Shame, humiliation, failure, etc., etc.

I'm going to be making some performance works about failure, humiliation, shame, awkwardness.

Here are some notes from a discussion I had with some friends about shame. They also kindly supplied me with stories of their own humiliation.

Following those notes are some quotes from an essay I found online about Thomas Scheff's writing about shame. You can read the original here.


Embarrassment often comes about because of a failed attempt to keep things fluid in social situations: not wanting to ask someone to repeat themselves, or pretending you know about something (a band, a film, a mutual friend, etc.) when in fact you don't.

The shame of hearing someone talking about you, or dismissing a creative act. (Here, a friend told me about doing a performance which involved giving people pieces of paper with stories written on them, then later, seeing someone read the story, make a face, screw up the paper and throw it away [I think, over the shoulder - a visibly dismissive action]. From a distance, watching in silence: the person that humiliates you is completely unaware of the act of humiliation.)

Embarrassment is exacerbated by power structures: the awkwardness of having to tell your boss that they have made a mistake.

The shame of someone else being blamed for something you did wrong. Rather than failure/punishment/redemption, the shame here is the very fact that you weren't punished, that you got away with it. Karma, superstition. I guess all this depends on your upbringing. Are you shameful? Do you feel you deserve punishment/humiliation?

The further shame of confessing to someone that doesn't care. Didn't even know that you thought you had done something wrong. "It was me. IT WAS ME!" "What was you?"

Someone taking something as an apology that wasn't meant to be one.

Coincidental embarrassment  - someone meeting with two people and their baby daughter, realising that she had to go just as the mother starts breastfeeding. There is no way to say "I am not embarrassed by your breastfeeding".

(Reminds me of a friend's idea to put up an advert for a fake maths tutor in his local newsagent's window: VERY EFFECTIVE TUTORIALS. NO CRIMINAL CONVICTIONS FOR PHYSICAL OR SEXUAL ABUSE.)

Being shamed and being witnessed. In a performance, does the performer take on the role of the shamed? A public shaming? Are we conduits for shame? Is that why a proud artist is a bad artist? They have lost their magical role.

Laughing out of shock/embarrassment (finding a neighbours dead dog - no way to explain "I wasn't laughing at your dog dying".)

Hitting someone with a car, and then apologising so profusely that the other person begins to feel embarrassed and sorry for you.

The anecdote, the fiction. Trying to control the shame, reconfiguring it to make the teller of the embarrassing anecdote seem like they were in control all along.


Notes from an article called Thomas J. Scheff: When Shame Gets Out of Hand.

Read the article here.

"The virtual self is made up of the idealized expectations that go along with a particular self or identity. The real self is made up from the individual’s actual behaviors. Embarrassment is an interactional device that keeps these two selves from getting too far apart"

"Embarrassment works among people, shame works within people"

"[...] pride and shame are the most basic and powerful of all social emotions"

"Pride and shame are intense emotions, because they guard the social bond"

"Typically, the football player doesn't shrug his shoulders after dropping the ball. He may hang his head or shake his fist in a downward movement, indicating shame and one of its companion emotions, anger. Or, he may do nothing at all—shame is often unacknowledged."

"[...] the shame was never named. When feelings were named, they were called low self-esteem, feeling foolish, stupid, inadequate, awkward, exposed, vulnerable, and so forth; but they were never called shame."

"Bypassed shame appears to be directly experienced as shame yet it is avoided. With undifferentiated shame, the mind seems to slow down, burdened under the inability to identify the emotion. With bypassed shame, the mind seems to be working hard at keeping away from the issue. Patients experiencing this type of shame became obsessive. Their talk sped up and they endlessly repeated a story or series of stories. These patients were intellectually active but unable to make decisions or resolve issues."

"Adults are virtually always in a state of either pride or shame, usually of a quite unostentatious kind."

"We can thus experience pride repeatedly, but pride doesn’t act back on itself: we usually aren’t proud because we experience pride. Even saying “I’m proud of my pride” sounds intuitively odd. We can, however, experience additional shame because we feel shame: 'My shame shames me.'"

"[...] shame and anger cycle back and forth mutually reinforcing one another."

"These repeating loops can potentially take place within three locales or levels: within a person, between two people (embarrassment is contagious), or a combination of both."

"[...] embarrassment is the outward and shame the inward expression of a broken social bond."

"Laughter is directly related to shame in the moment."

Individuation and the Object

Diego Chamy read the last post, which was me trying to draw out some ethical axioms from Object Oriented Ontology, and recommended Gilbert Simondon's L'individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d'information which he said might help "loosen up OOO's concept of the object".

I liked that idea, and though L'individuation à la lumière... is not translated (and, also, is a dissertation sized text), I found the introduction in translated form as The Genesis of the Individual.

Here is the pdf if you'd like to read it.

I thought I'd write my notes up here. Mainly so I can throw away the print outs on which I made the notes. If I'm not careful, all the flat surfaces in my life become covered in printed out pdfs so I run a pretty brutal regime re: physical texts.

But also, it might be interesting for anyone who read the last post, or, actually, anyone who feels like OOO might just be a reaction to the linguistic turn, or some kind of failure of imagination on the part of those involved.

(Which is to say, as a kind of concluding introduction, that I read The Genesis of the Individual through my reading of OOO, and found little problem integrating most of the ideas, but that might be because I am misreading it. And misreading OOO. But then I would say that is the only type of reading to do.)

Also, one little thing. I read the text context-blind, i.e., I did not know that it was originally written in the 60s (though not translated until 1992), and I did not know that Simondon's theory of individuation was an inspiration for Gilles Deleuze and more recently Bruno Latour.


Simondon points out that any theory of the individual that begins with an individual that already exists is going to have some problems. The process by which a thing becomes individual is the source of its haecceity (which can roughly be thought of as its specificity - its "this-ness").

His theory of individuation is a rejection of atomism and hylomorphism. Atomism as in, "things are simple or complex, and complex things are made of simple things which are without smaller parts". And Hylomorphism as in, "things are a combination of matter and form, or matter in a certain form".

Similar (in my eyes) to Heidegger's recognition that presence has traditionally been prioritised over absence in philosophy, Simondon believes that the theory of individuals has prioritised the already constituted individual over... well, I guess that's what he ends up describing. (Actually, to jump ahead a bit, my feeling is that he removes the possibility of there ever being an already constituted individual - individuals here are always in the individuation process - always incomplete, always unstable. Similar to OOO, this is a theory that necessitates becoming - a state of constant change.)

Simondon uses a term I really enjoy, 'a capacity beings have of falling out of step with themselves' (and here the English text shows you the French word "dephaser", which is lovely). He keeps returning to this phrase throughout the text. For me, and maybe for OOO, this is the essential idea. Beings (or objects or individuals or whatever) are out of step with themselves, always, infinitely. Withdrawal is this out-of-stepness for OOO. Objects are what they are not, and are not what they are. It seems as if for Simondon this is just a part of individuation, but I would say that it is the basis for OOO's idea of the object. And the object is parallel in meaning to Simondon's individual in this respect.

Sometimes in this essay, fallacies like stability or unity are taken apart, but then they keep coming back as if Simondon had forgotten that he'd already dismantled them. Probably it is because I'm reading the introduction to a longer piece, but also, it does feel like he needs to keep them around because otherwise old metaphysical "problems" of causation and infinity might pop up. I just kept writing "infinite regress?" next to things, because accepting it (as OOO does) would resolve things (resolve is the wrong word, but you know what I mean) if only he would let it.

He writes about the process of individuation resolving and preserving preliminary tensions. That's great. A redefinition of the idea of resolution to mean holding on to contradictions, rather than getting rid of them. (Later he makes this explicit in his use of the term transduction.)

Metastability is an idea that makes complete sense with OOO, a temporary stability formed through tension and potential energy, rather than some dead equilibrium. There is no stability of this dead sort. This stability (I think) is the stability of a dead universe, or the stability of a collapsed space-time. This sort of stability can be nothing to us other than an abstraction. Sleep when you're dead - or, in philosophical terms, become stable when the universe is at a point of total entropy.

Simondon writes about quanta and wave mechanics, and how they might explain the pre-individual, but then he rejects this and writes that they only express individuated reality. For me, there is no pre-individual reality, once you introduce infinite regress, objects/individuals just keep going through space-time. There's no need for there to be any pre-anything.

He uses the contrasting ideas of the milieu and the individual a lot, and necessarily I'm caricaturing his argument here (it is only the introduction to a long piece of writing after all), but it feels like he is stuck right there in the correlationist trap of human and world, figure and ground, subject and object. There is no world, there is no ground, there is no subject. (Or, if you want, just flip it. There is no human, there is no figure, there is no object.)

He writes about 'the living being' (again, a bit of a correlationist issue for me - no need for ontology to distinguish between living things and "physical" things. We don't need a dualism) conserving itself in an activity of permanent individuation. This linked up some ideas I've been having about the abject and the object. For me, the human horror at the abject comes about because the abject is the nearest we can get to the base reality of the object (the abject forces us to recognise objects as a class that includes humans). The fact that we cannot bear to be near the in-between state of the abject is the unconscious recognition that there is no "real separation" between us and the world. This maintenance of borders is paradoxical. We are, or we produce, the things we must reject in order to remain ourselves.

'Individuation in its collective aspect makes a group individual'. This stuff is great, I read it in terms of nested objects (objects remaining as objects even though they are part of a bigger object) - though again, accepting infinite regress would make it so much easier for Simondon. No metaphysical buck stopper. No God and no "pre-individual".

'When we consider individuation to be life itself' - Yes! Of course, but not just life itself - being itself. Living and non living objects are always in that process.

I made loads of notes here and did lots of underlining. Simondon is great at presenting thought as glimpsing individuation as a process from within. There is no way out of individuation, we can't step out and look at it - it is the very nature of our being, of our thought processes. I think OOO's heavy rejection of Kant and correlationism can be read as though they are claiming to be outside of themselves, looking down on humans as objects. But I don't think that's quite right. What they are rejecting is that humans and objects have any special relationship with the world - everything is caught up in its misapprehension of other things, nothing is outside of anything. OOO goes through correlationism and pops its little head out the other end. Things (including humans) are always already withdrawing from all other things. This could be the Kantian basis for OOO. A universal correlationism.

For Simondon, classical logic cannot be used to understand individuation, only transduction has the power to maintain all the contradictory tensions that are involved in understanding individuation. And, for Simondon, transduction is 'an individuation in progress'. So, understanding individuation is only possible through a process of individuation. Or, in a way, it is the process of individuation in thought.

'Transduction cannot be presented as a logical procedure terminating in a conclusive proof.'

'Individuation is not synthesis, a return to unity, but rather the being passing out of step with itself.'

He says that time 'comes from the pre-individual', but as I've mentioned, I don't see the need for that. Time and space can come from objects (or individuals). In fact, as far as I can tell, Simondon has already attributed time to the process of individuation (as in, individuation is time - or at least an experience of time), so why then attribute it to the pre-individual?

I don't quite get the idea of form as information. But I was reading this in the sun with a glass of wine so I'm not going to worry too much. It seemed cool. If anyone can help me out here then much appreciated.

I love this bit, about multiple logics. 'If many types of individuation existed, similarly there ought to be many types of logic.' Pluralising logic is a nice idea, and a very sensible one. Multiple, contradictory logics, applicable in different contexts.

Pushing Through the Indifferent Objects. An Object Oriented Politics

There was a good article by Laura Mclean-Ferris in Art Monthly about contemporary art's interest in objects. It took in some of the philosophical basis of this interest, describing and critiquing what Mclean-Ferris understood of Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology.

The things she wrote about the way artists had engaged with objects was interesting and thorough, but her understanding of the philosophy made me a bit sad about the general perception of OOO as an apolitical way of thinking. I'd also recently had a conversation with an artist about what they saw as OOO's failure to engage with the practicalities of politics - the "what is to be done" of political activism.

I thought I'd try and write something about OOO and politics. This is the most politically engaged I have felt for years, and it's because of OOO's embrace of unfashionable, unresolved questions of ontology and metaphysics.


OOO, as a new mode of philosophical thought (and that's what I think OOO is - a new mode, not just an "object turn") seems to be constantly re-iterating its basic principles. Graham Harman is particularly fond of beginning every lecture and a lot of his essays with a precise and detailed description of the Heideggerian concept of tool-being, from which OOO takes its idea of withdrawal.

(Tool-being is the idea that when an object becomes present to us in thought, it withdraws from our understanding of it. There is always more to the object than we can possibly comprehend. OOO pushes withdrawal further. Objects don't just withdraw from human consciousness, but from each other. And, in fact, the very basis of being is this withdrawal. If OOO was an American cable channel its tagline could be ALL WITHDRAWAL, ALL THE TIME.)

Because of OOO's post-human flavour it can often seem as if OOO is uninterested in humans. The long lists of humorously contrasting objects pertaining to the idea of flat ontology can make it seem as if OOO doesn't really believe humans exist, or have any specific characteristics. As though humans are just dumb objects with no special relationship to the world.

But a good way to think about OOO's expanded idea of withdrawal is as a universal subject-hood. I think of it as a universal correlationism. In turning humans into objects, OOO turns objects into subjects.

Humans don't have a special relationship with "the world" because there is no world, there is just a flat plain of objects (and in my super-flat version, the horizon of this plain expands infinitely and that infinity is continually growing). But this is not a rejection of the possibility of a human politics, it is just a realisation that human politics has to take in the entire pantheon of objects. Not just human-objects but also animal-objects, material-objects and "hyperobjects" - objects with massive distribution in space-time, like global warming, or radioactive material, or the concept of God in various cultures.

Not only do we have to massively expand our politics to include non-human objects, but we have to always understand that every object, human and non-human, is irreducible to the relations it currently and hypothetically fulfils. So, radioactive material is not reducible to its impact on human health. Higher education is not reducible to the future economic prospects of its students. Al Qaeda is not reducible to religious fundamentalism (but nor, conversely is it reducible to concepts of pragmatic terrorism).

Picking up on one of the more specific issues raised in Mclean-Ferris's article, human identity is recognised within OOO, but no human-object is reducible to their identity (gender, race or sexuality, for example). So the problem of identity politics as a kind of hallowed/ghettoised space disappears, because the new object oriented politics must always recognise that identity politics is not reducible to whatever identity it seeks to represent (and, the individuals involved in identity politics are not reducible to that identity, or that political struggle alone).

The word caricature is used a lot in OOO, to describe how relationships between objects are always simplified and incomplete. This could seem like a pure moment of apathy in OOO, with objects floating mutely in space, misunderstanding each other and never quite touching. But the recognition that there is always something relations miss out is the basis for a progressive, fluid politics. A politics that is necessarily incomplete, a politics that strives never to caricature those who it claims to represent, or even that which it critiques.

Also, in my understanding, OOO implies becoming, the never-fixed fluidity of the always-withdrawing object. Objects are always in flux because of their withdrawal from one another. This withdrawal is the engagement of objects "in" space-time. (In fact, withdrawal might be the basis for space-time itself, which oozes out from objects as a product of their withdraw from each other.)

From this we can draw out another political axiom from OOO - every political idea is completely contextually dependant, constantly in flux, never finished. There is no utopia of OOO politics. The necessary caricaturing of relations between objects, along with the constant state of change in the relations between all things, forces an object oriented politics to re-evaluate its meaning and application as it moves from context to context. There is no underlying reality to which one might appeal.

For me an object oriented politics comes from a pushing through: pushing through the void at the heart of being, pushing through the idea of objects as dumb and indifferent, and pushing through the idea of a complete or adequate politics.

It isn't a a simple politics, and it's no longer simply a human politics. But an object oriented politics - as far as I can see - might be the only politics brave enough to begin dismantling the hyperobject of capitalism.

A kind of a tuneful retching

In any other situation, if the only place to sit was on the concrete ledge of a pillar across the road, you probably wouldn't bother. If you were, say, at a quite good cafe in a small town in Lincoln and the only available seating option was a concrete, next to a pillar that smelled not un-strongly of piss, you'd say 'maybe let's go to another cafe', but at this place it confirms the fact that you are drinking GOOD COFFEE. The BEST COFFEE, etc.

It is good coffee. It's Monmouth coffee, which tastes nice. They have a tiny coffee shop in Borough market in London. Not enough seats, hence the pillars across the road which everyone ends up sitting on. I'm not a coffee snob but I like coffee and I'd just dropped off some work at a gallery around the corner. I was feeling quite pleased with myself as it was my first commercial show. Knowing what I know now, about the reaction to the work I made and the ongoing complexities of the legal struggle that followed, I probably wouldn't have been in the mood to celebrate.

But ignorance was bliss, and so I spent £2.50 on a filter coffee and sat on one side of a concrete pillar, inhaling both the rich smell of coffee in my cup and the tangy scent of the congealed wee wee of probably hundreds of men on the pillar. A middle aged German couple sat down very close to me, on the left side of the pillar. We were 90 degrees to each other, but the man's right buttock was fully pressed up against my buttock. I couldn't tell if it would be rude to pull my buttock away from his. I know people from mainland Europe have very different ideas about the etiquette of personal space.

On the right side of the pillar were another middle aged couple. The man was closest to me, but our buttocks weren't touching. He was wearing the sort of jacket that a woodwork technician wears and he had grey hair.  That was all I could see of him from where I sat. They were an English couple, not saying much to each other. Rather, they were watching two starlings that were very close to us and the man was feeding the starlings little bits of his croissant.

They were ugly, these starlings. Degraded by the city they lived in. London does this to birds. Pigeons are the obvious example, staggering around with half a foot and one eye, living off discarded chicken bones and struggling to tell the difference between food and cigarette butts. I hadn't really been up this close to a London starling before, but these ones had a similar vibe to the pigeons you see. Disgusting really. Matted feathers, covered with grime. It was almost like they'd been dipped in oil or petrol. One of them had a manky foot, sort of bouncing when it walked like when you've stepped on an upturned plug.

Weirdly, the one with the foot problem seemed to be the dominant one. It was smaller, and obviously weaker, but it was getting all the croissant crumbs. The bigger, relatively healthy looking one, hung back, half-heartedly going for the dusty flakes of pastry, but never wanting to get too close to its lame, bossy cousin.

The guy had managed to get the manky-footed starling to eat out of his hand. The birds were kind of cute and kind of disgusting. Not just the way they looked, but the way they were so dependant on the man and his whims. They were scared of him but they needed him. They jumped back if he moved his hand too quickly, but then if he lost interest and stopped throwing crumbs they got closer and paraded around in front of him, trying to get his attention.

Anyway, the little mangy starling was nipping crumbs out of the guy's palm, and then somehow he managed to get the starling to actually sit on his palm and take crumbs from his other fingers. His wife was cooing and saying things. He was feeding it like a mummy bird feeds a baby bird.

The other starling at this point was just bobbing around on the ground, occasionally letting out a sound somewhere between a bird tweeting and a bird being sick. A kind of a tuneful retching.

And then the guy started to crush the bird in his hand. I couldn't work it out at first, I thought he was just stroking it, or whatever, just wanted to get closer to it or reposition it, but no, he was closing its hand. Like, keeping its head through the gaps his two middle fingers, and then crushing its body between his fingers and his palm. I still didn't quite understand, but then his wife started whispering to him, like couples whisper when they're annoyed in public, really loud and clear but still a whisper. She kept going 'John. John. You're hurting it. You're hurting it now'.

But he didn't stop. He just, slowly but surely, kept tightening his grip around the birds body. The other bird on the ground was going mental now, because it could see or understand somehow what was happening to its mate. It was doing this violent cawing/retching sound and hopping around on the ground in front of me. The wife, I could hear she was hitting him on the arm, still doing the angry whisper, going, 'John. John. What are you doing? Leave it alone.'

The weirdest thing was that the bird, while being strangled and crushed in one of his hands, was still taking crumbs from the other. It couldn't breathe at all by this point, but it was still taking the crumbs that it was offered as though it were thankful for whatever he had to give.

Eventually there was a series of small crunches as the starling's little neck and backbone and ribs gave way. And you didn't hear it, but you could see that its eyes weren't in their sockets any more. Then he dropped it on the ground and got up and his wife got up and he turned to her, still hidden from me by the pillar and it was his turn to do the angry public whisper now and he said, 'You always make such a bloody fuss' and then they both walked off.

Then the bigger, less manky starling was left with the corpse and for a moment I thought, oh no, that's sad, it's in mourning or something. But then it tried to peck at the eyes hanging out of the sockets and I thought fuck this and went and drank my coffee somewhere else.