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Tag Archives: The Cinematic Body

Marcus Stiglegger (Mainz, Germany)

Guest lecture held at the ‘Body colloquium’, Clemson University (SC), 22nd of September 2008.

1. Bataille’s ‘general economy’ and the potlatch

The complex of eros and thanatos is not new to the world of film. In fact it prooves to be a main motor of cinematic expression from the beginning. But yet every era had to find its frontiers, its limits of expression. For many cinematographic ideas narrative constructions involving moments of violent and/or sexual excess and ultimate loss are cruxial. The ultimate gift – connected to the idea of the religious sacrifice – is at the same time the highes possible gift: the own life. Giving the own life is the irreversible gift and the final point of exchange. It can not be topped.

While many cinematographic genres deal with these idea of excess and the ultimate gift (which equals death), is seems appropriate to take a look at Georges Bataille’s theory of expenditure within his concept of what he calls ‘general economy’:

‘[…] 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.’ (Georges Bataille [1949], The Accursed Share, Volume 1: Consumption, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), pp. 25–6)

In the modus of over-production, energy appears that is not ‘necessary’ in the strict sense of the word. This energy is what Bataille calls ‘le part maudit’,  the ‘accursed share’. According to Bataille’s theory of consumption, the accursed share is that excessive and non-recuperable part of any economy which is destined to one of two modes of economic and social expenditure. This 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 war.

Thus the notion of ‘excess’ energy is central to Bataille’s thinking. Bataille’s inquiry takes the superabundance of energy, beginning from the infinite 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 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 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 expenditure for its own sake.

Bataille explains his idea according to the anthropological phenomenon of the potlatch-festival of the Kwakiutl-indians of the Northern Pacific coast of North America. Marcel Mauss refers to this phenomenon in his influential essay ‘The Gift’ (1923-24): potlatch is translated ‘a gift’ and signifies festivals of family gatherings, where the host shows his generosity up to the point of total bakruptcy.

A society that does not develop strategies of expendition according to Bataille is not souvereign any more and has to suffer from war, crisis and catastrophy that imply the destruction of the accursed share and more by force and without control. The western model of overproduction bears this kind of danger.

2. The body in excess

Like a society also the individual body has its accursed share that has to be expended in excess. Based on Sigmund Freud’s idea of the destructive death drive presented in ‘Beyond the Lust Principle’ (1920) that he paralleled to the already stated drive to live, Bataille imagined the idea of a turning from life to death drive. Sexuality as the ultimate expression of the will to live may turn into a celebration of death in what Bataille calls the sacred act of transgression. The act of transgression combined the idea of eros and thanatos and might be dubbed ‘thanateros’.

The playground of transgressive excess is logically the human body. While the conventional sexual act is still placed within the order of biological production-process, the transgressive sexual excess moves closer to the destruction of the body itself. Of special value here may be the dealing with bodily fluids (blood, saliva, genital fluids etc.) which belong to the realm of the abject (referring to Julia Kristeva’s essay ‘The Powers of Horror’, 1982). In his own erotic prose Bataille often refers to such elements while conventional sexual acts are very rare within his work.

After an age where the consumtion of limitless sexual freedon was considered an utopia (following the hippie-movement of the 1960s), the human body had to be regained in conscious shaping and modification. The 1980ies brought a fashion of body building, aerobic, but also beauty surgery. The modern primitive movement of the early 1990s can be seen as the peak of the ultimate transformation of the body: beyond tattooing and piercing there was scarification, amputation and every kind of body technique imaginable. These games on the physical playground led to an inevitable loss of transgressive quality. What would have been excess ten years before, was convention by the standards of the mid 1990s.

The conclusion could be: After the body has lost its abjection it has still to be re-abjectified via techniques of body-modification. And James G. Ballards novel ‘Crash’, which was written in the aftermath of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ to mark a dystopian turing point, appears still to be prophetic by today’s standards. The Canadian director David Cronenberg, already famous for his disturbing body horror films, recognized this twist and adapted the novel for the 1990s.

3. Cronenberg’s Crash: the expenditure of the own body

It is popular for films dealing with transgressive sexuality to point towards a fatal end: the amour fou will not work for human existence within society and leads to the ultimate sacrifice: the death of the lovers. Or at least one of the, thus ending the relationship. Classic films like Godard’s Breathless, Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Almodóvar’s Matador, Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, Fassbinder’s Querelle and many more might be seen in this light.

In Crash a community of people is portrayed that is clearly devotet to a strictly ritualized and sexualized  death drive

-the central seductive figure is Vaughan: tattoo, staging of crashes

He says he is aiming for the ‘re-shaping of the human body by modern technology’; later he makes fun of that idea and actually points out his psychpathology of staging and aestheticizing crash situations and sites.

-for Helen Remington and Ballard the trauma of the first crash is elementary: re-staging of accidents

-all of them are well equipped middle class people bored by life and heading for somethign new and unpredictable – ultimately death by crash

-Catherine Ballard is the ultimate empty character who has lost its drive to live and enjoys the idea of being close to death; in conventional sexual acts she seems totally replaced

-Gabrille as the fetishized and selfstyled object of desire as a re-abjectified body:

‘And Gabrielle is now not only deviantly and hence authentically sexually desiring, she is more sexually desirable to the male who craves female abjection: pierced, penetrated, deformed, leaking like a punctured radiator, and even manifesting a variety of extra crash-created orifices that become the explicite sites of James’s desire in a more redemptive sexuality.’ (Beard 391)

The key sequence is the crash site which is staged in a very serious way by the stuntman acting out the Jayne Mansfield death. His offering is the ultimate and irreversible sacrifice: His own life and additionally that of unknown crash victims causeed by him. As Vaughan sees him in the Mansfield outfit, he is aware that he might not be able to top that. In the logic of the film he seeks for expenditure of his own life as well.

He handles the crash site as a tableau of art, very similar to Andy Warhol’s series „White carcrash Nineteen Times’ (1963).

Vaughan may fail in his idea of the re-shaping of the human body but David Cronenberg’s film have its own idea: ‘I am trying to change the audience’s aesthetics. I want them to start with the normal revulsion that they have and by the end of the movie to see some kind of beauty or some possibility of beauty in things they thought were repulsive. That’s my own project,’ he says, ‘transforming the human aesthetics.’

‘Maybe the next one’ are Catherine Ballards remarks on not having an orgasm in the beginning. And ‘maybe the next one’ will be the phrase that comments her near death in a car crash provoked by her husband. The so-called little death of the orgasm is in her world already replaced by the final experience replacing it: the ultimate death.


William Beard: The Artist As Monster. The Cinema of David Cronenberg, Toronto/Buffalo/London 2001

Marcus Stiglegger: Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel & Sinnlichkeit im Film, Berlin 2006