A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.“L’informe” (“Formless”) by Georges Bataille, Documents 1, Paris, 1929.
To Bataille, l’informe was about destroying categories and knocking art off its metaphorical pedestal so that it sat in the gutter. He rejected high-minded humanism which he said elevated form to an idealised notion, and celebrated the debased.
Art is concerned with form. (Visual shape is a metaphor for conceptual form.) But in the course of the twentieth century, this very notion (form) has become suspect. This situation creates an interesting challenge for the visual arts: to find a form for formlessness, to show the form that has no form.
Bataille’s definition posits the formlessness of the world as implying its intrinsic worthlessness as well as the unredeemable futility of our thinking about it. He uses the notion of “form” in an abstract, philosophical sense which is at best obliquely related to the notion of visual form – but his evocative visual metaphors resonate strongly with a certain strand in the art of Dada and Surrealism which is exemplified in works by Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Raoul Ubac, and Jacques-André Boiffard.
An important contribution to the psychology of formlessness which relates directly to Bataille’s suggestions, is Sartre’s discussion of viscosity in the penultimate chapter of Being and Nothingness.
In many cosmologies (from the ancient Greek “Kaos” through Kant to the current “big bang”), formless stuff constitutes the primordial beginning of the world, and thus carries no negative connotations at all. Nevertheless, sentiments of futility and meaninglessness do not have to spring from anti-scientific preconceptions such as Bataille’s. One can easily find scientific propositions which imply the ultimate uselessness of everything. A good example is the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all isolated physical systems evolve toward a statistically uniform state. This seems to predict that complete boringness is the fate of the universe. This part of modern physics constitutes the background for many pieces by Robert Smithson in the 1960’s.