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About this book

Julian Wolfreys introduces students to the central concept of transgression, showing how to interpret the concept from a number of theoretical standpoints. He demonstrates how texts from different cultural and historical periods can be read to examine the workings of 'transgression' and the way in which it has changed over time.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Transgressions or, Beyond the Obvious

Introduction: Transgressions or, Beyond the Obvious

Abstract
Transgression: it is a common word, circulated enough for us all to believe we understand what is meant by it when it is used. Ideas about what constitutes transgression are equally commonplace. Transgression, we might say, goes without saying. Yet, is that in fact the case? Or is it not that we are so used to what we take to be the idea of transgression that we have, in all truth, forgotten, or not even become aware of the extent to which transgression constitutes our identities? Believing we understand the term as indicative of breaking a law, doing something illicit, disrupting order and rebelling against societal norms, if and when we think we transgress, we do no more than conform to expectations of acceptable ‘deviance’. We act up in a manner already in some sense prescribed, whether socially or historically, and so merely conform in a way that is more or less tolerated, even when excoriated.
Julian Wolfreys

Making the Modern Subject

Frontmatter

1. The ‘Endlesse Worke’ of Transgression: The Faerie Queene and the ‘darke conceit’ of Early Modern Identity

Abstract
This, the first chapter, divided according to particular conceptual and epistemological interests, is concerned with Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and the role transgression plays in the production of the poem’s narrative, particularly that narrative’s interests in male and female identity, imagery or subjectivity. The extensive nature of this closely focused chapter has to do with the necessary establishment of the grounds for understanding precisely why Spenser’s epic poem is so important in the constitution of historically given, specific identities. The chapter is interested, furthermore, in exploring through such readings of the text as I will offer here particular contexts — ideological, historical and discursive — which inform and produce the text. Moreover, the readings and the contexts that I strive to elucidate through them take, as central to the production of Spenser’s text, an underlying cultural and historical response to that which was perceived in the Early Modern Period as transgressive, whilst, simultaneously, apprehending how transgression becomes written into, and so generative of, Spenser’s various reactionary mediations of culturally transgressive identities at the time of writing.
Julian Wolfreys

2. ‘Authority Usurpt’: Dryden, The Modern Subject and the Transgressive Entry of ‘Literature’ onto the Scene of History

I have said that my choice of The Faerie Queene, as the first text with which to begin a book focusing on the determination and exposition of transgression, was dictated by my reading of it as a founding text in the history of modern subjectivity. The modernity of the subject is defined for me in part by the subject’s entry into an awareness, however rudimentary or embryonic, of its own historicity and materiality, most simply expressed throughout the poem as the unending and ineluctable struggle between ‘gentle deeds’ and ‘fierce warres’. Spenser gives occasion to the potential for awareness through staging series of events that come into being because epic and allegorical certainties or absolutes have begun to break down (Martin 1998, 4). Whilst allegory, epic and heroic modes of mythopoesis rely on ‘a secure assurance that the complexity of the world can be subsumed within the intelligibility of a figural and/or diagrammatic relation of parts’ (4), the imperative of self-fashioning offers a countersignature that undermines such assurance through an insistence on material contingency, and so transgresses the limits assumed in the subordination of the subject to the totality and unity of form.
Julian Wolfreys

Haunted Subjects

Frontmatter

3. Victorian Gothic: Towards an Ethics of Transgression

Abstract
We move now to the end of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Specifically, I will be exploring the contours of a particular genre’s identity, its tropic force and the ways in which it both informs cultural identity and, in turn, is shaped by transgressive forces necessary to the historical shaping of subjectivity in given historical situations. To problematize this process of explication from the outset, however, Gothic is well known by critics of the genre and its historical contexts to be irreducible to a simple definition. Part of its very definition is that it endlessly transgresses itself, erasing, crossing and rewriting the very boundaries by which its shape, its meaning and its form are apprehended. To complicate matters, as I shall argue here, Gothic transmutes itselves in a startlingly spectral — perhaps even ‘gothic’ — manner, after its first generation comes to a close in the second decade or so of the nineteenth century. Dying off, it then returns throughout the nineteenth century, but never simply as itself, or itselves. Instead, traces, remnants, ruins of the Gothic are found everywhere, in fiction and non-fiction alike, in realist and fantasy literatures. In short, Gothic transgresses the borders between the living and dead, between the past and present of literary formations, in resurgent spectral ways, the very function of which revenance is to unseat the logic and economy of realist mimetic representation and its modes of production.
Julian Wolfreys

4. ‘Gauzy impressions conjured out of nothing’: Venice là-bas or, ‘les lieux de la’

Abstract
Before we begin, consider this mosaic of fragments, each refracting the other, the other’s light, and giving nothing away. The first: ‘These small, fastidious, flirtatious rooms alone in all Venice, vouchsafed that frisson which is history. Obviously, few came near them … from year’s end to year’s end. This might spare the delightful rooms from their proper wraiths, but it also pointed to an insoluble dilemma’ (Aickman,‘Never Visit Venice’ 1988, 29). The question raised must be orientated towards the solution of the insoluble. At the same time, however, it is necessary that we recognize the extent to which the undecidable is written right at the very juncture between those interior, eroticized architectural spaces and the ghosts that leave their indelible, if unreadable trace upon them. We are left at the outside of the inside, outside all that is so precisely excluded and yet all the more interiorized for all that. And then: ‘Here [Venice] … the never-ending maze of alleys and canals, a reflected image of every intrigue, every possible human entanglement … a net of reflections and counter-reflections … a thicket of psychic identifications and antagonisms … a spiritual masquerade packed with erotic depths and superficialities … this glitter of threatening ambiguity’ (Broch 1996, 417).
Julian Wolfreys

Afterword

Abstract
If you are reading this book, you are in some way or another engaged in the work of criticism, literary or cultural. Reading a book that addresses a concept or quasi-concept such as transgression means that you are interested in the act of reading, and the assumptions that inform not only reading but also writing, in an institutional context such as a university, about literature, culture, art and so on. Placed within an institutional location, subjected to its rules and produced in part as the subject of that institution, your identity is not your own. It is overwritten, reinscribed and interpolated. The ‘you’ you imagine yourself to be has been therefore transgressed by particular laws, practices and other related codes. From such a moment, you must operate as if you were free and yet circumscribed everywhere, if the law, institution, practice or codification is not to determine you as a transgressive subject. (And we are, all of us, under surveillance, so many transgressors in waiting.)
Julian Wolfreys
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