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Georges Bataille’s Religion without Religion: A Review of the Possibilities Opened by the

Publication of The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge

Author(s): Jeffrey Kosky
Source: The Journal of Religion, Vol. 84, No. 1 (January 2004), pp. 78-87
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Journal of Religion.
Review Article

Georges Bataille’s Religion without Religion: A Review of

the Possibilities Opened by the Publication of The Unfinished
System of Nonknowledge *

Jeffrey Kosky / Washington and Lee University

Never published in a single volume by their author, Georges Bataille,

The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge collects and translates writings as-
sociated stylistically, thematically, or editorially with Bataille’s Atheological
Summa. Originally intending it as a five-volume work, Bataille later lim-
ited his Summa to three volumes (Inner Experience, Guilty, and On Nie-
tzsche). The editors of The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, Stuart and
Michelle Kendall, aim to present what the remaining volumes might
have contained. The collection is thus an appendix that incompletes the
Summa, ruining the project with a fragmentary “postscript” that, though
unplanned by Bataille, would for this reason further his atheological
But why read it, especially when this latest book contains little con-
tent that cannot be found in the work Bataille himself published?
Scholars of religion will find that reading Bataille’s Unfinished System of
Nonknowledge returns them to another origin of a field of investigation
that has, over the past twenty years, become of increasing importance:
religion and postmodernism. Reading Bataille reminds us that the pos-
sible “religion without religion”1 opened by the postmodern overcom-
ing of metaphysics or onto-theo-logy might just as fundamentally be-
speak a “hermeneutic of the death of God”2 as a hermeneutic of the
desire for God. In this, Bataille helps us keep in sight an undecidability
that is essential to the matter.

* Georges Bataille, The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, ed. and introd. Stuart Kendall,
trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001),
xliv⫹305 pp., $39.95 (cloth).
See John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).
Mark C. Taylor first used this phrase in reference to deconstruction. See Erring: A
Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 6.

䉷 2004 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


Georges Bataille’s Religion

Reflecting the wide range of genres in which Bataille expressed him-

self, the writings collected here take various forms: essays, lectures,
poetic aphorisms, transcripts of open discussions, and so on. In some
cases, the writings were published during Bataille’s lifetime; in others,
the material comes from lectures or notebooks that Bataille did not
ready for publication but are included in the Gallimard edition of his
Oeuvres complètes. The editors have arranged the material chronologi-
cally, leaving it to the reader to make thematic connections between
the various texts and with the rest of Bataille’s work.
Given that Bataille never intended to publish the book as such, some
explanation as to how editorial decisions were made seems important.
The reasons for including certain texts reflect Bataille’s expressed in-
tentions—as with “Method of Meditation” and “Post-Scriptum 1953,”
texts that were included in the French re-edition of Inner Experience but
not in the English translation. In other cases, Bataille never indicated
that the text would be part of the Summa, yet it discusses passages from
the published portions of the Summa. In still others, however, the se-
lection of texts seems to reflect the editors’ interpretation of Bataille’s
intentions. In these cases, more explanation would be clarifying, and
the editors could have devoted more attention to explaining these
choices in the “Editor’s Introduction.”
Although students who have never read Bataille might be better ad-
vised to start with one of the works Bataille himself readied for pub-
lication, those already acquainted with Bataille will find much of in-
terest here—not the least of which is the information it provides about
Bataille’s interaction with and reception by Parisian intellectual circles
of the time. Bataille moved in a number of circles that included such
apparent extremes as existential philosophers, avant-garde artists, and
leading Catholic intellectuals of the time. “The Discussion on Sin” pro-
vides the best example of Bataille amid this heterogeneous culture, as
it includes a transcript of a discussion with eminent Catholic figures
such as Jean Danielou, Gabriel Marcel, and Maurice de Gandillac, as
well as leading philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Hyppolite,
and Jean Wahl. Maurice Blanchot, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir,
Michel Leiris, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were also present. Reading
this discussion conveys the perhaps surprising image of Bataille as
more comfortable with the theologians than the philosophers. Nervous
and shaken by the rigors and polemics of institutional philosophy, Ba-
taille writhes, like J. Alfred Prufrock, beneath “the eyes that fix you in
a formulated phrase, . . . sprawling on a pin, . . . pinned and wrig-

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gling on a wall.”3 One can feel his vulnerability and undefended ex-
posure when faced with the relentless questioning of Hyppolite and
Sartre. The selections taken from his personal notebooks further this
impression, showing clearly how agitated he was by the reviews of his
work, especially the Sartrean polemics. For these intimate glimpses of
the misery behind the man most often deemed a monster, The Unfin-
ished System of Nonknowledge is already invaluable.
But its value extends beyond this. For, though it contains little that
cannot be found in the published works, The Unfinished System of Non-
knowledge also captures the main trends of Bataille’s thinking. Like
Friedrich Nietzsche, Bataille was disillusioned with the emancipatory
aims of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century liberalism and sought
a liberation beyond that promised by liberal modernity. The liberal
world, according to Bataille, was the bourgeois, workaday world of
modern individualism, a world that degrades man by rendering all of
human activity subordinate to some end outside that activity itself. In
this sense, modernity determined human life in terms of action gov-
erned by what Bataille called “project.” Project makes every moment
of life servile by valuing it solely in relation to its usefulness in pro-
ducing a desired end. It finds an ally or mirror, according to Bataille,
in the forms of knowledge and rationality promoted by Hegelian sys-
tematic philosophy. For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, according to
Bataille, reasonable thought is systematic thought that sees each indi-
vidual and each moment in relation to the whole that transcends it.
Bataille was sensitive to the fact that the Hegelian dialectic of con-
sciousness is driven by unhappy consciousness and that it represents
the historical progress of the slave who survives the struggle with the
master. The Hegelian spirit, which for Bataille expressed the spirit of
modernity, belongs therefore to a sad, servile, and serious culture, a
culture that is always on the job, one that has no time for errant mo-
ments of laughter, tears, drunkenness, or ecstasy. These nonproductive
instances of useless nonknowledge suppressed by the workaday logic
of the workaday world are indices pointing to modernity’s lack of lack,
its lack of the meaningless amid the fullness and completion of mean-
ing achieved by the modern world. There is, in the modern world, no
rose that grows without why.4
In his revaluation of meaningless moments, experiences of luck, and
the aleatory, Bataille foreshadows a more widely accepted project

T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” lines 56–58, in Norton Anthology of Poetry,
3d ed. (New York: Norton, 1983), p. 995.
The rose that grows without why is an image from Angelus Silesius, also assumed by Martin

Georges Bataille’s Religion

among philosophers, psychoanalysts, artists, and literary figures think-

ing in the wake of modernity. His critique of modern life and, perhaps
especially, its Hegelian expression joins camp with those thinkers who
want to overcome the self-assertive, autonomous subject of modernity.
Inaugurating postmodernity, the critique of this subject lies at the cen-
ter of the project known more broadly as the overcoming of meta-
physics or the surpassing of onto-theo-logy. Before this overcoming was
named as such, Bataille had already sounded themes that would prove
crucial: the wounding or laceration of subjectivity, the desire for the
impossible, the blind spot of knowledge, expenditure without return,
and luck and the aleatory. These themes figure prominently in Bataille
and would later be invoked, with differences that should be specified,
by the postmoderns.
Bataille’s seminal critique of modernity accounts in part for the up-
surge of interest in his work among English-language scholars during
the late 1980s and early 1990s. He exercised a profound impact on art
criticism, mediated mostly through the influential journal October led
by Rosalind Krauss and the noted Bataille scholar Denis Hollier. Surely
one of the most powerful conveyors of Nietzsche into the twentieth
century, Bataille became an important hinge between the modern and
the postmodern. Most of the names that the English-speaking world
associates with postmodernity—Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Michel
Foucault, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, and Blanchot—all admit that
their thought was shaped, in one way or another, by a confrontation
with Bataille and his writing, a confrontation in which they surely
learned more than they did from Sartre and the existentialists.
Through these figures, Bataille then shaped literary studies and critical
theory in the English-speaking world. When these figures became a
field of study rather than a collection of passionate inquirers, it was
only a short step to an investigation of their intellectual forefathers.
This meant that the first reception of Bataille’s work in English was
guided by scholars interested in him as a predecessor of these more
commonly known figures—figures who were popular in departments of
English, comparative literature, and to a lesser extent philosophy. As
such, the first reading of Bataille was dominated by the primarily lin-
guistic questioning of poststructuralism and the primarily Nietzschean
critique of Hegelian modernity that occupied these departments.
Led by a pioneering chapter on Bataille in Mark C. Taylor’s Altarity,
however, Bataille began to draw the attention of students of religion.5
And rightly so, for Bataille’s challenge to the culture of modernity was

Mark C. Taylor, Altarity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

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executed in the name of what he called “the sacred.” Recalling Émile

Durkheim’s sociology, Bataille maintains that the sacred breaks with the
profane, workaday world of productive, economic existence by trans-
gressing the limits of individual existence and conventional morality.
Evident in “primitive” religious life with its moments of potlatch, orgy,
and other forms of ritual excess, the sacred, for Bataille, culminated
in sacrifice—where an individual executes a useless act of unredeemed
expenditure, giving without return and so losing without gain. Sacri-
fice, for Bataille, is therefore always self-sacrifice insofar as the self gives
without receiving anything in return and thus defies its own selfhood.
Economically nonsensical, the experience of the sacred, culminating
in sacrifice, opposes the calculated, rational activity and balanced ac-
counting of expenditure and gain that determine human life in bour-
geois modernity. In another register, the sacrificial experience of the
sacred interrupts the circle of knowledge whereby the subject posits
itself by returning to itself in and through the experience of otherness
in every adventure of consciousness. Giving without getting, the subject
is irreparably wounded by its experience of the sacred.
While sociologists and anthropologically oriented scholars of reli-
gion have eagerly seized on Bataille’s discussion of the sacred, his work
has more recently been assumed by scholars, led by Amy Hollywood
and Peter Connor, who move into fields opened by Taylor’s work in
Altarity.6 Sensitive to Bataille’s Christian background and his training
as a medievalist, these scholars explore the connection between Ba-
taille’s sacred and Christianity, not “primitive” religion. Their work is
revising the models that guide the reading of Bataille—shifting from
“primitive” models of excess and from Nietzschean models of affir-
mation to mystical models based on figures such as Teresa of Avila,
Angela Foligno, and John of the Cross. The Unfinished System of Non-
knowledge will be of especial interest to such students, for many of the
opening sections make evident Bataille’s preoccupation with theolog-
ical issues and concerns, clarifying his obsession with themes drawn
from an encounter with mystical forms of Christianity. In fact, there is
little talk of penises, shit, or spilled blood in this book—themes that
are popular among the devotees of Bataille’s primitive sacred. This is
a different vision of Bataille.
Bataille was clearly ambivalent about Christianity, and this ambiva-

See Amy Hollywood, “Bataille and Mysticism: A Dazzling Dissolution,” Diacritics 26
(Summer 1996): 77–85, “‘Beautiful as a Wasp’: Angela of Foligno and Georges Bataille,”
Harvard Theological Review 92 (April 1999): 219–36, and Sensible Ecstasy (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 2002). See also Peter Tracey Connor, Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

Georges Bataille’s Religion

lence is nowhere more evident than in his readings of its mystical mo-
ments. Allied with the sacred, the mystical is the obvious forerunner
to what Bataille terms “inner experience,” the “sovereign moment,” or
often quite simply “ecstasy” or “the spiritual”—terms designating what
breaks with the servility of knowledge, individualism, and project. In
its move toward nothingness and the unknown, in its annihilation of
the rational faculties, and in its ecstatic passage beyond the limits of
individual existence, mysticism (like the sacred) involves a radical un-
knowing or loss of self. Ecstatic spirituality, for Bataille, thus points the
self beyond the possibilities that a subject can realize by itself toward
an experience of the impossible, namely, the experience of its own
death or annihilation.
Culminating in annihilation, mystical experience would give access
to the impossible, meaningless, and aleatory (what comes despite me)
that was excluded from the modern project of work and knowledge.
Here death and negativity are not put to work, as they are for the
Hegelian dialectic, in the production of a future moment or higher
affirmation of meaning. In the finality of unknowing and nothingness,
mystical ecstasy points toward an impossible enjoyment of the sover-
eignty of the present—“the rose grows without why” in an unknowing
experience of a present that looks neither to past cause nor future
fulfillment. Ecstatic experience and unknowing thus liberate a sover-
eign moment, a present that plays freely, freed as it is from subordi-
nation to the usefulness of a project aiming at a future beyond where
loss is redeemed.
And yet, according to Bataille, Christianity betrays the mystical mo-
ment by introducing God and salvation. Viewed in light of salvation,
the mystical moment of nonknowledge becomes productive, a step in
the plan aiming at a salvific end external to this moment. “He who
loses himself saves himself” would be the slogan of this Christian re-
versal of the mystical loss of self: here, ecstasy and loss are not sacrifice
and annihilation but efforts aimed at saving, not spending, except in-
sofar as such spending earns a return, namely, the reinstatement of the
self in a higher moment. “God,” for Bataille, is then the name of that
which guarantees or provides certainty for this project, the name that
transforms the impossible dispossession of self in mystical ecstasy into
a possibility of the self, namely, the possibility of personal salvation that
can be attained. “God” forecloses the impossible, making the experi-
ence of dispossession a possibility I can realize, a possibility named
“salvation.” Expenditure and nonknowledge are thereby limited by
“God,” a term that provides an endpoint where inner experience be-

The Journal of Religion

comes a project meeting with success or where spirituality finds rest by

converting nonknowledge to knowledge, impossibility to possibility.
Against this Christian betrayal of nonknowledge and ecstasy, Bataille
aims to live gloriously or gaily inhabit a world without God and the
meaningfulness his presence provides. In light of Bataille’s clear inter-
est in mysticism, however, this Nietzschean way of phrasing his expe-
rience can be doubled by a religious one, a point that is developed at
great length in Taylor’s chapter on Bataille in Altarity. Bataille himself
speaks of the “experience of nonknowledge” as “negative inner expe-
rience” (p. 11), the latter phrase signaling the anthropological corre-
late of the negative theology of the mystics. But insofar as he dismisses
the theological object of this mysticism, Bataille’s thought can be de-
scribed as a mysticism without God—hence the title that he himself
chose for his opus, Atheological Summa. The paradox of the title must
be emphasized: Summa recalls the medieval theologians, while atheolog-
ical negates them.
One of the more interesting lines of research suggested by The Un-
finished System of Nonknowledge centers on this question of God and
Christian mysticism. In the “Discussion on Sin,” leading Catholic in-
tellectuals of the day challenge Bataille’s interpretation of Christianity
and suggest readings that would narrow the gap between Bataille and
the mystics. As Father Danielou suggests, “No one is less settled than
the mystic, whom God perpetually disturbs and prevents from turning
back on himself . . . and who achieves in ecstasy this total decentering
of the self which is in fact that toward which we tend—and which puts
them in complete communication with others” (p. 36). Or as de Gan-
dillac, the eminent medievalist and French translator of Pseudo-Dio-
nysius and Nicholas of Cusa, claims, Bataille does not take seriously
“negation by transcendence,” the redoubled negation of the mystical
moment exceeding even the apophatic. This form of negativity, ac-
cording to de Gandillac, makes it impossible to “corner the Christian,
as [Bataille] seems to do, on one issue: as consciously or unconsciously
seeking closure. . . . [The mystic] lives a total spoliation, including
even the renunciation of the search for a God that could be defined
in a perfectly positive way, the way one might know the program of
salvation precisely in advance. The mystic tends toward a plenitude that
corresponds to no project in the correct sense of the word and which
is a kind of empty promise” (p. 69). Without overlooking significant
differences between Bataille and the mystics, what Danielou and de
Gandillac suggest is that Bataille’s sovereign values and inner experi-
ence are already mystical, already anticipated by Christian mystical the-
ology, whose God therefore stands in closer proximity to Bataille’s pro-

Georges Bataille’s Religion

posed destruction of modernity than he admits. In other words, rather

than seeing “God” as the name of everything Bataille opposes, God
could just as well be that in whose name his critique of the modern
subject is executed. Pursuing such suggestions would call for (1) a re-
reading of Christian mysticism and (2) careful conceptual consider-
ation of what is involved in the naming of that which wounds or undoes
the autonomous modern subject.
Both questions have, of course, been the subject of important debate
in and among those scholars sensitive to continental philosophy’s so-
called turn to religion.7 According to the most recent interpretations of
this turn, the critique of modernity, a critique most often associated with
the overcoming of onto-theo-logical or metaphysical thought, does not
spell atheology or the death of God and religion, but their liberation.
What dies in the wake of modernity is not God so much as the forms
of thought and knowledge (metaphysics and onto-theo-logy) that have
blocked access to a truly divine God. On this reading, which parallels
the points made by the Catholics Danielou and de Gandillac, God is
not allied with metaphysics, onto-theo-logy, or the discourses of knowl-
edge that make up the world to be overcome. Rather God and religion
both provide resources in whose name the critique itself might be car-
ried out.
Like many of the philosophers steering continental philosophy’s
turn to religion, Bataille does not designate his own experiences
“Christian,” and yet, again like them, he will nevertheless deploy
themes common to Christianity: “sin,” “spiritual,” and “rapture” are all
frequent terms describing his experience. Even “mystical,” which Ba-
taille claims is a word he does not like, is still one he uses frequently.
This is a point that the philosophers note, with a negative spin: both
Sartre and Hyppolite ask Bataille if he could have written his work
without reference to Christian themes and concepts (pp. 56–64). The
fact that Bataille retains a religious vocabulary, despite what the phi-
losophers see as its philosophical nonnecessity and without identifying
his discourse as Christian, would perhaps make him an exemplary in-
stance of what one of the leading readers of continental philosophy’s
turn to religion, John Caputo, has called, in reference to Derrida, “re-
ligion without religion”—a religious speech and language without the
traditional or historical forms that governed its meaning and regulated
its interpretation. Like Caputo’s Derrida, Bataille surely has a religion,

The phrase “turn to religion” was popularized by Hent De Vries, Philosophy and the Turn
to Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), though Taylor had already called
attention to the phenomenon with a different name and different emphases; see Taylor, Erring
and Altarity.

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even if unconfessed and without dogmatic affirmations of God. What

is more, Bataille’s religion is, again like Caputo’s, surely impassioned
by the impossible, by the impossible experience toward which sover-
eign moments of ecstasy and rapture gesture. Its pursuit of this passion
is, once more like Caputo’s, opened by a critique of the dogmatic and
positive (metaphysical) interpretations of God, forms of thought whose
introduction into religion evade the agony of this infinite desire for
the impossible.
Including Bataille in the list of thinkers considered by the turn to
religion in and among continental philosophers might therefore prove
fruitful to our wrestling with the question of what becomes of religion,
what religion comes, after modernity. Surely Bataille’s critique of
knowledge and subjectivity makes him one of the earliest of continen-
tal philosophers to raise the question of religion and its relation to the
overcoming of what later was conceived as onto-theo-logy or meta-
physics. What would happen if he occupied attention in the way that
Jean-Luc Marion, Emmanuel Levinas, and Derrida have? While joining
them in the undoing of the modern subject, Bataille, unlike these oth-
ers, does not recover the word “God” with a significance that would
maintain its consistency with the postmodern horizon. More so than
the others named above, Bataille was willing to abandon the name
“God” and the identity of the tradition left behind by the ecstasy of
inner experience, sovereign moments, and nonknowledge. Bataille’s
overcoming of the modern (metaphysical) subject involves an inter-
pretation of human experience in the wake of modernity as an expe-
rience of the death of God and demise of religious tradition—a death
of God that opens the religious experience of the sacred. Caputo and
the recent turn to religion, by contrast, interpret the postmodern, post-
metaphysical horizon in terms of the desire for God, a God who con-
tinues with the eschatological God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
And yet, Bataille’s “hermeneutic of the death of God” is just as surely
impassioned by the impossible as is Caputo’s “hermeneutic of the de-
sire for God,” and his mystical anthropology’s desire for the impossible
is articulated in a discourse that is at least as religious, without religion,
as is Caputo’s Derrida. Wouldn’t this justify at the very least consider-
ing Bataille’s relation to the canon of continental philosophers be-
longing to the turn to religion?
Like the fate that has befallen Taylor’s early work on religion and
postmodernism, Bataille has been omitted from the tradition that de-
fines postmodernism as it is considered by the latest wave of scholars
of the turn to religion. We should try to remember what is at stake in
this omission. By a negative logic, it points to the importance for the

Georges Bataille’s Religion

leaders of this new turn to religion of saving the name, precisely, of

God. Sensitively remembering these omissions of founding moments
could perhaps remind us that it is at least as plausible that religion
without religion reinscribes all of religion—save the name, precisely,
of God. While some theologians and philosophers might argue that
this represents a backward step, a backward return to the atheological
interpretation of postmodernity promoted by Taylor and Bataille, a
step back often marks a way ahead—reminding us that if postmodern-
ity means we do not know what we expect when we expect the impos-
sible, a point that both Bataille and Caputo would agree on, we could
just as well conclude that this postmodern expectation be named with
the name “God” as conclude that this name be abandoned. Those in-
volved with “religion and postmodernism” (and I count myself one)
should remember this double that Bataille represents lest the desig-
nation of the impossible and unknowable slip too certainly toward one
name, “God,” and the essential nonknowledge be lost. Remembering
this other origin of postmodernity (Bataille’s atheology), this other
overcoming of metaphysics (Bataille’s “hermeneutic of the death of
God”), ensures that I do not write of the impossible and unknowable
as one who has already experienced it, but as one who does not know
if it still might, perhaps, lie ahead.