This past Friday, I had to deliver a lecture on Georges Bataille's book Theory of Religion. This was an utterly fantastic book, perhaps the best I've ever read on the subject. I'm going to simply repost my lecture notes wholesale. If you haven't actually read the book, it might all come off as a bit obscure. This was all written for people that have already read the book, and who have a bit of familiarity with a few other authors.
The book deserves a great deal more commentary than appears in my notes, but I can't say as I have time to do it. I have a half finished post on ethics that has been sitting in my drafts section for two weeks now.
I'm going to divide my notes into ten parts, of roughly one typed page length each. This first part is just my opening remarks, framing how I would speak of the book.
So with no further ado, here's part one.
Here we have a book called Theory of Religion. I think both the title and the book leave open a certain ambiguity - is this a theory of the genetic, historical origin of religion? Or is it an ontological account? Is it the story of the development of human consciousness through history, a la Hegel, or a sort of explanatory myth like Freud’s murdered father? The way this question is answered will affect the way you critique it. Not that I’m offering a critique, but I think this question places the first two sections, especially, in perspective.
The first section begins an important theme - there is a boundary to cohesive knowledge; one who “reflects within cohesion realizes that there is no longer any room for him.” The second section is also related to the finitude of thought. Thought remains finite; never complete. It is always differed into the future. This inevitable incompleteness is not an excuse to throw up one’s hands and say “Vanity, vanity, all thought is vanity;” it is simply a critique all reason must submit to.
Discursive thought, then, never concludes; it is always projecting into the future. However - and this is what makes this an ontological musing rather than an epistemological one, Bataille notes the simple fact that no one can “be” independent of an understanding of being. We always already exist understandingly; this is not discursive knowledge that can be differed. Any and all research or accumulated knowledge may alter this understanding, but it can never be pretended that the understanding is not prior. Our perspective is limited, and therefore necessarily mobile. Knowledge of course needs to be formulated, but an end state - a final, exhaustive interpretation of being into discursive thought, is not possible. Several times through the book, he repeats this point; intimacy can only be approached poetically. It cannot be articulated... but of course we’ll all try anyways.
So I answered my own question there. This is a book of ontological, not a history of religion. This point is important to keep in mind later in the book, when Bataille comments on animal behavior; to bring up observational data from the animal or human world would be to miss the point; these are ontological issues, issues of being as such, not Discovery channel style ontic observations. This also indicated by the pains Bataille takes to show that we cannot engage in anything other than idle speculation about a world without human consciousness. To whatever degree that this book can be mapped onto an actual past is a contingent matter. Bataille uses temporal language, of course, and so does my presentation, and this makes it seem like a historical progression, but I still think the best way look at all of this is as a series of structural moments.
I'll begin post my summary of the book itself tommorow, with one part following each day thereafter.