A limit-experience (French: expérience limite) is a type of action or experience which approaches the edge of living in terms of its intensity and its seeming impossibility. This approach has led to the seeking of limit experiences as a sort of dark mysticism.[1] A limit experience breaks the subject from itself. The idea is associated with writers Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and Michel Foucault.[2]

Classical instances of limit experiences include abandonment, fascination, suffering, madness, and poetry.


Working in a French tradition of abjection[3] reaching back to Baudelaire and his paradoxes - "O filthy grandeur! O sublime disgrace!"[4] - Bataille was early struck by what he saw as "the fact that these two complete contrasts were identical - divine ecstasy and extreme horror".[5] He went on to challenge surrealism with a kind of anti-idealism searching for what he called the impossible by breaking rules until something beyond all rules was reached.[6]

In this way, he strove for what Foucault would call "the point of life which lies as close as possible to the impossibility of living, which lies at the limit or the extreme".[7] It was at the edge of limits where the ability to comprehend experience breaks down that Bataille sought to live.[8]


For Foucault, "the idea of a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself is what was important to me in my reading of Nietzsche, Bataille, and Blanchot".[9] In this way, the systems of philosophy and psychology, and their conceptions of reality and the unified subject, could be challenged and exposed, in favour of what systems/consciousness had to refuse and exclude.[10]

How far Foucault's fascination with intense experiences provides a key to his entire body of work is however the subject of debate, with limit experiences arguably being absent from his later writings on sexuality and discipline, if strongly associated with the cult of the mad artist in The History of Madness.[11]

Limit-experience is a type of somaesthetic "edgework" that goes on to test the limits of ordered reality.


Influenced by Bataille, from whom he drew the idea of impossibility,[12] Lacan explored the role of limit-experiences - such as "Desire, boredom, confinement, revolt, prayer, sleeplessness...and panic"[13] - in the formation of the Other.

He also adopted some of Bataille's views on love, seeing it as predicated on man having previously "experienced the limit within which, like desire, he is bound".[14] He saw masochism in particular as a limit experience[15] - something which fed into his article Kant avec Sade.[16]

Charles Taylor

In describing the conditions of belief Taylor attests to a sense of fullness, joy and fulfillment:

[...]an experience which unsettles and breaks through our ordinary sense of being in the world, with its familiar objects, activities and points of reference [...] when "ordinary reality is 'abolished' and something terrifyingly other shines through"[...][17]

Wider ramifications

Concern for limit experiences fed into existential phenomenology;[18] and through figures like Sartre reached the anti-psychiatrists of the 1960s with their cult of authenticity in the pain of extreme madness.[19]

See also


  1. Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan (2005) p. 166
  2. "University of Wellington Research Archive". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. J. Childers/G. Hentzi, The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) p. 1
  4. Quoted in Boris Cyrulnik, Resilience (2009) p. 24
  5. Roudinesco, p. 122
  6. Roudinesco, p. 125
  7. Michel Foucault, "The 'Experience Book'," in Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori, trans. R. James Goldstein and James Cascaito [New York: Semiotext(e), 1991], 30–31
  8. B. Noys, George Bataille, : A Critical Introduction (2000) p. 3
  9. Quoted in Gutting ed., p. 224
  10. Gutting ed., p. 340
  11. Gutting ed., p. 23-4
  12. Roudinesco, p. 136
  13. Jacques Lacan, Ėcrits: A Selection (1997) p. 192
  14. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1994) p. 276
  15. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (1996)p. 168
  16. Lacan, Concepts p. 276
  17. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007) p. 5
  18. T. Rajan et al., After Poststructuralism (2002) p. 248-9
  19. Jenny Diski, The Sixties (2009) p. 133

Further reading

David Macey, Lacan in Contextt (1988)

Carolyn Dean, The Self and its Pleasures: Bataille, Lacan, and the History of the Decentered Subject (1992)

Jacques Lacan, 'Kant avec Sade' Critique 191 (1963) / 'Kant with Sade' October 51 (1989)

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