This review of Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation appeared in the Guardian.
On 30 October 1985, Andy Warhol was signing books at a New York bookshop when a young woman approached and tore off his silver wig. Andy simply pulled up his jacket’s hood and went on signing. Or so the story goes. In fact, as the poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum writes in his svelte 2001 biography, Warhol was mortified. However calculatedly he’d parlayed his bodily strangeness into artistic and commercial success, in middle age he still feared the “wounds, holes, distentions; stretch-marks of his pre-fame, cramped embodiment”. Warhol lived, and made his work, in constant expectation that he was about to be humiliated.
Koestenbaum has fretted stylishly elsewhere about celebrity, performance and physical betrayal; his books include The Queen’s Throat, on opera and sexuality, and Jackie Under My Skin, a study of a woman whose kempt, sleek image is indelibly marked in the public mind with the blood of her slain husband. In his new book Koestenbaum reflects explicitly on the scenography of bodies laid bare, mocked, lusted after, pitied and despised. Humiliation (Notting Hill Editions, £12) is an eloquent, fearless and frequently hilarious essay on the “whimpering beast inside each of us”, and on the urge to exploit its vulnerability.
Humiliation is always a reminder of our embodied being – it involves flesh and fluids and unwanted (or shamefully desired) intrusions. Koestenbaum recalls many instances of his own body’s abject eruption, from childhood accidents such as sneezing on his hand at school to deadpan anecdotes from his erotic life: “Sitting beside a playwright, I began ejaculating, and at just that instant an urban planner walked into the room.” This last (delightfully context-free) anecdote points to the book’s first key insight: humiliation requires, or at least imagines, a trio. While one may burn with shame alone, or suffer embarrassment in the presence of one other, humiliation’s “infernal waltz” is danced by victim, protagonist and witness: “The scene’s horror – its energy, its electricity – invokes the presence of three.”
With fame, of course, the triad structure remains but the witnesses multiply, and some of Humiliation is devoted to persons whose celebrity is or was largely a matter of having their bodies exposed, or speculated on in more than one sense.
There is Michael Jackson, beaten and mocked by his father, and later reduced to recounting on TV how police photographers had inspected his penis, buttocks and thighs. There is Liza Minnelli, slurring and loud in interviews, seeming to reincarnate the humiliations endured by her mother, Judy Garland. (Koestenbaum is unashamed of his Judy and Liza fixations, though he knows they’re a little embarrassing at this stage.) And most bizarrely: the queasy mea culpa performed by the sexually compromised and “self-trashing, media-trashed” male politician, hoping to explain away furtive grapples in public toilets, while his wife stands beside him, pristine and humiliated. Koestenbaum acknowledges some pleasure at this grim Passion, but cannot help identifying with the accused, even with a self-declared homophobe such as US senator Larry Craig, arraigned for soliciting sex from an undercover cop at Minneapolis airport.
In its briskly essayistic way, Humiliation moves unapologetically from such trivial cases to the most profound and awful acts of humiliation. Here Koestenbaum draws on the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s writings on the Nazi death camps. At Auschwitz, Agamben argues, an ancient juridical-political category was tested to the limit: the Roman concept of homo sacer, the sacrificial body that, having been excluded from the category of the human, could be killed with impunity. It is common enough to talk of “dehumanisation” in such contexts. But Agamben’s point about the Holocaust (and Koestenbaum’s about lynching photographs or the grotesqueries at Abu Ghraib) has to do with the codification of that process, its more or less elaborate ritual or performance, and the precise, apparently small, acts of mockery or exposure that link reality TV and surveillance culture to the worst forms of humiliation.
Koestenbaum is an avowedly excitable guide to the subject and sometimes strains historical affinities between his own minor embarrassments – a bad review, a rejected essay – and the plight, for example, of African women who have suffered obstetric fistulas. But painful humiliation can be a matter of accumulated small slights and slippages as much as dramatic exclusion from the social body. And while his is certainly a witty account of the varieties of mortification (“In a sonnet, the ratio of humiliation to uplift is 8:6”), Koestenbaum’s point is ultimately an ethical one: “We have an obligation to keep asking questions about experiences that are not our own, experiences that are worse than our own ever will be.”