Symbolic Excess in the Drag Machine: A Dialectical Reconstitution of Safe Spaces and Transgression

Transgression has too often been abstracted from its concrete material enactment. Treated as an ideal-in-itself, its arrival as a situated becoming is lost to pure idealism. Safe spaces have received similar treatment, transformed into a topic of autonomous debate, removed from their actualisation in marginalised communities. I argue that transgression and safe spaces, rather than negate one another, dialectically constitute one another.

I begin with a literature review in Section One. I outline Foucault’s heterotopia and Bakhtin’s carnival as safe spaces of transgression. I then explore Bataille and Butler’s conceptions of unproductive expenditure and performativity, respectively. I finish by contrasting Sartre and Lacan’s conceptions of the gaze. In Section Two, I use the example of Tucked and Loaded, a local drag show, to reveal the intersection of these theorists. Working within a feral assemblage framework, I further explore concepts of processuality, relationality, multiplicity, jouissance and gender as an empty signifier.

01. Now and Then, Here and There (Ima, Soko ni Iru Boku) [480p Hi10p AAC AC3 DVD][kuchikirukia]v2.mkv_snapshot_01.48_[2017.04.02_12.40.12]

1. The Mirror’s Lie: Accursed Spaces

“In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface” – Michel Foucault (1986, 24)

In a little paper called Of Other Spaces, Foucault (1986, 24) explores what he calls heterotopias, sites that “suspect, neutralise, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” He compares such spaces to that of the mirror, for through the unreal and virtual non-space of the mirror, the real and actual space of oneself is asserted (Foucault 1986, 24). One confirms one’s own reality, through the unreality of one’s inversion. As a boundary, the mirror separates what one is from what one isn’t, but only through an ontological constitution that invokes both. What one isn’t, then, is constitutive of what one is. The mirror lies in order for us to resolve truth, or at least, a truth effect (Butler 1999, 174).

Foucault (1986, 24-27) presents six principles of heterotopias: 1) all societies have them, 2) their function changes over time, 3) they juxtapose several incompatible sites, 4) they are heterochronous, 5) they are systems of opening and closing, and 6) they contrast with normal space. Heterotopias then, are necessary sites of becoming, where excess and multiplicity constitute altered perceptions of space and time; these sites are bordered off from the public and often placed at the margins of society; and while heterotopias mirror norms, they also subvert, pervert or invert them. Heterotopias then, operate as sites of both “repugnance and fascination” (Gallan 2013, 559, citing Gennochio 1995, 38). They are, essentially, places of permitted or compulsory transgression.

Foucault’s exploration of alterity and inversion recalls Bakhtin’s work on folk carnival humour in Rabelais and His World. Bakhtin (1984, 5-6) saw the carnival — with its open mockery of civil and social ceremonies — as a distinctly extrapolitical site of folk participation, where official hierarchies were levelled through irreverence and play. Like Foucault’s heterotopia, the carnival was a site of inversion, where the fool became the norm, and where the status quo appeared only as jest (Bakhtin 1984, 8). Additionally, both the heterotopic and the carnivalesque were sites where the utopian became real through its enactment (Bakhtin 1984, 10) — where the unreality on the other side of the mirror irrupted into actuality (Foucault 1986, 24). As Bakhtin (1984, 10) puts it, “carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privilege, norms and prohibitions.”


Bakhtin (1984, 10) further states “Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and complete.” In doing so, Bakhtin (1984, 11) posits the carnival as antithetical to reification, as a counter-logic against that which is presented as normal, natural and eternal (Barthes 1972, 142-143). Where Foucault’s heterotopia territorialises alterity, Bakhtin’s carnival temporalises it. More so than transgressive, the carnival was liminal and therefore connected to the land through a genealogy of ancient agrarian pagan festivals which celebrated the Earth’s seasonal changes (Bakhtin 1984, 8-9). For Bakhtin (1984, 11-12) then, the carnival was a becoming of organic and universal connection — the carnival was our lost truth.

Where the official feast existed as a spectacle of power — the donning of full regalia for the purpose of positioning every official by calling, rank and merit — the carnival had no instrumental purpose, and instead, revelled in its own unproductive expenditure (Bakhtin 1984, 10; Bataille 1985, 118). While classical economics would consider such an activity as irrational and useless, Bataille (1985, 117-118) argues that this perspective fails to account for our interest in loss, error and catastrophe — in activities that “have no end beyond themselves.” Across history, however, complex rituals, games and spectacles have been constructed for the sole purpose of squandering intense amounts of energy (Bataille 1985, 118-119).

Counter to the Marxist labour theory of value then, sacrifice — creation by loss — is what generates value for Bataille (1985, 120). Accordingly, production is subordinate to consumption; we exchange not to acquire but to lose (Bataille 1985, 121). Bataille (1985, 121) cites potlatch as our “archaic form of exchange,” an activity that “excludes all bargaining and, in general, [is] constituted by a considerate gift of riches, offered openly and with the goal of humiliating, defying, and obliging a rival” (his emphasis). Through potlatch one squanders one’s wealth in order to generate social worth and social duty (Bataille 1985, 122). For Bataille, this is the accursed share that holds society together and generates collective meaning. Under bourgeois utilitarianism, which operates on a logic of conservation and accumulation, however, this fundamental obligation is lost (Bataille 1985, 123-124).

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This bourgeois renunciation of excess reveals itself in the tightly regulated scripts that govern gendered bodily disposition. One can read Butler’s Gender Trouble as an exploration of bourgeois anxieties that arose as a consequence of utilitarianism. The body, scripted as a site of heterosexual (re)productivity, becomes “troubled” when it exceeds such a script — when its margins become permeable to “new cultural lines” beyond (re)productive instrumentality (Butler 1999, 169). Acting “synedochal for the social system,” the body’s excess affects not only the individual in question, but also society at large (Butler 1999, 168). Intense punitive techniques and technologies then, are deployed to bind the excess of gender (Butler 1999, 178), for it is this excess that presages the heterotopic, the carnivalesque and the accursed.

One of the most powerful techniques of this is performativity, the fabrication of identity through external corporeal signs that, nonetheless, signify a “structuring inner space” (Butler 1999, 171-173). As Butler (1999, 172) puts it, “The soul is precisely what the body lacks; hence, the body presents itself as a signifying lack.” Visible ephemeral bodily acts become the expressions of an invisible unchanging internal essence (Butler 1999, 176). The cause (Self) is retroactively constituted from the effect (act). Both law and soul come to be seen as instances beyond the body, despite only appearing through and on bodies (Butler 1999, 171, 173). Performativity then, creates spooks of both the social and the ego, through the visible production of truth effects on bodily surfaces (Butler 1999, 173-174).

Key to Butler’s insight is the importance of sight; the gaze as the vanishing point towards which bodily acts are captured into a cohesive gender identity — a gender ideal. Such an insight brings to mind Sartre’s famous narrative about the voyeur and the keyhole. In this tale, a man is peeking through a keyhole to satiate his jealousy, curiosity or immorality (Sartre 1978, 259). Totally absorbed in this act, he is the totality of his vision, the unfolding of the situation before his eyes (Sartre 1978, 259-260). All objects appear to organise around him, to exist for him, and yet, because he is not aware of himself, he is an absent voyeur, a transcendental vanishing point (Sartre 1978, 254, 259). A footstep sounds from the hallway. The voyeur becomes aware of himself, but only as he is captured in the Other’s gaze (Sartre 1978, 257-260). He realises he is not the organising centre of the world, and that he, along with the objects around him, flee towards this Other, towards their organising gaze (Sartre 1978, 254-255). Meaning escapes him, but the Other’s meaning is inscrutable, and his meaning through the Other even more so. The voyeur comes into being only through the loss of something he’d never had to begin with — himself (Sartre 1978, 261). Recognising the Other’s freedom then, produces this indeterminacy of being (Sartre 1978, 262-263).


There are issues with Sartre’s account. His primordial Self presumes a modernist bourgeois liberal subject: transcendental, possessive and controlling. His anxiety is that of the infant denied total control over its toys; one who carries a sadistic scopic desire that cries alienation at the mere presence of an Other who may desire nothing more than a trip to the bathroom at the other end of the hallway (Lacan 1989, 5); and while his narrative ultimately ends with an affirmation of the Other’s freedom, he begins from a site of obsessive tyrannical paranoia. However, such a description perfectly describes those who would seek to reproduce power through the reification of identity, so that everyone may be perfectly positioned according to their calling — their utility (Bakhtin 1984, 10). What is this but the conservation of expenditure unto pure productive instrumentality (Bataille 1985, 123-124)? In such a way, Sartre’s account is an ideal model for the (Hegelian) Master, or perhaps, the (Lacanian) big Other — a Master who can only be recognised through the (reified) death of the Slave (their return to an object); a big Other whose symbolic order is the totality of reified inscriptions. In both cases, there is an obsession with control and knowability.

Opposite Sartre’s (1978, 257) voyeur then, would be his “Being-seen-by-the-Other” which shares many attributes with Lacan’s (1998, 96-97) gaze — that which transforms the subject from vanishing point to the canvas upon which light paints — from painter to painted upon. The gaze moves the subject beyond their own desire, and in such a way, opens them to dialectical exchange, to becoming (Lacan 1998, 92). Like Sartre’s Other, the gaze interrupts the Self of its own ordering (Lacan 1998, 84-85; Sartre 1978, 254-255). It is partial and incomplete (Lacan 1998, 88). A multiplication of the gaze then, multiplies the Self’s potentiality, but as that which escape the Self’s apprehension (Lacan 1998, 83; Sartre 1978, 260-263). In such a way, the gaze (as little other) disrupts (the symbolic order of) the big Other — it invites unknowability into an otherwise totally knowable law (Lacan 1998, 83, 84-85).

The gaze then, is playful. It exists as the excess of symbolic expenditure, as that which escapes capture into meaning. What Sartre misses in his account of the gaze is its joyous alterity, the pleasure of not knowing the Other in their totality. Trapped in the paranoia of the modernist Master — who must efface all alterity in the world so that his order may reign — Sartre can only express a fear over the Other, who is always-already another Master — come to impose an order he cannot know — come to kill him as Slave.

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2. Gazing Otherwise: Safe Spaces

“I am for myself only as I am a pure reference to the Other” – Jean-Paul Sartre (1978, 260)

Let us now turn to an example of play, for I want to argue that transgression both constitutes and is constituted by safe spaces, and that play-for-itself nevertheless generates an accursed share, a virtual obligation and semantic rulebook, which is memetically reproduced through (mis)performances — amalgamations of previous identity roles, whose parts are all recognisable, but whose whole exceeds discursive placement.

In 2018, I attended a drag show called Tucked and Loaded at Dunedin’s premier strip club Stilettos, of which one of the sponsors was Dunedin Pride. There are multiple clashing sites in this heterotopic configuration. There is Dunedin, the city of Gothic architecture, literature, crust punks and more recently, gentrification, coffee culture and alternative lifestyles. There is Stilettos, which along with the Dunedin Casino, the brothel La Maison and the pub and music venue The Crown, straddles the margin of the city belt — a configuration culturally inscribed with fantasies of decadence and vice. Lastly, there is Pride, whose contemporary wholesome image reflects little of its radical origins in the Stonewall Uprising, where marginalised trans, butch, femme queers, homeless youths and sex workers collectively mobilised against the police’s violent raids on gay bars.

Stilettos, as a nexus of multiple discursive trajectories, becomes a site of monstrous excess — of stitched together geographies and histories, that exist other to that of normal space such as the street outside its doors. While all the individual elements of this heterotopia exist with their identities intact, they are also perverted by one another by their uncanny proximity. Pride’s inversion in the mirror of Stilettos, ironically, connects it back to its origins in the underclass slums of Manhattan. Stilettos inversion in the mirror of Pride resignifies its exhibition of eroticised bodies as acts of emancipation and sex-positivity, rather than oppression and sexual objectification. The identities of these (imagined-to-be) individual sites bleed into one another through their differential assembly, their new networks of relationality. Novelty arises out of their ordering, or rather, their disordering, in space.

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Bringing in the element of time, such a moment can be read as carnivalesque, as a temporary reprieve from the stultifying repetition of daily life. Tucked and Loaded was, after all, a single night event. The heterotopic contained the carnivalesque within its borders; to pass through was to enter into a liminal stage, a mirror-world of utopian alterity, not through any single element on display, but through their configuration into a novel assemblage. Key to this assemblage was the knowledge I was entering into a safe space — into a utopian realm of “community, freedom, equality and abundance” where “gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities” prevailed (Bakhtin 1984, 9, 11).

Where contemporary reactionary thought would paint safe spaces as stultifying, what I found was an audience exploding forth in jouissance. Performers leaped off stage to strut and dance through the audience. Clothes were thrown off without shame, amidst cacophonies of wolf whistles and cheers. There was satire, partner dances, erotic stripteases, avant-garde performance art; bodies of all shapes and sizes; identities across the spectrum. After the scheduled acts, the stage opened up to the audience. Already presenting myself as femme, a friend of a friend I’d only met that night convinced me to join them on stage. My persona was Gloria Mess in the Governmentality. I was going to writhe on the ground and scream the word “capitalism” in anguish, but by the time I our act began I’d forgotten it all. I fell over a lot instead. Everyone cheered.

What I came to realise was that the safe space of Tucked and Loaded offered a platform for the flourishing of queer subjectivities without the risk of death. More broadly, I came to realise that every space was a safe space for a certain ideal subject. For the most part this goes unnoticed. The deployment of the term “safe space,” however, disrupt the supposed neutrality of space by revealing neutrality as an instantiation of power. Space becomes a conscious political project. In doing so, safe spaces challenge the liberal notion of a universal subject of freedom, for such a subject is always inscribed with certain traits in mind, and privileged accordingly through biopolitical techniques. Those most confronted by the concept of safe spaces then, are the ones privileged enough to have never felt the precarity of their being for simply dressing a certain way, at a certain time, in a certain place; those capable of entering any space without risk, or exiting any risky space without effort.

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For Bahktin, the carnival was transgressive because it levelled out the playing field — because it was festive, universal and gay — a collective triumphal mockery that negated the present order, and in doing so, affirmed a more utopian one (11-12). What allowed for the transgressive jouissance of Tucked and Loaded was a discursive foundation that secured the sanctity of queer lives; an unconscious inclination towards a certain way of being, that enabled a certain form of freedom to arise, at least, for a time. Where so much debate over safe spaces occurs in abstraction, here its concrete implementation went unspoken, for everyone was already familiar with its rules. The space was thoroughly queer. Nobody misgendered one another for the sake of free speech, because there were more important things to talk about, like radical politics, queer precarity, and the generalised condition of anxiety under neoliberalism. Nobody gave a shit about the liberal notion of an abstract, de-situated, idealist freedom, for we were enacting a concrete, materialist freedom, here and now.

One wonders how Sartre would have reacted if instead of a footstep down the hall, he’d heard a scream of “YASS!” from beyond the keyhole, a dialectical affirmation from the Other for gazing and being gazed upon; if instead of kneeling at the foot of a door in voyeuristic paranoia, he’d been on stage in a silky red dress as the Other whooped at his gyrating hips; if instead of a repressive gaze, he’d been met with an affirming one. For the fear that Sartre (1978, 254-255, 259-261) exhibits is the same fear as that described by Butler (1999, 169-171): that of abjection, of an uncontrollable flow, of a loss of oneself and one’s world to the Other, of porous borders. Vital to Tucked and Loaded then, was the assembly of a space that permitted and exacerbated the multiplication of differential flows — that emancipated gender from the circumscriptions of heteronormative compulsion, from the disciplinary script of the big Other.

Let me explain. When Bakhtin (1984, 10) talks of official feasts, he states that “everyone was expected to appear in the full regalia of his calling, rank and merits and to take the place according to his position.” We can think of gender in a similar way: we are made to enact a redundant excess of signifiers, which all say the same thing — I am a boy; I am a girl. We overproduce ourselves symbolically to create the effect of a singular stable gender identity that can then subsequently be positioned in the social order. All signifiers flow to the same signified. However, drag inverts this relation. Perceived as male, donning a skirt suddenly signifies too much. There is an explosion of signifieds to the single signifier. There is a multiplication of difference that irrupts any capture into a single being. In drag, one does not simply enact another gender — one enacts multiple genders (Butler 1999, 174).

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The excess that cannot be captured is not any sign on its own, but rather, the combined assemblage of all signs enacted. One is never outside ideology or discourse, however, through the interpenetration of otherwise incompatible discourses, a subject position from one site is transposed into another, generating new lines of flight, misrecognitions that flee symbolic capture. All transgressions then, are a mistake, a misperformance, a failure. However, they bear the potential for constituting new existential refrains (Guattari 1995). If such a state invokes anxiety it is the anxiety of the Master who seeks to possess all things with its gaze. For me, Tucked and Loaded was an escape from the voyeurism of the Master and the alienating spectacle of mass media consumption. Here, in a thoroughly exhibitionist, queer and safe space, the transcendental gaze gave way to a dialectical gaze, which permitted and embraced a form of transgression that would be shamed in “normal” space. Transgression then, is inextricably linked to safe spaces, to heterotopic and carnivalesque sites of becoming, that enable the flourishing of difference over sameness for peoples that have too long been captured by boring, constrictive, and at times lethal, heteronormativity.


Bakhtin, M. (1984) “Introduction.” In: Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1-58.
Barthes, R. (1972) “Myth Today: Myth is depoliticized speech.” In: Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: The Noonday Press, 142-145.
Bataille, G. (1985) “The Notion of Expenditure.” In: Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr. University of Minnesota Press, 116-129.
Butler, J. (1999) “Three: Subversive Bodily Acts. IV: Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions.” In: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, 163-180.
Foucault, M. (1986) “Of Other Spaces.” Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics 16 (1, Spring, 1986): 22-27.
Gallan, B. (2013) “Night Lives: Heterotopia, Youth Transitions and Cultural Infrastructure in the Urban Night Life.” Urban Studies 52 (3): 555-570.
Guattari, F. (1995) Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm. Trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Lacan J. (1989) “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the /” In: Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London and New York: Routledge, 1-6.
Lacan J. (1998) “Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a.” In: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminars of Jacques Lacan Book XI. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 67-122.
Sartre, J.P. (1978) “Part Three: Being-for-Others. Chapter One: The Existence of Others. IV. The Look.” In: Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenology Essay on Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Pocket Books, 252-302.

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