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Looking at Trump through the Eye of Georges Bataille

By Ethan Weinstein.

The French philosopher and writer Georges Bataille sought mysticism in modernity. His novella Story of the Eye, a fictional memoir of a teenager’s progressively more perverse sexual exploration, remains one of the most shocking works of literary transgression. In a world post death of God, Bataille uncovered the holy in death and sex. The teens find freedom in violent sexual desire.

After graduating college, Bataille received a post at the National Library of France, where he served as an archivist and librarian specializing in the Middle Ages. Thus began an academic life characterized by solitude. When not immersed in the stacks of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Bataille frequented Parisian night clubs and brothels, locales he referred to as his “true church.”

Ample time for thought and frequent exposure to vice provided fodder for The Eye, Bataille’s first and most famous publication. In the build up to its release in 1928, Bataille entered the intellectual circles of Paris, at first peripherally, then at its core. There he mingled with the figurehead of the surrealist movement, André Breton. The surrealists gathered in cafes to discuss the shadowy labyrinth of Freud’s unconscious. The human mind contained locked doors. Violent ideations of erotic transgression lurked inside, and Breton experimented with methods designed to unlock these vaults. He practiced automatic-writing, an attempt to write without the inhibitions imposed by consciousness. The hand and mind worked in unison. Bataille’s studies overlapped with Breton’s project. The librarian slowly penetrated the avant-garde.

He then pseudonymously published The Eye. Its unrepentant vulgarity attracted attention from France’s artists and intellectuals. Yet, by 1929, Breton had seen enough. Spiteful as ever, the autocratic artist released the Second Surrealist Manifesto containing, among the decrees, a bona fide excommunication of Bataille. His theory of “base materialism” and its sacraments of blood, excrement, and perversity scared even the barrier-breaking surrealists; Bataille’s polemics proved heretical to the idealist Breton.

Irreverent and undeterred, a group of dissidents rallied behind Bataille. A month later, they issued a sarcastic obituary: “Here lies Breton the ox, the old aesthete and false revolutionary with the head of Christ.” Bataille wanted no part in the artistic cult of personality. He strove to unsettle the status quo, and he’d happily go at it on the fringe.

Separated from the surrealists, Bataille soon expanded his intellectual inquiries beyond the realm of sexuality. Through his political and theoretical writings he confronted the fascism and bigotry he saw in his native France. Living in occupied Paris, Bataille gathered a group of anti-fascist intellectuals working to fight totalitarianism. He was a staunch supporter of European Jews, vowing never to shake hands with an anti-Semite. In light of the political and historical turmoil he witnessed in twentieth-century Europe, one might wonder how a thinker with such diverse interests would understand the unlikely rise of a politician like Donald Trump who echoes dictatorial rulers in an uncomfortable, if seemingly haphazard fashion.

By feeding on the bigoted beliefs and economic struggles faced by white, working-class Americans, Trump’s governing style is in line with a wave of fascism rising across the globe. His words fuel his supporters hate, justifying discrimination and causing the Republican party to swing even further to the right. In response to dictators he observed who appeared to wield power more like monarchs than political leaders, Bataille defined a new form of sovereignty fit for his own times: “Let us say that the sovereign (or the sovereign life) begins when, with the necessities ensured, the possibility of life opens up without limit.” The sovereign life cannot exist when one is consumed by the economic struggles of the average citizen. The working man slaves away all day in order to ensure necessities whereas the sovereign man need not work—everything is already guaranteed.

This definition fits Trump, and has for all his life. The son of a real estate mogul, he received a “small loan” from his father to start his career as a businessman. The exact size of the loan remains unknown, but it was likely tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. With money like this, Trump has had no need to pursue utilitarian goals like the everyman. Follow rules? He can pay his way out of legal trouble. Tell the truth? His celebrity and anti-political correctness serve as evidence enough of his intelligence to his loyal supporters. In this way he lives “beyond utility,” as in Bataille’s sovereign domain. And what is sovereign despises servility and subordination; submissiveness is a virtue of poverty. The struggling worker contorts himself within the confines of written and unwritten rules—he cannot afford to disobey, for the consequences could be fatal. Trump, on the other hand, has filed for bankruptcy six times, twisting the law to his will and facing no consequences.

In the construction of a sovereign-like identity, Trump has divorced himself from all lowliness associated with poverty, not unlike Bataille’s sovereign who, like Hegel’s master, relies on the privation of slaves to define his superiority. The sovereign “is formed by an act excluding all filth: an act pure in direction but sadistic in form.” In Trump’s speech, rebukes of the poor proliferate. Faced with criticism from Baltimore congressman Elijah Cummings, for example, he declared the city a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested place … filthy,” in contrast with his “clean” southern border. In this way Trump separates himself from uncleanliness while simultaneously defining his political opponents as abject. His obsession with cleanliness can extend comically to the point of pathology. A self-described “clean hands freak” who believes shaking hands is “barbaric” due to the exchange of germs, Trump has a penchant for fast food because—follow this advanced logic closely—its mass-production necessitates high sanitary standards.

By setting himself outside the domain of the average person, Trump has fashioned a sovereign domain for himself, a fantasy land foreign to his supporters and enemies alike. His political rise defies comprehension. No setback, not even accusations of sexual assaults nor blatant lying, have thwarted his ascent. Similarly, Bataille’s sovereign leader exists outside common understanding, imagined by the public as “other,” excluded from reason and rationality. Trump “others” himself through narcissism, insisting on his super-human capabilities and decrying the never-before-seen negative treatment he has endured. Discussing his role in negotiating trade talks with China, he has even gone so far as to refer to himself as “the chosen one,” in quasi-self-deification. Conversely, he insists that he receives unfair treatment from both the media and Democrats in his oft-whined refrain “nobody’s been treated badly like me.” This false claim riles up both his base and his detractors, and he is othered yet again as either a despot stuck in la-la-land or a misunderstood Robin Hood. In Bataille’s philosophy, the sovereign leader “designates his nature as something other, without being able to account for it rationally.” Likewise, rationality is not Trump’s thing. Occupying a sovereign space outside the “homogeneity” of his constituents, a space not beholden to typical governing principles of reality—like reason, for example—Trump employs “alternative facts,” and bold untruths to bolster any claim he makes. His freedom from the subordination of facts inspires awe from supporters and opponents alike. But then the world he occupies, which Bataille labels “heterogenous” is entirely divorced from the “homogenous” world of public transportation and grocery stores inhabited by the subordinate population.

For Bataille, the prohibition against killing is essential to the maintenance of civilized society, because of the fascination and horror that people are inclined to associate with death. The sovereign, in order to demonstrate his freedom from the servility of law, thus “requires the strength to violate the prohibition against killing.” Trump is yet to kill anyone, at least not directly, but he need not actually commit murder, he merely needs the power to do so without repercussion. This not only reveals the gravity of his claim that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” but also his tendency to place others—Latin American refugees, Kurds—in immediate life-threatening danger without acknowledging any responsibility. His perceived sovereignty seems to allow him to violate the most fundamental law of civilized life, presumably even in matters of life and death.

As far as we know, humans differ from animals in their recognition of their own mortality. Bataille understands, through Hegel, that to be human is to stare death in the face; the fear of death leading to prohibitions that seek to defer death as long as possible. The rule-following working man heeds these prohibitions because his life depends on it. By contrast, the sovereign man, transcending  his fellow citizens, “lives and dies like an animal. But he is a man nevertheless.” The ordinary person simultaneously resents and envies the blatant disregard for all norms by the sovereign man. However, if signs of fear betray the sovereign’s humanity, and if his power depends on a status as “other” in the eyes of the homogenous populace, he cannot show any concerns at all. But fear in general and fear of death specifically ground human subjectivity.

To maintain sovereign status, Trump de-humanizes himself in a refutation of self-reflection. Typical consciousness relies on an understanding of the seriousness of death—what Bataille calls “the individual affirmation.” In contrast, “sovereign affirmation” is more inclined to impulsivity. Sovereign subjectivity is constructed through “the impulses of rival, of prestige,” and intolerance toward the prohibition against killing. Sound familiar? Trump manufactures rivals daily, engaging in name-calling, and spewing hateful diatribes on Twitter. His obsession with prestige convinces him to cover buildings with giant letters spelling out his name. As far as his taste, he prefers ornate furniture, shiny and gold. Unsurprisingly, this is common for despots as Peter York, who has written a book on dictators’ style choices, confirms—Trump’s taste aligns with that of Mussolini and Hitler.

Trump ran his campaign based on shaking things up, “draining the swamp,” as he and his supporters say, but there is no precedent in recent American politics for such complete disregard for the system by a sitting President. Bataille writes that “the sovereign world does have an odour of death, but this is for the subordinate man; for the sovereign man, it is the world of practice that smells bad.” The metaphor of the swamp hints at the “odour” emanating from the homogenous world, subordinate out of a need for safety. Political scandals end careers. Politicians keep their heads down, avoiding public displays of corruption because their lives depend on it, as does the public’s trust in the political system.

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The sovereign nature of Trump’s life and behavior may explain his appeal among his supporters, but it does not explain his ability to stay in power despite vocal opponents. Why haven’t his disgraceful antics inspired traditional conservatives and the left to end his reign? For Bataille, the answer can be found in Trump’s self-destructive, heterogenous governance, and the media’s obsession with covering his every move.

Unconsciously, self-destruction provides erotic pleasure. Death and sex are inextricably linked, making death the ultimate erotic experience. For the individual, clumsy self-sacrifice can end in death, the end of all pleasure. Rather than risk annihilation, people identify with self-destructive figures in theater and literature, allowing them to feel the joy of sacrifice without the corporeal risks. In ancient Greece, viewers gathered in amphitheaters to consume tragedy, a collective identification with a hero destined to die. In Bataille’s time, similar erotic identification was achieved through novels:

The charm of a novel is linked to the misfortunes of a hero, to the threats that hang over him. Without troubles, without anguish, his life would have nothing that captivates us, nothing that excites us and compels us to live it with him. … We should take pleasure in the feeling of loss or endangerment [the novel] gives us.

The ubiquity of news coverage, disseminated through social media and television, allows the public to consume Trump’s cascade of fortunes and misfortunes like a novel. He is the hero of the story, either epic or tragic depending on the viewer’s vantage point. Bataille makes the point that while literature may not have the “excess” of Greek tragedy, it is more akin to our own lives, and therefore easier to identify with. If this is the case, Trump’s trajectory holds a particular fascination. In Bataille’s time, this might have seemed counterintuitive. “An excess of reality,” he writes, “would break the momentum that carries us toward the point of resolution where literature aims us.” Literary twists and turns, not subject to reality’s homogenous subordination, can dramatize a life unrealistically. Were novels too realistic, they would lose their dramatic charm. Trump’s life has the appeal of a novel because of the unreality of his being. The sovereign always defies what is “reality,” that is, what is homogenous, because the sovereign is by nature heterogenous, and therefore defies the confines of law and order. In his unmatched absurdity, Trump violates our understanding of what a President can be. He is more fictional character, TV personality, than a real person. Like the reader who identifies with the hero’s courage, the public, the Trump-hating among them, takes perverse pleasure in his defiance. We could never live like him, but through identification, we can mooch off the erotic satisfaction of the sovereign. Media has transformed the world into a book to be read. Self-destruction is more available for identification than ever before.

In this way, those on both sides of the political spectrum find a certain pleasure in Trump’s existence. In Bataille’s words, the sovereign leader gives “homogeneous society … its reason for being. … The homogeneous society can exist for him.” Trump imparts meaning. His supporters see him as all they could never achieve, an outlet for pent up anger and prejudice. His opponents construct an identity founded on hatred toward him—consume his blunders, tweet about them, laugh at them, and soak in superiority. All of this provides a kind of perverse satisfaction, a libidal outlet, an expenditure of energy. This pleasure inhibits a more fruitful revolution, allowing a small victory without actually disarming Trump, at least not yet. As Bataille would argue: “Why rebel too stubbornly against a definitive difficulty? Not that we should turn away from death, on the contrary: stare at it, look it straight in the face, that is the most we can do.” Consider the Trump presidency as a fictitious narrative. The 24-hour news cycle lingers over the abyss of death—embodied by Trump’s self-destruction. I experience a vertiginous stimulation at the horror of his actions, stay engaged but am made impotent. Victory through revolution would be desirable, but consuming Trump’s misdeeds proves satisfying enough. I lay supine on the couch, while he continues undermining the Free World.

Like it or not, Bataille would contend that those of us on the Left don’t comprehend that we actually love Trump, that our hate is a form of love. He offers us the temptation to look and look away. In his transgressions, we are transfixed, caught up in a Bataille-like project not unlike The Story of the Eye. Appalled or intrigued, we are left awestruck.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ethan Weinstein a student at Dartmouth College studying English Literature. His nonfiction has been featured on Wisconsin Public Radio, in the Psychedelic Press Journal, and is forthcoming in Junction Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 17th, 2019.