“Human activity is not entirely reducible to processes of production and conservation, and consumption must be divided into two distinct parts. The first reducible part is represented by the use of the minimum necessary for the conservation of life and the continuation of the individuals’ productive activity in a given society; it is therefore a question simply of the fundamental condition of productive activity. The second part is represented by so-called unproductive expenditures: luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e. deflected from genital finality) - all these represent activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, have no end beyond themselves. Now it is necessary to reserve the use of the word expenditure for the designation of these unproductive forms, and not for the designation of all the modes of consumption that serve as a means to the end of production.”—Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure.”
I’ve recently finished a short biography of Georges Bataille by Stuart Kendall. Like most biographies, it’s most interesting in its first half, when it’s explicating how the subject of the bio came to articulate his particular set of beliefs, passions or skills, and then the second half falls off a little, descending into assorted details that pave the way to the grave, so to speak. Kendall’s most interesting observation is as follows:
Bataille’s sngle most significant essay, ‘The Notion of Expediture,’ inverts the classical—and hence, also the Marxist—economy model by insisting that consumption rather than production determines the nature and goals of culture.I've recently completed a response for Sequart to the Bataillean concepts on a separate theme, so I'll quote myself from that forthcoming essay:
As seen in the opening quote, “expenditure” is Bataille’s term for one of two aspects of the cultural process of consuming things; elsewhere Bataille plainly distinguishes this aspect from anything related to “production and conservation.” Marx defined all aspects of culture through the consideration of who controlled the means of production, and proposed socialism as a solution to the problem of alienated labor. But if Bataille is right, then a more fundamental and inescapable alienation exists between the two aspects of consumption: the desire to conserve and the desire to expend.
Whether the creator is an archaic Icelandic skald or a modern purveyor of artcomics, he earns his daily bread by offering cultural experiences that “have no end beyond themselves.” A cash nexus supports the exchange between artist and audience, but as Bataille suggests, this “process of acquisition” has simply layered over a more fundamental form of exchange. No artist exists without influence from his real or potential audience, even as that audience changes in response to the more provocative attempts to find the audience’s favor. This egalitarian reading stands in stark contrast to the elitist vision of an avant-gardist like Clement Greenberg, propounding the romantic notion of unalloyed geniuses leading pliable audiences into the promised land of enlightenment.
In essays like this one I’ve made no bones about my antipathy for Marxist ideology, but I confess that I haven’t explored on this blog Bataille’s formulations as an alternative to Marx’s focus on the infamous “means of production.”
Elswhere in the biography Kendall applies the Bataillean ideal of consumption to the concept of identity as mediated through fictional constructs:
Consumption is, in short, a means by which individuals negotiate their identities through expenditure.
I don't recall that Bataille makes use of the contemporary-sounding term "negotiation," but I agree with Kendall's interpretation and extend it a little further into terrain that Bataille, given his anti-idealist influences (Freud, Marx, Sade), would never have contemplated.
Bataille would probably have deemed both Joseph Campbell and his chief influence Carl Jung as overly oriented upon idealism, which Bataille despised due to both his personal history and his reading of Marx. But Jung and Campbell were far from being the foursquare defenders of Platonic Idealism that detractors claim. Both were invested in dynamic psychological processes akin to what Kendall calls “negotiation.” The principal difference between Bataille and Campbell is that Bataille focuses on images of destruction for his concept of expenditure, emphasizing customs like animal/human sacrifice and the Amerindian potlatch. In contrast Campbell focuses on images of construction: on negotiating the identity of the world through piecing together its separable aspects: the cosmological, the metaphysical, the sociological and the psychological. Such images of construction are also a means by which both a storyteller seeks to negotiate identity for his audiences by situating them in a world governed not by reason and logic-- which I relate to the "desire to conserve," a.k.a. Freud's "reality principle" and Jung's "directed thinking." Instead, the worlds where mythic law pertains-- where the world is made out of the blood and bones of Ymir, or a hero who returns to his native realm ends up marrying his mother (or a semi-reasonable facsimile)-- are worlds of "unproductive expenditures."
Bataille's division of consumption into its useful and useless forms also suggests some interesting parallels with the work of Susanne Langer, which I plan to explore in Part 2.