Shame

January 15, 2012 § 2 Comments

This melancholia or shame can exist throughout a life in a variety of arenas (Sedgwick also describes its workings in the therapeutic setting). But it’s also a constitutive element of being a student. Being a student is — perhaps structurally — an incredibly rich, contradictory, and volatile place to be. Once you’ve flipped into being a professor, it can be astonishingly easy to forget this fact. I’m reminded of it, however, every time I see the familiar red crawl of a blush creeping up the neck of one of my students while she is giving an oral presentation, or when I run into a student in a public place and quizzically observe his discomfort, and so on. As Sedgwick has taught us elsewhere about blushing in particular, and about shame more generally:

the pulsations of cathexis around shame … are what either enable or disenable so basic a function as the ability to be interested in the world … Without positive affect, there can be no shame: only a scene that offers you enjoyment or engages your interest can make you blush.

Sedgwick’s work on shame — inspired by psychologist Silvan Tomkins — teaches us that that rush of blood signals our interest, our investment, our care. And, if we’re lucky, we care a lot.

Of all the things I’ve read over these few weeks, these last two sentences have hit me the hardest. 2011 was my year of shame, or my year of wrestling with shame. And Maggie Nelson writes beautifully and with a great amount of honesty, the kind of honesty that makes you ache, about shame and care in Bluets. Now that I’ve read Nelson’s review of Sedgwick I’m thinking that these were the two themes that underpin that book. Bluets was about love, of course, but you can’t have love without shame and care.

I’m slowly learning that part of growing up and allowing love to happen (in whatever form) is intrinsically tied to allowing yourself to care (often, too much) and not quite giving a fuck about the shame that comes with it.

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