Georges Bataille’s book Erotism: Death and Sensuality discusses eroticism in comparison to death, both as ways to escape discontinuity between beings. He addresses social structure through eroticism, death, and taboo. Bataille draws on the differences that are established between social hierarchies to support his notion that we are discontinuous beings. Discontinuity suggests that everyone is different and independent of one another. The idea of continuity suggests that everyone would be the same, on the same level. The desire to be continuous stems from the inability to break through social status and social hierarchies (Bataille, 1986).
Bataille stresses the importance of taboo for the argument that death and eroticism help break down social structures. Taboo can be explained as something this prohibits or forbids discussion of a certain topic. Bataille argues that taboo is only taboo because society says so. The only reason why people of upper classes think less of others is because society say those people in the lower classes are ‘wrong.’ This is a construct that strengthens and solidifies the control of the upper and ruling classes and their ideas.
Bataille further argues that discussion of the erotic is taboo, and societies look down upon it, because it is something of the natural world and it brings forth animalistic behavior and therefore transgresses reasoning. It is taboo because eroticism is a way to try and escape the discontinuity which breaks down social structures that have been put in place and gives a brief feeling of continuity (Bataille, 1986). Institutions that shape society encourage the discontinuity between beings, strengthening the desire to feel continuous. This relates to another structure that we see more commonly – laws that have emerged that govern ‘immoral’ behavior. These are taboo. For example, age of consent laws. Historically, society has told us that the age of consent is important because sex with children is wrong. I am not here to argue one way or the other, but to bring attention to the fact that it does not matter if it is right or wrong, because society has already labeled it as wrong. But Figure 1 shows us that the age of consent is different according to the part of the world someone lives in. The age of consent is taboo and Bataille would argue that it is enhancing the discontinuity between beings.
In reality, eroticism can help people break away from the ‘natural.’ Existing power structures that are in place that tell us what we are supposed to do teach us about culture. If these power structures tell us what is right and wrong or what is natural, we are meant to abide by the rules. The want to be continuous is a way to break free of the structures that create culture and that is what makes it seem deviant by nature (Bataille, 1986). Another way that people try to feel continuous and break away from the discontinuity as a way to feel something is through risky behaviors. Figure 2 shows someone cliff jumping. Although this is not quite the same as eroticism or death, people partake in risky behavior as a way to deviate from societal norms or feel something other than the discontinuity which occupies the majority of our lives.
Bataille explains eroticism in a few different ways. He says that it is a special form of sexual reproductive activity that can substitute discontinuity between beings for feelings of continuity (Bataille, 1986). Reproduction supports this view and the only way to become truly continuous is death. Communication tries to connect us, but it still fails to close the gap between individuals (Bataille, 1986).
He discusses in detail the ways in which eroticism is a philosophical consideration. He explains how we commonly assume that people are separate from their passions, but it is nearly impossible to imagine existence without passion. In relationship to real life, sexual activity is used for reproduction and reproduction is opposed to eroticism, although eroticism relies on the means by which people reproduce. Bataille expresses three types of eroticism: physical, emotional, and religious. Physical is what he calls ‘heavy’ and has a sinister quality to it. Emotional is less constrained, so it is defined by the reciprocal affection of lovers. He touches of passion, possession, and love (Bataille, 1986). Religious eroticism is the “quest for continuity of existence systematically pursued beyond the immediate world” (Bataille, 2012, pp. 23). These types each offer different definitions of what eroticism can be and when it is applicable.
Bataille further explains how eroticism and his approach is theological in the way that it relates to religion. Not one specific religion like Christianity, but a general understanding of religion. The study of eroticism and death as ways of escaping discontinuity is based on inner experiences. These experiences that we draw from are things that we cannot be separated from, meaning that our spot in social hierarchy and our culture defines us. He also says that “knowledge of eroticism and religion demands an equal and contradictory experience of prohibitions and transgressions” (Bataille, 2012, pp. 19). This can mean that in order to understand both religion and religion, people have to experience both which can be seen as contradictory. These ideas are only contradictory because society says they have to be, which can be a form of taboo. Taboo is a transgression of reasoning and brings about some of our animalistic behaviors.
Bataille argues that eroticism and death encourage continuity among discontinuous beings. He argues this by explaining the place of eroticism in our lives. Through the desire to be continuous, people partake in eroticism. Eroticism is not an ultimate escape from the discontinuity but is a way to feel continuous without fully escaping. The only other way to escape the discontinuity is to be brought back into the continuous world by death, like the sunflower in Figure 3. This makes eroticism and death comparable in that respect. He also says that people want to be continuous in some instances as a way to break away from the social hierarchies that are placed on people. He uses taboo to support that notion, and taboo is a form of social control and placing ideas of right and wrong upon society.
This matters to us because eroticism is a way for us to escape the forces of society, even if it is only temporarily. People do this through risky behavior as well like skydiving or cliff jumping as a way to feel something besides the discontinuity that is so normalized. We want to be able to break away and feel free of the institutionalized and societal structures that control our actions and beings. We are structured to be discontinuous through society and breaking down this structure, and learning how to temporarily escape it, could benefit the long run. The inherent differences between groups of people could be overlooked when partaking in eroticism and it would not matter what society says about a person, but rather the fact that they are a person that has the similar desire to be continuous.
Again, as we can see through Bataille’s analysis of eroticism and death, human beings are discontinuous. Eroticism and death are the only ways the escape the structure of discontinuity and even though it is a form of taboo, people partake in eroticism to feel continuity with other beings. The connection with Bataille to something other than eroticism and death can be things that we come in contact with regularly. Many laws have emerged from things that were, and are for that matter, taboo. And, people today try to escape the structures of everyday life by participating in risky behavior, like cliff jumping or sky diving.
Bataille, G. (1986). Eroticism: Death and Sensuality (M. Dalwod, Trans). San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Image Attribution: The images used in this post are in the Public Domain.
Written by Caitlyn Creasy, 2019