Ambient Shame, Bhanu Kapil, and National Poetry Month

by on Apr.06, 2011

A feral child

To celebrate National Poetry Month the right way, Bhanu Kapil pursues the question of shame among women writers of color in a Harriet post brilliantly titled “Asian Vampire Sensuality and Other Problems”:

“There’s that, and also shame: the complicated mixture of shame, vulnerability and aggression that comes with —

With what? I can’t really talk about it. Without exposing my own body to view.”

Bhanu nevertheless offers performance as a way of working out this feeling so that the body is “in a different time.”  She evokes “[t]he scream that comes at the beginning of life. Or love.”

This sounds to me like a purposeful reorientation of intensity—or in Bhanu’s words, a recirculation and redistribution of shame—that opens the latter up as an aperture to different spatiotemporal planes.  Different sites of the body.

Bhanu’s discussion brings to mind many of the thoughts on mediumicity explored by Joyelle, Johannes, and perhaps others on this blog.  For instance, is ambient violence also ambient shame?  Is the text by a marginalized writer sometimes a medium of ambient violence/shame if such violence/shame is that which “runs from the book to the reader as redundancy, repetition, and coercion”?

I would think yes.  What is more shameful, in form, than taking up those three strategies in your writing?  Joyelle, in the post I quoted above, discusses the strategies in terms of Johannes’ A New Quarantine Will Take My Place.  I also see them in the responses to my “Art is of the Animal” post from way back.  In the comments stream, the respondents seem to reenact, rechannel, and recirculate shame through feral origin myths.  The redundant, repetitive, and coercive use of “I come from [x animal territory]” thus performs a kind of originary and feral scream of shame.

But this homecoming, if you will, is at once a birth and a death.  If the writer is somehow recomposing his/her body’s origins through the mediumicity of shame, he/she is also suspending the body’s limits through a radical and deathly vulnerability to others.  The body becomes a medium of what Zizek might call the ‘forced choice’ of shameful writing:  “the subject must freely choose the community to which he belongs, independent of his choice—he must choose what is already given to him.”

When I write through shame, which by definition implicates notions of sociality and community, I feel I’m probably making just such a forced choice.  Perhaps that is also what Bhanu’s evocation of “vampire sensuality” points to:  the vampire can’t help but make leaky orifices, but become a leaky orifice, when he/she acts on the bloodthirst already given to him/her.

Happy National Poetry Month!

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Lucas, thanks so much for this post and the excellent Montevidayo/Montevidayo post below. Thank you thank you! And more!

    I wonder if we can also read my beloved St. Andy Warhol through this framework– queer, sickly, son of immigrants, working class, who feels a shame about his own body and appearance (to the point of having his face sanded off) and an obsession with the alien manners of the rich (he observed that the main difference between the rich and poor is the rich know how to talk with their mouths full)… This is Eve Kosovy Sedgwick’s thesis in her essay in ‘POP out’… Yet could the ultra, hyper, ubermediumicity of Warhol repurpose the distribution system of body shame (advertising) and jam its feed with ever-multiplying silkscreend images that supersaturate its infinite visual economy with the possibility of infinity X infinity heap of images….. that makes image on top of image and circulates images through the iconosphere until they force meaning (i.e. $$) to fold, spindle, and mulilate, to stick to his images and pile up on top of them… a kind of $$ palimpsest…to channel value’s arbitrariness and try to force value to be explicit and visual rather than spectral… to force it to adhere to his images… and also until all images are his images… dollar value being both the background and foreground of his images…’The best business is the best art’… ‘Because you’re worth it’.

  2. Lucas de Lima

    I love this idea, which does strike me as a queer channeling of shame, a transformation of shame into arbitrary (or denaturalized) glamor. Like Candy Darling. I would want to explore the idea of vulnerability in Warhol… it’s striking that Paul Thek wanted to put meat in his Brillo box, as if to weigh it down and stall its multiplication. That red hunk of meat glows with shame–Thek had to turn the box over to expose it.


  3. James Pate

    I really like the phrase “ambient shame.”

    “Different sites of the body”: I kept thinking of Beckett’s The Unnamable as I read the post, the way we never know who is really speaking, or from what body they are speaking (a stationary egg-like figure? a disabled man in a jar outside a butcher shop? Malone?), and yet Beckett isn’t playing a guessing game here. To paraphrase Foucault’s line about authors (a line he borrows from Beckett), What does it matter who’s speaking?

    But in that novel a body, a voice, operates at several sites, perpetually…

    You mention Thek too: in some ways, his The Tomb, especially the figure in The Tomb, relates to the radical de-limiting of the body through vulnerability. That it’s Thek’s faux corpse, laid out for the viewing public, creates an unnatural (in all senses of that word) intimacy with the viewer. The violence done to the body (the cut off fingers, the pulled out and blackened tongue) only emphasizes this mix of vulnerability with the unnatural, the staged. Creating an uncanny effect…

  4. Johannes

    It also reminds me of something Aaron Kunin said about shame when he gave a Q and A here at Notre Dame: something about shame being a highly mobile feeling that can attach itself to just about anything. Anybody remember what he said? Aaron?


  5. Carina Finn

    I also remember being really struck by his comments about shame in the Q and A — especially the part about shame being a source of power, in a sense, in that one’s most intense shame can be a wellspring for intense work.

  6. Jen

    “Shame can attach to any object… The objects acquire the strength of feeling that I, by compulsion, put into them… The rat knowingly yields the full power of the disgust that it inspires in me” AK says in a Jacket interview with Ben Lerner.

  7. Johannes

    Great, thanks. Do you have an address for that interview?


  8. Shame, Power & the Voracious “I”: Coeur de Lion vs. Paula Deen - Montevidayo

    […] my opinion of the book, is a Möbius strip of twists and turns set in motion and empowered through an ambient aching, melting, throbbing, cheese-filled and cheese-eating shame: I am probably doing something […]