Bataille’s Vegetal Decay

Anya Gallaccio, Red on Green, 2012. Installation view, Jupiter Artland. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

 by Michael Marder

MAY 23, 2014


To appreciate life fully, in all its fragility, we must contemplate its growth, as much as its decay. While meaninglessness persistently obtrudes on the limited domain of meaning, rotting both makes possible and invariably succeeds growth. Finitude is the ever-present shadow and source of nourishment for existence.

Concentrating on the underside of plant and human lives, Georges Bataille de-idealizes both. To the ideal of beauty, usually associated with flowers, he opposes the fact that “even the most beautiful flowers are spoiled in their centers by hairy sexual organs.”[i] “[A]fter a very short period of glory,” he goes on to say on the same page of Visions of Excess, “the marvelous corolla rots indecently in the sun, thus becoming, for the plant a garish withering.” The price to be paid for excessive growth is an equally spectacular decay, whose products, we might add, have been, after countless millennia, converted by us into an engine of economic growth—natural gas and oil. The erectile excess that “projects plants in a vertical direction,” “in a general thrust from low to high,”[ii] is powerless when it comes to maintaining the metaphysical bias of virility; the erection, symbolized by a flower stem, falls: “[p]lants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.”[iii] Despite dreaming of the vast expanses of the sky, growth and finite existence as a whole return to the rotting piles of the dump we call “the earth.”

With Bataille, we find ourselves immersed in the maggot-infested lower part of the world-plant or the Soul of All, which Plotinus both despised and wished to cleanse in his Enneads. Post-metaphysical thought acknowledges the staying power of decay, for “while the visible parts [of the plant] are nobly elevated, the ignoble and sticky roots wallow in the ground, loving rottenness just as leaves love light.”[iv] The excess of growth, reaching all the way to that which rots, is due to the excessive polarization of the growing being, its tending in all directions, including polar opposites.Whereas, for Plotinus, this excess symbolized the way of evil, Bataille points out how indispensible it is for the flourishing of a plant or of any living being, for that matter. Ironically, the post-metaphysical root, most intimately engaged with material decay in the soil, is no longer the withdrawn refuge place of the One but the hotbed of Plotinian evil. From a metaphysical perspective, the foundation is (the) base in the moral sense of the word: “There is reason to note, moreover, that the incontestable moral value of the term base conforms to this systematic interpretation of the meaning of roots.”[v] As soon as the foundation sheds its false façade of immutability and begins to set root, its own growth internally unhinges it, drives it out of itself, perpetually un-founds it. Bataille’s thought is, therefore, nothing other than the repressed truth of Plotinus: post-metaphysics is metaphysics thought through to its logical conclusion. The emanations of the One, grafted onto a universal tree, undo from within this physical-metaphysical entity.

Plant growth and decay are also significant for the enunciation of Bataille’s famous notion of expenditure and his theory of “general economy.” Unconditional, non-productive expenditure, which is not recoverable in an equal exchange or consumption, is the epitome of existential excess, of existence as an excessive and unbalanced (excessive, because unbalanced) wasting or spending of itself. This is, by far, not the prerogative of human beings alone: Bataille sees in disequilibrium the conditions of possibility for life, down to the biochemical level. As he puts it, “[o]n the whole, […] excess energy provides for the growth or the turbulence of individuals. […] Plants manifest the same excess but it is much more pronounced in their case. They are nothing but growth and reproduction (the energy necessary for their functional activity is negligible).”[vi] Vegetal growth is excess because it is pure expenditure, limited solely by external environmental conditions. In and of itself, it is unconditional and hence separate from the restricted economy of exchange (for instance, the exchange of gases between a growing organism and the atmosphere). The de-monstrative exposure of plants, the open-ended multiplication of their extensions, and their decay are in line with the post-metaphysical approach to life. In their rise and fall, proliferation and rotting, we ought to recognize our phenomenal appearing in the world and the rhythms of our tragic existence.



[i] Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p.12.

[ii] Bataille, Visions of Excess, pp. 75, 13.

[iii] Bataille, Visions of Excess, p. 7.

[iv] Bataille, Visions of Excess, p. 13.

[v] Bataille, Visions of Excess, p. 13.

[vi] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), p. 28.

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