Utopia and Potlatch: Questions for Surreal Economists

June 28, 2016


These questions were written up as part of our ongoing seminar on Surreal Economies.   They try to locate points of emphatic contact between Mauss’ essay, which we read last time, and the pieces we are reading for the upcoming session (Breton’s Ode to Charles Fourier and pieces from Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share pt I.)

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Two questions

[I, Utopia]

In our last discussion a distinction was drawn between the “immanent critique” of capitalism that is developed by Marx and the “exotic” or “spatial” critique implicit in the Surreal reception of Mauss and Durkheim.  Schematically: the former tries to analyze the general laws of circulation, distribution, exchange, production and consumption — the “general laws of motion” — of the capitalist system in which we live, in order to locate the fractures, tensions, inconsistencies and self-contradictions that point to its collapse and autodépassement.  Previous historical systems of economy are revealed in the light of the capitalist system and the elements that it makes thinkable: class struggle, structuration via the mode of production, and so on. The latter (again, schematically) investigates the general laws of circulation, exchange, distribution of objects, energies and peoples in non-capitalist systems — both those “prior” historically and those contemporaneous but “primitive” societies studied by ethnography.  The historical and spatial distribution of these systems is relatively unimportant compared to the fact of their common difference from the capitalist economy of value.  The are structured differently, provide different experiences (the “total social fact”,) have different laws, different practices, and so on.  The “critical” component derives in one sense from the sheer multiplicity, bizarrity, and difference of these systems (as well as their seeming greater orientation toward pleasure and the libidinal body), which at once fascinate the surreal sensibility and reveal the contingency of the capitalist mode of life, which is experienced as a fact of nature.  This is perhaps a place where the “exoticism”, the obsession with and valorization of the primitive can be seen in the surreal sensibility.  One derives a kind of critical-epistemological jouissance from placing, say, the Maori system of hau and the industrial system in an abstract encounter, as Lautrámont enjoyed the idea of the umbrella and sowing machine meeting on the surface of an operating table.

Given this rough schema, how can utopianism be thought?  Is the surreal obsession with utopia, particularly in its fourierist version, a vision of the possible self-overcoming of capitalism — or is it rather a function of this generalized exoticism and sense for the unknown, mysterious, and libidinally-oriented , that animates the interest in ethnography?  Obviously it’s neither nor and the schema is itself a throwaway ladder, but I think this might be a good place to begin discussion from.
Along these lines, I wanted to share a quotation from something I was recently reading on Utopia:

“It is a word whose definitional capabilities have been completely devoured by its connotative properties. Sometimes it refers to the mad delusions that lead to totalitarian catastrophe; sometimes it refers, conversely, to the infinite expansion of the field of possibility that resists all forms of totalizing closure. From the point of view that concerns us here, i.e. the point of view of the reconfigurations of the shared sensible order, the word utopia harbours two contradictory meanings. Utopia is, in one respect, the unacceptable, a no-place, the extreme point of a polemical reconfiguration of the sensible, which breaks down the categories that define what is considered to be obvious. However, it is also the configuration of a proper place, a [65] non-polemical distribution of the sensible universe where what one sees, what one says, and what one makes or does are rigorously adapted to one another. Utopias and forms of utopian socialism functioned based on this ambiguity. On the one hand, they dismissed the obvious sensible facts in which the normality of domination is rooted. On the other hand, they proposed a state of affairs where the idea of the community would have its adequate forms of incorporation, a state of affairs that would therefore abolish the dispute concerning the relations of words to things that makes up the heart of politics.”

[II. Potlatch, The Gift, Interpretation]

This is more simple.  Mauss, in The Gift, offers an interpretive ethnographic account of the systems of circulation built around the gift.  One of the rituals or practices he devotes considerable description to is the so-called “potlatch” practiced by the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest.

Bataille’s preface and introduction relay the rudiments of the theory of “general economy”: the system of circulation of energies that in the last instance can never be contained by any given structure of growth, productivity, of investment, but always bringing about an instance of the “accursed share”, an excess or overabundance which must be destroyed in some kind of dépense.

The chapter on the potlach attempts in a satisfyingly straightforward fashion to apply this model to Mauss’ descriptions.

This is a direct point of contact, so a simple question: what do we make of Bataille’s interpretation of the Potlach compared to Mauss’?  To what degree does Mauss have an interpretation beyond a description of the mode of functioning?  What is the relation between the gift and the “accursed share”?  Does Bataille abstract the notion of “the gift” too far for it to retain its meaningful relation to the ethnographic literature?