Thursday, 13 November 2014

Georges Bataille and Gregory Bateson: Two aspects of courageous thought

Bateson and Bataille might at first appear to be a strange combination. I bet there are few people who know of one of them who would know very much about the other. They are very different. And yet I think they share much between them. They were both outsiders: Bateson was a scientist largely ostracised by the scientific community, only to find friendship with Californian new-agers whose woolly earthmotherness he didn't have a lot of time for. Bateson's work carries powerful messages and has had widespread influence, but it doesn't quite nail the central problem he was dealing with, leaving it open to interpretation. Bataille really wanted to be seen as an economist - yet his economics work "The Accursed Share" is barely known by economists (and by few others), despite what I think are significant similarities between his work and the American institutionalism of people like Veblen. Where Veblen identifies the 'atavistic' qualities of institutional life, Bataille digs into the detail and lays its sexy dirty world out for us to gawp at. Of course, Bataille became famous not for economics but for his attention to sex and eroticism, and for all the misinterpretations of his work carried forward by lesser thinkers like Foucault and Baudrillard.

Both these thinkers displayed an intellectual courage that only total commitment to the truth brings. A wise friend of mine told me that there were basically two kinds of academic: those who relentlessly pursue the truth, and those who defend an intellectual position. There are sadly rather more of the latter than than the former in even our best universities! The former struggle to survive in the system - and increasingly so. I am continually astonished by the 'no-go' areas that so many academics exhibit. "That's not my field", is the typical response to the child-like question that asks "but what about...?" And there are so many "but.. but.. what about..?" questions to ask. So What about sex? Isn't that pretty important? How do you account for love? Your theory might say x or y chemicals in the brain, but your family's falling apart around you right now - how do x and y chemicals help in that situation? When you get excited about your theory, are you not just wanking? What is the experience of alienation? How do you make someone less alienated? What about fear? Your rational model is all fine but there are things which people think which they don't talk about, and yet it manifests in other (often destructive) ways... And, of course nobody can account for music.

What did Bataille say? In a nutshell, rational explanations are underpinned by irrational primeval forces. Moreover, critical analysis of those deep forces is possible (see his book on eroticism). I would say it's urgent. Maybe another way of saying this is to say that not-information underpins information. That's pretty much what Bateson says. Like Bataille he starts to articulate the critical analysis of the deep ecologies which connect us to each other and to our planet. At one level, it's not easy stuff. At the more childlike level it rings truer than most things you find in universities!

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