The Transience and Authenticity of Transgression

In “The Erotics of Transgression,” Tim Dean outlines a few important aspects of transgression. First, he explains that transgressions are breaching some “limit” of what is acceptable and argues how transgressions are often “erotic” in nature because sexuality is heavily governed by the state and populous and thus set many potential limits to be transgressed. Dean also argues that transgression is particularly the act of violating one’s own internal limits, not just the limits imposed by society.

However, transgressions are theoretically transient. That is, the limit to each transgression is socially constructed, even if its “internally” self-imposed. Furthermore, as suggested by Dean, transgressions are made consciously, and with this agency comes a question of the authenticity of intentionality.

“Transgressions are theoretically transient.” What I mean by this, and Dean touches on this issue, is that since transgressions operate by violating socially constructed limits, they are not fundamentally, essentially, or perpetually transgressive. Dean briefly suggests this when he writes, “…Lesbian and gay sexualities have no essential or privileged relation to transgression. There is nothing necessarily revolutionary or, indeed, politically progressive about same-sex desires, practices, identities, and representations today.” Dean points out that homosexual content may have been transgressive in the past, for example when it was legislatively prohibited, but because of today’s standards and relative acceptance of same-sexuality, the limit has been raised. Thus, Hall’s The Well of Loneliness may have been transgressive for its time, but certainly isn’t anymore.

However, I would extend this line of thinking and argue that the ephemeral nature of transgressions is not limited to just same-sexuality, but sexuality in general. Scat play, water sports, pedophilia, necrophilia, to name a few, are transgressive because of their socially constructed limits, and these limits are contextually tied to a given point in time. Hypothetically, a culture could exist in which any one of these “transgressive” sexual acts or desires could be accepted, celebrated. For example, the content of Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus was transgressive at the time of its publication, is still transgressive in many ways today, but will not necessarily be transgressive forever.

Dean also differentiates between “internal” and “external” limits, wherein the former are endogenously constructed by the individual whereas the latter are constructed exogenously by society. However, I would argue that “internal” limits are in fact created exogenously. That is, these “hidden” repulsions and desires that construct taboos are not innate but socially constructed and then imposed on the individual, who then internalizes these limits. As famously argued by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, what we categorize as “dirty” is socially and historically created, and is not innate. The idea that “taboos” are rarely discussed does not implicate that they thus must be individually self-imposed, but rather that because they are not openly discussed, this then teaches individuals that they must be “bad” because they are not talked about.

Lastly, we discussed in class how Dean argues that transgressions happen consciously. As I mentioned earlier, with this agency comes liability. What I mean by this is that because transgressions are made consciously, we should take into account the intentionality and thus authenticity of these transgressions, because, as Dean quoted Simon Sheppard, “Problem is, transgressions are a dime a dozen these days.” On the one hand, transgressions can innovatively challenge norms that restrict artistic and humanistic freedoms. On the other hand, however, transgressions can be exploited to simply shock the consumer. For example, we talked a little bit in class about the authenticity of Monsieur Venus–did Rachilde write the novel to challenge norms or did she simply transgress for notoriety/publicity? This question comes from an alleged story from Rachilde:

“One day, a Belgian, the friend of a Brussels publisher, said to Rachilde: ‘You’re going to die of starvation. Why not write something dirty? You’ll see, it’s a good job, you’ll be published in Brussels. We looked around together for some filth that people would find new, unforeseen, never before published. In a word, with the Belgian’s help, we came up with M. Venus.”

This highlights a potential downside to the use of transgressions. While transgressions can be used to push artistic and social limits, they can also be used as cheap tactics to give a piece “shock value.” As I discussed in my post about Rachilde, the utilization of “shock value” can be exploitative.

In conclusion, transgressions are transient in nature because their limits are socially constructed, and should be consumed carefully because they are committed consciously and with this agency comes liability.




1 Comment

Filed under Week 6: Stein, Barnes, Dean, Wittig

One response to “The Transience and Authenticity of Transgression

  1. Lea

    Thank you for pushing the conversation on transgression and its potential limitations and/or dangers. I appreciated your point about the context and time-specific nature of transgression. Though we did discuss in class about how transgression is tied to a specific time period/perspective, another point that came up for me that we didn’t discuss in class, but that you do touch upon, is how transgression, within one given point in time, is also specific to cultural context, traditions, and realities. In 2013, what is transgressive in one society may be completely accepted or the norm in another society.
    – LGT

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