The Border that Transgresses You: a Phenomenology of Swamps



The Border that Transgresses You: a Phenomenology of Swamps

Max was perpetually sunburnt, with the classic sensibility of a farmer’s son. He sat next to me on the bus a couple of times and I felt friction between his knee and my own.

I was spotty and virginal, but planned to change at least the last part of that with him, in a swamp at the back of my dad’s farm.

I yearned to be subsumed in the swamp, to become the swamp and to subsume him, but Max didn’t particularly want to be swallowed by the wet mouth of earth. He felt no need to be engorged by mud, even though I mentioned that the procedure would include wine and Tim Tams.

The conscious component of my swampy lust was a teenaged belief that transgression could be a means, was indeed the only means, of founding personal sovereignty; that to be bad was to be disobedient, independent and autonomous. I felt I could construct a self through action, that by making superficial decisions in conscious ways I would build an identity with a core of purpose and meaning.

He continued to grin and nudge me in the thigh with his own magnificent leg, but he had a girlfriend and didn’t understand the fantasy.

I didn’t particularly understand it either. Transgression is more complex than ‘badness’ or disobedience. Chris Jenks, in the introduction to his book Transgression, offers the seemingly simplistic definition: ‘that which exceeds boundaries or exceeds limits.’

Just as we're defined in a room by the manner of our entrance, I thought I would be defined in womanhood by my style of becoming a woman

For a teenage girl, the attempted seduction of a boy is entirely within her limits. She feels societal pressure, and she feels her body’s concurrence with it. Women, particularly, are pressed upon by finitude: the girl is aware of her girl-status and unsure what woman-status might be. At twenty I'm aware that bus drivers will have less patience in giving me directions when I'm fifty. At seventeen I knew that if I failed to build an identity then one would be made for me, around my name and around my body.

Just as we're defined in a room by the manner of our entrance, I though that I would be defined in womanhood by my style of becoming a woman. With no boy to love me, or even to say that he did, my progression through the narrative of high school girlhood was inhibited. I believed I had to make myself special, or I had to reject ideas of speciality altogether.    

I wanted to be deliberately set apart, thus singular & invulnerable. This doesn’t at all explain the quagmire as my desired location, but it goes someway in explaining the lack of attraction to candles and beds.

Jenks wonders whether transgression is "merely a post-modern version of authentic or existential action? Is it the hyperbolic announcement of identity in a society where identity and difference are paramount yet difficult to achieve?"

Horace Engdahl makes a similar accusation of contemporary western literature, claiming that we frequently fail to ‘transgress anything because the limits which [we] have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.’ We want to get wet but not soaked, dirty but never filthy.

The teenager would like to astonish her contemporaries, but the space between their surprise and applause can demand from her only a moment’s breath. She would like to shock them, but in a very specific way, and with a specific, postive, outcome. Hers is a paradoxical transgression, a rebellion in need of continuous validation from her peers.

Ideally, she dreams of being part of a misbehaving gaggle, much like Katy Perry’s in her 2014 song This is How We Do.  The song is about all the things young people, specifically women, might do. Perry buys tacos, gets her nails done, drinks alcohol during the day and ‘talks astrology.’ We do not envisage her engaging in these activities alone. They demand the validation of other conventionally attractive young people, with unconventionally coloured hair.

She shouts out to all the kids ‘buying bottle service with [their] rent money,’ but are we to suppose that these young people will be homeless in the following week, or that their middle class parents will suffer the irritation of lending their children money (again)?

Perry affirms continually that ‘it’s no big deal,’ assuring her followers that to some their excesses are note-worthy, shocking even.  But who is shocked? An elderly concerned population of six sending complaints to TVNZ through the post, I presume.

It may seem here that transgression is redundant. But the urge to subvert power is as integral to human nature as the desire to construct and attain it. Transgression is not just for teenagers who are afraid of slipping without will into category; transgression has higher purposes than the maintenance of youthful self-esteem.

Jenks writes that ‘we need to affirm that human experience is the constant experience of limits’ and that ‘any limit on conduct carries with it an intense relationship with the desire to transgress that limit.’ Additionally, the various forces that exercise power over us are not necessarily obvious -- the influence of popular media, advertising, and self-censorship, or the inevitability of death.

In Trouble in Paradise, Slavoj Zizek offers something to the teenager on the issue of virginity. He and reaffirms the validity of (genuine) transgression, questioning:

What if, in our post-modern world of ordained transgression, in which the marital commitment is perceived as ridiculously out of time, those who cling to it are the true subversives?

MTV’s The Virgin Diaries documents the agonies of adult virginity in the typical quasi-intimate, sensationalistic style of reality TV. Ryan and Shanna, in particular, have captured the imaginations of the global YouTube public. A clip of their first kiss together is uploaded under the title Uncomfortable Double Virgin Wedding Kiss, but they themselves don’t appear to be in any discomfit.

They join lips - forces of equivalent and overwhelming suction - and their eyes pop open like those of wild, caught, squeezed fish.

Their wedding kiss, before the eyes of their guests, extends well beyond the realm of customary gesture.  “It’s almost like they just attacked each other” one attendee commentates. Afterwards her breathing is heaving and he appears bewildered. “It just doesn’t seem normal” he says.

They join lips - forces of equivalent and overwhelming suction - and their eyes pop open like those of wild, caught, squeezed fish

Intent on that kind of passion, but unable to imagine it, I proceeded to the swamp alone and man-less, but with the same extravagant selection of wine and biscuits I’d planned on sharing with Max. I was resolute. I would get myself stuck right in the middle of the murky water, eat the whole packet and drink the whole bottle. I’d gorge myself with excess. Beauty would manifest itself around me. I wanted to wander and rage like Rimbaud.

I made myself tipsy, sick and bored. I went home and lay on the couch moaning and staring at the ceiling. My brothers pointed and said I was drunk and covered in dirt. My holy, divine and excessive transgression was reduced to dull mud.

At the time, having never been successfully stoned, I lionized Allen Ginsberg with a gawky and irritating fanaticism. In an attempt at mimickry, I produced copious pages of swearwords unencumbered by full stops and left them lying around the house regardless of guests. This great and mortifying misfortune could never have happened if I’d understood that Ginsberg was not in the business of being rude for the sake of boorishness, but that instead, Howl’s magic was in its collapsing of categories and oppositions.

By including only vulgarity I intensified the divide between my subject matter and what I ignored. Ginsberg writes in Footnote to Howl: ‘Holy the sea holy the desert holy the railroad holy the locomotive holy the visions holy the hallucinations holy the miracles holy the eyeball holy the abyss!’

The purpose of transgression is not to convince oneself or any other

It's is transgressive, but not aggressively so. Ginsberg makes no attack, he claims nothing, only offers and accepts. Howl, too, is welcoming and ironic. 'Holy, holy, holy’ has the same meaning as ‘profane, profane, profane,’ because both encompass everything they speak of; everything is holy and everything is profane, to take offense to this would be to read it in a different context to the one in which it is written.. Writing composed solely to upset people is not literature, but a banal rant in the direction of one’s enemies.

 The purpose of transgression is not to offend or convince oneself or any other, but to open wide a field of possibility – not to encourage, but to allow; not to shock, but to expose.

If the virginal bride and groom from the clip above were to attempt to dictate the sexual activity of others, they’d lose every shred of the immense charm they hold for me. The attraction to them is their ignorance of coolness.

If they were to turn instead to concepts of purity or morality they would be trading one form if dialectics for another. I would assume I knew everything there was to know about them, or at least that they thought they knew everything there was to know about me, and about themselves.

Foucault wrote in Preface to Transgression, "transgression does not achieve its purpose through mockery or by upsetting the solidity of foundations […] Transgression is neither violence in a divided world (in an ethical world) nor a victory over limits (in a dialectical or revolutionary world)."

Howl and Footnote to Howl are not Ginsberg’s viewpoint in an argument. Rather, by embracing everything, he nullifies argument.  Foucault saw transgression as a force transcendent of ethics or dialectics; of debate. He argued for a new mode of philosophical language to engage transgression, a manner of thinking which could describe the unidentified, the liminal.

A ‘non-dialectical language’ would be a method of thought unconcerned with attempting to classify things or to place them. It would address transgression on its own continually shifting terms.

I was being reductive when I considered transgression as a mode of self-definition. I was simplifying myself, sex and the swamp

The earlier definition provided by Chris Jenks, "that which exceeds boundaries or exceeds limits," is contradicted by the concept of transgression as non-dialectical. The crossing of boundaries is the transition from one category to another. Here the concept of transgression might be modified from a desire to exceed limit, to a desire to reach a place of limitlessness.

As a teenager I was being reductive when I considered transgression as a mode of self-definition. I was simplifying myself, sex and the swamp in an attempt to fit all of them into a comprehensible narrative -- a story in which I could be sure of where and what I was. But transgression must be more than this. Transgression must be exploded limit. Or at least a wholly indulged fantasy of that.

Transgression is not a progression from state A to B. Instead, it might be imagined as a place. A dreamscape of suspended limit. A non-dialectical language, then, might be considered as an unwalled room, in which all parts of the self, of desire, including those most stupid, primal and vulgar, rise into air and are pressed into earth; are simultaneously hallowed and degraded. A belief-built place in which impossibility is disregarded, time is ignored and we are all whatever it is that we truly are.

Foucault writes:

… Transgression contains nothing negative, but affirms limited being – affirms the limitlessness into which it leaps as it opens this zone to existence for the first time. But correspondingly, this affirmation contains nothing positive: no content can bind it, since, by definition no limit can possibly restrict it.

A swamp offers all matter non-positive affirmation. The bog does not accept a thing for what it is, but simply because it is. It opens itself and allows you to sink into it. Mud is defined by its mutability. Mud is dirt made wet, allowed wherever it wants to be.

Anne Carson, in her essay Dirt and Desire, defines dirt as "matter out of place."

In the swampland of my fantasies, everything is spillage.

The transgressor crosses a threshold and enters figurative, immeasurable and shifting space. She imagines that something dangerous, unregistered and holy might rise from the darkness: a feeling, a truth or an eel.

The swamp is that which is other in the physical form of mud. It shapes itself for intimacy, it shifts between our limbs, settles into the crevices in our skin then dries and cracks. We are layered in skin and mud. In dust; in slough. After we shower some might remain in the hair at the nape of our necks.

Kirsty Gunn writes, in her novel Rain, of a lake with inanimate sentience. The reader knows the children are too small to be playing alone in the water. The reader feels she knows that in some way the lake is alive and hungry for her. The lake is a ‘glut’ of water, ‘all the trees [are] drowning,’ the water ‘creeps up’ on the earth and its edges crumble.

In the lake, as in the swamp, the body is surrounded and influenced by figurative space. The air is imbued with affective significance.

Perhaps there is a part of ourselves that is foreign to us, and in submitting to an outside other we can reach communion with that internal facet of our being. The lake or swamp might be imagined as an internal other made real and physical in the form of setting.

My bedroom, to me, is not a setting. My bedroom is a bed and a pile of crap on the floor. In unknown space the imagination is offered matter, malleable matter -- potential. I wanted the loss of my virginity to be a story filled to the brim. My best fantasies can never be anywhere I’ve ever been and, ideally, could ever be.

If Max continues to wonder why he was chosen as the central male in a marshland sex dream, he will make little progress. He has never smelled of swale; in none of our discussions did he mention an affection for wetland plants; he is just an ordinary guy with mostly above-ground morals.  

Surely if a girl wanted a boy in a bog she would select a candidate from the behind the sports shed where things smelled of weed and used condoms were more common than flowers. For practicality’s sake she might have even considered someone single.

I did none of these things. I was fixated on the one I knew would never touch a toe to the morass. What does this imply of my knowledge of the swamp? What is suggested about where I truly expected to place my own toes? Because it must be acknowledged that a swamp is not a bed. The plants are itchy and spiky. In summer the bog is dried up lumpy ground. In winter it’s cold.

Perhaps transgression is pointless. There is no end, no success, no conclusion. It’s ironic in its lack of statement, but never is transgression absent of feeling, never does it cease in action.

What is neccessary, however, is this greedy response to the panic born of finitude. It’s both erotic and violent. It’s gulping and begging; consuming and offering; sucking and dissolving. It is the swamp that needs me, the part of me that needs the swamp.


The eventual loss of my virginity lacked ironic verve. It was in my bedroom with a man who wouldn’t take me to the zoo because he thought it was lame. When the sexual act was over, I wrote an intensely post-modern poem about the exact colour of the ceiling behind his head, the last lines of which were:

I don’t know if I’ve forgotten it
or if that day there just wasn’t
any weather.

The whole poem is as rigidly contained in its lack of statement as my room was from the sun. A good poem suggests a range of possibly contradictory possibilities,  yet mine bluntly refused to suggest one.

He was older than me, jobless and had been in prison. He didn’t like holding hands. I saw transgression, then, as a means of achieving sovereignty: that ineffable, almost unfeasible, quality defined by Jenks as "the aspiration to transcend appearance and to achieve essence."

Sadly, and somewhat predictably, what resembled transgression on my dumb thin mattress was simply us enacting already comprehensive and well marketed conceptions of ourselves. He was bad, I was good. There could have been nothing more dialectical, more selectively affirming.

If we want a young woman, bad and good and brilliant, we need only look as far as Tina of animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers. She is moaning, exploring the female gaze specifically in regards to the male gluteus, and despite not having any luck sexually she is writing "the most erotic, graphic, freakiest friend fiction ever." Tina is what she is, she believes what she believes and I would very much love to read her prose because inevitably, from these nearly impossible feats of manifested selfhood, authentic transgression follows.

I regret every moment I’ve spent lying under ceilings failing to look through them. Failing to imagine beyond myself. Transgression is not, as I believed, a means of achieving sovereignty or genuine self-hood. Rather, achieving sovereignty (if only for brief moments, or in particular situations) is the only mode through which genuine transgression can be reached.

The swamp desires what you are.

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