Humiliation (BIG IDEAS//small books)
“There is no shame in reading this innovative and thoughtful work. Humiliation is an embarrassment of riches.”
It is a sure bet that you will not find any other work in which amputee anal sex, Kristeva’s post-structural semiotics, and Wittgenstein’s philosophy of ordinary language all coexist with equanimity in the same paragraph.
My interest in reviewing this book was completely prurient. Wouldn’t it be fun to read a book about scandals; to observe a wreck; to be a “lookie loo” as they say in California traffic reports, or a “rubbernecker” as they call them on the right coast?
Wayne Kostenbaum has written five books as a poet, one as a novelist, and six as a critic. He is a Professor of English at CUNY, and a Visiting Professor in the Yale Art Department. It is pretty obvious from the book cover’s short description of the author that my secret desires for a trashy mindless read are not to be.
Should I be humiliated that I have admitted my base reading tastes, or am I liberated by admitting to them and laying claim to them? No one can use those words against me now. They are mine. But perhaps the meaning below the surface is still open to disagreement (or deconstruction). It is the role of an artist (and, one would imagine, an author) to bare his soul and face humiliation.
Humiliation implies three roles: the person who is humiliated, the humiliator, and we gawkers. Can a person be humiliated if there is no one around to pass judgment? What if she simply imagines the judgment? What if she does not care what others think of her? Humiliation depends upon intersubjective domination within a social structure.
These various topics are covered in numbered paragraphs, and grouped into what you and I might call chapters, but Professor Koestenbaum calls “fugues.” He explains that a fugue state “is a mentally unbalanced condition of dissociated wandering away from one’s own identity.” I am sure that I would understand the classical references embodied by this structure had I not been daydreaming in my college English courses. But I am embarrassed to say that I lack the critical knowledge required to explain this structuring of critical deconstruction. I am humiliated.
As we get to the body of the book, the fugues and paragraphs become longer. The text begins to consider in more depth the concept of humiliation and some instances to illustrate it. The illustrative instances are the text (and sometimes the fun nasty bits) that serve as a basis for social criticism. For instance, when we look at photographs of lynchings, are we adding to the humiliation of the victims? (Can a body, incapable of feeling humiliated, be the subject of humiliation?) Humiliation is laying open one’s insides for public viewing, and the corpse is its ultimate expression. There should be judgment involved in the subjectivity of humiliation, but perhaps not the way one would jump to think. The judgment is on those who would feel disdain or titillation or superiority, when it is clear that compassion is more appropriate. The concert pianist who has such a fear of public performance that she vomits on the keyboard is humiliated. She has brought forth what is inside her for public view. And why is this so shameful? How can she suffer humiliation when logic calls for compassion? We demand of all artists that they open themselves to us, but in such an extraordinarily restricted and prescribed manner that we can expect most of their inside nasty parts to remain decently hidden from view.
For the author, humiliation is redemption. When we bring forth our insides, we own them. We rearrogate the social norms by which we are disciplined (humiliated) for exposing ourselves. We can turn humiliation on its head; and we ought to. When former child stars are exposed for suffering from alcoholism, or even for allegedly molesting children, where is our judgmentalism toward the industry that exploits children—the sweatshops of popular culture that demand of children they “play” the part of youth? When a politician is exposed for the “scandalous” behavior of being a sexual human being, do we ask ourselves why public figures should be any different from the rest of us? Should we not judge the gawking public? And as private citizens, who exactly wrote the manual that defines sexuality and requires monogamy? The good news is that Professor Koestenbaum’s work helps us to lay bare these arbitrary norms so that we can retake them. The bad news is that transgressing those boundaries will be much less fun when they no longer define the borders of scandal.
A post-literary spasm considers the poetry of Artaud, and then Basquiat as a philosopher of language. After an intellectual tour de force, it seems oh-so-2000-and-late. Or perhaps it is really interesting, and I simply lack the patience to try to understand it. Who should be humiliated?
The author concludes in a fugue that exposes his own humiliation. We now understand that we are eavesdropping on someone performing a bodily function. There is no reason to be embarrassed by biological functions, but perhaps there is good reason to humiliate the person listening in. There is no shame in reading this innovative and thoughtful work. Humiliation is an embarrassment of riches.