The phenomenon of transgression has always been both fascinating and enigmatic. It is fascinating because it stems from human longing for freedom to live life on one’s own terms and the consequent urge to cross boundaries and subvert limitations. The notion of transgression also brings into play notions of resistance, will, risk, and courage. This explains our preoccupation with transgression which also involves a simultaneous recognition of limits that we affirm in the very act of crossing them. In fact, the sense of ‘crossing over’ comes only with the acknowledgement of the limit which provides the ‘over’. The concept of transgression is enigmatic because it is conceptually tied up with the restrictive and highly contested notion of a ‘boundary’- a Lakshman-Rekha. In a contemporary culture where uncertainties abound (and even pre-modern cultures were not free from uncertainties) it is often difficult to determine where the alleged boundaries–whether physical, sexual, natural or moral–lie. Hence, the theme of transgression is increasingly becoming available for interrogation from a number of theoretical standpoints. Texts from different cultural traditions and historical periods are being scrutinized to understand the workings of transgression. This seminar intends to focus on the logic, politics, and the ethics of transgression in its diverse manifestations.
Transgression is an act and as such an event; a happening in the human world. Though deliberate, purposive, and concerted, transgression is not a happening of ordinary sort like many of our intentional acts. What makes transgression a different kind of happening is that in it a violation has occurred, some line has been crossed, but transgression is not a simple rule or law breaking either. The violation or the overstepping of a boundary is termed variously—a heroic gesture, a rebellion, defiance, the politics of affront, inner disgust, temptation, a symbolic outburst, an act of courage, and even a rupture— ensuring that the existing order of things will never be the same again. The notion of transgression is thus logically tied up with the notion of a boundary, or the limit and more importantly with the extremely difficult notions of the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’. The notion of boundary or the limit is thus a logical pre-requisite of transgression. It is worthwhile to explore the nature of this logical tie, or the very structuring of both the notions in terms of one another. It is also worthwhile to explore the whole network of cognates that surround the notions of limit and transgression.
The notions of “limit” and “transgression” have engaged almost all philosophers’ attention while demarcating the self from the not-self, being from non-being, knowledge from ignorance, the real from the imaginary, and the universals from particulars. Kant and Wittgenstein offer the rigorous articulation of the way the notion of “limit” and “transgression” are structured in terms of one another. Kant attempts to set the limit to thinking itself by articulating the transcendental conditions if the synthetic a-priori knowledge is to be possible. Wittgenstein too speaks of the “limit” and “transgression” but with reference to the expression of thought. Wittgenstein’s famous pronouncements that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” has sparked off the intense debate in the domain of philosophy of language just as what Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason did in the domain metaphysics. In both these articulations the everyday usage of “limit” as limitation is dispelled and the logical structure of the concepts of limit and transgression is revealed.
The conceptual distinction between limit as limitation and limit as condition of possibility is of utmost importance in the twin discourse on “limit” and “transgression”. The everyday usage of the concept of “limit” is in terms of a ‘limitation’, a ‘boundary’, a ‘chain’, a ‘binding force’, or a ‘restriction’ that constrains realization of one’s freedom to act in a certain manner, physical or otherwise. The nature of this limitation may be physical, technical, environmental, psychological and social. But precisely because the “limit as limitation” is a synthetic notion it allows the overstepping (overcoming?) of limitation. But the notion of “limit’ has another, a more philosophical sense in which the “limit” is understood as a ‘transcendental or a-priori condition’ of anything that is to be possible at all. Whereas “the limit as limitation” has a negative connotation, “the limit as transcendental or a-priori condition” has a positive connotation. With this clarification in mind, and given the distinctive contexts in which philosophers have set out the transcendental conditions of possibility, say of knowledge in the case of Kant, of being in the case of Heidegger, and of expression of thought in the case of Wittgenstein, this seminar intends to explore how the notions of limit and transgression operate in their philosophies.
In the Continental tradition of philosophy these notions are reflected upon very profoundly by philosophers like Jaspers, Heidegger, and Foucault. Jaspers talks about limit-situations or the boundary-situations characterized by such experiences as dread or guilt in which the human mind “confronts the restrictions and pathological narrowness of its existing forms, and allows itself to abandon the securities of its limitedness, and so to enter new realm of self-consciousness.” Such situations reveal the ambiguity of human existence-that much of it is spent in between two opposing perspectives. Moreover since these situations expose human weakness they motivate us to communicate, to enter into a dialogue that makes our differences rather than our agreements known. Foucault’s “A Preface to Transgression” stresses the centrality of sexuality in a secular and post-enlightenment age and shows how transgression and limit has replaced the older dichotomy of the sacred and the profane. The various stages of existence that Kierkegaard talks about—aesthetic, ethical and religious— all involve border crossing which could very well be ‘a leap’ - either of faith or uncertainty.
What captures our imagination when we are confronted with the notion of ‘transgression’ is not any particularly privileged item such as fascination for defiance, or for radical interrogation of existing norms of validity—whether moral, aesthetical, political, or social or for margins and their relation to totalities. There is no archetypal transgression just as there are no archetypal virtues. Like Aristotelian virtues, transgressions are manifestly situation-specific. But given this, and without falling into the trap of relativism of any kind, we may still ask as to what exactly would constitute transgression if the bi-polarities such as good and bad are questioned? Drawing the line between the good and the evil, the sacred and the profane, the private and the public, imagination and reality, sanity and madness, classes and casts, etc. is itself a politically structured act. As stated above, one of the objectives of this seminar is to explore the politics of introducing (and defying) the boundaries and limits in the diverse fields of human existence such as religion, language, nation, morality and aesthetics.
In the domain of science the sense conveyed by the notion of boundary is perhaps what is meant by the established science and the scientific paradigm of the day. The existing corpus of scientific knowledge itself becomes a boundary that sets the limit for the scientific imagination of the day. The new radical scientific discoveries like that of Galileo or Einstein then turn out to be the acts of ‘transgression’ introducing paradigm shifts that radically alter the established schemes of explanation and our understanding of nature. Karl Jaspers sees boundaries as enabling. In his discussion of the limits of science he says that every limit contains a promise of going beyond. But what are the limits of science?—the question Husserl also poses in a Kantian spirit—Does its overcoming lead to a new kind of science? Does it offer a new conception of objectivity? Or does its overcoming imply crossing over to another domain, such as religion and art? Do we turn to philosophy because of the limits of science as Jaspers would say or do we turn to science because of the limits of philosophy as the positivists would say? Given the idea that each branch of knowledge is an autonomous ‘discipline’ whose boundaries are defined rigorously, is interdisciplinarity among humanities and social sciences transgressive as suggested by the term ‘transdisciplinarity’?
The phenomenon of transgression presupposes such dualities of sacred-profane, good-evil, normal-pathological, sane-mad, and private and public. The question is whether such dualities can ever be sustained as absolute or as clear-cut distinctions and transgression be defined accordingly. In the light of the complexities of genetic engineering can we still sustain the age-old divide between the natural and the artificial? What about the dualism between the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in the light of transgender? The implicit indeterminacy in the idea of cyborg blurs the dichotomous and determinate distinction between, ‘human being’ and ‘machine’. In a similar vein the wandering Gypsies seem to problematize the very idea of a ‘locale’, a concept that grounds itself in the notion of a border, since they belong to none. Perhaps, the notion of ‘no man’s land’ is the best limiting case for the notion of boundary and transgression.
A limited number of participants will be invited for the seminar. Those intrested in participating should send a synopsis (700 words) of the proposed paper to following Email ID's :-
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