A Note on Kant and Bataille

This Note was originally sketched as an overview for an advanced seminar on Kant and Bataille at Ferrum College in 2002.  The texts for the seminar were Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone and Bataille’s Theory of Religion.

Kant and Bataille emerge as thinkers on either side of the industrial-technological revolution.

Philosophers of the period in Bataille - Acephalaebetween, such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietzsche, have argued that the meaning of both reason and the ‘sacred’ have undergone a radical transformation with this historical and existential revolution.  For Kant, reason remains specifically aloof from temporality and history – indeed, as he alludes in the Critique of Judgement, reason emerges with the self-suppression of imagination, of temporal and spatial perspective, in the sublime.  In parallel, his notion of the sacred or true morality, especially that portrayed in the Critique of Practical Reason, admitted no admixture with the imagination and motivations of experience – with temporality.

As argued in Kant’s Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone, the moral law is accessible through reason alone.  The purpose of religion, while not in itself necessary, is at best to facilitate the discovery of the ethical kingdom (sittlichkeit) in the reason of the morally autonomous being.  In this context, the meaning of history is the accomplishment of this discovery.  Essentially, therefore, reason and the sacred are one and the same.  Existentially, the fulfillment of this identity is mediated by the progressive, and infinite, development that is implied by the postulate of the immortality of the soul.  For Kant, however, the moral law is potentially accessible to any rational being at any time, and therefore, morality is essentially free from historical necessity.

This apparent severance between reason and history, was severely criticised by early 19th Century attempts to show that reason in its temporal articulation gives rise to the sacred through history.  Whether it is Hegel with his triad of art, religion and philosophy in the Phenomenology of Spirit, or Marx with the notion that religion is an ideology, a camera obscura of capitalist facticity – the sacred (or religion) emerges amidst historical actuality.

Whether temporality is conceived as the transcendental imagination or as a materialist dialectic of history, 19th century philosophy articulates historical essence as the phenomena of spirit or as a materialist configuration of ideology and science.  In other words, religion is merely a product of reason, however conceived.  Kant’s religion of pure reason as the conveyor of the moral law is brushed aside, as idealist and formalistic.  What is lost is the moral autonomy of the person, which is now considered to be merely an a-historical ideology – the myth of the isolated subject.

It was perhaps Nietzsche who, following the revolt of Schopenhauer, initiated the first sustained rebellion against the attempt to forcefully absorb autonomy into a historical regime of manifest (economical) reason.  Religion is no longer the true morality of a free, moral agent – it is the product of a system.  The personal space of affirmation or negation is cast aside by a history on horseback and/or modes of production.

Yet, Nietzsche’s rebellion was not a re-instatement of Kant.  Nietzsche has no choice but to articulate the untimely as an indication of a free, very free being.  Nietzsche not only extends Kant’s criticism of pseudo-religion to Judeo-Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (species of nihilism), but also seeks to preserve a sense of the sacred which affirms both the trajectories of historical being and the singular fate of the free, very free being.  Autonomy and god are dead for Nietzsche – but he affirms these events as dispensations which open up the possibility of a more radical expression of the meaning of freedom.  Nietzsche seeks in life an intimate and very free encounter with the sacred – one not mediated by “system”, but one in which the traditional notions of god and the divine are allowed to fall apart.  That which emerges in this falling apart is the ecstatic affirmation of amor fati.

Bataille is one of the students of this prolonged dialogue.  Although he was under the influence of Hegel (and Heidegger) via the Kojeve lectures, which he attended, Bataille was essentially influenced by Marx and Nietzsche – yet, an unmistakeable affinity exists between Bataille and Kant, even if the former regards the latter as the paradigm of the modernist profanity of religion.  Bataille was impressed by Kojeve’s statement that man was a nothing which negates in its negativity, and in the class analysis of Marx and in the a-theology of Nietzsche.  He notes that in Marx and Nietzsche, the radical acts of revolution and the revaluation of all values share the discontinuous “structure” of the event.  Unlike a system, however, the event is a disclosure of a free space where one can encounter the self-disclosure of existence.  The event is a limit situation in which there is a battle between transgression and interdiction, similar to Heidegger’s indicators of disclosure and concealment.

For Kant, this battle is played out in the limits of “possible experience”.  But, there is no ultimate truth in itself for Kant, but only knowledge as the universal and necessary lawfulness of the phenomenal world.  Knowledge, in this theoretical sense, is not necessary for the operation of the moral law – indeed, it must be limited in order to make room for faith.  Practical reason indicates a self-determination of the will according to the criteria of the moral law, a determination of the Willkür by the Wille.

Bataille is sympathetic to Kant’s conception of moral autonomy as freedom.  Yet, he acknowledges the de facto severance of the sacred and reason in the post-industrial era – being has transformed our sense of being.  Since he is unwilling, with respect to the sacred, as with orthodox interpretations of Marx et al. to succumb to the systematic logic of either an economic or logical subsumption of the sacred, he asserts that it is sovereignty which exceeds profane religion.  Bataille has sympathies for the free autonomous agent, but understands that such an assertion is radically vulnerable to criticism in light of the 19th century – and into the 20th.  Sovereignty, not tied to and thus constrained by ‘system’, opens up as a space of de-sublimated resistance and deviance (liberation of imagination from the sublimation of its own self-suppression in the event of the sublime, the birth of reason).

In this way, while he acknowledges the historical, temporal character of existence, Bataille does not see history or temporality as merely reducible to a system as does Hegel and the orthodox Marx – there remains the un-thought, the remainder that is indigestible to ‘system’.  Following Nietzsche, but not abandoning certain political and aesthetic aspects of Hegel and Marx, he sees history as a discontinuous field of events of which one can trace patterns and contours of existence – always to remain upon the surface with Alain Robbe-Grillet.  History is not the embodiment of reason – the real is not the rational and vice versa.  Bataille articulates a description of the history of the emergence and transmutation – genealogy – of these terms, understanding that theory is not existence, nor the thoughts of god before the creation.

With this deconstruction of a monolithic conception – reduction – of history, Bataille becomes open to the differing senses of the sacred and of freedom, especially that of the pre-capitalist pagan economy of the Gift (Mauss).  The industrial revolution forced reason into a violent reduction, disconnecting it from the sacred.  Can we escape from this reduction?  Can we repair this severance, as some have yearned?  Or – must we move beyond this predicament with no desire to enact a repetition of that which has been?  Bataille examines, in works such as Theory of Religion, The Accursed Share, and other smaller pieces, the sense of the sacred of the ancients in order to trace the genealogy of our modern predicament and to suggest the means and examples by which we can move beyond that which is.

In the ancient world, the logic of the everyday was displaced, from time to time, by a differing logic, that of the sacred.  The sacred disclosed its own logic via the necessity of sacrifice, but more importantly, in the saturnalia of all laws and mores.  The saturnalia was a sacrifice of the useful, of the everyday object, so as to awaken the uselessness and unusual event of the sacred.  In this scenario, there are at least two senses of the terms reason and logic.  As there are different realms, there are different reasons.  Kant knew this.

Bataille, however,  wishes to go a step further – the sacred is not merely the noumena, and the profane, the phenomena.  Instead, the self and its world – the sacred and profane exist in a ceaseless interpenetration of events – before the articulation of theories of temporal systems and objects or precepts of a practical or dogmatic reason.  Bataille is not speaking of the pleasure and pain postulates of Epicurean or of Aristotelian happiness, both of which are criticised by Kant in his second Critique.  Yet, he is speaking of a theory of religion outside the limits of reason alone, outside a merely logical or economic conception of reason – and inside a sense of non-knowledge which is a radical philosophy of existence, thinking, and acting – one that is manifest to him amid historicity, but, as with each of us, as an event, in a moment of vision (Augenblick).  Bataille traces the genealogy from ancient sacrifice and the economy of the gift to the era of the rationalisation of the political economic life of the planet.  Yet, he is unwilling to surrender the sovereignty over himself which exists amidst a negotiation between his wild ipseity and this ambiguous longing for total communion.

The dialogue between Kant and Bataille concerns the relationship between reason, the sacred, and existence. It does not concern mere relations between terms, but the temporal place and places which have articulated different senses of meaning.  While there is an intersection between Kant and Bataille with respect to the concern for reason and religion, each articulate a unique sense of the sacred and of reason.  This is especially apparent in Bataille who is the heir to a place beyond the industrial, urban revolution.  In light of the changing topography of existence, he becomes open to the differing senses of the sacred and of reason, and must be willing to listen to unexpected articulations of meaning in differing expressions of existence.

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