Bataille's Synthesis of Humanity & Animality

Bataille notes (Bataille 1986, 84):

As soon as human beings give rein to animal nature in some way we enter the world of transgression forming the synthesis between animal nature and humanity through the persistence of the taboo; we enter a sacred world, a world of holy things.

Preceding this passage is of course a discussion of the apotheosis of animality as a function of the self-negation of the human. One would take to task the notion that hominization can be described in terms of a process of immanent negativity, in particular if this notion of “negativity” has a rationalistic kernel. Luckily, however, Bataille is being a good phenomenologist, and is merely being descriptive–the thesis here isn’t so much about the ontological status of dialectics as it is whether at some point and at some level the act under consideration can be at least analogically seen in terms of a process of immanent negativity. The notion of technosociality should already clarify that the worldhood of the organism does not require negation, let alone initial consciousness, to arise given the Heideggerian bimodality of Being.

What’s to be said then is that what Bataille describes here is a contingency of evolution–or a necessity of history (linguistic & visual documentation of time) only retroactively given due to that very possibility of rational necessity through which temporality is brought into notional identity. This persistent production and maintenance of self-identity is what constitutes historical or retrospective necessity. It is a necessary condition of retrodiction. Bataille may in fact be consistent with these ideas, since he earlier at least spoke of the taboo being the condition for the possibility of either rationality or non-rationality themselves (Bataille 1986, 63).

Escaping Bataille’s Anthropocentric Conception of Hominization

That being said, Bataille’s description is rather anthropocentric given the talk of self-negation. If the taboo sincerely arises–with society–from the tool, then, again, it is perhaps only fair to think that the difference between humans and other animals is primarily a matter of the scope of the tool (hence a spectrum of animality). In which case, a lot of what Bataille initially described as the difference between alter-animal and human sexuality is really a neurophysiological distinction between a neural system with complex modulation and a neural system with less complex modulation. For example, the possession of a neocortex already allows for rather sophisticated modulation of neural signals, manifest in a higher capacity for inhibition (a distance/disconnect between a neural impulse and its behavioral “command”). Another accompanying characteristic is then the degree of functional integration of ganglia. More abstractly, the difference between the alter-animal and the human is really just the difference between any organism and general basic animality as such. The functional specification of animality on basis of morphology & anatomy in the animal organism produces its technical scope and thereby its societal possibilities.

As a side-note, Bataille himself does not wish to be anthropocentric, it seems, as he thinks that “the transition from existence in-itself to existence for-itself cannot be assigned exclusively to complex creatures or mankind” and that “even an inert particle, […], seem to have this existence for-itself, though I prefer the words inside or inner experience” (Bataille 1986, 99). Bataille attempts to disassociate himself from panpsychism by posing a distinction between feeling of self and consciousness of self, wherein the former involves a necessary spectrum of variation by which the self concerned is an immediate sensuous experience of withdrawal from continuity and into discontinuity relative to environment, “greater or less according to the facilities available for objective discontinuity in inverse ratio to those available for continuity” (Bataille 1986, 99-100). Nonetheless, given technosociality, it doesn’t make sense in that case to limit both society and taboo to the human as self-conscious being, as if the self, conscious or not, were possible without some degree of “transcendent” prohibition arising from worldhood & withdrawal into discontinuity originating in and reaffirming the tool. And it is in this respect that Bataille is still too anthropocentric.

On the other hand, it may be appropriate to be wary of a misguided cosmism and panpsychism, as it’s not clear where the spectrum ends, and whether this spectrum may merely hide diverse intersections of heterogeneous elements or qualities of “inner experiences” that allow us to talk about qualitative breaks between the inner experience of different sorts of organisms let alone things (if we were to even qualitatively include them). For now this is nonetheless fine.

To get back on track, this “synthesis” of animality and humanity is said to not be a return to animality–for good reason because, especially in light of what has been noted about the gap between alter-animality & humanity, this gap now precisely constitutes the initial conditions of engagement. As Bataille puts it, “the human world, shaped by a denial of animality or nature, denying itself, [reaches] beyond itself in this second denial [the denial of the sort of humanity produced by the denial of nature], though not returning to what it had rejected in the first place [not returning to nature or animality simpliciter but to animality or nature as mediated by divinity or the apotheosis or sanctity of nature and the animal]” (Bataille 1986, 85). Put in analogue terms, there is no symmetrical reversal of the arrival of the neocortex, though there is the possibility of relative disinhibition of the cerebellum once the neocortex is there. The qualitative difference is then that, with the default suppression of the impulses (analogous to the taboo), the return to animality–as exception–must be understood predominantly from the perspective of the default position, by which its initiation is pre-empted and its performance is, in advance, subsumed. That default perspective that the exception must be accountable to reflects why the taboo or inhibition can persist even in its trespass in the form of the transgression, and it is this which turns sexuality into eroticism. Similarly, one may speculate that it is this which also turns alter-animal hostility into human cruelty (Bataille 1986, 79-80). One begins to understand by now the unified nature of Bataille’s Erotism: Death & Sensuality.

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Excess as Uniting Life & Death in Reproduction, and the Ontogeny of Desire in the Organism

Further testament to the unity of Bataille’s ideas here is chapter nine of Erotism: Death & Sensuality, wherein he elaborates on two main ideas in previous chapters: violence as the excess of urge or impulse possibility? indigenous to both death and life–by way of this same thing yet expressed in the process of the instinct of survival which knows no temporal limit to survival but which evermore invites this limit as it outspends its defenses or is offensively out-spended. Also that same thing expressed in the expansion & continual development of this life through the full appropriation of the environment which also evermore invites a transcendence of the very metabolism which fundamentally determines the possibility of living. The organism, so to speak, experiences violence from below (the threat of outspending itself in its own immanent struggle against dead matter) as from above (the production of predators and pathogens).

In chapter nine, the implications of the cosmos, or even just some total quantity of possible edible nutrition, containing more energy than can be fully used to maintain or sustain a particular, homogeneous, static organism composed of particular metabolic materials and still in contact with that full energic environment (which leads to the organism deciding how to spend this extra energy) are followed through; they are also combined with the previously noted elaborations. Such implications are:

  • That reproduction is merely another form of biological growth. The very persistence of a multicellular, sexually reproductive organism is the result of the scissiparity of its unicellular units, in which the growth of a single cell anticipates its own cessation into two distinct cells as well as the cessation of other cells by means other than asexual reproduction (e.g., the replacement of dead upper epidermal cells with new cells consequent of asexual reproduction [due to growth of other cells]). Note that division, if leading to relatively successful life, generally occurs when the initial cell subject to reproduction already has an excess of materials (an excess in that it does not need it for basic function). But this excess is precisely a consequence of an excess ingestion and/or production of cell material–it no longer is useful to proper functioning of the single cell as the rate of ingestion diverges from the cellular metabolic rate, or it may be harmful to proper functioning of the cell as cellular metabolic rate diverges from the rate of ingestion (there are too many organelles, &c, relative to what the cell can actually get from its local environment). The solution is to adjust these rates–various methods abound for doing this, such as directly re-adjusting catabolism or anabolism through alteration of gene expression, but for the most part apoptosis, cell death from toxicity, or asexual reproduction.
  • That, as another form of biological growth, reproduction occurs at a cleavage point between death and birth. For example, reproduction occurs at the cleavage point between the death of the previous cell as its singular self and the birth of the plurality of cells consequent of this death, especially given that the daughter cells have a relative independence from each other, such that their conditions of activity are not exactly the same as the parent cell.
  • That the parent cells die and the daughter cells are born in asexual reproduction. Given the new cells can be regarded as their own distinct agents relative to the parent cell, there is no longer any unitary agency synonymous with that of the initial parent cell after the process of asexual reproduction. It is no exaggeration, then, to say that the parent cell goes through death in this process in that it ceases to exist as an agent. Bataille speaks of it in terms of the growth phases of the cell: “The violence of agitation which at first takes place within the being’s [cell’s] continuity calls forth a violence of separation from which discontinuity proceeds” (Bataille 1986, 96). It is the same as if you had successfully cloned and fully replaced your hand–the hand left-over, dead or otherwise, is not “your” hand any longer, as it has a relative dependency from the hegemonic sense of agency characterizing the body as a whole. There is in asexual reproduction then both the disappearance of the individual, the multiplicity of individualities, and the persistence of the whole as the dynamic and movement of growth. “Immortality is wrongly ascribed to dividing cells” (Bataille 1986, 97). Growth can eventually mean creative self-death once it is unsustainable.
  • That death is fatal to individual discontinuity and only that which is discontinuous dies, revealing a “deeper” continuity, while birth is the arrival of discontinuity, concealing “deeper” continuity, and only that which is continuous is born. This is roughly self-explanatory, though there is much interpretation that can be made regarding what Bataille means by “discontinuity” and “continuity.” In a preliminary fashion its best to take these to mean, respectively, separateness from the rest of non-living nature and unity with the rest of non-living nature (with all the previous caveats to protect against anthropocentrism, of course).
  • That all the aforementioned is true of sexual reproduction, or reproduction at the organismal rather than cellular scale, as well, the difference being that reproduction at the organismal scale does not imply a sudden and radical break from discontinuity. As Bataille notes, multicellular organisms stay alive for a further extended period of time contemporaneous with the birthed organisms consequent of their sexual reproduction, and otherwise at death nonetheless leave traces of life (either dead matter with the morphology or anatomy of its living version or the dispersal and functional separation of unicellular and tissue life) (Ibid). “Death follows reproduction with sexual beings too, at a distance if not immediately” (Bataillw 1986, 101). Bataille treats this as a necessity, as “only stagnation ensures that creatures shall preserve their discontinuity, their isolation, that is” (Ibid).
  • That another relevant difference between sexual & asexual reproduction is that sexual reproduction is precipitated by unification of the living beings. The gametes first unite as a whole prior to division. As Bataille puts it, “lost continuity can be found again” before it is again torn asunder (Bataille 1986, 98). This intermingling of distinct meiotic processes mirrors the intermingling of sexual difference at the organismal scale, which “[stimulates] this undefined sense of continuity due to similarity of race while at the same time betraying it [i.e., betraying this similarity of race] and making it hurtful” (Bataille 1986, 99). The sexual difference, in other words, both establishes the hope for the possibility of continuity in a way that maintains life and, in that very role, reveals the sense of discontinuity native to life itself. This unification of the living beings symbolized in the penetrative act is a rendezvous of interpersonal violences–an explosion of impulsive energy and vital abundance internal to each sexual participant that threatens each sexual participant be torn asunder into continuity by the infectious violence of the other (Bataille 1986, 102-103). This opens all involved creatures to the precipice of continuity, but exhausts itself short of death in the orgasm, the little death.
  • That the chasm between continuity & discontinuity is the mainspring of pleasure (Bataille 1986, 105). For Bataille, this tug of war between continuity and discontinuity is the fountain of desire, and thereby the condition of possibility for pleasure. At the same time, the violence necessary within this tug of war is itself interpreted as a threat or as a hostile element arousing disgust, fear, panic, etc., at the receiving end, or hostility, guilt, shame, etc. at the perpetrating end, consequent of this violence being unleashed under a deliberate recognition, directly or indirectly conscious, of the general taboo against violence, in this case against sex. Bataille continually analogizes the physiological, gross reactions to death, mutilation, & decomposition with those physiological, gross reactions to sexual stimulation, in order to demonstrate an objective unity that also conditions the possibilities (namely the possible objects) of both pleasure and pain. That is, in order to show the shared objective constitution of sex and death for the sensuous body, whose corresponding shared inner experience is violent (bodily convulsions, gagging, black-outs and faintness or mental fog, nervous hyperactivity, loss of self, state of heightened physiological arousal).

One could of course go on to discuss the problematic, vague and unclear concepts of continuity v. discontinuity in Bataille, especially in light of Bataille’s claim that, not only is continuity deeper than discontinuity, but discontinuity itself is illusory (a far more daring ontological claim). For the time being, since its been a while since posting and a lot of material was read in the mean-time, its sufficient to leave this here as a summation of what Bataille has said so far. Subsequent posts may tackle this issue of continuity v. discontinuity in much more detail.


  • Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death & Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights, 1986. Print.