Modes of excess: Bataille, criminality, and the war on terror

Publication Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Bataille’s vision bathes us all in the lap of luxury. So much of the political is cast in terms of lack-an insufficiency of activism, organization, theory, or resources to mobilize, in the face of an abundance of ossifying power. Excess refreshes the screen, it releases people from the enclosures of scarcity and the insuperable inevitability of aggression that springs from want. The compulsion to dominate is denormalized and exposed for its own peculiar excessiveness The dull efficiency of utilitarian accounting-where every drop is used best when used up and growth marches inexorably forward-loses its reason in desire’s hall of mirrors. Understandably, Bataille’s work is taken up as a cry for amplitude in a wilderness of self-limiting apocalypse. Entangling his thought in the present requires more than the lavishing of praise. He achieves his general economy by energic extension and squander that yields irrecuperable consumption. But his analysis proceeds by differentiating the ways in which societies attain their forms of surplus. These various means constitute nothing short of a mode of excess-a concept that can help extricate ourselves from Bataille’s moment into that of contemporary affairs. If Bataille renders an ethnological or synchronic differentiation in his accounts of the Aztecs, Potlatch, Islam, Lamaism, bourgeois capitalism and Soviet socialism, we might look to his work of the middle of the last century to delineate the contours of excess in our own times.Let us consider three elements of what might constitute Bataille’s own mode of excess, writing as he is, when consumer capitalism and Soviet socialism retain their status as historical projects, and war adheres snugly to a Keynesian metaphysic. Bataille, of course is writing under the sign of what came to be called Fordism, a regulatory apparatus that mass produced consumption as a disciplinary realm parallel to but outside that of production. While the externality was mutual, it was also directional-domesticity was the sphere were cars and people started out new and became old, where time was free, leisure expressed substantive rationality, and used luxuries could be put out in the garbage. Despite, or perhaps more precisely because of the way in which the Keynesian welfare state was involved in the economy, subventions for public assistance and military contracting stood as anti-productive. In the dream realm of popular culture and consumer markets, of manufactured desires, the state needed to be absent to locate excess in a space that would be free of coercion and domination-hence the formal distinction from work and government. The state operates for Bataille in a universe of general interest that can never use up the erotic extensive energies of the accursed share. “The State (at least the modern, fully developed State) cannot give full reign to a movement of destructive consumption without which an indefinite accumulation of resources situates us in the universe in exactly the same way as cancer is inscribed in the body, as a negation.” (Bataille 1993: 160)


Ethics and Political Philosophy

Research Areas

Strategy and Organisation


Theory and Event










Johns Hopkins University Press

Additional URL