A report on the conference workshop, Shame: What is it good for?
Kate Macdonald, Ghent University, Belgium
I devised this workshop for the conference because I wanted to explore how shame works in research as an aspect of the texts that we work on, as well as being part of our research process. Since everyone at the conference either felt marginalised, or was working on a marginalised author or subject, I figured there would be wide scope for discussion. Twelve people attended the workshop, and talked intensively for about an hour.
The first step was to identify what shame was. It became apparent that two groups of definitions were emerging: to do with taboos within the texts, and those reflecting our experiences of beleaguerment and criticism for our research choices.
The taboos that generated shame within the text did not, surprisingly, include the expected no-no of violence, but this may have been a function of the samples of texts being discussed. Hiding the cover of the book from view was a fairly late admission, but was widely recognised as a common experience. Other taboos to generate shame on being broken within the texts included characters breaking rules of propriety, characters shaming other characters, voyeurism, being unmanly or foreign, being nosy, operating a particular gaze, and shame generated by sexualised or gender-related accusations, for instance cuckoldry. Texts, or authors, also attempted to shame their readers by presenting a world view where to disagree was to reject entire value systems, and possibly even the fate of civilisation. This movement of shame from within to outside the text was an example of a pervasive sense of transference of shame, one of the four main conclusions of the taboos discussion. The other three were a sense of the impending corruption of a national or cultural myth, polarisation of characters based on moral exceptionalism, and, overall, a large social cauldron of expectations, any one of which could generate shame. The movement of shame within the text, and the process of its transference, would seem to be a particularly fruitful area for further exploration.
The groups discussing the sense of criticism of our research choices at times had the sound of a consciousness-raising session, so strong was the feeling of being inflicted with universal condemnation for our study choices, even from supervisors, which I found particularly shocking. The issues to first emerge under this theme included being regarded as being out of touch academically in making old-fashioned or outdated choices in texts and authors for research, being accused of making intellectually invalid research choices, and for not using approved methodological approaches or scholarly language. Defending ourselves against the expectations of others was a universal experience, as was a strong awareness that the literary quality of the texts we were working on needed constant justification to others, as did their seriousness, particularly those which engaged with comedy and frivolity. The discussion produced four themes to which we returned again and again. A sense of needing to justify the value of studying the arts, and/or literature, to one’s family, teachers, culture and institutions was pervasive, particularly for men. At institutional level, there was a common experience of ritual humiliation or institutional shaming from senior colleagues and authority figures as a criticism of our research choices, even after admission to PhD programmes or teaching positions. More insidiously, there was an awareness of a permanent atmosphere of microcriticism of one’s daily work.
However, the most heartening result of this discussion were the individual experiences of resistance, and an awareness that we are capable of defending our choices, and can successfully attack criticism, to replace it with understanding. Our awareness of being individual researchers under siege can be replaced with a sense of commonality. The shame that we are made to feel as researchers of the marginalised, the derided and the ignored can be transferred back to the perpetrators as a fit response to their narrow vision and preset ideas, by sharing imaginative research methods and engaging interdisciplinarily with ideas that demonstrate more effectively the value of what we do, and its relevance to literary study, social history and the experience of our culture.
We need more opportunities to share our experiences and learn from each other to help our work. I offer you the national motto of Belgium (a linguistically and culturally divided nation that still manages to work as a single entity) as a reminder of how we might consolidate and grow: Eendracht maakt macht. L’union fait la force. Unity makes strength.