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The economics of humiliation

Wayne Koestenbaum

Image of Humiliation (Big Ideas//Small Books)
Author: Wayne Koestenbaum
Publisher: Picador (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 192 pages

Kai Ryssdal: There are a lot of people out in this country who feel a bit more broke than they did, say, in early 2008 before Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and the last three years of a stuck economy. And when you can't pay for stuff -- be it your mortgage or that ice cream your kids -- it's hard to admit it to yourself, much less other people.

Today on our series Art of Money -- what artists and others see when they look at the economy -- we are going to explore the idea of humiliation as it relates to the cash we have on hand -- or don't have on hand. For that we turn to critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum. His new book is a compact little volume full of painful, cringe-worthy revelations called -- yes, of course -- Humiliation. Welcome to the program.

Wayne Koestenbaum: Glad to be here.

Ryssdal: Take a minute and give me the difference between humiliation and shame.

Koestenbaum: I think shame is a private feeling. It may feel lacerating and terrible, but nobody necessarily sees it. I would say that humiliation requires a scene. It usually requires some act of cruelty or some catalyst from the outside, from some oppressor or tyrant. Let's say, a boss who fires you. And it requires the specators who see you lose your job, the bill collectors who come knocking.

Ryssdal: To turn it to the economics of all this, there has been a lot of anger and fear over losing jobs. Is humiliation a part of that experience, as well?

Koestenbaum: Oh, absolutely. I think even fearing for the security of one's job is humiliating. The feeling of being watched or judged. Certainly, losing a job leads to concrete suffering and hardship, but also to a sense of loss of status and self-esteem, a sense of how you appear in others' eyes. All the markers of identity and dignity are trashed, in a way, when you lose a job.

Ryssdal: In the final analysis, it comes down to this very complicated relationship we have with our professional selves, right? Our identities as people in the workplace and our status and the loss thereof.

Koestenbaum: Everybody wants, in life, legibility and recognition. From infancy on, you want to be seen by the important other person. And you want to matter. As a grown-up, one big way that we matter is that we have enough money to live and that we have a professional identity. And when that vanishes, we're just left with our bodies and our histories, and that can feel like nothing.

Ryssdal: Why is this relationship we have with money so difficult?

Koestenbaum: You know, Freud said a lot of weird things, but he also said a lot of profound things. One of the profound things he said was that money was metaphorically allied to excrement. Money was filthy. And so money is something that we are unconsciously ashamed of. Much as we treasure it, we are ashamed of filthy lucre. So those connected to money or to the absence of money, paradoxically, are liable to scapegoating.

Ryssdal: Let me turn that idea of money being dirty back on you for a second. You have a story at the very end of the book. You're about to go into a high-end restaurant. You see a guy begging for money, and you give him a couple of dollars, and your hands touch in a very slight way. And you admit that you had to wash your hands afterward.

Koestenbaum: Yeah. I guess I wouldn't say so strongly that I had to wash my hands afterward. And I'm a little compulsive. I remember the sequence of events very vividly. Here I was entering this fancy restaurant. I was wearing leather pants. I was with friends. We had taken a taxi there. It was an expensive restaurant, more expensive than I am comfortable going to.

Outside of this restaurant, there was this guy begging. We were all, in my little group, white. He was not. you could say this guy was humiliated that he had to beg. I felt, in a way, shamed by my economic privilege. But on the other hand, why bother making a story out of it? That may have to do with the secret alchemy of humiliation and of writing. We seek absolution or reparation by repeating, by narrating. And also, as a writer, how could I generalize about the humiliations of others if I didn't step into my own life and tell a few stories honestly?

Ryssdal: The book is called Humiliation, by social critic, poet and author Wayne Koestenbaum. Wayne, thanks a lot.

Koestenbaum: My pleasure.


Ryssdal: Read a little bit of Humiliation here (PDF).

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of Humiliation (Big Ideas//Small Books)
Author: Wayne Koestenbaum
Publisher: Picador (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 192 pages
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At NachtLaw, we understand that many peoples’ identities are wrapped up in their careers, and most of us are affected by how much money we make. We do not think that this is unusual in this country nor do we have an opinion as to what your identity should be. We do not think that you should let a boss have the keys to your happiness. Your own sense of dignity and worthiness should be under your own control. We also think that much valuable work does not pay well and is no less worthy simply because the marketplace values it as paying less cash. All of us who are lawyers at NachtLaw worked in jobs prior to law school and while we were students, under conditions very different from what we face as attorneys. We do not think that a work environment that is premised on negativity—the fear of failure, or the terror of being fired, or the fear of provoking a screaming boss is the way the workplace should function in the United States of America. We work one case at a time for people in jobs that some people would call small or unimportant but that we consider to be bedrock and keystone jobs; those that hold up the rest of the people with better views. We also work for people who once felt powerful and wealthy and now feel weak and afraid of financial ruin. Our experience is that anyone can be made to feel small and in those moments, we are proud to be By Your Side.

-David A. Nacht

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.

I appreciate the insight and courage to bring this sort of topic to this show. We can dress up some pretty basic emotions and behaviors and lose touch with our true selves. Despite our complicated culture we have pretty animalistic drives of which the money, power, control and humiliation “wheel” is forged. A job, a house, a spouse, a stock, a company, a culture, a country, these things are gained and lost or “won” or wrestled from us by others. I think of Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” and how the Skeksis grovel for the fine clothes to cover their wretched bodies with, an unforgettable portrayal of the shame of our condition and our need to remedy it….

Waynes voice is very nice and full of character, however "Boo" your credentials seem suspect, perhaps you are not comfortable with the topic but too shamed to take it head on.

Brilliant to do this kind of interview on a business/economics show! Do more about the philosophy, psychology and spirit of money.

I am now retired, but my career for over 45 years was that of a voice recognition transcriber for the govt. Never, in all my years, have I heard a voice as creepy as Wayne's. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! Please don't have him back without giving me a warning ahead of time so I can quickly change the station!

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