Roald Dahl’s children’s work is often described as “transgressive”: a small transgression that treated children as thinking beings and made them even more clever in the face of a far from innocent world. The rewrite of these texts in its new reissue in English has provoked an overwhelming global reaction against what has been considered an act of censorship with such surprising unanimity that it has made the publisher and the heirs recoil. One of the most used arguments in favor of the British author’s texts has been, precisely, their transgressive nature. But… are these narratives really true today if they achieve a unanimous consensus in their support? Rather, and as has been proven, the transgressor was censoring them.
In recent decades, perhaps since the outbreak of countercultural movements in the mid-20th century, or even since the days of Romanticism, which had rebellion as one of its fundamental values, the transgressor, the rebellious, what goes against the “established order”, it has been gaining the favor of society and, therefore, entering an ontological paradox, because it has become the norm.
“The transgression comes from a historical moment in which there were stable elements that one could face, those that one could hit, whether it was the State, the traditional family or capitalism”, says the philosopher Alberto Santamaría, author, among other essays, A place without limits. Music, nihilism and politics of disaster in times of the neoliberal dawn (Akal). “Today it is much more difficult: from the seventies onwards the processes are of integration, the vision of reality is no longer so stony, but more viscous. When one punches, the fist ends up inside the body that it intends to destroy. According to the author, neoliberal capitalism has understood that the field of culture is perfectly valid to install its hegemonic narrative. “The word transgression has lost its radical meaning,” he notes.
An example: the Sex Pistols, punk pioneers who scandalized British society in the late 1970s because they used to swear on TV, called Queen Elizabeth II a fascist and because vocalist Johnny Rotten had rotten teeth, now form part of the indisputable canon of popular music and its movement inspires collections of large fashion multinationals. Another example: a few years later, the transgressive claims of the Movida in Madrid were received with uproar by the institutions (and profusely subsidized) and today its creators could almost appear on the saints’ list. Perhaps the most transgressive aspect of the Movida was the appearance of the punk group Las Vulpes singing I like being a bitch in the program Beatbox from RTVE. But the hypothetical transgression is now used even to advertise cars or financial products.
“The capacity of the system to engulf rebellion and even turn it into a business is very high,” explains anthropologist expert on youth Carles Feixa, professor at Pompeu Fabra University and co-author of Punk shit. The band that revolutionized Mexican punk (Ned Editions). “That does not mean that the spaces for transgression, whether progressive or regressive, disappear, since both are contestants”, he continues. In fact, there are sociopolitical currents that try to turn the sense of transgression from progressive to reactionary in a strange game of mirrors, thus covering themselves with the irresistible charm of rebellion.
Open spaces of freedom
Traditionally, what is transgressive is that which goes against the social norms of the moment, that evades or contradicts them and that, therefore, is reprehensible and repulsive for the majority of society, or, at least, for those who govern it. The one who transgresses can be applauded by his close circle, by the breeding ground from which he springs, by those convinced and related, but, by definition, he cannot be celebrated and accepted by the majority. It is curious to see great writers, artists or musicians of a certain age, with careers behind them, complain that today they cannot be transgressed; because the grace of transgressing is, precisely, that “it cannot be done.” Today nothing prevents it: the accepted transgression is no longer a transgression.
“Although complaints are heard, the truth is that in recent decades we have improved a lot on the issue of freedom of expression,” explains Juan Antonio Ríos, professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Alicante and author of the recent Offended and censors. The fight for freedom of expression (1975-1984), published by Renaissance. “In the Transition, the transgression had a very clear meaning: coming from the dictatorship, it served to open spaces of freedom”, he adds. During that stage, freedom of expression, which is now not valued to the point that there are those who do not perceive it, was fought and conquered inch by inch in a climate of intolerance. Many times, the author points out, cultural products were validated for their transgressive nature, although the intrinsic quality of the thing did not accompany it. But transgression sold.
Transgressing, yes, did not come cheap: in his book, Ríos recalls the case of the nudes of the actress Susana Estrada, a myth of the uncovering, who was prosecuted 14 times for public scandal, mainly for her sexual consultation in the magazine playlady, in disputes that sometimes ended up in the Supreme Court, because she was convicted 13 times. “For a while she had to have a private escort because she was threatened,” recalls the author. Or the legal difficulties that the bikini had to go through during the seventies, in the photographic representation of it on magazine covers, which also reached the Supreme Court. These are things that today might provoke a condescending smile, but were serious at the time. “I explain to my students the theater of the Spanish Golden Age and what was then transgressive now seems like child’s play. The context is fundamental”, says the professor.
Those who transgress face a wall of rejection, and have to fight against it: no one transgresses when a boulevard of freedom opens up in front of them to run around. Transgressors, if they succeed in their efforts, change society and, therefore, stop transgressing, because in the brand new world what is theirs is no longer anathema, but what is accepted. If they don’t succeed, if they fail in their transgressive adventure, they end up in oblivion, in hiding or in jail, depending on the place, time and environment in which they operate. It is not the same to transgress in the politics of a dictatorial country than doing performance in a liberal democracy. For example, the crime of public scandal disappeared from the Spanish Penal Code as early as 1988, at the initiative of Nicolás Sartorius, then a member of the Izquierda Unida. A case had caused enormous social commotion: a young man had been sentenced to prison for making out with his partner (heterosexual) and had taken his own life. Homosexual people had been special victims of this law, as they had been before the Social Dangerous Law. The Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court, in a 1982 ruling, considered homosexuality as an “obscene practice especially rejected by our culture and social environment.”
Transgression as style
In recent times, transgression, already assimilated by the system, has become, more than a moral position, a matter of style and even of marketing. A not inconsiderable part of contemporary art has wanted to be transgressive, as if that were just another style, without any risk or intention of political influence. “The development of the art market has achieved that transgression has become its own element: thus it is diluted within the institutional. This is one of the problems of art, that the institution is far ahead of the transgression and this is a historical paradox”, points out Santamaría. In general, transgressors in culture are now part of the canon, from Dadaism to the aforementioned punk, passing through the writers of the Beat Generation, the most radical filmmakers or the cursed poets.
If the old transgressions are accepted, there are those who look for new ways in a society that has already seen it all. Has it ever been claimed normcore, the normal and ordinary, as the greatest rebellion against what he wants to provoke for the sake of provoking. At some time, recently, it has been claimed as a transgression not a Show of striptease in prime time, but rather a return to traditional values such as family or religion. Going further, ultra-conservative positions, racism or homophobia have sometimes been claimed as transgressive. It’s on Twitter. The wet and confessed dream of some far-right cadres is to become a new punk. “The aim of punk was merely destructive, but the extreme right uses the term in an empty, idealized way, and tries to reinstate what was stable. They seek not so much power, but control of certain elements of daily life. The claim of the traditional family, of the Church or of going to Mass cannot be considered transgressive, but quite the opposite: it seeks to recover what has been lost”, says Santamaría, also author of Decaffeinated high culture. ‘Low cost’ situationism and other art scenes at the turn of the century (XXI century).
Rebellion needs its context. Francisco Franco was a rebellious rebel, like Luke Skywalker, what happens is that the second faced a tyrannical empire and the first a legitimate republic. The space for transgression changes over time and sometimes goes from being based on the claim of freedoms and respect for all ways of living to being a defense of what is reactionary or, directly, what is unacceptable. Some say that today the only thing that can be truly transgressive is the defense of pedophilia, bestiality or murder (a trial, by the way, that could have been issued by the Marquis de Sade himself, giant of eighteenth-century transgression). The countercultural idea that rebellion and transgression are virtuous in themselves, which has given such good returns in the cultural field, is in trouble. Like the well-trodden freedom. The what, the for what and the against what matter.
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