04 February 2014

in a world where a man can be merely a thing

     Sacrifice restores to the sacred world that which servile use has degraded, rendered profane. Servile use has made a thing (an object) of that which, in a deep sense, is of the same nature as the subject, is in a relation of intimate participation with the subject. It is not necessary that the sacrifice actually destroy the animal or plant of which man had to make a thing for his use. They must at least be destroyed as things, that is, insofar as they have become things. Destruction is the best means of negating a utilitarian rela­tion between man and the animal or plant. But it rarely goes to the point of holocaust. It is enough that the consumption of the offerings, or the communion, has a meaning that is not reducible to the shared ingestion of food. The victim of the sacrifice can­ not be consumed in the same way as a motor uses fuel. What the ritual has the virtue of rediscovering is the intimate participation of the sacrificer and the victim, to which a servile use had put an end. The slave bound to labor and having become the property of another is a thing just as a work animal is a thing. The indi­vidual who employs the labor of his prisoner severs the tie that links him to his fellow man. He is not far from the moment when he will sell him. But the owner has not simply made a thing, a commodity, of this property. No one can make a thing of the sec­ond self that the slave is without at the same time estranging him­self from his own intimate being, without giving himself the limits of a thing.
     This should not be considered narrowly: There is no perfect operation, and neither the slave nor the master is entirely reduced to the order of things. The slave is a thing for the owner; he accepts this situation which he prefers to dying; he effectively loses part of his intimate value for himself, for it is not enough to be this or that: One also has to be for others. Similarly, for the slave the owner has ceased to be his fellow man; he is profoundly separated from him; even if his equals continue to see him as a man, even if he is still a man for others, he is now in a world where a man can be merely a thing. The same poverty then extends over human life as extends over the countryside if the weather is overcast. Over­cast weather, when the sun is filtered by the clouds and the play of light goes dim, appears to "reduce things to what they are." The error is obvious: What is before me is never anything less than the universe; the universe is not a thing and I am not at all mistaken when I see its brilliance in the sun. But if the sun is hidden I more clearly see the barn, the field, the hedgerow. I no longer see the splendor of the light that played over the barn; rather I see this barn or this hedgerow like a screen between the universe and me.
     In the same way, slavery brings into the world the absence of light that is the separate positing of each thing, reduced to the use that it has. Light, or brilliance, manifests the intimacy of life, that which life deeply is, which is perceived by the subject as being true to itself and as the transparency of the universe.
     But the reduction of "that which is" to the order of things is not limited to slavery. Slavery is abolished, but we ourselves are aware of the aspects of social life in which man is relegated to the level of things, and we should know that this relegation did not await slavery. From the start, the introduction of labor into the world replaced intimacy, the depth of desire and its free out-­breaks, with rational progression, where what matters is no longer the truth of the present moment, but, rather, the subsequent results of operations. The first labor established the world of things, to which the profane world of the Ancients generally corresponds. Once the world of things was posited, man himself became one of the things of this world, at least for the time in which he labored. It is this degradation that man has always tried to escape.
     In his strange myths, in his cruel rites, man is in search of a lost intimacy from the first.
Religion is this long effort and this anguished quest: It is always a matter of detaching from the real order, from the pov­erty of things, and of restoring the divine order. The animal or plant that man uses (as if they only had value for him and none for them­selves) is restored to the truth of the intimate world; he receives a sacred communication from it, which restores him in turn to interior freedom.
     The meaning of this profound freedom is given in destruction, whose essence is to consume profitlessly whatever might remain in the progression of useful works. Sacrifice destroys that which it consecrates. It does not have to destroy as fire does; only the tie that connected the offering to the world of profitable activity is severed, but this separation has the sense of a definitive con­sumption; the consecrated offering cannot be restored to the real order. This principle opens the way to passionate release; it lib­erates violence while marking off the domain in which violence reigns absolutely.

Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share Vol. 1 (1988: 55-8)