In Defense of Transgression

Artwork by Anupam Roy

“In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.” – Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

In the days following Donald Trump’s election, we at Red Wedge – shell-shocked and terrified as we were – ran an editorial arguing the basics of survival and resistance for artists and leftists alike. Few need reminding of the terrors that were – and still are – gripping those close to us. Non-male identifying friends and comrades were threatened for wearing their hair “too short.” Armed posses of white supremacists were announcing their intent to patrol colleges and abduct professors teaching the “queer agenda.” The need for self-defense was obvious. And it still is. 

About a month later, we ran a long article in the wake of the fire at the Ghost Ship, the Oakland artists commune whose neglect by greedy property managers led directly to it going up in flames during a show, resulting in the deaths of thirty-six people. Most of them were artists or musicians of some kind, many of them people of color and queer or trans identified. The Ghost Ship’s “semi-legal” status attested to the narrowing margins on which truly original arts scenes and vibrant spaces of self-expression are allowed to exist. Perhaps it is no surprise that, just as liberals and centrists were quick to wag their fingers at the artists themselves for “living irresponsibly,” so did the MAGA-fied troglodytes announce their intention to root out the “degeneracy” of spaces like the Ghost Ship.

We believed and still believe that defending these spaces and identities is essential to any artist, any radical, and certainly for any radical artist. Not merely because these are oppressed people tossed aside or targeted by a system that disdains them but because in existing as they are – proudly, honestly, experimentally, as works in progress and pain – they cling to the hope of a potential future. In their flourishing we catch a glimpse of – for lack of a better term, and even if it is through a fractured and warped lens – a utopia. A different way of living via different values and wider parameters of freedom.

Some might dismiss these as idealistic musing. And for sure, we are critical of the vague notion that mere existence is enough to bring down capitalism. But for us, as sincere and committed revolutionaries and communists, as people who believe that all working and oppressed people have the capacity to run the world and shape it in their own image, we see these transgressive acts as unavoidable and necessary. They deserve not to just be understood and tolerated but nurtured and celebrated by all those who cleave to liberation.

Art against the Norm

In a nutshell, historically speaking, and including the history-of-the-present, to be on the left is transgressive. It is many other things in addition to this, but it is transgressive, first and foremost against a prevailing order that severely  limits or - alienates -  human capacities and freedom.

Every socialist has found themselves in one or another situation, talking to a family member or friend, one who is not at all unsympathetic but perhaps concerned or confused at how much you care about the class struggle, about the struggle against oppressions. Capitalist realist “common sense” cannot fathom solidarity, and therefore is oblivious to the boundaries that must be traversed for it to be made concrete. It is, to some, a foreign concept that can be grasped on a detached level but can only be internalized through self-transformation, often in struggle.

Marx’s early manuscripts, dismissed as “humanist’ by some, emphasize the primacy of self-transformation, and this carries throughout his work, notably the glorious chapter on the “Working Day” in Capital. The emancipation of the working classes must be the work of the working classes itself; but also human beings make and remake reality. We are social animals and come to ourselves through our social interactions, our Gemeinschaft.

What we now call transgression is exactly this kind of transformation. An understanding of this must take into account exactly what stands in the way of these self-transformations. Not just who feels threatened by them, but what institutions themselves resist accommodating these processes. The markers of “correct” behavior come from somewhere and are informed by the needs of a society’s often-static-sometimes-shifting modes of reproduction. If a human being’s search for fulfillment involves the embrace of a practice or identity that does not fit within these parameters, they face alienation, they are ostracized, they risk poverty, homelessness, even a violent death. The degree to which they can be protected from these is contingent on the existence and viability of an alternative vision, a different mode of living.

In his Toward a Gay Communism, pioneering queer theorist and communist Mario Mielli defined these prescribed and proscribed behaviors as the “capital N” Norm. For Mielli the socialist project is “the negation of the heterosexual Norm founded on the repression of Eros and essential for maintaining the rule of Capital over the species.” The Norm is this “common sense” naturalization of capitalism. It is not merely what we call heteronormativity in relationship patterns, but of the entire set of social property relation that constitute the capitalist mode of production, the alienation of labour bound with the criminalization of queerness.

Likewise, we might also understand queerness as not merely a question of sexuality or sexual orientation, but as the violation of a far-reaching set of expectations and mores which both enforce and are enforced along the valences of race, heritage, ethnicity, gender, nationality. Indeed, it is notable how often those who cross boundaries of, say, how a woman is “supposed” to act, what a Black man is “supposed” to do, often also have their viability as a man or woman questioned. To cross these invisible lines of social control is, in an increasingly popular parlance, to “queer” something. And it is in this sense that we think everything needs to be queered.

There are countless varieties of self-transformative process that provide a gateway drug into transgression. It comes in class struggle, through telling your boss that you will not be doing your work if you are not treated like a human being. It also comes through experiencing one’s sexuality, or one’s lack of sexuality. It can come with that frisson of lighting one’s first joint, tagging an empty wall late at night when the cops aren’t looking. It can come through experiencing and intuiting that other world represented to us through art and culture, learning “more from a three-minute record than you ever learned in school.” All in some way point the ways in which rebellion fulfills some need for us that society refuses to.

Others don’t. And these people tend to wind up the enemy of human creativity and freedom. Reactionary American politicians in the 1920s heard in the blue notes of jazz a loosening of morals, a gateway for respectable white youth into dens of drug use, promiscuity and miscegenation. Reaganite conservatives clutched their pearls at the mere mention of Robert Mapplethorpe and shrieked that his existence merited gutting public funding for the arts.

Red Wedge as an initiative, a magazine, a collective, an entity, is dedicated to popularizing a set of ideas and principles around what we have called the popular avant-garde; a reassertion of experimental aesthetics in relationship to mass emancipatory politics. To us, this means seeing and defending the value of transgression as a starting point for human self-discovery, of which art is a key and unavoidable part.

But there is a problem. On the one hand neoliberal capitalist culture has proven exceptionally adept at metabolizing transgressive gestures into reified aesthetics. Or, to borrow from Bertolt Brecht, capitalist culture has grown increasingly adept at taking the poison thrown into its face and turning it into a drug. As Walter Benjamin noted the “unique” and “authentic” cultural sign was dislocated from its context by mechanical reproduction; abstracting its original meaning. As John Berger added, these signs took on new meanings, absorbing those meanings from new contexts and encounters with other signs. These are usually, but not always, processes and meaning sets that serve capital.

In 1979, hip-hop, largely invented by working-class youth of color in the Bronx, was a product of transgressive social genius. By 1984, hip-hop imagery was being used to sell Coca-Cola in the Sunday newspapers. This allows capital to tame or create the “false” transgressive sign; and often, contradictory signs. Invocations of the Black Panther Party, Civil Rights or the French May can be both cracks from which the light shines through but also used to displace politics and demands kindred to their original meaning. In terms of civil rights and the French May see the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and what was that couture ad using images of the French May? (don’t know! )

This dynamic has always existed in capitalist culture but has accelerated and permeated every aspect of cultural life, in a way not achieved before, commodifying and abstracting the transgressive nullifying the idyllic grace and oppositional status of previous counter-cultures and avant-gardes. Real estate companies promote new “Montmartres” in every post-industrial city, invoking the very bohemia Marx references in relationship to the French workers’ movement, as a branding exercise meant to dislodge the working-classes. The decontexualization of transgressive gestures has reached an apogee in the participatory reification of social media and the digital image – the subject of Adam Turl’s essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction.”

How we get weird…


drawing by Adam Turl


There are those, including many on the left, who see transgression as a sidetrack, a liability. The Walter Benn Michaels, Adolph Reeds and Angela Nagles of the world. To an extent, this is the narcissism of small differences manifesting itself as cliqueism in a relatively weak but quickly growing English-speaking left starting to feel its growing pains. The past two years has seen a fierce debate take place among the origins, meanings, and roles of transgression in the growth of this left. Much of it easily becomes a proverbial tempest in an online teapot. But between the slurs adopted as poses and vice versa, between the “dirtbags,” “hipsters” and “normies,” there are real issues at stake in them, real and differing visions about what the Left needs to be. And somewhere in the morass the kernel of an idea that in order to fully and holistically oppose the prevailing order, one must inevitably face the idea of counterculture, of organized transgression.

There are some clear missteps on the way which make the tragic mistake of confusing ideology with materiality, and with troublesome consequences. Those who locate the origins of the current alt-right sheerly in the worlds of Reddit and 4Chan or as a reaction to “Tumblr liberalism” ignore the broader socio-economic trends that have created the space for this scum to get a hearing in the first place. It is undeniably true that so much social media is filled to the brim with toxic amounts of performative outrage and “call-out” culture (much of which is strangely at home with the ethos of neoliberal individualism… more on this later) but its location is still one of relative and almost absolute powerlessness.

If this powerlessness manifests itself in the disjointed, hyperconnected-but-horrifyingly-atomized worlds of the internet, then it is because the broader parameters of subculture (the prerequisite for any counterculture) have been radically rearranged if not entirely dissolved over the past forty years. And with that, the spaces in which individuals might commune in their discordance, put their out-of-step rhythms in line with other misfits and weirdos.

In light of this it is fatally incorrect to counterpose the weird with the virtuous, with some abstract idea of a noble working class that sneers at the aberrant as some form of degeneracy. This working class does not exist.

Working-class people are actually interesting. They are weird. They tend to be, in fact, queered in their relationship to capital. Work is a process enacted by human beings. At its best, as Marx writes, it is a “form giving fire” of self-creation. In capitalism work is alienated. Through transgression we act to find spaces of disalienation. Every single working-class person does this. It is hard-wired into the nature of alienated labor; from warehouse workers constructing a bas relief mural of discarded objects to convenience store workers shielding each other from the regional manager. It is the “transgressive” Left that is deeply embedded in the labour movement, in the International Women’s Strike, for a feminism of the 99 percent, and in the “red state” teacher’s strikes – which Kate Doyle Griffiths discusses in an extended interview on transgressive socialist cultural praxis. It is the “normies,” themselves posturing outsiders-to-the-class, that are left behind, castigating from the sidelines.

Much of this “normie left” narrative traces the left’s lost ways to the failures of the sixties and the entry of the counterculture onto the political stage. But that left, with few exceptions (like the San Francisco Bay Area), in fact failed to have a sufficient encounter with the sixties counterculture in the English speaking world. It is true, as Ellen Meiksins Wood points out, that left theory and practice took a “retreat from class” in the seventies. Yet Wood’s critique of the New Left itself, as found in the 1995 Socialist Register, is far more supple, emphasizing the contextual determinants to how sixties social movements developed, albeit unevenly. The critique of the retreat from class did not denigrate achievements of sixties social movements, rather it took aim at the theorization of their novelty as agential as opposed to contingent.

For a variety of historically specific reasons, a narrow – and indeed white (cis-)male version of class was replaced in the American activist imaginary with the “oppressed.” The retreat from the politics of identity on the part of large parts of the left, and from the politics of emancipation on the part of those concerned with identity, was not a fait accompli. There were structural factors that led to these retreats, but there was nothing in the unexplored crossover that must have necessarily led to them. A return to a more fulsome notion of class as a process may have been possible, and we find it today in the innovations of social reproduction theory within Marxism.

The problem, therefore, was not that the struggles for emancipation were too corrupted by the rebellions against conformity of the counterculture, but that the two did not learn enough from each other. But in the decades since, we have caught glimpses of just how potent these cross-pollenations can be, how pregnant with a power that is both aesthetic and political. As Jordy Cummings wrote last summer in his negative review of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies,

Never mind the intrinsic, if haphazard, links between the far Left and sixties counterculture, in particular in the Bay Area and London. Never mind the punk scene’s Rock Against Racism initiative, ACT-UP, Black Lives Matter. Just about every social movement over the last half century has its connotative codes, rituals and even sardonic choices declared to be reactionary.

Of course there were aspects of the long 1960s revolt incorporated into the neoliberal cultural order. The libertarian and anti-corporatist impulses of the 1960s became part and parcel of the commodification and cultural fragmentation of the present. They had to be, of course, decoupled from dreams of collective emancipation; not just in terms of class, but also in terms of identity, gender and nationality. While the most draconian aspects of post-war conformism were repealed they were replaced by a new neoliberal “norm” that sought to commodify our dreams.

…and why we need to get weirder

At Red Wedge believe this argument is still worth pursuing. In the last two years, the left in the English-speaking world has grown. This is not just reflective of the growth of socialist organizations, but in terms of common sense signifiers in cultural practice, practices that are moving left. Issues of representation take a forefront, perhaps, but this itself has to be historicized. Perry Anderson points out that in a historic period of Left defeat, the era of what he called “Western Marxism,” Marxist theory took an aesthetic and philosophical turn. Just because this was reflective of defeat does not devalue Western Marxism, from Lukacs and Gramsci to Colleti and Althusser. Rather, it was the defeat of the workers’ movements that sent Marxist thought elsewhere, biding its time with what Althusser would call “theoretical practice”.

The “retreat from class” needs to be reversed but this reversal cannot be hot-housed “from above.” To varying degrees, historical events are taking care of that for us, but the subjective factor remains. How we intervene to shape these events matters, and it must be done in a way that is curious, conjuncturally specific rather than a clumsy attempt to fit old modes into new settings as if nothing has changed.

So it is with art. Artistic representation is not a force in itself. Like “history,” “art” is an abstraction, it does not do anything; it is those who produce and experience it that define the parameters in which history is made. But it is an industry, a set of ideas, and a practice, and these act in the world in a contradictory manner, related to but not reducible to the subjective actions of its constituent parts. These evolve and morph.

Much of the furor over “identity politics” is dismissive of the importance of representation in art and media, running roughshod over questions of just why it has taken so long for an artist like Janelle Monae or a film like Black Panther to come into being. That those struggling against marginalization have integrated the signifiers of these works points to a very real transformative practice that is ongoing and evolving. Even if the boundaries crossed are slight, they point the way toward broader ones, “the crack in everything where the light comes in.”

At the same time, there is an undeniable neoliberal version of identity politics that views identity itself as an either an asset or a liability in middle-class competition rather than a factor in collective and individual emancipation. It is a kind of politics that masquerades as both transgressive and genuinely liberatory, proclaiming its revolutionary potential through sheer volume while brow-beating any of those who dare utter, “okay, but what comes next?” It is the weaponization of a crumbling status quo trying desperately to wrap itself in the flag of the dynamic and ground-breaking.

We believe that the contents of this issue – the longest we have produced in our short history – posit what it looks like to create both art and persona outside of this orbit. With a growing socialist left comes more potential for nuanced critique, one that understands that the initial step into an unknown state of being is a terrifying one, but also that the works and objects we grasp for support during transition must themselves transition, be reimagined and remade.

In addition to Adam Turl’s essay and the interview with Kate Doyle Griffiths alluded to earlier, Joe Sabatini looks all the way back to a foundational transgressive literary monster, Franksenstein, upon his two hundredth birthday. Cam Scott looks at the musical methods of avant-garde noise composer Glenn Branca, who died this past spring. And Alexander Billet asks what it is that makes Boots Riley’s weird and wonderful Sorry to Bother You such an important moment in filmmaking.

Agatha Slupek examines Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists, while Jordy Cummings and Jason Netek take stock of, David Byrne and Guy Debord respectively, two exemplary cultural transgressors, creatures of the spectacle both fascinated and repulsed by it. In his review of Assuming Boycott, which compares the cultural boycotts of South African and Israeli apartheids, veteran Palestinian rights activist Neil Rogall asks what it means to transgress a line by refusing to cross another.

Some of our literature and art in this issue – Urvi Kumbhat, Anupam Roy, Octavio Quintanilla – start from a place of willful and sincere strangeness. Others like Tish Markley, Benjamin Balthaser, Trish Kahle and Nathan Nun use recognizable markers – from the Arabic ghazal to American small town life to cat memes – in order to re-enchant the familiar. But in each case they are refusing to stop at “pushing a boundary,” grasping at the hope of building something on the other side of it.

One of the best features of Raoul Peck’s masterful Young Karl Marx is how much it brings out the bohemian, queer, sexually emancipated aspects of young Karl and Jenny and Freddy’s lives. That is to say, he accentuated their transgression; living their social and personal lives in a way that cut against what we may now call bourgeois heteronormativity. Likewise, Margarethe Von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg (1987) is no dour bookworm sitting at a desk scribbling away, but a vivacious human being; nothing under the sun being alien to her. 

We trace a tradition of “oddballs” all the way through the pre-World War II heterodox Marxist tradition. Lenin affected the image of a curmudgeon, but he loved his kitty-cat. Trotsky was a bookish eccentric, but damn, what an orator. Alexandra Kollontai was much more of a person-about-town, not unlike Antonio Gramsci or C.L.R. James. Walter Benjamin enjoyed dabbling with hashish and mescaline, as did others in his circle. Certainly there was a socially conservative current within the broad left and it is, to use a vulgarism, no accident that current was the one that leaned toward Stalinism, inveighed against Proletkult or Surrealism, put pleasure to the sword through forceful didactic aesthetic interpellation.

In other words, we at Red Wedge are right at home, both in the actually-existing working class and in the most vibrant, heterodox and stalwart lineages of the international socialist movement. We hope that this particular issue will serve – as a whole – as an intervention in defense of transgression. We do not want to see the left make the mistakes it has made in the past, in either attempting to instrumentalize counterculture and transgression, or in attempting to tail it without breathing revolutionary fire into it.

Let’s end by thinking of dancing. In particular the quote often misattributed to Emma Goldman:  “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” It may be the height of hackneyed Americanism to sum things up with this line, but we take the aphorism differently. It is not that a revolution without dancing is not worth joining. It is that it is not a revolution at all.

Shall we dance, then?

Afterword (April 2019)

The above paragraphs were written nearly a year ago, to introduce and contextualize our main goal with the previous issue, a defense of transgression in a cultural sense, understood not merely in matters traditionally understood as ‘artistic’ practice, but also the realms of the body, sexuality and of course, the class struggle. In the face of continued arguments, either implicitly, with the likes of Angela Nagle, or implicitly, as with the sense of arguments pitched to potential socialists “whose ancestors were peasants”, that socialists, in turning away from an amorphous and implicitly white reserve army of the unemployed, who could be turned towards socialism. Yet as Red Wedge editor Adam Turl has pointed out, the working class is pretty weird. Thus, we have seen it, as crystallized in this issue, as our duty to, in the words of our comrade Peter Frase, Keep Socialism Weird! Yet there are those that argued, and continue to argue that in transgression – broadly understood as transgressing a norm, as stipulated by bourgeois common sense – one moves away from what is asserted as “universal” into the realm of “particular”.

Marx reminds us, however, that “concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.” The working class is the unity of the diverse, not in a false sense, but in both a real empirical sense and in the sense of the identities, racializations, gender and sex coding, social capital and the like, as the medium by which they the live their working class lives. It is these “identities” or subject-formations that constitute the everyday reality of working class life, the politics of everybody in Holly Lewis’s words. Yet again, from some parts of the socialist intelligentsia, we see a common sense that militates against what the now call the “Keep Socialism Weird crowd”. Their fear, perhaps in good faith, is rooted, at heart, in a variation of a Left respectability politics.

The logic of this particular argument, made explicitly once again by Nagle, and most recently, by Slavoj Zizek at a debate with Jordan Peterson in Toronto, is that in focusing on “political correctness” and celebrating cultural cosmopolitanism, the Left gave rise to the alt-right.  Zizek recently “debated” that scoundrel Jordan Peterson in Toronto, at which he managed to broadly agree with the Jungian gadfly on issues of so-called identity politics. And indeed, ‘identity politics’ in some of its manifestations may be worthy of further engagement, for example, the weaponization of various modalities of anti-oppression discourses and slogans in the service of factional or even personal score-settling, as vividly portrayed in Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity. Yet the critique of identity politics, and with it the critique of the limitations of transgression has long past been made, and now is the time to embrace a politics of identity and transgression that firmly situates these identities and transgressions as the material reality of working class lives – sometimes, of course, in opposition to cynical-liberal-bourgeois manipulations of identity.

One year after this issue was conceived, it seems that our argument has legs within the Left intelligentsia. The fact that how we conceive these arguments has retroactively been taken as a proverbial political ‘line’ was not necessarily planned with us at the time, but how this issue, and in particular, our interview with Kate Doyle Griffiths was taken transcended any of our expectations. We have been identified, as noted, by our proverbial rivals as a “crowd” identified by the “Keep Socialism Weird” slogan. In turn, bubblings up of our argument are turning up in the unlikeliest places, from the increased and often excellent cultural coverage in Jacobin to widespread condemnation and refutation of many of the anti-countercultural arguments made in previous years. We like to think we play our part, and we will continue our mission to “Keep Socialism Weird,” and cultivate a sensibility towards a Popular Avant-Garde. The revolutionary imagination is boundless and the stakes are higher than imaginable.