The End of History


Excerpt from Chapter 3 of The Colour of the Sacred: Georges Bataille and the Image of Sacrifice (London: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 2022), pp. 217-232. Extracted from a book of philosophy and sociology that runs to nearly 400 pages, some of the content of this text may appear opaque; but we are publishing it here because it describes a post-historical condition that, anticipated in 2007 when this book was completed, is being realised today through the revolution in global capitalism that began in 2020. 

Georges Bataille always maintained that his engagement with the thought of Hegel only began in earnest, as it had for a generation of Parisian intellectuals, with the famous course delivered between 1933 and 1939 at the École pratique des Hautes Études by the Russian emigré philosopher Alexandre Kojève. Years later, Bataille recalled that Kojève’s course had left him ‘suffocated, pinned down . . . exhausted, crushed, killed ten times over’; but when, in 1937, Bataille and Roger Caillois asked the brilliant young dialectician to join their newly-founded Collège de sociologie, Kojève refused. ‘In his eyes’, Caillois later recalled, ‘we were putting ourselves in the position of a conjurer who wanted his magic tricks to make him believe in magic’; and for Kojève, as he told them, it was impossible to wind back the clock of history — to regress from science back to magic.1 He did, nevertheless, accept their invitation to give a presentation at the second meeting of the Collège, on the 4th of December 1937, and it was here that Kojève announced ‘the end of history’.

Since the labour of the negative, according to Kojève’s anthropological reading of Hegel, is only manifested in the temporality of human action — the source of which, as we have seen, is the emergence of the I within the dimension of desire — the subsequent struggle for recognition in which the subject of that desire seeks to attain satisfaction, and the relations of labour that are the outcome of this struggle, initiates, within the continuum of time, the movement of history. According to Kojève’s unyielding logic, therefore, history has a beginning (the emergence of man) and an end (the satisfaction of his desire). But since history, according to Kojève, begins with the emergence of man from the struggle for recognition as either master or slave, only the sublation of this opposition in what Kojève called ‘the whole man’ can bring that history to an end.

For Hegel, according to Kojève, this had already occurred, during the years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed. He even had a date for this event: the 14th of October 1806, the day on which, on the field of action, Napoleon’s decisive victory over Prussia at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt effectively dissolved the Holy Roman Empire that had dominated Europe since the Middle Ages, supplanting it with what has since become the dominant model for the universal state; and, in the field of knowledge, Hegel himself, who the day before had watched the ‘soul of the world’ march past the window of his study, won his own no-less decisive struggle with absolute knowledge. The rest, according to Kojève — one-hundred and thirty years of history — was simply the extension in space of what had been realised in time by Robespierre and Napoleon. Of course, Hegel never explicitly said as much, not even in section C, chapter VI of the Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), where spirit reaches the period of the Napoleonic Empire. But the end of history, Kojève argues, is the necessary condition of absolute knowledge.

Here more than anywhere, Kojève’s reading of Hegel moves from a commentary to an interpretation, the origin of which, in this aspect of his reading, is the article by Alexandre Koyré, ‘Hégel à Iéna’ (1934), which was acknowledged by Kojève as ‘the source and basis’ to his interpretation of the Phenomenology of Spirit.2 If time, as Koyré argued in this article, is the determinate-being of the concept, the completion of knowledge implies the completion of history, when the circle of knowledge is complete, and the system, as Bataille said, closes. As Hegel famously wrote in his Philosophie des Rechts (1821): ‘The owl of Minerva takes flight only with the fall of night’.3 In this respect, therefore, Kojève was only revealing what Hegel himself hadn’t fully seen — with one qualification. Hegel, Kojève announced to his amazed audience, had been right about the end of history but wrong about the date, which was out by a century. The revolution that marked the transition to post-historical time was not French but Russian; the man of action who marked the end of history was not Napoleon but Stalin; and his herald not Hegel but Kojève himself.

Kojève’s vision of the end of history is breathtaking in its scope, irresistible in its logic, but uncertain of its conclusions. These were successively reformulated over a long footnote Kojeve added to the text of the very last lecture of his course, initially upon its publication in 1947 as Introduction à la lecture de Hegel: Leçons sur la Phénoménologie de l’Esprit, then to its reissue in a second edition in 1962. Like the rest of the 1938-39 academic year, this lecture — the twelfth — was devoted to the eighth and final chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit, where Hegel sketched out what he meant by ‘absolute knowledge’. The footnote itself, however, takes up the claim made in an earlier footnote, added to the ninth lecture of that year, on the destiny of the agent of this completed history. ‘The end of history’, Kojève had written, ‘is the death of man properly speaking’.4 But this death, Kojève now goes on to say, is neither a cosmic catastrophe nor a biological disaster, since the natural world will continue for eternity, and man will continue to live in that world. He lives there, however, not as a man but as an animal — which is to say, in accord with nature. What has disappeared is a subject opposed to an object, or man’s negativity, and with it, therefore, war, revolutions, and philosophy. This is post-historical time, when the world continues to turn, but nothing changes. ‘But all the rest’, Kojève goes on to write, ‘can maintain itself indefinitely: art, love, play, etc. etc.; in short, everything that man makes man happy [heureux]’.5

By this description of the final satisfaction and consequent disappearance of human desire in animal happiness, Kojève sought to describe the end state of man’s historical passage out of what Marx called the ‘realm of necessity’ into the ‘realm of freedom’: when history has rid him of what separates him from his sovereignty, surplus labour has become surplus time, and human activity, Marx writes, ‘is an end in itself’.6 This is the communist ideal: where man no longer struggles against his fellow man, in either wars or revolutions, since nations and classes have been supplanted by the universal state; labours in the service of another, since nature has been mastered by technology and production and consumption are organised along rational lines; and recognition is mutual between free individuals, irrespective of inherited status or natural distinction, within a homogeneous social order.7 As Marx himself described it in a rare moment of prophecy: ‘From each according to his means, to each according to his needs!’8

In the second edition of his book, however, Kojève returned to review this footnote, which he now found ambiguous if not contradictory. If post-historical man lives as an animal, he writes, ‘his arts, his loves and his play must themselves also become purely “natural”’.9 With the end of history, therefore, the human animal will make his works of art as the bird makes its nest or the spider its web, sing like the nightingale, make love like beasts, and play like their infants. But one cannot say, he now argues, that all this will make him happy; only, he writes, ‘that post-historical animals of the species Homo sapiens (who live in abundance and complete security) will be content in their artistic, erotic and ludic comportment, to the extent that, by definition, it will make them content’.10

This shift from a utopian vision of happiness to an ambivalent image of contentment is a reflection of Kojève’s own admission that by 1948 — only a year after the publication of his book, that is, and in his new post-war capacity as éminence grise to the Ministère des Finances et des Affaires Economiques — he had come to the conclusion that Hegel had been right, after all, about the Battle of Jena. Looking at what had happened to the world since 1806, and looking at the world around him now, Kojève concluded that all subsequent wars — including the two World Wars — and the revolutions that accompanied them, had merely served to purge Europe of the anachronisms of its political past and bring other states into line with the political avant-garde. If the revolutions that brought about Soviet Russia and communist China had also led, through the rise and defeat of fascism, to the democratisation of Imperial Germany and Italy, it is because what had been actualised by Robespierre and Napoleon had forced post-Napoleonic Europe to accelerate the supersession of its pre-revolutionary past. Indeed, this historical movement was even more advanced in what is the extension of European civilisation in North America. Kojève even goes so far as to argue that, to the extent that it is a ‘classless society’, the United States has attained the final stage of communism — the so-called ‘American way of life’ prefiguring the ‘eternal present’ of man’s return to animality.

Rather than the transition to communism he had predicted in the 1930s, therefore, Kojève, who is writing in 1962, now saw history ending with the post-war expansion of capitalism into the last of the three stages identified by Ernest Mandel: the national markets of the Industrial Revolution having been superseded, first, by the monopoly capitalism of imperialism, and finally by the multi-national capitalism of consumerism, each being a moment in the movement of history towards the global economy of today’s world, in whose common destiny this universal history concludes.11 From this perspective, the universal state in which history is brought to its end is a world locked in the embrace of capital, which has succeeded not only in colonising the last enclaves of pre-capitalist social and economic forms, the populations of which have become the new labouring classes in a global division of labour, but in penetrating every aspect of man’s subjectivity, the universal model for which is now the consumer.12 

Following a trip to Japan in 1959, however, Kojève changed his views on both the time and location of this end state. Here he found a warrior caste of masters (the Samurai) who for three centuries had ceased to risk their lives in a struggle for recognition without, nevertheless, being forced to labour. In their resulting attitude of ‘snobbism’, which finds its equal nowhere else in the world, Kojève now came to see the earliest forms of man’s return to animality — in the Noh theatre, in the tea ceremony, in the art of calligraphy, and in flower arranging — all of which anticipate the increasingly empty cultural forms of the ‘American way of life’ — of Hollywood cinema, fast food, soap operas, and professional sport. Of course, in contrast to these later forms, which reflect the transformation of the labouring slave of history into the universal consumer in which that history has ended, snobbism is the preserve of the noble and the wealthy; but in spite of the continuing economic and social inequalities of Japanese society, all its members, Kojève argues, live according to completely formal values — which is to say, devoid of all historical content. In principle, therefore, whether by sword (the ritual of Seppuku) or plane (the Kamikaze pilot), every member of Japanese society was capable of committing a perfectly gratuitous — which is to say, sovereign — suicide which nevertheless has nothing to do with the risking of life in a struggle for recognition. But since no animal can be a snob, the end of history can no longer mean ‘the death of man’, in the sense of the disappearance of the human being. To remain human, however, man must remain a subject opposed to an object, even if his negativity disappears. In his activity, therefore, and above all in his aesthetic activity, post-historical man must continue to detach the form of his activity from whatever historical content it once had — not in order to transform the latter by his actions, but to oppose himself as pure form both to himself and to others.

It was in order to characterise this state of being with ‘nothing more to do’ that Bataille, in a letter to Kojève written two days after his lecture to the Collège de sociologie, coined the term ‘unemployed negativity [négativité sans emploi]’. Persuaded by Kojève’s view of history but less convinced by the image he painted of its end, the question Bataille asks of this unemployed negativity is this. If negativity no longer manifests itself in action, what becomes of it — to the extent that it becomes something?13 ‘Most often’, Bataille agrees with Kojève, ‘impotent negativity becomes a work of art’.14 Indeed, insofar as it precedes the negativity of history, art is more likely to survive its end. But if it doesn’t evade the question altogether, the work of art, being the objectification of negativity, does not respond to a specific situation, and least of all to the death of man at the end of history. The other response, religion, is preferable in that it turns negativity into an object of contemplation. But in neither the work of art nor the object of religion is negativity recognised as such — which is to say, as an internal necessity. From this impasse Bataille concludes that the forms available to negativity at the end of history are different from those available in the movement of its unfolding. To this extent he is in agreement with Hegel’s thesis — on which Kojéve has clearly drawn — of ‘the end of art’: that art, historically superseded by religion and philosophy, can never again be the form in which man recognises himself.15 But if man’s need to act cannot continue to follow what Bataille dismissively calls ‘the lures of art’, it will sooner or later be recognised for what it is: ‘a negativity’, he writes, ‘empty of content’.16

In this return of man’s negativity to the nothingness of pure desire, Bataille anticipates the conclusions Kojève would draw from his visit to Japan twenty years later. Rather than the empty forms of ‘snobbism’, however, Bataille’s solution is that the man of ‘unemployed negativity’ can only find satisfaction in becoming the man of ‘recognised negativity’: not in his actions, which no longer have any prospect, but in satisfying that share of existence that is free of necessity. Clearly thinking about the labour reforms of the Popular Front government of Léon Blum, Bataille concludes: ‘it is a question of using free time’.17 It is precisely in recognising his need to act, in other words, that man recognises his negativity as the condition of human existence. In doing so, Bataille writes, the man of ‘recognised negativity’ brings into play representations that are charged with emotion – with violence and eroticism, laughter and tears, intoxication and fear: no longer as an object of contemplation, but situated objectively within the time that changes nothing and which nothing changes.

When Bataille published this letter as an appendix to Le Coupable, however, the seven years that separated him from its drafting led him to edit its contents, and in particular everything he had concluded about desire finding satisfaction in the recognition of man’s need to act.18 The emphasis now is on Bataille’s reflections upon his own ‘unemployed negativity’ (‘I could not define myself more precisely’, he writes), for which he now sees no outlet. ‘In effect’, Bataille writes, ‘no-one could “recognise” a summit that would be the night’ (OC V, 370). Indeed, Bataille would appear to have already adopted this position — and denied in advance the satisfaction of desire in post-historical happiness — when, only seven months after his letter to Kojève, he opened the publication of ‘L’Apprenti sorcier’ with the theorem: ‘The absence of need is more unhappy [malheureuse] than the absence of satisfaction’ (OC I, 523). In response to which, Bataille had advocated the return of man to the world of myth, in whose cyclical time he saw the plenitude of a total existence at the end of the linear time of history. As distinct from the man of science, who comprehends a world of objects, the man of fiction, who creates a dream world in its place, and the man of action, who seeks to transform it on the basis of this comprehension and in accordance with his dreams, this is the post-historical attitude of what Bataille, in this text, called the ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’. Certainly it was this absence of the need to act that Bataille took as his point of departure when, nearly twenty years later, in the final section of his article, ‘Hegel, l’homme et l’histoire’, he returned to address the death of man at the end of history.19

Having quoted in full the ‘strange texts’ in which Kojève announced this death, Bataille comments: ‘Listening to him, it seems as if death itself spoke this easy, cutting language, animated by an implacable movement: his speech has the impotence and, at the same time, the omnipotence of death’ (OC XII, 362). Situating the emergence of man within this implacable movement of time, Bataille returns to the corresponding presence in an equally cruel nature of William Blake’s tiger, whose economic meaning is bound to the luxurious nature of its diet when compared to that of its herbivorous prey. But while the predator intervenes to consume excess natural growth, Bataille asks what happens to overabundance in human societies, which have always produced more than is needed for their subsistence. Indeed, insofar as history begins with the division of humankind into those who produce this excess (the slave) and those who consume it (the master), the initial struggle for recognition that determines this division, Bataille concludes, ‘marks the privilege of unproductive consumption’ (OC XII, 367).

Situating the problem posed by this excess within the context of the qualitative expansion of post-war capitalism into a global economy, Bataille argues that just as the limit of biological growth is the terrestrial sphere, so too industrial growth has a saturation point, beyond which the individual share of resources diminishes. But this is just what capitalism, committed to the escalation of production, cannot countenance. Because it does not recognise the qualitative difference between the productive consumption of surplus and its useless expenditure, capitalism has brought about a servile world limited to the recognition of quantitative distinctions. If production, consequently, is not to reach saturation point, an appreciable part of its surplus must be squandered: not in the equal distribution of wealth, but in its vast accumulation and squandering. The periodic and catastrophic form of this expenditure is war, in which the overabundance of both biological and industrial growth finds its political solution. As evidence of this, Bataille sites the contrast between the hundred years of relative peace and prosperity experienced by Europe between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the Great War — when modern industry was in the period of its development — and the military conflict and arms economies of the two World Wars and the Cold War that followed — when that development reached saturation point. The subsequent and ongoing economic solution has been the unequal raising of the standard of living of the labouring classes in those states in which history has ended, and with it the emergence of the service, leisure and culture industries, of which the ‘American way of life’ is the outcome.

With the resulting passage to an increasingly homogeneous society, however, the different modalities of consumption have been sublated within the totality of quantitative measures that capital establishes between actions, the things they produce, and time itself, the qualitative distinctions between which are henceforth established according to their form and not their content — onto which money paints its grey on grey.20 For the social and economic equality promised by communism, capitalism has produced equivalence between social practices emptied of historical content. This is the hour of the commodity, when spirit has become capital, time is measured in money, and value by cost, which the market alone determines. History, as Marx said, is repeated as farce, and man enters what Hegel called ‘the Sunday of life’.21 In this eternal present of man’s future, which is lived as a permanent revolution in the purely formal aspects of social practice, ‘luxury’, Bataille writes, ‘is suppressed and sublimated under the form of the commodity’ (OC XII, 369). Blake’s tiger has become a Nike Max, a Big Mac, a Mercedes Benz, a World Cup Finals — ‘capital accumulated’, as Guy Debord would define the spectacle, ‘to the point where it becomes image’.22 It is by its deathly embrace, therefore, that Bataille measured the power of modern art and literature to attain the sacred instant, and found it wanting. How, then, is the man of ‘unemployed negativity’ to use his free time, when it is the temporality of the sacred that has been profaned? This is the question Bataille asks in ‘Hegel, la mort et le sacrifice’, the answer to which brought him face to face with the image of man.

Bataille opens his study on Kojève, as Kojève had closed his on Hegel, with a quotation from the manuscripts of Hegel’s Jena lectures of 1805-06, delivered in the years he wrote the Phenomenology of Spirit. This ‘beautiful text’, as Kojève called it, heavy with the Romanticism of Hegel’s youth, nevertheless expresses, he writes, ‘the central and final idea’ of Hegelian philosophy:

Man is that night, that empty nothingness that contains everything in its simplicity: the wealth of an infinite number of representations, of images, none of which occur directly — or which are not there, insofar as they are not present. It is night, the intimacy of nature, which exists here — the pure self. In its phantasmagorical representations, night is all around: here a bloody head shoots up, there another white figure suddenly appears, only to vanish just as abruptly. This is the night one sees when one looks into a man’s eyes — into a night that becomes terrible; for it is the night of the world that hangs before us then.23

For Kojève, of course, the central idea this text expresses is that ‘the foundation and source of objective reality and empirical existence’, he writes, ‘is the nothingness that manifests or reveals itself as negative or creative action, free and conscious of itself’.24 But for Bataille, no doubt more drawn than Kojève by metaphors that are not only richly visual but themselves metaphors of vision, these lines suggested a far darker image of man’s negativity. It was from these lines that he drew that image of the night with which I began this chapter, and which he formulates in his own commentary on this text:

The man who negates nature — by introducing into it, like its obverse, the anomaly of a ‘pure personal I’ — is present within the heart of that nature like a night within the light, like an intimacy within the exteriority of those things that are in themselves – like a phantasmagoria in which nothing composes except to decompose, nothing appears but to disappear, where nothing is, without being relentlessly absorbed in the nihilation of time, from which it draws the beauty of a dream. (OC XII, 327)25

In evoking this image of man’s negation of the natural, given world, Bataille is clearly thinking of Marx’s famous depiction of the bourgeois world in The Communist Manifesto as one in which ‘all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned’.26 But where Kojève, like Marx before him, defined man as the ‘negative or creative action’ that is the ‘foundation and source’ of the historical world, Bataille was more interested in man as the subject of the interdiction: as Homo ludens (man who plays) not Homo faber (man who makes); not as the labouring slave to which capitalism had reduced him and communism had elevated him, but as the man of ‘unemployed negativity’; not, finally, as Kojève’s ‘whole man’ in which master and slave have finally been reconciled, but as what he himself called the ‘sovereign man’ of the present. Here alone, Bataille argues, and not in some infinitely deferred future, can man attain his freedom. If the whole man, the man of satisfied desire, recognising and recognised by his fellow man within a homogeneous and universal state, is the labour of the negative, the sovereign man is the work of death.

Because he is this negative action, however, man, as Bataille was fond of saying, is not what he is, and is what he is not. For Kojève, this meant that the freedom of man can only be attained in the final satisfaction of his desire for recognition, which brings this movement of becoming to an end; the end of history, accordingly, is also the death of man. ‘For Hegel’, Bataille concludes, ‘satisfaction can only take place, desire can only be appeased, in the consciousness of death’ (OC XII, 336). But death, as we know, reveals nothing to the one who experiences it; rather, since life is the necessary condition of consciousness, death itself would have to become conscious of itself at the moment it killed the animal being in which it lives. How, then, is man to know death? ‘This difficulty’, Bataille writes, ‘proclaims the necessity of spectacle, or of representation in general, without the repetition of which we would remain, with regard to death, strangers, as ignorant as beasts appear to be’ (OC XII, 337). For Bataille, as we have seen (in chapter 2), this is the fundamental role of representation, and equally, therefore, its link to sacrifice, in which the sacrifier, who experiences his own death in that of the victim, destroys the animal in himself. It is in sacrifice, therefore, that death, as Kojeve said, ‘lives a human life’. But it is also where Bataille reads Hegel against himself — where he locates the blind spot in Hegel’s eye, which he identifies in the passage on death from the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. If the ‘moment of sacrifice’, as Bataille goes on to say, is implicit in the whole movement of the Phenomenology, in what way does his ‘dwelling with the negative’ result in man’s satisfaction? How does man’s consciousness of death, in other words, lead to the satisfaction of his desire?

Kojève himself had addressed this apparent paradox in his commentary on this passage, but out of ‘decency’, Bataille says, rejected ‘vulgar satisfaction’ (OC XII, 339).27 For Kojève, it is only in the consciousness of his finitude in a world without a beyond that man can affirm his freedom, his historicity, and his individuality, and thereby have them recognised; and in this alone can he attain the satisfaction of his desire. In rejecting the vulgar satisfaction of sensual pleasure, therefore, Kojève distinguished the complete and definitive satisfaction of the whole man from the mere enjoyment obtained by the master — and he does so, crucially for Bataille, in terms of the contrasting moments of production and consumption:

The master, who does not work, produces nothing stable outside the self. He only destroys the products of the slave’s labour. Thus his enjoyment and his satisfaction remain purely subjective: they are of interest only to him, and therefore can be recognised only by him; they have no ‘truth’, no objective reality revealed to all. Accordingly, this ‘consumption [consommation]’, this idle enjoyment of the master’s, which results from the ‘immediate’ satisfaction of desire, can at the most procure some pleasure for man; it can never give him complete and definitive satisfaction.28

In this description of the master’s enjoyment can be heard not only the idleness of Bataille’s ‘unemployed negativity’ but also the destructive impulse he reads into Kojève’s (and Hyppolite’s) translation of Hegel’s ‘Genusse’ as ‘jouissance’, both of which meet in an unproductive form of consumption for which Bataille, in La Part maudite, coined the neologism ‘consumation’. Like the tiger with its kill, this is a consumption which, insofar as it destroys its object in consuming it, produces nothing outside itself — does not produce a thing — and therefore cannot satisfy man’s desire for recognition. But if Kojève rejects the immediacy of such pleasure in favour of the satisfaction desire only attains in the mutual recognition of the whole and complete man, he also ignores Hegel’s insistence that ‘spirit only attains its truth in finding itself in absolute laceration’, which is incompatible with this desire for recognition.

As we have seen, Bataille attributes this insistence to Hegel’s own experience of ‘becoming dead’ (of being God, of attaining absolute knowledge at the end of history), from which he turned away to transpose the negative into being. But just as the slave represses his fear of death, so Hegel repressed this moment of sacrifice within the labour of understanding. As Bataille points out, however, although the slave fears death — and, indeed, it is this fear that makes him a slave — like the animal he does not know it. To do so would have meant risking his life in the struggle for recognition. But since that struggle, if pursued to its end, would have led to the death of at least one of the combatants, by accepting the certainty of servitude to the possibility of death the slave sublated the abstract negation of death in the negativity characteristic of consciousness — which is to say, it was suppressed, conserved and sublimated in his labour. From this refusal to risk his life, however, comes the ultimate absence of satisfaction of what Bataille argues is the ultimately servile consciousness of the final man. But because the sovereign man, the man of unemployed negativity, remains in the anguish of death, refusing to transpose its negativity into being (into the product of labour), his consciousness of death does not constitute the dialectical finitude of the slave, but a negativity, as Bataille said, of ‘another nature’. Since it is the threat of death that constitutes the power of the master, and thus its dialectical value, the assumption of that possibility opens consciousness to what Hegel called the ‘abstract negation’ of death. This is the blind spot in understanding. Indeed, Hegel had given a famous description of just this death in section B, chapter VI of the Phenomenology of Spirit, where spirit, following the French Revolution — which is to say, immediately prior to the end of history and the death of man — enters the Reign of Terror:

The sole work and act of universal freedom is, therefore, death; and a death that has neither inner depth, nor fulfilment, for what is negated is the unfulfilled point of the absolutely free self; it is therefore the coldest, flattest of deaths, with no more meaning than cleaving a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water.29

Cleaving heads and cabbages — we are clearly back in the circle of the cent morceaux, in the forest at Saint-Germain-en-Laye; and it is here that Bataille finds his solution to the paradox of post-historical desire finding satisfaction in the consciousness of death. In response to Kojève, Bataille writes: ‘Satisfaction and laceration coincide, however, at one point; but they accord here with pleasure’ (OC XII, 339-340). But human pleasure, as we have seen, is subject to the mechanism of interdiction and transgression. ‘There is in fact no human pleasure’, Bataille writes, ‘without the breaking of an interdiction, the simplest of which — and at the same time the most powerful — is currently that of nudity’ (OC XII, 340).30 Indeed, insofar as it is the original and necessary structure of the relation of the consciousness of self to the other, desire can never be completely and definitively satisfied. It can, at most, procure for man some pleasure. But herein lies his truth. If the desire of man can never be satisfied, pleasure, which is an effect of the interdiction that makes him a man, finds satisfaction in the lacerations of passion; but that satisfaction, insofar as it is the end of desire, is also the death of man. Hence its designation as the petite mort. For the complete and definitive satisfaction of man at the end of history, therefore, Bataille substitutes the consciousness of his death in erotic effusion. This is the conclusion Bataille reaches in the epilogue to L’Histoire de l’érotisme, where he reflects on the relation of eroticism to the end of history. Although eroticism, to the extent that it has a history, is on the margins of military and political history, erotic activity, Bataille writes, is the expressive form of an ‘a-historical mode of existence’ whose precondition is the end of history. ‘From this necessarily hypothetical point of view’, Bataille concludes, ‘the consciousness of erotic truth anticipates the end of history’ (OC VIII, 163). It is not in the infinitely-deferred desire for recognition, therefore, that spirit attains its truth, but in ‘sensual pleasure’, which is not the satisfaction of desire in eternal happiness but the communication of its anguish in the moment of laceration.

For Bataille, accordingly, the essence of man — what is universal in the individual — is not, as it was for Marx, the history of his labour, the accumulation of his knowledge, or the future of his hopes, but that night one sees ‘when one looks into a man’s eyes’. This, however, is not an essence, but the nothing from which he unceasingly tries to escape — in the deferral of his satisfaction, in the sublimation of his desire, in the alienation of his consciousness, and in the repression of his fear of death — but to which he must return, as to a lost intimacy. To the former we owe the movement of history, to the latter the bloody sacrifice in which that history reaches its conclusion: for it is in the spectacle of sacrifice, above all other representations, that satisfaction and laceration coincide. This is man as the young Hegel described him: ‘the wealth of an infinite number of representations, of images’. Here a bloody head, there a spectral apparition. And it is these that the man of unemployed negativity draws from a night in which the owl of Minerva is blind. It is because of this that Bataille, in May 1940, referring back to his letter to Kojève in the second of his notebooks for Le Coupable, could write: ‘Unemployed negativity would destroy whoever lived it: sacrifice will illuminate the conclusion of history just as it lit its dawn’ (OC V, 289).

In this light — the light of sacrifice — the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, industrially, scientifically and philosophically the most advanced nation in Europe, was not an historical anomaly but a moment prepared by that vision of the state outlined in Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Although they both explicitly reject this historical explanation, Jean Améry and Primo Levi, two of the most illuminating witnesses and survivors of the death camps, nevertheless identify Hegel — rather than Nietzsche — as the true herald of National Socialism. In his reflections on ‘The Intellectual in Auschwitz’, Améry (who cites Bataille in describing the sadism of his SS torturers) writes:

The power structure of the SS state towered up before the prisoner monstrously and indomitably, a reality that could not be escaped and that therefore finally seemed reasonable. No matter what his thinking may have been on the outside, in this sense here he became a Hegelian: in the metallic brilliance of its totality the SS state appeared as a state in which the idea was becoming reality.31

And in his commentary on this chapter of Améry’s book, Levi writes:

By his very nature the intellectual (German, if I may be allowed to add this to his pronouncement) tends to become an accomplice of power, and therefore approves of it. He tends to follow in Hegel’s footsteps, and deify the state, any state; the sole fact of its existing justifies its existence.32

For Bataille, however, the horror that Christianity has called, significantly, ‘The Holocaust’ (from the Latin holocaustum: ‘burnt offering’), was the logical end not only of a particular and murderous state ideology, not even of the history of antisemitism within the Christian world, but of the general and progressive reduction of man to a thing, without which that ideology could not have come into being.33 This was realised, above all, in the lie written over the entrance to Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei. Auschwitz, however, wasn’t a labour camp but a death camp; and its product wasn’t the work of labour but the work of death: not only the immediate death of ninety percent of its new arrivals, who went directly to the gas chambers, but the gradual death of the camp inmates, the instruments of death, whose own lifespan averaged three months. In January 1945, in the final days between the departure of the SS and the arrival of the Soviet Army in Auschwitz, Levi shared the abandoned camp infirmary with a prisoner who, ‘following a last interminable dream of acceptance and slavery’, he writes, began to murmur ‘Jawohl’ with every breath, over and over again, thousands of times, until the very moment of his death. ‘I never understood so clearly as at that moment’, Levi writes, ‘how laborious is the death of a man’.34

In this obscene inversion of Bataille’s affirmation of sovereignty can be heard the great lie on which Hegel’s dialectic rests: that the labour of the slave will make him free. But the only exit from Auschwitz was an infernal expenditure, unequalled in the history of man. If history concludes in the light of sacrifice, what it illuminates is the end of sacrifice — annihilation (Shoah) and not sacrifice (Holocaust). As Levi insisted, with certain exceptions the SS were not sadists, and did not derive pleasure from their work, which they carried out, rather, with a ruthless efficiency; on the contrary, and as Himmler informed them, it was the SS who were making the sacrifice — precisely, of their humanity.35 For Bataille, therefore, who says surprisingly little about the camps, although the crimes of Nazism appear beyond the limit of the possible — and with it of all possible explanations — ‘their excess’, he writes, ‘precisely, defines this limit’.36 By this measure, the SS masters were not the monsters that a moral explanation of the camps would like to subtract from the sum of humanity, any more than their victims were the animals their executioners sought to subtract them as. Both were mired in the ignominy of the camps, reduced by them to the condition of post-historical man.37 ‘Like the Pyramids or the Acropolis’, Bataille writes, ‘Auschwitz is the fact, the sign, of man. Henceforth, the image of man is inseparable from a gas chamber’.38 This is the testimony of the camps: that man is defined by limits that are not given, but are themselves the horror of history, which they brought to a conclusion that not even Hegel could have seen. Auschwitz, not Jena, was the setting for the death of man.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing


End Notes

  1. Roger Caillois, ‘Entretién avec Gilles Lapouge’, La Quinzaine littéraire, no. 70 (16-30 June, 1970).
  2. See Alexandre Koyré, ‘Hégel à Iéna (à propos de publications récentes)’, Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger, no. 118 (1934); cited in Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 367.
  3. G. W. F. Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (1821); translated by H. B. Nisbet as Elements of the Philosophy of Right; Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought; series edited by Raymond Geuss and Quentin Skinner; volume edited by Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 23.
  4. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel: Leçons sur la Phénoménologie de l’Esprit, p. 388n; quoted in OC XII, 362.
  5. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 435n; quoted in OC XII, 361.
  6. Karl Marx, Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomi, buch III, Der Gesamtprozess der kapitalistischen Produktion (1864). Translated by E. Untermann as Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 3, Capitalist Production as a Whole (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p. 820; quoted in Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 435n.
  7. For this representation of the universal and homogeneous state, see Barry Cooper, The End of History: An Essay on Modern Hegelianism, pp. 289-90.
  8. Karl Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ (1875); collected in Selected Writings, p. 569. Bataille himself had previously quoted this line in his description of the Marshall Plan in La Part maudite (OC VII, 167).
  9. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 436n.
  10. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 436n.
  11. See Ernest Mandel, Der Spätkapitalismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1972); translated by Joris De Bres as Late Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1975).
  12. On this shift in Kojève’s view of the end of history, see Allan Stoekl, ‘The Future of the End of History’, in ‘Kojève’s Paris. Now Bataille’, a special issue of Parallax, no. 4 (February 1997), pp. 29-40. From this perspective, the apparent return of history following the attacks on the U.S. World Trade Centre and Pentagon on 11 September 2001 was the inevitable next stage in the expansion of Late Capitalism: on the one hand, in its external struggle for those natural resources Capitalism requires if it is to continue its physical expansion around the globe; and, on the other, the corresponding internal expansion of the powers of the state to model its subjects to the needs of that expansion. What looks like history, in other words, is only the consequences of its end. In the chapter on the Marshall Plan in La Part maudite, Bataille warns of the consequences of the U.S. economy (‘the greatest explosive mass the world has ever known’) adhering to the principle of profit when he writes: ‘It is easy to imagine the outcome of the U.S. abandoning the rest of the world to hatred’ (OC VII, 164).
  13. Here Bataille is the heir of Baudelaire when he concludes the final passage of his Fusées in prophetic mood. ‘The world is about to end. The only reason for it to continue is that it exists. And how feeble is that reason compared to those that announce the contrary, and particularly to this: What is the world to do from now on under heaven? Even supposing that it continued to exist materially, would it be an existence worthy of the name or the Historical Dictionary? I do not say that the world will be reduced to the expedients and clownish disorder of the South American republics, or even that we shall perhaps return to a savage state, roaming the overgrown ruins of our civilisation, gun in hand, searching for our food. No, for these adventures would still suppose a certain vital energy, an echo of earlier ages. The new example and new victims of inexorable moral laws, we shall perish by that by which we have believed in living. Machinery will have so Americanised us, progress will have so atrophied in us all that is spiritual, that nothing in the bloody, sacrilegious or unnatural dreams of the Utopians will be comparable to the result. I appeal to every thinking man to show me what remains of life. As for religion, I believe it is useless to speak of it or to search for its remains, since to give oneself the trouble of denying God is the only scandal in these matters. But the time will come when humanity, like an avenging ogre, will tear their last morsel from those who believe themselves to be the legitimate heirs of revolution. And even that will not be the supreme evil. Human imagination can conceive, without undue difficulty, of republics or other communal states worthy of a certain glory, if they are led by holy men or certain aristocrats. But it is not specifically in political institutions that the universal ruin or the universal progress – for the name matters little – will manifest itself. That will be in the debasement of the human heart. Need I say that what remains of politics will struggle painfully in the clutches of a general animality, that our leaders will be forced, in order to maintain themselves and to create the ghost of an order, to resort to means that will make today’s humanity, hardened as it is, shudder? . . . Then any resemblance to virtue, everything, indeed, that is not the worship of Pluto, will be brought into utter ridicule . . . These times are perhaps very near; who knows if they are not already here, and if the coarseness of our nature is not the only obstacle that prevents us from appreciating the environment in which we breathe?’ (Charles Baudelaire, Fusées, dans Écrits intimes. Collection Incidences. Texte établi par Jacques Crépet. Introduction par Jean-Paul Sartre (Paris: Éditions Point du Jour, 1946), pp. 7-38).
  14. Georges Bataille, Choix de lettres, p. 132.
  15. See G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art; translated by T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), vol. 1, pp. 10-11.
  16. Georges Bataille, Choix de lettres, p. 133.
  17. Georges Bataille, Choix de lettres, p. 134.
  18. See ‘Lettre à X., chargé d’un cours sur Hegel…’ (OC V, 369-371). In the notes for its 1961 reissue as the second volume of La Somme athéologique, Bataille comments that, in the light of the last twenty years, his admission that ‘history (except for the denouement) was complete’ was mistaken, insofar as Kojève, at the time, ‘imagined the revolutionary solution of Communism was at hand’.
  19. The structure of Bataille’s two-part study is as follows: A. Hegel, Death and Sacrifice, 1. Death, 2. Sacrifice; B. Hegel, Man and History, 1. Sovereignty (or the Master), Death and Action, 2. The Slave and Labour, 3. The End of History.
  20. One of the most evocative representations of this qualitative shift at the moment of its emergence is that of Georg Simmel, ‘Die Grosstadt und das Geistesleben’, in Die Grosstadt. Jahrbuch der Gehe-Stiftung, no. 9 (1903); translated by Edward A. Shils as ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, in On Individuality and Social Forms; The Heritage of Sociology; series edited by Morris Janowitz; edited, and with an introduction, by Donald N. Levine (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 324-339.
  21. Marx’s famous observation – that all great events in history occur twice: ‘the first time as tragedy, the second as farce’, which he attributes, apocryphally, to Hegel – opens The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), and refers to the repetition of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’etat of 1799 by his nephew, who had just proclaimed himself Emperor of France (Karl Marx, Selected Writings, p. 301). Hegel refers to ‘the Sunday of Life’ on several occasions: in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 92; his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion; edited by Peter C. Hodgson; translated by R. F. Brown, P. C. Hodgson, and J. M. Stewart (Berkeley, LA, and London: University of California Press, 1984), vol. 1, pp. 92-93; and in his Aesthetics, vol. 2, p. 000. The latter reference would provide the epigraph to Queneau’s novel of the same title, Le Dimanche de la vie (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1951), which describes the existence of the final man at the end of history. For the importance of this phrase to Bataille’s reading of Hegel, see Christopher M. Gemerchak, The Sunday of the Negative: Reading Bataille Reading Hegel; SUNY series in Hegelian Studies; edited by William Desmond (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003).
  22. Debord explicitly responds to Bataille when he writes: ‘Our epoch, which presents its time to itself as essentially made up of many frequently recurring festivities, is actually an epoch without festival. Those moments when, under the reign of cyclical time, the community would participate in a luxurious expenditure of life, are strictly unavailable to a society where neither community nor luxury exists’ (Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967); translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith as The Society of the Spectacle (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1996), pp. 24 and 113.
  23. G. W. F. Hegel, Jenaer Systementwürfe III (1805-06), p. 187; quoted in Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 575; and OC XII, 326-27.
  24. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 574; quoted in OC XII, 327.
  25. Bataille repeats the first part of this sentence in both parts of his study – that is, both here, in ‘Hegel, la mort et le sacrifice’, and in ‘Hegel, l’homme et l’histoire’, where, after the line ‘like an intimacy within the exteriority of those things that are in themselves’, he writes, ‘and, as such, cannot develop the richness of the dialectical opposition’ (OC XII, 350).
  26. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p. 224.
  27. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 551.
  28. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 29.
  29. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 605; quoted in Alexandre Kojève, Introduction, p. 557.
  30. Bataille here is paraphrasing Sade in Juliette: ‘There must be a breaking of restraining rules’, he writes, ‘before pleasure begins to be pleasure’ (Le Marquis de Sade, La Nouvelle Justine, ou les Malheurs de la Vertu, suivie de l’Histoire de Juliette, sa soeur (1797); translated by Austryn Wainhouse as Juliette (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 340).
  31. Jean Améry, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (1966); translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld as At the Mind’ s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities (London: Granta Books, 1980), p. 12.
  32. Primo Levi, I Sommersi e i salvati (Turin: Guilio Einaudi, 1986); translated by Raymond Rosenthal, with an introduction by Paul Bailey, as The Drowned and the Saved (London: Abacus, 1988), p. 117.
  33. On the application of a discourse of sacrifice to the camps, see Giorgio Agamben, Quel che resta di Auschwitz: L’archivio e il testimone (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1999); translated by Daniel Heller- Roazen as Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002), pp. 28- 31.
  34. Primo Levi, Si questo è un uomo (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1958); translated by Stuart Woolf, with an introduction by Karl Miller, as If This is a Man. The Truce (London: Everyman, 2000), p. 204.
  35. See Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘L’Insacrifiable’, p. 33.
  36. Georges Bataille, ‘Reflexions sur le bourreau et la victime’, Critique, no. 17 (October 1947); collected in OC XI, 267.
  37. On the camps as the bio-political paradigm of the modern state, see Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita (Turin: Guilio Einaudi, 1995); translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen as Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life; Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, series edited by Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).
  38. Georges Bataille, ‘Sartre’, Critique, no. 12; collected in OC XI, 226. This was Bataille’s review of Jean Paul Sartre, Réflexions sur le question juive (Paris: Éditions Morihien, 1947).

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