Monday Morning Surrealism

Bataille, I think, was a bad materialist. In a 1931 text, he aimed to describe the modes of nature’s operation—tides, the rising and setting of the sun, the growth and wilting of plants—by way of analogy to human and animal activities. Or rather, one humane-animal activity, viz., copulation. Nature, he insinuates, is best understood in human terms.

For the right-thinking materialist, this is backwards. Nature is not anthropomorphic, but humanity is natural. To insinuate otherwise is to turn the order of things upside down and sew confusion. The universe is not to be understood in relation to human desires, anxieties, and self-conceptions, but humanity is to be understood by its operation within the universal laws of nature. 

But there is a tricky genius which perpetuates the contrary to this prescription, thus causing errors: speech. Language contaminates all things it touches with humanity. Consider that commonest jargon of naturalism, mechanistic materialism or mechanistic materialist. Both phrases are anthropomorphisms once removed, for nature is described by the analogy of the machines humans make. But the right-thinking materialist understands that humane machines are imitations of nature’s arrangements. For what is a lever but another (constructed, cruder) extension of the forepaw? What is a pivot but a simplified, manufactured joint?

The machine can only be understood by analogy to bodies in nature; but to explain nature as a machine, or an organism, or a human being writ large, is imply that it possesses ends, purposes, and desires it cannot possibly have. This implication may be unintended, unconscious, even entirely against our intentions–but the implication is there nonetheless.

Bataille’s premise is sillier than the pelvic imagery he uses to convey it. Even if he does not mean this essay, which I do not care to name, to be interpreted literally (how could he?), it leads the reader into commonest errors. And it leads him or her by the hand.

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