Georges Bataille’s L’érotisme (1957), more graphically titled in the English translation Death and Sensuality, is a sloppily constructed work, lacking rigor and even consistency. Yet it still remains the most serious attempt to integrate human sexuality into what may broadly be called Durkheimian anthropology. We should appreciate Bataille’s effort all the more today, when the sexual domain has become the near-exclusive preserve of “gender studies” that sees in sexual difference only the “socially constructed” domination of one sex by the other, and when anthropology itself has been largely reduced to a dust-storm of case studies.

No doubt the biological link between sexuality and death–asexual animals don’t die, they just divide–is a weak reed on which to hang a cultural theory. As Bataille well knew, only in human sexuality and attitudes toward death does awareness of this connection become a factor in determining behavior; whether this awareness is already implicit in life itself is a question for theology rather than science. But Bataille’s explorations of the link between the sexual, the violent, and the sacred, carried out with a far surer anthropological intuition than Freud’s, have not been improved upon, nor even revisited in a truly exploratory spirit. (Most books on Bataille are either sensationalist, hagiographical, or, most often, both.) It is curious that our “uninhibited” interest in sex has not made a dent in Bataille’s understanding of the fundamentally transgressive nature of human sexuality. Bataille’s critique of the anthropological passion for the incest taboo is one that forty-odd years of ethnological monographs have done nothing to dispel:

The interdict [interdit] that opposes sexual freedom in us is general, universal; particular interdictions are its variable aspects.

I am astonished to be the first to say this so clearly. It is banal to isolate a particular “interdict,” such as the prohibition of incest, which is only an “aspect,” and to seek its explanation wholly outside its universal basis, which is the formless and universal interdiction [interdit] of which sexuality is the object.  (L’érotisme, p. 58; quotes are the author’s)

In the structuralist paradigm as developed by Lévi-Strauss in Les structures élémentaires de la parenté–whose limitations are dissected by Bataille in one of the sharpest chapters of his book–“incest” is simply the violation of marriage rules. Implicit in this binarism is that what is not a violation is legitimate and therefore unproblematic. Durkheim’s ambiguous and never fully analyzed notion of the sacred is reduced to precisely what Durkheim insisted it could not be reduced to: the opposition between “right” and “wrong” sexual relations. But, as Bataille makes clear, sexual relations are always transgressive. Marriage as a rite of passage is not simply a permitted move in a game; it is the conferral of a right of transgression equivalent to the right to eat the (normally forbidden) totem animal at a ritual feast. The famous droit du seigneur under the authority of which the feudal lord deflowered his vassals’ brides was more a sacred duty than a lustful privilege: the first sexual act, in which blood would be spilled, was fraught with sacred danger.

Bataille’s theory of sexuality is not “new.” It is the oldest in Western culture, that expressed in Genesis by the association of sexual shame with original sin. Bataille’s remark that “the essence of eroticism is given in the inextricable association of sexual pleasure and interdiction” (119) was expressed more dramatically a century earlier by Baudelaire–writing after Sade–“l’unique et suprême volupté de l’amour gît dans la certitude de faire le mal” [the unique and supreme pleasure of love lies in the certitude of doing evil – author’s emphasis]; or, as Woody Allen put it more recently: “it isn’t sex unless it’s dirty.” Bataille’s accomplishment is to integrate this “reactionary” vision of sexuality into anthropological theory.

Although sexual desire, from the mimetic standpoint, would appear to be just one kind of desire among others, it is unique in its permanent association with transgression. Lust is only one of the seven deadly sins, but it alone designates a form of desire whose very nature is sinful, in contrast with gluttony or avarice which, as opposed to normal desires for food or goods, are obsessive desires for excess. Thinking about food and (arguably) other commodities is justifiable as being proportional to one’s need for them as means of survival, whereas the sexual imagination feeds on itself and can, unlike the others, lead to physiological discharge even in the absence of its object. Avarice and gluttony are what happens when food and worldly goods become sexy.

It is curious that in a world where, as Foucault pointed out, we pretend to repress sexuality while constantly talking about it, there are no anthropological models that can comfortably integrate such observations. Freud’s pansexualism uses the private to explain the public, elucidating the anthropological problem of sexuality by reference to the family drama. Recognizing that the causal sequence must originally have gone in the opposite direction, Freud devised in Totem and Taboo an originary model of sexual guilt: in the “horde,” where the “father” monopolizes all the women, the “sons” get together and kill him; but subsequently, their guilt for his murder prevents them from sharing the women they killed him to obtain–whence the interdiction of incest. The internalized father, later baptized the Superego, replaces the real father as a source of interdiction. But why? What mechanism could make the sons renounce the women in guilt unless they had internalized the father’s interdiction before the murder? Mimetic desire is the only conceivable answer: fear of mutual rivalry projected onto the dead father, whose rule maintained a Hobbesianpeace. But if we posit the centrality of the mimetic, we can construct an originary hypothesis with no need for Freud’s “Oedipal” scenario. Freud was nonetheless on the right track in seeking a collective, scenic explanation for his model of sexuality,

Even Bataille, in his discussions (as opposed to his imitations) of Sade, never quite acknowledges the significance of the association of the latter’s “sadistic” philosophy with pornography. Sade is remembered neither as a great philosopher nor as a great pornographer, but because he was the first (only?) writer systematically to combine the two. This is something I would not dare to do here; but I shall attempt to discuss its anthropological implications. Primary among these, as suggested but never sharply formulated by Bataille, is that human sexuality is erotic precisely to the extent that it is tied to representation. It is not sufficient to say that sexuality is transgressive; transgression is possible only because the forbidden object is designated by a sign that retains its meaning in the absence of its object. What is lacking in the theory of transgression, as in all “metaphysical” theories of mimetic desire, not excluding Girard’s, is that the sign/interdiction is not a mere marker of mimetic desire but the implicit element of a scene by means of which the individual imagination participates in the mimetic universe of the collectivity.

How can we translate into anthropological terms Baudelaire’s idea that the only pleasure of love comes from doing evil? The sinfulness of murder is easy to understand in generative terms as a crude violation of human reciprocity. But Bataille’s demonstrations that sexuality is linked with death or his definition of the erotic as the loss of one’s individual being are less explanations thana posteriori justifications of the “dirtiness” of the sexual. As, in another domain, are those of Freud.

The principal difficulty confronting the originary analysis of human sexuality lies in the less than obvious relationship between the sexual scene and the originary scene of language. Many years ago, a student in my Generative Anthropology seminar constructed an originary scene that included sexual relations among the participants. As the famous ithyphallic Lascaux hunter (reproduced in a plate of L’érotisme) suggests, sexual excitement may well have been part of the hunting experience. This student’s attempt was brilliant and sustained, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. I think I understand now better than at the time what the problem was.

Before the emergence in the “little bang” of the scenic/representational complex we call the human, there were no scenes of collective significance. There were, however, sexual “scenes,” in the sense of moments of pleasure shared by couples. Whatever sexual rivalries were enacted in these scenes, they were not a threat to the animal social order, which, then as now, was structured by one-to-one relations rather than a one-to-many scenic configuration.

This is no longer the case in the context of the human scene of representation. The couple as a self-contained unit in which sexual pleasure is exchanged constitutes an “other scene” that rivals the community assembled around the sacred central object. This rivalry is not a mere structural homology but a mimetic relation. In particular, although language and other forms of representation can arise only in the communal group, they cannot help but be imported into the intimate world of the couple. It is here that we find the explanation for the two linked peculiarities of human sexuality: its transgressive nature and its dependence on representation.

The language of sexuality, unlike any other language, has a quasi-sacred charge; merely to hear or see sexual words is to be drawn into “impure” sexual excitation. This seems to suggest that sexual language is “sacred,” since, aside from sexual words, holy words (such as the name of God in Judaism) are the only ones we are forbidden to pronounce. But this use of the term “sacred” is too imprecise. Sexual vocabulary, as Sade would certainly have agreed, is Satanic rather than holy, nor can positive science deny anthropological significance to this distinction. Satan was God’s rival; sex’s link to Satanism is its rivalry with the communal sacred as a source of significance. The charge of sexual words comes from their role in the anti-ritual of sex. Not that this rivalry begins as intentional. (Its first cultural expression may well be Sapho’s line that the most “beautiful” thing is not an object of collective value but “what one loves.”) What threatens the social order is not the sexual couple’s deliberate defiance but the fact that their mutual desire “naturally” expresses itself in language. Just as the first sign signifies an object of collective desire, so the signs of the sexual vocabulary arise to designate objects of desire. In the couple, the “deferral of violence through representation” enhances sexual pleasure by inextricably expressing and generating its significance, just as the sign grants significance to the object of collective desire.

Bataille’s intuition that sex is always transgressive displaces the phenomenon of incest from the defining role assigned it by an earlier generation of anthropologists. Given that sexuality is a dangerous force that must be brought within the communal order, it follows that the institution of marriage as a social device to impose order on sexuality cannot be allowed to disrupt the preexisting familial relationships that are already part of this order. Before becoming a system of reciprocal “gifts” constituting the “exchange of women,” exogamy is the avoidance of contamination of family or clan by the sexuality of the new couple, whose license to exchange sexual favors between themselves precedes and founds the broader structure of sexual exchange.

Where does the orgiastic fit into this picture? Orgy is a feature of agricultural fertilization rituals but not of hunter-gather life, at least as we have evidence of it. I would assume that, like human sacrifice, orgy is the extreme form of a ritual structure rather than its originary form. In orgiastic rites, the community becomes, like the couple, a rival to its own order as realized in other rites. The most significant thing about orgy is what Sade knew so well, and what Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut tries rather ineptly to suggest: orgy is a limit implicit in all sexual relationships. Human sex “always already” both contaminates and is contaminated by the larger community. The couple, in using language, admits the community into its bed; the orgy is only a literal extension of the human sexual imagination. Human sexuality, be it orgiastic or intimate, is always accompanied by transgressive representations that are also representations of transgression. The couple’s flight from public view is therefore less a desire for intimacy than a fear of witnesses to this transgression. The orgy is the overcoming of this fear, which is one transgression more.

I doubt if those who have spent years teaching language to apes have attempted the following experiment: to place the animals in a situation that excites their sexual desires and observe any changes that take place in their use of symbols. I rather doubt such changes would occur. Yet only creatures like ourselves, who can appreciate pornography, can really be said to understand representation. Social science has something to learn from Georges Bataille, or even Woody Allen, concerning the minimal criteria of humanity.