2007 Hampshire: Ashgate 268 pages
How do we cope with shame? I was a queer little boy in the 1950’s and the 1960’s, and started my coming out journey in 1966 – to family, friends, colleagues, students and ultimately in the streets of the GLF in 1970. The shame I had so strongly felt in my childhood and youth was radically transformed into a pride in being gay. It enabled me to get on with life from then on. Sally Munt’s latest challenging and erudite book takes us into the heart of this shame.
Her book raises issues around the ways in which shame is handled, resisted and even transformed into joy. Her approach takes a Foucauldian/ Butler line – discursively and perfomatively based, but without too much of the jargon. Her method is the cultural geneaology of shame. Her concerns are with queer shame- as it takes sexual, class and ethic forms: just how is the world of largely middle class respectability used culturally to shame key groups.? Her topics are queers, Irish Catholics in Britain, and the underclass. She ranges widely from historical scandals (Lord Castelhaven and Edmund Burke), contemporary art ( the work of Tracey Emin), and case studies ( the suicidal death of UCSC Chancellor Denis Denton), to the queer movement in . St Patricks’s Day Parades in New York to and a fascinating series of contemporary cultural readings – from the blatantly queer (Queer as Folk) to the maybe less obviously queer (The Office and Shameless) to the work of phillip Pullman Dark/Northern Lights.Her concern is always with the ways in which shame circulates, marks out queered groups, and how these can be seen often to resist and show pride in their differences. Shame is linked to pride, and this dualism is one way o f looking at the new social movements that started in the 1960’s… communities of shame can be transformed, new attachments forged, and new identities and pride emerges. In many ways this is all a positive acoount of the workings of shame- how it can transformand liberates… Shame is not always negative.
This study is the latest example of a new wave of studies of emotion that started to appear after Arlie Hochchild’s trail blazing The Managed Heart in the early 1980’s. The field of studying emotions psychosocially is now very well established across the social sciences. And shame – along with its closely allied feelings of disgust and guilt – is often to the forefront. It is one of the key ‘structures of feeling’ that dwell, often dramatically, with bodies and cultures. But here Munt gives it all a queer reading. She is concerned with the historical production of queered identities within cultural narratives of respectability that then generate shame.. at the edge, on the margins of certain outcast groups > and usually these are narratives which privilege straight men, the middle class and Protestants… (though surely all religious groups.. a problem here)……. the poor, the queer and the Irish Catholic are her key concerns… a study of the shame habitus of certain groups….
Although she draws from a wide range of theorists, the presence of Foucault haunts the book – alongside Judith Butler. This gives a distinctive twist to her approach. It is discursively and perfomatively based.
There are other ways of thinking about shame. For Nussbaum, it is a road for hiding our humanity. For Scheff and Retzinger, it is a universal source of rage that shapes all of history. For Jack Katz is a feeling that needs direct observational research. Everyway of seeing is a way of not seeing, and this book….????
Religion raises its ugly head throughout this book. Christianity (and dare I say it, especially Catholicism) provides the spectre of shame in western societies. Orginal sin is orginal sin! But the book is weaker at sensing this – Catholics are seen as a minority, whereas in most of the world this is not true. They routinely are embedded in cultures of shame (and more individualised guilt – but that is another matter not mentioned here). But Muslim cultures might raise the even wider issue of honor shame society: a key issue for modern accounts of the world. To even think about queer shame in most Muslim cultures puts the work of Tracey Ermin in some perspective.
Along with shame comes its counterpart of respect. Critical humanist theory would advocate a greater need for all human beings to recognise and respect the other. We are all vulnerable human beings…..
This book is a dazzling, erudite and highly intelligent read for all those interested in matters queer, emotional and cultural.
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Essex