I want to say something about the intellectual context out of which this paper grew, acutely aware of the problems facing humanities departments in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and the seemingly grim outlook for them in the future.

At the time I was in the school of English and American studies at the University of Sussex. I was interested in Theory, as were a number of colleagues who had been appointed at the same time or within a couple of years of each other. They included Allon White, Homi Bhabha, Rachel Bowlby, Jacqueline Rose, and Geoff Bennington. Already at Sussex, and equally involved, were Alan Sinfield and Peter Stallybrass. And then there were our students, many of whom went on to produce important work of their own, including—to mention just a few who will be well known in the United States for their work in the early modern context—Ania Loomba, Dimpna Callaghan and Jonathan Gill Harris. It was a fantastic group to be a part of.

That we found ourselves together was, in retrospect, part accident, part intentional. It was intentional to this extent: the humanities at Sussex were set up to be interdisciplinary. Although appointed to a specific subject, one's allegiance was to a School of Studies. One was expected to teach in areas broader than one's subject, and with colleagues from other subjects. And, crucially, the appointing committee for a new job would likewise be from across the humanities. The paramount point is that the humanities at Sussex were set up to structurally resist the tendency of individual subjects to become narrow, inward-looking, and over-specialized in their “research.” It was a structural commitment to counter the academic conservatism of specialization.

Alan Sinfield and I were also developing Raymond Williams’s project of cultural materialism. We didn't have important differences from Williams, but we did want to develop cultural materialism as a critical perspective that sought to be at once political, historical, and philosophical.

We were both writing about Shakespeare, but the last thing we wanted to be were professional Shakespeareans. We felt that the history of Shakespeare criticism was a huge intellectual embarrassment: mountains of "criticism" which seemed of little interest to anyone apart from other Shakespeareans and their students; criticism which was  obsolete as soon as it had arrived on the library shelves, or soon after. And of course most of it seemed to us to be conservative, if not downright reactionary, on questions of, for example, politics or sexuality. Cultural materialism was, for us, a way of escaping the Shakespeare industry, of connecting the early modern period with things outside of that industry. I wrote a book called Radical Tragedy (1984), and Sinfield and I co-edited Political Shakespeare (1985)

It wasn't just the limiting confines of the Shakespearean academic establishment we wanted to escape. The academy itself was also part of the problem, although Sussex was in many way a significant and wonderful exception. We felt we needed to connect with discourses outside of the academy. In the case of Sinfield and I it was, among other things, the increasingly visible gay cultures. From that connection emerged several books. We also set up the Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence at Sussex. It was all of that which fed into this article.

It may seem unusual to specify in such detail the context and culture from which an article emerged. But the recognition of the importance of context to intellectual work is precisely one aspect of the cultural materialist project, as is the emphasis on that work as the result of a collectivity, rather than the scholar isolated in his or her tower.

And of course that context and collectivity produced so much more than this article. Much of what was so valuable about that context has now disappeared under the pressures of professionalization, the corporate ethos, and the market place. Some of what we did was controversial - e.g. the establishment  of the Sexual Dissidence Centre. Then there were those in the University who supported us; their counterparts now would not.

Finally, a few points about the article itself.

Firstly, historians of sexuality had of course located the origins of the modern sexual pervert in the nineteenth century. But, following Raymond Williams’s (1976) important precedent in exploring the history of concepts (in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society), it became apparent to me that the history needed to go much further back, and into theology.

Secondly, there was a tendency of some in literature departments who stayed exclusively within the confines of Theory to think that if they had discovered a contradiction in a dominant discourse they had done something radical, disclosed a destabilizing fault line, with the implication that some dominant formation was on the verge of collapse. The history of the persecution of sexual dissidence proved that this was wishful thinking or, as I later called it, wishful theory (see Sex Literature and Censorship).

History, both empirical and conceptual, was crucial, not just in the service of scholarly accuracy, though that was important, but because it showed the falsity of this view. What the history of perversion revealed—along with many other histories, of course—was the way dominant formations can reconstitute themselves around the same contradictions which destabilize them. Through disavowal and displacement, the instability becomes a medium of repression rather than liberation. Liberation always remains possible, but history reminds us that we should never underestimate its cost.

And this fed into a larger project, of which this article was also a part, of using the early modern to read the modern. In other words, we realized the necessity of moving beyond the perspective, which echoed older literary critics, of simply giving a theoretical reading of the past; theory made it possible to understand the past in a way which was also a critique of the present.


Dollimore, Jonathan. 1984. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dollimore, Jonathan, 2001, Sex Literature and Censorship, Oxford: Polity.

Dollimore, Jonathan, and Alan Sinfield, eds. 1985. Political  Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.


The Cultural Politics of Perversion: Augustine, Shakespeare, Freud, Foucault

Note: Originally published in Genders no. 8: (Summer 1990), 1-16. University of Texas Press

This essay argues that perversion is not only a culturally central phenomenon but, thereby, also a crucial category for cultural analysis.[i]

In Freud’s theory of the sexual perversions the human infant begins life with a sexual disposition that is polymorphously perverse and innately bisexual. It is a pre-condition for the successful socializing and gendering of the individual (that is, the positioning of the subject within hetero/sexual difference) that the perversions be renounced, typically through repression and/or sublimation. In this way not only is the appropriate human subject produced but so also is civilization reproduced. But the perversions do not thereby go away: repressed and sublimated, they help to constitute and maintain the very social order; this is one reason why that order requires their repression and sublimation. As such they remain intrinsic to normality and might be said to constitute the cement of culture, helping “to constitute the social instincts” (11.437-38) and providing “the energy for a great number of our cultural achievements” (8.84).[ii] Sublimated perversions place “extraordinarily large amounts of force at the disposal of civilized activity” because they are able to exchange their original aims (sexual) for other ones (social) without their intensity being diminished (8.84; 12.39, 41).

So one does not become a pervert but remains one (8.84); it is sexual perversion, not sexual “normality,” which is the given in human nature. Indeed, sexual normality is precariously achieved and precariously maintained: the process whereby the perversions are sublimated can never be guaranteed to work; it has to be reenacted in the case of each individual subject and is an arduous and conflictual process, a psychosexual development from the polymorphous perverse to normality which is less a process of growth than one of restriction (7.57). Sometimes it doesn’t work; sometimes it appears to, only to fail at a later date. Civilization, says Freud, remains precarious and “unstable” (1.48) as a result.

The clear implication is that civilization actually depends upon that which is usually thought to be incompatible with it, a proposition which has been resisted inside psychoanalysis and even more outside it. At its worst psychoanalysis has ignored Freud’s theories and simply demonized or pathologized the pervert, most notably the homosexual, in ways exhaustively summarized in Kenneth Lewes’s recent study.[iii] Indeed it is ironically revealing that this idea of perversion as integral to culture is today associated not so much with Freud’s most influential psychoanalytic successors but with one of their most influential critics, Michel Foucault. For him too perversion is endemic to modern society, though not in the Freudian sublimated form and not because of a process of desublimation or some other kind of breakdown in the mechanisms of repression. It is one of the central arguments of Foucault’s History of Sexuality that perversion is not repressed at all; rather, culture actively produces it. We are living through what he calls in chapter heading the “perverse implantation.” Perversion is the product and the vehicle of power, a construction which enables power to gain a purchase within the realm of the psychosexual: authority legitimates itself by fastening upon discursively constructed, sexually perverse identities of its own making.[iv]

So, from opposed perspectives, Freud and Foucault discover perversion to be not only central to culture but indispensably so, given culture’s present organization. It is to make this point about the centrality of perversion and this point alone that I’ve begun with Freud and Foucault and not because my project requires that I begin by adjudicating between them. In fact, the place to begin is much further back. I don’t think we can assess either the psychoanalytic theory or its Foucauldian critique until we’ve recovered the complex and revealing history of perversion in some of its pre-Freudian meanings, which necessarily include its nonsexual meanings. I begin with the early modern period in an attempt to replace the pathological sense of perversion with a political one. Far from wanting to psychoanalyze that period, I want to use the Renaissance to help read psychoanalysis and simultaneously to use psychoanalysis against its own conservative advocates. More generally, I use history to read theory but in a way enabled by theory.

Pathology to Theology

In the extreme, life is what is capable of error . . . error is at the root of what makes human thought and its history.[v]

Perversion is a concept signifying (1) an erring, straying, or deviation from (2) a path, destiny, or objective which is (3) understood as natural or right, right because natural (with the natural possibly having a yet “higher” legitimation in divine law).

Immediately we encounter a paradox: why should the prima facie innocent activity of departure be so abhorrent? Why, for example, in this, the first OED definition of “perverse” is there the rapid slippage from divergence to evil: “turned away from the right way, or from what is right or good; perverted, wicked.” And—a related question—why should this deviation from something be seen also, instantly, as a wicked subversion of it? Part of the answer lies in the fact that perversion is regulated by the binary opposition between the natural and the unnatural. Again, it’s those like Foucault who have theorized this view in relation to the modern period, but we find ample evidence of the same process in the earlier period. This is Francis Bacon from 1622: for “Women to govern men . . . [and] slaves freemen . . . [are] total violations and perversions of the laws of nature and nations.”[vi] Binary opposites, as Derrida has pointed out and Bacon here confirms, are violent hierarchies. The natural/unnatural opposition has been one of the most fundamental of all binaries and one of the most violent of all hierarchies. Note how in the Bacon passage just quoted the violence of the hierarchy is displaced, through the concepts of violation and perversion, onto its subordinate terms—women and slaves. As we’ll see, the attribution of perversion often involves this process; that is, a displacement of violence, contradiction, crisis from the dominant, wherein they are produced, onto the subordinate and especially the deviant.

The pervert deviates from the “straight and narrow,” the “straight and true”: even such commonplace remarks as these bear the trace of Western metaphysics, the epistemological, via metaphor, here picking up with the linear or the teleological. Somewhat over-schematically (and so provisionally) Western metaphysics can be represented in terms of three interrelated tenets: the one I’ve just referred to, teleology, together with essence and universality (these two being the source of essential and absolute truth, respectively). One reason for recovering the linguistic histories of perversion is because they have often constituted a transgression of normative and prescriptive teleologies. Such transgression was especially feared in the Renaissance, an age obsessed with disordered and disordering movement, from planetary irregularity to social mobility, from the vagrant and masterless man roaming the state to the womb which supposedly wandered the body of the “hysterical” woman. All such phenomena contradicted the principles of metaphysical fixity as formulated in those three main categories, essence, universality, and teleology—three categories which between them have profoundly “fixed” the social order in Western culture. The charge of perversity was at once a demonizing and a disavowal of an aberrant movement that was seen to threaten the very basis of civilization; this is why time and again metaphysical fixity—fixed origin, nature, identity, development, and destiny—is invoked in the condemnation of that movement. Recall that Othello is described as the erring barbarian, the extravagant and wheeling stranger, and Desdemona as having erred from Nature. I’ll return to Othello below.

Wayward Women and Religious Rebels

The sexological sense of perversion does not appear in the OED until its 1933 supplement and then only cautiously. However in the numerous citations which the OED does give for the word and its cognate terms, two other kinds of pervert recur, the wayward woman—the wayward, assertive woman, the woman on top, whom we’ve already glimpsed in that quotation from Bacon—and the religious heretic. At the beginning of Christian history they went together. As Milton put it, justifying the ways of God to man, Satan created a perverted kingdom and Eve was his first convert. Or, rather, we should say that she was his first pervert. I’m trying to be precise rather than perverse: in theological discourse the term to describe the opposite of conversion is perversion, and it signifies that terrible deviation from the true religion to the false. It is this use which suggests a central paradox of the perverse and another reason why it is so despised and feared. Perversion has its origins in, or exists in an intimate relation with, that which it subverts. I suppose this is really the case by definition: to err from the right way literally presupposes that one was once in the right place. But it goes deeper than that: in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) it’s not his discussion of what sexologists would later call the sexual perversions that produces the paradoxical sense of the word that interests me (although he does discuss these) but his discussion of what might be thought to be their opposite. Quite near the beginning of the Anatomy he declares that it is not our bestial qualities that are potentially the most dangerous but our civilized ones: “Reason, art [and] judgement,” properly employed, much avail us, “but if otherwise perverted, they ruin and confound us” (1.136).[vii] The shattering effect of perversion (I borrow the description from Leo Bersani)[viii] is related to the fact that it originates internally to just those things it threatens. I call this the perverse dynamic.

Throughout Western culture this paradox recurs: the most extreme threat to the true form of something comes not so much from its opposite or its direct negation but in the form of its perversion; somehow the perverse is inextricably rooted in the true and the authentic while being, in spite of (no, because of) that connection, also the utter contradiction of it. This paradox begins to suggest why perversion, theological or sexual, is so often conceived as at once utterly alien to and yet mysteriously inherent within the true and the authentic. This is related to a further and equally disturbing paradox of the perverse that suggests that we are created desiring that which is forbidden us. As John Norris put it in 1687: “What strange perversity is this of Man! When ‘twas a Crime to taste th’inlightning Tree, He could not then his hand refrain” (OED, “perversity,” p. 740). But long before this Augustine had indicated that Adam and Eve were already fallen before the definitive transgression in Eden, “the evil act, the transgression of eating the forbidden fruit, was committed only when those who did it were already evil.”[ix] The implication, here and elsewhere (e.g., XI.13, 17, 18, and 20) is that both the angelic revolt in heaven and the human fall in Eden were predestined.

Privation and Perversion

Hence of course the so-called problem of evil in traditional theodicy: God’s omnipotence has to be defended while at the same time exonerating him from responsibility for evil. The impossibility of this task was nicely formulated by the philosopher David Hume paraphrasing Epicurus as cited by Lactantius: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”[x]

Augustine’s influential answer to the problem was the privative theory of evil: evil exists only as a lack, a privation, of good. This was in reaction against the Manichaean heresy: to allow, as the Manichaeans did, that evil was a real force co-existent with and opposite of good compromised either God’s omnipotence (he wasn’t in complete control) or his goodness (he created evil). Augustine counters this heresy with the assertion that evil has no real existence. But the idea of evil simply as lack could never explain its destructive power. This is why, at the heart of Augustinian privation, is perversion; perversion becomes a main criterion of evil, mediating between evil as lack and evil as agency; that is, perversion becomes something utterly inimical to authentic being yet without authentic being itself.

For Augustine the most pernicious form of evil occurs when the human will deviates from good: “when the will leaves the higher and turns to the lower, it becomes bad not because the thing to which it turns is bad, but because the turning is itself perverse (perversa)” (City, XII.6.[478]). Although such perversity is unnatural, against the order of nature, nothing actually in nature is evil: neither the nature of that to which the evil-doer turns nor, even, the evil-doer’s own nature. Augustine adds, in an extraordinary passage, that “not even the nature of the Devil himself is evil, in so far as it is a nature; it is perversion that makes it evil” (sed perversitas eam malem facit) (XIX.13.[871]). We can begin to see then that for Augustine the perverse turning away from good (itself a perversion of the order of nature) is the essence of evil. Here is the beginning of a theory which will become the rationale for a history of untold violence: “Essentially,” perversion becomes the negative agency within privation.

In the words of theologians who have defended the privative theory of evil in our own time: “the most radical opposition to which being can be subjected is not contrariety but privation”; evil is an “inverted positivity.”[xi] The power of evil is only the power of the good it perverts, and “the more powerful this good is, the more powerful evil will be, not by virtue of itself, but by virtue of this good. This is why no evil is more powerful than that of the fallen angel.”[xii]

The paranoic potential of this theology is considerable. But if we read the Fall narrative against the grain (that is, subject it to an aberrant decoding), without much effort we find reason for the paranoia: after all, in the Christian scheme, evil not only erupts from within a divinely ordained order but, more telling still, it erupts from within the beings closest to God, those who participate most intimately in divinity, first the angels, then man, or rather woman, who make, according to another theologian, “an inexplicably perverse misuse of their god-given freedom,”[xiii] which is to say that they allegedly pervert their most divine attribute, free will, which then becomes the primary, or for Augustine the only, source of evil.

In short, a negation/deviation erupts from within that which it negates (divinity) only to be then displaced onto the subordinate term of the God/man binary—and then further displaced onto the subordinate within man (i.e., woman): proximity is the enabling condition of a displacement which in turn marks the “same” as radically “other.”

It may seem strange that this study of perversion should go so far back into Christian history. I haven’t space here to fill in many of the connections but let me simply suggest the way several popular notions of sexual perversion in our own time echo the Augustinian theory of evil: (1) evil, says Augustine, is utterly inimical to true existence yet itself lacks authentic existence (ontological or natural). Likewise with the pervert vis-à-vis normality; (2) evil, says Augustine, is at once utterly alien to goodness and yet mysteriously inherent within it. Likewise, sexual perversion is utterly alien to true sexuality yet mysteriously inherent within it, such that it must be rooted out by the ever vigilant; (3) evil, says Augustine, has powers of perversion paradoxically the greater the greater the goodness and innocence of those being perverted. Likewise with sexual perversion (this being why, presumably, the young and the military are thought to be especially at risk; I’m alluding to the fact that in the United Kingdom homosexuality in the military and for those under twenty-one is still illegal). These echoes suggest a larger argument: as perversion has been retheorized in sexological and psychoanalysis, this earlier conceptual history has been largely obliterated but never entirely lost: in part it has been telescoped into a sexological and psychoanalytic narrative where it remains obscurely yet violently active.

Nature Erring from Itself

Augustine deploys and develops the concepts of perversion and deviation, making them definitive criteria of evil. At the same time, these concepts become lodged at the heart of those problems which haunt Christianity and which ultimately sunder faith itself, most notably the realization that (1) we are created wicked; (2) God himself bears “the ultimate responsibility for evil”—the inevitable conclusion of theodicy (Hick, p. 264); (3) evil is intrinsic to good.

All three of these beliefs have the happy consequence of making the original pervert not Satan but God. But suppose for a moment we let God off the hook; let’s concede that he, like successive U.S. presidents in the face of illegal activities originating from the center of their governments, was innocent or at least ignorant and that perversion actually originates with his one-time deputy, Satan, and that Eve was his first convert. Or rather pervert. This is the official line. It is a myth of origin which will help legitimate violence against women, and their subjection, for centuries to come:

            Othello: And yet, how nature erring from itself—

            Iago:   Ay, there’s the point, as (to be bold with you)

                        Not to affect many proposed matches

                        Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,

                        Whereto we see in all things nature tends—


                        Foh! one may smell in such, a will most rank,

                        Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural. (III.iii)

“Nature erring from itself”: the perverse originates internally to, from within, the natural. Here Othello imagines, and Iago exploits, the paradoxical movement of the perverse: a straying from which is also a contradiction of; a divergence which is imagined to subvert that from which it departs in the instant that it does depart. In short, from within that erring movement of the first line, a perverse divergence within Nature, there erupts by the last line its opposite, the “unnatural.” Additionally, in the accusation of perversion, misogyny and xenophobia are rampant but so too is racism: Iago demonizes Desdemona and Othello, she as the one who has degenerate desire, he as the object of that desire. Desire and object conjoin in the multiple meanings of “will most rank” where “will” might denote at once volition, sexual desire, and sexual organ and “rank” may mean lust, swollen, smelling corrupt and foul. All this in seven terrifying lines which effectively sign Desdemona’s death warrant. It’s a passage in which (among others) the natural/unnatural binary is powerfully active. I’ve tried to represent it diagrammatically—the center vertical line represents the binary opposition between the natural and the unnatural; it is in the vertical to signify that the binary is also a violent hierarchy (Figure 1).


 Diagram of natural/unnatural

The erring/ aberrant movement is marked as a deviation to the left; this is not arbitrary: psychoanalysis and, more significantly, anthropology, confirm an intriguing cultural connection between deviation and left-sidedness. But our language has always confirmed as much: “sinister” has, as one of its meanings, “lying on or towards the left hand” (shorter OED), while the Latin sinister has “perverse” as one of its meanings (Cassell’s Latin Dictionary).

The arcs, A₂ to D, represent social and psychic processes inseparable from the operation of the binary but which it cannot acknowledge in its legitimating function. They are also what makes the perverse dynamic possible (though not in this case). Borrowing from Fredric Jameson, we can call them the political unconscious of the binary. The narrow arc (A₁), running between the natural and the perverse (x), simply represents the cultural marking or demonizing of difference. It is the identification of a threat which is also a differentiation of it from that which is threatened (the natural). That much wider arc (B), running between the unnatural and the perverse, is the field of displacement. That is, it marks the way in which, when the perverse is identified from the position of the natural, there occurs a simultaneous alignment of the perverse and the unnatural: the unnatural is folded up into, thereby appearing as, the perverse. It is this displacement which helps make possible the slippage from “deviation from” to “contradiction of” noted earlier in the OED definition. And what is marked on that other side of the diagram (C) is really what makes the displacement possible: the natural/unnatural binary is only ever a differential relation; that is, a difference which is always already one of intimate though antagonistic interdependence. What is constructed as absolutely other is in fact inextricably related. Hence the double arrow on C.

B and C disclose the operation of A₂: the recognition of the perverse involves a mapping onto the deviation of one part of a split within the natural, “nature erring from itself”; just as the unnatural is folded up into the perverse (B), so one part of the split natural is folded down into the perverse. This is marked by A².B and A² can be imagined as the two hands of a clock, each folding toward the other and meeting along the axis of the perverse. And we should also remember that this double displacement may be mapped onto either an actual deviation or, as here, an imaginary one.

One might say that when the natural, especially in its guise as the normal (and normative), recognizes the perverse (A₁), it is only ever recognizing itself. But this is not to say the two things are identical or that one is simply a reflection of the other. In its splitting the natural produces the perverse as a disavowal of itself and a displacement of an opposite (the unnatural) which, because of the binary interdependence of the two (the natural and the unnatural), is also an inextricable part of itself. This is represented by that clockwise continuum (D)—from the natural, through the unnatural, to the perverse.

The process of displacement (B) often figures in the construction of the perverse and the unnatural, and I want to explore it further, still with reference to the passage from Othello. It’s extraordinary just how much treachery and insurrection Iago manages to attribute to Desdemona in just six lines. This is partly a play about impending war. Venetian civilization is at stake, at least to the extent that its military has moved to Cyprus to defend the island against the encroaching Turks. In 1575 Thomas Newton declared of the Turks: “They were (indeed) at the first very far off from our clime and region, and therefore the less to be feared, but now they are even at our doors and ready to come into our houses.”[xiv] It’s been shown how the symbolic geography of the play creates just this effect of Cyprus as a beleaguered outpost,[xv] while Richard Marienstras shows how, at this time, England’s xenophobia was increasing in spite, or maybe because of, the fact that it was also embarking on colonization and expansion.[xvi] The result was a real conflict between, if you like, the centripetal tendencies of nationalism and the centrifugal tendencies of colonialist expansion. One consequence of this conflict was a paranoid search for the internal counterparts of external threats.

The famous Homily against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion (1571) is obsessed with internal rebellion, the enemy within, weakening the state and rendering it vulnerable to “all outward enemies that will invade it, to the utter and perpetual captivity, slavery, and destruction of all their countrymen, their children, their friends, their kinsfolk left alive, whom by their wicked rebellion they procure to be delivered into the hands of foreign enemies” (p. 615). In this Homily the sin of rebellion encompasses all other sins in one (pp. 609, 611-12). Racism plays its part: a royal edict of 1601 expresses discontent “at the great number of ‘Negars and blackamoors’ which are crept into the realm”; Queen Elizabeth wanted them transported out of the country. The ostensible reason was unemployment among the English, but the representation of black people “as satanic, sexual creatures, a threat to order and decency, and a danger to white womanhood” was also a factor.[xvii] Such considerations meant that, for many in early modern England, the implicit confrontation in Othello was between civilization and barbarism (although, as Orkin reminds us in Shakespeare against Apartheid, the struggle for Cyprus was actually conducted between two imperialist powers).

According to Iago, Desdemona’s “thoughts unnatural” involve a threefold transgression: of “clime, complexion, and degree”; that is, region, color, and rank or, in our terms, country, race, and class, three of civilization’s most jealously policed boundaries. Is it coincidence then that what Desdemona violates—country, race, and class—are all three at risk in the war with the Turks? Country, obviously; race in the sense that the enemy is, in the terms of the play, racially and culturally inferior; class, or degree, in the sense that it is the indispensable basis both of the culture being defended and of the military doing the defending. So we witness here a classic instance of displacement: an external threat recast as internal deviation; through imagined sexual transgression the perverse subject—the desiring woman—becomes a surrogate alien, a surrogate Turk. And, remarkably yet in a way all too familiar, the internal deviation which allegedly replicates the external threat is located in the domestic realm, at the most protected central region of the patriarchal order, and the furthest remove from its beleaguered borders. And it’s located within one who is, by any substantial criteria, powerless.

By looking at two instances of the pervert, the religious heretic and the wayward woman, I’ve been trying to indicate how the presexological and pre-Freudian history of the concept of perversion can be reconstructed as one of struggle and conflict between domination and insubordination, between desire and law, and between transgression and conformity; also, how it figured centrally in the language of paranoia and displacement and how it could trigger the paradoxes inherent within, and so subvert, the orders which are defined over and against the pervert. Significantly, it is easier to trigger the paradoxes subversively in the case of religious heresy than with the wayward woman. Note how in the Othello passage the paradox—indeed contradiction—has almost surfaced—nature erring from itself—but not quite. The instability produced by that almost-apparent contradiction is contained or re-formed by Iago into the violent hierarchy and its repressions; hence Desdemona’s death. It is a powerful reminder that dominant social formations can and do reconstitute themselves around the selfsame contradictions that destabilize them. Through disavowal and displacement the same instability that destabilizes can become a force of repression much more than a force of liberation.

In the remainder of this essay I consider the representation of sexual perversion in the modern period in the light of the concept’s “lost history.” I do not want to leave the early modern period without remarking that there were instances of gender struggle at that time in which contradictions were successfully exploited by subordinate groups for subversive ends. One of the most fascinating instances of all is the controversy in the period over female cross dressing, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.[xviii]

Perversion and Psychoanalysis

In our own century the repressive deployment of psychiatry and psychoanalysis has been obvious and notorious, especially with regard to the so-called perversions and one in particular, homosexuality. As an example I’ve chosen an essay by Sandor Feldman.[xix] He writes: “As a practitioner, I have learned that, essentially, homosexuals want to mate with the opposite sex. In therapy my intention is to discover what kind of fear or distress diverted the patient from the straight line and made a devious detour necessary.” All homosexuals, he continues, started as heterosexuals. Moreover, “the main part of the therapy . . . is to emphasize that the patient’s original position is a healthy one, given as a precious gift by nature.” The analyst must “bear in mind always that his real goal is to bring the patient to the biologically given heterosexual relationship which is not created by the therapy but liberated for use. . . . The homosexual will, for a while at least, stubbornly insist that . . . homosexuality remains for him the only route to sexual gratification. This is all untrue. The more convinced the analyst is that an underlying natural personal relationship is sexual and in other ways is present, the more . . . the patient will come to the same conclusion as the analyst: that man is born for woman and woman is born for man” (pp. 74-75, 93-94, my emphasis).

This is stunningly crass but not atypical in its assumptions. Feldman reproduced a familiar metaphysics of nature: essence/teleology/universality—an essential sexuality develops along a teleologically defined path of psychosexual development (Feldman’s “straight line,” already encoded in the biological origin) to the universal goal: heterosexual union. So in the first instance his theory should be understood not only as a crass appropriation of Freud but also as a containment of the perverse via a traditional metaphysical schema which Freud rejects. Let’s be clear about this: Freud had used his account of perversion to subvert theories of sexuality growing from the same tradition that Feldman reinvokes in Freud’s name. Freud rejects those theories by retaining and developing the paradoxes and displacements within the semantic field of perversion, especially that major paradox outlined earlier: the shattering effect of perversion arises from the fact that it is integral to just those things it threatens.

I sketch Freud’s theory of the perversions with two aims in mind. Specifically, I want to explore the way he incorporates into his theory the paradoxical dynamic of perversion—what I’ve called the perverse dynamic. More generally, I simply want to outline a theory which is more challenging than most contemporary versions of psychoanalysis allow. The larger project from which this essay derives argues that the perverse dynamic begins to challenge key aspects of the psychoanalytic project itself, just as with Christianity before it.

Freud says, “The abandonment of the reproductive function is the common feature of all perversions. We actually describe a sexual activity as perverse if it has given up the aim of reproduction and pursues the attainment of pleasure as an aim independent of it” (1.358). On this account, especially since the arrival of the postmodern, we are presumably all perverts now, actual or aspiring. (I’m reminded of the postmodern anecdote about the fetishist who was in love with the foot but had to settle for the whole person.) A more specific definition is clearly required, and Freud provides it: perversions are sexual activities which involve an extension, or transgression, of limit in respect “either to the part of the body concerned or to the sexual object chosen” (8.83). In the first case (namely, the part of the body), perversion would involve the lingering over the intermediate relations to the sexual object (as might the foot fetishist just invoked), relations which “should normally be traversed rapidly on the path towards the final sexual aim”; that is, reproduction via heterosexual genital intercourse (7.62). In the second case (sexual object), it would involve the choosing of an “inappropriate” object; for example, someone of the same sex.

As I indicated at the outset, in the formation of the socialized, gendered subject (that is, the production of the human subject within hetero/sexual difference), the perversions are necessarily repressed, sublimated, and renounced. Sublimated perversion is intrinsic to normality and indeed provides, as it were, the cement of culture. As a consequence “some perverse trait or other is seldom absent from the sexual life of normal people” (1.364). As regards homosexuality everyone has made a homosexual object choice, says Freud, if only in their unconscious. In short, “in addition to their manifest heterosexuality, a very considerable measure of latent or unconscious homosexuality can be detected in all normal people” (9.399). Moreover, “homosexual impulses are invariably discovered in every single neurotic.” Indeed, the repression of perverse desire actually generates neurosis—hence Freud’s famous statement that neurosis is the negative of perversions (7.163).

Freud is unrelenting in finding perversion, especially homosexuality, in those places where it is conventionally thought to be most absent and where this assumed absence actually constitutes identity. There is, for instance, the inextricable connection between perversion and childhood. It is not only that children are sexual beings but that their sexuality is quintessentially—one might say naturally—perverse (1.352). All children, says Freud, may well be homosexuals (8.268). Conversely, there is a quality of childlike innocence about the perversions themselves.

Relatedly, Freud insists on attributing to the perversions precisely the qualities usually thought to be possessed only by their opposite. For instance, far from being “bestial” or “degenerate” the perversions are intellectual and idealistic, involving “an idealization of the instinct.” He says of the Wolf Man, one of his most famous patients: “The process had led to a victory for the faith of piety over the rebelliousness of critical research, and had had the repression of the homosexual attitude as its necessary condition. Lasting disadvantages resulted. . . . His intellectual activity remained seriously impaired after this first great defeat” (9.307). He says too that love, far from being that which transcends perversion, is that which liberates it: “Being in love . . . has the power to remove repressions and reinstate perversions” (11.95). And further still, the “omnipotence of love is perhaps never more strongly proved than in such of its aberrations as these.” He continues: “The highest and lowest are always closest to each other in the sphere of sexuality” (7.75, my italics). Further, the satisfaction afforded by perverse desire is greater than that afforded by desire which has been socially tamed (12.67).

I hope to have sketched enough for the destructive implications of Freud’s theory to be apparent. At the very least, a range of central binary oppositions (spiritual/carnal, pure/degenerate, normal/abnormal), oppositions upon which the social order depends, are either inverted, removed, or collapsed into a relational interdependence: a deep, mutual, antagonistic implication. But even more is at stake, and Freud is quite explicit about this: there is something chaotic and subversive about perversion; the persistence and ever-threatened reemergence of perversion means that civilization has failed to secure its own reproduction. The repressive organization of sexuality which constitutes normality “falls apart” (7.156). The perversions, therefore, become a paradigm of the (in)subordinate displacing the dominant (for that read heterosexual, reproductive, genital intercourse). In their “multiplicity and strangeness” (1.346), says Freud, the perversions constitute a threatening excess of difference originating from within the same. So Freud attributes to the perversions an extraordinary disruptive power: (1) they subvert the genital organization of sexuality, thereby sabotaging the whole process of normative psychosexual development (or subjection) upon which civilization depends; (2) they subvert sexual difference itself, along with the entire functional aspect of sexuality, whether it be biological (reproduction) or social (sublimation); and (3) perversion affords more pleasure than those forms of organized desire based on its repression (and this apart from the pleasure of transgression itself, which is a separate issue). Moreover, perversion may be produced by what is conventionally assumed to be at the furthest possible remove from it (that is, love). Finally, perversion cannot be eliminated. It persists in three principal ways: an active practice by some; the repressed constituent of neurosis in others; and the always unstably sublimated basis of civilization itself.

Polymorphous Perverse to the Perverse Dynamic

I oppose Freud’s account of perversion to Feldman’s not in order to return to Freud, to recover the authentic voice of psychoanalysis, but to follow further the complex history of perversion. As yet, rather little in my argument depends on the correctness or otherwise of Freud’s views. However, via Freud, we can see that the concept of perversion always embodied what has now become a fundamental and crucial proposition, call it deconstructive, poststructuralist postmodern, whatever. It is the proposition that what a culture designates as alien, utterly other and different, is never so. That culture exists in a relationship of difference with the alien, which is also a relationship of fundamental, antagonistic interdependence. What is constructed as absolutely other is in fact inextricably related, most obviously in terms of the binary opposition, Derrida’s “violent hierarchy.” Freud goes further: civilization is not merely dependent upon perversion; the latter, via sublimation, is integral to the former since civilization is rooted in perversion. The binary is not merely transcended or dissolved; rather, the different is inscribed within the selfsame. One doesn’t become a pervert but remains one. Put another way, every inlaw was once, and in a crucial sense remains, an outlaw. It is in culture’s repeated disavowal of this fact that manifest perversion is made the focus for endless demonizing and displacement. In an article called “Civilized Sexual Morality” (1908), Freud pushes the process even further, showing how civilization reaches a stage of development where it begins to produce the very perversion it needs to suppress. In Freud, then, there emerges a truly violent dialectic between repression and perversion, and it is one which suggests that the most terrifying fear may not be of the other but of the same, and that the social is marked by an interconnectedness so radical that it has to be disavowed in most existing forms of social organization.

Above all Freud brilliantly identifies the psychic basis of what I’ve been describing; I am thinking especially of his concepts of repression, disavowal, negation, and splitting. One of the most astute accounts is in his article on repression (1915):

the objects to which men give most preference, their ideals, proceed from the same perceptions and experiences as the objects which they most abhor, and . . . they were originally only distinguished from one another through slight modifications. . . . Indeed . . . it is possible for the original instinctual representative to be split in two, one part undergoing repression, while the remainder, precisely on account of this intimate connection, undergoes idealization. (11.150, my emphasis)

Alongside this passage should be read his account of the way negation and disavowal always involve a simultaneous acknowledgement of what is being negated and disavowed (15.438-40). Such are the processes which produce the perverse and which are in turn destabilized by the perverse dynamic. Freud offers a narrative whereby we begin to understand how and why the negation of homosexuality has been in direct proportion to its centrality; why the culturally marginal position of homosexuality has been in direct proportion to its cultural significance; and, ultimately, why homosexuality is so strangely integral to the selfsame heterosexual cultures which so obsessively denounce it.

But—and it’s a big but—Freud helped telescope the dynamic into a transhistorical psychosexual narrative, with the consequence that the history—the cultural dynamic—briefly sketched in the first half of this paper was lost. What that history reveals is a fundamentally different kind of displacement. It reveals not the endless Freudian displacement of sexuality into culture (e.g., via sublimation) but a displacement going the other way: the endless displacement of social crisis and conflict into sexuality. Moreover, this may well be the more important kind of displacement. This is why, increasingly, and as a matter of life and death for some, a crucial task for a sexual politics is to expose this displacement of the political into the sexual. This involves not the familiar task of liberating sexuality but rather the task of taking sexuality apart and revealing the histories within it, the displacements which constitute it.

Since Freud the twentieth century has been faced not only with the crassness of Feldman’s version of perversion but also, within more sophisticated versions of psychoanalysis, the suppression of Freud’s much more radical concept of the same. What makes both kinds of containment possible is not just the limitations of the psychoanalytic project itself but, as I’ve tried to show, a much longer metaphysical tradition privileging dominant social formations, sexual and otherwise, in terms of essence, nature, teleology, and universality. At the same time the challenge of the perverse remains inscribed irreducibly within that same tradition, as it does within psychoanalysis.

I’ve been concerned to make visible a certain cultural dynamic with the aim of retrieving the concept of perversion as a category of cultural analysis. I started with the historically earlier semantic fields of perversion. The etymological histories are significant, partly for what they convey directly but more importantly for the cultural dynamic which the concept of perversion sought to control, repress, and disavow. So we need to go beyond such definitions and, in seeking to recover what is repressed and disavowed (the histories of perversion), to ensure that the concept itself is extended and developed. This procedure—first, attention to a formal definition leading to, second, a historical recovery which in turn promotes, finally, a conceptual development—is analogous to what has already occurred with, say, the Bakhtinian notions of carnival, inversion, and the dialogic.

I conclude with a word about perversion as a strategy of cultural resistance. In the period of postwar change, a radical sexual politics explored the idea that if we could desublimate the polymorphous perverse, we would not only liberate ourselves from repression but liberate an energy which could transform the entire social domain. I’m reminded of those heady days of liberation when one was urged not just to sit in front of the tanks but to fuck there as well. This is John Rechy:

Promiscuous homosexuals (outlaws with dual identities . . .) are the shock troops of the sexual revolution. The streets are the battleground, the revolution is the sexhunt, a radical statement is made each time a man has sex with another on a street . . .

            Cum instead of blood. Satisfied bodies instead of dead ones. Death versus orgasm. Would they bust everyone? With cum-smeared tanks would they crush all?[xx]

Times of course change and sexuality with them. The challenge lies not in the polymorphous perverse but in what I call the paradoxical perverse or the perverse dynamic. It’s this concept, which I’ve begun to reconstruct in Augustine, in the Renaissance, and in Freud, that I’d like to see developed for a cultural politics. I’ve indicated elsewhere[xxi] how writers like Wilde and Genet embrace the central paradoxes of the perverse, turning and using them against the normative orders which demonize the sexual deviant. In the case of both Wilde and Genet, the perverse dynamic subverts the binaries of which the pervert is an effect, and does so internally. Additionally, the perverse dynamic suggests that we exist in terms of a radical interconnectedness which is not so much the basis of social organization as what that organization must disavow to survive in its existing forms. This dynamic also suggests that if we fear the other we also fear the same, especially of sameness within the other (homosexual congress constituted as the other of heterosexuality). Therefore we see that the other is sometimes only feared because structured within an economy of the same. Discriminations like homophobia occur not in spite of, but because of, sameness.

Oscar Wilde knew only too well of, and brilliantly explored, the dynamic, subversive connection between perversity and paradox. He wrote, “What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion.”[xxii] But he wrote that from prison. So in affirming a politics of the perverse we should never forget the cost: death, mutilation, and incarceration have been, and remain, the fate of the pervert.



[i] The issues and arguments outlined in this essay are explored more fully in a forthcoming book, Perverse Dynamics: Histories and Theories of Sexual Dissidence.

[ii] All quotations are from the Pelican Freud Library, volume number followed by page number.

[iii] The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality (London: Quartet, 1989). Those Lewes cites includes Edmumd Bergler, “the most important analytic theorist of homosexuality in the 1950s” (p. 15), who wrote: “I have no bias against homosexuality . . . [but] homosexuals are essentially disagreeable people . . . [displaying] a mixture of superciliousness, false aggression, and whimpering . . . subservient when confronted with a stronger person, merciless when in power, unscrupulous about trampling on a weaker person” (cited in Lewes, p. 15).

[iv] The History of Sexuality vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1978; republished 1980), esp. part 2, chap. 2.

[v] Michel Foucault, introduction to Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (New York: Zone Books), p. 22.

[vi] “Advertisement Touching an Holy Warre,” in J. Spedding and R. L. Ellis, eds., The Works, vol. 7 (Stuttgart: Frommann, 1961-1963 [1857-1861]), pp. 33-34.

[vii] The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. with intro. by Holbrook Jackson (London: Dent, 1932), first partition, p. 136.

[viii] See especially his The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

[ix] St. Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson, with intro. by David Knowles (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), (XIV.13 [p. 572]). The numbers in square brackets give the reference to this edition.

[x] Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, part 10, in Classics of Western Philosophy, ed. Steven M. Cahn (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977), p. 741; Lactantius, “The Wrath of God,” in Lactantius: The Minor Works (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1965), pp. 92-93. I am grateful to Tony Nuttall for this reference.

[xi] Charles Journet, The Meaning of Evil, trans. Michael Barry (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1963), pp. 43, 44, 66.

[xii] Jacques Maritain, St. Thomas and the Problem of Evil (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1942), p. 2.

[xiii] John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Glasgow: Collins, 1968), p. 68.

[xiv] Cited in Simon Shepherd, Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre (Brighton: Harvester, 1986), p. 142.

[xv] Alvin Kernan, introduction to Othello (Signet Classic Shakespeare) (New York: New American Library, 1963), pp. xv-xviii.

[xvi] New Perspectives on the Shakespearean World, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), chaps. 5 and 6.

[xvii] Eldred Jones, Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), esp. p. 12; Rugh Cowhig, “Blacks in English Renaissance Drama” in The Black Presence in English Literature ed., David Dabydeen (Manchester University Press, 1985), esp. pp. 4-7, quote p. 4; Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester University Press, 1989), esp. pp. 42-45.

[xviii] “Sexuality, Subjectivity and Transgression: The Jacobean Connection,” Renaissance Drama n.s. 7 (1986): 53-82, reprinted in Renaissance Drama as Cultural History, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990), pp. 335-63; Radical Tragedy, 2d ed. (Brighton: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1989), pp. xxxv-xxxvi.

[xix] “On Homosexuality,” in S. Lorand and M. Balint, eds., Perversions: Psychodynamics and Therapy (New York: Random House, 1956). Incidentally, this volume also includes an essay co-written by Jacques Lacan.

[xx] The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary/A Non-Fictional Account, with Commentaries of Three Days and Nights in the Sexual Underground (London: W.H. Allen, 1978), pp. 299, 301.

[xxi] “Different Desires: Subjectivity and Transgression in Wilde and Gide,” Genders 2 (1988): 24-41; “The Dominant and the Deviant: A Violent Dialectic,” in Futures for English, ed. Colin MacCabe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

[xxii] The Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (New York: Harcourt, 1962), p. 466.


Comment on this article.