Letter From the Editor
The editors of Psychiana often notice visual memes that are borne from each issue’s theme. For “Romance,” it was flowers. “Invisibility” inspired an assortment of grey abstraction. “Humiliation,” of course, was the dick pic. Our inbox swelled with a variety of exposed cocks, which made us laugh and squirm in our seats, enough to even look away.
The self must always recognize its likeness to offal, to offal-as-delicacy.
What is it about sex in general, and self-exposure of the male genitals in particular, that is so humiliating? Who actually wants to see a dick pic? I have a screenshot of a Snapchat of a dick on my phone right now. I’ve shown it to a number of people (probably more than was appropriate) with a near universal reaction of squeamishness. What are dick pics essentially? Hard throbbing cocks digitally nudging us and reminding us that they need attention. It is pretty squirmy right? And it is only cocks! Is that the reason it gets such a catchy phrase? Does anyone go around saying “pussy pic”?
Humiliation is worthy not because it is good, or enjoyable, or desirable; humiliation may be execrable and unendurable, but it is also genuine.
Which is not to say that I don’t seek out or enjoy my fair share of digital dicks. I don’t recall when I first joined Snapchat. I know I had a vague idea that it was an app for sexting. Was it really that simple? Sign up, comb your contacts for the single and mildly acquainted, and let the dick pics roll in! I wasn’t alone either – Nicole J. Levanat the Harvard Crimson thought so too. “Clearly the only reason anyone would want to send a picture to someone and have it immediately disappear would be so that they could sext without any permanent evidence that could lead to divorce, federal investigation, or humiliation.” But Ms. Levan had a very different experience than I did. After eagerly downloading the app, she noted, “It’s been a disappointment. I have received over 30 pictures of my friends’ faces (all with the same shocked, “Home Alone” face) and not a single shot of a reproductive organ.” Apparently she isn’t associating with the same Internet deviants I am, because within days that happy little ghost brought me a present. That first cock was a shock of course. So brazen, right there in the palm of my hand, interrupting an otherwise run-of-the-mill work day. What an amazing feat of modern technology! Countless hours of design and labor all to have this brief glimpse of someone’s most intimate moments transmitted through time and space for my titillation.
If you don’t understand what I’m saying, I will feel humiliated. If I fail to communicate my meaning and if you tell me I failed then you will have humiliated me.
Certainly sex is a deep mine of humiliating experiences. As Wayne Koestenbaum points out in his meditation on the subject, Humiliation, the sexual body itself is incredibly humiliating with “its humors and swellings, its pulsation and emissions”.Sex is the space where things get personal. Fluids and orifices personal. “Humiliation involves physical process: fluids, solids, organs, cavities, orifices, outpourings, ingestions, excrescences, spillages.”These are the things polite society wants most to deny.These are the realities that are not to be spoken about or shared. The highly personal, the deeply private. “Humiliation demands a soiling even if the ordeal is merely mental the body itself gets dragged into the mess.” Koestenbaum also does an excellent job at delineating the specific nature of humiliation versus other kinds of degradation. In his definition, humiliation is always a three-way exchange between the victim, the perpetrator, and the audience. This distinction is what separates humiliation from other similar feelings of shame and embarrassment. It is a shared experience. It is a peculiar aspect of humiliation that it requires this external exposure. Koestenbaum likens it to a play, “a ready-made orchestra pit, curtain, audience, lights, ticket booth. Humiliation contains an entire theatrical apparatus, even if only in the minds of the soiled parties.” There is a fascination in witnessing someone’s humiliation, like a car crash on the freeway from which you can’t look away. It sucks you in, and that feeling in the pit of your stomach comes from a moment of unconscious role reversal. You see me humiliated and can’t help but imagine yourself facing my shame. We are all in this together, bound to each other in our humiliating embrace.
Instant communication mechanisms are especially gifted at spreading humiliation’s toxic cloud. Does virtual communication make desubjectification easy?
The external nature of humiliation is one of the reasons it is so exceptionally important in our hyper-connected age. At a time when every fleeting thought merits a post or selfie on some sort of social network, the potential for new humiliations increases exponentially. The app Snapchat was inspired by the sad melodrama of Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal. Leave it to a man so unfortunately surnamed to make a name for himself simultaneously misusing and misunderstanding the Internet to feed his sexual ego. The wise founders of Snapchat realized that the people most likely to post compromising images of their genitals were also the least likely to understand the ramifications in the image-hungry swamp of our digital world.
The pleasure some of us get from spectacles of all kinds is connected to what transpires in the torture room.
Of course for the savvy, the pleasures of the digital sexual revolution can be as enjoyable as they are rewarding. One doesn’t need to look any further than the First Family of reality television, the Kardashians. Kim Kardashian went from being Lindsay Lohan’s stylist and Paris Hilton’s assistant to being the couture-clad, tabloid fixture she is today via the power of a leaked sex tape. There is perhaps no medium more conducive to humiliation than reality TV. Ever since the very beginning, when The Real World pioneered the genre of shameless self-exposure, the siren song of fame and fortune has lured countless individuals into participating in the modern spectacle of televised “reality.” In fact, Koestenbaum argues that reality TV transcends beyond just those in front of the camera lens and extends the humiliation into the homes of all the millions of viewers tuned in; we are humiliating ourselves with the exposure to such mindless dreck. Anyone who has ever watched The Real Housewives of Orange County will probably agree.
But because, historically, women have been (let’s generalize) more often recipients of bad treatment – that’s the way patriarchy’s cookie crumbles – I detect more radical frisson in situations when a man grovels.
There is something particularly gendered at work in the contemporary state of humiliation. In the same way that the Internet has encouraged a proliferation of dick pics, it has also created a wide-open arena for gender norms to be exploited. A whole new world where women are judged in front of a roaring crowd of anonymous digital spectators. What happens to the women who are unable or unwilling to embrace their status on the wrong end of the Madonna/whore spectrum with the lusty market pizzazz of a Kardashian? Vanity Fair recently published an essay by Monica Lewinsky in which she refers to herself as “arguably the most humiliated person in the world.”I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. After reading her reminiscence about the scandal, I was shocked to discover that the whole shit-storm happened when she was only twenty- four years old . I shudder to think about being judged for the rest of my life on a single decision I made when I was twenty-four. Here is a young woman, just starting out in the world, and thrust into the inner sanctum of power, used and abused and left holding the proverbial flaming bag of shit. Where were the man-eating feminists then? Did anyone even bother to have the conversation about how the power dynamics in this coupling were completely unequal? And most importantly, what choice did she have but to embrace it? Revel in it? Rewrite her life to become the blowjob girl? Monica spent a good portion of the article detailing the cascade of humiliations that is every job interview she has ever had. The answer is none, really. She had no choice.
I’m on display – a pornographic exhibit. I’m a centerfold, my legs spread. If someone sees my nude photo on the Internet, then I’m humiliated, or else that web trawler, finding my photo, is humiliated on my behalf.
So where does this leave modern young women, sexually inclined and with smartphones in hand? As someone who has sent and received more compromising digital missives than most, I can’t help but feel a deep gnawing fear in the pit of my stomach. What if ? What if I lose the Internet lottery and some former fling decides to go public with every compromising photo and video in their possession? Working in the art world with its leftist politics and avant-garde moral code buys me some protection. But the reality is, as a woman, even in our freewheeling world of digital sex, the potential for life wrecking humiliation is still a very real fate. A fate much more serious than anything our male compatriots will ever face. Anthony Weiner’s escapades only underscore this point. When you become synonymous with sex as both Anthony Weiner and Monica Lewinsky did, who gets to have a career, a life, afterwards? It doesn’t take too many steps to connect the dots from Monica Lewinsky straight back to Hester Prynne. The promise of that burning letter is stronger than ever, emblazoned in pixels forever on the Internet for all to see.
I learned how high the stakes could be when a person wanted to try to make something beautiful, and how perilous the fall and the humiliation could be when that attempt failed.
All of which is not to discount the openness and bravery of all of our contributors – male and female – who shared their artistic (if often phallo- centric) humiliation with us. It is an immense gift whenever individuals allow themselves to be vulnerable, and we are very honored to have the opportunity to present these works to you.
01 Koestenbaum, Wayne. Humiliation. Big Ideas/Small Books. New York: Picador, 2011.
02 Koestenbaum 60
03 Levan, Nicole. “Hate It: Snapchat.” The Harvard Crimson, 6 Dec. 2012. (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/12/6/hate-it-snapchat)
04 Koestenbaum 43
05 Koestenbaum 6
06 Koestenbaum 8
07 Koestenbaum 9
08 Koestenbaum 31
09 Jamie Tarence, “Snapchat: What Savvy Parent Need to Know” Family Savvy, Dec. 30, 2012 (http://www.familysavvy.com/snapchat-what-savvy-parents-should-know/)
10 Koestenbaum 6
11 Ronan, Alex. “RIP, Juicy Tracksuits, Famewhore Uniform of the 2000s.” New York Magazine, 23 June 2014. (http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/06/rip-juicy-tracksuits-famewhore-uniform-of-yore.html)
12 Koestenbaum 20
13 Koestenbaum 55
14 Lewinsky, Monica. “Shame and Survival.” Vanity Fair, 6 May 2014: 5-15.
15 Koestenbaum 5
16 “The Scarlet Letter.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, edited 26 Sept. 2014. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scarlet_Letter).
17 Koestenbaum 60