Georges Bataille on Nietzsche, the journal Acéphale and the Secret Society

640px-Acephale_1_Jun_1936While I’ve mainly been consumed by start-of-term stuff, I have been following up on a few leads in relation to the Foucault work. One of these was a piece by Georges Bataille on Nietzsche, first published in his short-lived journal Acéphale. The British Library has copies of two original issues of Acéphale – both double issues, though still very short. Pdfs of the whole short run are available at Monoskop.

Bataille is a fascinating and disturbing figure, and I’ve just started reading Michel Surya’s biography of him. While looking in the BL catalogue, I found the Encyclopædia Acephalica, published by Atlas Press, which wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but provides a lot of other material by and related to Bataille. It had a useful bibliography which has suggested a few more things to look at. But what it revealed to me was that Acéphale wasn’t just the name of the journal, but also a secret society founded by Bataille. I’m not sure how far down this particular rabbit-hole I will go, but I found that there was a recent publication in English of a host of material related to this society.

eclectics19It’s entitled The Sacred Conspiracy: The Internal Papers of the Secret Society of Acephale (Atlas Press, 2018). Here’s the publisher’s description:

This book recounts what must be one of the most unusual intellectual journeys of modern times, in which Georges Bataille — still best known outside of France as a highly wrought pornographer (The Story of the Eye etc.) — have spent the early Thirties in far-left groups opposing the rise of Fascism, abandoned that approach in order to transfer the struggle on to “the mythological plane”.

In 1937, he founded two groups in order to explore the combinations of power and the “sacred” at work in society (Bataille associated the sacred with expenditure, eroticism and death). The first group, the College of Sociology, gave lectures that were intended to reveal the hidden undercurrents within a society on the verge of catastrophe. Bataille and Roger Caillois produced some of their finest texts for these sessions, in which many of the most celebrated intellectuals of the period participated. The second group was Acéphale, a genuine secret society whose emblem was a headless figure that in part represented the death of God. This “ferocious” anti-religion enacted torch-lit rituals in a forest at night beneath an oak tree that has been struck by lightening. Until the discovery a few years ago of the group’s internal papers (which include theoretical texts, meditations, minutes of meetings, rules and prohibitions and even a membership list), almost nothing was known of its activities. Here is the story of what must be among the strangest associations in political, literary or occult history.

This book is the first to collect a representative selection of the writings of Bataille, and of those close to him, in the years leading up to the war. They judged that the time was right to confront the most intractable problems of the human condition head-on: how to live an integrated existence in a universe that was ruthless, absurd and indifferent? And how to oppose repressive and unequal social structures given the obvious impotence of the democracies and the political left when faced with far-right ideology? Such themes have a renewed resonance today.

The texts published here comprise lectures given to the College of Sociology by Bataille, Caillois and Michel Leiris, essays from the Acéphale journal and a large cache of the internal papers from the secret society. A desparate narrative unfolds, and Bataille risked all in this wholely unreasonable quest. With a few fellow travellers, he underook what he later described as a “journey out of this world”.

It looks compendious (480 pp.), richly-illustrated and affordable at £25, especially for such a big book. A quick check of Worldcat suggests no UK libraries have a copy, so it’s now on order.

Aside from Foucault reading the journal (there are notes on it in Paris), another link is that in the 1960s Foucault was part of a tribute issue of Critique to Bataille – a journal Bataille founded. This is the well-known ‘Preface to Transgression’ piece. But Foucault also wrote the brief preface to the first volume of Bataille’s Oeuvres complètes, published in 1970, which I don’t think has ever been translated. Foucault was clearly involved in some way with the planning of the Oeuvres complètes, since he used multiple copies of pages of a draft plan as scrap paper – they are found in multiple boxes of his papers in Paris. If I continue my work on Foucault for a book on the 1960s I’ll need to dig into this further, but for now I’m interested in finding out more about Bataille’s early work, especially around Nietzsche. And finally on that, I was surprised to realise that there was a new translation of his book On Nietzsche, which appeared in 2015 with SUNY Press, translated by Stuart Kendell. I only knew the earlier version, translated by Bruce Boone with Athlone/Continuum/Bloomsbury, which I bought and read probably 20 years ago.

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10 Responses to Georges Bataille on Nietzsche, the journal Acéphale and the Secret Society

  1. Kittredge says:

    Gday there , you might like this researcher Jasun Horsley who has riffed extensively about the Bataille -Nietzsche – Promethean nexus. Here he is riffing with Branko Malic of “Kali Tribune”. Academic Guido Preparata has also written extensively about this in his book “ideology of tyranny”


    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks for this. At least at the moment I’m looking only at the biographical and documentary. I’m not yet looking at the extensive literature about Bataille and using his ideas. however interesting.

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  3. Lukas Makovicky says:

    The Surya biography contains a lot of excellent work, even though, I believe there is a lot of space where one can go much deeper along the theoretical line into Bataille’s thought.
    Also, the Kendall translations published by SUNY (Inner Experience, Guilty, On Nietzsche) are great work, they have large appendixes that document most of the changes Bataille himself has made while re-editing them for later re-publication (as what he called the Summa Atheologica; the volume The Unfinished System of Non-Knowledge was also translated by Kendall but published by Minnesota). There seems to be a lot of work on Bataille to be done however, for example, the Zone Books publications of The Accursed Share do not include some of the sections, including the preface about energy that Bataille wrote under the influence of his friend, the physicist Giorgio Ambrosini. In any case, just as Bataille is in a pretty marginal position, it’s hard not to note the influence he had on Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, Barthes, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Kristeva, to give some of the prominent names (in fact, most of them have written essays on Bataille early in their career. Probably a good collection is Scott Wilson and Fred Botting’s Bataille: A Critical Reader that includes a number of the pieces. If you’re interested, Wilson and Botting’s Bataille book includes a list of annotated English language publications on Bataille – but then, just as Bataille and/or Nietzsche [and one can count in Heidegger] were influential for many important leftist thinkers, they have also had an influence on lots of reactionary thought.)

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Lukas – that’s very helpful. I have the Wilson & Botting book, Visions of Excess and the older Nietzsche translation by Bruce Boone. I’ve just ordered a second-hand copy of the 12 volume Oeuvres complètes, but am missing a lot of the English translations. I didn’t know about the gaps in the translation of The Accursed Share. I’m wary of going too far down this particular line, perhaps especially until I work on Foucault of the 1960s – rather than the current work on the 1950s. But while I’ve long known Foucault’s 1963 essay “Preface to Transgression”, I’ve only just begun to look at the whole ‘Hommage’ double issue of Critique of which it was a part. Thanks again.

      • Lukas Makovicky says:

        Well, there’s always quite a lot of things on the table at once. I would for example suggest that “Preface to Transgression” is called a preface precisely because “Transgression” in Bataille’s thought (elaborated in particular in the 2nd volume of the Accursed Share on the History of Eroticism) can not be sufficiently grasped through the means of language. I personally am interested a lot in the College of Sociology – where not only Bataille, Leiris, Klossowski, Kojève and Callois were having some interesting cross-exchanges, but it’s even more interesting in that Walter Benjamin supposedly attended most (if not all) of the meetings during his Paris exile, and was supposed to give a lecture, which unfortunately never took place. It seems that Benjamin disliked much of what was being said there, and at times even loudly protested against certain directions of the ‘project’. There is a collection on the College by Dennis Hollier, and also a quite interesting book by Simonetta-Falasca Zamponi called “Rethinking the Political”, even though I think her take is one that’s more of a sociological perspective, that maybe doesn’t pay as much attention to how what was being done was arguably more of an attempt at “hijacking” sociology and redefining the discipline, rather than ‘merely’ doing sociology (there’s a line in Nietzsche’s Will to Power notes where he proposes a substitution of the discipline of sociology with the study of historical formations of sovereignty, which I think the whole College project could have been faithful to). In any case, it would be interesting to know if Foucault himself was aware of this, and perhaps of the Benjamin link (one could say that Benjamin and Bataille were two early major attempts at how to philosophically synthesize Marx with Nietzsche), given he helped with editing Bataille’s Oeuvres Complètes.

  4. stuartelden says:

    I’m still at an early stage of exploring this, but have the Hollier College of Sociology collection in both French and English out of the Warwick library. With the Oeuvres complètes, I’m not sure how much Foucault was really involved in the editing – he wrote the preface, certainly, but beyond that it’s not clear. I think I mentioned he had several copies of the prospectus which he used as notepaper. Definitely something to explore. The Benjamin link is indeed fascinating. Thanks for the Simonetta-Falasca Zamponi suggestion.

    • Lukas Makovicky says:

      Yes, there are, unfortunately, lots of contradictory biographical claims in the authors’ introductions in various English-language volumes, and even in biographies, so unless one does that hard work like you in trying to track as many primary sources at least in order to see / browse through them, it might be very well that I took some claims about Foucault’s role too much as granted. Would have been probably easier had Foucault had Instagram back then and would be taking snapshots of a stack of Bataille’s handwritten papers and captioning: “For the next two months I’m helping to edit @georges666bataille’s completed writings for Gallimard. Stay tuned for the naughty and delightful things to come!”

      • stuartelden says:

        Foucault on Instagram sounds great! As I’ve said, the work of the later 1960s when he would have worked on the Oeuvres completes is outside of my current period of focus. At the end of the preface, Foucault lists the names of those involved in the real editing wrk.

        At the moment one of the tasks is finding out when he joined the board of Critique. Not made easier by some libraries binding issues in volumes and dispensing with the masthead pages. I think it’s early 1963, after Bataille’s death but before the Hommage issue, but want to make sure.

  5. Pingback: The Early Foucault Update 21: Pushing Gravel Uphill | Progressive Geographies

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