Capitalism and the Heterogeneous

The following is an adaptation of a verbal presentation given for Justin Murphy and Nina Power’s course ‘The Politics and Philosophy of Georges Bataille’

The greatest harm that strikes men is perhaps the reduction of their existence to the state of a servile organ… There is no cure for the insufficiency that diminishes anyone who refuses to become a whole man, in order to be nothing more than one of the functions of human society. 

  —Georges Bataille, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

In his system of general economics, Georges Bataille establishes a dichotomy between the irrational and broadly ‘unproductive’ forces of spirituality, sexuality, violence, emotion, and creative expression and the scientific, rational and utilitarian sphere of productive labor and materiality. The former he terms the heterogeneous: that which is inherently excessive and volatile and therefore remains to some degree unassimilable and marginal to the latter, the homogeneous, subsistence-oriented civilization. The homogeneous society implicitly recognizes this inability to account for the forces of heterogeneity and maintains taboos in order to keep the two spheres separate and beget a relatively stable foundation for the world of work and base sustenance. While that which constitutes the sphere of the homogeneous has a kind of self-evident and definable value in terms of its capacity for rational utility and gain, the ‘value’ of heterogeneity, which is ultimately expenditure, is not so readily understood under the paradigm of the modern scientific worldview.

In this way, science is unable to comprehensively grasp nor sufficiently account for the realm of heterogeneity. Because the heterogeneous is by definition only loosely quantifiable, immaterial, and largely subjective, attempts at rational explanation at best amount to a ‘gesturing at,’ and even language can ultimately only fail in this delineational regard (which isn’t to say attempts at description are useless— to glean and relate some aspect of their essence is the art of language). But this ineffability is in itself cause for our fascination and obsession. Communicating these forces is a function of the arts, and the artist is rightfully afforded a quasi-mystical reverence for their capacity to command meaning in this way.

Because of their enigmatic nature, heterogeneous forces are uniquely regarded and problematized by the dominant productivist logic (which is contemporarily and neatly conceptualized as ‘neoliberal’). The heterogeneous is inherently excessive and irrational and thus difficult to manage and control; as such, the homogeneous order maintains a tendency toward the deconstruction and attempted assimilation of these forces. This manifests a latent antagonism toward heterogeneity. As stated prior, the principal and recognizable form of this containment is the taboo that separate the heterogeneous from the world of productive labor, but this antagonism is more generally disseminated in mass culture as a work, accumulation, and ultimately materially oriented worldview. This, both incidentally and not, narrows the scope of the prescribed human experience to one restricted to the secular liberalism that is the championed norm throughout the modern world.

Heterogeneity is, however, valuable to the homogeneous insofar as it is a source of variegated desire and vitality which can be roughly understood and systematized as nodes of seduction. Capitalism, the incentivization of capitalizing and exploiting desire, has proven a particularly efficient mechanism for attempting (to the greatest extent possible) to assimilate heterogeneity into the homogeneous order. Due to our obsession with these vital forces, there is a constant incentive to strip them of their unmanageable volatile character and mold them into quantifiable and systematized form— to develop markets around them. These appeals to the heterogeneous from markets within the homogeneous take a number of recognizable forms: mass sporting events and contained (even digitized) forms of aggression which amount to a kind of ‘violence industry,’ pervasive advertising which employs eroticism and sexuality (logically concluding in pornography), a media industry that functions according to scapegoat mechanisms that mimic sacrificial expenditure, and the existence of spirituality and self-improvement industries largely predicated on managing and utilizing the heterogeneous. This capacity for assimilating and reconciling heterogeneity is fundamental to capitalism’s resilience as a socioeconomic system.

This prevailing socioeconomic logic is ultimately codified in the legal system and undergirded by a punitive/carceral system, which suggests through this series of ‘soft-threats’ that one should only engage with heterogeneous elements insofar as they can be or have been subsumed, verified and included into the homogeneous order. For the stability of the social and economic order— the stability of the homogeneous society— there are restrictions on what one can and can’t do, with a publicized, and ultimately internalized set of mutually understood consequences for transgression. Yet laws that govern behavior are of course constantly broken; violence, sex and various forms of excess and intoxication that are broadly ‘illegal’ all remain ubiquitous. This is a testament to the constant pressure of the heterogeneous pushing against the rational world of work and utility. But this prevailing logic of utilitarianism is antagonistic to and irreconcilable with the heterogeneous because such forces are excessive, irrational and unquantifiable— they, by their very nature, elude control.

Excess threatens stability, and stability is massively prioritized in the prevailing logic of accumulation that characterizes the current order. Governments, corporations, and their respective bureaucracies are full of redundancies and checks and balances to ensure their own survival and perpetuation— they have a vested, publicly understood interest in risk management. This logic writ large, while beneficial to the institutions which prescribe and enforce this bureaucratization, systematizes and instrumentalizes the subject from which value is to be extracted. In risk management, the heterogeneous must be accounted for and guarded against, which most often means deconstructing and neutering, the minimization of volatility.

Various methods of incentivization, their prevalence and sheer convenience all reinforce the dominance of these assimilated forms of the heterogeneous. Likewise, the homogeneous system has its own incentive for such assimilation: the further commodified these forces are, the greater value is captured and the larger their market share becomes. And once accumulated and accounted for, this contributes to even greater systemic stability due to the minimization of volatility and potential for volatility. When the heterogeneous is inaccessible, volatility plummets; when the heterogeneous is unthinkable, the potential for volatility plummets.

The second order effects of suppressed heterogeneity are various, but most often manifest in generalized malaise, diminished social-emotional well-being, mental issues and spiritual deficiencies. The mechanism of capitalism responds automatically to re-territorialize even these effects, developing new markets through the medicalization and treatment of resulting “disorders” that arise under such repression, creating further incentive for the declining state of general health.

Heterogeneous impulses are our most powerful desires, and as such stand out as distinctly valuable targets for commodification. Market processes, which are functionally autonomous, are then drawn to these impulses, and by containing them subsume and incorporate them into the system. Once incorporated in this neuter form, there is suddenly a rational justification against its unrestrained “truly” heterogeneous counterpart: “why do X when you can do x in a controlled, safe and perfectly legal environment?” This logic of course, intentionally or not, misses the point in that the neuter form is inherently a simulacra: a non-transgressive, non-violative, homogeneous thing that, having been sufficiently dissected and separated into its component parts, can be reliably priced, sold and profited-from.

Though a broad de-emphasis of subjective, unquantifiable and spontaneous experience is a general result of this logic, there are also a number of more specific tendencies:

  • Religion becomes more secularized, as many houses of worship tend toward pragmatic social messages (“be kind”) or materialist concerns (“give to the poor”). The rise of non-denominational churches is perhaps the best example of this— a form of worship stripped of the underlying theological tradition that give it spiritual and aesthetic weight in favor of the secular utility of moral prescriptivism.
  • Community suffers in that physical space is privatized and priced while the subjective benefits of public space are unquantifiable. Increased privatization of space amounts to a kind of commodification of socialization and bolstered by laws around loitering and trespass.
  • The mass assimilation of women into the workforce can be seen as a generalized triumph of the primacy of utility, the profane world of quantifiable, priced work, over the comparably sacred and unquantifiable work of parenthood. The implicit logic of progressivism suggests the latter is of lesser importance (a sentiment that transcends sex and gender), and that occupational status is intrinsically satisfying and of greater significance to both oneself and the collective good. Parenting is reduced conceptually to providing material needs and letting the school system/internet— paid services— do the rest. Careers are often at odds with involvement in children’s lives, especially in homes with two working parents. Federal parental leave is just 12 unpaid weeks in the US.
  • Funding for the arts is notoriously at a constant risk in public schools, and public arts funds are often relegated to works that promote and reinforce institutional values. As such, genuinely dynamic artistic spaces are often squeezed to the margins of society. Like public space, the benefits of such work must always be justified on rational budgetary terms, which, being largely irrational and subjective fields, will always come up wanting. Instead, we end up with the processing of art through bureaucratic “safe” institutions which have proven sufficient cultural leverage to imbue art with cultural capital and launder politics.
  • Encroaching medicalization of idiosyncrasies that are even marginally inefficient or inconvenient within the confines of a specific criteria of productivity— material solutions (medication) and social interventions (therapy) to subjective problems in order to facilitate assimilation into the world of utility and usefulness. Beyond this, there is a social imperative to behave within an increasingly narrow window of morally acceptable behavior, and failure to do so is often met with public ridicule and, increasingly, appeals to employers who often have little choice but to capitulate.
  • Latent social pressures and incentivization of assimilation, careerism, financial moderation, a disdain for “wasting” time and money, prolongation of life (quantity over quality), even the enforced savings of Social Security that demand you live and work long enough to retrieve forced savings.

The dominance of a socioeconomic order characterized by these values narrows the scope of existence to that which is able to be broadly rationalized and ultimately beneficial to the perpetuation of the order itself. The implications of this, if not actively worked against— a task that becomes increasingly difficult as wages stagnate and more work is required for “mere” survival— leads to a sense of banality and profane utilitarianism, which further contributes and exacerbates the malaise of mental health and social issues. This is cyclical, though— these ‘malfunctions’ are again appropriated by this logic, medicalized and systematized, primed for containment in hyper-responsive markets. Only a break from this exchange system, a radical denial of and exit from such incentive structures and modes of exchange, provides a possibility of a way out of its appropriative, neutralizing cycle.

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