11th January 2007
The ideas are undoubtedly complex, but what may be hardest to grasp in the work of Georges Bataille is the scale of his project. What we find, scattered among the stories, essays and texts that comprise his singular corpus, is the outline of an entire philosophy of existence. But this is not existence as the existentialist conceives it – as merely the maudlin fate of a lost, mortal individual – but, quite the opposite. It is a vision of the whole of existence: a holistic conception of all life on earth and all matter and energy and their transformations and fate. It is a vision explicitly framed to make our everyday concerns appear for what they are: not small-minded, just utterly small. In part, the aim is a critique of that oh-so-limited world of homo oeconomicus and his calculations of productivity, efficiency and profit and loss, but there’s something more going on here than that. For Bataille’s ideas are also an explicit celebration: a hymn to activities and behaviours that, seen from the perspective of the everyday order of value, of labour and good-sense, appear inexplicable and worthless. Seen from the ‘general economy’ of the whole of life, however, Facebook, LOLcats, Farmville, Angry Birds, animated gifs, captioned memes, Fail videos and trolling all take on another meaning. Here they are no longer a ‘waste’ of time, rather they are its glorious, luxurious expenditure.
Bataille found his inspiration in Nietzsche’s physical conception of existence in the posthumously published notes, The Will to Power. ‘And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror?’ Nietzsche asks, before unleashing the full horror of what he sees: ‘This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself, but only transforms itself’. This is the world as a total system, as a chaotic maelstrom of energy, as ‘a play of forces and waves of forces’, ‘a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back’, ebbing and flowing forever, striving out of the simplest forms towards the most complex, then returning home to the simple out of this abundance, ‘as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness’. ‘Do you want a name for this world?’, he asks, as he gives us the answer: ‘This world is the will to power – and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power – and nothing besides!’.
This vision of a single energetic system underlies Bataille’s essay ‘The Notion of Expenditure’, published in January 1933 in La Critique Sociale 7. It was an idea he’d return to and expand on in the war’s aftermath in a fuller, more visionary work, The Accursed Share, published in1949. Bataille’s target here is ‘political economy’: the world of rational, individualistic, capitalist calculation. Though presenting itself as the ‘natural’ order of things and the driving force of the entire world, this remains only a ‘restricted economy’ – a small system, founded on the valorization of ‘utility’: of what is useful, what is efficient, productive and profitable for the market. It focuses solely on the actions of ‘economic man’ and so, Bataille says, ‘It does not take into consideration a play of energy that no particular end limits: the play of living matter in general, involved in the movement of light of which it is the result’.
Contrast this ‘restricted economy’ with the entire ‘general economy’ of energy. This begins for us with the sun, Bataille says, which gives its energy without return. This solar radiation produces a superabundance of energy on the surface of the globe, an energy that living matter receives and accumulates, making maximum use of for growth. This life does as much as possible, extending and spreading itself everywhere, in a teeming explosion. As Bataille says, ‘The history of life on earth is mainly the effect of a wild exuberance; the dominant event is the development of luxury, the production of increasingly burdensome forms of life’. Across the globe, therefore, ‘energy is always in excess’, but the growth of any individual being always has limits. As Bataille explains, ‘The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life’. Excess energy that cannot be used for further growth ‘must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically’.
Refusal to squander is not an option, Bataille argues, for energy cannot accumulate limitlessly, ‘eventually, like a river unto the sea, it is bound to escape us and be lost to us’. The luxury of being and its excess is spent in many ways – by being eaten and consumed by other beings, by the death and decomposition of beings, and by the exertion of sexual reproduction which is always ‘the most that an individual has the strength to accomplish in a given moment’. Human activity is part of this general economy, opening up new spaces, transforming the matter of the world and developing the productive forces, but there is still a limit to its accumulation at which point energy must be spent profitlessly. Hence, Bataille argues, the general flow of forces of forces is part of our being and project: man’s activities are destined ‘in a privileged way, to the glorious operation, to useless consumption’.
The ‘useless consumption’ of our energies is, therefore, part of our being. It is only a ‘waste’ of time and energy within the most restricted and restrictive viewpoint – that of Neo-Liberal political economy, where all existence and effort must be productive; that is, must create products, value and profits. Bataille’s historical examples of expenditure include the Aztec devotion to sacrifice and the gift-giving and ‘potlatch’ of the Northwest Native Americans, but useless consumption has not been entirely eradicated by the profane world of post-Reformation, industrial capitalism. It survives in certain processes, certain phenomena and certain individuals. Indeed, in turning energies away from the limited world of labour and profit, in wasting time that could be better spent working, in forcing people to respond, in pissing people off and annoying the world, it remains a radical, disruptive force diverting us from the physical and ideological imprisonment by capitalism and its tiny, impoverished vision of what we should be doing.
Andy Kaufman liked wasting people’s time. He also liked eating ice cream. You can watch him do both on Youtube. Mounting the stage of a comedy club he tells the audience he’d like to perform his ‘improvisation’ called ‘eating ice cream’. And that’s what he does. He sits at a table on stage and calls a waitress. She comes onstage and he asks for a menu. They discuss the options and he eventually decides on a single scoop of chocolate ice cream in a soup bowl so he can stir it. As she leaves to fetch it, he sits there silently on stage with the audience watching. When the ice cream arrives he stirs it and eats it. He even brings his own tape with a laughter track on for applause as he eats, then when he’s done he shows the audience the empty bowl, expecting congratulations. Smiling, he gets up and says, ‘Ok, that’s it’. Even today half the video’s audience are angry at wasting 6 minutes watching him: ‘These people are laughing at nothing funny?? What is wrong with them??’, one comment splutters.
It wasn’t a one-off. His ‘sleeping-man’ act involved him climbing into a sleeping bag on stage and going to sleep. Rick Newman, founder of the ‘Catch a Rising Star’ clubs later commented, ‘when he did the sleeping bag, people would get up and walk out of the room. When I would see him setting up the sleeping bag, I’d think, shit, there goes 25% of the audience’. At other times he’d simply read from The Great Gatsby whilst the audience booed or threw dinner rolls at him. As Budd Friedman, founder of the ‘Improv’ wonderfully recalls, ‘The Great Gatsby became a bore at times. I remember once it went on about an hour…’ Of all Andy’s on-stage wind-ups, perhaps his simplest – and most genius – was a 1981 show when he took the stage and started singing ‘a hundred green bottles sitting on a wall’. Ignoring the anguished audience reaction, he performed each ‘bottle’ in a different voice and persona, sometimes fast, sometimes painfully slow. As David Hirshey reports, ‘the people at the tables, who were initially annoyed, now became entranced, then fervid, then frenzied’…. And then, at fourteen bottles of beer, he walked offstage! The result was immediate. They’d come that far, they had to finish the song, they had to have the last bottles of beer: ‘the six remaining people screamed in agony and begged him to finish’. The euphoria was remarkable for everyone. Wasting time could be a transformative experience.
For Andy Kaufman there was no separation between onstage performance and everyday life: the world was a stage and wasting people’s time was something he could do at any time. A friend once watched him wait in a very long queue at an ice-cream parlour. When it was his turn to order he went into his foreign-man character, pretending to be undecided about which flavor he wanted and asking to taste them. The staff were trying to be nice, trying to help this foreign person:
‘Then they started getting impatient because he wouldn’t make up his mind. He began to taste every flavor, one after the other, and the line was getting longer and longer, and people were starting to say things and getting more exasperated. I’m thinking, Enough Andy – cool it or someone’s gonna hit you or something. But at the same time I was amazed by his persistence and conviction.’
He settled on mocha-chip, but of course that was the one flavor they didn’t have: ‘And he never stopped, for twenty minutes, took it to the absolute brink where someone was about to jump on him, and then finally – he chose vanilla. That was it. We left and laughed.’ After twenty minutes trying all the flavors, he chose vanilla! Like I said, Andy liked ice cream.
From one perspective these ideas are difficult to apply to the internet, where everything we do online adds to the power and profits of the technology companies we use: when every click, like, search, page-view, purchase, comment and download adds to the creation of databases collecting and correlating information about us to aid customization, the refinement of products and services and the targeting of advertisements. When our most personal thoughts, fantasies and messages are all integrated into and add value to this system, can we ever claim anything as ‘unproductive’ again? This may be the case, but from another perspective the internet offers many opportunities to steal productive time back from capitalism, to waste productive energies and to sow disorder.
Even something as simple as using the internet is unproductive. Within a few years of Facebook’s creation employers were complaining about workers spending their time on it instead of working. A BBC headline on 11th September 2007 was already warning that ‘Facebook costs businesses dear’, claiming that workers using social media were wasting £130m a year: ‘According to employment law firm Peninsula, 233 million hours are lost every month as a result of employees “wasting time” on social networking’. By November 2012 business liability insurance company BOLT were warning corporate America that time spent on social media was costing US business $1.1bn a week.
In February 2016 NBC claimed that social media were ‘costing us trillions in lost productivity’. Based on the idea that Facebook’s users spent an aggregate of 10.5bn minutes per day on the platform (excluding mobile), they claimed ‘that means people all over the world have spent a collective 55 million years on Facebook since the beginning of 2009.’ If these users had spent their twenty minutes a day on Facebook working instead, NBC argued, they’d have pulled in another $880 a year – ‘That’s almost $900 billion in aggregate hypothetical labor last year’. NBC’s conclusion was surreal: ‘Facebook hit 100 million users at the end of 2008, and according to the calculations above, the social network has occupied enough time to inhibit more than $3 trillion in hypothetical labor since then’. They were complaining about a loss of hypothetical labour hours. In the mind-view of the restricted economy every single second you spend not working is a crime against productivity.
To be fair, the internet has opened up innumerable new ways to waste our time, as exemplified by the entire world of memes. 4Chan, of course, has usually been to blame for these. Sometime in 2005 an anonymous 4Chan user posted a picture of a cat waiting for ‘Caturday’. By 2006 captioned images of cats were becoming known as ‘LOLcats’ and by June 2007 Time magazine published an article on the phenomena, reporting that a Google search for the term brought up 3.3m results. On 11th January 2007 Erik Nakagawa set up the weblog-format website ‘I Can Haz Cheezburger?’, posting an image from the comedy website ‘Something Awful’ of a cat captioned with the now famous question. By May it was receiving 1.5m hits a day.
Since then, NBC would be horrified to learn, many trillions of dollars more in hypothetical labour hours have been lost to the creation of cat memes. ‘Limecat’ dates back to at least 2003, and ‘Happy Cat’ predated his ‘Cheezburger’ fame, but the internet has also made stars of ‘monorail cat’, ‘ceiling cat’, ‘basement cat’, ‘long cat’, ‘hipster cat’, ‘invisible bike cat’, ‘chemistry cat’, ‘business cat’, ‘anxiety cat’, ‘serious cat’, ‘Lenin cat’, ‘stare cat’, ‘eyebrow cat’, ‘NONONONO cat’, ‘OMG cat’, ‘grumpy cat’ and innumerable other felines who have had their own 15minutes of captioned fame. To this we can add ‘Nyan cat’, ‘keyboard cat’ playing us out, ‘basket cats’, ‘cash cats’, ‘cat beards’, ‘cats with tights’, photos of ‘breaded cats’, videos of ‘cats with cucumbers’, and entire websites devoted to ‘Kitlers’ – cats who look like Hitler (sample caption: ‘I can haz Poland’). Even Islamic State got in on the joke in 2014, posting ‘cats of Jihad’ posing with their weapons. Each of these memes have been endlessly reworked, remixed, recaptioned and shared by people who, NBC would claim, had much better things they could have been doing with their time.
Of course, wasting your own time is highly-enjoyable, but, as Andy Kaufman realized, wasting someone else’s too is even better. Memes can also help here, as the bait-and-switch hyperlink mugging of ‘Rockrolling’ illustrates, where unsuspecting victims are famously directed to a video of Rick Astley’s 1987 kitsch hit, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. Satirist and internet-troll David Thorne provides one of the best examples of the pleasures of taking up the actual rather than merely hypothetical labour hours of other people, gaining fame in 2008 as a result of his ‘spider email’. Contacted by Jane Gilles from his bank claiming he is overdrawn by $233.95, he replies:
I do not have any money so am sending you this drawing I did of a spider instead. I value the drawing at $233.95 so trust that this settles the matter.
Jane replies that ‘unfortunately we are unable to accept drawings as payment’ and asks again for the arrears to be settled. To which David asks:
From: David Thorne
Date: Thursday 9 Oct 2008 10.32am
To: Jane Gilles
Subject: Re: Overdue account
Can I have my drawing of a spider back then please.
Prompting the following exchange:
From: Jane Gilles
Date: Thursday 9 Oct 2008 11.42am
To: David Thorne
Subject: Re: Re: Overdue account
You emailed the drawing to me. Do you want me to email it back to you?
Yours sincerely, Jane Gilles
From: David Thorne
Date: Thursday 9 Oct 2008 11.56am
To: Jane Gilles
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Overdue account
Upon receiving the spider back in the next email David queries whether it is in fact the spider he sent as it only has seven legs ‘and I do not feel I would have made such an elementary mistake when I drew it.’ Jane reassures him that it is and asks again for the overdue amount to be paid. David replies:
From: David Thorne
Date: Friday 10 Oct 2008 11.08am
To: Jane Gilles
Subject: Re: Re: Whose spider is that?
Hello, I am back and have read through your emails and accept that despite missing a leg, that drawing of a spider may indeed be the one I sent you. I realise with hindsight that it is possible you rejected the drawing of a spider due to this obvious limb ommission but did not point it out in an effort to avoid hurting my feelings. As such, I am sending you a revised drawing with the correct number of legs as full payment for any amount outstanding. I trust this will bring the matter to a conclusion.
Jane repeats that the bank are unable to accept drawings as payment, which David accepts, saying it was silly of him to assume he could give her something of no value whatsoever, waste her time and attach such a large value to it. As his second spider drawing has not been accepted as payment, he also asks for it back. The exchange ends silently:
From: Jane Gilles
Date: Tuesday 14 Oct 2008 11.18am
To: David Thorne
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Whose spider is that?
If, as Western Marxist thinkers argue, one of the defining features of 20th century capitalism was its extension through and permeation into every aspect of everyday life, colonizing our leisure-time and turning non-work time into opportunities for alienated consumption and profit, then, in theory, wasting people’s leisure time could also be justified as an assault on political economy. Even if it can’t, it can still be fun, as ‘the saga of Bloodninja’ shows.
Though there’s some dispute over who created the chat logs – the website Fugly.com lays claim to them – the conversations between ‘Bloodninja’ and numerous victims have become one of the most famous examples of the joys and the art – of trolling. Possibly created during the 1990s, the logs were posted in 2002 on the quote database Bash.org. In each case Bloodninja confuses, frustrates and infuriates his victim to superb effect. His ‘I put on my robe and wizard hat’ is his most famous log, becoming a meme in its own right:
Bloodninja: Baby, I been havin a tough night so treat me nice aight?
Bloodninja: Slip out of those pants baby, yeah.
BritneySpears14: I slip out of my pants, just for you, Bloodninja.
Bloodninja: Oh yeah, alright. Alright, I put on my robe and wizard hat.
BritneySpears14: Oh, I like to play dress up.
Bloodninja: Me too baby.
BritneySpears14: I kiss you softly on your chest.
Bloodninja: I cast Lvl 3 Eroticism. You turn into a real beautiful woman.
Bloodninja: I meditate to regain my mana, before casting Lvl 8 Penis of the Infinite.
BritneySpears14: Funny I still don’t see it.
Bloodninja: I spend my mana reserves to cast Mighty of the Beyondness.
BritneySpears14: You are the worst cyber partner ever. This is ridiculous.
Bloodninja: Don’t f**k with me biznitch, I’m the mightiest sorcerer of the lands.
Bloodninja: I steal yo soul and cast Lightning Lvl 1,000,000 Your body explodes into a fine bloody mist, because you are only a Lvl 2 Druid.
BritneySpears14: Don’t ever message me again you piece.
Bloodninja: Robots are trying to drill my brain but my lightning shield inflicts DOA attack, leaving the robots as flaming piles of metal.
Bloodninja: King Arthur congratulates me for destroying Dr. Robotnik’s evil army of Robot Socialist Republics. The cold war ends. Reagan steals my accomplishments and makes like it was cause of him.
Bloodninja: You still there baby? I think it’s getting hard now.
Bloodninja plays with the form of the chatroom. In a situation where words create the reality, he decides he is a rhino:
Bloodninja: Ok baby, we got to hurry, I don’t know how long I can keep it ready for you.
j_gurli13: thats ok. ok i’m a japanese schoolgirl, what r u.
Bloodninja: A Rhinocerus. Well, hung like one, thats for sure.
j_gurli13: haha, ok lets go.
j_gurli13: i put my hand through ur hair, and kiss u on the neck.
Bloodninja: I stomp the ground, and snort, to alert you that you are in my breeding territory.
j_gurli13: haha, ok, u know that turns me on.
j_gurli13: i start unbuttoning ur shirt.
Bloodninja: Rhinoceruses don’t wear shirts.
j_gurli13: No, ur not really a Rhinocerus silly, it’s just part of the game.
Bloodninja: Rhinoceruses don’t play games. They f**king charge your ass.
j_gurli13: stop, cmon be serious.
Bloodninja: It doesn’t get any more serious than a Rhinocerus about to charge your ass.
Bloodninja: I stomp my feet, the dust stirs around my tough skinned feet.
j_gurli13: thats it.
Bloodninja: Nostrils flaring, I lower my head. My horn, like some phallic symbol of my potent virility, is the last thing you see as skulls collide and mine remains the victor. You are now a bloody red ragdoll suspended in the air on my mighty horn.
Bloodninja: F**k am I hard now.
Perhaps the pinnacle of his sexual trolling is when he fails sexually. In a form in which every sexual encounter is perfect, in which anything one wants to do can simply be imagined and described, he describes a disastrous encounter:
Wellhung: Now I’m unbuttoning your blouse. My hands are trembling.
Sweetheart: I’m moaning softly.
Wellhung: I’m taking hold of your blouse and sliding it off slowly.
Sweetheart: I’m throwing my head back in pleasure. The cool silk slides off my warm skin. I’m rubbing your bulge faster, pulling and rubbing.
Wellhung: My hand suddenly jerks spastically and accidentally rips a hole in your blouse. I’m sorry.
Sweetheart: That’s OK, it wasn’t really too expensive.
Wellhung: I’ll pay for it.
Sweetheart: Don’t worry about it. I’m wearing a lacy black bra. My soft breasts are rising and falling, as I breath harder and harder.
Wellhung: I’m fumbling with the clasp on your bra. I think it’s stuck. Do you have any scissors?
Sweetheart: I take your hand and kiss it softly. I’m reaching back undoing the clasp. The bra slides off my body. The air caresses my breasts. My nipples are erect for you.
Wellhung: How did you do that? I’m picking up the bra and inspecting the clasp.
Sweetheart: I’m arching my back. Oh baby. I just want to feel your tongue all over me.
Wellhung: I’m dropping the bra. Now I’m licking your, you know, breasts. They’re neat!
Sweetheart: I’m running my fingers through your hair. Now I’m nibbling your ear.
Wellhung: I suddenly sneeze. Your breasts are covered with spit and phlegm.
Wellhung: I’m so sorry. Really.
Sweetheart: I’m wiping your phlegm off my breasts with the remains of my blouse.
Wellhung: I’m taking the sopping wet blouse from you. I drop it with a plop.
Sweetheart: OK. I’m pulling your sweat pants down and rubbing your hard tool.
Wellhung: I’m screaming like a woman. Your hands are cold! Yeeee!
When he finally appears ready to clinch the deal, with ‘Sweetheart’ saying, ‘I can’t stand it another second! Slide in! Screw me now!’ he announces he’s got a problem: ‘I’m flaccid’. ‘What?’ says ’Sweetheart’. ‘I’m limp. I can’t sustain an erection’.
Bloodninja wastes Sweetheart’s time but he doesn’t waste ours. Like Kaufman and Thorne he shows us that both hypothetical labour hours and actual labour hours are all worth wasting. Indeed, anything we can define in relation to productive time and effort is worth wasting. In contrast to time spent writing work emails, reading work emails, answering or deleting work emails and time spent taking work seriously, time spent being deliberately, gloriously, deliriously unproductive and even spent forcing others to follow too, can be among the most human experiences we have. As Bataille said, ‘man is the most suited of all living beings to consume intensely, sumptuously, the excess energy offered up by the presence of life to conflagrations befitting the solar origins of its movement’. Even grumpy cat might agree.