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Barthes on Bataille


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Barthes on Bataille

Georges Bataille's most famous piece of fiction was probably Story of the Eye, the tail of an object and the mundane absurdities it encounters and is subjected to. Bataille led a tumultuous life, enduring a disaffected, suicidal mother and a blind, paralytic father. Early on, he had attended seminary in France with hopes of becoming a priest, but soon split from Catholicism. In the 1920's, he began associating himself with the Surrealists, though always maintaining a distance 'from within.' Breton soon excommunicated him and Bataille struck out on his own. He founded quite a few journals which came to publish thinkers like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida. From 1922 to 1944, Bataille worked at Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris while continuously experimenting through writing and publication. Story of the Eye was first published in 1928 under Bataille's pseudonym Lord Auch. Bataille was fascinated by the opportunity presented by pornography, not as a confining genre but as a means of expand meaning. Barthes picks up on this by denaturing the story into its two metaphoric chains: the Eye and the Tear. Barthes details how Bataille is able to syntagmatically combine visual metaphors to create new sets of metaphors metonymically. 'But if we call metonymy this transfer of meaning from one chain to the other at different levels of the metaphor (eye sucked like a breast, my eye sipped by her lips), we will doubtless realize that Bataille's eroticism is essentially metonymic.' Barthes here is using a term defined by Roman Jakobson, a Russian linguist and semiotician who defined metonymy as opposed to metaphor in that the former is a contiguity and the latter a similarity. Barthes himself is one of the great semioticians and it does one well to read him in light of his predecessors, especially Ferdinand de Saussure. Barthes particularly plays on the differences between paradigm and sytagm. Syntagm is a semiotic relationship in which signs appear in a sequential order and it is this serial nature of the signs that lends them associative meaning. Paradigm, in Barthes' usage, refers to sets of metaphors that can replace one another.

In Bataille's story, the overall structure is episodic, a series of visual scenes in which two chains of paradigmatic metaphors, liquidity and ocularity become intertwined and 'dirtied' by their syntagmatic relation. In the selection of Story of the Eye printed here the reader is presented with a single vignette, within which Bataille lays open his ontology for the practice that is this story. 'I stretched out in the grass, my skull on a large, flat rock and my eyes staring straight up at the milky way, that strange breach of astral sperm and heavenly urine across the cranial vault formed by the ring of constellations: that open crack at the summit of the sky, apparently made of ammoniacal vapors shining in the immensity a broken egg, a broken eye, or my own dazzled skull weighing down the rock, bouncing symmetrical images back to infinity.'

From Bataille's pictorial approach to the telling of this story, one can't help but notice the primacy of the gaze and as the object of that gaze, various symbols which gain potency under a psychoanalytic light. Lacan was interested in the gaze as a site of ego construction while Bataille seems to be taking his character's gazes and fixing them on various primal symbologies: sex, love, death, and what the body excretes throughout each of these phases. In Kleinian psychoanalytics, urine and excrement is a tool for the subject to express disgust. In Bataille's story, love and death, eros and thanatos, seem to be in a never ending cycle of excremental retaliations. Of course, one cannot overlap these two discourses with entire certainty for although Bataille was very interested in psychoanalytics and was himself a patient, it is not known how deeply he entwined psychoanayltics into Story of the Eye.

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