A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde

by Ari Adut
A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde
Ari Adut
The American Journal of Sociology
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A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde1

Ari Adut

University of Texas at Austin

Oscar Wilde is considered to be the iconic victim of 19th-century English puritanism. Yet the Victorian authorities rarely and only reluctantly enforced homosexuality laws. Moreover, Wilde’s sexual predilections had long been common knowledge in London before his trials without affecting the dramatist’s wide popularity. Focusing on the seemingly inconsistent Victorian attitudes toward homosexuality and the dynamics of the Oscar Wilde affair, this article develops a general theory of scandal as the disruptive publicity of transgression. The study of scandal reveals the effects of publicity on norm enforcement and throws into full relief the dramaturgical nature of the public sphere and norm work in society.

Scandals are ubiquitous social phenomena with unique salience and singular dramatic intensity. They can mobilize much emotional energy, at times with momentous consequences. Scandals in effect trigger a great deal of the normative solidification and transformation in society. At the same time, avoiding them is an essential motive and ongoing activity of individuals, groups, and institutions. Scandal is the public event par excellence, and any theory of the public sphere is sorely lacking without an understanding of its nature. Many famous scandals have served as case studies for social scientists. A general model of scandal, however, remains an unrealized desideratum.

Focusing on the seemingly inconsistent enforcement of homosexuality norms in Victorian England and the dynamics of the Oscar Wilde affair, this article will develop a phenomenology that would allow us to study

1 The author is grateful to Andrew Abbott, Odul Bozkurt, Robert Hogg, Harris Kim, Jim Leitzel, Michael Reinhard, Dana Simmons, and the AJS reviewers for their comments. A much earlier version was presented at the University of Texas at Austin and at Princeton University. I thank the two audiences for their helpful feedback. Direct correspondence to Ari Adut, Burdine Hall 376, Department of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78712. E-mail: ariadut@mail.la.utexas.edu

� 2005 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0002-9602/2005/11101-0005$10.00

AJS Volume 111 Number 1 (July 2005): 213–48 213

the frequency, dynamics, and effects of scandals in different social systems. I will argue that only a theory of scandal as the disruptive publicity of transgression can explain significant and otherwise inexplicable variations in norm enforcement. We will also see that scandals forcefully throw into relief the transformative powers of publicity and the dramaturgical dimension of the public sphere and norm work in society.

THE VICTORIAN HYPOCRISY AND OSCAR WILDE Pitilessly punished by the English homosexuality laws in 1895, Oscar Wilde is commonly considered to be the iconic victim of Victorian puritanism (e.g., Fisher 1995, p. 136; Pritchard 2001, p. 149). The Victorians held homosexuality in horror, and Britain stood out at the turn of the 20th century as the only country in Western Europe that criminalized all male homosexual acts with draconian penalties. Wilde was prosecuted and condemned to the fullest extent of the law even though the evidence against him was circumstantial, uncorroborated, and tainted. When Wilde’s first criminal trial terminated with a hung jury, the legal officials demonstrated fierce fervor in securing a conviction in a second trial. Wilde was vehemently vilified during his trials and was transformed into a pariah in the wake of his two-year prison-with-hard-labor sentence for gross indecency.

The wrath directed at Wilde stands in contrast, however, to the fact that homosexuality norms were rarely and reluctantly enforced in Victorian England (e.g., Greenberg 1988, p. 400). During the 1840s, for instance, the annual number of sentences for sodomy ranged between 12 and 18, and high-status actors rarely figured among the convicts (Radzinowicz 1968, p. 330; Gilbert 1977a, 1977b). The police looked the other way (Ellis 1912). The proclivities of Wilde were, moreover, common knowledge in London for a long time before his tribulations began. Homosexuality was implied in some of his writings and was part and parcel of his public persona. Yet Wilde was the darling of London society. While Wilde’s art was later to be branded as corrupt, his works received considerable critical acclaim and remained very popular across all social classes until the day of his arrest.

Why would audiences and authorities accommodate those who are widely known to commit a transgression deemed repulsive by society and criminal by law? And why does such a transgression suddenly elicit very harsh reactions after being overlooked for a long time?

Norm underenforcement, the first part of the puzzle, obtains three not necessarily incompatible accounts in sociology: weakness of the norms, high status of the offender, and practical impediments to enforcement.

Structural-functionalists argue that norms are underenforced when they are weak. Norms deteriorate either because of rapid social change (Durkheim [1897] 1951) or as a result of the breakdown of regulatory processes in society (Merton 1957). There is also some evidence indicating that norms are underenforced when the offenders are high-status actors who can get away with deviance either because they can evade monitoring or because their clout protects them (e.g., Black 1976, pp. 11–36; Edgerton 1985, pp. 75–93; Goode 1978, p. 252). As rational choice theorists have pointed out, elites are more apt to participate in deviant acts with impunity because others are dependent on them (Posner 2000, p. 28). Finally, it seems self-evident that norms would be underenforced if there were practical impediments to chastising malefactors—even more so if the violations are of a victimless variety. Coleman has underlined the costs borne by sanctioners in norm enforcement (1988, pp. 244–45), and common sense suggests that monitoring the target group, establishing violations, and disciplining individual offenders are costly, especially in the case of elite offenders. The risk of reprisals could translate into underenforcement.

Although these accounts have surface validity, they prove unsatisfactory in elucidating the ordinary underenforcement of homosexuality norms in Victorian England, much less the ostensibly inconsistent treatment of Oscar Wilde. There is no indication that disgust of homosexuality declined during the Victorian period. The capital punishment for sodomy was supplanted with life imprisonment only in 1861. A proposal to abolish it ran into parliamentary resistance in 1841 and was aborted, even though there were no executions after the 1830s (Lafitte 1958, p. 16). Historians have documented incidents where those convicted of homosexuality have been the victims of mob violence (e.g., Greenberg 1988, pp. 338–40; Harvey 1978, p. 940). It is true that the law enforcers ran into difficulties in substantiating guilt. Prosecutors had to rely upon accomplice witnesses who were either unlikely to cooperate or who were deemed noncredible according to the English law of evidence. The severity of the sentences might also have made juries loath to convict and prosecutors unenthusiastic about bringing charges. And the high status of Oscar Wilde might have enabled him to get away with his well-known deviance. But why then did the Victorian law later turn so suddenly and heavy-handedly against Oscar Wilde despite substandard legal evidence, and why did society ostracize him so mercilessly for something that was hardly news?

Using the Wilde case, I will maintain here that many inconsistencies in norm enforcement cannot be understood unless we take into account the externalities on third parties that may be unleashed when transgressions are publicized—as opposed to when they are simply known. These externalities, whose dynamics and conditions of emergence I will study in this article, transform real or alleged transgressions into scandals. The publicity of homosexuality (especially of elites) generated very disruptive scandals in 19th-century England, and only an adequate theory of scandal can explain both the habitual Victorian underenforcement and Wilde’s harrowing fate. Simply put, my argument is as follows. A scandal exerts various costs on third parties in the form of contaminations and provocations. Hence, especially in cases where the transgression does not involve an immediate and identifiable victim, the anticipation of scandal may discourage audiences and authorities from sanctioning offenders. The norm will then be underenforced as long as its transgressions are committed in, or remain, private. Once a scandal breaks, however, the externalities that are put in motion by the publicity of the transgression may prod polluted or provoked third parties into showing extraordinary zeal vis-a`-vis the offender, to signal rectitude or resolve.

THE DISRUPTIVE PUBLICITY OF TRANSGRESSION There are two common ways to reflect on scandals in the social scientific and journalistic discourses. The first one, which we can call “objectivist,” focuses on the conditions and characteristics of significant (exceptionally costly or offensive) transgressions that elicit (or should elicit) reaction once publicized. The privileged object of study is the abuse of public trust through political or corporate corruption (e.g., Baker and Faulkner 1993; Biggart 1985; Markovits and Silverstein 1988; Shapiro 1987; Vaughan 1983). This approach treats scandals as the proverbial tip of the iceberg; that is, as events in which the usually concealed criminal components of social systems are revealed to the public. One is to disregard the brouhaha surrounding the exposure so that the deep structures that have enabled the deviance can be dispassionately dissected.

Despite its invaluable insights into the social organization of transgressive behavior, the objectivist position, ironically, often suffers from a subjective and normative streak, reproducing the attitudes of the victims or denouncers of deviance. Treating scandals as the epiphenomena of real transgressions, this perspective ignores that the latter need not be authenticated to occasion scandals (as evinced by the Whitewater affair), and that unpublicized yet very well-known transgressions (as we will see in the Wilde case) often do not cause scandals at all. Objectivists give short shrift to, or are simply uninterested in, the dynamics that are set in action when transgressions are publicized, as well as ignoring the autonomous logic of the ensuing legal and/or social norm enforcement process.

The other approach to scandal, the “constructivist” perspective, concentrates on the social reactions to and representations of transgressions (e.g., Alexander 1989; Becker 1963; Ducharme and Fine 1995; Fine 1996; Lull and Hinerman 1997; Maza 1993; Larson and Wagner-Pacifici 2001; Molotch and Lester 1974; Sherman 1978; Verdes-Leroux 1969). Scandal (or related phenomena like moral panics, witch hunts, or political purges) is then the creation of the collective consciousness of a society, the media, or the performative discourse uttered by moral entrepreneurs. In terms of its effects, scandal is either a social control mechanism (Fisse and Braithwaite 1983; Gluckman 1967; Lang and Lang 1983; Sherman 1978) or a ritual through which groups assert their core values and purify themselves by publicly marking certain individuals and behaviors as deviant (e.g., Alexander 1989; Durkheim 1933; Erikson 1966; Fisher 1995; Randulf 1964).

The constructivist approaches to scandal rightfully remind us that reactions to transgressions cannot be derived from the transgressions themselves. But they often tend to adopt a voluntaristic theory of social construction and have difficulty explaining the variations in the public reactions to deviance. As we will see in the Wilde case, however, scandals often involve violent condemnations of transgressions that were widely known and tolerated before. Furthermore, reactions often morph during the course of a scandal. And few scandals ritually renew societies even when they are occasioned strategically for this purpose. On the contrary, scandals often generate very profane phenomena prone to pollute all those who come into any contact with them. By reducing scandals to social construals of transgressions, constructivists ignore that reactions in scandals are in large part shaped by the way publicity transforms the sense and effects of transgressions.2

Scandal is a polysemic word. A significantly offensive normative violation, the reaction to this violation, and the discredit heaped on persons and institutions as a result are all referred to as scandal in everyday parlance. Despite different usages, however, scandal, as a social occur

2 This short discussion cannot do justice to the rich empirical observations and theoretical insights produced by the constructivist literature on scandal. Here, one would have to mention in particular Gary Alan Fine’s (1996) provocative work on reputational politics, which often revolves around scandals, and Jeffrey Alexander’s (1989)Durkheimian analysis of Watergate and the American civil religion, which makes a penetrating contribution to the study of social pollution. Constructivists have not, however, put forth a general model of scandal that would account for the conditions, incidence, dynamics, and effects of scandals with different contents and publics. John Thompson’s Political Scandal, which sees scandals “as struggles over symbolic power in which reputation and trust are at stake” (Thompson 2000, p. 245), contains incisive points about the rise of “politics of trust” in Western countries. But Thompson exaggerates the role of the media in the making of political scandals and does not adequately address the objective conditions that underlie the rise of scandal activity in the recent decades. Finally, his understanding of scandal is difficult to generalize to nonpolitical scandals.

rence, assumes the publicization of an apparent transgression to a “norm audience,” to use Ellickson’s term (2001). The norm audience is a public united by some level of identification with the norm that has apparently been violated, and it is in some capacity attentive and negatively responsive to the publicized transgression.

It is crucial that the publicity of a real or alleged transgression be distinguished from extensive or even common knowledge about it. All or most members of a norm audience may know of a transgression. Members may be aware of each other’s knowledge of it. Such communications however, often fall short of creating a scandal. Publicity is usually achieved only when the members of a public are exposed simultaneously to a transgression, either actually or discursively, from a single source of communication. This way, each member knows and cannot pretend not to know the position of the other members as the recipient of the discreditable information. Here, it is important to note that the authoritativeness of the source of communication augments the probability and power of publicity—especially when the transgression is merely alleged and ascribed to a high-status actor. Elites are likely to be judged as more credible both by audiences and authorities. The high status of elites lends salience and significance both to their communication and to the transgressions they publicize.

Publicity decreases the coordination costs between the members of a public—or between the different subpublics in a given society. Coordination can be particularly difficult to achieve in gossip or rumor. Gossip tends to keep information within bounds; participation in it is dependent on membership in groups (Gluckman 1963) that are often much smaller than the norm audience. On the other hand, rumor, which involves the serial transmission of unverified information usually through weak ties (Granovetter 1973), creates ambiguities by content transformation, since it often involves reformulations and, at times, multiple accounts (Shibutani 1966). Thus, receivers of a rumor can find it hard to coordinate their behavior vis-a`-vis the transgressor. Unless nonaction is immediately consequential, as in emergencies and disasters, rumor and gossip are not likely to be acted upon when dealing with the transgression would be costly or risky, or when attitudes toward it are either discrepant or unclear. In contrast, publicity, as I define it, almost imposes the transgression on the audience and makes it costly for those who would otherwise ignore the transgression to do so.3

3 Common knowledge seems to have been insufficient to occasion a scandal among the natives of the Trobriand Islands as well: “I have found that the breach of exogamy— as regards intercourse and not marriage—is by no means a rare occurrence, and public opinion is lenient, though decidedly hypocritical. If the affair is carried on sub rosa

A transgression may become public unintentionally. An accident, like the botched Watergate burglary, or a catastrophe, like the Enron bankruptcy, which either clearly involves a transgression or urges the public to hunt for one, can start a scandal. But more often, scandals are occasioned by a communicative act, like a public denunciation (Garfinkel 1956) or a revelation of a transgression, as in a news story. Finally, the transgression may be publicized by its deliberate, usually provocative, execution in front of the norm audience, as is often the case in art scandals.

Obviously, not all publicized transgressions occasion scandals. At first blush, it may seem that the cultural offensiveness, disruptiveness, or social costs of a transgression will determine whether it will be seen as scandalous by a given norm audience. The status of the offender is, however, usually a much more important factor, since public reaction is naturally contingent on public attention. This is partly because many high-status people are also well known; their transgressions are readily salient when publicized. While the most atrocious acts by ciphers can go unnoticed, the mere fame of someone who has purportedly perpetrated a peccadillo will often be sufficient to spur massive publicity. But prior renown is not obligatory; with or without fame, high status draws forth an unfixed farrago of fascination, identification, and resentment from others.

In itself, the high status of the offender is, nevertheless, often inadequate to generate a full-fledged scandal that incites more than fleeting curiosity. Most celebrity scandals are ludic. For a transgression to give rise to a genuine scandal, on the other hand, its publicity has to generate negative and disruptive effects on parties other than the offender or immediate victim of the transgression—parties that may include audiences, authorities, and the associates of the offender. Scandal is the lived experience of these effects and, as such, warrants phenomenological analysis. The disruptive effects of the publicity of a transgression shape, as well as elicit, perceptions and reactions from those who come into contact with them.

Hence, my definition: scandal is the disruptive publicity of transgression.4 This publicity consists essentially of two kinds of externalities, which can be real or semiotic. In a scandal, the publicity of a transgression contaminates and/or provokes various third parties in a difficult-to-ignore

with a certain amount of decorum, and if no one in particular stirs up trouble—‘public opinion’ will gossip, but not demand any harsh punishment. If, on the contrary, scandal breaks out—every one turns against the guilty pair and by ostracism and insults one or the other may be driven to suicide” (Malinowski 1926, p. 80).

4 To be sure, scandals can also involve the apparent violations of nonmoral competency norms as long as their publicity disgraces high-status actors. A recent example is the public allegations of official incompetence in processing intelligence on Al Qaeda before September 11, 2001. But most scandals will involve transgressions proper. And even in other cases, the publicity of the violation will usually lead to moral condemnations of the incompetents and their enablers.

and possibly consequential way. The high status of the offender tends to transform transgressions into scandals mostly inasmuch as it multiplies these effects.

Contaminations.—When the publicity of an apparent transgression causes a scandal, it usually does not only taint the offender. Individuals and institutions associated with him or her are also contaminated. The publicity of Clinton’s adultery stained the Democrats, the Democratic Party, and the presidency. The recent pedophilia allegations implicating some clergymen smeared their families, as well as the Roman Catholic Church. The Enron bankruptcy slashed the standing of many actors and institutions of American capitalism.

For such externalities to occur, the offender should usually be of high status, or the offense should somehow implicate a high-status actor or institution. Contaminations, and hence the size of scandal, are an increasing function of the social stature of those who are compromised by the publicity of a transgression.5 This is because elites represent groups, institutions, and values. This semiotic association will be particularly robust if the high status of an elite is the consequence or condition of trust vested in his or her person. Even when high status does not officially entail exigent ethical standards, elites are often regarded as role models and may be held accountable for the conduct of many others on whom they (are thought to) exert influence or power.6

Scandals contaminate only because they operate according to a collectivistic logic and entail the exercise of popular justice—as opposed to legal justice, which is individualistic and demands exacting criteria of proof. These two characteristics of scandals explain the strenuous efforts expended by groups and organizations to resolve their issues and discipline their members internally with as little publicity as possible. Furthermore, as will be manifest in the Wilde affair, scandals often turn into dramas of disclosure with no natural limits to what can be made public about the associates of those snarled in them. They can thus end up airing the dirty linen of whole collectivities. Contaminations of third parties can also spawn systemic crises. In financial scandals, for instance, contaminations

5 Status is relative to audience. The publicized transgression of a local official can cause a local scandal, but usually not a national scandal, since he or she holds high status and visibility in that locality, but not necessarily at the national level. Low-status offenders usually get no public attention unless their transgression is in some way exceptional or successfully presented as exemplary or symptomatic by opinion leaders, usually in the form of human interest stories.

6 For instance, the Monica Lewinsky scandal brought home the fact that the American president is saddled with exemplary duties in addition to his or her executive responsibilities—but also that the weight of the former might be declining (Posner 1999, pp. 153–59).

generalize distrust through a self-fulfilling prophecy and make everybody (including audiences who are neither connected to the offender nor had been originally hurt by the transgression itself) worse off.

The contaminations of third parties are frequently moral in nature. Scandals discredit or disgrace by undermining the reputation and social standing of the ones they afflict. But it is crucial to stress that the logic of contamination derives largely from that of shame. Hence, contamination does not ipso facto imply moral deficiency and may often contradict rationality. When publicized, the sins of the father will often defile the son. What is more, the scandalous publicity of a transgression can also contaminate audiences along with its denouncers.7 Transgressions pertaining to taboo objects and bodily functions are almost universally contaminating in this sense, even though there are empirical variations from one culture to another in the puissance of such pollutions. In many societies, things sexual and a fortiori sexual transgressions tend to have a polluting “viscosity” (Douglas 1966, p. 38; Sartre 1943, p. 696), which is magnified when they are made public. This is why we find sex at the center of so many otherwise very different scandals—and not only because sex is intrinsically titillating.

The high status of the offender and the taboo properties of the transgression tend to compound contaminations. Here are some other factors affecting contamination intensity: If the audiences experience a steep information asymmetry with the offender’s group, and if they are particularly dependent on it, there will be a rational inclination to generalize the guilt to the whole entity to reduce risks. Such contaminations are exacerbated when the publicized transgression betrays a deficiency of internal control within the offender’s group. Contaminations suffuse more swiftly in collectivities that conceive of themselves through familial metaphors, in honor cultures where collective responsibility is the norm, and in puritanical societies where the publicity of certain transgressions is considered as odious as the transgressions themselves.

Provocations.—A scandal does not only contaminate third parties. It can also transform a transgression into a challenge of audiences and authorities. This second kind of externality, which we can call provocations, is engendered especially when it is the offender who makes the transgression public by committing it in front of others—as in public heresy, art scandals, or civil disobedience. The violator not only breaks the norm but also offends the norm audience by flaunting his or her transgression.

7 This logic is also operative in “scenes.” The scene is in effect the miniature scandal, and the contagion of embarrassment that scenes and other kinds of interactional contretemps generate (Goffman 1967) is isomorphic with the contaminations created in scandals.

This is why in all societies the public transgression of a norm is a far graver, more scandalous matter than the violation of the same norm in private (Ball 1975; Elster 1989, p. 109). Tartuffe was only half hypocritical when he said, “And there is no evil till the act is known / It’s scandal, Madam, which makes it an offense / And it’s no sin to sin in confidence” (Molie`re 1993, p. 289). This position is cherished not only by cynical offenders, but also frequently by audiences and authorities, albeit in an unacknowledged way. Ruthless repression of publicly enacted deviance can go hand in hand with an extensive lenience of the same transgression in private; alcohol consumption during Prohibition is an example. Publicity can multiply or even create the offense. It should be obvious, however, that the provocative externalities of a publicized transgression are proportionate to the status of the offender. Elites will find it easier to provoke since their high status will impart salience and significance to their offense in the eyes of others.

Public transgressions are potentially disruptive because the offender, by making others spectators to his transgression, urges imitation—or, at any rate, can be viewed as urging imitation. The resulting scandal also can normalize the transgression and tempt those who are (thought to be) morally more susceptible. It may, at times, inform some members of the norm audience of the very existence of the transgression. If the legitimacy of the norm is shaky, and if adherence to it stems at least partially from preference falsification, well-publicized acts of violation can set off motivational cascades and inspirit others to breach (Kuran 1995; Warriner 1958). Visible transgressions can publicize incongruities in private sentiments and embolden some in the audience, even among the authorities, to flout the norm. A publicized transgression can hence transmute into the litmus test of the vigor of the violated norm—a discomfiting and even dangerous ordeal for the authorities.


Let us operationalize our conceptualization of scandal as the disruptive publicity of transgression to the Victorian case. Homosexuality norms were underenforced by the 19th-century English law and society, even when transgressions were well known, to prevent scandals. Homosexuality went unsanctioned because its publicity, which would be concomitant to the sanctioning process, would significantly contaminate and provoke a wide array of third parties.

Reticence, as the prime requisite of respectability, was the paramount principle of the 19th-century English public sphere. For the Victorians, any open discussion of sexuality debased the public sphere and defiled its participants, the members of the middle and upper classes.8 In 1885, many newspapers castigated William Thomas Stead’s Pall Mall Gazette and its crusade against prostitution as shameless on behalf of dignified citizens (Terrot 1979). The publicity of homosexuality, regarded as considerably more egregious than most other sexual sins, was naturally even more disruptive. It contaminated not only audiences, but also those who named it in public even in a denunciatory mode. Thus, in journalistic and legal discourse, sodomy was an “unmentionable” or “nameless” crime. On buggery, the illustrious legal scholar Sir William Blackstone wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, “I will not act so disagreeable a part, to my readers as well as to myself, as to dwell longer upon a subject the very mention of which is a disgrace to the human nature. It will be more eligible to imitate . . . the delicacy of our English law, which treats it in its very indictments as a crime not fit to be named” ([1769] 1962, p. 242). When the home secretary recommended the closing of parks to halt their use by homosexuals in 1808, he requested that these measures be taken “without divulging to the Public the disgraceful occasion of them” (quoted in Harvey 1978, p. 942).

The publicity of homosexuality was also thought to corrupt or tempt young and female audiences. At a homosexuality trial in Lancester, the judge expressed grief that “the untaught and unsuspecting minds of youth should be liable to be tainted by hearing such horrid facts” and prohibited note taking and the presence of young people in the courtroom (quoted in Harvey 1978, p. 942). Lesbianism was never criminalized in England, lest young women, who were seen as more susceptible than men, be unintentionally recruited to the sexual practice. This is how Lord Desart successfully countered a proposed provision against female homosexuality in 1921: “You are going to tell the whole world that there is such an

8 Michel Foucault and others deploying his constructivist perspective on sex have contended that the 19th century was marked not by repression but rather by a proliferation of discourses on sexuality (Foucault 1980; Weeks 1989). This claim, at least in the English context, does not hold for homosexuality and downplays the fact that sexuality could only become public in this period through the sanitized language of technocratic public policy. What is more, the latter problematized the sexuality of social categories and focused on the lower classes by addressing overpopulation, poverty, and public health issues. The publicity of the sexuality of particular individuals was anathema. It is true that after the Divorce Act of 1857, divorce cases by upper-class couples, often involving adultery, were narrated in the pages of the Divorce Court Reporter and the Illustrated Police Reporter. But these newspapers targeted lower-class audiences; middle-and upper-class Victorians were very uncomfortable with such publicity (Leckie 1999, pp. 62–111). In any case, neither the scientific and medical discourse on sex nor the publicized divorce cases concerned homosexuality. Havelock Ellis was prosecuted in 1898 for the first volume of his book Studies in Psychology of Sex, which substantively studied homosexuality; the subsequent volumes had to be published in the United States.

offence, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it, never dreamt of it. I think this is a very great mischief” (quoted in Hyde 1970, p. 181).

The publicity of homosexuality, and not homosexuality itself, was then the principal preoccupation of the authorities. The director of public prosecutions commanded in 1889 that no “unnecessary publicity” be given to cases of gross indecency (quoted in Weeks 1989, p. 103).9 In agreement with the same logic, public homosexuality, in the form of public indecency, was not countenanced and often implacably punished because it challenged the audiences and authorities. Restraint with regard to enforcing the homosexuality laws was particularly patent in the case of elite offenders. Prosecutions would make for sensational trials, endowing the transgression with inordinate salience. Trials risked traducing the good names of reputable families. They would provide for public consumption the sordid spectacle of the internecine hostilities within the English upper crust. The homogeneity and insularity of the upper classes closely connected by tight-knit networks would allow individual scandals to disgrace the whole elite. Hence, many instances of homosexuality within the high

9 The eleventh amendment of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act created the new offense of gross indecency between male persons in England. This offense, for which Wilde would be convicted, covered homosexual acts not involving anal intercourse and was punishable by a maximum of two years’ imprisonment with hard labor. This legislation, passed 10 years before Wilde’s conviction, has led many to perceive the dramatist to be the prey of the hardening Victorian puritanism during the last two decades of the 19th century (e.g., Fisher 1995, pp. 135–66; Foldy 1997; Weeks 1989, pp. 96–117). This is incorrect for multifarious reasons. It must be first underlined that the new offense had little effect since it only included acts that were already prosecuted as attempted sodomy. Few prosecutions were brought following the amendment (Greenberg 1988, p. 400). Second, homosexuality was not mentioned in the original text of the act and did not figure in the agitation for it (Smith 1976). The act was passed as a result of the Maiden Tribute campaign headed by the newspaper owner William Thomas Stead. The objective of the moral crusade was “to make further provision for the protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes” (Gorham 1978). Stead opposed the eleventh amendment and was one of the rare Victorian dignitaries who would later display the derring-do to be publicly compassionate to Wilde. He lamented, in the aftermath of the Wilde affair, that preoccupation with male homosexuality only served to obfuscate the ravages of the rampant and much more ruinous female prostitution. Third, the amendment was proposed by the radical-liberal member of parliament Henry Labouche`re, who had been very critical of the act itself. The intentions of Labouche`re, who was both a Libertarian and Wilde’s friend, are nebulous. A contemporaneous journalist argued that he aimed to wreck the act by adding an absurd amendment (Harris 1959, p. 144). Others have hypothesized that the law attempted to extend the protection that adolescent girls enjoyed to male minors (Hall 2000, pp. 38–39). In effect, Labouche`re later claimed to have calqued his proposal on the French law on the protection of minors of both sexes from seduction. Unlike the French counterpart, however, there were no age limits in his amendment. The House of Commons passed the poorly drafted clause with scarcely any debate in a sparsely attended session late at night.

echelons of English society, while often open secrets, were hushed up. In 1889, a male brothel, whose clientele included several aristocrats, was fortuitously discovered on Cleveland Street (Chester, Leitch, and Simpson 1976; Dockray 1996; Hyde 1976). For fear of the contaminating publicity, the lord chancellor advised inaction in a memorandum he wrote to the treasury solicitor: “The social position of some of the parties will make a great sensation and this will give very wide publicity and consequently will spread very extensively the matter of which I am satisfied will produce enormous evil” (quoted in Hyde 1976, p. 84). Only two minor figures were apprehended; they later got off with light sentences.

The society was also disinclined to sanction homosexuals, again in view of the externalities of the publicity of the deviance. Discretion was exercised above all to incidents in prestigious single-sex public schools, which mushroomed during the second third of the 19th century (Gawthorne-Hardy 1979). Potential scandals would not only be very embarrassing for the elite of the nation; the publicized to-dos, by bestowing visibility to homosexuality, could also unintentionally normalize and multiply the deviance in such propitious settings. Hence, when William Johnson and Oscar Browning, both masters at Eton, were shown the door after allegations of homosexual deportment in the 1870s, the real reason for their departures was never made public (Croft-Cooke 1967, pp. 95– 118). Browning was actually made a Cambridge don and could carry on with his notorious debaucheries.10 Parents who believed their sons to have been initiated into homosexuality by older men were also dissuaded from taking legal action because of reputational imperatives.

There were further disincentives to making charges. The English common law, the product of a society heavy with aristocratic heritage where family name is one’s foremost asset, has a stringent libel tort. It is sufficient for the libel to be communicated in print form to the person libeled for the crime to be constituted; publication to a third person is not necessary. To be acquitted, the defendant must both prove the assertion and that the publication of the libel is in the public interest.11 The North London

10 Victorians grandees like Edward Fitzgerald, John Addington Symonds, Frederic Lord Leighton, and Walter Pater, who were well-known homosexuals, all evaded social scorn (Hyde 1970, pp. 90–133). Grosskurth recounts the unfettered professional ascent of such a figure, Reverend Charles John Vaughan, who held the exalted titles of the headmaster at Harrow School, the bishop of Rochester, the vicar of Doncaster, master of the temple, and the dean of Llandaff (1964, pp. 33–40).

11 For a history of the development of English defamation laws, see Veeder (1903). That English defamation laws originated to forestall scandals as much as possible is suggested by historical semantics; in early modern English, the words “scandal” and “slander” were synonymous, referring to “malicious or defamatory gossip” or “general comment injurious to reputation” (OED 1989, p. 573).

Press, on November 16, 1889, named Lord Euston as a habitue´ of the Cleveland Street brothel. Lord Euston sued the newspaper for libel and won, as the judge did not consider the prostitute witnesses against the lord credible. The reporter who wrote for the article was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment.

There were a few high-profile homosexuality prosecutions during the late Victorian era. Suspects in these cases were mostly, however, either those caught in flagrante delicto in public places,12 or political actors who were pursued only after their professional competitors chided the government with cover-up charges.13 In any case, suspects were allowed to leave the country. And even when cases went to trial, convictions were often undesirable on the score of their disruptive externalities. Criminal statistics of 1856 show that only 28% of those tried for sodomy were convicted as opposed to 77% for all offenses (Radzinowicz 1968, pp. 330– 31). A good example of the Victorian disinclination is the Boulton and Park trial of 1871 (Roughead 1931, pp. 149–83). Two transvestite homosexuals were detained when they were spotted in feminine garb in front of the Strand Theater. These two were the sons of prominent Londoners. Love letters turned up in their lodgings pointing to carnal relations with the member of parliament Lord Arthur Clinton, the son of the Duke of Newcastle. The defense averred meagerly that Boulton and Park, who occasionally took female parts in amateur theatricals, were also given to playacting in public. They were absolved. Even though few entertained doubts about the sexuality of those embroiled in the scandal, not only the authorities but also the opinion leaders thought it better not to convict. The Times of May 16, 1871, wrote approvingly of the acquittal and adduced that a guilty verdict “would have been felt at home, and received abroad, as a reflection of our national morals.”

12 William J. Bankes, a member of parliament, was prosecuted twice, first in 1833 after being caught in a public lavatory with another man and then in 1841 for indecent exposure. Acquitted in his first trial, he was allowed to scurry abroad during his second (Hyde 1970, p. 94). The painter Simeon Solomon was convicted of an indecent offense in a public lavatory in 1873 but only served six weeks (Croft-Cooke 1967, p. 56).

13 In other words, homosexuality was denounced in public only when the act was expected to net significant profits to the denouncers that outweighed whatever costs they would incur from doing so. The only political homosexuality scandal of the period that culminated in some legal sanctions was the Dublin Castle scandal of 1884, which was occasioned by the home rule supporters’ attack on the British administration in Ireland. The scandal led to a lawsuit. All the compromised officers were exculpated, however, with the exception of the country police inspector.


Victorians were thus reluctant to sanction homosexuals, especially when the latter had high status. Oscar Wilde’s case was no exception. Wilde’s homosexuality was well known long before his trials. His effeminate public persona fit fully the Victorian stereotype of the homosexual. From the late 1870s to the mid-1880s, Wilde sported a flamboyant look with flowing locks, colossal flopping collars encircled by colorful scarves, velvet frock coats, and knee-length stockings. He was regularly caricatured by George du Maurier in Punch, the bastion of middle-class morality. Maurier mocked Wilde’s preciosity, epicene poses, and blue china.14 The magazine’s editorialists called him a “Mary-Ann.” Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera of 1881, Patience, a pungent portrait of Wilde as a sham aesthete, ventured vague sexual adumbrations: “A sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion must excite your languid spleen, an attachment a`la Plato for a bashful young potato or a not-too-French French bean” (Gilbert 1910, p. 103).

In the early 1880s, Wilde, the quintessential poseur, put his audiences in a state of uncertainty about his sexuality. His homosexuality was mostly a matter of conjecture in London except in circles proximate to the author. Wilde married in 1884 and took up the traditional dandy garb. He got a haircut. The widespread scuttlebutt about his sexuality subsided for a while after the birth of his two children. Some thought that his effete ways were merely part of his ostentatious aestheticism. Their sexual suggestions notwithstanding, the public satires of Wilde, especially those in Punch, were equivocal.15 One could always pretend that they merely spoofed Wilde’s effeminacy.

But by the end of the decade, Wilde was already going around in public with a green carnation boutonnie`re—the badge of French homosexuals. His short story The Portrait of Mr. W. H. queried the sex of the addressee of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Homoerotic tension was palpable in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although Wilde never unambiguously paraded his ho

14 For the English identification of effeminacy with homosexuality in the 18th and 19th

centuries, see Trumbach (1977) and Symonds (1896). 15 While these parodies created suspicions, they also turned Wilde into a curiosity. Wilde astutely exploited the liminal public image fashioned, almost collusively, together by the press and himself. His minor provocations and extravagances were calculated to render him salient in London society and the press well before he had written anything noteworthy. But Wilde could afford to shock only so much. Hence, he staved off the talk about his homosexuality with his marriage. Mixing respectability and eccentricity, Wilde had his audiences keep guessing. The name recognition that he acquired this way served him well when he produced his literary works. Wilde’s art, and especially his plays, reproduced his public persona. Many deemed his dandy dramatis personae with dubious desires indistinguishable from the dramatist himself.

mosexuality, he was becoming indiscrete about his goings-on. He prated imprudently in London society on the delights of male beauty. He surrounded himself with fetching young men in fashionable restaurants and lectured them about Socratic love. He partied with prostitutes in posh hotels and rented houses with upper-class paramours.

Consequently, Wilde’s homosexuality became common knowledge in many quarters. The press reported his vacations with male companions. His romantic relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a student at Oxford and the third son of the Marquess of Queensberry, was a society item even though its veritable nature was of course never named. The Pall Mall Gazette reported that Lord Douglas followed Wilde like his shadow (Wilde [1948] 1966, p. 893). People in literary, dramatic, aristocratic, political, and intellectual milieus talked (e.g., Croft-Cooke 1972, p. 164; Ellmann 1988, p. 409; Harris 1916, p. 104; Marjoribanks 1932, p. 88). Some gossip was apocryphal but most of it was accurate. It seems that law enforcement knew, too. Sir Edward Hamilton, the confidant of the prime minister, noted in his diary during the trials that the word in London was that the police were long cognizant of Wilde’s dalliances (Hamilton 1986,

p. 236). “The wonder is not that the gossip should have reached Lord Queensberry’s ears, but that after it was known, this man Wilde should have been tolerated in society in London for the length of time he has,” would later remark Queensberry’s lawyer in the libel trial, as much in incredulity as in indignation (Wilde [1911] 1928, p. 121).

Wilde’s wife worried about their reputation after the publication of Dorian Gray. Constance Wilde, however, remained a high-flying socialite active in the Women’s Liberal Foundation. Pall Mall Gazette wrote that she was on her way to becoming “one of the most popular among ‘platform ladies’” (Ellmann 1988, p. 284). The Prince of Wales commended Wilde lavishly and publicly in the premiere of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1891. Prior to his legal travails, Wilde was an indispensable fixture in the country abodes of the Victorian beau monde and hobnobbed with political nabobs like William Gladstone, Herbert Henry Asquith, and Charles Parnell.

Wilde’s well-known homosexuality did not cause a scandal until his trials simply because it was not publicly denounced. People prattled— much and maliciously, but always in private. The polluting publicity of the transgression, strict libel laws, and the high status of Wilde all educed reticence from the Victorian elite public. Those who considered themselves to be victims and who would have had legally superior evidence about Wilde’s homosexuality (for instance, the families of his lovers) had reputational disincentives to take on the dramatist. They would themselves be contaminated by the resultant scandal. Private shunning of Wilde was also costly. One would be deprived of the company of a charming, witty, talented, and very famous man connected to everybody who mattered in London. Moreover, a private crusade against Wilde could also eventuate in a public contestation—a chancy proposition in the light of the tough libel laws. Finally, while Wilde was the subject of gossip within various subpublics, without a public denunciation it would be difficult to coordinate attitudes vis-a`-vis the deviant dramatist within the larger Victorian public. While those with low tolerance of homosexuality would find it costly to sanction Wilde, those with higher tolerance (for instance those in the cultured milieus) would not have to at all.

The middle-class audiences also partook in this conspiracy of tolerance. Even though he would posthumously be hailed as the hapless victim of hidebound Victorian morality, Wilde actually weathered ethical onslaughts after his homosexuality became an open secret in London, not from straitlaced pundits but from artistic competitors with unconventional lifestyles akin to his own. Andre´ Raffalovich’s A Willing Exile (1890) and Henry James’s The Tragic Muse ([1890] 1989) lampooned Wilde and his coterie with thinly disguised innuendos, even though they did not name names. A mordant roman a` clef by Robert Hichins entitled The Green Carnation ([1894] 1970) was based recognizably on Wilde’s affair with Lord Douglas. Such parodies were in effect more overt than Punch’s allusions of the former decade. Ironically, it was thanks to their outsider status that these authors could afford to be less mindful of Victorian modesty norms and publicly insinuate Wilde’s homosexuality in the 1890s. On the one hand, the literary representations furnished fodder for gossip. Their deliberate obliqueness, on the other hand, provided everybody the possibility to pretend as if they did not mean what they meant. As long as Wilde did not respond—and the studied equivocalness of the literary insinuations permitted him this option—his well-known homosexuality would not become an unavoidably public matter. What is more, the intimations were not picked up by the mainstream press for the already-cited reasons. The position of Punch toward Wilde in the 1890s was indeed complimentary, in part because his plays were now all the rage across the board in Victorian society (Gillespie 1996; Rowell 1978, p. 104).16

The Impending Scandal

Given the individual and collective costs that well-mannered Victorians faced in denouncing homosexuality, it was ineluctable that the nemesis

16 A critic called Wilde “perhaps the most popular middle-class wit at present before the public” (Gagnier 1986, p. 81). A few reviewers did pan Dorian Gray, the only work of Wilde’s to be ever impugned for immorality, but only because of its aristocratic settings and not because of its decadent themes, since many of his other writings harbored similar motifs (Gagnier 1986, pp. 56–67).

of the eccentric dramatist could only be another eccentric, the Marquess of Queensberry. Refusing to take the religious oath of allegiance to the queen, which he dubbed as “Christian tomfoolery,” the marquess had forfeited his seat in the House of Lords for his aggressive atheism. A former prizefighter, Queensberry was a pugnacious spirit with a penchant for attacking prominent people in public or through litigation. Universally disliked, the marquess had no reputation no lose. Being a divorce´ on very bad terms with his children, he cared even less for his family name.

Sometime after he heard about Lord Douglas’s affair with Wilde, Queensberry ordered his son to cease all contact with the dramatist. Lord Douglas was contemptuous of such meddling in his life; he continued his relationship with redoubled recklessness. The marquess menaced his son in a missive in 1894: “If I catch you again with that man, I will make a public scandal in a way you little dream of” (Wilde 1928, p. 95). Assisted by his band of bruisers, the peer was soon hounding Wilde in fancy restaurants. He arrived at the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest on February 14, 1895, with the purpose of perturbing the performance. The police, instructed by Wilde to guard the theater, did not let him on the premises. Queensberry nevertheless deposited a bouquet of vegetables at the entrance of the theatre to declare his disdain for the dramatist.

On February 18, 1895, Queensberry showed up at the Albermarle Club to which Wilde belonged. Not finding him, he left a calling card with an insulting, in part illegible, and misspelled message. When Wilde picked it up 10 days later, he read the note as, “To Oscar Wilde, ponce and sondomite.” Queensberry would later maintain that he had scribbled, “To Oscar Wilde posing as a Somdomite,” a phrase easier to justify in a libel case. Surmising that there was nothing that he could do to eschew the looming scandal, Wilde set out to preempt Queensberry by suing him.17 He seems to have reckoned that he would fare better in court than in a public fracas given the high standard of evidence required in libel cases. Wilde understandably did not foresee that Queensberry could deliver any witnesses; they were all partners in crime. In any case, the judge would not consider them credible; most of them were prostitutes. Under these circumstances, the trial would surely degenerate into a popularity contest between the beloved of London society and the black sheep of the English peerage, abhorred even by his own family.

17 This is how Wilde would later describe his dilemma in De Profundis, the doleful diatribe against Lord Douglas that he penned in prison: “So the next time he [Queensberry] attacks me, no longer in a private letter and as your private friend but in public as a public man. I have to expel him from my house. He goes from restaurant to restaurant looking for me, in order to insult me before the whole world, and in such a manner that if I retaliated I would be ruined, and if I did not retaliate I would be ruined also” (Wilde 1966, p. 894).


Once a scandal-generating transgression is effectively publicized, it contaminates and/or provokes third parties. These externalities, in turn, will pique reactions from those who are affected as well as from those who hope to profit from them.18 An episodic process of strategic interaction in public ensues where parties attempt to manipulate and manage the effects of the publicized transgression. This is how scandal assumes a temporal reality—a thing that erupts, grows, and ends.

The dynamics of the scandal process reveal that the public sphere is the domain not only of collective deliberation and action, but also, and more important, of appearances. It is the way that apparent transgressions appear in public that endow them with disruptive externalities, and it is the impressions that offenders, denouncers, authorities, and even members of the norm audience foster to each other in public that govern their interaction in the scandal process. The implicit logic of the public sphere, which equates being with appearance (Arendt 1958, 1982; Goffman 1959), is fully actualized in scandals. The publicity of an apparent offense will make it arduous for an actor to stabilize the signification of his or her act to others, especially when the act gives rise to uncontrollable externalities for which he or she will be held liable, and especially if the others can link the publicity of the act to his or her indiscretion or recklessness.19 The intentionality of the publicity of transgression is important in calibrating sanctions to transgressions. But one is also expected to ensure that one’s transgressions, in the case of norms that can safely be violated in private, would not become public.

Reactions to transgressions are also conditioned by the fact (or to the extent) that they are themselves reactions undertaken in public, in front of others. Authorities or associates of offenders often sanction transgressions that they would otherwise accommodate only because the publicity of the transgression challenges or contaminates them in the eyes of the norm audience; sanctions function more as signals of resolve or rectitude to the norm audience than as reactions to the offender.20 Members of a public can also find themselves in an analogous predicament vis-a`-vis each other, where not shunning an offender can be interpreted as a sign

18 The anticipation of such externalities is of course the main motivation for strategically creating scandals in the first place. Once externalities are generated, as in political scandals, they can also furnish fillips for the opponents of those associated with the offenders to intervene for exploitative purposes.

19 This rebuke was recurrently leveled at Clinton during and after the Lewinsky crisis

by those who otherwise did not mind his sexual shenanigans and related evasions. 20 The Republican reactions toward Trent Lott in December 2002 were, for instance, conditioned by the general obloquy heaped on the senator in the wake of his public praise of the late Strom Thurmond.

of moral deficiency. Reactions in scandals are then governed by the way that publicity transforms the meaning and import of apparent transgressions.21 These dynamics are readily discernable in the unfolding and denouement of the Wilde affair.

The Libel Trial

The Wilde affair only really took off with the libel trial that opened with immense publicity in the Old Bailey on April 3, 1895, and during which Wilde’s homosexuality was finally publicly denounced by Queensberry’s lawyer, Edward Carson. In the course of the proceedings, Wilde’s chief lawyer, Sir Edward Clarke, dropped the charges against Queensberry even before testimony could be heard against Wilde. This act was, as it might seem, not primarily motivated by Clarke’s apprehension of the marquess’s witnesses—youthful hustlers who were cowed and compensated to give evidence. Clarke had already perused, before the trial, Queensberry’s plea of justification which itemized the occasions on which Wilde had allegedly solicited the prostitutes to commit sodomy. While this evidence struck some of Wilde’s friends, who pleaded with him to drop the case, as substantial, the dramatist settled on proceeding. His lawyers, including the veteran Clarke, the former solicitor general who was, at the time, the president of the English Bar, did not demur. Even though in retrospect it turned out to have been a blunder, this was a calculated risk given the tainted and the uncorroborated character of the evidence.

Wilde lost his libel trial because of the externalities that were generated once his homosexuality was publicly alleged. Queensberry’s lawyer highlighted the homosexual writings of Wilde as well as those of young men held to be within his orbit in Chameleon, an undergraduate magazine

21 An implication of this principle is that an individual reaction to a scandal-generating transgression is often conditioned by anticipations about how the others will react, especially when such reactions have immediate repercussions on one’s life chances. In the Enron scandal, for instance, the allegations of misconduct by Enron executives contaminated all other similar firms in the eyes of the public who faced steep information costs in gauging whether the publicized transgressions were isolated incidents or not. This contamination affected even the actions of buyers who could distinguish fraudulent firms from upright ones, and who distrusted the stock market only because one could not trust that others would trust it. Hence, discredit was generalized through a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another example, which illustrates that reactions in scandals are largely autonomous of what one privately thinks of transgressions themselves, is Watergate. During much of the scandal, attitudes toward Nixon stayed indexical on political party affiliations long after the incriminating evidence against the president was made public (Lang and Lang 1983). Nixon clearly saw that it was the growing persuasion among the Republican electorate that he would be impeached that led many of his supporters to withdraw their support from him (Nixon 1978, p. 972).

published at Oxford. Carson pressured Wilde to abjure these works and to acknowledge his depraved influence over their authors. Wilde refused to judge his own or his acolytes’ writings by moral standards and said, “I do not believe that any book or work of art ever had any effect whatever on morality” (Wilde 1928, p. 51). Thus, Wilde appeared during his cross-examination not as someone privately indulging in his unnatural tastes but as an elite who was abusing his high status (and the artistic license that such status conferred on him) by corrupting the youth. While all the men suspected of improprieties with the dramatist were over the statutory age of consent, Carson underscored throughout the trial the class disparity between Wilde and the male prostitutes and the age difference between him and Lord Douglas.

Moreover, Wilde mismanaged and aggravated the externalities of the publicity of his homosexuality and came across as a provocateur defying society through his words and persona even as he denied his transgression. To Carson’s question, “The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?” the illustrious homme d’esprit rejoined, “I have found wonderful exceptions” (Wilde 1928, p. 54). When Carson asked him to comment on whether his epigram, “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others,” was true, Wilde dismissively retorted, “I rarely think that anything I say is true” (Wilde 1928, p. 52). Wilde’s flippant quips did not help his case, either. Upon being interrogated about whether he kissed a servant boy, Wilde snapped back, “Oh dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately extremely ugly. I pitied him for it” (Wilde 1928, p. 90). The Star accused “the aesthete” on April 3, 1895, of giving “characteristically cynical evidence.” It was when juxtaposed with such an impervious performance that the witnesses against Wilde became perilous. Wilde’s lawyers, facing a hostile public opinion, dropped the charges against the marquess.

The Prosecution and Conviction of Wilde The outcome of the libel trial posed a challenge to the authorities. Prosecutorial apathy at this point could be read as a want of steadfastness in upholding the homosexuality laws. Yet the legal case against Wilde was far from adequate. Losing a libel trial involving homosexuality did not inevitably lead to criminal action in Victorian England, either. The trials, as we saw, imposed too many costs on third parties; the authorities were averse to act.

The libel case of Robert Ross, Wilde’s former lover, is a case in point. From 1911 to 1914, after he renounced homosexuality, Lord Douglas composed epistles to the prime minister, several judges, and the public prosecutor accusing Ross of being a sodomite, blackmailer, and pedophile. He even betook himself in person to Scotland Yard with a man who signed a statement confessing to physical relations with Ross. The private crusade was futile, however; the authorities were immovable. But as Douglas’s harassment would not cease, Ross finally sued him for libel in 1914. Douglas produced a string of witnesses in court. Like Wilde, Ross entered a plea of nolle prosequi, which meant that he had admitted to the charge made in the libel. The authorities, however, disregarded Douglas’s plea of justification; Ross was not prosecuted. The contrast between Ross and Wilde is all the more glaring as the evidence against the former was much more devastating than that against the latter. It came from nonprostitutes, and, unlike in the Wilde case, the witnesses testified in court (Murray 2000, pp. 208–11).

It is the different externalities of the scandals of the two men that paved the path to their divergent destinies. Ross, unlike Wilde, was nonconfrontational in court and hence did not come across as a provocateur. His lower status also rendered the outcome of the libel trial less disruptive. But, more important, the pollution produced by the publicity of Ross’s homosexuality was relatively contained. The ill-starred Wilde, in contrast, was tried, and truculently so, because the libel trial exposed the dirty linen of the Victorian elite, contaminated the authorities, and thereby drastically increased the costs of not legally sanctioning Wilde.

Queensberry cultivated a long-lasting rancor for the prime minister Lord Rosebery. The marquess’s oldest son, Viscount Drumlanrig, was the private secretary of the lord when he was the foreign minister. Queens-berry, persuaded that Rosebery had a homosexual entanglement with his son, chased the former with a dog whip in August 1893 at Homburg. The incensed peer could be ejected from the scene and the pandemonium prevented only thanks to the intervention of the Prince of Wales (Ellmann 1988, pp. 404–5). Drumlanrig died shortly after—apparently, in a shooting accident. The marquess believed, along with some others, however, that his son was threatened with exposure over his affair with Lord Rosebery and had killed himself to protect the foreign minister (Queensberry 1949,

p. 52).

Queensberry had stated his detestation of Rosebery in numerous letters which were now in the possession of Wilde’s counsel. Clarke had already referred to, but not read, these letters in the police court proceedings. The grand jury deliberations were, nonetheless, leaked to the continental press. The English press did not print the prime minister’s name, but the news traveled around the country (Marjoribanks 1932, p. 204). In the libel trial, Clarke read the marquess’s letters in order to show that Queensberry was an unhinged man whose accusations could not be taken seriously. In one of them, Queensberry called Wilde “damned cur and coward of the Rosebery type” and blamed Rosebery for having creating a lifelong enmity between him and his son (Wilde 1928, pp. 96–97).

The name of the prime minister, once enunciated in court, spawned insidious suspicions—some of which were pronounced obliquely in public. Wild rumors, some founded in truth, others not, sprouted apace during the trials in London about the Queensberry-Rosebery-Wilde link. Many were whispering, correctly, that Rosebery was a homosexual. There had already been some bad-mouthing of the prime minister in some circles; the Wilde affair now refueled the ignominious bruits and disseminated them to larger publics. Many said that Rosebery was pressuring the prosecution to drop charges against Wilde, who was his friend. Some falsely suggested that Wilde was blackmailing the government.

As we saw, the Victorian authorities were very unwilling to try homosexuality cases involving elites, in part because London society was a very small world connecting anybody with everybody, and scandals could besmirch entire elite networks and reveal their closet skeletons. This is, of course, precisely what transpired during the Wilde affair. Thoroughly contaminated, the authorities were thereby compelled to pursue Wilde relentlessly, even though they were otherwise indisposed to do so, in order to dampen the rumors about Rosebery and the prosecution.22 After the first criminal trial, Carson asked the solicitor general Frank Lockwood if the crown could not let up on Wilde, since he had already suffered so much. Lockwood replied ruefully, “I would, but we cannot; we dare not; it would at once be said, both in England and abroad that owing to the names mentioned in Queensberry’s letters we were forced to abandon it” (Marjoribanks 1932, p. 230). When T. M. Healy, the Irish home rule member of parliament, beseeched him to spare his compatriot, Lockwood put forth the identical rationale for the prosecutorial intransigence: “I would not but for the abominable rumors against [Rosebery]” (Healy 1928,

p. 416). The Liberals lacked a majority in Parliament, and the chief secretary Arthur Balfour cautioned Lord Rosebery that they could succor Wilde only at the cost of the upcoming elections.

Scandals usually give rise to a strategic interaction where the parties involved attempt to manipulate and manage the externalities that are created when transgressions are made public. This interaction is conducted through signaling. It is usually this interaction, and not the consensus in a society regarding the offensiveness of a transgression, that determines the unfolding of a scandal. The Wilde affair generated such

22 Sir Edward Hamilton, the assistant financial secretary, noted in his diary, “A verdict of guilty would remove what appears to be a wide-felt impression that the Judge & Jury were on the last occasion got at, in order to shield others of a higher status in life” (Hamilton 1986, p. 27).

a process that aggravated the antagonism toward the dramatist. As Wilde appeared as a public provocateur, the courtroom audience turned against him. The public gallery cheered when Queensberry was acquitted, and the popular reaction was officially endorsed when the judge refrained from silencing the crowd. The press, in turn, was encouraged by this uncustomary forbearance and cudgeled Wilde without clemency.23 Some newspapers exhorted legal action against him, and The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband were shortly after cancelled at the Haymarket Theater and at the St. James.

The growing public opinion against Wilde made inaction by the authorities seem like lack of resolve. More damningly, however, the press smelled a coverup. In its coverage of the police court hearings, the Evening News, on March 9, 1895, questioned the probity of the legal officials. Reporting the private interview that the judge had with Wilde’s and Queensberry’s counsels after the mentioning of the Queensberry letters, a journalist publicly voiced the doubts of many: “What was the reason for the retirement, was the case to be nipped in the bud in the interest of ‘exalted personages’?”

Risking discredit, the authorities resorted to zealous prosecution and adjudication. Sir Justice John Bridge declaimed after the libel trial, “I think there is no worse crime than that which the prisoners are charged” (quoted in Goodman 1989, p. 93). Wilde was thus refused bail. This gratuitous denunciation of Wilde was legally tenuous and the incarceration irregular as he was arraigned not with a felony (sodomy) but only with a misdemeanor (gross indecency), the maximum sentence for which was only two years. In the first criminal trial, the male prostitutes were promised immunity for their word against Wilde. In addition to being uncorroborated accomplices, however, several of these witnesses were self-avowed blackmailers, and one of them perjured himself on the stand. One of two nonprostitute witnesses gainsaid indecencies between him and Wilde. The other one’s testimony was muddled. Eyewitnesses from hotels

23 The Daily Telegraph wrote on the morning of April 6, 1895: “The judge did not attempt to silence or reprove the irrepressible cheering in Court which greeted the acquittal of this sorely provoked and cruelly injured father.” The National Observer expressed gratitude to the marquess in the name of those with “wholesome minds . . . for destroying the High Priest of the Decadents, . . . an obscene impostor whose prominence has been a social outrage ever since he transferred from Trinity Dublin to Oxford his vices, his follies and his vanities.” The Daily Telegraph berated Wilde for “shameless disavowal of all morality” and for having established “a cult of degeneracy.” Wilde was also held responsible for having contaminated the audiences through his own legal action. “We have had enough of Oscar Wilde, who has been the means of inflicting on the public during this recent episode as much moral damage of the most hideous and repulsive kind as no single individual could well cause,” declared the same newspaper.

were contradictory and unreliable. The trial terminated with a deadlocked jury.

London was now aflutter with rumors regarding Rosebery’s homosexuality and his putative efforts to save Wilde. In addition, some testimony in the trials hinted that some of the young men Wilde had slept with were the relatives of Victorian dignitaries. As a result, the Morning suspected illegitimate interference with justice on May 2, 1895: “Society feels that a gross public scandal has not yet been probed to its depths; and that a great mass of loathsome evidence must once more be heard in open court. . . . Ought the prosecution stop there? That is a very grave question. Whatever may be truth as regards Wilde and Taylor, the evidence given at the Old Bailey seems to affect more reputations than those that have been openly impugned” (quoted in Goodman 1989, pp. 117–18).

The vortex of the scandal, tarnishing more and more prominent names, forced the hands of the authorities to convict Wilde. Simultaneously, however, they wanted to prevent the publicity of his sin as much as possible. When the judge of the libel trial congratulated Carson for his impeccable cross-examination, he also thanked him for sparing the court of “the filth” of Wilde’s deeds. The press was urged to censor its coverage.24 And as they would rather not try him, the powers that be implicitly extended Wilde several opportunities to flee the country. Wilde was notified forthwith after the libel trial through informal channels of his immanent arrest. The magistrate who had denied Wilde bail and repudiated him in the most impassioned terms issued his warrant with sufficient delay for him to catch the last train for Dover. Wilde’s friends implored him to leave. But he stayed—or rather shilly-shallied. After the first criminal trial, Wilde was accorded another chance to abscond. He spurned this opportunity as well and had to be prosecuted with a vengeance.

The prosecution proffered, albeit without success, to withdraw charges against Wilde’s procurer on the condition that he turn state’s evidence. In a decision that was particularly detrimental to Wilde, the director of

24 The Evening Standard censored Queensberry’s libel note as “Oscar Wilde posing as ———” (Cohen 1993, pp. 145–48). Other papers did not even mention the note, calling it “words unfit for publication.” A few newspapers debated the pros and cons of the prosecution in terms of the contaminations that the publicity of homosexuality would engender. The editors of the Pall Mall Gazette wrote on April 6, 1895: “It is a difficult question to decide whether in such cases absolute reticence or modified publicity is the better in the interests of public morality.” After the jury disagreed in Wilde’s first trial, some worried that more harm “would be done to the public morals” if the case were renewed (Ellmann 1988, p. 465). While the press almost unanimously supported and in effect clamored for the prosecution of Wilde, it was acknowledged that this had a price. “It is at a terrible cost that society has purged itself of these loathsome importers of exotic vice, but the gain is worth the price,” wrote the News of the World on May 26, 1895, after Wilde was sentenced (quoted in Goodman 1989, p. 132).

public prosecutions instructed Solicitor General Lockwood to prosecute at the second criminal trial. Lockwood was not only famous for his ferocity but also retained, thanks to his rank, the customary right to make the final address to the jury. This was only the second important case in which he was detailed to exploit this prerogative. Moreover, as the Star reported on May 20, 1895, Sir Justice Wills was appointed by special arrangement to preside (Foldy 1997, p. 35). He proved unduly tendentious. Prejudicing the dramatist in the eyes of the jury, he permitted Wilde’s trial to follow immediately that of his procurer, against whom the evidence was much more solid. Justice Wills also admitted all the evidence that the judge of the first criminal trial had barred in the absence of independent validation. The testimony of the only nonprostitute witness teemed with so many inconsistencies that the prosecution had to relinquish the complaint regarding him. But in his summation to the jury, the judge presumed Wilde’s culpability by playing up his supposedly noxious sway over Lord Douglas manifested in the billets-doux exchanged between the two men.

Over and above reacting to Wilde’s homosexuality, the authorities were endeavoring hammer and tongs to ward off the contaminations that the publicity of his sin had engendered. But their asperity unwittingly authorized the press’s ire against Wilde, which, in turn, only spurred the authorities to be more fervent. This feverishly self-feeding fury could not but have unfavorable effects on the jury, and Wilde was finally convicted to the severest sentence that law allowed for gross indecency with the uncorroborated testimonies of accomplices—a very rare occurrence in English criminal practice of the time. The witnesses had blackmailing records to boot. Justice Wills scathingly upbraided Wilde and called the sentence—two years in prison with hard labor—“totally inadequate for such a case as this” (Wilde 1928, p. 426). Taking its cues from the official actors, the English press was unstinting in its en masse assault on Wilde. “Open the windows. Let in the fresh air!” cried the London Evening News on May 27, 1895, calling Wilde “a social pest.” The Daily Telegraph proclaimed on the same day, “The grave of contemptuous oblivion may rest on his foolish ostentation, his empty paradoxes, his insufferable posing, his incurable vanity.”

This reciprocal reinforcement of rage not only contributed in large part to Wilde’s conviction, but also obligated the members of the different sections of the Victorian public to signal rectitude to each other horizontally by shunning Wilde after his sentence. The dynamics of the scandal made it progressively dear for those who would rather not punish Wilde to not do so, while minimizing the sanctioning costs faced by those who rather would. If Wilde had been acquitted or if the prosecution had not retried him, he would have suffered much less social ostracism. During the late Victorian period, many high-status actors who were widely held to be homosexuals but were nevertheless legally absolved, or were not prosecuted in the first place, encountered restricted opprobrium from the public. The aforementioned acquittal of Boulton and Park vindicated them for the press. None of the elites embroiled in the Cleveland scandal, except Lord Somerset, who was allowed to decamp, were seriously affected. Prince Eddy, whom many assumed to be a homosexual, was named Duke of Clarence in May 1890 (Aronson 1994, p. 181). Even though Lord Euston had confessed in his libel trial to having been in the male brothel on Cleveland Street—with the feeble pretext that he had stumbled into it under the impression that it was a regular striptease club—the peer was soon elevated to the rank of the grand master of the Mark Masons and was later nominated an aide-de-camp by King Edward VII.

The contrast between the Wilde and Ross cases is again telling and attests to how, in Victorian England, the societal sanctioning of elite homosexuality required prior legal measures even in instances where the transgression was already common knowledge. After he lost the aforementioned libel trial against Lord Douglas in 1914 and hence acceded to the charge of being a sodomite (as well as a pedophile and a blackmailer), Robert Ross had to resign from his post as “assessor of picture valuations to the Board of Trade.” But, as he was not prosecuted, he survived his scandal, for all intents and purposes, unscathed. After the verdict, 300 members of the Victorian cre`medelacre`me issued a testimonial to the good character of Ross. He was made a trustee of the National Gallery two years later (Croft-Cooke 1963, p. 274).

Only because (and only after) Wilde was prosecuted and sentenced, on the other hand, did the Victorian society prove much less obliging to its former favorite. Wilde’s conviction imposed a unity on the different sections of the Victorian public against him, and he abruptly became an untouchable. While Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality was much talked about in various social circles, it had taken his trials to inescapably publicize his transgression to the Victorian society as a whole. The sentence now impelled the Victorian subpublics, especially the higher and cultured ones, to take a stance against Wilde lest they be stained in the eyes of the others. Wilde’s plays were hence banished from the English theater scene, his books pulled from bookstore shelves. Only an obscure pornographer would agree to publish Ballad of Reading Gaol, which Wilde wrote in exile. And it was only after the seventh printing of the plaintive poem in June 1899 that the expatriate would dare insert his name in brackets on the title page. Most reviewers overlooked the work. In accordance with the logic of scandal, his high status, which had hitherto shielded Wilde, now exacerbated the societal reactions to him. With his homosexuality public, he was now a synecdoche of the innovative segments of the art community, who were demonized as a corrupt influence in English society. The Wilde scandal also offered opportunities to some opinion leaders in the press to vent their class resentment. Wilde was hence represented as the avatar of the degenerate upper classes. The London Evening News of May 26, 1895, excoriated Wilde and others of his ilk: “[Wilde] was a perfect type of his class, a gross sensualist veneered with the affectation of artistic feeling too delicate for the appreciation of common clay. To him and such as him we owe the spread of moral degeneration amongst men with young men with abilities sufficient to make them a credit to their country.”

These contaminations compelled the members of the art community and the cultured elite of the country to signal rectitude to the larger community as well as to each other by shunning Wilde. Unlike its modernist French counterpart (Bourdieu 1992), the English avant-garde had not effectuated a rupture with bourgeois society and was very much reliant on it. Most of his fellow artists who were well privy all along to his sexual habits snubbed Wilde in France after his release—when they did not bluntly convey their contempt (Ellmann 1988, pp. 536–37). His close friend, the painter Edward Coley Burne-Jones, hoped that Wilde would shoot himself and was dismayed when he did not. Few signed a petition drafted by Bernard Shaw to have his sentence reduced. Aubrey Beardsley, who had illustrated Salome´, declined to draw for the Yellow Book, the chief journal of the Aestheticism movement, as long as Wilde was published there.25 To parry stigma, his wife changed their sons’ names and in her will forbade Wilde to ever see them again. Wilde’s few remaining years in France were those of solitude and penury.

Scandals are, in part, structurally determined. The cultural attitudes of the Victorians toward the publicity of sex; the fame and high status of Oscar Wilde; and the dense networks within the Victorian elite that connected Queensberry, Wilde, and Rosebery affected the externalities that would be generated when Wilde’s sexuality was made public. But scandals also give rise to a strategic interaction where parties respond to and attempt to manipulate such externalities. During such episodes, the parties respond more to others’ prior public handling of disgrace than to the transgression underlying the scandal. Hence, the unfolding of scandals cannot be reduced to sociological variables, and the strategic and sequential wielding and warding off of disgrace renders scandals path dependent.26

25 All this was unavailing, however. The Aestheticism movement, tarred in toto by the

Wilde scandal, petered out soon after Wilde’s conviction (Sturgis 1995). 26 For a cogent critique of the variables approach in sociology and a potent plea for the irreducible temporality of social phenomena, see Abbott (2001).

The piteous fortune of Wilde was particularly path dependent. Wilde would most probably not have been tried if he had not himself initiated the legal process by suing Queensberry—even though the writer would have nevertheless probably been attacked in public by the peer, which would have brought upon the dramatist some social censure. Wilde’s homosexuality was already common knowledge in London. But the allegations in the libel trial granted unavoidable publicity to Wilde’s homosexuality by imposing it simultaneously onto the audiences and authorities who had until then reasons for ignoring it, and who would have incurred costs for denouncing it. Nevertheless, Wilde could have won his libel trial if he had not appeared as a provocateur during his cross-examination. He would at least have been exempt from the moral blitz of the opinion leaders and thereby would have later elided the repercussions of their collective fury on the judicial process. It was the confluence of Wilde’s legal rout with the contamination of the Victorian elite in the libel trial that led to the criminal prosecution of the author. Here, contingency played a part. Many Victorian libel cases bared the seamy doings and dealings of elite families to the general public. Yet it was an evitable vicissitude of the Wilde scandal that the Queensberry letters were read in court. Once Lord Rosebery was fatefully tied to the affair, this specific externality, with an overwhelming thrust, forced the authorities to distance themselves from it through zealous prosecution and adjudication. Finally, had Wilde not been prosecuted or sentenced, or had he left the country during his trials, the reactions he would have had to endure would have been much more temperate. It was, in large part, the legal process that adversely altered the incentives of various Victorian groups and caused their volt-face.

CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS For the Victorians, the publicity of homosexuality contaminated third parties and the public sphere as a whole and was thought to yield deleterious provocative and normalizing consequences. Sanctioning instances of homosexuality would entail its publicity and thereby create a scandal. Homosexual acts committed in private were thus undersanctioned by authorities and audiences even when such acts were common knowledge. This was especially the case with elite offenders, since high status multiplied the externalities of the publicity of homosexuality. And audiences and authorities were contaminated—as well as provoked—when Wilde’s well-known homosexuality was unavoidably made public in the course of his legal ordeals. These externalities gave rise to a process of strategic interaction among those affected. During this process, the authorities were stirred to signal resolve and rectitude to the general norm audience through extraordinary zeal. The official acts, in turn, welded the already provoked norm audience against the author. Hence, the very factors that undergirded the underenforcement of homosexuality norms in Victorian England bred overenforcement once Wilde’s transgression became inescapably public.

This article proposed a phenomenology of scandal as the disruptive publicity of transgression, which revealed that much of norm work and reactions to deviance in society are profoundly molded by the externalities that are generated when transgressions are publicized. In doing so, I showed that publicity is a sui generis social force that radically transforms the meanings and effects of transgressions. Through developing these conceptions of scandal and publicity, I also sought to emphasize the dramaturgical nature of the public sphere, which, in the recent literature following Habermas (1989), tends to be seen through normative and rosy lenses as a merely critical and deliberative domain.

My phenomenology goes beyond an account of how scandals affect the actions of those who come into contact with them. It also makes predictions regarding the frequency of scandals in different social systems. We saw that the anticipation of negative externalities augmented the costs of denouncing homosexuals in Victorian England and resulted in underenforcement. The same logic also applies to political scandals and would explain their escalation during the recent decades in the Western countries. To the extent that political institutions possess sacredness in the Durkheimian sense, publicizing damaging information about those who represent them is costly for the public who is hurt or offended by the contamination of the state and the resulting disruptions of the political process. In the face of such externalities, legal and social norms will erect obstacles and costs for scandalmongers who would face disapproval from the norm audience for engaging in ethical aggression against the political elite and thereby sullying the august institutions they embody. The threshold of evidence and of the gravity of the transgression necessary to make a successful denunciation of a high-status political actor will be high. The relative inviolability of the political institutions will not only insure substantial immunity for the actors who stand for them; it will also arm public officials with redoubtable resources of riposte and deterrence— resources that may be legitimate as well as illegitimate—against scandalmongers.

Hence, there is reason to think that the upsurge in political scandal activity during the recent decades in the West has required the profanation of political authority as its main enabling condition. The waning prestige of political institutions (a process that started with the Vietnam War in the United States), the declining dependence of the public on the state (reinforced by the end of the Cold War, the rise of globalization, and the spread of neoliberal economic policies), and the increasing transparency to which politicians and the decision-making process have been subject, have, in empirically variable degrees, profaned political authority. As the profanation has relatively decreased the externalities of political scandals, the public’s discretion and tolerance threshold for wrongdoing by political actors have also dropped. The result is that the political actors have been rendered ever more vulnerable to scandal mongering and moral flak by colleagues, media, and legal actors. Once established, the climate of scandal has, in turn, further accelerated the profanation process.27

The Victorian case also illustrates that the very repulsiveness of a transgression for a norm audience can at times cause underenforcement in view of its externalities when publicized. Hence, the softening of sentiments toward an offense, by abating the externalities of its publicity, can give rise to souped-up societal sanctioning. This mechanism applies above all to the case of taboo-like transgressions and offers clues into why contemporary American politics is routinely plagued with sex scandals. Although many see the latter as the expression of some antiquated puritanism in the American psyche, the phenomenon seems, on the contrary, to be partly an unintended upshot of sexual liberalization in a context of degraded political authority. After all, a much more austere America from the late 19th century until the 1960s witnessed almost no sexual scandals involving political actors (Summers 2000).

The relative attenuation of the sexual puritanism of Americans since the early 1960s has made the publicity of sex considerably less contaminating for much of the national audience. One by-product of the radical ease with which contemporary Americans talk about sex in public is that the individual and collective costs of making accusations of sexual misconduct about political actors have dramatically dwindled. Of course, the relaxation of sexual mores means that fewer people are outraged (and somewhat less so) when scandals occur. But this trend has been far outpaced by the rate at which sex talk has been normalized, if not banalized, both for the accusers and the audiences.

Scandals are often brushed aside as ephemeral or epiphenomenal. Yet they can occasionally be very consequential, and it is only if we approach scandal by the externalities caused by the publicity of transgressions that we can then comprehend its socially creative powers. As it is borne out by evidence from the last decades of the French ancien re´gime (Darnton 1995) and post-Watergate United States (Garment 1991), the contaminating effects of a self-reproducing spate of scandals can help whittle

27 For a detailed study of this process in the contemporary French context, see Adut (2004).

away at the prestige of political institutions as a whole. Or, by dint of the provocations and normalizations they bring about, scandals can transform norms and spawn social change. For instance, Luther’s public heresy— his defiant burning of a papal bull and a copy of the canon law in 1520— was a founding moment in the history of the Protestant Reformation. Similarly, the provocative exhibition of Manet’s De´jeneur sur l’herbe in 1863, which was denounced as an affront to decency and good taste by the artistic establishment and bourgeois public, prompted modernism’s rise to prominence. Combining disruptiveness with salience, scandals like Watergate or the Dreyfus affair can galvanize popular passions (Posner 1999), become central references in the collective consciousness of societies (Birnbaum 1994; Schudson 1992), and function as “historical events” transforming social structures (Sewell 1995). It is because of the disruptive potential of scandals that sundry actors—from private citizens, to the press, to painters, to prosecutors—routinely resort to them for opportunistic as well as moral purposes. This also explains why, at the same time, individuals and collectivities of all sizes are constantly, if only surreptitiously, regulating themselves and each other to avert scandals.

The general theory of scandal proposed in this article is not only useful because scandal is a common social phenomenon that is at once significant in itself and insofar as it unveils the dramaturgical logic of the public sphere. Scandal is also a protean form governing the dynamics of seemingly very disparate occurrences like religious heresies, publicity stunts, political purges, artistic provocations and controversies, acts of civil disobedience, causes ce´le`bres, electoral campaigns, moral crusades, Goffmanesque interactional disturbances, and whistle-blowing incidents. Much of social conflict, to the extent that it takes place in public, feeds on scandal or takes on its overall features. Theorizing scandal permits us to appreciate the principal role that publicity and transgression play together in social reproduction, conflict, and change.


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