an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 5, March-April 2008, ISSN 1552-5112




   The Impossible Thought of Lingchi in Georges Bataille's The Tears of Eros


Darren Jorgensen






In Formless: A User’s Guide (1997), Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss critique a certain history of modernism. They take Georges Bataille at his word that informe, or formless, is "a term that serves to bring things down in the world" and describe its “operation” for undoing the formalisations of twentieth century art.[1] As James Elkins notes in "The Very Theory of Transgression: Bataille, Lingchi, and Surrealism," the effect of Formless has been to inspire artists to practice along the lines it set out, so that it has become a user's guide not for deconstruction but for its own positive appropriation.[2] In the final pages of the book Krauss proposes that informe has “its own legacy to fulfil, its own destiny,” words that tacitly sanction its development in art.[3] What was for Bataille a way of negating the impulse to classify turns, then, into a history of modern art that is still playing itself out.


Contesting this theory of transgressive art put forward in Formless, Elkins turns to Bataille's publication of photographs of lingchi, or the death by a hundred cuts.[4] Elkins argues that these devastating photographs, which were published in Bataille’s The Tears of Eros (1961) but not in Bois and Krauss’ Formless, out-transgress Bois and Krauss's transgressive ideas about modern art. The reason Bois and Krauss did not reproduce the lingchi photographs is that their extremity would “ruin” the art in Formless, undoing artifice with an unbearable reality.[5] Yet as we shall see, informe is not necessarily transgression, nor can transgression be considered apart from Bataille's philosophy of eroticism that is outlined in The Tears of Eros and his earlier text Eroticism (1957).[6] While transgression played a formative role in the development of poststructuralism and subsequently critical theory itself, its appropriation from Bataille has all too often neglected this eroticism. For Bataille did not distinguish the real from artifice, the movement of transgression from its representations in art and literature. While Elkins wants to argue that the power of lingchi is to exceed the power of any art, and so to negate the idea of an art of transgression, this argument makes a partition between art and lingchi, art and reality, that is not consistent with a philosophy of eroticism in which such classifications spill into each other.


When faced with images of lingchi it is difficult not to share Elkins' revulsion. He explains their effect with the idea that they trap death, a death that lies somewhere between the victim's moments of suffering and demise, captured over a sequence of camera shots.[7] What Elkins does not say, but is implicit in his argument, is that this aspect of the photographs is connected to the precise method of death at work here.[8] What may be unique to these images is the sheer extent of suffering that the victims are visibly enduring, and their documentation of other human beings who are imposing this suffering.  Elkins’ attention to the shock that the photographs contain, and his concomitant reluctance to interpret them, is a refusal to converse about the pain and cruelty so evident within them.


In an earlier book, The Object Stares Back (1997), Elkins narrated the photographs, seeing the victim as a woman among male executioners and witnesses. Thinking of the execution as symptomatic of gender relations, including the possibility that this was an adulteress being put to death, was what made these images "difficult to come to terms with."[9] Here the difficulty of the image did not prevent its interpretation, but was rather dependent upon an investigation of that image’s content. In his 2004 article “The Very Theory of Transgression,” Elkins discusses the accounts of physicians and penal theorists who have looked extensively at the photographs. The methods of these scholars have to do with a certain kind of looking, one immersed in the particular reason of this or that specialisation, reasoning away the horror of the images. To this approach we can contrast a certain refusal to look in Elkins' descriptions of the victim as being of "indeterminate sex." This shift from specific to indeterminate gender in Elkins' work here is part of his withdrawal from the very possibility of interpreting the images.[10]


Bataille suggested another way of looking at lingchi photographs in The Tears of Eros that is not entirely repulsed by their cruelty. Following on from his earlier text Eroticism in which he argued that death and sex collapse into each other at moments of orgasm, in ritual or in sacrifice, The Tears of Eros juxtaposes Bataille's own writing with images of prehistoric objects, modern paintings and photography. What unifies these images is their relation to the author’s philosophy of eroticism. In eroticism, achieved at moments when terms such as "divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror" blur together and become interchangeable, one may experience the continuity of life beyond oneself, relieving the physical tension of discontinuity to which we are bound by death.[11] It is by such a dissolution that the images reproduced in The Tears of Eros, including those of lingchi, may be understood as a series of contemplations on that continuity. Through this idea of eroticism we can make more sense of the crowds of onlookers that surround lingchi executions, of the attraction of looking at extreme suffering.


For Bataille, this attraction lies in a transgression of those prohibitions by which we structure our lives. Lingchi violates such transgressions, and carries on a tradition of sacrifice in human societies. Bataille noted that after a sacrifice, "what remains, what the tense onlookers experience in the succeeding silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one."[12] The evidence of a desire to see lingchi, evidence that lies within the photographs themselves, suggests there is more to understand about these images than Elkins suggests, that they are just as compulsive as repulsive.


It is important to note that the differences between the gazes of Bataille and Elkins upon lingchi is related not only to the different philosophies underpinning the two author’s writing but also to the differences between the photographs they publish to document them. In his essay Elkins refers to the series that psychoanalyst Adrian Borel is supposed to have given Bataille in 1926, and which are published in The Tears of Eros.[13] Yet Elkins does not publish these particular photographs. He illustrates “The Very Theory of Transgression” with a separate set of images taken in Beijing in 1904 that he had already printed in The Object Stares Back.[14] There is a repression at work here of the photographs that Bataille actually published, which is significant because these photographs more clearly demonstrate the significance of lingchi for Bataille's philosophy of eroticism (figs 1, 2, 3).

Figure 1.  Photographer unknown; Lingchi, the cutting of the left leg; date unknown; photograph; book illustration; Chinese Torture / Supplice Chinois website.



Figure 2. Photographer unknown; Lingchi; date unknown; photograph; book illustration; Chinese Torture / Supplice Chinois website.


Figure 3.  Photographer unknown; Lingchi, untying Convict's arms; date unknown; photograph; book illustration; Chinese Torture / Supplice Chinois website.


What Bataille finds in these photographs is something he describes as “at once ecstatic(?) and intolerable.” Following the word “ecstatic” with a question mark in parentheses Bataille refers to an expression in the victim's face that by reason should not be there.[15] Referring to Bataille's discovery of this expression, the historian Jérome Bourgon writes that:


having viewed over fifty photographs from at least four different executions by lingchi, we can attest that something readable as an ”ecstatic” expression is evident only in the two photos published in The Tears of Eros, and even then the reading is subjective and questionable.[16]


It is this expression that Bataille is interested in, an expression that Elkins does not mention, and which is more clearly visible in those photographs actually published in The Tears of Eros.


In the original 1961 French edition of The Tears of Eros, one of these images is reproduced on the scale of a single page (fig. 1). The torturers and witnesses are all looking at the victim’s left leg being cut off toward the bottom of its composition. For the viewer of the photograph, the angles of these legs and the pole to which he is tied point upward to the face, where the lightness of the sky relieves the darkness below. There the victim's face looks upward, eyes rolled back, and it is there that Bataille finds the expression of which he writes. In the second picture on the adjoining page (fig. 2), a large wound in the victim’s chest sits in the centre of the composition. To relieve the gaze from this horrific sight the gaze travels upward, toward the end of a pole that is again propping up the upper part of the body, and to the light at the top of the image. The face there looks upward, backlit by the open sky, again with an expression that might be mistaken for ecstasy.[17] It is to these faces that Bataille turns to find the very contrary of suffering.  To cite the full passage in The Tears of Eros where he makes this extraordinary claim:


I have never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic(?) and intolerable. I wonder what the Marquis de Sade would have thought of this image, Sade who dreamed of torture, which was inaccessible to him, but who never witnessed an actual torture session.[18]


Following this thought of ecstasy with a question mark, the author places his own observation into doubt. I want to propose that Bataille here puts into parentheses the impossibility of making such an observation. It is no coincidence that the Marquis de Sade shadows Bataille’s thoughts. For Bataille was still struggling with the impossibility of thinking about Sade at this point in his life, of conceiving the "impossible liberty" that Sade took with the imagination (original emphasis).[19] In "Sade" (1947), Bataille argues that even Sade could not tolerate Sade, that it was only by going beyond himself that Sade was able to write as he did.[20] The intolerability of Sade's ideas, the way that they pushed past limits of both disgust and reason, are comparable to lingchi. In both cases representation reveals that what should be impossible can be possible.


Bataille’s thoughts about Sade, published before his publication of lingchi photographs in The Tears of Eros in 1961, make an argument for the necessity of thinking the unthinkable.[21] Giving evidence at the trial of Sade’s publisher in 1957, Bataille defended the necessity for interrogating “the depths of what man signifies.”[22] In both Eroticism and “Sade” he puts the demand for such a thought into practice, in the former with the concept of sovereignty and in the latter with an argument for a Sade who reveals man as he really is.[23] Thus, rather than having a purely averse reaction to the lingchi images, in Bataille this aversion is accompanied by its own interpretation, in a practice of thinking the impossible that veers between a recoiling in horror and an acknowledgement of the relevance of this horror for the constitution of man. It is not so much lingchi that is intolerable here as a thought about lingchi that seems impossible, because to think it is to transgress the human which is constituted by the very prohibition of such a thought. Yet for Bataille this impossibility demands to be thought because it exceeds those conditions that bind human beings to the discontinuity of death. This sight of ecstasy is evidence of an "assenting to life up to the point of death," which is the closest Bataille comes to a definition of eroticism.[24]


If Bataille is haunted by Sade in his gaze upon these photographs, Elkins’ view of lingchi is obstructed by the back of a man. In the one image in Elkins’ series where the victim’s face could be mistaken for having an expression of ecstasy, a man looms like a shadow in the foreground. The viewer’s gaze upon this photograph (fig. 4) shifts back and forth between the victim and this figure. Any central focus in the image is diffused by the overlapping planes of foreground and middle ground, and by the detail of people standing to the left and right. When Elkins published this photograph in "The Very Theory of Transgression," he did not identify this figure in the foreground with the chief executioner. Bourgon makes this identification, which places this figure of formidable cruelty in the same line of sight as the viewer of the photograph.[25] That the torturer occupies much of the frame here, that indeed he dominates the composition, foregrounds the relations between the victim and those who surround him. The viewer’s sight of the victim is therefore accompanied by a self-consciousness about the act of looking, as the gaze looks upon this figure who is also looking. It is just such an identification that produces the repulsion from the scene, as if the viewer is implicitly responsible for the suffering in sight.

Figure 4.  Photographer unknown; Lingchi, Execution of Wang Weiqin; 31 October 1904; photograph; book and journal illustration; Chinese Torture / Supplice Chinois website.


This self-consciousness about the circumstances of looking turns up again in Elkins' description of an exhibition of photographs of lynchings.[26] Hosted by galleries in New York and Pittsburgh, it contained photographs of mostly African Americans hanging from trees, bridges and posts, their bodies often showing evidence of cruel torture.[27] They also show crowds of white people standing underneath them, celebrating. Some of the photographs were reproduced as souvenirs and postcards, their distribution amongst participants, as well as family and friends, evidence of a compulsion to look that outlived the event itself. When they were exhibited at the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, no text accompanied the photographs, which were expected to speak for themselves. Elkins plants a seed of doubt about this strategy, an uncertainty that viewers would interpret the exhibition to be about the injustices and horror of the racist history of the United States. He suggests that a lack of context for the images was a mistake, because “a certain disaffection about media and politics, and a certain pictorial sophistication, were taken for granted.”[28]  How could a viewer not have the sophistication, given the overbearing evidence before their eyes, to make conclusions about the racist context of these murders? The Warhol Museum must have also regarded thinking otherwise to be impossible, but it was not so long ago in history that these images were circulated as a celebration rather than as an exposure of this racism. In spite of their content, the photographs still have the capacity to hold the gaze, so much so that, as Elkins reports, the curator of the show in New York found that “people were so stunned it became difficult to keep them moving.”[29] It would be both naïve and irresponsible to the events concerned to dismiss this compulsion to look as only symptomatic of a certain humanitarian concern. Bataille's ideas about eroticism provide only be one way in which these images may bring pleasure. The violence of these events, if not their photographic reproduction and exhibition, may well provide viewers with an opportunity to experience the continuity that eludes the discontinuity of death.


The images in The Tears of Eros which accompany the lingchi photographs are largely carved, painted or drawn by human hand. This is the difference between Eroticism, which does not feature such a wealth of visual production, and The Tears of Eros, wherein writing is subordinated to an abundance of images. While both are a part of Bataille's history of eroticism, the latter turns to visual artefacts for its argument. Elkins argues that the radical incommensurability between the lingchi and the art works undermines the "orderly concept of transgression" in The Tears of Eros.[30] Bataille’s concept of transgression has certainly proved very important for subsequent scholarship. Yet transgression was only ever a component of his philosophy of eroticism, which was. the unifying figure of his last two full-length, non-fiction books, and the means by which the disparate themes of The Tears of Eros, including death, play, work, religion, laughter, art, sacrifice and transgression, are brought together.[31] In the conclusion to Eroticism Bataille addressed his readers with the warning that, "If my reader’s interest in eroticism is of the same order as their interest in separate problems, this book is of no use to them."[32] Bataille’s choice of illustrations in The Tears of Eros promoted eroticism as a comprehension of the lived movement within which violence is embedded.


If, as I have outlined here, the specificity of Bataille's understanding of the photographs of lingchi is the impossibility of thinking about them, a thinking of art is also put in doubt by Bataille. Although Bois and Krauss declare their fidelity to Bataille’s readings of everything from Manet to Sade, Formless actually represents an attenuation of Bataille's work. Bataille's interests ranged far beyond the boundaries of art. It was always Bataille's strategy to mix art with other things, publishing ruminations on subjects ethnographic, biological and otherwise. This is evident in his writings for Documents (1929 – 30) and in the examples of transgression in Eroticism (1957) which were material rather than aesthetic, including war, murder, sacrifice and religious experience. In reducing the scope of informe to art Bois and Krauss reinstate the idealism that they are attempting to refute, turning from the clutter of the world to but one of its forms. In Formless, examples of surrealism, abstract expressionism and conceptualism are reinvigorated so that the effect is to reaffirm the value of established examples of modernist art. Those distinctions that serve to delineate art from everything else in the world, distinctions reinforced by Bois and Krauss in Formless, as well as by Elkins' argument that the lingchi photographs render modernist and avant-garde art powerless, are rendered indistinct by the impossible blurring of what can and can't come into being in Bataille’s concept of eroticism.


We can turn to the images in The Tears of Eros for an idea of what an art immersed in the general movement of eroticism would consist of. These images are all figurative, and depict the human body in transition. The least of these transitions is the movement between being clothed and nude, or in the throes of sexual ecstasy. In the vast majority of cases, the transition is disfiguring, involving some kind of dismemberment or distortion from which a return to form would be physically impossible. The images have been taken from across time, from prehistoric cave paintings of half-men, half-beasts, to Hans Bellmer's biomorphic drawings. There are criticisms that could be made of this selection of art. The art is Eurocentric. The images are from Europe or America, or made by Europeans at the very least. The art of one woman, Dorothea Tanning, stands amongst those of men, and there is a predilection toward naked female torsos in the images. Yet I suspect that these would be historical limitations for Bataille rather than theoretical ones, as his choices were limited to what was available to him. This tension between the figuration of the human body and its concealment or disintegration indicates that the continuity of the images is found not in the figures but in their disintegration, and that the subject here is not the human and its variations but loss of the human.


The emphasis on art in The Tears of Eros indicates that Bataille believed that art could be conceived as a gateway to an impossible thought of this loss. By the standards of this loss, the loss of what constitutes the human, this art must be a failure to some degree, collapsing before the transgression that constitutes its subject. The inability to think about the work of art on the terms of its own loss is the condition by which it brings itself into being. It was Maurice Blanchot who identified the worklessness in Bataille’s writing, and who proposed that work was itself in a relation with worklessness, the refusal of work enabling a consideration of that which refuses to be considered as work. [33] Thus it is that the exigency of the outside becomes the logic by which art constitutes itself, the differentiation of work holding the trace of a continuity by which this work evaporates. Works of art partake of eroticism merely by affirming their own status as works, implicitly dissolving into their own contrary worklessness, in a suspension that has its origins in the relation of being to death. The discontinuity of a structure such as a work is attendant upon our own status as discontinuous people, yet art is itself a reaction to this inescapable state, and an affirmation of the continuity of life beyond oneself. To think about art, then, is to think about this transgressive movement between the two, in order to stage a "permanent revolution", a movement without arrest in either the stratified structures of civilisation or the senselessness of orgiastic experience.[34]


To think the lingchi photographs may be impossible, yet this impossibility cannot be compared to any other. For a correspondence between these images must convert them into forms that speak of the loss of what it means to be human, forms such as torture, cruelty and sadism. Can one compare a man being sawn in half from the groin to that of a woman holding the decapitated head of her lover? Can one compare war and sacrifice? Each event depicted in The Tears of Eros involves a loss that is unrecoverable, a dissolution of the form by which the comparison central to Elkins’ argument, that between lingchi and other images is made possible. This is the precise difference between Bataille's inclusion of the lingchi images in a continuum and that of Elkins, who preserves them as an inassimilable remainder. Elkins places the images outside an economy of art in order that this economy may operate, in a reduction of the other images in The Tears of Eros to representation. Endowing the lingchi with the authority of the real, Elkins preserves the other within his theory, while for Bataille eroticism is a blurring or immersion.


An art informed by Bataille’s concept of eroticism would then be constituted by those destructions that exceed art. This is hardly the operation of informe as described by Bois and Krauss. An operation produces or, in a medical sense, restores its subject, while the movement of eroticism describes loss. This is a loss that vastly exceeds the art that documents transgression, in its continuity exceeding the discontinuity by which art differentiates itself as art.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 5, March-April 2008, ISSN 1552-5112




[1] Bataille cited in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User's Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997) 5; Bois in Ibid: 15, original italics.

[2] James Elkins, "The Very Theory of Transgression: Bataille, Lingchi, and Surrealism," Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 5.2 (2004) 5-19.

[3] Bois and Krauss, Formless: 252.

[4] Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros, trans. Peter Connor (San Francisco: City Lights, 1989).

[5] Elkins, “The Very Theory,” 10

[6] The citations from Eroticism in this article are from an edition with an alternative translation of the title: Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo, trans. Mary Dalwood (Salem, New Hampshire: Ayer, 1984).

[7] Elkins, “The Very Theory,” 5.

[8] It is implicit in Elkin’s argument that other photographs do not bring about the same degree of repulsion. For example the famous photographs of the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc in South Vietnam in 1963, also of a violent death in progress, do not lead to such speculations.

[9] James Elkins, The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1997) 110. The victim has now been identified as a male, Wang Weiqin, who was executed on 30 October, 1904. See the Chinese Torture / Supplice Chinois: Iconographic, Historical and Literary Approaches of an Exotic Representation website, December 2005. At <>. Accessed 12 September, 2006.

[10] Elkins, "The Very Theory," 5.

[11] Bataille, The Tears of Eros: 207.

[12] Bataille, Death and Sensuality: 82.

[13] Elkins, “The Very Theory,” 10. A recent article persuaded me that Borel did not in fact give Bataille these photographs, and that he only stumbled upon them much later. See Jérome Bourgon, "Bataille et le Supplicié Chinois: Erreurs sur la Personne," Chinese Torture / Supplice Chinois website, May 2004. See Accessed 20 August, 2006.

[14] Elkins, The Object Stares Back: 111-114. The history of these images can be found on the Chinese Torture / Supplice Chinois website. See previous note.

[15] Bataille, The Tears of Eros: 206.

[16] Jérome Bourgon, "Georges Bataille and the supplicé chinois: Three Cases of Mistaken Identity," unpublished translation of ”Bataille et le Supplicé Chinois.”

[17] Michel Surya, Bataille's biographer, who argues that these faces hold "an indecipherable expression,” asks whether this is an expression of “[s]uffering so intense as to be unrecognizable in terms of anything that we have ever before seen on a human face?" Cited in Bourgon, "Georges Bataille."

[18] Bataille, The Tears of Eros: 206.

[19] Bataille, "Sade," (1947) Literature and Evil, trans. Alastair Hamilton (New York and London: Marion Boyars, 1985) 103-129, 107. Bataille writes extensively about Sade in this book and in Death and Sensuality, also published in 1957. Earlier, his article "The Use-Value of D.A.F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades)" (originally 1930, translated by Allan Stoekl in The Bataille Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)) 223-236, he argued against literary interpretations of Sade, instead saying that his work should be treated like excrement, both difficult to look at and better to turn away from. By 1957 he has begun to accompany this repulsion with developed interpretations of Sade, of his sovereignty (Eroticism) and authorship in the French revolution ("Sade"). Maurice Blanchot, cited in both works, may have been responsible for this shift in Bataille's work, enabling him to think the impossible. See Jean-Michel Heimonet, "Recoil in Order to Leap Forward: Two Values of Sade in Bataille's Text," Yale French Studies 78 (1990) 227-236 for a description of this doubling in Bataille's writing.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Cited in Michel Surya, Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography, trans. Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson (London: Verso, 2002) 479.

[23] Here 'man' can be taken as a general and gendered case, since the cruelties perpetrated by Sade and in the lingchi photographs are so implicated in patriarchal power and law.

[24] Bataille, Death and Sensuality: 11.

[25] See

[26] Elkins, "The Very Theory," 12-13.

[27] My ideas about these photographs are based on the book James Allen (ed.), Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms, 2000). Elkins observes that the images in this book bear little relation to the exhibition, made up of torn and stained artifacts such as postcards and mantel-size prints (18).

[28] Elkins, “The Very Theory of Transgression,” 18, n. 29.

[29] Quoted in ibid. 13.

[30] Elkins, "The Very Theory," 14.

[31] Significant here is the influence of Michel Foucault's "Préface à la transgression," first published in a special issue of Critique on Bataille published in 1963, and translated as "Preface to Transgression" in Donald F. Bouchard (ed. and trans. with Sherry Simon), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault (Cornell: Cornell UP, 1977) 29-52. For an account of the fate of transgression in French thought, see  Suzanne Guerlac, Literary Polemics: Bataille, Sartre, Valery, Breton (California: Stanford UP, 1977).

[32] Bataille, Death and Sensuality, 273.

[33] See Gillian Rose, "Potter's Field: Death Worked and Unworked", The Blanchot Reader, ed. Michael Holland (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995) 190-208.

[34] Heimonet, 229.