What is it about us that makes us crow for the humiliation of others? From the nefarious (Rupert Murdoch) to the talented but troubled (Amy Winehouse, when alive), the spectator revels in the images of their downfall and cries for more.

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Some might call this a symptom of our age of media saturation and megalomaniacal celebrity, but cultural critic and writer Wayne Koestenbaum believes this is more likely a symptom of our humanity. In his new book Humiliation, he examines his role as spectator of other people’s degradation, the humiliation of reality television and politics, and the effect of the audience on the humiliated.

Koestenbaum answered a few questions via e-mail.

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I wanted to talk a little bit about the split between humiliation and shame. Can you tell us how you differentiate between the two, and how an act of humiliating another person and an act of shaming someone is different?

I'm not positive that the difference between humiliation and shame is absolute. Obviously, they exist in a spectrum. However, I distinguish them as follows.

Shame can happen inwardly, without outside provocation. I can feel shame simply because a birch tree that I pass, on a walk through the country, happens to remind me of my own skinny body, and I can feel a sudden stab, or flush, of shame. But I can't say that the birch tree humiliates me. Nor, I suppose, does the birch tree shame me. I shame myself, or shame gets triggered by random, yet overdetermined, stimuli.

Humiliation, on the other hand, demands a theatrical venue, however slight and phantasmal. Humiliation depends on a spectator. And, perhaps, humiliation demands intention—an intent, on the part of the humiliator, to depress and lower and demolish the other.

Did your act, in the chapter "Eavesdropping on Elimination" of listing out your humiliations, lessen the pain? Or become more humiliating because you widened the audience?

I didn't feel pain, when I wrote that chapter. I felt calm, clear, controlled, awake. Yes, I suppose I "widened the audience,” but in the moment of writing itself, I was alone, and I was cut off from any actual conviction that anyone would ever read the chapter.

Of course, in the back of my mind, I knew or hoped that someone—maybe many people—would read the litany. But in the moment of composition, I was alone, like a scribe, with my memories and with the declarative sentences I was composing from their residue. There was no audience. Or, if there was an audience, that spectator was the "inner critic"—the person within me who scrutinizes my sentences to see if they can fly.

Do you think your reaction would be different if you read that chapter out loud at a reading?

I'm judicious about what I choose to read out loud. And everything depends on the audience. If the audience is wild, as in Oscar Wilde, radical, transgressive and interested in writerly transgressions, then I'd probably read the entire chapter.

Both you and Maggie Nelson (you each refer to or thank the other in your books) in The Art of Cruelty discuss the problematic situation of being a witness or a spectator to other people's humiliation or pain in your most recent books. What is it about that set up that inspired both of you to confront it in your writing at the same time?

I can't speak for Maggie—whose work I greatly admire and love. But I can say for myself that I was prompted to write this book because the news media had "interpellated" me, or cast me, into the role of spectator to various sexualized scandals and atrocities, from the Clinton impeachment to the Michael Jackson child-abuse scandal to the Abu Ghraib photos, and I felt unhappy with and alienated from this role, this spectatorial seat, forced upon me. The process of investigative journalism itself seemed to demand my collaboration—as titillated or enraged witness. But, more to the point, I felt weird surges of identification with scapegoated figures—even if these figures were not necessarily noble or ethical exemplars.

I wrote the book to explain and respond to a gut feeling—mine—that I often call, in my book, "queasy." I speak, at one point, of a "queasy avidity." And, at the end of the book, when speculating about what a punished girl might feel toward the handsome father who publicly punished her, I again use the word "queasy," because I imagine that the girl would feel torn between love and hatred for this man. That split between repudiation and embrace—an unhappy, uneasy split—is the chasm of uncertainty from which I wrote this book.

I was reading the comments to the [NPR’s] “Talk of the Nation” interview you did, and one man was protesting that he himself never received pleasure by watching someone else's humiliation...unless it happened to Bill O'Reilly, he would get a lot of pleasure out of that. Many seem to be in denial of the prurient pleasures we get out of watching someone else's humiliation...

Right. Lots of us are in denial. I'm in denial about some of my pleasures. I'm sure there's a sadistic and aggressive component to my most pacific fantasies, and the same goes for all of us.

Pleasure and unpleasure are intertwined, inextricable. Perhaps pleasure is simply the cessation of displeasure. And the "comments" sections of Internet sites, Youtube, etc., are full of "the wild display of id." Some of the foulest and most untoward emotions I've ever seen expressed occur in these anonymous comment sections—pure vitriol.


Much of your advice for the videos you did for the humiliated included a firm embrace of the act that led to their humiliation, from farting in yoga to unknowingly trashing a writer's book in front of said writer. Do you think the act of confession will reduce the humiliation?

The pain might return. But the instant of confession brings its own spasm of relief, of relaxation. To confess is to compose, and artificially construct, a narrative—not simply to report what happened, but to create a new version, a coherent version, of what happened. At least I believe that our inchoate experiences acquire clarity and punchiness, and the ability to deflect and alleviate pain, when we reform them into tidy stories. When I turned my own past humiliations into narrative, in my book, I experienced the satisfaction I feel when I tidy up a cluttered room. Feng shui for the traumatized soul?

Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.