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Accursed Growth! — Thoughts on Bataille’s theory of General Economy

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I recently wrote a piece for the KBH Læser Avis that perhaps tried to say too much in too little space. In preparations for Wednesday’s KBH Læser event, Accursed Growth!, an evening of readings and discussions that challenge traditional notions of growth, I would like to say even more but in much more space, to lay out the terrain of this complicated and nebulous subject. When you are working on some particular set of ideas, the world around you can begin to appear to conform to the particularities of those ideas, in some strange confluence of confirmation bias and the Baader-Meinhof effect. To say that the outcome of this is in anyway related to the revelation of some sort of truth would be to miss the point. Instead, what this allows for is the discovery of new connections. What follows is an attempt to give a basic explanation of Bataille’s theory of general economy and the accursed share, and suggest some concrete examples of how we can apply these theoretical tools.

I

For the last few months, I have been walking around with George Bataille’s theory of general economy and the accursed share rattling around my brain. In short, it states that the basis of most, even radical, theories of economics are built upon a ridiculous conceit that economic activity stems from the production of new things, rather than the consumption of something very old. Where most economists take local perspective, which in these times of globalisation actually means a geopolitical perspective, Bataille’s perspective is cosmic. For Bataille, all that exists on earth is the energetic excretion of The Solar Anus, and therefore economic activity is merely the expenditure of these energy resources. The planets and animals we eat are the results of the process of life that are facilitated in their entirety by the heat and light of the sun. Even the electricity charging the device on which you are reading this text comes from the energy stored in the compression of these life processes into a noxious chemical soup over millions of years.

This premise is deceptively simple. Of course all that there is on this planet was forged in the furnace of the sun, from where else could it have come? However, the consequences of this line of thinking can be destabilizing. This is not because of some vague sense of environmental morality. Instead, Bataille argues that “the world is sick with wealth”, because on a human scale the sort of resources to which we have access are awesome, in the sense that they are stupefying.

The term ‘accursed share’ is Bataille’s name for what is left over when the creatures that we are—stupefied by a world sick with the riches of a star—attempt to harness the resources afforded to us. As we are finite beings, with an intelligence that can convince itself that we can reason towards the infinite, we attempt to create systems in which to live, something we have done with some success and some failure.

To make these systems grow we consume the wealth of the world in the form of fuel, materials and flesh. To us, however, this consumption appears as production. These systems, while they often appear magnificent, are as finite as we are, the creatures that have created them and thus these systems are similarly limited in their growth. Not everything our systems “produce” can be incorporated into their growth: barriers, such as geography, technology, economic structures, social tolerance for change, are inherent to the finite nature of our systems will always prevent this. Yet, even though we cannot grow, we still have an energetic surplus. It is this surplus that Bataille calls “the accursed share”. He posits that this share cannot be used for growth and cannot be saved and thus must be wasted.

The Accursed Share provides a dynamic toolkit for understanding economic questions, not just as something that affects our lives but an animating force that drives them. With this in mind, we can dissect a whole host of cultural productions and behaviours as collisions between expenditures and wastes of energy and power that range from geopolitical and ecological crises to facile entertainment and sexual identity.

II

I recently attended an exhibition of Jacob Remin’s installation artwork Harvesting the Rare Earth, at Overgaden, institute for contemporary art, Copenhagen. The installation is a piece of speculative hard-science fiction, which is at once wryly satirical and horrific. As you enter the exhibition space, and your nose fills with the subtle sting of citrus scented cleaning products, what strikes you is the utter banality of what could be easily mistaken for the leftover set-up of a corporate or gallery conference space. Institutional black plastic chairs comprise an audience, before an overly fine corporate podium, before a screen on which a slick animation of revolving ‘H’ is displayed. This is the logo of a fictional company ‘HYBRID VENTURES’. Behind the presentation space is an informal seating area, with the organisation’s black on black business cards. The headphones on the table next to the cards play a loop of the audio from what must be the company’s presentation video. In faintly accented in English, a female voice gives you the company’s pitch. What Hybrid Ventures offers is a convoluted method for the recycling of rare earth minerals involving butterflies. A special chemical substance is to be sprayed across old electronics dumps allowing the minerals to be eaten by caterpillars that will then transform into mineral rich butterflies. Dried specimens, shimmering with minerals, can be examined in detail in elegantly constructed display cases across the room.

The point is that these mineral are what our contemporary life is built upon and essential to much of the planet’s economic activity and growth. This is due to the particular chemical composition of these materials, which lends itself to malleability, conductivity and durability. Because of them many of us walk around with computers in our pockets more powerful than those that guided the Apollo moon landing. They are also extremely rare, difficult to mine and are often found in areas of political unrest, which their very presence often exacerbates. To that end often the most cost effective is to recycle these minerals from dumps of outmoded electronic hardware.

Once you are finished with the corporate presentation you head down a dark narrow hallway with an inhuman bass rumble emanating from the walls. You enter a room where the promise of hybrid solutions is realised in miniature. Before you are plexiglass trays filled with computers and other electronic ephemera from a previous decade. A step closer and you can see these components have been covered in the powdery substance mentioned in the presentation, which breaks the minerals down to be eaten by caterpillars, a step closer again and you notice the caterpillars too. A step closer still and you can see that they are alive.

This is when the smell hits. These trays are filled with the business of life being forced into a relationship with chemicals that were, hitherto, alien to it. This is a process that can be a little musty. From here we are left to deduce that, after their gorging and metamorphosis, the long fluorescent tube in the centre of the room is intended to seduce the freshly hatched, mineral rich butterflies across the room to the vat of chemical soup. This soup would then break them down, leaving only the precious minerals behind. It seemed that a few had already succumbed.

jacob-remin-agbogbloshie
Still from Jacob Remin’s drone fotoage of the Agbogbloshie electronics dump

As horrific as all this appeared, in contrast to the glossy presentation, its juxtaposition against a huge screen displaying drone footage of an actual working electronics dump in Ghana. Humans actually do this dangerous poorly paid work. Before a laptop is assembled at a Chinese labour camp, the materials for its components are harvested by hand from trash heaps.

The painful insight of Remin’s piece is in the intersection between his speculative solution’s agreeable corporate elegance (human know-how, entrepreneurship and butterflies can fix everything) and the intimate horror of life biologically engineered for the harvesting of these resources. As already mentioned these minerals are essential to our economic growth, which means that this solution may retain its appeal in the eyes of technological utopian, although, for many the idea of creating life for this purpose may seem to overstep some ethical intuition. Far better perhaps, to rely on some concept of pseudo-economic-justice to dictate what life should engage in this sort of accursed work.

III

According to Bataille, how we waste the accursed share is in part determined by the society and systems that produce it but also an opportunity to rupture or transgress the structures that define our societies, to move into something new. This is a more complex idea than the creative destruction espoused by neoliberal economics, which posits that it is only through tearing down the old structures (like socialised medical care) can we both gain the resources and space to grow. This is one part of wasting the accursed share but this concept can go much much deeper.

Bataille sees three areas in which the accursed share is often spent. These could be described as war, eros and sovereignty. War obviously refers to violence and destruction but here it is of a specific character, it is violence and destruction that results from a productive system that can no longer grow. Think of a nation state, its productive powers allow for the expansion of its territory but the states that surround it prevent this from being possible. It must waste its productions (the bombs it builds cannot be reused, the dead soldiers and civilians can no longer work) if it is to grow. This sort of violence can be found at smaller scales too, from gang warfare to the interpersonal violence instigated by the frustration of arbitrary personal limitations. But it can also, unfortunately, operate on a larger scale still, as the productive wealth of the earth so exceeds humanity’s capacity for growth that one could say the silos of nuclear weapons ready to waste the world many times over are truly evidence of a world sick with wealth.

Bataille
George Bataille

Eros is Bataille’s clear preference to this but this idea is intimately tied to sovereignty. Bataille writes that ‘“the lowliest and least cultured human beings have an experience of the possible—the whole of it even—which approached that of the great mystics in its depth and intensity”. He suggests that this experience is accessible through the channelling of erotic energy, and in so doing a way to spend the accursed share. However, this is not simply some animalistic urge for reproduction, in fact that is specifically what it is not. In a similar way to the distinction that John Berger makes between nakedness (the unclothed human body) and the nude (the unclothed, usually female, human body as viewed through a discourse of sexualised power relations), erotic energy requires existence of prohibitions and boundaries.

This links it to the concept of sovereignty. Bataille does not mean sovereignty in the sense of the definition of nations but, rather, sovereignty is that which allows the individual to experience themselves as having a power which is their own. A capacity that theoretically now can belong to us all, but which has “never really lost the value that is attributed to gods and ‘dignitaries’”. This is where we find our practices of self-definition, which superficially demonstrates the waste of the accursed share in the consumption of products that we use as signifiers of an identity that we seek to control (the author adjusts his understated, yet undeniably stylish, cardigan). But these practices tie back into the operation of the erotic. Inherent to sovereignty is the imposition the boundary, between territory and wilderness, between self and other. Rules, prohibitions and conventions are established around these boundaries that frame their transgression as a meaningful experience of the possible. That said, the contemporary Western world may be set up in such a way as to reduce most transgressions to merely the banal functions of the digital market.

One of the most damaging wastes of the accursed share has been the thousands of years we have spent ossifying a patriarchal sovereignty, to produce an identity so baked into our culture it appears as natural. One of the most infuriating things is that while the arbitrary nature of this sovereignty is relatively easy to identify, it is so entangled to the operation of the world its removal will not come without unintended damage.

IV

The Accursed Share provides a dynamic toolkit for understanding economic questions, not just as something that affects our lives but an animating force that drives them. With this in mind, we can dissect a whole host of cultural productions and behaviours as collisions between expenditures and wastes of energy and power that range from geopolitical and ecological crises to facile entertainment and sexual identity.

These tools can help us in our reading of Jarett Kobek’s recent novel I Hate the Internet. The novel takes up a different angle on the same problem of a future confined to a facile teleology of capital and technology, as explored in Remin’s installation. It is also a text in which we can see these three ways of wasting the accursed share in action, particularly sovereignty.

As if in response to the linear fictional growth of this world of the ceaseless pursuit of corporate excellence, Kobek’s narrator repeatedly informs us that the novel that we are reading is a “bad novel”. This is not meant by way of apology. Instead, he argues the “good novel”, and the discursive and cultural sway it holds among the chattering classes, is the product of a CIA propaganda campaign to win the cold war in a way that would avoid the nuclear annihilation of humanity, or at the very least America. The accursed share was spent by the CIA to establish and the identity and sovereignty of a vision of a triumphant culture of American capitalism, rather than spending the excess on a final war. While this is preferable, it has produced some “intolerable bullshit”.

Kobek crying smiley
Kobek’s signature crying smiley

This “intolerable bullshit” is what Kobek sees as the central concern of our age. It is the practice of wasting of the accursed share dressed up as investment. This elegantly illustrated through the fictional app Bromato, which was intended to be the Grindr for men and gyms. This nonsense would be bullshit enough but the app ends up merely a conduit for venture capital. We can imagine that Remin’s HYBRID VENTURES may not, in its own fiction, really be a solution to technology industry’s, and thus the world’s, thirst for rare earth minerals. It may simply be a fugazi that can produce temporary value by appearing valuable. Even transgressing the boundary between nature and computers may now mean little more than a stock market bounce.

The inequalities of our world, and the technology industries’ seeming obliviousness to them, haunt the novel. Kobek’s cipher in the novel is a character called J. Karacehennem, who is last seen towards the very end of the novel on top of Twin Peaks, overlooking San Francisco, where he unleashes a furious tirade about the culture this city has fermented. The rant is an explicit parody of John Galt, the protagonist Ayn Rand’s novel of capitalist mythology Atlas Shrugged. In place of this, J. Karacehennem attempts a futile deconstruction of the intersection between the military, technology, capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy, including the following denouncements.

“Fuck Steve Jobs!”
“To Hell with all language police!”
“Down with all literary people!”
“Make sure your gay sex is perverse!”
“Fuck your gentrification! Fuck your working class too”
“The cyberpunk future is cancelled!”

But in the final move J. Karacehennem points to the fundamental problem of the course being contemporary growth built upon layers of an ancient notion of sovereignty.

“The fundamental problem is that every technology embeds the ideologies of its creators! Who made the internet? The military! The Internet is a product of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency! […] DARPA was a bunch of men! Not a single woman worked on the underlying technologies that fuel our digital universe! Men are the shit of the world and all of our political systems and philosophies were created and devised without the input of women! […] Democracy is a bullshit ideology that a bunch of slaveholding Greek men constructed between rounds of beating their wives! All the presumed ideologies of men were taken for inescapable actualities and designed into the internet! Packet switching is an incredible evil!

“The Internet is the last stand of patriarchy.”

One of the most damaging wastes of the accursed share has been the thousands of years we have spent ossifying a patriarchal sovereignty, to produce an identity so baked into our culture it appears as natural. One of the most infuriating things is that while the arbitrary nature of this sovereignty is relatively easy to identify, it is so entangled to the operation of the world its removal will not come without unintended damage.

V

When I came to write about A Hunger Artist and The Vegetarian for the KBH Læser Avis the intention was to illustrate the way desire can consume that which produces it. There is more to say on this but that is for another day. Because, while one can draw a line between A Hunger Artist and The Vegetarian and illustrate an all-consuming desire, the route this line takes makes much more sense if it is shown to go via Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar.

sylvia-pl
Sylvia Plath

The way in which wasting away could be positively desired is the clear link between the first two texts. And all three have a thematic similarity, in that the protagonist of each is unable to articulate their rejection of the accepted behaviours and narratives that surround them. But when we move from A Hunger Artist, through The Bell Jar to The Vegetarian, these dynamics move from an existentialist parable to a specific expression of power and sovereignty that exist as social facts. Social facts that are themselves entwined with eros and violence. That being, the construction of gender and identity are an integral part of the economic consumption of the planet resources.

This is what makes The Accursed Share such an exciting theory of economics. As a theory of general economy, it is able to incorporate spheres excluded by the more traditional theories, such as the climate change, and the threat of nuclear war with sexual desire, consumer behaviour, and the construction of gender identities. Of course, it needs help with this, it needs to be read with other things to harness its scope, and some of the assumptions within it must be critiqued. But its goal of allowing us to think these various and disparate fields together is one that is needed now more than ever.

This is where we will being talking on Wednesday evening…

You can listen to the Ark Audio Book Club podcast on I Hate the Internet here.

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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