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Perversion and the Social Relation: sic IV

Perversion and the Social Relation: sic IV

by Molly Anne Rothenberg, Dennis A. Foster, Slavoj Zi

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The masochist, the voyeur, the sadist, the sodomite, the fetishist, the pedophile, and the necrophiliac all expose hidden but essential elements of the social relation. Arguing that the concept of perversion, usually stigmatized, ought rather to be understood as a necessary stage in the development of all non-psychotic subjects, the essays in Perversion and the


The masochist, the voyeur, the sadist, the sodomite, the fetishist, the pedophile, and the necrophiliac all expose hidden but essential elements of the social relation. Arguing that the concept of perversion, usually stigmatized, ought rather to be understood as a necessary stage in the development of all non-psychotic subjects, the essays in Perversion and the Social Relation consider the usefulness of the category of the perverse for exploring how social relations are formed, maintained, and transformed.

By focusing on perversion as a psychic structure rather than as aberrant behavior, the contributors provide an alternative to models of social interpretation based on classical Oedipal models of maturation and desire. At the same time, they critique claims that the perverse is necessarily subversive or liberating. In their lucid introduction, the editors explain that while fixation at the stage of the perverse can result in considerable suffering for the individual and others, perversion motivates social relations by providing pleasure and fulfilling the psychological need to put something in the place of the Father. The contributors draw on a variety of psychoanalytic perspectives—Freudian and Lacanian—as well as anthropology, history, literature, and film. From Slavoj Žižek's meditation on “the politics of masochism” in David Fincher's movie Fight Club through readings of works including William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and William Burroughs's Cities of the Red Night, the essays collected here illuminate perversion's necessary role in social relations.

Contributors. Michael P. Bibler, Dennis A. Foster, Bruce Fink, Octave Mannoni, E. L. McCallum, James Penney, Molly Anne Rothenberg, Nina Schwartz, Slavoj Žižek

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The only true awareness of our subjection is the awareness of the obscene, excessive pleasure (surplus enjoyment) we get from it. This is why the first gesture of liberation is not to get rid of this excessive pleasure, but to assume it actively."—Slavoj Žižek, from his chapter, "The Ambiguity of the Masochist Social Link"
Archives of Sexual Behavior - Lisa Downing
“[T]his work represents an intriguing attempt to rethink social functioning and relationality in the light of perversion.”
Journal of Lacan Studies - Antonios Vadolas
"[A] kaleidoscopic analysis of the perverse condition within cultural, ideological and social contexts. . . . [N]ine erudite essays. . . . This anthology can be seen as a noteworthy synthesis of Lacanian and Freudian views on the logic of perversion that would be essential for any neophyte in the field of Lacanian or cultural studies. . . ."

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Duke University Press
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[sic] Series , #4
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Perversion and the social relation

By Molly Anne Rothenberg

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3097-0

Chapter One

Molly Anne Rothenberg and Dennis Foster

Introduction. Beneath the Skin: Perversion and Social Analysis

We conceived of this volume as a way of asking some fundamental questions from a psychoanalytic perspective about how the social relation functions, how it is that we can live together. Admittedly, we don't always live together well. In fact, considering the many ways we humans have found to despise each other and to act on that feeling, it is surprising that we find any pleasure or comfort at all in the company of others, particularly of strangers. It seems likely that if Freud were writing his analyses of group psychology today, he would find more reason than ever to imagine we had grown out of a primal horde, seeing how ready we are to return to some similar social organization, closed within an ethnic identity, ruled by tyrants. His story of a primal father whose terrible governance was replaced by a gentler, if more pervasive, law has functioned with great persistence to explain our ability to repress our more destructive impulses and to sublimate them into socially productive activities. However, such a model is inadequate to describe varieties of social relations in post-Freudian communities, perhaps as neurosis has ceased to explain the ills or health of our contemporaries. That is, the Oedipal subordination of instinct to law may not be theonly way of managing instinctual impulses in socially productive ways, and the resistance to law might not be the only way of going wrong.

In 1980, Hans Loewald wrote a striking essay entitled "The Waning of the Oedipus Complex" in which he attempted to preserve traditional Freudian interpretations even as he lamented their failures to address the passions of his era. Discussing what he seemed to imagine were simpler times, he argued that the Oedipus complex was resolved when one came to terms with patricide, the killing of the father in order to take up one's own desires in the world. But the evident tone of nostalgia in the essay reveals less that each of us must get over the guilt we experience for betraying the father than that there is no father left worth killing. The Oedipus complex wanes because it no longer functions when the law has faded. In this essay's echo of The Waning of the Middle Ages, we hear Johan Huizinga's longing for a time he imagines before the Enlightenment, before the Renaissance, just before, when feelings were more immediate and people, ruled by men of violence, lived with a passionate intensity. In both writers, the wish for a father's law reveals its absence as well as the emergence of an analysis based on something before the law. Many have called such a wish the perverse.

The emergence of perversion as a description of behaviors and desires, as discursive constructs, as fundamental psychic structures, and as political positions has been accompanied by an increasing valorization of the perverse for its analytic possibilities as well as for its revolutionary potential. For most earlier writers, there was little question but that the perverse belonged to a class of ills to be avoided or cured. The Kantian pervert acts, to the detriment of all, on inclination and pleasure rather than the stricter dictates of duty, soul's reason. The Freudian pervert fails to leave behind the polymorphous pleasures of infancy for the narrower utility of reproductive genital sexuality. While the normal neurotic wrestles with the inability to find true satisfactions within the boundaries of lawful encounters, the pervert remains in a world left frighteningly open by the father's failure either to close the door on early pleasures or to promise a future to compensate for the awful discoveries of childhood-of mutilation, loss, and death. And yet the resistance (or perhaps even subversion) that perversion offers to the father, to the law, seems for others to promise freedom. This ambivalence surrounding the category of the perverse suggests both the richness and dangers of using the term.

The Perverse Foundation

The story that psychoanalytic theories tell of psychic development indicates that certain capacities for social life derive ultimately from the necessary passage through a perverse stage, which installs structures and tendencies that persist in the mature psyche. From within a Freudian frame, the polymorphous character of infantile perversion suggests the openness of the child to multiple avenues of cathexis. That is, the category of the polymorphously perverse suggests that we are highly motivated to have varying forms of satisfaction and attachment to objects, including both human and nonhuman object relations. The stage during which the child has to find a way to separate himself as an independent entity from the engulfing, if secure and pleasurable, universe of the dyad sets up the basic forms of the adult's social ties, the satisfactions he will seek, the sufferings he will undergo and in turn inflict. Whether the absolute bonding between the child and mother actually occurs, or whether it is a retroactive construction by the child, or, again, whether it is fantasized by mother and child, and therefore lived as real, at the heart of perversion is the disavowal of the knowledge that separation is permanent, that mother lacks, and has always lacked, the power to make the world whole-again. Disavowing, as the pervert does, the knowledge of limitation, of castration, makes it possible to act on and enjoy the candidness of a polymorphously perverse body and mind. Normal neurotic pleasure is attenuated for good reasons, and if you can live within these limits, you are lucky. But that doesn't mean perverse pleasures are necessarily unavailable to the normal adult: as a stage of development, the pleasures of the polymorphously perverse remain embedded in the transformations we undergo to get civilized. The delight many of us feel (and the disgust and disapproval some others feel) in bodily movement, in song and rhythm, in the patterning of words, in looking, in eating, and in other activities learned prior to the Oedipal period and outside of social meaning suggests how the perverse persists in normative behavior. We might even ask if the meaningful activities of social life would be possible without their perverse foundations.

For the ordinary neurotic, jouissance must remain unconscious lest the experience recall too disruptively the lawlessness of polymorphous perversity with its suspicion that in fact there is no law. We encounter, however, a negative reflection of that jouissance in the contempt we so often hear in complaints about the disgusting pleasures of others: their horrible, smelly food; their loud and disorderly music; their irresponsible sexual extravagance; their profligate rates of reproduction. Perversity seems to saturate the social relations of others. Michel Foucault and Jonathan Dollimore argue that perversity is actually a discursive construct generated to define normative life. But the purpose of this construct may be less to implant an arbitrarily generated perversity than to provide cover for the specific pleasures that sustain and threaten the law. That is, I can continue to believe that my world is orderly and enjoy the covert pleasures of that world so long as I denounce the perversity that so obviously dominates the lives of others. At the level of skin, I can allow myself pleasure within the intimate society of a shared fantasy; that same skin, however, marks the limits of the social relations and, as it functions in politics, becomes the ground for racism, homophobia, and other expressions of disgust at others' enjoyment. Our observations here suggest that the perverse is implicit in at least some aspects of normal neurotic social life and that there is some advantage in accounting for its presence in attempting to understand social relations. But for those individuals or communities more fully structured by the perverse, the negative implications are more serious. In effect, perversion allows one to continue to live in a world suffused with enjoyment after the point when the Oedipal law of restraint should have taken effect.

The Perverse Predicament and the Imaginary Law

By addressing perversion as a psychic structure-a specific relation to the paternal function-rather than as a description of behaviors, we avoid the traditional stigmatizing of perversion, which has served to obscure its significance for all "normal" psychic development. In order to assess the way in which the perverse functions within most of us as part of the motivation for and dynamics of the social tie, we need to understand the pervert's predicament, the enjoyments and the sufferings of the perverse position. As Bruce Fink argues in his chapter on perversion that we reprint here, those who do not undergo the Oedipal compromise remain bound to the horror, as well as the pleasure, of living within the mother's domain of jouissance, never free to enter the ordinary world of more temperate, symbolic desires and disappointments.

The precise problem of the mOther's jouissance is that it threatens to pull the subject back, not into wholeness and unproblematic enjoyment, but to the presymbolic world in which the self is engulfed by the mOther's demands, where jouissance circulates at the expense of subjectivity, where encounters with the real are traumatic. What we call the perverse structure marks the developmental moment when some notion of a law beyond the idiosyncratic, unsymbolized world of the mOther is glimpsed: there is a place for the law in perversion, unlike in psychosis. But the Law of the Father has not been articulated, and therefore it cannot articulate the subject with other subjects: it can furnish neither the space within which subjectivity can come to be as separation nor the channeling of enjoyment that moves the subject to seek objects for its own pleasure without negating them in the process. Absent the intervention of the paternal function qua function, the only law that the pervert can bring into being is a set of rules and fantasy scenarios about limiting jouissance. The law as imagined in the realm of the perverse is thus imaginary.

We can think of the difference between the perverse law and the Law of the Father as follows. The law imagined by the pervert, the law he thinks he can bring into being through his probing transgressions, is fantasized as being completely regulative, covering the entire field of relations and parceling out "goods." Like Blake's Urizen, it divides the world up into positive categories, possessions, and entitlements. Regimes of such laws can indeed be challenged through transgression, but when I violate the law through some illicit act of violence or pleasure, the punishment I endure reveals, unnervingly, the fictitiousness and impotence of the law. In its limitation, it cannot liberate me from the demand to enjoy. By contrast, the law as Name of the Father exists as a mere function -a crucial function, to be sure-that does nothing more than open, by means of negation-the father's "No!"-a crack in the smothering universe of the mOther's demand. To the child, the addition of this negation means that some other space exists, some other order or law (potentially) governs the mOther as well as the child. A child may get trapped at this stage if the Law of the Father is not articulated. Desperate to find limits to the mOther's jouissance, perverts try to bring this Law of the Father into being through "transgressive acts" and disavowal. They simply do not realize that the Non/Nom du Pere they seek cannot be brought into being in this way.

From this vantage, the pervert's disavowal should be conceived not simply as a defense against castration, against the realization that the mother has no penis, but also as the means by which the pervert attempts to open a hole in the world of the mOther. That world is "full" in the sense that there is no perceptible lack in it and, therefore, no space for the child as separate from the mOther, nothing missing that canmobilize desire. As Fink puts it, "One never sees or perceives the lack of anything: one sees what is there to be seen, not what is absent ... there is no lack at the perceptual level-there the world is full." So the fetish does not just fill in for the missing penis in the same way as a plug fills a hole. On the contrary, the fetish is the pervert's way of making a hole, of making visible the fact of a lack (the lack that the Oedipalized adult has had to accept). Although the fetish cannot actually add anything to the Real, since it already exists as itself (a shoe, a pair of panties, a piece of fur), at the same time, it does supplement the Real: in its role as stand-in for the missing penis, it negates the fullness of the world of mere phenomena. That is, we could say that it adds the concept of lack, that its negation functions in a positive way. When the pervert says, "I know well that my mother has no penis" but persists with his fetish, he is making it possible to see that his mother has no penis, that his mother lacks, rather than simply seeing what mother does have, in positive terms. In this way, the pervert tries to use disavowal as a substitute for the father's "No!" to open a space, one that will function to set limits to jouissance and allow him to emerge as a subject among subjects.

This tactic lashes the individual more tightly to the circuit of jouissance; it cannot provide the limits to the mOther's jouissance. Still, it testifies to the orientation of the pervert toward some law. This is why it is possible to say that, even if the pervert never moves beyond this stage of the Imaginary law, nonetheless he is constantly gesturing beyond it, seeking to bring the Law of the Father into being. This glimpse of the necessity of the paternal function is the pervert's link to the social, while the lack of its articulation is what keeps the pervert enmeshed in the jouissance of the mOther. But we are not trying to suggest that the social relation involves the elision of jouissance. On the contrary, without jouissance the subject has neither the motive for connection nor the means for disconnection. For this reason, we consider it worthwhile to keep our eye on the pervert, at this moment of nascent sociality, to see what energies, what barriers, and what enjoyments accompany the propulsion toward the social relation.

The Potential of Perversion

Given the violence that is so often a part of societies structured by the Oedipal dynamics of repression and the ethics of a band of brothers, many writers have promoted some non-Oedipal, perhaps pre-Oedipal, or perverse structure as an alternative basis for social arrangements. The forces that might enable such a society could include, for example, the intimacy established through the semiotic chora Julia Kristeva theorizes -a bodily sense of connections instilled in the rhythms of the voices we share. Or we might think of the polymorphous perverse as a rich source of interconnection opening a sexualized body to a larger community than that which follows the genital reduction of the Oedipalized body. We might imagine here that in some ideal world, the law would lay a light hand on us while we lived within a harmony of like voices and bodies. The dream of a perfect community, maybe in Utah, as the Coen brothers suggest in Raising Arizona, seems to be founded on an idea of sameness, of a shared spirit, history, aspirations, and values-an archaic, unified community. But not even in some golden past did such communities exist, and the totalitarian implications of such imaginings should make everyone leery of seeking them. What, then, are the pre-Oedipal, or perverse implications for social relations?


Excerpted from Perversion and the social relation by Molly Anne Rothenberg Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Molly Anne Rothenberg is Associate of English and Co-Director of the Literature Program at Tulane University. She is a practicing psychoanalyst and the author of Re-Thinking Blake’s Textuality.

Dennis A. Foster is Frensley Professor of English at Southern Methodist University. He is author of Confession and Complicity in Narrative and Sublime Enjoyment.

Slavoj Žižek is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Social Studies, Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is the author of many books, and editor of Cogito and the Unconscious, Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (coedited), and Tarrying with the Negative, all published by Duke University Press.

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