Reading Bataille’s Erotism

Adrienne Bach

With almost every page it comes to one's mind that today the term itself, erotism, as well as any of its implications has become provocative. And it is not even the frivolous connotation which might cause the greatest embarrassment, it is the suggestion of the sublime that would be hard to maintain in current discourse.
The desire for continuity and the concept of inevitable transgression, both constituting Bataille's notion of erotism, must contradict the keyword of any morality, of today's ruling mentality in particular: consent. Desire for continuity goes for a unity that is unpredictable, therefore not to be defined by any ends; it does not put any subject in control and, instead, exposes one to an ideal of origin. The decisive moment of transgression suspends individuality and, by that, leaves no room for negotiation and convention; it is overruling any reason, denying the fundaments of society.
This description refers to a kind of drama – at least to one of its turning points – which should be well-known and which still occurs in common social interaction: what was once called »flirt« may be the best example, being a consensual summit of a potentially controversial effort of seduction – only that this harmless extension of the undercurrent hardly finds its correspondence in general patterns of behaviour and understanding anymore; like irony, seduction has come under suspicion of being not authentic and, merely by opening connotations, of questioning the status quo.
Drama bears consequences (whereas narration insinuates the option for some reversal), and some of those may reach beyond any agreement. The concept of mise-en-scène implies a more or less discreet and flexible arrangement between actor and director, only that modern society rejects the notion of life being a play and of itself being a stage. The crucial distinction again is the unpredictable, understood not as something beyond the range of expression but as the inherent ambiguity of any significance, as soon as it is performed, even more between two human beings. As a culturally defined element of erotism, interdiction may be observed easily; when it becomes a shifting rule of the game, the participants are called for a responsibility which is overwhelming rather than securing, so it has to be denied.
Bataille's concept has been questioned in more than one respect, but what might be the main objection today is his insisting on continuity as a structural motive: it emphasizes the individual in terms of a formal integrity which has to be achieved over and over again, and with no other confirmation than its next move. The other may be an obstacle, an accomplice or an object of desire, it cannot be more than some pretext for a performative existence. It is therefore a heroic or – in modern context – an artistic conception of life. In this sense, affirmation of life towards death draws a line which offers an abstraction of life – its own ideal; but it remains indifferent towards arbitrary conditions.
There is an arbitrary moment also within erotism: the choice one makes concerning the other. What may turn into the most ordinary relationship – according to the demands of society – has its scandalous origin in that irrational decision; only that erotism – contrary to the demands of society – bears a certain talent for sovereignty which turns that irrational into something necessary. Its indifference towards any other ends than its own necessity – death – prevents erotism from participation; it is exclusive.
One may go on trying to describe the implications and mechanisms of erotism, and one could only stress the importance of what has been called »its own ideal«. In general, any ideal is integrating: ambitions, efforts, means, practices, attitudes and expressions, whatever makes a personality – as part of society – as well as society itself, is shaped by a distinct combination of ideas, and at least one of these is to be understood as an ideal; the whole complex works because it can be understood that way.
Erotism, in contrast, implies a misunderstanding; its ideal is not love, it's desire. Actually, one should not even call it »ideal«, instead it is drive. That is why transgression does not merely feed erotism as if this were some enterprise with a particular purpose, anything like a goal where requirement would be used up and drive would come to an end. Even then, drive itself needs some motive and some direction, some pretext; the misunderstanding may derive from a specific conflict: there is something to be achieved, to be reached, and there is something already lost.
What is specifically conflicted here are two directions; each of them can be named: utopia and paradise. But they cannot be organized in any rational way; they cannot be combined to one move. It is an immanent utopia, impossible to strive for; a constantly revoked paradise, impossible to regain. Desire, defined as erotism, is the provocation of an unlimited virtuality, never satisfied; it relentlessly calls for the impossible. It is in vain.
One has to remind oneself that erotism has been invented by literature. Both are fading phenomena. There is hardly any boy or girl today feeding his or her imagination – and knowledge –  by reading Stendhal – or Bataille –, by listening to Tristan, by watching L'avventura. It is hard to tell whether this is such a great loss. Sensuality, for example, may have become more important, or some concept of love that spares desire. Erotism has become a blind spot.