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The World of PerversionReview - The World of Perversion
Psychoanalysis and the Impossible Absolute of Desire
by James Penney
State University of New York Press, 2006
Review by Edward Willatt
Mar 18th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 12)

James Penney's The World of Perversion is a book centered on contemporary concerns with accounting for political agency and action. The book is structured by dense and complex engagements with different thinkers and writers. It is aimed at an academic audience who are familiar with psychoanalytic terminology. There emerges a hero in the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and a villain in the philosopher Michel Foucault. Lacan is said to have provided an adequate account of political action and intervention. Foucault is repeatedly charged with having failed to provide an account of how subjects rise above their situation so as to become political subjects. Perversion is understood here as a psychic structure. This means that it accounts for subjectivity as such rather than being attributed to a particular type of subject or subjective experience. Penney is concerned with an account of subjectivity that does not limit or prescribe what a subject can be and do. For him this is the value of perversion. He is concerned to account for the subject without specifying its nature or determining its possibilities. He seeks to show how perversion, by its very nature, is able to maintain this model of the subject. Perversity emerges as the way in which subjectivity always exceeds how we might define it or find it defined in historical and social contexts. It provides the potential for political engagement because it exceeds the ways in which subjects are known and represented. This refers to a 'lack' in knowledge and representation's grasp of the subject. This lack is not irrelevant or negative but is productive and always at work. For Penney this is what enables thought and action to be political in the first place.

Penney champions 'Pascal's decision to place the contradictory or undecidable quality of the human condition at the level of thought and action rather than at the level of being [which] serves to indicate how the former bear a relation to a function of freedom – to our capacity, that is, to base our actions not on any quantifiable Good, but rather on the judgment of an indeterminate absolute: the will of the hidden God' (p. 98-99). This is a good example of how Penney makes use of thinkers and writers in this book. He describes here a psychic structure where political action  relies upon a notion of 'lack'. There is the lack of a quantifiable or knowable Good that would provide subjectivity with norms for its thought and action. The absolute or God is the embodiment of this lack. It is the Other that exceeds knowledge. It exceeds all knowledge of the subject in order to keep open what the subject can be and what it can do. Penney writes that it is not placed as the level of 'being' because this precedes every subject. Instead it is directly involved in every subject's constitution and life. The subject's freedom is therefore equated with its relation to the undecidable and hidden Other rather than to a knowable standard of goodness. This 'lack' opens up a gap where political action is possible. For Penney this is where subjectivity becomes political or where a political subject emerges. The political subject is therefore not a particular subject but any subject insofar as they are engaged in an action made possible by this lack.

The critique of Foucault that Penney outlines in the first chapter is extended into a critique of historicism that runs throughout the book. Thus in chapter two Michel Bataille is criticized for the alleged historicism of his account of the trial of the medieval aristocrat Gilles de Rais. He is said to have failed to see how perversity rises above its historical and social context so as to constitute a psychic structure. Penney argues that Gilles de Rais should be viewed in terms of his relation to God as a knowable Other. In chapter three he then moves to Pascal's formulation of God as an un-knowable Other. This removes the Other entirely from any place in the structures of knowledge and representation. This is a convincing argument insofar as it maintains that we cannot account for subjectivity on the basis of what is already known about the subject. We would in this case be assuming what we need to account for. We would leave no space for action that exceeds given states of affairs. For Penney this space is precisely where the political subject emerges as a liberated form of subjectivity. Foucault is said to have collapsed the very possibility of freedom into his account of the completeness of historical and social representations of the subject. There is a danger at times that Foucault's irrelevance to an account of politics is taken for granted by Penney when this is a major claim that needs further justification. No deepened understanding of Foucault's work emerges in this book.

The major lesson of The World of Perversion seems to be that politics is something that can 'happen' only as the result of what exceeds what is known or is historically and socially conditioned. In the final chapter Penney relates this to Queer Theory and how we define sexuality. He argues for a distinction between psychic and biological sexuality (p. 217). This corresponds to the contradiction between the knowable and unknowable. This contradiction is what Penney at one point refers to as a 'call to arms' (p. 172). He argues that knowledge of biology does not completely constitute the subject's sexuality. Homosexuality shows that psychic sexuality is able to contradict someone's biological sexuality. What is at stake in the book is how a subject can act without taking its bearings from how it is known and represented. Penney argues convincingly that these conditions must be exceeded because '...the revolution of our time must be fought in the name of a generic subject whose sexuality may not be predicted in advance, a sexuality which is finally indeterminate and unknowable' (p. 218-219).  

© 2008 Edward Willatt

Edward Willatt is currently undertaking PhD research in the philosophy department at the University of Greenwich, London. He works on the relations between Immanuel Kant and Gilles Deleuze. He also helps to organise research events at Greenwich focusing on the work of Deleuze. For details of forthcoming events see

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