Jocelyn Parr is a professor at Dawson College in Montreal, QC
What is strange to us (or what makes us feel strange) can often elicit the sensation of shame. We’ll blush, turn inward. I have elsewhere argued that one useful way of thinking about shame would be as a pharmakon. The term comes from Plato’s Phaedrus, a book often subtitled “A Dialogue on Love.” The pharmakon is there introduced as anything which, being toxic, has the strange power to do three seemingly contradictory things: it can heal, it can harm, and it can intoxicate. Hemlock was a pharmakon. It killed Socrates, but the clay pots that delivered the stuff were also found in the ruins of Athen’s hospital: it was also a cure. In The Phaedrus, the pharmakon is writing. Writing as salve, sword, and drug.
This is the fundamental nature of any pharmakon: it will transform anyone who takes it, but the taking comes with a risk. Taken incorrectly, it can be lethal. Not taking it at all, we might not be healed, nor, for that matter, intoxicated. Hemlock. Writing. Here, I’d like to think of the pharmakon as shame, and how it might be productively added to an arsenal that we are today building, an arsenal whose aim is to dismantle the systemic inequalities we know by the names of misogyny, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and class.
A few weekends ago, a vitriolic debate took place on social media in which two standard positions regarding a work of art were reasserted: the first supported the right of (all) art to exist (even if it is misogynist), the second argued that misogynistic art should not be made public and furthermore, that misogynistic art is made by misogynists and that misogynists (once outed as such by way of the art they make) should be denied the opportunity to speak in public. I won’t be coy. The example I’m referencing was the one that surrounded Zach Wells and his poem “Citric Bitch,” though an equally dramatic iteration of this debate began last fall and is ongoing, that one concerned with Dominic Gagnon and his film of the North. In both cases, two camps developed, one arguing for free speech, another arguing for censorship. And, in both cases, the arguments got personal. People called each other names: “poetrydick,” “apologist for rape culture,” “misogynist,” “racist,” “colonialist.” The name-calling was done for a higher cause—it was contemptuous, and that contempt was called righteous. As far as tools for political thought go, contempt has traditionally found its home in the right wing. Lately, though, the left have taken it up.
Shame and contempt are about belonging—to a group, to a culture, to an idea. Shame speaks to the experience of belonging, even as that insider-ship might make us feel not only lonely but also disgusted with what that culture does and says, with what our belonging indicates about us. Contempt speaks to the experience of rejecting one group, culture, or idea, usually in the hopes of shoring up our right to belong to another one. Psychologist Silvan Tomkins describes shame as deeply self-conscious, and painfully so. And yet, shame’s paradox is that this deeply isolating affect maintains our connections to community. Indeed, it tells us which communities matter most for we only feel shame in the face of an esteemed person or ideal. Indifference, therefore, seals us off from that deeply self-conscious emotion. A closely related affect is contempt, but, says Tomkins:
In contrast to shame, contempt is a response in which there is least self- consciousness, with the most intense consciousness of the object, which is experienced as disgusting. Although the face and nostrils and throat and even the stomach are unpleasantly involved in disgust and nausea, yet attention is most likely to be referred to the source, the object, rather than to the self or the face.
Disgust is the affect that recognizes the physical danger posed by something close, usually a food, by inducing a physical response to remove the object from the system via vomiting. Shame blushes; contempt vomits. If contempt smells something suspicious, it will reject it, and, often enough, it’ll recruit another who might agree, saying “Smell this! It’s disgusting!” Both of the North and “Citric Bitch” have contempt to thank for the audiences they have gathered. Not only do these works have contempt for their subjects, but they have engendered a conversation rife with it. This latter result is what concerns me.
At its worst, shame spirals into narcissism. Contempt at its worst leads to the dehumanization of the other. Politically, shame maintains uncomfortable ties to corrupted or corroded institutions in the hopes that they will improve; contempt, on the other hand, cleaves community, divides cities, builds concentration camps, or, closer to home, residential schools. Here is Tomkins on the political manifestations of shame and contempt:
Both affects are impediments to intimacy and communion, within the self and between the self and others. But shame does not renounce the object permanently, whereas contempt does. Whenever an individual, a class, or a nation wishes to maintain a hierarchical relationship … it will have resort to contempt of the other. Contempt is the mark of the oppressor. The hierarchical relationship is maintained either when the oppressed one assumes the attitude of contempt for himself or hangs his head in shame … Contempt will be used sparingly in a democratic society lest it undermine solidarity, whereas it will be used frequently and with approbation in a hierarchically organized society in order to maintain distance between individuals, classes, and nations.
In connecting these observations to of the North and “Citric Bitch,” the question is this: is their contempt also shame?
One possible starting place might be to conduct a thought experiment wherein we start with the very generous assumption that both Wells and Gagnon are deeply ashamed of the misogynist and racist culture we live in and that their pieces reflect that shame. Indeed, when Wells eventually responded to the online furor his poem had generated he said:
Its author also acknowledges the blindingly obvious observation made by its detractors that the sentiments contained within its univocalic text are extraordinarily odious … The idea was to give voice to the imaginary critic who hates women and will aggressively try to shut them up.
Putting aside questions as to the value of such pursuits, nor even whether or not we believe him, what this response makes clear is that he recognizes that there is such a thing as misogyny and that his poem engaged in its domain.
Unlike Wells, Dominic Gagnon has failed to own up to the way his film reasserts hurtful stereotypes of Northern Indigenous peoples. Instead, he has clung to the idea of the film as a mash-up, suggesting there was no authorial hand behind the selecting and editing of the clips he connected to produce of the North. When pushed, he claims that the film was meant to foment conversation. It was a piece of art that, as with Wells’ poem, was intended to capture (as opposed to replicate) the horrors of colonialism. His defenders have made similar claims:
He creates an anti-exotic Vertovian “Kino-Eye,” which reveals trashy and unbridled acculturation and takes apart the existing clichés about the Inuit, too often confined to the borders of the contemporary world.
And here, a defence of the film from RIDM, the offending initial festival that screened it in November:
Loin de voir of the North comme une œuvre raciste, nous l’avons programmé comme un discours critique sur le colonialisme et ses impacts encore dévastateurs à ce jour. À travers un remontage d’images filmées et mises en ligne sur YouTube par des Inuits, le film nous semble confronter et tenter de détruire l’existence même de stéréotypes dont souffrent les populations inuites.
Far from seeing of the North as a racist work, we included it in our program as a critique of colonialism and its devastating impacts to this day. Through a reassembly of images filmed and uploaded to YouTube by Inuit, the film seems to confront and try to destroy the very existence of stereotypes affecting Inuit populations. (Editor’s translation.)
The question, if we decide to assume the good intentions of Wells and Gagnon, is whether a world already steeped in patriarchy and white supremacy needs more of such depictions. It doesn’t. And yet, the depictions persist. This means we do need more ways, not less, to undo their power. For my part, I doubt whether calls for censure undo anything at all: it seems we still haven’t understood the allure of banned books. Indeed, as one friend commented, at some point a few weeks ago, Zach’s poem seemed to be the best known poem in Canada, and, in Montreal at least, of the North has dominated conversation about documentary film for months now.
Turning now to the debates about whether or not the poem or the film deserve a place in the public sphere, if we conduct that same experiment, deciding that the shared quality of all of the interlocutors was a deep shame about the systems of inequality that persist in our world, I’d like to look at how that shame expressed itself as either shame itself or as a shame-disguised-as-contempt.
By far the most important voice expressing the need to censor the film came from those who had been represented in it: people who had not consented, who hadn’t even been asked. A word that emerged frequently was the word “unsafe” and one of the most important iterations of it came from Tanya Tagaq who said, simply, this film hurts me, and it hurts my people. This was a rare call for censor that was free of contempt, free even, of contempt for Gagnon.
Far more common were exchanges that quickly became barbed.
A still from Dominic Gagnon’s of the North
Anyone who called for thoughtful discussion of either piece or, worse, a more general call for freedom of expression, ran the risk of being labelled (in the case of the Wells’ poem) a misogynist, an apologist for rape culture, or a person wholly blind to their privilege. Those who argued that “Citric Bitch” should be deleted expressed, from within the safety of a newly fortified community, the opinion that “ … his defence on his blog is basically that all of us who find the poem inexcusable are hysterical idiots who don’t ‘get’ the poem,” and, “I am glad that we all seem to be in agreement that Zach’s poem is hateful” (Italics mine). Contempt establishes distance. In the case of the Gagnon film, its defenders were named colonialists, racists, and supporters of white supremacy: “The only reason people choose to validate this film by programming it or attending the screenings is because they are so uninformed about Inuit life and Inuit issues that they don’t even see the racism in this situation,” or even more strongly, in the imperative: “If you are thinking of going to the screening, ask yourself why you are cool with racism” (again, these italics are mine). In both cases the logic of either/or was employed: either you agree not to screen the film or you are a racist. Contempt establishes hierarchies. Contempt severs ties.
Contempt severs ties even within marginalized groups. Contempt severs ties even between those who might otherwise be allies, those who, had they had the opportunity to say it—to see each other, to listen—might have known that the shame of inequality mattered to them both. An article has been circulating recently in which the writer laments that she is:
tired of the cliques, the hierarchies, the policing of others, and the power imbalances that exist between people who claim to be friends and comrades. I am exhausted and saddened by the fact that any type of disagreement or difference of opinion in an activist circle will lead to a fight, which sometimes includes abandonment of certain people. (Bailey Lamon)
Contempt is employed in an attempt to sever oneself from the thing that is disgusting. But what is one to do when the disgusting thing is oneself?
Name-calling does something significant for the censors: it focuses the attention on the disgusting thing—misogyny, racism, colonialism and its supposed representatives (the creators, the apologists)—and seems to claim that the name-caller has never been poisoned in such a way. This is contempt enlisted in the hopes that these problems are individual, but they are systemic, and so the conversation has to be about the system. Indeed, when we resort to thinking that locates the problem only in the world of the individual, we do several things at once: we establish contempt as our key political ally in a world already riven by it and we uphold an ideal of the individual as the place where overcoming happens. It’s a version of Nietzsche’s superman, or America’s “every man.” Yet, on the left, we say we don’t believe this. We recognize, for example, that class, race, gender and sexual orientation all place individuals in, to use Marxian language, “historical circumstances not of our own making.” The rhetoric of the empowered individual, the one who can flout all systemic ills, is a rhetoric we distrust because we know that historical circumstances have a momentum of their own, a momentum that is bigger and more powerful than any individual, no matter how extraordinary. This is why the American dream of “pulling up one’s bootstraps” is so fraudulent.
I’ll pause here to say that yes, we ought to identify racism and misogyny as worthy of contempt because they absolutely are, and it is true, that as individuals we must learn to identify when and how our behaviour reifies those ideas. But we do no service to our society if we then create a protective barrier that establishes the origins of those ideas as elsewhere. The origins are not elsewhere. They are, for now, woven into the fabric of our society (the conversations that took place were mostly online, where we called them “threads”). That is what it means for something to be systemic. Contempt can, and often is, a shame that lacks self-awareness.
Exemplary of the free speech position might be the open letter published in Voir and signed by numerous local figures:
Bien que nous comprenions tout à fait que le film puisse heurter certaines sensibilités et qu’il aborde des questions délicates, il nous semble impératif de rappeler l’importance de défendre la liberté d’expression, lorsque celle-ci s’exerce dans un cadre qui ne dépasse pas certaines limites, telles que les appels à la violence, à la haine ou tout comportement de cet acabit. Le film de Dominic Gagnon provoque des réactions polarisées, cela est indéniable. Mais n’est-ce pas l’un des bienfaits de l’art d’attiser le débat et de susciter les opinions multiples?
While we fully understand that the film could offend some sensibilities and that it addresses delicate issues, it seems imperative that we recall the importance of defending freedom of expression when it is exerted within a framework that does not exceed certain limits, such as calls to violence, hatred, or behaviour of this kind. Domic Gagnon’s film provokes polarized reactions, that is indeniable. But does art not have the benefit of stirring up debate and provoking multiple opinions? (Editor’s translation.)
Yet, I wonder how diverse the opinions on the film actually were. After all, its local audience was limited to those who caught it before the controversy erupted, leaving the rest to debate the merits of screening the film in the abstract. I did see the film and can say only that I found its opening sequences to be mesmerizing in the fullest sense of the word: they were intoxicating and seductive. But as the film progressed, the toxins accumulated, making its overall effect poisonous. If it is true that the film can be seen and can elicit multiple opinions, perhaps this is all the more reason for it to be shown, but in the context of a conversation that can draw out its toxins.
Author, teacher, and translator Gayatri Spivak
Gayatri Spivak describes a pharmakon as a “poison that is medicinal when knowingly administered” and these works might just be that. I want to emphasize that the pharmakon—be it shame or writing, a poison or a drug—is not a meaningless figure. Its usage is context-dependent, contingent. Inconsiderate use of it, therefore, poses great risk. The toxicity of shame has been well documented and is undeniable. Even if it can be said that the shame of racism and misogyny affects every member of society, the degree of that impact varies tremendously depending on one’s degree of privilege (and privilege is always a question of degrees). Shame registers our weakness, deficiencies, and vulnerabilities like nothing else, but it also registers our hopes, ambitions, and most profound connections. The sting of these conversations has captured a tremendous amount of hope on all sides: everywhere, even in the deepest contempt, there was hope for a world that would cease to find its most accurate descriptions in words like racist, misogynist, and capitalist. For now, those words must be owned by all of us. The only way through, I think, is through. If anything might be able to take us out of ourselves, beyond our habitual paths and laws, shame-as-pharmakon might be as good a candidate as any. Contempt stands its ground; shame makes us move. In Marx’s words, “shame is a kind of anger turned in on itself. And if a whole nation were to feel ashamed it would be like a lion recoiling in order to spring.”
Jocelyn Parr has a PhD in English Literature from the Universities of Tübingen and Perpignan where she wrote a dissertation on shame and autobiographical writing. She is a professor of History at Dawson College in Montreal. Her creative and academic work has been published in France and Germany and in Canada with Brick, Grain, Matrix, and others. She has recently completed a novel about a brain museum in 1920s Moscow.