Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Apophatic Politics

What would a political movement that had movement per se as its focus look like? Would it be recognizable as political, as ethical? In the “Theoretical Introduction” to The Accursed Share, a work that seeks to shift our perspective from restrictive to general economy, thereby accomplishing a Copernican revolution in ethics,[1] French social theorist Georges Bataille spends a good deal of time thinking about movement.

At first sight, it is easy to recognize in the economy—in the production and use of wealth—a particular aspect of terrestrial activity regarded as a cosmic phenomenon. A movement is produced on the surface of the globe from the circulation of energy at this point in the universe. The economic activity of [human beings] appropriates this movement, making use of the resulting possibilities for certain ends. But this movement has a pattern and laws with which, as a rule, those who use [it] and depend on [it] are unacquainted.[2]

Because we think about ourselves as individuals, as members of specific communities, as part of a particular species—because we think from the perspective of restrictive economy—we think about the circulation of energy as a resource for supporting life, which causes us to think about amounts available and potential shortages, rather than thinking about the circulation of energy as the movement of life itself, which compels us to think about abundance. In other words, we do not think about the economy—the production and use of wealth—in general.[3]

On the surface of the globe, for living matter in general, energy is always in excess. . . . The choice is limited to how wealth is to be squandered. . . . The general movement of exudation . . . of living matter impels [human beings], and [they] cannot stop it. . . . The global movement of energy . . . cannot accumulate limitlessly in . . . productive forces; eventually, like a river into the sea, it is bound to escape.[4]

In the first volume of The Accursed Share, Bataille presents Aztec sacrifice, mob violence, the growth of pond scum, the first and second world wars, weeds breaking through pavement, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the Marshall Plan as illustrations of this fundamental principle. Energy moves on the surface of the globe and must eventually be expended. Solar energy may indeed melt polar ice caps, causing ocean levels to rise, thereby moving current coastlines, but anxiety over destruction of the buildings in which we work, the homes in which we live, or of the people occupying either, betrays the character of our perspective, rather than identifying what counts as life and its cessation. Life will fulminate, even if our lives terminate. Our desire to use and conserve energy to serve our ends and sustain our lives “only has this incontestable effect: It causes us to undergo what we could bring about in our way, if we understood” more fully the patterns and laws of general economy.[5]

To think from the perspective of restrictive economy is, of course, completely rational, utterly sensible, absolutely necessary, and perfectly understandable. To think from the perspective of restrictive economy is to think in terms of goals, projects, programs and measurable outcomes. It is also to think in terms of limitation and scarcity. It is to think about danger and threat; it is to worry about preserving one’s community and protecting one’s self. It is to conceive of life as something that must be sustained rather than something that moves incessantly and inevitably beyond and around all of our efforts to contain, channel, use and instrumentalize it. It is a failure to grapple with the ways in which the life that animates our lives can often be experienced as frightening, as overwhelming, as disturbing, as terrifying. This, it seems to me, gives shape to the central question for any political or ethical system: does it conceive of life as a life, as figure and form, or does it understand life as life, as flow and fulmination?

Thinking about life as life reveals why the fight for marriage equality—along with any other goal grounded in recognition—is such a political and ethical dead end. For this fight assumes that marriage is a form of life worth fighting for because it provides access to resources: material, psychic, political, affective, spiritual. It secures these resources, on a limited basis, for some people, so they can pursue their ends, so that they can have a life. This fight conjures a figure of the good life, it assumes—demands even—that life can and should be captured and contained in a life. By the same token, and for exactly the same reasons, any critique of the marriage equality movement that posits another figure—kinky polyamory or cum-swapping parties, for example—is also a political and ethical dead end. For such a response merely substitutes another form of life as the one that merits support and sustenance; it does nothing to challenge the circumscription of life into a life.

While we can certainly distinguish different forms of life according to how much movement they allow, how much rigidity they seek to impose, how narrowly they constrain energy’s ebullition, we must acknowledge that both practices that seek to curtail life—colonial domination, sexual violation, genocidal terror—and practices that oppose such curtailments are energized by the same desire for mastery and control. This does not mean that lethal violence and efforts to resist it are necessarily morally equivalent, but it also does not mean that acts of bullying and campaigns to combat it do not derive their energy from similar sources, do not give rise to similar pleasures, do not provide access to similar satisfactions. If this is true, then how do we sort respective graspings after mastery? How do we interrupt the will to innocence that funds our own norms and ideal? Our political and ethical work cannot be typified (only) by trying to distribute resources and shape institutions so that a broader range of people have a greater degree of autonomy over their lives; it must also include efforts to expose the deeply entrenched tragedy of our desire for control and to develop habits that interrupt, dislodge and circumvent it.

Due in large part to his specific rhetorical choices, the value and insight of Lee Edelman’s magisterial No Future[6] has been, in the main, occluded by obsessive focus on–and frequent misreading of—his statements about the Child and the future. Such attention privileges—through fawning praise or vitriolic denunciation—Edelman’s most outrageous quips. Most work published to date on Edelman has failed to engage carefully his larger, structural argument about the fundamental antagonism at the heart of the self and the social. Throughout No Future—and, much more clearly in work published subsequently—Edelman insists that the self and the social necessarily require a constitutive outside, which he calls the queer, precisely because they are imagined in terms of calcified, static, bounded figures of life. While the content of the remainder changes, when new figures come on the scene as plausible and legitimate options for a good life, the charge of being detritus always attaches to some bodies, some group of people, some feature of subjectivity. Edelman returns constantly to the importance of figure, to the exclusionary violence that informs the figuration of what and who counts as a life worth living. If Edelman is correct, then attempts to overcome this exclusionary dynamic, while absolutely vital, are also always a losing game because they perpetually displace the force of the violence they hope to permanently vanquish. Edelman importantly notes that through the violent denigration of the other the social order accesses the pleasures of violent excess it seeks to contain. Rather than seeking to lay claim to a life that will be recognized as possessing moral worth, Edelman contends that those who bear the mark of dangerous, disruptive outsider (the queer, the sinthomosexual) should take it upon themselves to instantiate that danger, bear the brunt of the violence, and reveal the operation of the machine, thereby dispelling the fantasy of incorporating the remnant in an eschatological restoration of wholeness, harmony, and inclusive peace. Although he writes that the queer who figures the death drive should cease contesting that figuration, we can restate Edelman’s point in the terms I have set out here by suggesting that the queer be willing to be overcome by the chaotic swirl of life rather than succumbing to the temptation to live a life, with its necessary constraint and circumscription.

Bataille offers a remarkably similar diagnosis of the problem of social violence, of social order. He agrees that violence is central to the functioning and organization of society—while a source of anxiety and fear, it is also alluring and seductive. Bataille counsels social practices that will reveal and expose the pulse of violence, thus interrupting its operation by redirecting its destructive force. These revelatory practices, for Bataille, will be experienced as a dissolution of the self and the self’s attachment to the self. This attachment, which Edelman describes through the figures of the future and the Child, Bataille describes in terms of work and project. While rejecting belief in God, Bataille is incredibly interested in the practices of mysticism and the ways they give access to new experiences of being a self in relation to others and the world. He holds out similar hopes for erotic and aesthetic experience. Edelman—along with Leo Bersani, Tim Dean, and Teresa de Lauretis—is also deeply interested in the connections between the erotic and the aesthetic and the ways these connections can be exploited for the transformation of our experience of being a subject in relation to the world.

For both Edelman and Bataille, the dynamics of exclusion, objectification, and instrumentalization are inescapable. Bataille states explicitly that to be human is to be caught in the paradox of needing to work, needing to be engaged in project, but also desperately desiring to escape project and work because they do not ultimately answer the fullness of human desire for intimacy and being. The very things that make us human are precisely the things that make us alienated, violated, violence-dealing. In fact, the most defining human experience is to be aware of the loss that defines human experience. The revelation/interruption/exposure of this process then is just that, only that—it is not a redemptive transformation, not a solution, not an overcoming. But the fantasy of overcoming, the longing for redemption, the desire for a final solution is the situation in which we find ourselves. By attending to this line of analysis, we may need to abandon the fantasy of overcoming dehumanizing violence, but we might be able to maintain a dismal hope of using it for different ends. By understanding the operation and character of the foundational violence of human being and belonging—and all its wily ways—we have a chance to do something different with its propulsive force.

The ecstatic loss of self that interrupts normalizing powers’ exclusionary violence can look, from outside the experience, like inaction, quietism, paralysis, suicide. But it is instead an engagement with instrumentalizing, alienating violence that seeks not to transform it, but to mark it and name its insidiously stealthy endurance. The ethical vision and political intervention sketched here, then, is one of revelation, not redemption. It seeks to reveal that the political—even the political that seeks to respond to dehumanizing terror—only ever derives power from the violence it seeks to combat. The political gesture necessarily excludes—necessarily marks an outside and demonizes the outsider—even when (especially when?) it seeks to include. Even a broadly inclusionary ethical-political vision, at the very least, sets its face against those who refuse, resist, or seek to undo its magnanimous gestures.

But, if ethics and politics are, in their very structure, violence, the question immediately arises: how are we to live? This question, a statement of desire, is not a critique of the analysis of the self and the social found in Bataille and Edelman, but a refusal of its terms. If exclusionary violence found(er)s the self and the social, then the demand for a livable life—for a life cleansed of trauma, disappointment, vulnerability and loss—must be understood as a demand that bears violence. The demand for a livable life, the demand to occupy a viable subject position, to be recognized as a subject possessing worth and dignity, has violence as its tain. This doesn’t make such demands unjustifiable or inexplicable: it makes them tragic. The tragic impossibility of ethics and politics mirrors and underscores the tragic impossibility of our desire to survive as coherent, viable subjects. This desire—for survival, for recognition, for dignity, for viability—which should always appear as self-evidently moral should also always appear as undeniably obscene.

This characterization, of course, casts queer theory as a doctrine of original sin après la letter. Not original sin as the idea of a permanently perverted will (although my psychoanalytic commitments don’t make such a notion as troubling to me as it might be to some), but rather original sin understood as a permanent set of structural constraints on the possibility for change, for progress, for improvement, for goodness. We understand, following Foucault, Derrida, and so many others, that imagining a paradisiacal past produces all kinds of problems; Bataille and Edelman help us understand that we should harbor similarly deep suspicions about how we imagine the paradisiacal future. Thinking about the typical Christian conclusion to the original sin narrative, what if instead of thinking of an after, an eschatological horizon crossed, a heavenly bliss without tension or conflict, or even an apocalyptic drama with a decisive before and after, we attended instead to the event of apocalypse, the instant of r(a/u)pture, the moment of catastrophic collapse?[7] What if queerness was the perpetual repetition of this moment and the impossibility of inhabiting it? What if queerness was the living energy that inhabits life, rather than a life that can be inhabited?

Life is energy, effervescence, ebullition; a life—no matter how complex, multifaceted or counter-cultural—has fixed lines, determinate boundaries, demarcatable borders. Any form of life, any figure of the good life, any life that we can see, describe, picture, represent, imagine, champion, defend will always, at some level, have to restrain, exclude, deny, denounce some aspect of the life that exceeds it. Forms of life, figures for life, are enabling constraints. As such, they are necessary—and comforting. We feel alive, capable, powerful in a life; we feel uncertain, at risk, vulnerable, anxious in life. Life is that which must be tamed so that living is possible. But as history shows us all too painfully, certain bodies, certain desires, certain communities get identified as bearing the excess, the energy, the excitement of life—in romantically celebratory or pejoratively vilifying imaginaries. They pay the price of making life possible for others. Because they have too much life, they pose a threat to our way of life, and therefore must lose their lives. We cannot live without form or figure. But others cannot live within the forms and figures that enable our lives. We are this tragedy.

There are a number of idioms for the distinctions I draw here. Freud discusses the death drive’s constant buffeting of the ego. Lacan contrasts the subject of the drive with the subject of desire. Butler insists on a psychic excess that compels repetitive performative gestures, perpetually revealing the limitations of any account of identity no matter how rich, subtle, or intersectional. Bersani discusses a sexuality-cum-masochism that dissipates the self, the prime mover of all violent action. Edelman provides a vivid and robust picture of the sinthomosexual’s negativity against the figure of the Child, the figure of life in calcified form, emblem of completion, happiness, satisfaction, arrival. And we can even see something of the contrast I’ve sketched here in Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and the profane, a distinction that proved enormously influential in Bataille’s thinking. Finally, in “Preface to Transgression,” his one essay explicitly engaging Bataille’s writing, Foucault distinguishes the logic of transgression and the logic of dialective in a way that can help us understand the distinction between life and a life.[8]

For although we can distinguish life as fulguration and life as form, and although they stand in marked tension, they are not contraries. One can never wholly and completely surrender to life and abandon one’s life, just as one can never live a life without encountering the disruptive, unsettling, ecstatic violence of life. There is no third space of compromise or overcoming; there is only a perpetual, spiral dance between. Bataille, as Foucault understood and explained, was fully aware of this fact. In what is undoubtedly his masterwork, Inner Experience, Bataille discusses our passionate attachment to work, to project, to salvation, to having a life, to wanting to be everything. At the same time, he notes that these attachments alienate, objectify, instrumentalize us, our world and its inhabitants. So he sought out practices, habits and strategies for interrupting these attachments; he sought out a project that would undo project (while at the same time recognizing that his book, insofar as it intended to convince and transform its reader, was a project). At the heart of what he called inner experience was the principle of contestation: a word Foucault uses, quite appropriately—following Bataille, who follows Blanchot—interchangeably with transgression. For Bataille, contestation takes itself as its own authority, in a perpetual, permanent state of contesting everything, even its own authority. This contestation is exemplified in sacrifice, in poetry, in eroticism . . . in practices and experiences that dislodge the self’s attachment to itself and cast it into an ecstatic void that reveals connectedness to the larger forces and energies that comprise the universe. Bataille also found contestation exemplified in the writings and practices of negative and mystical theologians of the Christian tradition: he names Pseudo-Dionysius, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Angela of Foligno as his inspirations. While he rejects God as a stopping point in contestation, he sees in apophaticism a model for the perpetual movement he names as experience, that I have named life, that Butler names psychic excess, that Freud names the drive, that Bersani names sexuality, that Edelman names negativity. Whatever we say, think, write about the Divine—whatever figure we give to that which we name as most real, whatever form of life we endorse as embodying the highest good—is, in the final analysis, inadequate: it can only ever deform that which it seeks to represent. It must be negated, displaced, undone, moved beyond—not so we arrive eventually at the correct representation, the adequate articulation, the perfect image, but because we can never do so. We must continue pressing on, forever increasing the velocity of our movement, until we throw ourselves over the summit, until we are flung over the precipice.

And, so, I return to my opening question: What would a political movement that had movement per se as its focus look like? What would an apophatic politics look like? What would a politics that took seriously the tragedy of human being look like? What would it mean to understand our deepest political and ethical obligation to be the critique, the saying “no” to any conception of the good that is offered? Knowing that living beings need certain material, psychic, political, affective, and spiritual resources—certain goods—to live a life, while also knowing that securing those resources necessarily entails various kinds of violence against ourselves and others, what are we to do? If the most ethical gesture is a movement of denial, negation, disruption, but those movements only ever make space for life rather than support lives, how do we make responsible choices about when and how we move along the spiral of transgression and contestation?

The question that haunts me—that I think should haunt us all—is, if the approach summarized here is correct, what would it mean to live a life well? Or, is the very desire to live our lives (well) the most obscene—the most dangerous—desire we have? Should we, like Bataille, be constantly asking ourselves, in the presence of another, how to calm our desire to be everything, how to ruin that within in us that is opposed to ruin?[9]

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  1. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991). [Return to text]
  2. Ibid., 20-21. [Return to text]
  3. Ibid., 22-23. [Return to text]
  4. Ibid., 23. [Return to text]
  5. Ibid. [Return to text]
  6. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). [Return to text]
  7. For a theo-political vision with similar impulses but divergent particulars, grounded in a productive engagement with Edelman’s work, see Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Ttansformations of Finitude. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 254-86. [Return to text]
  8. Michel Foucault, “Preface to Transgression,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Donald F. Bouchard, ed., Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, trans. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 29-42. [Return to text]
  9. Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988), xxxii, 119-20. [Return to text]