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Session 6: Gift, symbolic exchange and the sacred & Profane

Arts, Myth &Imagination


Identify an example from popular culture that incorporates psychoanalytic themes - be prepared to justify your choice.

Aims & Objectives:

Aims: To understand notions of gift, symbolic exchange and the sacred & ProfaneObjectives:

  • Identify the role and function of gift economies, symbolic exchange and the sacred & profane
  • Explore the relationship between gift economies, symbolic exchange, the sacred & profane and art and myths
  • Evaluate and appy the relationships to your own practice..

George Bataille (1897-1962) was a French writer, philosopher, and intellectual whose work traversed various fields including literature, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. He is known for his provocative and often transgressive exploration of themes such as eroticism, symbolic exchange, death, excess, the sacred and profane and the gift economy.

George Bataille

The ProfaneThe profane refers to the mundane, ordinary aspects of life - the world of the everyday. The profane is characterized by familiarity, utility, and rationality, devoid of the awe-inspiring qualities of the sacred.

Sacred and Profane

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1647–52

The SacredIn contrast, Bataille defines the sacred as that which is imbued with a sense of mystery, awe, and transcendence. The sacred transcends the realm of ordinary experience and is often associated with religious, spiritual, or numinous phenomena.

Sacred and Profane

The Sacred: encompasses experiences and objects that evoke feelings of reverence, fascination, ecstasy and fear. It includes religious rituals, sacred texts, sacred spaces, and divine beings. The sacred is often associated with taboos, mysteries, and rituals that transcend rational understanding.The Profane: The profane, on the other hand, pertains to the ordinary, everyday aspects of existence. It includes mundane activities, material objects, and social interactions that lack the transcendent qualities of the sacred.

Sacred and Profane: Characteristics

The sacred and the profane play crucial roles in shaping social structures, collective identities, and cultural practices. Religious institutions, in particular, serve as custodians of the sacred, providing rituals, myths, and symbols that define the boundaries of acceptable behavior and belief.Bataille emphasizes the subversive potential of the profane, which challenges and transgresses the norms and taboos imposed by the sacred. The profane can manifest in acts of rebellion, creativity, and individual expression that disrupt established hierarchies and power structures.

Sacred and Profane: Role in Society

The concept of the "informe" (translated as "formless" or "shapeless") plays a significant role in his exploration of the sacred and the profane. The informe represents a state of indeterminacy, ambiguity, and formlessness that disrupts traditional categories and boundaries.

Sacred and Profane: The Informe

Jacques-André BOIFFARD, Big Toe (1929)

Disruption of Boundaries: The informe as a force that disrupts the established boundaries between the sacred and the profane. The informe blurs distinctions between categories, challenging traditional dichotomies (oppositions) and hierarchies. The sacred is often associated with order, stability, and transcendence, while the profane is characterized by chaos, contingency, and immanence. The informe disrupts this binary opposition, introducing elements of disorder and ambiguity into both realms.

Sacred and Profane: The Informe

Jacques Boiffard, Mouth, 1929

Ambiguity and Ambivalence: The informe embodies a sense of ambiguity and ambivalence that defies straightforward interpretation. It represents a paradoxical state where opposites converge and distinctions dissolve. The sacred and the profane are not fixed and immutable categories but rather fluid and contingent concepts that are constantly in flux. The informe highlights the inherent ambiguity of these categories, challenging our attempts to neatly categorize and define them.

Sacred and Profane: The Informe

Excess and Waste: The informe is associated with excess and waste, suggesting that it represents the surplus or overflow that lies beyond the limits of rationality and utility. In the realm of the sacred, the informe manifests as the excess of divine power and presence that transcends human comprehension. In the profane sphere, it appears as the waste and decay that disrupts the order and stability of everyday life.

Sacred and Profane: The Informe

Aesthetics and Art: The informe represents a form of aesthetic experience that challenges conventional notions of beauty and harmony.In art, the informe can take the form of abstraction, fragmentation, or deformation, disrupting representational norms and inviting viewers to confront the limits of their perception and understanding.

Sacred and Profane: The Informe

Full Fathom Five, 1947

Autumn Rhythm, 1950

Aesthetics and Art:How does the paintings of Jackson Pollock relate to notions of the informe? Consider the form and content.

Sacred and Profane: The Informe

“Blood and Semen II” (1990)

Piss Christ, 1989

Aesthetics and Art:In what ways does Andres Serrano's photographs relate to the idea of the informe?

Sacred and Profane: The Informe

Nature Study 1994

Louise Bourgeois, The Couple 2009

Louise Bourgeois, Cumul I, 1969

Aesthetics and Art:How does Louise Bourgeois' work deform and disrupt representational norms?

Sacred and Profane: The Informe

Monster: Pink,1998

Untitled (Cravings White) 1988

Aesthetics and Art:What does South Korean artist Lee Bul's work have in common with Louise Bourgeois? How does it relate to the informe?

Sacred and Profane: The Informe

Definition:Symbolic exchange refers to a mode of social interaction and communication where goods, services, and gestures are exchanged for their symbolic significance rather than their utilitarian value.Unlike in market economies where goods are exchanged based on their exchange value and utility, in symbolic exchange, the focus is on the expressive, ritualistic, and symbolic dimensions of exchange.Symbolic exchange involves a form of communication that transcends language and rationality, operating at the level of shared meanings, values, and emotions within a community.

Symbolic Exchange

Symbolic Exchange - Characteristics:Excess and waste: Symbolic exchange often involves acts of excess where resources are expended beyond what is strictly necessary for survival or utility. This excess is seen as essential for the maintenance of social cohesion and the expression of collective identity.Reciprocity: It is based on principles of reciprocity and mutual obligation. Gifts, gestures, and sacrifices are given with the expectation of some form of return, though this return may be indirect or delayed.Sacred and profane: Symbolic exchange blurs the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, often involving rituals, ceremonies, and symbolic acts that evoke a sense of awe, mystery, and transcendence. It is through these rituals that individuals and communities affirm their connection to something greater than themselves.

Symbolic Exchange - Role in Society: Symbolic exchange plays a crucial role in the formation and maintenance of social bonds, collective identity, and cultural continuity. It is through the exchange of symbols, rituals, and gestures that societies reaffirm their shared values, beliefs, and norms. Symbolic exchange also serves as a mechanism for the expression of individual and collective desires, fears, and aspirations that may be repressed or marginalized within formal economic structures. Symbolic exchange is inseparable from power dynamics, social hierarchy, and the distribution of resources within society. It reflects and reinforces existing social structures while also providing avenues for resistance, subversion, and creative expression.

Symbolic Exchange - Relation to Myth: Myths provide the narrative and symbolic framework within which exchange takes place. Myths are repositories of shared meanings, values, and archetypes that shape collective consciousness and guide social practices. Through myths, individuals and communities make sense of their place in the world, negotiate their relationships with the divine, the natural world, and each other, and articulate their deepest desires and fears. Myths serve as the catalyst for rituals, ceremonies, and symbolic acts of exchange, providing the symbolic language through which participants communicate and negotiate their identities, obligations, and aspirations.

Both Bataille and Mauss were interested in understanding economic systems beyond the realm of market exchange. Mauss' work, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, laid the groundwork for studying gift-giving practices in non-capitalist societies.Mauss proposed that gifts are not simply transactions but embody social relationships, obligations, and expectations. Gifts create bonds of reciprocity that extend beyond individual transactions, fostering social cohesion and solidarity.Bataille builds upon Mauss's by emphasizing the symbolic dimensions of gift exchange. Gifts are not just economic transactions but convey meanings, values, and emotions that transcend their material form.

Gift Economy

What is a totem?Totemism is a term that refers to an animal or plant associated either with a group of blood-related persons (a family) or with part of a tribe. The plant or animal is a totem. As such, totemism is a word used to define relationships. A taboo implies something forbidden or to be avoided.A tribe may be said to exhibit totemism if it is divided into a fixed number of groups, each of which has a relationship to a specific plant or animal totem. Members in the group cannot change this relationship, and normally members must marry outside the group. A totem may be a feared animal, an edible plant, or any standard food.

Totem and Taboo

What is a taboo?A taboo is something agreed by society which should be avoided. It has been associated with totemism in the sense that contact with totems was in some places forbidden. In some cases the animal symbolized by the totem could not be eaten or only eaten during certain rituals. One of the major taboos in most societies is the prohibition of incest, or sexual contact between relatives or groups.

Totem and Taboo

Peer Review:

Your presentation deadline is:15/4/2023. You were asked to develop and initial plan for your your presentation - peer review this with your peers and tutor (see the next slide). Highlight any targets for improvement and development.

Presentation: Checklist

  • Have you selected a chosen topic?
  • Are you able to justify the ways in which you chosen topic relates to notions and theories of myth and imagination?
  • Have you chosen the form of your creative myth and imagination intervention (writing, poetry, artwork, music, dance, theatre, ritual or multimedia)?
  • Are there opportunities for audience participation?
  • How does your intervention approach relate to arts education and human wellbeing in general?
  • Have you identified relevant literature to support your intervention?.
  • What might be the conclusion to your presentation?

Directed Task:

  • Develop your presentation based upon your identified targets.


  • Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. City Lights Publishers, 1986.
  • Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy. Zone Books, 1991.
  • Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. U of Minnesota Press, 1985.
  • Bataille, Georges. Theory of Religion. Zone Books, 1989.
  • Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. City Lights Publishers, 1986.
  • Hollier, Denis. Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille. MIT Press, 1992.
  • Stoekl, Allan. Bataille's Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability. U of Minnesota Press, 2007.
  • Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Routledge, 2002.