The Role of 'Transgressive Fiction' in the West (Panel)


Comparative Literature / Post/colonial

Rebecca Warshofsky (SUNY Binghamton University)

The fiction produced in a particular historical moment reflects a society’s values. So, what can we learn about our contemporary value systems from murdering, terrorizing, and drug-abusing characters like Patrick Bateman, Tyler Durden, and Mark Renton, who reject so many of the major cultural norms that constitute Western capitalist societies? Texts like Ellis’s American Psycho, Palahniuk’s Fight Club, and Welsh’s Trainspotting have been dubbed “transgressive fiction” because of the sense in which their characters cross and deconstruct boundaries by opposing, disregarding, and subverting hegemonic paradigms. “Transgressive fiction” critiques society through characters who exist at society’s extremes—characters who bend and break the limits that are normally imposed upon humanity via societal conventions such as morals, customs, laws, traditions, and even rationality in general. Does transgression of such limits threaten to break down the order established by society’s rules, systems, and institutions? Or does it suggest ways in which such systems might grow, change, and adapt?

Analyzing texts featuring characters whose experiences occur at or outside the limits of what is normal, comfortable, or possible allows us to reflect on our own morals and values in a way that shows whether those morals and values still serve an important purpose in our societies. What does “transgressive fiction” reveal about how we can go beyond society’s traditions, customs, and conventions to produce new ideas and knowledge? What kinds of events or actions have the power to shift the boundaries society establishes? In what specific ways do characters from works of “transgressive fiction” provide examples of how particular limits are exceeded, violated, or infringed, and what do such actions tell us about how those limits function in our own societies? How do these characters’ thoughts and actions suggest alternatives to the political, cultural, and social landscapes in which they find themselves entrenched?

If fiction reflects a society’s values, what can we learn about our contemporary value systems from the murdering, terrorizing, and drug-abusing characters of “transgressive fiction,” who reject so many of the major cultural norms that constitute Western capitalist societies? In what specific ways do characters from works of “transgressive fiction” provide examples of how particular limits are exceeded, violated, or infringed, and what do such actions tell us about how those limits function in our own societies?