The Accursed Share  

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Fireworks as an example of 'squandering' surplus product.  Illustration: Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket  (c. 1875) by James McNeill Whistler
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Fireworks as an example of 'squandering' surplus product.
Illustration: Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (c. 1875) by James McNeill Whistler

"[Excess energy] must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically. This is the logic of sacrifice." --The Accursed Share, Georges Bataille, tr. Robert Hurley

Citation: "energy destroys us; it is we who pay the price of the inevitable explosion"
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Citation: "energy destroys us; it is we who pay the price of the inevitable explosion"

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

La Part maudite (Trans: The Accursed Share) is a book by Georges Bataille written between 1946 and 1949. The book was first published by Les Éditions de Minuit in 1949, then republished in 1967. It was translated by Robert Hurley, Zone Books, New York, 1988.

Crucial to the formulation of the theory was Bataille's reflection upon the phenomenon of potlatch. It is influenced by Marcel Mauss's The Gift, as well as by Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality.

The Accursed Share presents a new economic theory, which Bataille calls theory "general economy," as distinct from the "restricted" economic perspective of most economic theory. Central to this theory is the notion of excess, what Marx calls surplus product.

As for the title, the accursed share is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which is destined to one of two modes of economic and social expenditure. This must either be spent luxuriously and knowingly without gain in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in spectacles and sumptuous monuments, or it is obliviously destined to an outrageous and catastrophic outpouring in war.

In the theoretical introduction, he writes the following:

I will simply state, without waiting further, that the extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles—the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking—and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire... It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire. --Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Volume 1: Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), pp. 25–6).

Thus according to Bataille's theory of consumption, the accursed share is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which is destined to one of two modes of economic and social expenditure. This must either be spent luxuriously and knowingly without gain in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in spectacles and sumptuous monuments, or it is obliviously destined to an outrageous and catastrophic outpouring in war.

Excess energy

"I will begin with a basic fact: The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); it the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically. This is the logic of sacrifice." --The Accursed Share, Georges Bataille, tr. Robert Hurley

The notion of "excess" energy is central to Bataille's thinking. Bataille's inquiry takes the superabundance of energy, beginning from the infinite outpouring of solar energy or the surpluses produced by life's basic chemical reactions, as the norm for organisms. In other words, an organism in Bataille's general economy, unlike the rational actors of classical economy who are motivated by scarcity, normally has an "excess" of energy available to it. This extra energy can be used productively for the organism's growth or it can be lavishly expended. Bataille insists that an organism's growth or expansion always runs up against limits and becomes impossible. The wasting of this energy is "luxury". The form and role luxury assumes in a society are characteristic of that society. "The accursed share" refers to this excess, destined for waste.

Volume 1 introduces the theory and provides historical examples of the functioning of general economy: human sacrifice in Aztec society, the monastic institutions of Tibetan Lamaism, the Marshall Plan, and many others. Volumes 2 and 3 extend the argument to eroticism and sovereignty, respectively.

Reception

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre cited The Accursed Share in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), crediting Bataille with interesting insights into the way extravagance can become an "economic function." The classicist Norman O. Brown credited Bataille with providing "a first sketch" of a "post-Marxist science of political economy"; he found Bataille's ideas about economics to have particular relevance following the collapse of communism. Bataille's biographer Michel Surya considered The Accursed Share "one of Bataille's most important books", and consistent with Bataille's Inner Experience (1943). The biologist Bruce Bagemihl praised The Accursed Share, calling it brilliant. Paul Hegarty argued that Bataille became an "apologist for Stalinism" in The Accursed Share, doing so despite Bataille's awareness of the brutalities of the Soviet Union.

Erik Davis in The Voice Literary Supplement called it "a serious book of political economy that also claims 'the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space.' ... The Accursed Share is a brilliant product of [Bataille's] loony-tunes coupling of critical genres: pseudo/antisurrealist manifestos, leftist political treatises, erotics, Hegel 'n' Nietzsche studies, mysticism, anthropology, and sun worship."

See also




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