Sunday 7 April 2013

Bataille's "The accursed share" and Absence: An analytical approach to data, decision and economics

I'm in the process of completing a paper on George Bataille's economic theory set out in his book "The Accursed Share" (see It is perhaps surprising that Bataille, who wrote so powerfully around deep human issues of sex, eroticism, and religion should have regarded his work on "general economy" to be his most significant: but "The Accursed Share" is an extraordinary work which builds on the earlier work, using it to probe the depths of human motivation in economic behaviour. Where Keynes brushes over deeper psychological issues (going no further than assuming psychological dispositions or 'propensities' to save and consume which react to broader socio-economic conditions), and where Kahneman has more recently brought to bear the somewhat narrow and reductionist epistemology of modern psychology and neuroscience on economic behaviour, Bataille does something quite simple but very different. Where most conventional economic thinking revolves around ideas of equilibrium, Bataille points to the fundamental asymmetries of economic behaviour - particularly the asymmetry between the acquisition of commodities and wealth and their waste. It's waste not equilibrium, Bataille argues, that we should focus on - and waste in all forms - not only the destruction of war which seems to keep capitalism on its feet (as Marx described), but extravagant waste by societies on temples, pyramids and cathedrals, or the waste of life in primitive rituals of human sacrifice (the Aztecs of course build pyramids too!), or the waste in sexual excesses (where Bataille's earlier work becomes important), or more benignly in the luxury of artistic expression. Now, as sovereign wealth hemmorhages in a frantic attempt to keep the world and its banks afloat, and as public institutions self-destruct in a desperate attempt to live within their means, Bataille's perspective deserves attention.

Bataille links the need for waste with the accretion of 'energy' which, he argues, creates a surplus which must eventually release itself (he produces a somewhat mystical account of how the sun's energy is continually absorbed and must be released somehow). What causes energy to be released in particular and usually violent ways is the constraining power of social prohibitions. He argues, drawing on Marcel Mauss's idea of the 'potlatch' - gift giving rituals amongst eskimo tribes - that we need to find less damaging ways of releasing this 'energy', and advocates potlatch-style 'giving' as a way of casting off commodities for no immediate gain. In order for this to happen, the constraining power of prohibitions needs to be understood better if not overcome. Bataille's focus is on those prohibitions, and because of this, his is an economic theory which is fundamentally 'negative' - it's looks at the negative 'ground' of economic behaviour for an explanation, rather than at the positive 'figure' of equilibrium  theory, or psychological modelling.

The negative focus of his theory makes me think of Bhaskar's concept of absence, and it also ties in with my own thinking about critical and negative thinking (see Bataille goes through a process of determining the prohibitions and understanding how they bear on economic rationality. In his view, economic rationality isn't rational at all - it effectively amounts to patterns of communication (rather like Habermas's communicative rationality) orbiting 'black holes' of prohibition, taboo and transgression. Understand the taboos and you can understand the dynamics of 'economic rationality' and make interventions which can steer a path towards benign forms of waste of commodities.

What interests me is whether an analytical approach might be taken to put some meat on Bataille's arguments. I'm currently working on an agent-based model of Nigel Howard's 'Paradoxes of Rationality'. When we look at data, what we see is an epiphenomenon of decision. The form of reflexivity behind that decision will bear the imprint of absences which will have had a causal bearing on the decision taken. An analytical approach would examine data and model possible absences which might have existed to produce the decision that produced the data. With enough data, there should be common ground about absences. I'm hoping that a regression-type analysis would be able to at least show some interesting patterns.

Such an analysis can only pinpoint the 'dark matter' of decision. But the point of any analysis is that it itself leads to decision. Inferring meaning in the dark matter, i.e. determining the absence, is something that happens in the observer of the analysis. In this way, this kind of analysis can be a way of catalysing decision-making processes. Because it is on a computer screen, there is also the possibility of sharing the experience and the reasoning with others.

Bataille's economic theory is either crazy or brilliant. I suspect it's the latter. But operationalising it in a way where it might have some practical utility would be the best way of proving it.

1 comment:

spearman said...

The comment about the need for the Sun's energy to be released is one I have thought about ever since I ran across it years ago in Bataille & I believe also Norman O. Brown. Money as condensed light is therefore pretty much an infinite resource that seems to be intuited by humans as they waste it on a grand scale. Money "breeds" as Brown has said which creates the illusion of infinite surplus. IMHO, the truth is, money is for all practical purposes infinite so the problem is creating a rate of expenditure that is sustainable and doesn't foul the planet. Your analytics project seems to be an attempt to find that balance.