Georges Bataille (1897-1962)

"Theory of 'Potlatch'"

from The Accursed Share

Potlatch [Chinook jargon, from Nootka, patshatl: giving], a ceremonial feast of the Indians of the Northwest coast marked by the host's lavish distribution of gifts requiring reciprocation (Source: Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).

Study Questions

How does the character of the "general economy" differ from that of ordinary economics which is preoccupied with scarcity and acquisition? What new problems does the concept of the general economy add to our field of vision?

We may think of a gift as something freely given, with no strings attached, an act of pure generosity. Is this the way the gift functions in the potlatch according to Marcel Mauss and to Bataille? Comment on this passage: "Hence giving must become acquiring a power..He [the gift giver] regards his virtue, that which he had the capacity for, as an asset, as a power that he now possesses. He enriches himself with a contempt for riches, and what he proves to be miserly of is in fact his generosity" (375). Comment on the passage: "It is not enough for our left hand not to know what the right hand gives: Clumsily, it tries to take it back" (378). What does Bataille mean by the idea of humans' "crooked will"?

Bataille claims that gift exchange is "strange yet familiar" (375). Where is it familiar? Where do we find gift exchange and the potlatch today? What would be some examples?

What is the apparent absurdity of gifts, according to Bataille? Previously, we have looked into the issue of usury with regard to commercial exchanges, but Bataille claims that "interest" figures into gift exchange. How so?

According to Bataille, giving and "reckless expenditure" are productive of rank, social standing. Can you give some examples where expenditure confers rank? How, then, is gift giving enormously ironic for Bataille? What is its ultimate purpose?

How is the rank obtained through gift giving related to glory acquired through heroism in battle? How are the two actions similar or related? How do glory and rank differ from power?

Bataille discovers evidence of our basic ambiguity in the potlatch. With that in mind, comment on this passage: "It [human existence] places the value, the prestige and the truth of life in the negation of the servile use of possessions, but at the same time it makes a servile use of this negation."

Explain Bataille's comparison of the activity of the "intellect" with the acquisition of rank through giving gifts. What is the effect of the activity of the intellect on objects? How and into what does it transform them? Is this sort of effect in any way similar to the functions of money? Is money itself an intellectual phenomenon?

What is the main implication of a theory, such as Bataille's, which sees human behavior as "bringing into contradiction ... man's entire existence" (378). What does Bataille mean by suggesting that, what we seek through gift giving is a "semblance--which by definition we cannot grasp--that we vainly call the poetry, the depth or the intimacy of passion. We are necessarily deceived since we want to grasp this shadow" (378). Does this situation in any way recall the plight of characters in our earlier readings?

Bataille asserts: "Selfishness is finally disappointed" (379). Compare his judgment to that expressed by Dickens in Hard Times. Does the following description fit one of the characters in Hard Times, in Garcia Marquez's "Balthazar"?: "The man of high rank is originally only an explosive individual" (379). Explain what Bataille means here: "present-day society is a huge counterfeit, where this truth of wealth has underhandedly slipped into extreme poverty" (380).

What does Bataille mean in his suggestion that the overall result is that "individual interest is mocked"; that "the individual accumulation of resources is doomed to destruction"; and that "the lies of the rich are changed into truth" (379)? Compare this to the situations in Hard Times and "Balthazar." Why does Bataille say that "this poverty cannot in any way interrupt the movement of exuberance" (379)? What images or processes in Hard Times correspond to such unstoppable exuberance?

What does the image of the sun represent for Bataille? What paradigm does that image offer for both the general economy and individual behavior? How do the actions of Balthazar in Garcia Marquez's short story fit Bataille's definition of "the meaning of wealth" and "genuine luxury"?

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