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While Sigmund Freud clearly intended the psychoanalytic concept of 'perversion' to be free from the moral judgement the word carries in colloquial use, the relationship of perversion to hostility and sexuality makes it a troubling concept. Is perversion an emotion? Is it a form of thinking or belief? Is perversion a sexual act?
Sometimes described as an acting out of unconscious fantasy, perversion combines feelings of revenge, triumph and control as a defence against experiencing trauma and helplessness. The concept of perversion is used widely within psychoanalysis to understand the unconscious dynamics of addiction, sexual abuse, delinquency, murder, sexual assault and even burglary. The concepts of narcissism, fetishism, voyeurism and sado-masochism are also useful as tools to analyse our culture, particularly in relation to film.
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Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture at Middlesex University, Claire Pajaczkowska teaches on the historical, social, psychoanalytic and textual analysis of art, film, design and popular culture. Her latest book is on Feminist Visual Culture.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"The connotations of the word are unpleasant and have a flavour of morality and therefore of free will that is antiquated in these days of science and determinism."
Thus begins the introduction to the book "Perversion: the Erotic Form of Hatred" - one of the most illuminating and humane explorations of the concept of perversion. And so, if the word has such troubling and antiquated connotations, why is it still in use? Is perversion a sexual act? Is perversion an aggressive act? Do all sexual acts invoke a moral response? Are all aggressive acts unpleasant? What determines the particular fusion of sexuality and aggression that characterises perversion?
The psychoanalytic concept of perversion understands it as a sexual act, but not necessarily a genital act. Even if genitals are used, as in exhibitionism for instance, the genital is not present in its function as adult sexual organ. To understand the paradoxical nature of sex in perversion we need to explore the development of human sexuality, and how infancy and adulthood are connected in that development. There are also perverse acts, such as burglary or addiction, in which no erotic pleasure is consciously experienced, and yet these acts are understood as having a sexual meaning for the subject. How can one concept describe the intense, compelling erotic pleasure of sexuality and also be used to describe acts of criminality, violence and murder? How can one concept account for the pleasures of ordinary sexuality (if any sexuality can be experienced as anything other than extraordinary) and some of the most strange, bizarre and extreme acts of destructiveness, degradation and torture? How is perversion related to concepts of neurosis and psychosis, and also to the experiences of everyday life?
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.
Contemporary historians of sexuality have interpreted the concept in terms of its origins in nineteenth-century medical discourse. For example, in the first volume of his "History of Sexuality", French structuralist historian Michel Foucault identifies a number of categories of sexuality that were created in mid-nineteenth century medicine as it demarcated itself from biology. These categories, or discursive 'objects', were products of a preoccupation with four kinds of sex which Foucault describes as: the 'hysterization of women's bodies', the 'pedagogization of children's sex', the 'socialization of procreative behaviour', and the 'psychiatrization of perverse pleasures'. Foucault writes:
"Four figures emerged from this preoccupation with sex, which mounted throughout the nineteenth century – four privileged objects of knowledge, which were also targets and anchorage points for the ventures of knowledge: the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple and the perverse adult."
Tracing the changes that took place as medical science assumed responsibility for the production of knowledge on human sexuality, Foucault useful 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 among 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. 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, or society, 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 'neo-sexualities'. Are Queer theorists and liberals right in their goal and in their strategies? What is the difference between aberrations, 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, trans-sexuality and sado-masochism are part of an ancient, if not noble, tradition of public fascination with the grotesque.
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