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What is Transgression in Writing?

Let's take a stroll into the concept of what is transgression in writing. Transgressive writing is bold, unique, and it loves to challenge the norm. Naomi WALLACE defines that writing to transgress means to “step over the line, redraw the line, erase the line, even multiply the lines so that we sit up, step forward and strike out”. Now what does that mean? In this article we will reviewing what transgression mean in writing as well as analyzing its impacts on society.



What is Transgressive Literature?

We hand a profound discussion on this topic in an article "Transgressive Fiction Overview" and I also wrote a brief history of this genre in another article "Transgressive Fiction History". You can read those if you need more detail on what is transgressive fiction but to summazirze I can say that 'transgressive literature is a genre that pushes the boundaries of societal norms and challenges conventional ideas and values. It is characterized by its exploration of taboo subjects, provocative themes, and controversial content. Transgressive literature aims to disrupt and subvert established norms, often delving into the darker aspects of human nature and society.'


At its core, transgressive literature look for challenging the status quo and provoke a reaction from its readers and that's the reason I love this genre. It goes beyond the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or appropriate, often exploring topics that are considered taboo or controversial. However many believe it is all about sex and gore, I argued in an article that it's more about human behavior and philosophy of life than anything else. So, if you read a book that it's mere purpose is to shock you, that's not transgressive fiction. So, what is transgression anyway?


What is transgression in writing?

Based on previous definition of transgressive literature, 'Transgression in writing involves the deliberate violation of established norms, conventions, or societal boundaries within literature.' To understand transgression and being transgressive you can read my article 'What is being transgressive?' in which I discuseed in detail, I reviewed the term "transgressive" across various disciplines, from legal and religious contexts to literature, linguistics, genetics, cinema, and psychology. In this article I emphasized that 'transgression contributes to identity re-definition and a limitless capacity to break established limits while remaining true to oneself. A fascinating journey through diverse fields, the article underscores the power of transgression in reshaping narratives and identities.'


Renowned writers, authors, and theorists have contributed to shaping this concept. Here's some examples:


  1. Georges Bataille, French intellectual, explored transgressive themes in his works, emphasizing the breaking of taboos and societal constraints. His writing such as Histoire de l'œil 1928 and Eroticism 1957 often delved into the forbidden and the limits of acceptable behavior. In his book 'Literature is not innocent,' (or 'Literature and Evil') that is a collection of essays, he stated that 'only by acknowledging literature complicity with the knowledge of evil can literature communicate fully and intensely.'


He evaluation works of literary profiles of eight authors and their work, including Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal and the writings of Sade, Kafka and Sartre, explore subjects such as violence, eroticism, childhood, myth and transgression, in a work of rich allusion and powerful argument. Through this, he argues that the act of writing is an inherently subversive and non-innocent endeavor, as it involves the exploration of desires, fears, and aspects of human existence that are often suppressed. Bataille's perspective contributes to a broader understanding of the role of literature in engaging with the complexities and contradictions of the human condition.

Only by acknowledging literature complicity with the knowledge of evil can literature communicate fully and intensely.

2. William S. Burroughs, is a key figure in the Beat Generation, Burroughs is known for his transgressive fiction, notably in works like "Naked Lunch." His writing challenged traditional narrative structures and explored controversial subjects, reflecting a rejection of mainstream norms. Some belive that the book's fame, stemming from its scandalous nature and objective portrayal of a nightmare fantasy. However, I belive that this book emphasizes Burroughs' ability to confront societal norms and communicate uncomfortable truths which majority of times is not something people like to hear.


3. Chuck Palahniuk: The author of "Fight Club" and "Choke" is recognized for transgressive fiction that examines the darker aspects of human behavior. I did an in depth analysis of Choke and in that article, I mentioned that Palahniuk's work often feature characters who rebel against conventional norms in unconventional ways, delving into the darker aspects of human behavior and society. For Palahniuk, transgression is a tool to push readers out of their comfort zones, encouraging them to question accepted beliefs and behaviors. His writing reflects a desire to break through societal constraints and shed light on the complexities of the human condition, making a lasting impact on the landscape of contemporary transgressive literature.


4. Bret Easton Ellis: Ellis, particularly in "American Psycho," explores the transgressive through a lens of consumer culture and excess. In an article on "Transgressive Fiction Characters", I discussed his portrayal of violence and moral decay that challenges societal norms, making a powerful statement about contemporary society.


5. Michel Foucault: Although not a fiction writer, Foucault's theories on power and societal control have influenced transgressive literature. His examination of institutions and power structures provides a theoretical foundation for understanding how transgressive acts can subvert established norms.


In his book "Language, counter-memory, practice", he stated that transgression"is like a flash of lightning in the night which, from the beginning of time, gives a dense and black intensity to the night it denies, which lights up the night from the inside, from top to bottom, yet owes to the dark the stark clarity of its manifestation, its harrowing and poised singularity.” In his perception, transgression brings clarity and vividness to the obscurity it challenges and suggests that transgression disrupts the status quo, shedding light on hidden aspects and intensifying the contrast between societal norms and the unconventional. As Foucault explains in his essay on Bataille, transgression is “profanation in a world which no longer recognizes any positive meaning in the sacred […] not only the sole manner of discovering the sacred in its unmediated substance, but also a way of recomposing its empty form.


6. Kathy Acker: Acker's experimental and provocative works often challenged traditional cut-up storytelling techniques and gender norms. Her use of cut-up techniques and appropriation of existing texts exemplifies a transgressive approach to literature. As an author, she embodies a transgressive approach in her writing. Through her experimental and provocative works, she challenges traditional storytelling methods and societal expectations related to gender norms.


She disassembles and reassembles texts, and appropriation of existing texts to create something new demonstrate her willingness to break free from conventional narrative structures and literary norms. I discuss such techniques in my article 'Postmodern Literature Characteristics' and I can say postmodernism is in general a transgression not only in literature but in all aspects of society. This transgressive approach allows Acker to explore themes and ideas that might be considered taboo or unconventional, contributing to a more dynamic and boundary-pushing literary landscape.


So to answer what is transgression in writing, I can say that, 'transgression in literature involves a deliberate violation of established norms, conventions, or societal boundaries within literary works. Each writer contributes to a broader understanding of transgression, reshaping narratives and identities in literature.'


The Impact of Transgressive Literature on Society

IKn my humble opinion, transgressive literature holds a profound societal impact by breaking silence on taboo topics, challenging power structures, fostering empathy, inspiring social change, provoking controversy, and shaping cultural movements. Through such works, it addresses uncomfortable truths, empowering marginalized voices. Authors such as Marquis de Sade and Angela Carter critique authority and gender norms, while Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Requiem for a Dream" humanizes addiction struggles. Transgressive literature, exemplified by Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club" and politically charged works in Latin America, serves as a catalyst for change, sparking debate and shaping literary movements like the Beat Generation and postmodernism.


Final note, it has the potential to inspire social change by advocating for marginalized communities and challenging the status quo. The genre's ability to provoke controversy and ignite debates prompts critical thinking and reflection on morality, censorship, and freedom of expression. Transgressive literature also plays a role in shaping cultural and literary movements, influencing subsequent generations of writers and artists. So, its impact lies in its capacity to challenge, question, and contribute to the evolution of societal norms and perspectives.


And you? What is transgression to you? Comment below :)

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