Bataille, Hyde, and Burning Man: Some Thoughts on Gift Economies

From the point of view of expenditure, artistic productions must be divided into two main categories, the first constituted by architectural construction, music and dance.  This category is comprised of real expenditures.  Nevertheless, sculpture and painting, not to mention the use of sites for ceremonies and spectacles, introduces even into architecture the principle of the second category, that of symbolic expenditure.  For their part, music and dance can easily be charged with external significations.

In their major form, literature and theatre, which constitute the second category, provoke dread and horror through symbolic representations of tragic loss (degradation or death); in their minor form, they provoke laughter through representations which, though analogously structured, exclude certain seductive elements.

Georges Bataille, The Notion of Expenditure

I arrived at Georges Bataille’s “Notion of Expenditure” circuitously: feeling deflated about missing out on Burning Man this week has made especially tuned in to ideas that jibe with the ten principles.

Primed for Burning ideals, I picked up Make Art Make Money, a Kindle serial which Elizabeth Hyde Stevens begins with a discussion of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. In The Gift, Hyde discusses the challenges of subsisting by creating art in an economy that primarily understands commodities.  This is because the rules of “gift economies” are in opposition to the rules of “market economies.”  In summarizing Hyde, Stevens argues:

In essence, capitalism does not reward art that is a gift. In spite of this economic reality, as a society, we value the art of the genius, and we naturally reject the sham-art of the entrepreneur, that is, commodity-art…  Yet, on these [commodity art] objects, our cultural critics usually reach a unanimous judgement.  They are designed to take, not to give.  These objects are not art because they lack generosity, and given enough time, history inevitable proves it.  We intuitively reject art when the cost to make it is less than the cost to buy it.
Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, Make Art Make Money

For anyone who has been to Burning Man, this axiom feels reflexively true. “Gifting” is one of the ten principles of Burning Man, and the participants, (in theory), strive to create a space that is radically decommodified. This is reflected in not one, but two of the ten principles: gifting, and decommodification, described this way:

Burning Man 2013: Cargo Cult

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.  We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation.  We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
The Ten Principles, Burning Man

I was sharing all of this with my sweetheart (he puts up with a lot) when he said it sounded familiar, took to Google, and came back with Marcel Mauss’ The Gift.  I had never heard of Mauss, but The Gift seems to be a foundational text for philosophical discussions of gift economies.  (…and my stack of books to read gets taller.)

One of the thinkers Mauss strongly influenced was Georges Bataille, a mid-century French intellectual who proposed the idea of The Accursed Share.  Bataille thought classical economists had made a fundamentally incorrect assumption: scarcity.  In Bataille’s view, it was not scarcity that drove economies, but rather, excess.  A society can be understood most clearly, in Bataille’s reckoning, by the ways it directs its excess.

So, we come at last to the Bataille quote, which is from the essay “The Notion of Expenditure” from The Accursed Share.  (Said sweetheart sent me the link to the essay with his highest praise.  What can I say?  Sometimes he sends Twizzlers, sometimes he sends obscure 60-year-old economic treatises.  I like them both.)

Bataille claims, on the subject of art, there are two kinds of expenditure: real and symbolic.  “Real” expenditures include architecture, music, and dance.  I take him to mean that these are the arts which require capital-intensive expenditures.  (Why, in his view, music or dance is more capital-intensive than theater, I could not say.)  The “symbolic” expenditures are literature and theater.  I take this to mean that they create the illusion of extravagant expenditure (the illusion of stories with great stakes) without the need to actually expend the capital or suffer the real losses that Bataille views as so intrinsic to economies.

(Finally, he discusses poetry, which he feels is “synonymous with expenditure,” and which signifies “creation by means of loss.”  Which, I think, means no one has ever really had much use for a poet, but feel free to insert your own joke about poets here.)

I’m not sure whether I agree with Bataille.  Speaking generally, his analysis is a little too psychoanalytic for my taste.  But I think there is a reading where his view of theater as “symbolic expenditure” is an interesting counterpoint to the Taylor Mac quote I’ve been mulling over.  If the whole point of theater is to seem to expend resources in a conspicuous way, what does it mean to clear away the theatrical?  Does it naturally follow that, as Mac claims, such “clearing away” is as much of a glorious lie as the theatrical?

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