by Kehan DeSousa
I haven’t come across anything like Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation since I’ve left college, and I wonder if this is because non-fiction prose of this sort—introspective, questioning, intimate—rarely attracts much attention, bereft as it is of easy answers or exposition. Throughout the book, Koestenbaum’s definition of humiliation remains relatively vague, relying mostly on examples of what humiliation is or isn’t to maintain the parameters. His reflective, unsure tone disallows certainty; he does not crudely seek to prove or convince, merely to inquire. Still, many of his distinctions are convincing: in particular, Koestenbaum seems dedicated to the idea that humiliation requires the crucial element of a witness; that without an audience, the particular pain of humiliation strays instead into the separate realms of shame or embarrassment. Whether such delineation is necessary or useful is besides the point of the book.
Although he ventures into some grave history—the assault of Abner Louima in 1997 by a NYPD officer, scenes from Harriet Tubman’s autobiography, the concentration camps, Guantanamo—Koestenbaum seems most empathetic and relevant when musing on the relationship between celebrity and humiliation. Yet discussing the hugely public nature of Michael Jackson or Liza Minelli’s humiliating televised moments alongside grimmer fare occasionally muddies the clarity of Koestenbaum’s inquiry. Often the jarring placement of piecemeal examples undermines his overarching insights on humiliation: the analysis of facets of Sade and sexual humiliation, race and ethnicity, and mass culture mashed together within a few pages does not form a persuasive whole. By grouping such varied subjects together, Koestenbaum ensured that I, at least, noticed their differences, as opposed to how they are linked through his understanding of humiliation.
However, this is hardly a weakness within Humiliation. As I mentioned, I haven’t come across a book written as openly as this in a while, but Koestenbaum’s predecessors in this manner of inquiry are, like the author himself, fascinating writers, whose subjects often seem secondary in import to the penned unfolding of the author’s mind: Sontag, Maurice Blanchot, Zizek. Looming above them is Julia Kristeva, to whom Koestenbaum refers several times, and whose work on the abject seems as much Koestenbaum’s inspiration in Humiliation as Fox’s 2004 reality show The Swan, Artaud, and Koestenbaum’s own mishaps with various bodily fluids. Structure mimics method in Humiliation, as Koestenbaum’s longer sections, which he calls ‘fugues,’ divide into short bursts of ideas, questions, and examples ideally suited for this sort of thoughtful, non-declarative writing. Humiliation provides no solutions, and there is no satisfying sense of resolution, but as an exploration of an unwieldy concept, it is disarmingly vulnerable, and as eloquent as it is revealing.