In this book, Georges Bataille explores the connection between man's religious and economic pursuits. By focusing in on such divergent practices as human sacrifice and ritualized warfare in Aztec society, the practice of "potlach" in native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Tibetan Lamaism, and the conflagrations of our most recent World Wars, the author seeks to overturn classical models of economics. Instead of economics being driven by individuals seeking to satisfy their personal needs, Bataille proposes that economics is actually a social process that seeks to destroy, excrete, and expend excess goods and services. His unique perspective centers around the idea that the systematic destruction and loss of goods and services is intimately connected to our age old struggle to attain the Beyond. The French philosopher Michel Foucault once stated that Bataille said what had never been said before. After reading this first volume of Bataille's three volume work "The Accursed Share", you can begin to understand why Foucault believed as he did.
It always feels a little awkward writing a review of a book like this. It's a couple of months since I read it and its still resonating very strongly with me. I expect the feeling to last. I was intending only to read volume 1, but was so impressed and entranced that I read straight through volumes 2 and 3.
If, like me, your intellectual groove runs from Nietzsche through Freud to Norman O Brown then you will love Bataille. I would encourage anyone to read him, though. I found him intensely readable. His style is not dry or overly academic, on the other hand there is no sense of it being simplified or anodyne. And yet, he works on the very edge of how it's possible to think.
I came to Bataille from Nigel Dodd's book The Social Life of Money. Money is my thing. I'm particularly interested in explorations of it that revolve around sex and being. Bataille, through an overarching concept of 'general economy', links together sex (which he characterizes as Eroticism, the subject of volume 2) and being (which he characterizes as 'sovereignty', the subject of volume 3). This is not an idea that is easily grasped through an accessible aphorism - but it is one that you become more aware of through your reading of the three volumes. Bataille's famous quote is that by reading the Accursed Share you'll come to know: 'that the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space'.
I expect that quote has put people off. I urge you, not to let it put you off. The key to the riddle is in understanding - or, perhaps it's better said, by reforming in your own mind - the concept of waste. There are psychoanalytical undertones here, of course. But conceptually waste has a moral stickiness. And it's this moral stickiness that Bataille so effectively washes away allowing 'waste' to be contrasted with 'utility' on a level playing field. At another point in the introduction he says that he is trying to answer the question of Keynes' bottles (Keynes' demand side economics in the form of an thought experiment). However much economists pretend otherwise, this question - which basically stated is 'what is economic growth' - has never really been answered.
I'm not sure I'd say Bataille answers it, of course. I have problems with his distinction between the sexual and the erotic and the way in which this then acts as a sort of delineation between human and animal form. If you look at the negative reviews of Norman O Brown's Life Against Death you'll find similar criticisms. I also worry (generally) about where such purity of thought takes us - well, takes me. Bataille says that if he'd followed his line of thought to its conclusion then he ought not to have written the book at all.
I'm glad he did, though. Very glad. He might not have answered the big question of what is economic growth? (and, maybe there is no answer) but he does paint a metaphysical picture that helps us see things afresh. He's right about his famous phrase. You get a new sense 'that the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space' that wasn't there before your reading. It's tricky to put into words what that glimmer of understanding is - but - you become newly aware of limitations. You become aware, for example, of how language itself is subsumed within Bataille's metaphysical picture. He's trying to step outside of all these constraints and contortions that silently refract our view of the universe and show us how we really are.