Materialities of Shame in the English-Speaking World: Bodies, Artworks and Objects
Materialities of Shame in the English-Speaking World:
Bodies, Artworks and Objects
Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1-2 December 2023
In this final conference of the “Shame” project, we propose to look at the ways in which shame is triggered, expressed, performed, contained, repressed, remembered, exorcised or reclaimed in material culture.
One focus of this conference will be to investigate the various ways in which shame is materialised within bodies. Envisaging shame within the framework of affect theory, after Silvan Tomkins, directs our attention to the embodied dimension of shame. Drawing on Tomkins, Donald L. Nathanson defines affect as “the strictly biological portion of emotion,” as opposed to feeling which “implies the presence of higher order mechanisms or components that allow knowledge and understanding” and emotion which entails the combination of affect with the memories of past situations in which one was similarly affected: “Whereas affect is biology, emotion is biography.” While such definitions are contested and have fluctuated over time, broadly speaking affect theory invites us to think of shame as an intensely embodied experience. Drawing on affect theory as well as phenomenology, scholars such as Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Elspeth Probyn and Luna Dolezal have explored the ways in which shame is experienced and manifested through the body and the body’s interactions with its environment and with other bodies, making it both an intensely private and inherently social experience. As Luna Dolezal argues, “shame arises in the interactions between bodies; it involves an intensification of the body’s surface and its visibility. It is because we live through bodies, which are inherently ambiguous, relational and imperfect, that shame is a constant feature and possibility of social life.” Hence the prevalence of the specific form of shame which Dolezal calls “body shame”: “shame that is centred on the body, where the subject believes their body to be undesirable or unattractive, falling short of social depictions of the ‘normal,’ the ideal or the socially acceptable body.” Making such bodies visible, performing shame publicly, or using stigmatised bodies (whether this applies to Black female bodies, to the bodies of disabled people or of gender-nonconforming people, or to the bodies of other minorities) to make art, can open the path to exorcising shame—or indeed to reclaiming shame as a means of creating forms of alternative relationality and solidarity within shamed communities, as Michael Warner, among other queer theorists, has argued: “Staging shame as disruptions of relationality, we paradoxically create new relationships insofar as we can school ourselves not to be ashamed of our shame—a project that of course disappears the second we persuade ourselves that not being ashamed of our shame requires us to be proud.”
The second focus of this conference will be the ways in which shame is invoked, materialised and investigated in artworks and more generally in visual culture. There are certain tropes and traditions of visual culture that characteristically invoke shame, or the lack thereof, such as the figuration of nudity, which is linked to issues of sexuality. In Western art, representations of naked male and female bodies have evolved differentially, as Ernst van Alphen reminds us: “Whereas women are depicted as defined by their sexuality, as sexual beings, in the representation of men their sexuality plays a minor role.” While male bodies typically appear as unselfconscious, women’s sexuality “is always present in visual culture, as something shameful that should be hidden, following the Venus pudica tradition; or as something that should be exposed shamelessly as an object of desire and more recently as a subject of desire.” However modern takes on the nude tradition have tended to shake up this unequal repartition of shame, sexualising the male body or refuting the shame of the exposed female body and often redirecting it onto the viewer’s voyeuristic gaze (a tradition initiated, arguably, by Manet’s Olympia). Postcolonial visual culture also frequently addresses the power relations inherent in colonial visuality and work to deconstruct, undermine or reverse the shameful objectification of Indigenous bodies so essential to many strands of Western visual culture, such as orientalist art, ethnographic photography or the various technologies of visual documentation and surveillance.
Bearing in mind the powerful intervention of Irish glass artist Alison Lowry in the “Shame” conference of December 2021, the topic “Materialities of shame” also invites reflections on how artists negotiate the shameful stories that beg to be told yet are too shameful to be told in the existing standard idioms—in Lowry’s case, the harrowing history of the Irish State’s institutionalised maltreatment and shaming of single mothers and their children.
Yet another aspect of this strand of the topic concerns decolonial movements that strive to expose the ways in which colonial power relations are materialised in visual culture and in the institutional spaces that display it. The politics of shame is central to those movements that seek to expose colonial museums (or “Brutish museums”, to pick up Dan Hicks’ felicitous phrase) and to obtain cultural restitution. Likewise, the #RhodesMustFall movement and the global movement to topple controversial statues (in particular confederate statues in the US) and to rename institutional buildings that it ignited relies largely on the rhetoric of shame, as it stresses the unequal access of citizens to commemorative negotiations. Who gets to shape the public landscape gets to infuse the city with meaning, or to refuse material monuments of historical events. The materiality of shame is particularly efficient in the case of memorials dealing with issues of national morality, remembrance and atonement, as with the recent remembrance ceremony at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Duluth Memorial, during which jars containing soil were placed on the sculpture-adorned wall to materialise the bodies of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, lynched on June 15, 1920. Materializing trauma is an important leverage in differentiating the monument from the memorial, and the powerful effect on the viewer's reception can help public art to escape the banalization that seems to often befall art in the public space.
Finally, the conference topic invites contributions about all objects associated with shame—whether instruments of shaming, objects signalling shame, or objects concealing shame—and about their representations, circulation and possible repurposing, from Hester Prynne’s “scarlet letter” to the fig leaf so ubiquitous (and eminently ambiguous) in Western visual culture, to the complex and often equivocal use of screens and veils in public and private spaces, as well as in literature and visual culture. We invite scholars in literature, art, cultural studies, history, visual studies and other disciplines, as well as artists and performers, to contribute to the final conference of the Shame network on 1-2 December 2023 at the University of the New Sorbonne in Paris.
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
Julian Bonder, “On Memory, Trauma, Public Space, Monuments, and Memorials” Places 21.1 (2009): 62-69.
Canguilhem, George, “A Critical Examination of Certain Concepts: The Normal, Anomaly, and Disease; The Normal and the Experimental,” in The Normal and the Pathological. Zone Books, 1991.
Dolezal, Luna. The Body and Shame. Lexington Books, 2015, np.
Erevelles, Nirmala, “Introduction: Bodies that Do Not Matter,” in Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Hicks, Dan. The Brutish Museums. The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. Pluto Press, 2020.
Nathanson, Donald L. Shame and Pride. Affect, Sex and the Birth of the Self. Norton, 1994, np.
Otele, Olivette “Mourning in reluctant sites of memory: from Afrophobia to cultural productivity”. NIOD Lecture Series, September 2016, Institute for War, NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Amsterdam, Netherlands. 2016
Probyn, Elspeth. Blush: Faces of Shame. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofwky. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Duke University Press, 1995.
Seremetakis, Nadia. The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Shakespeare, Tom, “The Social Model of Disability,” in The Disability Studies Reader, Routledge 2017.
Snyder, Sharon L. and David T. Mitchell, “Introduction,” and chapter 3 (“The Eugenic Atlantic”), in Cultural Locations of Disability. University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Thompson, Erin L. Smashing Statues : The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments. New York: Norton, 2023.
van Alphen, Ernst. “Shame and Masculinity in Visual Culture”, in Shame and Masculinity, ed. Ernst van Alphen. Valiz, 2020, p. 33-63.
Michael Warner, “Pleasures and Dangers of Shame”, in Gay Shame, eds. David D. Halperin and Valerie Traub. University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 283-296.
Please submit a proposal in English of around 500 words for a 20-minute presentation or performance, followed by a short biography of each speaker to email@example.com
Deadline for proposals: 15 september 2023.
Please note that confirmed participants will be encouraged to send a long summary of their paper (1000-1500 words) a few weeks in advance of the conference.
Shame Network blog: https://shame.hypotheses.org/
Emmanuelle Avril (Sorbonne Nouvelle, CREW), Laurence Cossu-Beaumont (Sorbonne Nouvelle, CREW), Claire Davison (Sorbonne Nouvelle, Prismes), Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry (Sorbonne Nouvelle, CREW), David Lloyd (University of California Riverside), Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise (Sorbonne Nouvelle, Prismes), Fabrice Mourlon (Sorbonne Nouvelle, CREW), Bénédicte Myamoto (Sorbonne Nouvelle, CREW), Alexandra Poulain (Sorbonne Nouvelle, PRISMES), Nathalie Sebbane (Sorbonne Nouvelle, CREW), Clair Wills (University of Cambridge, Royaume-Uni).