Shameful Attachments / Attachments to Shame: Affective Unreliability and the Contemporary Moment
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This dissertation undertakes a critical consideration of the productive and beneficent potential of shame. By examining texts in which characters or individuals depart from more traditional narratives, experiences, and/or manifestations of shame, this project aims to deconstruct the historically-entrenched definition of shame as a negative affect and provide a more inclusive and potentially liberating formulation. The introductory chapter charts the dominant trends in shame theory since Freud and articulates some of the main questions that propel the arguments of this dissertation: how do attachments to shame form? What is it that attracts individuals to shame? How do we begin to conceive of a form of shame that does not operate as shame “should?” Via close-readings of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, Chapter Two begins to answer some of these questions, examining the relation between shame and desire in order to demonstrate not only the necessity of desire to shame’s instantiation, but the ways in which shame alters our understanding of discourses of desire. Chapter Three investigates the life, writing, and art of Bob Flanagan, performance artist and “supermasochist,” to reveal the sometimes erotic nature of shame. Chapter Four’s analysis of NBC’s The Biggest Loser focuses on the more familiar narrative of shame as an enforcer of social norms, suggesting that the ostensibly passive desire to see others humiliated (schadenfreude) is actually a form of active participation in the modes of governmentality embedded in reality television and thus reveals the ubiquity of attachments to shame in contemporary culture. Chapter Five engages with two Steve McQueen films—Shame (2011) and Twelve Years a Slave (2013)—in order to suggest that the existence of so many different (and differently productive) relations to shame, when widely visible, produces uncertainty about the relation between, and about what constitutes, shame and/or shamelessness. Chapter Five’s discussion of the (un)reliability of affective markers leads me, in the Conclusion, to provide a new lens through which we might be able to envision the current affective economy of the United States, one paradoxically characterized by both shame and shamelessness.