Perverted politics

Deviance for its own sake is reactionary, not rebellious

The ultimate critical virtue, agree many academics, is transgression - social, sexual and political. Theorists such as Judith Butler and Michel Foucault have contributed to a left-wing discourse in which the celebration of deviance has taken over from serious attempts to describe or improve the lot of the oppressed. Scholarly papers extolling the subversive energies cunningly hidden in literary texts or embodied in practices such as body modification, transvestism and every possible sexual perversion (as catalogued by the sainted Georges Bataille) are paying, albeit indirectly, for mortgages in the Home Counties and second homes in France. As often as not, the standard-issue tweed jacket conceals a vigorous champion of polymorphous perversity.

In many ways, this is one of the ambiguous legacies of 1968. Thinkers such as R D Laing and Herbert Marcuse supposed there was a close link between psychic, sexual and political liberation, and prescribed a heady combination of psychedelic drugs, free love and marching. Smashing fun, obviously, but that this recipe is still considered even vaguely plausible as a path to liberation must be because behind the hoopla there was a serious political message.

Yet the Sixties failed to deliver the political and sexual utopia they promised. Social inequality has got worse, and the Aids virus cruelly capped a sexual revolution based on promiscuity and the dissolution of the nuclear family. The current trend retains the form but not the content of the rebellion of 1968, as if rule-breaking were progressive in itself. But Jack the Ripper, Osama Bin Laden and the diehard wing of the fox-hunting lobby are all pretty transgressive, and hardly make comfortable bedfellows for us on the left.

The alternative to transgression need not be a return to the dreaded - and often unfairly caricatured - Victorian morality. Actually, nobody is more dependent on these kinds of rules than the person who lives by breaking them, as Bataille himself realised, opposing the sexual revolution for this reason. And there are cases in oppressive societies where contravening laws and conventions is not just worthwhile, but the duty of the responsible citizen. But this is transgression as a means, and not an end in itself.

Those who dissent from the critical orthodoxy are labelled "conservative", as if being uninterested in cyborgs, pornography and vampirism were tantamount to a betrayal of socialist principles. Yet writers such as Terry Eagleton - a Marxist who bemoaned the ubiquity of PhD theses on "the literature of latex or the political implications of navel piercing" - or Ashley Tau chert, a feminist whose important new book, Against Transgression (Blackwell), debunks many of the myths around the subject, can hardly be described as figures of the right.

As Eagleton and Tauchert both argue, there is something narcissistic and deeply conservative about revelling in transgression. In Tauchert's words, to do so is "reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling".

Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.