also in the structural or
topological sense and this more, this surplus that needs to be added to the symbolic so
that it will be transformed into religious, is precisely the sacred which incarnates the social
as an affective force. Behind the symbolic there is always the affective supplement this is
why the social is for Durkheim not identical with the symbolic. In fact, what Durkheim tries
to do in his theory of religion is to infer the symbolic from the social an attempt famously
criticized by Claude Lvi-Strauss some 50 years later (see Lvi-Strauss 1947, 526527).
129 See Pickering 1984, 119.
92 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the primitive belief-systems themselves. This notion was originally developed

by the Scottish theologian and exegete William Robertson Smith.130 Robertson
Smith paid attention to the fact that in Semitic religions the taboo applies to two
realities that would seem to be mutually exclusive: to things which are considered
sacred and to those regarded as impure, so that the boundary between the two is
often vague. For Smith, the reality of the distinction is proved by the difference
of motives: with the rules of holiness the motive is respect for the gods; with the
rules of uncleanness it is primarily fear of an unknown or hostile power. So here
were essentially dealing with two opposing reactions to the sacred, observed in
the belief-systems and ritual practices themselves.131
Durkheim, like many others,132 adopted Robertson Smiths distinction which
he further elaborated in his theory of religion. His solution was to split the religious
forces themselves into two categories: the benevolent forces, guardians of the
moral order, respected and loved, and the malevolent, impure forces, vehicles
of death and diseases, feared and loathed. These two forces constitute the two
poles of the sacred, dividing the sacred itself into a pure and an impure part. The
relationship between these two domains is that of opposition, even antagonism.
On the other hand, they are both equally sacred and, as such, equally opposed
to the profane sphere of life. They can also change their label, so that a ritual
operation can convert the impure into pure and vice versa.
Characteristically, Durkheim is not content with Robertson Smiths analysis,
because the latter does not explain the origin of the ambivalence. Durkheims
explanation is based on his analysis concerning the so called piacular rites.
In primitive society every evil omen, every misfortune, illness or death, is seen
as a product of the malevolent forces, and, therefore, necessitates expiation
(piaculum). These rites, in fact, objectify the negative sentiments provoked by
different misfortunes (death, illness, etc.) and turn them into bad forces which
the rite is destined to soothe. The different manifestations of anguish (weeping,
groaning, inflicting wounds upon oneself etc.) restore to the group the energy that
circumstances threatened to take away from it, and thus enable it to get along.
In short, the sanctity of a thing is, in Durkheims model, due to the collective
sentiment of which this thing is the object, only circumstances colour the process
differently. This also explains why the two poles of the sacred can change their
marks. Since they express the affective state in which the group happens to be, the

130 See Smith 2005 [1899], 150159.

131 This idea soon became very influential. Whereas Durkheim used Smiths theory
in his explanation of the piacular rites, his disciples Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss took it
as the basis of their model of the sacrifice (Hubert and Mauss 1968 [1899], 19399), Freud
used it in his interpretation of the emotional ambivalence caused by repressed impulses
(Freud 1965 [1913], 199241) and Emile Benveniste later adopted it in his vocabulary of
the Indo-European institutions in which he affirmed that the division sacred-profane is most
clearly manifested in the Latin word sacer (Benveniste 1989 [1969], 18788).
132 See Durkheim, 1990 [1912], 556 ff./1947, 389 ff.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 93

change of this state suffices to transform the impure into pure. In short, the evil
forces are nothing but collective emotions objectified.
However, this explanation is itself ambiguous in more ways than one. The first
ambiguity is linked to the double status of the sacred as an affective force and a
collective representation. If the sacred is nothing but a collective representation of
society, of its moral authority and supremacy over the individual, then it is difficult
to see why society should want to create a force which threatens it.133 In other
words, the origin of the impure sacred is not clear. The answer Durkheim offers to
this problem is to say that the evil forces are, in fact, created by the piacular rites
themselves: Evil powers are the product of these rites and symbolize them.134
Here it would be society that imposes on its members the duty of weeping, groaning
or inflicting wounds upon themselves when faced with different misadventures
or unhappy exterior incidents (such as death, disease, loss of a crop etc.). But
the question only seems to change location: why would society impose such an
unpleasant duty to its members?
The answer of Durkheim to this implicit problem is revealing: these collective
manifestations restore to the group the energy that exterior circumstances threatened
to take away from it. In other words, they are a collective means of reinvigorating
the social body which suffers from a lack of positive affective energy. What the
two poles of the sacred reflect here is thus not the moral superiority or authority of
the social over the individual, but the affective state of the social body. Both types
of forces originate from the same homogeneous affective flow, only coloured
differently by circumstances. The function of the expiatory rite is ultimately to
restore the normal affective mood of the social. The social, in fact, resembles a
patient suffering from a bipolar (affective) disorder, oscillating between delirious
overexcitement and painful depression. From this point of view the piacular rite is
like lithium, the action of which is based on aggravating the symptoms of illness
and rechannelizing (communicating) the affective energy thereby produced so
that it actually contributes to restoring the lost equilibrium. The paradigmatic
examples are the ceremonies of mourning by the means of which the paralysing
influence of death135 is exorcized:

Little by little, they [the ceremonies of mourning] neutralize the very causes
which have given rise to them. [] Of course they have only sad emotions

133 This observation is originally made by W.S.F. Pickering (1984, 128129) who
analyses the contradiction first and foremost on the level of representations (bad forces
as soothing representations enabling society to cope with accidental miseries). The
interpretation proposed here is more targeted on the affective aspect of the paradox.
134 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 589/1947, 412.
135 Death, of course, is the privileged instance of the threat leading to social
depression: This surplus energy effaces the more completely the effects of the interruption
which was felt at first, and thus dissipates the feeling of coldness which death always brings
with it (Durkheim 1990 [1912], 574/1947, 402).
94 Affectivity and the Social Bond

in common, but communicating in sorrow is still communicating, and every

communion of mind [consciences], in whatever form it may be made, raises the
social vitality.136

On the other hand, the excessive features of mania as well as of depression are
explained by this same heightened vitality: human sentiments are intensified by
the very fact of being expressed collectively (Sorrow, like joy, becomes exalted
and amplified when leaping from mind to mind).137 This is the same avalanche
effect already described in connection with the affective transference generated by
the totem: the initial affect not only spreads horizontally, it also grows in intensity
by the mere fact of being repeated and transferred from one individual to another.
This is why the rites of mourning can involve a real orgy of torture, mutilation
and blood shedding. It is precisely this intensity that wipes away the risk of a
more enduring depression due to a lack of vital energy (When emotions have this
vivacity, they may well be painful, but they are not depressing; on the contrary,
they denote a state of effervescence which implies a mobilization of all our active
forces, and even an inflow of external energies).138 The quality of the affective
state (happy or sad) doesnt really matter, only intensity counts: the affective
energy mobilized is homogeneous in nature and always has the same effect on
the group.
It is not difficult to see that in this way Durkheim actually wipes away the evil
or rather, he functionalizes it, makes it work for the Good. The impure sacred
has no autonomous status. It is reduced to act as the necessary counterpart, the
dialectically indispensable opposite pole of the glorious and pure sacred which
alone represents the essence of the social. The impure sacred does not reflect
society directly: it is not a collective representation of societys moral authority,
like the pure sacred, but expresses the affective state of the social body induced
by exterior circumstances or misfortunes. It is a projection, a form of affective

136 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 574/1947, 401.

137 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 572/1947, 400.
138 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 582 /1947, 407. On the other hand, when describing
the overexcitement during a happy feast, like the the Corroboree, but also during certain
religious ceremonies, Durkheim tends to wipe away the most flagrant excesses of the rite
(such as incest), regarding them only as a mechanical consequence of the state of over-
excitation provoked by the ceremony [], an example of rites having no definite object
themselves, but which are mere discharges of energy (Durkheim 1990 [1912], 547548,
note 2/1947, 383, note 2). The ambiguous nature of this gesture is all the more pronounced
since he also characterizes these licences (excesses) as being obligatory (1990 [1912],
547548, note 2/1947, 383, note 2). It is difficult to see how a symbolic obligation could,
in the light of Durkheims own theory, be interpreted simply as a discharge of activity/
energy without a precise ritual meaning. Another curious feature of the explanation is
that the positive (here sexual) excesses are pushed aside by making them a mechanical
consequence of a rite which, on the other hand, has no other function than to let out the
steam which it has itself fomented.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 95

exorcism instigated by society itself, after which the offended sentiment returns to
its original state.139 In other words, there is no original ambivalence of the social,
only of sentiments, the origin of which is always outside. The impure sacred
is both the symbolic incarnation of this exterior menace and the representative
means to soothe it.
This operation of washing away the evil is further emphasized by the manner
in which Durkheim analyses the different manifestations or representations of
affectivity, such as fear and respect. After all, there is a qualitative difference
separating the two: fear is not the same thing as respect. Respect entails a notion
of authority which adds a symbolic dimension to the order of things, whereas
fear can be felt without any such instance, as a pure emotional reaction to
something that is threatening for instance ones physical safety. Robertson Smith
saw a fundamental moral difference between precautions founded on respect
(demanding a moral discipline) and those based on fear alone (aberrations of
the savage imagination).140 Durkheim, in fact, subtly effaces the fear provoked by
the malevolent forces: it is only a secondary form, a fear sui generis derived from
respect more than from fright,141 when the individual is met with a power that
surpasses him or her. In other words, between fear and respect there is no essential
qualitative difference, both are reduced to the same homogeneous affective energy
and the function of this energy is always the same: the consolidation of social
cohesion. All in all, the sociological explanation of the impure sacred seems to

139 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 591/1947, 413. Pickering (1984, 129) has made the same
observation concerning both the residual nature of the impure sacred (and the danger of
theodicy implicit in it) and the sort of naturism this scheme implies.
140 See Robertson Smith 2005, 154 interestingly enough, Robertson Smith seems
to oppose moral discipline and aberrations of imagination in a manner which greatly
resembles Durkheims attitude towards different playful manifestations of collective
affectivity, best visible in his discussion of art and play (jeux) in Les Formes see
Durkheim 1990 [1912], 545548/1947, 381383; see also Pickerings distinction between
la vie serieuse and la vie lgre in this respect (Pickering 1984, 352361). What is
noteworthy in this context is the fact that we are again dealing with a sort of affective
excess or supplement which Durkheim, characteristically, wipes away by functionalizing
it. On one hand, the ritual definitely belongs to la vie srieuse, on the other hand an
affective surplus is generally left over by the ritual effervescence, which then seeks to
employ itself in supplementary and superfluous works of luxury, that is to say, in works of
art (1990 [1912], 545/1947, 381). This expressive excess is integrated to the serious cult
by making it a sort of recreational supplement: it contributes indirectly to the sentiment
of reassurance, of moral regeneration which is the principal object of the cult. But the
proper distance has to be maintained: the work of art is only a supplement, made of vain
images that man evokes only for his pleasure and that does not have any real reference in
the exterior world (whereas the religious representations always correspond to real, moral
forces). The moral overtones of this constellation are more than evident: on one side vanity,
pure (individual) pleasure and aimless excess, on the other serious, goal-oriented moral
(social) action.
141 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 87/1947, 62.
96 Affectivity and the Social Bond

end up in a curiously naturalistic, or rather, economistic scheme. Society is like

a gigantic symbolic machine that washes away the affective evil by producing an
artificial bogeyman (malevolent forces) on which the bad emotions (fear and
anger) can be projected and thereby bleached. Bad vibrations are channelled in
a productive manner, much the same way as electric currents in a transformer, or
water dammed in order to produce electric power.
In sum, in Durkheims theory of religion the affective energy appears in two
different forms: as a wild, non-channelled tumult (collective effervescence) which
Durkheim also postulates as the founding moment of human culture and of the
social subject, and as a fixed, culturalized sentiment on which the conscious social
unity is based. The social subject (conscience collective) is born as the formless
agitation gets fixed and converted into a symbolic form. It is this subject which
thereafter furnishes the stable substratum unifying the non-conscious affectivity
whenever the social sentiment (the conscious basis of unity) needs reinvigoration.
In primitive societies this happens in regular intervals in ritual practices,142 in
modern secularized societies mostly during violent tumults, such as political
upheavals, revolutions etc.
The nature of the collective subject is the point where Durkheims theory
differs from both the social contract tradition represented by Rousseau and the
biologically inspired positivism of Comte. The parallel seen by some interpreters143
between the general will of Rousseau and the collective consciousness of
Durkheim can only be sustained if we ignore the role of passions in the constitution
of the collective subject. In Durkheims theory the initial source of the collective
consciousness is affectivity (collective effervescence), whereas the foundation of
the general will is a contract concluded in the silence of passions. Furthermore,
what Rousseau is analysing are the formal conditions of political society, whereas
Durkheim is describing the factual substratum of the social bond as such.144 The
foundation of the political association of men is, in Rousseaus case, an act of
individual will, not a sui generis mode of organization of the constituent parts
(or forces/affects) like in Durkheims theory. Although in both cases we are
dealing with an act of association their impetus is different: in Rousseaus theory
it is reason, in Durkheims theory sensibility. Moreover, it should be noted that

142 Although it is not quite clear whether the initial effervescence (the affective state
itself) is also repeated in the ritual or whether the latter is only a symbolic re-enactment
of the initial turmoil Pickering (1984, 389390) makes the distinction between the
two (effervescent assembly/ritual enactment), whereas other interpreters, notably the
unorthodox Durkheimians of the Collge de Sociologie emphasized the repetition
of the affective experience with all its excesses as an integral and indispensable part of
the ritual and of its alleged efficacy. See in particular Caillois 1995 [1939], 652. In this
context it would seem sensible to distinguish the primitive/archaic rituals from the creative
effervescence of modern societies.
143 See for instance Lukes 1975 [1973], 283284 and LaCapra 1972, 90.
144 On the differences between Rousseau and Durkheim on this respect, see also
Arppe 2005, 1012.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 97

although Rousseau considers passions as being indispensable for the constitution

of the social bond, they must nonetheless abstain from the act of foundation
of political society: Indeed, that the general will is in each man an act of pure
understanding that reasons in the silence of passions about what man may demand
of his neighbor, and what his neighbor has the right to demand of him, nobody
will deny.145 In short, collective consciousness is born out of the association of
empirical individuals endowed with passions, whereas the general will is born out
of the association of understandings (entendement).146
By contrast, from an epistemological or cognitive point of view Durkheims
collective consciousness has undeniable similarities with Comtean Humanity:
both emphasize the role of belief and of consciousness as the unifying factor of
human sociality as well as the significance of common rituals in sustaining this
spiritual unity; one could almost believe that one is reading Comte when looking
at this extract from Durkheims 1914 essay on the dualism of human nature:

Yet it [creative effervescence T.A.] is not extinguished, since the action of the
group does not completely stop, but constantly gives back to these great ideals
a little of the force they tend to lose to egoistic passions and everyday personal
preoccupations: this is what public festivals, ceremonies, rites of every kind are

What distinguishes the two theorists is the mode and level of unification: for
Comte the unifying factor, sustained by common rituals and feasts and shared by
the members of the community, is the concrete content of common beliefs (that
is, the religion of Humanity with its credos and dogmas), for Durkheim the unity
comes from the fact that the collective symbols always represent the same thing,
namely the authority of the social subject which surpasses the individual, turning
us towards ends that we share in common with other men148 independently
of the concrete content of these ends. In other words, in Durkheims scheme
the social unity is due to the fact that we partake in a collective dimension that
obliges us because it surpasses us and by this very exteriority enables communion
between men.149 The idea of intermittence which Comte uses to characterize animal
physiology (the variation between periods of rest/sleep and activity typical of the
life of relationship) is, in Durkheims scheme, placed inside the social life which

145 Rousseau 1964b [1887], 108.

146 On the other hand, if we compare Durkheims and Rousseaus conceptions of
the social bond, we can see that both emphasize the role of affectivity, albeit in a slightly
different manner: whereas Rousseau underlines a certain innocence of mans original
passions (love of the self and compassion), for Durkheim the original affectivity is
homogeneous, without qualitative differences (these differences only come into play with
the symbolic crystallization of the affective flow).
147 Durkheim 1970b [1914], 329/2005, 43.
148 Durkheim 1970b [1914], 330/2005, 44.
149 See for instance Durkheim 1970b [1914], 330/2005, 44.
98 Affectivity and the Social Bond

oscillates between periods of stagnation and of creative effervescence.150 The

continuity which in Comtes case is partly habitual (although habits themselves
need to be strengthened by an exterior support namely Humanity and the positive
religion fortifying the social environment and thereby the altruistic tendency of
man), is in Durkheims case constituted by the symbolic fixation/exteriorization
with which the social sentiment itself is identified.151 The specific, historical content
of collective beliefs (or representations) is less important than this materialized
(representational) form in which they are preserved and interiorized (and by the
same token individualized).
Another difference between the Durkheimian and Comtean subjects springs
from the biologically inspired theory of instincts which constitutes the basis
of Comtes theory of Humanity. Although Humanity as a collective subject
transcends the biological (individual) level, because it is not constituted solely
of living (existing) individuals, it is nonetheless implicitly attached to the natural
instinctual economy of man. Humanity is both the organ that grows out of this
natural instinctual basis as an exterior support needed in order to fortify mans
weaker (but equally natural) altruistic tendency and a transcendental entity that
surpasses biological humanity by opening up a form of temporality exceeding
the present and thereby constituting the basis of mans historicity (continuity in
time). Durkheims collective consciousness is, by contrast, first and foremost a
psychological entity, the source of which is the homogeneous affective energy
of the initial effervescence and the existence of which is mostly representational,
although the collective representations must be periodically strengthened and
boosted by an underlying affective supplement, otherwise they will atrophy.
The developmental or creative dimension of this collective subjectivity comes
precisely from the intermittent or periodical effervescence, creating new ideals
(which then get individualized and interiorized through education, but without the
aid of a common religion the content of which would or should be transmitted in
order to preserve the communal unity).
However, what is left unclear in the Durkheimian scheme is the place of reason
and its relationship to passions in his anthropology. The collective sentiments on
which social unity is based are mediated by the symbolic (collective representations),
but also by reason, and hence they are by no means simply inscribed in mans
biological constitution, like in Comtes theory of the two instincts. Mans nature
is infinitely more complicated than that of the other species not only because of
the symbolic supplement which becomes part of his species-specific make-up

150 See Durkheim 1990 [1912], 301302/1947, 210211. The model of this
intermittence is at least partly inspired by the ethnological study of Marcel Mauss and
Henri Beuchat on the seasonal variations of Eskimo societies see Beuchat and Mauss,
1950 [190405].
151 Religious force is only the sentiment inspired by the group in its members, but
projected outside of the consciousnesses that experience them, and objectified (Durkheim
1990 [1912], 327/1947, 229). Force in this context clearly equals affectivity.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 99

only aprs coup, but also because of his capacity of reflection. This is the factor
that Durkheim also sees as the origin of the insatiability of human desire in his
study on suicide. However, if rationality is born at the same time with society, as
Durkheims later theory of religion and its analysis concerning the social origin
of conceptual thought would seem to imply, then logically this should also apply
to the abysmal desire of man unless we make a distinction between rationality
(conceptual thought in the Kantian sense) and capacity of reflection (a species
specific physiological feature of man). If, on the contrary, reason is something
implicit in human nature and, as such, precedes the constitution of society, then
the potentially limitless, harmful desire is simply a characteristic of human nature,
that is, a natural tendency of man.
When talking about the birth of our reflective capacity Durkheim uses the term
awakening: our reflection or consciousness is awakened, the focusing of attention
to something outside the interior states of the individual organism necessitates
a willed effort which is only possible under the influence of society.152 Thus,
it is society that literarily wakes us up, forces reflection out of the somnolent
individual (and in so doing also makes him suffer, because this awakening does
violence to some of his most tyrannical inclinations).153 Hence our capacity for
reflection is of social origin but then so is, necessarily, the abysmal, insatiable
desire of man, since it is the product of this very same capacity. However, this
conclusion not only fits poorly into the analysis of the insatiability of human desire
presented in Suicide (in which the bottomless character of the desire was imputed
to its quasi natural or automatic inner logic), it also contradicts the homo duplex
hypothesis according to which the egoistic passions derive from our individual
constitution, not from society.154 On the other hand, only the assumption that both
human desire and its limits are of social origin, would elegantly explain why they
can assume varying forms depending on the normative structure and the historical
conditions of society unless we want to resort to some sort of philosophy of
history fixing the stages of development beforehand, or alternatively, to a
distinction between the normal and the pathological (which in turn presupposes
that the limits of normality be carefully determined in each case, fixing the
range of healthy variations in the expression or channelization of the affective
flow: what is normal at one stage of historical development could thus become
pathological at another although Durkheim takes up this possibility in Rules, he
never explicitly applies the distinction in his concrete analyses). This would also
explain why the affective impetus, although being homogeneous in nature, could
take on varying forms or expressions depending on society in other words, the
outcome would not be produced mechanically, the same cause always leading to

152 See Durkheim 1992 [1928], 224225; 1960b [1897], 275/1968, 248/1970b [1914],
331332/2005, 44.
153 Durkheim 1970b [1914], 332/2005, 44.
154 Durkheim 1970b [1914], 330/2005, 44.
100 Affectivity and the Social Bond

same sort of results, but dialectically, the result varying according to structural and
historical circumstances.
In Elementary Forms Durkheim seems to adopt such a stance when describing
the modes of affective effervescence in modern societies where it seems to have
manifested itself more on the political than the religious domain. The most famous
examples he takes up are from the French Revolution that could turn the most
mediocre and inoffensive bourgeois into a hero or a butcher under the influence
of the general exaltation.155 On the other hand, collective actors (such as political,
economic or confessional parties) also manipulate this over-supply of affective
energy consciously by convening periodic reunions in which the common faith
can be revivified by manifesting it in common. These are precisely the affective
forces to which Durkheim refers as being in a free state ( ltat libre) and
which he distinguishes from those fixed in the methods and traditions156 (that is,
in a symbolic form). Also, we might well analyse the anomic effects of modern
economy in the same manner, as setting loose or unbinding affective energies
that were once bound in collective (symbolic) forms (norms and rules), fixing the
justifiable limits to individual desires.
From this point of view all periods of violent change, whether economic or
political, would pose a danger to the affective economy of the social body this
is pretty much the picture one gets from the Suicide, but as is earlier shown, it
is sustained by a normative idea of an equilibrium which is rather at odds with
any genuine historical analysis. Moreover, although Durkheim takes up multiple
examples of the modern manifestations of collective effervescence also in the
Elementary Forms, the emphasis of his analysis is not on the varying social and
historical circumstances and the different affective effects they produce, but on the
assumption of a homogeneous affective causality dominating the primitive scene.
To put it bluntly, instead of basing his explanation on the structural/historical
conditions in which the affective energy is differentiated into heterogeneous
cultural forms (signifiers), Durkheim tends to do the opposite, that is, reduce these
signifying differences into a homogeneous affective flux (an operation which is
clearly visible, for instance, in his manner of transforming fear into respect
because of the revitalizing effect of common affectivity on the social body). Whats
more, this affectivity (society as an affective force) is always intrinsically Good,
linked with forces that are at once imperious and helpful, august and gracious,157
enhancing social vitality even when, from the viewpoint of the individual subject,
they might appear menacing and fearful.
In sum, although Durkheim was clearly of the opinion that the effervescent,
free energy could find various channels, beneficial as well as harmful, his own

155 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 301/1947, 211. This is also the only place in the book
where the potentially nefarious effects of the effervescence are referred to.
156 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 302/1947, 212.
157 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 303/1947, 212.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 101

interpretation definitely laid emphasis on the positive side,158 stressing social

cohesion and the constitutive role of affectivity in producing social unity.159
This is undoubtedly why the paradigmatic domain of collective affectivity is for
Durkheim religion instead of politics, at least in a more restricted institutional
sense of the word:160 although he does mention some modern political examples
of collective turmoil, he does not discuss them in a more elaborate manner, nor
make any attempt to seriously theorize the violent side of collective affectivity.
The primitive societies which he analyses in his theory of religion were fairly
restricted in size and homogeneous as to their social structure hence, in a
way they were ideal examples of his earlier theory of mechanical solidarity161
(although he himself never presented them in this way). Moreover, the structural
emphasis placed on the intermediary groups on which the stability and solidarity
of modern differentiated societies is based is further enhanced by the shift of
explanatory weight from the collective consciousness (common beliefs162) to
collective representations, much vaguer as to their concrete content (or at least
not necessarily implying a commonness of belief). Thus, in the modern context
the common affective energy is no longer concentrated in totemic emblems or
religious beliefs, but in other sorts of collective representations which better match
the differentiated nature of modern mass societies, such as individualism (that
is, the sacralisation of the human person as a universal form, independent of any
empirical considerations, partial interests or specific content).163 Yet, Durkheim
also nurtures a hope of the perpetual creative potential implicit in the ritual
dimension of religion:

A day will come when our societies will know again those hours of creative
effervescence, in the course of which new ideas arise and new formulae are
found which serve for a while as a guide to humanity.164

Although Durkheim was deeply worried about the disastrous effects of capitalism
on societys vital symbolic relations and the lack of new gods in modern society,

158 A point also made by Watts Miller (1996, 240).

159 Indeed, as some commentators have pointed out, Durkheims thought is generally
speaking marked by a positive constructive spirit (Stedman Jones 2000a, 55).
160 By contrast, if the term politics is defined in a very large sense, as the social-
politic functioning of societies or as a search for the ordering principle of societies and the
laws of their perpetuation (Lacroix 1981, 88 and 293), then politics would be the domain
par excellence of social affectivity.
161 On this, see also Pickering 1984, 108109.
162 In a word, the old gods are growing old or already dead, and others are not
yet born. This is what rendered vain the attempt of Comte with the old historic souvenirs
artificially revived: it is life itself, and not a dead past which can produce a living cult.
(Durkheim 1990 [1912], 610611/1947, 427.)
163 See Durkheim 1970c [1898], 271272.
164 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 611/1947, 427428.
102 Affectivity and the Social Bond

he could not see the affective energy embedded in these relations (and gods) other
than in a positive manner, consolidating social cohesion. Perhaps this is the reason
for the blindness of the whole subsequent Durkheimian school165 to the kind of
return of the primitive represented by the fascist movement only some decades
later: a mode of quasi-mechanical solidarity based on strong collective identity
and common beliefs, where to quote one contemporary witness the mere
sentiment of a carnal fraternity, a pathetic arm-in-arm166 was enough to create
strong social cohesion. The Durkheimian theory of the moral function of the
division of labour in fact made such a development utterly inconceivable:

As we advance in the evolutionary scale, the ties which bind the individual
to his family, to his native soil, to traditions which the past has given to him,
to collective group usages, become loose. [] Of course, the whole common
conscience does not, on this account, pass out of existence. [] But how little a
thing it is when one contemplates the ever increasing extent of social life, and,
consequently, of individual consciences! [] That is what gives moral value
to the division of labour. Through it, the individual becomes cognizant of his
dependence upon society; from it come the forces which keep him in check and
restrain him.167

The fascist movement in fact represented just the kind of regressive concentration
of affective energy in myths and emblematic symbols, dominating the collective
consciousness, which Durkheim had seen as the defining character of the primitive
mode of solidarity. However, the specific modes or symbols, the differentiated
forms in which this energy was crystallized, only interested him in a primitive
context and even then he tended to privilege the mode of explanation which
reduced them to being mere epiphenomena of the homogeneous (cohesion-
generating) energy that was the real foundation of the social bond. However, it was

165 The avowed blindness of Durkheims most celebrated disciple, Marcel Mauss, to
the dark undertones that the collective effervescence might assume, is emblematic enough:
That the big, modern societies, which have more-or-less left behind the Middle ages for
that matter, could be suggested like the Australians are by their dances, and incited to twirl
like children in a round, this is something that deep down we had not anticipated. This
return to the primitive had not been the object of our reflexions. We had contented ourselves
with some allusions to the crowd-states, whereas here it is a question about something
completely different. [ Everything thats happening is] an all too forceful verification of
the things we had indicated and a proof that we should have expected this verification to
come through the evil rather than through the good. (Letter of Marcel Mauss to one of his
students, the Dane Sven Ranulf in 1936 cited from Fournier 1994, 690 translation T.A.)
166 This is how Denis de Rougemont, a Swiss writer and philosopher, described the
social atmosphere in Germany after his return to Paris in 1936 from a one-year lecture-job
in Frankfurt. See Rougemont 1968, 357 translation T.A.
167 Durkheim 1960a [1893], 395396/1964, 400401.
mile Durkheim: Passion Transformed into Force and Symbol 103

precisely this mode of concentration that another French theorist, namely Georges
Bataille, took at the centre of his theoretical reflection on the 1930s.
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Chapter 3
Georges Bataille and the Accursed
Part of Affectivity

Affective violence, strongly present in certain religious rites, especially the ritual
sacrifice, becomes the central theme in the theories of Georges Bataille and Ren
Girard. Batailles case is also historically interesting, because his analysis of
affective violence is closely linked with the rise of fascism in the 1930s. However,
he also discussed the subject in many of his post-war writings, although with a
slight shift of emphasis: whereas in the pre-war texts human desire is analysed
from a more politically or perhaps we should say, actively oriented framework
that stresses the socially subversive effects of mans inner impulses, in the post-
war texts the emphasis is more on the universal (cosmic as well as cultural)
movements of energy and the modes of affective experience that they generate
(both individually and socially).
Batailles conception of affectivity has been influenced by various and eclectic
theoretical sources: Hegelian phenomenology interpreted through Alexandre
Kojve, Freuds theory of the unconscious, the Durkheimian theory of the sacred,
Mauss analysis of the gift and the potlatch institution of the American Indians
of the north-west coast, Marxs visions on the revolution of the proletariat,
Christian mystics meditations on ecstasy and Georges Ambrosinos physics.1 This
eclecticism also mirrors Batailles more general temperament as a theorist and
writer who moves on various and often heterogeneous grounds, from fiction and
poetry to physics, ethnology, philosophy and economics. Even though there is also
an undeniable universalistic aspiration behind these wanderings, Batailles whole
theoretical endeavour is, on the other hand, built on a structural and even intended
(explicitly theorized) incompleteness if anything, the impossibility of an all-
encompassing totality is the final result of the analysis as we shall see.
The textual corpus here explored can be roughly divided into three phases. In
the texts dating from the beginning of the 1930s Bataille links human desire to
psychoanalytically influenced ideas of purity and filth, prohibition (repression)
and transgression, but at the same time combines these epithets with a larger vision
of excretive and appropriative impulses animating not only the human psyche but
also the social spheres of production and consumption. This affective economy is,
in turn, directly linked to revolutionary aspirations of Marxist inspiration, although
with important modifications, especially concerning the concepts of matter and

1 On Batailles style and his conscious attempt to transgress theoretical/disciplinary

closures, see for instance Duranon 1976, 175191.
106 Affectivity and the Social Bond

materialism. This overtly political ambition is modified in the second half of the
1930s by two projects, or rather communities, with a more conspiratorial twist:
the secret (esoteric) society Acphale and its exoteric counterpart Collge de
Sociologie. These projects are animated by the idea of a new religion or mythology
based on the canalization of human affectivity (that the fascist movement had
allegedly abused and enslaved) to liberating myths and symbols. On the other
hand, they are based on a theory of social unity which Bataille sees as revolving
around ritual violence (sacrifice) and emotional ambivalence (attraction/repulsion)
generated by a shared experience of death. This phase is terminated not only by
the beginning of the war but also by a theoretical dispute between Bataille and his
closest intellectual collaborator, Roger Caillois, concerning the notion of power
and the form of affectivity it was seen to entail. The third phase begins after the
war, when Bataille extends his pre-war idea of a fundamental human impulse of
useless expenditure into a notion of general economy concerning the movements
of energy on a cosmic scale; on the other hand, he also explores the modes
(historical as well as modern) of the affective experience of loss which he sees
as constituting not only the basis of human sociality but also the key to humanity
itself. However, after the war this whole configuration is closely linked with a
theory of writing (and more generally, of art) that implies a certain idleness of
the modes of affectivity typical of modernity.
Batailles vision of human affectivity entails a number of problematic issues
which will be discussed in the following subchapters. These include the relationship
between the ontological and historical (or phenomenological) dimensions of his
theory, the subject of the shared affective experience (individual vs. collective),
and the status of the symbolic concentration of affective energy in a scheme which
is based on the liberation or useless dispersion (expenditure) of energy. Also the
role of a negativity which defies any use and the relationship between the natural
(biological or even cosmic) and the cultural (the symbolic) will be discussed.
What makes Bataille extremely difficult to read, however, is the multi-layered
character of his theory: the phenomenological/historical and the ontological/
structural angles are constantly mixed, and the whole further complicated by a
theory of language and writing developed during and after the war. On the other
hand, the mlange of different disciplines is also manifest in the reception of
Batailles theories: the sociological, philosophical and psychoanalytically-inspired
lectures go hand in hand with interpretations coming from comparative literature,
science of religions and political science.

Accumulation and Expenditure: The Heterogeneous Dynamics of Affectivity

If we should name one general distinction that dominates Batailles social theory,
it would undoubtedly be that between (useless) expenditure and (productive)
accumulation. Batailles analysis of the social is definitely articulated around the
economic dimension, but not in the traditional institutional sense of the term, in
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 107

which economy would be understood as a social sphere constituted by production,

consumption and exchange. Instead of institutions, the Bataillean economy
revolves around energy, affectivity and a dynamics based not on scarcity but
expenditure. In his pre-war writings Bataille analyses such expenditure precisely
in connection with the typically human mode of desire.
The earliest formulations of this fundamental opposition can be found in
Batailles polemic against the surrealists in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Bataille,
a former sympathizer of Bretons group, accused the surrealists (especially Breton
himself2) of idealism and regarded their idea of a poetic revolution as hopelessly
naive. For Bataille surrealism represented moral puritanism, an imperative or
Icarian will to elevation, to which he wanted to oppose his own vision of the
revolution as an old mole, a subterranean cataclysm or subversion. This well-
known metaphor comes from Marx who allegedly adopted it from Shakespeares
Hamlet via Hegel3 whereas Hegel was pointing to the slow work of the spirit
in the subsoil of history, Marx used the same metaphor to illustrate the ongoing
process of revolution underground, stressing the role of economic conditions
instead of the progressive unfolding of the spirit. However, Batailles emphasis is
not on the sluggishness of the revolutionary process or its economic conditions as
such, but rather its subterranean or base character, directly connected with mans
lower impulses:

A man is not so different from a plant, experiencing like a plant an urge that
raises him perpendicular to the ground. It will not be difficult to show that human
morality is linked to the urge to an erect posture that distinguishes the human
being from the anthropomorphic ape. But on the other hand, a plant thrusts its
obscene-looking roots into the earth in order to assimilate the putrescence of
organic matter, and a man experiences, in contradiction to strict morality, urges
[impulsions] that draw him to what is low, placing him in open antagonism to
all forms of spiritual elevation.4

The connection between useless waste and mans affective constitution is sketched
out already in the phantasmatic or mythological anthropology an idea that
Bataille was working on during the same period of time.5 Here he suggests a scheme
based on two opposite movements that govern all life on Earth. The horizontal
movement which follows the surface of the Earth dominates the life of animals
that spend their time in useful activities, aiming at the immediate satisfaction of

2 On the polemic between Breton and Bataille, see for instance Surya 1992, 142178;
Halsberghe 2006, 119173.
3 On the metaphor of the old mole in Marx and Hegel respectively, see de Grazia
4 Bataille 1970c [1968], 98/1985b, 36.
5 Especially in the posthumously published collection of texts Lil pineal,
originally written in the late 1920s and early 1930s see Bataille 1970a.
108 Affectivity and the Social Bond

their needs (search for nourishment, sleeping, mating). The vertical movement, by
contrast, is typical of plants that reach out for the sun. Human life is oddly torn
between these two opposing movements: being upright, humans strive, like plants,
towards the sun, yet are unable to look directly at its blinding light. Because of
the horizontal position of their eyes humans are thus captive of the Earth (animal
existence tied to utility and need). In his posthumously published Lil pinal
Bataille plays with the idea of a physiological inversion caused by mans upright
erect position (comparable only to that of plants reaching out for the sun):
after the anal orifice has completely withdrawn from sight, the excessive energy
of mans inner impulses can only find an outlet by the orifices of the head (a fact
manifested by laughter and tears, for instance). This anthropological particularity
of Homo sapiens is also expressed in Batailles phantasmatic image of a pineal
eye (the pineal gland) situated on the top of the human cranium it is by this
orifice of vertical vision that the violent impulses of man would be discharged
like from a volcano (another phantasmatic figure dear to Bataille):

when I imagined the disconcerting possibility of the pineal eye, I had no

intention other than to represent discharges of energy at the top of the crane
discharges as violent and as indecent as those that make the anal protuberances
of some apes so horrible to see.6

These wasteful impulses are also connected to Batailles nocturnal vision of the
sun, radically opposed to the traditional image of most western mythologies
(sun as the symbol of good, reason and power). Bataille is attracted by the sun
illustrated in the myths of Icarus and Prometheus: the sun of decay and fall, which
he associates directly to the psychoanalytic notion of castration,7 but which he
also sees as a reflection of human morality, a vertical movement of rise and fall,
marked by the rules of morality and the vices resulting from them, ridiculous
as well as tragic, distinguished from the horizontal existence of the rest of the
creation. But it should be noted that the vertical dimension is no less material than
the horizontal one, it cannot claim any particular dignity or spirituality to itself
this distinguishes Batailles conception of morality from all notions based on some
sort of idealized transcendence.8
It is evident that Bataille is not trying to propose his scheme describing the
vertical/horizontal distinction as a scientific hypothesis based on physiology or
biology quite the contrary: he opposes it explicitly to the discursive knowledge of

6 Bataille 1970a, 19/1985a, 77. On Batailles excremential phantasms and their

relationship to his style and his critic of science/knowledge, see also Hollier 1994, 140; on
the relationship of the Bataillean mythology to the Hegelian phenomenology in this respect,
see Gasch 2012.
7 See Bataille 1970a, 4546.
8 Morality is in Batailles thinking inextricably linked with expenditure see for
instance Bataille 1973e [1945], 4063.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 109

science, claiming that modern man, enslaved by the homogenizing machineries of

both production and science, can only find his freedom in the virulence of his own
phantasms.9 From the viewpoint of mythological anthropology science has but a
limited use/value: it can only be of use if harnessed to serve ends that are alien to
it. These ends are, in Batailles configuration, intimately connected with useless
expenditure and the lived experience it involves. Myth itself is not understood
primarily as a mental or cognitive representation, but as an unconscious phantasm
or a symptom directly connected to expenditure: an exhausting consumption of
being, not to be seen as an exterior (cultural) product in relation to its creator
but rather his excessive avatar, the form which man takes in the ecstatic gift he
makes of himself.10 The mythical representation thus cannot be separated from
the lived experience of this gift or self-sacrifice of which it bears traces.11
In his posthumously published text La valeur dusage de D.A.F. de Sade, in
which he criticizes the surrealists for the idealization of de Sade, Bataille proposes
a more general division of human impulses into two opposing domains which
he calls appropriation and excretion. The processes of appropriation are based
on the principle of common measure and homogeneity (or static equilibrium)
between the subject and object of the operation. Generally speaking, these impulses
constitute the foundation of societys profane sphere, its political, juridical and
economic institutions. By contrast, the impulses of excretion12 are defined as
everything that opposes itself to the principle of common measure and that is in
this sense excessive (dmesur). The impulses of excretion lay foundation for
the domain of the heterogeneous this refers to activities, the object of which
appears as something completely different (tout autre13), as being without a

9 The same sort of critique of science is repeated in the articles more directly linked to
the debate with the surrealists (see Bataille 1970b [written beg. 1930s] and 1970c [1968]).
10 Bataille 1970a, 25/1985a, 82.
11 This is precisely the sort of consummation Bataille is later to connect with the
religious sacrifice, whereas here the emphasis is rather on the obscene and the ridiculous in
their concrete materiality: [] in the ecstatic gift he makes of himself as obscene and nude
victim and a victim not before an obscure and immaterial force, but before great howls
of prostitutes laughter (Bataille 1970a, 25/1985a, 82). The intimate connection between
eroticism and death is properly theorized only after the war.
12 The French term excretion designates the operation by which an organism pushes
its wastes, that is, the parts which it cannot assimilate, outside of itself. In this sense the
term refers to everything that is inassimilable (whereas the impulses of appropriation
are connected to the oral dimension, where eating represents the most elementary form
of appropriation and assimilation). In Batailles scheme it also has a psychoanalytic
connotation directly linked to the anal and the fecal which in his early writings appear as
directly associated with expenditure and useless waste.
13 Bataille borrows the term Das Ganz Andere of the German scholar of religion,
Rudolf Otto, who used it in connection with his phenomenological theory of the sacred (see
Otto 1922 [1917]). However, unlike Ottos numinous sacred the heterogeneous of Bataille
is not an aprioristic category of reason, nor does it manifest itself in the form of adequate
ideas. It is rather to be comprehended as an element which reason and understanding
110 Affectivity and the Social Bond

common measure with everyday life. The heterogeneous denotes an elementary

subjective identity between excrements and all that man has regarded as sacred,
divine and miraculous (merveilleux).
Bataille claims that in the early stages of its development religion offers an
outlet for the inassimilable (orgiastic) collective impulses through ritual practices.
However, the evolution of religions quickly leads into a split inside the sacred
sphere itself: the sacred is divided into a higher, pure and divine domain and a
lower part, inhabited by demons and doomed to putrefaction. As a consequence,
the upper part of the sacred is progressively homogenized, so that in the end it is
dominated by one God, glorious and good, whereas the lower domain is entirely
excluded from the sphere of the sacred. Hence, religion shows its fundamental
ambivalence in the sense that it both answers to mans constitutive desire to
expend (to project a part of him outside of his personal being) and channels this
desire in a socially acceptable way. However, since the heterogeneous (which
Bataille by-and-large identifies with the sacred in this context) is constitutively
alien to profane existence, it can manifest itself only by breaking the rules of the
homogeneous domain. In reality religion thus refers to the totality of prohibitions,
constraints and partial permissions by which the impulses of excretion are socially
regulated. In other words, institutionalized religion betrays its initial promise of
satisfying these impulses. This betrayal is reflected in the fact that the original
ambivalence of the sacred is made absolute, and the lower part is thereby robbed
of its attractive power and turned into a mere object of revulsion.
It is noteworthy that Bataille explicitly takes the Durkheimian classification of
social facts into two categories (sacred/profane) as the basis for his own division
of human impulses. In his analysis of fascism written during the same epoch14 he
further specifies this connection: the sacred in the Durkheimian sense is a part
of the larger domain of the heterogeneous that comprises all forms of useless
expenditure. However, Batailles emphasis is clearly on the subjective experience
instead of the objective, systemic or classificatory aspect of the social reality:
the heterogeneous cannot be separated from the lived experience without which
it could not manifest itself. On the other hand, he subscribes to the Durkheimian
definition that makes a positive connection between the sacred and the prohibition:
sacred are the things set apart and forbidden.15 But here again the notion of
prohibition is not the same in the two cases: what Durkheim is referring to is a

cannot assimilate. Because the heterogeneous can only be defined in a negative manner, it
cannot be posed as an object of knowledge in any traditional sense of the word. Rather, it
constitutes the condition of possibility of all positive knowledge a condition that Bataille
also calls non-savoir: something that cannot be known in itself, but that can nonetheless be
experienced through the effects it produces. The ontological and epistemological conditions
of this experience are explored especially in the V part of the uvres Compltes (see
Bataille 1973a [1943] and 1973b [1947]).
14 Bataille 1970f [1933].
15 See Durkheim [1912] 1990, 65/1947, 47.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 111

socially defined belief which is codified in a symbolic form and ultimately reflects
the authority of the social, whereas Bataille sees this exterior symbolic form
primarily as a symptom of an unconscious psychic reality, although one that
is not individual in any simple sense of the word (I shall get back to the nature of
the Bataillean subject in the last section). In Batailles scheme the heterogeneous
can never be exhaustively codified or represented, because it is constitutively
excessive, transgressing the very limits of the symbolic (which is homogeneous
and homogenizing by definition).
This obviously raises the difficult question concerning the ontological status
of the heterogeneous: does it exist independently of its symbolic representation
and if yes, in what way? How can it be known or even approached? Having
defined the heterogeneous as something completely different Bataille is forced
to admit the difficulty intrinsic to its positive study, since it can be defined
only in a negative manner, as something non-homogeneous. The difficulty is
explicitly discussed in the polemic with the surrealists where Bataille develops
the notion of heterology, the science of that which is tout autre. The concept
in itself is of course a paradox, since science can only be applied to objects or
elements that can be identified, cognitively appropriated and assimilated into a
homogeneous, discursive continuum, whereas the heterogeneous is by definition
that which cannot be appropriated, which escapes discursive identification and
homogenization. Bataille tries to circumvent the difficulty by posing heterology
as a residual category that would deal with the excrements of intellectual
appropriation (especially those of philosophy), but in the end he is forced to
admit the epistemological impasse implicit in this position: heterogeneous as
such cannot be defined. What can be analysed, however, are the different manners
of exclusion producing a residue, and the reactions provoked by the said residue
(notably the dual movement of attraction and repulsion).
Another way of circumventing the epistemological dilemma is to concentrate
on the active aspect of the heterogeneous instead of its epistemological structure,
that is, to turn the analysis to the concrete heterogeneity of individual elements
instead of the abstract identity of the heterogeneous element as such.16 In this
context Bataille develops the notion of practical heterology, denoting practices
that aim at promoting and implementing a certain moral freedom. His vision is
directly linked to the notion of revolution, because the heterogeneous can only
manifest itself (become active) by breaking the interdictions constituting the
homogeneous order. However, although Bataille also talks about the revolution

16 The whole configuration has undeniable affinities with psychoanalysis and

could in a sense be seen as its social or sociological equivalent: the heterogeneous is the
social counterpart/analogue of the unconscious, whereas heterology would correspond
to its theory with the same difficulties concerning the possibility of getting a grip of
the unconscious (this can only be done through its symptoms, that is, its effects in the
consciousness). Bataille himself refers to this formal similarity in his essay on fascism (see
Bataille 1970f [1933], 344345/1985f, 141).
112 Affectivity and the Social Bond

of the proletariat, the whole notion is defined in a manner which is rather far
from the Marxist conception: instead of a change in the ownership of the means
of production revolution is understood as a collective process of excretion,
orgiastic participation to the base and the excluded elements of social existence,
and the destruction necessarily involved. Only a revolution that offers an outlet
for the fundamental impulses of excretion merits its name; the Marxist revolution
only ends up reproducing the established economic (and metaphysical) structure:
the impure elements are excluded much the same way as the Lumpenproletariat
from the vanguards of revolution.17
However, here Bataille stumbles into the dilemma that touches every
revolutionary enterprise: how is one to prevent the revolutionary impetus from
stagnating into a new ideological and political orthodoxy? What would be the
fate of the heterogeneous after the revolution? In Batailles case the question
is all the more acute, since the heterogeneous is by definition unable to lay
foundation for any solid, homogeneous institution without losing its specific
character. The problem can also be formulated in another way, as one concerning
the social prerequisites of an integral existence which would not be reducible to
the homogeneous forms of expression (such as production): how is an integral
existence socially possible? The only consequent answer in the Bataillean scheme
would be: in no way. Whether this means an impasse of the political tout court
(allegedly illustrated by Batailles withdrawal from political action after the war18)
or rather another sort of conception concerning the specific modes and efficacy
of the political in the world after Auschwitz (a politics of the impossible19) is a
question to which I shall return at the end of this chapter.
Although the project of heterology was perhaps more in the genre of a
deliberately cultivated paradox, the dilemma it evoked is by no means to be passed
over lightly. Bataille reverts to this question on numerous occasions, for instance
when referring to the difficulties that Durkheim encountered when trying to give
a positive scientific definition of the sacred: the only thing that distinguishes the

17 On the other hand we might ask with Franois Marmande (1985, 5051), whether
the Bataillean heterology was at all destined to be taken seriously (that is, as proposing an
alternative political program in the strict sense) by the proponents of the political left of the
time, although it was boldly destined to My current comrades after all, Bataille did not
publish the text during his lifetime (its integral version was published posthumously only
in 1970). But more importantly still, heterology represents a politics without a dogma,
an open discourse playing with ideas and notions that are at once extreme and parodical:
Without a profound complicity with natural forces such as violent death, gushing blood,
sudden catastrophes, and the horrible cries of pain that accompany them, terrifying ruptures
of what had seemed to be immutable, the fall into stinking filth of what had been elevated
without a sadistic understanding of an incontestably thundering and torrential nature, there
could be no revolutionaries, there could only be a revolting utopian sentimentality (Bataille
1970b [written beg. 1930s], 67/1985b, 101).
18 See Jean-Michel Heimonet 1989, 7879.
19 See Jean-Michel Besnier 1988.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 113

sacred things from the profane ones is their heterogeneity.20 The sacred can only
be approached in its concrete manifestations or aspects, and these in turn can be
defined by referring to a more limited or specific set of facts (for instance, the
notions of mana or taboo). In a similar way, although the heterogeneous as such
escapes definition, it can be approached in its concrete manifestations. However,
since the heterogeneous is, in Batailles theory, predefined as the domain of useless
expenditure, these manifestations are intrinsically linked to loss:

[] luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments,

games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (that is, deflected from genital
finality) all these represent activities which, at least in primitive circumstances,
have no end beyond themselves. [] in each case the accent is placed on a
loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true

In other words, the Bataillean definition of the heterogeneous is not reduced to a

pure structural opposition, but it gives specific content to the category it delimits:
the heterogeneous is not only different (tout autre), but it is also different in a
positive (wasteful) way. The bar separating the two poles of the opposition is not a
structural difference, but more akin to the psychoanalytical notion of repression.22
All the aforementioned activities and objects are concrete examples of luxurious
expenditure which has no (useful) purpose beyond itself. The idea of such a self-
purposeful waste is, in Batailles thinking, strongly inspired by Marcel Mauss and
his famous essay on the gift. However, in Mauss theory it was more the agonistic
potlatch of the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest that fascinated Bataille
than the Kula ring of the Trobriand Islands.23 The difference in emphasis is, in
this respect, emblematic: whereas Bataille was interested in pure and unmotivated

20 See Durkheim [1912] 1990, 53/1947, 3839. What is even more interesting in this
context is that Durkheim here refers to the difference in the nature of the energies at play in
the two domains: The forces [energies] which play in one are not simply those which are
met with in the other, but a little stronger; they are of different nature.
21 Bataille [1933] 1970g, 305/1985g, 118.
22 This is why the Bataillean oppositions are not comparable to structural topoi in the
classical Lvi-Straussian sense (that is, purely cognitive/classificatory categories of mind):
they are not primarily cognitive but affective, and the distinction between the two terms
always involves a prohibition around which an affective dynamics is constituted (whereas
in the Lvi-Straussian scheme the concept of boundary does not have any other than a
differentiating meaning (A/not A)).
23 Bataille was by no means alone with this interpretation; as Camille Tarot (1998,
613) has pointed out, the excessive and violent potlatch was particularly emphasized in the
1930s reception of Mauss essay. The reason can, at least partly, be sought in the historical
context: potlatch found an echo both amongst the Hegelians (the violent struggle of the
master and slave), the Marxists (class struggle) and the individualists stressing the themes
of honour and challenge. On the other hand, it brought back at the front stage the violence
114 Affectivity and the Social Bond

expenditure, Mauss wanted to analyse the exchange as a mode of social division of

labour. The potlatch of the Kwakiutl was more of an exception in this harmonious
circulation of goods (whether material or symbolic): [But] just as the Trobriand
kula is [only] an extreme case of gift-exchange, so the potlatch in the North-West
America is [a sort of] monster child of the gift system.24 The same difference
of emphasis can also be observed in Batailles and Mauss respective ways of
analysing the element of appropriation implicit in potlatch. Mauss underlines
the function of the institution in establishing and maintaining social hierarchies:
giving is also a means of manifesting the prestige and the superiority of the
donor. Although in archaic societies wealth is not reducible to the maximization
of individual utility or profit it nonetheless constitutes a means of accumulating
prestige. For Bataille, by contrast, the eventual consequences of the expenditure
in the regime of appropriation and accumulation are completely redundant (or
rather, they are limited to the point of view of the particular individual).25 The
raison dtre of the institution is by no means exhausted by these effects on the
contrary, the expenditure as such always has priority:

[W]ealth appears as an acquisition to the extent that power is acquired by a

rich man, but it is entirely directed toward loss in the sense that this power is
characterized as power to lose. It is only through loss that glory and honour are
linked to wealth.26

This already gives us a hint of the direction Bataille is heading with his
ethnographic preoccupations. His interest is not in the archaic practices as such,
but only insofar as they exemplify the unconscious impulse of expenditure which
he sees as the force animating not only the individual psyche but also the social
existence. This universal impulse has been pushed aside by modern capitalism and
economics, both based on the assumption of utility as the sole motivating factor of
human behaviour.27 Potlatch, from this point of view, is not so much about giving

which the Durkheimian theory of religion had managed to circumvent almost entirely. On
the notion of potlatch and its reception in anthropology, see also Schulte-Tenckhoff 1986.
24 Mauss 1950 [192324], 213/1969, 41.
25 On this, see also Bataille 1976a [1949], 7677.
26 Bataille, 1970g [1933], 311/1985g, 122.
27 Bataille attacks the notion of utility and the conception of pleasure it entails
because of their normative character: the individual utility is ultimately identified with
pleasure, but only insofar as the latter remains within certain limits a too intensive
pleasure, by contrast, is defined as pathological (an implicit critique of Freuds early
theory of pleasure based on the principle of constancy can be detected here on this, see
ffrench 2007, 1314). Utility in this way conceived can be limited to the appropriation and
conservation of goods, on one hand, and to the reproduction and maintenance of human
life, on the other. Consequently, society appears as a gigantic apparatus of production,
reproduction and conservation, in which the castrated pleasure has only an auxiliary,
recreational function. The risk of excess it entails, an unproductive or even destructive
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 115

but about loss, even sheer destruction. For Bataille it is a concrete demonstration
of the fact that men do not struggle in order to avoid suffering (the negative
version of utilitarianism) or to ensure their living, but in order to partake in free
and insubordinate expenditure. Collectivities and individuals are animated by an
illogical and irresistible impulse to reject moral and material goods which could
have been rationally utilized. Bataille speaks of states of excitation comparable
to toxic states.28 The emphasis put on the noxious, virulent aspect of the loss
clearly distinguishes these states of excitation from Durkheimian effervescence:
the impulses Bataille is talking about, although constitutive to the social and
the particular dynamics of human sociality, are at the same time fundamentally
marked by the cultural prohibition affecting them.
The same goes for the notion of matter in this context: Bataille sees useless
expenditure also as an occasion for man to participate in the universal play of
matter. However, his way of comprehending the term rules out any simple form
of materialism or naturalism: matter is defined as a non-logical difference that
represents in relation to the economy of the universe what crime represents in
relation to the law.29 The notion is elaborated in the article Le bas matrialisme
et la gnose30 where Bataille works on the figure of base materialism. This could
be characterized as an attempt to think of matter that would not be posited as an
independent ontological principle (the thing-in-itself) opposed to the spirit, but
would rather be produced by an active work of deformation as a non-logical,
irreducible difference, destined to undermine the abstract (theoretical) antinomy
of spirit and matter. The base matter is formless; there can be no idea of it. This is
why it is also non-servile, insubordinate (and in this sense, sovereign):31

pleasure is excluded from the domain of collective representations (or consciousness). On

the institutional level Bataille distinguishes the unproductive consumption, connected to
the impulse of loss, from the productive or functional consumption, indispensable for
the reproduction of the system. Only the functional consumption is rational in the strict
sense of the term. The unproductive consumption comprises the activities that have no
other purpose beyond themselves. Moreover, in each case the loss must be as great as
possible for the activity to assume its true meaning. From this point of view production
and appropriation appear only as a means subordinated to expenditure which constitutes
the true end of the activity. The value of Mauss analysis for Bataille is in the fact that
the secondary, dependent character of production and acquisition/appropriation can best be
seen in the primitive economic institutions: in potlatch and in the ritual circulation of gifts
exchange still appears as luxurious loss, that is, as a process of expenditure from which the
acquisition has later evolved. (See Bataille 1970g [1933].)
28 Bataille 1970g [1933], 319/1985g, 128 italics in the original.
29 Bataille 1970g [1933], 319/1985g, 129.
30 Bataille 1970d [1930]/1985d the article was originally published in the review
Documents in 1930.
31 I shall get back to the Bataillean notion of sovereignty in the end of this chapter.
116 Affectivity and the Social Bond

Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to
allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these

Materialism understood in the ontological sense only amounts to another form

of idealism: an attempt to force matter into an ideal form, corresponding to an
ethical imperative that determines what matter should be.33 Bataille also points to
the necessity to base materialism on the psychological and social facts instead of
abstractions borrowed from physics, referring in this context explicitly to Freud.34
Matter is thus directly linked to the unconscious impulses of man, but less as
a physiological or biological foundation of human drives35 than a baseness
characterizing the content of these impulses: an irresistible pull exerted by the
abject, that which is the most base, the inassimilable.36 When combined with

32 Bataille 1970d [1930], 225/1985d, 51.

33 See also Bataille 1970h [1929]/1985h. The whole project of the revue Documents,
directed by Bataille in 19291930, was in fact designed around the active production of
such base figures, textual as well as pictorial on the nature of this project, and the
particular type of work on the representational form it entailed, see for instance Hollier
1991; Gasch 1971; Didi-Huberman 1995; Teixeira 1997.
34 Thus it is from Freud, among others rather than from long-dead physicists,
whose ideas today have no meaning that a representation of matter must be taken (Bataille
1970h [1929], 180/1985h, 1516). A similar reference is made in the article Critique des
fondements de la dialectique hglienne, written together with Raymond Queneau in 1932
(see Bataille 1970i [1932], 288289/1985i, 113114). Here Bataille stresses the importance
of connecting the dialectical movement to the lived experience of men, seeing this as the
only viable way of proceeding to a dialectic of reality: instead of mute facts of nature
one should explore the lived experience of men, because this is the sole way to recognize
not only the historical origins of the method itself but also the role of negativity in the
constitution of the facts studied. However, in this context negativity seems to be interpreted
only as a means required by the course of history, the goals of which are elsewhere. One
might suspect this accent to be more from the pen of Queneau than that of Bataille, so
poorly does it fit not only with the non-ontological emphasis he wanted to give to the very
notion of materialism but also with his interpretation of the concept of negativity and
its constitutive role, not as an instrument of historical development, but as an existential
wound, characterizing the specifically human mode of being-in-the-world. I shall return
to this theme when discussing Batailles theory of sacrifice and his relationship to Kojves
interpretation of Hegel in the last section.
35 Although Bataille does mention this somatic source in passing (1970i [1932],
288/1985i, 113), the emphasis of his interpretation of the unconscious is elsewhere.
36 As Elisabeth Roudinesco (1995, 198) points out, the Bataillean unconscious
involves the notion of an instinct without any trace of biology. This, on the other hand, raises
the difficult question concerning the constitution of such an instinct, since Bataille seems to
reject the idea of the symbolic constitution as well: the unconscious is comprehended as a
heterogeneous domain or a wound (dchirure) internal to consciousness, but one which
escapes by definition all symbolization. However, if the unconscious is founded neither on
the physiological (biological) nor on the symbolic, its specific mode of existence becomes
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 117

the problem of exclusion (prohibition), this emphasis also leads to the question
of sadomasochism, violence based on the attraction of the abject which this
violence both demeans and eroticizes.37 This is where the psychological structure
of sadomasochism and that of the sacred meet: prohibition involves a powerful
affective tension, an oscillation between attraction and repulsion, which has the
effect of transforming its object into a sacred or inviolable thing only to be
violated time and again in the ritual practice. This emotional ambivalence is further
reflected in the subjective affinity between the sacred and the base, manifest in the
concept of the heterogeneous: the sacred and the heterogeneous are similar in the
sense that on both domains the object is treated as a foreign body (tout autre)
which can then be either consummated or violently expelled.38 Either way, the
psychological as well as the social dynamic that Bataille is constructing here turns
around the symbolic prohibition and its transgression.
This leads to the difficult question concerning the ontological status of the
heterogeneous and its relationship to subjective experience on one hand, and to the
prohibition which also seems to be constitutive to it on the other hand. Although
Bataille regards the heterogeneous as being primary in relation to the homogeneous,
it can only manifest itself after39 the constitution of the homogeneous domain,
through the prohibition affecting it. This means that in some very fundamental
sense the heterogeneous is dependent on the prohibition. To be sure, it can only
become socially and politically manifest when the prohibitions are transgressed
(cp. the notion of practical heterology). But also, the lived experience of the
heterogeneous always involves a profound subjective anguish caused by the fact
that the heterogeneous can only be approached through a crime (by transgressing a
fundamental prohibition affecting useless expenditure, the ultimate manifestation
of which is death). It is from the exterior manifestations (or symptoms) of this
anguish that we can infer the existence of the heterogeneous in the first place.
Thus it would seem that the heterogeneous not only appears as pathological
(base or abject) first after the act of exclusion, but that it can, on the whole,
only appear because of this act. The question is, in what sense can it be primary in

a problem. Roudinesco takes up the Lacanian concept of the real in this context, claiming
that its roots are precisely in the Bataillean idea of an excess, an accursed part constitutive
of what Freud would have called the psychic reality (the unconscious desire and its
phantasms), but which in Lacans system gets a supplementary emphasis of morbidity, that
of a rest/residue constitutive of a desiring reality that is excluded from symbolization and
inaccessible to all subjective thinking (Roudinesco 1995, 208). The representation of this
shadow of reason would hence necessitate another sort of theorization of language and of
subjectivity, the latter seen as a product/function of an interior split (bance) which is the
condition of possibility of language itself (on this, see Sichre 2006, 4958). This problem
becomes a central theme in Batailles writings after the war.
37 See for instance Lotringer 1995, 240250.
38 See also Bataille 1970b [written beg. 1930s], 5859/1985b, 9495.
39 In this connection the term after can be understood both in a logical and
chronological sense.
118 Affectivity and the Social Bond

relation to the homogeneous in that case? This would entail an ontological position
preceding the phenomenological (historical) appearance of the heterogeneous in
other words, a specific mode of existence of the heterogeneous would have to
be presumed that would be distinct both from the subjective reactions caused by
this existence and its historical/phenomenal/cultural forms or instances. Although
Bataille does not analyse the problem in these specific terms, in his pre-war texts
he would seem to be more inclined to avoid such ontological notions (relying
on paradoxical formulations, such as non-logical difference, tout autre or
heterology when referring to heterogeneous in itself) and concentrate instead on
the ways in which the incommensurate heterogeneous becomes socially manifest
in different luxurious or ritual practices and, on the other hand, the manners in
which it is socially repressed or excluded.40
For Bataille, the most flagrant contemporary example of such an exclusion,
and of the social dynamics based on the emotional ambivalence generated by the
heterogeneous, was fascism.

The Emotional Ambivalence and the Dark Core of the Social

Bataille was arguably the first and the only French intellectual to present a
psychoanalytically focused interpretation of the darkest political phenomenon of
twentieth-century Europe.41 His article La structure psychologique du fascisme
(193334) was also an attempt to apply the intuition concerning the heterogeneous
in the concrete analysis of social facts. It is here that Bataille explicitly anchors
his earlier division of social facts into a homogeneous and heterogeneous part
to the opposition between production and expenditure, interpreting the former
as two ambivalent and mutually exclusive domains:42 the homogeneous part of
the society is precisely its productive, useful part that rejects everything useless.

40 It is only after the war that Bataille starts to elaborate what might be called an
ontology of immediacy, based on a quasi-natural model of expenditure, but also reflect
more seriously on the relationship between the heterogeneous and language.
41 See Surya 1990, 216. In Germany Wilhelm Reich published his famous study
Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (1933) approximately the same time. In spite
of its title Reichs interpretation of fascism was more concentrated on the effects of
the totalitarian movement on the individuals psychological structure (the theory of the
authoritarian personality produced by the repression of infant sexuality) than Batailles
analysis that approaches the phenomenon more as a dynamic of social forces and the
affective inclinations that these forces embody.
42 Whereas the former dichotomy between appropriation and excretion also involved
a temporal dimension: societies were thought to pass through a more stagnant phase of
appropriation towards a subversive or revolutionary phase of excretion (see Bataille 1970b
[written beg. 1930s], 66/1985b, 100). However, Bataille did not elaborate this idea any
further and for good reasons, since this sort of regular oscillation between two phases fits
rather poorly with any genuine revolutionary aspiration.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 119

In this domain each element must be useful to another so that the homogeneous
activity can never be valuable in itself, since it is always corroded by this inner
instrumentality. As a consequence, in the homogeneous domain the value of an
individual is dependent on his productivity which means that he ceases to be
a being-for-itself (une existence pour soi) and is turned into a mere function
(function of his products, to be more exact).43
All the inassimilable, incommensurate elements belong to the heterogeneous
sphere which comprises by-and-large the results of unproductive expenditure.
However, the expenditure Bataille is referring to must be seen in a very general
sense, since these results contain everything from excretion to words, persons
or body parts possessing a suggestive erotic value, unconscious processes such
as dreams and neuroses, inassimilable groups such as masses, warrior classes,
aristocrats and paupers, as well as insubordinate individuals, like madmen,
agitators, poets etc. What all these heteroclite items share is the fact that from
the viewpoint of the ordinary (homogeneous) existence they all appear as
incommensurate, something completely different. Hence in this sense their
definition, again, depends on the homogeneous domain which not only excludes
them, but by so doing also defines them. On the other hand, Bataille also refers
to the reality of the two domains which is not of the same order: whereas the
homogeneous presents itself as abstract and neutral, composed of strictly-defined
and identified objects, the reality of the heterogeneous is that of a force or a
shock.44 In other words, the heterogeneous is characterized by an affective charge
that can pass from one object or element to another, and invest with equal intensity
the thing and its symbol, the whole and its parts. As a result, the heterogeneous
does seem to have a reality which is related precisely to its nature as a force or a

43 This theme of alienation is familiar from Marx whose ideas have clearly inspired
Batailles diagnosis in this context. However, unlike Marx who saw the worker as the
primary victim of alienation because of the capitalist class structure which makes him work
for another class and hence deprives him of the fruit of his labour and thereby of the sense of
his own worth Bataille emphasizes the objective dynamics of alienation, thereby turning
the whole configuration upside down: since the product does not end up in the possession
of the one who has produced it (the worker) but the one who owns the means of production
(or the money destined to the purchase and maintenance of these means), it is paradoxically
the latter who becomes the function of the products and, as such, constitutes the basis of
the homogeneous part of society. The workers are integrated to social homogeneity only on
the psychological level, as agents of production, not in their general property as men (like
Marx here following Hegel thought). Outside the productive sphere the worker is with
regard to the owner or the boss a stranger, something completely different. In this sense
and by this part of his being the worker belongs to the larger domain of the heterogeneous,
by definition subversive in relation to the homogeneous society. It is only after the war
that Bataille begins to develop another, more anthropological or universalistic vision of
mans alienation, the roots of which he then considers to lie deeper, in the anthropological
(pre)conditions of mans humanity and the constitution of his relationship to the surrounding
objects. I shall return to this problem in the last section.
44 Bataille 1970f [1933], 347/1985f, 143.
120 Affectivity and the Social Bond

charge capable of generating an affective reaction.45 Bataille himself stresses the

fact that this charge is not to be considered a mere effect of a subjective judgment
but that it is something which characterizes the observed facts/objects themselves;
for instance, the effect of the objects of erotic activity is manifestly founded on
their objective nature, although the subject does seem to be able to displace the
exciting value from one element to another (analogous or neighbouring element).
But again, the reality proper of the heterogeneous element is left in obscurity
we can only infer its existence it from its effects, and in this sense its structure is
identical to that of the unconscious.46
In short, the heterogeneous is the domain of useless expenditure (things/
persons/symbols wasted, excluded or inassimilable) which the homogeneous
domain delimits/defines by an act of exclusion. This act, however, is twofold:
on one hand, it rejects certain elements as waste; on the other hand, it shuts out
others because of their superior, transcendent character. As a consequence the
heterogeneous is divided into a pure and impure pole, just like the Durkheimian
sacred. However, whereas the ambivalence of the sacred is, in Durkheims theory,
explained by a theory of symbolic representation/projection (benevolent forces
represent the force of society directly whereas malevolent forces are produced by
society in order to symbolically fix and thereby soothe the affective energies which
might otherwise become destructive), here the two poles of the heterogeneous are
produced by a symbolic act of exclusion (prohibition), separating them from the
homogeneous (productive) part of society in a way which defies all attempts of
symbolic reintegration. The barrier is radical, it defines a part of human existence
as untouchable, only to be communicated with in an affective experience of
The problem here is the nature of the barrier: is it symbolic or non-symbolic
(energetic, psychic)? From whence does it originate? If the barrier resembles
the unconscious repression, then it becomes difficult to transgress it at will the
heterogeneous can send us signals of its existence in the form of symptoms, but
the very nature of the barrier separating it from the homogeneous makes it difficult
to construct any intentional project or program of transgression (for instance, in
the form of a cultural or religious ritual) in order to get in touch with the excluded.
If, on the other hand, the barrier is symbolic, then the homogeneous gets the
upper hand, since it has the power to define the heterogeneous which only exists
in relation to the prohibition affecting it. A possible solution to this dilemma is

45 The resemblance of these energetic connotations with the Durkheimian sacred

is striking although Batailles reference with regard to the displacement or transition of
the affective charge from one object to another (which Durkheim would have called the
contagiousness of the sacred) is here Freud and his interpretation of dreams.
46 See Bataille 1970f [1933], 347/1985f, 143. As with the sacred Bataille here
suggests that the unconscious should be seen as an aspect of the heterogeneous, but he
does not elaborate this hypothesis beyond some vague suggestions (see Bataille 1970f,
344347/1985f, 141143).
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 121

to see the symbolic prohibition itself as a manifestation (or a symptom) of the

unconscious barrier which is generated by the underlying affective energy and
which is at the origin of the subjective reactions (attraction/repulsion) aroused
each time the barrier is approached. The religious rites defining the rules for
approaching the sacred would thus be a cultural reaction to an unconscious halt
(stay away!) which, precisely because of its unconscious nature, also exerts a
pull. The origin of the barrier would in any case be affective more will be said
about this problem in the last section.
What characterizes fascism in Batailles scheme is the fact that it is built around
the condensation of affective energies in the person of the chief and a sadistic
exclusion of all that is base and miserable outside the immanent communion of the
pure. It is precisely because the affective effervescence ends up in a unity that it
constitutes an authority which is directed against men. As an agency it represents
an existence for itself which has no accounts to give47 (that is, doesnt have to justify
its utility) and which, in this sense, is monarchical as to its structure (holder of an
absolute power). On the other hand, what gives fascism its particular character
as a union of military and religious power, is the particular fascination (affective
pull) exerted by one person, the chief who becomes the focal point of the affective
currents of not only the members of his army, but also of the whole population.48
However, the pure, imperative heterogeneity (the absolute authority or power)
of the chief is founded on the exclusion of another sort of heterogeneous part
which is by the same token defined as abject and base. Although the heterogeneity
of the master is already by nature different from that of the slave (royal glory
vs. despicable misery), the lower or impure heterogeneity is here essentially
produced by the act of exclusion itself: fascism indeed manages to assimilate a
part of the lower classes through an affective process of identification in which
the proper, miserable nature of these parts is denied (for instance, the denial of
the class position of the soldier by military means such as the uniform, the parade
and the affective identification with the glory of the chief).49 So even if its inner
principle is that of pure sadism, deprived of any masochistic attraction towards

47 In this sense the pure having to be (devoir tre) or moral imperative requires
the mode of being proper to the heterogeneous existence (being for itself), which cannot,
in turn, be subordinated to such an imperative. The heterogeneous thus has an immediate
access to Being which the homogeneous part needs in order to impose its own unifying
principle. In this sense the ultimate foundation of the (symbolic) law is always transcendental
(heterogeneous, non-symbolic) (see Bataille 1970f [1933], 353354/1985f, 147148).
48 The religious character of his power is further emphasized by the fact that the chief
himself is the incarnation of a transcendental principle, namely the nation, the Reich.
49 A particular accent is here put on the affective annulment of what Freud would
call the soldiers ego, but which in Batailles scheme is replaced by his basic social infamy.
Human beings incorporated into the army are but neglected elements, negated with a kind
of rage (a sadism) manifest in the tone of each command, negated by the parade, by the
uniform, and by the geometric regularity of cadenced movements. The chief, insofar as
he is imperative, is the incarnation of this negation In actuality, this negated mass has
122 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the excluded part,50 the pull it exerts to its followers is built around an affective
movement between two poles (attraction towards the symbolic pole represented
by the glorious and transcendental chief/repulsion aroused by the excluded, filthy
and base in this case paradigmatically the Jews).
This is how the affective oscillation between two poles, which Bataille sees
as the foundation of whole human culture, becomes ossified and fixed in specific
social categories or agencies so that one incarnates all that is attractive while the
other one becomes the embodiment of the abject. It is this tendential concentration,
the halt of the affective movement (ambivalence), which is at the origin of
the evil. In this configuration the content of both the glorious and the abject is
socially (symbolically) produced, defined by the act of exclusion, and hence
can be historically variable.51 The essential thing in avoiding such a tendential
concentration of power is that the affective energy be kept in a socially liquid state:
the poles of attraction and repulsion must stay connected with each other and not
become autonomized and socially fixed. This is the social (or sociological) aspect
of the liberation of affective energies, which Bataille is striving for. Revolution
(the activation of the heterogeneous forces in a situation where the homogeneous
society is weak and struggling with its inner contradictions) can go in two
directions: the one, imperative, leading to the autonomization of the attractive pole
and the pure exclusion of the repulsive one, and the other, subversive, keeping the
two poles together, in continuous movement and thereby preventing the tendential
condensation of the affective energy into a one-headed (imperative) structure.
In his article Bataille mentions the hypnotic power exercised by the chief
and refers in this context to Freud.52 Freud had indeed developed this idea,
familiar from the writings of mass psychologists like Tarde and Le Bon, who
saw suggestion exercised by the leader and/or suggestibility of the individuals
succumbing to this effect as the basic power animating a crowd.53 Although Freud
gives merit to Le Bons brilliantly executed54 description of the group mind,
he is not content with the explanation of the group behaviour by the reciprocal

ceased to be itself in order to become affectively the chiefs thing and like a part of the
chief himself. (Bataille 1970f [1933], 358359/1985f, 150151.)
50 In Batailles opinion this is one of the differences between individual and social
psychology: in society each tendency is usually represented by a distinct agency, whereas in
the case of an individual the sadistic tendency is almost always connected to the masochistic
one (see Bataille 1970f [1933], 352/1985f, 146).
51 Although in his post-war writings Bataille focuses increasingly on the universal
taboos productive of humanity as such, as we shall see.
52 More specifically to Freuds study Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse (Group
psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, 1921) see Bataille 1970f [1933], 348/1985f,
143 note 8.
53 On this, see for instance Borch 2012, 4041, 5458 and Moscovici 1981, 115127
and 201206.
54 Freud 1967 [1921], 13.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 123

suggestion of the individuals and the prestige of the leader.55 Freuds contribution
to this discussion was radical in the sense that it disqualified the idea of suggestion
and replaced it with the notion of identification based on his theory of the libido:56
the affective bond between the members of a crowd is based on the identification
of each with the same object, namely the leader (displacement of libido from ego to
ego-ideal). However, what characterizes the identification operating in the crowd
is the emptying out of the ego of the participants and its complete occupation
by the ego-ideal (this is why nothing that the leader can do is wrong). In a sense
identification entails regression to the primitive form of narcissism, because it
replaces the libidinal-object tie by an introjection of the object into the ego. In a
crowd the relationship between the members is paradoxically a narcissistic one,
since they have replaced their ego-ideal with the same object (ego-ideal has taken
the place of the libidinal object) and consequently identified themselves with one
another in their ego.57 The basic mechanism of crowd constitution is the same as
in hypnosis: both are founded on the identification of the subject to another person
who takes the place of his ego-ideal not on some mysterious magnetism,
power, prestige or other psychic property that the other person be it the
hypnotizer or the leader would possess (like the earlier crowd theories leaning on
the notion of suggestion had presumed). If anything, the causal relationship is the
inverse, that is, the effect of suggestion is generated by the crowd itself. Hence, the
horizontal relationship between the members of the crowd always passes through
the vertical one that each of them has with the leader.58
What is central in Freuds model is not the affective power or energy as such,
the sheer inexplicable or mystic fascination exerted by the leader to his subjects,
but rather the way in which the instinctual energy is channelled and invested in

55 What Le Bon and Tarde lack is, of course, the whole theory of the unconscious with
its attendant structure, of which the notion of repression is not the least important one in this
context, as Freud himself points out (see Freud 1967 [1921], 7). Le Bons unconscious
is rather a mixture of biologically coloured notions based on hereditary features (which he
took from the Italian criminologists), historical contents such as traditions and beliefs and
psychological theories about suggestion and hypnosis as well as of the influence of images
(see for instance Moscovici, 128145 and Richman 2002, 127).
56 Freud here defines the libido as the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude
(though not at present actually measurable), of those instincts which have to do with all that
may be comprised under the word love (Freud 1967 [1921], 22).
57 See Freud 1967 [1921], 48.
58 See Freud 1967 [1921], 40. According to Freud the inhibition of sexual satisfaction
is, on the contrary, a prerequisite for more permanent group formation. However, also for
Freud the more primitive form of the crowd seems to be the vertical, leader-mediated form
which functions on the identification and is, therefore, ultimately always narcissistic, based
on a shared common frustration (the leader being inaccessible as the object of sexual love,
he is posed in the place of the ego-ideal). In fact, the crowd requires the sacrifice of libidinal
satisfaction in favour of the ego-ideal. On this, see also Macherey 19921993, part III.
124 Affectivity and the Social Bond

and by the human psychic apparatus.59 In a sense Batailles analysis could be seen
as an attempt to extend this vision to a social scale by studying the ways in which
the homogeneous (conscious, bound) and the heterogeneous (unconscious, free)
energy first become socially differentiated; after this a part of the heterogeneous
gets institutionalized and fixed, and finally allies itself with the homogeneous
domain, excluding the unbound, inassimilable and potentially subversive part.
What characterizes Batailles analysis is the emphasis given to exclusion (which
in the Freudian model would correspond to the unconscious repression): it is
precisely this act of original violence that not only constitutes the abject, but in
so doing also constitutes the basis of the homogeneous (conscious) domain itself.
In other words, the homogeneous domain is based on an act of exclusion which
is not homogeneous itself. The particularity of fascism is the fact that this act
is completely purified of any affective attraction that usually accompanies the

In this case the exclusion of the filthy forms that serve as the object of the
cruel act is not accompanied by the positioning of these forms as a value and,
consequently, no erotic activity can be associated with the cruelty. The erotic
elements themselves are rejected at the same time as every filthy object and, as
in a great number of religious attitudes, sadism attains a brilliant purity.60

The upper heterogeneous thus has an innate tendency to concentrate at the top
where it is represented by an imperative personality occupying the place of God.
The organized structure of the army is of homogeneous origin, but the affective
impetus necessary for the activation of the sadistic negativity as well as the
imperative mode of being (which is itself its proper foundation and justification)
comes from the heterogeneous domain. It is the chief who incarnates this violent
(active) negation: his intimate nature is this imperative act that annuls the abject
multitude either by assimilation (soldiers) or by exclusion/annihilation (the base,
the sub-human).61
The analysis of the affective structure of fascism leads directly to the problem
that preoccupied Bataille during the second half of the 1930s and that also brings
him close to the fundamental questions of the Durkheimian school. This problem
concerns the nature of social affectivity (especially in its effervescent form) and
its channelization through ritual or symbolic means. What further accentuates
the affinity of the respective approaches is the fact that Bataille saw fascism as a
perfect union of the military and the religious, the totemic representation of the
social power being the glorious existence of the Reich (with its entire mythological
history), incarnated in the person of the chief. On the other hand, the religious

59 This is the economic level in Freuds theory (in contrast to the topic, consisting of
the triad ego-superego-id) see for instance Laplanche and Pontalis 2002 [1967], 125128.
60 Bataille 1970f [1933], 352/1985f, 146.
61 See Bataille 1970f [1933], 356360/1985f, 149151.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 125

framing rose from the historical context, marked by the growing weakness of the
political as such. For Bataille fascism appeared as a phenomenon emerging from
the spiritual vacuum of the European democracies and drawing straight from those
virile and mythical sources that the Western society in all its enlightened
rationalism had denounced as irrational (religious) residues. To put it shortly,
Bataille took the dark side of the Durkheimian theory of collective effervescence
at the very centre of his reflexions, although he completely transformed its
theoretical status and impact by articulating it through the Freudian theory of the
emotional ambivalence at the heart of society and the Hegelian phenomenology
describing the (meta)historical constitution of human conscience.
However, Bataille did not content himself with merely analysing the
phenomenon he adopted a more activist stance, manifest not only in the form
of a political engagement (although by no means classifiable in any conventional
terms62), but also in other more esoteric forms, incarnated by two related enterprises:
Acphale, the secret society (and a revue), trying to revivify the tragic roots of
human sociality in the form of a shared ritual experience, and its more exoteric
counterpart, Collge de Sociologie, an intellectual union that aimed at finding new
forms of the sacred that could be mobilized in the search of an affective sociality
combating the collective mythology of fascism.63 Both enterprises revolved around
the problem of collective effervescence and the particular form it had taken on the
other side of the Rhine.
Acphale, founded in 1936, was the name of a revue and a secret society. The
history of the latter has remained largely in obscurity, because its members were
bound by a vow of silence which they have by-and-large kept.64 However, both
enterprises were animated by the same concern: how was one to invigorate the
tragic foundation of the social bond in a world dominated by servility and menaced

62 Contre-Attaque, a movement and a revue created in 1935 by Bataille and Andr

Breton, which aimed at rallying left-wing intellectuals behind a common (anti-capitalist)
program and responding to the menace of fascism, collapsed in 1936 mainly because of the
political and theoretical disputes between its founders at the time, Breton accused Bataille
among other things of fascist drifts in his thinking (on this, see Surya, 1992, 195339 and
Halsberghe 2006, 137142).
63 For a concise history of this enterprise, see Surya 1992, 318330; for a more
detailed presentation, see for instance Moebius 2006.
64 Some rituals and places are known, but the secret society has become famous
most of all because of an alleged human sacrifice that would have been planned in its midst.
The versions of this ritual, contrived by Bataille in order to sanctify the union between the
members of the society, and of the alleged protagonists vary: in some versions the voluntary
victim was Leiris, in others Bataille himself the sacrifier, so the story goes, was never
found (nobody was willing to assume the role). Be it as it may, all the known members of
the society have afterwards wanted to minimize their part in the affair including Bataille
himself who years later described the whole project of a new religion which he avowed to
have had in mind with the secret society as a monstrous error (Bataille 1973d, 369373;
see also Surya 1992, 300308; Galetti 1999; Halsberghe 2006, 164166).
126 Affectivity and the Social Bond

by an aggressive totalitarianism trying to confiscate the affective core of collective

existence? A monocephalic social structure paradigmatically represented by a
military regime was felt to enslave human existence by putting it in the service
of a leader. For Bataille and his circle, the only way to regain liberty was to destroy
the head and to create a headless community, a new order subscribing to the values
of tragedy. These values were, in turn, directly linked to the finite nature of human
existence and mans consciousness of his own mortality:

In the crisis currently depressing existence, the fatherland [propagated by

fascism T.A.] even represents the greatest obstacle to this unity of life that
it must be forcefully said can only be based on a communal awareness of
profound existence, the emotional and riven play of life with death.65

However, the situation was singularly complicated by the fact that the same sort
of reconstruction of sacred values also constituted the basis of the fascist regime.
One difference that Bataille proposes in his texts is the reactionary nature of the
fascist restoration: in the military type of concentration the affective energies
mobilized are mainly used to restore a past glory. The myths that fascism relied
on were by nature backward looking: the Aryan race or the Roman emperors
represent the same fixation, a desire to erect an immobile authority that would defy
time and subjugate existence to the past. In Acphale the emblems of the tragic,
set against this authoritarian immobilism, were time itself, the Earth (identified
with the feminine)66 and the headless god Acphale. Bataille stresses the fact that
he is not talking about the time of the philosophers (he even refutes Heidegger
in this respect),67 but time as object of ecstasy, the explosive liberty of life, time-
explosion or time as catastrophe. He also refers to Nietzsches experience of
the eternal return, the famous affirmation of the thought that each past instant
would be repeated exactly the same. Bataille sees this Nietzschean figure as a
means that turns each instant into an end (and hence deprives it of any end or
purpose that would be outside of the instant itself),68 not only opposed to the linear
conception of time but also to the fixed (transcendental) eternity represented
by God. The innocence of becoming and the famous Kinderland (land of the
children, opposed to the Vaterland of the fascists) proclaimed by Nietzsche are
equally essential elements in Batailles mythology of the future, the creation of

65 Bataille 1970j, [1937], 487/1985j, 208209.

66 The male counterpart of the Mother Earth in Batailles new mythology is
Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, mysteries, and drunkenness, the figure par excellence of the
useless expenditure.
67 See Bataille 1970k [1936], 471/1985k, 200. On the notion of time in Batailles
thinking and especially in his concept of experience, see Nancy 1990a and Comay 1990.
For Nancy ecstasy denotes most of all the impossibility of an absolute immanence (Nancy
1990a, 22). I shall return to this problem in the last section.
68 On this, see also Warin 1994, 188197.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 127

free and liberating sacred figures and myths.69 The Earth or Mother Earth is in
this sense the opposite of the heavenly Father, an emblem of the death of God,
but also of the baseness of Batailles heterology: the destructive womb that man
has disembowelled only to find metal and fire, incandescence spitting out death,
products that only lavish and liberate themselves in order to destroy.70 This is
the true meaning of sovereignty that fascism has mistakenly identified with the
chief and a glory without dread. For Bataille it is also the essence of the religious
practices of all ages, insofar as religion is seen in its tragic dimension, as an
experience intimately intertwined with death. All in all, it seems that the liberation
of human affectivity from a mythology giving priority to the past can only be
operated by channeling or fixing it to new symbolic (liberating) emblems I
shall return to the problems implicit in this conception in the end of this chapter.
In Acphale Bataille links the problem of religion to the question concerning the
possibility of a collective experience of the tragic. Religion or rather religiosity
that Bataille is targeting is characterized by the Nietzschean idea of the death
of God. In this context God is to be understood synonymous with the perfect
order of the universe, a metaphor of any system aiming at immobility and closure
(perfect immanence). God is any structure that tries to set against the present
and the corroding power of time (death) its own eternal glory. For Bataille, the
slavery of man continues as long as he agrees to place above himself a head that
always turns him into a function serving an authority be it God, reason, utility or
any other individual principle. The mythical figure of the headless god Acphale,
created by Bataille and the artist Andr Masson, incarnates the tragic exuberance
of existence, sovereignty destined for destruction. In fact, we cannot speak of a
god in any traditional sense, since the awareness of the intimate connection of
existence and tragedy entails the refusal of all authorities or ends placed above
existence itself. However, the myth of Acphale also reflects Batailles growing
scepticism towards all traditional forms of political activity, revolutionary action
included. Revolution cannot grasp existence in its point of ebullition, because the
revolutionary turmoil is always followed by the reconstruction of the institutional
structure with its inbuilt hierarchies and heads.

69 When Nietzsche made DIONYSOS (in other words, the destructive exuberance
of life) the symbol of the will to power, he expressed in that way a resolution to deny
to a faddish and debilitating romanticism the force that must be held sacred. Nietzsche
demanded that the possessors of tragedys shattering values become dominators not that
they be dominated by a heaven laden with the need to punish. (Bataille 1970j [1937],
484/1985j, 206.)
70 Bataille 1970k [1936], 472/1985k, 201. Batailles imagery is, in fact, surprisingly
close to that of Rousseau when the latter speaks of the horrors of mines see Rousseau
2007 [1778], 10661067. But whereas Rousseau sees the mines as the incarnation of the
horrors of civilization, for Bataille metal and fire embody the true (destructive) essence of
the Earth that the productive man has only misunderstood (and misused).
128 Affectivity and the Social Bond

The only society full of life and force, the only free society, is the bi- or
polycephalic society that gives the fundamental antagonisms of life a constant
explosive outlet, but one limited to the richest forms. The duality or multiplicity
of heads tends to achieve in the same movement the acephalic character of
existence, because the very principle of the head is the reduction to unity, the
reduction of the world to God.71

This is one of the reasons why, in the end of the 1930s, Bataille placed his hopes
on small elective communities between the like-minded:72 in the situation marked
by the weakness of democratic institutions, the secret society represented the
only possible locus of a subterranean revolt, but also a tragic community the
sole purpose of which was its own existence, that is, the sharing of the affective
experience of human finitude. However, there is an implicit contradiction between
these two aspirations: either a community is its own purpose or it has other, exterior
(political) aims which the affective concentration of energies is destined to serve.
Although the theme of revolt is implicit in Batailles notion of the heterogeneous
(the heterogeneous can only become active in the form of a revolt), the notion of
the tragic and of the community gathered around death begins to gain increasing
importance in his thinking. This emphasis becomes manifest in his modification
of the Hegelian negativity in direct confrontation with the interpretation presented
by Alexandre Kojve in his famous Hegel lectures in EPHE,73 but also in the way
he theorizes the collective affectivity through the notion of repulsion as well as in
his analysis of power, understood as a particular type of condensation of affective
energy and opposed to the loss crystallized in the tragic.
The impulsion of expenditure which Bataille sees constitutive to human
existence is also directly linked to violence and sacrifice. However, the role of
violence in his theory only becomes intelligible when human existence as a whole
is seen in the perspective of unproductive expenditure. It is precisely from this
angle that Bataille questions the Kojvean conception of the active negativity and
the idea of the end of history, implicating the satisfaction of the human desire and
the end of the negativity that constituted its and kept history in motion. In a letter
he wrote to Kojve in the end of the 1930s74 Bataille asks, what remains of human
negativity after the satisfaction provided by work and mutual recognition implied
by Kojves interpretation of Hegels phenomenology has been achieved? In
Kojves model the disappearance of the human negativity in the end of history,
after the satisfaction provided by work has been achieved, implies the disappearance
of man himself, a sort of new animality or inhumanism, insofar as productive

71 Bataille 1970k [1936], 469/1985k, 199.

72 For a more detailed account of the historical references, themes and motives
implicit in elective/secret societies of Bataille, see in particular Galletti 2009.
73 On the influence of Kojves lectures, see for instance Auffret 1990, 225263;
Roth 1988, 81146 and 225227; Besnier 1988, 3970; Surya 1992, 229233.
74 Bataille 1995a [1937].
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 129

negativity (negativity as the motor and generator of history) is constitutive to the

humanity of man. Man becomes an animal completely in harmony with himself,
entirely happy and with nothing more to do.75 The end of history and of the active,
historical man thus leaves human beings more-or-less in the position of automates
with only three possible choices left: consumerism (happy automata), madness,
or philosophical contemplation of the meaninglessness of life.76 The Kojvean
end of history is scandalous not only because it forces to accept a certain historical
reality as final, but also because it condemns the contemporaries to a meaningless
repetition.77 Bataille voiced his dissatisfaction by questioning the fate of negativity
in the Kojvean situation:

If action (doing) is (as Hegel says) negativity, the question arises of knowing
whether the negativity of someone who has nothing left to do disappears, or
whether it remains in a state of unemployed negativity: personally, I cannot
but decide in one sense, being myself exactly this unemployed negativity (I
couldnt define myself in a more precise manner).78

In Batailles interpretation negativity which for him as well as for Kojve defines
the human desire always leaves behind a useless remnant, a surplus that cannot
be channelled to productive action. However, the negativity Bataille is theorising
is not merely that of the post-historical situation described by Kojve, although in
his letter of 1937 he was primarily discussing it in these terms. After the war such
a negativity assumes in Batailles thinking another, vaster signification, connected
to his anthropology: it denotes a form of negativity which, as a whole, is not and
never was realised through work, although it can only become manifest once man
has satisfied his animal needs by purposeful action. In this sense it is precisely the
idle negativity that constitutes the humanity of man. The unemployed negativity
is more like an existential wound (dchirure), defining the fundamentally human
mode of being in the world, than a starting point for a universal history (the
development of the Hegelian Geist), motored by the dialect of the master and
the slave and ending up in the Kojvean (universal and homogenous) state and
discursive wisdom or rather, it is a starting point for a sorts of phenomenology,
but very different from that of Kojve or Hegel (the specific nature of the Bataillean
phenomenology will be discussed in detail in the last section). The Bataillean
negativity can only appear in a fleeting instance, a vanishing flash which remains
forever beyond the reach of the discursive (Hegelian) knowledge.79 This negativity

75 See Kojve 1947, 385.

76 Baugh 2003, 7475.
77 On the reception of different eschatological themes in the French intellectual
environment of the 1930s, see also Besnier 1988, 25.
78 Bataille, 1995a [1937], 7576.
79 In Hegels phenomenology negativity appears in two principal modes: as work
which modifies the given nature (also the nature of the working subject), and as language
130 Affectivity and the Social Bond

is both in- and outside the individual subject: it is inside him as a constant anguish,
a lack connected to his position as a separate (individual) being; but at the same
time it is outside him, because it can only become manifest in the act of sharing,
a common experience or communication of this negativity. Its paradigmatic
manifestation in human history is the religious sacrifice which Bataille begins to
theorise in this larger sense after the war. 80
In Acphale and the Collge de Sociologie the idle negativity is crystallized
in the notion of the tragic. The tragic embodies the useless loss that Bataille
had earlier imputed to the heterogeneous impulses of man. In this sense it
is also directly linked to the sacred, which can be seen as its most important
manifestation. This is where Bataille makes a direct connection between his own
analysis of social affectivity and the Durkheimian sociology of sacred, that he
wants to complement with the Hegelian phenomenology and the discoveries of
psychoanalysis.81 Looking at Batailles way of characterising the social energy,
it can indeed be said to comprise many distinctively Durkheimian elements: it
constitutes a surplus which prevents the reduction of the social whole into the sum
of its parts, it produces a psychological change in the individual consciousnesses
forming the social whole, and it manifests itself in the form of representations.82

(the monstrous power of understanding by which man negates also the nature inside of
him through self-reflection). Negativity mediated by work and language is the primus motor
of history, the process in which the spirit becomes fully conscious of itself. A fundamental
characteristic of the spirit (or of man, as Kojve in his anthropological interpretation
of Hegel would have it) is the consciousness of death, the capacity to endure death, to
maintain its work. This consciousness, in turn, requires the power to abstract, to dissect,
characteristic to discourse through which man is able to separate himself from nature and
constitute himself as a pure, abstract I, a unique and irreplaceable consciousness doomed
to vanish. Batailles sovereign existence, which is likewise thoroughly marked by death, is
however not to be reduced to this self-reflection of the negative. In Hegels phenomenology
the sovereignty of the spirit emerges only in the process revealed by the discourse; for the
philosopher sovereignty is thus always dependent on the process of its own revelation.
Philosophy cannot help reducing sovereignty to the sort of wisdom that presupposes the
achievement, the closure of the discourse. See also Hegel 1970 [1807], 29; Bataille 1988g
[1955] and Bataille 1988h [1956].
80 However, it is important to see that sacrifice is also inscribed in the perspective
of useless expenditure; it is an act of destruction which does not have any end beyond
itself, and which in this sense is the antithesis of production. This loss is also directly
connected to the Bataillean definition of the sacred: In the etymological sense of the word,
sacrifice is nothing other than the production of sacred things. From the very first, it appears
those sacred things are constituted by an operation of loss []. (Bataille 1970g [1933],
306/1985g, 119.) In his post-war analyses Bataille also develops a sort of phenomenology,
opening up a historical angle alongside with this more ontological or existential stance
I shall return to this question as well as to the problem concerning the relationship of
subjectivity, negativity and discourse in the last chapter.
81 See Bataille 1995d [1938], 146 ff./1988d, 114 ff.
82 See Bataille 1995b [1937], 4753/1988b, 7981.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 131

Also, both theorists emphasise the role of affectivity in their definition of the
sacred as a force separated and protected from the everyday (profane) existence
by prohibitions. However, these similarities also conceal fundamental differences,
the most important of which are connected to the psychoanalytic influences of the
Bataillean scheme, here affecting most of all his conception of the nature and the
origin of the interdictions surrounding the sacred.83
For Durkheim these interdictions are symbolic and collective, ultimately
due to a collective sentiment of respect evoked by the authority of society if
we should express this in psychoanalytic terms, the society of Durkheim is like
the instance of the symbolic which takes the form of superego in the individual
consciousness. What Durkheim lacks, however, are the notions of the unconscious
and of repression. In Durkheimian society there is no place for repression since
nothing is rejected to begin with. Durkheim vaguely refers to the supposedly
contagious nature of the sacred and hence the need to protect the everyday life
from the ravages the sacred forces might cause if let loose, but in the end he does
not explain this belief: why would the social that is the real referent behind
the sacred generate destruction if let loose? Durkheim resolves the problem
of the abject by projecting the negative sentiments to the impure sacred which
is interpreted as just another epiphenomenon of the pure and venerable sacred
(cp. the analysis of the piacular rites). In fact the negative sentiments of fear and
disgust are produced by the very same ritual that afterwards comes to soothe
and reconcile them with the original feeling of love and respect felt towards
society. There is no internal split or wound of the subject (be it individual or
collective) involved in this process: the collective unconscious if one can speak
of such an entity in Durkheims case is always brought back into the system
of representations consolidating the social whole. In other words, there is no
unconscious radically separated from the collective consciousness no place for
the radically heterogeneous, and thus, no need for repression.
There are definitely some functionalist elements also in Batailles way of
interpreting the affective dynamics revolving around the sacred. For instance, he
sees the affective core of the social as the very locus in which the left sacred is
transformed into the right one, that is, an object of repulsion changes into that of
attraction, and hence the negative affectivity becomes socially regulated.84 Indeed,
the pure pole of the sacred is in Batailles case the more problematic and also

83 On the methodological differences between Bataille and the Durkheimian school

(notably Durkheim and Mauss), see Arppe 2009, 124126.
84 See Bataille 1995d, 163164. Bataille refers here to the famous distinction of
Robert Hertz (1928, 84109) between the right and the left sacred. However, what is
noteworthy in the Hertzian interpretation of the impure, is the fact that according to Hertz
there is a close affinity, indeed almost an identity of nature between the impure and the
profane (Hertz, 1970: 8990), whereas the essential feature of the scheme proposed by
Robertson Smith as well as by Durkheim and Mauss is their insistence on the sacred nature
of the impure.
132 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the less analysed one, since it seems to entail the same sort of dynamogenic
effect as the sacred in the Durkheimian scheme, which would then logically lead
to a general purification of the impure sacred. However, the affective economy
around which Bataille builds his dynamics also differs in important respects from
the one proposed by Durkheim.
Bataille makes an approximate parallel between his own division between the
homogeneous and the heterogeneous, the Durkheimian dualism of the profane and
the sacred and the Freudian dichotomy between the conscious and the unconscious
according to him, all these schemes postulate a formal heterogeneity between
different regions of the spirit.85 Yet the Durkheimian theme to which his
interpretation of the social affectivity in fact relates, is not so much the general
division between the sacred and profane as the one between the pure and the
impure sacred. In Batailles scheme it is the ritual transgression of prohibitions
(protecting the sacred) that launches the dynamics of attraction and repulsion
constituting the social core. It is precisely this core that he sees as distinguishing
the human mode of sociality from the pure animal inter-attraction: the social core
is exterior to individuals not just because of its complexity (it is not comprised
primarily of persons, but of sacred objects, sites, beliefs, and practices), but most
of all because it is the object of a fundamental repulsion from the part of the
members of the group.

Everything leads us to believe that early human beings were brought together by
disgust and by common terror, by an insurmountable horror focused precisely on
what originally was the central attraction of their union.86

It is this sacred core that alters completely not only the individuals situated
in its orbit but also the interindividual relationship between them. In this
sense Batailles constellation clearly resembles that of Durkheim: the social is
something which transcends the individual. However, whereas the mediation in
Durkheims scheme passes through the symbolic, here the dynamic animating
the social core is based on a more complicated relationship between the affective
and the symbolic. The desire of man is characterized by the fact that it is directed

85 This is the point in which Bataille also locates their essential difference in regard
to the Hegelian phenomenology that represents the spirit as being essentially homogeneous.
Although Bataille recognizes the influence of the phenomenological approach in the
importance accorded to lived experience, and praises Hegel for his attempt to reach the
horrendous (mortal) essence of mans existence and make it conscious, he also emphasizes
the intrinsic insufficiency of the phenomenological method: it can never reveal us anything
truly disconcerting precisely because it remains on the level of the perceptible/apparent
experience (vcu apparent). Here he places his hopes on the Freudian science (but also on
the sociology of the primitives) and the possibilities of revealing that which had remained
unconscious, hence adding something exterior and unfamiliar to the simply lived. (See
Bataille 1995d [1938], 147150/1988d, 114116.)
86 Bataille 1995c [1938], 128/1988, 106.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 133

towards a repulsive reality; in other words, the human inter-attraction is mediated

by repulsion which is itself an affective factor. What is interesting in this respect
is that Bataille insists on the close relationship between the repulsion, repugnance
and the psychoanalytic notion of repression which is an unconscious mechanism.
In other words, the activity of the repulsive forces is itself rejected from the
consciousness;87 it can only surface momentarily when the symbolic prohibition,
signalling the presence of a sensible domain, is being violated. But this leaves
open the question concerning the origin of the repulsion: if the whole dynamics
of attraction and repulsion is originally launched by the act of transgression,
then the repulsive itself seems to be the result of this symbolic crime (one can
only speak of crime in relation to prohibition which is a symbolic thing). If,
on the other hand, the repulsion is something natural, preceding the symbolic
prohibition and its transgression, then we are back in a naturalistic scheme
postulating an affective reaction as the basis of human sociality. However, this
is an option Bataille clearly rejects: the whole point of repulsion is, in a sense,
the detachment of human desire from anything that could be called natural
in a neutral or objective sense repulsion is not a natural reaction, but a
deeply cultural, symbolic one, a reaction that presupposes the prohibition which
transforms certain animal functions of man (such as sexuality or excremental
functions) into a shameful thing.88 In other words, nature, in this constellation,
is always already transformed (accursed) by the symbolic and, therefore, it
can never manifest itself as such, independently of the prohibition affecting it.
Thus, repulsion is clearly connected to the symbolic, but in order to clarify the
relationship, a theory of the symbolic would be in order and this is something
that Bataille does not have, at least not at this stage (his texts analysing the
relationship between language or writing on one hand, and the impossible,
heterogeneous reality on the other, all date from the time during or after the war).
However, some illumination on the question can here be sought by examining
the relationship between the affective dynamics, expenditure and death.
In his two conferences,89 held in the Collge de Sociologie where he discusses
the social dynamics, Bataille explicitly poses the problem in the larger framework
of useless expenditure. The sacred, taboo-protected entities are interpreted as
things or forces, which the human body has rejected and in this sense wasted.
The barrier of repulsion (which equals repression) prevents the continuation of
expenditure, but always leaves open the possibility of its return (the pull exerted

87 As Bataille points out, the becoming conscious of these elements (that is, the full
recognition of the profound identity between the pure and the impure sacred) is by no
means automatic, but on the contrary requires roundabout means, possible only with the
aid of the psychoanalytic knowledge. In this sense he admits his own lived experience to
be partially affected by his personal knowledge of the psychoanalytic procedures, and in
this sense fabricated. (See Bataille 1995d [1938], 160161.)
88 See for instance Bataille 1976d [1951], 6882.
89 Attraction et rpulsion 1 and 2 (Bataille 1995c [1938] and 1995d [1938]).
134 Affectivity and the Social Bond

by the rejected). This interpretation of the dynamic animating the social core has
two noteworthy consequences: firstly, the integrity of the participants, as well as
the community as a whole, is at stake every time the sacred is approached by the
repetition of the crime (that is, the transgression of the taboo); and secondly, the
breaking of the barrier liberates tremendous amounts of energy, which in turn,
helps to keep the barrier up:

Subsequently, this expenditure lends its energy to the dynamism of the good
power, lucky and right, that prohibits crime, that prohibits the very principle
of expenditure, that maintains the integrity of the social whole and in the last
analysis denies its criminal origin. But this ultimate negation in no way deprives
the crime of the energetic value that is necessary to bring the overall social
movement and prohibitive power itself into play.90

The model of the emotional ambivalence and of the criminal origin of human
culture is, needless to say, directly inspired by Freuds Totem and Taboo.91 Freuds
explanation of the ambivalence of the sacred and the totemic meal analysed by
Robertson Smith is well known: behind the most ancient prohibitions of human
civilization (murder and incest) he detects the unfulfilled and repressed sexual
desire of the primitive sons for their mother, leading to the murder and eating of
the father who is the original authority and source of the prohibition. Although
the fulfilment of the original desire is not achieved (due to remorse and the
system of prohibitions thereby instituted), the unconscious desire, the tendency to
transgression, and the emotional ambivalence remain.92
However, Batailles analysis seems to deviate from this Freudian constellation
in some significant respects. For him the object of the original repulsion, constitutive
of the social core, is a non-human (structural) entity, exterior to individuals: In
fact, this nucleus is external [] to the beings who form the group because for them
it is the object of a fundamental repulsion.93 But in Batailles case, this nucleus
is not the type of collective psyche (Massenpsyche) which Freud is talking
about in Totem and taboo.94 Although Bataille takes up the concept in another
context,95 for him it denotes primarily a movement of the whole that prevents
the reduction of the social totality into the sum of its parts and whats more, the
central operator of this movement is precisely the horror evoked by death. Thus,
the nucleus is constituted by a shared affective experience, the particular nature of
which is ultimately due to its object I shall return to this question shortly.

90 Bataille, 1995d [1938], 167/1988, 123.

91 Freud 1965 [1913].
92 See Freud 1965, 212.
93 Bataille 1995c [1938], 128/1988, 106.
94 Freud 1965 [1913], 235.
95 Bataille 1970m [1938], 285286.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 135

Another question separating Bataille from Freud is the fact that for him the
prohibition is not something, which, even in primitive society, would have been
imposed on the human consciousness by some exterior authority, as Freud would
have it.96 Firstly, the interdiction is not to be understood as an obstacle, imposed
on human desire by the almighty Father (real or symbolic), but its origin is rather
the shared inner experience of terror before death.97 Yet, it is only the fleeting
instant of the transgression of the symbolic taboo that can give us a glimpse of
the anguish without which the prohibition would not exist, but that can also offer
us a means of surpassing it in the act of communication. Secondly, it is first and
foremost death, not the sexual desire directed towards the mother, which is the
object of the prohibition.98 Thus the origin of the taboo is not the all-powerful
primitive father, but the horror caused by what Lacan, following Hegel (and above
all Kojve), called the absolute master. This, in short, is the explanation given to
the repulsive or impure side of the sacred.
But where does the attraction come from? Here one might again be tempted to
look at the direction of Freud and the death drive,99 the unconscious tendency of
the organism towards a minimization of all affective tension (ultimately implying
a striving for a pre-organic (inert) state). However, this is not at all the direction
Bataille is going to the continuity of being he is referring to in his later
texts100 when talking about what might be called the ontological foundation of
expenditure, is not characterized by an absence of tension, but on the contrary, by a
senseless, unrestrained expenditure, a continuous movement of loss.101 Death itself
is interpreted as the peak of this luxury. This is also a feature that he emphasizes
in connection with the social reactions provoked by death: the minimal tension
represented by death itself is often accompanied by a maximal tension among
the living (violent reactions, orgies, luxurious expenditure etc.).102 The luxurious,

96 See Freud 1965 [1913], 60.

97 See for instance Bataille, 1995d [1938], 167168/1988d, 123124.
98 Although death is at play also in Freuds theory, albeit in an indirect fashion,
through the model of identification to which the primitive scene of the Totem and Taboo
is based: it is precisely by introjecting (that is, eating) the ego-ideal (the murdered father)
that the sons operate the identification of this ideal and their ego that in turn leads to the
constitution of the super-ego (replacing the narcissistic ego-ideal) and the social bond based
on shared culpability.
99 See in particular Freud 2001 [1920] and Freud 1930.
100 Notably in the Theory of religion, written in 1948 and published posthumously
(Bataille 1976b); another expression Bataille uses is intimacy (see for instance Bataille
1976a [1949], 6164).
101 In fact, it has been argued that Freud uses the death drive more as a means to
drive death away both from psychoanalysis and the human psyche see Razinsky 2010.
102 Bataille 1970m [1938], 287. As ffrench (2007, 1314) points out, Bataille
criticized the Freudian principle of constancy (the avoidance of displeasure caused by the
increase of excitation as the basis of the dynamic governing the psyche), which dominated
the early versions of the psychoanalytical theory, already in his pre-war writings (notably
136 Affectivity and the Social Bond

exuberant signification given to death is further emphasized in the post-war theory

of general economy in which the expenditure is extended into a cosmic scale.
However, in the dynamics of the immediate experience the pole of attraction
is curiously left open: what is it that makes death attractive? Where does the
tendency to transgression come from if sexual desire is ruled out as the primitive
motor behind the movement of the whole? This question will be analysed further
in connection with Batailles theory of sacrifice.
The pole of repulsion, by contrast, is strategic for Bataille since it explains
the very humanity of desire. Repulsion is the negative moment in the movement
constituting the social whole: it opens up the transcendence and prevents the social
from closing into the pure immanence of (biological)103 inter-attraction. In this
sense repulsion equals negativity that mediates the immediacy of human relations:
it is the key to social transcendence opened up in the shared experience of
death.104 On the other hand, it is the energetic impulse, the only violently acting
force that can account for the clear-cut exteriority of the social things and this
precisely because of the constitutive role that the common horror of death plays in
the movement of the social whole. Death is the violence of the negative, as Hegel
and Kojve had shown. In the case of repulsion, however, this negativity seems to
be the very energizing factor, the activity of which keeps the social core moving
(although this activity does not manifest itself in the form of work or purposeful
projects). Repulsion is like an electric current that transforms depression into
tension, opening up an intense communication between those sharing it and
making them permeable to each other.105 For Bataille, it is precisely this sentiment

in La notion du dpense). Against this utilitarian and castrated interpretation of pleasure

Bataille set his own conception of pleasure as senseless expenditure or waste, in which the
affective discharge was posed as an end in itself, not a means that would allow the organism
to function for other ends, as in Freuds scheme.
103 Here Bataille explicitly discusses the problem in a biological context, referring to
the theory of inter-attraction as the foundation of society, proposed by the French biologist
tienne Rabaud in his book Phnomne social et socits animales (1937). The conception
of Rabaud represents a sort of extreme biological individualism that denies the social life
any influence whatsoever to its components (the individuals), inter-attraction being only a
secondary fixation of the individuals to one another (Rabaud 1937, 108). Bataille, who
advocates the holistic stance and emphasizes the movement of the whole, is of course
critical to this thesis. However, inter-attraction is for him not a sufficient foundation of
human society also because the latter is always mediated by negativity in this sense
Bataille is completely in line with the basic spirit of the Hegelian phenomenology.
104 It is in this sense that we could agree with Michel Suryas statement concerning
the political meaning of death: A society every society owes to death the transcendence
that allows it to be, without paying it anymore the tribute real and symbolic which is
due to it. However, there will be more to say about the nature and the weight of this debt
in the next subchapter.
105 Bataille also refers to this effect as the fundamental, vital animation, which the
sacred engenders through choc as it were (Bataille in Caillois 1995a [1938], 180/1988a,
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 137

of permeability to the other/the social that constitutes the foundation of what in the
Hegelian model would be called recognition of a fellow creature:

If one acknowledges permeability to movements of the whole, to continuous

movements, the phenomenon of recognition will appear to be constructed on the
basis of the feeling of permeability experienced when confronted with other/

In other words, recognition no longer passes by the consciousness it is not an

affair of seeing, identifying or cognizing, but of feeling and affectivity. Death is at
stake, but not in the form of a bloody battle between two individuals (master and
slave) striving to be recognized by each other. This is not the type of recognition
Bataille is looking for, nor is it the proper scene. Instead of the historical scene of
battle and work, opened up by the Hegelian negativity, the paradigmatic scene of
the intense sentiment of mutual permeability (useless negativity) is in Batailles
theory the ritual sacrifice of primitive religions.
The tragic theorized in Acphale and Le Collge de Sociologie is a point of
condensation of all these themes: idle negativity, the criminal origin of society
and the movement of the whole animating the social core. The tragic involves
the unification of the social around the nucleus electrified by common horror
(repulsion) in this sense it also implies a concentration of affective energies
(attraction), albeit one completely oriented towards loss. Bataille describes this
movement as composed of two forces, one centripetal, pulling the participants
around the central nucleus, and the other centrifugal, keeping them in a horrified
distance of the sacred core. But there is also another sort of animation, connected
to this communal movement, yet still different from it, revolving around a
different type of affective concentration. Bataille designates this particular type of
concentration by the notion of power. It is the very nature of this concentration
which, inside the Collge, constituted an object of a dissent between him and
Roger Caillois.107
An early expression of the difference between Bataille and Caillois can be
found in a conference entitled Le pouvoir (The Power) a conference presented
in the name of the latter, but in which he was actually present in name only.108
Whereas for Caillois the sacred, which was to be seen as the core of the new,
elective society that the collegians wanted to create, was intimately connected to

106 Bataille 1995c [1938], 135/1988, 109 translation modified, T.A.

107 For a more detailed account of this difference, see Arppe 2009.
108 Caillois 1995a [1938]/1988a. It was Bataille who presented the conference in the
absence of Caillois (like he did so many times in the history of the College). Although Denis
Hollier (1995, 217) places the first signs of the difference between the two co-collegians in
the conference of Caillois entitled Confrries, orders, socits secrtes, glises (Caillois,
1995b [1938]/1988b), which was held a couple of weeks later, the principal axes of discord
are already well visible in this text.
138 Affectivity and the Social Bond

power (power was even to be regarded as its source), for Bataille power seemed to
constitute a sort of an accursed part of the sacred domain: closely tied to it, but
at the same time in deep contradiction with its tragic character. In his analysis the
essence of power is in the punctual concentration of affective energy in one person
who becomes its incarnation, and hence also the bearer of its inner ambiguity:
for instance, the king is an object of both collective attraction and repulsion,
worshipped but also surrounded by terrifying taboos keeping the subjects at
distance. The true source of power is hence the emotional ambivalence animating
the social core.109 However, this concentration also allows the holder of the power
to use it for his personal profit and to smooth out the repulsive aspect of the
collective energies: the king no longer risks to be sacrificed; the taboos surrounding
the institution are slackened. But more importantly still, the religious (ambiguous)
power is complemented by another and more stable form of concentrated energy,
namely the army. In Batailles scheme power in the modern sense of the word
denotes precisely this institutional unification of the sacred and the military forces
in one single person, who employs them for his individual gain. As such power is
something that escapes from the tragedy required by the movement of the whole
precisely by diverting for its own profit the forces requiring the tragedy. Power
is thus an exteriorized and fixed form of the initial turmoil, implying the abuse
(personified accumulation) of the religious force (destined for collective loss).110
Against the power, which aims at confiscating the free movement of social
energy for the gain of a single person, Bataille wants to affirm the free play of the
subterranean forces, the movement of which cannot be fixed without altering it.

But all this movement takes place in a world that thwarts it. Power is constituted
above and beyond this turmoil, which it turns to its own profit and, to the extent
that the turmoil seems to be no longer useful to it, strives to paralyze it by
raising the threat of the executioners axe against the threat of crime. Power is
the only force that blindly seeks to eliminate the crime from the earth whereas
all religious forms are in some way drenched in it.111

However, in spite of the fact that Bataille does not explicitly theorize the symbolic
dimension of his model, the communal force he is advocating is itself condensed
around mythological symbols, without which there could be no unification of
collective affectivity. In other words, the movement of the whole always revolves
around a centre, although this centre may not be an individual or a person the
whole idea of the social core as a collection of sacred objects, sites, beliefs, and

109 See Bataille 1995d [1938], 157/1988d, 119.

110 In many ways the relationship between power and the tragic resembles that
between accumulation and loss: both are necessary, but the alteration and the abuse start
when the other pole gets fixed and institutionalized, thereby blocking the movement of the
111 Bataille in Caillois 1995a [1938], 196/1988a, 135.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 139

practices presupposes the existence and operation of a collective symbolism. This

is why it is difficult to see, in what way the collective affectivity could be freed
simply by changing the emblems. An answer to this problem could be sought in
the content of the symbolism that Bataille is proposing. The Bataillian figures
of power are always figures of sovereignty which expiate themselves: Dionysus,
the king of the forest (destined to ritual sacrifice) described by Frazer,112 or the
Hegelian master (who is completely impotent in the sphere of action, incapable
of changing anything in the world).113 Power, for Bataille, is above all power to
confront death an interior power which nonetheless opens towards the outside
in the communication which constitutes it.114 Thus, it is never the power of one
single individual, nor of any closed and self-sufficient subject for that matter,
but a virtual sovereignty which men share or in which they partake by virtue of
their existence destined to death a sovereignty that exposes them structurally (or
ontologically) to each other and thus prevents them from retreating into a reflexive
and hermetic subjectivity. In sum, for Bataille the (communal) movement of the
whole is a movement of fall, and the divine emblems symbolising it are always
fallen (self-deconstructive) figures, such as Prometheus, Icarus or Acphale.115
But the mythological/symbolic condensation of the affective energy involves
yet another problem, more directly linked to the use or the operation of the
signifiers put into play. The attractive, rallying power of such symbolism is
inextricably linked to the mythic figures or forms. The mythic structure always
elevates its constitutive figures to an exemplary position. This is why Plato already
wanted to banish myths from the city: the myth is a fiction in the strong, active
sense of moulding it imposes models the imitation of which contributes to the
individual (or collective) construction of identity. The question that the myth poses
is essentially that of mimesis in so far as only mimesis is capable of assuring an

112 See Bataille in Caillois 1995a [1938], 185/1988a, 130; Frazer 1993 [1922], 19.
113 See Bataille 1988h [1956], 354355.
114 I propose to assume as a law that human beings are never united with each other
except through tears and wounds (Bataille 1995e [1938], 808/1988e, 338).
115 However, the performative or self-deconstructing content of the emblems does
not quite wipe away the larger problem, linked to the lack of theorization of the symbolic
dimension itself. In fact the symbolic, for Bataille, seems to equal prohibition, the origin
of which is affective. The deconstruction-inspired interpretation of the Bataillean emblems
and figures presupposes a theory of writing (criture) and an emphasis put on the operation
and the effects of the signifier in the text (the materiality of the signifier). However, it has
less pertinence on the level of the anthropological theory proper, unless the term criture
is comprehended in its largest possible sense, as for instance Derrida does with his notion
of archi-criture. However, at this stage Bataille had not yet theorized the problem of
language the way he does during and after the war; but even in his texts more directly linked
to this problem, language manifests itself primordially in the form of prohibition, creating
a distance between the immediacy of experience and its linear, sequential exposition in
writing see for instance Bataille 1973c [1944], 308 and 379; Bataille 1973a [1943], 27;
Bataille 1973b [1947], 210.
140 Affectivity and the Social Bond

identity.116 However, if the essence of myth is a claim for an identity, then the
myth is always totalitarian and totalizing in nature. Hence the very structure of the
myth seems to exclude the sort of structurally exposed, open or torn subjectivity,
which Bataille is aiming at and which is essentially unaccomplished.
Although Bataille condemns the confiscation of the communal force, its use
in the pursuit of particular and restricted political aims, he obviously doesnt
disapprove of all force or of all energy. On the contrary, it is precisely the nocturnal
energy, the avid passion in close embrace with death, which constitutes the very
foundation of the headless community. Yet it was exactly this other Greece of
Dionysian euphoria and bloody sacrifices which already the German romanticism
of the nineteenth century had found and which had furnished the idea of an energy
capable of assuring and setting in motion the identification on which the national-
socialist mythology was constituted a century later (the theory of the mystic fusion
or participation laying the foundation of the Nazi myth). As some commentators
have noted,117 the truth of the myth does not depend on belief only, but on the fact
that the essence and the end of the myth is to incarnate itself in a figure or in a type.
This was precisely the thesis of Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi-theorist Bataille so
severely criticised for his interpretations of Nietzsche;118 according to Rosenberg
the mythical power is truly that of a dream, of an imaginary projection, which acts
as the basis for identification.
This is what makes the creation of a new mythology an extremely ambiguous
project, the impossibility of which became obvious for Bataille himself already
before the outbreak of the war. The problem touches the very core of a strong
affective community held together by mythical symbolism or imagery. Not only
is it hard to produce such a community in a voluntaristic manner (that is, to create
artificially a living mythology), but what is more important, the community based
on this sort of affective channelization is always in a certain sense totalitarian
by nature. A myth is a story of a common origin or a common foundation of a
community, and (self)identification always entails exclusion since it also marks/
defines the limits of the subject.119 It is not by accident that Bataille chose many
of the mythic figures which the Nazis had criticized: Mother-Earth, Dionysus,
in fact the whole project of the New Mythology it was precisely in order to
save them from this misuse, to break the bonds of the false appropriation, to
liberate these figures from their abominable Nazi-imposed slavery so that they

116 On this, see Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy 1991, 34.

117 Notably Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy (1991, 55).
118 See Bataille 1970l [1937], 455458/1985l, 187189.
119 This is blatantly shown by the much debated conference Le vent dhiver of Roger
Caillois which states the case quite clearly: Each of us, in relationship with humanity,
encounter some who show themselves to be of another moral species, almost of another
race. [] In that manner, an ideal line of demarcation hardens along which each of us
distributes fellow creatures and the others []; one instinctively keeps ones distance from
them as from things that are unclean. (Caillois 1995c, 340 [1937]/1988c, 37 italics R.C.)
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 141

could assume their true, authentic, liberating form. However, what he did not
see clearly enough in spite of the profound anti-utilitarianism of his general
vision was the impossibility of making the mythical identification function
otherwise, to channel the affective energy in the mythological figuration without
the totalitarianism always implicit in the imaginary identification.
The same sort of ambiguity weighs down on the attraction of death which
culminates in Batailles theory of the primitive sacrifice.

Sacrifice and the Economy of Death

Sacrifice can well be considered to be the point of culmination of Batailles theory

of affectivity, but also the crystallization of the different ambiguities it contains:
the problematic relationship between the symbolic and the affective, generosity
and destruction, continuity and rupture, ontology and phenomenology.
In Batailles theory the affective dynamics animating the social core is based
on a crime against the symbolic prohibitions protecting the ordinary life from
the destructive effects of useless expenditure. The peak of this expenditure is
death. However, for the dynamics to work the thing prohibited must not only be
horrifying, it must also exert a pull, an attraction to the living. When the affective
motor keeping the dynamics going is sexual desire, like in Freuds model, the
attraction of the crime is easy to grasp. For Bataille, however, sexuality (or rather
its human mode, eroticism) is only one of the modes of destructive expenditure
an important one, no doubt, but still hiding another and more fundamental reality.
This is where Batailles Hegelian influences are most palpable: the place he accords
to negativity in human existence is expressed in the thought of the unbearable
weigh of death a theme that Hegel himself stresses but also dialectically surpasses
in his phenomenology by work and language. For Bataille, by contrast, such a
progressive reconciliation, realized by and as the movement of history itself, is
ruled out. The negativity of death remains useless: the movement in its proximity
is fundamental (constitutes the foundation of human existence), but unachievable
(always recommenced). Death does not build up history, and yet man has always
felt the need to sojourn in its vicinity. The attraction of death is manifest in the fact
that almost all known religions have instituted a ritualized contact with it not
only by mourning and funeral rites, but also in the active, transgressive form of
inflicting death in the ritual sacrifice.
So where does this attraction come from? The simplest explanation would be
to resort to human nature: man is an aggressive species, this is why killing must
be explicitly regulated, otherwise humans would risk destroying each other in
bloody battles. But in the Kojvean style of dualistic ontology, to which Bataille
subscribes, this type of biologically inspired explanation is out of the question:
what distinguishes human existence from the rest of the creation is the very fact
that it is constituted by the negation of the naturally given. Ultimately, it is the
specific character of the human desire the fact that it is mediated by negativity,
142 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the object of human desire being always another desire, not an object of nature
that separates man from other animals and makes death an integral part of his
existence.120 In Kojves interpretation this premise leads to the dialectic of master
and slave, separating the one who fears the death and prefers to work for the other
from the one defying it in the bloody battle for recognition. However, there is no
specific attraction of death in this dialectics of desire: death/negativity is the
motor of history and thus an indispensable mediation of its phenomenological
unfolding, but on the level of subjective experience it is a weight that must be
endured, not an object of attraction. Yet, it is against this background of the
Hegelian phenomenology that the attraction of death in Batailles theory can
perhaps be best comprehended: whereas for Hegel/Kojve death represents the
movement of negativity (the mediation that keeps history moving), for Bataille it
is a wound or lack constituting the human mode of experience, an opening to
an impossible totality dominated by unrestrained expenditure.
The attraction of death is built up in a sort of reversion of the Kojvean
phenomenology, which revolves around ritual sacrifice. Batailles theory of
sacrifice is dominated by what could be called the image of the primitive society.
However, although he uses many historical societies as examples in his theory (for
instance, the Tlingit and the Kwakiutl tribes analysed by Marcel Mauss and Franz
Boas or the Aztecs of Mexico during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), his
primitive society cannot be reduced to any of them. It is not a social organization
or an archaic paradise, which once would have existed and then was lost, but
rather a hypothetical model comparable to Rousseaus state of nature: a universe
in which the relationship between man and the world is presumed to be immediate
and immanent. The world has not yet been divided into objects exterior to man.121
It is this intimate and immanent world that Bataille calls the sacred,122
whereas the profane in this context refers to the world that is mediated by
objects and is in this sense transcendental, exterior to man. However, alongside
this ontology of immediacy Bataille develops a phenomenological account of
alienation, in which the secularization of the world and the enslavement of man
begin with the invention of work and of language (the two principal modes of
the Hegelian negativity). Work and language represent the original forms of
alienation, whereas, for instance, Christianity and industrial capitalism can be
interpreted as its developed or historical forms. For Bataille the division of the
world into separated subjects and objects takes place as soon as man begins to
form words that substitute themselves for the immediate world, and to modify his
natural environment by his work. The birth of the transcendental world of objects
also gives rise to the fear of death by bringing along the consciousness of time and

120 For Kojve this is also the basis of the intrinsic bond between desire and action:
action is born out of the desire, and can satisfy it only by negating or transforming its object.
In other words, desire is realized qua action negating the given. (See Kojve 1947, 1112.)
121 See Bataille 1976a [1949], 63.
122 See Bataille 1976b [1974], 302.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 143

of the difference between the subject and the object. When contemplating their
own existence the creatures, who know how to make objects and use durable tools,
realize that something inside of them cannot resist time, whereas objects seem to
defy it.123
It is precisely the utility, the usability of objects and their dependence on
exterior purposes, that constitutes the heart of Batailles phenomenological account
of alienation. Utility lays the foundation for the profane universe of work, in which
existence is always harnessed to serve ends exterior to it. The temporal mode of
this universe is the linear, sequential time that turns existence itself into a project.
Existence valuable in itself can only be grasped by breaking up the prohibitions
which constitute the profane universe of work and which all concern the useless
expenditure of energy in its different forms.124 Death must be viewed from this
standpoint. By destroying the isolated (and in his isolation object-like) individual
(or sacrificial animal) death opens up a fleeting breach into the lost continuity
of being. Thus, it is something to be celebrated.125 On the other hand, it provokes
unlimited fear and anguish in the isolated individual, because, with the loss of the
intimate relationship to the world, death, too, has lost its intimate character and
become transcendent.126 Men express this emotional ambivalence by surrounding
death as well as other forms of dangerous excess, for instance, sexuality, with
prohibitions. Seen from the viewpoint of the profane universe of work, death and
sexuality both appear as something completely different, but at the same time
they are fundamentally linked to mans bestial (impure) existence, freed from the
constraints of work. The prohibitions prevent the invasion of this domain in the
profane, orderly existence. On the other hand, the desire for expenditure remains

It is the state of transgression which commands the desire, the demand of a

universe more profound, more rich and prodigious, in short, the demand of a
sacred universe.127

This is also why the prohibitions affecting the various manifestations of excess
can never be absolute in Batailles scheme. This would definitely condemn human
beings to the isolated and object-like (profane) existence, which can never be

123 See Bataille, 1976b [1974], 297306.

124 In other words, what we have here is a phenomenological version of Batailles
early dualism between the homogeneous and the heterogeneous (here transformed into the
dualism between the immediate and the mediated).
125 This is the attitude of joy in the face of death which scandalized so many of
Batailles contemporaries: by sharing their experience of lack of foundation constitutive to
human existence, the participants in the sacrifice can momentarily grasp all of the glory
and conquest signified by the loss (Bataille 1995f [1939],745/1988f, 328).
126 See Bataille 1976b [1974], 308.
127 Bataille, 1979a [1955], 41; see also Bataille 1976a [1949], 6164.
144 Affectivity and the Social Bond

sovereign,128 valuable in itself. The isolated individual can restore the immediate
relationship to the world only when the anxiety touching the future vanishes for a
split second. This is what happens in rituals involving unmotivated expenditure.
The communication of the individual anguish requires that man transgress his own
nature as a non-continuous, isolated being. Communication or participation is
but another name for this excessive dissipation of the self, the violent opening of
individual limits. It is precisely through this excess (wound or dchirure) that
the subject reveals his or her innermost, intimate being to his or her fellow beings.
The transgression of the prohibition thus becomes the channel through which the
isolated individuals communicate, not only with each other, but also with the great
(ontological) continuity of being. For Bataille it is this sacred experience which
constitutes the foundation of the social bond.129
From this perspective the attraction of death would be due to its status as the
peak of unrestrained expenditure which is the ultimate object of human desire.
But on the other hand, this desire is itself mediated (if not downright constituted)
by the symbolic prohibition. Hence, from the viewpoint of anthropological theory
we seem to be moving in a circle: there is no human desire without prohibition,
but the prohibition itself is generated by human affectivity.130 The only way out
would be to resort to a more universal point of view, embracing both horns of
the dilemma. Indeed, after the war Bataille makes an attempt to extend his vision
of expenditure into a cosmic law by developing a theory of a general economy
in which the starting point is not man, but the overall economy of the universe.
At the centre of this economy is the surplus of energy generated by the sun. As
a consequence, every living organism disposes of a greater amount of energy
than it would need for mere survival. The surplus that cannot be invested in the
growth of the system (or, in the case of the living organism, in its reproduction)
must, therefore, be used unproductively: wasted or destroyed. What is crucial
is the manner in which the surplus is disposed of it can be destroyed either
gloriously (for instance, in the primitive feast, potlatch and ritual sacrifice) or
in a catastrophic manner (for example in wars). Economics usually observes
things from the viewpoint of the particular individual and his limited ends. The
problems of scarcity and death only pose themselves for a finite creature. By

128 Sovereignty is a central idea in Batailles thought. He completely detaches

the notion from its political connotations. Sovereignty has nothing to do with individual
or political power; it is rather a mode of being or a virtuality, in which every individual
partakes by virtue of his or her existence, but which nobody possesses (sovereignty is the
opposite of a thing, see for instance Bataille 1976e; Bataille 1979b, 287316).
129 See Bataille 1976b [1974]; 1995a [1937].
130 The same paradox characterizes the movement of the whole earlier described:
this movement exists only in the form of repeated transgression, violation of a prohibition,
which constitutes a crime. What is left in obscurity is the origin of the prohibition itself. At
the bottom of the prohibition there is an original act a violence that must be non-symbolic,
otherwise we end up in a circle. But on the hand, a non-symbolic violence cannot constitute
a crime, since crime always presupposes the existence of the symbolic.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 145

contrast, if one considers the living matter in general, that is, the play of energy
which is not limited by any particular end and which, in this sense, constitutes
its own end, then the problem is not scarcity but excess. The only choice left
concerns the manner in which this excess is disposed of. If we dont know how
to destroy the excessive, accursed part, it will destroy us.131

The history of life on Earth is principally the result of a senseless exuberance:

the dominant phenomenon is the development of luxury, the production of ever
more costly life-forms [] Of all conceivable luxuries death, in its fatal and
inexorable form, is certainly the most costly one.132

However, not only is this prodigal cosmology incompatible with the Kojvean
dualistic ontology at the heart of Batailles theory, it also leaves the problem of
the symbolic intact: the unproductive expenditure can appear as a senseless orgy
of destruction (required and realized by nature itself) only to a man living in the
midst of a culturalized nature, that is, a nature irrevocably altered by the symbolic
prohibition. Only the symbolic position of death (destruction, expenditure) in
human existence (in mans consciousness or in his unconscious) can open out
to the tragic exuberance that Bataille is dreaming of. This is why the use of an
originally prodigal nature as an ideal model of expenditure, the true gist of which
is in the accursed (symbolically mediated) negativity of human desire, can only
blur things up.133
This exuberant philosophy of nature is further accentuated by the sort of
reverse Hegelian phenomenology which Bataille seems to be constructing
and which has all the ingredients of a romantic lamentation of the lost
(sacred) world. Whats more, Bataille himself seems to aggravate his case as
a true descendant of the seekers of paradise lost by the frequent use of such
expressions as lost intimacy or the lost totality of existence.134 Albeit his
warnings against the dangers of such nostalgic and passist visions (not only in
the context of fascism but also in relation to nineteenth-century romanticism),135
there is an undeniable tension in his own theory between the structural approach,
stressing the irreducible heterogeneity of the opposed domains, and the more

131 See Bataille 1976a [1949], 2831.

132 Bataille 1976a [1949], 3940 italics in the original; on this, see also Warin
1994, 7273.
133 This is a critique repeated by many of Batailles commentators see for instance
Baudrillard 1976, 236, 242; Warin 1994, 81; and Halsberghe 2006, 117.
134 See for instance Bataille 1995e [1938], 326/1988e, 23 and Bataille 1976b [1947/
1974], 315.
135 See Bataille 1970j [1937], 481482/1985j, 204205 and Bataille 1979b [1957],
146 Affectivity and the Social Bond

phenomenological or historical perspective,136 emphasizing the subjective

experience and its evolvement inside of a temporal horizon.
However, as lost as Batailles case might seem, there are also a number of
factors that undermine any simplistic interpretation of his theory. The first point
is linked to the relationship between prohibition and transgression. As Bataille
himself points out, transgression by no means signifies a return to some savage or
unspoilt nature instead, it opens up a richer reality magnified and transfigured
by repression.137 This is where we again stumble into the symbolic and its vital
importance in Batailles structural scheme: nature, in this constellation, is always
already transformed by the symbolic and, therefore, it can never manifest itself
as such, independently of the prohibition affecting it.138 The nature which man
falls into when transgressing the prohibition is a divine, horrifying reality where
the emerging life is not distinct from the decay of life, that is, from death.139 The
problem, of course, is the (affective) origin of this prohibition, which Bataille
cannot explain in a non-circular fashion and which, for him, is also at the origin
of the attraction of the forbidden.140 The second point that should be noted is the
fact that the totality which Bataille evokes in this context (when talking about the
lost totality) is an attribute defining human existence, due to which mans being-
in-the-world is always constituted by an existential lack, a wound which alone
allows for a deeper communication between the isolated beings not some sort of
a paradise lost. As some interpreters have justifiably argued,141 natural immediacy
is not an option for Bataille, since it would equal Kojves post-historical happy
animality, devoid of all negativity (that is, of humanity). Insofar as a return
would at all be possible, it would thus mean return to a time and universe that
never was. In this sense we can say that the immediacy or immanence that man
is longing for is first produced by the negative, the symbolic or the transcendent.
The third point is linked to Batailles notion of experience, its particular temporal
structure and its relationship to consciousness. The inner experience, which
Bataille begins to theorize during the war and which is structurally linked to his
notion of communication, is not that of a conscious, individual subject focusing
his attention to an exterior object and cognizing it. Rather, the subject or the self
in this experience becomes the locus of the collapse of these separate positions:
the subject loses itself, vanishes into the object that also disappears. The object

136 It should not be forgotten that Bataille indeed had a project of a universal history
on this, see Dubreuil 2006.
137 Bataille 1976d [1951], 81.
138 See Bataille 1976d [1951], 69.
139 Bataille 1976d[ 1951], 69.
140 See for instance Bataille 1976d [1951], 8388,
141 Notably Rebecca Comay (1990, 82).
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 147

becomes the projection of this dramatic loss of the self, whereas the subject is
turned into a point of communication of the subject and the object.142
This also means that the Bataillean experience is not an immediate feeling
or overwhelming sensation lived by the individual, some sort of pure immanence
or plenitude of being in which the subject could dwell. As Bataille himself notes,
such an intimacy cannot be recuperated, because it has always been lost:

Hence, the successive solutions only aggravate the problem: intimacy is never
really freed from exterior elements without which it could not be signified.143

[C]lear consciousness is searching for what it has itself lost, and what it must
lose again in the very act of drawing near to it.144

On one hand, the fractured and from the outset suspended character of the
experience is due to the nature of lived time as such: the immediacy is never
there, and never will be, since experience itself must unfold in time.145 This is the
impossible point of lucidity, of absolute presence of the consciousness to itself that
the Bataillean clear consciousness is looking for in vain:

This effort is vain, because the consciousness of intimacy is only possible on the
level where consciousness is no longer an operation, the result of which implies
duration, that is, on the level where clarity, which is the effect of the operation,
is no longer given.146

On the other hand, this observation is limited to the epistemological level which
is that of the consciousness and the point where it fails: as Bataille himself puts
it, one has to be lucid, conscious to the point where the eye becomes blind.147
This blinding lucidity opens out to the night of non-knowledge: not a region
before all knowledge, but a point that knowledge only reaches in its extreme
limits, once it has emptied all its possibilities as knowledge. However, this is an
epistemological paradox implicit in the structure (and limits) of consciousness and
the knowing subject, but it does not necessarily involve any affective stance. The
unconscious which this paradox generates is only the epistemological leftover of
the consciousness itself not an unconscious in the strong, demanding sense of

142 Jacques Dedrrida has, indeed, characterized Batailles inner experience as being
neither interior nor experience in any traditional philosophical sense of the word see
Derrida 1967b.
143 Bataille 1976a [1949], 123 italics in the original.
144 Bataille 1976b [1974], 315.
145 As Rebecca Comay (1990, 8386) justifiably observes: Experience reveals only
the truth that there never was an experience.
146 Bataille 1976b [1974], 315.
147 See Bataille 1973a [1943], 38.
148 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the word, that is, an autonomous structure following its own laws and essentially
revolving around affectivity (desires or impulses repressed).
This opens up the difficult question concerning the relationship between
affectivity and experience. Although the inner experience is not reduced to an
affective Erlebnis, a series of punctual now-moments in which the subject could
grasp his or her true being, it seems to be both preceded and succeeded by intense
affective states. The inner experience actualizes for a split second a sovereign,
unsuspended existence, opened up when the sequential mode of existence of
the conscious subjectivity is disrupted and this, in Batailles scheme, happens
precisely as a consequence of a shock generated by intense emotions. On the other
hand, the inner experience always has some sort of affective effect: a sentiment of
the presence of the sacred, laughter, anguish or ecstasy. It is only by these effects
that its existence, its operativity can be attested. Thus it seems that affectivity is
in Batailles scheme the very factor which opens up or rather actualizes the inner
wound of the subject, makes the subject porous, receptive to an exterior constituted
by other beings in a similar way wounded or opened up. However, since this
deeper communication is not that between conscious, individual subjects but
rather happens in a peculiar sort of unconscious matrix, in which the participants
are ephemerally connected by the lack or wound which they share, it will rest mute
as long as the symbolic dimension is theorized only in the form of prohibition. We
are left to dwell in its non-verbal effects, symptoms of an unconscious activity that
will forever remain in this purely formless, inarticulate state.
Another question still is whether the wound Bataille is referring to is only
opened up as a consequence of a preceding affective impulse (and the subsequent
dynamic of transgression and prohibition), or whether it should be interpreted as
a structural or ontological lack constitutive of the human existence as such. In
the latter case the overall need of collective practices such as sacrifice, allegedly
needed to revive the wound would be questioned or alternatively, they could
be interpreted as mere historical manifestations of this manque--tre instead
of manners or, indeed, techniques by which the deeper communication would be
launched. Both interpretations are possible and can be backed up by Batailles
texts. On the one hand, the wound seems to be the passive, suffering negativity,
withdrawn from the domain of activity and always there as the very foundation
of human existence itself (being human equals being constituted by a lack, an
irreducible negativity, a crack by which the death peeps in). Although this wound
only becomes manifest when meeting another wound (that is, in communication, as
the sharing of wounds), it pre-exists any intersubjective relationship or collective
mise en acte: it simply is that which connects no relationship to the outside (the
others) would be possible without it. Hence, it is the very mode of being of human
community: no subjectivity, but also no community without it.
On the other hand, the whole affective dynamics of the social is built around
the transgressive movement which is based on a crime. The ephemeral moment
of consciousness of the mortal, wounded foundation of human existence is
only possible through transgression it is only in these moments that we feel the
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 149

anxiety without which the prohibition would not exist. Although the negativity
operating in this scheme is different from the work of the negative in the Hegelian
Aufhebung, thus distinguishing it from the dialectical progress (the reconciliation
of the negative in a new synthesis), the crime always implies a movement across
the symbolic barrier. And as useless and inoperative as this movement may be as
to its results, it is not self-generating, but needs an incentive, an affective impetus
to trigger it. The irrational impulse,148 the mad envy to loose, but one which is
only launched by the prohibition affecting it. This circle, in which the affective and
the symbolic eternally co-determine each other, unfolds in historical time, as the
history of different cultural modes that this impulse has taken in different times
and places. It is the very dynamic sustaining the phenomenological dimension
of Batailles scheme, whereas the inner experience opening to the impossible
(ontological) intimacy of being cannot constitute, cannot be the foundation of
any historical continuity, because it does not belong to the temporal structure of
historicity. It is like a lightning strike a rupture of this continuity, not a part of it.
And the continuity which it touches for a fleeting instance is not a temporal one
it is outside of time, just like the Freudian unconscious is.149
This is what makes the whole economy of sacrifice, which Bataille constructs
around the affective dynamics of the social, such an ambiguous enterprise. It is
both a story of the origin of an unconscious generated by prohibition150 (born out
of human affectivity itself as a symbolic means to control its innate excess) and a
lucid analysis of the impossibility to dominate either in reality or in writing the
point where the symbolic and the affective, the conscious and the unconscious
meet. This non-logical difference is by definition in excess in relation to any
possible restricted economy, including the sacrificial one. Bataille himself was by
no means unaware of the paradox.

In a general fashion, what were looking for in sacrifice or in potlatch, in

action (history) or in contemplation (thinking), is always this shadow which,
by definition, we cannot grasp which we only in vain call poetry, the depth
or the intimacy of passion. We are necessarily mistaken, because we want to
grasp this shadow. [] The ultimate problem of knowledge is the same as that

148 Bataille 1970j [1937], 481.

149 The Bataillean history is precisely the history of these transgressions, not of the
unconscious per se (which remains in the position of the Lacanian real). Unconscious
is the Bataillean continuity, whereas negativity without use is man himself, forever
torn between the anguish linked to his position as a separate (individual) being and the
communication only accessible in fleeting moments of transgression.
150 In a sense it is the human consciousness of death that produces in the psyche
another system of traces called the unconscious these are the traces of our own future
death pushed back and repressed. But the real event is forever unreachable, or rather,
there is no real apart from these traces, this is what Bataille himself is ultimately forced
to admit.
150 Affectivity and the Social Bond

of consummation. No one can at the same time know and avoid destruction,
consume wealth and increase it.151

But in that case sacrifice itself becomes a futile operation, because it is always
already caught up in the system of traces. On one hand, sacrifice appears as a
channel, through which the community touches and thus controls the intimacy
and the immanence (its own inaccessible foundation opened up in sacrificial
death). But on the other hand, Bataille is forced to admit that all attempts to
appropriate and control this intimate depth lead to an impasse and illusion. In fact,
the participants are only given access to a spectacle, a simulated and mediated
(represented) death. Although mans consciousness of his own future annihilation
separates him from other animals, in reality death reveals nothing. The revelation
of mans human (mortal) essence to himself would require that he lived his own
death, that he would be able to appropriate himself integrally, without residue, in
his own negativity. But as Bataille himself points out, this is a comedy!152
Another problem implicit in the dynamic interpretation of sacrifice is its latent
functionalism. Sacrifice is a gift given to gods either as a payment of a debt or in
order to receive a return gift. According to the standard functionalist explanation
of the Durkheimian school, these utilitarian motives, which the primitives
themselves often give to the sacrifice, are, nonetheless, merely apparent. In
reality the ritual nourishes the social forces sustaining the community, that is, it
regenerates the spiritual and moral energy of the group. Gods are the image, the
emblem and the symbol of society, and the function of the sacrifice is to solidify
the social bond.153 From this point of view Batailles scheme is, in fact, not so
far from the Durkheimian model of collective effervescence: the cultural order
is reproduced by ritually repeating the affective experience which constitutes
its foundation. In Durkheims theory, what is repeated is the creative chaos of
collective frenzy, in Batailles interpretation the euphoric, yet terrifying experience
of mans own finitude. In spite of the fact that Durkheim does not operate with the
notion of prohibition (and certainly not with that of repression) and that Bataille
uses the notion of prohibition instead of symbolic fixation, the basic economistic
scheme of channelization (productive use) of affectivity remains the same. By
consequence, in the (restricted) economy of social affectivity instituted by the ritual
sacrifice, the useless and allegedly sovereign expenditure seems to become a
mere stake in a restricted circle of exchange that turns it into a means. Expenditure
modelled after the sacrifice ceases to be its own sovereign end and is transformed
into a function that channels the human violence into socially acceptable forms,
so that after the ritual blood-shedding the normal everyday life can reassume its
peaceful course. Whats worse, this normalizing scheme is built on the fascination

151 Bataille, 1976a [1949], 76 italics in the original.

152 Bataille 1988g [1955], 336.
153 See Durkheim, 1990 [1912], 491500; Hubert and Mauss 1968 [1899].
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 151

of violence the simulated character of which is admitted, but which can only be
efficient (fascinating and horrifying) on the condition of not being simulated.154
Thus, the fascination of sacrifice ends into a trap:

If self-consciousness is essentially the full possession of intimacy, then we must

return to the fact that all possession of intimacy ends up in a trap. A sacrifice
can only lay out a sacred thing. The sacred thing exteriorises the intimacy: it
makes visible from the outside that which in reality is in the inside. This is
why self-consciousness requires finally that in the order of intimacy nothing
happens anymore. [] A point has to be exposed in which the sharp lucidity
coincides with the sentiment of the sacred. This presupposes the reduction of the
sacred world to the element most purely opposed to the thing, its reduction to
the pure intimacy. This actually amounts, like in the experience of the mystics,
to an intellectual contemplation, devoid of form and of mode, opposed to the
seductive appearances of the visions, divinities and myths.155

Although Bataille never abandons his theory of the affective dynamics revolving
around sacrifice and the transgression of the prohibition to kill,156 after the war he
starts to sketch out other ways in which the deeper communication (the shared
experience of the constitutive wound of human existence) could be realized
in a world in which the great ritualized forms of the foundational crime have
disappeared. In Batailles post-war theory art, especially fine arts and poetry,
becomes the privileged domain of this experience, but only insofar as art is detached
from its form as a product or work, that is, deconstructed as an oeuvre. A work of
art only retains something of a sacred aura on condition of transgressing its own
workness, its status as an achieved result on which the artist (the subject) could
build his or her prestige and thus participate in the great battle for recognition:157
the auteur has to sacrifice himself for his oeuvre which, in turn, has to transgress

154 A point made by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (1990b). For Nancy,
this scheme remains profoundly Hegelian in spite of Batailles efforts to the contrary: it
consists of the (dialectical) reappropriation of the subjective identity, albeit in a torn and
wrenched form, mediated by negativity, between the impossible and the simulation.
155 Bataille 1976a [1949], 177178 translation T.A.
156 Sacrifice is a persistent theme not only in his published books, like La part
maudite (published in 1949) or Lrotisme (published in 1957), but also in many of the
manuscripts written in the 40s and the 50s, for instance Thorie de la religion (written in
1948) and LHistoire de lrotisme (written in 19501951).
157 On the other hand, the refusal of recognition by no means signifies that the author
could barricade himself in his majestic solitude with no contact to the exterior (the others).
This is precisely the attitude of which Bataille criticizes Jean Genet: Genet does not want
to communicate with his readers, he does not take the risk of exposing himself to others,
and by consequence his project of sovereign evil rests closed to itself. For Bataille this
is precisely the deception of Genet: without an authentic innocence, a shared passion of
opening and exposing oneself, poetry and literature lose their raison dtre. What is left is
152 Affectivity and the Social Bond

its nature as an object, result or project. The affective movement, again, has to
stay in a flow, but on the other hand it is now captured in a symbolic form, or to be
more precise, attached to a signifier against which it continuously rebels. This is
the form which the impossible often assumes in Batailles post-war writings: the
paradoxical and frustrating relationship between that which eludes all expression
and its materialized, fixed form in language.

words! Which ceaselessly wear me out: I will nevertheless go till the end of
the miserable possibility of words. I want to find ones which would reintroduce
in a point the sovereign silence that interrupts the articulated language.158

This impossibility is at the centre of Batailles theory of writing which is based

on the notion of sovereignty: an empty place at the top, nothing (rien) or the
impossible itself. Although this point can be approached only by discursive
means, it is per se identical to the point where the words fail. Sacrifice becomes
a hecatomb of words,159 a potlatch of signs.160 Communication can be attained
only in the extreme limits of language, it is the emptiness and the silence at the
heart of signification itself inscribed in the movement of signification as its non-
signifying foundation (its condition of possibility) which can, therefore, never
become present (object of signification) without annulling itself like death, it can
only be simulated. And yet this formal, empty condition of all expressivity is again
thoroughly contaminated by affectivity: surrounded by anguish, desire and revolt,
by no means reduced to the play without rules161 of modern poetry. Although
sovereignty cannot be consciously sought for nor deliberately produced162 (it is
more like a stroke of luck or of grace), it still remains an object of desire (maybe
even The Object, or rather, what Lacan would have called La Chose163). These
are the two poles constantly at war in Batailles theory: the dynamic and affective
pole, turning around transgression (crime against the symbolic) and constituting
a restricted (closed) economy, and the ontological, empty sovereignty, condition
of possibility of the signifying movement (mimesis and repetition) itself that can
function only on condition of being nothing (rien). This fundamental ambivalence
is well attested, for instance, in Batailles way of theorizing the subjectivity at play
in the sovereign communication.
Although it might seem that Batailles artistic turn after the war implies a
sort of interiorization, and by consequence, individualization of human negativity

but the empty hubris of an isolated individual, a jesters mask. (See Bataille 1979b [1957],
158 Bataille 1973b [1947], 210 translation T.A.
159 Bataille 1973b [1947], 220.
160 Derrida 1967b, 42.
161 Bataille 1973b [1947], 220.
162 Bataille 1973b [1947], 222.
163 On this, see Sichre 2006, 151.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 153

at the expense of its collective forms, the subjectivity at play in the artistic
communication is an open one, theorized in the notion of composed being. For
Bataille the individual consciousness is but an ephemeral point of condensation
for multiple and incessantly moving currents which life in general is composed of.
In this sense, consciousness is but a favourable point of arrest to this continuous
flow: This moment of rest is only a moment of charge. Consciousness itself only
has sense when it is communicated.164 In a similar way, the artist or the writer is
only a meeting point of different interpretations. This is the point where Bataille
distinguishes his own conception from the Sartrean cogito which he sees as an
inviolable and intemporal atom, an irreducible foundation, whereas for him the
cogito exists only as related, as a node of real communications taking place in
time (the atom reflects the wave: language, words exchanged, books written and
read).165 The subjectivity sketched out in the notion of communication is thus
a relational one, open to others in the similar way exposed. But once again, the
exposition in question does not seem to be an automatic one: it still needs an
incentive from the outside, generating the desire to share, activating the wound.
In his post-war writings Bataille speaks, for instance, about dramatization of
existence,166 by which he refers to the active moment indispensable for the opening
of the wound (and the ensuing communication between wounds). The outside (or
transcendence) is here provided by the idle negativity, the lack of being (manque
tre) from which the desire to share, to communicate springs from. But on
the other hand, this is the desire of a finite being:167 the authentic communication
implies a risk, the desire to transgress, to sacrifice the limits of the isolated
individual. Hence, the exposition of oneself can once again only be attained
through transgression, it can only happen between wounded beings, each leaning
out for its own void (nant).168 Although the sovereign desire always aspires
towards nothingness (nant) the void exposed in death or in another being
the communication constitutive to the open subjectivity presupposes an active
movement, a reaching out of each for its own void. Thus, Batailles subjectivity
seems to be constitutively torn by the ambivalence, characteristic of his whole
theory, between ontological idleness and transgressive dynamics.
The communication in this way theorized appears in Batailles post-war texts
primarily in the erotic encounter169 and in (some) works of art. What is left open by

164 Bataille 1976c [19391945], 271 translation T.A.

165 Bataille 1973e [1945], 126 note 1; translation T.A.
166 See Bataille 1973a [1943], 2223.
167 Whereas the desire of a sovereign being would spring from excess not a need
to share based on a lack, but from an overabundance of force (a sovereign being knows
nothing about death or its anguish, he cannot die humanly see Bataille 1976e [1953
1956], 267267).
168 Bataille 1973e [1945], 45.
169 Batailles analysis of eroticism is entirely based on this scheme of exposition in
which the thing shared is none other than the common void, exposed in the little death
of orgasm. The founding principle of all erotic action is the transgression of the limits of
154 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the sovereign experience transferred in the domain of art and inscribed in a textual
(or pictorial) mode, is the question of politics. If sovereignty belongs entirely to
the domain of useless negativity, then we are left with an ontology of lack that
cannot offer any basis for action, be it political or any other kind.170 This dilemma
can, of course, be met by proposing a completely different manner of conceiving
the political, defined, for instance, as a will to advance the community of those
without community,171 that is, to create a deeper communication between the
constitutively separated beings. From this point of view the existence seeking to
go to the extreme limits of the possible is necessarily political, because its aim
is the totality of existence and its (impossible) attempt to reach it constitutes the
experience of communication between men. Politics of the impossible would
thus imply a revolt against everything that presents itself as transparent, achieved
or indispensable. Impossible also entails testing the boundaries of power; this is
why it inevitably appears as subversive.172 On the other hand, this sort of politics
is incessantly struggling with the inoperative, non-voluntaristic and constitutively
ephemeral nature of its own content: sovereignty is completely powerless in the
sphere of action, it can never be sought or attained consciously (it can never
become a project) and its temporal mode is that of an instant (it is not a state
but rather a lightning strike, an instant of pure loss) not to speak of the fact the
sovereignty in the Bataillean sense is the kingdom of ends, whereas politics
seems to be more often than not linked to an instrumental definition. Seen from
the viewpoint of its contents a sovereign politics would thus seem to amount to

the isolated individual, possible only to the creature conscious of its own future death (see
Bataille 1987). Here we again stumble into the difference between Bataille and Freud
whereas for the latter the normal human sexuality is defined by the fact that the libido is
invested into an outside object (the other as the object of my love), for Bataille eroticism is
properly an opening to the other, since it only functions through the wound or the void in
the subject (comparable to the famous manque of Jacques Lacan). It is through this very
wound by which the isolated beings communicate that death looks in (It is my absence
that I sense in the wound [dchirement], in the painful sentiment of a lack Bataille
1973e [1945], 44; translation T.A.). In other words, the object of the Bataillean desire is not
the other as an object but the others inner wound or lack the object of the human desire
being ultimately the nant (see Kojve 1948, 1213; Bataille 1973e [1945], 4445).
170 This is a very common interpretation among Bataille scholars: just before or
little after the war Bataille grew increasingly skeptical of the possibilities of any political
action or of finding collective channels to the insubordinate impulses of man. Instead
of revolutionary expenditure he began to seek the foundation of the social in a shared
experience of auto-sacrifice, the privileged domain of which is precisely the practice of
writing (see for instance Heimonet 1989, 195228) or alternatively, the domain of art on
which the modern manifestations of sovereignty and the sacred are sought (see for instance
Bischof 1984, 323).
171 This is the interpretation proposed by Jean-Michel Besnier (1989, 109).
172 See Besnier 1989, 109128.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 155

a contradiction in terms a paradox which from another perspective has also been
seen as its fundamental virtue.173
By contrast, if the community of those without community is seen as being
constituted of singular beings structurally (or rather, ontologically) open towards
each other, so that their singularity itself is constituted by this being-exposed
or being-open-towards, then there is no place for any other verb than to be
singularity is this exposition, quite simply; it needs no advancing whatsoever,
because this is its fundamental mode of being. Sovereignty interpreted in this
manner174 also changes the economy of sociality. The community no longer
needs to be reproduced through real or simulated violence, because the wound
constitutes the singular being as such, or its being-in-the-world which is precisely
the sharing of this wound. Being-exposed to the constitutive finitude of existence
and sharing this exposure (or dchirure, as Bataille would have it) is the very
wound to which the being-in-common (or sociality) is founded. From this
point of view death is immanent in mans being: it is not a phenomenologically
alienated transcendental Other which the community should or which it could
reappropriate through mimetic repetition as a spirit of sacrifice (or some other
signification) and on which it could construct the myth of a great communion or a
common substance.175
This ontological interpretation of sovereignty neatly does away with the
dialectical recycling of negativity and the attendant economy of death that still
haunts Batailles conception of sacrifice in spite of all his attempts to the contrary.
However, it leaves us with another sort of problem which Bataille also encountered
when trying in vain to mobilize the subterranean energy of secret fraternities
and collegiums against the affective totalitarianism of fascim: when the social
bond is completely purified of the sacred (its ecstatic and sacrificial dimension),
in what sort of space or on what sort of relationship is it possible to reassemble
a community that would be political in any meaningful sense of the word? If
community (the relationship of sharing) becomes the constitutive feature of the
singular or finite existence as such, it is difficult to see what is left of the political
significance of the community in this way defined whether community is
understood as a critical point from which to criticize the contemporary capitalism

173 The paradoxical nature of the sovereign politics can also be seen as indicating the
very limits of the modern, theological as well as technical conception of politics on this
discussion, see for instance Esposito 2005.
174 This is the interpretation proposed by Jean-Luc Nancy in his two texts discussing
Batailles notions of community and of sacrifice (see Nancy 1990a and 1990b).
175 In this constellation the finitude of human existence is not conceived as negativity
which would be cut off from being and which, through this very cut, would guarantee
an access to the regenerated integrity or sovereignty of being. On the contrary, finitude
highlights the idea, also proposed by Bataille, that sovereignty is nothing (see Bataille
1976e, 300).
156 Affectivity and the Social Bond

or a programmatic goal, a real community that we might dream to create.176 The

a- or impoliticalization of the community is also reflected by the fact that the
privileged manifestation of this thoroughly relational existence is none other than
literature, comprehended as the inscription of the constitutively incomplete and,
therefore, always reinitiated sharing of singularity in or as a text. The relationship
of sharing does not end up in a closed, immanent communion, because it is never
achieved but constitutively incomplete, its whole existence being reduced to the
very act of sharing. But this sort of literary communism177 (the unachievable
community inaugurated by a writer/a work exposing themselves to the limit shared
by singular beings) leaves the political itself unemployed. The big question is,
whether a community liberated from the circle of the restricted economy can do
anything else than to be.
In sum, the political seems to become the great leftover of the sovereign
experience of finitude not because of the alleged individualization or
interiorization of negativity in Batailles post-war writings but because the
experience operating in the artistic or erotic communication is constitutively
ephemeral and by definition situated beyond the conditions of doing:178

The integral man [lhomme entier] is also desire [] and his totality is due to
freedom, the absence of limits of the desire. [] In other words, the object of
his desire cannot be a good, cannot consist of the good of a being, but only of the
pure and simple expenditure. [] Ultimately, he must expend himself without
reason []. Whence this strange situation: he does not know what to do in this
world, he measures its silence.179

Although Bataille explicitly poses the question concerning the affective violence
which Comte and Durkheim, each in their own way, pushed aside, this question
remains in his theory suspended between a reverse Hegelian phenomenology,
revolving around the play of an idle negativity and its symbolic (simulated)
reappropriation, and an impossible ontology of lack, based on a sovereignty
that can only retain its true nature in condition of being devoid of any positive
attributes. Violence is in a certain way the essence of human desire, but it can
only be comprehended inside of a discourse which sees it as a manifestation of the
fundamental negativity of human existence, and the human history as a cavalcade
of the different forms of channelization and/or repression of this anthropogeneric

176 On this, see also Wernick 2001, 258260. As Wernick points out, the sort of
politics Nancy is trying to construct around the community in this way defined (a politics
as the communication of community, consciously undergoing the experience of its sharing)
is a politics without mediations, mediations being precisely the messy middle ground
between making happen and letting be (Wernick 2001, 259).
177 See Nancy 1990a, 175198.
178 Bataille 1973e [1945], 63.
179 Bataille 1973e [1945], 20 note 1.
Georges Bataille and the Accursed Part of Affectivity 157

negativity (that is, negativity constitutive to the humanity of man). This is

precisely the type of discourse which Ren Girard attacks some decades later with
his anthropological theory of mimetic violence.
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Chapter 4
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire

It is with Ren Girard that violence and human desire not only become inseparable,
but also constitute the impetus for the of birth of human culture. What distinguishes
Girards model from Bataille is the evolutionary and objectivist emphasis of his
theory: Girard openly challenges any philosophical account of the desire because
of the metaphysical nature of such enterprises.1 His own intention is to construct
a scientifically valid model explaining the cultural evolution by leaning on a
single factor that combines both biological and cultural components:2 the mimetic
nature of mans desire. The intrinsic mimetism of human desire makes man a
social being right from the beginning, but in a manner which is more complicated
than any animal (purely biological or instinctual) sociality, because man only
desires in function of his fellow creatures. The conflictual nature of such a desire
is immediately visible, as Hobbes and Rousseau clearly understood: two desires
directed towards the same object inevitably lead to rivalry, this is why the harmful
passions can really get the grip of men only in proximity of other men.3
Girard shares the Hobbesian vision of an original, affective-induced crisis as
the foundation of society4 his originality is in the solution proposed: against
the immanent, freely escalating violence of the generalized conflict he sets the
transcendentalized violence of sacrifice. Human culture and religion thereby
become contemporary phenomena: our basic cultural institutions, such as language,
nuclear family and domestication of animals, are all based on the sacrificial
channelling of destructive (mimetic) affectivity, which projects and reifies the
intrinsic violence of human community to a transcendental entity, namely the
sacred. Primitive religion thus becomes the cultural institution through which
the affective violence is regulated. Although Girard names British anthropologists,

1 See Girard 2007b [1972], 689690.

2 Although human desire is always determined by the others and hence does not have
any essence of its own in the philosophical sense, the ultimate basis of mans stronger
propensity for such a mimetic behaviour is in Girards model still physiological, namely
the brain size. On the other hand, in mans case biological and cultural evolution are
inextricably linked, so that cultural factors already contribute to the exceptional phase of
mans biological evolution, leading among other things to an acceleration of the brain-
volume growth. See Girard 2007c, 806.
3 See Hobbes 2010 [1651], 7778 and Rousseau 1905a [1754], 91 and 1905b [1781],
388 note 1.
4 Although Girard speaks of society as such, that is, the anthropological (real)
conditions of what we might call sociality, whereas Hobbes is talking about the
hypothetical (formal) conditions of the political society (ultimately the state).
160 Affectivity and the Social Bond

such as Frazer, Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown as the prime anthropological

referents of his model,5 the entire scheme on which he constructs his theory of the
surrogate victimage can, in fact, be read as a reverse image of the Durkheimian
original scene in which the collective effervescence is posed as the origin of
society. Whereas Durkheim builds his theory on the symbolic fixation of affective
energy to collective representations, such as the totem, Girards scheme functions
on the affective polarization and psychological projection of collective violence on
the victim whose body becomes the first linguistic signifier.
Girard is in line with Durkheim when emphasizing the ritual aspect of religion
and setting it as the origin of the symbolic. However, religious beliefs and
mythology are in his model only a conscious rationalization of a non-conscious
and misapprehended mechanism of projection which keeps the intrinsic violence
of mimetic desire in check. This sets him implicitly against Freud who, in Girards
opinion, quite correctly saw that culture was founded on a murder, but misplaced
the roots of the desire in repressed (individual) sexuality for which an entire theory
of the unconscious was needed, and explicitly against Lvi-Strauss who flinched
at any attempt to base the explanation of the social on affectivity,6 pushed aside
the analysis of religious ritual as an autonomous reality7 and instead focused the
whole analytical power of structuralism on the study of myths which he took
as ultimately reflecting the universal laws of the human mind. Whereas Freud
saw the problem (affective violence hidden from consciousness) but mistook the
cause (repressed libido), Lvi-Strauss did not even see the problem, but reduced
the violence oozing out of his myths into a play of structural (purely logical)
Girard replaces the Freudian unconscious with his concept of misapprehension
which is one of the keys to his theory: the surrogate victimage can only function,
if the mechanism remains hidden from the actors of the original lynching (and the
ensuing ritual apparatus in which the mechanism becomes a cultural institution).
Although the affective violence is not repressed and restored into an unconscious,
but channelled and preserved in cultural institutions (that act as its visible yet
hidden memorials), it is still based on an epistemological structure of distortion.
This is why it becomes very difficult, if not downright impossible, to break out from
the infernal machinery of mimetism without an exterior (transcendental) instance.
This instance is in Girards theory the Christian Revelation: the crucifixion and
the subsequent resurrection of the Christ reveal for the first time the innocence of
the victim and the victimage mechanism through which humanity has previously
contained and channelled its inner violence. What the Gospels reveal is, in fact,

5 See Girard 2010b, 190191 Girard actually claims to have read Les Formes
lmentaires de la vie religieuse only after having written La Violence et le sacr; I have
already expressed my doubts about the veracity of this statement elsewhere see Arppe
2009, note 3.
6 See Lvi-Strauss 1962a, 102103.
7 See for instance Lvi-Strauss 1971, 607611.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 161

the anthropological truth about mankind.8 One of the problems in Girards theory
is to explain why this revelation has not brought about a radical change in the
mimetic rivalry that seems to continue as strong as ever, but also how humanity has
been able to get along in spite of the progressive disappearance of the sacrificial
mechanism which, according to Girard, has constituted the only temporal and
historical (albeit satanic) manner of regulating mans mimetic frenzy.
Although Girard fervently criticizes all metaphysical and philosophical
explanations of human violence, his own theory is by no means completely free of
such elements. In fact, Girards work on mimetic desire begins with precisely such
an interpretation of human desire, the history of which his own work approaches
from the reverse end so to speak: starting with a seemingly psychological theory of
modern literature9 he then extends his discovery of mimetism to an anthropological
theory of primitive religions10 which later escalates into a universal explanation of
the origin of human culture and the laws of cultural evolution.11 Partly because of
its multidisciplinary nature (including psychology, literary theory, anthropology,
sociology and theology) Girards theory contains a number of problematic issues
which more often than not can be found precisely at the point of articulation
between these different parts: it is not a purely cultural theory, because Girard
infers the mimetic tendency of man from a physiological and biological basis
which man shares with other species (especially the primates) in other words,
his theory leans on a monistic ontology. On the other hand, and partly for the
same reasons, it is not a purely psychological model either, because the mimetic
mechanism leading to the polarization of violence is automatic to a certain extent,
that is, not dependent on any conscious or unconscious mental motivations of
the actors. What complicates the picture even further is the position of Christianity
as the only possible form of genuine transcendence that opens the way out of
the misery created by the historical anthropology. As soothing as this perspective
might be from a theological point of view (since it makes pure love the essence of
God), it fits poorly with the scientific emphasis of the evolutionary view.
In the following I will first analyse the psychological theory of mimetic desire
proposed in Girards first book Mensonge romantique et vrit romanesque and
especially its Hegelian-Kojvean roots that also constitute a link between Girard and
Bataille a particular emphasis will be given to the relationship between mimesis
and negativity. I will then turn to the theory of primitive religion presented in La
violence et le sacr in order to examine the explanation Girard gives of the affective
violence and its relationship to the collective effervescence of Durkheim and the
Freudian theory of the primitive murder as well as the concept of the unconscious;
I will also discuss the relationship between Girards model of surrogate victimage
as a solution to a general affective crisis and Hobbes idea of the sovereign as a

8 See Girard 1999, 164167.

9 Mensonge romantique et verit romanesque, Girard 2007a [1961].
10 La violence et le sacr, Girard 2007b [1972].
11 Des choses caches depuis la fondation du monde, Girard 2007c [1978].
162 Affectivity and the Social Bond

transcendental third needed to break the interrelational immanence of affective

violence. Finally, I will analyse Girards universal explanation of human cultural
evolution and its relationship to the Christian Revelation which he proposes as the
solution to the bad mimetic affectivity dominating the terrestrial life of mankind
a special attention is here paid to the relationship between immanence and
transcendence in Girards theory as well as to the alleged subject of this process.
In the concluding section I will discuss the implications of Girards model with
regard to the political, that is, any voluntaristic attempt to change the givens of the
human (anthropological) condition.

Mimetic Desire and the Logic of Negativity

Girards theory of culture is essentially based on one premise: the mimetic

character of human desire. This idea is already developed in Mensonge romantique
et vrit Romanesque (1961), Girards first book, in which he analyses the works
of four European novelists Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Proust in the
light of his hypothesis. For Girard, the novelists studied stand out in their time,
because their work reveals the inner dynamic of human desire that completely
escapes the average works of the genre. Mans desire is by no means that of an
autonomous and self-enclosed individual as the romantic literature would have it.
On the contrary, it is only aroused by another mans desire directed towards the
same object. The subjects desire for the object is always mediated by a third,
the model, the desire of whom the subject is imitating.12 By desiring an object
the model (without knowing this) designates it at the same time as the object that
could fulfil the subjects inner void. Hence, unlike the need, the desire is infinite
it can never be fulfilled.13
The characteristic feature of the modern society, best visible in the works
of Dostoevsky and Proust, is the prevalence of what Girard calls the inner
mediation: the situation in which the model is spiritually14 close enough to
become a rival (created by the desire), an object of hatred and of jealousy which
the subject ultimately sees as an obstacle between him/herself and the object
coveted.15 In the end, the subjects desire is completely captured by the model that

12 It is this fixation to the model that Girard later sees as a specific characteristic
of human desire or passion which is thereby distinguished from the animal needs and
appetites see Girard 2010a, 1718.
13 Girard 2007a [1961], 3575.
14 Girard emphasizes the spiritual nature of the distance, although it might also be
a distance in space or in time. Sancho Panza is physically close to Don Quixote, but the
intellectual and social distance separating them makes any rivalry unthinkable.
15 Girard 2007a [1961], 4243. This is also Girards conceptualization of the famous
contagiousness of affective states: in fact, contagion and the proximity of the mediator
are one and the same thing. Inner mediation refers to a situation in which one catches
the desire of ones fellow being in the same manner one would catch a contagious disease.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 163

becomes the real object of desire, whereas the original object is turned into a mere
vehicle of desire, a means to reach the mediator. Although the mimetic desire
invariably tends to transfigure its object, this augmented value is ultimately only
a projection of the mediators prestige. The more the mediator approaches, the
more the physical object loses its importance and is replaced by a metaphysical
aura of irreplaceability. Girard characterises such a desire as metaphysical16 in
distinction from a simple physical need; in fact, it is a desire for being, because the
subject dreams of a plenitude of being which he/she believes the model to possess.
The subject does not recognize in the other the reflection of his/her own desire,
that is, the void (nant) that is eating the subject away from the inside, on the
contrary: he turns the other into an all-powerful divinity.17 The subject expects the
model to show him/her what he/she should desire in order to attain this plenitude.
But in fact the mediator here assumes the place of God, with whom the subject is
trying to compete. The more unattainable the model, the greater the certainty of
the models absolute worthiness. This psychological double-bind is of course self-
fulfilling and cannot be broken from the inside.
The interpersonal relationships are thus turned into a battlefield of competing
desires that gradually abolish all differences between the rivals. In other words, all
the ingredients of the Hobbesian war where every man is enemy to every man18
are present, except that here the violence is entirely spiritual (psychological) in
nature. However, the main philosophical reference of Girard in this book is not
the Hobbesian war with its attendant framework of regulation (the shift from
the violent state of nature to an ordered political society)19 but the Hegelian
phenomenology of the spirit and the fight for pure prestige sustaining the dialectic
of master and slave. This is the framework in which Girard himself places his
analysis in Mensonge: he wants to reconcile two phases of the Hegelian spirit,
namely the dialectics of master and slave and the unhappy consciousness. This is
an ambitious aspiration indeed, since it in fact comprises the two principal lines of
interpretation of the Hegelian phenomenology in France after the Second World
War: the one inaugurated by Jean Wahl,20 stressing the central position of the
unhappy consciousness, the inner self-divisions and sufferings of which constitute
the driving force of the Spirits historical progress, and the other one launched

Girard claims this contagion to be such a general fact that anyone can become the mediator
of his/her neighbour. This is in a sense the core of the mimetic argument: everybody is
ultimately the potential model/rival of everybody else. See Girard 2007a [1961], 114.
16 Girard 2007a [1961], 77.
17 Girard 2007a [1961], 93.
18 Hobbes 2010 [1651], 78.
19 On this, see also Kirwan 2004, 4345.
20 Presented his book Le Malheur de la conscience dans la philosophie de Hegel
see Wahl 1929. On the influence of Wahl on the French Hegel-reception, see also Baugh
164 Affectivity and the Social Bond

by Alexandre Kojve,21 making the dialectics of master and slave, the fear of
death and the desire for recognition the perspective from which the operation of
the negative and the ensuing dialectics of the Spirit is seen. Whereas in Hegels
phenomenology these are only two stages or moments through which the Spirit
passes in its progress towards a full self-consciousness (these stages representing
its increasing awareness of itself as negativity), Wahl and Kojve turn them into
a privileged vantage point from which the entire self-evolvement of the Spirit is
The unhappy consciousness refers to a stage in which the individual self is
internally divided, experiencing itself as a vanishing nothingness against which
is projected the truth of the universal (infinite thought) in the form of an external
object, namely the transcendent God. What is important in this connection is the
fact that this drama, opposing the transcendent other and the finite individual,
is completely internal to the self. The active, outward-oriented and institutional
part of the Hegelian phenomenology (the action that transforms reality and the
state in which the synthesis of the universal and the particular is realized) is left
aside in favour of the inner divisions of the self, which become the true motor of
history. Although in Wahls interpretation the sufferings and inner ruptures also
motivate the self to search for a state of wholeness, this movement finally leading
to the ultimate reconciliation of the particular and the universal at the end of the
Phenomenology, it is only by and through the inner torments that the movement
of history towards its final end is realized. Wahls unhappy consciousness thus
puts the emphasis on the existential dimension of the dialectical movement,
since it deprives the individual self caught in this structure of the possibility of an
immediate synthetic reconciliation, leaving it oscillating between self and non-
self, being and nothingness.22
The internality of the conflict, the projection of transcendence into the other and
the lack of a final synthesis all play an essential role in Girards mimetic scheme,
only in a radicalized form. The transcendence of the other person which replaces
that of the almighty God, is likewise a mirage, a projection of the individual
consciousness, but it differs from the divine transcendence because it entails
rivalry and formally excludes the perspective of any sort of future reconciliation
or paradise. The unattainability of the other is greater than that of God, since the
subject is only projecting his/her own lack to the world of terrestrial immanence.23
In this respect Girards solution is simple, he challenges the whole teleological
(progressive) structure of the Hegelian phenomenology by denying any possibility
of a final reconciliation of the Spirit with itself: the intrinsic violence of human
relations only changes form, but it never completely disappears. This move allows

21See Introduction la lecture de Hegel Kojve 1947. Girard himself makes no

explicit reference to Wahl or to Kojve, but he has admitted to have read at least Kojve at
the time he was writing his book on this, see Webb 1993, 116.
22 Baugh 2003, 5.
23 See Girard 2007a [1961], 8187/1976, 5966.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 165

him to detach separate moments from the Hegelian progression and combine them
into a general interpretation of modernity: the bloody battle between master and
slave is transformed into a non-physical battle of unhappy consciousnesses with
no synthetic perspective ahead:

The hero of internal mediation is an unhappy consciousness who relives the

primordial struggle beyond all physical threat and stakes his freedom on the
least of his desires.24

The dialectics of master and slave to which Girard is referring here is based on
his reading of Kojve from whom he also takes the basic triangular structure
of human desire that constitutes the foundation of Kojves interpretation of
Hegels phenomenology. Kojve starts from a clear-cut ontological dualism:
what distinguishes man and beast is the specific nature of human desire. Whereas
animal desire is directed toward a material object (nourishment guaranteeing its
survival), the ultimate object of human desire is always another human desire.
This is the crucial moment for the birth of self-consciousness, since it entails that
desire is directed towards an object that surpasses the given reality.25 However, the
only such object is the desire itself. This is why the desire is for Kojve properly
anthropogenetic: it generates the humanity of man because it constitutes
the foundation of a consciousness that is radically different from the animal
consciousness. Desire directed towards a natural object is human only to the
extent that it is mediated by the desire of a fellow being, directed towards the same
object. The satisfaction of human desire thus requires some sort of reciprocity or
social recognition of the value of the object. To desire anothers desire ultimately
means that I want my value, the value that I represent as a human being, to become
the value that the other person desires: I want him or her to recognize my value
as his or her value. In Kojves scheme this means that the humanity of man rests
on his will to risk his life voluntarily in order to gain recognition. The birth of the
self-consciousness is thus fundamentally linked with exposing ones life, with the
risk of death. This is why the desire for recognition necessarily appears as a bloody
battle for pure prestige.26
However, since the satisfaction of this desire requires that both parties stay
alive, it must generate two fundamentally different types of human behaviour:
one of the parties has to fear the other (and death) enough to recognise the other
without being himself recognised. The result of this battle is the relationship
of submission known as the dialectic of master and slave, which in Hegels
philosophy constitutes the motor of both self-consciousness and history. However,

24 Girard 2007a [1961], 125/1976, 112.

25 According to Kojve the satisfaction of animal need can only offer the basis for a
sentiment of the self, that is, for an animal I, focused solely on physical survival, not for
self-consciousness in the strict sense of the term on this see Kojve 1947, 12.
26 Kojve, 1947, 1114.
166 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the course of history proves the position of the idle master to be deceptive: the
recognition he has gained is hopelessly one-sided, and his pleasure remains purely
subjective because of his idleness. The slave, on the other hand, improves through
his forced labour not only the objective nature, but also his own nature. The future
and history thus do not belong to the belligerent master, but to the industrious
slave who, by transforming the world, creates the necessary conditions for a
new, liberating battle for recognition.27 This is the famous end of history thesis
for which Kojve is perhaps best known: history ends at the moment, when the
antagonism between the master and the slave vanishes.28 The final satisfaction of
the desire for recognition can only be reached in a universal and homogeneous state,
born of a bloody revolution. Only in such a state can man realise his individuality
(the synthesis of the universal and the particular), because he becomes recognised
universally in his irreplaceable and unique particularity. As a result the reserve of
human desire, which in the course of history had nourished the different forms of
sublimation, drains away: history stops, because man who created it is completely
satisfied and, therefore, no longer aspires to change, to surpass the given and
also himself with his negative action. However, the end of history by no means
signifies that nothing more will happen in the world, it only means that men stop
acting as humans, that is, they stop risking their lives and working in order to
gain recognition. Although the end of history implies the death of man determined
by the desire for recognition and the negative action, it is in no way a cosmic or
biological catastrophe: nature remains the same, so does man as a natural creature
(man becomes an animal completely in harmony with nature or the given world).29
The respective theories of Girard and Kojve concerning human desire contain
interesting similarities. For both theorists, desire is anthropogenetic; it is the
foundation of the humanity of man. For Kojve, this specificity of the human
desire is due to its constitutive negativity: not only is the object of human desire
(that is, another desire) originally defined as the negation of the given, but also the
historical progress of the spirit is realized essentially through and as the work of
the negative (which in Kojves interpretation is, moreover, intrinsically connected
with the discursive).30 By contrast for Girard, the factor distinguishing the human
desire from an animal instinct is its mimetic nature which detaches the desire
from the immediately given (the material object) and makes it mobile, because
it is always mediated by a model that is freely chosen.31 Also, both theorists take
the triadic character of human desire as their starting point. For Girard, desire
always entails three positions: the subject (the disciple), the object and the rival
(the model). The same sort of triadism is also, for Kojve, the very feature

27 See Kojve, 1947, 1834.

28 Kojve 1947, 143 ff.
29 See Kojve, 1947, 113 ff.; see also Roth, 1988, 117 ff.; and Auffret, 1990: 301 ff.
30 On the primordial role of language and of the discursive in Kojves interpretation
of Hegel, see Selcer 2000.
31 On this, see also Girard 2010b, 63.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 167

distinguishing human desire from mere animal need: the human desire is always
mediated by the other, it is never direct. In Kojves scheme this premise leads
to the desire for recognition and to the dialectic of master and slave, which is the
key to the constitution of self-consciousness and history, in short to the entire
auto-evolvement of the Hegelian spirit, whereas in Girards theory it opens up
a interminable duel between two rivals who end up seeing each other primarily
as obstacles.32 This difference is due to the fact that Kojve and Girard see the
connection between mimesis and its object differently. Whereas in Kojves
interpretation the subjects desire is first and foremost directed toward another
desire (the other desire being its object and not its model), in Girards theory it is
rather directed according to another desire (following the desire of the other who
seems to desire an object).
However, at this early stage Girards emphasis is clearly on the metaphysical
nature of the mimetic desire:33 the desiring subject is constituted by an existential

32 It is only in his subsequent books that Girard begins to stress the acquisitive aspect
of mimetic desire, linking it directly to mans hominization. In fact, it is exactly this kind
of philosophical interpretation of violence, strongly present in his first book, that he later
denounces as pure mysticism: We have to reject all the mystical explanations and their
philosophical surrogates, as for instance the coincidentia oppositorium, the magical
power of the negative and the virtue of the dionysiac (2007c [1978], 776 italics T.A.).
As he explicitly states, his theory comprises no such element: This thesis [of the surrogate
victim] no longer bears any theological or metaphysical character in any sense that the
contemporary critique might give to these terms (Girard, 2007b [1972], 689690 the
translation is mine, since this paragraph is missing in the English translation of Girards
book which he has himself revised an modified, T.A.) In an interview given in 1978 he
admits that his early writings on the subject had been contaminated by the Hegelian
climate of the fifties (see Girard 1978a, 201). The inner void of the subject could indeed be
regarded as a metaphysical vestige from the Hegelian philosophy of desire, impregnated
by the phenomenological negativity (whether seen as the work of the negative animating
the movement of history or an existential lack of the subject, which cannot be filled). But
although Girard struggles to push the mystical negativity away, negativity as such plays a
significant role in his own explanation of human culture we might even say that negativity
is omnipresent in Girards theory, since it is the mimetic violence itself. I will return to this
subject in the next sub-chapter.
33 In Girards later work the emphasis shifts to the acquisitive nature of mimetic
desire, which he sees as the source of its conflictual and potentially violent character and
which he presents as his genuine contribution compared to the former theories of imitation,
such as that of Plato (see Plato 2006 [360 B.C.E], book X) and Tarde (see Tarde 2001
[1890]) on the primacy of the acquisitive mimesis, see for instance Girard 1978a, 201
and 2007c, 712713 and 722). He explicitly criticizes Plato for having limited mimesis to
the domain of representation and the negligence of the acquisitive mimesis (Girard 1978a,
201) and Tarde for the negligence of mimetic rivalry (Girard 2010b, 190). From this point
of view it is clearly exaggerated to claim that Girard would consider the metaphysical
thrust to be fundamental compared to the comparatively superficial though virtually
universal acquisitive element, as for instance Webb (1993, 118) does this claim rather
illustrates the implicit ambivalence between the psychological and the more naturalistic or
168 Affectivity and the Social Bond

lack or void, incarnating the sort of negativity that a whole generation of French
thinkers, including Lacan, Bataille and Sartre, got at least partly from none
other than Kojve (although each modified Kojves negating negativity in
their own manner). In fact, if we look at the positions of the subject and the
object in the mimetic double-bind, Girards scheme can be compared with that
of Bataille, since mimetic desire entails the deconstruction of both positions.
Whereas Batailles deconstruction of the subject-object relationship is linked to
the structure of experience and of communication, implying a sort of fusion, or
rather, communication of the subject and the object in a dramatic experience of
loss, Girards deconstruction is linked to the structure of the mimetic relationship
which entails a sort of mise en abyme, an infinite suspension of the origin in a
play of traces.34 In fact, the Girardian desire seems to have no real object at all,
since all its varying objects are but an imaginary veiling, part of the structure of
misapprehension (mconnaissance) constitutive to the double bind relationship
instituted by the mimetic desire itself. In this sense the object is but a projection
not of the loss of the subject like in Batailles case, but of the subjects desire as it
is reflected to him/her through the other acting as its mirror. As one commentator
has aptly put it, desire is not oriented by some pre-existing attractor; on the
contrary, it is the desire itself which causes the attractor to emerge: The object
is a genuine creation of the mimetic desire; it is the composition of the mimetic
codeterminations that causes it to spring from nothingness.35 On the other hand,
in the mimetic play of mirrors the subject of desire is always already constituted
by the other; hence, there is no autonomous ego closed in its libido who could then
invest its libidinal energies to the objects of the world outside, like in Freuds
theory, but only a thoroughly reflexive being whose entire affective dynamics is
dictated by another, similarly mirror-like creature. The ego or the subject is just as
much an effect, a projection of the mimetic game as the object is what is essential
is the dynamics of mimesis; the subject and the object are just psychological
points of fixation of the movement. It is in this sense that Girard and some of his
followers36 have talked about universal mimesis and interdividual psychology,

anthropological aspects of Girards theory; more will be said about this problem in the next
34 This critique of the metaphysical desire is the one point in which Girards scheme
can be structurally juxtaposed with the deconstructive gesture of Jacques Derrida not so
much the later theory of surrogate victimage, although such a comparison has also been
suggested (see McKenna 1992).
35 Dupuy 1990, 132 italics in original; Girard himself has later found this
interpretation to be somewhat exaggerated see Girard 2010b, 101. This is understandable,
because the whole concept of acquisitive mimesis which he later adopts is based on the
central role of the object.
36 Notably Jean-Michel Oughourlian who has developed a whole new branch
of psychoanalytic theory based on Girards notion of mimetic desire see in particular
Oughourlian 2007. In this interdividual psychology mimetism is truly foundational in the
sense that it replaces the notion of the unconscious as a reservoir of repressed desires; the
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 169

designating the idea that the self is first constituted by its relationship to the other
or to put it in a different way, mimesis precedes consciousness which is created
around patterns of desire and not the other way round.37
Several commentators have pointed out the Kojvean influences of Girards
triangular desire.38 However, less attention has been paid to the fact that besides
the analysis of desire Girard also borrows from Kojve the two main axes of the
latters interpretation of Hegel, namely the dialectic of the master and slave and
the thesis concerning the end of history which he reverses and then uses to frame
his own analysis (which, as we remember, he himself presented as an attempt to
reconcile the dialectics of the master and slave with the unhappy consciousness). In
Girards bloodless battle the positions of master and slave are curiously reversed:
whereas the Hegelian dialectics was based on the physical courage of the master
and the fear of death of the slave, the moving force of the novelistic dialectics
is hypocrisy. The battle is shifted entirely on the psychological level, the domain
of consciousness: here violence betrays the intensity of desire and is, therefore,
interpreted as a sign of weakness. In the universe of the inner mediation physical
force has lost its prestige. Instead of the Hegelian fear of death the dialectics of
hypocrisy is animated by the Nietzschean logic of resentment: the loser (the slave)
is the one who resorts to force and thereby betrays his/her desire, the winner
(the master) the one who manages to conceal his/her desire behind a mask of
indifference. The growing self-consciousness of the universal spirit in the course
of a dialectically progressing history is thus replaced by an interminable battle of
two consciousnesses that are paradoxically reflexive to the extremes, in a manner
bordering paranoia: every move the model makes is interpreted as a move in the
game of imitation, thus leading to an ever-accelerating reciprocal spiral.
However, the stake of the battle is less clear than in Hegels phenomenology
where the desire for recognition constitutes the driving force of the dialectical
movement.39 One does not immediately see what the Girardian consciousnesses

unconscious, if such a term is at all appropriate here, is the Other (not in the sense of the
Freudian superego, but as the other person elevated to the position of a model). Desire gets
all its energy from the relationship to the other; in this sense the interdividual psychology
is the psychology of the relationship, not of the individual. As a consequence, there is
no stable self at all, only an entity which is constantly changing in accordance with the
changing models of imitation (see Oughourlian 2007, 3132). Interestingly enough, the
pathological form of mimetism is, once again, the one implying a fixation of the movement
on a single model (one is reminded of Batailles analysis of fascism as the fixation of the
free movement of affective energy on one particular individual).
37 See also Webb 1993, 125.
38 See Kirwan 2004, 3133; Dupuy 1990, 133; Fleming 2004, 169; Webb 1993, 116.
39 Later on Girard explicitly dismisses the role of the desire for recognition as the
original form of desire, replacing it with the battle over the object (see Girard 1978a, 201).
However, not only does the centrality of the object and the acquisitive nature of the desire
step into the picture only at a later stage, in La violence et le sacr (1972), but in fact the
very structure of the Girardian desire also makes it impossible to take recognition as the goal
170 Affectivity and the Social Bond

are fighting for: what is the force that keeps the battle up, if there is no perspective
of satisfaction in the horizon? The Girardian desire seems to revolve entirely
around itself, in an autistic and completely immanent circle. An example to
illustrate this self-containment is in Girards book taken from Sartres analysis of
the sadomasochistic nature of love in Ltre et le nant:40 the sexual relationship is
mediated by the lovers gaze (regard) which doubles the loved one into a subject/
object and thus ends up in a triangle (the lover the loved one the loved ones
body). In this configuration the loved one who imitates the desire of his/her lover
ends up desiring his-/herself through the others desire. The double mediation
turns the relationship into a narcissistic play of mirrors which Girard also denotes
by the term coquetry.41 However, the only thing, the only psychological factor
but also the only theoretical postulate that finally keeps the game going and
the mimetic circle turning is the inner lack or void of the subject. The dream
of plenitude presupposes a void no metaphysical desire can be conceived of
without the idea of lack,42 this is where Girard meets not only Kojve, but also
Lacan and Bataille.
It is also at this point that Girard again resorts to the Hegelian dialectics of
master and slave in order to illustrate the formal structure of the game: each partner
plays his/her freedom against the freedom of the other, and the game is over when
one or the other eats humble pie and shows his/her desire. The reversal of imitation
is thereafter no longer possible, because the declared desire of the slave destroys
the masters desire and assures his/her real indifference. What is at stake is thus not
the life but the freedom of the players. Although Girard emphasizes the fact that
the logical end of this battle would be death,43 in the modernity characterized by
the metaphysical desire (the ontological lack of being) and the internal mediation
(the social proximity of the mediator) death remains a purely abstract conclusion,

or the motivating factor of the battle: since desire is always imitating another desire, there
is no possible end to the game, but also no possible object that could satisfy the desire,
the object being only a pretext, a point of imaginary capture, and not the real stake of the
game. This is why Girard is obliged to resort to the idea of an inner lack or void which
the desiring subject is trying to fulfill and which constitutes the gist of the metaphysical
desire. Another candidate for the psychological motive keeping the game up is the need
of transcendence which Girard also mentions (see Girard 2007a [1961], 164165/1966,
158159) and in which he sees the core of religious experience still haunting the modernity:
Repudiation of a human mediator and renunciation of deviated transcendency inevitably
call for symbols of vertical transcendency whether the author is Christian or not. All the
great novelists respond to this fundamental appeal but sometimes they manage to hide from
themselves the meaning of their response. (Girard 2007a [1961], 290/1966, 312.)
40 See Sartre 1943. As for instance Bruce Baugh (2003, 95117) has shown, Sartres
philosophy is also directly influenced by Wahls analysis of the unhappy consciousness.
41 See Girard 2007a [1961], 120.
42 Whether this lack is conceptualized as manque (Lacan), nant (Kojve, Sartre)
or rien (Bataille) is yet another and also a more complicated question.
43 Girard 2007a [1961], 272.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 171

never actually realized during the game. Real (physical) violence would be a sign
of weakness, the real revolution here is of social and metaphysical nature, but
with incalculable consequences.44
However, Girard not only applies Kojves concepts in his own analysis,
he also turns the idea of the end of history against Kojve himself. Girard
distinguishes his own model from Kojve/Hegel by emphasizing the fact that
the novelistic dialectics only appears in a post-Napoleonic Universe, or to put
it in Kojvean terms, at the end of history. The dialectics of master and slave
belongs to a violent past which Hegel himself saw as ending with Napoleon (the
ultimate incarnation of the Spirit). Instead of the Hegelian reconciliation or the
Kojvean satisfaction Girard sees a subterranean struggle of consciousnesses in
a reality which is liberated from physical (and eventually also from economic)
violence. This is Girards version of the fate of negativity in the post-historical
situation: negativity for him is negative imitation, that is, the rivalry brought about
by the inner mediation. Whereas Bataille emphasized the useless character of the
post-historical negativity, distinguishing it primarily from the universe of activity
and usefulness dominated by ends alien to existence itself, Girard stresses the
spiritual nature of negativity which does not open up in a communication between
two desiring but constitutively wounded existences (Bataille), but instead turns
around in a narcissistic duel, the only possible end of which is humiliation and a
new game with a new partner. Regardless of the political or social system, men
are constitutively incapable of finding the happiness and peace that some of the
new revolutionaries are dreaming of. What Prousts snobbery and Dostoyevskys
underground explore are those areas of existence to which the spiritual energy of
the post-historical universe has retreated.45
However, in spite of the physically non-violent or spiritual nature of mimetic
rivalry death does have a role to play also in Girards explication of the novelistic
dialectics: it steps into the picture as an experience of conversion, hitting the hero
of the novel at the end of the story. Death is not encountered in the game, it is
not at stake in the play, nor present as the subterranean work of the negative that
would animate the affective dynamics of the game, but on the contrary, it only
appears as a singular moment of conversion, revelation concerning the futility and
harmfulness of the game itself. In other words, death is a relief, since it means
liberation from the cycle of imitation. In this sense Girards scheme is almost
Buddhist: the cycle of imitation can only be broken by renouncing ones bad
ways (adhesion to worldly things, that is, desire) in the terrestrial life or, in
the Christian (Augustinian) version of the same, by giving up on ones pride (in
writers case, his amour propre) which is at the root of the sickness.46 This, in
turn, is only possible through an experience of conversion which is affective and
intellectual at the same time. Death is a threshold to be surpassed on the way from

44 See Girard 2007a [1961], 125/1976, 112.

45 See Girard 2007a [1961], 123124.
46 Girard 2007a [1961], 286/1966, 307.
172 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the deviated, horizontal transcendence (that poses the other human being as a
god to be imitated) to the true, vertical one. However, this conclusion is valid only
in the literary universe. The death of the hero remains symbolic: isolation, prison,
recovery through writing. On the other hand, it is precisely through the symbolic
death of the hero that the writer can overcome his own desire and recognize the
profound affinity between himself and his mediator.47 The death of the hero (the
mediator or the alter ego) thus equals the resurrection of the writer. The internal
division of the Girardian universe begins to take shape already here: the historical,
terrestrial world of mimetic rivalry and deviated transcendence versus the
transcendental universe of truth and revelation. There is more to be said about this
dichotomy in the last sub-chapter.
On a more sociological level, there is an interesting structural affinity between
the analysis of the early Girard and the Durkheim of the Suicide in this regard: for
both the desire and the dynamics animating the modern society are intrinsically
linked. Not only does this include the proliferation of desires but it also entails a
problem of regulation. However, whereas Durkheim in his sociological account
leans completely on the inner natural logic of human desire (seeing its infinity as
a consequence of mans reflexive capacity) when explaining the multiplication of
desires typical of modernity48 and infers the necessity of a transcendental instance
of regulation from this quasi-natural affective mechanics, Girard founds his
psychological model entirely on the social (imitated) nature of desire: the infinity
of desire is a direct consequence of its mimetic character. The proper nature of
human desire is precisely to have no nature of its own desire is like an envelope
that can be filled with anything, or rather by anyone, and yet remain empty, because
the plenitude of being is by definition unattainable (it is but a mirage created by
desire itself). In the modern society desires tend to proliferate because the abolition
of social hierarchies turns the inner mediation into the dominant structure of the
affective relationships between individuals: anybody can legitimately imitate
anybody elses desire. There is no transcendental (or moral) instance to regulate
the horizontal dynamics of imitation, quite the contrary: with the progressive
secularization of society (the proverbial death of God) transcendence itself has
changed place, it has shifted into the other person (the model), or as Girard puts
it, men have become gods for each other.49 This situation creates a sentiment
of constant social malaise and frustration which the great novelists so brilliantly
capture and which corresponds to the Durkheimian anomie. But whereas for
Durkheim anomie was an abnormal (overheated) state of the social body, caused
by the loss of norms and the ensuing frenzy of passions in a situation of crisis, for
Girard the inner mediation has become the prevalent mode of social relations in
the modern society. Whether this means that we live in a constant state of crisis is a
question that will be analysed in a more detailed manner in the end of this chapter.

47 See Girard 2007a [1961], 272280; 287292.

48 See Chapter 2 infra.
49 See Girard 2007a [1961], 7681.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 173

What Girards triangular scheme leaves completely in the air at this stage
is, of course, the problem concerning the origin of the desire: if the desire is
always already imitated, the object being but a projection, a temporary point of
concentration of this infinite reflexive movement, and the subject only a mirror
in which the desire of the other is reflected ad infinitum, then there is no origin;
not only no original, natural affect that could constitute the foundation of a
human nature, but also no origin in the sense of a stable point or centre from
which the movement of imitation could begin or, for that matter, be regulated.
The only logical end to (or liberation from) this battle of consciousnesses is death
or indeed, a conversion. However, the question then becomes, whether this
conversion can have any sort of social impact, because it can only be realized on
the individual level, as an act of volition and, moreover, one demanding an almost
superhuman strength, since it goes against the most powerful and deep-rooted
collective dynamics that the modern world only aggravates.
Another question that Girard does not discuss in connection with this
psychological model of human desire are the social or sociological consequences
of his analysis which is at this stage proposed primarily as a tool for literary critique,
not as a global theory which it later becomes. On the other hand, since he firmly
believes that what the novelists describe is a real social process characterizing
their poque, his model is in principle already amenable to sociological analysis.
Generally speaking, the social for Girard here seems to amount precisely to the
sort of immanent imitative network that Durkheim flinches from in the Suicide:
amorphous and virtually infinite, without a centre or an exterior point from which
it could be regulated. More precisely, there is no autonomous social apart from
the incessant inter-individual imitation which here constitutes the only basis for
the social continuity. No theory of institutions or of symbolic points of fixation,
no vision of a historical progress or activity liable to break up the infernal circle
of mimetic immanence these are the points that Girard will be working on in his
next books.

Surrogate Victimage and the Sacred: Theory of Religion

In his next book La violence et le sacr (1972) Girard addresses the questions left
open in the preceding one by enlarging the idea of the mimetic nature of desire to
the study of primitive cultures and ancient tragedies, notably the The Bacchae by
Euripides and Oeidipus the King by Sophocles. What he is after is no more and no
less than a global theory of religion, including a universal explanation of the ritual
system and mythology (the primitive as well as the ancient myths). The problem of
the origin is partly met here, although the origin of the mimetic desire itself is not
yet properly theorized but the direction is already clear: away from psychology
(and from the modern culture) towards a universal mechanism underlying human
cultural institutions in general. In short, instead of a psychological duel, which
would be based on spiritual violence and unfold on a literary scene, we are faced
174 Affectivity and the Social Bond

with real collective violence, staged on a primitive scene, and culminating in

religious sacrifice that constitutes the basis of other cultural institutions and is
reflected as well as concealed by the ancient myths.
If we should name one theme or problem that dominates Girards study, it
would be affective violence. Of all human cultural institutions the most violent
and also the most enigmatic is the ritual sacrifice: why have men begun to kill
each other ritually? Girard does not shun from the question concerning the origin,
on the contrary: he criticises the existing anthropological theories of sacrifice
for treating the primitive sacrifice as a mere symbolic institution. For example,
Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, in their famous essay on sacrifice,50 saw the
ritual sacrifice as a kind of symbolic technique, a buffer between the profane and
the sacred, which allows men to approach the sacred in spite of its supposedly
destructive power and dangerous contagiousness. This, in Girards opinion, is by
no means an adequate explanation. There is a real connection between sacrifice
and violence that the modern social science has stubbornly set aside, because this
would lead to the genetic (and allegedly unscientific) question concerning the
origin of the institution.51
Girards explanation combines the mythic and the ritual components of
religion: if the myth persistently returns to the first time (the original event
etc.), we might assume that something really important has happened the way
back when. On the other hand, since a significant part of ritual commemorations
consist of killing (that is, sacrifice), it is natural to assume that the original incident
(vnement originel) that the ritual wants to recall was indeed a murder. This
is what Freud quite lucidly saw in Totem and Taboo. His mistake, for Girard,

50 Hubert and Mauss, 1968 [1899].

51 See Girard 2007b [1972], 406407. As true as this might be, Girards critique of
Hubert and Mauss is inaccurate: they do not see sacrifice as the origin of religion as Girard
maintains, but instead as a technique allowing a contact to the sacred. It is the sacred which,
in the theories of the Durkheimian school, constitutes the foundation of religion, and the
sacred, as we have seen, is an objectivation of society. Thus, when Girard claims that Hubert
and Mauss present sacrifice as a mere technique without an object, he is simply mistaken.
Whereas in his own theory the object of religion is the surrogate victimage (and through
this mechanism, ultimately the collective violence), in the theories of the Durkheimian
school the object of religion is the sacred, and through the sacred, ultimately the social
cohesion or unity. The consolidation of social unity is, of course, the ultimate effect of the
sacrifice also in Girards theory, but it is always realized by a detour of violence, through
projection (whether human sociality is at all possible without this detour is another question
which will be further discussed in the end of this chapter). By contrast, in the theories of
the Durkheimian school the sacred represents society in a positive manner: the positive
(unifying) energy of the social is directly fixed and reflected in collective representations,
and violence is wiped away as just another representation of this homogeneous, unifying
energy (see Durkheims analysis of the ambivalence of the sacred, infra). In other words,
whereas violence is in the Durkheimian tradition only an instrument of integration, in
Girards theory integration is but a temporary halt in the self-nourishing circle of collective
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 175

was to presume that it was a murder of one particular individual (the father) and
furthermore, that it was a unique historical event.52 This is the gist of Girards
critique of Freud in La violence et le sacr: the true essence of the original violence
(namely the threat of the destruction of society) escaped Freud because he was
stuck with the oedipal triangle, placing the incestuous desire as the repressed
content of the complex which he then named after the hero of Sophocles tragedy.
In spite of the mimetic element implicit in his theory of identification (the child
imitates the desire of the father) Freud opted for a dyadic conception, seeing desire
as a relationship between a subject and an object (childs fixation to the forbidden
object) and ignoring the role of the model (the father) in the genesis of the desire
itself (without the choleric reaction of the model there would be no forbidden
desire). Because nothing indicates that the child would be conscious of this rivalry,
Freud ends up fabricating the concepts of the unconscious and repression.
However, this for Girard is precisely the point where Freud rests prisoner of
the philosophy of consciousness: some sort of ephemeral flash of consciousness
must be presumed in the beginning so that the whole configuration of a repressed
content pushed back in the unconscious would become possible. The mimetic
effects comprised in his theory Freud saddles entirely on a distinct psychic agency,
namely the superego which, for Girard, is but another version of the identification
with the father, now placed after (and not before) the Oedipus complex. Because
he cannot not openly acknowledge the mimetic rivalry at the core of identification,
Freud resorts to the concept of ambivalence whenever faced with the contradictory
effects of the mimetic desire (admiration/hate): ambivalence becomes a handy
means to relegate to the individual unconscious (the equivalent of the traditional
philosophical subject) a discrepancy implicit in the mimetic relation instead of
admitting, that these effects are in fact a fundamental trait of all human relations,
the universal double bind of the imitated desires.53 By claiming that Oedipus,
who was in reality innocent of the things (notably the plague) that the Thebans
wanted to impute to him, was after all guilty on a psychological level Freud in
fact prolonged the mythical interpretation of the structures that for Girard are at
once social and psychological in nature.54 What Girard advocates is thus a concept
of desire purified of the fixation to the object, of an unconscious constituted by
repression55 and of any moment of consciousness as to the real nature of the

52 See Girard 2007b, 535.

53 Girard 2007b [1972], 517/1977, 182.
54 See Girard 2010b, 118.
55 Girard substitutes the Freudian unconscious with his concept of misapprehension
(mconnaissance) that does not entail any idea of an autonomous psychic apparatus
or the unconscious as a separate instance. Misapprehension denotes the fact that the
victimage mechanism misapprehends its own injustice, although it does not wipe away
the consciousness of a murder committed. The scapegoat mechanism entails a lack of
consciousness that, for Girard, is just as important as the concept of unconscious was for
Freud, but the process is collective, not individual. See Girard 2010b, 9192. The religious
misapprehension is neihter unconscious nor repressed although the foundational violence
176 Affectivity and the Social Bond

relationship (in Girards case, of mimetic rivalry). Mimetic desire is not rooted in
the subject nor in the object, but in a third factor, namely the model whose desire
for the object the subject is imitating.56
In sum, the tremendous influence that the original murder had on the
community was in Girards opinion not due to the identity of the victim, but to
the unifying effect of the sacrifice. Moreover, the (trans)cultural uniformity of
sacrifices suggests that it was the same type of murder in all societies, the same
kind of original incident, only the details of the murder varied from one religion
to another.57 For Girard the essence of sacrifice and the core of its unifying effect
is that it prevented the community from collapsing under its own internal violence
by polarizing it to an arbitrary individual. What is essential is the substitution, the
turning away of violence from its real object (the community) to an individual
whose death doesnt matter.
However, it is important to notice that there are, in fact, two different
substitutions at work in the Girardian model of sacrifice. The first is the basic
mechanism on which Girard builds up his hypothesis of the unity of all ritual
institutions (sacrifice being only one of them) and in which one single individual is
substituted for the whole community (the surrogate victimage). This is a process
which remains hidden and which happens inside the community. The second
substitution is the scapegoat mechanism or the ritual sacrifice which replaces
the original victim with a ritually chosen one, usually in some way coming
from outside the community (from some marginal category, prisoners of war,
slaves; etc.).58 It is precisely the first substitution that in the Girardian model acts
as the basis for all cultural institutions. The surrogate victimage is not itself an

is invisible, it can be logically deduced from myths and rituals (see Girard 2007b [1972],
681682). The notion of misapprehension will be further discussed in the end of this chapter.
56 See Girard 2007b [1972], 503529. The consequences of Girards concept of
desire to the psychoanalytic theory are, of course, far reaching and cannot be discussed
in detail here of Girards disciples it is most of all the French psychiatrist Jean-Michel
Oughourlian who has concentrated on the development of this aspect of the mimetic
theory (see for instance Oughourlian 2010). Let us note in passing that his conception of
the role of the third in the subject-object relationship and the idea of mimetism itself
have certain affinities with Lacans conception of the position of the symbolic and the
role of the imaginary identification in the constitution and structure of desire on this, see
also Webb 1993, 117; for a similar and partly Girard-inspired critique of Freud, see
Borch-Jacobsen 1989, 53126. On the other hand, Girard criticizes Lacan precisely for
reducing the mirror effects of the contemporary world to the psychoanalytic category of
the imaginary, attached to an erroneous theory of narcissism (postulating a desire that
would always be in search for its own reflection), and for the importance accorded to the
Oedipus complex for Girard the essential feature of the mimetic desire is the desperate
will of distinction (of difference, not identity or sameness) as the violent reciprocity turns
the other into an obstacle which the desire needs in order to exist (see Girard 2007b [1972],
57 Girard 2007b [1972], 407.
58 See Girard 2007b [1972], 419421.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 177

institution (being the condition of other institutions), but a mechanism which is

temporally antecedent to all other institutions.59 The mechanism is based upon
an inevitable misapprehension (mconnaissance), without which it would not
function. The transferential character of the collective violence remains hidden
from the murderers (and all the more from those who later carry out the ritual
sacrifice without the slightest notion of its mimetic character). The function of
the surrogate victim is thus not only to channel the collective violence into the
victimage mechanism, but also to hide its collective roots. This is where religion
steps into the picture: its role is to reproduce this function, that is, to reject violence
outside the community by projecting it onto a transcendental category, namely, the
sacred. Because of this projection human violence is also mixed with the forces
that really pursue man from the outside (death, diseases, natural phenomena).
Religion, in short, is a structure without a subject, because its real subject is the
mimetic principle (or here, the mimetic violence) itself.60 Sacred is identical to
collective violence expelled and thereby transcendentalized.
In La violence et le sacr Girard postulates a sort of a primal scene, a model
of a situation in which unrestricted violence threatens society and which he calls
the sacrificial crisis. Sacrificial crisis refers to a situation in which the victimage
mechanism is lost and the community is in danger of collapsing under its own
internal violence. When the conflicts and rivalries generated by mimetic desire
are bottled up in a community, the differences between the antagonists tend to
disappear violence is a homogenizing factor, every participant becomes the
potential rival and enemy of everybody else. At the peak of the sacrificial crisis
violence itself becomes the universal instrument, the object and the subject of
all desires: the antagonists are turned into monstrous doubles of each other, the
original object is forgotten and violence presents itself as the only means of ending
the conflict. The sacrificial crisis, therefore, entails the collapse of all differences,
that is, a generalised crisis of culture (insofar as culture is defined as a system of
differences). This is why social life would be impossible without the victimage
mechanism which, by channelling the mimetic violence productively, constitutes
the basis of cultural order.
However, the sacrificial crisis seems to denote two different things in Girards
theory. On one hand, Girard uses it to refer to the original murder (or rather, series
of murders) which he sees as the foundation of the cultural order;61 on the other
hand, it denotes a situation (typically described in the ancient tragedies) in which
the existing cultural order is menaced by mimetic violence. It is the first usage

59 See for instance Dumouchel 1988, 16; Fleming 2004, 53.

60 See also Girard 2010b, 181.
61 See Girard 2007b [1972], 408/1977, 92: [T]he remarkable similarities among the
sacrificial rites of various localities suggest that the murder was always of the same general
type. [] Although the event looks exceptional from the perspective of any given society,
it seems quite commonplace in a broad, comparative context. The sacrificial crisis and the
surrogate-victim mechanism fulfill all the conditions required of a satisfactory hypothesis.
178 Affectivity and the Social Bond

which poses the problem: if the sacrificial crisis is first and foremost a crisis of
differences, these differences being in turn the foundation of the cultural order as
Girard maintains,62 then it cannot apply to a situation where this order does not yet
exist that is, to the original event (or chain of events) on which human culture
itself is allegedly founded.
The sacrificial crisis also constitutes a point where a tension appears between
Girards former psychological model, stressing the ontological lack that the
subject is trying to fulfil, and another more mechanical interpretation, emphasizing
the quasi automatic logic of the mimetic dynamics itself. In La violence et le sacr
Girard is trying to mingle the two approaches by underlining the position of the
rival: the mechanical nature of desire is here identified with the heteronomy of
desire, that is, with the fact that the subject desires what the rival desires, and
in this sense his/her desire is determined from the outside (it is the other who
designates an object as desirable). However, Girard still insists on grafting this
automatism to a phenomenological framework by stressing the fact that after
man has satisfied his basic needs his desire is constituted by an ontological lack:
he desires intensely without knowing what to desire, because he desires being,
something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess.63 In
other words, the inner motivations of the subject are still rooted in an existential
lack sustaining the whole affective dynamics in this scheme. The role of the rival
is, in fact, reduced to giving an ephemeral content to this fundamental lack by
designating a series of historical supplements to fulfil it. In this sense the concept
of desire behind the affective scheme Girard is proposing here still bears the traces
of the Hegelian (or, to be more precise, the Kojvean) phenomenology.
Although some commentators64 have seen the emphasis on violence (negativity
and destruction) as one of the factors distinguishing Hegels system from that of
Girard, violence does play a capital role also in La violence et le sacr. Girard even
maintains that violence and desire are permanently interconnected so that in fact
there is no desire free from violence:65 because the subject always runs into the
violence of a rival desire when trying to obtain an object, violence itself becomes
the surest sign of the plenitude of being66 that the rival is believed to possess.

62 See Girard 2007b [1972], 355/1977, 49.

63 The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire
in order to acquire that being (Girard 2007b [1972], 473/1977, 146 italics T.A.).
64 Notably Kirwan 2004, 33. Looking at Girards later writings it would seem that for
him Hegels mistake was not so much the sacralization of violence but rather its elimination
by a reconciliatory synthesis (see Girard 2007d, 135 and 141).
65 This is a postulate he will abandon later, when reflecting upon the consequences
of the Christian revelation and the content of the love promoted by Christ I will return to
this question at the end of this chapter.
66 Instead of a plenitude of being we could simply talk about the objects worth here.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 179

We believe that the normal form of desire is nonviolent and that this nonviolent
form is characteristic of the generality of mankind. But if the sacrificial crisis
is a universal phenomenon, this hopeful belief is clearly without foundation.67

Although the Girardian violence is not of the performative, working sort that
would contribute to the universal progress of history, it is still the force that makes
the world go round in his theory. The sacrificial crisis, which represents the peak
of violence, is essentially about the collapse of the difference between two types of
violence, the pure and the impure one. Violence can only be soothed by violence
in this sense the victimage mechanism is comparable to the Hegelian negation of
negation, although the cycle is always re-launched with no dialectical perspective
of reconciliation in view. The violence that is impure and contagious inside society
becomes pure when expulsed and isolated outside of it. In fact, mimetic desire and
contagious impurity are one and the same thing: violence is contagious, because it
springs from the mimetic nature of desire.
Thus the dynamic of attraction and repulsion, which for Freud as well as for
Bataille constituted the core of the affective movement sustaining the social,
is also explained by the mimetic nature of desire and the conflicts it generates.
The explanation is based on a distinction between impure (immanent) and pure
(transcendental) violence which roughly corresponds to the inner division of the
sacred. This for Girard is also the origin of what the anthropologists have called
ritual impurity: it is the contact with violence that makes a person or a thing
impure.68 The fear felt towards impure things is thus not reduced to the negative
feelings caused by accidental misfortunes and hypostasized as bad forces (a
collective representation la Durkheim) or to the subjective experience of finitude
lived in the vicinity of death (Bataille), but its source is the real violence between
men, that is, a human relation and the menace which falls upon it. Impurity is
only the reified form, an erroneous representation made of violence by both the
primitives and the modern anthropologists (in this sense the latter are not explaining
but only prolonging the mythical representation of violence in the cultures they are
studying). The function of the ritual sacrifice is to purify this interhuman violence
by turning it against an individual victim whose death will not be revenged. The
identity of the illness/evil and its remedy (violence is cured with violence) is
attested by numerous ritual practices, in which the same substance (for instance,
blood) that caused the pollution is also utilized to eliminate it, or in an even more
flagrant manner, by such rituals as the Greek Pharmakos.69 For Girard, ritual is
nothing more than regular exercise of good violence.70 Indeed, while Durkheim

67 Girard 2007b [1972], 472.

68 Girard 2007b [1972], 329330/1977, 2829.
69 Girard acknowledges his debt to Derrida in discovering the ambivalence of the
term pharmakos which refers to poison as well as remedy see Derrida 1972 and Girard
1978a, 220; see also McKenna 1992.
70 Girard 2007b [1972], 341/1977, 37.
180 Affectivity and the Social Bond

tended to wipe the impure sacred completely away by reducing it to be no more

than an effect of the pure sacred, Girard does exactly the opposite: the attraction
of the sacred and the necessity to remain in contact with this august force spring
from the underlying fear and caution that the believers feel towards the sacred.
However, while the labels are changed the result remains the same: cohesion is
achieved and strengthened by the manifestation of the collective mal-tre.
To be efficient the sacrificial violence must resemble as much as possible its
non-sacrificial counterpart this is why some rites look like simple inversions of
the prohibited things or acts. Prohibitions are, in fact, nothing but the violence
of past crises fixed and frozen in a symbolic form: everything that the mimetic
violence has one touched becomes object of prohibition. Here the isomorphism of
Girards model with the scheme proposed by Bataille is palpable: where Bataille
saw repulsion, Girard sees an affective projection, and one which is already
cultural in nature (just like Batailles repulsion was).71 Like in Batailles case, the
social core must be exterior to individuals; but whereas the origin of this exteriority
was for Bataille the repulsion (launched by an act of transgression), for Girard it
is the violence projected to a victim. The difference in this case boils down to
the distinction between an unconscious affective reaction and a non-conscious
interindividual mechanism, but in both cases the essential happens in between, on
a relational (and not individual) level. Moreover, it is precisely this core, the very
essence of the social, that is for both built around an affective dynamics of repetition:
for Bataille what is repeated is an affective experience in which repulsion opens up
the communication, for Girard it is the polarization of collective violence to one
individual. The impetus launching this dynamics (oscillating between attraction
and repulsion) is in both cases the ritual transgression of a symbolic prohibition
(the one which forbids killing), but the nature of the desire behind is different:
for Bataille it is the desire of an unrestrained expenditure (the peak of which is
death), for Girard the desire of a plenitude of being which is later turned into pure
mimetism without any particular metaphysical content: man desires what the
other man desires, and this constitutes his very humanity.72 However, the central
problem of Girards scheme (here as well as in his subsequent books) is very similar
to the problem on which Bataille stumbled, namely the origin of the symbolic: if
the prohibitions are nothing but collective violence frozen, then we must be able to
say something about the way in which this freezing or solidification takes place.73
In La violence et le sacr Girard discusses the question concerning the origin of
the symbolic in connection with his critique of Lvi-Strauss.74 He fully accepts the

71 Cp. infra Chapter 3.

72 See Girard 2010b, 63.
73 This problem which leads Girard to postulate an original scene very similar to
that of Durkheim lays the foundation for his anthropology which will be further discussed
in the next sub-chapter.
74 See Girard 2007b [1972], 580.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 181

latters idea of culture as a system of differences and differentiation;75 what he does

not accept is the total lack of interest that Lvi-Strauss shows towards what could
be called the domain of indifference: affectivity, ritual and the non-symbolic.
This disinterest is best shown in the manner in which structuralism pushes aside
all questions concerning the origin of the symbolic system and of language. In his
famous introduction to the posthumous collection of texts of Marcel Mauss,76 Lvi-
Strauss presents what he thinks as the only viable (that is, non-circular) answer that
structuralism can give to the question concerning the origin of language: language
can only have been born at one stroke. From the hypothetical moment on that the
human mind is capable of grasping the sign as sign, that is, as a material or acoustic
substitute for something else, the whole universe becomes significant by the same
stroke. From a stage in which nothing made sense humankind suddenly passes
on to a stage in which the entire universe becomes significant. However, this all-
encompassing sense remains in a virtual state, since the knowledge of the universe
is always dragging behind: the world is no better known than before, because the
signifieds of these potential signs are not given in the same way, all at once, as
the virtual network of significant differences, that is, the signifiers. Lvi-Strauss
describes this situation as a structural imbalance between the signifieds and the
signifiers, which only a divine reason (a transcendental point of view implying an
absolute knowledge) could abolish. Thus, in his attempt to comprehend the world
man disposes of a constant surplus of signification, a supplementary ratio that
produces such floating signifiers as for instance the hau or the mana analysed
by Mauss in his theory of the gift-exchange. These sorts of zero-symbols are an
indispensable condition for the maintenance of a temporary balance between the
two components of signification without which the symbolic thought itself would
be impossible.
The model Lvi-Strauss is sketching out here is, of course, not meant as some
sort of alternative explanation of the historical origin of language, but rather
as a heuristic scheme describing the structural prerequisites of a non-circular
(synchronic) model. This account has its own internal deficiencies as the critiques
have been quick to point out, not the least of which is the fact that it seems to entail
an implicit theory of a completely formal social contract that poses language as
an autonomous reality preceding not only individual experience but, in fact, also
life itself.77 However, what is more important in this context is that this model
is completely at odds with any kind of genetic explanation of the origin of the
symbolic, since it poses the symbolic as an a priori factor that produces the social

75 See for instance Girard 2010a, 33.

76 See Lvi-Strauss 1950, XLVII.
77 See Descombes 1979, 658659 in fact, the whole point of Lvi-Strauss theory is
for Descombes the replacement of the Durkheimian sacred with the symbolic, or rather, the
reduction of the sacred to a linguistic effect. This is obviously a capital difference compared
to Girard whose intention is on the contrary to unveil the violent (affective) origin of the
Durkheimian sacred.
182 Affectivity and the Social Bond

and not vice versa. Lvi-Strauss is particularly hostile to any attempt to infer
the symbolic system from affectivity. This is one of his main critiques against
the Durkheimian theory of the social: because Durkheim insisted on finding a
sociological explanation for Kants categories of understanding, thereby depriving
himself of any possibility to resort to the intellect in his explanation of the social,
the only factor left to account for the social order itself was affectivity. For Lvi-
Strauss intellectualist theory affectivity, of course, explains nothing at all, but is
itself in need of an explanation.78
However, a genetic explanation based on affectivity is precisely what Girard
has in mind. His solution to the problem concerning the point of conversion in
which nature becomes culture, is simple: the origin of the symbolic thought and
by the same token of language is the mechanism of the surrogate victim. It is the
victims dead body that constitutes the first signifier, and the alternation of violence
and peace before and after the killing is the first fundamental difference of the
linguistic system. For Girard, the victimage mechanism thus operates the passage
from indifferentiation (the natural, biological continuity) to differentiation
(cultural institutions): it is this passage that is inscribed in the religious rites and
myths which both reflect and conceal the foundational violence condensed in it.
The famous arbitrariness of the signifier is explained by the misapprehension of the
mechanism that produces stable differences where alternation of violent reciprocity
once reigned. Symbolic/significant differences are an indispensable condition for
the survival of human culture, because they keep the violent indifference in check.
This is what in Girards opinion escapes Lvi-Strauss, for whom the production of
sense and the symbolic remain a purely logical question.79
From a structural point of view the victimage mechanism plays the same role
in Girards theory as the prohibition of incest does for Lvi-Strauss it is the
operator that converts nature into culture or constitutes the point of articulation
between the two. In this specific context Girard criticizes Lvi-Strauss precisely
because of the exclusive concentration on the positive aspect of the prohibition,
the fact that it makes exchange possible by opening the endogamic group to the
outside, whereas in Girards theory the prohibition is explained by its negative
aspect, the fact that it inhibits the intracommunal violence caused by possessive
mimesis by preventing the rivalry over women.80 For Girard, human culture is
by no means founded on the prohibition of incest as Lvi-Strauss would have it.
Instead, the prohibition is only a belated expression of the more profound negation
of negation, that is, the victimage mechanism which abolishes (and at the same
time conserves) violence by violence. It is the violence polarized in the surrogate
victim that is the real foundation of all subsequent cultural differentiation (the
system of prohibitions included): one individual is set apart, differentiated from
the homogeneous flow of mimetic violence. If culture is regarded as being based

78 See Lvi-Strauss 1950, XLV; Lvi-Strauss 1947, 527; Lvi-Strauss 1962a, 102103.
79 See Girard 2007b [1972], 596.
80 See Girard 2007b [1972], 585586.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 183

on differences, then this would constitute the first incident of differentiation and,
in this sense, also the origin of culture.81 Or to put it another way, violence in this
scheme equals disorder, the loss of differences.82 In short, what Girard wants to do
is to explain the genesis of the structures themselves by postulating a mechanism
that generates them: the source of all differentiation (or of symbolicity itself) is the
surrogate victimage.83
For Girard the reason for Lvi-Strauss refusal to see the sacrificial violence
is his attachment to the linguistic model which presumes the differential structure
to be universal.84 Indeed, this is what Lvi-Strauss affirms in the last part of his
Mythologiques: if one absolutely insists in trying to find the foundation or the
origin of the structures themselves, then one would have to go as far as the
cerebral organization, understood as a network of interconnections reflected
in the structures of different ideological systems.85 For Lvi-Strauss at least
from La Pense Sauvage onwards86 nature itself is written in the differential
code, the discovery of the DNA87 proves that the radical rupture between nature
and culture (which Lvi-Strauss himself had formerly insisted upon) does not
hold, and this implies a shift of emphasis from the cultural rules of exchange
to more encompassing cognitive processes that could be mapped under the title
communication.88 However, contrary to what Girard is implying, the universal
character of differentiation is, at least in the later works of Lvi-Strauss, by no
means due to the overemphasis of the linguistic model, but on the contrary, to
the appreciation of the findings of modern biology: both nature and culture are
composed of structures so that culture prolongs on its own level the structuration
animating nature itself.89 What distinguishes Girard and the later Lvi-Strauss in
this respect is the fact that for the former the birth of culture entails a qualitative
leap from indifference to differentiation, and that this rupture requires some sort
of centre, a point of condensation or a mechanism that operates the passage.90
This point, which one is tempted to qualify as transcendental, is constituted by

81 This is what Girard himself claims: if the surrogate victim alone can interrupt the
process of destructuration, this is due to the fact that it is at the origin of all structuration
see Girard 2007b [1972], 409/1977, 93.
82 See Girard 2010a, 160.
83 See also Girard 1978b, 164 and 175.
84 See Girard 2010b, 191192.
85 See Lvi-Strauss 1971, 561.
86 See Lvi-Strauss 1962b, 327.
87 See Lvi-Strauss 1971, 605.
88 On this change in Lvi-Strauss thinking, see also Hnaff 1991, 185. This change
of mind of the later Lvi-Strauss evidently causes problems when compared to his earlier
views emphasizing the Kantian type of autonomy of the symbolic and the central position
of the prohibition of incest, operating the passage from nature to culture in his theory of the
structures of kinship.
89 See also Keck 2005, 114121.
90 Whereas for Lvi-Strauss these sort of genetic questions are simply not interesting
184 Affectivity and the Social Bond

the victim. Differentiation was not always there; originally it could not just have
peacefully prolonged the spontaneous movement of nature, but it had to entail a
rupture and moreover a violent one.91 This in Girards theory is also the point in
which the process of hominization begins and which constitutes the foundation
of his anthropology (this theme will be further discussed in the next sub-chapter).
However, the violence Girard is talking about in this context is not an affect
that could be imputed to human nature (mans natural aggressiveness, for
instance) in fact, it is not an affect at all, but rather a more-or-less mechanical
consequence, an effect of the mimetic nature of desire. This effect is generated in
what could be called the Hobbesian situation par excellence, when two desires
converge in the same object; as Hobbes already noticed, in this situation human
desires necessarily become obstacles for one another, turning men into enemies.92
However, for Girard this convergence is the direct result of the mimetic nature of
desire, whereas for Hobbes the conflict over scarce objects is only one possible
motive for attack (the other ones being diffidence and glory). What is noteworthy
in this context is the fact that in Girards scheme the mimetic desire automatically
leads into conflict. The conflict, that is, the violence itself is only a consequence
of the clashing desires, although in the mimetic crisis it takes the place of both the
object and the subject (in the end the individuals imitate each others violence).93
In this sense there is an implicit discrepancy between the psychological approach
focusing on the subjective motives (envy, vanity, fear etc.) that lead into the
conflict, and the mechanical approach emphasizing the quasi-automatic nature of
the conflict due to the mimetic character of desire. From this point of view Hobbes
would be more a proponent of the psychological point of view, whereas Girard
tries to combine the two: on one hand, envy and vanity are just as much present in
the universe of the Girardian subjects as in that of the Hobbesian warlords; but on
the other hand, these sentiments are only an effect of the underlying mechanism
which makes the subjects desire a function of the others (the rivals) desire. The

since we are moving on the same ontological continuum composed of identically structured
or differentiated entities; the discontinuity is in a way inscribed in the continuity itself.
91 In this sense one could even claim that Girards model is in fact more in line
with the former Lvi-Strauss, precisely the one who emphasized the linguistic model
and the ontological rupture between nature and culture this is also the Lvi-Strauss that
Vincent Descombes (1979) is attacking with his claim that the aprioristic position of the
symbolic in Lvi-Strauss anthropology in fact entails a model of a social contract and that
for Lvi-Strauss language seems to precede life itself. Lvi-Strauss himself has described
this change of mind as a shift from an ontological to a methodological interpretation of the
nature-culture -dichotomy (see Lvi-Strauss 1962b, 327). In this sense there is an inner
tension in his theory between the symbolic apriorism of the 1950s texts and the cognitive
biologism perceivable especially in Lhomme nu (on this problem and its possible solution,
see also Hnaff 1991, 188195). In any case, what Lvi-Strauss is definitely lacking is the
problem of violence, the validity of Girards critique at this point cannot be denied.
92 See Hobbes 2010 [1651], 76.
93 See Girard 2011, 223.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 185

subjective motivations of the individuals are always secondary; this is what the
sacrificial crisis is all about: the real subject, but also the object in the situation
is violence itself.94 Yet, at the same time violence is nothing but an effect.95 If the
object doesnt really matter, and nor does the subject, if the rival is at the centre of
the triangle automatically leading into conflict, then the question arises whether
this triangularity is something specifically human and if so, from whence does it
The same sort of circle haunts the very notion of the sacrificial crisis: if it is
really a crisis of cultural differences, as Girard claims, then it can only occur in
a situation where cultural institutions are already constituted. This observation
is further confirmed by the examples Girard gives, they are all taken from the
ancient tragedies describing the conflicts in the small city states. In La violence et
le sacr the problem of the origin is only touched in passing: we are told that the
sacrificial crisis presupposes the existence of some sort of a brake, a mechanism
of self-regulation that steps into the picture before the community is destroyed
and that the very possibility of human societies may in this sense well be linked to
the misapprehension of violence.96 Paradoxically, the surrogate victimage, which
represents the peak and climax of human violence, constitutes at the same time the
stabilizing mechanism without which there would be no culture. This mechanism
also constitutes the underlying foundation that explains the unity of all religious
institutions, myths and rituals.97 But what is the origin of cultural differentiation,
that is, the mechanism itself? What about the situation when there was no culture to
destroy? This is the classical question inspiring the whole modern political theory
that often begun by some sort of hypothesis of a state of nature from which
the social and political order was then inferred by postulating a social contract.
Since Girard intends to go even deeper, to the very beginnings of human culture,
he cannot avoid the question. In order to anchor the triangular desire firmly in
the cultural history of mankind, a more solid anthropological (pre-cultural) origin
would thus seem to be needed. This is precisely what Girard goes for in his next

94 At the very height of the crisis violence becomes simultaneously the instrument,
object, and all-inclusive subject of desire (Girard 2007b [1972], 472/1977, 144).
95 On this, see also Girard in Hamerton-Kelly 1987, 123.
96 See Girard 2007b [1972], 377/1977, 67.
97 We are now moving toward an expanded concept of sacrifice in which the
sacrificial act in the narrow sense plays only a minor role. [] There is a unity that underlies
not only all mythologies and rituals but also the whole of human culture, and this unity
of unities depends on a single mechanism, continually functioning because perpetually
misunderstood the mechanism that assures the communitys spontaneous and unanimous
outburst of opposition to the surrogate victim. (Girard 2007b, 66467/1977, 297300.)
186 Affectivity and the Social Bond

Possessive Mimesis, Polarization of Violence, and Christian Revelation

Whereas Girards theory of the sacred, presented in La violence et le sacr,

could be seen as an extension of his postulate concerning the mimetic nature
of human desire to the study of religions (rituals and myths), in his subsequent
book Les choses caches depuis la fondation du monde (1978)98 the emphasis
is on anthropology and the theory of hominization. Instead of the psychological
triad revolving around the mixed feelings of admiration and hate that the subject
nurtures towards the model/rival, the accent is placed on the conflictual aspect
of mimesis. Here the position of the object becomes strategic, since it acts as the
trigger of the affective dynamics that connects human behaviour to that of other
species (notably the other primates): it is the object that becomes the point of
convergence of the individual desires without the inference of any admiration or
even conscious reflection from the part of the proponents.99 This is the dynamics
which Girard subsequently calls the acquisitive mimesis. Although the third,
that is, the model mediating the relationship between the subject and the object
still plays a capital role in the affective scheme which Girard sketches out in this
book (the mechanism functions precisely because the subject desires the same
object as the other who is, therefore, immediately posed as a rival), the projection
involved is more mechanical than spiritual in nature, so to speak. By contrast,
the existential lack and the aspect of idolatry, of paramount importance in the
psychological model dominating Mensonge, are completely pushed aside. On the
other hand, along with the anthropological model emphasizing the strictly monist
nature of the ontology involved, Girard also introduces a completely new theme
which will connect his theory more firmly than ever to the tradition of Western
philosophies of history and, whats more, to a poignantly dualistic metaphysics,
namely the Christian revelation (opening a path to the kingdom of God) as the
sole way out of mimetic violence. This is also a theme which will gain importance
in Girards later works and which links his theory to the theological discussions
on the subject, especially those concerning the interpretation of crucifixion and
sacrifice in the Bible.100
On the anthropological level Girards book revolves around an implicit
primitive scene which is remarkably similar to that proposed by Durkheim in Les
Formes lmentaires de la vie religieuse only the colouring has changed. Although
Girard does not present his mimetic hypothesis in the form of a historical narrative,
his theory does contain a latent chain of events, a sort of original scene from which
the cultural evolution must have begun, if his hypothesis is correct. This diachronic

98 Hereafter referred to as Les choses caches.

99 This is again one differentiating factor between Girards model and the Hegelian
phenomenology, emphasizing the role of the subjective consciousness and the desire for
recognition on this, see also Girard 1978a, 201.
100 See especially Girard 2007c [1978], 8811036 and Girard 1999; for a concise
presentation of Girards contribution to the subject, see Kirwan 2004, 6386.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 187

point of view dominates the approach assumed in Les choses caches. The chain
of events constituting the original incentive for the birth of human culture could
be presented in the following manner.101 Everything begins when two primates
with a relatively big brain and a strong propensity for imitation start to pursue
the same object. Soon a third one will show up, then a fourth, and pretty quickly
there is a whole bunch of primates, lurking around each other and pursuing the
same object, which is desired because the others seem to desire it too. The general
animosity becomes increasingly tangible; the aggressiveness produced by the
rivalry intensifies and the original object of the desire is progressively forgotten.
Everybody imitates the desire of everybody else; everybody is rival, obstacle and
enemy for one another, until the rage bottled up suddenly and arbitrarily turns
towards one individual. There is a ferocious outburst, during which this individual
is literally torn apart. However, what is crucial for the development of culture only
comes after the bloodshed. The group, recovered from its murderous frenzy, now
focuses all its attention to the lifeless body of the victim. This first non-instinctual
form of attention transforms the body of the victim, so that it becomes the first
signifier, introducing the first significant difference into the former instinctual
indifferentiation. It is here that the long march towards the sacred and the culture
begins.102 During a period of time which probably lasts for several hundred
thousand years a new method of restraining human violence is born, which replaces
the former animal or instinctual mechanisms of protection with prohibitions and
rituals, that is, with cultural mechanisms. The most important of these is the ritual
sacrifice that substitutes the first, spontaneously lynched surrogate victim with a
ritually chosen one.
In fact, the Girardian theory of hominization and the constitutive role of
the sacred therein can schematically be presented as a negative image of the
effervescent (that is, the affective and ritual) component of the Durkheimian
theory of religion.103 For both the productive canalization of affectivity marks the

101 The sequential chain of events presented above can easily be read out of Girards
works (e.g. Girard, 2007c [1978], 81224; 2007b [1972]: 404421) and can also well be
used to describe his theory of the initial or original event which then sets in motion the slow
process of cultural evolution (Girard 2007c [1978], 814815/1987, 9596). Even though
the surrogate victimage is above all a mechanism (and not a history), as Chris Fleming
points out, this mechanism itself has a history, albeit a hypothetical one. In other words,
from the fact that Girard presents it as something that both produces and distorts history
(Fleming, 2004, 176, note 38), it does not follow that this mechanism would itself constitute
an a-historical transcendent. At least such a conclusion is not possible without succumbing
to precisely the sort of transcendental philosophy of history, which Girard tirelessly
stressing the scientific and non-metaphysical character of his theory wants to avoid at all
costs. This problem will be further discussed in the end of the present chapter.
102 Girard, 2007c [1978], 81920; Girard 2010b, 154155.
103 Following Camille Tarot (2008, 661) one might in fact say that Girards theory
of religion completes the Durkheimian theory by bringing into daylight the violence that
Durkheim did not want to see.
188 Affectivity and the Social Bond

event which sets the cultural development in motion. After this, the free-floating
affectivity gets permanently fixed to a signifier (for Girard the victim, for Durkheim
the totem) which starts to act as its symbol, and the process progressively leads to
the development of language.104 In short, in the beginning there is a homogeneous
affective flux from which the whole diversity of cultures and religions is then
derived. In Girards theory it is the first spontaneous lynching that represents
the big bang that sets the generation of differences in motion; in Durkheims
theory there is no such single founding event, the system of differences is forged
gradually in the midst of these effervescent social environments.105 In Les choses
caches the sacred is not primarily defined from a structural point of view, that
is, as a category with fixed limits that would be opposed to the profane, as in La
violence et le sacr, more akin in this respect to the Durkheimian model, but from
a diachronic angle, that is, as a set of hypotheses that the mind arrives at over an
extremely long period, as a result of innumerable collective transferences in which
the collective violence is channelled time after time into the surrogate victim.106
The ritual machinery that grows upon this evolution is based on a double
necessity to remember and prevent. The prohibitions surrounding the sacred reflect
the need to prevent the repetition of the violent crisis that could entail the collapse
of the entire cultural order. But, on the other hand, there is an opposite need to
remember, to repeat in order to banish, since the stabilization brought about by the
murder is always transitory (the mimetic character of desire always leads to new
competitions and conflicts). Girard explains this dynamic of prohibitions and their
periodic, but measured (ritual) transgression by the impression that the first killing
left to those present and the memory of which was then engraved in the ritual
institutions and carried on by them. This impression was a deeply ambivalent
one: for the first murderers, the victim appeared both as the originator and the
resolver of the crisis, the criminal as well as the redeemer. And this, for Girard,
explains both the sanctification of the victim and the famous ambivalence of the
sacred. The prohibitions are there to prevent the impure violence from escalating,
whereas their ritually controlled transgression (the purified violence) is necessary
for the commemoration of the original event, which constitutes the basis of social
However, Girards analysis of the ambivalence of the sacred also reveals the
basic difference between his social theory and that of Durkheim. Even though

104 Girard explicitly praises Durkheim for having found the volcanic origin of the
symbolic, that is, the affective force behind language see Girard 1978b, 163.
105 Durkheim 1990 [1912], 313/1947, 219. Later Girard has argued that his model
differs from the Durkheimian effervescence precisely because the effervescence already
takes place in a ritual context, which makes it impossible to postulate it as the origin of
culture (the origin of effervescence being, for Girard, the mimetic rivalry see Girard 1994,
53). This statement rather nicely encapsulates the basic difference between the Girardian
and the Durkheimian scenes: for Girard, the beginning is violent, for Durkheim it is not.
106 See Girard, 2007c [1978], 753 in this context Girard also criticizes Durkheim
for giving the sacred-profane dichotomy far too absolute a status.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 189

from Girards point of view Durkheim was completely right in stating that the
function of religion is to strengthen social cohesion, he was mistaken in seeing
the sacred as a collective representation of the force of society. For Girard the
sacred is not a collective representation of societys moral force, but a collective
projection of the mimetic violence that the community wants to keep far from
itself. Although there is a sort of misapprehension also in Durkheims model
(the members of society do not realize that they in fact adore society itself when
adoring their totem), there is no dark secret to be pushed away, since affectivity
for Durkheim does not entail violence: the collective turmoil simply ends up in a
collective fatigue.107 This is also one of the critical points that Girard turns against
Durkheim: the identity of the social and the sacred (the fact that the sacred is but
a collective representation of the social) is not an explanation, it is merely another
articulation of the social and cultural order.108 The unifying effect of the sacred,
which Durkheim correctly emphasized, is due to the polarization of collective
violence by which the acquisitive mimesis, dividing the community because
of an object, is turned into an antagonistic mimesis, unifying the community
around a common enemy (the victim). For Girard only the double process, in
which the mimetic desire is both dammed up by prohibitions and channelled by
ritual practice, can extend the unifying and reconciliatory effect of the surrogate
victimage and make it permanent. As an institution religion thus aims at peace, but
by using means in which sacrificial violence is always present.109
The polarization of violence is one of the strategic issues in Girards
hypothesis concerning the birth of culture.110 In mans case the first quasi-
automatic convergence of violence into one individual is a direct result of the logic
of mimesis.111 As the mimetic violence accelerates, the choice of the adversary
becomes increasingly arbitrary and also quicker and quicker, so that at any given
moment anybody can become the object of universal animosity and fascination.
Sooner or later, Girard argues, this movement inevitably culminates in a point where
the entire community turns against one single individual, who, because of some
arbitrary feature, suddenly becomes the object of universal affective projection.
This process follows from a snowball effect: once two or more antagonists have
turned against a given individual, the mimetic attraction of this common target
necessarily increases.112 What is essential is the fact that this polarization seems
to be produced in a quasi-automatic manner, by the mimetic process itself. Here
Girard also links the mimetic desire and the victimage mechanism directly to mans
hominization. In order to explain the passage from nature to culture, Girard tells

107 See Durkheim 1990 [1912], 310/1947, 216.

108 See Girard 2007c [1978], 731; Fleming 2004, 68.
109 See Girard 2007c [1978], 734741.
110 It is also one of the main things that according to Girard himself distinguishes his
model from the Hegelian violence.
111 See Girard, 2007c [1978], 73435; Girard 2010a, 166.
112 See Girard 1978a, 202.
190 Affectivity and the Social Bond

us, we do not need to postulate anything more than is already found among the
anthropoids: a strong propensity for imitation together with a relatively big brain.
Among the primates the escalation of violence is prevented by a strong social
hierarchy, on one hand (the group yields to the will of one leading individual),
and by an instinctual system of control, restraining the aggressiveness born
from the mimetic tendency, on the other (the development of tools and weapons
progressively deprives people of this instinctual control, typical of animals whose
sole weapons in the fight are their teeth, claws or other body parts). Hominization
can here be understood as a process during which humans learn to domesticate and
to tolerate ever growing amounts of mimetism.
From this angle Girards theory of the surrogate victimage as the foundation
of culture can be compared to Hobbes theory of the constitution of the state and
the political society:113 the victim represents the same sort of transcendental third
as the sovereign in Hobbes theory. What Girard is proposing is a trans-historical
model or a universal pattern of crisis114 comparable to the Hobbesian state of nature
(by no means a farfetched hypothesis in his opinion, but a terrifying reality)115
for Girard, man is fundamentally an animal of crisis, and this is what the social
sciences should concentrate on instead of the perpetual problem of order.116
Moreover, just like Hobbes and Rousseau Girard sees a catastrophic crisis as the
only way of explaining the birth of human social relations:117 only a systemic
catastrophe could have brought about the qualitative leap needed for the birth of
the symbolic and language.118 In Hobbes case the anarchy of the state of nature
is brought to the end when people, tired of continuous warfare and insecurity,

113 This comparison has been made by Lucien Scubla 2003b.

114 See Girard 1978b, 164; 1994, 31; 2010b, 76.
115 Girard 2010b, 162. In this sense Lucien Scubla seems to interpret Girard in a
far too Hobbesian manner when he claims that neither Hobbes nor Girard would try to
describe a moment in human history, but instead the permanent conditions of interaction
between individuals and groups (Scubla 2003b, 217). As true as this might be in Hobbes
case, it certainly does not describe the way Girard presents his own hypothesis which
is definitely intended also as a description of a thing that really happened (the original
murder). In this sense Girards surrogate victim clearly differs from the Hobbesian state of
nature which is rather a heuristic model intended to clarify the indispensable conditions of
the constitution of the political society.
116 See Girard 2011, 244.
117 Although Rousseau located this crisis differently from Hobbes for him the first
crisis was some sort of a natural catastrophe which drove the originally isolated human
beings together in the first place. However, for Rousseau the crisis induced by the heated
passions, which for Hobbes represented the state of nature, presupposed the social relations
already constituted, and, therefore, could only happen in society (whereas in the state of
nature the solitary individuals lived happy albeit ignorant). The later crisis caused by the
rivalry and jealousy, typical of the social state according to Rousseau, is more akin to
the situation Girard describes when talking about the universe of the inner mediation in
Mensonge romantique.
118 See Girard 2010b, 160.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 191

decide to delegate their power to one individual, the sovereign, who thereafter acts
as the holder of political authority and the guarantor of peace. In Girards theory
the foundational moment of society is the first spontaneous lynching that ends
the unrestrained mimetic violence by polarizing it to one individual, the victim
who thus plays the same role of a transcendental third as the sovereign does in
Hobbes theory: an external instance mediating the reciprocal violence (be it god,
the king or the totem). But whereas Hobbes aims at explaining the birth of the
political society, Girard wants to explain the origin of the entire human culture,
which he fixes to the first projection of the communities internal violence to the
surrogate victim. Also, while Hobbes relies on the rationality of men that ultimately
outweighs their passions and makes them prefer their own safety and conclude
the social contract, Girard counts on the very logic of mimetism which, by the
mechanism of polarization, creates a self-regulating (mimetic) device preventing
the destruction of the social order.119 The surrogate victim thus assumes the position
of the transcendental third only as a consequence of the quasi-automatic logic
of mimetism itself, a universal and intemporal mechanism, the operations and
effects of which can be reactivated indefinitely and which constitutes a permanent
pre-ritual and pre-institutional matrix of rites and institutions.120
However, it is precisely the relationship between the biological (and historical)
reality of the events that Girard is describing and the transcendental resolution
of the crisis (the polarization of violence and the ensuing production of the first
significant difference) constituting the origin of the culture that poses the problem.
Although on the physiological level we might not need to presume anything
surpassing the natural tendencies and capacities of the great apes, the first violent
outburst also constitutes a rupture in the former purely instinctual mode of being, and
this rupture in the biological continuity is motored by the polarization of violence
around a centre, namely the victim. In other words, between what can be strictly
termed animal nature on the one hand, and the developing humanity on the other,
there is a radical watershed, the collective murder, alone capable of providing for
kinds of organisation, no matter how embryonic, based on prohibition and ritual.
As Girard himself states elsewhere, the brain size (which is a physiological factor)
as such is not sufficient to produce the mechanism, what is needed is a centre of
signification provided by the victim.121 The process of hominization begins only
with this rupture, that is, the founding murder: a systemic catastrophe, a big bang.
It is this qualitative leap that constitutes the moment of transcendence in Girards
anthropology, an extra-biological but also an extra-historical factor triggering off
the whole subsequent cultural evolution, especially the seemingly ambivalent play
of prohibitions and their ritual (regulated) transgression.

119 The intrinsic property of mimetic conflicts being, for Girard, precisely the fact
that they cannot be resolved rationally see Girard 1994, 36.
120 Scubla 2003b, 215 translation T.A.
121 See Girard 2010b, 155156.
192 Affectivity and the Social Bond

However, if the polarization is an effect automatically triggered as soon as a

certain threshold of mimetism is surpassed, then the relationship between nature
and culture is indeed a continuous one. This is what Girard seems to suggest in Les
choses caches when stating that the stages of mans biological evolution are far too
rapid not to involve cultural elements in addition to the biological ones in order
to avoid the destruction of human communities under the weight of infra-specific
violence an entire cultural organisation is needed which channels the rage outside
the immediate family circle.122 However, if a cultural organisation is already
needed in order to avoid the mimetic escalation of violence, then the polarization
of violence to the victim can no longer fulfil its foundational role in the theory
the original murder and the body of the victim as the first signifier seem to become
futile, since were really talking about a process involving different stages123
rather than a specific threshold or a centre required by the constitution of the first
significant difference. Between these options (a biologically based immanent or
continuous process vs. a structural moment of rupture implying a transcendental
break) a choice has to be made one cannot have it both ways although this is
precisely what Girard would want to do in his anthropology: he would like to infer
transcendence directly from immanence, or rather, have transcendence produced
out of the immanence (although this historical transcendence is a deviated one in
his eyes, as we shall see).124
The question concerning the distinction (or rather the lack of it) of the symbolic
and the pre-symbolic is also raised by one of the interviewers in Girards book Les
origines de la culture.125 Here Girard proposes a model much like those that the
theorists of the social contract (Hobbes, Rousseau) took as their starting point:
culture and society already exist in an embryonic form, but for the symbolic
prohibitions to emerge, there must be a crisis (the first murder caused by mimetic
rivalry) which then, motored by the fear of death (just like in Batailles scheme),
somehow manages to produce the first prohibitions (that is, the symbolic relation
itself). However, since prohibition is defined as the sine qua non condition for
the existence of the social bond and as the first cultural sign,126 every social or
cultural form preceding it is simply labelled with the prefix proto- thus we
are faced with proto-communities, proto-consciousness, proto-humans and
proto-event among other things, as if the magic word would somehow do away
with the circular nature of the genetic argument. The crucial moment in the birth

122 Girard 2007c [1978], 805.

123 See also Girard 2010b, 154.
124 See Girard 2010b, 161162; This is what Camille Tarot (2003) is implying when
commenting the problems of the Girardian primitive scene, notably the alleged capacity
of the victim to create an appropriate distance between the sacred and the participants of
the first murder (this kind of distance already presupposes the existence of the symbolic).
125 See Girard 2010b [2004], 162. This book follows the style adopted in many of
Girards books which are based on his interview by one or two interlocutors.
126 See Girard 2010b, 161.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 193

of the symbolic is the new, non-instinctual form of attention127 evoked by the dead
body, which then somehow produces out of this centre (or of the attention fixed on
it) the first significant difference (violence/peace). One cannot help noticing the
wavering in the words every time the crucial leap is approached:

The hominids are more or less conscious of having done something bad []
This complex system of intertwined sentiments has produced a sort of short-
circuit of their perception [] In the superstitious repetition of the event
a sort of staging must be organized in the form of the murder of a victim of
substitution. [] It is the first time that something is in the place of something

Here Girard also makes a curious distinction between the linguistic elements
referring to the exterior world and the elements referring to each other (inside
of language understood as a closed system). According to him it is precisely the
internal reference, the one between signs referring only to each other and thus
surpassing the level of a simple indexical relation, which escapes the primates. It
is also none other than this auto-referential relation which, for Girard, requires a
centre that somehow fixes or stabilizes the significant relation between the signs,
allowing the different elements of the totality to communicate with each other. On
the other hand, once the centre has fulfilled its inaugural role in the establishment
of the network of communication, it must disappear in order to allow for more
complex levels of communication.129 The birth of the symbolic thus presupposes
a centre in this sense the Girardian conception of language is anti-structuralist
to the extreme: there is one privileged point around which the whole system of
signification is established and which is misapprehended from the beginning, then
veiled and forgotten.130

127 On this, see also Mack 1987, 59.

128 Girard 2010b, 156157 italics by T.A., bold in the original.
129 See Girard 2010a, 157158.
130 Eric Gans has developed his generative anthropology precisely in response
to what he perceives to be the weak point of the Girardian explanation of the birth of
language (the transition from mimesis to representation, the lack of an adequate theory
of the sign). Gans theory is based on a modification of the Girardian original scene,
transforming it into an originary event, in which the acquisitive mimesis does not lead to
an automatic polarization of violence, but instead to such a strong emotional ambivalence
concerning the coveted object (desire to appropriate/fear of uncontrolled violence) that the
object is covered with a sacred aura. The first signifier emerges from an aborted gesture of
appropriation which at least one member of the group makes towards the desired object,
thus designating it as the centre of the groups attention and by the same token conveying
to the others his renouncement of appropriating the object. (See Gans 1993, 89 and 2012.)
This explanation, of course, completely dispenses with the surrogate victimage mechanism
and the outburst of violence as a consequence of its automatic polarization which is
probably why Girard has dismissed it as just another way of denying the primacy of the
194 Affectivity and the Social Bond

The same ambivalence is repeated in the distinction between the original

surrogate victim and the ritual scapegoating, which also exemplifies the transition
from nature to culture in Girards theory: how does one get from the pure mimetic
repetition to the self-conscious unanimity of scapegoating?131 The problem here
concerns the way Girard theorises (or rather does not theorise) the process of
symbolization which should lead to the replacement of the original victim by a
ritual scapegoat. The surrogate victimage is, in fact, a theoretical postulate needed
in order to perform the perilous leap from nature to culture, since animal imitation
alone, however intense it might be, cannot produce human cultural forms. For
this, as Girard himself affirms, we need the founding murder which alone can
set the development of the ritual (cultural) machinery in motion.132 However, in
order to get from the first spontaneous (or rather, automatic) killing to a cultural
institution like the ritual sacrifice, a whole history must be run through. Even the
tiniest cultural institution not only requires imitation, it also requires substitution;
and this is already an intellectual operation, which presupposes reflexion, memory,
in short, the intervention of an entire symbolic dimension. In other words, a quasi-
automatic natural mechanism of polarization-expulsion, provoked by the mimetic
nature of human desire, cannot per se give us culture, at least insofar as culture
always involves the symbolic the big philosophical question is whether it could
do this even if it were repeated millions of times, since the same problem would
only be repeated with each individual mimetic crisis/cycle, and this ad infinitum.
This is the qualitative leap on which all genetic explanations of the symbolic
inevitably stumble. Whats more, Girard operates this leap without theorising
the enormous symbolic process of collective memorization, metaphorization,
distanciation that alone can give us any form of transcendence (sacred) or culture
(symbolic) in the first place.133
From a methodological or meta-theoretical point of view what is interesting
is the fact that in La violence et le sacr Girard already draws an explicit parallel
between his own theory and the Darwinian theory of evolution.134 Just as the theory
of natural selection offers a rational explanation for the formidable multiplicity of

religious and the foundational violence of the symbolic relation in Girards opinion the
scene proposed by Gans already presupposes some sort of violence, the birth of language
being possible only in a state where an embryonic form of culture already exists (see
Girard 2010b, 178179).
131 Which for Girard constitutes the beginning of humanity and of conscious
rationality see Girard 2011, 246.
132 See Girard 2007c [1978], 816. From this point of view mimetism may well
precede language, but everything that is crucial for the emergence of culture only steps into
the picture with the birth of the first significant difference Girard is thus exaggerating when
he states that the new problematic of mimesis exceeds the problem of signification in all
directions (Girard 1978, 203); on the contrary, one might say, the problem of signification
is at the centre of everything.
133 This is a point also made by Camille Tarot (2003, 275; 28790).
134 See Girard 2007b [1972], 708/1987, 34; 438.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 195

different life-forms on earth, so the Girardian theory of the victimage mechanism

provides a unique and universal explanation for the different forms of cultural
evolution. Later he even sees his mimetic theory as a completion of Darwins
hypothesis concerning the natural selection: the last stages of biological evolution
cannot be explained without the aid of certain forms of culture. This is the
continuity-hypothesis: nature and culture necessarily overlap, there is no radical
break between the two. From this point of view the primitive religion should be
seen as just another mechanism of natural selection: the sacrificial death in fact
works the same way as hazard in the theory of Darwin, that is, it eliminates the
unfavourable cases (The scapegoat mechanism can be thought as a source of
favourable biological and cultural mutations).135 Another parallel feature that
Girard sees between Darwins theory and his own is the fact that neither can be
verified empirically, since the time span covered by both theories is extremely long
(hundreds of thousands of years). Yet, according to Girard, the explanatory power
of both hypotheses is the strongest of all theories presented so far.136 However,
as already shown the emphasis laid on the rupture, and its extra-biological
(transcendental) nature does not fit the Darwinian analogy Girard is building here,
nor does the solution he will propose to his auto-fabricated historical purgatory of
mimetic desire, as we shall shortly see.
There is also an implicit tension between the acquisitive emphasis given
to mimetic desire in the anthropological theory of Les choses caches and the
metaphysical thrust, based on the inner (though illusory) void of the desiring
subject, dominating the scene of Mensonge romantique. This discrepancy could, of
course, be explained by the reversed chronology characteristic of Girards oeuvre:
the mimetic theory departs from the situation of the modern individual, living in
the world of a craving for an illusory plenitude of being, proceeds to the universe
of primitive or archaic religions dominated by the cyclic alteration between the
violence of mimetic crises and their cathartic resolution through sacrificial rituals,
and ends up in a theory of human cultural evolution based on the acquisitive
mimesis connecting human behaviour to that of the primates and mechanically
polarizing the violence caused by the rivalling desires on an exterior target once
a certain threshold of mimetism has been surpassed. From this perspective the
metaphysical character of human desire would only be a modern veiling assumed
by the mimetic desire in a universe, where the sacrificial channelling of affective
violence is no longer possible and where individuals are left at the mercy of their
own mimetic impulses (the only transcendence left being the deviated projection
offered by other people). In other words, the metaphysical icing of human desire
would be an illusion produced by the rivalry over the object, hiding the essentially
machine-like, automatic nature of the mimetism. Exactly the same phenomenon

135 Girard 2010a, 135; Religion emerged as an adaptive solution to the very real and
unprecedented social problems that were a result of the natural course of evolution in the
earliest stages of hominization (Girard 2011, 224).
136 Girard 2007b [1972], 681.
196 Affectivity and the Social Bond

can be perceived with the great apes: when an ape sees the other extend its hand
to reach an object, it almost automatically reaches its own hand to grasp the very
same object. Of course, the position of the other as a model and the dream of a
plenitude of being presuppose reflection and/or imagination, the evolvement of
which requires a larger brain, but even with human beings these conceptual or
imaginal veils are ultimately but a mirage.137
This is more-or-less the solution Girard himself goes for: the transfiguration of
the object which makes it appear as the most real thing in the world, thus endowing
it with a metaphysical or ontological aura, is precisely what characterizes the
humanity of the desire. Therefore the term desire should be reserved to those
forms of affectivity which appear when the threshold of mimetism, separating
the purely physiological needs from the more spiritualized affective forms,
dominated by such notions as authority, honour or prestige, has been surpassed
and the mere animal imitation transformed into the typically human double-bind.
It is the rivalry which generates these notions: The metaphysical threshold or, if
one prefers, the passage to the desire properly speaking, is the threshold of the
unreal.138 However, the threshold here is precisely the same which characterizes
the qualitative leap described in connection with the origin of the symbolic: here
the problem becomes that of the origin of the metaphysical (which seems to be
but another name given for the symbolic) and this is not a problem that could be
resolved by changing definitions; no matter how we decide to call the properly
human mode of desire after its spiritualization, it is the transition itself that
would have to be explained.
Thus, the ambiguity between the biological automatism of the acquisitive
mimetism and the psychological mentalism of the metaphysical (specifically
human) desire can be, at least partially, explained by the transition between
internal and external viewpoints. From a psychological angle mimesis can be
described as the way in which individual agents determine each others intentions
at a pre-individual level, as Paul Dumouchel has pointed out this means that
it only arises in the interindividual relations.139 It is spontaneous, constant and
unconscious and it produces symmetry in behaviour. From this point of view

137 On the other hand, this explanation contains an implicit theory of the specific
nature of modernity, thus postulating a situation in which the inner mediation has become
dominant because of the collapse of social hierarchies this historical understanding would,
in turn, seem to be incompatible with the view Girard is purporting in his anthropology
where the metaphysical unreality characterizes the human desire as such see Girard
2007c [1978], 1054.
138 Girard 2007c [1978], 1054. In another context Girard defines desire as
appetites and needs when the mimetic effects are grafted upon them (Girard in Dumouchel
and Dupuy 1983, 285) from this point of view mimesis would thus be a supplement of
nature, the famous something which adds itself to the animal need; what Girard shares
with Durkheim and especially with Bataille is the view that this something is constituted
by the symbolic (and more specifically, by prohibition).
139 See Dumouchel 2011.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 197

desire itself is an effect of mimesis. In other words, it is not something that would
precede activity, but instead it is only produced in the proximity of others, as a pre-
intentional (quasi-automatic) inclination to reproduce their actions and gestures.
It does not involve representations or images. From the individual point of view
this scheme can, of course, be criticized for the fact that it leaves the individuals
without any influence as to the way their desires and intentions are determined:
one is reminded of the passive puppets of Durkheims Suicide, left at the mercy of
collective passions. Indeed, as Jean-Pierre Dupuy has claimed, in this automatism
attributes of subjectivity are emergent effects produced by the spontaneous, self-
organized functioning of a complex organization in the form of a network.140 In
this line of interpretation mimetism is treated as an example of an auto-generative
affective dynamics which, in fact, produces both the subject and the object as
its emergent properties. From this perspective the scapegoating mechanism
appears as one possible attractor of the dynamics of violence141 which is a self-
realizing process, produced by amplification of an initial arbitrary fluctuation. The
particularity of this dynamics is that it brings forth its own end although, seen from
the inside, it appears as guided by a pre-existing end. The attractors generated by
the process are completely closed, without any reference to the outside, the only
thing they represent is the condition of internal consistency (in this sense they are
self-realizing representations).
However, as tempting as this model might be from the viewpoint of naturalizing
mimetic theory, it does not quite befit Girards own understanding of the logic of
mimetism. For one thing, Girard does not accept the interpretation of the object as
a mere effect or creation of the mimetic desire.142 But more importantly still, the
whole question concerning the polarization of violence and the ensuing structure
of misapprehension would have to be rethought accordingly. For Girard the
polarization of violence leading to the surrogate victimage is a vital thing since the
whole human culture is based on this mechanism. It is precisely the thing which,
when repeated innumerable times, destroys the preceding dominance patterns
and at the same time generates a new mechanism of channelling the intraspecific
violence. This is the non-Hegelian starting point which, according to Girard,
changes everything:143 the Hegelian violence remains inside the structure of
consciousness (and of signification), it never exceeds the human, whereas Girard

140 See Dupuy 2011, 201.

141 The crucial question concerning modernity is whether it can be regarded as the
only one in this respect the views of Dupuy and Girard seem to diverge somewhat; I shall
return to this question shortly.
142 See Girard 2010b, 100101. Girards objection is that if the object was but an
effect of the desire itself, then we would only perceive objects that we desire which is not
the case. This shows clearly that Girard still operates in the world of subjective perceptions
and volitions, whereas Dupuy is after an auto-generative dynamics in which the subject has
no role or as he puts it in another context, a pure morphogenetic principle independent of
the object to which it is applied (see Dupuy and Dumouchel 1983, 284).
143 Girard 1978a, 203.
198 Affectivity and the Social Bond

not only wants to implant his conflictual mimesis on a more primitive level of
appropriation, but also show how this very conflictuality produces spontaneously,
out of itself a new mechanism of restraining the mimetic violence once a certain
threshold of mimetism has been reached. However, this spontaneous and as if
automatically generated event (the polarization of violence to one individual who
is killed) also constitutes a radical rupture, entailing a form or transcendence
already discussed in relation to Hobbes; it is thus both a process repeated n+1
times in the course of prehistory, and a singular event, a transcendental watershed
which, each time it happens, divides the world into two (violence/non-violence).
But this is not all, since this singular event by the same token also enters into
the register of truth. Whereas the inner ambivalence of the polarization as an
immanent process and a singular (transcendental) event can still be imputed to the
variation of perspectives (the exterior vs. the interior point of view), characteristic
of Girards theory, the register of truth transcends them both, since the concealment
it implies can only be disclosed by a divine revelation.
In short, the mechanism Girard is talking about is not only causal (the
causality of complex systems described by Dupuy), it is also dependent on an
epistemological structure of misapprehension in other words, it can only function
if the causal mechanism remains hidden from the actors who are attracted to it and
bizarrely operated by it (instead of putting it into operation).144 However, were
it only epistemological this misapprehension could still be overcome by human
means, as every sort of false belief or misunderstanding can, at least in principle.
In Girards theory this is not the case. The result of polarization, spontaneously
arrived at and preceding all representation and sign systems, is by the same token
encapsulated and preserved in the anthropological deep memory of mankind as a
hidden truth, inscribed in all cultural institutions and in all human mythology, but
forever concealed from those living surrounded by these institutions. This is the
anthropological truth, the unveiling of which is for Girard not possible without
the Christian revelation. The true nature of communal violence and its regulation
through the scapegoat mechanism is revealed by the Evangels which, for the first
time in human history, assume the point of view of the persecuted and proclaim
the innocence of the victim, the crucified Jesus. But the unveiling as such could
not happen without the intervention of the divine: the Holy Spirit (or Paraclete, the
defender of victims) and divine grace, giving the disciples of Christ the necessary
force to break the violent unanimity left by themselves, they would fall back to
it and condemn the victim, as the story of the three denials of St Peter so blatantly
Yet one cannot help wondering what sort of latitude the Girardian anthropology
actually allows its subjects: how could men act otherwise, since this is their species-
specific affective constitution, consolidated by the entire violent history of
human cultural institutions? Indeed, since the victimage mechanism and religion

144 On this, see also Mack 1987, 11.

145 See Girard 1994, 210.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 199

as institution are postulated as evolutionary mechanisms of selection, enabling

the survival of the species, it is hardly probable that men as a species could all
of a sudden break out of their grip in spite of the famous freedom of choice God
has accorded each and every one as an individual. From the evolutionary point of
view the only way out would be through such gradual changes in the surrounding
institutions (that is, the human cultural environment) that would make the
sacrificial mechanism obsolete as the channel for mans species-specific mimetic
violence and replace it with other, more sophisticated mechanisms. But this is
not the option Girard goes for, on the contrary: his plan of salvation is based on
an epistemological rupture produced by the divine intervention, because this is
the only way to break the spell of the structural misapprehension on which the
sacrificial mechanism is based. In the anthropological domain Revelation is defined
as the true representation of that which, until then, had never been revealed. It is
this non-revelation, this lack of representation which is the sine qua non condition
of the foundational role of mimetism; but on the other hand, it is precisely this
foundational status that makes it structurally impossible to reveal the hidden
truth by representational means, since the whole system of representations is
based on it.146 The immanence of the sacrificial mechanism is thus sealed not only
biologically, but also and most of all epistemologically. There is no transcendence
that could free human existence from the terrestrial purgatory of mimetic violence.
But what is worse, in the temporal sphere transcendence itself seems to become
an illusion: every eventual point where transcendence could be found proves to be
only a projection, a mirage produced by the mimetic desire itself.
On the other hand, Girard tries to resolve the tension between his biologically
inspired anthropology (and the theory of affectivity on which it is based) and
the epistemological break implied in his theology by assuming what he calls an
anthropological interpretation of the Bible. This means that the Bible itself is seen
as a privileged source of anthropological knowledge concerning the true nature of
man and his cultural institutions: in order to comprehend its central elements from
the mimetic point of view and to get a strictly empirical description of things, one
only needs to bracket out the idea of transcendence147 (this is why Girard can claim
that the Evangelists in fact provide a scientific interpretation of all the preceding
myths).148 From this angle the archaic (sacrificial) religions appear as the first stage
in a progressive unveiling that culminates in the Christian Revelation.149 As Girard
points out, the historical and the epistemological here follow a reverse order, so
that what comes first in the historical chronology (the surrogate victimage) is
only revealed by its last phase.150 The Evangelists thus constitute both the last

146 See Girard 1999, 181199.

147 See Girard 2010b, 121.
148 See Girard 2010a, 87 and Girard 1999, 166167.
149 See Girard 2010b, 129.
150 This sort of circle is, in fact, the typical structure of most philosophies of history,
starting from Hegel: the knowledge concerning the beginning is only revealed in the end.
200 Affectivity and the Social Bond

stage of history (the breakdown of the sacrificial mechanism channelling human

violence) and the first stage of comprehension (concerning the truth of the past
sacrificial violence). However, the paradox of the Girardian scheme is that it poses
Revelation and faith in the Resurrection as epistemological conditions for a purely
anthropological (allegedly scientific) truth.151 As Girard himself has later stated,
this means that ultimately there is no non-sacrificial space no neutral or objective
vantage point from which things could be looked at.152 Personal conversion thus
becomes the prerequisite for authentic knowledge, be it scientific or lay.153
In sum, the only salvation from the auto-organizing vicious circle of mimetic
desire, the only possible true transcendence which opens to an exterior vantage
point, comes from the Revelation and the ensuing personal conversion to good
mimetism (the only model who does not enter into the game of mimetic rivalry
being Jesus). In other words, Girards solution to the existential and cultural impasse
created by his theory of affectivity is ultimately to divide both transcendence
and mimetism in two, the good and the bad ones. This is because he is not
only looking for a morphogenetic (causal) principle to explain the specifically
human affective dynamics, but he is also proposing a theory of culture based
on an eschatological vision of human history; he is not ready to remain in the
epistemological limits set by natural science, instead he wants to propose an ethics
which implies a stance on good and evil.154 In fact, Girard operates with three sorts
of transcendence in his theory:

1. Marginal transcendence, connected to the birth of the symbolic the

rupture or the break, in which mimetic violence culminates (the apex of
2. Deviated (false) transcendence, constituted by the collective projection:
god, sacred (the bound form of archaic religions, Satan leashed by
Satan) or other men, different technical or economic simulacra (the
unbound form Satan unleashed after Revelation).

151 Indeed, as Pierre Dumouchel (1988, 1718) has pointed out, Girards anthropology
should in fact make impossible the advent of a religion like Christianity.
152 Girard 2010b, 130.
153 Girard 2010a, 99.
154 It is rather telling, that the approach assumed in Les Choses caches is
retrospectively judged too anthropological precisely because there Girard admits to have
still believed in the possibility of an exterior, (non-sacrificial) point which the anthropologist
or sociologist could assume in order to look at things from a distance see Girard 2010a,
116 (the obvious target is here again Lvi-Strauss and his view from afar). Anthropology
is fine, but it cannot back out or remain closed in the face of the questions posed by the
revelation. There is no neutral spirit that would offer a third way between Satan and the
Holy Spirit. (Girard 2010a, 116 translation T.A.) A related critique that Girard has later
expressed against his earlier book is the fact that Christianity is there still regarded as a sort
of a supplement instead of an all-encompassing perspective converting all the others into
itself (Girard 2010b, 127).
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 201

3. True transcendence: the true God, disclosed in Christian Revelation true

transcendence can only come from the exterior, as a lightning strike.

Whereas marginal transcendence is connected to the explanatory meta-level

from which Girard approaches the question concerning the birth of the symbolic
(the transcendental break which produces the first significant difference in his
theory), deviated and true transcendence155 belong to the inner economy of his
epistemology and the annexed ontology. Deviated transcendence is a direct result
of surrogate victimage, its misapprehended symbolic manifestation, but as such it
also represents the bound form of mimetic violence: it is the energy of affective
violence channelled and bound to a mechanism which enables the constitution
and elaboration of human culture. This is the positive or productive side of the
collective murder that channels the affective energy of the group in a humanizing
direction.156 From the theological angle this form of transcendence is described as
the one in which Satan (this is the name that Girard gives to the mimetic principle
itself) deliberately binds his own energy or auto-expulses himself in order to
preserve his kingdom (which is defined as all human history preceding Christ).157
In fact, Satan equals the terrestrial order that is not divine but sacrificial.158 With
the Revelation this mechanism of auto-expulsion is destroyed and the satanic
force of mimetism is thus unleashed a fact which, for Girard, is manifested in the
ever-growing violence of modern societies.159 On the other hand, the development
of modernity has augmented human tolerance of mimetism, thus raising the
threshold for outbursts of violence.160 As a consequence, modern society lives in a
state of a continuous threat constituted by these two opposing tendencies: on the
one hand, a growing amount of ever more cruel and blind violence, on the other
hand an increasing indifference and tolerance of mimetic phenomena (hence, a
growing cultural homogenization and lack of transcendence). Although Girard is
reluctant to predict the course of future development,161 the prevalent mood is
indeed apocalyptic:

From the moment that Satan will no longer expulse Satan, he will be unleashed
to the point where he destroys the world. This is the idea of Apocalypses.162

In fact, Christianity provokes an acceleration of violence by disclosing its secret

mechanism and thereby preventing its sacrificial channelling. The movement of

155 On the distinction, see for instance Girard 1999, 174.

156 See Girard 1999, 129 and 174; 2010b, 137 and 141; 1994, 125.
157 Girard 1999, 5470.
158 Girard 1994, 87.
159 See for instance Girard 2007d, 5665.
160 Girard 1994, 109110.
161 See for instance Girard 1994, 110.
162 Girard 2010a, 110.
202 Affectivity and the Social Bond

history is thus necessarily apocalyptic, although the exact moment of the end is not
known.163 The kingdom of God is not from this world this is why reconciliation
is not immanent in the movement of history. On the contrary, the latter constitutes
a worsening spiral of violence that no institution will, ultimately, be left to hold
back. This is what Apocalypses means in Girards theory: the total immanence of
history, that is, of violence.164 But paradoxically this also implies that Revelation
cannot belong to history: it can only come as a coup de grce, an instance of
transcendental grace which befalls the individual against all odds, in spite of the
historical spiral of mimesis and against his species-specific affective constitution,
but also outside of the historical temporality. In other words, this stroke must
come from the outside of the historical and the terrestrial although Girard does
not speak of the experience of the subject, and in spite of the fact that he actually
denies the very possibility of a phenomenological approach in the analysis of
mimesis,165 one cannot help thinking of Batailles sovereignty and the impossible
mode of experience characterizing it. The difference here is that Girard still wants
to accord a role to individual will and freedom of choice, albeit the fact that the
individual will cannot realize itself without the help of the divine grace. Although
transcendent, the Girardian God is not impossible but the liberty he leaves to
his subjects is indeed a minimal one, the only real choice being that between
God and Satan.166 Even there the choice surpasses human forces because of the
affective structure with which the Girardian man is endowed. The transcendental
grace is the only solution left, man cannot triumph over himself all alone.167
The choice for the good, made possible by the divine grace, is called
conversion. Conversion is the prerequisite not only of true knowledge,168 but
also of any sort of personal experience of persecution (other than that of the
victim), because it is the only way of opening a transcendental breach into the
immanence of violence, which makes it possible to see oneself as a persecutor.169
In this sense the personal conversion also brings transcendence on the earth as a
constantly present possibility, open to each and every one: reconciliation is not
to be seen as a thing that succeeds the acceleration of violence, but as its reverse
side. In a sense the kingdom of God is already here, but the violence of men
hides it to an ever increasing extent.170 The peaceful identity resides at the heart
of the violent identity as its most secret possibility. This is what Hegel understood
according to Girard, but he refused to see that the wisest of all men (Christ)

163 See Girard 2007d, 155; 2010b, 117.

164 Girard 2007d, 102.
165 See for instance Girard 2010a, 143.
166 See Girard 1999, 154.
167 Girard 2007d, 100.
168 Girard 2010a, 99.
169 This is in fact what conversion means for Girard: the ability to see oneself as a
persecutor see Girard 2010a, 103.
170 See Girard 2007d, 98.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 203

had already failed to make the voice of peace predominant.171 In other words, the
Girardian epistemology of salvation is still thoroughly marked by the structure
of misapprehension which is now called secret but whereas the ancient secret
protected the violent foundation of the social bond, it now touches the possibility
of terrestrial peace and happiness. Now even those who know and understand dare
not divulge it, because the consequences of this truth would be disastrous for the
social order this is why it must remain the private property of the enlightened
few.172 From secrecy there seems to be no way out.
However, since man in his terrestrial existence is doomed to imitation, even
Gods grace could not save him if all imitation necessarily led to violence. The only
solution to the dilemma is, therefore, to make a distinction between the good and
the bad imitation. Good imitation is no longer a mechanism like the bad one, but
a matter of volition: the individual, with the aid of Gods grace, manages to surpass
the mechanical nature of bad (rivalrous) mimesis in order to consciously follow,
imitate the good example set by Christ, namely the divine disinterestedness. Christ
is the only good example because he imitates no one but God, the only model
who transcends the human interests absolutely. Here the goodness of imitation
depends on the model. The most obvious danger is, of course, false prophets
this ultimately leads to a solution which is, again, structurally very close to
negative theology: what one imitates in Christ is not his being, but his retreat.173
By imitating Christs retreat one in fact ends up imitating nothing.
On the other hand, it is not enough to renounce imitation; the renouncement
also has to be done in the right manner. The all-too-human modernity incites
men to a false (terrestrial) renouncement by bringing the victims increasingly out
in the open and demanding justice for them. However, for Girard this only leads
to another mechanism, namely the mechanization of the renouncement itself, the
renouncement through imitation.174 The domain of the historical and the terrestrial
is, therefore, doomed to a vicious circle: every attempt to break out (even by
renouncing) is immediately caught in the mimetic circle. To differentiate between
false and authentic renouncement Girard resorts to the distinction between
imitation and identification (the very same concept which, in La violence et le
sacr, was still seen heavy with imitation and mimetic rivalry when analysed in
Freuds theory). Here he unearths another theory declared dead earlier in Mensonge
Romantique, namely Hegels dialectic of master and slave: the spectacle of
identity can also give rise to a philosophical knowledge of equality and fraternity.
This is why one should try to rethink this identity as a reversed mimetism, that is, a

171 Girard 2007, 98d.

172 See Girard 2010a, 103;
173 In the manner of Hlderlin, see Girard 2007d, 105. What distinguishes Girards
solution of that proposed by negative theology is the fact that this retreat or nothingness
is interpreted as a test, an ordeal that we have to go through and pass in order to get to the
true God. On this, see Girard 2007d, 215218.
174 Girard 1994, 210211.
204 Affectivity and the Social Bond

positive imitation.175 Also, when talking about Levinas concept of the face of the
other Girard refers to the possibility of finding, inside the mimetic relation itself,
a proper distance to the other (instead of the violent reciprocity characteristic
of mimetism) which he calls the epiphany of the others face. But at the same
time he claims that the choice is not in our hands: the subject does not choose, the
choice is always made by the model. In the modern era of growing indifference
and ever more violent forms of mimesis the possibility of finding solid and
transcendental models becomes tiny:

Of course, fraternity would consist of recognizing that we are alike []. But
once more, the problem is that mimetism defines man. One must have the
courage to face this truth.176

What is noteworthy, however, is the fact the existence of such models amongst
the humans is not altogether denied, which is somewhat paradoxical given the
anthropological postulate according to which mimesis defines man in other
words, what is proposed is an essentialist theory of human nature and a historical
model in which this nature seems to be overcome by solid (transcendental) models
(typical of the exterior mediation) without explaining how this victory over the
old Adam would be possible in the first place. On the other hand, Girard seems
to imply that the only authentic opening comes from the transcendental: only the
imitation of Christ can provide man the positive model which keeps him at the
proper distance of the divine the problem is that in the present circumstances
this model hardly has chances to become universal. All-in-all, Girard does not
give a clear answer to the question whether the lack of suitable model(s) is due to
historical circumstances (the dominance of the inner mediation in modernity) or a
structural reason (because the sole good model is transcendental, namely Jesus).
Furthermore, the solution that Girard proposes for the regulation of human
affectivity remains strangely individualistic when seen through the notion of
conversion: not only is conversion ultimately a matter of individual decision but
also each individual is called to imitate a sole model, namely Jesus. The nature of
the community resulting from this individual conversion remains untheorized one
is strangely reminded of the Comtean religion in which each individual is devoted
to the worship of the Great Other but there is no in-between. In Girards scheme
the fear of mimetic rivalry caused by any form of reciprocity seems to lead into a
situation where each individual is urged to identify with a unique (transcendental)
model, but there is no analysis as to what sort of mediation this solitary act might
produce between the actors. Whether we are talking about a community that could
even in principle be realized in and as a historical reality is not clear either: is the
community of the converted like the kingdom of God, that is, not from this world?
Also, the conversion Girard is talking about seems to be completely intellectualist

175 Girard 2007d, 94.

176 Girard 2007d, 183.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 205

in nature: the veil of misapprehension is removed and the truth revealed, but there
is no particular affective experience involved. The Girardian subject is not shaken,
beyond himself or trembling in ecstasy, the experience of conversion is more like
an epistemic enlightening, devoid of any particular effusions.
This is the fundamental tension characterizing Girards theory as a whole.
His naturalistic anthropology that was meant as a scientific explanation of a real
historical process is embedded in a radically dualistic temporal framework which
seems to bring him much closer to the classical philosophical phenomenology than
he would like to admit after all, it was just the sort of philosophical myth that he
wanted to avoid at all costs precisely because of its metaphysical nature177 but
what is more, one that is dominated by an eschatological conception of history
and an apocalyptic vision of its probable end.178 Although Girard himself judges
the phenomenological approach impossible precisely because of the structural
concealment of the victimage mechanism (nobody ever perceives himself as being
a persecutor, ergo there is no phenomenological experience of the mechanism,
only a special sort of grace can get us out of it),179 the retrospective revelation
of the true nature of human history which thereafter unfolds as a process of an
ever-growing unveiling and the loss of sacrificial mechanisms of protection, is
strangely reminiscent of the standard structure of all philosophies of history.180
All the elements are given already in the beginning, but the manifestation of truth
requires the Revelation, in other words, the sense of history is only revealed aprs
coup.181 Christianity as a whole functions in the future perfect: the prehistorical
sacrifices are already a part of its becoming, even though in a veiled form.182
On the other hand, compared to Hegel one could even speak of a deterioration,
because history itself is left at the mercy of an ever-growing violent immanence

177 We have to refuse all the mystical explanations and their philosophical
surraogates, as for instance the coincidentia oppositorium, the magical power of the
negative and virtue of the dionysiac (Girard 2007c [1978], 776).
178 Girard himself tries to minimize this tension by inserting the Darwinian theory in
an eschatological framework: it is precisely because of the unachieved nature of man (the
fact that, because of his affective constitution, man has had to resort to the sacrificial lie)
that Christ came to achieve this hominization, although the self-destruction of human race
(commenced by the advent of Christ) will take time. Christ will not return before all hope of
restraining mimetic violence by the evangelical revelation is gone, that is, before humanity
realizes that it has failed. (See Girard 2007d. 212213.) However, since the hominization
Girard is talking about here, is once again overdetermined by the epistemological structure of
misapprehension, the unachievement of man being first and foremost of epistemic nature,
it is difficult to see the exact nature of the connection with the Darwinian perspective other
than the fact that both theories speak about extremely long periods of time.
179 Girard 2010a, 143, see also 2010b, 105.
180 In other words, we could speak of a sort of progress which Girard himself is
forced to admit, although he emphasizes the non-linear nature of the process see Girard
2010b, 132133.
181 See for instance Girard 2010a, 8688.
182 See Girard 2010a, 140141.
206 Affectivity and the Social Bond

and the salvation projected to a transcendental Kingdom come, reserved only

for an enlightened elite.183 Theological Manichaeism184 of the model is crowned
by a dichotomy in which the terrestrial existence of human kind is governed by
Satan unleashed, and the only possibility of breaking out of his grip is personal
conversion. Although Girard later abandoned his view that historical Christianity
could somehow transcend the mimetic logic dominating the movement of
history,185 this does not alter the basic dichotomy of his configuration: the only
way out of mimetic violence is individual conversion, the possibilities of which
in the modern world he does not seem to have great faith in. This solution, of
course, comes at the price of an absolute ontological dualism between the
historical/terrestrial and the transcendental/otherworldly the destruction never
touches the real world which is beyond, but at the same time paradoxically at
the heart of human contradictions, as a parallel (possible) world existing in the
midst of the violent, terrestrial universe of historical man. Transcendence is as if
dispersed, disseminated in the middle of the historical, but it remains thoroughly
transcendental all the same. Transcendental Revelation was indispensable for any
rupture in the structural misapprehension to become possible, yet at the same time
it failed and humanity is now heading for its own destruction.186
The ultimate irony of Girards tentative to marry the affective and the
transcendental is perhaps the fact that the theorist he finally comes closest to is
Auguste Comte.187 What likens Girard to Comte is the type of mixture of the
biological and the social which he is trying to operate: a social solution to a problem
caused by specific biological features (in Girards case the growing cognitive and

183 Although Girard claims to believe in the openness of history (1994, 142), it is
difficult to see where this openness really lies, since pagan religions are seen only as the
first stage on the road leading to God: the entire history preceding Revelation, namely that
of sacrificial religions is thus defined as a holy history (Girard 1994, 167), and the whole
temporal history of mankind is finally but an intermediary period in the great plan of God
(Girard 1999, 198199). In sum, history does have a sense, but this sense is not immanent
in its movement, it comes from the Absolute in the form of a transcendental revelation,
reminiscent of the Heideggerian Ereignis (1994, 116; 2007d). One could describe our
history as a spiral open towards the top, towards another dimension which is no longer
circular (Girard 1994, 122); To have faith signifies to think that in the last analysis all this
has a sense, it is to have confidence not in History, but in the Absolute (Girard 1994, 116).
184 God and Satan are for Girard the two arch-models of good (non-rivalrous,
disinterested) and bad (rivalrous, avid) imitation (see Girard 1999, 63).
185 See for instance Girard 2007d, 80 and 153.
186 See Girard 2010a, 111 and 2007d, 212: More and more victims will be needed
to create a more and more precarious order. Such is the distraught becoming of the world,
of which the Christians are responsible. Christ will have tried to take humanity into an
adult stage, but humanity will have rejected this possibility. Im using the future perfect on
purpose, because we are dealing with a fundamental failure here.
187 The very same Comte whom Girard despises for the formidable naivety of the
latters attempt to construct a religion of reason see Girard 2007b [1972], 214.
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 207

affective capacities brought about by the growth in the brain size, in Comtes
case the prevalence of egoism over altruism in mans affective constitution).
In Girards scheme religion can be compared to the environmental forces that
affect the course of biological evolution in Darwinian theory, which means that
the impact of individual (physiological) factors is, in his theory, mediated by the
social;188 in Comtes case social relations are already the very environment in
which mans biological evolution takes place. However, for both, the regulation
of human affectivity (be it dominated by mimetism or egoism) requires a centre,
transferring the affective into the symbolic and unifying the community around the
force thereby constituted. And for both, this endeavour also ends up in a religion.
In Girards case, this is not a terrestrial religion, a compilation of common rituals
destined to create a universal unanimity around a symbolic centre (this unanimity
being precisely that of the false religion and the deviated transcendence
produced by the sacrificial mechanism of exclusion), but the religion of the one
and true God, that of a true transcendence which calls for a personal conversion,
appealing to each member of society and urging them to abandon the deviated
transcendence of Satan, the bad mimesis leading to rivalry, and to follow the only
good model, namely Jesus Christ. However, it is precisely the laicised version
of such a Christian monotheism that Comte wanted to sanctify in his religion
of Humanity. And again, the end result is the same in both cases: good mimesis
results in a religion of love (love your enemies and pray for those who persecute
you), which is also the final response of positivist religion to the great human
problem (the regulation of mans natural egoism). The crucial difference is that
Comte believes in the salvation of mankind through common religious practice
(an immanentist solution to the problem of affect regulation), whereas Girard is
extremely skeptical as to the possibilities of any universal solution in this world.
Another thing which brings Girard paradoxically close to Comte is the almost
non-existent role left for political action properly speaking in both systems
religion tends to seize the place of the political. However, whereas Comte tries to
transfer the unifying power of religion into modernity by common rituals, Girard
is more a proponent of an individual solution, the socially unifying power of which
is uncertain and which relies more on belief189 ritual, for Girard, seems to equal
dangerous imitation that can only be combated with renouncement and retreat.
Not only has politics lost its efficacy for Girard,190 but in modernity it has also
been largely replaced by technology politics, science and religion are nowadays
only furnishing alibis for an ever accelerating spiral of violence which soon will

188 See also Girard 2011, 245.

189 Christianity indeed suggests a political dimension that leads to an intervention
in the worldly affairs not in the form of an outrageous proselytism [] but in that of
an individual, personal conversion, because Christianity proposes Christ as the model to
imitate (Girard 2010b, 124).
190 See for instance Girard 2010a, 153.
208 Affectivity and the Social Bond

no longer need any.191 This total unpredictability of violence in fact signifies the
end of war because of the omnipresence of reciprocal violence this is yet another
name for the apocalypse in Girards theory: not some future destruction, but an
already-present undecidability, unpredictability and indifference of violence.
In this situation the possibilities of politics are practically nil: The political
rationality, the last form of the ancient rituals, has failed.192
On the other hand, Girards opinion as to the possibilities of a non-sacrificial
channelling of mimetic violence in the modern society seems to oscillate a great
deal. It is precisely the humanity liberated from sacrificial channelling of violence
that has invented science, technology and modern economy all those cultural
devices that could be seen as new ways of channelling the mimetic violence after
the demise of sacrificial religions. Paradoxically, for Girard these same allegedly
non-violent mechanisms also correspond to the liberation and the acceleration
of violence, free of all constraints and conscious of itself.193 He also declares to
be sceptical as to the attempts of some of the proponents of the mimetic theory
to advocate the possibilities of a non-violent mimetic channelling of affectivity
by modern consumption.194 And yet in another context he praises the economic
globalization as the abolition of the entire sacrificial order and the encompassing
spread of Christian ethics and epistemology, hinting at the existence of islands
of stability (free market economy, technology)195 and paraphrasing Mandeville
who formulated the founding principle of the whole Smithian tradition of
immanent affect regulation (Private vices, public benefits).196 All-in-all, in
Girards theory it seems to be impossible to decide whether it is the light or the
darkness which is gaining ground, since the same reciprocal imitation produces
diametrically opposed effects,197 and whether his dualistic ontology allows for a
non-violent immanent regulation of affectivity in the domain of the historical and

191 Girard 2007d, 8788.

192 Girard 2007d, 132.
193 Girard 2007d, 1617.
194 Here Girard is referring to the theories of Jean-Michel Dupuy and Pierre
Dumouchel whom he criticizes for what he considers to be an excessive optimism: not only
will consumers grow tired of identical objects which are too easily available, but this type
of economy also signifies a waste of natural resources that accelerates the advent of the
end see Girard 2010b, 100.
195 See also Girard 2007c [1978], 10521053.
196 See Girard 2008, 244245.
197 See Girard 2007d, 41. From this point of view Girards vision of modernity,
though completely different as to the analysis of the causes that have led to this situation,
is strangely reminiscent of what Jean Baudrillard has called the logic of hyperreality or of
simulation: the loss of differences and universalized indifference, the acceleration and rise
to extremes as well as the simultaneity of diametrically opposed effects (see for instance
Baudrillard 1983).
Ren Girard and the Mimetic Desire 209

the temporal.198 Ambivalence and undecidability seem to be the last words of this
universal explanation of human cultural evolution.

198 The theorization and development of other possible channels (economy,

technology, money, consumption etc.) for the mimetic desire is one of the central questions
on which other theorists (notably Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Paul Dumouchel), inspired by
Girard but critical towards his theological solution, have concentrated; the other important
questions from this point of view concern the necessity of polarization, especially in the
context of the modern mass society, the necessity of misrecognition for the scapegoat
mechanism to function (and the consequent necessity of a revelation in order to dismantle
it see Scubla 1985) and the overall necessity and the nature of the divine referent (see
Atlan 1985).
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From a historical point of view the four theorists here analysed are easily
grouped in pairs: Comte and Durkheim represent the period of the emergence of
sociological discourse, characterized by disciplinary tensions with neighbouring
sciences, notably biology, psychology and economics; Bataille and Girard belong
to a century profoundly marked by the psychoanalytic discourse (the problem of
the unconscious), but in France also by the eschatological themes and questions
related to subjectivity, coming from philosophy (the phenomenological tradition in
particular). These differing contexts naturally affect the theoretical framework (the
questions raised, the methods used) and discursive landscape (the scientific and
philosophical references) in which the problem of affectivity is posed. However,
besides these contextual specificities the distinctive feature of the theories
considered resides in the particular type of synthesis of the transcendental and
the immanent that they operate through the affective, and its crystallization in the
social which becomes the locus of the mediation between the two spheres. What
all the theories considered seem to share, moreover, is the fact that the privileged
domain of this transcendence is the religious. This is why, in order to understand
the specificity of the theories in question, both the historical and the structural
dimension have to be taken into consideration.
The tension between the utilitarian and the affective, which has often been
translated in a methodological conflict between individualism and holism, has
been particularly prominent in French classical sociology where the question of
affectivity and its role in the constitution of the social bond (le lien social) has
posed itself with particular vigour. This is somewhat paradoxical given the fact that
the whole problem concerning the nature, the origin and the fate of the social bond
in the modern world was not originally posed by sociology, but by the political
and economic theory of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.1 However, the
distinctive feature of the French tradition is the framework in which the question
concerning the nature and the origin but also the regulation of human affectivity
has been posed. This is where French classical sociology both has its roots in and
departs from Anglo-Saxon social theory: whereas the problem of regulation of
affectivity is posed more-or-less in the Hobbesian framework, its solution is not
sought in the economic sphere, like in the case of Adam Smith and his disciples,2
but is fundamentally connected both with the normative and the transcendental.

1 See Laval 2012 [2002], 13.

2 Even Comte who greatly appreciated the work of Smith and the Scottish moralists
would not leave the regulation of egoism and the fortification of altruism to the economic
212 Affectivity and the Social Bond

In French social theory affectivity is not seen as an a priori sympathetic or

benign factor, as in the moral theory of Smith and Ferguson: it can only become
such if transformed by a transcendental centre or force to which it is fixed and
thereby regulated. On the other hand, compared to Hobbes both the register and
the subject of this transcendence are completely changed: the subject of regulation
is no longer the political or sovereign authority, but society itself which does not
operate in the register of the juridical but that of the normative and the symbolic.
In Comtes theory the normative dimension is represented by the social
environment of the egoistic individual, which progressively strengthens his
altruistic tendencies and thereby contributes to his further socialization. However,
this immanent regulation is not sufficient per se, but must be fortified by a
symbolic structure which rallies the altruistic tendencies around a transcendental
centre (Humanity) in which the social is crystallized. Although Comte attaches
his Humanity firmly to the biological existence of the individuals whose activity
keeps it alive, it is precisely the virtual, non-present or transcendental character
of this entity that explains its capacity to regulate human egoism. Only this
supra-individual dimension can give historical humanity a social destination
(constituting the basis of its continuity), but also a symbolic centre that alone
can fortify the altruistic (natural) tendencies of man by offering a content to his
everyday religious practice. In Durkheims work the transcendental thrust is even
more prominent, because he does not subscribe to the naturalistic (biological)
presuppositions constituting the basis of Comtes system. Since the Durkheimian
social constitutes a rupture in the natural order (it cannot be derived from any
natural inclination or tendency of man), it is a self-evident candidate when the
bottomlessness of human desire (generated by mans species-specific capacity
for reflection) has to be restrained. The mode of regulation of the individual
desires that Durkheim proposes in his theory of suicide is both normative (society
sets normative limits experienced as just by the individuals) and transcendental
(society itself constitutes an affective yet transcendental force that regulates the
individual desires). It is only in his theory of religion that Durkheim resolves the
problem of regulation posed by the collective passions (which were both the
subject and object of regulation in Suicide) by proposing a theory of affective
integration in which the free-floating energy of the collective turmoil is regulated
when it gets fixed to shared symbols (or representations).
However, the fact that passions are not regulated by the economic sphere
proper does not mean that the economic would in no way be implicated in the
moderation of affectivity in the French classical sociology. On the contrary,
although the concrete models for the channelization of affectivity are taken from
biology (especially physiology) and mechanistic physics, the general framework
in which these models operate is thoroughly marked by an economistic approach
that extends its grip in the domain of affectivity, now seen in terms of forces and

sphere alone although he fully subscribed to the idea of natural sympathy, for him it was
ultimately not sufficient without an exterior support.
Conclusions 213

energies to be put into productive use. A case in point is Durkheim whose entire
work can be seen through this progressive development. Whereas the language
of structural interdependencies, consensus between parts and organic unities
(dominating the Division of Labor in Society) is largely that of nineteenth-century
biology, and the terminology mixing currents, forces and energies in the
analysis of the suicide is mostly traceable to the physical theories of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries (mechanistic physics, thermodynamics), the model
dominating the Durkheimian theory of religion, in which exaltation, delirium
and collective effervescence (the concepts of nineteenth-century psychology and
psychoanalysis) are channelled ritually in collective representations which then
generate society via the sentiment of unity that they produce (and reproduce) is
emblematic to an entire vogue of thought, the roots of which can be traced back as
far as Adam Smith but which took a new and particularly vigorous turn at the end
of the nineteenth century with the birth of scientific sociology and psychoanalysis.
What should be noted is that economy in this context does not primarily
refer to the socially organized domain of production, exchange and consumption
of goods, but to a specific mode of conceptual appropriation of social reality, the
centre of which is none other than affectivity. What is typical of the economic as a
mode of conceptualization (and of control) of the social reality is the fact that the
entire institutional domain is founded on a totally immanent mode of regulation
in which human affectivity itself unfolds as a mediating and unifying force or
energy. This modulation of social reality presumes that affectivity is socialized
in a quasi-spontaneous manner, so that the sentiments lived by individuals are
shared in a natural fashion that determines the entire dynamic form of their
circulation. It is this fact that constitutes the foundation of both economy and
morality for instance in Adam Smiths theory.3 From this perspective the shift of
the centre of regulation of affectivity inside the individual psyche is the magic
move that lays the psychological foundation for the birth of both the utilitarian
homo oeconomicus, the rational and calculating individual whose affectivity is
channelled in a quasi-automatic fashion by the principle of utility motivating his
actions, and the postmodern hedonistic consumer,4 the twentieth-century anti-hero
of all the sociological theories of consumption, who, endowed with the capacities
of Romantic imagination, lives in the universe of limitless desires precisely the
same manner as the Durkheimian anomic individual did.
In this new historical constellation the emerging French sociology occupies
a fundamentally ambivalent position. On one hand, it is trying to find a mode of
regulation of affectivity, which would be transcendental (exterior to individual),
although the origin of this transcendence is now thought to be social and historical
rather than individual and quasi-eternal (like in seventeenth and eighteenth
century social philosophy, relying on the alleged rational capacity of the individual

3 This point has originally been made by Pierre Macherey see Macherey 1992
1993, chapter II, 2.c.
4 See for instance Campbell 1987.
214 Affectivity and the Social Bond

cogito). On the other hand, the discourse that channels affectivity by normative
(instead of juridical) means and makes it work in a fashion which produces and
reproduces the social unity is profoundly economistic in its undertones. What is
more, the whole idea of a specific genre of laws, comparable to natural laws but
pertaining to the social, is originally conceived by none other than the economists
(before this, the only means of dealing with social affairs was the art of politics
that considered the social to be the product of a will).5 Productive channelization
of affective energy in a fashion which combines normativity and transcendence,
internalization of historically-produced external forms and modes of sociality
(such as moral rules) by institutionalized means (such as religion or education)
this is what characterizes the social theories of both Comte and Durkheim
and what distinguishes their approach to human passions from the preceding
(political) theories starting from Hobbes and relying on juridical means (social
contract, institution of a sovereign instance) to control the chaos brought about
by competing passions. It could even be claimed that what is at stake in the new
science of sociology is precisely the possibility of finding a type of transcendence
that could replace the ancient, juridical mode of regulation of affectivity and resist
the pervasive immanence of the economic that tends to make individual interest
the sole basis of the social bond.6
On the other hand, the problem of affectivity is placed not only at the interface
of sociology and political theory, but also at the point where sociology meets
biology and psychology. Human capacity for affection (for being affected and
expressing ones affects) has been regarded as the most important factor that man
shares with other animals, whereas the specific difference has often been placed
in the exceptional cognitive capacities of man (the capacity for reflection and
imagination in particular). This is why, in the history of social theory, affectivity
has often been connected to nature: it has been considered a natural, instinctive
and to some extent unpredictable factor, the regulation of which has been imputed
to different cultural institutions (be it family, political institutions or language).
However, the nature which the seventeenth-century social and political theorists
and nineteenth-century sociologists are referring to, is no longer the same: whereas
the nature of modern science (Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes) was by-and-large
governed by repetitive, mechanical laws (and sometimes also the Providence,
as with Rousseau7), the nature of nineteenth-century biology, that constitutes the
framework of classical sociology, is also an organic and historical entity, governed
by notions such as life and the laws of evolution.
The particularity of nineteenth-century French sociology is to see the problem
of affectivity in a framework influenced by the biological organicism of the

5 See Laval 2012 [2002], 32.

6 This is more-or-less the argument Christian Laval defends in his book Lambition
sociologique, although his point of view is rather the relationship between the sociological
and the economic as such see Laval 2012 [2002], 41.
7 On this, see for instance Arppe 2005, 1314.
Conclusions 215

time, but at the same time transcending it. What Comte and Durkheim share is
the fact that for both of them the transformation, or rather the transfiguration of
human affectivity, constitutes the origin of society. However, whereas the former
sees this transformation as a slow process of perfection, affecting a biologically
(physiologically) given instinctual structure (there is no radical difference between
the animal and the human in this sense), albeit with the aid of a symbolic centre
exterior to it, in Durkheims theory the transfiguration of affectivity is seen in a
dualistic framework determined by mans psychological specificity compared to
other animals (the homo duplex hypothesis). Although society can be regarded as
belonging to the same continuum as other facts of nature in the sense that it is not
an artificial arrangement created by human will, but a sui generis entity following
its own laws, the human being living in it is torn by an internal schism between
two sorts of states of consciousness: those pertaining to his organic and corporeal
existence and those characterizing his social and spiritual being.
It is this emphasis on the psychological (albeit in a collective form) that
distinguishes not only Durkheim but also the entire French social theory of his
poque from the organistic models of the early nineteenth century (as already
mentioned, Comte was extremely critical towards any sort of psychology which he
deliberately dismissed, replacing it with biology). And even if Durkheim himself
does not have a theory of the unconscious (although he admits the existence of
such psychic states),8 the inner cleavage of the human psyche also hints at the
existence of an uncontrolled affectivity, the source of which is not necessarily
the anomic (normatively isolated) state of the modern individual, but some sort
of deeper (somatic) contagiousness coming from the depths of the collective
subject (the kind of affectivity that Durkheim was to conceptualize later in his
theory of religion). However, what characterizes the theories of both Comte and
Durkheim is the fact that neither was ready to confront the violence implicit
in human affectivity, but rather swept it away by dividing affectivity into two
parts (egoism/altruism, collective effervescence/collective sentiments), of which
only the transfigured part was retained as the foundation of social unity . The
accursed part was either absorbed in societys normative structure with the aid
of a transcendental authority (the social subject) or transformed into a socially
beneficial form by fixing it to collective symbols. Either way, this integration or
channelling of the harmful affectivity, which in fact constituted the social subject,
was realized without violence and without residues.
The dark side of human affectivity was explicitly thematized by twentieth-
century French social theory, here exemplified by Georges Bataille and Ren
Girard, who not only brought it to bear directly on the nature of human sociality,
but also problematized the very constitution of the social subject, the affective
unity of which had been the keystone of Comtes and Durkheims sociology. In
Batailles theory it is precisely the common experience of repulsion (the ultimate
object of which is death) that constitutes the core of human sociality; in Girards

8 See in particular Durkheim 1974 [1898], 34.

216 Affectivity and the Social Bond

theory the affective projection/polarization of collective violence on the victim has

the same role. Both theories are centred on an unconscious collective affectivity
impregnated with violence, but neither is ready to accept a Freudian label without
reservations. For Girard there is no need to postulate an unconscious since
were dealing with a collective mechanism of projection, the traces of which are
conserved in human cultural institutions (and not in some murky unconscious area
of human consciousness) and the basis of which is the mimetic nature of human
desire, the fact that its constituted only in relation to others. For Bataille Freuds
mechanistic model, emphasizing minimal psychic tension as the sole source of
pleasure, pushes aside the constitutive and violent excess of human desire, the fact
that it is a desire to expend (and ultimately to destroy) without limits.
The new feature that these theorists bring into the analysis of desire is the
concept of negativity, largely of Hegelian origin. In Girards theory negativity
not only plays an important role in the constitutive lack of the modern subjects
delusive desire, but it is also at the core of the mimetic logic of sacrifice, in which
internal violence (negation) can only be cured by external violence (negation
of negation). In Batailles case human desire is thoroughly impregnated with
negativity, since its ultimate object is the continuity of being, opened up only in
death. However, for both, Hegelian (or rather Kojvean) negativity is deceptive
and insufficient: Girard replaces the reflective logic of recognition with the
repetitive logic of mimesis that knows no possibility of a historical (or even post-
historical) reconciliation, Bataille substitutes his idle negativity for Kojves
active one, claiming that human existence is constitutively wounded by a desire
for an excess that no historical action can overcome, and no logic of recognition
grasp because it does not belong to the realm of consciousness. Ultimately both
theories run into trouble when trying to find a transcendental point from which
the affective dynamics (governing the sphere of the historical) that they have
themselves launched, could be stopped: Bataille ends up in the impossible concept
of a sovereignty, un-subjected but absolutely powerless in the spheres of history
and action, Girard resorts to the most traditional type of transcendence, the
Kingdom of God, which is not from this world, and a radical individual conversion
as the only means to reach it.
The triangle constituted by affectivity, transcendence and the social is the
point where the theories of the two different centuries meet: affectivity is linked
to transcendence via the social which is made the subject of both. However, the
uneasy character of the marriage between transcendence and affectivity is manifest
in the problematic nature of the social subject. The affective continuity of Comtes
Humanity is ultimately based on the love devoted to the dead, the virtual presence
of whom constitutes the real (and yet absent) foundation of the social subject;
Durkheims collective consciousness is the locus in which free affective energy is
converted into a bound (symbolic) form, but at the same time it is itself produced by
this very same conversion; the affective core of the Bataillean social is constituted
by a shared experience (revulsion) of death, but the object of this experience can
never be reached through representative means and hence the experience itself can
Conclusions 217

never be the basis of any real knowledge; finally, the sole subject of Girards social
is ultimately mimetic desire which produces its subjects as well as its objects in
an endless movement of repetition that no historical mechanism or instance will
ever be able to stop.
The difficulties encountered by these theories are basically two: the mediation
between the individual and the collective on one hand, and that between the
affective and the symbolic on the other. The problem with holistic theories of the
social, relying on the emergent properties of the collective subject, is that affectivity
cannot really be separated from its corporeal basis which is necessarily individual.
There are by-and-large two ways out of this dilemma. Either the biological and
corporeal (individual) existence has to be made an organic basis of the collective
subject from which the transcendental dimension is then somehow separated this
is the Comtean solution, however, this leads to a peculiar and rather schizophrenic
situation in which the very existence of transcendence is made dependent on
its production/reproduction on the phenomenological level. The other solution
is the standard holistic claim according to which the combination, gathering or
communication between the individuals produces affective effects that cannot be
reduced to their constituent parts this is more-or-less the solution that the other
theorists go for. However, this is really just another way of circumventing the
problem that now touches the nature of the synthesis (be it called contagion,
communication or polarization) which is supposed to produce the emergent
effects. The paradigmatic example of this difficulty is the Durkheimian notion
of the sacred, but it is equally present in Batailles idea of communication or the
relationship of sharing, constitutive to his notion of community, and Girards
idea of polarization of affective violence that generates the social via the surrogate
victim. The very exteriority of the social in relation to the individuals constituting
it remains at the centre of the puzzle.
This is undoubtedly the reason why the privileged domain of the affective
is in all theories the religious: not because the religious would per se constitute
some sort of vestige of the divine transcendence in social theory, but because it is
intertwined with the symbolic that becomes the very locus of the transcendence
of the social.9 The symbolic is the transcendental third needed to mediate the
inter-individual relationship, which earlier political theory had placed in the
juridical sphere. This is also why the religious and the symbolic tend to overlap
in all the theories considered: either they are intermingled in a religious practice
that constitutes the only possible basis of social cohesion and continuity even in
modern society (Comte), or they are one in the hypothetical origin of the social
(Durkheim, Bataille and Girard), although they later get differentiated in the
various institutional forms to which the affective impetus gives birth. However,
the common difficulty of the theories postulating the origin of the social in the

9 At least this is the case with the theories of Durkheim, Bataille and Girard (although
the symbolic or social transcendence is for Girard precisely the deviated one, opposed to
the true transcendence of God).
218 Affectivity and the Social Bond

affective and its symbolic transformation is the attempt to infer transcendence

from immanence. In Durkheims case the problem is crystallized in the ambivalent
character of the first religious signifier (the sacred that also constitutes an affective
force), in Batailles theory it is condensed in the question concerning the origin
of prohibitions (that both generate the affective dynamics of attraction/repulsion
and are generated by it) and in Girards scheme it resides in the repetition
of mimetic violence, which is supposed to produce the qualitative leap giving
birth to the symbolic via the polarization of violence to the victim. The origin
of transcendence, here incarnated in the symbolic, is indeed a problem that no
anthropological or sociological theory will ever solve for the simple reason that it
is not an empirical question.
The difficulties involved in the synthesis of the affective and the
transcendental are no less when one tries to theorize the fate of the affective/
transcendental social in a world where its original channel of expression and
regulation, namely religion, is progressively losing its grip. In all the theories
considered affectivity, besides constituting the foundation of the social bond,
is also a crisis phenomenon, and this crisis is fundamentally connected with
the fate of the religious in modernity. Comte is the only theorist who seriously
tries to propose a religious solution to the moral crisis of modernity, which for
him is linked to growing egoism and lack of spiritual centre coordinating a
common faith. For the others religion has definitely lost its capacity to regulate
collective affectivity even for Bataille who still toys with the possibility of a
new mythology before the Second World War. However, the same also applies
to the political which the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century social contract
theories had still seen as the primary domain of affective regulation. Again
Comte is the only theorist to suggest a political solution to the problem of
regulation, but as earlier demonstrated politics is here just another version
of his positivist religion, its regulative grip being almost organic in the end.
Durkheim puts his faith in the regulative capacity of the social itself, either seen
from a morphological angle (the division of labour, the intermediary groups) or
from the viewpoint of the collective consciousness (the moral and normative
force of the social, inscribed in collective representations and interiorized in
education). Batailles short period of political activism in the 1930s is quickly
replaced by a growing scepticism as to the possibilities of action in general,
not to speak of its capacity to channel, or to express, mans excessive impulses.
In Batailles case we could even speak of a structural incapacity of the sphere
of action to contain human affectivity which is excessive by definition, that is,
defies any attempt of regulation affectivity can only be repressed or expressed
in an explosive manner, never used or channelled for other purposes. Girard
declares openly the end of the political and its replacement by technology and
economy in a universe governed by violent reciprocity that can at best be diluted,
but never completely eliminated in the historical world except for those who
Conclusions 219

convert. In Girardian modernity affective crisis has become omnipresent, the

normal state of things.10
The aversion to the political may be linked to another factor that Comte,
Bataille and Girard all share, namely the paradoxical temporality characterizing
the affective continuity in their theory. In Comtes scheme the future and the
present are impregnated with the past because of the regulative effect of the dead
to whom the love of the living is devoted, but on the other hand the affective unity
of the present is possible only thanks to a trans-individual symbolic telos given
in the form of Humanity, the perfection of which is both the aim and the content
of the life of those who believe in it and are devoted to it. In Girards model
the historical temporality is subjected to the perspective of an apocalyptic end
which befalls those who do not convert, that is, who are denied access to the true
transcendence opened only with the aid of a divine act of grace. As opposite as
these schemes may seem to be, they are in fact parallel in the sense that in both
temporal existence is governed by the horizon of a final state or salvation and
for both this state is present as a virtuality in the historical reality. However, in
Comtes case this virtuality is due to the fact that real and authentic subjectivity
is only possible in a posthumous or suspended form, as the faithful servants of
Humanity become subjects first in the memory of the living, whereas for Girard it
can be grasped during historical existence, but only through a personal conversion
which is ultimately due to divine grace. In other words, for Comte Paradise has to
be merited (although relative happiness is possible for each and every one in the
positive state) whereas for Girard it can only be opened to the individual through
an unfathomable gift offered by the divine (the great multitude of men being
doomed to live in a universe of growing violence). This anticipatory temporality,
common to all philosophies of history, is the horizon from which Bataille is
striving to detach himself, but only to remain prisoner to its reverse version in
which history appears as a cavalcade of different forms of unconscious repression
that no superior knowledge or exterior point of view will ever redeem. In this
constellation the transcendental is only opened in ephemeral strikes of a shared
experience, which escape the discursive mode of knowledge and cannot constitute
any kind of historical or phenomenological continuity. As for Comte and Girard,
the overall dismissal of the political is not hard to understand: politics as an
effective means of modifying the course of a history that unfolds in an anticipatory
mode of temporality can at best be a technique of implementing a pre-existing
telos or a brake (katechon) delaying its advent, but it can never really change
it especially when its foundation is sealed in the affective constitution of man.

10 No wonder that the two political theorists he feels closest to are Clausewitz and
Carl Schmitt see Girard 2007d; on the relationship of Schmitts political theory and
Girards mimetic theory, especially the notions of apocalypse and katechon (greek,
meaning that which withholds or restrains, in its Girardian connotations close to the
notion of pharmakon, the remedy and the poison), see also Palaver 2007.
220 Affectivity and the Social Bond

All said and done, in relation to the total immanence of the economic
(individual utility and interest as the sole unifying bond of modern societies) the
question may well be, whether the social bond can do without a third of reference
and of mediation,11 that is, a symbolic dimension irreducible to the empirical
interest of the individuals, but it should not be forgotten that the religious seen as
the locus of this transcendence has not only lost its grip in the Western societies,
but is also impregnated with an affective element that seriously undermines its
capacity to incarnate any sort of pure symbolic. The question is whether such
a transcendence, purified of the affective element, is at all possible in the realm
of the social. Durkheim, as is well known, sought the answer to this question in
the domain of morality and values, such as individualism. The morality he had
in mind was precisely of the Kantian type, condensed in impersonal rules and
obligations. Although he also saw that moral rules have to be experienced as just
by the individuals complying with them and that society (constituting both the
subject and the object of these rules) has to be loved as well as respected (that
is, there must be a positive social sentiment constituting the moral community
prior to obligations),12 the foundation of morality was for him especially in
more developed and complex societies nonetheless the impersonal symbolic
obligation, not affectivity. This is a capital difference compared to the Anglo-Saxon
or rather Scottish tradition of moral sentiments on which most contemporary
economic thinking is based and where the congenital sympathy of men toward
each other gets channelled in a quasi-natural manner in the sphere of economic
exchange. This is why also the legality on which inter-human relations are based is
in this theoretical tradition completely natural, that is, not dependent on any formal
juridical principles. Hence, it does not need any contract by which the individuals,
giving their personal and reflective consent, would be introduced to collective life,
like in the social contract tradition represented by Hobbes and Rousseau.13 But
what is more, it does not need any transcendental instance to mediate between
individual and social interests: the individual affectivity circulates immediately
in a collective form, because utility and interest constitute the very vehicle of
affective energy.14 This is why individual affectivity is immediately productive on
the collective level.

11 Laval 2012 [2002], 41.

12 See Watts Miller 1996, 151.
13 This observation has originally been made by Pierre Macherey (19921993,
chapter II, 2.c).
14 This, of course, doesnt mean that there wouldnt be any negotiation or conciliation
between individual interests in the market, on the contrary. For instance in Adam Smiths
theory the complex structure of the market in a society of an advanced division of labour
obliges the individuals to develop such mental capacities and virtues (notably self-control)
that benefit the constant commerce with the others (see for instance Kangas 2001, 228231
and Dickey 1986). However, this does not change the fact that the whole sphere of human
commerce (the sphere of the social) is based on a circulation of values (whether moral or
economic) which is completely immanent, in no need of a transcendental instance or level
Conclusions 221

By contrast, for Durkheim morality represents just the sort of centre of

impersonal symbolic attachment or fixation that transforms the contagious
affectivity of the effervescent crowd into a socially beneficial form and that also
mediates between the individual and the collective affectivity. The transformation
that morality as a collective representation operates is thus twofold: it channels
chaotic individual desires into a collective form (social sentiment) and it fixes
the collective affectivity produced in this way to a socially-mediated symbolic
form (moral values or collective representations, such as individualism). In a
sense the originality of Durkheim is that he not only challenged the Comtean
ideal of a community based on common beliefs and replaced it with an organic
model founded on structural factors (such as the intermediary groups in the society
of advanced division of labour); but that even later, when stressing the role of
collective representations as the centre of affective attraction and the community
created around them, he chose as the emblematic, unifying centre of modernity the
very representation (individual) that the whole philosophical tradition before him
had used as the starting point for a diametrically opposite methodological credo
and that by its very form (sociality) tended to soothe the potentially destructive
implications of the content (atomic individualism eroding the social fabric). The
Durkheimian individual is a socially constituted universal form. On a historical
level this idea could be translated in the notion of an organic self whose identity is
socio-historically formed and whose situatedness thus lays the foundation also for
his moral reflections concerning the very values sustaining his identity.15 However,
this also means that the values constituting the social identity of the organic self
have a historically variable content. In other words, it is by no means granted that
the individual (or even the collective subject) will always be affectively attached
to the representational content that also constitutes the formal condition of his
individuality, that is, the liberal and autonomous self at least the primacy of this
content may be challenged by other representations to which the collective subject
gets affectively attached.
The same also applies to the good of the social whole, which is strongly
dependent on the historical situation and on the varying structural and operational
conditions of different social spheres. Roughly put, what was good for the
monarchy may not be so for the republic (historical conditions) or, to use a more
modern example, what is commendable for the welfare state may not be beneficial
for the financial market (structural conditions). But what is more, the very same
representations that are supposed to act as a stable point of fixation for collective
affectivity and thereby prevent the anomic states caused by the overheated

of regulation (social contract or society understood as a sui generis reality). Although it

seems that Smiths skepticism towards the self-regulative capacities of the market grew
with time, so did his doubts about the possibilities of any exterior intervention (see
Kangas 2001, 240245).
15 The notion of organic self has been proposed in this context by W. Watts Miller
(1996, 256).
222 Affectivity and the Social Bond

economy in periods of crisis are, in Durkheims theory, brought about precisely

during creative periods of effervescence, like for instance the 1789 Revolution.
In this sense the very basis of moral rules is already affectively contaminated
not only by its content but by its very constitution (the fixation of free-floating
affective energy in collective representations). This is why the same factors that
guide the dynamic change of the social whole can also lead to its destruction.
In modern, extremely differentiated (if not downright atomized), culture where
isolated affective outbursts are not only channelled but also fomented by the media
and the virtual chat rooms of so-called social media, the universal values of
the great Revolution, such as the sacred nature of the human (or the cult of
the individual as Durkheim called it), are constantly put into question while all
sorts of passionate reactions freely proliferate (for instance hate groups explicitly
founded on exclusion and repulsion, for whom the universal human value is
but another Enlightenment myth). Indeed, the media constitutes an important
symbolic channel for collective affectivity in modern society,16 but this symbolic
channelization does not always benefit the social whole sometimes it works for
intermediary groups the sole aim of which is to undermine (or downright destroy)
the established social structure and the symbolic values sustaining it. On the other
hand, the virtual and ultra-rapid diffusion and accumulation of real passions, their
extreme contagiousness to use a Tardean metaphor or their mimetic nature to
use a Girardian one, is one of the characteristic features of contemporary global
In fact, even if we remain inside the Durkheimian (transcendentalist) model
of affective regulation and integration by the symbolic, it can be claimed that
the sacred values or representations of the neoliberal market economy, such
as productivity, have insidiously crept next to or even displaced the universal
values of the Revolution, such as the sacredness of the person or the equality of
all men. The new universal community of identity17 that modern men share is not
that of bare life (the sheer fact of being human), nor is it the community unified
by the abstract freedom of the individual (the Enlightenment ideals), but that of
bare production: the fact of being productive members of a global economy that
no man can escape, whether in Africa or in Hong Kong. The modern universal
community of a formula, empty of any idea because it has to be a symbol of
all the ideas,18 could indeed be that of production that each society is free to
fill with the concrete content best suited for the spirit of the times; in any case,
non-production (or non-growth) would, from this point of view or at this
level of universality, equal death. This community of symbols indeed, the icon
and the logos19 extends from Greece to China: it is a language immediately

16 See for instance Sumiala 2012.

17 With which Durkheim wanted to replace the Comtean community of belief, that is,
a social bond based on shared, consensual values see Watts Miller 1996, 248.
18 Watts Miller 1996, 248.
19 Watts Miller 1996, 248.
Conclusions 223

comprehended by everyone, a media-become-message, a true universalism if

ever there was one. And as always, such a community of symbols, if invested
with strong affective energy, can quickly become perilous on the political level
(the elimination of those not fulfilling the iconic criteria) or alternatively,
immersed in its empty, minimal universalism (the logic of the smallest common
denominator), remain a pure signifier, a sort of modern mana, but also an iron
cage from which no individual can break out as much as he eventually wanted to
(this is precisely the implosive violence of modern empty or simulated sociality
which Jean Baudrillard is referring to: sociality revolving around pure signs,
devoid of any meaning or passionate content, but paradoxically working even
better because of its very emptiness).20
Indeed, the violence of the community based on a common identity does not
need to be explicit: it does not necessarily manifest itself in the form of bloody
battles or concentration camps (although it can and does indirectly produce both:
one only has to look at the Australian camps reserved for illegal immigrants, or the
mutinies of the poor in what we nowadays discretely call the developing world,
or simply, developing economies). It is more insidious, operating through
discrete marginalization of those who do not fit in: the poor, the unemployed
and the generally non-productive, the useless (the accursed part of the modern
neo-liberal economy). Of course one might argue that the problem is precisely
the non-universal or particularistic nature of the hegemonic representation:
production or productivity is not sufficiently universal (or abstract) on the
contrary, it is entirely political in content and highly segregating in nature, leaving
out entire segments of the population who do not fill the criteria because of their
natural characteristics (the old, the young, the disabled etc.). But then again, is
this not the case with every possible symbol taken as the basis of a community
that revolves around a shared identity? The Durkheimian individual or man
is no less exclusive, as the modern animal rights movement so blatantly shows.
The enslavement of man to the logic of the economic (the total immanence of
the universal community of production) is nothing compared to the sufferings of
those belonging to other species not only their death but most of all the life
that we, the enlightened human beings, force them to live.21 Identification always
entails exclusion, no matter how minimalistic or seemingly empty the criterion

20 See for instance Baudrillard 1978.

21 In this sense the Humanity of Comte was less exclusive because it also comprised
the animals at least the sociable ones. However, as Jacques Derrida (2006, 10) has pointed
out, the violence done to the animal already begins with the pseudo-concept animal used
in singular, as if all animals from the worm to the chimpanzee constituted a homogeneous
whole to which the human would be radically opposed. [S]peech, reason, experience of
death, mourning, culture, institution, technique, clothes, lie, dissimulation of dissimulation,
erasure of traces, gift, laughter, cry, respect etc. [] the most powerful of the philosophic
traditions in which we live has refused animal all this (Derrida 2006, 10).
224 Affectivity and the Social Bond

(symbol or representation) chosen as its basis the sole community free from this
is either utopian (Comte) or not realizable on this earth (Girard).
This then is where we stand: between an ever-present risk of destructive
extremism, caused by the blindness of the affective fixation (the political problem
of fascism), the empty iron cage of a single representation (be it individualism or
productivity), and total renouncement of any active (political) stance because
of the fear of ending up in the economic circle where affectivity is but one stake in
the game, an investment (the ultimate paradox of neo-liberal economy). However,
it should be noticed that on the theoretical level this conceptual impasse is also the
result of the change that occurred in European social theory during the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries and that is crystallized in the slow expansion of economic
rationality, its concepts as well as its discursive logic, into other disciplines
without forgetting the parallel change on the level of the social, that is the invasion
of the economic into other spheres of life. From the perspective of affectivity
there is no essential difference between early liberal and modern neo-liberal
tradition: what is at stake is not so much the idea of freedom (whether natural or
artificial) and the ensuing logic of governmentality with its inner paralogisms in
the Foucauldian sense,22 but the total immanence of the regulation of affectivity,
the quasi-natural coincidence of the individual and the social in the circulation of
affectivity. It is also here that we touch the very root of the social, its nature as a
bond. When affectivity itself starts to circulate in the form of utility and interest,
translating the individual desire immediately on the social level (the invisible
hand), a new quest of transcendence is born in the domain of social theory the
concept of society, indeed sociology as a discipline, can be seen as an answer to
this quest.23 The problem is the exact nature of the new transcendental (holistic)
subject or entity it postulates: if the famous transcendence of the social resides
in its symbolic nature, then this symbolicity should somehow be able to rise above
the affective. However, the conceptual mode in which the transcendence of the
social is realized has been none other than that of productive use: affectivity itself,
when socially channelled, becomes the basis (and in most cases also the origin)
of social transcendence.24 This is the constitutive problem of the collective subject
based on affectivity: it is made out of the very same stuff as the anomic individual,
the limitless desires of whom make the world go round.
In spite of these theoretical paradoxes, what seems to be clear is that on the
social level human affectivity left at the mercy of the invisible hand (the total

22 See for instance Foucault 2004a and 2004b.

23 A similar vein of thought has been suggested by the Finnish social theorist Risto
Kangas who sees the concept of society as both the product and the object of the nineteenth
century sociology see Kangas 2001. On the other hand, Paul Benichou has considered
art by-and-large from the same point of view, that is as an answer to the quest of a new
spiritual authority in the period of Romanticism see Benichou 2004, 19972017.
24 This is why Lvi-Strauss, more faithful to the spirit of the Kantian transcendentalism
in this sense than Durkheim, avoided the question of affectivity like the plague.
Conclusions 225

immanence) of the economic sphere is rapidly leading to a global disaster. The

question is, whether the point of transcendence, desperately needed for any sort
of turn to become possible (either in theory or in reality), should be sought in the
normative sphere (new global values like the ideology of degrowth, slowing
down, green technologies, animal rights etc.) or rather in some sort of symbolic
structure that would altogether surpass the level of ideational/representational
content dominating the normative perspective based on values. The political
dangers of the first solution are obvious: any single value or signified positioned
at the top can quickly lead to the worst sort of terrorism of the absolute25 as
Heidegger and Bataille both remarked, the place of God (the head) has to remain
empty.26 As to the structural option, the standard sociological solution has been the
theory of institutions (the corporations of Durkheim being a case in point) in fact
the social as an autonomous sphere is arguably nothing else but this mediation.
The question is whether the structural mediation can be kept clean of the corrosive
logic of affective immanence after all, it is precisely this sort social mediation that
we seem to be lacking in the present situation in which the utilitarian perspective
(the investment of affectivity, affectivity as an investment) is all-pervasive, so
that the social institutions themselves have become mere means in the service of
interests, whether collective or individual27 (in the domain of affectivity interest
seems to be an equalizer at least as powerful as money is in the circulation of
commodities). From this perspective what should be further analysed are both
the conceptual conditions and the concrete contexts of social institutions seen
precisely as vehicles of affectivity what sort of mediation do they constitute to
be precise? What exactly is the social component of these social institutions?
The social is, after all, something more continuous and stable than the ephemeral
transactions in the market but in what sense and on what conditions can it rise
above the affective immanence characteristic of the economic?28
On the other hand, in spite of its contemporary hegemony (the fact that it has
succeeded in expanding its specific logic in every possible area of life) economy
itself can be seen as just one of these institutional spheres. From this perspective

25 Or, as the case of Auguste Comte so blatantly shows, to an absolutely superhuman

effort in order to keep transcendence alive through a constant and uniform everyday
practice from which no one is dispensed on this, see the excellent discussion of Wernick
2001, 210.
26 See Heidegger 2003 [1943]; Bataille 1970j [1937].
27 See also Laval 2012 [2002], 5051. Even the social media that for many has
become the centre of new forms of attachment, solidarity and social change, is at the same
time firmly subordinated to the logic of utility and promotion, both corporate (users as
audience, that is, as a product sold to the advertisers) and private (networking, that is, the
interest-driven approach to private relations, the dominance of what do I get out of this?)
28 The problem could also be rephrased by asking, whether there is any other way
of conceptualizing an affective macro-level than the psychological postulate of a universal
unconscious (or its Lvi-Straussian linguistic version, the universal structures of the
226 Affectivity and the Social Bond

we should not be talking about economy in general terms, as a timeless universal

structure, but rather about one of its specific historical forms, namely neo-liberal
capitalism. It is this form that has become the universal mediator of human
affectivity in the modern world, but only by a slow process of expansion and
obfuscation of its own historical (and interested) character. The problem would
then be not so much the economic (immanent) regulation of affectivity per se,
but rather the specific historical mode that this regulation or channelization has
taken and its expansion to all other human institutions and spheres of activity29
the fact that the economic has become the sole medium of human affectivity,
its prime institutional and discursive expression in any area of life. From this
point of view, a historical analysis of the process should be further extended in
the domain of affectivity in order to see, what sorts of modifications (theoretical as
well as empirical) have characterized it in different times and places (for instance
the differences between the Anglo-Saxon, German and French social theories as
well as the eventual divergences between the classical and neo-liberal versions of
economic theory would merit further attention).
However, what both perspectives (the structural as well as the genealogical)
still leave open is the conceptual question concerning the specific nature of the
transcendence of the social and most of all its relationship to affectivity. The
traditional candidate for this position, namely the symbolic, can strictly speaking
only fulfil its role if purified of the affective element (as Lvi-Strauss well saw)
but this linguistic (or mentalist) solution also purifies the social of any sort of
violence, as it has been aptly remarked.30 Another and perhaps more Maussian
solution would be to tackle the problem through the social practices in which the
symbolic as a relation and a network is constantly produced and reproduced;31
however, this practical and historicized solution also seems to amount to the
dissolution of transcendence in the immanence of social practice. This is the
theoretical problem that would still need to be worked through: is there any way of
making transcendence and affectivity cohabitate the same theoretical framework
without posing the latter as the origin which has somehow produced or generated
the former? This is the crucial point since the genetic question can only lead to
untenable paralogisms that no meta-theory or anthropology of the symbolic will
ever resolve. Tentatively put, this would amount to some sort of historicized
transcendence (in spite of the profoundly paradoxical nature of the term) that
would avoid the theoretical totalitarianism of structural mechanisms (whether
based on implosive simulation or mimetic desire), but also the metaphysical
traps of philosophies of history with their varying ends, as well as the potential

29 The Swedish historian Peter Englund has given a vivid description of the effects
that the extension of the logic of productivity to the political domain had for instance in the
purges of Stalin in the 1930s and the Nazi extermination camps only some years later see
Englund 1996.
30 See for instance Tarot 1999, 633.
31 On this, see Tarot 1999, 624630.
Conclusions 227

violence of new religions based on affective identification not to speak of

the political emptiness of a transcendence positively realized and reproduced
(Comte). Perhaps the transcendence of the social can never be transcendent in
the demanding, philosophical sense of the term, precisely because the social is
always already contaminated by affectivity and historicity. But at the same time
this might be the only form of transcendence open for it. Is such a transcendence
possible and would it still merit the name? Or is transcendence only thinkable (and
only desirable, one might add) in the marginal sense of an ever-absent condition
of possibility? This is the larger theoretical question that, although it exceeds the
scope of this study, is vital for any effort to think of a non-immanent basis of
sociality of which affectivity would still be a constitutive part.
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accumulation (productive) 106, 11415, fascism 102, 110, 118, 1212, 1245,
119 1267
Acphale 106, 1256, 127, 130, 137 heterogeneous 110, 11112, 113, 118,
affective economy 278, 50, 105, 1067 11920, 132
affective energy 214, 220 homogeneous 110, 117, 11819, 124,
Bataille 106, 121, 122, 126, 138, 139, 132
141 human desire 105, 110, 133
Comte 335, 48 negativity 106, 116n34, 128, 12930,
Durkheim 7980, 856, 934, 956, 1412, 1489, 1567, 216
100101, 102, 216 prohibition 111, 117, 132, 133, 135,
Girard 160, 201 1434, 146, 150, 218
affective faculties 21, 356 religion 110, 127
affective violence see violence repulsion 128, 1334, 1367, 180, 215,
affectivity 14, 59, 523, 21119, 21617
22023, 2245 sacred 110, 11213, 117, 1312,
collective 7880, 824, 13840, 216, 1334, 142
218, 2212 sacrifice 130, 1412, 14952, 155
alienation 119n43, 142, 143 sovereignty 127, 139, 144n128, 152,
altruism 1545, 156, 216
Comte 16, 17, 214, 289, 30, 31, 32, transgression 117, 120, 132, 133, 135,
334, 43 144, 146, 1489, 153
Durkheim 64, 65, 80 violence 105, 106, 117, 124, 128,
ambivalence of the sacred 912, 110, 150151, 1567, 180
120, 1889 benevolence 30, 31, 41, 434
anomic suicide 67, 73, 77, 78
anthropology 1867, 18990, 1913, 199, Caillois, Roger 106, 1378
205 Christian Revelation 16061, 162, 1712,
Apocalypses 202, 208 186, 198, 199203, 2056
appropriation 109, 11415, 118n42 civilization 25, 589
attachment 30, 31, 32, 43 collective affectivity 7880, 824, 13840,
216, 218, 2212
Bataille, Georges 1056, 10710, 1258, collective consciousness 59, 65, 757,
168, 171, 211, 215, 217, 219 8991, 96, 97, 98, 131, 216, 218
accumulation 106, 11415, 119 collective effervescence 57, 82, 85, 96,
affective energy 106, 121, 122, 126, 100101, 150, 160
138, 139, 141 collective representations 63, 789,
expenditure 106, 107, 109, 11314, 84n107, 878, 9091, 934, 98,
115, 119, 120, 1334, 145 101, 213
246 Affectivity and the Social Bond

collective sentiments 57, 75, 767, 867, division of labour 55, 56, 57, 656, 67,
88, 89, 94, 98, 131 69, 76, 102
collective violence see spontaneous egoism 64, 65, 80
lynching; surrogate victimage; homo duplex 57, 613, 645, 99, 215
violence human desire 66, 6770, 715, 767,
Collge de Sociologie 106, 1256, 130, 1323, 172
137 religion 2, 56, 823, 91, 92, 96, 101,
Comte, Auguste 11, 1520, 259, 34, 212, 213
4850, 523, 211, 214, 215 sacred 91, 925, 120, 131, 17980,
affective energy 335, 48 189, 217
altruism 16, 17, 214, 289, 30, 31, 32, suicide 56, 57, 67, 73, 778, 80, 212
334, 43
division of labour 30, 323 economy 45, 7, 2930, 213, 2223, 224,
egoism 17, 21, 22, 24, 2830, 31, 32, 2256
334, 35 egoism
Humanity 25n60, 36, 38, 448, 5052, Comte 17, 21, 22, 24, 2830, 31, 32,
97, 98, 212, 216, 219 334, 35
positivism 1112, 1415, 27 Durkheim 64, 65, 80
positivist religion 11, 1314, 27, 36, emotional ambivalence 106, 117, 134, 138,
3740, 45, 49, 207, 218 143
religion 1114, 27, 3640, 42, 45, 49, end of history 1289, 166
204, 207, 218 equilibrium 77, 812
contagion 723, 834, 131, 162n15 excretion 10910, 112, 118n42
conversion 1712, 173, 200, 2023, 2045, expenditure (useless) 106, 107, 109,
206, 207, 216, 219 11314, 115, 119, 120, 1334, 145
culture 1823, 185, 1867, 18990, 1913 experience 1468

death 16, 46, 47, 1356, 137, 1413, 155, fascism 102, 110, 118, 1212, 1245, 1267
1712 Freud, Sigmund 3, 4, 6, 80n88, 1224, 134,
Descartes, R. 2n8, 4 135n98, 160, 1745, 216
division of labour
Comte 30, 323 Gall, Joseph 2021, 34
Durkheim 55, 56, 57, 656, 67, 69, 76, Girard, Ren 15962, 18081, 182, 2067,
102 2089, 211, 21516, 21819
Durkheim, mile 1, 557, 59, 978, 211, affective energy 160, 201
214, 215, 218, 220, 221, 222 Christian Revelation 16061, 162,
affective energy 7980, 856, 934, 1712, 186, 198, 199203, 2056
956, 100101, 102, 216 conversion 1712, 173, 200, 2023,
altruism 64, 65, 80 2045, 206, 207, 216, 219
collective consciousness 59, 65, 757, hominization 184, 186, 1878, 18990,
8991, 96, 97, 98, 131, 216, 218 1913, 205
collective effervescence 57, 82, 85, 96, human desire 159, 166, 167, 172, 173,
100101, 150, 160 178, 1957
collective representations 63, 789, mimetic desire 159, 161, 1623,
84n107, 878, 9091, 934, 98, 16471, 173, 1756, 179, 18990,
101, 213 1956, 216
collective sentiments 57, 75, 767, misapprehension 160, 168, 175n55,
867, 88, 89, 94, 98, 131 177, 182, 197, 198, 203
Index 247

negativity 161, 171, 216 intelligence 1920, 21, 23, 26, 31

prohibition 180, 182, 188, 191, 1923
religion 159, 160, 161, 173, 174, 177, Kojve, Alexandre 136, 142, 1634,
189, 198200, 204, 207 1657, 171
sacred 177, 17980, 186, 187, 1889 negativity 1289, 166, 216
sacrifice 159, 1745, 1767, 179, 187,
216 Lvi-Strauss, Claude 160, 18082, 183,
spontaneous lynching 160, 187, 188, 184n91, 224n24
191 love 414, 478, 207
surrogate victimage 160, 161, 1767,
1823, 185, 187, 190, 191, 1945, marriage 323, 345
1979 Marx, Karl 107, 112, 119n43
transcendence 161, 164, 172, 191, 192, materialism 4n16, 11517
199, 200201, 206, 216 Mauss, Marcel 11314, 181
transgression 180, 188, 191, 192, 194 Mill, John Stuart 11
violence 15961, 16971, 17380, mimesis 13940, 161, 167, 1689, 186,
1823, 1845, 18790, 1912, 189, 1967, 216
1978, 2012, 2078 mimetic desire 159, 161, 1623, 16471,
173, 1756, 179, 18990, 1956,
Hegel, Georg W.F. 51, 107, 136, 141, 142, 216
171, 197, 216 mimetic violence see violence
phenomenology 129n79, 1634, 169 misapprehension 160, 168, 175n55, 177,
heterogeneous 10910, 11113, 11718, 182, 197, 198, 203
11922, 124, 132
Hobbes, Thomas 23, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1612, negativity 1289, 167, 216
184, 19091 Bataille 106, 116n34, 128, 12930,
hominization 184, 186, 1878, 18990, 1412, 1489, 1567, 216
1913, 205 Girard 161, 171, 216
homo duplex 57, 613, 645, 99, 215 Kojve 1289, 166, 216
homogeneous 110, 117, 11819, 12021, new fetishism 45
124, 132 Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 1267, 169
human desire 7071, 1412, 1657
Bataille 105, 110, 133 original murder 160, 1745, 176, 1778,
Durkheim 66, 6770, 715, 767, 187, 188, 191, 192, 194
1323, 172
Girard 159, 166, 167, 172, 173, 178, passions 23, 45, 7, 523, 66, 7072,
1957 967, 212
human nature 1516, 1920, 256, 5761, phenomenology 129n79, 1634, 169
634, 98100, 141, 204 polarization of violence 161, 191, 192,
Humanity 25n60, 36, 38, 448, 5052, 97, 197, 198
98, 212, 216, 219 politics 23, 45, 6, 78, 18, 402, 4850,
52, 967, 1536, 2078, 21819
identification 123, 135n98, 140, 175, positivism 1112, 1415, 27, 35n101, 3940
2234 positivist religion 11, 1314, 27, 36,
imagination 70, 71n57, 72 3740, 45, 49, 207, 218
imitation 723, 83, 84, 173, 2034 priests 39, 48
incest, prohibition of 182, 183n88 prohibition 11011, 12021, 131, 134, 188,
instincts 278, 3031, 34, 367, 43, 50 218
248 Affectivity and the Social Bond

Bataille 111, 117, 132, 133, 135, social transcendence 90, 136, 217, 220,
1434, 146, 150, 218 224, 2267
Girard 180, 182, 188, 191, 1923 sociality 18, 24, 312, 35, 36, 5860, 63,
87, 214, 21516
religion 4042, 211, 21718 sociology 12, 6, 78, 1819, 55, 21112,
Bataille 110, 127 21315, 224
Comte 1114, 27, 3640, 42, 45, 49, sovereignty 127, 139, 144n128, 152,
204, 207, 218 1545, 156, 216
Durkheim 2, 56, 823, 91, 92, 96, 101, spontaneous lynching 160, 187, 188, 191
212, 213 structuralism 1812
Girard 159, 160, 161, 173, 174, 177, suggestion 1223
189, 198200, 204, 207 suicide 56, 57, 67, 73, 778, 80, 212
repulsion 128, 1334, 1367, 180, 215, surrogate victimage 160, 161, 1767,
21617 1823, 185, 187, 190, 191, 1945,
ritual scapegoating see scapegoat 1979
mechanism symbols 812, 83, 847, 97, 212, 2223
ritual violence see sacrifice; violence
Robertson Smith, William 92, 95 Tarde, Gabriel 83, 84
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 3n10, 18, tragic 127, 128, 130, 137, 138
4042, 60n23, 7071, 76n71, 967, transcendence 5, 8, 5051, 723, 21112,
190n117 214, 216, 21718, 225
Girard 161, 164, 172, 191, 192, 199,
sacred 912, 93, 956, 11213, 134, 200201, 206, 216
1378, 174 social 90, 136, 217, 220, 224, 2267
Bataille 110, 11213, 117, 1312, transgression
1334, 142 Bataille 117, 120, 132, 133, 135, 144,
Durkheim 91, 925, 120, 131, 17980 146, 1489, 153
Girard 177, 17980, 186, 187, 1889 Girard 180, 188, 191, 192, 194
Bataille 130, 1412, 14952, 155 unconscious 6, 59, 8990, 111n16, 116n36,
Girard 159, 1745, 1767, 179, 187, 119, 123n55, 131, 1478, 1756,
216 215, 216
sacrificial crisis 1778, 179, 185 unhappy consciousness 1634, 165
sacrificial violence see spontaneous
lynching; surrogate victimage vegetative life 16, 20, 29, 35
scapegoat mechanism 175n55, 1767, 194, veneration 30, 312, 43, 45
195, 197, 198 violence 6, 489, 160, 163, 21516, 223
sentiments 2, 12, 267, 28, 32, 75 Bataille 105, 106, 117, 124, 128,
collective 57, 75, 767, 867, 88, 89, 15051, 1567, 180
94, 98, 131 Girard 15961, 16971, 17380,
Smith, Adam 45, 213, 220n13 1823, 1845, 18790, 1912,
social cohesion 2, 49, 56, 65, 66, 95, 102, 1978, 2012, 2078
social contract 3, 6, 18, 42, 58, 96, 185, 220 Wahl, Jean 163, 164
social subject 76, 89, 967, 215, 21617 women 13, 33, 39