The Accursed Share
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Cover of the first edition
|Original title||La Part maudite|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
197 (Zone Books edition, vol. 1)|
460 (Zone Books edition, vols. 2 and 3)
0-942299-11-6 (Zone Books edition, vol. 1)|
0-942299-21-3 (Zone Books edition, vols. 2 and 3)
The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy (French: La Part maudite) is a book about political economy by the French intellectual Georges Bataille. Written between 1946 and 1949 and collected in volume seven of Bataille's complete works, it comprises three volumes: "Consumption", "The History of Eroticism", and "Sovereignty." First published by Les Éditions de Minuit in 1949, the book was re-edited in 1967, and was published in English translation in 1988 by Zone Books, in a two-volume edition. The Accursed Share is considered one of the most important of Bataille's books. However, it received mixed reviews on the publication of its English translation.
Bataille presents a new economic theory which he calls "general economy," as distinct from the "restricted" economic perspective of most economic theory. In the Theoretical Introduction, Bataille writes that:
...the extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles—the overturning of the ethics that grounds them. Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking—and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire... It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.
According to Bataille's theory of consumption, the accursed share is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which must either be spent luxuriously and knowingly without gain in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in spectacles and sumptuous monuments, or it is obliviously destined to an outrageous and catastrophic outpouring, in the contemporary age most often in war, or in former ages as destructive and ruinous acts of giving or sacrifice, but always in a manner that threatens the prevailing system.
The notion of "excess" energy is central to Bataille's thinking. Bataille's inquiry takes the superabundance of energy, beginning from the outpouring of solar energy or the surpluses produced by life's basic chemical reactions, as the norm for organisms. In other words, an organism in Bataille's general economy, unlike the rational actors of classical economy who are motivated by scarcity, normally has an "excess" of energy available to it. This extra energy can be used productively for the organism's growth or it can be lavishly expended. Bataille insists that an organism's growth or expansion always runs up against limits and becomes impossible. The wasting of this energy is "luxury". The form and role luxury assumes in a society are characteristic of that society. "The accursed share" refers to this excess, destined for waste.
Crucial to the formulation of the theory was Bataille's reflection upon the phenomenon of potlatch. It is influenced by Marcel Mauss's The Gift (1925), as well as by Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality (1887).
In Volume 1, Bataille introduces the theory and provides historical examples of the functioning of general economy: human sacrifice in Aztec society, the monastic institutions of Tibetan Lamaism, the Marshall Plan, and many others. In Volumes 2 and 3 Bataille extends the argument to eroticism and sovereignty, respectively.
After its publication in English translation, The Accursed Share received mixed reviews from David Gordon in Library Journal, and the philosopher Alexander Nehamas in The New Republic. Gordon wrote that Bataille offers "a new theory of civilization", but added that while Bataille had an "eye for vivid detail ... his theory appears more valuable as a framework for his dazzling literary skills than a contribution to knowledge." Gordon concluded that The Accursed Share was probably "of greater interest to students of French literature than to economists or historians". Nehamas found much of The Accursed Share "profound and scintillating" and described Bataille's prose as "always elegant, even at its most abstract and theoretical", but nevertheless concluded that Bataille's views were "too obscure and speculative", and that the work was worth reading "only if the reading is skeptical." Keith Thompson reviewed The Accursed Share in Utne Reader.
Evaluations in books
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre cited The Accursed Share in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), crediting Bataille with interesting insights into the way extravagance can become an "economic function." The classicist Norman O. Brown credited Bataille with providing "a first sketch" of a necessary "post-Marxist science of political economy" in The Accursed Share. He found Bataille's ideas about economics to have particular relevance following the collapse of communism.
Bataille's biographer Michel Surya considered The Accursed Share "one of Bataille's most important books", and consistent with the views Bataille expressed in Inner Experience (1943), despite the apparently mystical character of the latter work. According to Surya, Bataille wanted to profoundly modify or even re-write The Accursed Share, and this and other details "bear witness to the extreme interest and importance Bataille attached during his whole life to critical reflection about sociology and the economy, in a way so essential and so central that one can without risk of error describe this reflection as political." The biologist Bruce Bagemihl praised The Accursed Share, calling it brilliant. Author Paul Hegarty argued that Bataille became an "apologist for Stalinism" in the book, doing so despite Bataille's awareness of the brutalities of the Soviet Union.
- Bagemihl, Bruce (1999). Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-19239-8.
- Bataille, Georges (1991). The Accursed Share, Volume 1: Consumption. New York: Zone Books. ISBN 0-942299-11-6.
- Brown, Norman O. (1991). Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07298-7.
- Hegarty, Paul (2000). Georges Bataille: Core Cultural Theorist. Guildford, Surrey: Sage Publications. ISBN 0761960783.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul (1991). Critique of Dialectical Reason. London: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-757-6.
- Surya, Michel (2002). Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography. London: Verso. ISBN 1-85984-822-2.
- Gordon, David (1988). "The accursed share (Book Review)". Library Journal. 113 (11). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- Nehamas, Alexander (1989). "The accursed share (Book Review)". The New Republic. 201 (October 23, 1989). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
- Thompson, Keith (1990). "Philosophy". Utne Reader (37). – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)