from ‘Critical Dictionary’ – Georges Bataille


It being well understood that no one accepts such a title, it must, however, be understood that this word has been devalued to the same extent and in the same way as artist or poet. (‘This man is an Artist’ or 4 I esteem Poets’ and, above all, ‘the pleasant exactness that Aesthetes give their character’ . . . ) When it comes down to it, these words have the power to disturb and to nauseate: after fifteen years, one finds the shoe of a dead woman at the bottom of a cupboard; one throws it in the rubbish bin. There is a cynical pleasure in considering words which take something of us with them to the dustbin.

Moreover, the automatic protest against an obsolete character type is by now a more or less transparent dodge. The unfortunate who says that art no longer works, because that way one remains disengaged from the ‘dangers of action’, says something deserving of the same attention as the dead woman’s shoe. Although it may be quite disgusting to look at, a cliche is as much subject to conditions of obsolescence as an internal combustion engine. Everything in the emotional order which responds to an allowable need is condemned to a process of improvement, which, from another viewpoint, one is obliged to regard with the same disquieted (or cynical) curiosity which some Chinese torture might attract.

The Formless

A dictionary should begin from the point when it is no longer concerned with the meaning but only with the use of words. Thus formless is not only an adjective with a certain meaning, but a term serving to deprecate, implying the general demand that everything should have a form. That which it designates has no rights to any sense, and is everywhere crushed under foot like a spider or a worm. For the satisfaction of academics, the universe must take shape. The entirety of philosophy has no other end in view: it puts a frock-coat on that which is, a frock-coat of mathematics. To affirm on the other hand that the universe does not resemble anything and is nothing but formless amounts to the claim that the universe is something like a spider or a gob of spittle.


Most materialists, although they want to eliminate all spiritual things, have ended up describing an order of being which, insofar as it involves hierarchical relations, is characterized as specifically idealistic. They have located dead matter at the summit of a conventional hierarchy of facts of diverse orders, without noticing that they have thereby succumbed to the obsession with an ideal form of matter, with a form more approximate than any other to that which matter should be. Dead matter, the pure idea, and God each respond in the same way, which is to say perfectly, unremarkably, like a docile student, answering a question that can only be put by idealist philosophers: the question of the essence of things, the exact idea by which things become intelligible. The classical materialists have not even really substituted the cause for modal necessity

(the quare for quamobrem, that is, determinism for fatalism, the past for the future). In the role that they have unwittingly assigned to the idea of science, in order to supply their need for external authority, all expectation has in effect been placed on the concept of modal necessity. If the principle of order that they have defined is precisely the stable element which has permitted science to attain its apparently unassailable position, a real divine eternity, the choice of this principle can hardly be attributed to chance. The conformity of dead matter to the idea of science is substituted by most materialists for a religious relation, established earlier in history, between the divine maker and its creations, the one being the idea of the others.

Materialism will be considered as a senile form of idealism to the extent that it fails to ground itself directly on psychological or social facts, rather than on abstractions such as artificially isolated physical phenomena. Thus it is from Freud, among others – rather than from physicists, long since dead, whose concepts are today beyond consideration – that it is necessary to take a representation of matter. We shall not be concerned that the fear of psychological ramifications (fear which testifies solely to intellectual debility) leads timid spirits to view this standpoint as an evasion, or as a return to spiritual values. It is time, when the concept of materialism is involved, to refer to the direct interpretation of raw phenomena, excluding all idealism; and not to some system based on fragmentary elements of an ideological analysis, developed in the name of a religious analogy.

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