Papers

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe 1651

Existential Embarrassment

Eva Kenny

In May 2009 the painter, musician and performance artist Jutta Koether gave a performance at Reena Spaulings gallery in Chinatown, New York, as part of her exhibition, Lux Interior.[1] Some of the performance can be seen on YouTube in a clip called “The Staging of Restricted Means in the Landscape Redefines the Terms of Pleasure of Painting.” For Koether’s performance, the screen was precariously positioned with one foot on and one foot off the raised platform that is the main floor of the gallery, as David Joselit has described it in his recent essay, “Painting-beside-itself.”[2] Styled as a pedagogical prop like a whiteboard or flip-chart and pushed away from the wall at one end so that it turned towards the audience, on the screen hung one large painting of Koether’s, Hot Rod (After Poussin).  Dressed all in red with her long hair down, red gloves and multicolored glittering shoes, the artist’s outfit was half Dorothy, half dominatrix, half teacher.

In the manner of a lecturer giving a presentation, she held a sheaf of notes, but had no podium to stand behind to hide her from the audience or vice versa.  Koether introduced her painting, saying that she wanted to have it there in order to have a conversation about painting.  Hot Rod (After Poussin) is mostly red and black and is an interpellation or interpretation of Nicolas Poussin’s 1651 painting Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe, which is described by Joselit as “representing a Roman myth centered on the extinction of love—and life—caused by the misreading of visual cues.”[3] Normally in Frankfurt, Poussin’s painting is rarely loaned but was in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition in 2005.  Koether’s painting takes one motif from Poussin’s landscape, the bolt of lightning in the background, and makes it the central mark on her canvas.  With T.J. Clark’s book The Sight of Death in hand and in a strong German accent Koether reads from her notes and quotes from the book.  She tosses papers off the pile and onto the floor where already pages are lying, then lies down on the floor continuing her monologue on the subject red.

Koether stamps around the stage in her heavy-sounding shoes and goes to a flickering light machine, which she switches on.  Then she stamps over to the main light switch, off the platform, and turns off the overhead lights.  When she comes back to the stage she walks around and around the painting, gesturing at it vaguely while still reading from her sheaf of papers. She crouches on the platform to tidy some of her notes, stands up, and starts shouting the lyrics of a song by The Cramps, a punk band active from the 1970s until the lead singer, Lux Interior, died early in 2009.  Garbage Man, the song Koether uses, has lyrics that go something like “You ain’t no punk, you punk, you want to talk about the real junk?…You gotta live until you’re dead, you’ve got to rock until you see red.”  The audience at the gallery, of which only the front row can be seen in the YouTube video, are already looking a little awkward up to this point.  Although many of them may have heard or already know what type of thing to expect from one of Koether’s performances, presumably most don’t know what form it will take in this one.  They look from side to side to smile at their friends. When the performer starts shouting the words the atmosphere gets even less comfortable, as this fifty year old German woman is not only unpredictable and confrontational but somehow, by sing-shouting this song, embarrassing.

This embarrassment is not just based on the logic whereby any remainder or reminder or proximity to the most recently discharged is embarrassing, like Walter Benjamin’s description of yesterday’s fashion as “the most radical anti-aphrodisiac imaginable,” although that certainly has something to do with it.[4] It could also be argued that embarrassment is an element of much performance art, but this does not quite identify specifically enough the type of embarrassment at work here.  Koether’s performances have been described by audience members as “excruciating,” “so horrible;” and by Isabelle Graw in an overview of the artist’s oeuvre in Artforum magazine thus: “Anyone who has witnessed one will know what I mean when I say that the cringe factor is generally high.”[5] Graw asks, “To what end does Koether create such a sense of embarrassment?” and contends that even as Koether complicates the exchanging of roles, from artist as subject and artwork as object, to artist as object and artwork as subject, “her staging of the persona “Jutta Koether” is very different from currently prevailing modes of artistic self-presentation, insofar as it embraces the eccentricity that artists, luckily, are still permitted.”[6] But rather than enjoying a type of behavior that could only be tolerated these days in such a wacko figure as the artist, does Koether play in her performances with exactly these notions of the archetypal artist as an “eccentric?” Furthermore, if there is something political in this particular mode and cause of embarrassment?

We get the word in English, according to the OED, from the French verb embarrasser, to block, hamper, or impede, which has etymological associations to the Portuguese baraço: halter, like a harness.  It would be impossible really in this essay to diagnose or dictate a means by which embarrassment is, or could be, harnessed or mobilized towards political ends or what this would mean, but it would certainly be possible to look at what hints could be taken from these etymological roots, and, further, look at what that might indicate in terms of a political imperative in some art making or discourse in New York at the moment. Embarrassment, in the wider context of social anxiety, is described as “a disease of resistance” on www.socialanxiety.com.[7] Could this mean anything in the political sense of the word resistance?  If embarrassment can be given a political reading, does it fall down more on the side of resistance in an active sense, of resistance to something at work in the political sphere, or does it mean more to hamper, impede or block activity?

Koether repeats lyrics of the Cramps’ song with a raging chant-like quality, not particularly with rhythm, and with emphasis on the lines “til you see red.”  Poussin’s painting uses very little red by contrast with hers: no more than the bright red garments that often appear in the midst of his landscapes, and even Pyramus’ blood looks a darker brownish hue. David Joselit describes the red of Hot Rod (After Poussin) as a reference to “blood and anger (and by extension AIDS)”[8] and her brush strokes as “something like the caress before a slap.”[9] Red is also the color of a blush, and this visible dimension of embarrassment, the idea of which is prompted by Koether’s painting and performance, leads to the questions “What is the visual element of embarrassment?” or, “is there something specifically visual about embarrassment?” Or “what effect does embarrassment have on the visual register or how does it register visually?”  What would the red of Koether’s painting and the use of the color in her performance have to do with blushing? What is displaced from Koether’s painting into her performance?  What could be political about this experience? Another way of approaching this question might be to ask how ‘creaturely’ embarrassment or blushing is, to use Eric Santner’s term. His description, in his book On Creaturely Life, of the term ‘creaturely’ and its uses, articulates something about blushing that will be explored in greater length in the paper:

This notion (creaturely life)…opens a new way of understanding how human bodies and psyches register the ‘states of exception’ that punctuate the ‘normal’ run of social and political life. ‘Creatureliness’ will thus signify less a dimension that traverses the boundaries of human and nonhuman forms of life than a specifically human way of finding oneself caught in the midst of antagonisms in and of the political field. [10]

Jutta Kother Hot Rod (After Poussin) 2009

Although Santner’s text refers frequently to the ‘cringe’ experienced by the body under certain conditions of political sovereignty, it refers less to a ‘cringe factor’ in embarrassment than to a wretchedly stooped or shamed posture characterized by Kafka’s figures before or under the law. Nonetheless, for my purposes this articulation of how a body might physically and visibly register a state of embarrassment, specifically human as it is and political as it may be, is extremely useful.

The first part of this paper turns to the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century to try to write an incomplete history of blushing and embarrassment.  Charles Darwin’s chapter on blushing, from his 1872 text The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, seems to edge somewhat towards the insights of psychoanalysis. Initially I read his text for descriptions of blushing as the body’s performance of embarrassment, but in the end he does not so much refer to blushing as a way for the human to draw attention to itself as become, it seems, involved with the embarrassing aspects of blushing itself. What struck me as particularly interesting and seeming to move in Freud’s direction was the claim that one could blush for somebody else. This not only seems like a precursor to a psychoanalytic concept of projection or something similar, but draws attention to the changing concepts of shame and embarrassment over the past century.

The description of blushing in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals starts with a question: “Why should the thought that others are thinking about us affect our capillary circulation?”[11] In other words, how does emotion, affect, anxiety, state or feeling of embarrassment become physical or visual? Blushing is not synonymous with embarrassment but is often a symptom or a manifestation of it, and in keeping with Jutta Koether’s red theme, this paper has an interest in blushing as the body’s visible display of embarrassment. The text, which Darwin based on the compiled responses to a questionnaire along with earlier writing on the subject, does not concern itself with physiognomy but with expression.  “All the authors who have written on Expression,” he writes, “with the exception of Mr. Spencer – the great expounder of the principle of Evolution – appear to have been firmly convinced that species, man of course included, came into existence in their present condition.”[12] As such, these writers are of the belief that the facial muscles, for example, are purely instrumental in showing the emotions, because that’s what they were created to do. Darwin on the other hand, believing that apes have largely the same muscles as humans but for different purposes, says “He who admits on general grounds that the structure and habits of all animals have been gradually evolved, will look at the whole subject of Expression in a new and interesting light.”[13] (He hopes to learn a lot about expression from the great painters and sculptors but is largely disappointed in this, claiming that as a subject beauty prevails; “and strongly contracted facial muscles destroy beauty.  The story of the composition is generally told with wonderful force and truth by skillfully given accessories.”[14]) Darwin’s questionnaire, circulated in 1867 to missionaries, explorers and other “protectors of the aborigines,” asks that recipients base their answers on observation and not on memory.[15]

The book offers a description of “three principles to account for the expression of emotions,” which are summarized as follows: habitual or inherited ticks that were of use to our remote ancestors, next, habits that are based on the opposite of these inherited movements, so that “when a directly opposite state of mind is induced, there is a strong and involuntary tendency to the performance of movements of directly opposite nature;” and thirdly, “reflexive autonomic actions, including perspiration, piloerection, trembling and so on.” These are caused by “the direct action of the nervous system” and blushing is of this last category.[16]

Darwin describes blushing as “ the most peculiar and most human of all expressions”[17] and looks at it under the subheadings self-attention, shyness, shame, modesty and “breaches of etiquette”. It is described as the “relaxation of the muscular coats of small arteries, by which the capillaries become filled with blood,” and, importantly, as automatic:

We can cause laughing by tickling the skin, weeping or frowning with a blow, trembling from fear of pain, and so forth; but we cannot cause a blush, as Dr. Burgess remarks, by any physical means, – that is, by any action on the body. It is the mind which must be affected. Blushing is not only involuntary; but the wish to restrain it, by leading to self attention, actually increases the tendency.[18]

Even though it is a physically automatic occurrence, self-awareness or self-attention is key to this physical manifestation, and Darwin lists the degrees of self-consciousness presented in a glorious array of nineteenth century subjects. “Women blush much more than men,” he writes, it is generally not noted in infants, and “Dr. Burgess doubts whether idiots ever blush.”[19] According to Dr. Blair, principal of the Worcester College, blind people blush:

The blind are not at first conscious that they are observed, and it is a most important part of their education, as Mr. Blair informs me, to impress this knowledge on their minds; and the impression thus gained would greatly strengthen the tendency to blush, by increasing the habit of self-attention.[20]

In some cases, however, Darwin notes that blushing is replaced by sudden paleness instead of redness:

For instance, a young lady told me that in a large and crowded party she caught her hair so firmly on the button of a passing servant, that it took some time before she could be extricated; from her sensations she imagined that she had blushed crimson; but was assured by a friend that she had turned extremely pale.[21]

One of the questions on Darwin’s list asks responders to observe in particular the “downward extension” of the blush on the body.  According to the reports sent to him, blushing is a phenomenon that occurs not only on the face, but varies according to geographic location, sex and mental ability. For example, Sir J. Paget “has never himself seen a single instance in which it extended below the upper part of the chest,” however, with the insane, blushing can extend as far as the breasts. As a general rule, English women do not blush beneath their “upper chest.”[22]

Darwin gathers reports on the phenomenon in other countries to support a proposal that blushing occurs at the site of attention, or, in other words, where the attention of the mind is directed. In England, only the face, neck and ears will redden because these habitually exposed parts, used to attention from others, operate by a mechanism wherein the arteries, used to expanding and contracting, flush the capillaries of the face. In other races, Darwin writes, the same is true. Attributed to “shame, or it may be in part fear,” according to Mr. Scott, the Lepchas of Sikhim manifest “a faint blush on the cheeks, base of the ears and sides of the neck, accompanied by sunken eyes and lowered head. This has occurred when he has detected in them a falsehood, or has accused them of ingratitude.”[23] Mr. Geach reports that “some of these people go nearly naked, and he particularly attended to the downward extension of the blush… with another Chinese, when asked why he had not done his work in better style, the whole body was similarly affected.”[24] Like the blind (and presumably children), natives of other countries can be taught the habit of blushing, so that “Von Spix and Martius, in speaking of the aborigines of Brazil, assert that they cannot properly be said to blush; ‘it was only after long intercourse with the whites, and after receiving some education, that we perceived in the Indians a change of colour expressive of the emotions of their minds.”[25]

Darwin never uses the word embarrassment to describe the motivation for a blush. He identifies some of the other movements or gestures that accompany blushing, writing that “persons in this condition lose their presence of mind, and utter singularly inappropriate remarks. They are often much distressed, stammer and make awkward movements or strange grimaces.”[26] One of the most remarkable examples Darwin gives to depict the effects of this condition on language tells the story of a very shy man who had to make a speech at a party thrown for him. He stands up and starts into this much-rehearsed speech and goes through it with great gestures and emphasis, but without making a single sound. “His friends, perceiving how the case stood, loudly applauded the imaginary bursts of eloquence, whenever his gestures indicated a pause.” Darwin says that not only did the man not realize he hadn’t spoken but he actually thought he did “uncommonly well.”[27]

Jutta Kother Hot Rod (After Poussin) 2009

Examining the ticks and characteristics that often accompany blushing, Darwin posits an “intimate sympathy between the capillary circulation in that part of the brain on which our mental powers depend, and in the skin of the face.”[28] When a person’s face reddens, he claims, the temperature within the cranium rises and at first the mental powers are stimulated by this heat.  But when the blushing is “excessive,” however, the mind gets overheated, confused, and “muddled” as one woman describes the experience.[29] This happens even when the redness is induced not by “moral causes” but artificially triggered by heat for the purposes of medical experimentation. When the “brain is primarily affected” by moral causes, and the secondary result is blushing, this mental disturbance is in evidence too.

At this point Darwin starts to investigate the mental states that can induce blushing. Shyness, shame, modesty; all are “self attention in relation to moral conduct.”[30] The production of a blush, he writes, comes not from thinking about ourselves exclusively but from thinking about what others think of us. One’s appearance before others seems to be at stake here – even primeval man, says Darwin, “before he had acquired much moral sensitiveness would have been highly sensitive about his personal appearance, at least in reference to the other sex, and he would consequently have felt distress at any depreciatory remarks about his appearance; and this is one form of shame.”[31] Blushing is motivated by sensitivity to the opinion of others, particularly negative, in relation to our personal appearance.  It may also be caused by the idea of not having done something promised for someone, provoking the question “what will he think of me?”[32] Not only looking, therefore, but the thought or imagination involved in self-attention can excite a blush, and Darwin explores some of the reasons for this habit, listing a regard for the opinion of others; moral causes; breaches of etiquette.

What could a blush reveal about the context in which it occurs? Darwin points to the cultural specificity involved in the phenomenon and sees that the blush-provoking opinions and rules of etiquette are not necessarily the same as ‘moral causes.’ He even goes so far as to call these social rules and opinions meaningless except inasmuch as they indicate the customs and opinions of our peers, which we hold in high regard. We are even so impacted by the rules of etiquette that, apparently, one can blush for somebody else’s mistakes:

Consequently the breach of the laws of etiquette, that is, any impoliteness or gaucherie, any impropriety, or an inappropriate remark, though quite accidental, will cause the most intense blushing of which a man is capable. Even the recollection of such an act, after an interval of many years, will make the whole body to tingle. So strong, also, is the power of sympathy that a sensitive person, as a lady has assured me, will sometimes blush at a flagrant breach of etiquette by a perfect stranger, though the act may in no way concern her.[33]

In his passage on modesty, Darwin points to the roots of the word modesty as modus, a way of doing, a measure or standard of behavior. Blushing at the thought, even, of somebody else acting in a way that contravenes these standards speaks not only of a highly sensitive lady or the entrenchment of social codes, or the biopolitical implications of this automatism, but also of a certain externalization of wrongdoing or faux pas. What does it mean to blush for somebody else or their actions? Why would a person feel embarrassed because of something someone else has done? Why would it show, on the outside of the body and in the most observed places?

Since “blushing originally arose from thinking about what others think of us” and not simply the immediate stare of a hostile observer, it also seems to be possible, for Darwin, that one can blush all alone. This passage, amongst others, reminds us that blushing and embarrassment are not the same thing, as we will see when we turn to the psychoanalytic literature on embarrassment.  Provoked by the thought of what others think about us, “several ladies, who are great blushers, are unanimous in regard to solitude; and some of them believe that they have blushed in the dark.”[34] The face, Darwin concludes, shows our relationship to other peoples’ opinion on our conduct.  Can a person then really blush for somebody else? If I can blush for another person it would seem to show my opinion of their conduct, inasmuch as I feel it to be in a kind of relationship to myself, since this is registered on my face. Can we say that one can be embarrassed for somebody else whilst speculating that they may not necessarily blush for somebody else?

Darwin’s question “Why should the thought that others are thinking about us affect our capillary circulation?” is not really answered definitively. He gives some conflicting contemporary theories: that it is a provision for expression, or that it was “designed by the Creator ‘in order that the soul might have sovereign power displaying in the cheeks the various internal emotions of the moral feelings.” Somehow Darwin does not find either argument convincing and suggests that such accounts don’t take into consideration the displeasure that blushing brings to its actor, in the case of the soul’s sovereign power, nor would it apply to those people whose skin color does not show blushing.[35] There are several passages in which Darwin specifically draws attention to the idea that blushing is not a universal phenomenon and this is the most strikingly obvious one. His assertion is that those parts of the body which are accustomed to attention, over many generations, are sensitive and

assuming for the moment that the capillary vessels can be acted on by close attention, those of the face will have become eminently susceptible. Through the force of association, the same effects will tend to follow whenever we think that others are considering or censuring our actions or character.[36]

The most powerful of all the causes is shyness; for shyness relates to the presence and opinion of others.  “With respect to real shame from moral delinquencies, we can perceive why it is not guilt, but the thought that others think us guilty, which raises a blush.”[37] When you blush, it is because you feel that others are looking at you disapprovingly and thus register their perceived disapproval. But, again, do I blush because I disapprove of someone else’s behavior, or does embarrassment for someone else’s behavior take another form? According to Darwin, in the externalization involved in embarrassment, you do not reflect on ‘real’ feelings of guilt but instead feelings that someone else is judging you, looking at you or thinking badly of you, causing you to blush. The suggestion that the parts of the body that are constantly exposed are the most sensitive is strange, considering that the skin on parts of the body that are constantly exposed must really be much tougher than skin that is never exposed.  What does he mean by ‘sensitive’ then?

It is noticeable that in Darwin’s essay he does not say what might now seem the most predictably anthropological observation: that going red could be read as human’s way of drawing attention to something. For Darwin, blushing is performative but not performance – perhaps that is an argument that seemed too closely linked to the creationist theory for him. The essay is preoccupied with concealment and the embarrassing nature of blushing itself in Darwin’s society, but every monkey or bird with a bright red feather or part, as far as I’m aware, is supposed to be showing off that part or attracting attention to themselves. Red is not a camouflage color. However, even though he does not explicitly make this claim, his essay gives a lot that could build towards an argument for blushing as information or sign that hasn’t been civilized or formalized into language. For example, where the caveman might blush when derogatory remarks are made about his appearance, he is effectively saying something. Darwin remarks too on the attractive quality of seeing a lady blush. In the passage on the natives of Brazil, where he quotes Humbolt asking, “How can those be trusted, who know not how to blush?” the implication is that blushing would give away a lie that the subject might not consciously admit to – and in Hamlet, the mother is accused not only of deceit but of not even blushing, when Hamlet asks her “O Shame, where is thy blush?”[38] A reddening of the face is seen as a show of honesty that the devious mind can’t conceal, and an honesty that in certain societies, it seems, can be learned, even if involuntary. If creationism might have seen blushing as an expression of the soul’s sovereignty, Darwin’s rejection of the soul and the universal aspect of blushing might lead the way to an idea of a more contingent type of experience and a different type of sovereignty, like that implied in Eric Santner’s notion of the creaturely, namely political, or the status of the body under authority.

But it is Freud, not Darwin, who suggests that embarrassment has an exhibitionist dimension. In his Interpretation of Dreams, in 1900, he describes the conflict between inhibition and exhibition in dreams about embarrassment, like being naked in front of people.  “He noted that the dreamer’s embarrassment usually occurs in the presence of strangers who take little or no notice of his/her state of bodily exposure. The dreamer generally feels too inhibited to cover or correct his/her state of undress.”[39] The conflict is not only between feelings of inhibition and the desire to exhibit, but the conventional meanings of these terms: inhibition as feeling prevented from covering one’s nakedness, and exhibition as displaying oneself, but only in dreams. In an essay called A Case Study of Embarrassment, Oliver T. Dann describes that conflict. He writes “that the need to satisfy socially unacceptable sexual impulses or exhibitionistic tendencies is met by covert processes such as dreams – the content of which the client finds embarrassing and distressing.”[40]

The insights of the psychoanalytic literature, as we will see, are that embarrassment is related to the perceived infringement in front of others of the social codes and the rules of etiquette we live by that concerned Darwin. This gets more complicated though when we try to keep in mind that, as Darwin has reminded us with various inconsistencies, blushing and embarrassment are not the same thing. Darwin never even used the word “embarrassing” or “embarrassment,” and neither does Freud for that matter. Freud uses a combination word, die Schamverlegenheit, in The Interpretation of Dreams, a word which really means something more like shame-embarrassment, but was translated by Strachey as embarrassment.[41] Embarrassment is distinguished from shame as an affect in Robert J. Edelmann’s The Psychology of Embarrassment.[42] It is categorized as a form of social anxiety (its “umbrella term”), with emphasis on the social aspect, and according to Edelmann, blushing “has been referred to as the hallmark of embarrassment.”[43] This text, written in 1987, describes embarrassment in the recent psychological literature as being “generally regarded as a form of social anxiety closely related to shyness, audience anxiety and shame.”[44]

Identifying a lack of work on embarrassment as affect (as does Dann in his 1977 text), Edelmann tries to distinguish between the four strands of social anxiety: shame, embarrassment, shyness and social anxiety.[45] These four encompass a larger group of symptoms, like stage fright, audience anxiety and communication apprehension. The four subgroups then divide into two groups, where shyness and audience-anxiety share more characteristics than with either of the other two terms, and shame and embarrassment are similarly linked to one another.[46] Embarrassment, like all social difficulties, Edelmann writes, is “related to self-presentational problems. In social situations we attempt to control images of self, or identity relevant information, before real or imagined audiences. Social anxiety occurs either because we doubt that we will be able to convey the image we would wish, or because an event occurs which prevents us from so doing.”[47] Now that we have moved into the language of psychoanalysis, we are still discussing embarrassment in terms of a disturbance of the visual or on a visual register. Although Darwin’s approach is to examine the exterior in embarrassment and psychoanalysis examines the interior there is in common a reference to appearance, and in embarrassment, appearance before others.

Shyness and audience anxiety, the first group, are affects based on anticipation: I have an idea before a social interaction that I will not be able to live up to my own standards of self-presentation. A gap is perceived between what one wants to present and what one thinks they will actually present to others in situations that may or may not be under their control. The second group, embarrassment and shame, share a different temporality. Embarrassment and shame are described (as opposed to shyness and audience anxiety) as “social emotions which result from unintentional and undesired predicaments or transgressions.”[48] In other words, whereas shyness and audience anxiety come from the anticipation or worry that things will go horribly wrong in a social situation, embarrassment and shame come from the perception or feeling that things actually are going horribly wrong, or have just gone horribly wrong, in a social situation. Lack of control over one’s self-presentation, as with shyness and audience anxiety, is still the issue but this time in the present or immediate past rather than projected into the future. “Thus, when an undesirable event, such as a faux pas, impropriety, accident or transgression occurs it is likely to cause a perceived discrepancy between one’s current unintended self-presentation and one’s desired self-presentation.”[49] The natures of these transgressions can be surprising. For example, in a short poll I conducted of what people found embarrassing, one person said that when it is pointed out to him that he has used “he” as universal or gender neutral pronoun, he is embarrassed because it conflicts with his desired self-presentation both to himself and to other people. Making a particular sort of mistake, not knowing something, asking some silly question that reveals a lack of knowledge or shows something unintentionally: these are linked by the presence of a witness or interlocutor. Therefore Darwin’s comments on blushing in solitude would seem to mark a need to distinguish shame and embarrassment, even if a full epistemological study can’t be achieved in this essay. (Even to consider properly why embarrassment is a more recent occurrence in the literature than shame, or why this distinction is not noted earlier, would have to be a separate enterprise altogether.) Edelmann writes that, “The literature distinguishing shame from embarrassment is rather more confusing than that distinguishing shyness from audience anxiety. In fact the terms embarrassment and shame are often used interchangeably.”[50] Sometimes embarrassment is used as a euphemism for shame, Edelmann says, and going through the literature, he collects some differences of opinion:

Lynd (1958)…suggests that: “Embarrassment is often an initial feeling of shame before shame is covered up or explored as a means of further understanding oneself and of the situation that gives rise to it.”

A similar suggestion is made by Modigliani (1966), who makes the point that: “In common usage one is primarily ashamed of oneself, while one is primarily embarrassed about one’s presented self. This may mean that shame is the more personal extension of embarrassment, or it may mean that it is a quite distinct psychological state.”

This suggestion of overlapping but differing concepts is also raised by Vallelonga (1976), who collected 40 written descriptions each of being ashamed and being embarrassed. He thus defines shame as:

“to perceive suddenly, in and through one’s behaviour, an extremely unpleasant discrepancy between who one is and who, according to one’s live self-projects, one ‘must’ be.”[51]

Edelmann suggests that embarrassment, as opposed to shame, always entails at least three constituents. These are, first of all, interpersonal exposure, with the presence of “a thematic other, whether that presence be ‘actual, presumed or fantasized,” secondly, either a concern for one’s face or concern about the experience of ‘losing face,’ that is to say, diminishing in the other’s esteem or regard; and thirdly, a desire to escape, hide or disappear.[52] Embarrassment entails, then, not only “the discrepant self-image present in shame” according to this study, but also involves “the exposure of this discrepancy to the scrutiny of others.”[53] Shame indicates a private, solitary dimension to the feelings experienced in embarrassment. In A Case Study of Embarrassment too, Dann reports that “The patient said that she did not experience embarrassment when she was by herself. The importance of an observing external object was demonstrated by her relief from embarrassment as soon as she left the analytic session.”[54] Dann’s account of his patient describes how important an external object is to provoke feelings of embarrassment. Although he claims that many of her defenses could not quite be called projection, they were “manifested particularly in the presence of an external object, which of course had internal representations.”[55] We might try to apply this information to Darwin’s description of the women who blush in the dark and deduce from it that, according to Edelmann’s and Dann’s reading, what they are experiencing is shame rather than embarrassment. Shame, it is suggested, could be restricted to describing those instances which refer to personal feelings, whereas embarrassment has to do with the public display or exhibition of these feelings.[56] We might also think back to Darwin’s woman who assures him that sensitive people blush for the ‘flagrant breaches’ of etiquette committed by others. What is the relationship between the externalization of embarrassment onto the face and onto another person in Darwin’s thought, and projecting embarrassment onto an external object in Dann’s example?

Edelmann quotes a strange formulation from a text by Erving Goffman, Embarrassment and Social Interaction, from 1956: “Embarrassment has to do with the figure the individual cuts before others felt to be there at the time.”[57] According to the logic of this claim, the individual definitely does something or makes a certain impression, or ‘cuts a figure,’ but it’s the existence of an audience at all that might be imagined or projected: this is the thematic other which may not be real but can be actual, presumed or fantasized. I take this also to mean that the nature or type of audience or their attitude, not just their existence, is fantasized by the individual.

There are, it seems, a number of marked similarities between shame and embarrassment. “Common to both is gaze aversion, covering of the eyes or face and parasympathetic reactivity.”[58] The psychoanalytic literature seems to agree that what sparks embarrassment or shame is behavior by the self, and imagined or real disapproval or ridicule in the other. Blushing represents not only embarrassment on the face but starts to be associated too with exhibitionism and scopophilia, in which one derives pleasure from watching others engaged in sexual activity. Edelmann examines the development through the texts of Dann, Benedek (1925), and Hitschmann (1943) who “also stressed the significance of exhibitionism and scopophilia, which he suggests develops from maternal condemnation for genital exhibitionism. Blushing then represents the displacement upwards of the repressed wish to exhibit the genitals.” [59] According to this last, blushing not only shows something but shows something unknown to or repressed by the subject; concepts unavailable to Darwin.

According to Edelmann, his brief summary of a psychoanalytic perspective on embarrassment and blushing suggests that this school of thought had many adherents in the 1930s and 1940s with decreasing number in recent years. “The idea that embarrassment and blushing are always linked with exhibitionist or sexual tendencies is of course fanciful, to say the least.”[60]

We can imagine, for instance, that, like in Dann, where the patient needs an external object for her embarrassment, (“She tended both to blame her embarrassment on the analyst and to regard the analyst as embarrassed”), we could think of Koether’s performance as a similar encounter for the audience.[61]

It is important to consider how instrumental Jutta Koether is in producing embarrassment in the Reena Spaulings performance. Again, like Dann’s embarrassed patient projecting her discomfort onto her shrink: “She often blamed her embarrassment on me. At times she thought the ideas and feelings about which she was so embarrassed either were ‘suggested’ by the analyst or originated with the analyst”[62] it could be said that Koether only operates as an external object onto which the audience project their anxieties. Yve-Alain Bois remarks in Formless, A User’s Guide, that real kitsch cannot be manufactured or inauthentic; only genuine fakes can be recognized as such.[63] Can embarrassment be manufactured, in other words and to reiterate one of the questions troubling this essay, can it really come from the outside? If you wanted to produce an embarrassing situation, how would you know what to do?

Attempting to create an embarrassing scene might be difficult, but some of the predicable sources of embarrassment come from, as Walter Benjamin suggests, the outmoded, whether this is the recently discharged, like yesterday’s music, or an idiom that may once have belonged to a radical or other political social movement, but that has been identified as expressive of a certain demographic by trendspotters and marketing experts and which filtered down from the highest echelons of social avant-gardism to beer ads and fake stencil prints on tee shirts.  But what does this have to do with any kind of political dilemma or the cringe of bio-political, the status of the body under authority and state of discourse – how are these performed? What we need to look at in Koether’s performance is the political and aesthetic choice implied in her confrontational incantation of “You ain’t no punk, punk… You gotta rock until you see red.” Her red performance, surely not without references to communism, can be imagined as the literal performance of a blush, with her red painting, red dress and tights. How critical is this, in combination with the song she chose for her performance?

Jacques Rancière writes in the foreword to his short text The Politics of Aesthetics something that could serve as an introduction to the premise of this paper. Describing how his book came about in response to questions posed by “two young philosophers,” Rancière explains that

a battle fought yesterday over the promises of emancipation and the illusions and disillusions of history continues today on aesthetic terrain. The trajectory of Situationist discourse – stemming from an avant-garde artistic movement in the post-war period, developing into a radical critique of politics in the 1960s, and absorbed today into the routine of the disenchanted discourse that acts as the ‘critical’ stand-in for the existing order – is undoubtedly symptomatic of the contemporary ebb and flow of aesthetics and politics, and of the transformations of avant-garde thinking into nostalgia.”[64]

It might not be strictly accurate to declare embarrassment (or shame) a kind of anti-nostalgia, nor punk an offshoot of avant-garde thinking. I am unsure of the relationship between nostalgia and embarrassment in critical or philosophical discourse. But what would be the role of embarrassment (or punk) in a political context? To return to Darwin for a moment: “Breaches of conventional rules of conduct, if they are rigidly insisted on by our equals or superiors, often cause more intense blushes even than a detected crime; and an act which is really criminal, if not blamed by our equals, hardly raises a tinge of colour on our cheeks.”[65] When public or civic culture is almost characterized by the degree of shamelessness or lack of embarrassment with which political leaders lie about huge wars, bankers defend huge bonuses, the prime minister of Italy boasts that he is not impotent and will prove it in court if necessary, what does it mean when a group of people is confronted with something vaguely political-sounding and find it embarrassing? How is finding an art performance embarrassing useful, or does it mark any resistance whatsoever? What does Koether’s performance draw attention to or diagnose in this group of people? Should we see it as a radical gesture and protest against state, capital, commodity?

First of all, Koether’s performance would seem to say Punks not dead – or, to be more precise, not dead enough. The marketing and remarketing of its zombified incarnation continues. What would be embarrassing about punk? What punk reminds of, I would argue, is a whole spectrum of what is thought of as genuine popular social revolt, disgust at and resistance to the establishment, the reigning political order, the way things are. As Chris Kraus says in Video Green, her book about the 1990s Los Angeles contemporary art scene and particularly the efflorescence of MFA programs, “’It’s so—theatrical,’ is about the worst thing you can say about anybody’s work in the contemporary art world. Theatricality implies an embarrassing excess of presence, i.e., of sentiment.”[66] Whether the emotion is actually genuine or not, there is something about being seen to have a fixed, unstrategic position that is embarrassing. Kraus is referring to what she sees as the hegemonic theoretical discourse of impersonality and detachment in art schools in LA during the 1990s, but this logic could also be applied to the expression of the politics we are put in mind of by a reference to punk. Anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, anti-bourgeois, radical, resistant stances, used in this setting, provoke extreme embarrassment. But Koether is not only shouting punk songs but is directly challenging the authenticity of these songs and questioning the merit of their statement now, challenging the punk credentials of the audience.

To shout the lyrics to a punk song would be seen as about as embarrassing as shouting “Fuck the System!” when everyone involved is also part of the system. But the words themselves, “you ain’t no punk, punk” are not embarrassing because everyone in the audience wishes they were more punk. These words would be authentically embarrassing not only because they are words or ideas that are perhaps more appropriate to a generation for whom there was hope that they might effect something, or at least a generation who might have seen some effects of such slogans. They ring embarrassing not only because they are the stark reminders of the co-option of resistance movements by advertising companies and by marketing executives who use photographs of Paris in 1968 or New York in 1978 to sell clothing or apartments. There is still, on top of all this, the aspect by which bourgeois expectations of art or the role of art are confounded in the figure of this eccentric, leading to the realization that what is presented to us as radical or mad or wild, our experience of radical, transgressive culture is being served up in a gallery, or through a publishing company, or another instrument of capital culture. The slogans or challenges in Koether’s performances fall deliberately wide of the mark. Isabelle Graw’s comment on Koether can be read in another way. The staging of the eccentric role of an artist is also likely to chime slightly off key with the audience. Even if the culture is permeated with the idea that an artist is a free agent, loose cannon, vehicle of expression and embodiment of a Bohemian radical lifestyle outside the system, do the people who attend Koether’s performance consider this to be a piece of outdated nostalgia? Being confronted by this angry artist perhaps offends by implying naïveté on the part of the audience, that they are unsophisticated enough to still think this to be the case, even, maybe especially, if they did until recently. Like punk, this idea persists and continues to influence.  At the same time, it is unlikely to imagine the same group saying that they have no interest or involvement with the political culture whatsoever. Between two logics, one expressed, for example, by Hans Haacke in October thus: “In this culture, conventional wisdom has it that getting involved

in politics does not help one’s career. It’s just not “cool.”[67] And another by David Joselit in the same edition thus: “Artists… are laboring under the idea that “serious art must articulate a critique of consumption”[68] Koether seems to perform both in an apposite and observant, possibly therapeutic, way.




Eva Kenny is PhD student at Princeton University’s Comparative Literature Department. She works between the Comparative Literature department and the Art History department.  Kenny was born in Dublin, Ireland, and now lives and works in New York.

[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRt0xMTHcTc [ii] Joselit, David: “Painting-beside-itself,” October 130,  Fall 2009. Pages 125 – 134. [iii] Joselit, David, op.cit., page 127. [iv] Benjamin, Walter: The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin ; prepared on the basis of the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press, 1999. [B1a,4], B Convolute, page 65. [v] Graw, Isabelle, “Peripheral Vision: Isabelle Graw on the Art of Jutta Koether.” Artforum magazine, March 2006. [vi] Ibid. [vii] http://www.social-anxiety.com/area-social-anxiety.html [viii] Joselit, David, op.cit., page 127. [ix] Joselit, David, op.cit., pages 126 and 127. [x] Santner, Eric, On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.       Preface, page xix. [xi] Darwin, Charles: On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873.  Page 337. [xii] Ibid, Introduction, page 10. [xiii] Ibid, page 12. [xiv] Ibid, page 14-15. [xv] Ibid, page 16. [xvi] Ibid, page 29. [xvii] Ibid, page 309. [xviii] Ibid, page 309-310. [xix] Ibid, page 310. [xx] Ibid, page 311. [xxi] Ibid, page 312. [xxii] Ibid, page 313. [xxiii] Ibid, page 315. [xxiv] Ibid, page 316. [xxv] Ibid, page 318. “Humbolt quotes without a protest the sneer of the Spaniard, ‘How can those be trusted, who know not how to blush?’” [xxvi] Ibid, page 322. [xxvii] Ibid, page 323. [xxviii] Ibid, page 323. [xxix] Ibid, page 324. [xxx] Ibid, page 325. [xxxi] Ibid, page 328. [xxxii] Ibid, page 334. [xxxiii] Ibid, page 333. [xxxiv] Ibid, page 335. [xxxv] Ibid, page 336. [xxxvi] Ibid, page 337-338. [xxxvii] Ibid, page 346. [xxxviii] Hamlet, Act III Scene IV. [xxxix] Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, 1900, cited in Dann, Oliver T., A Case Study of Embarrassment, page 454. [xl] Dann, Oliver T., A Case Study of Embarrassment, page 454. Dann, Dr. Oliver T., “A Case Study of Embarrassment,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 25:453-470, 1977. [xli] Ibid, page 454. [xlii] Edelmann, Robert J., The Psychology of Embarrassment. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1987. [xliii] Edelmann, page ix. [xliv] Ibid, page 1. [xlv] Ibid, page 3. [xlvi] Ibid page 3 [xlvii] Edelmann, page 3. [xlviii] Ibid, page 4. [xlix] Ibid, page 4. [l] Ibid, pages 4-5. [li] Ibid, page 5. [lii] Ibid, page 5. [liii] Ibid, page 5. [liv] Dann, Oliver T., (1977), A Case Study of Embarrassment. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 25:453-470. Pages 458-459. [lv] Ibid, page 461. [lvi] Ibid, page 6. [lvii] Ibid, page 6. [lviii] Ibid, page 6. [lix] Edelmann, page 8. [lx] Ibid, page 10. [lxi] Dann, op.cit.,  page 463. [lxii] Dann, page 461. [lxiii] Bois, Y-A & Krauss, R. eds., Formless: A User’s Guide New York: Zone Books, 1997. [lxiv] Rancière, Jacques: Foreword to The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Continuum, 2004. Page 9. [lxv] Darwin, page 345. [lxvi] Kraus, Chris, Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness.” [lxvii] October Winter 2008, No. 123: 79–82 [lxviii] October Winter 2008, No. 123: 86–89.