Bataille, Durkheim, and the meaning of sacred sociology

Erik Empson, November 2004

Writing in 1946, Bataille makes clear that his generation had broken with the humanist priveledging of the individual in social theory before the First World War. For his generation, revolution was a collective act that necessarily went beyond the individual. It is this anti-individualism in theory and the impossibility of the existence of sovereign individual(1) in practice that seems to intellectually place Bataille broadly in step with the holistic general theory of society developed by Durkheim (and before him, Spencer and Comte) whilst performing a powerful subversion on its precepts. The generation of surrealists had transformed the Bourgeois notions of the sovereign and autonomous individual and rediscovered in myth and in primitive and 'exotic' peoples what Durkheim had seen in religious sentiment, described (by Bataille) as the 'manifestation of collective being superior to the individual and named society'.(2)

Bataille suggests that the sense of detachment and over powerfully feeling that society had lost its sacred bonds of cohesion, less resulted in a need for action than for a deeper need to overcome the 'unease' manifest within this 'sense of lack and nostalgia' that characterised the fragmentary outlook of the Bourgeois world. In describing the development of the inter-war intellectual development characterised by rigour and honesty, Bataille draws together the need for social cohesion with the impulse to sociology; the lack of the sacred was a desire for totality and in the categories of some elements of sociological thought Bataille believes they were found. And in fact, in the critique of Monnerot, Bataille draws out a powerful paradox of the problem of sociology relevant very much today.

'In order to displace accepted limits (if one is talking about a domain defined by its distinct character) and anticipate difficulties, one consequently had to admit the necessity of basing definition on characteristics that are not made explicit.'

The sacred can not be understood by its visible forms but rather through undertaking to find a general connection say between the 'equivalence of a beggar in London and an outcast [untouchable] in Bengal. They share a 'horrible majesty' of the 'inassimilable quality' within the heterogeneous. For Bataille and Monnerot the sacred is an unrepresentable experience and not assimilable to treatment as a thing. Rather the sacred is located right within what would be considered the profane that is the dark side, the lower depths or social life, the 'dangerous classes' or even the multitude.

In order to understand the sacred and profane - the homogenous and the heterogeneous - Bataille formed the College of Sociology with Roger Caillois. Bataille described it as a kind of malady, concerned not with sociology of religion but very specifically 'sacred sociology'. It involved a considerable number of acclaimed intellectuals, such as by Georges Ambrosino, Alexandre Kojeve, Pierre Klossowski, the afore mentioned Jules Monnerot, Michel Leiris, and Jean Wahl. Their concern with understanding the origins of community led Bataille to describe it as search for the secondary community outside of the community of fact, one that coincides with our being and one in which we can cease to feel ridiculous.

In the group's discussions, Monnerot claimed that surrealism was such a secondary community (or bund), Bataille agreed with this but also sought to challenge Breton for wanting such a secondary community to be founded on a primitive myth rather than rigorous critique, the precise research (in)to commonly shared anxieties."(3)Bataille reproached Monnerot for failing to properly address the meaning of the sacred and for abandoning two 'essential and solid' parts of Durkheim's doctrine: seeing society as a totality where the sum is more than its parts; and acknowledging that religion is the bond and constitutive element of 'everything that is society'.

The concern to understand and remedy the fragmentary character of the Bourgeois world through this paradoxical belief in a human science of the sacred that might actually replace the function of the sacred as the basis of a human bond, could be compared to the problems and solutions produced by another Marxist thinker, Georg Lukacs. Equally permeated by a sense of loss, and propelled by a desire for the realisation of man's total personality and authentic community, Lukacs fought for a 'belonging' to emerge out of 'becoming'.(4) Whereas Bataille was probably fundamentally not a communist, and indeed tried in his critique of fascism not to allow soviet communism to be the opposite pole, their shared concern was to recover an authentic and non-alienated experience of collective autonomy. Arguably Lukacs restricts this social ontology to a political ontology, whereas Bataille, by seeing the sacred in the profane and by connecting human solidarity so closely to death, touches on a deeper universal than the Hegelianised dialectics of class. These different paths do however converge once more in their mutual concern for the event: in Lukacs' Leninism, the moment of decisive political intervention; in Bataille's system of absolute negativity, the suspension from death's moral burden.


(1) "Separated being is not complete, individual is complete only in so far as he ceases to distinguish himself from others, from his fellow beings..." The Moral Meaning of Sociology (review of Les faits sociaux ne sont pas des choses by Jules Monnerot) (written June 1946) In Richardson ed.

(2) ibid p 109

(3) ibid. p. 109 - 111

(4) see Mark Poster's Existential Marxism in Post-war France (p. 47)

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