On Sovereignty

George Bataille

Notes by Erik Empson

At times the unity of Batailles thought is astonishing. When reading one seemingly unrelated part of his work, other aspects suddenly appear and are clarified. In the pages on Sovereignty (3rd part of The Accursed Share) the generality of his philosophical approach to phenomena becomes more visible as profound and delightfully simple ideas that have a tremendous force of explanation.

In embarking upon the general notion of sovereignty, Bataille immediately disembarks from any question of approach from the point of view of political theory. Rather than a matter of international relations, sovereignty refers to the properties of the inner relation of man to the objects of his desire. In dispelling a purely functionalist view of man's social life, Bataille argues that the desire for the sacred and the marvellous is as much essential to man as his desire for bread. Capitalism for instance displaces mans desires, the worker must work to eat and eat to work, or science in its disinterestednes postpones the moment in the service of an anticipated result. For Bataille both represent the loss of sovereignty, which is regained when, say, the worker surrenders himself to a drink of wine; i.e. to his desire. Sovereignty lies in this immediacy where the process of thought and calculation is suspended. Sovereignty is sort of the savouring of the marvellous abandonment to objects of desire and crucially beyond any calculation of their utility.

"What is sovereign in fact is to enjoy the present time without having anything else in view but this present time" (p.199)

In a piece entitled Nonknowledge (The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge , p. 19) a different definition of sovereignty appears. It does so in a strange context where Bataille is discussing the relationship between death and thought. For Bataille thought, especially deep and rigorous thought is the product of an exhaustion and suffering in life. He describes a moment of awakening in bed with having the sensation of drifting with the bed's inertia. This sensation of having 'hold of nothing' is one of those experiences that we tend to dismiss within the daylight hours and their routine. But noting our fascination for their absurdity Bataille remarks:

"I want to specify what I mean by sovereignty. It is the absence of sin, but this is still ambiguous. This reciprocally defines sin as lacking the attitude of the sovereign.

But sovereignty is nonetheless....sin.

No, it's the power to sin, without having the feeling of a missing purpose, or it is this lack that has become a purpose."

After an example in the context of friendship, he continues:

"We continuously move further away, in the examination of thought, from the decisive moment (of resolution) when thought fails, not as an awkward gesture, but, on the contrary, as a conclusion, which cannot be surpassed; because thought gauged the awkwardness involved in the act of accepting the exercise: it's a servility! Common men were right to despise those who stoop to thought; those who believed they could escape the truth of this contempt through an effective superiority, which they allowed themselves to the degree that humanity as a whole is engaged in the exercise of thought: but this superiority cannot be reduced to greater or lesser excellence in a servile occupation. But established excellence shows that, so long as the final search for man and thought is sovereignty, resolved thought reveals the servility of all thought: this operation by which, exhausted, thought is itself the annihilation of thought. Even this phrase is uttered in order to establish the silence that is its own suppression. It is the meaning, or better, the absence of meaning ..." (p. 199)

Thus the sovereign moment is for Bataille also an instance of 'unknowing'. (there are important links here to the role of the marvellous in Surrealism to explore).

Where in these passages of the Accursed Share Bataille states quite explicitly his idea of the unknowing, he demonstrates something of the uniqueness of his own thought. He does not deny knowledge, rather he understands it as a practice that is generated out of discourse. But because of this it takes place through duration, knowledge being the whole process rather than its final result. Hence knowledge can never be part of the moment, precisely because whether painful or joyous (they share the same form for Bataille see p201), the miraculous moment over-rides any reflexive or anticipating kind of thought.

"Consciousness of the moment is not truly such, is not sovereign, except in unknowing. Only be cancelling, or at least neutralizing, every operation of knowledge within ourselves are we in the moment, without fleeing it. This is possible in the grip of strong emotions that shut off, interrupt or override the flow of thought" (p.203)

This is of course just the start of the story. For Bataille knowing and doing are intimately connected with the impossible and with death. Thoughts auto-dissolve into nothing and become sovereign when they cease to be.

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