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Perversion

Claire Pajaczkowska

While Sigmund Freud clearly intended the psychoanalytic concept of perversion' to be free from the moral judgement that the word carries in colloquial use, the relationship of perversion to hostility and sexuality makes it a troubling concept. Sometimes described as an acting out of unconscious fantasy, perversions combine feelings of revenge, triumph and control as a defence against experiencing trauma and helplessness.

There is considerable controversy over the definition of perversion; some say it is a matter of variant forms of human sexuality, others think of it as an 'aberrant' form. It is only in psychoanalysis that the concept has a diagnostic and descriptive meaning : it is neither a variant nor an aberration but has specific underlying causes and recurring characteristics.

Foucault usefully suggested that concepts within a discourse must be understood as a function of power, linked ultimately to the law and the State. Understandably, such work has been very influential amongst contemporary social historians. It has been used to underpin much archival and political work documenting the criminalisation of homosexuality, or the caricaturing of women as 'hysterical'.

One thinks of the war against masturbation that was waged within British public schools, and how this related to the social production of a particular type of 'man' capable of administering the British political apparatus. In questioning the status of psychiatry as a pseudo-science the history of sexuality implicitly offers a social determinist critique of psychoanalysis.

More recently it has been used to inaugurate 'Queer Theory' which celebrates the privilege of the perspectives not prescribed by the point-of-view that ideologies define as normal or hegemonic. According to Queer Theory the word perversion is nothing but an unpleasant and moralising anachronism that should be analysed in terms of its history, or else should be taken up and used ironically as an emblem of the stigma of social disapproval. Thus the contemptuous term 'pervert' becomes a badge of pride rather than a stigma, and homosexuality is simply one variant of a range of polymorphous sexualities, which differ from heterosexuality only in terms of social recognition, definition and approval.

Queer Theory also acknowledges the scapegoating of 'aberrant sexualities' which enables those 'nice normal people' to feel themselves different from (superior to) the nasty 'perverts'. Scapegoats receive projected and disowned fears of the darker side of 'normality', and are made to feel ashamed dirty and sinful. But a celebration of 'Queerness' may be (politically and personally) inadequate if it is used to deny the real predicament of a perverse subjectivity, for example : that the 'solution' created in perversion for the anxiety of sexuality is the best of all possible worlds, is superior to bland 'normal', 'vanilla flavoured' sexuality.

Social determinism suggests that repression is a product of the censorship exercised by juridico-discursive institutions without psychological involvement. Where Queer Theory celebrates the connotations of unpleasantness, twistedness and severe moral criticism, it does so by implying that these are to be levelled at the accusers. The liberal practice associated with 'Gay' politics seeks to replace the concept of perversion with the less unpleasant one of 'Neosexualities'. Are Queer theorists and liberals right in their goal and in their strategies? What is the difference between abberantions, perversion and sexual variants?

The debates surrounding the part that the State does play, or ought to play, in prescribing, controlling and affecting sexualities continue to rage. The debates on the decriminalisation of homosexuality are well documented. Media fascination with stories of paedophilic pop stars, clergymen and social workers, bestiality, necrophilia, transsexuality and sado masochism are part of an ancient, if not noble, tradition of public fascination with the grotesque.

A social determinist theory of sexuality cannot hope to account for the behaviour, actions and emotional experience of many 'perverse adults'. The events at the West's household in Cromwell Road where home improvements and DIY were part of voyeurism, incest, sadistic torture, lesbianism, rape and murder, can only be understood if the psychoanalytic concept of the part played by unconscious sexual fantasy, and 'reparative' needs in perversion is acknowledged.

Claire Pajaczkowska is Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture at Middlesex University, teaching the textual analysis of art, film, design and popular culture. Her latest book is on Feminist Visual Culture. This extract is from her book Perversion, part of the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series, published by Icon Books.

Ideas In Psychoanalysis
edited by Ivan Ward Icon Books £3.99

Now available from the museum shop



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