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ShameReview - Shame
by Bogdan Popa
Edinburgh University Press, 2017
Review by Brian Morreale
Oct 15th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 42)

Shame is an emotion that results from exposing a personal action or decision to an audience. Often times, many people are shamed from doing something deviant or inappropriate. When a person does something deviant it is likely because the act is not in agreement with societal norms. Shaming in the 19th century would lead to public exclusion. In many cultures shame is used to "correct" behavior, especially in Asian cultures. Similarly, in Bogdan Popa's book Shame: A Genealogy of Queer Practices in the 19th Century he argues that shame is a way to motivate (and control) people. Additionally, the author claims that shame is politically productive.

          Popa's book gives great historical context into feminist activism and does a great job providing examples of historic figures such as John Stuart Mill and Williams J. Fox. The author explores political activism in the 19th century during the early stages of the Feminist movement. He explains how shame played a major role in society by directly or indirectly dictating what people did in their sexual lives. Popa takes a closer look into the use of shame in political agendas by degrading minority groups referring to sexual deviants and women, as well as heteronormative people.

          For example, William J. Fox was forced to resign as a Unitarian pastor and deal with shaming once his affair with Eliza Flower was exposed. Even though Fox was married, divorce was not legal and having a sexual affair with a woman other than his wife was forbidden. Although Fox and his wife had an agreement to be separated while not actually getting divorced the public intervened demanding he leave the affair with Eliza Flower. A similar example cites Mill covering up his sexual affair to avoid shame from the public. Both examples support Popa's claim that shame can motivate people to behave a certain way. However, Popa struggles to provide support to argue that shame can be politically beneficial.

          Popa does not convince me that shame is politically productive. Throughout the book, different examples like the two previously mentioned are all very degrading and suggest most people hide from shame by being silent. It is obvious why women and other minority groups did not speak out earlier. Shaming was used to directly control others that were deviant or unorthodox. Shame produces embarrassment and disgust, not productivity. Although Popa gives wonderful insight into feminist activism in the 19th century he misses the opportunity to cite solid examples where shame was more effective in political advocacy.

          Overall, this book was a great book to read, specifically to identify feminist roots and history. The historical context is a wonderful account of the 19th century and was critical to understand the power of shaming. The increased interest in Feminist Affect Theory and even Queer Theory brings to light the importance of feminism and the issue of what "sexual deviance" means in society. I recommend this book to anyone interested in political activism, Queer theory, Feminist Affect Theory, and Feminist Theory in general.

 

© 2019 Brian Morreale  

 

Brian Morreale is a student at Daemen College


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