Georges Bataille and the Limits of Modernismby Raymond Spiteri
Although Bataille’s writings, particularly his contributions to Documents (1929–31), are usually considered in opposition to the idealism implicit in conventional accounts of modernism, this paper discusses the degree to which his writings manifest tendencies characteristic of modernism—modernism in a terminal state, an endgame rather than historical development. In terms of artistic endeavour, Bataille’s critique of idealism focused on the process of transposition as an evasion of base material or psychological processes. However, if the scope of his writings is expanded beyond the limited period of Documents, then the process of transposition appears integral. Both Histoire de l’œil and Madame Edwarda: culminate in a scene of jouissance centred on the vision of female genitals, yet at this moment of unveiling, when corporeal reality threatens to lacerate the narrator’s consciousness, Bataille tarries the encounter through a transposition. This strategy qualifies Bataille’s critique of modernism: although he seeks to frustrate the process of transpositions he is unable to escape this process, and indeed relies on transpositions to render the process’s collapse. The image is the matrix of Bataille’s modernism, framing the movement between primordial limit-experience and transposition. It is a limit to be transgressed, an arena for an experience beyond language, and a veil over this experience. It is precisely this ambivalence that characterises Bataille’s modernism.
Raymond Spiteri teaches Art History at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His
research focuses on the culture and politics of surrealism, and he is currently working on a study
of the Breton-Bataille polemic.