The Art of Shame

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Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation considers the humiliations of our lives and culture – from Liza Minelli to Eliot Spitzer to his own father.

Wayne Koestenbaum’s short book, Humiliation, is a provocative piece of writing.

As Koestenbaum considers humiliation from multiple angles, he thrusts and parries, sticks and moves, riffs, makes connections and then denies them, offers hypotheses and then lets them hang in the air, reveals himself and then hides. And there is much here to argue or take issue with, to be offended or moved or enlightened by. But mostly, it’s just a wonderful ride that implicates both the reader and author in fascinating ways at nearly every point along the way.

The book is made up entirely of numbered paragraphs set off in sections, ranging from simple sentences (“I used to consider my father humiliated when he pooped in the bathroom, especially if I could smell it afterward.”) to three or four page analyses or riffs.   The numbered paragraphs are organized into eleven chapters, which Koestenbaum calls “fugues,” an apt name, as he explains in an early parenthetical: “(I call these excursions ‘fugues’ not only because I want the rhetorical license offered by invoking counterpoint but because ‘fugue state’ is a mentally unbalanced condition of dissociated wandering away from one’s own identity.)”

Identity is almost a secondary theme here; along with art, identity often awaits on the other side of humiliation, a possibility for redemption. The book feels nearly reductive at first—everything, from reality television to all television to any kind of violence to language itself is seen in terms of humiliation. “’Humiliation’” means ‘to be made humble.’ To be made human? ‘Human’ and ‘humiliation’ do not share an etymological root, but even in Latin the two words—humanus and humiliato—suggestively share a prefix.” Note the trick Koestenbaum is playing: he has suggested an association even while admitting it doesn’t etymologically exist. This works in at least a couple ways—first, he has planted this association in the reader’s brain, to flower throughout the book, and second, and just as significantly, he has told us that for Koestenbaum himself, this association is unavoidable.

The reductive feeling does not last and the book quickly moves in the opposite direction, toward a sort of expansion: humiliation as entry point into so much of modern culture, art, writing, violence, and yes, humanity. In our world today, we cannot help being witnesses to humiliation—in the scandals of our politicians, the exposes of our celebrities, the actions of our military—and, as witnesses, we are almost definitionally culpable as well. At the same time he is moving laterally, Koestenbaum is diving relentlessly deeper, into himself, and into the work and lives of a number of his own touchstone artists and celebrities. Even when the subject is not explicitly himself—and it frequently is—we never lose sight of the guiding intelligence and personality behind the associations. And what an intelligence it is! With language that frequently borders on the aphoristic (“The instrument of humiliation—or merely its sheath—is geniality.”), Humiliation is a tour d force of language and logic, and if it frustrates the attempt to trace a single line of argument, its rewards are plentiful—part coming of age story, part cultural critique, part psychological exploration, part art criticism, part literature review.

Koestenbaum applies his mostly sympathetic attention to such celebrities as Michael Jackson, Liza Minelli, Judy Garland, Alec Baldwin, Eliot Spitzer and his wife. He takes up the case of Lynndie England, and her leering smile. For Koestenbaum, the very fact of being humiliated lends sympathy, but he almost always sees the one who does the humiliating as humiliated too. He often uses a Freudian lens, but nobody and nothing is allowed a definitive last word here. He predictably relishes the work of Jean Genet and Marquis de Sade. “The Marquis de Sade piles up humiliations, and I aim to do the same.” Humiliation is seen not just as grist for the mill of art, but almost as a necessary part of the process of art-making itself, whereby the self must be obliterated.  He lingers on John Keats, Sylvia Plath, Saartjie Baartman, Oscar Wilde, Harriet Jacobs, Antonin Artaud (whom he describes as “My favorite humiliated artist and writer”) and he reserves a special place for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, late friend and colleague, who he credits with pioneering “shame studies.” In addition to a prolific writer, Koestenbaum has also served as a visiting professor in the painting department of the Yale School of Art and his considerations of visual artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn Ligon, and the intersections they inhabit between language, visual art and humiliation, are particularly fascinating.

Koestenbaum moves deftly between nearly academic argument and personal humiliation, and the graphicness of some of this material has put off some reviewers, but I find his associations and juxtapositions much more disquieting than any of the personal details he reveals.

I have made several attempts to integrate the following fact into a paragraph about Liza Minnelli, but I have not been successful. Indeed the attempt to integrate the following fact into a discussion of Liza might easily be characterized, by a witness, as obscene. Liza’s humiliation—if we call it that—has nothing in common with the nightmare experienced by a prisoner in Guantanamo, a man named Mohammed al Qahtani, who, according to the Senate Armed Services Committee (reported by the New York Times, December 17, 2008) “had been threatened with military dogs, deprived of sleep for weeks, stripped naked and made to wear a leash and perform dog tricks.” The interrogative technique, the Times tells us, is known as “pride and ego down,” from the U.S. Army Field Manual on Interrogation (FM 34-52): the technique’s purpose (writes the Times) is to use “humiliation to try to overcome a person’s resistance.” There is no need to integrate this awful fact into a paragraph about a star’s downfall and rise; we are, however burdened with a consciousness that can be aware, simultaneously, of different levels of suffering, from the mild to the unspeakable, a progression we can’t call a continuum, although the same human body contains the dreadful potential for every variety of “dog trick.”

Note the similarity to the logic of the previous quoted section about etymology. And note, too, the similar provocation. He is denying the association, even as he is making it, castigating the very continuum that he is setting up for us. In fact, I was wary of quoting it here, out of context, for fear that it would, indeed, sound obscene. The truth is that by the time the reader has reached this point in the book, carried along by Koestenbaum’s fugues, it seems just right—it isa continuum that should be both posited and denied. The very next numbered section, immediately after a page break, begins suggestively, provocatively, damningly: “I enjoy looking at porn, mostly gay male, especially when the model looks directly in the viewer’s eyes.” To say that he is venturing into dangerous territory here seems redundant.

This book, indeed Koestenbaum, himself, seem like uniquely contemporary phenomena. He was weaned, he claims, on television, and proves himself fluent in the language of reality television and the debased star. He refers to YouTube as “my shame-kiln” and talks about experiences with internet porn and Craigslist. Yet there is something resolutely old-fashioned about him, in his need to make meaning of everything, to cut through the surface stimulation in search—always, always—of understanding.

Perhaps that’s why I felt a little disappointed by the last fugue. I wanted, and expected, Koestenbaum to move more deeply within, to perform the same kind of analysis on himself that he performs on Jean Genet, and arrive at some sort of primal moment. Though the last fugue does indeed turn personal, it does so in a nearly comprehensive, rather than incisive, way. He has written earlier about “the experience I consider the model for all humiliations I’ve seen or endured,” the paddling of the naked bottom of a childhood classmate, but the experience is someone else’s and it doesn’t come close to explaining why this moment is so primal for Koestenbaum. The last fugue teases, but at many key moments, including the last numbered section, the shots fired are fired across someone else’s bow. For all his talk throughout the book of his own humiliation, Koestenbaum pulls up just short of using himself as the ultimate test case. It’s the right flavor, I just wanted more, and, especially as relates to the subject of humiliation, that may be Koestenbaum’s final provocation—one that it’s hard not to be implicated by—and thus, also his final statement.

Daniel Stolar is the author of the short story collection The Middle of the Night. His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in a number of literary magazines. He teaches at DePaul University in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. More from this author →