Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review: Shame and Sexuality

[Claire Pajaczkowska and Ivan Ward, editors. Shame and Sexuality: Psychoanalysis and Visual Culture. New York: Routledge, 2008.]

Shame is a very unpleasant individual experience. Shame and its mobilization are also an important element of the processes which socially regulate behaviour and thereby help to maintain oppressive forms of social organization. This book is not, therefore, as far off the beaten track of this blog as it might first appear. Moreover, shame is part of one of the broad thematic clusters which I decided to explore in reading and writing after finishing my book project, both because of its personal relevance to me and because of its social importance. Reading and reviewing this book is, therefore, both an effort to think through some of my own experiences but also a step in developing a better understanding of shame so as to be able to write insightfully about it.

I'm not sure how far down the path of reflecting on this issue that this book has really taken me, though. Neither am I sure that what I'm writing here is specific enough to the book in question to count as a review. I am beginning from the multiple disadvantages not only of the hesitance about writing from experience that comes with excessive shame, but also my relative ignorance of the two scholarly discourses at the heart of this book and my significant skepticism about one of those. Nonetheless, I will proceed.

Shame and Sexuality is a collection of academic essays. Most of the essays draw on psychoanalytic theory and some of them also draw on visual cultural criticism. This pairing is based in part on the connection between shame and the visual -- an overwhelming need not to be seen can be part of the experience of acute shame, and habits of limiting one's visibility are common strategies for avoiding such acute experiences among those who are prone to shame. However, I also get the sense that it is a combination that the editors see as clever and a bit daring. And in principle, it seems like a worthwhile approach.

However, like I said, I don't know much about either of those things. I know a little bit about cultural criticism in general, but very little about how it applies to visual culture. As a writer, I tend to pay a lot more attention to narrative forms. That includes media with a visual component, like graphic novels or television, but I feel out of my depth when it comes to non-narrative (or not-obviously-narrative) visual arts. Still, I have an interest in and sympathy for the inherently imprecise and unstable efforts to understand the symbolic and discursive aspects of the social world, so in principle I'm open to learning more about visual culture and how to understand it critically.

I know similarly little about psychoanalytic theory. I've encountered it, certainly -- I have run across some discussion of it as it relates to therapeutic practice, particularly in the reading I did to prepare for the chapter I wrote about anti-psychiatry organizing in Toronto in the '70s and '80s, and I've had tangential encounters with the high falutin theorizing to which it gave birth in the context of the (particularly French) academy. So my reservations about it may be a result of my ignorance. However, I still hold those reservations.

My experience of psychoanalytic theory in this book was similar to my previous encounters in that there were specific moments and specific insights that resonated with my own experience or with the analysis of self and the social that I already hold. I like the close attention to experience and to listening that is at least one of the places where psychoanalysis grounds itself. I like that it sees the self as dynamic and as formed by experience (and therefore through social relations, even if many of what I would consider to be the interesting political implications of this are largely not of interest to psychoanlaytic theory), and that it sees the self as not the kind of simplistic unity implied by much liberal-democratic theory. I respect the fact that clinical outcomes do give it a kind of practical grounding -- if your analysis allows you to help people with the issues in question, then there must be something to it.

However, for all of its close attention to experience, psychoanalytic theory seems to me to take on a mantle of certainty, of a kind of knowledge production based on reproducible external events that gets associated in our culture with science, when in fact it is a very different kind of project. There are plenty of places where something that is out-and-out not observable is described in a way that makes it seem like the author regards the description as settled fact, such as the processes of the development of self in very young children. It seems to me like meaning in this area and others is created out of close observation of adults mixed with guesswork and large helpings of ideology to create stories that cover up the unknowable, and also that sometimes seem to generalize the particular. Perhaps I'm being too harsh, and perhaps some or all of this is that I don't know enough about how the foundations of psychoanalytic knowledge came to be. But there are still things presented as settled fact, or at least as solid explanation, in psychoanalytic theory where the underpinnings that are presented are not, in my judgment, sufficient to support the conclusions drawn.

Yet where should I turn in search of theory to understand shame in ways that sensibly ties together the scales from my own personal experience to highest level of social organization? What resources are there for those of us who refuse to ignore the social embededness of our lives to theorize what goes on inside of us as part of that whole? I haven't discounted psychoanalytic theory as potentially useful -- that is, I'm open to learning more about it -- but I want some other options too.

I will be thinking and reading and writing more about this.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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