The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Part 1, Georges Bataille (Zone: 2007)

What: This is a weird–and weirdly illuminating–book that asks: what is an economy? And why?

Thesis: The real economic problem is not how to accumulate and use scarce resources. It is how to dispose of our overabundance. Sacrifice is the key to this problem.

Key Ideas: The typical economic condition is one of abundance, not scarcity. In this respect, our economic situation is a modulation of our biological situation. There is too much here, not too little. (21)

Sacrifice is how we do respond–and how we must respond–to the economic problem of having too much.

“Sacrifice restores to the sacred world that which servile use has degraded, rendered profane.” (55)

 

Bataille sees sacrifice at the end of economy. He also sees sacrifice at the center of religion. Therefore, Bataille explicitly links the ends of economic life to the center of religious life by way of sacrifice. (120)

Reflections:

A few pages later Bataille adds:

“Sacrifice destroys that which it consecrates…. Consumption is the way in which separate beings communicate.” (58)

This may be true. But I’m not sure that it’s always true. Is sacrifice necessarily destructive? Can’t separate beings communicate in other ways–besides consuming one another? Maybe sacrificial exchanges are non-destructive means of communication between two people who are always separate.

Nevertheless, I think  Bataille is getting at something profound. We live in a ‘consumer’ economy. Normally, we seem to think of consumption as a means of survival or a form of self-indulgence. But what if the things we buy, use, and use up–the meal, the movie,  the clothes, the phone–what if the use of these is sacrificial? Something is certainly destroyed here. Is it also consecrated? Bataille’s idea here is that consumption consecrates what it destroys by offering us intimacy. (129)

But intimacy with what? Here’s Bataille in his own words again:

“[A] point must be uncovered where dry lucidity coincides with a sense of the sacred. This implies the reduction of the sacred world to the component most purely opposed to things, its reduction to pure intimacy. This comes down in fact, as in the experience of the mystics, to intellectual contemplation, ‘without shape or form,’ as against the seductive appearances of ‘visions,’ divinities and myths.” (189)

So sacrificial consumption brings us to contemplation. But contemplation of what? Intimacy with whom?

Bataille’s book ends with these startlingly mystical lines, in which he pictures the climax of business:

“More open, the mind discerns, instead of an antiquated teleology, the truth that silence alone does not betray.” (190)

Bataille ends in the sacrifice of silence. But it’s not clear whether the silence communicates anything. It seems that sacrifice is not–cannot be–offered to anyone. So, he suggests that business life simply returns us to the primordial night.

A profound conclusion. But the final word?