The work of the impossible
: reading transgression through labour in Georges Bataille

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis addresses the question of transgression in Georges Bataille’s work, considering the political and social significance of that transgression. It takes as its starting point the theme of the unproductive in Bataille’s thought, and his rejection of economic production as the structuring principle of human society and activity. For Bataille, unproductive activity, embodied in luxury, sacrifice, festivity, etc, was equally relevant if not more central to human existence. Such gratuitous activity, undertaken for no end other than itself, represents, from an economic perspective, a waste or loss of resources. Production imposes a structure of means and ends, where all activity must ‘work’ towards something, and thus does not allow for this gratuity, and alienates humanity from a vital aspect of itself.
I consider Bataille’s position as an ‘anti-work’ position, in that his critique of production is at the same time a critique of the structure of work and labour understood as ‘useful’ activity. I ask if this position is transgressive, and if so, what kind of transgression it constitutes. I ask what is at stake in that transgression, and for whom. I explore the transgressive potential of a bona fide anti-work position, as it might be read from Bataille’s writing, in chapters One and Two. We go on to consider whether that writing actually embodies such a position in chapters Three, Four and Five. Chapter Three examines Bataille at his most explicitly political, asking where his attitude towards labour leaves the question of political work, and what his work can be argued to stand for, politically, if anything. In chapters 4 and 5, we ask whether there are unrecognised forms of labour or work that persist in Bataille’s insistence on the unproductive, that even underwrite it; forms, like domestic labour and sex work, that the divisions of gender make easy to ignore. I set up an understanding of Bataille’s position through exposition of his works of non-fiction and articles on economy, but go on to explore it through his fiction, considering the latter as putting the imagination of the unproductive into practice, articulating its possible consequences, consciously or otherwise, when actually lived.
The thesis situates itself between two broad types of readings of Bataille – those that are sympathetic to his work, seeing something in it that is inherently and universally transgressive, and those that see it as expressive, even to the point of total dismissal, of a contingent and emphatically masculine subject position. It challenges existing receptions of Bataille’s work, but also asks why those receptions have tended to take these shapes. My contention is that there is much to learn from both Bataille and his critics still, even if it may be a question of learning from the gaps, omissions, or inconsistencies in their work. My aim is to establish what that lesson is.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJohanna Malt (Supervisor) & Patrick Ffrench (Supervisor)

Cite this