October is LGBT History Month. Last Friday, we posted an excerpt from Louis-Georges Tin’s The Invention of Heterosexual Culture. Today’s post is an excerpt from Douglas Crimp’s Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol.
Just as shame is both productive and corrosive of queer identity, the switching point between stage fright and stage presence, between being a wallflower and being a diva, so too is it simultaneously productive and corrosive of queer revaluations of dignity and worth.
In his book about the banishment of sex from contemporary queer politics, The Trouble with Normal, Michael Warner argues that we need to “develop an ethical response to the problem of shame.” “The difficult question is not: how do we get rid of our sexual shame?” Warner writes. “The question, rather, is this: what will we do with our shame? And the usual response is: pin it on someone else.”
How does this work, performatively? Sedgwick explains: “The absence of an explicit verb from ‘Shame on you’ records the place in which an I, in conferring shame, has effaced itself and its own agency. Of course the desire for self-effacement is the defining trait of–what else?–shame. So the very grammatical truncation of ‘Shame on you’ marks it as a product of a history out of which an I, not withdrawn is projecting shame–toward another I, an I deferred, that has yet and with difficulty to come into being, if at all, in the place of the shamed second person.
Saying “Shame on you” or “For shame” casts shame onto another that is both felt to be one’s own, and, at the same time, disavowed as one’s own. But in those already shamed, the shame-prone, the shame is not so easily shed or so simply projected: It manages also to persist as one’s own. This can lend it the capacity for articulating collectivities of the shamed. Warner explains,
"A relation to others [in queer contexts] begins in an acknowledgement of all that is most abject and least reputable in oneself. Shame is bedrock. Queers can be abusive, insulting, and vile toward one another, but because abjection is understood to be the shared condition they also know how to communicate through such comradery a moving and unexpected form of generosity. No one is beneath its reach, not because it prides itself on generosity but because it prides itself on nothing. The rule is: get over yourself. Put a wig on before you judge. And the corollary is that you stand to learn most from the people you think are beneath you. At its best, this ethic cuts against every form of hierarchy you could bring into the room. Queer scenes are the true salons des refuses, where the most heterogeneous people are brought into great intimacy by their common experience of being despised and rejected in a world of norms that they now recognize as false morality."
The sad thing about the contemporary politics of gay and lesbian pride is that it works in precisely the opposite way: It calls for a visibility predicated on homogeneity and on excluding anyone who does not conform to norms that are taken to be the very morality we should be happy to accept as the onus of our so-called maturity. It thus sees shame as conventional indignity rather than the affective substrate necessary to the transformation of one’s distinctiveness into a queer kind of dignity. This is why the queer culture of the 1960s, made visible in Warhol’s films, is so necessary a reminder of what we need to know how.