Thursday, February 03, 2011

Review: Queer Attachments

[Sally R. Munt. Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007.]

In the reading and thinking about shame I've begun in the last little while, this book is the first I've encountered that primarily approaches the topic via cultural studies rather than psychoanalytic theory. I like this rather a lot. As even quite individualistic analyses of shame generally have to admit, it is extremely social in character -- there is this sense of being seen to be deficient, disgusting, lacking, evil, whether by an actual observer or an imagined one that has been created within us by years of social training. Along with my dubiousness about some of the epistemological bases of psychoanalysis, its inability to really deal with the social character of shame means its use to me will likely remain limited. Even better, though this book does still occasionally lapse into the over-the-topness I sometimes associate with cultural studies -- self-satisfied academic cleverness that makes too much of too little -- it is committed to a relatively grounded, materialist version of cultural studies, and one that is quite attentive to class. I like it because it talks about shame as experiences in and between bodies, as things that actually happen and can be observed and felt and reported.

Shame can, of course, be a very individual experience in response to very immediate, local circumstances. It isn't even entirely negative -- if I were to do something deliberately harmful to someone else, it would be entirely appropriate and socially useful for me to feel shame afterwards. And a general impulse to avoid shame is likely one factor among a larger constellation that ensures that most of us, most of the time, are very unlikely to engage in behaviour that is patently harmful or anti-social. Yet shame is much more than this. It is a social phenomenon that marks people into groups, often in ways that are the product of histories of violent domination. Queers, people living in poverty, people who are racialized, are targeted for shaming in all kinds of ways, both everyday and spectacular, and strategically mobilized shame is a powerful mechanism through which relations of gender oppression have their nasty impact. Yet even this painful, oppressive shame can be the basis among those it targets for a shift of its energy in more positive, socially productive directions. Shame's travels and functioning can be hard to discern, however, both in ourselves and socially. Munt describes shame as a "sticky emotion," one that adheres easily to other negative emotions which can sometimes mask its presence as the driving energy in a given situation. She also emphasizes the capacity of shame to circulate, move, and transfer; the one who is shamed often lets it leak out in unpredictable ways, imposing it on others, and further transmitting it.

She sees in shame, both in the individual experience in the moment and in the larger social phenomenon, a turning away. You feel yourself socially marked as deficient, disgusting, unworthy, and you turn your eyes away and blush. In that moment, there is a disattachment in the micro-level social relation with the one who shamed you. As well, shame is not just acute and painful in individual experience, but it lingers. The impact of past shames, the need to avoid future shames, can run strong and deep through the self, organizing and driving it, sometimes in ways that are recognized but not necessarily so, and this too can promote disattachment from those around you in order to avoid future shames. This drive to disattachment, to turn away from human connection and from the attachments that have shaped you up to that point, can lead to abjection, even to death. It can be among the most painful of emotions. Yet in that moment of turning away, of disattachment, there is also potential. Even as it disciplines you, the social regulation that evokes shame disconnects you, at least partially, at least momentarily, from the relation through which the shaming social regulation has been transmitted. In that disconnection, there is some space for agency and for something new to emerge. If you survive, it is sometimes possible to transform self, to reorient one's self with respect to the acts from others that cause shame, and to develop new attachments, horizontal attachments, attachments of solidarity and support and pride. Munt sees this as an important part of many of the liberation movements that arose as part of the New Left wave of struggle.

She sees potential pitfalls in politics forged in shame, however. Such politics can take many different paths, of course, but one tendency -- one that tends to be actively supported by ruling relations that seek to fragment and co-opt resistance -- can make it difficult to achieve the broader solidarity that is necessary for fundamental change. The sort of reattachment and pride that can flow from oppression experienced in significant part by shame does not necessarily but can result in an overinvestment in specific experiences of injury and the need for sameness as a basis for struggle, and in deemphasis of building a better world from below in collective ways. That is, oppressions based in shame can fragment solidarity, even when those who have been oppressed and shamed have moved into an active phase of resistance, into pride. I don't think Munt is careful enough about contextualizing this observation, given how easily privileged folks (even on the left) can turn it into an oppressive dismissal of identity-based resistance in general, erasing its importance in the lives of so many people and its essential role in building more general struggles. But it is still a danger that can crop up and that must be worked through by participants in the process of building solidarity across differences in experience and politics. She points out, as well, how the particular kind of struggle that can result from responses to shaming can also produce politics based in claims to rights that are premised on maintaining the dominant and normative as dominant and normative, rather than tearing down those harmful ideas and the practices which support them.

Still, the fact that shame is a common experience across many different but intersecting oppressions is a possible source of hope and strength. Munt uses Raymond Williams' idea of the "structure of feeling" to get at the idea that the social organization and regulation of lives cannot help but (socially) produce related emotional experiences. Shame may be created in different ways in different groups, and is inevitably experienced in vastly different ways even within those treated as homogenously shameful by the dominant gaze, but there are still a number of ways in which solidarity can flow from this. Reciprocal empathy for the shared pain of shame can be one basis. Analagous and actually-the-same aspects of the social organization of shame can be another one, and is perhaps a more practical basis for alliance. And the dominant tendency to blur shames together in dominant systems of meaning, which is not unconnected to the actual, material tendency for shame to circulate and transfer and "stick," can create links where they might otherwise not exist. In this particular book, Munt is interested in exploring class, sexuality, and (white) ethnicity -- in particular, the intertwined shames of poverty, queerness, and Irish Catholicness in the dominant culture, primarily in the U.K. I think unearthing some of these imposed and/or potentially actively embraced connections is essential to building the kind of broader solidarities that shame can fragment.

As one might expect given its cultural studies orientation, this book looks at quite a number of case studies to explore all of these themes. It uses specific cultural artifacts as examples to illustrate tendencies and practices and dynamics in the broader society. These range quite widely. The first is Edmund Burke's plea for clemency in the British Parliament for the Earl of Castlehaven, an 18th century noble convicted of sodomitcal acts, which Munt uses to illustrate how the very act of seeking less harsh punishment for such things served as a step in their rhetorical reorganization from evil acts to be punished into manifestation of selves that deserve to be shamed and, later on, as the basis for essences that express a particular kind of pride. She also talks about struggles by queer Irish-Americans for inclusion in the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade in the '80s and '90s. This was interesting, and something I'd never heard about before, though I did think that there was something off about her characterization of the Irish-American diaspora, perhaps as a result of applying understandings of the social organization of race and ethnicity from the British context that are not quite on the mark when it comes to North America. The book goes on to move through discussions of lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness, the British TV series Queer as Folk and Shameless, the U.S. American series Six Feet Under, interpersonal and political dynamics within academic Lesbian Studies, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and British artist Tracey Emin. All were interesting, though it was particularly cool to hear her thoughts about the cultural products I'm more familiar with -- QAF, SFU, and HDM.

I'm not sure who exactly I would recommend read this book. It certainly isn't a movement book, it's an academic one. Yet given the way that shame happens, in our movements no less than anywhere else, I think this general line of study -- including this approach, including this book -- can certainly be read in ways that are movement-relevant. I learned about this from an academic review essay that a friend forwarded to me, and I am certainly encouraged to track down some of the other books it discusses.

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

1 comment:

Scott said...

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