It is curious the way certain books can insinuate themselves into your consciousness. I am not necessarily talking about favourite books, or formative ones that evoke a particular time and place, but those stray books that seem to have been acquired almost inadvertently (all bibliophiles possess such volumes, I’m sure), and taken up without any particular expectations, books that have something intriguing about them that keeps drawing you back.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, I rescued a heavily discounted copy of Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share, Volumes II & III from an outdoor bargain table. Volume I was nowhere to be seen. I had no real idea who Bataille was, though I was a literature student, so I had probably heard his name mentioned in connection with the abstruse French theorising that was in vogue at the time. At some later date – I have no idea where or when – I acquired the first volume to complete the set. I have been returning to The Accursed Share ever since, not constantly or obsessively, but on a semi-regular basis, lured by its odd combination of audacity, insight, and obliqueness.
Some of the book’s weirdly compelling quality is a result of its incompletion. Only the first volume was published in Bataille’s lifetime (1897–1962). At the culmination of the third volume, he announces that he will now turn his attention to the works of Franz Kafka, at which point it ends. The Accursed Share never quite coheres into a comprehensive theory, never achieves the promised synthesis of its disparate elements. What it offers instead is a series of provocative philosophical essays and case studies. It is surely one of the most peculiar books ever written on the subject of political economy.
Writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Bataille addresses some contemporaneous issues: he reflects on the implications of the Marshall Plan and discusses the competing systems of capitalism and communism. But – and this is the audacious part – he also attempts to expand the very notion of political economy, so that it might take account of sociological phenomena that conventional economic thought tends to exclude. Bataille’s argument extends to considerations of eroticism, Islam, Nietzschean philosophy, Tibetan Buddhism, the sacrificial practices of the ancient Aztecs, and the Native American concept of potlatch, a custom whereby a prosperous individual makes a show of giving away his or her accumulated wealth and is rewarded with great social prestige.
The central thesis of The Accursed Share can be simply stated. Bataille starts with the proposition that all energy is ultimately wasted and that all human endeavour involves an element of superfluity. There is no such thing as a purely productive or non-productive expenditure. Wealth is significant only in the sense that it represents possibility; it only becomes meaningful when its possibilities are realised, which is to say, when accumulated resources are utilised to some end and thus squandered. What interests Bataille is not the economics, as such, but the creation of meaning. Since the only real choice is how resources are to be squandered, this becomes a definitive question.
Bataille’s eclectic case studies examine various ways in which societies have expended their superfluous energies – aggressive militarism, elaborate religious rituals, spiritual and philosophical contemplation, grand monuments, the unproductive glories of art – all of which provide not simply an outlet for those energies but bestow on them a social significance that arises from a repudiation of the narrow imperatives of utility. The excess is thus ‘cursed’ because its power is at once ineluctable, discretionary, and culturally definitive. The crucial point is that it confronts us with the problem that we cannot avoid making choices about such things, and those choices will be consequential in ways that are by no means superficial. As a general rule, observes Bataille, a society ‘produces more than is necessary for its survival; it has a surplus at its disposal. It is precisely the use it makes of this surplus that determines it: The surplus is the cause of the agitation, of the structural changes and of the entire history of society.’
Bataille’s thesis has been on my mind since the coronavirus upended, for the moment at least, the great neoliberal social experiment we have all been living through for the past four decades. What society will look like on the other side of the present crisis remains to be seen, but it is already clear enough that the federal government has no intention of taking the opportunity to reflect on its ideological assumptions, let alone adjust them. The context for this essay is that the Morrison government has decided to use the cover of the pandemic to further its project of decimating those public institutions and sections of society it regards with contempt. These include the ABC, the universities, and the arts sector – all of which are despised precisely because they play a prominent role in shaping the intellectual and cultural life of the nation, and all of which have been weakened by decades of restructuring, punitive funding cuts, and relentless culture war nonsense.
As I write, the ABC has just announced its latest round of mass redundancies. Among the casualties is its only dedicated arts reporter. The education minister has just proposed yet another restructuring of funding arrangements for universities, one that is explicitly designed to shift the cost of education onto students and deter them from studying allegedly unproductive humanities subjects. Lest there be any doubt that this is a crass attempt at top-down social engineering, the proposal does not simply target degrees but also individual courses, with the aim of making those the government views with disapproval prohibitively expensive. Joy Damousi, president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, described this unambiguous attack on the very foundations of intellectual inquiry as ‘potentially the greatest hit to Australia’s humanities sector in a century’.
Australia has a long record of hostility towards its artists and intellectuals. What is different about the current situation is that the hostility has assumed a malignant ideological form. There is nothing surprising about the latest government assault on the arts and humanities. Nothing. Called upon to justify themselves, defenders of the arts have pointed to the substantial contribution the ‘industry’ makes to the economy and have summoned the usual platitudes about cultural enrichment, the importance of telling stories, and so forth. When the humanities are attacked, their defenders reach for no less platitudinous claims about fostering ‘critical thinking’ and hasten to note that humanities graduates are eminently employable, certainly no less willing to sacrifice themselves to the merciless and insatiable gods of the economy than the next person.
These are weak and futile arguments. They are weak because they argue on the preferred ground of an implacable enemy, acceding to the unreasonable demand that the arts and humanities demonstrate their utility. They are futile because the attacks are not motivated by evidence or reasoned arguments in the first place. The government knows perfectly well that the arts contribute substantially to the economy and that humanities graduates are employable. It doesn’t care. The punitive policies are manifestations of an unappeasable ideology that cannot tolerate anything that escapes its narrow determinations. There are few things more distasteful to the current government than to be reminded of the simple fact that history is not a collection of statues, literature is not a list of great books, and art is not something that can be safely contained in a gallery. The significance of the specious ‘jobs ready’ argument for undermining the humanities is not simply that it confirms the self-evident truth that we have a government that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, but that it is a plainly ideological demand that we render ourselves subservient to a non-existent future economy (not a ‘society’, of course) in which possibilities are already foreclosed.
The clear purpose of framing all political discussion in narrowly economic terms is to stifle any sensible discussion of how we might want to define ourselves as a society. It coerces us into talking about social and cultural issues as if they are not social and cultural issues. Ultimately, the survival of the arts and the humanities is a question of whether or not we are prepared to acknowledge the existence of other possibilities; it is the democratic question of whether we will allow room for knowledge and independent thought at all. Since the mid-1990s, Australia has developed a dysfunctional school-funding system, a dysfunctional higher education system, a dysfunctional housing market, a dysfunctional tax system, a dysfunctional employment system, and a dysfunctional welfare system. There can be no pretending that these developments are anything other than predictable outcomes of conscious policy choices. There is nothing inevitable about them or the social inequities they have created. Yet every one of these developments has been rationalised on the grounds of economic necessity, the only ‘greater good’ that is admissible in contemporary political discourse.
Barely concealed in the government’s undisguised hatred of intellectual and artistic endeavour is the same crippling assumption that people are supposed to serve the economy, rather than the other way round, and the morally bankrupt corollary that any human consequences are merely collateral damage. Until we realise that all of these issues are related, until we recognise that on a fundamental level they are in fact the same issue, I fear we are destined to keep barrelling down the same delusional, self-destructive path until the day the whole rotten mess goes belly up once and for all and we are all left stranded, a gigantic busted flush of a nation that refused to invest in the intelligence and creativity of its own people and robbed itself of the ability even to comprehend what the hell went wrong.
In the second volume of The Accursed Share, there is a short allegorical passage in which Bataille imagines himself as the proprietor of a shoeshine stand. This occupation is his way of making himself useful, earning a living. Yet his position is one of servitude. The lustrous shoes he provides for his customers are minor examples of the ‘accursed share’ that becomes meaningful by escaping the logic of utility. The lustre, observes Bataille, ‘does not serve, has no meaning outside itself, but it bespeaks of the sovereignty of the passerby as well as my degradation’. The hypothetical question he asks is what would happen if he were never able to enjoy the useless lustre of his own shiny shoes? What would happen if he were denied access to that accursed share and the sovereignty it represents, if his life were reduced to a condition of absolute servitude that was to be accepted ‘without saying anything or thinking anything’? This condition of total subservience to the demands of utility would clearly constitute a form of total degradation, and degradation, observes Bataille, ‘burdens the whole of humanity. The most serious thing would be if degradation were to win out in the long run, and spread to the point where it would burden the very meaning that man generally has for himself. So it is important not to lose sight of man’s limits or his possibilities. No one can envisage the elimination of useful work, but man could not be reduced to it without being eliminated himself.’
This article, one of a series of ABR commentaries addressing cultural and political subjects, was funded by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.