Technosociality as Origin of Taboo

While reading Chapters I & II of Georges Bataille’s “Erotism: Death and Sensuality,” it was rather fascinating how much of the material overlapped quite well with the kind of challenge I’ve been trying to make against a memetic theory of cultural evolution. In particular, Bataille seems to at least implicitly share the notion that the subjective experience as, needless to be said, we know it was birthed in tandem with the arrival of the tool. First, I will give my exposition of the framework I came in with when I began reading “Erotism,” and then I will describe how Bataille’s own position may relate to my own.

The Technosocial Model

In my case, I treated the capacity to craft tools as the basis upon which something such as “society,” or the social, is possible. At the same time, this thought required the intimate initial linking of the institution of religion and the method of superstition with the very existence of society itself, for if it were the case that tools acted as the ground upon which social life was possible, this would only be due to the requisite faculties required for deliberate or on-going tool-making, namely representational thought, self-externalization and structured activity/process. These are the same exact elements which make society possible, for in such a case the activity and process of the organism itself is able to self-regulate by drawing some foreseeable connection between elements of the environment, and not simply that, but is able to represent this connection or relation to itself. This it can only do if it can be at a distance from itself, because the representation of the connection between environmental variables for the organism can only be possible if it already assumes a position extracted from the object of its process and activity, which necessarily involves its own behavior. Society can be nothing but this representation of environment. The idea of a complete and full, substantial and self-identical objective being from which the organism arises and into which it dissolves is a movement perceptible to the organism in terms of the arising and dissolution of its own representations.

Though it is otherwise perceptible in an entirely different way, or mode of thinking, it is in this mode that the behavior of an organism can be perceived for it in the character of a modus operandi rather than a modus esse. It is important to highlight the word “can” here, for it is not the case that this mere (self-)representation–which becomes the ceded anchor for the structuring of the organism’s process and activity–is sufficient for the actual recognition of the distinction between modus operandi and modus esse. The recognition of such distinction between modus operandi and modus esse is merely latent in this capacity. And yet, the latent recognition of this distinction is not necessary for society to already be actual. The very act of representation of self (as behavioral body) and environment ironically serves initially to naturalize the modus operandi of the organism. This is because, as requiring self-externalization, the consequent self-representation is also committed externally by objects and therefire is “latched onto” external objectivity. This entire exposition already describes the base of society, or social life, in its most primitive form.

It should be clear, given this explanation, why religious institution and society could be regarded, initially, as the same thing: this objective self-representation is the birth of mythology, and mythology expresses the ordering of behavior, not just for the given organism, but all organisms which share in both this representative capacity and the given representational act. In fact, myth served as both the historical basis of religious discourse and the primary source of culture throughout the initial development of society. The undoing of their links owes itself to this very fact, as this undoing was an internal movement within each of them. If one returns to the tool, it would seem then that the tool is the very mainspring of the social-cultural-mythical, and that tool-making is at the same time society-making.

Note this does not suppose a representational model of the mind, let alone of epistemic access to the world; in fact, this representational thought is just a narrow aspect of mental life, precisely in being a development of evolutionary forces, symbolic of the environment of the given organism. And as such a narrow aspect, it express itself in an activity which seems species-specific, whether as a matter of degree or kind: tool-making. I call this the technosocial model of cultural evolution. Perhaps it has already existed by a different name, but that might just require I read more anthropology, cultural sociology and religious studies so that I can give proper credit to the pre-existing theory.

That irrespective, in a sense one can say about society that it is, as Stirner would say, a phantasm. Yet it has been a very useful one for not only one’s own endeavors, but also, to one’s dismay, for others’. As a tool it has managed to structure activity in such a way that it eventually allows for concepts of productive efficiency and calculation, and gives such structuring a compelling cosmic justification.

That being said, Bataille goes beyond this, but whether the direction he takes is fruitful is something I’m not sure of yet.

What is the Relationship between Taboo and Technology?

It seems clear that there’s agreement about the centrality of the tool to society and social life, for Bataille holds that “the community is made up of those whom the common effort unites, cut off from violence by work during the hours devoted to work” while linking the existence of such work (defined as labor united with rationality) with the capacity for tool-making (Bataille 1986, 47-48, 44-45). Yet, there seems to be no such agreement as to the origins of society, mythology, religiosity–Bataille would seem to be of the opinion that, rather than such things arising from the tool–or vice versa–both the tool and society arose together from the common origin of the taboo (Bataille 1986, 38):

Without the existence of prohibitions in the first place, man would not have achieved the lucid and distinct awareness on which science is founded. Prohibitions eliminate violence, and our violent impulses […] destroy within us that calm ordering of ideas without which human awareness is inconceivable.

It doesn’t seem all that clear, however, that the ordering of ideas itself relies on a kind of initial, grounding prohibition. It would seem that the given ordering of ideas–to the extent that ideas are themselves reliant on a mode of being that grasps the environment as a set of distinctive entities–is a consequence of those relations relevant to the particular world brought to light in that “readiness-at-hand” aspect within which that organism exists. That is to say, the as-structure (the *being-as-something* such as being-as-itself) of the organism and its environment is what determines the scope of possibly relevant relationships for the organism.

Nonetheless, it is indeed the case that a structured activity and process–a particular order or pattern–would be ineffectual in a case of raging and constantly competing impulses. It is necessary that some overwhelming and unilateral friction be produced, even if amongst them, so that stability and relative unity is achieved. It is possible that the “prohibition” Bataille speaks of is really just this friction of instincts. But it does not seem obvious why any unilateral friction should hold amongst impulses. So insofar as Bataille’s “prohibition” suggests more than this friction, the clues may be in Bataille’s use of the word “disequilibrium” to describe something which sounds awfully Heideggerian (Bataille 1986, 31): “I regarded eroticism as the disequilibrium in which the being consciously calls his own existence into question.” Earlier on he stated (Bataille 1986, 29): “Animal sexuality does make for disequilibrium and this disequilibrium is a threat to life, but the animal does not know that.” These two quotes taken together suggests that eroticism for Bataille involves, not just a kind of sexuality-beyond-sexuality (and thereby a question of desire), but an awareness of the disequilibrium implied by this sexuality, or the disequilibrium intrinsic to such desire. This would seem to suggest that there is some sort of fundamental disequilibrium organisms–if not the cosmos–partake in.

Nonetheless, Bataille so far does not characterize this disequilibrium in any more detail. It would seem key to the question of a unilateral friction of impulses.

To return to topic, however, the prohibition would have to have the character, in that case, of something which does not merely suppress impulses, but reconfigures them, and which commits such reconfiguration from within the organism’s ownmost possibilities (thereby definite ideas and ideational structure) as earlier specified. But in the case of the social animal, the horizon of this possibility, concretely expressed, is precisely the technological, since the tool is the space within which to alter possibility. The technological requires a sensitivity to time. In this way, the tool becomes the medium of desire.

This solves a problem Bataille runs into (though he does not frame it as a problem): “If we were unable to repress these impulses we should not be able to work, but work introduces the very reason for repressing them” (Bataille 1986, 41). This brings up a sort of chicken-or-egg question in regards to the ability to work–does the prohibition arise as a consequence of work, or does work arise as a consequence of prohibition? Insofar as Bataille speaks of disparate communities as distinct “unities” of work, this challenges the notion of technology and social life arising from the common origin of the taboo (Bataille 1986, 47-48). It would seem reasonable to answer the chicken-or-egg question posed by positing the tool as the common origin between prohibition and work. In fact, this would make Bataille’s attempt to tie in work with social life a bit easier, as, with the tool of common origin, it becomes immediately apparent that just as the tool becomes important for the life of the organism, so too does the organism’s work gain importance in its social life. In the production of society through the tool, society is rendered one’s own tool through gesturing one’s own activity as tool within society. The prohibition, or taboo, then, is merely the expression of this last move. It would also help Bataille’s explanation of the taboo of death, as it is easy to bring temporal perception into the picture.

It is important to note, however, that this sort of response is incomplete without an account of the unilateral friction of impulse, which is an issue this post digressed into momentarily. The tool may allow for and produce both prohibition and society, but how is it that either is possible at all, i.e. in a general sense? I believe, again, this question ties back to the notions of equilibrium/disequilibrium, perhaps by way of the further notions of difference, relation, appropriation and identity.

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