If action (“doing”) is –as Hegel says– negativity, the question arises as to whether the negativity of one who has “nothing more to do” disappear or remains in a state of “unemployed negativity.” Personally, I can only decide in one way, being myself precisely this “unemployed negativity” (I would not be able to define myself more precisely). I don’t mind Hegel’s having foreseen this possibility; at least he didn’t situate it at the conclusion of the processes he described. I imagine that my life –or, better yet, its aborting, the open wound that is my life– constitutes all by itself the refutation of Hegel’s closed system. […]

The temptation to reject this negativity as a sin resurfaces –such a convenient solution that we did not wait for the final crisis to adopt it. But since this solution has already come up, its effectiveness has been previously exhausted. The man of “unemployed negativity” can hardly ever use it anymore; to the extent that he is the consequence of what has preceded him, the sentiment of sin no longer has any power for him. He is confronted by his own negativity as if by a wall. No matter how disquieted he is by it, he knows that henceforth nothing can be ruled out since negativity no longer has any prospect.

☛ “Letter à X., chargé d’un cours sur Hegel… Paris, 6 Décembre 1937” by George Bataille, in The College of Sociology by Denis Hollier, tr. by Betsy Wing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 89-93.

This a well-known draft of a letter Bataille wrote to Alexandre Kojève, at a time when the Russian émigré was teaching a course on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the Sorbonne. More precisely, the letter was written two days after Kojève delivered a conference at the Collège of Sociology where he exposed his interpretation of the end of history (see Hollier, 1995: 86). Although the unfinished letter was not recopied, the draft was nevertheless sent to Kojève. A different –extended– version of the letter was included in the appendixes of Le Coupable (1944). The original French version, along with useful notes, can be found in the fifth volume of Bataille’s Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1973, pp. 369-371). The letter is also reproduced in Denis Hollier’s Le Collège de Sociologie 1937-1939 (Paris: Gallimard, [1979]1995, pp. 75-82), as well as in Choix de lettres. 1917-1962 (Paris: Gallimard, 1997, p. 131-132). A different English translation was published in September 1989, in Issue Eight of the journal Common Sense (tr. by Nicola Fisher, Issue No. 8, September 1989, pp. 46-49; PDF).

• • •

This is hardly the place to give a detail explanation of the context in which Bataille’s letter was produced (at a time when Hegel’s dialectic –or rather Kojève’s interpretation of it– exerted a tremendous influence on French thought), or on the crucial role the themes it develops came to play in his subsequent work.

I would rather simply bring attention to a specific aspect of the “unemployed negativity”, especially in regard the ways in which it was later developed in the works Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben as “unworking” and “inoperativity” (for the latter see especially Home Sacer and The Open). In both cases, the objective has to do with an attempt to think beyond the horizon of Hegel’s dialectic. Nancy once explained how, for Bataille, the “unemployed negativity” was not political. However, this is to be understood in a particular perspective. It is not political for Bataille was precisely trying to steer away from any kind of determinate politics (fascism, democracy, communism). It could nonetheless be said to belong to “the politic” if the category were to be broaden to a (co)ontological scale. This “politic” far from being a determinate program, should be understood as a coexistential event, or a the event of coexistence (it raises another set of problems, including the question of knowing if everything is political; see Jean-Luc Nancy: “Is Everything Political?”).

From this standpoint, I find particularly striking the fact that in his letter from 1937, Bataille simultaneously associates the “unemployed negativity” with an opening and a closure. Bataille begins by suggesting that he is, himself, this “unemployed negativity”. As such, he writes a few lines later, his life is an “open wound” (an important theme in Bataille’s writing). But he will also comment to the effect that the “man of unemployed negativity” is confronted by his negativity “as if by a wall”. Bataille, in this way, is already “unworking” Hegel’s negativity: by exposing it at once as being both an opening and a closure (a wall), he denies negativty with the possibility of settling, indeed suspending its operation as if in mid-air, in the undecidability of a process with no end. The path of this “unemployed negativity” leads to no determinate place. It opens up to nowhere in particular: “la négativité n’a plus d’issue,” writes Bataille (Betsy Wing chose to translate this as “negativity no longer has any prospect”, which is a bit unfortunate as it somehow weaken the link that can be established with the previous idea of the “open wound”; Nicola Fisher provided a more literal translation: “for negativity has no issue”).

Three aditional notes on this. First, Denis Hollier proposes to relate the expression used by Bataille –“unemployed negativity”– to the title of a book published by Denis de Rougemont the same year: Journal d’un intellectuel au chômage (Journal of an unemployed intellectual (see Hollier, 1995: 87; I wrote about Denis de Rougemont before). Second, and although he does not mention Bataille, I would recommend for the topic at hand here Michael Anker’s book The Ethics of Uncertainty: Aporetic Openings (Atropos, 2009). Finally, Bataille’s description of man as being “confronted by his own negativity as if by a wall” is reminiscent of the way Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” ends (the short story also occupies an important place in Agamben’s analysis of “inoperativity” as “impotentiality”):

Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred. I paused; then went close up to him; stooped over, and saw that his dim eyes were open; otherwise he seemed profoundly sleeping. Something prompted me to touch him. I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine to my feet.

The round face of the grub-man peered upon me now. “His dinner is ready. Won’t he dine to-day, either? Or does he live without dining?”

“Lives without dining,” said I, and closed his eyes.

“Eh!—He’s asleep, aint he?”

“With kings and counselors,” murmured I.

A digital reproduction of the story, as it first appeared in a two-part instalment in the pages of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art (Vol. 2, Issue 12, Nov.-Dec. 1853) is hosted at Cornell University digital library (see p. 614 for the above quote).

• • •

“Rooms by the Sea” by Edward Hopper, 1951, oil on canvas, 74.3 x 101.6 cm (29 1/4 x 40 in.). Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903. Image retrieved from Yale University Art Gallery.
“Rooms by the Sea” by Edward Hopper, 1951, oil on canvas, 74.3 x 101.6 cm (29 1/4 x 40 in.). Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903. Image retrieved from Yale University Art Gallery.

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