I’ve been thinking about Julie Carr’s lovely meditation at Poetry Foundation for National Poetry Month “Shame and the Shape of the I.” I’m missing the Shape of the ‘I’ conference that Julie and her colleague John-Michael Rivera are hosting in Boulder this weekend. It looks amazing, important, but I’m missing it because I’m too sick. When I called Friday morning to explain that I was too sick to participate, I burst into tears, which is something I rarely do in public and only in acute moments of shame. My baroque leaky-vessel impulses take over and it’s mascara to my chin. I’m surprised I don’t purposefully pee myself in some sort of Jacobean-drama-meets-early-Wes-Craven freak out. Maybe I’m just working up to it.
The conference organizers didn’t make me cry; that was my own doing. They were kind and understanding, and respectful. Sometimes people speak to those of us in what Susan Sontag calls “the kingdom of illness” as though we’re naughty children in need of indulgence. I’ve been called a delicate flower, no kidding. Perfectly thoughtful people might not get that bodies have different registers and reactions to sick, that some bodies have different stakes, and that some of us are more than willing (or all too often required) to work at the far end of our material limitations whenever it’s possible, so if we’re saying we can’t, we really can’t. Rarer times, like yesterday, people are aware and thoughtful. And that’s an immense relief.
In her Poetry Foundation post, Julie says:
[W]hen I think about shame, which Sedgwick called “the affect that most defines the space where a sense of self will develop,” I think how the need to protect the self (against attacks or rejections real or imagined) creates boundaries, helps us to distinguish (as Sedgwick puts it) between figure and ground.
Poet Kristen Stone has also been posting about this, and quotes:
I want to say that at least for certain (“queer”) people, shame is simply the first, and remains a permanent, structuring fact of identity: one that…has its own, powerfully productive and powerfully social metamorphic possibilities.
-Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick,p. 63-65 “Shame, Theatricality, Queer Performativity”Touching Feeling
I like this Sedgwick-derived reading of what we might imagine to be self-productive shame. One of the things I want to know about it: when the shaming process is thoroughly internalized, how does the self protect itself from itself? What happens when shame turns the self on itself, causing the self to reshape? Here, in place of reshape, I’m tempted to use words like mutate, deform, self-eradicate, but only if their heavy pejorative connotations could be held off a’ways. On the disability side of things, I’m wary of the damage these terms do to those whose bodies are perceived as subjectless objects. On the poetics side of things, I’m wary of the delirious enthusiasm with which we grotesquers (I!) embrace these terms. And as Sedgwick guides us to imagine, shame isn’t uniformly good or bad, but complicated and unarguably productive of something.
Via autoimmune disorder, the body turns on its own properties, which it perceives as threatening. Not unlike Kristeva’s abjection, the body is willing to rid itself of itself in order to rid itself of disgust. We generally agree that autoimmune disorders are bad. Some are deadly. Many result in chronic, literally brain-altering pain. This weekend I’m feeling like my autoimmune trouble–as non-fatal, undifferentiated, often invisible, and navigable as it is–is indeed bad. But other times I wonder if it isn’t good? Useful? Does it keep me more aware, dissuade me from ingesting toxic materials, kill off some real bad ‘uns in its purges? Would I have been a decent person if I hadn’t so young gotten so sick? What are its unforeseen bennies?
This’d be better speculation if I were up to date on affect theory, but I’m not, so I’m just gonna go with my gut here: As in the case of autoimmune disorder, the self that experiences internalized shame is willing to eradicate itself in order to purge its shameful parts.
In a poetics piece that introduces my poems in Beauty is A Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (edited by the excellent Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Fiona Black, and Michael Northern, Cinco Puntos 2011), I say:
My body can pass for able. The question: should I allow it to do so? Am I a dilettante in the realm of disability, dabbling in limitations? Or, if I allow the male gaze to categorize me as normal, am I in league with the ableist agenda? I don’t know. I do know I have always had to, and will always have to, live consciously within the meat of the body, and this meat life influences every fiber of my politics/poetics.
No one engendered my shame when I had to back out of the conference. Having to call and back out did. Having to determine what I could do, whether or not I was too sick engendered my shame. By Thursday night, I’d had for several days the enterovirus (febrile, non-specific, with digestive, respiratory, &/or myalgia symptoms) going around town, but I wasn’t rallying like everybody else who had it. I’d been eating nothing but rice cakes and popsicles, and was having trouble breathing. Still, I very much wanted to go to the conference. I started making contradictory deals with myself. If I can eat a meal tonight, I can go. (I later amended meal to toast.) If I vomit again, I can’t go. (Later amended to vomit for real, which doesn’t include vomiting in the wake of cleaning up after a projectile-vomiting two-year-old, ’cause duh.) If my joints unclench, I can go. If I get any dizzier, I can’t go. Of course, it never occurred to me to go to the doctor.
In the paper my colleague Andy Fitch graciously presented in my stead at the conference (and which will appear in longer form in the upcoming double issue of English Language Notes that inspired the conference) I say:
I must render my lonely experience of pain in terms doctors can apprehend. What an ideal verb, render! I boil it down and attempt to isolate the pain from all other sensation and material in my body. Divide pain from my body from me. Gather it into a solid and thrust it at the doctor. Or, really, for the sake of time and so the doctor won’t regard me as a kook, I resort to cliché: like a hammer, a hot iron, burning, stabbing. None quite do the pain justice or satisfy my desire to communicate this highly subjective phenomenon to a supposedly objective party who can confirm its realness (and its real crappiness). These phrases, at their best, set the diagnosis in motion and elicit a bit of kindness. At worst, they quarantine us on the brink of our own alienated painscapes.
I’m a sad sack this weekend. If I hadn’t been home with access to medical services I’m familiar with and a zillion hours of sleep, I’d likely have caused the conference organizers even more inconvenience. I might be contagious still, I might’ve puked or panted frighteningly in Andy’s car as we passed over the high, lonely notch that separates Laramie from all other territories. In January, in the midst of a nasty bout of shingles, I went to MLA to present a paper on a feminist publishing panel. I was relieved not to let anyone down, and it was rad. At the same time, I was so neurologically slammed, I failed to recognize my gorgeous, six-foot-tall, red-headed poet friend until I read her name tag. I spent as many hours in the icksome hotel bed as at events, and I came home to begin the semester exhausted, in pain, and (of course) ashamed of myself. I tried to make new rules about illness and travel (see the deals above) in case this happened again (see now), but there really is no formula by which to make the right choice because there is no right choice. There is no way to be good, except not to be sick (says the hegemony that powers the shame machine).
My nonstop shamestravaganza comes from a broad web of experiences. What’s useful about looking in isolation at the effects of internalized cultural constructions of illness and disability is twofold. Just developing ideas, but let me try to say ‘em like this:
1. Shame and autoimmune disorder function in remarkably similar fashion, reacting first to (real or perceived) alien threats, but then responding out of scale to (real or perceived) threats from one’s own materials rendered uncanny.
2. When people—friends, family, colleagues, bosses, doctors, whomever—know how to respond to illness or limitation with real understanding, with no trace of (unwitting) judgment or superiority, then the internalized shame system will find itself short on fuel.
I want to think more about this. I also want to think more about pain poetics, as I do in my essay in the ELN double-issue. For disability poetics on the broader scope check out Petra Kuppers enormously smart essay to which my essay responds. There are other respondents as well, and the issue delves into many other angles on the I.