American Shame: Stigma and the Body Politic

American Shame: Stigma and the Body Politic

American Shame: Stigma and the Body Politic

American Shame: Stigma and the Body Politic

Synopsis

On any given day in America's news cycle, stories and images of disgraced politicians and celebrities solicit our moral indignation, their misdeeds fueling a lucrative economy of shame and scandal. Shame is one of the most coercive, painful, and intriguing of human emotions. Only in recent years has interest in shame extended beyond a focus on the subjective experience of this emotion and its psychological effects. The essays collected here consider the role of shame as cultural practice and examine ways that public shaming practices enforce conformity and group coherence. Addressing abortion, mental illness, suicide, immigration, and body image among other issues, this volume calls attention to the ways shaming practices create and police social boundaries; how shaming speech is endorsed, judged, or challenged by various groups; and the distinct ways that shame is encoded and embodied in a nation that prides itself on individualism, diversity, and exceptionalism. Examining shame through a prism of race, sexuality, ethnicity, and gender, these provocative essays offer a broader understanding of how America's discourse of shame helps to define its people as citizens, spectators, consumers, and moral actors.

Excerpt

Myra Mendible

Shame as Spectacle: Bodies That Matter

The spectacle is the acme of ideology, for in its full flower it exposes and
manifests … the impoverishment, enslavement and negation of real life.

—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

On any given day in America’s twenty-four-hour news cycle, shame is a hot commodity. Stories and images of disgraced politicians and celebrities solicit our moral indignation, their misdeeds fueling a lucrative economy of shame and scandal. Nothing fosters the illusion of solidarity like shared condemnation: joining the chorus of outrage that follows the exposure of the rich and famous, we play out a fantasy of community that otherwise eludes us. Here is the stuff of cultural belonging today—a bonding ritual that fills in for the spectacles that once were town square stocks and pillories. Righteous rants about the latest breach in conduct circulate via chat rooms, blogs, and social media; civic interactivity plays out in tweets, hashtags, and posts. Duly disciplined, the exposed offender, egotist, or fool bolsters our faith in the notion that, in America, personal responsibility accounts for failures and everyone—even the rich and famous—get what they deserve.

But of course this is a comforting fiction. We watch as the disgraced politician goes on to profit from memoirs and reality show appearances; the chastened celebrity is rehabilitated and rebranded. Whereas the experience of shame prompts a desire to hide and conceal, shame spectacles generate publicity, increasing marketability and “trending” stats. They garner photo-ops, tv appearances, feature stories, press releases, and—most enthralling—staged mea culpas. As spectators, we play our part in these charades, expressing our outrage in shrill tirades, all Sturm und Drang and grand gestures. Commodified and converted into spectacle, shame is more entertaining than disciplinary, more akin to a system of sociality than morality. It produces tabloid fodder for mass consumption—a carnival of moral outrage that channels a people’s discontent but ultimately deflects attention from the . . .

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