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Transgression and Discipline in the History of Sexuality
 
To be held at the Monash Centre, Prato, Italy, September 13-15, 2010
 
  
 
Modernist accounts of eroticism such as those of Bataille and Desnos present their own stylised history of the sexual in which the writings of Sade mark a moment of rupture. Before Sade, they say, there was only minor indulgence and trivial naughtiness. Sade changed everything, “relegating” all the bland libertines who had gone before by his radicalism, and initiating modernity by his representation of extreme transgression. Bataille, in particular, places transgression at the heart of eroticism. Understood materially, it is the undoing of boundaries, the flow of one being into another. Its whole purpose is to unmake defined limits, disciplined habits and structured roles, all of them associated with a stilted past and a restrictive present. 
 
This conference will make a double attack on that view of history. On the one hand, it will examine carefully the place of transgression and discipline in earlier times, and on the other it will question the effects of a modernist discourse of transgressive fluidity on contemporary critical practice.  
 
Historical inquiry will be undertaken by asking questions about just what has counted as transgression and discipline in the past. Peter Cryle will attempt to show that early modern ars erotica required that “attitudes” be taken up in keeping with an ordered set of positions, such that desires themselves became a form of discipline. He will point to a marked shift in Foucault’s position on the significance of Bataille. Marina Bollinger will investigate how one of the conditions of possibility for modernist talk of transgression was put in place. She will pursue the metaphysics of love through philosophical battlegrounds late in the seventeenth century, pinpointing the terms by which eros and agape, or romantic and divine love, became irrevocably separated. Martyn Lloyd will attempt to locate Sade in an eighteenth century context before considering how his work was used by the Surrealists. Michael Finn will explore one strand of the emerging modernist view of transgression in the works of Marcel Proust. He will examine the interweaving of real and symbolic transgression, profanation and sadism, and the Proustian sense of the complex, ambivalent nature of all transgressive acts.  
 
The second phase of the conference will develop a critique of modernism that bears on the use of metaphors of fluidity and fixity in contemporary writing. Much current thinking about the sexual is informed by a profound critical investment in the idea that desires and sexual identities are fluid and contingent, and a concomitant critique of the observance of limits and the ordered maintenance of roles. That thematic is found in the work of influential thinkers such as Luce Irigaray, who has helped to make the notion of fluidity a core value for radical feminist thought about the sexual. More recently, feminists such as Rosi Braidotti have celebrated the radical potential of metamorphoses, becomings and nomadism. Within both the discipline of psychoanalysis and the anti-discipline of queer, fixity is generally devalued at the expense of fluidity. In psychoanalysis, it is thought to be regressive or pathological, while fluidity is viewed as healthy. In queer, the attachment to an identity category is felt to shore up conservative and limiting ideas of sexuality based in the psychological disciplines, while a rhetoric of fluidity is employed to encourage the transgression of modes of sexual knowledge.  Moreover, in much contemporary critical theory the verb “to mobilise” is understood as unambiguously positive, an unfailingly progressive act. 
 

While this critical celebration of the “fluid” and “contingent” has recently come under scrutiny by disability theorists such as Robert McGruer and Rosemarie Garland Thomson, it nonetheless remains widespread in contemporary writing about sexuality.  For this reason, questions can and should be asked about it. A hypothesis of this conference will be that there is something to be gained by refusing to enter into the assumption that fixity is negative. For example, in Lisa Downing’s contribution, the logic that constructs perverse fixity as less radical or politically challenging than “polymorphous perversity” will be examined using a range of psychoanalytic texts and texts of queer theory. It will be argued that in promoting fluidity over fixity, much queer theory performs the same othering and exclusionary binary logic as the very disciplines that it seeks to critique. Robert Gillett will seek to situate queer theory both in and as a dual history of transgression and reification. Elizabeth Stephens’ contribution will further investigate the relationship between fluidity and fixity through a study of the emergent field of “crip theory,” which draws on queer methodologies to retheorise disability. 

 

 Programme 

Sunday 12 September
7 p.m.   Welcome dinner (venue to be announced)
Monday 13 September
9.45 -11.15          Fernanda Alfieri, “Transgressing what? The nature of ‘impassable limits’ in early modern narrativers of sexuality”
11.15-11.30         Morning tea
11.30-1.00           Marina Bollinger, “The Metaphysics of love in seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonism”
1.00-2.30              Lunch
2.30-4.00              Peter Cryle, “Minor transgressions: The gentle art of the peccadillo in French libertine writing of the eighteenth century”
4.00-4.30              Afternoon tea
4.30-6.00              Alexandra Lewis, “Brontëan medical transgressions”
Tuesday 14 September
9.45-11.15           Heather Wolffram, “‘My only hope lies in a cure by means of hypnosis’: Problems with the psychological model of homosexuality in late nineteenth-century Europe”
11.15-11.30         Morning tea
11.30-1.00           Lesley Hall, “Gendering transgression”
1.00-2.30              Lunch
2.30-4.00              Michael Finn, “Transgression, profanation and sadism in Proust”
4.00-4.30              Afternoon tea
4.30-6.00              Robert Gillett, “Overstepping the mark with malice aforethought: Revalorising Transgression”
Wednesday 15 September
10.30-12.00         Martyn Lloyd, “Fluid ontology: Sexual Phenomenology; Bataille, de Beauvoir, and the use of Sade”
12.00-1.30           Lunch
1.30-3.00              Lisa Downing, “Perversion, fixity and fluidity in the history of the psy disciplines and in queer theory”
3.00-3.30              Afternoon tea
3.30-5.00              Elizabeth Stephens, “Fixated on fluidity: Rhetorics of mobility in contemporary queer studies”
5.00-5.30              Closing discussion

 

 

Titles and Abstracts

 Fernanda Alfieri

 “Transgressing what? The nature of ‘impassable limits’ in early modern narratives of sexuality” 
 My paper will explore accounts of sexuality coming from early modern Catholic Europe, all of them apparently characterised by the unavoidable ingredient of transgression. Most of materials I will deal with (like most of sources on sexuality available to early modern historians) are visible to our present gaze through a disciplinary frame: judicial acts (produced to prosecute transgressions) or prescriptive discourses (meant to prevent transgression). If the element of transgression seems to be somehow necessary, this is intrinsic to the nature of the sources. A wider gaze on early modern sexuality should include the comparison with discourses that do not have an explicit disciplinary function (such as literature). That would raise questions about whether in fact the question of transgression is inevitable in any account of sexuality. I will attempt to analyse the role of transgression in the making of an early modern discourse on sexuality. How are the objects of transgression made? Which limits are not to be trespassed? What is the function of such limits? What kind of anthropology do they imply, and what do they tell us about the idea of the “individual”?
 
Marina Bollinger
 
"The Metaphysics of Love in Seventeenth-Century Cambridge Platonism"
 
 
 
Martin Lloyd
 
"Transgression, Freedom, and the Meaning of Sade"
Foucault is the singular dominant figure for understandings of sexuality in the modern academy. The manner of his location of the sexual in historically contingent factors has provided, as a moment of theory, a vantage point from which it is possible to look both backwards and forwards; backwards to the history of sexuality and to the study of particular instances of the production of the sexual: forwards to current modes of construction and to sites of resistance. In this paper I will draw attention to another moment of theory, one which is qualitatively very different from Foucault’s even if it is not particularly historically distant from it. In this paper I shall discuss existential phenomenology and its understanding of the sexual. This paper will culminate with an examination of the work of Simone de Beauvoir, particularly her Ethics of Ambiguity and her essay on Sade; it will begin with the complex and influential figure of Georges Bataille. Bataille is difficult to locate in terms of the broader movements of twentieth-century theory, but his thought is in close proximity to, and often thematically continuous with, phenomenology. Bataille’s influence on post-structuralism and post-modernism has been much touted; this paper will trace his influence on, and interaction with, an earlier generation of theory, that of the 1940s and 1950s.  The point this paper will demonstrate is this: in terms of the history of philosophy, France of the mid- to late-twentieth century can be understood to be a high point in terms of theorising the sexual. Here philosophical anthropologies which understand the self or subject as being fundamentally ambiguous, for de Beauvoir, or heterogeneous for Bataille – that is: as fundamentally fluid – are brought together with theoretical discourses that attach increased importance to the sexual subject, to sexuality, or to the erotic. The sexual subject is understood as fundamentally fluid; the fluid subject is understood as paradigmatically sexual. And, following his “discovery” by the Surrealists, Sade becomes theoretically necessary as he is broadly taken to be the moment of the erotic par excellence. This nexus has proven to be highly influential for contemporary academic understandings of the sexual. There is a stark difference, needing to be more clearly marked, between this and understandings of sexuality in terms of bio-power or the technologies of the self.
 
Peter Cryle
  “Minor transgressions: The gentle art of the peccadillo in French libertine writing of the eighteenth century”This paper begins by making a distinction between the history of sexuality and the history of eroticism, identifying the latter as a genre produced by such writers as Georges Bataille, who developed a philosophical anthropology that saw all truly human erotic experience as produced by a dialectic of prohibition and transgression. Out of writing like Bataille’s there emerged quasi-historical propositions that not only attached great importance to Sade as the first great transgressor, but “relegated” all other writers of his century to a world of frivolity now swept away by the powerful erotic truth of modernity. That is, I argue, a view that is incompatible with a history of sexuality that attempts to understand past practices in their own terms. In the second half of the paper, I work against the philosophical history of eroticism by attempting to provide a more careful account of the “minor” libertine writers of eighteenth-century France, showing how they developed their own practices of seduction and pleasure in such a way as to undo or prempt the binary of prohibition and transgression.         
 
 
Alexandra Lewis
 
“Brontëan Medical Transgressions”
 
 
Heather Wolffram
 
“‘My only hope lies in a cure by means of hypnosis’: Problems with the Psychological Model of Homosexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Europe” 
In January 1891 a thirty year old Hungarian merchant (known as Herr D. in Psychopathia Sexualis) sent a letter to the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in which he spoke of the social and moral torment he suffered as a result of his intense masochistic and homosexually-oriented desire. This merchant, whose fortuitous discovery of Krafft-Ebing’s work on contrary sexuality had led him to seek help, pleaded with the psychiatrist to cure him of his affliction by means of hypnosis. While for many of Krafft-Ebing’s correspondents the significance of their encounter with Psychopathia Sexualis was the solace they derived from its largely biological account of homosexuality, for Herr D. its importance lay in those few cases studies that appeared to demonstrate the psychological etiology of contrary sexuality and the possibility of altering transgressive behavior through hypnotic suggestion.
 
This paper will focus on the use of hypnosis by German-speaking sexologists and psychiatrists during the late nineteenth century to 'cure' or alter homosexual behavior as a means of examining the epistemological, political and professional problems associated with the psychological model of homosexuality. The paper will argue that the fixity of sexual identity implied by the biological model of homosexuality was politically more useful than the apparent fluidity of its psychological competitor. Indeed, if as the psychological model of homosexuality implied, same-sex desire and sexual perversion were contingent upon faulty education and early experience transgressive behavior could be altered through psychological manipulation and re-education and it became very difficult to argue for the necessity of homosexual emancipation.
 
 
Lesley Hall
 
“Gendering Trangression” 
 Is trangression a game for the boys? Is it or can it be a meaningful project for women? On the pragmatic level, the costs of transgression for women have historically been high and not associated with liberation. It may be argued indeed that “a woman’s place is in the wrong”, and whatever she does will be seen as in some way transgressive from some point of view: if she indulges her sexual desires she is perceived as a whore, if she refuses sex she is a frigid bitch, and even if she pursues the societally approved course of marriage and motherhood she may be constructed as a restraint and tether and burden upon the male, or simply judged against ideal standards of what makes the ideal wife and mother. Women have traditionally been associated with the realm of the fluid and inchoate and chaotic rather than the bounded and disciplined, as disorderly objects rather than deliberately trangressing subjects. Furthermore, questions can be raised about the extent to which women have figured as objects upon which male acts of transgression have been performed. Is at least a degree of transgression considered essential to masculinity - the badly behaving male child smiled at indulgently as “he’s such a boy”. In which case, is transgression actually transgressive at all? What about elements of class and race? These questions will be discussed with reference to various historical contexts, literature and popular culture. 
 
 
Michel Finn
 
“Transgression, Profanation and Sadism in Proust”
 One of the connecting threads woven throughout  Marcel Proust’s writing, early and late, is a fascination with profanation, blasphemy and sadism.  In exploring the nature of such transgressions, the writer delves deep into the relationship between erotic pleasure and guilt and wonders, challenging traditional views, whether many apparently sadistic acts are not in fact the product of a good heart.  This paper will begin by examining the 19th-century medical residue in Proust’s ambiguous figuring of homosexuality and other “perversions”.  Do these “perversions” constitute transgressions, and what moral content, if any, do they suggest in human character?  What is the origin of such tendencies? Here we will discuss Proust’s brief explanation, in an early story, of the origin and “morality” of lesbianism.  We will also analyse his identification with Baudelaire’s mixed sense of compassion/sadism, and its origins in what Proust calls the hysteric personality. Of Baudelaire Proust wrote, “Like all Christians who are also [by chance] hysterics, he experienced the sadism of blasphemy” (Correspondance 5:127).  Proust, half Jewish, half Catholic  via his family, but a non-believer, demonstrates an exacerbated appreciation of the “blasphemy” resident in Baudelaire’s poetry.  The poet notes the physical degeneration of old women, but not without, observes Proust,  a touch of indifference and mockery about their imminent fate:  “I savour without their knowing secret pleasures” (“Les Petites Vieilles”).  Such clandestine enjoyment, with its substratum of cruelty, invites investigation in Proust’s texts because of episodes such as that where a piece of the Narrator’s family furniture ends up put to ignoble use in a bordello.
 
Profanation of the family, but particularly of the mother figure, causing her death, either literal or literary, is at the heart of many Proustian texts.  Here we will juxtapose Proust’s article titled “The Filial Sentiments of a Parricide”, which discusses how and to some extent why one of Proust’s acquaintances murdered his mother, and the fictional murder of a mother in the early story “La Confession d’une jeune fille”,  where the mother dies as she witnesses her daughter’s lust.  This  text offers a raw and rich description both of the guilt resident in transgression (“it seemed to me that I was causing my mother’s soul  to weep, the soul of my guardian angel, the soul of God”) and asserts that any voluptuous sexual act is composed of three realisations: equal measures of ferocious pleasure, suffering caused, and purity sullied.
 
The Proust of À la recherche du temps perdu treats transgression in a three-fold manner: it may be naturalised, aestheticised or rendered symbolic rather than real. The famous (and awkward) gay encounter between Charlus and Jupien becomes the mating of a bumblebee with a flower, while in a text about adolescent masturbation the arcing semen is compared to fountains in the paintings of Hubert Robert and the seed itself, which has landed on an errant lilac branch, to the innocent traces of a snail’s passage. The paper will interrogate closely a practice particular to Proust, the shunting of the untoward acts of the sadist/blasphemer/profaner into a moral lay-by.  It will examine how transgressive gestures are interpreted as symbolic cruelty enacted by good-hearted individuals who would be appalled by real sadism. But where does this leave Henri Blarenberghe, the friend of Proust who actually did murder his mother, and whose “goodness” and non-culpable, neurotic nature Proust tries to emphasise? Or the Proust who allegedly admitted reaching orgasm by piercing caged rats (possible symbols of his parents) with sharp pins?
 
For Proust the writer, the creative act is the ultimate transgression. The poet or novelist drains the life out of living individuals in order to bring life to his creation.  And in a comment about Baudelaire which could be applied equally to himself, Proust contends that a writer’s concern for the perfection of form overtakes any sympathy for the human “content” of his work and is a mark of the writer’s cruelty:  “In the most sublime expression which he brought to certain feelings, it seems that Baudelaire created an external portrait of their form, without feeling sympathy for them” (Contre Sainte-Beuve, 252).  A novel, says Proust with a mixture of regret and sadistic indifference, is “un grand cimetière”. 
 
 
Robert Gillett
 
“Overstepping the Mark with Malice Aforethought: Revalorising Transgression” 
 The purpose of this paper is to try and strip away the political and theoretical accretions that have accrued to the notion of transgression, and to rethink the term in its originary, topographical sense. It is rooted in the conviction that what passes for consensus in any given society, including our own, is actually a function of prevailing horizons and an exercise of power. In this sense it treats as symptomatic the emergence of allegedly anti-transgressive theorising in the era of apparent aftermaths. Accordingly, it sets out to investigate ways in which thinking the unthinkable and saying the unsayable might be imagined as stepping beyond given horizons and challenging prevailing power. It starts with Hans Christian Andersen, whose tale of the emperor’s new clothes is used as a paradigm for conventional thinking and what might be at stake in challenging it. It then pays a brief visit to the Garden of Eden in order to establish the parameters of the relationship between transgression and authority and the links between transgression and sexuality on the one hand and transgression and topography on the other. Drawing on Brecht’s famous dramatisation, it uses the example of Galileo to show both how transgressive thinking can reorder the status quo and the forces it has to overcome in order to do so. It then pays a visit to the usual French suspects Sade and Bataille in order to investigate the extent to which these might be regarded as representing a form of transgression that actually remains within conventional thinking rather than breaking out of it. Finally, with the help of Nietzsche, Foucault and Butler, it investigates the extent to which, and the base from which, queer as an intellectual procedure might properly be regarded as transgressive. In particular, it takes a careful look at the so-called “anti-social” turn in queer thinking and critically examines its transgressive credentials. The aim throughout is to separate the vanguard from the bandwagon and to revalorise the transgressive potential of the former.        
 
 
Lisa Downing
 
 “Perversion, Fixity and Fluidity in the History of the Psy Disciplines and in Queer Theory” 
 This paper traces the conceptualisation of “perversion” in sexology, psychoanalysis and queer theory. For clinical psychoanalysts, perversion is sexuality gone awry; the failure of the subject to attain adult genitality. For queer theorists, on the other hand, perversion may be construed as a defiant performance of excess that shows up the constructedness and arbitrariness of the category of the “normal”, and it is centrally implicated in queer’s rejection of the meaning of identity in favor of the politics of performativity and practice. I focus on a pair of concepts that are central to psychoanalytic and queer thinking on sexuality and its perverse forms — namely fixity and fluidity — in order to show up and trouble certain orthodoxies within both bodies of thought. In particular, this involves examining how the theory of performativity has been used to privilege the status of the idea of fluidity in queer studies. I critique this as a deficiency within the body of thought, after Brad Epps who has pointed out, in an essay that uses a concept borrowed from psychoanalysis to critique “queer”, that fluidity can be thought of as the “fetish” of queer theory. Privileging the ideal of fluidity leads to a concomitant stigmatisation of the idea of fixity, establishing an unhelpful binary (fluidity or fixity) in a body of thought that usually attempts to deconstruct such dualities. The maintenance of this binary also perpetuates some of the most damning and pathologising ideas that run through the history of knowledge about sexuality, featuring prominently in the very authority disciplines that queer exists to call into question. While valuing and recuperating the ideal of polymorphous perversity described by psychoanalysts, queer rejects as reactionary and limiting – “boring” in Foucault’s words – the Freudian model of adult perversion defined as a fixation and dependence on a non-normative act or object for sexual pleasure. I argue that this imposes on queer thought a programmatic tyranny that runs counter to the epistemological and political aims of queer theory – in Michael Warner’s words, to “oppose … the idea of normal behaviour”.
 
 
Elizabeth Stephens
 
 “Fixated on Fluidity: Rhetorics of Mobility in Contemporary Queer Studies” 
 The ideas of fluidity and contingency occupy a privileged role in contemporary queer studies, celebrated as inherently disruptive of the dominant cultural logic Irigaray has identified as “the mechanics of solids”.  For Irigaray, the cultural association of femininity with fluidity is a potentially productive site of feminist appropriation, because fluids “disconcert any attempt at static identification”. 
 
This idea of fluidity as resistant has been widely taken up within queer studies, in a way that often overlooks Irigaray’s own very qualified and cautious account of fluidity.  This paper will examine the widely-held critical assumption that fluidity is an inherently resistant or progressive characteristic by drawing on critical disability studies’ recent critiques of the rhetorics of mobility at work in much contemporary critical theory.  In so doing, it aims to take better account of the rhetorical function of fluidity in queer studies, and particularly its paradoxical role of the defining characteristic of a scholarly and cultural field explicitly defined against such fixed and stable terms. 
 

 

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