Thank goodness, that’s my qualifying exams statement of interest draft finally written, edited, and submitted.
Here’s how this PhD thing works: this coming spring, my fourth year of grad school, I take a set of written and oral exams that determine whether I can advance to candidacy, i.e. whether I’m allowed to write my dissertation. So, you know, eep.
In my department, preparation for the exams includes reading, contemplating, and being prepared to answer to something like 150 texts. At the end of the fall semester before the fateful spring, we write a paper laying out our topic.
My topic, unsurprisingly, is the relationship between media (primarily literature, by necessity, but also film and video games) and perversity. Because I’m a freak and books are too.
Here’s the first page or two of the paper. When my committee chair read it, he told me, “You’re overstepping your bounds.” Pause. “And I think that’s a good thing.” I’m glad I’m not the only one who believes in the academic value of a little hubris!
“THE PERVERSE: writing, reading, & playing desire into being”
Perversion is as much a concept of media as it is a concept of flesh.
Whatever non-normative desires real-life culture may deem perverse, perversion with a capital “p,” the artistic idea of perversion, perversion as the comely bruise at the edge of our collective Western imagination that tempts us with an unspeakable laundry list of transgressive, abject pleasures – this perversion has its birth in literature.
We label it with the names of authors: sadism for the Marquis de Sade, masochism for Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. We understand it through literary example: Humbert, the platonic ideal of the pedophile, Lolita, the nickname for every nymphet. When it comes times to translate our perversity to digital media, the contemporary realm of libidinal codification, we call our bondage porn websites “Roissy” or “The Training of O.”
In the identity formation of perversion, textual bodies come before flesh-and-blood bodies. Stories come before actions. And before sex itself comes the sexual encounter with language, the page, the screen.
Foucault writes in The History of Madness, “Sadism is not a name finally given to a practice as old as Eros: it is a massive cultural fact that appeared precisely at the close of the eighteenth century, constituting one of the great conversions in the Western imagination.”
As historically misguided, if elegant, a statement as this may be, there is something useful here. If we swap out the cultural shift Foucault claims engendered sadism and replace it with Sade himself, with the man who wrote the word “sadism” into being, then we have a new equation: perversion in concrete, self-aware can only emerges once it has a textual namesake.
Desire is written into the world.
While deciding what to place on my list of perverse texts, I’ve found defining perversion, even settling on a grouping of fluid definitions, to be messy but fascinating business. How do we know perversity when we see it?
Most simply, we might call it any form of sexual desire that does not comply with culturally accepted norms, desires that come with negative social stigmas, taboo desires that transgress boundaries of the “normal” as well as the norm, deviation from a hegemonic “healthy” and “natural” state that we deem, quite literally, sick. However, from my standpoint, simply deeming some desire perverse because the real-world cultural majority sees it as pathological would be reinscribing the prejudices, assumptions, and discourse of regulation already displayed by the society around me.
Used here, “perversion” and “deviance” are not pejorative terms. Nor are they merely reclamatory. Instead, in the tradition of Hegel’s dialectic of lordship and bondage, I see in literary perversion a trove of subversive, ecstatic subject formation waiting to be explored…