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Over the past 8 months, I’ve been on a slow but steady weight loss plan and, in the New Year, wrote those goals down for the sake of reflecting on them externally. While I don’t exactly want to share what weight range I’m shooting for and what losses I’ve had, I do think losing weight has made me think about bodies, the pain one experiences as a body, and the effects of the changing shape of one’s body.

My weight loss goals were primarily assented to because of a sense of loss. All growing up and in college I was extremely active and played sports. I loved playing football especially, and continued that play in college and graduate school on intramural flag football teams. In the last year of my masters program, I learned I had arthritis in my hip (and had it for a while, apparently) because of a no longer ignorable level of pain when I would walk.

Beginning to see myself as a person with disability has had several levels. The reasons I took so long to see a doctor are manifold. One is that I have a (what I consider healthy) level of fear around doctors and the kinds of power differences that exist between doctors and patients (especially women and patients of color). My experiences of the medical field were colored by childhood and adult experiences of doctors (dentists too!) shaming me (or my parents) for failure to meet the norms of health in various fields. The judgement that doctors would frequently make explicit as though we were simply too stupid to be healthy (rather than perhaps too poor to afford regular dental checkups or doctors visits which would prevent more serious issues) made me extremely skeptical of most advice doctors had to offer as it was premised on ignoring the conditions that lead one (whether a poor/lower middle class child or a poor graduate student) to illness or pain in a capitalistic and oppressive economy.

Another reason I waited so long (I had the pain in my hip since my teenage years–albeit much much less pain than I now experience) was that I really valued being the tough girl and so was very invested in sucking up the pain and playing through it. I aspired to be seen as the tough girl so much so that, when my arthritis would flare up in my youth, I just adjusted my body in all kinds of ways to walk without pain. This bodily contortion to walk without pain mirrors in some way the psychic contortions that characterized my girlhood, attempting to perform the toughness equated with masculinity both as a way of aspiring to be included as one of the boys and because as a baby dyke, I simply liked physicality and experiencing certain levels of pain that occurred in the pleasure of play. That is, there were some personal desires woven into patriarchally imposed desires for toughness. It is intriguing to think about the ways my bodily failure to move in certain ways without pain always reminds me of my own girlhood failures of hiding pain. I was a very sensitive girl even as I tried to be tough, and I would often burst into tears during heated arguments because I felt so passionately (this is something I sometimes still do). In some way, then, experiencing both bodily and psychic pain points to the kinds of adaptation to failure that we perform. Both in aspiration to dominant norms (whether ability or patriarchy) and in ways that troubles those norms.

Following the loss of a certain level of ability was a loss of access to healthcare. Because I’d waited so long to see a doctor about my hip pain, my healthcare expired and we moved without real resolution of next steps in treating my arthritis. This lack of healthcare was compounded by the lack of any real social or economic support system in the place my partner and I moved to. It was a small rural town in Pennsylvania. I was the only black person in the town and we were the only out queer folk. We were both extremely depressed during those two years. I was unemployed for 8 months and my partner worked multiple part time jobs. Being in a much better social and economic situation now, it’s so clear to me how much my ability to commit to a weight loss plan is the product of both my partner and I having healthcare, having financial security, and having social support systems in place.

Is it possible that I could have lost weight while in an isolated and depressing place? Perhaps. I know people respond differently to isolation and depression. Some people might become more invested in intentionally shaping their bodies. For me, this is the complete opposite of how I cope. Working an exploitative entry-level job I hated, living in a social environment I hated where my primary valuable social interactions occurred online (thank god for WIT and Twitter) was such a mental and emotional drain that I was not capable of thinking about why I was eating 6 slices of pizza even though I was full. Indeed, the pleasure of eating and tasting food was one of the ways I made it through that isolating and depressing place. To me, then, it didn’t make sense in that context to lose weight and restrict how or what I was eating because it was one of the few pleasures I had in a very trying time for me.

The ways people moralize one’s weight have thus become even more clearly problematic to me. My ability to lose weight has come with my access to food security, housing stability, employment security, and healthcare security. Additionally, my social world has become something that can give me energy rather than draining it from me. All this to say, there are a multiplicity of reasons why one might not be able to lose weight or might not want to lose weight. Part of the thing food and economic security give me is the knowledge that there will be more good food in my future so I don’t need to eat as much of it as I can. This was certainly not my mindset when I was unemployed for 8 months or when I was a grad student barely able to cover my bills. Funnily enough, the only time I lost weight in graduate school was the summer I qualified for SNAP benefits and knew my food was secure and wasn’t burdening my finances so I didn’t need to eat as many of the sandwiches the divinity school was giving away. That is, painting intentional eating as something one simply wills into existence devoid of larger structural options is part of why we portray fat people as lacking self control rather than understanding eating habits as negotiations of the pleasure of eating within a certain set of (economic, social, psychic, etc) constraints.

Finally, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to go from being more fat to less fat. It’s easy to get interpolated into the moralizing games people play with women’s bodies around weight. If you’re fat, you’re a failure. Too skinny, you fail at being shapely. If you don’t care about being fat, you’re lazy and immoral. If you do care, you’re letting men’s desires for women to look a certain way shape your perception of yourself. If you like to eat, you’re disgusting. If you don’t eat, you’re disgusting. If you have rolls and a muffin top, you’re not sexy. Too many muscles, also not sexy and you look like a man. Get plastic surgery, you’re a terrible and sad spectacle. Dare to age, and you look old and disposable. All along my weight loss journey these are the kinds of thoughts I’ve had to navigate. What does it mean that I desire a different body than the one I’ve had in the most recent past? What aesthetics form my weight loss goals and the aspiration to a particular weight and shape? How do I refuse the opposition women get placed in by virtue of their bodily shape? How do I affirm and love my (still fat) body while also being committed to it looking a different way? What structural obstacles come to bear on my body and its shape?

I can’t say I have answers for these questions but what I try to do is pay attention to the compounded structures and forces that bring my body and desires into being as well as the personal desires I’ve discerned for myself. I tried to use a weight loss plan that wasn’t about eating good food vs. bad food or organic/local vs. processed, but helped me be more discerning about how I ate any of these things. I try to eat what I most enjoy eating which ranges from pizza and french fries to falafel and kale. This helps me sidestep the moralizing around food. I can affirm fried chicken and biscuits as equally pleasurable (and thus healthy) as food like quinoa salad. Rather than accepting the (implicitly racist) devaluation that occurs around food, I try to see the food I eat and whether it is healthy or not as tied to the sensory and social pleasure it fosters. My intentional desires for the amount of weight I want to lose is thus primarily out of my health issues (wanting to lose enough weight to ease the stress on my hip), my desire to play certain sports at a certain level, and the pleasure I get from strength training and muscles. I don’t think any of these desires exist in a pure space untainted by the culture or economics or patriarchy or whatever. And different bodies are able to exist at different weights without sacrificing the kinds of personal, social, and psychic pleasures that help them live healthy lives.

The main thing I’ve learned, then, is that bodies are both extremely susceptible and extremely resistant to norms around health. When the discourse around health becomes all about managing and forestalling risk–and the ways risk names a constellation of social anxiety around fat, poor, poc, women–it seems it loses the ability to discern precisely why we want to be “healthy” in the first place. By trying to consider what it means to me to be healthy in relation to structural issues of power, fat shaming, other definitions of health from medicine to society, I think I’ve been able to reach a satisfying weight loss plan and goals for myself. But this blog is a part of trying to remember that these goals aren’t achievable, in my world at least, without the larger kinds of structural changes I’ve experienced in my personal situation. Without the current level of security I enjoy, my definition of health would look much different because it would be characterized by economic and social survival whereas those things are a given in my current condition.

The Lamentation of Christ, Trinity Iconographers Institute

The Lamentation of Christ, Trinity Iconographers Institute

Recently my life seems full of grief.  This is to be expected during Lent, a season characterized by “sorrowful joy.”  My grief though, has its roots in a profound sense of loss: the ecclesial home that I have loved, still love, and will likely always love, is no longer my home.  There is no time this loss is more acute for me than during Lent and Holy Week.  I was raised by a choir director and so was steeped in the sounds of Orthodoxy.  The sound and smells of Orthodox Lent, the mournful anticipation of Holy Week, is the music and ritual that I find the most moving.  The weeks spent together through the beautiful pre-sanctified liturgies and shared lenten meals to the intensity of Holy Week with its multiple services a day, creates a sense of community that lasts well beyond its forty + seven days. Continue Reading »

Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg (1942-2015)

Today I attended the memorial service for the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg.  It was one of the most beautiful and moving celebrations of the life and death of a person I have ever been privileged to witness.  I have never experienced such a tangible sense shared love and joy.

I have never actually met Marcus Borg, but for the last few years, I have been regularly attending and teaching in the church where Marcus was appointed as a Canon Theologian, and Marianne Borg served as a priest for many years.  They both left and retired to their home in Eastern Oregon before I arrived, but the impression of their presence remains.  I cannot possibly count the number of times I have heard someone in this parish say, “Marcus allowed me to be a Christian again,” or “Marcus’s work was such a relief to me,” or “Marcus helped me find my faith.”  Continue Reading »

“Shame need not crouch, in such an Earth as Ours; Shame—stand erect—the Universe is yours!”  – Emily Dickinson, #1304, 1874

 

“It would not be an overstatement to say that Christianity literally had its birth on the altar of shame.” – Jill L. McNish, Transforming Shame: A Pastoral Response

 

“… shame does not merely guard the boundary between the public and the private, the political and the personal, the inter- and intrasubjective, but also constantly traverses those boundaries—even very nearly dissolves them. This traversal—this near-dissolution—binds shame tightly to the erotic. If the embrace of the stigma of identity represents a conversion that takes place within shame, so too dos the plunge into the abjection of flesh-and-soul that undoes identity, giving rise to both wild joy and abysmal humility—courting the arrival of grace. This stigma itself turns out to be both the inscription and the erasure of identity, at once the fact of difference and its effacement. We are marked by countless others, by our responsiveness to others—our abysmal responsibility. Stigmata arrive like a gift, then, in the paradox of a granted receptivity that is also an expected overflow…In the ecstatic excesses of shameful vulnerability, ethics draws close to erotics – Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects  

Auguste Rodin, "Eve after the Fall," 1886

Auguste Rodin, “Eve after the Fall,” 1886

 

In my last few posts, I’ve tried to work through shame, to rethink my own assumptions about its pernicious effects as well as its productive potential. In this final post of my little “series” on shame, then, I want to think a little more explicitly about the intersections of shame and theology…. What might it mean to embrace a shameful theology?

 

 

I. Saving Shame? More on shame’s productive potential

As my multiple references to her work suggests, I think Virginia Burrus offers a beautiful historically-grounded theology of shame in her book Saving Shame. In the introduction to the text, Burrus explains how she has found that, ““For me there is, finally, no place to stand outside shame, though it has always been clear that there are many places—‘many mansions’?—within this variegated domain…. Neither, however, have I experienced a shame as a sheerly destructive or paralyzingly inhibiting force—on the contrary” (xi). From this intrigue in shame and its effects, Burrus lays out the argument of her text She writes:

“Perhaps those who read this text will also find that they—you—can relate not only to the experience of shame, not only in the desire to resist shame, but also to the intuition that shame, in all of its complexity, may yet have much to teach us. The hunch that I am pursuing is this: there is no escape from shame but there may be many possibilities for a productive transformation of shame and through shame. There is no escape from shame because we are always already marked by shame. Might it be that this is not merely the tragic effect of a fallen history but also an inherent aspect of creaturely finitude and relationality” (xii, emphasis mine)?

Since we are “always already” marked by shame, what might it mean to listen to what shame can teach us? In his essay in Gay Shame, Hanson too focuses on how shame can be a powerful pedagogue, explaining that:

“Shame teaches, but will not be taught, will not be lectured to: teaching shame, an affect as a discipline, a disciplinary gesture, but never in itself the thing to be disciplined, refigure it and reframe it as I might. Shame remains itself intractable, though it is pedagogical by its very nature….Pedagogy without shame is like punishment without pain” (140).

What is it that shame might teach us? Obviously the possibilities here are vast, but Burrus hints at some of what shame has taught her in her comment about our creaturely finitude and relationality. She comes back to some of these points in her afterword, when she reflects upon how two theorists who’ve written about shame—Roger Kimball and Martha Nussbaum.[1] At first glance, Nussbaum and Kimball have quite divergent opinions about shame and it’s usefulness. As Christina Tarnopolsky puts it (which Burrus cites), “Shame is either considered an outdated, irrational, or painful emotion that we need to avoid and resources to it are then considered naïve or prudish, or shame is considered to be an infallible guide to morality and civic order.”[2] Burrus points out, however that these approaches might be two different sides of the same coin. As she puts it, “Despite their differences, each assumes that the stigma, whether involuntary and shameful or voluntary and shameless, is simply a bad thing” (150).

But, as she has pointed out in the various “case studies” of ancient Christian martyrs and ascetics that comprise her text, these ancient Christian stories, and the texts that tell them, “offer a more complicated and ambivalent understanding of stigmatization and of shame more generally,” an ambivalence we can learn from, and which “may also be our own” (150). Burrus goes on to explain:

“When a mark of shame, whether physical or verbal, is shamelessly embraced, the stigma is transformed in the process—a gesture graphically exemplified, and also partly displaced, within the contemporary aesthetics of body piercing and tattooing. Far from representing a simple absence of shame, shamelessness here manifests as a turning or conversion within shame, whereby the subject performs his or her fragile dignity apart from, and even in resistance to, the social privilege signified by hegemonic codes of honor. He or she performs, perhaps, the fragility of dignity as well as the dignity of fragility” (150-151).

This embrace of fragility—as it relates to dignity, and as it relates to humanity just in general/more broadly—is, like Burrus, something I find to undeniably engender “a capacity for creative transformation” (151) as well as a markedly theological claim about our identities as humans…

 

II. Shame, Failure, & Limits (read: on being human)

One of the theological soapboxes I tend to jump up on—perhaps the biggest (tallest?) of them, given that I’m writing my dissertation largely around this theme—is what I refer to as a “teleology of success.” By this, what I basically mean—and, from there, call into question/critique—is that there seems to be a trend in some contemporary theological conversations, particularly around the intersections of “theology and practice,” (or, more specifically, the intersections of theological method and spiritual formation) that operate with an ideal end in mind—either a vision of the future/ideal that is markedly stable (say, for instance, Stanley Hauerwas’ epistemological assumptions about “the church” or his account of virtue formation) or an ideal end that can that can, and (almost inevitably) will, be reached only through a very particular set of actions (i.e. Coakley’s method of théologie totale, and the role contemplation plays in both method and formation). This teleology and its clear directional trajectory seems, to me, not only to perpetuate the very problems these projects seek to remedy, but also operates with some theological anthropological assumptions that I find worrisome: in emphasizing an ideal end that is, it seems, at least somewhat reachable, or at least desirable, theology don’t sufficiently attend to the realities of our existence as limited creatures living in an imperfect world.

A number of theologians speak at length about our finitude/dependence/limitedness as essential to what it means to be human—from Reinhold Niebuhr’s distinguishing between imago dei and creatureliness and his articulation of sin as in part being when we fail to accept both parts of our identity, to Ed Farley’s existential/phenomenological account of humanity and his account of evil as grounded in idolatry and the failure to recognize our vulnerability and dependence, to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s eschatological anthropology of becoming, to—my personal favorite—Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on our creaturely existence “from the middle,” and the ethics of risk that stem from that. For Bonhoeffer, to seek our origins or our end is both hopeless and idolatrous.[3] To live “in the middle,” then, for Bonhoeffer means taking risk, and possibly risking failure and guilt(/shame?!). As he puts it:

“Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty divorce themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence; but in doing so, they also divorce themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless bearing of guilt by Jesus Christ, and have no part in the divine justification that attends this event.”[4]

Could embracing our fragility and our limits then, perhaps mean boldly embracing our shame, shame being an integral aspect of our humanity, often embodied in and through our failings?

I love the way Ellis Hanson talks about shame in this light in his reflections on the writings of Jean Genet. Hanson explains:

“Genet had the right attitude [when he wrote that]: ‘The mechanism was somewhat as follows (I have used it since) to every charge brought against me, unjust though it may be, from the bottom of my heart I shall answer yes.’ This is close to my ideal of coming out, but it smacks too much of pride. I have altered the mechanism somewhat as follows: to every confessional demand leveled at my person—‘Are you this, or are you that? Have you done this? But have you done that?!’—from the bottom of my heart I shall answer, ‘Yes! Oh, yes! But I’m not very good at it” (133).

Hanson goes on to note that, “Failure makes identity political. Failure can make it sexy. It shows the cracks in idealization and renders identity politics an inexhaustible resource for shame” (133). I love the language about failure showing “the cracks in idealization.” Perhaps its just because I grew up as a conservative evangelical, but I can think of countless examples of Christianity (of Christians), conservative and liberal alike, seeking to smooth over those cracks, to hide them (and God knows I do this all the damn time/am assuredly not exempt from this critique)—I mean, isn’t that kind of what Christian piety is all about? What might it mean to embrace failure then? Could that not only say something about our theology of creatureliness, but offer something by way of a theological imagination for alternative ways of being in the world—beyond perfectionism on the one hand and cynicism or nihilism on the other? As Jack Halberstam puts it in his excellent book The Queer Art of Failure, “ We’re all used to having our dreams crushed, our hopes smashed, our illusions shattered, but what comes after hope?…What is the alternative, in other words, to cynical resignation on the one hand and naïve optimism on the other?”[5] Halberstam finds this alternative in nothing other then failure.

In her critique of some of the various “negative” accounts of shame, Burrus notes how “despite the dramatic differences in their positions,” one commonality amongst some of these scholars is that they “agree that the vulnerable particularity of the gendered, sexualized, racialized, dis/abled, and otherwise marked—stigmatized—flesh should remain veiled protectively in the realm of political life. In order to see clearly, justice must be bling to difference, ‘no matter how unpopular’” (152). Burrus questions whether stigma and its shaming effects should be, to put it one way, closeted. She continues to reflect on this, in a passage that is well worth citing at length. She writes:

“But is it safe to be rendered secure against shame? (Should we desire to become so, even if we could?) One who seeks, however vainly, the impenetrable cloak of total privacy cannot be known any more than he or she can be shamed, nor can one who seeks, however vainly, the non-negotiable transparency of full exposure—[the] unblushingly ‘honest’ man or woman, lacking not only a sense of shame but also a sense of humor and the ability to forgive. It is in the encounter with others—in the never quite-perfect mutuality of acknowledgement—that identity is effectively constituted and reconstituted, remaining thereby not only contingent and provisional but also partial since ‘the identity we say we are cannot possibly capture us and marks immediately an excess and opacity that falls outside the categories of identity,’ as Butler puts it. Perhaps justice is neither blind nor all-seeing, after all. Arising at the borders of our visibility and our invisibility—of what is knowable and what eludes knowledge—justice may present a more modest fact than expected, peeking at us from under the lids of half-shut eyes….It is in this play of hiddenness and exposure mobilized in transformative encounters with others that our sense of self is ever emerging and withdrawing” (152).[6]

Shame, then, in and through its exposure and reminder of our failures… our limits…our humanity, shapes our selves as we relate to others…

"Expulsion from the Garden of Eden," Masaccio, 1425

“Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Masaccio, 1425

 

III. Shame, Selfhood, and Sociality

Burrus’ point about the self-formational and relational aspects of shame reminded me of Butler’s avowal about how our encounters with others shape us. Butler writes :

“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.”[7]

By eschewing shame, in our efforts to stay intact, are we missing points of genuine encounter with each other? I’ve already written quite a bit in the last post about shame and identity and community, but here, I wanted to add a little bit, specifically in thinking theologically about the possibilities in this dispossessing account of identity via encounter. As Burrus explains in a synopsis of what she’s gleaned from her case studies of ancient Christians on shame:

“Among ancient Christians, I shall argue, shame is no longer primarily the source of admonishing exempla that fortify the honorable will. Instead, an extravagant—even gratuitous—embracing of shame puts honor itself into question. Rather than simply converting (one culture’s definition of) shame into (another sub/culture’s definition of) honor, ancient Christians lay claim to their own shame, at once intensifying it and converting it into a potent source of identity—and, paradoxically, also of identity’s dissolution” (8).

Burrus points out something Foucault began to explore in more depth towards the end of his life—the ways in which ascesis can be transformative and liberative, and what early Christianity can teach us about that. Eribon talks about this in relation to the realities of stigma and shame, reflecting on how society rejects gay men and lesbian in a variety of ways (many which were more overt at the time he wrote this—i.e. legal recognition of same-sex couples, military, churches, etc.…). Because of this lack of recognition, Eribon explains, “there is a constant need to come out and navigate the world. Therefore, one must always be making oneself. Foucault speaks of a homosexual ascesis (an aesthetic of the self), a self fashioning which is nothing more then the coming to consciousness and deliberate assumption of the structure of inadequation that is at the heart of the daily life and consciousness of gays and lesbians—one must make ones life a work of art.”[8] Shame is the charge that calls for this ascesis, as well as a conduit in one’s continual self-fashioning, a self-fashioning that Sedgwick notes is “the double movement shame makes: toward painful individuation, toward uncontrollable relationality.”[9]

This “double movement” of shame seems to be precisely what makes it ecstatic, what makes it erotic. As Hanson puts it in “Teaching Shame:”

“By affirming shame, I am not merely indulging a decadent fascination with my own abjection, though that alone would be sufficient to recommend it to me. Its intensities are alluring, however painful, but they can also be reassuring in that they presume a powerful bond with other people, a civility far from serene or static, a mobility of affiliation with little respect for the conventional limits of identification or even rational judgment. Like aesthetic bliss, like desire, like love, shame affords its greatest pleasure in a violence to the ego that keeps the self in motion even while keeping it in check. Shame defies me, defines me, overwhelms me” (134).

As Burrus puts it, which I’ve already cited in the epigraph to this (now far too-long) post,“shame does not merely guard the boundary between the public and the private, the political and the personal, the inter- and intrasubjective, but also constantly traverses those boundaries—even very nearly dissolves them. This traversal—this near-dissolution—binds shame tightly to the erotic” (152). In light of this dissolving movement of shame, Burrus calls stigmata “a gift” and precisely “in the ecstatic excesses of shameful vulnerability, ethics draws close to erotics” (153). Insult echoes this claim, and Eribon’s argument against the closet bolsters Burrus’ critique of those in the name of liberalism seek that stigma be “protectively veiled,” that potential sources of shame be hidden. As Eribon points out, that which the discourse of liberal tolerance would recommend, this hidden private life, is nothing other then an interior ghetto, a ghetto that is imposed by structures of oppression that demand a radical, and damaging, disassociation between one’s hidden self and public self.[10] The opposition between public and private is then so taken for granted, and public life so fundamentally linked to heterosexuality, that when anyone who isn’t straight fails to respect that, by making their sexuality known, by making it public, they are immediately accused of “flaunting it.”

 

IV. Shame & Love

To embrace shame, then, is to embrace the erotic. To flaunt it. To love shamelessly, or rather shamefully perhaps. Shame is bound to eros, bound up in love. Both Hanson and Burrus make this point far more eloquently then I could. Reflecting again on Jean Genet’s literature, stories rife with a shameless embrace of shame, Hanson writes:

“What Genet hides in plain sight is not so much his self, nor even just his face, but his pleasure in the passivity of mortification, the unconsenting connection to other people, the strange and sudden apprehension of the self at its very limits, the reassuring rudeness, cruelty, and treachery of self-definition. Punishing, obviously, but gratifying too in that shame generates paradoxical forms of love…I read Genet not for the quality of his transgressions, but for the quality of his love. Not for his shamelessness, but for his shame. With his cheeks aflame, he offers us—repeatedly, tirelessly—a love as primal as shame, love of oneself and other people, love even of objects and places, that is nevertheless predicated on the appreciation of error, vulnerability, unworthiness, disgust, abjection, and powerlessness—a shameful love, in other words, that can insist on nothing, claim nothing, but itself. Shame is an occasion for artistry without mastery, love without possession, connection without community, and desire without dignity” (138-139).

And as Burrus puts it:

“Indeed, what is at stake in the politics of shame is nothing less than our capacity for love…. We pause to ask ourselves what it means to love, whether and how love is possible….we may also begin to feel our own shame—the shame of our fleshly and psychic exposure, our naked yearnings, our hidden fears and secret hopes, our sense of connection and dread of transgression. The question is what we do with it” (153).

 

V. Conclusion

What I’ve tried to think through in these past few posts on shame, in my efforts to “think out loud” to make sense of what I think about shame, is something Burrus points out at the beginning of Saving Shame (and really, this series of posts could have been encapsulated in a brief sentence/as a tweetable book review: “Read Burrus’s Saving Shame and Halperin and Traub’s edited volume on Gay Shame; they’re really good, and made me totally re-examine what I think about shame”). As Burrus puts it:

“Shame is arguably something we need to take more seriously, in its productively transformative as well as its destructively inhibiting effects—in its unavoidable ambivalence. Shame is at the heart of the anguished awareness of human limits at the point where those limits are exceeded, conveying the power as well as the danger of relationality itself” (4).

Instead of ending, then, with some sort of neat summary (not that I ever end with any kind of actual conclusion when I blog, I usually just sort of just end abruptly after I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say, but alas…), especially given how Burrus gets at the heart of where I’ve landed thus far in how I think about shame, I’ll end with a poem that also gets at how my theological thinking about shame got all turned around as of late… It’s a poem I found in the midst of researching shame, written by Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Oscar Wilde’s lover—many are familiar (whether they are aware of the source or not) of another one of Douglas’ poem, “Two Loves,” where he speaks of “the love that dare not speak its name.”[11] This poem, published in 1894—a year before Wilde is tried for gross indecency and sodomy, convicted of the former, and sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison—is (aptly, for this blog) titled, “In Praise of Shame:”

 

Last night unto my bed bethought there came
Our lady of strange dreams, and from an urn
She poured live fire, so that mine eyes did burn
At the sight of it. Anon the floating fame
Took many shapes, and one cried: “I am shame
That walks with Love, I am most wise to turn
Cold lips and limbs to fire; therefore discern
And see my loveliness, and praise my name.”

And afterwords, in radiant garments dressed
With sound of flutes and laughing of glad lips,
A pomp of all the passions passed along
All the night through; till the white phantom ships
Of dawn sailed in. Whereat I said this song,
“Of all sweet passions Shame is the loveliest.”

 

 

 

[1] See Burrus, “Afterword: Shame, Politics, Love” in Saving Shame, 148ff. The texts she’s referencing are Martha C. Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) and Roger Kimball’s response to Nussbaum, “Does Shame Have a Future?” New Criterion (September 2004), 4-9.

[2] Burrus, 149, citing Tarnopolsky, “Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato and the Contemporary Politics of Shame,” Political Theory 32, no. 4 (August 2004), 469.

[3] “To take a gigantic leap back into the world of the lost beginning, to seek to know for ourselves what humankind was like in its original state and to identify our own ideal of humanity with what God actually created is hopeless. It fails to recognize that it is only from Christ that we can know about the original nature of humankind. The attempt to do that without recognizing this, as hopeless as it is understandable, has again and again delivered up the church to arbitrary speculation at this dangerous point. Only in the middle, as those who live from Christ, do we know about the beginning.” Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 3) John W. De Gruchy, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 62

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green (Fortress Press, 2005), 276. In Creation and Fall, it’s important to note, Bonhoeffer does speak about shame in a quite negative light, writing that “Shame only exists as a result of the knowledge of the division on man… Shame is the expression of the fact that we no longer accept the other person as a gift from God… In the unity of unbroken obedience man is naked in the presence of man, uncovered, revealing both body and soul, and yet is not ashamed. Shame only comes into existence in the world of division” (63). However, in light of what Bonhoeffer writes about our identities as fallen creatures, both in Creation and Fall and Ethics, it seems then, that shame is an inevitable byproduct of our post-Lapsarian identities…

[5] Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1.

[6] See Burrus, 152 n16 for the Butler reference.

[7] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 19.

[8] Eribon, Insult, 117, quoting from Michel Foucault “Friendship as a Way of Life” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Ed. Paul Rabinow, Trans. Robert Hurley et al. New York: New Press, 1997, 136.

[9] Sedgwick, Gay Shame, 51. Or, as Michael Warner puts it in the same volume, “Shame is seen…as foundational to the sense of self, but in a paradoxical way, for it is both individuating and obliterating. It is an essentially social affect…yet it is fundamentally an experience of the separateness of the self, a broken exchange” (289).

[10] See Eribon, Insult, 101ff.

[11] “It’s also worth noting that, like “In Praise of Shame,” “Two Loves” also speaks of shame and its relation to love… –“….I cried, ‘Sweet youth…What is thy name?’ He said to me, ‘My name is Love.’ Then straight the first did turn himself to me. And cried, ‘He lieth, for his name is Shame…” shame being, then, that love that dare not speak its name. This poem was used as evidence against Wilde at his gross indecency trial in 1895.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Expulsion from the Garden of Eden," Masaccio, 1425

Masaccio, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” 1425

“Credit is a means of privatization and debt a means of socialisation. So long as they pair in the monogamous violence of the home, the pension, the government, or the university, debt can only feed credit, debt can only desire credit. And credit can only expand by means of debt. But debt is social and credit is asocial. Debt is mutual. Credit runs only one way. But debt runs in every direction, scatters, escapes, seeks refuge.” (Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The Undercommons, 61)

“We hear them say, what’s wrong with you is your bad debt. You’re not working. You fail to pay your debt to society. You have no credit, but that is to be expected. You have bad credit, and that is fine. But bad debt is a problem. Debt seeking only other debt, detached from creditors, fugitive from restructuring. Destructuring debt, now that’s wrong. But even still, what’s wrong with you can be fixed. First we give you a chance. That’s called governance, a chance to be interested, and a shot even at being disinterested. That’s policy. Or we give you policy, if you are still wrong, still bad. Bad debt is senseless, which is to say it cannot be perceived by the senses of capital. But there is therapy available. Governance wants to connect your debt again to the outside world. You are on the spectrum, the capitalist spectrum of interests. You are the wrong end. Your bad debt looks unconnected, autistic, in its own world. But you can be developed. You can get credit after all. The key is interests. Tell us what you want. Tell us what you want and we can help you get it, on credit. We can lower the rate so you can have interest. We can raise the rate so you will pay attention. But we can’t do it alone. Governance only works when you work, when you tell us your interests, when you invest your interests again in debt and credit. Governance is the therapy of your interests, and your interests will bring your credit back. You will have an investment, even in debt. And governance will gain new senses, new perceptions, new advances into the world of bad debt, new victories in the war on those without interests, those who will not speak for themselves, participate, identify their interests, invest, inform, demand credit.” (Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The Undercommons, 66)

There are a variety of ways in which one can understand blackness’ relation to value. As I’ve tried to set out in the two previous posts, within the system of global racial capitalism, the position of the black is one of permanent indebtedness. Blackness is the exclusion from the social relations of the credible. It is the inescapable nature of one’s debt, which is one’s blackness. This indebtedness is the means by which the credibility of those who can be creditors or debtors is maintained. The value of credibility requires the devaluation of indebtedness, which is to say, requires seeing debt as a threat. Seeing blackness as a threat.

Criminalization is the technique by which this devaluation of indebtedness is maintained. Criminalization is the process of seeing from within the capitalist field of vision. In this range of visibility, blackness is only recognizeable as the threat of indebtedness, which is the threat of poverty. To protect credibility from this threat is the role of the carceral, which says it seeks the rehabilitation of the criminal. This is true, as Moten and Harney show us. The carceral mode of governance is concerned with blackness – which is to say indebtedness, which is to say bad debt -because it is concerned with maintaining the value of credibility. The promise of value, of being recognized as valuable, is what is policed.

Do we see people going about their lives as if credibility isn’t valuable? Those are the criminal, the always indebted, the black. Do we see people who understand that the promise of value money offers is paid for with their flesh and blood? Those are the criminal, the poor, the threats.

Understanding criminality through racial capital must radical reorient our field of vision, where debt is the horizon, the limit of our thought. To transgress the limit of debt, to inhabit the space where the indebted have been living their non-credible criminal lives, is to make a move that reevaluates the value money promises.

This movement is to understand, with Moten, that credit runs only one way (which is toward whiteness and the aspiration for credibility), while debt runs in all directions, to the Ferguson protests, the striking fast food workers, the undocumented laborers, the precarious adjuncts, the disappeared Mexican students, and, and, and …

To understand blackness as debt, as criminal, is to understand the value of the double in black thought. That value, as it is given by the racialized economy of credit/debt, is not respected. The double does the work of inflating and undercutting the terms of respectability, the proper, the police. Indebtedness and criminality in black study, then, are ways of naming the fact that there is something happening over where the non-credible criminal lives are cohabitating. They are a way of understanding the value of credibility requires the governance of these non-credible criminal lives, or their destruction. In response to the violence that is the imposition of a violating indebtedness, the indebted criminal black violates property, propriety, and the credibility of whiteness, of the police which protect this credibility, and of the state which governs this credibility.

“The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

 

“When Zeus fashioned man he gave him certain inclinations, but he forgot about shame. Not knowing how to introduce her, he ordered her to enter through the rectum. Shame baulked at this and was highly indignant. Finally, she said to Zeus: ‘All right! I’ll go in, but on the condition that Eros doesn’t come in the same way; if he does, I will leave immediately.’ Ever since then, all homosexuals are without shame. This fable shows that those who are prey to love lose all shame.” –Aesop, Fable 118: “Zeus & Shame”

“The veil of modesty torn, the shameful parts shown, I know—with my cheeks aflame—the need to hide myself or die, but I believe by facing and enduring this painful anxiety I shall, as a result of my shamelessness, come to know a strange beauty.” – Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal Continue Reading »

Human beings are storytellers. We are formed by stories, and stories are always constructed but only sometimes true. In storytelling, framing matters: we must decide where to begin the story, from whose perspective to tell it, which details to include and which to omit. The way we choose to tell a story shapes the sense we make. Whole worlds rise and fall on the backs of stories.

White supremacy survives in part by stories. White people recite a set of shared storylines, accented by common narrative tropes, animated by the same cast of characters. White people do not need to know each other to know each other’s stories. We know white people by the stories they tell.

In recent weeks, many white people have relied on these stories to make sense of and defend themselves against the events in Ferguson and New York. Above all, these stories of white supremacy allow white people to remain undisturbed and unmoved, both physically and spiritually. They do not want to relinquish their racially segregated neighborhoods or the racialized power these spaces provide them; they do not want to re-consider their belief in the fundamental goodness and innocence of either their race or the country to which they pledge allegiance. They know they are good; their stories tell them so.

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