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Special Issue: Bataille and Heterology

Theory, Culture & Society

2018, Vol. 35(4–5) 233–250
On the Ambiguity of ! The Author(s) 2018
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Pleasure and Play

DOI: 10.1177/0263276418793510
Georges Bataille

This lecture argues for a theory of play that departs from the Freudian analysis of
pleasure and pain that associates pleasure with the resolution of a psychic tension or
anxiety rather than with play and its ambiguities. It advances the idea that poetry, the
domain of the aesthetic, eroticism, as well as that of the sacred involve forms of play.
Play is here conceptualized in its positive aspect as an experience beyond reflective
consciousness or calculation and that relates instead to the improbable, the fascinat-
ing, the risky and thus to the death instinct. To that extent, the decisive part of play
concerns the role of the unconscious in its elaboration. It is from such a perspective
that it proposes the identity of pleasure and play.

experience, Freud, Nietzsche, play, pleasure, uncertainty, unconscious, work

According to Sigmund Freud, the suppression of a tension is the prin-

ciple of pleasure.
In contrast to the thought implied in that definition (without at this
point worrying about how far the thought of Freud is framed by this
definition, were we to take account of its full development), I claim that
the principle of pleasure is play.
This claim comes up not only against the problems in the interpret-
ation of the facts, since play does not necessarily result in pleasure.
Above all, to say that play is the principle of pleasure does not substitute
the unknown for the known. . . Finally, could the principle of play be, on
the contrary, what is more difficult to conceptualise? There is more: could
thinking of play not in essence be the dissolution of all thought? If we
introduce play inside thought, do we not precisely distance ourselves
from the possibilities of knowledge?
Could it be that there is here a problem with the starting point?. . .
Unless I were, inversely, to make this the starting point for the asser-
tion I am making. . .

Corresponding author: Marina Galletti. Email:

Extra material:
234 Theory, Culture & Society 35(4–5)

To start with, the fact of having to face this issue shouldn’t prevent me
from subjecting Freud’s definition to a critique. Indeed, I believe I should
do so because it will be easier to criticize than justify my point of view. It is
not difficult to show – it is not obvious, but I am about to do so in detail –
that the establishment of a relation between pleasure, and the suppression
of an excitation or an anxiety in order to make of pleasure the effect of a
negative movement, introduces a malaise. Roughly speaking, pleasure is
grasped as a positive activity. In this respect, the immediate advantage of
play is in any case that of linking pleasure with positive activity. Here is the
definition which the Philosophical Dictionary of Lalande gives. Whilst it is
far from exhausting what play is, it has the advantage of allowing us a
glimpse of a valid aspect, at least provisionally. Lalande says that play is
‘an expenditure of physical or mental activity that does not have an imme-
diately useful or even definite aim, and whose only purpose in the mind of
whoever undertakes it is the pleasure which is intrinsic to it’ (Lalande,
1926). Thus we encounter from the beginning a positive aspect. ‘A physical
or mental1 activity’, an activity so inseparable from pleasure as its aim that
it appears as its only purpose.
And yet. . .
What one quickly notices with Lalande is that the definition of play
which it evokes, tied to pleasure, has but provided him with an occasion
for a valid evasion.
But I will limit myself to simply indicate that whatever definition of
play one may provide does not get us very far. I will present2 other
definitions but mainly to support a feeling of a profound problem.
Play, Huizinga tells us in his classic work, Homo Ludens, is ‘a voluntary
action or activity undertaken within some fixed boundaries of time and
space, in accordance with a freely consented but imperious rule, which
has its own aim, accompanied by a feeling of tension and joy, and a
recognition of ‘‘being otherwise’’ than in ‘‘everyday life’’’ (Huizinga,
1951: 57–8).
A more recent definition of Roger Caillois (1958), in Les Jeux et les
Hommes, is clearly more striking. Caillois believes that play can basically
be defined as an activity which is 1) Free; 2) Separate; 3) Uncertain (which
means that the outcome is not given in advance); 4) Non-productive; 5)
Regulated; 6) Fictitious. It may be legitimate to try and connect a defin-
ition to cases where play appears as a quite distinct activity. But that
would not prevent us from recognizing play outside these limits. I under-
line [that] for me what applies to play applies equally to some other
realities: with some exceptions, we all know what play is. Similarly, every-
one knows what poetry, religion, or the sacred or art is. But if one tries to
substitute a precisely articulated set of words for one’s immediate under-
standing, even if they may depict the point of view they are trying to
express, they nevertheless cannot provide us with the exact and immutable
limits of what immediate understanding had sought to capture.
Bataille 235

It is not by chance that I have brought together play and poetry, the
sacred and art; I could equally have mentioned eroticism or laughter, or
wit, as Freud (1930) understands it in Le Mot d’esprit [The Witticism].
Indeed the problem that these words pose – that besides can be defined in
as much as their contents are different (clearly, eroticism and the sacred
are different, etc.) – cannot seriously be understood if it is not posed
within the general perspective of play. I consider poetry, art or the excite-
ment of laughter or eroticism, as well as the sacred (in agreement with
Plato), to be so many forms of play. Of course, I do not exclude within
this rather general perspective the apparently insignificant and the sim-
plest games, particularly those of children and even those of animals.
To that extent, and without wanting to provide a positive definition,
I will speak of an aspect within this perspective that could henceforth
validate my intention of speaking about play in relation to Freud.
One can imagine all kinds of play within the rather vast perspective
that I have opened up[:]
Firstly, the diverse forms of play, whatever they may be, have more or
less major aesthetic value, whether such value mainly problematizes
beauty or, more modestly, merriment.
Secondly, the fact that their value is in relation to the role of the
unconscious in their elaboration. In the domain of play, intelligence
and calculation of outcome play their part, but the decisive part is that
of the unconscious.
I have sought to formulate such a claim in a language with which you
would be familiar given your orientation, yet I must now return to the
question which I posed earlier before starting on the articulation of this
lecture. I wondered earlier whether play could essentially amount to the
dissolution of all thought; whether the introduction of play within
thought did not systematically depart from the possibilities of know-
ledge, of understanding.
I am sorry if, because of this paradoxical direction, my thinking may
be hard to follow. But I believe that my reference to Freud’s thinking is
such as to make it more accessible.
I have indicated an account of the relation between play and the
unconscious which it seems to me is sufficiently clear. For me, we each
of us apprehend (I do not say know) what the unconscious is, not
so much by appeal to intelligence but to experience, to experience
perhaps elaborated through reflection, but to experience which brings
to the reflective consciousness particular exterior data, outside the data
of intelligence. I do not want to discuss Freud’s definitions. But I want to
point to their limits. I would recall an assertion of Janet that to know is
to know how. It is true that Freud is careful to explain to us how the
unconscious is produced. And it is true that we know the unconscious to
the extent that we know how it is produced. Thanks to Freud, we can
even follow its processes in great detail. Thus, we know what
236 Theory, Culture & Society 35(4–5)

condensation, displacement, indirect representation, and so on are in

dreams or in the emergence of witticisms, but the help of technical know-
ledge alone is not sufficient for us to construct either an authentic dream
or a joke. What’s missing is the irreducible part played by the uncon-
scious. This irreducible element, to which my mind has access by a leap
and not by an intellectual effort that would enable us to explain com-
pletely and with certainty this irreducible element, is precisely what this
lecture is about. It is this element, the presence of which momentarily
displaces thought in a direction contrary to the research that has know-
ledge as its aim. But what I have wanted to reveal will appear more
clearly within an ensemble.
I am now required to add greater precision to the relation between
play and the unconscious that I had rather quickly introduced.
And indeed this leads me to describe matters in terms of their whole
complexion, in terms of their coherence. It is only within such an ensem-
ble that unusual relations might appear necessary.
At the basis of this coherence one finds the fundamental place of work.
I agree that work has had a fundamental role in the historical formation
of ‘man’ (sic) from the animal nature. It goes without saying that work
does not necessarily take place in isolation. ‘Libidinal’ elements, to use
Freud’s vocabulary, would have driven work to proceed in a specific
direction. Work has obviously produced and is likely to produce deep
satisfaction in the sense of pleasure. Nevertheless, the opposition between
work and play is of primary value. Work and pleasure can combine.
Work can become the principle of play, and one could say that children
play at working in the sense of playing out adults’ occupations that for
them is work, for example, playing at being a washer woman or a seller of
spices, or at being in the classroom. It remains nevertheless that in its
principle work is so much in opposition to play that in the French lan-
guage the etymology of work is the Latin tripalium, which designates an
instrument of torture. In fact a game is never work, it is a comedy of
work. I will but quickly go over other problems, other combinations. It is
the case that some effective primitive activities similar in many ways to
work were at first, and have remained to a large extent, play – for
example, hunting and fishing, particular hunting. Equally, there is a com-
plex issue concerning art, relating particularly to architecture, the conse-
quences of which are far from being uniformly useful. These various
problems do not by their nature make a definition of human work impos-
sible. It is the deliberate activity, through which, under the power of
necessity, we transform what is given in nature into useful outcomes,
outcomes that are not in themselves ends.
There is immediately a case for objections: science, which is surely
work, does not always target useful results. For researchers, although
the outcomes of their work have no practical sense, they nevertheless
have a value. They would thus in themselves be a goal. I cannot
Bataille 237

here fully address the complications relating to this issue. However,

I would say that the researcher himself (sic) would rarely go so far as to
say that it is a game. The researcher proceeds in the opposite direction
to the child; the child takes work to be play whereas the researcher per-
haps plays in the sense that he (sic) is freed from necessity considered as
obligation. But in order to accomplish his purpose, he has had to change
this game into an obligation for reasons of its own. The reality is that
the researcher deceives himself more than the child. The child has fun
pretending quite absurdly to be working. The researcher willingly deceives
himself to the end, for he (sic) must consider what is but a game to be an
obligation, and he does so in collective agreement with the corpus of
researchers. The researcher falls into error in order to benefit from the
effective diligence of all those who respond to necessity, to an obligation.
This does not prevent the researcher from obtaining particular satis-
factions that are similar – putting aside any solemnity – to those of
the player. It is important that he takes himself (sic) seriously to be a
worker, and that he ends up with this monstrous enjoyment that serious
amusement is. In a sense – I mean only in a sense – the worse case is when
the researcher takes play to be the aim. In principle this applies to me,
but at least, if I have to behave as others do, if I have to deceive myself, I
don’t succeed. It is also the case of Freud who speaks with all seriousness
of pleasure, but who surely more than others had an inkling of the odd
satisfactions that he unconsciously could attain. And not only can one
take for granted that Freud’s lucidity was far-reaching, but there is no
doubt that it is the singular humour that constantly, if discreetly, shows
through his writings.
Besides, for a number of reasons the researcher is on the side of work in
spite of these doubts. But the reason he (sic) himself believes he is truly and
basically on the side of work can be accounted for in a different way. In
fact, work is essentially reasonable, so much so that reason can at first be
presented as the basis but ultimately as the highest point of work. Without
rationality I don’t think human work can exist. And similarly, without
work there is no reason. Rationality, which is one of the creations of work,
is also its result. And it is difficult to say that this particular result is not
effective or useful. This in the end is the best answer one could give to
someone who would see some inaccuracy in the definition which I gave
linking work to the calculation of a useful purpose and seeing science as
work. Indeed, there is solidarity across the whole of science, and if some
scientific findings have no practical value, science itself, independently of
whichever particular application, is on the whole useful in that it is con-
nected through its solidary ensemble – and such that it could not be
conceptualized without its unlimited character; science is the foundation
of human transformation of the world into effective outcomes.
And in the same way as science is not only a labour but the very
transformation of the human world into a utilizable ensemble, play,
238 Theory, Culture & Society 35(4–5)

because it is the opposite of work, is what distances us from the rational

representation of that ensemble. That is, if we move away from one
limited definition of play, such as the ones I cited, to this concrete and
direct description of play that I am clumsily trying to suggest – doubtless
clumsily, but it is doubtful that this clumsiness could be avoided – my
thinking follows a trajectory which goes in the opposite direction to the
impulse of knowledge. It seems to me here that I have already managed
to let the direction of my reflection be anticipated.3
Let us be clear, I am discussing play at this moment and could
extend this discussion well beyond the limits of this account. To speak
of play does not necessarily lead one to silence, but to discuss it with
lucidity entails apprehending, if momentarily, this orientation towards
silence, or more accurately towards the moment when we no longer have
anything to say.
Yet in spite of this I insist it is possible to speak about play. To begin
with, this orientation towards silence does not leave us in the abyss.
There exists a whole domain that we cannot access without taking on
a perspective such that the order that man (sic) perceives regarding the
limits of science and reason makes way for what science and reason
cannot encompass.
Earlier I introduced, within the broad perspective of play, art, poetry,
the sacred, eroticism, laughter, witticism (in the sense Freud used it in his
study of Witz), the play of the child, and in general the play of adults for
whom art is the most prominent form. However, I mentioned neither
myth nor rituals. I haven’t spoken about the play of adults for whom in
truth art is the most remarkable form. Equally, I have not mentioned
religion as a whole and I am not intending to get far into too complex
reflections, in particular religion [which] is entirely bound up with what is
human. In any case, I must in this respect swiftly return to the fact that
I also introduced the unconscious within that perspective. I hold on to
this because the few words which I will add to the subject of religion
will show clearly that I have a keen interest in religion. But precisely,
it concerns the unconscious datum relating to religion in general, inde-
pendently of the value which others attribute to such and such a religion.
Anyway, I can here attribute to this ensemble a precise value. Everyone
will recognize that one cannot construct an authentic poem, a sacred
place or object, a myth, an erotic or amusing situation in the same
manner as for a clock or a cart. It is possible to make a mistake about
the erotic or the amusing because in these cases it is always possible to
repeat something that, even sometimes in far-off times, provoked laugh-
ter or erotic excitement. Regarding sacred places and objects, one
mustn’t forget that their creation originally relates to unconscious inclin-
ations shared by many unconnected people. This does not mean that
calculation does not intervene, but here as elsewhere it intervenes only
in the search for repetitions. Adult games have the same limits regarding
Bataille 239

the introduction of arbitrary limits; games such as chess, cards, or

draughts represent a domain which is much more open to calculation.
And it is certain that the principles of games have less deeply hidden and
incongruous explanations than the activities I noted earlier. However,
games have a charm and a recreational value that historically were not
presented as the solution of a consciously posed problem. The habit of
play has entered into human societies through the door of the uncon-
scious. There existed no rational avenue leading to the development of
various games in accordance with adequate modalities. The invention of
the games that exist, faithfully preserved or modified according to a long
evolution, is ancient and resulted from movements having their source in
the unconscious. Evolution alone has largely introduced in the world of
games the contribution from reasonable calculation and conscious
I realize that up to a point I have put aside the identity of play and
pleasure. Until now I have limited myself to signalling through Lalande’s
definition the relationship between play and pleasure. According to
Lalande, the sole purpose of play in the player’s mind is the pleasure
to be found there. But as I noted, I cannot spend time discussing this
definition since my aim is a critique of Freud’s definition of the pleasure
principle. Freud starts by admitting at the beginning of Jenseits des
Lustprinzips [Beyond the Pleasure Principle] that ‘the course of the psy-
chic process is automatically governed by the pleasure principle’. In other
words, he says ‘we believe that it is each time set in motion by. . . a painful
tension and the course then follows along a direction such that its final
outcome and the release of that tension coincide with the fact that the
tension is eliminated, replaced by pleasure’.4 On the next page, he asserts
that a claim of Fechner (1873) is close to his own thought. For Fechner,
‘every psychophysical impulse exceeding the threshold of consciousness is
accompanied by pleasure to the extent that it comes close to total sta-
bility, and by displeasure to the extent that it moves away from it’. Freud
himself later proposes ‘the hypothesis that the psychical apparatus tries
to maintain the aggregate of its actual arousal at as low a level as possible
or at least at a constant level’.
I may be mistaken, but I have always had the diametrically opposite
feeling – and I say feeling because it is not a case of methodical obser-
vations as I think is in the case with Freud and Fechner. I have the feeling
that pleasure is tied to states of arousal that determine instability, that
the pleasure principle, at least at certain times, on the occasions when at
least pleasure can be distinguished from calm, from a pleasant rest,
shapes within us everything which can condense the amounts of energy
needed for a more and more violent discharge. Naturally, there is a limit,
and whatever is beyond this limit could come up to the painful pressure I
noted. But I don’t think it is necessary to let this restriction hold us up.
The painful pressure in principle urges one to rest, that is to say, to look
240 Theory, Culture & Society 35(4–5)

for a détente without wondering about the search for a prior pleasure.
To some extent, it is true that on the other hand we can consider as
painful the tension that commits us to seek pleasure: it is possible, but
speaking personally, I experience the opposite. This tension is part of
pleasure and I cannot imagine pleasure without it, to the point that the
moment of relaxation represents for me what will put an end to pleasure;
for me relaxation is the suspension of pleasure, if not its opposite. If it is a
matter of pleasure considered in its generality, when we speak of pleas-
ure, relaxation, once secured, seems to me in principle to conform to the
dictum: ‘post coitum the animal is sad’, even if it is the case that, in spite
of the difference with what comes before, this moment is not at all sad.
On this point I have never harboured any doubt, and more than
20 years ago Freud’s lecture had taken me aback. I would not like to
limit myself to the sexual aspect of pleasure. It seems to me that in the
twists and turns and in the frenzy of singing in some choirs, I’m thinking
for instance about Russian choirs, the play of excitement and its escal-
ation explodes: the choir seems to be saying that though the excitement is
already crazy, we will not cease exceeding the present frenzy. In the end
what is it all about? It is about bursting the heavens, it is about going too
far. So far that thought could at no time represent what this ‘too far’
means. It is time: the heavens explode, one needed to burst the heavens.
It is impossible from that point to articulate an intelligible notion; if it
were or could be intelligible, that would be reason enough to reject it.
But I do not wish to stay with an essentially unintelligible delirium.
Delirium is one thing, but I didn’t come here to get into a frenzy. That
is to say, I allowed myself a temporary but conscious delirium, locating
that moment of madness within a cohesion, which means that I give it a
meaning5 in relation to a precise fact. I believe delirium has greater force; it
is more perfect when it is inserted in a strong cohesion that it must break.
Humanity never ceases to take up again the urge that lifts it to the
peak of the wave, and at that peak this impulse dissolves in the foam of
an overwhelming pleasure. The moment of pleasure is a blind moment.
But the state of blindness is itself what the excessive clarity of sight had
produced. Language probably cannot gain access to the positive expres-
sion of pleasure except in delirious terms that destroy the meaning of
language. But a negative expression is yet possible and necessary in order
to respond to the dominant fact that the ungraspable reality of pleasure is
in the last instance no less real than these objects determined by the
insensitive equations of science. I know that my emphatic excesses are
but a game, but I thus arrive at the point where I must return to
the simpler approach to the specific discussion.
What I have suggested in quite vague terms is in fact play. I imagine
that the sentences that I have used were in fact expressive of play, which I
said, negatively, could by definition not be defined. In my sentences,
I have tried to make sensible what is pursued by the thrust of play and
Bataille 241

that a curtailed language cannot reach. But here is now what I can say
with precision about this subject.
For whoever considers the principle of pleasure there are two possibi-
lities. The first is that of the scientist. It is the route that Freud and
Fechner chose. They accept that there is a variable quantity of given
energy which is (in theory if not in fact) measurable, and that has a
value of arousal, and they have looked for the quantitative relationship
that these quantities could have regarding pleasure and pain, with pleas-
ure corresponding to a decrease in energy, and displeasure to an increase.
It is at first difficult for me to oppose in principle the conceptualization of
the man (sic) of science to that of the man (sic) of play. No one knows in
fact the meaning of the man of play. However, it is possible for me to
propose the following: let us call the playing man the one who normally
shows a preference for play rather than work. Speaking thus, I am led to
promote the idea of a general opposition between the sphere of play and
that of work. Such an opposition has many aspects, the main one of
which opposes the sovereign (whatever is an end in itself) to the subor-
dinated (whatever is the outcome of work, useful for some other practical
enterprise or even sometimes for an ultimate end). But I underline this
aspect incidentally simply to make clear the value I attribute to play. For
the moment I want to argue that if science for me belongs to the sphere of
work, by denying the sovereignty to the work as such, I am bound to
deny it in the case of science. It is not a matter of neglecting or ignoring
science, it is a matter of recognizing its limits and, staying within the field
of science, of negatively locating what science can’t attain.
I thus get to what in essence I want to say today. I want to speak of
pleasure in the wake of Freud, as a critique of Freud. But I must recog-
nize for a start that my critique cannot have a scientific value except to
the extent that if pleasure has perhaps to do with play, and thus belong-
ing perhaps within the province of play, it can only partially be the object
of scientific research.
This does not necessarily mean that only a mystical understanding of
pleasure is possible; I do not speak in the language of mysticism when I
assert that if pleasure is tied to play, it can only in a negative manner be
the object of knowledge in the rigorous sense of the word, since play is
what escapes from work and since science can only speak of results that
occur with the rational regularity of the outcomes of work. In other
words, science can only envisage the necessary or the probable whilst
play always incites the improbable. This point leads to many problems
since the claim that pleasure can never be the probable outcome of such
and such an activity is indefensible. But it is not a matter of saying that,
in the existing world, such and such outcomes are unlikely. For sure,
given the world as it is, and the givenness of human existence, it is quite
likely that a particular activity would lead to pleasure. But if the world of
pleasure is viewed alongside the world of work, it is possible to grasp a
242 Theory, Culture & Society 35(4–5)

fundamental difference. In the world of pleasure, what is given is natural,

whilst in the world of work, from the beginning, at the origin of work,
the given is the result of the search for a useful and probable outcome.
But a question that emerges is that of knowing if, in nature that exists
independently of human work, all things once given and recurring can be
considered in their principle as if actions and their outcomes could
be known by science in the same manner as it knows the useful and
probable outcomes of work. There is here a factual question. But we
do not get beyond scientific habits by recalling that an irreducible
part of play remains. That part is that of the improbable, that which
cannot be the object of a calculation. At this point for the first time we
take the word play in a precise sense, which besides is this time clearly
negative in the sense that the effect of unforeseen factors introduces
unforeseen outcomes.
Let us now try to make a complex situation clearer. Let us imagine a
particular case, that of a musical score. Its performance is obviously a
labour, in which the expected results are not only probable but almost
necessary, since the margin of freedom which the performer and the
conductor have is small. Yet, in spite of that, the performance relates
to play to the extent that the performed score, as soon as it has been
given once and for all, was improbable before its creation. The example
of the musical score is a good illustration of the fundamental difference
concerning the world of play. In an electricity generating station for
instance, the complexity of the constituting parts has been calculated in
its entirety with precise outcomes in mind. The musical score is repeat-
edly the same and in its repetition it is possible to expect the outcomes;
they are given in advance. Yet, everyone can see the essential structural
difference between a performed musical score and the construction of an
electricity generating station. I want now to assert that pleasure, includ-
ing sexual pleasure, is not produced in us in a way similar to the mode of
construction of a generating station but almost that of the performance
of the musical score. I know well that up to a certain point the degree of
freedom of participants in an erotic game is clearly very much larger than
for a conductor concerning the musical play. It is however far from being
unlimited; in my view, it can even be considered secondary. There is
however in the primitive implementation, in the quite ancient constitu-
tion of the erotic game, a great difference with the writing of a score.
This implementation did not happen in one go. It remains though that, in
the example that I chose, there is the possibility of showing that the
psychophysical apparatus at work in sexual activity and the pleasure it
generates cannot be compared to the output of a generating station or a
steam engine. It is impossible and is besides of no use.
Indeed, play as the source of pleasure is sufficient. To escape from the
regular flow of things, particularly for human beings to escape from work
or even from the world of work, this world in which we partly linger
Bataille 243

beyond the time of work, finding an activity that’s not limited by the need
to calculate outcomes is in itself a source of pleasure, pleasure being
essentially what we like as opposed to what is necessary, the responsibil-
ity to act beforehand in order to satisfy needs. Pleasure is positive, and if
it sometimes occurs in association, it can never be constrained within
its negative sense, which is characteristic of the state of mind tied to
the predominance of the values of science and work; pleasure
can never be contained within its negative conceptualization as the sup-
pression of pain.
It is the positive character of pleasure as play that determines its
ambiguity. According to the principle of play given by Caillois, there
is a grain of uncertainty in complete pleasure; for, neither its develop-
ment nor its outcome can be determined beforehand, since a degree of
freedom in the need to invent is granted to at least one of the partners.6
In the case of pleasure, risk or chance is constitutive, so long as it is not
limited by habit, by the passive fall into the inevitable. Habit tends to
demote this element of risk to the second rank, but risk is sufficiently
connected to the rise of pleasure for us to consider it as constitutive,
whereas the data of habit, of weakening or diminishing, can only have a
residual value.
I shall now attempt to sketch in its ensemble the role of chance in
pleasure, a minor aspect of which is the preference not necessarily, but
frequently, for novelty, for variety, for unexpected change. It could be a
change in the partner, in the situation or places, but above all there is,
trivially, the opening to the impossible. There is a need for qualitative or
even simply quantitative change whose insatiable character has been
stressed by Church Fathers. There is, in pleasure, a giddy opening that
announces its ambiguity. I therefore counter Fechner’s view which ties it
to stability, but it is not a matter of knowing if the quantity of energy
needed for arousal is constant or not: I think there is a fundamental
element of ambiguity in the search for pleasure. If the desire that initiates
the birth of the search for pleasure is linked to youth the constitutive
instability and vagueness of play can readily link desire to old age, in the
same way as the desire which essentially relates to beauty, to life, to what
is clean, is at its basis likely to be displaced onto ugliness, death, or dirt.
The indeterminacy of play inflects the possibilities of pleasure to the
wildest, to such an extent that even pain, the opposite of pleasure, can
be desired by the one who seeks pleasure.
And of course we are free to imagine a death instinct. I even believe
that in conceptualizing what he has said about this subject, and by
making of death the end and aim of life, Freud has managed to point
to the deep yearning that has sustained the whole of his research. But the
pursuit of death, the search for the culmination of life in the inorganic,
different from the desire relating to the inverse of the normal concerning
death or what is dying, can be imagined as the extreme point that we can
244 Theory, Culture & Society 35(4–5)

reach starting from the instability and ambiguity of play. Instability

doubtless aspires here to the ultimate stability. However, on the one
hand, the return to the inorganic, that is to say to the practically limitless,
the indefinite, is probably the extreme form that the improbable, which at
this point we can even call by the excessive word impossible, can assume
in our thought, at least in the unconscious or semi-consciousness datum
which constitutes the living within us. But the inorganic to which in the
end we would aspire is so much an element of play that thinking about its
authentic form does not resist its formal expression. We can lift ourselves
to this point, to this level where death and immortality coincide but only
through these impulses in which play, and play alone, raises us to the
inaccessible, destroying in an instant, till the end, all the regular limits
that order the world of science and work. We find again here the char-
acteristics of the world of pleasure and play, the impulse that had carried
us within its limits ends here, yet no sooner achieved that we fall again
into the human prosaic world, that of work and stable knowledge.
I do not know if these reflections, particularly in the provisional forms
in which I allowed myself to present them to you today, can lead to a
contribution to psychoanalytic research. It goes without saying that only
analysts can or could answer the question which I ask myself, and that
I pose to them today. I would like however to indicate the points upon
which it seems to me that the way of seeing that I am introducing could
not so much modify but give a consistency, a confirmation, maybe even a
simplification to the views which I am far from discussing. At this point I
hesitate to express myself, even more than I have done in the course of
this lecture. Surely you have been able to work out whilst listening to me
that my knowledge of Freud was lacking. It goes back 25 years7 and was
limited to the close study of but some of his translated works (even then
I have almost never referred to the texts; I only seriously did it for the
first time when I was preparing this lecture). Having expressed these
reservations, I can declare the perhaps mistaken feeling I have that my
way of seeing introduces an advantage when one thinks about the prob-
lems associated with the theory of dream as realization of desire. The
objects of desire respond to the excessive instability of play, dream being
itself basically the game which the dreamer freely plays with his life, the
residues of which unpredictably return to him in the freedom of sleep.
Once again, it is but a question that I ask with some hesitation. But
before waiting for an answer, I will myself, to conclude, try and answer
the question that you are probably asking yourself. This way of seeing
that I have tried to describe to you is clearly a departure from the familiar
way. And since I have never described it so explicitly, I think I owe it to
you to minimally provide some clarifications, even if in many ways it is
First of all it is not a matter of a philosophy. Indeed, no philosophy of
play is possible. A philosophy is actually possible only if the philosopher
Bataille 245

belongs to the world of science and labour. I have said already: the world
of play can only be negatively determined. If at most there is a philoso-
phy, it concerns a negative philosophy. There is in any case little rela-
tionship between philosophy as such and the way of thinking that I have
had to develop in your presence to express a particular point.
Only the thought of Nietzsche and, in general, the sense that he gave to
philosophy allows me to cite a precedent.
I would recall for you the claim which he made in Zarathoustra8 and to
which we do not usually pay attention: Zarathoustra says: ‘Let every
thought which does not make you burst out laughing at least once be
regarded as false’.
This means precisely that you should consider every thought which
you could not recognize within the framework of play as false. Within the
framework of play, that is to say, in such a way that by means of play it
contributes to experience; I do not say experimental knowledge, I say to
the experience of what in human existence is play.
I here insist on the fact that since play is the supreme value, because, by
definition, play, or at least what play created in opposition to work, is sov-
ereign, that all which is sovereign is play, all supreme value is dissolved (let
us say incidentally that if one looks at things from this point of view, one
sees to what point Nietzsche distances himself from fascism, since the
latter tries to construct a supreme value with the help of processes that
the fascists would probably have liked to borrow from the techniques
associated with the unconscious that have created the supreme values
from the past, but which they have essentially produced from the pro-
cesses of work that never exceed the calculation of outcomes).
But since I come round in my turn to finding myself some precedents,
I must add that the thought of Hegel has retained for me a fundamental
value. In one sense, there is probably nothing more contrary to my own
thinking or that of Nietzsche than that of Hegel. But, [if] Hegel’s phil-
osophy can be considered as a philosophy of work, at the same time it
constantly develops in opposition to every thought. So much so that no
thought is possible that does not derive from it. One can add the
unequalled scope of this philosopher, including being the father, prob-
ably denied, of Marx. Things are thus: Hegel, completed by Marx, has so
well constructed a philosophy of work that negative philosophy, or, if
you wish, anti-philosophy, that can be imagined from play as its basis,
differs as little as possible from what I would call Hegelian Marxism.
Marx had already pretended that he had put Hegel back on his feet. He
was starting from what Hegel himself had said, which is that the phil-
osopher is defined by the fact that, unlike everybody, he (sic) walked on
his head. I am myself strongly tempted to return to walking on my head.
That said, I must say a word about the relationship that could legit-
imately appear between my way of seeing and that of Heidegger. Indeed,
Heidegger’s research leads him, like me, to the opposite of these
246 Theory, Culture & Society 35(4–5)

representations of everyday life that relate to the thought behind work

and science. But in my case, besides negative developments, I hold on
above all to the experience of play, first of all to the experience that must
necessarily precede and overflow reflection, and not to the development
of thought that can in fact willingly take for its object the opposite of the
product of work that being is. It thus leads to the consideration of the
sacred. I must say that this way of doing things does not put my mind at
rest. It seems to me necessary to make a clear decision and not to develop
in any way a thought that belongs to the professional world. I must also
speak about a neglect which is perhaps Heidegger’s fatal weakness.
I would add [that] Heidegger systematically neglected the share of experi-
ence that the history of the sacred provides. He turns away from the
history of the sacred, and neither does he appear to me to hold on to
the possibility of personal experience, which probably circumscribes his
observation of the data that exist directly around him within the frame-
work of Christianism.
Lastly, can I also say that, no doubt after an inevitable detour, I must
principally situate Freud at the origin of this way of seeing that I have
wanted to outline today in broad terms. Freud is not strictly speaking a
philosopher. And the philosophy upon which Freud relies is surely at
the opposite pole of what I have wanted to express. Yet precisely to the
extent that he has reached into the domain of the dream and more gen-
erally into that of the unconscious, it is no accident that he has been one
of the guides, often the first guide, for those who have detached them-
selves from the world of work and science, searching beyond the partly
illusory riches of this world for an answer to the nostalgia that perhaps
each of us in the end has kept for a sovereign value, even if such a value
were dissolved, somehow circumvented, yet drawing a decisive irreduci-
bility from the fact that it is in the end laughable. We reach, wordless,
through the unconscious, through laughter, what in any way cannot be
subjugated, what, beneath its seeming powerlessness, is fully sovereign.
It is what in the completely reasonable world will have an even greater
impact because the triumph of reason will have occasioned a reduction
that will have more clearly detached that value from traditional institu-
tions to which it seems today most often to be connected. It is what
allows me to assert today an essential solidarity with all those who like
you want to contribute to the completion of this reasonable world.
Indeed, I am today with you in contributing to this effort perhaps by
bringing to you useful outcomes, at least because of the fact that this
evening I have been very happy to participate in your outside activities.

I propose the following relating to the theories that Freud has main-
tained in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. They are mainly paradoxical.
Bataille 247

In fact, play represented as an ultimate truth goes against the impulse

constituting knowledge.
Knowledge is founded upon a reality which is reduced if not to
necessity at least to the probability that sees play as the unlikely part
of the real.
It is a matter of emphasizing the unlikely.
It is a matter thus of inviting thought to dwell upon what breaks it,
what dissolves it.
These reflections are close to religious reflection and would be incon-
ceivable if they were not tied to a view of the world equivalent to that
which we sometimes find in religion.
But tonight I will limit myself to speak about a specific idea that Freud
proposed, the idea of pleasure.
It is possible that the ways of seeing introduced in my paradoxical
reflections allow one to resolve problems that emerged and are still emer-
ging in psychoanalysis.
In opposition to Freud, I propose the identity of play and pleasure.
Here are the perspectives that belong to this hypothesis.
No definition of play has a decisive importance, but it is possible to
follow the impulse of play in a particular direction.
I assume that play, like laughter, eroticism, the sacred, grasped inde-
pendently of reflection, can be known before reflection.
The most remarkable form which the hazard of play can consist of is
the risk of death. We see from the beginning that beyond a certain limit,
the risk of death suppresses the pleasure of play, and even play itself. It’s
by reference to this fundamental ambiguity regarding this continuous
and inescapable metamorphosis that we should pursue our reflection.
There is no given entity, but an impulse which a dialectical thought
alone can follow.
To the theories of Freud, I will try to substitute a dialectical movement
that implicates particularly the relationship of the death instinct and
the pleasure principle, the relation of dream10 to trauma, sadism and
That which emerges in the last instance ties pleasure to an inversion,
an overtaking of the limited data that are established in the normal state.
(In play or in sexual activity, there is perhaps the beginning [of] a similar
inversion in the case of the animal.) It is the opposite of the suppression
of an anxiety. It is the emergence of an element of fascination that’s
found in the sacred.
Whether it be a matter of the sacred, of pleasure or some other aspect,
it is always what Otto (1929) has described as fascinans – which it is
necessary to recognize equally in the most frivolous of jokes – it is
play, it is the improbable, which makes its appearance; besides, its
peak is death to the extent that play is never entirely itself unless death
dwells in it. Death reveals the improbable, it reveals it as play.
248 Theory, Culture & Society 35(4–5)

This way of seeing is up to a point close to Heidegger, but usually

Heidegger principally constructs possibilities for thought. What I am
proposing is above all the experience of play in its various aspects, past
(historical) or present, not the elaboration of thought. My way of seeing
is dangerous. It leaves elaboration trailing and puts destruction in the
Even if by chance it may speak. . . it ends up turning the philosopher
into a man in rags (guenille), a lumpen-intellectual if you wish, for play in
spite of everything can be located: it is the opposite of work (cite
Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo).
Of course Hegel’s philosophy reaches this point to the extent that, as it
is a philosophy of work, it is at the same time principally an art of
elaborating opposites; yet, it is nevertheless, in relation to it, the opposite
of what a philosophy of play would be, if such a philosophy were
Text edited by Marina Galetti
Translation and abstract by Couze Venn

This is a translation of the article ‘L’ambiguı̈té du plaisir et du jeu’, originally published in
French in Les Temps Modernes by Gallimard. It has been translated into English for
publication in Theory, Culture & Society with the permission of Julie Bataille. Rights and
permissions queries should be sent to Julie Bataille via Les Hommes sans épaules e´ditions
( The abstract and keywords have been added for this English trans-
lation and were not part of the original publication.

Translator’s Notes
‘L’ambiguı̈té du plaisir et le jeu’ is the title that appears in paper 2 of
Georges Bataille’s manuscript. Nevertheless, Bataille barred such after-
wards. Therefore, we chose the new title that comes out of the text during
the lecture that Bataille gave at Sainte-Anne on 21 October 1958 upon
the invitation of Jacques Lacan, in accordance with the report of the
psychoanalyst Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni, who was present at the con-
ference ‘Sur l’ambiguı̈té du plaisir et du jeu’ (1987. ‘La transgression chez
Georges Bataille et l’interdit analytique’, in Écrits d’ailleurs. Georges
Bataille et les ethnologues. Texts edited by Dominique Lecoq and Jean-
Luc Lory. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, p. 67).
The lecture remained unpublished until the original French text was
edited and annotated by Marina Galletti on the basis of the manuscript
kept at the Bibliothèque nationale, Papiers Georges Bataille, Boı̂te
18,B,f, 91–131; 39 pages numbered by Bataille 1–39) with the authoriza-
tion of Julie Bataille; it first appeared in Les Temps Modernes 629, 2005:
7–28, with the title ‘L’ambiguı̈té du plaisir et du jeu’. The terms in
square brackets are added by Marina Galletti, whose transcriptions
Bataille 249

made necessary some interventions on punctuation and corrections of

some oversights. Footnotes in the text refer to Galletti’s editorial notes.
The manuscript has been re-read. For this re-issue we would like to thank
Nicola Apicella.

1. I found the correct citation. Bataille had written ‘sentimental’ instead of
2. Underneath ‘will present’ Bataille added ‘will cite’.
3. Bataille at first wrote ‘make myself be understood’.
4. The citation is to the first sentence of Au-dela’ du principe du plaisir [Beyond
the Pleasure Principle], doubtless translated into French, like the other cit-
ations, by Bataille himself.
5. Bataille wrote initially: ‘this does not mean that I deprive it of its meaning’.
6. Bataille refers freely to a passage in Caillois (1958: 23).
7. He first read Freud in 1923, which is the date when he borrowed, from the
Bibliothèque nationale, Introduction à la psychoanalyse [Introduction to
Psychoanalysis] (1922), translated by Samuel Jankélévitch.
8. In the year in which Bataille gave this lecture, a new edition appeared of
Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra. Un livre pour tous et pour personne [Thus Spoke
Zarathoustra. A Book for All and None], translated by Henri Albert (Club du
meilleur livre).
9. Papiers Georges Bataille, Boı̂te 12 D, 8–11. Four pages recto, numbered by
Bataille 1–4, on each of which he has added ‘Résumé’ [Summary] at the top
right-hand corner. It refers to the summary of the lecture ‘On the Ambiguity
of Pleasure and Play’, to which Marina Galletti appended two pages of
preparatory notes, mainly quotations from Freud, and a plan for Le Pur
Bonheur [Pure Happiness], anticipating ‘(a) Theory of Religion?; (b) Lectures
on non-knowledge; (c) Three essays on play: 1. Article on Huizinga; 2.
Article on Caillois; 3. Conference on play (reviewed?)’.
10. Bataille at first wrote ‘return’.

Caillois, Roger (1958) Les Jeux et les Hommes (Le masque et le vertige). Paris:
Fechner, Theodor (1873) Einige Ideen zur Schopfungs und
Entwicklungsgeschichte der Organismen. Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von
Breithopf und Härtel.
Freud, Sigmund (1930) Le Mot d’esprit dans ses rapports avec l’inconscient
[Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious], vol. VIII in the Standard
Edition, trans. Bonaparte, Marie and Nathan, Marcel. Paris: Gallimard.
Huizinga, Johan (1951 [1938]) Homo Ludens. Essai sur la fonction sociale du jeu,
trans. Seresia, Cécile. Paris: Gallimard.
Lalande, André (1926) Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, 2nd
edn. Paris: Félix Alcan.
Otto, Rudolf (1929) Le Sacre´: l’e´le´ment non rationnel dans l’ide´e du divin et sa
relation avec le rationnel. Paris: Payot. [In English as: The Idea of the Holy: An
250 Theory, Culture & Society 35(4–5)

Inquiry Into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation
to the Rational].

Couze Venn is Emeritus Professor, Department of Media &

Communication, Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-
author of Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and
Subjectivity (Routledge, 1998), author of Occidentalism: Modernity and
Subjectivity (SAGE, 2000), The Postcolonial Challenge: Towards
Alternative Worlds (SAGE, 2006), Inequality, Poverty, Education
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, co-authored with Francesca Ashurst), and
After Capital (SAGE, 2018). He is Managing Editor and Reviews Editor
of Theory, Culture & Society.

Marina Galetti teaches French literature at the University of Rome III.

As a Bataille specialist, she has reconstructed the communitarian experi-
ence of the writer in her book Georges Bataille, L’Apprenti Sorcier (1999),
partially published in Japanese (Chikuma Shobo, 2006) and in English
(The Sacred Conspiracy, Atlas Press, 2017), and in her essay ‘La comu-
nità ‘‘impossibile’’ di Georges Bataille’ (2008). She collaborated in the
edition of Romans et re´cits de Bataille published by Gallimard in the
collection Bibliothe`que de la Ple´iade (2004; republished 2014).

This article is part of the Theory, Culture & Society special issue on
‘Bataille and Heterology’, edited by Roy Boyne and Marina Galletti.