From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Acéphale (from the Latin a-cephalus, headless or without a chief) designs both a public review created by Georges Bataille (which counted five issues, from 1936 to 1939) and a secret and esoteric society formed by Bataille and some other members whom had sworn to keep silence. Bataille himself maintained close links with the Surrealism movement in Paris.
Acéphale, the review
Dated June 24, 1936, the first issue of Acéphale was composed of only eight pages. The cover was illustrated by a drawing from André Masson, which takes 80% of the page. This drawing openly inspires itself from the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, the Vitruvian Man, but the latter is decapitated and his sex covered by a skull. Under the title Acéphale, one may read the mentions Religion. Sociologie. Philosophie followed on the next line by the expression the sacred conjuration (la conjuration sacrée).
The first article, signed by Bataille, is titled "The Sacred Conjuration" and calls "secretly or not... to become altogether other, or cease to be". Further on, Bataille wrote: "Human life is exceeded of serving as head and reason of universe. Insofar as it becomes this head and this reason, insofar as it becomes necessary to the universe, it accepts serfdom."
This reference to Nietzsche's philosophy must be put in context of the times: whilst most of Europe has been conquered by fascism, Nietzsche was reinvindicated by Nazism as one of its upmost thinkers — despite the various explicit attacks of Nietzsche against anti-semitism, nationalism and racism. Thus, unsurprisingly the German philosopher wasn't really popular at the time in France.
The second issue of the review begins with a large article titled Nietzsche and fascists, where Bataille starts by violently attacking Elisabeth Förster, Nietzsche's sister who had married in 1885 a notorious antisemitic, Bernhard Förster — the wedding had lead to a final rupture between Nietzsche and his sister. Bataille hereby called Elisabeth Elisabeth Judas-Förster, recalling Nietzsche's declaration: "To never frequent anyone whom is involved in this bare-faced fraud concerning races."
The same issue contains an inedited traduction of Heraclitus from Nietzsche, an article from Jean Wahl titled Nietzsche and the Death of God, which is a commentary of a text from Karl Jaspers on Nietzsche.
The other issues are also centered on Nietzsche. The last one, prepared but ultimately not published, was titled Nietzsche's madness (La folie de Nietzsche).
Collaborators of the review
Apart from Bataille who signs most of the texts, Roger Caillois (issue 3 and 4), Pierre Klossowski (issue 1, 2, 3 and 4), André Masson, Jules Monnerot (issue 3 and 4), Jean Rollin and Jean Wahl (in the second issue) also participated in the review.
The Secret Society
Because of its very nature, it is difficult to describe the society's acts. Bataille refered several times to Marcel Mauss whom had studied secret societies in Africa, describing them as a "total social phenomenon". On this model, he organized several nocturne meetings in the woods, near an oak which had been struck by lightning. Members of the Acéphale society were required to adopt several rituals, such as refusing to shake hand with anti-semitics or celebrating the decapitation of Louis XVI, event which prefigured the "chiefless crowd" targed by "acéphalité". Members of the society are also invited to meditation, on texts of Nietzsche, Freud, Sade and Mauss read during the assemblies.
The Encyclopaedia Da Costa
They also published Encyclopaedia Da Costa (Da Costa Encyclopédique) meant to coincide with the 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, but due to printing delays, the encyclopedia was not distributed until months after the exhibition ended. Ironically modelled after the format of a conventional encyclopedia, it lambasted social and individual conventions with an unprecedented fervor, as well as perpetrating more recondite clusters of ideas.
Perhaps its most insolent entry was the "License to Live", a faux governmental form requesting vital statistics from the bearer in order to enforce its legal fiat; the penalty for failing to keep the document "in order" was death. It is most likely another invention of the mind of Marcel Duchamp, typographer for the Encyclopaedia Da Costa, and a gesture that, in keeping with the best of Surrealism, had no obvious relationship to the art object as it is commonly known. A precursor to "License to Live" appears in an earlier note in Duchamp's Green Box, published in 1934 but written 20 years earlier, where he imagines a society in which people must pay for the air they breathe.
By the end of the century the encyclopedia fell into obscurity, partly because those who created it actively discouraged interested parties from procuring copies.
- Documents, a Surrealist journal edited by Georges Bataille from 1929 through 1930
- La Révolution surréaliste - the surrealist publication between 1924 and 1929 in Paris
- Minotaure - was a primarily surrealist-oriented publication founded by Albert Skira in Paris from 1933 to 1939
- View - an American art magazine published in the 1940s
- VVV - a New York journal published by emigré European surrealists from 1942 through 1944
Texts from Georges Bataille
- L’apprenti Sorcier : Ce que j’ai à dire, éd. de la Différence, Paris, 1937
- Acéphale, réédition des numéros publiés et du numéro final non publié, éd. Jean-Michel Place, Paris, 1995
- L’Apprenti Sorcier (textes, lettres et documents (1932-1939) rassemblés, présentés et annotés par Marina Galletti), Éditions de la Différence, Paris, 1999
- Maurice Blanchot, La communauté inavouable, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris,
- Marcel Mauss, Manuel d’ethnographie, Petite bibliothèque Payot, Paris, 1967
- Michel Surya, Georges Bataille, la mort à l’œuvre, Gallimard, Paris, 1992
- L’unebévue, n° 16 : Les communautés électives, EPEL, 2000
- Stephan Moebius, Die Zauberlehrlinge. Soziologiegeschichte des Collège de Sociologie, Konstanz 2006.