The poet and critic investigates shame—in the body and body politic—in Humiliation.
Why humiliation? Why now?
I've always been haunted by scenes of punishment, dressing-down, abasement, defrocking, delegitimation. Three national spectacles, in particular, sent me down the garden path to Humiliation, the book: (a) the Michael Jackson scandal; (b) the Bill Clinton scandal; (c) Abu Ghraib. I wanted to figure out how the U.S. could engender, disseminate, consume, and be horrified/titillated by these three disparate spectacles.
The book incorporates the body—and your body, specifically. Has your response to your physicality changed as you've invited more people to observe and participate in your understanding of it?
When I write, I'm intensely aware of my own body—its discomfort, its excitement, its tension, its yearning-to-be-elsewhere, its coziness, its alienation, its fatigue or high-spiritedness. Sometimes I feel that my syntax is directly attached to my stomach. Certainly, revision is an experience of awful physical tension: revision demands a state of concentration, of fussiness that has a direct effect on my body.
The Internet plays a key role in this book. It's treated as a source of obsession, dilution, a window opening onto the public and into the self.
Craigslist and YouTube, among other sites, are lava pits of poetic ore. I'm afraid of the Internet in the same way I'm phobic about TV: I'm convinced it will "eat up my time," devour my independence, my authority, my interiority. Just as TV inevitably humiliates time—humiliates and impoverishes our sense of duration as inviolable, complex, ours—the Internet humiliates our quest for information: the Internet turns our curiosity into a kind of Doctor Faustus, hubristically wanting more and more—and yet the Internet humiliates and tarnishes curiosity, turns wonder into a cheapened, ratty thing, a spinning toy, mechanical and perilously unstable.
Ann Lauterbach's essay "The Night Sky I," argues that a particular kind of impoverishment, isolation, and obscurity is reserved for the artist. Do you agree? Is obscurity humiliating?
In Humiliation, I talk a lot about Antonin Artaud, my paradigm of the melodramatically humiliated artist. Every artist or writer isn't an Artaud, but every artist and writer I love incarnates a little bit of Artaud—the self-flagellation, the scatology, the morbid theology, the pageantry of artist-as-martyr. Artaud helps us see how the position of being ignored is the very source of art itself. When we feel ourselves turned into garbage, we can make art (prophecy, exclamation, confession, aria, stammering) out of that negation. For every lionized artist, there are many, many more unheard, despised, mocked, underappreciated strivers.
What's especially harrowing about artmaking is our conviction that we will be made fun of, passed over. And so some of us stop trying to be heard. We begin to practice forms of inner exile: we find ways to make art that exiles itself from the hope of being heard or seen.