HUMILIATION by Wayne Koestenbaum


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A series of meditations on the concept of humiliation.

Poet and scholar Koestenbaum (English/City Univ. of New York Graduate Center; Hotel Theory, 2007, etc) offers a hybrid book. Personal confessions (humiliating in nature, naturally) sit alongside astute analysis of such cultural icons as Basquiat and the Marquis de Sade, and theoretical hypotheses mingle with observations about reality television and erotic Craigslist personal ads. Structured as a series of chapters or “fugues,” each consisting of a series of numbered paragraphs varying in length from one sentence to several pages, the book is academic in tone and content but not necessarily in scope or format. What Koestenbaum sacrifices in depth, he makes up for in clarity. For example, in two sentences he dispatches with the distinction between shame and humiliation; excavating the full meaning of this distinction could easily require an entire chapter. Though this brief treatment is appropriate given the length of the book, other distinctions—like that between relatively minor humiliations, like being rejected romantically, and major ones, like being raped or tortured—are merely acknowledged in a sort of hand-wringing way. Yet the book cannot be characterized as shallow. Koestenbaum consistently offers enlightening, well-written insights into the process of abreaction; the way language can be humiliating to the artist, the writer or the illiterate; queer theory; and reality television and voyeurism. The author avoids mistaking unreadable prose for complexity, and though the book may be best suited for academics, general readers interested in the topic will not be lost or frustrated.

Insightful and blissfully free of jargon, Humiliation may not be the last word on the subject, but it’s an accessible introduction.

Pub Date: Aug. 2nd, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-42922-5
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Picador
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2011


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