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Genre School: Transgressive Fiction

by Megan Dutriou / 25.01.2011

Transgressive fiction used to mean something. You’d have to squirm more than a little and cup your balls just to get through a chapter of George Bataille’s Story of the Eye; Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn has enough transvestite hookers, gang rape and poverty to shock the hostess of a Benzedrine party; and the much-censored Naked Lunch is not only obscene but also stylistically nausea-inducing (both requirements of any potential David Cronenberg film). Somehow by the turn of the 1990s, this evolved into the shit-on-the-wall for shit-on-the-wall’s sake literature being produced by the much-worshipped Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis, and Chuck Palahniuk – authors still pulling the same ol’ shock-horror (*gasp* a SPLIT PERSONALITY!) tropes that their forebears had, decades before. How many people would even know about these authors if it wasn’t for the blockbuster films made of each of their novels? Pardon my French, but fucking bâiller. How did we get here?

trans·gress, v. Infringe or go beyond the bounds of (a moral principle or other established standard of behavior.

Last Exit to Brooklyn

Transgressive literature used to be about breaking all the rules. The taboo subject matter of Transgressive lit is meant to bring you face to face with the very ugly, very violent, diseased and debauched members of our society. The first piece of transgressive literature is probably the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, a tale of the sexual exploitation and slaughter of teenagers, written from his cell in the Bastille in 1785. Sure, now you can download just about any perversion of nature worth watching, but de Sade’s book detailed coprophagia (think 2 Girls one Cup – Google it… OMG), incest, sacrilege and sodomy long before any of these things became famous on the internet. Likewise, when Bataille writes about a teenage girl inserting a human eye into her anus – in 1928 – you’d better believe people were shocked. Bataille and de Sade’s books were banned – de Sade’s more than once, Bataille’s by the French themselves.

Georges Bataille

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover D. H. Lawrence has an upper class woman screw a working class man in ways the nobility had never imagined, or were too ashamed to mention. The book was considered so raunchy it was not officially released in the UK until 1960. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is the semi-autobiographical story of Miller’s time in Paris, during which he shacks up with more than a few prostitutes. Miller uses transgressive sex, both the doing and the writing, as an exploration of artistic purity. Both Lawrence and Miller’s novels were published before WWII. Both were the subject of obscenity trials.

In the late 1940s and 50s, Beat writers – themselves living largely outside of the bounds of normal society – realized the power of controversial subject matter. William Burroughs’s hallucinatory Naked Lunch satirized the emptiness of mainstream American culture and celebrates counterculture with no less than a talking anus, one who demands rights. Ruminating on the life of the junkie (who is now a common subject of fiction), Burroughs goes further than just describing the gross mechanics of drug use. He delves imaginatively into the twisted psyche of the addict: “I had been occluded from space-time like an eel’s ass occludes when he stops eating on the way to Sargasso”. The occlusion of an eel’s ass as a metaphor for withdrawal is an image few 21st century writers have been able to match.

It’s possible that real transgressive literature was last seen alive in the arms of Anthony Burgess. Burgess got it. Alex, the protagonist in A Clockwork Orange, doesn’t do bad things because he is schizophrenic, or enjoying a crack-high. He does them because he wants to and because, even more frighteningly, he can. The whole point of transgressive fiction is to hold our faces up to the mirror of this ostensible lunatic in the text and make us see ourselves. It makes us realize that the real madness is elective and that it is really only our choice that keeps us, from being exactly the depraved and unwashed masses we think we aren’t. That’s not to say Alex is just ordinary. He’s far from it. He rapes some underage girls, kills an old woman and is subjected to an equally (psychologically) violent punishment. He’s twisted, uninhibited, amoral and everything that, in a very honest moment, you may find yourself to be.

A Clockwork Orange

What kind of violence could surpass the “ultraviolence” of A Clockwork Orange? What kind of stylistic genius could out-do Nadsat as a disarming narrative technique? Apparently none, because all the 1970s and ’80s have to show for themselves is Crash, by the dystopian J.G. Ballard and Requiem for a Dream, Hubert Selby Jr’s ode to the addicted. What do those novels have in common? They’re all about people with problems, addictions, fixations. But problems do not amount to transgressions, and the writers of this decade seem to rehash the concerns of the beat generation. Sex, drugs and violent humanity, all continue to be prominent themes, with the addition of the (now familiar) foe, consumerism.

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, normal became frightening. Douglas Coupland fixated on Gen-Xers as they rebelled against suburbia, with its icky ennui and conveniently located strip-malls. In this era, anyone with an even marginally alternative experience of life – from Welsh’s Scottish junkies, to Easton Ellis and Palahniuk’s mentally deranged victims of consumerism – became the subject of transgression. In the LGBT corner, Dennis Cooper produces Frisk, the epistolary love/sex/death story of two young gay men, one of whom becomes a serial killer whose murder scenes are described as a “melange of blood and slippery internal organs”. However, the novel’s images of sex and violence, however gruesome, only echo those Yukio Mishima had produced, years before.

But how transgressive is rebellion when it’s conveniently blamed on your psychotic other half? “It wasn’t me, officer, it was Brad Pitt. I was here just making soap the whole time!”

Fight Club

Maybe nothing surprises us anymore. Maybe we just started listening to too much grunge music, and we watched too many Wes Craven movies. If reading Chuck ‘One Trick Pony’ Palahniuk’s other novels isn’t enough proof of the lack of transgression in transgressive lit, Anne H. Soukhanov described the transgressive fiction of the 90s as a genre with the distinguishing characteristic of “funky cover designs”. I think she was trying to be nice. But there is no context in which the word ‘funky’ is transgressive, and even fewer in which transgressive = nice.

The 2000s, it seems, were more of the same disappointing attempts at commentary on bourgeoisie materialism. More suburban numbness, more existential boredom. A.M. Homes’s Music for Torching dealt with familial dysfunction and adultery, and after knocking off some virgins in the 90s, Geoffrey Eugenides returned with Middlesex, in which a gender-bending Greek man becomes a burlesque dancer. Formerly the realm of violent orgies and rifts in the time-space continuum, Transgressive is gone. Time of death: 2010.

Our only hope for its zombie-like reanimation is cross contamination with the new transgressive genres. Let us hope that the new shock-fiction genres, like Splatterpunk and Bizarro, fancy the old Transgressive enough to dry hump it a little, and maybe some real weirdness will rub off. With deliberately offensive content and titles such as Baby Jesus Butt Plug (Carlton Mellick III) a new breed of Transgressive lit may be ambling toward you, deranged and undead, in the contemporary fiction isle of your local bookstore.

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RESPONSES (41)
  1. Japetto says:

    Whilst it isn’t new Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles” and “The Filth” hold some transgressive merit and actually end up with something positive (to some ) to say

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  2. fobias tunke says:

    I like your article. Very well written.

    Transgressive fiction, however, is hardly a genre unto itself. The way you’ve spoken about the novels that predate the 80s and 90s suggests a fascination with its ability to ‘shock’, not ‘transgress’ – in terms of transgressing moral principles and status quo, in what sense is Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, in my opinion still a masterful novel (that can’t be reduced in a numbingly unjust sentence to a “marginally alternative experience”) not transgressive, just in terms of its pivotal quote (which I’ll append at the end), it’s brash, youthful, defiant, ennui-ridden, existentially-tortured message? Similarly Fight Club – not just about a split personality – but a full and dark parody about the ways we think of contemporary masculinity, even more interested given Palahniuk’s sexual orientation.

    The other aspect of this whole problem is, as you’ve pointed out, time. It isn’t 1785 anymore. The Marquis de Sade is dead. We have a proliferation of communicative technologies, the liberalism to explore the inner recesses of sexual fetish and perversion, the television channels and documentary footage to watch the wholesale slaughter of human life, rising counts of depression, increasing alienation, easier access to drugs, queer theory that brings the sexual ‘other’ out of the shadows… in other words, it’s just very easy to lament the decline of transgressive fiction because it was infinitely easier to transgress before this age – does Lady Chatterly still shock you? or even A Clockwork Orange? they both still challenge, provoke and transgress and much of our contemporary literature continues to do (the best in more subtle ways), but the 21st century robs them of their initial vividness. It’s just an unfair comparison.

    Lastly, I think you’re too hung up on transgression as a ‘shock factor’. True transgression can take multiple, subtle, physically nonviolent forms – how is Franzen’s new novel Freedom not deeply transgressive with its excoriation of the American dream and nuclear family? To transgress purely for the sake of transgressing in aesthetic terms is a waste of time in 2011.

    And the Welsh quote: Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed- interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit- crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing you last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?”

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  3. fobias tunke says:

    Sorry, and I wanted to add, this piece of writing is a welcome, interesting and thoughtprovoking addition to Mahala, where articles on skinny girls complaining that people are telling them to eat doughtnuts are in reign. I hope you continue to write for this rag.

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  4. anothergayboy says:

    Yeah great article….and fobias def has interesting points: AND WHAT ABOUT WATCHMEN?
    The comic series surely……and the movie fantastic! That was really really kick ass and very transgressive in my opinion…in almost every level…no wonder it was underrated!

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  5. Tobias Funke says:

    I think fobias tunke should write for Mahala, not because I enjoy reading his self-satisfied wanks but rather because he clearly has the time. Narcissism?

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  6. fobias tunke says:

    @ Tobias Funke

    Jealous much?

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  7. Roger Young says:

    Rule #14. Do not argue with trolls — it means that they win.

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  8. Brian Green says:

    Vonnegut.Breakfast of Champions. Boom.

    Maybe he doesn’t fit with the writers above, but he was flippen awesome.

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  9. james says:

    some good points here. the problem is with the catalogue style, which glosses over lots and wilfully misinterprets lots – after all, ‘transgressive’ is an interpretive category at best, a marketing category at worst. none of the great authors you mention set out to write a work in this ‘genre’, but to do something stylistically and aesthetically unique. it’s possible to argue, for example, that Mishima and Burgess are fundamentally conservative in their views, despite the ‘alternative’ sexual and stylistic framing of their work. and your view of ‘Crash’ is simply wrong of course… 😉

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  10. Montle Moorosi says:

    hey megan..you wanna get married? im not exactley fond of you using terms like OMG but apart from that, i think youre wife material.

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  11. Boo Kid says:

    I like Fight Club. Its weird I’m beginning to feel its bite more as I’m getting older. When I was younger I gleefully went through it, feeling the catharsis of the narrator, scolding the ineffectual masses, relating as if I too, in highschool, were on the brink of something of a personal discovery. A few years later I’m looking back at it and I’m struck by the part of the book where Tyler Durden says his generation is coming to the realization that they might not ever become rock stars or great, explosive people. I glossed over that before and now, entering my late 20s, I realize that I’m faced with the same predicament. I’m no longer the hero of the book, but one of the damned that work warns. I look good, have reasonable means, okay taste, a decent level of intelligence, but like Mahala’s commenters (and sometimes, writers) I’m inexplicably unhappy. Perhaps, I’m beginning to think, with the modesty of my life and the contribution its made to world. Fight Club is uncool, now, because of how apparent it is, and because, possibly, of Chuck’s mainstream acclaim. But I still think its relevant. Who would have guessed that exchanging a consumerism based on commodities for a consumerism based on information and alternative culture, of alternative lifestyles based on feelings of superiority, alcohol, drugs and insecurity guarded by meanness and caustic humour, would have left me with the same persistent listlessness and vacancy felt by the narrator before he meets Tyler Durden. I see now, that Fight Club ends in such an absurd, violent and cyclic way because Chuck doesn’t it point to a way out. He’s not explicit about it, but the whole project is a failure. The narrator being trapped in Project Mayhem his own creation (which becomes meaningless and destructive) could maybe be seen as a glimpse of the future by Chuck, both of how his books would be co-opted into the mainstream, and also how the the (self) destructive alternative lifestyles can also become aimless pits of despair which entrap their members: when the thing just becomes about being the thing and not a step towards a greater discovery of life and self. When the alternative, too, becomes a proponent of entrapment and ennui.

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  12. Bam says:

    great article

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  13. Abbadon Lazarus says:

    @Montle Moorosi. We’re going to have to duel for her.

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  14. Megan D says:

    @fobias tunke:
    Thanks for the comment(s).
    I think that the shock factor is a natural byproduct of the transgression of moral principles and the status quo. What we deem shocking is irrevocably tied to what is outlawed or considered taboo by society. I will say, however, that I find the shocking/bizarre image is more effective in producing the desired effect, which, in terms of this genre, should be nausea, heart palpitations, diarrhea, flushing, sweating, headache, vomiting etc. You know, all the stuff that makes reading fun.
    For me, transgressive means an act that is fundamentally rebellious and aims at trespassing the bounds of society, whatever its aim. In this respect, I find Welsh’s novel a failure at being “truly” (because, does any work of art belong purely to one genre?) transgressive because he takes as his subjects a group of people for whom the ‘choice’ is not to act, but simply to opt out. While junkies may make for a shocking read (and this is really in agreement with your point about what it means to shock/transgress), they are not necessarily willing advocates of breaking all the rules – they’re addicts. Most of their decisions are based on their desire to escape from, not transgress a reality they feel unable to adjust to (and thereby submitting to a nevertheless authoritative alternative). Basically, I feel like Welsh picks an easy target, and does it for the shock-value of exploiting a lifestyle that is – for the most part – not choice, and one that not many people reading his book over a latte will have been exposed to. (I know Burroughs writes about junkies as well, but I think his use of imagery and narrative process differs significantly from Welsh’s.)
    That said – I actually agree with a lot of what you say. I think a huge part of the problem with sustaining transgressive lit as a genre unto itself (do we even need or want to?) is that we exist in a different timeline. Although, (and I have watched my fair share of Extreme Bukake) I must say that Bataille and de Sade DO still shock me. But you make a great point – a comparison along the timeline is unfair, and sort of pointless. I think that what postmodern transgressive lit tries to do is comment, existentially I guess, on the utter emptiness of contemporary materialism. I get it. I just think it’s lame. You hit it right on the head though – part of my thinking here is really a lament for the vividness of the imagery of old transgressive lit.
    In conclusion, I want you to know that I am eating a donut and flipping society the sticky-middle-fingered bird as I write this.

    @James:
    It’s hard to fit an entire genre in one post, cataloging required! I agree with you on the Mishima. I never say he’s transgressive, though. Just that he thought of being gross long before Cooper did. Lastly, this is an opinion piece – I do not willfully misinterpret, I just interpret. Therefore my interpretation of Crash as kak stands, smiley face notwithstanding. 🙂

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  15. fobias tunke says:

    @Megan

    I need to offer up a defence of Trainspotting – a perfectly transgressive novel, and more compellingly, a zeitgeist snapshot of where the 90s starts to get really dark.

    Firstly, Rent Boy (Welsh’s protagonist) does ‘choose’ to act – he chooses to jack up H. because it represents the escape (read as a form of transgression) from the comfortable numbness of modern existence. The point is perfectly captured in that quote I used – “why would I choose a thing like that?” he asks, rejecting crass materialism, bourgeois self-satisfaction, mass morality. The parallel here can be drawn with Clockwork Orange, which you referenced in your piece. The transgression of moral principles effected by Alex and his droogs is, in its own way, an escape from those moral principles. I think, perhaps, escape from and transgression of are intimately connected ideas.

    Secondly, I think you’re still being unjust on Trainspotting by falling prey to the same problem you did in your article. As a social phenomenon, junk addiction in Trainspotting is symptom of a range of social sicknesses then (and currently) in effect. Burroughs just happened to be writing at a point in history when junk was still underground and hadn’t slipped into the lower middle-class suburbs of Scotland. Burroughs is as much an agent or an addict as any character in Trainspotting.

    Then, lastly I want to ask you your opinion. You said: “I think that what postmodern transgressive lit tries to do is comment, existentially I guess, on the utter emptiness of contemporary materialism. I get it. I just think it’s lame.” — what then, was de Sade, Burroughs etc. doing with their ‘transgressive’ literature? The transgression of status quo is not done in and of itself; it gives us pause, encourages us to evaluate the nature and state of things. Postmodernist literature must, because of its place in history, focus on the reigning illnesses of our age. Far from thinking it ‘lame’, I think it’s one of the most vital and necessary inquiries around.

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  16. Megan D says:

    @fobias tunke
    You really make some interesting points about the similarities between escape and transgression, and you’ve given me a lot to consider.

    I would definitely agree with you – escape and transgression are connected ideas. I don’t think that you can ever really transgress or act against a system without becoming a part of another system. Escape is the same – you never really escape from anything, you only escape *into* something else.

    I don’t think Alex chooses an escape from moral principles so much as he chooses to purposefully act beyond them. By this I mean that there is an inherent difference between choosing to act because of something and choosing to act against something. Alex acts because he chooses to claim his freedom as an individual – whatever the implications of that individuality are – beyond and purposefully in spite of the bounds of society. Alex does not simply allow himself to be whatever his nature will be, but that he repeatedly chooses to act against the very rules his society dictates. When Rent Boy says “why would I choose a thing like that?”, I wonder whether he is choosing to transgress, or just choosing not to choose.

    The next point, I think I need some clarification on – are you saying that addiction is a social sickness? Because, to me, that is incongruent with it being a transgressive act in the sense in which we are discussing it here. A sickness is not a choice, or an act of volition. If you take ‘to transgress’ as a verb, it is to act willfully and deliberately. I think resignation, on the other hand, is passive. And addiction as a social sickness is not a choice, it is not itself a cause, but an effect. Addiction is a resignation. However, it is not impossible to see that resignation as a sort of act of apathetic noncompliance. And, especially when you consider it in terms of its intimacy with escape, as you do, then I can see how not choosing is in some way an act of rebellion.

    I think you’re spot on with the point you make about the purpose of transgressive fiction. As I said in the post, it acts as a mirror for our own depravity (or what we deem depravity). But it is certainly meant as a disruption of the status quo, and as an opportunity to evaluate our society (which, as you point out, is exactly what de Sade and Burroughs do). What I think is ‘lame’ is not the purpose of transgressive fiction as a sort of bizarre mirror for society, but rather that the style of writing and its focus, which peaked in the 50s and 60s, has not really changed much since. As I pointed out, many of the ideas used by post 1980s writers were a rehash of those written by authors, decades before. That’s not to say those ideas have lost their relevance or can’t be used to startling effect. But that, for me, is precisely where the new transgressive writers fall short. Stylistically, I think the genre has entered a bit of a cul de sac. But that’s why I mention Bizarro, etc. which I think have the potential to make us consider the world in a new way.

    Lastly, I just wanted to ask your opinion (purely out of interest) – if you were to choose a piece of transgressive literature as a ‘zeitgeist snapshot’ of us now, what would it be?

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  17. impressed says:

    the amount of critical thought and edginess in this article and comment section is astounding, bravo

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  18. fobias tunke says:

    @ Megan

    Thanks for the interesting reply.

    I think what your post has managed to do is refocus this discussion on what exactly qualifies for ‘transgressive’ fiction? As we talk about it in literary theory, is it a semantic or syntatic distinction – or for those who aren’t read up in theory, is the definition based on transgressive content (eg: the droogs tolchocking a couple of chellovecks after a nice round at the moloko bar in Clockwork Orange) or transgressive style (eg: Burrough’s maddening cut-up technique in Naked Lunch) – or perhaps both?

    If it’s an issue of style – the power to disturb, or shock – then I still think that historical reasons of aggregated desensitisation are what takes the sting out of transgressive fiction (I still have a problem with this generic designation, but I use it for ease). Furthermore, I think that literary styles have had to adapt to this weakening of that power by reliance on other devices.

    Lastly, to continue my defence of Trainspotting: if I grant you your argument about addiction not being a choice, however will your rescue William Burroughs who’s guilty of every one of those sins? Junk in trainspotting represents a conscious decision to stick it to the man, to the paralysis of suburbia’s diminished pleasures. The addiction doesn’t, but the addiction is part of the ride – we’re all addicted to something – money, sex, television, power, notoriety, corporate culture, consumerism etc. (by the way, when I was talking about social sicknesses, I was talking about some of the above, and how addiction can be contextualised in relation to these things)

    Here’s Rent Boy again, asserting his agency: “I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who need reasons when you’ve got heroin?” – anarchic, against the logic of the herd, transgressive.

    I think the overall problem is ultimately going to be defining ‘transgression’ as a genre – I think you’ll find that all the novels you’ve cited differ quite radically from one another. They all offended at the point in history in which they were capable of offending. Transgression arises in the course of a provocative narrative; it isn’t an end in itself, and if pursued for its own means, then it’s a little adolescent. Thanks for the interesting discussion. Write more pieces like this!

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  19. Roger Young says:

    I’m just going to throw this in here about the Naked Lunch vs Trainspotting debate.

    The “Choose Life” speech in Trainspotting is not a finger in the face of the authority it’s a typical junkie post addiction rationale. The reason you think it’s a transgressive shout is because, in the film, it had Lust For Life playing underneath it. Both the film and the book are inherently suspect and sensationalist. No one does anything in that book that a million people don’t do every day.

    The act of transgression in Naked Lunch is not the using of heroin, it’s the fact that he shot his wife in the head and then ran away to hide in Tangiers. The heroin dealer/rent boy comparison is the result of the transgression and the rationale for the blurring of the lines between escape and reality.

    PS: Fight Club. Don’t get me started.

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  20. Michelle says:

    Agreed Roger. Drugs aren’t transgressive – either in substance or style. In fact, I find drug-centred narratives grindingly boring (drugs are numbing, after all). However, I now have the image of a girl inserting an eyeball in her anus burned on my subconscious forever.

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  21. fobias tunke says:

    @ Roger Young

    Is ‘transgression’ a numbers game, though? Obviously, If it reaches a certain critical mass, it’s no longer a transgression of the status quo, but replaces that status quo with its own essence. Also, is transgression itself defined as productive action? Isn’t the opt-out inert logic of junk addiction a gesture against all those symptoms of suburban paralysis I’ve sketched out above? regardless of what end it has in mind.

    Here’s another question: is Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter and associated sequels transgressive fiction? because the content involves something clearly transgressive – as in the case with de Sade, as in the case with Burroughs shooting his wife.

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  22. Roger Young says:

    If the act of rebellion against the status quo is submitting to a state of being that is merely another status quo then yes, it’s a numbers game.

    But that’s not really what I’m saying about drugs and transgression. Here’s the deal. Transgression is about crossing one line. Consent. Transgression is when you do something that society cannot accept. It’s when something outside of yourself gets damaged; something society deems you have no authority over. In submitting to the animal; you declare yourself ABOVE society. When you become an addict; it’s something you do to yourself. And like suicide, it’s frowned on but seeing as you didn’t hurt anyone else it’s just seen as sad rather than a threat.

    Now, while ON drugs you may commit transgressive acts but they are a product of needing more drugs, a means to an end more than anything else.

    Transgression is, essentially, when you declare yourself, by an act, to be above society and therefore a threat.
    Addiction is when you slowly sink below society and become harmless and disposable.

    As to Dexter, yes, it’s a transgressive idea and a large part of the execution of that idea is the way you are made to feel he is doing “the right thing”. I just don’t think it’s very subtle or well written.

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  23. fobias tunke says:

    @ Roger Young

    I think the issue of what constitutes transgression is a whole lot more fraught than that, particularly since you introduced the idea of being “ABOVE society”. Suicide can quite easily conform to that description; and if it’s seen as socially tragic, that’s because the language and logic of society is inherently structured in such a way that choosing death over life, for example, is not seen as an act of defiance and rebellion, but as a failure (to extend, a failure to not become a cog in the machine, get married, have children, pay taxes, affirm your imprisonment through your tacit consent to its bars).

    I’ll give you that addiction as transgression is a problematic one. But addiction arises peripheral to intent. People don’t ‘choose’ to become addicts, because that would precisely rob the term ‘addiction’ of the whole of its meaning. They do choose, however, to jack up H., and in Rent Boy’s logic, to escape all the numbness he criticises in his monologues. Is that not an attempt to be “above society”?

    But, so what’s actually happening here, is transgression is being defined in terms of its ability to go counter-consent. So rape, murder, bestiality, pedophilia (in legal terms) etc. And also, you said, transgression is when you declare yourself a threat.

    Well, becoming a junk addict certainly classifies you as a threat, hence the heavy legal sanctions designed against them. But perhaps we’re getting into uninteresting territory here.

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  24. Roger Young says:

    Slight misreading of my point, maybe it was the way i stated it. The purpose of transgression is not to become a threat. That is the outcome from society’s point of view. Part of the threat is that the transgressor has no concern for society’s viewpoint.

    Shooting up for the first time can be an act of personal transgression but the repeated act is more like a spoilt child shouting “Look at me!” It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. When kids do that we give them a time out in the naughty corner. Which is all the legal sanctions against drug use amount to. Put them in a rehab, feed them subutex and antidepressants. Or if their parents can’t afford that, prison with the rapists.

    Suicide is also, in this regard, spiteful and in terms of transgression, personal. It may take courage but it hardly ever makes anyone go “Shit! He’s questioning the morality on which we base our daily acts”. We should, but we don’t. Why should transgression of the self be less than transgression of society. Well, because we give ourselves permission to transgress against ourselves.

    To come back to Trainspotting, the monologues are POST the act. These are justifications for his actions from a future point of view. If Rent Boy declared these as intentions BEFORE he shot up for the first time, it would be an entirely different story.

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  25. fobias tunke says:

    Okay, I hear you. To a certain extent, I think we’ve both (and the author of the article) been treating ‘transgression’ as this estimable act of defiance. But let’s return this to transgressive fiction? what is it? what makes de Sade better than Lindsay? I certainly don’t think it’s the ‘transgressive’ aspect of the novel, but the way in which that transgression is used as an intellectual tool.

    Now then – Trainspotting might be about personal transgressions, I give you that. But the later 20th century (and subsequently, the 21st) has been about a convergence on the self – the narcissism of social networking, the traumas and depressions of suffering from what Oliver James calls “affluenza” etc. The subject is, granted, imbricated in the greater social context in which it operates, but the whole of our culture is screaming to wrestle some fabricated uniqueness out of that subject, while continuing to dope it with delusions ans shuffling it into its place. The subject, the person, the ‘I’, becomes the site of struggle. Not just in psychoanalytic terms.

    My point is, Trainspotting fucking excellently uses a personal transgression to excoriate life in late capitalist society – it cuts through middle-class malaise, the numbness of our material culture, the diminished pleasures of suburban existence. In that sense, it is transgressive literature that poses a threat to and disturbs the medicated complacency with which we think about how perfect/normal/whatever our lives are. What better use could a single novel be put to? and why is everyone giving it such a hard time?

    PS: When you have a moment, perhaps do elaborate on your problems with Fight Club. I last read it as a teenager, but I remember having quite lucid reasons as to why it was brilliant before it got hijacked by every hipster and had its platitudes scrawled on the walls of local clubs.

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  26. Roger Young says:

    It’s problematic at the get go to define a genre. Moreover it’s impossible to state, except from a personal standpoint, why one work is better than the other.

    Anyway. Transgression IS as it’s core defiance but it is defiance without regard for outcome, it is the act itself that is the endpoint. Whatever comes after is meaningless.

    Trainspotting merely swaps one horror for another. Heroin is seen as an alternate way of living. It is not one single act that cares not for outcome. It is all about outcome.

    I’m not going to get into Fight Club here, maybe at a later date. I have a lot of very personal hate for that book and film. I could write a volume.

    Transgressive fiction is, in my reading, a fiction that makes the act of transgresssion alluring, you identify with it and then at the same time are repulsed. It at once makes you feel alive and then afraid of your potential.

    And now I must go rape some nuns.

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  27. fobias tunke says:

    I disagree with your idea that ‘transgression is defiance without regard for outcome’. Take Michael Silverblatt of the Los Angelos Times’ definition of transgressive literature:


    A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.

    The pivotal qualifier in this definition is that ‘knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience’. Think of Lolita in terms of transgressive fiction, and the way in which that act of transgression is so imbricated into the narrative itself – the way it is both appealing and repulsive.

    You said:

    “Transgressive fiction is, in my reading, a fiction that makes the act of transgression alluring, you identify with it and then at the same time are repulsed. It at once makes you feel alive and then afraid of your potential.”

    With your candid talk about your heroin addiction, you should be the best situated to understand how your reading of transgressive fiction speaks directly to Trainspotting. The drug is at once euphoric (“Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it,” says Rent Boy) and self-annihilative. It offers an opportunity of experience denied to us by our bland, consumerist everyday lifestyle – it offers an expansion of consciousness, new sensory capabilities, a dangerous antidote to society’s banal prescriptions. It at once makes you ‘feel alive and then afraid of your potential’.

    In every way, Trainspotting is transgressive fiction and brilliant transgressive fiction at that. And so is the much-maligned Fight Club – far more complex a novel than the average troglodyte gives it due for – but I’m sure we’ll argue about that at ‘a later date’.

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  28. Roger Young says:

    Except for the fact that Heroin is nothing like orgasm.

    And we don’t do smack to seek knowledge, we do smack to escape knowledge.

    Also. I don’t think mine and Silverblatt’s ideas of transgression and transgressive lit are that different.

    Back to the nuns.

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  29. Hmmm... says:

    In light of the discussion above, and in an attempt to see if it applies to other art forms, I ask this question? Is Die Antwoord transgressive? And how much of their success is purely because of the shock value that accompanies transgression and because people are too bored with popular crap. At what point do we start dismissing artists’ (of any medium) comments/messages because they appear to be pursuing it (adolescently) for their own means?

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  30. Roger Young says:

    Any conversation about transgression ends the moment Die Antwoord is mentioned.

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  31. Hmmm... says:

    If only I could be more like Mr Young, then I wouldn’t be bothering this forum with my petty ideas…

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  32. Roger Young says:

    I’m just fooling with you. Andy asks us to write about Die Antwoord so much that I have built a natural resistance to any discussion on it.

    I don’t think Die Antwoord fits into transgression at all. It’s more like a skilled commercialisation of outsider art that relies on shock. But they transgress little, unless you consider POES and a bum flash transgressive, which many people do, hence their success. Many people want to feel like they are hip to the shocking and DA provides that secure feeling that one is.

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  33. fobias tunke says:

    @ Roger

    Heroin isn’t supposed to be like an orgasm, though. Its effect is supposed to have much more than 1000 times the efficacy of an orgasm, to continue with Rent Boy’s poetic hyperbole.

    You may do junk to escape knowledge, but then you escape to a new type of knowledge – ie, what junk represents relative to the society in which you live.

    Trainspotting’s commentary cuts much wider than just the sensory experiences of junk.

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  34. Arnaud says:

    There is nothing transgressive about Henry Miller. He was a normal guy with normal appetite ahead of his time. Society slandered him as sex maniac; and that sadly stuck. To this day. Pity.

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  35. tigerlily says:

    Is Megan from South Africa?

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  36. Megan D says:

    @tigerlilly
    Yes she is. She also enjoys pina coladas and talking about herself in the third person.

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  37. Roger Young says:

    @fobias “the efficacy of an orgasm” That’s some serious over-thinking right there.

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  38. fobias tunke says:

    @ Roger

    Stay on topic, buddy. You have a tendency to trail off on tangents – quite obviously just trying to bait me into staying on these boards beyond the point where any decent argument is going to be had.

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  39. Roger Young says:

    I think the debate is done. That’s when i tangent. No disrespect; good points around but when we started talking about heroin as an intellectual construct I kinda drifted. See you on the next one.

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  40. thom says:

    the seven days of peter crumb

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  41. Vanessa says:

    I love you Roger Young.

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