Inter-repulsion in Documents’ big toes

Olivier Chow


In this paper we shall explore desire from the perspective of transgression and to be precise, desire generated by the transgressive space born from the oscillation between attraction and repulsion, or what the French surrealist Georges Bataille named ‘inter-repulsion'. We shall argue that the ultimate object of inter-repulsion is death itself and as such, inter-repulsion brings forth not only the subject and its discontents but also the social with its taboos and prohibitions. Inter-repulsion will be discussed in relation to the visual culture of Documents , a dissident and short-lived surrealist journal (1929-1930) that has recently come back to life at the Hayward in the exhibition “Undercover Surrealism.” [1] One of the pièces maîtresses in the main hall of the exhibition is a photograph by Jean-Jacques Boiffard, the most prominent photographer of the journal: a photograph of a magnified big toe around which our discussion will centre. This photograph has become an emblem for a surrealism that has done away with the ‘marvellous' – which it literally shat on – and that has shamelessly promoted the ‘low' ( bassesse ) and the ordure : the surrealism of Georges Bataille which opposed the impossible of the real to Breton's possible of the imagination. The big toes had a task – for Bataille, words and images always had to do something: to bring forth through the sensations of visceral reactions and gut feelings what had remained hidden and repressed. The object of repression staged in Documents was a desire rooted in death. Thus we shall argue that inter-repulsion creates a pornography of death since it shows us our darkest and most obscene object of desire. Our discussion will be divided into two sections: first we shall explore the big toe as ‘idol', second as ‘ ordure '.

Documents was initially intended as a scientific review, albeit one with a unique and innovative twist. It brought together high and popular art ( beaux arts and variétés ), archaeology and ethnographic art. Documents' ambiguous mission statement already contained the seeds of its undoing: “the most provoking as yet unclassified works of art and certain unusual productions, neglected until now, will be the object of studies as rigorous and scientific as those of archaeologists”. As soon as issue four, the provocative, disturbing and frankly monstrous became the focus of the journal and it quickly became a war machine against surrealism: “Documents made clear what surrealism was not; what, under the aegis of Breton, it could not be.” [2] It would be “the abscess burst each month from surrealism.” [3] Documents elaborated a common theoretical front against positivism and idealism reducing all images and objects (dead animals, big toes, abattoirs, ancient coins, high and ‘primitive art') to document status. It promoted a fragmenting, magnifying and anti-aesthetic gaze on the world, privileging the monstrous and corporeal. Facts from ethnography, faits divers and variétés , religion and culture, were artificially ‘planted' in order to anchor images and discourse in a reality that was both familiar and yet complete fantasy and fabrication. This mock reality was largely one of distortion and pastiche; a distortion that was also applied to constituted forms (mainly the human body and its architecture). Here the positivism of factual documentation, like the body itself, was perversely subverted: reality was deformed and this was placed in the service of sensations such as vertigo and disgust. The ‘facts' that were revealed were closer to what Francis Bacon understood as facts: a brutal revelation of a hidden truth about the human condition. These were inseparable from the brutal sensations they imposed on the viewer. These visceral facts, or ‘visual instincts', fashioned a new and powerful reality where differences between a subject and object were brutally collapsed. This is the sensational reality that the big toes managed to bring about, or in the words of Bataille: “a return to reality…means that one is seduced in a base manner, without transpositions and to the point of screaming, opening his eyes wide: opening them wide, then, before a big toe.” [4] Inter-repulsion inaugurates a brutal return to sensation – not pleasant sensations, rather as we shall demonstrate, sensations of death.

Jacques-André Boiffard's ‘Big Toes' were published in Documents number 6, 1929, with a text by Bataille titled ‘ Le Gros Orteil '. The two male big toes that appeared here are actually part of a series. Altogether there are three (two male and one female), a sort of “friendly trinity.” [5] The chiaroscuro isolates the toe from the body, providing it with a fetishistic and almost godly aura. Whereas most of the other photographs published in the journal were usually juxtaposed together in a sort of montage that reminded the viewer of the random and haphazard juxtapositions of a newspaper, the big toes stand alone in the magazine, occupying a full page. The visual brutality of the big toes and the mocking tone of the text that accompany the image, are typical of Documents : the provocative and almost ethnographic enterprise on the big toes was not dissimilar to the exploration of eccentric artistic productions, exotic cultures, sacrificial rituals and dismissed historical periods that defined Documents' anthropological realm.

In his “ Gros Orteil ”, Bataille describes how feet, for some individuals, are sexually charged. Here Bataille cites the example of the Count of Villamediana who burnt a house in order to carry the queen and stroke her feet or foreign cultures like China where the feet of women are both deformed and venerated. As a fetish, feet and toes are abstracted from the body and turned into independent wholes charged with desire: idols. We shall name these idolised fragments of the body, ‘part-objects' – a term that designs parts of the body, real or fantasised (penis, breast, food, faeces, toes, et cetera) invested with desire. The destiny of part-objects or ‘ érotique combinatoire ' [6] to use Roland Barthes' expression, was one of Bataille's favourite anthropological and symbolic explorations. Part-objects are celebrated in Bataille's pornographic novels from Histoire de l'Oeil to Madame Edwarda . In Bataille's Histoire de l'Oeil , the eye is set within a symbolic matrix and a system of correspondences. Histoire de l'Oeil , as Roland Barthes noted, is really the history of an object, its migration and metamorphosis into its symbolic equivalents. Every metamorphosis is like a new station within the migration of the object/organ. The part-object is recited throughout the novel (eye, sun, egg, and their respective seminal liquids), revealing the humid substance of a round phallicism. In Madame Edwarda , Madame Edwarda asks the narrator if he wants to sees her ‘ vilaines guenilles '. She exposes her ‘old rags', a source of anxious fascination. From within these revolting guenilles emanates a dirty gaze that stares at the narrator like a Medusean ‘ pieuvre répugnante' . When the narrator asks her why she does this, she tells him: “Tu vois…je suis DIEU”. [7] In Madame Edwarda , God is a genital revelation. Madame Edwarda's ‘gazing beast' is god-like: totemic and sovereign. The big toe photographed by Boiffard is also staged like a genital, repugnant and sovereign creature.

Binet's seminal essay on fetishism, Le Fétichisme dans l'Amour (1887) was well known to Bataille. It dedicated a few pages to the account of various forms of fetishism related to inanimate objects or fractions of the body, real or symbolic such as hand, feet, hair, eye, voice and smell. Binet combines his theory of fetishism as a sexual perversion with the aesthetics of fetishism. According to Binet, fetishism tends to detach and isolate the part-object from the person to which it belongs. The fetishist tends to transform this part-object into an independent whole. The part-object is thus an abstraction according to Binet. This tendency towards abstraction is also supplemented by a tendency towards generalisation: the cult of the fetishist is not oriented towards a part-object belonging to one specific person. On the contrary, the part-object stands for a sort of genre or ‘monotheism' to use Binet's expression that is not attached to one individual specifically but to one abstracted fragment. Finally, Binet observes that there is a tendency towards exaggeration: the volume or the importance of the part-object is enhanced.

Jacques-André Boiffard, Big Toe, feminine subject, twenty-four years old , Documents, No6, 1929

Jacques-André Boiffard, Big Toe, masculine subject, thirty years old , Documents, No6, 1929

Jacques-André Boiffard, Big Toe, masculine subject, thirty years old , Documents, No6, 1929

The fetishistic photographic process confers the big toe with a new status as part-object ready to be mapped out by desire and sexualised. The big toe's sexual persona is here evidently exposed as obscene. Boiffard has mimicked the fetishist gaze observed by Binet. The toes are isolated from their bodies, fragmented, enlarged, staged and dramatised. The magnified, blown-up toes seem impossibly real: ugly, hairy, genital-like. We are literally put face to face with their excessive and nauseous reality. The photographs are cropped, the angle imposes a violent deformation on the toe – they are upside down, brought down if such an operation were possible. It is a portrait that transgresses and subverts the very idea of what a portrait should be: the highest and most noble part of the body has been thrown away and transformed into a grotesque, absurd and scandalous ‘other face'.

The framing of the toe is an act of violence set against the human figure. Bataille's text refers to material and visual operations of abuse and violence such as “deformation”, “infection”, “tortures”, “pain”, “brutal”. Those forces that deform the human figure are violent forces that Bataille equates with forces of entropy and decomposition, such as those that attack the corpse. The deformation or “alteration” of the human figure was an essential strategy in Bataillean aesthetics: “the word alteration provides the double advantage of expressing a partial decomposition similar to that of corpses and at the same time the expression of the passage to a perfectly heterogeneous state that the protestant professor Otto named the ‘wholly other', that is the sacred.” [8]

In his classic study of the Holy, the German theologian, philosopher and historian of religions Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), situates the sacred in relation to an a priori emotional structure, the numinosum . In the experience of the numinous, the subject experiences a feeling of intimate dependence towards a higher and independent force. The experience of the “wholly other” [9]: is what Otto describes as “creature-consciousness”. This “creature-feeling” is “the emotion of a creature, abased and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.” [10] This experience is fundamentally ambivalent, a mélange of attraction and repulsion: this mysterium tremendum is an uncanny experience of awfulness, an awfulness that lies beyond the realm of knowledge, producing a feeling of peculiar dread, a “terror fraught with inward shuddering.” [11] The big toes reek of these creepy “creature feelings”.

Boiffard has also captured the fetish's destiny as fixation. William Pietz, one of the leading commentators on fetishism, defines the fetish in the following terms: “The fetish is always a meaningful fixation of a singular event; it is above all a ‘historical' object, the enduring material form and force of an unrepeatable event.” [12] This unrepeatable and traumatic event could be rooted in early childhood beliefs and complexes. Freud and psychoanalysis argue fetishism is linked to the experience of shock that comes about once the absence of a maternal penis is revealed. The fetish becomes a substitute for the penis and a disavowal of that lack. The captions for this big toe could be: “it is not really gone as long as I'm here”. The body as site of revelation of the phallus was a common surrealist visual strategy. One of its most famous expressions is Man Ray's anatomies (1930). The idea behind that specific visual operation was to de-territorialise bodies, rendering them polymorphously perverse and ‘genital' by liberating desire from the conventional and limiting mappings of the erogenous zones.

Jacques-André Boiffard, Untitled , Article “Le Caput Mortuum ou la Femme
de l'Alchimiste », Documents, 1930, No8

We are now going to discuss another famous image of Documents by Boiffard where the body turns into phallus: his untitled image that features a mask by W.B. Seabrook. Michel Leiris in his “Le Caput Mortuum ou la Femme de la l'Alchimiste” published in Documents in 1931, discusses the photograph portraying a woman wearing a mask. The image brings forth both fetishistic memories of desire (sado-masochistic fantasies) and mystic possibilities of religious revelation (could that mask be the face of God, Leiris wonders). For Leiris, a mask can thus open up to desire and the sacred: the mask opens towards what is both foreign and intimate within us. What the mask manages in true fetishistic form is to abstract and concentrate body parts – making them more as well as less real, that is, schematic. Boiffard's woman becomes more mysterious but also more threatening as her features are disguised by her second leather skin. The woman becomes an abstraction, a generality, a thing or essence (“ chose-en-soi ”). Her severity is tinged with suffering, appealing to our sadism as Leiris argues: “in addition to suffering under the leather skin, being subjected and mortified (which satisfies our will to power and our fundamental cruelty), her head – sign of her intelligence and individuality – is insulted and negated.” [13]Her mouth is reduced to a wound and her body transgressed: the body is naked and the face is masked, an obscene and forced inversion that associates violence to desire. The figure of the woman is profoundly ambiguous and can be seen as either a perpetrator (“ bourreau ”) or a beheaded queen (“ reine décapitée ”).

We have now witnessed the uncanny connection between desire and death. This connection is also active in the photographs of big toes. Boiffard restitution of the lost phallus has only been possible through the castrating use of picture cropping that has separated the toe from the foot. The sight of these big toes is not very comforting: on the contrary they signify pain, mutilation and danger. The big toe is a monument to castration: the nail suggests endless cuttings, a ‘thousand cuts'. Through the nail, the most sensitive parts of the body, the big toe inaugurates a logic of extreme sensation. Because of its acute sensitivity, the big toe becomes a site of phobia like the eye in Documents . As Bataille explains in his paper dedicated to the eye:

It is known that civilised man is characterised by an often inexplicable acuity of horror. The fear of insects is no doubt one of the most singular and most developed of these horrors as is, one is surprised to note, the fear of the eye…the eye could be related to the cutting edge, whose appearance provokes bitter and contradictory reactions…For the eye – as Stevenson exquisitely puts it, a cannibal delicacy – is, on our part, the object of such anxiety that we will never bite into it. [14]

The phobia associated with the sensitivity of the big toe and its nail enhances its capacity for seduction to the boundaries of horror. Torture practices all over the world pay special tribute to the eyes and nails of their victims which both become delicacies for the perpetrators.

Desire and torture occupy the same unruly space: the body – as we have seen with the Caput Mortuum . In Bataille, torture and jouissance are somewhat confused. As sensational realities, they both occupy extreme positions and as Bataille noted in his Expérience Intérieure “in the extreme of the possible, everything collapses.” [15] There is a sort of equivalence and identity within excess: pain can be transformed into jouissance and jouissance can lead back into pain in the same way as the masked woman can oscillate between positions of perpetrator and victim. Such sensational realities occupy a liminal and borderline space where differences are suspended. This will appear more clearly through the discussion of another image that belongs to the Bataillean visual pantheon: the image of the death by a thousand cuts.

Death by a Thousand Cuts
, anonymous, 1904

Bataille was haunted by a picture his psychoanalyst, Borel, gave him circa 1925. He writes: “this photograph had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed with this image of pain, at the same time ecstatic and intolerable.” [16] The picture was taken in 1904 and is known in French as “ cent morceaux ” or in English “death by a thousand cuts”: it depicts the Chinese practice of cutting the living body of a criminal into many parts and slowly dismembering it ( ling chi ). The arms, legs, penis and breasts are slowly cut off by a set of different knives, leaving the head and the upper body intact. Here again, the body is turned into a phallus or what Rosalind Kraus understood as “construction as dismemberment” [17]. The body of the unknown young criminal [18] becomes the most atrocious site of desire imaginable. The victims of this torture practice were reportedly drugged with opium so they could endure their ordeal as long as possible. The ordeal of the lingchi victim is both fascinating and repellent: the dishevelled transformed body is mutilated, an open wound that contrasts with a soft gaze of impossible ecstasy. His gaze could be shock-induced: this almost sublime expression of pure horror is an extreme vision of transcendence and shock, a “grimace of the real”. And by contemplating and meditating on the horror of this grimacing body, Bataille managed to get a glimpse of “the most anguishing of worlds accessible” [19] and reach ecstasy:

Much later, in 1938, a friend initiated me into the practice of yoga. It was on this occasion that I discerned, in the violence of this image, an infinite capacity for reversal. Through this violence – even today I cannot imagine a more insane, more shocking form – I was so stunned that I reached the point of ecstasy. My purpose is to illustrate a fundamental connection between religious ecstasy and eroticism – and particular sadism. From the most unspeakable to the most elevated. [20]

Clearly it now appears that desire for Bataille is not anchored in attraction but in repulsion. Desire, horror and the sacred are intimately connected within the mappings, wounds and openings of the body. The repugnant offers both a force of repulsion and attraction: “every horror conceals a possibility of enticement.” [21] As Bataille tells us in the Language des Fleurs “love smells like death.” [22] This stench of death is what emanates from the big toes: symbolically they smell like shit, that is, of death. Freud had actually argued that there was a link between the enjoyment attached to coprophilic smelling (the smell of excrements) and foot fetishism: at the root of foot fetishism lies a pleasure derived from the smelliest and dirtiest feet.

In inter-repulsion, there is thus a double movement of negation and return: “the first aspect of the movement is rejection: the whole is developed only when that which was denied to the point of nausea, which held an ambiguous value, is remembered as desirable.” [23] Desire becomes more intense as it overcomes resistance: resistance assures desire's authenticity and gives it additional force: “If our desire had not had so much difficulty overcoming our undeniable repugnance we would not have thought it so strong, we would not have seen in its object that which was capable of inciting desire to such a degree.” [24] Inter-repulsion turns reality into a violent convulsion, a spasm. The sight of a gigantic big toe makes us gag and it is this very spasm of rejection that, paradoxically, stands as a token of desire.

This fetishistic colouring of desire is extended to the community at large, through notions of taboo and prohibition – that is the Law. In Bataille, what brings people together, what federates a community is not attraction but repulsion. For Bataille, human inter-attraction is always charged with violence and horror. Unmediated human relations are vulgar and disgusting, as demonstrated by the intrinsic ugliness of the sexual organs. Human beings are bound by this common disgust that is both reaffirmed and overcome in the sexual act. Death, like sex, is marked by repulsion: in Bataille, the naked body ( mise-à-nu ) is always equated with the dead body ( mise-à-mort ). Attraction-repulsion is what underlies our attitude towards taboo:

… the social kernel is indeed taboo, that is untouchable and unspeakable, it partakes essentially to the realm of corpses, menstrual blood and pariahs. The various types of waste only represent in relation to such a reality a decrease in the intensity of repulsion: they are not entirely untouchable, neither entirely unspeakable. Everything leads us to believe that our earliest ancestors were united in a common disgust and terror, an insurmountable horror pertaining precisely to what initially had been the main attraction of their union. [25]

Bataille had carefully read Otto's phenomenology of the sacred previously discussed and also Freud's Totem and Taboo . Freud like Otto traces emotional ambivalence back to the sacred or what he refers to in his study as “taboo”. Freud understands taboo , a Polynesian word, as the equivalent of the ‘sacred' [26] conveying a constellation of wide-ranging and sometimes conflicting meanings such as consecrated, uncanny, dangerous, forbidden and unclean, like feet or big toes. Tabooed objects generate complex feelings of both veneration and horror. Taboo suggests something unapproachable, marked by prohibitions and restrictions, something archaic of unknown origins: “persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of a tremendous power which is transmissible by contact, and may be liberated with destructive effect if the organisms which provoke its discharge are too weak to resist it.” [27] As Freud also argues, taboos always carry with them transgression which is naturally attached to taboos since taboos concern the most powerful human longings and desires (incest and murder):

Taboo is a primaeval prohibition forcibly imposed (by some authority) from outside, and directed against the most powerful longings to which human beings are subject. The desire to violate it persists in their unconscious; those who obey the taboo have an ambivalent attitude to what the taboo prohibits. The magical power that is attributed to taboo is based on the capacity for arousing temptation; and it acts like a contagion because examples are contagious and because the prohibited desire in the unconscious shifts from one thing to another. The fact that the violation of a taboo can be atoned for by a renunciation lies at the basis of obedience to taboo. [28]

Freud discusses touching phobia or délire du toucher as an example of an ambivalent compulsion towards transgression, one laced with horror: the phobic constantly wishes to perform an act that horrifies him as well. This splitting of experience between attraction and repulsion reflects some of our attitudes towards what is low and regressive: that is towards waste, especially bodily waste.

The notion of waste bring us to the ordure . The ordure emerges from within Bataille's text. Bataille's Le Gros Orteil is structured by violent polarities of high and low: a dualism between the ideal and the ordure, man and animal, queen and thug. The world of idealism is captured by words such as ‘elevation', ‘erection', ‘heaven', ‘light', ‘ideal beauty', ‘modesty', ‘majesty', ‘dignity', ‘grandeurs', and ‘monument'. Idealism is opposed by an underworld defined in such terms as ‘hell', ‘spit', ‘mud', ‘darkness', ‘refuse' [29], ‘base', ‘nauseating filthiness', ‘indecent', ‘monstrous', and ‘ugliness'. Bataille's dualism, as Denis Hollier explains is “an attitude of thought: dualism is not a dualist system, but a will to dualism, a resistance to system and homogeneity.” [30] This never resolved dualism is not static one. This produces a jeu in the sense of oscillation, movement and interplay: “the play of fantasies and fear, of human necessities and aberrations.” [31] It is a setting in motion, a violent thrust, and here lies its positive “throbbing” affirmation rather than its end. Bataille's dualism operates a “ glissement ” or slippage towards the low. This movement is death driven as Bataille tells us in Le Gros Orteil:

Since by its physical attitude the human race distances itself as much as it can from terrestrial mud – whereas a spasmodic laugh carries joy to its summit each time its purest flight lands man's own arrogance spread-eagle in the mud – one can imagine that a toe, always more or less damaged and humiliating, is psychologically analogous to the brutal fall of a man – in other words to death. [32]

Bassesse like the informe is not just a word but a task that has to be performed: “A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus informe is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down [33] in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form.” [34] This task of ‘bringing down' is never accomplished and never-ending. It is an incessant and repetitious process of transformation and metamorphosis of the homogenous (what is formed and complete) into the heterogeneous and of the heterogeneous into the increasingly heterogeneous. As heterogenous, Bataille understands everything that is treated by society as a corps étranger , a foreign body: “the notion of the (heterogeneous) foreign body permits one to note the elementary subjective identity between types of excrement (sperm, menstrual blood, urine, faeces) and everything that can be seen as sacred, divine, or marvellous.” [35] The ordure is always sacred because the sacred and the abject both signal danger and rejection. The part-object in Bataille thus always has the double status of idol/ ordure : it is highly charged with desire but also with horror. As Yves-Alain Bois summarises: “God is only sacred on the same basis as shit.” [36]

The big toe is framed as a corps étranger – intimate yet foreign – like waste. Rooted in the earth and stained with mud, they cannot be redeemed: they are physiological ordures and produce nails/waste. Bataille associates the big toes with the world of refuse, symbolised in his paper by the mud that sticks to humanity's dirty feet, despite its desperate attempts to shake it off. Waste is what has been thrown away and what has fallen off the subject. The French word for waste, “ déchet ”, implies la “ chute ”, the fall. Bodily wastes are abject: altered, deformed, smelly, dirty particles that have emanated and fallen off the body, such as nail clippings to which the big toes refer to. Bodily waste reminds us of our carnal origins of which we are so ashamed of. As Saint Augustine once famously said inter faeces et urinam nascimur, we are born between faeces and urine. This is where the big toes obstinately point towards, the intimate region where waste and jouissance mingle in an obscene and faecal orgy. The abject and the obscene are only inches apart, inseparable. The abject thus opens up a pornographic space that lies, as Saint Augustine noted, not in the reproductive or excretory parts themselves but in their proximity and confusion. These body parts are caught in a symbolic exchange marked by horror. Bodily waste ultimately refers to the decay of the corpse animated by violent forces of decomposition. The corpse, ‘ cadavre ' in French, shares the same etymological roots as waste and fall. Every turd and every nail clipping is a sad reminder of our ultimate demise.

The phénomenologie ordurière of the big toes based on inter-repulsion, fall and vertigo is very similar to that of the abject theorised by Julia Kristeva in her Powers of Horror . Kristeva's abject is what opposes “I”. Its cruel existence is a permanent threat to ours: it labours negatively. Its poisonous contact can be deadly. It signifies danger. As such, it alludes to the constant threat of enemy attack; poisonous, it makes our bodies contort in disgust, threatening our borders with an unwanted intimacy, a poisonous embrace, like the unwanted stickiness of slime or the smell of shit. In the presence of the abject, our borders are heightened but blurred, under permanent attack from a formless enemy that seems both intimate and alien. Base but edged with the sublime, its transcendence lies in its negation of all things known, a material nihilism that only accentuates its own pure materiality. The abject has a form and a texture but it eludes comprehension as such: it is non-knowledge because heterogeneous and base matter is never an answer, always a question. It oscillates between being and non-being, transgressive, refusing to respect borders and boundaries. It is forever alien: wholly other. Yet it bears an intimate connection with the subject. Its baseness lies in its incapacity to be fixed, idealised: always slipping away, slimy. The becoming of the abject is always decaying and subject to entropy. Entropy is a cruel sinking and spoiling operation against matter and constituted forms: entropy celebrates decay, disorder and death.

‘Abject', ‘ jeté' [37], ‘ rejeté' [38], ‘ déchet' [39], ‘ déchu' [40], ‘ chuté' [41], ‘ parachuté' [42], ‘ choir' [43], Kristeva's entire discourse revolves around the leitmotif of two Latin verbs that structure “ Pouvoirs de l'Horreur ”: abicere and cadere , throw away and fall off. In Kristeva, the subject's relation to the abject is based on a movement of expulsion, fall and attraction, a permanent oscillation that provokes visceral reactions within the subject (vomiting, retching): in other words, a vertiginous slippage that creates a sort of motion sickness or vertigo. In vertigo, “fear does not paralyze but increases an involuntary desire to fall.” [44] This vertigo is suggested in Le Gros Orteil by the heels of “greater or lesser height” [45]. The intimacy of the big toe brings forth an abysmal and nauseous closeness which leads to an instant fall: “the summit of elevation is in practice confused with a sudden fall of unheard-of violence.” [46] Idol/ ordure , elevation/ chute : inter-repulsion generates a permanent “raging” movement from high to low: “human life entails, in fact, the rage of seeing oneself as a back and forth movement from refuse [47] to ideal, and from ideal to refuse.” [48]

We shall now argue that there is something grotesque and Rabelaisian about the big toe. The big toe, as Bataille, insisted is inseparable from the muddy and dirty ground in which it revels. In Le Gros Orteil , Bataille makes references to the ‘grotesque', ‘burlesque', ‘hilarity': “The hideously cadaverous and at the same time loud and proud appearance of the big toe corresponds to this derision and gives a very shrill expression to the disorder of the human body, that product of the violent discord of the organs.” [49] Bataille's approach to the body, which privileges laughter, death, disorder, organic life in Le Gros Orteil and in Documents in general is analogous to what Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, inspired by Bakhtin's work on Rabelais, have named the “carnivalesque” [50].

The Russian literary critic Bakhtin understood the carnival as a ritual suspension, inversion and transgression that operated a critique of high culture and its norms and values. Carnivals are feasts of becoming, change and renewal. As such, they are hostile towards all that is immortalized and complete. In the world of excess that is the carnival, limits are shattered, all is “mixed, hybrid, ritually degraded and defiled.” [51] It is a vulgar and earthly world filled with animal laughter “that asserts and denies…buries and revives.” [52] Carnivals, festivals and orgies celebrate the temporary liberation and suspension from the prevailing established order of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norm and prohibitions. This is exactly what the big toe inaugurates: a transgression that not only suspends the established order but also performs a critique of that order – as we have seen with Bataille's anti-idealism. The big toe is not only low but also low class and populaire .

In Bataille, the carnivalesque is an earthly pleasure of the people, tainted by a sort of religious fascination, a source of wonder. In his discussion of teratology Les Ecarts de la Nature : “the world of going to see the ‘freaks' is today seen as a carnival pleasure…In the sixteenth century a kind of religious curiosity, due in part of living at the mercy of the most terrible scourges, was still mixed with curious silliness.” [53] The big toe is ‘freakish' because of its capacity for low seduction: “a ‘freak' in any given fair provokes a positive impression of aggressive incongruity, a little comic, but much more a source of malaise. This malaise is, in an obscure way, tied to a profound seductiveness.” [54] If the big toe makes us laugh, this laugh originates from the friction of pleasure and pain. Laughter “is the sign of a compromise adopted by man in presence of something that is repellent without being too serious.” [55]

In Le Gros Orteil , Bataille emphasises the organic, instinctual aspects of the body that defy and subvert the humanity of the civilised body. The unruly organs as well as the body's capacity for sensation betray any idealistic endeavour. One cannot escape the reality of one's body and the vicissitude of the organs. They immediately bring us back to our animality and root us in the painful reality of sensation:

The vicissitude of organs, the profusion of stomachs, larynxes, and brains traversing innumerable animal species and individuals, carries the imagination along in an ebb and flow it does not willingly follow, due to a hatred of the still painfully perceptible frenzy of the bloody palpitations of the body. Man willingly imagines himself to be like god Neptune, stilling his own waves, with majesty; nevertheless, the bellowing waves of the viscera, in more or less incessant inflation and upheaval, brusquely puts an end to his dignity. Blind, but tranquil and strangely despising his obscure baseness, a given person, ready to call to mind the grandeurs of human history, as when his glance ascends a monument testifying to the grandeurs of his nation, is stopped in mid-flight by an atrocious pain in his big toe because, though the most noble of animals, he nevertheless has corns on his feet; in other words, he has feet, and these feet lead an ignoble life. [56]

The carnivalesque body is an unruly becoming-body, mobile and hybrid, outgrowing itself and transgressing its own limits, obscene, its openings and orifices emphasised (mouth, vagina, anus, nostrils) and the lower parts of the body privileged (belly, buttocks, phallus, feet). Bataille explored orifices and limits of the body in Documents and other papers from the same period [57], such as the mouth, the anus and the pineal eye. Cavities are symbolically very charged and ambivalent: they are associated with desire, anxiety, disgust – like the phallus. The mouth in Bataille begged the question of the limits, beginnings and endings of the body: “The mouth is the beginning or, if one prefers, the prow of animals; in the most characteristic cases, it is the most living part, in other words, the most terrifying for neighbouring animals. But man does not have a simple architecture like beasts, and it is not even possible to say where he begins.” [58] In Bataille, the mouth becomes an obscure and ambiguous cavity where all organs begin and end. It signifies hunger, desire, but also aggression.

Jacques-André Boiffard, Mouth , Documents No5, 1929

The mouth is a hole like the anus: they are both connected. The body for Bataille is a

tube with two orifices, anal and buccal: the nostrils, the eyes, the ears, the brain represent the complications of the buccal orifice; the penis, testicles, or the female organs that correspond to them, are the complications of the anal. In these conditions, the violent thrusts that come from the interior of the body can be indifferently rejected to one extremity or the other. [59] Excretory functions, such as spitting, coughing, yawning, belching, sneezing and crying are thus all forms of excremental discharge. In Sade, discharge is a jouissance through release, an expenditure of energy that is attained by men and women at the moment of climax [60].

Discharge suggests expenditure, catharsis, violence and explosion. Aggressive impulses underlie jouissance and the climax is a moment of absolute violence. In Sade, like in Bataille, expenditure is linked with destruction. To discharge is to destroy the other.

The anus, like the big toes, was a source of low seduction for Bataille. He was fascinated by the excremental beauty of some apes's derrières : the “dazzling brilliance” of their “enormous anal fruit of radial and shit-smeared raw pink meat” which contrasted with the “blossoming of the human face”. The pineal eye or jesuve [61], like the mouth, is an ambiguous orifice created by Bataille in an “excremental fantasy.” [62] This anus is also a “bronze eye” [63] that sits at the top of the head like a “horrible erupting volcano, precisely with the shady and comical character associated with the rear end and its excretions.” [64] The pineal eye, even if it situated on the top of the head and looks towards the sun, is always oriented towards the low: it has a bronze faecal eye. The pineal eye, as solar anus, conflates notions of top and bottom, high and low in an orgiastic confusion. The pineal eye brilliantly captures the space of the abject that lies, as we previously mentioned, in the orgiastic confusion of high and low.

The big toe, like the pineal eye, has a comical character due to its incongruous appearance but its bronze gaze is cold, cruel and excremental, always oriented towards what is low and vile, sadistic: generating a “burlesque faecal spasm.” [65] We are stained by its dirty gaze, like the gaze of Madame Edwarda's vilaines guenilles . Bataille's exploration of part-objects and cavities managed to release and “discharge” the visual instincts of the image – and by instincts, we have to understand the most basic instincts, namely sadism: “art thus proceeds by successive destructions. Inasmuch as it releases libidinal instincts, those are sadistic” [66]. The “sensational reality” created by inter-repulsion opens onto a “pornographic space” that is less about desire, as Susan Sontag justly remarked in her Pornographic Imagination , than about death [67]. In the spectacle of giant toes, we get a vision of death: a grotesque speculum mortis .

The legacy of inter-repulsion – the brutal return to sensation - is still very relevant to contemporary art and practices, even in age of the virtual which has to some extent liquidated the body. The Sensation exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1997 was inscribed within this tradition of sensational realities. There were the Chapman brother's take on Goya's Great Deeds against the Dead (1994) as well as their “fuck-faced” kids whose obscene bodies developed strange metastases of orifices: mouths turning into anuses, noses into penises ( Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model enlarged x 1000 , 1995). Mat Collinshaw's magnified photograph of a bullet hole brought the anatomy of pain into close focus also enabling the viewer to reflect on the painful nature of the orifice ( Bullet Hole , 1988-1993). Marcus Harvey's giant portrait of Myra Hindley, Myra (1995), brought back the haunting memories of the atrocious Moor serial murders where children were tortured to death and their dying sounds served as ‘sex music' for the perpetrators. The fact that the giant portrait had been made by children's desperate handprints only heightened the experience. Mona Hatoum's Deep Throat (1996) echoed Boiffard's picture of an open gaping mouth. Sarah Lucas's Bunny (1997) consisted in an informe doll with fetishised limbs that had the pale off-white skin tone of a corpse. The Royal Academy's floor was also littered with Ron Mueck's Dead Dad (1996-1997), a diminutive reproduction of the artist's father's naked corpse.

One of the most shocking works on display was Damien Hirst's A Thousand Years (1990). Hirst is one of the many contemporary artists preoccupied with the fundamental issues of life and death, with a distinct dark post-modern touch. A Thousand Years staged an actual life cycle which featured the abject: maggots hatched inside a white box, then morphed into flies feeding on sugar and the severed head of a cow. Finally, some of the flies were electrocuted by the insect-o-cutor. The windows of the box were dirty with traces of blood and unknown bodily liquids. The nauseating stench that emanated from the white minimalist box offered the visitor a very real and unmediated smell of death, something the big toes only suggested. The work was displayed at London's Gagosian gallery in a dialogue of sorts with the work of Francis Bacon, who, probably more than anyone else, celebrated sensation through the visceral reality of the human figure's capacity to endure pain and jouissance . In this context Hirst displayed a new production Like Flies Brushed Off A Wall We Fall (2006) a thick and black triptych vivant made of hundreds of dead flies. Flies are like a Bataillean mascot and featured quite prominently in the pages of Documents thanks to Boiffard's famous photographs of flies frozen in an interminable stasis of agony. Flies embodied the purulence of the real. This fascination was famously attacked by Breton who said something like: Mister Bataille likes flies, we don't!

Jacques André Boiffard
Jacques-André Boiffard, Papier Collant et Mouches, Documents No 8, 1930

Bataille and Boiffard through their inter-repulsive investigations were some of the major explorers of this pornography of death but certainly not the last ones. As Sensation and Hirst demonstrate, we are still - and probably will be for the decades to come – obsessed with death and sexuality, especially with their ‘faecal orgy'. It is important to note that death has only recently, that is in the past century, become the object of repression as Geoffrey Gorer, author of the Pornography of Death tells us:

… in the 20 th century, however, there seems to have been an unremarked shift in prudery; whereas copulation has become more and more ‘mentionable'…death has become more and more ‘unmentionable' as a natural process …the natural processes of corruption and decay have become disgusting, as disgusting as the natural processes of birth and copulation were a century ago. [68]

In our ageist era of gyms, super youth and plastic surgery, natural death has become unnatural and obscene while sexuality and violence have become omnipresent and normal. As we expect to live longer, we can no longer tolerate any reminder of the oeuvres naturelles , of what is actually happening within the living body itself. It is totally unacceptable to even contemplate that the seeds of corruption might already be at work within us in the midst of life, in the operations of nature. As Philippe Ariès reminds us, “the worms which devour cadavers do not come from the earth but from within the body, from its natural ‘liquors'”. [69]As the poets of the macabre understood only too well, our bodies are nothing but waste containers with flies hovering about: we are bags of shit. Welcome to the purulence of the real.

Texts Cited

Ariès, Philippe. Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present (London & New York: Marion Boyars, 1974)

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and his World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985)

Barthes, Roland. “La Métaphore de l'Oeil”, Critique , vol. 19, no195-196, 1963

Bataille, Georges. “Attraction et Répulsion I: Tropismes, Sexualité, Rire et Larmes”, Hollier (ed.) Le Collège de Sociologie 1937-1939 (Paris: Gallimard, 1995)

Bataille, Georges, 1938, “Attraction et Répulsion II: La Structure Sociale”, Hollier (ed.) Le Collège de Sociologie 1937-1939 (Paris: Gallimard, 1995)

Bataille, Georges. Madame Edwarda (Paris: 10/18, 1956)

Bataille, Georges. Les Larmes d'Eros (Paris: 10/18, 1961)

Bataille, Georges. Œuvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1970)

Bataille, Georges. Histoire de l'Oeil (Paris: Gallimard, 1979)

Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985)

Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share (New York: Zone Books, 1991)

Bataille, Georges. L'Expérience Intérieure (Paris: Gallimard, 2002)

Binet, Alfred. Le Fétichisme dans l'Amour (Paris: Payot, 2001)

Bois, Yves-Alain & Kraus, Rosalind. Formless: a User's Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997)

Chow, Olivier. “Undercover Surrealism Reviewed”, Drain , 2006

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo (London & New York: Routledge, 2002)

Gorer, Geoffrey, “The Pornography of Death”, Death, Grief and Mourning (London: The Cresset Press, 1965)

Hollier, Denis. “The Dualist Materialism of Georges Bataille”, Botting and Scott (eds.) Bataille: a Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)

Kraus, Rosalind. “Corpus Delicti”, October , vol. 33, Summer 1985

Kristeva, Julia. Pouvoirs de l'Horreur: Essai sur l'Abjection (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980)

Leiris, Michel. “De Bataille l'Impossible à l'Impossible “Documents”, Critique , vol. 19, no 195-196, 1963

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928)

Pietz, William. “The Problem of the Fetish I”, Res , vol. 9, Spring 1985

Sontag, Susan. “The Pornographic Imagination”, Georges Bataille Story of the Eye (London & Boston: Marion Boyars, 1979)

Stallybrass, Peter & White, Allon. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986)

Surya, Michel. Georges Bataille: an Intellectual Biography (London & New York: Verso, 2002)



[1] See review of the exhibition, Chow, 2006
[2] Surya, 2002, 123
[3] Ibid., 118
[4] Bataille, 1985, 23
[5]Gros orteils amis ' tells us Michel Leiris in his paper on Documents ‘De Bataille l'Impossible à l'impossible Documents' published in Critique , 1963
[6] Barthes, 1963, 777
[7] Bataille, 1956, 34
[8] Translated from Georges Bataille, ‘L'art Primitif', in Georges Bataille Oeuvres Complètes Tome I , Gallimard, Paris, 1970, 251
[9]Ganz andere in German
[10] Otto, 1928, 10
[11] Ibid., 14
[12] Pietz, 1985, 12-13
[13] Translated from Leiris, 1992, 39
[14] Bataille, 1985, 17
[15] Translated from Bataille, 2002, 52
[16] Bataille, 1989, 206
[17] Kraus, 1985, 63
[18] According to Jérome Bourgan, a researcher in Lyon in his Bataille et le Supplicié Chinois: Erreurs sur la Personne , the victim was wrongly identified by Bataille and his editor of Tears of Eros Jean-Marie Lo Duca as Fou-Tchou Li, a servant who killed his master, who was also dismembered the same year, at the same place and by the same executioners. The young man in the picture has actually   never been identified.
[19] Bataille, 1989, 205
[20] Ibid., 206
[21] Bataille, 1991, 96
[22] Bataille, 1985, 13
[23] Bataille, 1991, 77
[24] Ibid., 95
[25] Bataille, 1995, 128
[26] Sacred come from the Latin word sacer is in itself extremely ambiguous: it means that which cannot be touched without being polluted but also that which cannot be touched without polluting.
[27] Freud, 2002, 24
[28] Ibid., 40-41
[29] Ordure in the French text.
[30] Denis Hollier, 1998, 62-63
[31] Bataille, 1985, 22
[32] Ibid.
[33] Déclasser in the French text.
[34] Bataille, 1985, 31
[35] Ibid., .94
[36] Bois, 1997, 53
[37] Kristeva, 1980, 15
[38] Ibid., 12
[39] Ibid., 11
[40] Ibid., 13
[41] Ibid., 11
[42] Ibid., 16
[43] Ibid., 9
[44] Bataille, 1991, 100
[45] Bataille, 1985, 21
[46] Ibid., 58
[47] Ordure in the French text.
[48] Bataille, 1985, 21
[49] Ibid.,22
[50] Stallybrass & White, 1986
[51] Ibid., 8
[52] Bakhtin, 1968, 11-12
[53] Bataille, 1985, 53
[54] Ibid., 55
[55] Translated from Bataille, 1956, 12
[56] Bataille, 1985, 22
[57] Collected in Visions of Excess, Selected Writings 1927-1939
[58] Bataille, 1985, 59
[59] Ibid., 88
[60] Climax in French is also known as “ petite mort ”.
[61] A contraction between ‘ je' and ‘ vesuve' , the body as volcano – Stoeckl's interpretation, 259, seems erroneous.
[62] Bataille, 1985, 78
[63] Bronze means ‘turd' in French slang
[64] Bataille, 1985, 74
[65] Ibid., 88
[66] Translated from Bataille, ‘Figure Humaine', in Georges Bataille Oeuvres Complètes Tome I , Gallimard, Paris, 1970, 253
[67] Sontag, 1979, 106
[68] Gorer, 1965, 171-172
[69] Ariès, 1974, 42





Olivier Chow is a former senior protection officer of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and has led investigations on war crimes in Afghanistan, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Macedonia. He is currently finishing a PhD in critical theory at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, working on the theory and visual mediation of cruelty. His main interests concern French theory and in particular the work of Georges Bataille, fetishism, violence, popular culture and tribal arts. He has also worked for UNESCO, Sotheby's and a private collection of surrealist art.


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