The problem with the idea that « only what can be measured can be managed » : Bataillean intuitions

1 George Bataille is perhaps best known for his contributions to our understanding of how and why we love, but in what follows, we will explore my intuition that he may have some important things to say to management scholars. His political economy is a treasure trove of historical analysis, a true interdisciplinary exploration, and in many ways a playful experimentation that draws us into a reconsideration of what makes us human. Bataille’s writing performs its view on the world, rather than simply stating it, being daring in its propositions, generous in its detail, even excessive in the boldness of its claims. In this way, it succeeds in pulling us towards a radical revision of who we think we are as agents, and the management strategies that flow from such understanding. Bataille challenges our belief in homo economicus, our typical way of thinking about agency within a restrictive calculative perspective preoccupied with scarcity. In return he paints a vivid picture of the often excessive « play » of living organisms. What emerges is a situated, relational human, which we may better describe as « homo ecologicus[1] ».

2 What Bataille may help us understand, is that we do not gather « facts » to weigh our options to make decisions based on utility and profit. Instead, what we value is driven by subjective desire, rooted in complex relational networks that operate as the basis of both constraint and opportunity, intuiting the best ways to remain in relation. We are always in the process of loving, acting, living – we relate first, and rationalize after the fact, in retrospect, always too late. This perspective urges us to rethink the ontological basis of facts versus value distinction. « Facts » are not to be measured, calculated and traded. Instead it is to be observed, understood, and experienced. In reality, it does not exist as such, but is bound up with our ongoing processes of valuation and our experiments in relating to others.

Beyond calculation… Sovereignty

3 The problem with the idea that only what can be measured can be managed, is that it leads to « misery thought », a calculative mindset that can only justify the expense of time, energy and resources when it will pay off in terms of a neat cost-benefit analysis [2]. Bataille’s political economy helps us understand our proclivity towards excess, non-calculative expenditure and relational exuberance, which characterize human behaviour and systems, but in a real sense, all life. He describes the three luxuries of nature, i.e. eating, death and sexual reproduction, as intimately related examples of our basic proclivity towards excess. Death is an inevitable, accidental consequence of eating another species, but death itself, as the inevitable passage of the generations over time is also an exuberant dispersal of molecules and energies, without which no new life can come into being [3]. In a real sense, our embodied life merely traps our molecules only temporarily, and they long to be freed. This desire to escape our bodily constraints is also evident in sexual reproduction, since in it, the individual foregoes his/ her own growth and creates another, generously caring and giving, indefinitely. Yet Bataille goes even further to suggest that the sexual act goes far beyond what is reasonably necessary for reproduction – for him the sexual act is in time, what a tiger is in space – luxurious, excessive, destructive [4]. A squandering of energy, the ultimate luxury. What we witness is what Bataille calls « a draining away, a pure and simple loss, which occurs in any case [5] ». There is no way in which this loss can be explained a somehow useful, because it is not at all a question of utility, but rather one of acceptability, which is a thoroughly subjective and relational affair.

4 What Bataille’s analysis offers, is an understanding of that which lies beyond calculation, that which allows for what he calls « sovereignty ». In trying to understand why so many of our ethics management strategies, or interventions to promote sustainable consumption fails, I found the concept of sovereignty fascinating. We think that fear of punishment would disincentivize misconduct like fraud and corruption, but it does not. We hope that showing people the cost-saving potential of environmentally friendly solutions to waste management and energy use, yet this is often not the main reason why people turn to the solutions. Much stronger motivations seem to be our own values, family practices and upbringing, enjoyment of nature, or in a nutshell – the process of seeking alignment with our own ideas of the beautiful life. We tend to think that appeals to « justice » will move individuals – but the problem is that justice and freedom are in many cases each other’s antithesis. Bataille argues that under the guise of « justice », freedom obtains a « lackluster and neutral appearance » precisely because it offers certain freedoms as compensations for sacrifices [6]. It therefore requires the kind of calculative mindset that defies a sense of freedom and sovereignty.

5 Bataille makes it clear that it is difficult to talk or write about the experience of sovereignty because the object that leads to such experience, withdraws in that moment. It is therefore not something that can be calculated or planned for. Bataille explains that only the « deeply rhythmed movements of music, of poetry, of love, dance have the power to capture and endlessly recapture the moment that counts, the moment of rupture, of fissure [7] ». One poignant example Bataille uses in Volume III of the Accursed Share is that of the « happy tears » that flows when a close relative, who was believed to have died at sea, emerges alive. Bataille recounts how every instance of retelling this story, which occurred in his own family, would unexpectedly bring him to tears. His best explanation of this, is that it is an occurrence that combines a sense of the miraculous, the unanticipated and in some cases, even the sacred. The arrival of tears, laughter, ecstacy, eroticism or poetry corresponds to the very point where the object of thought vanishes [8]. In fact, Bataille argues, we know nothing of what is supremely (souverainement) important to us [9].

(Mis)managing the immeasurable

6 Bataille confronts us with the fact that the immeasurability of the sovereign lays to waste our attempts at « management ». It seems that our motivations to live sustainable lifestyles and act ethically in business has little to do with calculating the consequences or some kind of principled commitment – though we may appeal to principles or favorable outcomes to rationalize our behavior after the fact. We « economize » our action the best we can, to make it seem « reasonable ». In making sense of our decisions and actions we typically resort to miserly perspectives such as « sacrificing pleasure for the sake of principle » or « paying the price for good outcomes ». In the process, we have replaced our intimacy with each other and the world with labor, rational progression, effective operations. All of which has been a degradation from which man have always sought to escape. Through our strange myths, rituals, even cruel rites, Bataille argues, man remains in search of this lost intimacy [10]

7 In fact, as Sørensen explains, Bataille defines the notion of economy as the activity of searching for what we are missing [11]. What seems to have happened over time is that utilitarian calculation became the centre of our pursuit of what is missing. Bataille of course predicted that consumer-capitalism would excel in casting « what is missing » in its own terms, for its own interests. What is missing has been « growth », « new markets », « serving the bottom of the pyramid », etc. But most importantly, what has always been missing is the « new », the « innovative » : new consumer products, new technology, new business models. Capitalism seemed to have moved effortlessly from the consumption of products and services towards the consumption of consumption and more recently the consumption of the social. If the dystopia of the leisure society in which labor is no longer needed or desired materializes, the consumption of the creative will be all that remains. Perhaps this would explain why it is already now so important, to procure and manage « creatives », and harness « creativity ». Art is also increasingly becoming an investment vehicle of choice… the ultimate paradox of productively employing the excessively priced aesthetic objects as vehicles for investment growth.

8 The preoccupation with the « creative » and « creatives » betrays the same attempt at measuring, managing and engineering outcomes. Some acknowledgement is given to the fact that managing « creatives » in certain ways, destroys their « creativity ». But positivists never give up - many empirical studies are now aiming to set things right. It is just a matter of time till they get to the magic formulae to balance intrinsic and extrinsic motivation through organizational incentives, and combine freedom and discipline in workplace structures. Or will they ? Will creativity succeed in continually defying « management » ? What do we lose if it can’t ?

9 The fact is that in our attempt to restore our lost intimacy with the world and each other, we are bound to sacrifice someone or something. The sacrificed allows us to externalize the lost intimacy, and becoming conscious of this does not change the fact that we are prone to continue treading on the seemingly unstoppable mill of producing what is missing [12]. Bataille’s first volume of the Accursed Share does not end on an optimistic note. He believes that because we are prone to acquisition, grasping something, an object, we are incapable of grasping the nothing of pure expenditure. [13] In the process, what makes us human escapes us.

Managing beyond calculation

10 Could it be that in Bataille pessimism there may also lie an opportunity for us as management scholars ? [He would hate that, of course, which makes this piece so much fun to write]. Management will only be able to do what it originally intended, i.e. deal with « household matters », if intimacy and relationality can again find its place in how we understand human behavior. Bataille’s insights allow us to develop an understanding of our desire for « sovereignty » and « moments of sovereignty » as what is missing, and remains missing. It is also important that we never seek to fully possess intimacy, as this would amount to a deception. [14] This entails grappling with the difficult task of understanding what lies beyond calculation, and proposing something instead of calculation, a way of being outside of calculation. Bataille explains that the idea of sovereignty or excess has been relegated to the archaic, the mystical, the primitive – we have come to view it is an affront to reason and intellect, and as such, it has been made suspicious [15]. But without this dimension, would we be ever be able to find a way of being in the world other than as calculative beings ? Are we not missing out on understanding what lies at the heart of our deepest motivations and informs our sense of the best ways to live ? But where do we start our pursuit of this understanding – do we seek our answers in the ever more fascinating findings of neuroscience, or psychology ? Or do we accept the findings of complexity theory around the emergence of order in complex systems ?

11 Henk Oosterling warns against seeking this remainder in either the interiority of the subconscious or the exteriority of the sacred. Instead, he believes it lies in an affective territory in-between individuals in constant de- and reterritorialization [16].The reference to territorialization here being to Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the relational couplings that form the basis of all agency. If Oosterling is right that our attention in understanding human behavior should focus on the constantly shifting affective territory in-between individuals, or what I have been calling the ‘relational space’ between people, animate and inanimate entities, all the disciplines mentioned above should form part of our philosophical enquiry [17]. They help us understand the relational space that forms the rich fabric in and through which our sense of being human emerges. I understand the « sovereignty » that Bataille believes lies at the heart of the unexplored aspects of human motivation as the moments of unanticipated delight or despair that emerge from all of the relationships that form part of any individual’s relational space [18]. It is unique to each individual, yet not solipsistic in any sense.

12 Relational space defies management’s preoccupation with measurement, and so does sovereignty, precisely because the sovereign withdraws as soon as it arrives. As such, it is precisely what is immeasurable that is most valued, as it is most closely related to our own sense of sovereignty. Sovereignty flies in the face of calculative miserliness in all aspects of life and instead embraces relationality in a way that defies measurement. Let us consider a few applications of this insight : Could it be that sustainability would be much better served by a discourse not focused on scarcity, frugality and costs-benefit analyses, but instead on sovereignty ? What would it mean to take relationality seriously in dealing with the reality of climate change ? In drawing on Bataille in analyzing strategies to cope with climate change, Yusoff came to the conclusion that there are two paths : the first one, our usual strategy, is attempting to make the unpredictable predictable through calculation. In the climate change discourse, it entails the computation of polar sea ice retreat in the most analytical way that human beings can devise. But in fact, it also means « to ignore the dimensions of knowledge that threaten the capacity of knowledge to have mastery over the planet [19] ».Yusoff believes that this « splitting of knowledge » comes at a cost – the ignored « non-knowledge » exceeds the capacity of GCMs limited registers and renders their available knowledge useless. The other cost is political – we continue to regulate carbon emissions based on the circulation of energy within a closed system, through strategies like carbon credits etc. The other possibility is to return to the lived experience of people in the Arctic, and appreciating how their practices help us develop a sense of what is truly valued, and valuable. This strategy means risking ourselves, being open to fully grasping the transformations that occur when ice streams retreat. The movement of poetry departs from the known to the unknown and as such, restores the intimacy of knowledge as a form of experience. As Yusoff explains : « With the loss of ice comes a loss of intimacy with the ways of knowing in the Arctic. » This loss of this traditional knowledge, of ways of life – something that cannot be accounted for in what he calls the « vicious circle of accounting in the Arctic ».

13 But what would « management » look like if not preoccupied with measurement ? In the first place, it would avoid the « splitting of knowledge » that Yusoff believes makes us incapable of managing our earthly household. The « management » that could accept sovereignty, looks at the complex, messy history of interrelationships and practices rather than only focusing on « objective » facts and figures, which in order to be generalizable have to scale down on particularity.

14 Our inability to tap into ways of living beyond calculability may lie in the scale of our understanding of relationality. Within much of management research, we tend to perform our calculations within the scope of a single organization and its « stakeholders ». We place the organization at the centre of the stakeholder map and employ stakeholder « salience » models to determine which stakeholder interests to prioritize. Responsible corporations factor these interests into their evaluation of their performance. Some companies, like Unilever decouple potential negative effects of such stakeholders from their corporate growth targets. Others propose internalizing positive and negative externalities, as KPMG’s new vision of value-strategy suggests. In many ways this « works », but in others ways, it gets us embroiled in even more calculation, and leads to even more intolerance of those dimensions of living that are intangible, and defies measurement.

15 Bataille’s distinction between a « general » and a « restrictive » economy is helpful in gauging the limits of a calculative approach. From such a « particular » perspective, we operate within closed systems in which scarcity dictates [20]. In such systems, the calculation logics of the circular economy naturally have to inform the production and flows of products and services. From the particular perspective – the corporation is preoccupied with productive use of what is perceived as « scarce resources », to the benefit of the corporation and its immediate stakeholders. The scarcity motive perpetuates and strengthens the calculative impulse, by which each investment needs to yield benefits, and a careful cost-benefit analysis has to be employed to justify any efforts. Whatever cannot be calculated, falls outside of the equation of what can be managed, and valued. This is why corporations struggle to factor in stakeholder concerns about the loss of livelihoods and ways of living, or aesthetic considerations. The best they can do in such cases is to offer financial compensation, which again requires calculation in pecuniary terms.

16 From the « general » point of view, the assumption is that within an open system, there exists not scarcity, but excess. Bataille’s main reference point for this is the exudation of the sun’s energy, which is expended excessively [21]. What I think makes Bataille’s « general economy » interesting for business and society discourses is that it turns our attention to our existence in an open system with multiple complex relationships, in which the effects of one set of interactions are incalculable. If sovereignty has something to do with living beyond calculation, we may do well to explore what it means to experience the excess of relationality in a much broader system, frightening as that may seem. From this perspective, the consumption of excess becomes the focus in understanding human life. The paradox of excess is that it is both the condition for growth and its effect. Capitalism succeeded in creating incredible waste and somehow cannot sustain its growth without creating more. Is this an argument for condoning, even celebrating capitalist waste ? No, but I am suggesting that a broader focus on our complex relationality may allow us to live beyond calculation by engaging in practices that are not focused on scarcity, but on relational excess.

17 There is a need for the kind scholarship activity that allows us to re-engage with philosophy as the practice of experiencing this relationality. Our relationality extends beyond organizations and corporate structures, and functions in ways that do not necessarily demand producing more in order to have an experience of excess. In a way, what we see happening in the « sharing economy » that underpin the business models of AirBnB, Uber, etc. may already be gesturing in this direction. In the process, we will have to reconsider what we define as « wealth » and how we define « wellbeing ». From a general perspective, we form part of an open system of interconnected networks and resources. Here, a logic of abundance is required to encourage sharing, giving, relating. But in order to make this way of living commonplace, we have to return philosophy to its practice. Some other philosophers seem to have come to similar conclusions. Consider for example Oosterling’s description of ecosophy, which recasts philosophy as an ecological practice in which « interviduals » make sense of their ways by relating, experimenting, and enjoying the fruits of their labour. In this real-time experiment in Rotterdam, called Skillcity, gardening, cooking, reading function as interconnected philosophical practices.

Concluding thoughts

18 My intuition was that Bataille’s insights might push us as management scholars to accept that what is most worthwhile to « manage », is immeasurable. The question may however be whether management scholars are ready to explore alternatives to calculative management ? In my mind, this would entail « managing » to cope with the immeasurable through relational practices. A few distinct blockages stand in the way of such alternatives. One of these relate to the legal and societal implications of a rethinking of agency and motivation. Our legal systems for holding people and organizational structures accountable for ethical failures will have to be rethought taking the relational accountability that operates in these systems into account [22]. In the sustainability context, we will have to rethink how we believe consumption behaviours emerge. But more importantly, we have to return knowledge to experience, and accept that in many ways, what is most important to know, cannot be calculated. It is in this respect that we need to rediscover modes of being that we have either forgotten, or which have been relegated to the fringes of our societies, as luxuries, consumed seldom, sparingly – because we are so scared to waste time, resources, opportunity…

19 Bataille’s œuvre raises questions about management, without offering answers, but gesturing towards understanding our reality differently by paying close attention to how we live, and how our bodies interact with what is around it (both human, animate and inanimate). He helps us see why the idea that management is inevitably bound of with measurement may destroy its capacity to understand the essence of human action. Without this understanding, ‘management’ cannot function. Yet since ancient times human civilizations have managed their communities, crafted their economies in searching for what is missing. As philosophers engaged in management studies, we have to continue this search in a way that can restore some of the lost intimacy that our scientism has brought about. Seeking the intimacy of knowledge as a form of experience is what philosophy is all about, it is also what research on society and business is about, but we seem to have forgotten how to do this. If I have any hope for us as management researchers, it would be that we would restore this intimate practice. But this would mean avoiding the calculative, miserly mindsets that rob us of our intimacy with ourselves, each other and the world.


  • [*]
    professor of ethics and organisatioon at Nottingham Trent University.
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