(Giovanni Baglione "Sacred Love and Profane Love")

Transgression and the Sacred

An International Philosophy and Literature Conference 
Humanities Institute of Ireland
University College Dublin
22-23 February 2011.


Plenary speakers for this conference:

  • Professor Richard Kearney (Charles B. Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College),
  • Professor Fred Botting (Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing, Kingston University London),
  • Professor Sean Hand (Professor of French and Head of the Department of French Studies at the University of Warwick).

This conference will consider the relationship between transgression and the sacred from a broad historical perspective in philosophy, literature and literary theory.

“The sacred world depends on limited acts of transgression” (Georges Bataille, Eroticism)

Transgression refers to a crossing over, the exceeding of bounds or limits, the infringement or violation of a law or convention.  For Bataille, it is through acts of transgression that we experience the sacred.  The profane world is the world of the taboo, while the subject of a taboo, that which the taboo prohibits, is sacred.   Yet, transgression does not deny or destroy the taboo; it exceeds the taboo but also completes it. In our post-enlightenment age transgression and the limit have replaced the older dichotomy of the sacred and the profane.  If transgression and the sacred depend on limits what are the limits that still exist in the modern world?  If we live in a largely limitless world has the sacred now disappeared? Or, do we now in fact now live in a post-secular world?  How has the sacred been reorganised or reconstituted in modern philosophical and literary discourse?  How might transgression be important in rediscovering the sacred, as Foucault declares in his ‘Preface to Transgression’, “In that zone which our culture affords for our gestures and speech, transgression prescribes not only the sole manner of discovering the sacred in its unmediated substance, but also a way of recomposing its empty form, its absence”.

Bataille’s ideas on transgression and the sacred derive largely from the anthropology of religion.  The word ‘sacred’ derives from the Latin sacer, meaning to set apart.  The sacred is separated from the profane by a taboo or limit.  Therefore we want to examine the importance of liminality, the scapegoat, sacrifice, pollution, and sacred transgressors such as Hermes and Trickster in the history of philosophy and literature. We would also like to consider theological conceptions of the sacred.  Bataille’s conception of the sacred is anti-Christian and denies any form of transcendence or salvation; Christianity is the least religious of all religions for him as it denies the impure aspect of the sacred – eroticism, excess, excretion, horror, death.  But what is the relationship between transgression and the sacred in Christianity and the major religions and how is this relationship represented in philosophy and literature?  Rudolph Otto refers to the numinous in which the Other, the wholly other or the transcendent,  appears as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans - that is, a mystery before which man both trembles and is fascinated, is both repelled and attracted.  How might such a deification and demonising of the Other be problematised in philosophy and literature?

Registration is free, but we would ask you to complete and return this registration form to Adrian.Naughton@ucdconnect.ie on or before 4th February, 2011.