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HUMILIATION by William Ian Miller


And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence

by William Ian Miller

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-8014-2881-5
Publisher: Cornell Univ.

 From Vikings to valentines, crimes to dinner invitations, Miller (Law/University of Michigan) here explores the mercurial history of the emotions, attitudes, values, and behaviors associated with honor--its defense, loss, survival, and display- -drawing on evidence from the Greek epics and Icelandic sagas to contemporary horror movies. Miller (a self-described ``social constructionist'') traces the sources of such uncomfortable emotions as shame and humiliation to ancient and subtle codes of honor that still survive today. Contemporary exchanges, however banal, he says, involve the same issues of prestige, self-esteem, reciprocity, and violence as did those in primitive societies, although modern manifestations are often internalized and psychological. Miller finds reciprocity to be a central concept in humiliation, involving not only the appropriate responses to gifts and hospitality, however unwanted, but also--on the dark side--retribution, paying back, maintaining face, and shaming. The author offers useful and precise distinctions between shame and humiliation, as well as between the various strategies used to avoid them--assuming the mantle of humility or indifference, for instance, or embracing and enduring humiliation like Dostoyevsky's Underground Man. Miller's larger purpose seems to be to dispute the universality of emotional expression: Some emotions, he claims, produce ``predictable somatic displays'' that can lead to a belief in a universal vocabulary of emotional expression--but, in fact, these expressions should be interpreted according to the different periods and cultures in which they arise. Translating emotions over time and across cultures is Miller's major methodological challenge--and he meets it with ranging and learned references, a wry and unpretentious style, and a genuine respect for the power of those ancient, forgotten sources on which modern social exchange depends.