A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.

☛ “Formless” by Georges Bataille, Documents 1, Paris, 1929, p. 382 (translated by Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr., Georges Bataille. Vision of Excess. Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press “Formless”, p. 31)

[UPDATE–October 5, 2012] The New York Times has linked to this post: see “A Throwaway? Not From This Angle” by Karen Rosenberg, Oct. 4, 2012.
The original French document via Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Here the French text:

Un dictionnaire commencerait à partir du moment où il ne donnerait plus le sens mais les besognes des mots. Ainsi informe n’est pas seulement un adjectif ayant tel sens mais un terme servant à déclasser, exigeant généralement que chaque chose ait sa forme. Ce qu’il désigne n’a ses droit dans aucun sens et se fait écraser partout comme une araignée ou un ver de terre. Il faudrait en effet, pur que les hommes académiques soient contents, que l’univers prenne forme. La philosophie entière n’a pas d’autre but : il s’agit de donner une redingote à ce qui est, une redingote mathématique. Par contre affirmer que l’univers ne ressemble à rien et n’est qu’informe revient à dire que l’univers est quelque chose comme une araignée ou un crachat.

For more see:

  • Formless. A User’s Guide by Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997:
  • Bataille devoted an article to the informe in the “critical dictionary” published in Documents: fifteen lines immediatly following two longer entries on spittle (“Crachat-d’âme” by Marcel Griaule and “L’eau à la bouche” by Michel Leiris). The contrast between the effect of Bataille’s simple paragraph, so notorious today, and its apparent modesty (it appeared at the end of a column, toward the end of the last issue of the journal’s first year, and was in no way highlighted) makes its context worth exploring. (p. 16; MIT Press, Zone Books, also reproduced in October, Vol. 78, Autumn, 1996, p. 25, subscription may be required)

  • Radical Art. Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam, Department of Art history: “An analytical anthology of radical art and meta-art”. See the article “Informe (formless)”:
  • Art is about form. (Visual shape is a metaphor for conceptual form.) But in the course of the twentieth century, this very notion (form) has become suspect. This situation creates an interesting challenge for the visual arts: to find a form for formlessness, to show the form that has no form. Below we list some of the forms of formlessness that have been explored.

  • Representing figure in Georges Bataille’s informe: An exploration in the paintings of Francis Bacon a thesis in art hstory by Valerie Terese Thompson, M.A., University of Missouri, Kansas City, 2008, 62 pages. From the abstract:
  • This paper investigates the notion of informe, or ‘formless’, as described in Georges Bataille’s Documents magazine in 1929. The crux of this investigation is to advance that figure can exist where the informe is present, and does so by using Francis Bacon’s paintings as example.

  • [Update–Dec. 31, 2013] Boring Formless Nonsense. Experimental Music and the Aesthetics of Failure by eldritch Priest, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. From the editor website:

    Boring Formless Nonsense intervenes in an aesthetics of failure that has largely been delimited by the visual arts and its avant-garde legacies. It focuses on contemporary experimental composition in which failure rubs elbows with the categories of chance, noise, and obscurity. In these works we hear failure anew. We hear boredom, formlessness, and nonsense in a way that gives new purchase to aesthetic, philosophical, and ethical questions that falter in their negative capability.


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