Bataille, Veblen and the Instinct of Workmanship

“With more or less sincerity, people currently avow an aversion to useful effort. The avowal does not cover all effort, but only such as is of some use; it is, more particularly, such effort as is vulgarly recognized to be useful labor. Less repugnance is expressed as regards effort which brings gain without giving a product that is of human use, as, for example, the effort that goes into war, politics, or other employments of a similar nature … But in a higher degree than other species, man mentally digests the content of the habits under whose guidance he acts, and appreciates the trend of these habits and propensities. He is in an eminent sense an intelligent agent. By selective necessity he is endowed with a proclivity for purposeful action. He is possessed of a discriminating sense of purpose, by force of which all futility of life or of action is distasteful to him.”

—Veblen, The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor

Thorstein Veblen’s short work “The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor” confronts a sort of paradoxical ambivalence we have toward labor:

On one hand, there’s an overwhelming disinclination toward performing work— specifically the type of work we deem banal, which is most often the utilitarian work that’s directly related to our survival.

On the other hand, there is a persistent tendency toward committing free time and energy to productive work with visible, enduring results. We see this not only in all this “culture” around us but also in the general attraction people have toward measurable usefulness. 

Alternatively, Bataille’s conception of labor in his general economic theory is one in which excess energy that persists beyond the labor of “mere survival” must be wasted in extravagant, ecstatic, violent and ultimately non-utilitarian ways. In this sense, accumulation and productivity is antithetical to our instincts as fundamentally ‘solar beings’ who, like the sun, exist with a surplus of energy that we feel the need to expend.

But, as Veblen says, there seems to be this persistent drive toward productivity, or at least a general inclination toward usefulness (both in self-conception as well as interpersonally), which seems to conflict with this Bataillean solar economy in which productivity is deemed more or less unnatural. I don’t think it’s as simple as us having been “memed by capitalism” into placing value on industriousness, so how can we reconcile this?

One answer might be found through Nick Land’s thoughts on solar economy in Thirst for Annihilation. 

At one point in the essay Land hones in on Protestantism, specifically its American form and influence, and its ethic of moderation as the spiritual/philosophical beginning of the capitalist work ethic we’ve dug our heels into over the past several centuries (the logic of which, contra-Bataille, exalts utilitarianism and accumulation of resources).

He distinguishes Protestantism from Catholicism, which is comparably ostentatious and devoted to more elaborate and excessive forms of worship. Consider the long list of impressive Catholic cathedrals that were the result of thousands of hours of often brutal labor, and the intricacy of Catholic iconography in general. 

The production of elaborate, massively time and energy consuming but ultimately “meaningless” (which Bataille throughout his work associates with sacredness, whereas the rational, utilitarian aspects of existence are profane) monuments like cathedrals seem to satisfy both the Veblenian instinct of workmanship as well as the Bataillean non-utilitarian expenditure. 

Likewise, the labor required for the production of a sacred monument might take on an element of the sacred itself—  its trajectory is, despite being “labor,” ultimately sensuous as an act inextricable from the “product,” the monument, a sacred extravagance.

The closing thoughts of Veblen’s Instinct contrast undesirable “mere” labor with the similarly physical but more attractive and socially respectable “labor” of warfare: “Physical irksomeness and distastefulness can be borne, if only the spiritual incentive is present.” This again recalls Bataille’s Durkheimian distinction between the profane realm of rational utilitarian activity and the sacred realm of ecstatic (and in this case explicitly violent) non-utilitarian action.

Such “sacred labor” might be interesting in theorizing a societal application of Bataille’s solar economic principles while also accounting for Veblen’s (I think) undeniable theory of instinct toward industriousness.

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