Approach and Avoid
A new book discusses the power and fascination of humiliation. Scott McLemee can't look away.
In 1939, the French anthropologist Michel Leiris published a memoir called Manhood in which he undertook an inventory of his own failures, incapacities, physical defects, bad habits, and psychosexual quirks. It is a triumph of abject self-consciousness. And the subtitle, “A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility,” seems to heighten the cruelty of the author’s self-mockery. Leiris portrays himself as a wretched specimen: machismo’s negation.
But in fact the title was not ironic, or at least not merely ironic. It was a claim to victory. “Whoever despises himself, still respects himself as one who despises,” as Nietzsche put it. In an essay Leiris wrote when the book was reissued after World War II, he described it as an effort to turn writing into a sort of bullfight: “To expose certain obsessions of an emotional or sexual nature, to admit publicly to certain deficiencies or dismays was, for the author, the means – crude, no doubt, but which he entrusts to others, hoping to see it improved – of introducing even the shadow of the bull’s horn into a literary work.”
By that standard, Leiris made the most broodingly taciturn character in Hemingway look like a total wuss.
The comment about passing along a technique to others -- “hoping to see it improved” -- now seems cringe-making in its own way. Leiris was addressing a small audience consisting mainly of other writers. The prospect of reality TV, online confessionals, or the industrialized production of memoirs would never have crossed his mind. He hoped his literary method -- a kind of systematic violation of the author's own privacy -- would develop as others experimented with it. Instead, the delivery systems have improved. They form part of the landscape Wayne Koestenbaum surveys in Humiliation, the latest volume in Picador’s Big Ideas/Small Books series.
Koestenbaum, a poet and essayist, is a professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a visiting professor in the painting department of the Yale School of Art. The book is an assemblage of aphoristic fragments, notes on American popular culture and its cult of celebrity, and reflections on the psychological and social dynamics of humiliation – with a few glances at how writing, or even language itself, can expose the self to disgrace. It’s unsystematic, but in a good way. Just because the author never quotes Erving Goffman or William Ian Miller is no reason to think they aren’t on his mind. “I’m writing this book,” he says early on, “in order to figure out – for my own life’s sake – why humiliation is, for me, an engine, a catalyst, a cautionary tale, a numinous scene, producing sparks and showers…. Any topic, however distressing, can become an intellectual romance. Gradually approach it. Back away. Tentatively return.”
The experience of humiliation is inevitable, short of a life spent in solitary confinement, and I suppose everyone ends up dishing it out as well as taking it, sooner or later. But that does not make the topic universally interesting. The idea of reading (let alone writing) almost two hundred pages on the subject will strike many people as strange or revolting. William James distinguished between “healthy mindedness” (the temperament inclined to “settl[ing] scores with the more evil aspects of the universe by systematically declining to lay them to heart or make much of them…. or even, on occasion, by denying outright that they exist”) and “sick souls” (which “cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil, but are congenitally fated to suffer from its presence”). Koestenbaum’s readers are going to come from just one side of that divide.
But then, one of the James’s points is that the sick soul tends to see things more clearly than the robust cluelessness of the healthy-minded ever permits. As a gay writer -- and one who, moreover, was taken to be a girl when he was young, and told that he looked like Woody Allen as an adult -- Koestenbaum has a kind of sonar for detecting plumes of humiliation beneath the surface of ordinary life.
He coins an expression to name “the somberness, or deadness, that appears on the human face when it has ceased to entertain the possibility that another person exists.” He calls it the Jim Crow gaze – the look in the eyes of a lynching party in group photos from the early 20th century, for example. But racial hatred is secondary to “the willingness to desubjectify the other person” – or, as Koestenbaum puts it more sharply, “to treat someone else as garbage.” What makes this gaze especially horrific is that the person wearing it can also be smiling. (The soldier giving her thumbs-up gesture while standing next to naked, hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib.) The smile “attests to deadness ... you are humiliated by the refusal, evident in the aggressor’s eyes, to see you as sympathetic, to see you as a worthy, equal subject.”
Deliberate and violent degradation is the extreme case. But the dead-eyed look, the smirk of contempt, are common enough to make humiliation a kind of background radiation of everyday social existence, and intensified through digital communication “by virtue of its impersonality…its stealth attack.” An embarrassing moment in private becomes a humiliating experience forever if it goes viral on YouTube.
“The Internet is the highway of humiliation,” Koestenbaum writes. “Its purpose is to humiliate time, to turn information (and the pursuit of information) into humiliation.” This seems overstated, but true. The thought of Google owning everyone’s search histories is deeply unsettling. The sense of privacy may die off completely one day, but for now the mass media, and reality TV most of all, work to document its final twitches of agony. “Many forms of entertainment harbor this ungenerous wish: to humiliate the audience and to humiliate the performer, all of us lowered into the same (supposedly pleasurable) mosh pit.”
A study of humiliation containing no element of confession would be a nerveless book indeed. Koestenbaum is, like Leiris, a brave writer. The autobiographical portions of the book are unflinching, though flinch-inducing. There are certain pages here that, once read, cannot be unread, including one that involves amputee porn. No disrespect to amputees intended, and the human capacity to eroticize is probably boundless; but Koesternbaum's describes a practice it never would have occurred to me as being possible. With hindsight, I was completely O.K. with that, but it's too late to get the image out of my head now.
Humiliation counts on “shame’s power to undo boundaries between individuals,” which is also something creativity does. That phrase comes from Koestenbaum tribute to the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick towards the end of the book. He evokes the memory of her friendship at least as much as the importance of her foundational work in queer theory – though on reflection, I’m not so sure it makes sense to counterpose them. Kosofsky’s ideas permeate the book; she was, like Koestenbaum, also a poet; and Humiliation may owe something to A Dialogue on Love, the most intimate of her writings.
But it’s more reckless and disturbing, because the author plays off of his audience's own recollections of humiliation, and even with the reader's capacity for disgust. There’s a kind of crazy grace to Koestenbaum’s writing. He moves like a matador working the bull into ever greater rage -- then stepping out of the path of danger in the shortest possible distance, at the last possible moment, with a flourish.
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