This past week, we covered so much ground that I decided to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, searching for a thread that ties together transgression, Stein and Barnes. The unifying theme seems to be one of testing and redefining the boundaries that make up societal conventions and/or one’s identity. In Tim Dean’s article, he explores taboos and the crossing of internally and externally established limits. Stein’s lecture pushes us to ponder the queer and the avant-garde in her attempt at redefining language style and grappling with the queer identity. The Ladies’ Almanack and poems by Barnes show her escaping the gender binary, striking down and rebuilding the traditional views of femininity. The purposes and consequences of pushing these limits or deconstructing and reconstructing values are interesting and worth exploring.
Taboos are collective conscious ideas that set restrictions on what we deem acceptable human behavior. Some taboos have an obvious reason for existing, for example incest; our gut instinct to view incestuous relationships as perverse is beneficial in the context of biological evolution ad creating genetic diversity. Others, such as the open discussion of homosexuality and queer identity, began as taboos, but as society changed, so did its status as a forbidden topic. Can it be said then that there are two general types of taboos; those that evoke a strong gut reaction and thus cannot be changed easily and those that can evolve along with the societies that implement them? Is it possible to take a taboo of the former type and, by pushing the limits via transgression, shape it into the latter? Is that the purpose of transgression – to make taboos into non-taboos? Or is it that by turning taboos on their heads (i.e. into socially acceptable subjects or actions), we are forced to contemplate why these internal or external limits exist in the first place? Does this contemplation lead to progress? What is progress? So many questions that are difficult to answer.
Though the boundaries that Stein and Barnes explore in their writings are not “extreme” enough to be deemed truly taboo, they do play around with the idea of deconstructing and reconstructing societal conventions – an act that is taken to the extremes in transgression. What is the purpose of such actions? It can be said that the stretching of such boundaries establishes a new set of values that redefines or creates identity. By using such a unique style of writing with its circular character and content, Stein grapples with establishing a queer identity through reconstructing language. The feeling of being afloat and unable to pin things down to understand or interpret them completely reflects the elusiveness of such an identity, and yet the initial impenetrability of Stein’s writing establishes a clear boundary between her (queer) style and what was regarded as the norm. In her poems, Barnes intersperses traditional views of femininity with images of the repulsive aspects of the body and death, creating new ideas about the body and escaping the discourse of femininity based solely on beauty and the femme fatale. She tears apart the existing images of “woman” and puts them back together in a rearrangement, thus rewriting the female identity. By first destroying and then rebuilding limits, internal or external, Stein and Barnes establish new identities and compel us to contemplate why those limits existed as they were before we questioned them – even though it does not mean we need to accept their redefinitions of these limits.
Such reconstruction of boundaries can be seen in many aspects of society – not always tied to sexuality, bodily functions, eating habits, literature, etc. The best example that comes to mind is John Cage’s revolutionary composition entitled 4’33” (pronounced “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds”) in which the performer does not play their instrument for the duration of the piece – throughout all three movements. By composing a piece that consists of the sounds of the environment that the audience hears during its performance, Cage deconstructs what we recognize as music and reconstructs a new set of values, thus creating a new identity for music. Whether or not we accept his redefinitions of the limits that define music, Cage’s composition compels us to evaluate our personal or societal restrictions on what is accepted as “music” – and perhaps that is the purpose and consequence of transgression and reconstructing taboos: to contemplate, assess and maybe redefine the accepted norm. Whether or not such redefinitions count as progress is another discussion altogether and it remains to be explored.