Academic journal article College English

Toward a Queerly Classed Analysis of Shame: Attunement to Bodies in English Studies

Academic journal article College English

Toward a Queerly Classed Analysis of Shame: Attunement to Bodies in English Studies

Article excerpt

It would indeed be difficult for anyone who has lived class dissonance-or who has listened carefully to narratives of class conflict and displacement-to argue that "class" is not an affec- tive phenomenon, as much a state of memory and desire as it is a state of relational awareness.

-Julie Lindquist

Scholarship on the cultural politics of emotions challenges the privatization and psychologizing of emotions, and instead, theorizes how emotions order social life (Ahmed; Probyn; Sedgwick; Sedgwick and Frank). Shame, like other affects, is registered in the body first: lowered eyes, blush rising in the cheeks, head in hand. The body speaks before we cognitively know. American psychologist Silvan Tomkins, whose research focused on affects as both biological and social, defined shame in relation to interest. Without interest, a longing for connection, there cannot be shame. Activated when interest has been temporarily cut off, shame signals both the despair of feeling isolated as well as the hope that interest and con- nection will return. Our interest may arc toward others, a perception of self, or an idea. Elspeth Probyn notes that what marks our "interest" and the degree to which we are interested vary, but the significance of Tomkins's approach to shame is the way it can shed light on the precision of our affective investments and how these are bound up in our sense of self:

If you're interested in and care about the interest of others, you spend much of your life blushing [the biological signifier of shame]. Conversely, if you don't care, then attempts to shame won't move you [. . . .] Shame goes to the heart of who we think we are. In this sense, shame puts one's self-esteem on the line and questions our value system [. . . .] What shames me may not shame you. But whatever it is that shames you will be something important to you, an essential part of yourself. (x)

Shame and guilt are twin emotions and related to what others think of us: they make us feel cut off, made different from others with whom we want to be connected and identified. However, guilt is a feeling triggered by an act, a breaking of a rule; once reparation or apology has been expressed, we generally are able to move past the feeling of guilt. Shame goes deeper. In shame our very sense of self is made ques- tionable. It taps into our sense of identity: more than an act or behavior, it speaks to who we are.

Despite recent work in the cultural politics of emotions and their embodiment, the body (or perhaps I should say "my body," for this is not an abstraction) is the last place I wanted to go, perhaps because academia encourages, even expects a division between mind and body, cognition and affect.1 It's been eight years since I began articulating the argument for this article; but what I was after was elusive, something more felt than seen, something related to class, to gender, to queerness. I could never "point to" it in ways that are valued in a visual economy where the production and exchange of ideas relies heavily on that which can be seen in textual evidence. Again and again I have returned to my embodied experience when on a university campus: a corporeal sense of being displaced, awkward in my skin, hyperaware of and cau- tious in the movements of my body. The transition between home culture and work culture is akin to crossing a clearly defined border-I do not move with ease from slippers to loafers, home culture to work culture. My body moves across campus with an exterior attitude of strength and determination, with a closed affect that says, "I am impermeable; nothing can affect me." Internally, the muscles in my calves shout, "Run! Go back to where you came from! You don't belong here." Caught between performing an attitude of strength and a body compelling me to run away, I exist in a constant tension. In the soft underbelly of this tension lies shame.

Deeply compelled by the scholarship on shame, I decided the body must be forefronted. …

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