SHAME AND THE LIMITS OF GENDER STUDIES
Talk given at the conference "Shame – Shaming – Shamelessness", University of Vienna, Nov. 29 - 30 2019 –
(c)Bettina Mathes 2020
I want to begin with a quote from Adam Phillips’ new book “Attention Seeking” – and build on it.
“Attention seeking is one of the best things we do, even when we have the worst ways of doing it.
It is a way of wanting something without always knowing what it is. …a form of sociability, an appeal to others to help us with our wanting.”
It is one thing to become an expert in shame and its consequences – its history, psychology, and social functions. It is another thing to become implicated in the production of shameful relationships.
Today I want to talk about 'the other thing’. About our shameful relation to shame and shaming. About how universities – like all training institutions – are in the business of shaming, often against their own stated interest. About the ways in which Gender Studies programs, despite their accumulated knowledge of the disciplining power of shame, have not made enough of a difference – and how that, too, is a real shame.
Paying attention to shame in an educational setting means paying attention to attention. As human beings we are attention (and attachment) seeking creatures. We come to know who we are and who we want to be by developing interests and tastes, and by seeking out the attention of others – of people we can admire and identify with.
But before I can get to know my interests, someone – mother, father, the people who take care of me – must have been interested in me.
I need attention to find out who I am (and want to be); I need to be validated for seeking attention both as giver of attention and receiver of attention. When I seek attention I also seek recognition. ‘I admire you, I pay attention to the things you pay attention to, I want to achieve what you have achieved – and more! – in return I want you to be interested in me.’
The need for attention is one of the earliest and most basic needs. Babies are attention seekers. When attention is given in the way the baby wants it to be given, the baby feels known and loved. When attention is not given, or not given often enough or when it is the wrong kind of attention, the baby feels lacking. And because asking for attention is always also asking for love, your inattention must mean that I am undeserving of your love.
It is this ongoing and life-long need for attention (and attachment) that makes us vulnerable to shame.
To feel shame means to receive the wrong kind of attention – or no attention at all. Either way I feel refused in my need to be acknowledged and responded to kindly; I feel unacceptable in my desire for you to be interested in who I think I am or might want to become. Ashamed and shameless at the same time, I feel trapped, mortified, (literally: dead from self-denial). I want to disappear but I can’t move. I want to change the topic but I can’t think, let alone speak… I’m invisible and hyper-visible at the same time. I’m scrambling. Everything is wrong. I know you see my shame, and you’re not helping me to regain face …or is it faith? Where to go from here? Who to turn to? I feel shame for feeling ashamed. I thought we had a deal!
Another way of saying this is that shame occurs in relationships. “One must have expected good things to come from the other person before the other’s inattention, indifference, forgetfulness, contempt produces shame.” Sometimes I cause shame without being aware of what I’m doing. Sometimes I shame myself, creating an internal drama between shamer and shamed. I may feel shamed by a friend, an acquaintance, a fellow student, a teacher, a professor: people whose attention I crave – and who therefore have the power to disappoint. The experience of shame,” writes Silvan Tomkins, “is the consequence of encountering a barrier to interest”
Some of us are more shame prone than others. Some of us have too often received the wrong kind of attention before we became a person. When that happens my relation to myself is a shameful one. I shy away from other people. I avoid eye contact. I don’t offer my opinion unless it feels safe.
I want attention, I need attention but I don’t know how to ask for it. My friends find me awkward. My teachers think of me as lazy or absentminded or inattentive. I say I’m introverted but the truth is, I’m terrified.
Adam Phillips is not exaggerating when he describes the experience of shame as “a character assassination”, as “the ethnic cleansing of the self”, as “a figure for the mind colonised”. Where there’s shame there’s trauma; the trauma of a self refused to perform the preferred version of itself. Repeated experiences of shame leave scars in our psyche. We become ‘shy’ – shy being a euphemism for someone who has been damaged by shame. (Social anxiety being another one.)
Academic institutions create interests and channel attention. As students, our professors and advisors matter to us. We seek their attention and approval. We think – or are taught to think – of them as mothers and fathers. We admire them for their courage, their personal and academic accomplishments and their perseverance. We place our hopes in them.
Because this is so, universities (and colleges) also deal in shame.
Due to the often hidden investment in competition and power, the vastly differing ranges of experience between student, candidate, junior and senior faculty, and the lack of attention to (and interest in) the emotional side of professional relationships the possibility of evoking shame is always present.
This quote by Silvan Tomkins – which is a kind of script of the interpersonal dynamics of shame – captures something of what often (too often) happens between student and professor:
“If I wish to hear your voice but you will not speak to me, I can feel shame. If I wish to speak to you but you will not listen, I am ashamed. If I would like us to have a conversation but you do not wish to converse, I can be ashamed. If I would like to share my ideas, my aspirations or my values with you but you do not reciprocate, I am ashamed. If I wish to talk to you and you wish to talk at the same time, I can become ashamed. If I wish to tell you my ideas but you wish to tell me yours, I can become ashamed.”
From a psychoanalytic point of view, earning a PhD and defending a Habilitation (= post-doc dissertation, requirement to be appointed tenured professor) are shaming rituals. It is a devastating experience in any scholar’s professional life to be presenting one’s best work in front of a group of disinterested, unprepared, sometimes vengeful, sometimes contemptuous faculty – your future colleagues – who convey to you that they couldn’t care less, that, indeed, they are doing you a favor to even show up.
There’s always someone who falls asleep during a Habilitation defense. There’s always someone on the committee who asks a question you have already answered. Some questions are traps. They do not spring from curiosity but are meant to prove that you are inadequate. Questions that are asked to purposefully expose and humiliate. Shame masked as “criticism”.
It is no secret that female candidates, candidates who are queer, or not white or muslim or all of the above are treated more disrespectfully and, by the same token, experience shame more often and more profoundly than white male candidates, whose gender and social status makes them less shameable and therefore less anxious when confronted with colleagues and senior faculty.
Shame narrows attention, restrains curiosity, circumscribes speech. There is a shameful silence regarding the shame many of us experience during our academic training. We hesitate to talk about the repeated humiliation, we don’t share how rejected we feel, and how ashamed we are of our shame. And even if we wanted to draw attention to it, who would we turn to? A priest? A psychoanalyst? And so for many of us the trauma of untransformed shame sets us up for more shame.
Shameful relations put limits on what can be said, thought and imagined.
We research the history of shame and are not sufficiently interested in the ways in which our own work is part of that history.
We study the damaging power of language in the formation of gender identity, and we remain virtually silent when faculty who advocate gender-free language are bullied out of academia.
We call ourselves Doktormutter and Doktorvater, infantalizing young scholars who are dependent on our continued attention but we have little interest in finding out about the emotional and relational consequences of these terms.
We use psychoanalytic theories to understand ‘the psychic life of power’, and we lack interest in understanding what, from a psychological point of view, we’re doing when we don’t make time to pay close attention to the work of our students; when we don’t prepare for meetings with PhD candidates; when we ask them to draft their own letters of recommendation.
And what is going on when I insist on addressing a transgender student by their given name instead of their preferred name? When I, over and over, ‘slip’ into using the wrong pronoun? When I sign forms that account for two genders only?
The answer is: most likely I am shaming a person who is seeking my attention.
It’s not that we mean to be unkind when we act unkindly. Untransformed shame makes us careless against our will, leaves us inattentive, resentful, perhaps even burnt-out and depressed. We unconsciously pass on our own shameful experiences to those who come after us. (And after us they will come!) Shame is a cruel advisor.
Not all shame experiences are avoidable.
For example, we cannot know the needs of the person who comes to us as a student. Are they shamed easily, and how do they cope? In the past, were they helped to move through the shameful experience, or were they left alone with it?
What we can know is that shame is a relational catastrophe.
Therefore, everything depends on what happens next.
What can I say to and for the person who has been shamed? Can I pay attention to their distress in a kind and understanding way? Can I take an interest in their experience, and mine?
As teachers and administrators it is, I believe, our responsibility to become aware of the shame inducing potential of the professional environment we create and are part of – and make it less harmful. Some shame, as I have been saying, is unavoidable. What is avoidable is criticism that seeks to humiliate. Let’s, for example, stop asking questions we know the answer to.
Let’s think of genuine questions and comments that move the conversation into unknown territory – for all parties involved.
Let us meet shame with pride! Where British and North American PhDs are proudly celebrated by their professors and peers, in Germany, Austria and Spain graduates receive their hard-won diploma in the mail. The crinkled envelope – a reminder of my hubris.
By way of concluding I want to offer an interpretation of what might be going on psychically when as gender studies faculty we partake in academic shaming rituals – rituals we know are hurtful.
I want to suggest that one of the things that keeps us from inventing kinder, less cruel, that is less shaming conventions of academic criticism is to do with the relation between what we know about gender as a social (and psychic) construct and how we (often unconsciously) feel about the fragility of our own gender identity.
We know that the number of gender identities people can invent and perform is unlimited. But we work in an environment in which the range of gender expressions is astonishingly narrow. Fairies, drag kings and femme daddies belong to the theatre, rarely do they make an appearance at faculty meetings.
I know that gender is performative, always at risk of failing to perform. But I might not be comfortable with the fact that my own gender performance is no exception to this rule. I may secretly or unconsciously and even shamefully hope that the performativity of gender is something that applies to other people: students, activists, minorities, people without institutional power.
To put it differently, are we having a shameful relation to gender? Are we unconsciously enacting the tried and tested dynamic between gender, power and shame that we know so much about?
Psychoanalytically speaking, the shame-laden way we ‘do’ academia looks like a defense against the democratizing effect of understanding gender as performative: it applies to everybody who believes they are a gender. A defense, as it were, against the very real risk of failing to perform my preferred gender identity.
If that is what is going on – and I think it is – how then can we turn this shameful relation to gender into something more benign, something less shame-filled, more generous and inclusive? How can we move from trauma to healing?
As individuals we may seek support in a psychoanalyst’s office; as a culture we might want to learn from the art of drag. By performing the imitative structure of gender, drag also says something important about shame. Doing drag means going into shame with pleasure. In drag I joyfully perform gender shame in excess; I draw attention to shamed gender identities on my own terms; I create an opportunity for something new to begin – a less shameful relation to gender. In this, every drag show offers a transformational space in which the trauma of gender shame can be healed by paying it the right kind of attention. Drag, that is to say, recasts a shameful relation to gender as a genderful relation to shame.
So the question then becomes: how can academia be more like drag?
Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking (2019)
Konrad Schüttauf, Die zwei Gesichter der Scham (2008)
Silvan Tomkins, Shame and its Sisters (1995)
Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power (1997)
David Halperin & Valerie Traub, Gay Shame (2009)