Base Materialism

Short Summary

In the 1920s and 1930s Georges Bataille developed a concept, base materialism, as a radical turn from existing materialisms (Noys 499).
In his essay, "Base Materialism and Gnosticism," found in Visions of Excess, Bataille describes a "present-day materialism" that he describes as not so different from Gnosticism (49). Bataille explains that the foundation of Gnosticism, a disfigured Zoroastrian dualism, considered matter as "an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action)" (47). In addition, Zoroastrian dualism never served a role of social organization or state religion (47). Towards the end of his essay, Bataille explains how one can think of base matter, "Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations" (50)." When he writes of materialism he clarifies that he is not "implying an ontology, not implying that matter is the thing-in-itself" (49). Then what is it?

Benjamin Noys argues that his concept--somewhat of an inspiration for deconstructionism--assumes that there is an active base matter functioning as a third term disrupting various distinctions such as high/low, ideal/material, and bourgeois/proletariat (Noys, 499). As a third term, base materialism references the dependence on a privileged term on the term it is differentiated from making the terms inseparable. Thus they are constantly linked and dependent upon one another and base matter is constantly disrupting them (Noys 501-2).

Base materialism is active and a force of difference, but is not an ideal, ontology or a thing in itself (Noys 507). It cannot be controlled by political, social, or theoretical forces (Noys 507). Base functions is formless, or the energy that functions as a prior force before knowledge, before form (Botting & Wilson 11). Fred Botting and Scott Wilson describe base materialism as, "a black hole, its negative and creative energy discloses the gift of unknowing, the decapitation of the summit and the eruption of other forces" (11). It functions as the blind spot.


base materialism

Key Ideas, Concepts, Terms



Georges Bataille

Authors Drawn on

Karl Marx, Marice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, Pierre Klossowski, and Jacques Lacan


Noys, Benjamin. "Georges Bataille's Base Materialism." Cultural Values 2.4 (1998): 499-517. JStor. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.
Botting, Fred, and Scott Wilson. Bataille: a Critical Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998.
Stoekl, Allen. Bataille's Peak: Energy, Religion and Post-sustainability. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2007.

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