How to deal with shame? I was a little homosexual "queer boy" in the 1950s and 1960s, and started my coming-out journey in 1966 - to family, friends, colleagues, students and ultimately in the streets with the Gay Liberation Front in 1970. The silent, secret shame I had so strongly felt in my childhood and youth was radically transformed into a pride and empowerment in being gay. It enabled me to get on with my life from then on. Sally Munt's latest challenging book takes us into the heart of the social darkness of this shame. It suggests ways in which shame is handled, resisted and even transformed into joy.
Her work is the latest in a new wave of studies on the cultural politics of emotion that started to appear after Arlie Russell Hochschild's trailblazing work The Managed Heart in the early 1980s. The field of studying emotions psychosocially is now well established across the social sciences. And shame - and closely allied feelings of disgust and guilt - is often at the forefront. It is one of the key "structures of feeling" that dwell, often dramatically, across bodies and cultures.
But Munt gives it all a queer reading. She inspects the ways in which shame circulates, marks out queered groups, comes to be resisted and is sometimes paraded with pride. Her enemies here are middle-class respectability and Christian sexuality, and her politics connects to the underclass, the queer and the Irish Catholic. Here are rich case studies looking at a wide range of "shameful" cultural events (Lord Castlehaven and Edmund Burke; Tracey Emin; the suicide of Denice Denton, the lesbian chancellor of the University of California-Santa Cruz; queer confrontations over New York's St Patrick's Day parades) and media events, from the blatantly queer (Queer as Folk, Shameless, Six Feet Under) to the less obviously so (The Office and the work of Philip Pullman in the trilogy His Dark Materials). Here, communities of shame are transformed, new attachments forged and new identities emerge. In many ways this is all a radically positive account of the workings of shame, and Munt deftly illustrates her case with example after example. Shame is not always negative.
The book sent me into a spiral of questions. Shame takes many forms and attacks many groups. I pondered the links between shame and respect, shame and embarrassment, shame and guilt, shame and rage, and ultimately its link to damaged lives. Shame reveals our human vulnerabilities. In the West, much of this has a basis in Christianity - original sin is, after all, original sin. But it also led me to ponder the Muslim problem of honour and shame.
Munt lives on the margins with outcast groups. Dominant narratives that usually privilege straight men, the middle class and Protestants hurl her towards the shame habitus of certain groups: Irish queers waiting to march in New York's St Patrick's Day parade; the flaunting underclass of Channel 4's Shameless; and the dirty underwear of Tracey Emin.
But the shame is surely that queer readings such as this are themselves usually marginalised: the queer still sits uncomfortably in the academy, and few non-queer sociological theorists, psychologists, historians, field workers, philosophers or even literary writers work to take it really seriously. It is not their business. Which is indeed a great pity and a major intellectual loss. This book deserves to be read, but also contested, by a wider audience than just those who delight in queer studies. It is a dazzling, provocative and highly enjoyable read for all those interested in matters shameful, queer, emotional and cultural.
Ken Plummer is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Essex
Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame
By Sally R. Munt
Published 18 December 2007