Category Archives: philosophy

Nothing is true, everything is permitted

Grafitti subversion of the original phrase, from the photostream of Paul Neve

A post[1] by Valter on Lev Shestov’s influence on Georges Bataille leads me again to the aphorism Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted. I think I’ve known this phrase from my Wired days, but first absorbed it consciously last summer while reading Burroughs’s excellent Cities of the Red Night.

Research of the last hour:

“Nothing is true, all is permitted”: so said I to myself. Into the coldest water did I plunge with head and heart. Ah, how oft did I stand there naked on that account, like a red crab!Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted” is the famous aphorism attributed to Hassan i Sabbah.

The aphorism was first used by Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1880s work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (original German Nichts ist wahr, Alles ist erlaubt). Like Crowley‘s “‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law“, this phrase is often interpreted in its most literal sense to mean that objective reality does not exist (see relativism) and therefore that free will is unlimited. However, “Nothing is True and Everything is Permitted” is more widely interpreted to mean “there is no such thing as an objective truth outside of our perception; therefore, all things are true and possible”. It is a basic tenet in chaos magic and a core concept in discordianism and pirate utopias.

The aphorism is mentioned in the 1938 novel Alamut and in William Burroughs’s novel Cities of the Red Night. It is used as a credo on Axiom, Bill Laswell’s record label and alluded to in the title of Isis’s album In the Absence of Truth. Brion Gysin‘s biography is titled Nothing Is True – Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin.

P. S. Surya notes in his biography of Bataille that the phrase “nothing is true” originates with Dostoevski. There could be some truth in that since Dostoevski was born 20 years before Nietzsche.

Salute to Bacchus

Today is the feast of the Roman god Bacchus, known by the Greeks as the Greek god Dionysus. In my hometown Sint Niklaas, there used to be a bar called Bacchus. That was in the late seventies and early eighties.

I had to wait until the 1990s and the first issue of Wired Magazine to be properly introduced to Bacchus via Camille Paglia’s interview on her recently published Sexual Personae in which Paglia mentions the Nietzschean dichotomy of Apollonian and Dionysian.

Popular perceptions of Dionysus and Bacchus

Dionysus was seen as the god of everything uncivilized, of the innate wildness of humanity that the Athenians had tried to control. The Dionysia was probably a time to let out their inhibitions through highly emotional tragedies or irreverent comedies. During the pompe there was also an element of role-reversal – lower-class citizens could mock and jeer the upper classes, or women could insult their male relatives. This was known as aischrologia – αἰσχρολογία or tothasmos, a concept also found in the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Bacchus is less wel documented in text, but all the better in painting (Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio). His name is connected with bacchanalia, a term in moderate usage today to indicate any drunken feast; drunken revels; as well as binges and orgies, whether literally or figuratively.

Bacchanal by Rubens



The bacchanalia were wild and mystic festivals of the Roman and Greek god Bacchus. Introduced into Rome from lower Italy by way of Etruria (c. 200 BC), the bacchanalia were originally held in secret and only attended by women.

Bacchanalia by Auguste (Maurice François Giuslain) Léveque  The Bacchanalia were traditionally held on March 16 and March 17

The festivals occurred on three days of the year in a grove near the Aventine Hill, on March 16 and March 17. Later, admission to the rites was extended to men and celebrations took place five times a month. According to Livy, the extension happened in an era when the leader of the Bacchus cult was Paculla Annia.

Cornelis de Vos Triumph of Bacchus

Cornelis de Vos

Paculla Annia

Paculla Annia was a priestess from the southern Italy who, according to Livy, largely changed the rules of Bacchanalias so that regarding nothing as impious or forbidden became the very sum of Bacchuscult. In the rites, men were said to have shrieked out prophecies in an altered state of consciousness with frenzied bodily convulsions. Women, dressed as Bacchantes, with hair dishevelled, would run down to the Tiber with burning torches, plunge them into the water, and take them out again. The rites gradually turned into sexual orgies, particularly among the men, and men who refused to take part were sacrificed. It is said these men were fastened to a machine and taken to hidden caves, where it was claimed they were kidnapped by the gods.

Prohibition by the Roman Senate

The festivities were reported to the Roman Senate which authorized a full investigation. In 186 BC, the Senate passed a strict law (the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus) prohibiting the Bacchanalia except under specific circumstances which required the approval of the Senate. Violators were to be executed.

Normal love

Normal love

Click for credits

My dear friend Walter gave me Cinema of Obsession[1] as a present.

Cinema of Obsession traces the history of obsessive love and erotic fixation. Seminal works of obsession, The Blue Angel, Peter Ibbetson, and Phantom of the Opera are seen as setting the groundwork for films that follow. The book defines and surveys examples of the explosive nature of amour fou, issues of male control (no matter how tenuous), and the fugitive couple – love on the run – in such films as Romeo and Juliet, Last Tango in Paris, Vertigo, Basic Instinct, and Wild at Heart. Male masochism is explored through film noirs, including Criss Cross, The Killers, Gilda, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The book shifts gears in its finale and concentrates on the female gaze, films of female obsession: Jane Eyre, The Piano, The Lover, Fatal Attraction, and Vanilla Sky.

The introduction to the book mentions new (to me) theoretical work on love and fetishism. First there is Max Dessoir (pseudonym Ludwig Brunn) and a 1888 essay entitled “The Fetichism of Love,” from which comes this clever quote:

Normal love appears to us as a symphony of tones of all kinds. It is roused by the most varied agencies. It is, so to speak, polytheistic. Fetichism recognises only the tone-colour of a single instrument; it issues forth from a single motive; it is monotheistic.”

“Fetichism of Love” reprises the final two chapters of Alfred Binet‘s “Du Fétichisme dans l’amour” published the previous year, which is generally regarded as the first work on sexual fetishism.

The book also references Denis de Rougemont‘s L’Amour et l’Occident (1939, revised 1972), translated as Love in the Western World as well as the standard work in this category, Georges Bataille‘s Erotism.

From that last book.

eroticism differs from animal sexuality in that human sexuality is limited by taboos and the domain of eroticism is that of the transgression of these taboos.”

The phrase that inspired this post and above all the photo above is “normal love“.

Jeremy Bentham @261

Jeremy Bentham @261

The Presidio Modelo was a model prison of Panopticon design by you.

Presidio Modelo, Cuba, photo by Friman

Jeremy Bentham (February 15 , 1748June 6, 1832)  was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer, best-known today for devising the Panopticon. He was a political radical and a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law. He is best known as an early advocate of utilitarianism and animal rights who influenced the development of liberalism. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation he wrote of sexual ethics.

The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience.”

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

Sholem Stein remarks:

It was among Jeremy Bentham many proposals for legal and social reform. Although it was never built, the idea had an important influence upon later generations of thinkers. Twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault in his approach to New Historicism argued that the Panopticon was paradigmatic of a whole raft of nineteenth-century ‘disciplinary’ institutions.

Foucault’s discussions of the panopticon are particularly useful for New Historicism. Bentham stated that the perfect prison/surveillance system would be a cylindrical shaped room that held prison cells on the outside walls. In the middle of this spherical room would be a large guard tower with a light that would shine in all the cells. The prisoners thus would never know for certain whether they were being watched, so they would effectively police themselves, and be as actors on a stage, giving the appearance of submission, although they are probably not being watched.

Foucault included the panopticon in his discussion of power to illustrate the idea of lateral surveillance, or self-policing, that occurs in the text when those who are not in power are made to believe that they are being watched by those who are. His purpose was to show that power would often change the behavior of the subordinate class, and they would often fall into line whether there was a true need to do so or not.

But the way the panopticon really entered the public consciousness was via the term Big Brother, named afterBig Brother, a character from George Orwell‘s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is now a byword for authoritarianism as inforced by any omnipresent, seemingly benevolent figure representing oppressive control over individual(s) exerted by an authoritarian power, as well as surveillance in general and any surreptitious spying such as by way of closed-circuit television.

Louis Althusser @ 90

Althusser by Green Gorilla

Photo unidentified

Sainte Anne, psychiatric hospital (05) - 17Sep06, Paris (France)Sainte Anne, psychiatric hospital (02) - 17Sep06, Paris (France)Sainte Anne, psychiatric hospital (01) - 17Sep06, Paris (France)Sainte Anne, psychiatric hospital (04) - 17Sep06, Paris (France)Sainte Anne, psychiatric hospital (03) - 17Sep06, Paris (France)

Photos of the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital by Philippe Leroyer

Louis Althusser, French Marxist philosopher would have been 90 today, infamous for strangling his wife on November 16, 1980 and not being tried for it. Althusser was diagnosed as suffering from diminished responsibility and committed to the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital in Paris. Althusser remained there for three years and was then released.

Bertrand Russell’s bad breath and Wittgenstein’s repressed sexuality

The Words by Sartre

Les Mots by Sartre

I bought and read Eco’s On Ugliness last Christmas, and a couple of days ago, a Sartre quote collected in that book resurfaced. The quote was taken from Sartre’s autobiography The Words and considers the smells of his childhood; the pleasant odors of women and the unpleasant but more serious odors of men. And then the bad breath of his schoolmaster which Sartre relished as the odor of learning and virtue.

I decided to investigate and Googling for Sartre and bad breath brings up The Great Unwashed[1], an article by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty:

“…Russell had such bad breath that Lady Ottoline Morrell refused to sleep with him for a while. Sartre was disgustingly dirty, and Connolly, left bathroom detritus in the bottom of his host’s grandfather clock ”

Etymologically attributed to Edmund Burke, the great unwashed is a phrase used to denote the populace, particularly the working class.

But here Doniger refers to the book Intellectuals by Paul Johnson which investigates the personal lives of philosophers and authors such as Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Sartre and Edmund Wilson, to name but a few.

Sartre, Connolly and Russell’s peculiarities remind me of toilet philosophy and embodied philosophies, but also calls into question the supposed gap between art and life (i.e. the space where Robert Rauschenberg liked to work) and the conflicting views of the New Critics and later the neoformalists who wish to excise all autobiographical details from philosophical arguments; vs the hermeneutic and Freudian approaches, which dare to augment the text with its paratext.

I am all for the latter interpretive methods (also because of the prevalence of the former in Anglo-American philosophy), a key factor in this conviction was Colin Wilson‘s reading of Wittgenstein‘s philosophy in The Outsider. Conventional sources will point you to the Heidegger / nazism debacle, but the Wittgenstein example is much more enlightening because Wilson links Wittgenstein’s homosexuality with his reluctance to speak the unspeakable and his eventual arrival at the maxim in the Tractatus:

“What can be said at all can be said clearly; and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”

This phrase rendered Wittgenstein famous but is due to his repressed sexuality argues Wilson via Bartley.

Bartley‘s comment [on Wittgenstein’s homosexuality] help us to understand Wittgenstein’s attitude to philosophy. Wittgenstein possessed the disposition that is often found in saints and ascetics: a powerful craving for meaning and purpose, and immense self-disgust at his own failure to find them. […] It was this sense of failure, of living on the brink of an abyss, that produced in Wittgenstein the craving for certainty that led him to create the philosophical system of the Tractatus.” —Colin Wilson via The Misfits


“[In the Tractatus], Wittgenstein was led to define truth as tautology – a mere repetition of the same meaning. […] Wittgenstein agrees that there is such a thing as religious truth and ethical truth. But he insists that it cannot be put into words, and that any philosopher who thinks he is talking about these great universal truths is merely deceiving himself. —Colin Wilson via The Misfits

‘Sumptuary moments’ are revolutionary in themselves

Unidentified gold toilet

This is my third post on Georges Bataille‘s general economy. The first was here[1], the second here[2].

This post consists of a quote by the designer Nic Hughes I believe, author of the blog Haunted Geographies.[3]. Yes. Haunted. As in hauntology.

“In ‘The notion of expenditureGeorges Bataille concentrates on the more destructive expressions of potlatch, specifically ‘non-productive expenditure’- the type of ‘Killing wealth’ only rarely experienced these days. For instance, the KLF’s burning of a million pounds[4] or Ryoei Saito’s cremation[5] of 160 million dollars of fine art. For Bataille, sumptuary moments’ are revolutionary in themselves, purely because they are the antithesis of use. Games, war, spectacle, art, non-reproductive sex, all challenge the tyranny of utility. They ‘represent activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, have no end beyond themselves’ (Bataille, 2004, p118). Later he spins off on a more Nietzschean tact, extending the metaphor to genocide and the destruction of a whole class- the power elite potlatch.” –Nic Hughes at Haunted Geographies [6]

It must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically

Furthering my research on Georges Bataille‘s general economy[1], helped by Valter‘s kind comment, it occured to me that the Marxian notion of surplus product is very similar to Bataille’s excess. The two notions and can only lead to wasteful spending such as luxury or war.

Thus, we read on page 21 of volume 1 of The Accursed Share:

“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; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically” (v. 1 p. 21).

If the “excess energy” or “surplus product” is spent “gloriously”, we call it luxury, if spent “catastrophically”, it is war. Notions that connect are pure war by French philosopher Paul Virilio and the military-industrial complex.

While researching The Accursed Share, I also happened on the blog with the same name[3] by Nick Srnicek and Kieran Aarons, which features two astounding photos, a shot of Cairo with the Pyramids as backdrop [4] by unknown (credits anyone?) and a photo[5] by German-born photographer Michael Wolf belonging to his “densities” project.

Message on the general economy to Tony

The trial of Gilles de Rais

The Trial of Gilles de Rais

Radical Passivity

Radical Passivity

Message to Tony:

Hi Tony, sorry, I lost your email address. And while I am not interested in your offer, I was very much interested by your questions regarding the general economy of Georges Bataille and the link you provided to Complementarity: Anti-Epistemology after Bohr and Derrida.

While I am familiar with Bataille’s thought, I cannot claim to be an expert on him, my infatuation with him is purely instinctual. The current blogosphere expert is Valter from Surreal Documents. He’s helped me many times regarding Bataille, the last time when I had questions regarding Against Architecture[1].

I did decide to check up on Bataille’s general economy, and found that the theory is propounded most systematically in The Accursed Share.

While I was checking, I came across Radical Passivity, both a book by Thomas Carl Wall and a colloquium by Benda Hofmeyr, as well as some interesting looking work by Dutch academic Joost de Bloois, author of the doctoral thesis L’economie generale: Derrida sur les traces de Bataille (Utrecht, 2003).

Also, while researching, I found some appealing visuals.

  • Exhibit A: a rather nice and understated but at the same time menacing cover[2] of The Trial of Gilles de Rais, the blotches of blood stains are very Rorschach.
  • Exhibit B is the poster to the colloquium[3], which depicts a pixelated version of Death by a Thousand Cuts, the image Bataille is most readily associated with. The only image I can think of outside of the gruesome three of the blogosphere, of which I am also glad I see it censored [4] for obvious reasons.
  • Exhibit C: A nice cover of a work by Joost de Bloois[5].

Valter, if you are reading this, and if you find the time to comment, what is the most current interpretation of Bataille general economy?