À la jouissance, on n’accède pas par un mouvement direct : il faut un franchissement, une action violente qui casse la chaîne continue, horizontale, uniforme du désir pris dans le langage. Le désir a besoin d’une effraction, d’un forçage, d’un saut dans l’impossible. Le désir a besoin de la transgression. (Lippi 17) 1
The subject of transgression has been the focused study of many scholars across a wide range of disciplines and, as Tim Dean notes, “[f]ar from pushing the envelope, the critical discourse on transgression has become blandly predictable” (66). Part of this is because transgression can be employed so broadly to describe everything from a curious mode of dress to the ritualized murder of a child, the breaking of a contemporary law governing socially acceptable sexual practice, to perfume marketing ad copy. Dean points out that we should distinguish between “the intuitive idea of transgression and its significance as a philosophical concept” (66). While this chapter concerns itself with both understandings of the word, it focuses primarily on the latter as an essential aspect of eroticism and on the part it plays in writing fictions of eroticism.
A comprehensive survey of the philosophical topic of transgression is beyond the scope of this thesis and, therefore, I confine myself to the religious and psychological rather than legalistic aspects as this most aptly addresses Bataille’s use of the concept in his theory of eroticism as an inner experience. These aspects also address the quotidian use of the word as a means of repackaging and selling the narratives of old, hegemonic ideologies as something new, forbidden and exciting. I propose a framework for identifying contemporary taboos and new sites of transgression. Finally, I examine the creative writing that accompanies this exegesis for examples of how I have tried to apply this framework in my work.
Transgression and the Sacred
In his chapter on transgression in Critical Terms For Religious Studies, Michael Taussig remarks that, despite the fact that transgression is “a key component” of religion, “mainstream religions in our time seem more concerned with controlling and eliminating” it (349). Taussig credits anthropological, psychological and sociological studies of taboo and the sacred in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries with greatly influencing subsequent study of the topic, as well as intellectual movements such as structuralism and semiotics which sought to examine the structural function and complexities of negation and opposition (350). At the same time, Taussig calls our attention to the curious general aversion to grappling with transgression’s complex nature, pointing out that many of the 20th Century’s studies on the topic, such as Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais and carnival, situate it safely in a distant history or account for a licensed transgression as a mechanism for maintaining existing power structures (351). Taussig attributes this avoidance to “the influence of taste and morality in modern times simply closing down massive areas of human experience” (352). Against this general avoidance, he highlights the work of the surrealists—specifically Georges Bataille—in their attempt to bring transgression into the present, engage with its embodied experience, and come to terms with its central paradox.
Across many cultures, the body is often the vehicle of sacred transgressions; its radical states, its betrayals, mutilations and tribulations are used as portals for bringing the otherworldly into the present. While these acts are violations of bodily integrity, they are also invocations of the sacred (353-4). Secrecy plays an important role in transgression. Taussig notes that secrecy’s negation is an essential part of its power. It is not enough for access to the sacred to be bound up in mystery and secrecy; secrets of the sacred must always stand in perpetual danger of being revealed and are often ‘open secrets’ known by all, yet still proclaimed to be a mystery (355-7). Paradoxically, there may be no power to the mystery unless its secrecy is an almost universally acknowledged fiction. Finally, death has a major role to play in the sacred. In Christianity, Christ’s crucifixion—the murder of God—is the greatest transgression of all. Yet without this ritual sacrifice, there it is no ‘new life’ in Christ for his followers. Transgression enables Christ’s passion, death and resurrection (361).
Taussig’s chapter challenges our conventional understanding of transgression as a destructive antithesis to the sacred. The sacred and the profane, prohibition and transgression are profoundly interdependent; there can be no experience of the sacred without it. As we shall see, Bataille argues that, like the sacred (and perhaps as a form of sacredness) there can be no eroticism without transgression either.
Bataille’s Sacred Transgression
In his three-volume work The Accursed Share (1949), Bataille proposes a general economic theory focused on the concept of excess and the cultural practices of its expenditure, for, “if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically” (Vol I 21) through warfare, acts of squander and wasteful luxury, or ritual sacrifice, in order to maintain the system’s equilibrium. Sacrifices transform common excess into something sacred, says Bataille. “Servile use has made a thing (an object) of that which, in a deep sense, is of the same nature as the subject, is in a relation of intimate participation with the subject” (Vol I 55). In other words, Bataille believed that quotidian interaction with a thing or person led to objectification, whereas ritual and sacrifice demanded a mindfulness of interaction, which maintained the dignity of the thing or person.
In Volume II of The Accursed Share, Bataille describes a metaphysical structure that Taussig discusses, in which the sacred and the forbidden are not oppositional forces but facets of a single spiritual edifice: “what is sacred is precisely what is prohibited” (Vol II 92). While transgressive acts are commonly portrayed by the mainstream and mythologized in hard-core pornography (Michelson 51) as man devolving into state of ‘animality’, Bataille situates transgression firmly in the realm of human sociality. Animals don’t have taboos or moral laws and don’t break them; thus the conscious breaking of a taboo “makes of that violence something that animality did not know: the transgression of the rule” (Accursed Share Vol II 57).
Bataille confronts incomprehensibly transgressive eroticism: the twin horror and fascination engendered by the murder of a king and contemplation of his corpse. 2. For Bataille, it is this “combination of abhorrence and desire that gives the sacred world a paradoxical character” (Vol II 95). Thus our desire to transgress is both a spiritual and erotic yearning, rendering it simultaneously terrifying and alluring. If transgression into sacred, prohibited spaces is so abhorrent, why are we so drawn to it?
…it often seems that, by overcoming a resistance, desire becomes more meaningful; resistance is the test that assures us of desire’s authenticity and thus gives it a force that comes of the certainty of its dominion. If our desire had not had so much difficulty overcoming our undeniable repugnance we would not have thought it so strong, we would not have seen in its object that which was capable of inciting desire to such a degree (Vol II 95).
It is worth noting that Bataille’s explication is highly Lacanian; the resistance or repugnance thrown up by taboo lends a gravity of meaning to the desire to transgress. It also gives us a sense that, because it is a tribulation and demands overcoming our own resistance, this desire might be authentically ours and not, in Lacanian terms, the desire of the Other. The struggle also suggests it is something metaphysical. Dean underscores this point in his essay on “The Erotics of Transgression”:
Bataille insists on this point when he remarks that ‘the object of desire is the universe’ or, more abstractly, ‘the concrete totality of the real’. By this Bataille designates not a desire to sexually possess the entire world but the opposite – a desire to lose oneself in the universe through erotic intensity (Dean 68).
Notable here is that transgression doesn’t simply help define the qualities of the object of desire, but contorts the very nature of desire itself. I will return to this point later in the chapter when I discuss the distinction between desire and jouissance.
Later, in L’erotisme, Bataille delves further into the importance of transgression as a central aspect of eroticism, taking pains to differentiate between the conscious and deliberate transgression of a prohibition or taboo and the rejection of the authority or validity of those boundaries. “A transgression is not the same as a back-to- nature movement; it suspends a taboo without suppressing it” (Erotism 36). He goes on to note that “[u]nless the taboo is observed with fear it lacks the counterpoise of desire which gives it its deepest significance” (37). It is the very possibility of their transgression that lend those prohibitions and taboos weight and authority. This aspect of Bataille’s understanding of transgression stands in contrast to sexual liberation movements that reject the legitimacy of social mores. Lacan goes on to note that “[t]he naturalist liberation of desire has failed historically. We do not find ourselves in the presence of a man less weighed down with laws and duties than before the great critical experience of so-called libertine thought” (Lacan Ethics of Psychoanalysis 4). This is perhaps because transgression, as Dean points out, “does not concern the juridical” but requires the crossing of boundaries that “radiate a genuinely aversive power” (Dean 70). Michel Foucault underscores and complicates this paradox in his essay “A Preface to Transgression” in response to Bataille’s work: “[t]he limit and transgression depend on each other for whatever density of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows” (Foucault 34)
In respect to the centrality of transgression at the heart of eroticism, both Bataille and Foucault recognize its sacred dimensions. But sacred in what sense? According to Bataille, the impetus to transgress can’t be grounded in reason; “[t]he inner experience of eroticism demands from the subject a sensitiveness to the anguish at the heart of the taboo no less great than the desire which leads him to infringe it. This is religious sensibility, and it always links desire closely with terror, intense pleasure and anguish” (Erotism 39). But how does this religious sensibility survive the ‘death of God’ in the Nietzschean sense? If the authority to determine limits and taboos originates with the sacred, then where does that authority reside now? I will go on, later in this chapter, to examine how the commodification of erotic desire, and the marketisation of transgression as a titillating lure with no moral or concrete consequence, has turned the concept of transgression into the ‘illusions and shadows’ of which Foucault wrote.
In contrast to the marketing hype employed to sell pornography, erotica and romance (among many other things), eroticism is not just glorious, uninhibited pleasure. Far from being a pleasurable and inconsequential act of sexual satisfaction or narcissistic self-realization, “[t]he whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives” (Erotism 17). Dean reminds us that “[o]ne might prefer to conserve one’s safety, dignity or integrity—all of which transgression puts at risk” (Dean 69-70), and for this reason, it is perilous and infrequent.
Transgression and Jouissance
It strikes me that what drives one to seek out psychic self-immolation, or to forge meaning from acts of transgressive eroticism, is not desire but more aptly referred to and described by Lacan, in his later work, as jouissance. According to Jacques-Alain Miller, “[i]n The Ethics you have a layout of jouissance‘s massiveness as though positioned in a place normally out of reach. It calls for transgression, for a forcing, in an abyssal place, transgression being the only way to access it” (Miller). In this seventh seminar, Lacan claims his thesis “involves the idea that the moral law affirms itself in opposition to pleasure” (Lacan Ethics of Psychoanalysis 20), so while desire finds a ways to pleasure by negotiating that tension between the moral law and satisfaction within the safety of the Symbolic Order, jouissance does not, and indeed uses transgression as transport beyond the Symbolic:
[W]ithout a transgression there is no access to jouissance, and, to return to Saint Paul, that that is precisely the function of the Law. Transgression in the direction of jouissance only takes place if it is supported by the oppositional principle, by the forms of the Law. If the paths to jouissance have something in them that dies out, that tends to make them impassable, prohibition, if I may say so, becomes its all-terrain vehicle, its half-track truck, that gets it out of the circuitous routes that lead man back in a roundabout way toward the rut of a short and well-trodden satisfaction (Lacan Ethics of Psychoanalysis 177).
In other words, according to Lacan, jouissance and the Law are mutually constitutive. There must be laws to break for jouissance to be possible. Conversely, there must be the possibility of transgression in order for law to have meaning. Moreover, prohibition makes the escape from the predictable trap of failed desire possible because it allows for a detour into jouissance. Bataille’s eroticism is Lacan’s jouissance and without transgression, it cannot be accessed.
Why does the prohibited hold such erotic allure? As we have seen above, Bataille claims that transgression lends erotic desire meaning and offers the participants an ecstatic self-dissolution (Dean 69), but what is the mechanism of that meaning making? The fear and violence that is so often a part of Bataille’s description of eroticism is brought about through the transgressive act or thought: “[i]t is always a temptation to knock down a barrier; the forbidden action takes on a significance it lacks before fear widens the gap between us and it and invests it with an aura of excitement” (Bataille Erotism 48). However, Stoekl notes that while “[d]ecency, the rules against sexual expression, incest, and intense pleasure that characterize human society are fundamental to an organized society,” the cost of maintaining that order is a measure of self-alienation, therefore the “ultimate self-consciousness is derived through the ecstatic transgression of that interdiction” (Stoekl 48). Bataille conceives of this self-consciousness as “the rupture of the discontinuous individualities” (Erotisim 17). David Wood summarises this trade-off in a more intimate context:
Erotic love just has to be the celebration of the danger and pleasures of the transgression of boundaries—being-held in a letting-go—that can only be temporary, that affirms as much as it breaches these boundaries, and that plays with the fact that there is no one boundary of the flesh, but many laminated layers (Wood 178).
These ‘laminated layers’ Wood refers to underscore the complex web of boundaries we maintain as Bataillean ‘discontinuous’ beings: limits of physical space, bodily integrity, emotional barriers, as well as socially constructed definitions of gender, orientation, race, ethnicity and class. In moments of eroticism these boundaries may not only be transgressed, but also acknowledged and celebrated—even eroticised—in the very act of breaching them.
Lacan poses the question very directly: “What is the goal jouissance seeks if it has to find support in transgression to reach it?” (Lacan Ethics of Psychoanalysis 195). He presents us with Kant’s scenario of the man who is given the choice of a night’s sexual pleasure followed by his execution or the opportunity to live without that pleasure (Lacan Ethics of Psychoanalysis 188-189). Kant claims that no sane man would choose the former. This choice of self-preservation accords with Freud’s Pleasure/Reality Principle, which theorises that humans will seek pleasure until the discomfort or pain of pursuing pleasure outweighs the pleasurable sensations. Lacan reminds us that the Pleasure/Reality Principle doesn’t always hold true; some, faced with the choice, do choose pleasure and death. Indeed the threat of danger or death may actually heighten the pleasure. Unpacking the sadistic fantasies in Sade’s writing in the light of Kant’s categorical imperative, Lacan argues that, just as Kant insists that doing one’s moral duty, ethically, demands a rational choice, Sade’s cruel characters constantly use reason, in the service of rebellion, to justify their atrocities. According to Žižek, Lacan’s juxtaposition of Kant and Sade reveals how, “with the emergence of bourgeois Enlightenment, pleasure itself loses its sacred, transgressive character and is reduced to a rationalised instrumental activity” (Žižek 94).
My reading of Lacan’s Kant avec Sade leads me to understand that transgression functions as a kind of transport. Its violence, whether mental or physical, helps to break the chain of signification, affording a little glimpse beyond the Symbolic Order, unmooring our socially constituted selves and enabling passage into the state Bataille described as continuity—a self stripped of the envelope of individuality, of identifying labels, of the armour of language, but also of the super-ego’s injunction to ‘enjoy’ in a socially intelligible way. This state forces us to absorb the horror, the violence, the complete alterity of the other, without the muting, ordering effect of language. This disruption of the chain of signification denies us the ability to look away or project some more comfortable fantasy of the other, while offering us the opportunity to connect in an ‘impossible’ way that is beyond language. In The Singularity of Being, Ruti points out that this state affords us “the vitality of our own process of becoming; our courageous brush against the other’s alterity guarantees our own ongoing evolution” (Ruti 177). This jouissance is both sublime and destructive, liberating and dangerous, life-altering but also ephemeral and transitory. From a societal perspective, our choice to pursue it can look dark and self-destructive. Indeed, it often is. It is referred to, in psychoanalysis, as the death drive.
The Death Drive
Evans underscores that, “for Lacan, all drives are sexual drives, and every drive is a DEATH DRIVE since every drive is excessive, repetitive, and ultimately destructive” (Evans 49; emphasis his). As stated in the chapter on Lacanian psychoanalytical method, I find the term ‘death drive’ unhelpful because tragedy (abjection, destruction, death) is seldom the aim, but rather the consequence or a necessary by-product of the pursuit of jouissance. Lacan says that “desire is a defence, a defence against going beyond a limit in jouissance” (Lacan Ecrits 309) so, while both desire and jouissance seek the satisfaction of the drive, desire operates within the Symbolic Order where the call of the drive can be adorned and misdirected, sublimated, ameliorated and managed safely. Much of pornography or erotic fiction represents the unproblematic pursuit of pleasure via desire and is what Michelson terms hard- or soft-core pornography (Michelson 36); it seldom represents jouissance. The transgressive nature of jouissance ensures that it will always cut the Pleasure/Reality Principle’s safety harness. Always dangerous, destructive (or at least self-destructive) and socially objectionable, this explains why so many creative works that portray eroticism contain physical, emotional or social violence and often contain an element of tragedy. In my estimation, this is what Michelson is referring to as artistic or complex pornography. Characters in pursuit of jouissance often seem masochistic or sadistic, ferocious or unfathomable, seeking damage, abjection or even death, creating narratives with far more complexity and conflict. When that pursuit becomes fundamentally constitutive of who they are, it might be said to be their sinthomes.
A number of the characters in the stories in this project, I argue, are wrestling with sinthomes. The protagonist in my story “Stone Blind” turns into a stone statue to more closely resemble the dead mother her father mourns. In “Veiled Girl With Lute”, the male character is an ex-torturer whose work has become a constitutive part of who he is. “The Slow Act of Love” features a gardener who creates pornographic bonzai trees, patiently recreating them each time the government censors come and destroy his work.
When considering transgression in erotic writing, I am often reminded of Lacan’s words: “I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you—the objet petit a—I mutilate you” (Lacan S11 268). Although Lacan is discussing transference and the analysand/analyst relationship here, the passage has relevance to an interaction between any two characters on a transgressive, jouissance-driven trajectory. Stories of transgressive eroticism—as opposed to utilitarian pornography—offer the character/subject as mutilated. The object of desire always has at least a tiny element of disgust. It breaks the spell of total fantasy; there is always an eerie surplus something that disrupts the purely masturbatory function of the story. For example, in my story “What You Want” the fantasy of a casual sexual encounter is complicated when the protagonist cannot ignore the rage motivating the woman who is offering it or his own sense of shame in accepting it. Perhaps it refuses closure, as in my story “Lucy the Scholar,” which begins as a romance and ends with its impossibility. Sometimes, as in my story “If In Some Distant Place”, the sequence of events in the story breaks the rhythm of the narration and turns it into a richer but more ambiguous erotic narrative. These kinds of refusals to ‘deliver’ are, in themselves, a form of transgression—particularly in today’s landscape of commoditized sexual and romantic escapism where the customer should always get what they want (especially when the market informs the customer of what they should want and then helpfully delivers it).
The ‘impossibility’ to write the glimpse of Lacan’s Real, revealed in the pursuit of jouissance, results in a ready-made narrative conflict. The alterity encountered in the other, in the consummation of that truth-event, that state of continuity, in the thin air of the transgressive moment, cannot survive full symbolisation. We mutilate the truth of the other as lover, and the experience of eroticism, the moment we attempt to make sense of the event, or make a memory of it, the moment we open our mouths to recount it. We most definitely mutilate it when we attempt to write about it. Abigail Bray notes,
The experimental text transgresses discursive norms, calls into question the limits of the Law, of meaning, of the sayable. In other words, this aesthetics of transgression depends upon a concept of the radically libidinal body, a body which disrupts conservative representational economies: the raw creativity of the libidinal body bursts through the limits of representation in moments of orgasmic jouissance, or sublime excess (Bray 87).
So, if we have succeeded in writing the experience of transgression well, that mutilation should be present in the text, something that stands in for the impossibility. There should be some scar on the landscape of the narrative, either in the language itself, or in the unintelligibility in the characters, in the jaggedness of the story structure, or the strangeness or surrealism of the story world.
Looking at texts that have become part of the canon of erotic literature in the 20th century, those metaphorical scars reside in many places: certainly in the mutilation of language itself from writers as diverse as James Joyce and Cathy Acker. But sometimes this “disruption of representational economies” happens in less obvious ways, as narrative impossibilities: in the uncanny situation, the improbable timeline, the unaccountable behaviour of characters or the hyperbole of sexuality. Whether in Sade’s far-too-numerous atrocities, Humbert Humbert’s inexplicable and self-destructive obsession, Angela Carter’s richly obscene fairy-tale worlds, or Marguerite Duras’ eerie portrayal of time, there is often something essentially surreal in many erotic narratives.
Transgression in 21st Century Fictions
After all the barriers of sublimation, of cultural transformation of sexual activity, are abolished, what we get is not raw, brutal, passionate satisfying animal sex, but, on the contrary, a fully-regimented, intellectualised activity comparable to a well-planned sporting match (Žižek New Formations 94).
In the afterward of her book Resisting Nudities (2008), Boodakian warns that “[w]hen cerebral, corporal and socio-political revolts become impossible, there is a stasis and deadening that spills into all dimensions of life in a free society[…] Perhaps it seems counter-productive to work through a theory of eroticism to ultimately declare its apparent extinction.” (Boodakian 89-90). If there are no longer any taboos to transgress, if the excess of jouissance has become a commoditized norm, then how can transgression—and therefore eroticism—exist? Certainly it cannot be found in the places where our culture insists it resides. As Žižek notes, we live in a culture that is constantly misselling us jouissance (Žižek “A Cup of Decaf Reality“).
Few prohibitions are completely independent of cultural context. The Heptameron’s account of copulating nuns is now comic rather than transgressive. Humbert Humbert’s obsession with Lolita isn’t transgressive in societies where girls are routinely married off at the age of twelve (Unicef 36), though his romanticism might be. The class difference between Lady Chatterley and her lover are hardly of much moment to us now, but the question of female agency in the text might raise some eyebrows. The historic taboos and prohibitions that made earlier erotic writings transgressive and made the accounts of those transgressions erotic, no longer hold much real power to shock us. What we are left with, for the most part, is material that depends on a suspension of disbelief and an erotic nostalgia for transgressions that no longer exist.
Scholars such as Alex Dymock have taken issue with novels like Fifty Shades of Grey (2012), sold as transgressive erotic literature because it uses the glitter of transgressive sexuality to reinforce heteronormativity and bolster “the disciplinary regimes of social power” (Dymock 892), but Lisa Downing counters that, “we can use the trilogy to mount a criticism of the idea that romantic love, marriage and the family, as the habitually unquestioned, privileged institutions of heterosexuality, are unambiguously benevolent” (Downing 100). We often make the mistake of misidentifying sex as eroticism. While Fifty Shades of Grey might fail as a liberationist text according to Dymock, or as a responsible guide to the ethical practice of BDSM according to Connolly (“Fifty Shades is Bad for Bondage”), or even as a decent piece of pornography (O’Hagan), it does contain transgressive eroticism in its obscene valorisations of non-consent and consumerism and in its spectacle of a woman walking so willingly into the confines of an archaic gender dynamic just for a little wild sex. It depends, as Downing argues, on how you read it.
Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands offers us another example of a contemporary, popular and controversial novel containing explicit depictions of female eroticism. Helen Hester’s exploration of Wetlands finds that, due to the “hyper-visibility of sex as transgression” (Hester 250), many critics focused on the sexual content in the novel as the site of transgression (241) rather than on “moments depicting the ingestion of abject bodily substances” (243) 3. But for a reader in pursuit of a representation of jouissance (as opposed to sexual desire), the eroticism of the novel lies precisely in the latter. Hester reminds readers that “[it] is crucial to acknowledge that transgression is not always or necessarily radical or progressive, but can be experienced as political or apolitical depending on the system being transgressed; exceeded, opened, or challenged” (249). So, whereas the eroticised rape scenes in the bodice-rippers of the mid-20th Century might have once been sexually titillating to the reader, they are now viewed as offensive examples of archaic, ignorant anti-feminist rape apology and are, therefore, transgressive and a site of potential eroticism in a way they never used to be. I have explored this in my story “On A Very Dry Afternoon in Early August” where I acknowledge the paradox between the fictionalised erotic allure of force, helplessness and peril of rape fantasy while never allowing the reader to entirely dismiss the stark atrocity of rape in reality.
Meanwhile, this hypervisibility of sexual transgression, even in its least normative forms, has also been, Dymock notes, flagrantly commodified:
Rather than streamlining energies of resistance against this culture, the incorporation of the spirit of rebellion into consumer outlets placates those energies and successfully divides and individualizes them. While a modish desire for rebellion is almost always deployed in the marketing of sexual commodities, the integration of the signifiers of BDSM as alternative sexual subculture into these circuits of consumption reduces any subversive elements of its practices or ethics to no more than ‘stylings’ fully assimilated into mainstream culture (Dymock 890).
Bray echoes Dymock’s point: “the range of pornography on the internet demonstrates, within the world of cyber-desire there is no repression. However, this lack of repression has less to do with the liberation of the subject from the repressive constraints of Enlightenment rationality and more to do with a cynical commodification of sexual desire” (Bray 161). But while this lack of repression and commodification effectively renders explicit sexuality—even non-normative sexuality—inert and untransgressive, I would argue that we must simply seek our textual transgressions elsewhere.
If we expect written eroticism (and its attendant transgression) to fall in our laps or to be there waiting on the appropriately-labeled digital shelf, we are likely to end up with a cup of Žižek’s decaf. It certainly will not, and never has, come in a form that is politically or socially comfortable for us; it will truly offend, outrage, and discomfort us. More eerily, it may also be increasingly hard to find. In the past, readers learned of transgressive literature because the state banned it, but this is seldom the case now in Western democracies. Neoliberalism has made this imposition of state power unnecessary. Most writers, publishers and booksellers can be relied upon to regulate themselves out of public relations and, ultimately, economic self-interest and a prevailing belief that market success is the only success. However, there are few barriers to publishing authentically transgressive works. Between the derision lavished on all erotic fiction by literary critics and lack of commercial profitability in anything that truly discomforts the reader, writers of transgressive eroticism can reasonably expect them to be lost amidst the glut of digital flotsam and jetsam on the Internet.
Neoliberal Values as New Sites of Transgression
While erotica publishers market the delights of their ‘transgressive erotic fiction’, it is the list of acts and scenarios they warn writers not to submit that presents us with a fairly good, if skeletal, guide to what is, in fact, transgressive (eXcessica, Xcite). These are old taboos (underage, incest, rape, bestiality, necrophilia, urine and scat play) that still hold some power to discomfort us. But on a broader level, it would be foolish to assume our culture is devoid of new taboos, however most are so embedded and unquestioned that we don’t recognize them as such. Neoliberalism imposes just as many, if not more, constraints as the ideological systems that preceded it but, rather than applied from above, they are, as Paul Verhaeghe notes, largely self-invigilated and imposed to ensure efficiency and profitability: “the world is turned into a generalized panopticon […] an infernal spiral, because the system creates its own transgressions” (Verhaeghe, “If They Don’t Make You Happy”). However, the internalisation of restrictions makes them hard to spot. How does one transgress a taboo one can’t identify? What might be considered sacred in a Neoliberal culture? Or, to phrase the question differently, if transgression is dependent on crossing cultural, moral or aesthetic limits, then either we are faced with scraping the bottom of the archaic taboo barrel or we must discover new ones to transgress.
“The economy, stupid,” a phrase formulated by James Carville for the 1992 Bill Clinton election campaign, might stand as the proclamation of Neoliberalism’s almost global victory over all other systems. As Verhaeghe concludes, “there is only one dominant discourse still standing, namely the economic” (Verhaeghe “Capitalism and Psychology” 57) where “everything is permitted so long as it is not explicitly forbidden by contract” (59). Subsequently, any act motivated by something other than the pursuit of profit becomes suspect, a potential transgression. Similarly, wealth has become a central virtue of our Neo-liberal society. Historically, individuals belonging to ascetic religious orders were seen as virtuous and accrued a certain social approbation for embracing a life of poverty as an imitation of Christ; contemporary society views those who consciously choose poverty as socially suspect at the very least and often as proof of mental illness. Here too is a potential site for transgression.
We are under enormous pressure to self-commodify. Joseph Davis notes that this imperative “is well illustrated by the recent practice of ‘personal branding,’ a strategy of cultivating a name and image of ourselves that we manipulate for economic gain” (Davis 41). The production of the self as a brand to be offered for consumption by institutions, employers, lovers or social groupings is constantly encouraged. Roderick notes that “as young people prepare to transition from undergraduate study they are under enormous pressure, pressure to transform themselves into marketable products capable of high levels of economic productivity and the acquisition of social status and material goods” (Roderick). So another site of transgressive possibility might lay in the refusal or subversion of the process of self-commodification. Related to this idea, is the concept of the perfection of the body as an ongoing project. Resistance against the valorisation of good health and beauty are areas that are ripe for reversal and transgression. This is a theme I take up in my story “Prosthetic” (about a man who has made a life-project out of marking and scarring himself) and in the story “Nathalie’s Tailor” in which turns an erotic lens onto trauma and self-harm. The subversion of wildly popular narrative structures, with their neat and categorisable closures, might be yet another transgressive strategy.
Of special interest to me is the contemporary focus on self-actualization and consent. Verhaeghe quotes Zigmunt Bauman: “never have we known so much freedom and never have we been so powerless” (Verhaeghe 57). In contemporary public sexual discourse and in ‘sex-positive’ erotic fiction, two issues continuously come to the fore as opportunities to reclaim power: the self-actualising power of sexual fulfilment and the agentic power of consent. Lacan recognized that the exhortation to ‘Enjoy!’ was becoming a commandment (60). Here political correctness and neoliberal economics cohabit happily: one can dutifully consume the products that will ensure we achieve that sexually satisfied self-actualization we are commanded to want while commodifying our own consent. This is ripe for subversion in the service of transgressive eroticism, and I explore this quite literally in my story “Machines”, about a woman who cannot stop buying vibrators until she finds herself unable to orgasm without them.
Another site of possibility lies in the crossing of internalized and reformulated boundaries that might bear little relation to contemporary neoliberal taboos. While these idiosyncratic, highly individualised rules may be related to previously-observed and enforced sites of prohibition—such as religious precepts not in common practice today or historic traditions related to earlier cultural practices—they can also arise from internally formulated laws specific to a an individual’s previous lived experiences. If a writer is able to craft a believable fictional paradigm for these idiosyncratic areas of transgression, engaging narratives of eroticism might be forged of them. I have attempted to incorporate this idea in a number of my stories. “The Desire Artist” features a narrator who struggles with a peculiar sinthome; she has an addiction to unrequited sexual desire.
While I have not provided a complete list of all possible contemporary taboos, I hope I have offered some idea of the mechanism by which new transgressions might be formulated from contemporary sites of ‘sacredness’.
Transgression in the Work
While not all the stories in the creative portion of this thesis aim themselves directly at newly formulated transgressions, many do. In some cases the transgression is obvious; in others it is as subtle as denying the reader the erotic progression or closure they have been acclimatised to expect.
“Thanks for that,” Robert said, after a considerable silence. “Madam Dai is one hell of a character. If she were ten years younger, I would have been tempted to seduce her.”
“I’m pretty sure she’d still be interested.”
“I don’t think I could get past the dusty wig. I don’t even want to imagine what those breasts look like.”
Robert was doing exactly that, Nuria suspected. There was a small, private cinema in his head, with a reel of silent film featuring Madam Dai: wig askew and ancient breasts swaying, seamed lips frozen in an ecstatic o, grey-haired cunt plundered by a headless cock in some jerky clip of impossible pornography. (“If In Some Distant Place”)
Like “On A Very Dry Afternoon In Early Summer”, “Veiled Girl With Lute” also problematises and eroticises questions of consent and violence in overt ways, whereas “Three Little Letters”, “Prosthetic” and “Filthy Wound” each focus on some form of self-destructive mutilation of the body as a site of jouissance.
“Don’t go all coy on me.”
“I’m bleeding. Can’t you see I’m bleeding?”
“Yeah, you are.” He brushed the back of his fingers over her cunt, smearing the blood that wept from the cuts, then pressed his thumb between the lips and trailed the flat of it over her clit. “And you still want to fuck.”
Blanche turned her head away, wondering why her eyes were filling with tears, why the blood scared her, and why, despite it or because of it, she wanted to fuck. (“The Filthy Wound”)
A number of the stories explore the eroticism of non-normative sexualities. In “Little Prick” I set out to explore the quirks of psycho-sexual development in a perverse coming of age story and push against our contemporary unwillingness to recognize that not only does our sexuality develop long before the age of permission, but sometimes forms, through a confluence of circumstances, in non-normative ways. While, in “The Laughing Man” I use the contemporary cliche that ‘real men don’t cry’ to examine weeping as a transgressive erotic act, with as much capacity to transport, expose and transfigure the participants as any sexual act.
Several of the stories, but most notably “Back To Nature” grapple with the paradoxical nature of transgression itself. Initially a Sadean narrative which invites the reader to take pleasure in a couple’s sexual dehumanization of a woman they pick up, I fold the transgression back on itself as it becomes apparent that their jouissance arises, not from the sadistic treatment of another, but the masochistic pleasure of carrying the guilt of it.
- Jouissance cannot be accessed directly; there must be a crossing of a threshold, a violent action to break the continuous, horizontal, uniform chain that desire takes through language. Desire demands a trespass, a forced entry, a jump into the impossible. Desire requires transgression. (Lippi 17; own translation) ↩
- Bataille’s attempt to explain this kind of eroticism, while not entirely convincing, is interesting: “sexual desire – responsive to the pull of a movement that unceasingly casts a part of humanity into the grave – is stirred, as it were, by the horror we nonetheless have of this movement. Just as the crime, which horrifies her, secretly raises and fuels Phaedra’s ardor, sexuality’s fragrance of death ensures all its power” (Accursed Share Vol.II . 100). ↩
- Wetlands describes the protagonist’s consumption of vaginal fluids and medical waste, among other things. ↩