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Transgression (Redux).                                               






Heroic gesture, defiance of the gods (against impossible odds), a message augmented by shock, the politics of affront, an abject fouling, a sense of inner disgust, from symbolic outrage to the contrast at the heart of today’s globalised post-conceptual art - all are covered by the term, ‘transgression’. Clearly a catch-all buzz word or empty signifier permitting many meanings - capable, perhaps, of being all things to all men (sic). What is the meaning, or better (as we are faced with a plurality of meanings) what is the function of this ever popular chameleon?


Origins in childhood. The desire to do what ever it is that we were not supposed to do; the attraction and pleasure springing as much from the sense of misbehavior as from the object of desire itself… Wicked joy!  But it is the Law that reflects the pleasure (which must pass through its breaking); the joy is dependant on the prohibition and not the object. Transgression: the continuing habits of the naughty child into adolescence and beyond….


Key is the notion of a line stepped-over; but whose line, and why? In this lies a world of difference. Or many worlds… Anyway, at least two: self and other; the other insulted (even if the other is to be found hidden deep in the self).


Acts of transgression: blasphemy as the taunting of another’s god; or blasphemy as an act committed by the believer against his or her own god. A world of difference.


Indeed, unless we define transgression as simply just another rule-break, then its special (intense) flavour is best accounted for by assuming complicity between Transgression and Law such that we may say: transgression, to be worthy of the name, must be either an act against ones own gods or the taunting of another’s gods imagined as if ones own…


Whence ritual transgression; a gift for the exterior to cement our interior – cast in the form of a gesture; today providing our received form of identity exchange – its sense of renewal powered by radical refusal (if oft disguised to conceal its inherent conservatism).



Three aspects to transgression.


First aspect of transgression (anthropology: external and inward): the external, manifested in a clash of communities, beliefs, of (ideological or emotionally-engaged) points of view – either witnessed or participated-in as a believer in the final truth of one(‘s) camp: the inward, or experiential sense of transgression is marked by a sense of sacrilege, often manifesting a divided self (source and resource of literature, tragedy, religion).


Second aspect of transgression (politics: subjective and objective); two major (and opposing) viewpoints on the nature of transgression. The view from within, the subjective point of view, offers transgression as a rebellion against another’s god or ones own, implied is an ‘inversion of values’ such that high and low, good and evil are exchanged (but not exceeded); such a position remains ‘fundamentalist’, in the sense of having sole ownership of the last word, permitting no other, so denouncing, demarcating a fallen, damned and abjected Other.


By contrast, the view from without, the objective or measured overview offers the larger or new ‘inside’ of tolerance, recognising others, recognising difference. In this light ‘transgression’ is a border dispute between communities. The unity of subjective and objective approaches may be found in the case where a person’s felt belief system or network of (visceral) allegiances my be with one camp, but where this identification does not obviate their ability to take a distancing or ‘objective’ stance – the difference between ‘liberal’ and ‘fundamentalist’ believers, or members, of a given community.


Transgression as bold mark of rebellion: or acme of complicity?


Transgression as inside or outside (as the means of escape, or another aspect of the chain that binds us)?


Third aspect of transgression (rhetoric: inside and outside): is the act of transgression in fact a form of breaking out or is it rather another proof of membership of the club one would disclaim, the badge being worn as negative rather than the usual positive, a way of being tied-in by being shown the limits?


This latter, is most clearly seen to be operating when we think we are exchanging religions or other forms of belief system, when we believe that we are progressing outwards, but are in fact remaining, even returning, inwards. Even more simply the assertion of identity (the true function of such generational gestures) as found in a child’s tantrums or an adolescent rebellion are a part this aspect of transgression where the actor does not even change sides (the assertion of self is sufficient and requires no further changes).


Absolutely Inside. A trope, such that the observed excess (sic) indicates that the very opposite is true (‘methinks they protest too much’). A hyperbolic irony, or litotes. An ‘inoculation’… serving the status quo (Barthes).The more we think we are ‘out’ the more ‘in’ we are…


The Absolute Outside. Metaphysical (and the politics of such a metaphysics); transgression as an escape route, a portal onto an unknown beyond… access to an absolute outside (Bataille). As a phenomenological comprehension of the religious use of transgression in ritual, this is a permissible description; but as a factual description of a state of affairs it falls prey to the myth it should expose. Also appropriated as a means of political escape, or exacerbation of the actual (for example, Capital) so that it would reach its end faster… and reveal what lies beyond… (Baudrillard, Lyotard).



Transgression as debasement, abjection, defilement; but of what (or whose…)?


(First frame of transgression: the Law without; the fouling of another’s sacred places).


All think they (all) can use it, can know it, can mobilise it… all: but by definition transgression, in order to be transgression can only be the provenance of some… Someone is deluding themselves. Some (one) or All are deluding themselves…


It is the same with transgression as with the notion of the ’individual’- to the putative assertion of which transgression is tied, in the modern epoch. Only more so: as it is more intense. Something the fashion industry comprehends very well. Indeed a fact well-digested by any industry intent on gaining its profits from the pockets of the adolescent; a delusion bred of generational difference, extended by the joy of the market in having discovered a constituency with a disposable income.


Like the individual, the cult of (not as in one cult, the cult of one, but the cult of being one) the cult of being an individual; the sense of being such; against everybody else (or at least the majority, the ‘herd’ who must be defined as such in order to provide the necessary backdrop to allow the ‘few’ to believe in their own individuality). All believe they belong to this set, that they are such; all before others… before all others…All? But when we are all then there are no others…And  when all are individuals -believe themselves to be such, to be individuals- then no one is an individual, there are none such; or the definition becomes severely attenuated. It is the same with transgression… we are the only ones who rebel, the only ones who have the right to transgress, to gainsay the Law.


Whence the importance of transgression – and socially sanctioned transgression at that – to generational fashions and attitudes. The permanent revolution so important to adolescent self-assertion (and so the markets dependant upon this phase of human personality development) the rejection of which is such an important measure of our adulthood; yet which many are increasingly reluctant to give-up (last –if negative- certainty in an uncertain world; the art of no-saying as the last defence of a challenged individualism).


But when all transgress… then there is no transgression (and perhaps no longer any law). Much depends upon whether we are transgressing another’s Law or our own…


And yet transgression is always at the service of a greater Law (another’s Law).


(Not least, for it would not be transgression if it were not interiorised  no longer the attack on the Other(s), but on the Same; on the Other(s) within…)


(Second frame of transgression: the Law within; the fouling of ones own sacred place).


(Moreover, from  a certain point of view, transgression can only be of our own Law… otherwise it would not be felt as such; otherwise it is just another form of  other baiting – where it is only from their point of view that we are transgressing…)


History. Anthropology. Archives. The evidence. All and everything written on these subjects, on the role of transgression in ritual, on the role of ritual in social life… reinforces the notion of transgression as conservative. With a small ’c’, as a force for conservation. As a limited undoing, at the behest of a greater re-doing, a refashioning and rebirth of the social order. A blood transfusion reviving the felt aspect of social identities. Literary survival; the return of order at the end of the tragedy (early Classical Greek tragedies were originally ritual performances).


All at the behest of an ego that would exalt itself beyond all Law; only to tumble back into the arms of its awaiting parents, as the impossibility of such a position becomes terrifyingly clear… For reason may work with laws, but emotion with the Law. Or, if we take the view from without, with a Law… for everyone has a cultural base and its breaking can only result in two outcomes, we desecrate and return, shamefaced to our centre of emotional gravity; or we desecrate and find our absolution in the adoption of another’s Law (usually -structurally- no different to that which obtained before…).


Therefore transgression is not what it appears to be… or perhaps appearance is all it is  …a sign which bears the opposite meaning to the one it professes; a sign which hides its conservational functionalism behind the mask of rebellion (of standing out… standing alone…). Irony? Hypocrisy? Or idiocy?


So at its most self-conscious transgression evinces a rhetoric designed to move us from one camp into another. From the service of one Law to another Law (where there is any change of Law at all, for it may be that the transgressive act was just a way of reconfirming who belongs to whom, who serves whom and just how far they can be let out on a leash as the measure of their loyalty, indeed the proof of that loyalty, the slipping of that leash and voluntary return - the devotion of a dog out for a run, at all times awaiting its master’s whistle before turning tail and running full tilt towards home).


Whence the notion of transgression as radical? With the world (and each and every nation state) as the home of plural communities, and weakening centres – ‘the flag’ included, the impinging on another’s identity is easily done, a new social politeness required (tolerance of the other), and the scoring off another becomes an easy way to reconfirm ones own (weak or threatened, or socially underrated) community of identity. The baiting of other groups becomes an easy mode of entertainment and identity confirmation.


Transgression as (of) the other group’s right. Who dares transgresses (looks good, looks ‘brave’). Who wins no longer transgresses (‘meet the new boss’).


Two sources of the modern myth of transgression: ‘doing ones own thing’ (‘I just wanna be free’): as against everybody else (like individualism, but too often showing a communitarian face). Breaking the(ir) rules (‘Well, they’re just asking for it’): deliberately breaking other’s taboos, the realm of provocation, calculated insult, symbolic violence (and beyond)…  Turning the other’s world upside down… (the ‘world-turned-upside-down’, as it really is…)


Most popular myth of transgression: ‘carnival’; ‘the-world-turned-upside-down’, actually existing as pogrom (or ‘other’ baiting) by any other name. The tragedy here consists of the fact that those apparently trying to speak for the powerless… are actually covering up for the suppression of the powerless (the historically actually-existing carnival as home of the pogrom, anti-female especially if aged, the disabled and deformed, and of course that standard of othering in the West, anti-Semitism, often defended as being ‘anti-banker’… whereas in truth the cry of anti-banker, or anti-moneylender, has always been the cry of the anti-Semite (where not the feudal lord out to avoid repayment of his loans). In actuality a riot by groups of young men, often led by or in league with the sons of the privileged group, the aristocracy, now in league with the sons of the lower orders -  against all the ‘others’….


One source of these recent myths is the older myth of… the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment myth of a post-ritual, so rational society… would tell us of a world where transgression is peripheral… marginal… or should, or soon will, be; if only we would follow their belief system, swallow their myth (a smug and superior use of bad anthropology for self-aggrandisement). In practice rituality has survived the rule of reason by fusing with the rule of the commodity. Ritual transgression then becomes an expression of commodified identity exchange.


Transgression as identity confirmation or assertion; but for all (not just performance of a radical few); that ‘few-as-all’ trope again… (synecdoche as the favourite trope of identity). First the cloaking of numbers, then… the search for another. If we pursue transgression then, by definition, someone, somewhere must be offended… who will provide the scapegoat for this (always) ‘soft’ or easy target?


Many politicians, and some political theorists (perhaps most famously, Carl Schmitt), have been all too happy to provide an answer to this question.


A question best left unanswered.



How it works: Transgression as ritual.


Transgression as ritual rhetoric, tied to the politics of expenditure, and to another kind of the politics of sacrifice, that of victim-hood, the appropriation of victim-hood as a way of casting the negative (witness the sacrifice of the self, or the Same, as a means of damning the Other, from the Saint’s Life to modern minorities or community-based agitprop). Including its further appropriation in the case of adolescence, where generational difference from the point of view of the attitudinal teenager offers us the ‘victim of society’ form of attention seeking. (This the weakest form of the disease of recognition: the strongest being murder, of groups… or of famous individuals, they weight the same in the media scales… the scales of notoriety).


Margin as centre: the mapping of identity by the limit (Foucault); generational difference as ‘radicalism’ -left and right- in the post war period (just as it was in the pre-world war period… see the initial trajectories of Futurism and Constructivism, later to be co-opted by Fascism and Communism).


Transgression as lining (framing), the limit of, walls of, as supports for and foundations of, structure, what holds and houses, and fills, the whole… within. The wall of negation which encloses the positive sanctuary. (Bright well of the sacred.)


A sanctuary which once was all. Contained all. For so long was one. Is no longer. Is now absent. A hole… within. (Dark well of the sacred).


A fount of absence. A hole defended by transgression, definition (of self/community, the positing of a Whole) against… one kind of identity. (A hole to be filled by the ashes of sacrifice, by the blood sprinkled on burnt offerings). Fear of an other, of all others (‘paranoia’)… as something to be combated - yet not easily overcome…



Dismantling transgression: dismantling the power structures that feed it (within); or the clash of communities that stoke symbolic (and actual) violence (without).


Retaining transgression: as narrative, tragedy (ritual) part of the genres of the division in the self; the salt of sexual play (fantasy, acting out, imagining).


Fragile enough to demand transgression to form it and defend it… still…in our rational times (when other supports have gone…) deemed irrational.


Favourite badge of delusion; another sign of permanent adolescence in a society in search of the perfect consumer.







©Peter Nesteruk, 2009