Category: Shame

There’s a lot to unpack here.

„You can criticise Taylor Swift, but not George Michael"

Once frowned upon, pop music has become a must for every music connoisseur. You get suspicious looks if you don’t have guilty pleasures, says music critic Carl Wilson in our interview and explains how we have come to love what we used to hate.

In your book ‘Let’s Talk About Love’ that came out in 2007, you analyse Céline Dions famous album of the same name and take it as a starting point to ponder the meaning of bad taste and what makes us feel ashamed of certain things we like. Do you have a lot of guilty pleasures?
I don’t have that experience with music very often anymore. Probably because I have thought so much about it over the past years. But I do get it with TV, when I see something really cheesy or fake that somehow still gets to me, like a teen soap opera. There is a vague feeling of embarrasment, when I like it. But it’s not necessarily shame because of me liking it but because of the question, if something is worthy of your time or not. Are cheesy romcoms really the best way to spend my free time?
You feel it’s a waste of time?
Not so much a waste of time but just not the best option. Instead of scrolling on Facebook I could read a book instead or spend time with my friends or family.
The philosopher Kenneth Goldsmith actually challenges the widespread assumption that “wasting time on the Internet” is a waste of time. He argues that it demands active engagement and thereby makes us more social and creative. Do you agree?
I agree, but it’s a question of proportions, I think. The complete refusal to use Facebook or watch TV because it can lead to procrastination is also not good. It’s a kind of puritanical reaction. We should be allowed to ‘waste’ some time.
Coming back to the feeling of shame. Usually you would feel ashamed of something you like but when George Michael died and I told people that I think he is overrated, I was criticized a lot and felt ashamed for actually not liking his music.
Shaming works in strange ways. At the height of George Michaels commercial success, you would have found plenty of people agreeing with you, that he is overrated. But when the artist is in the rearview mirror and no longer a ‘threat’ to the hierarchy of taste, when he or she is not part of the current popculture debate anymore, then people become far more soft on them. Taylor Swift? Sure, you can criticise her, but George Michael? We have developed our own rituals around celebrity deaths now and they do not include criticism. It’s purely based on paying tribute. That reinforces the unspeakability of any negative feelings about that artist. When Elvis died in the 1970s, it was much easier for people to privately criticise him, but now the mourning happens in public and sharing negative feelings about a deceased musician is like voicing criticism at a funeral. It’s just not allowed.
The feeling of shame vanishes over time and we now celebrate the popstars that were detested at the height of their success . Do you think that reinforces a higher acceptance of today’s bubblegum pop?
I am not sure. Take the EDM-pop duo The Chainsmokers for example, they have a lot of critics, because they are changing the trajectory of pop music. When “Let’s Talk About Love” hit the shelves ten years ago, Céline Dion was still a pop figure that people talked about and attacked. But she was granted immunity a few years back, because she is no longer an active part of the debate. Modern-day pop acts are not as fortunate. They don’t have the benefit of nostalgia.
Because nostalgia makes everything better – even a past we disliked.
Exactly, Céline Dion also represents Titanic and 90s fashion faux pas and especially for people between 30 and 40, she also represents their youth.
Why do you think guilty pleasures are such a big part of our current culture? Is it just nostalgia?
No, that would be too simplistic. Our taste is also our identity. We define ourselves by what we like. Taste can be at the core of a group identity as well. It is such a strong instrument of differenciation. Then there is also the perception, that art is supposed to be enlightening instead of just hedonistic. That makes it hard to openly like something that is not considered high-brow culture. The guilty pleasure is a way around that.
But you have to earn it. The guilty pleasure is only allowed because you have proven that you have good taste. As in listening to five Sonic Youth songs allows you to listen to one song by Britney Spears.
That’s a way musical taste has evolved in the past decade or two. Guilty pleasures were not a thing in the 70s or 80s. It would have been dubious. Because you had your musical genre, and you stuck to it. But if you only listen to what the cool kids listen to today, it makes you seem narrow-minded. Pop has become an obligation for music nerds. Your taste profile needs a broad variety of styles, not all of them should be considered good.
It’s fascinating how bad taste has become an extremely positive concept. There are bad taste parties celebrating the absolute worst of the worst. It has stripped bad taste of its own meaning.
It’s a countercultural battle that was fought and won. The tag bad taste is now owned by people that are very proud of their taste and consider it good. Bad taste has become a transgressive phenomenon. The director John Waters has used the term to delineate who’s square and who’s edgy, for example.
But what is then, objectively, bad and how can you differentiate between good bad and genuinely bad?
That’s a hard question but I think that we are in a much more sophisticated place today when it comes to taste because we are being exposed to so much more. There is no scarcity of culture anymore and so we have come to accept the validity of different worlds and trends. That also means, that we are no longer so serious about our own taste and think we have to defend it at every occasion. That was certainly different a few decades ago. I think that also resulted in us not being so bent on judging everything straight away. There is still genuinly bad taste but we show mercy a lot of the time. Also, shame doesn’t need to be a bad experience.
How so?
In the same way that sadness is also celebrated or at least positively connoted. It’s a human reaction that tells us something about ourself. It’s not really a utopia for me if everybody has a wide-open, let-it-all-hang-out-sense of culture. Shame has its place in culture. The problem starts, when we start to take advantage of things in a hostile way, when we start shaming and attacking others.
I recently read about the Disco Demolition Night. A radio station called upon its audience in 1979 to destroy disco by publicly burning disco records before a local baseball game. The promotion stunt ended in a riot and was expressive of racism and homophobia. That’s the shaming that goes too far.
At that time, disco was extremely commercially dominant. The strange thing is that it was music for the marginalised: gays and the black community. Then there was a white, homophobic backclash because of others gaining ground. The same happens today with the Trump presidency.
Is it fair to say that although pop music is more generally accepted today, it is still the primary target for critique?
It’s an easy prey. Pop music is like parents: you hate it when you are young and then you patch up things as you get older. It’s also by definition the most mainstream music and we live in the most egocentric of times. Individuality is sacred and pop is the opposite of that. Also, pop is predominantly understood as a female genre because of its focus on feelings and emotions. Most men do not want to be associated with that. Those prejudices persist.
I think it also comes down to authenticity. Emotions are also the centre of all other musical genres but the perception is different. Listening to Björk sing about heartbreak feels more genuine than hearing Céline Dion do the same thing.
It depends on how you see the world. Many people do not question the facade of the pop commercial world. It feels genuine. Connecting to a sad Björk song is probably something that most people do alone and in their own way. But pop music is more social and it is an experience you share with many people. It evokes the presence of a public, even when you are alone. Pop is not an introspective form of music. It is not a dark night of the soul.
Would you describe artist like Björk or Nick Cave as authentic?
They are definitely genuine but it depends what you mean by authenticity. I mean Nick Cave is a master of theatrical performance. You don’t go to a Nick Cave gig in order to find truth. His fans prefer his kind of artificiality over the one that pop acts put on. It depends on what you are willing to believe.
Then again, an artist like Father John Misty uses ‘fakeness’ in order to create an authentic stage persona. He is honest about being fake.
That is the oldest trick in art: putting on a mask to tell the truth. Father John Misty opens the engine room of showbusiness and shows us, in a very ironic manner, how artistic showmanship works. Spontaneity is a rare occurrence in performance and he is not trying to hide that.
And irony helps him get away with it
Irony is an aquired taste. Father John Misty appeals to people that like art from a safe distance. To other people, irony can seem hostile.
Could Céline Dion pull off irony?
Her fans like that she has a sense of humour about herself but she is serious about what she is doing and would never mock the performance and the audience for believing in it.
We talked a lot about bad taste. What, in conclusion, do you think is good taste then?
Good taste is probably more individual than bad taste. I don’t think there is objectively good taste but there is consensus taste: Things that you and the people around you can agree on. Sometimes that consensus is quite big, other times it is not. But it is never a given.
Carl Wilson is Slate’s music critic and the author of several books.

Donald Trump’s Horror Picture Show

Photography of the presidency shows that Trump cares about optics, not visuals.

I enjoy looking at the world through the prism of photos, and US presidencies offer a lot of iconic ones. Take this picture of Nixon’s last lunch before resigning:

Photo courtesy of the Nixon Library


It’s a surprisingly intimate capture, mostly because it leaves so much to the imagination of the viewer. Here’s a plate of food, an obvious product of its time, and we’re left to ponder Nixon’s thoughts as he sits down, presidency in shambles, to drinks a glass of milk.
Another shot I like was taken during the Truman administration. It shows the White House completely gutted during a major renovation. The stately home, the picture seems to imply, is just a façade, with everything else down to the support beams in constant flux.

U.S. presidents are as much media personalities as they are politicians; their coverage is carefully orchestrated. That’s why these little glimpses behind the curtain of the presidency are so revealing, and why they used to be so hard to come by.
Until the Trump presidency.
What we’ve been seeing over the past five months, at least to my eyes, has been a perfect storm of revealing photographs. Photos that barely leave anything to the imagination, that are startling in their clumsiness.
Take today’s image of Trump posing with regional leaders in Ryadh. It’s a photo that makes you wonder how anyone involved would consider it a great idea:

Focus just on Trump, Sisi, and King Salman in the center of the frame. They are isolated by the lighting of the picture, huddled around the oddity of the glowing orb, with the rest of the room plunged into darkness. This picture is about them, it is about power, meant to signal unity. But the three central figures look terrible: King Salman appears frail and old, as though he was leaning on the glowing orb for support. Trump’s eyes are lit up strangely, making him seem like a wax figurine rather than an actual person. And Sisi, albeit looking the most normal of the three, sports and expression of creepy determination.
This photo is very, very strange, and it perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of Trump’s presidency. But it’s also just the latest weird shot of Trump’s Horror Picture show, which began the freshly-minted candidate riding to his announcement speech on a golden escalator.

Think about the empty streets he walked through during inauguration. Think about his stern expression when signing his first executive orders, an expression turned into countless memes. Remember the staff: The men surrounding him as he signed away US financial support for women’s health. a or that photo of Kellyanne Conway kneeling on the sofa. Remember the President’s own pictures, gleefully shared on Twitter. Smiling selfies. Captions that will make any designer cringe.
To be fair, all these pictures are individual oddities. Some of them are funny, some blown up into disproportionate media spectacles, fodder for a public eagerly waiting to be horrified. But zoom out and look at those images together: You see a tapestry of absurd photos, terribly-executed attempts at seeming presidential. We’re only a few months into this presidency, but it’s clear that while Trump may care about optics, he certainly doesn’t care about visuals.
In the light of all that’s been going on, it seems petty to focus on the President and his staff having bad taste. But I believe that photos matter, that they are one of the ways how we make sense of the world. These pictures of Trump are as odd as his presidency, as careless as his statements, and oftentimes as ugly as the vindictive ideology underpinning the man’s ascent. No wonder we can’t look away.

"I feel like my head is just a camera on a tripod"

Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson embraces melancholy with a unique playfulness. His works are demonstrations of how thin the dividing line between happiness and sorrow can be. We talked to him about the male body in art, cemetery strolls and why life should be like Bohemian Rhapsody.
While I was doing research for this interview, I watched some clips of your performances on Youtube and noticed that although I am quite familiar with your work, I have never seen any of it in real life. Is that something you concern yourself with? The way people take in your art.
No, not really. I don’t have a webpage and I’m not on facebook, so I don’t upload anything. But I really like it when people do it for me, when they take videos of my performances and put it up there. They take my work from the art spaces and share it with the world. There’s something liberating in that.
Do you think that Youtube is the right place for your art? The experience of watching a clip of a performance online and watching the actual performance is obviously very different.
Watching my art on Youtube is like looking at a painting in a book. Of course it is not the same. You just get a glimpse of what the whole thing is about. My video pieces very much depend on the image and sound quality and you just don’t have that experience on Youtube. The installations are much more kick-ass.
Digital technologies not only enable people to record and share the art they are witnessing but also to watch it wherever they are. The incentive to travel to a specific piece of art has been reduced, I feel.
Which is a shame because I like this whole Holy-Grail-approach to art, that you have to make an actual effort to see it. But having everything at your disposal can be very convenient. Whenever an uncle or aunt visits and asks me about my latest installations, I can just show them some clips on Youtube. It also reminds me how sloppy I am, when it comes to the Internet. I just don’t really use it that much. I am like an old person. Although, they are pretty good with these things nowadays. So maybe I am like a lazy old person.
Do you feel that performance and multimedia arts are better suited to make that transition from real to digital than, say, sculpture or other, more traditional visual arts?
I am not sure. Visual arts are very much about experiencing and connecting with what you see. A piece only comes alive, when somebody sees it. Now, the viewer also spreads the art he or she sees by posting it online. In that way, the viewer becomes a doer. Performance arts are of course very well suited for this, because they are so dynamic. There is constant movement, which sort of mirrors the ways in which we consume art today. It’s not a static experience; it’s always in flux.
Which is very true for performance art. With a painting or a sculpture, the artist has the luxury of seeking shelter in the studio until he or she is happy with the piece and chooses to present it to the audience. A performance art piece is live and always bears the risk of imminent failure or imperfection. Do you feel that pressure?
Actually, I also like to approach my paintings like that. I tell myself that I don’t have a thousand chances to start from scratch. I really focus and try to do it in that specific moment. At the core, I think all art is about spontaneity. If you would try to reproduce a piece of art at a different moment, the result would probably differ a lot. It’s really the spark of genius that makes a great art piece; the rest is just time and labor. And that also produces some vulnerability. The safety of the studio does not guarantee success – quite the opposite.

RAGNAR KJARTANSSON God, 2007 single channel video Duration: 30 minutes Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik
Commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna & The Living Art Museum, Reykjavik. Photo: Rafael Pinho


Marina Abramovic once told me during an interview, that she needs the risk of failure in order to be creative. Do you feel that too?
I don’t feel that risk of failure during performance pieces. It’s more a take-it-or-leave-it-situation. I come from a theatre background; so performing feels very natural to me. The only time I feel exposed and vulnerable is when I perform something other than performance art. I was in bands when I was younger and that always felt alien and strange.
How so?
Playing music always felt a bit weird, I just feel like an impostor. Music is something very serious in a way. When you don’t hit the notes right or you play too fast or slow, the whole thing crumbles. Performance art is more forgiving, I feel. It’s more the concept behind it that matters. You can do whatever you want, as long as you do it in a convincing way. It gets its legitimacy from your own belief in it. Visual art is always open for interpretation.
Music has more set rules?
Don’t get me wrong: I love music. I am obsessed with it. My role models are mostly musicians. I don’t want to generalize, because ultimately it’s a very personal opinion. Being a musician never came naturally to me, so I personally feel that being an artist gives me much more freedom than being a musician. That’s not to say that that is the case for everybody. I tried hard to be a musician but every time I stood on stage, I just saw the disbelief in the eyes of the audience. And I believed them.
It’s fascinating that you would then choose to continue with visual and performing arts instead of doing something that does not rely on an audience.
It’s not the audience that frightens me; it’s the feeling of not being able to perform with full confidence in what I am doing. The main lesson I took from it is that I should not excuse myself for what I do and just be kick-ass. I had a hard time doing that in music. My godmother, who is a musician, once told me that you should always remember that as an artist, nobody cares about you. Your insecurities are irrelevant to the audience. The audience only cares about the art piece or the song. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.
Don’t you think that the audience very often reads a lot into what you are doing. They question your motives and connect everything to your private life, I feel.
I would not do it, but I know it happens. It’s not necessarily something that happens during live performances, but certainly they question or analyze you as an artist overall. The funny thing is that this is so prone to misinterpretation. I would always be more concerned about the artists that seem completely happy, than the ones that seem to suffer. Growing up, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston were the good guys whereas somebody like Nick Cave was regarded a troubled mind and soul. Look at how their lives have developed and you can see why we should not judge a book by its cover. There is a façade of happiness in pop music that conceals the suffering. On the other hand, the dark characters are not necessarily dark, they might just be interested in the full spectrum of human existence – and there is a lot of suffering and agony in that.
That reminds me of your video piece God in which you sing “Sorrow conquers Happiness” to the melody of a very happy and jolly tune. It’s a striking example of how close sorrow and happiness often are.
Sorrow is inevitable and we should face it. We will become sick and eventually die. We just have to be ready for it. A memento mori can make you a happier because sorrow will not take you by surprise when it happens. Being aware of sorrow is the best tactic to deal with it. I live quite close to a cemetery and I love taking walks there. I don’t find it saddening or depressing but rather comforting.
Death is a universal experience and no matter how many people die in the most tragic ways, the world still keeps on turning. I guess there is comfort in realizing how little your own existence matters in the grand scheme of things.
Exactly! We should not take our own existence so seriously. The artist Marcel Duchamp got it right. His tombstone says: Besides, it’s always the others that die. That’s a good last statement.

RAGNAR KJARTANSSON: The End – Venezia, 2009. Six-month performance during which 144 paintings were made. The Iceland Pavilion, Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà, 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. Photo: Rafael Pinho


Would you feel offended if I would tell you that I find your work extremely entertaining?
No, why should I?
I feel entertaining is the last thing an artist wants to be.
I hope people find my work entertaining. Entertainment has become synonymous with fake or meaningless forms of expression, but I don’t think that’s fair. Very often, things are entertaining at first and only reveal themselves as something more substantial after some more reflection.
But isn’t there a common belief, that the theatrics of entertainment and authenticity are not compatible. Art is very dichotomous in that respect.
Yes, that belief is widespread. My grandfather was very close to the Swiss artist Dieter Roth who concerned himself a lot with notions of authenticity. To someone like me, who comes from a theatre-family that was very inspiring. I wanted to find a middle-ground between authenticity and theatrics.
To quote Dieter Roth: When faced with a choice, do both.
That’s my motto, yes. I do believe that entertainment is authentic. That’s why we connect with it. Why would you cry during a movie or song if it was not authentic? It’s only when entertainment is bad that we notice it is fake. Entertainment that stays true to itself is never fake.
You have said in previous interviews that we are living in the female century and argued that feminism had a strong impact on your work. Do you feel that there is a difference between male and female art? Especially when it comes to performance art in which the body plays an important role.
In my pieces I really like to play with ideas of the male body because it is so blank in a way. There is much more freedom. The female body is a projection surface for controversy. When art is about the female body, it is immediately heavy and politicized. When I do feature female bodies in my pieces, it is a very conscious choice and I am aware that I might cause controversy or step over the line. Feminist art took control over the female body in art history. So as a male artist, you have to be very careful, respectful and aware of that.

Ragnar Kjartansson Woman in E, 2016 performance Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik Originally presented and organized by Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Detroit, Michigan. Photo: Andrew Miller


The female body is linked to much more body shame because society still wants women to act and look a certain way. The urge to go against that must be a powerful impetus to create art that breaks those chains.
Yes, there is all this violent patriarchic oppression you have to fight. Having a male body is just so unproblematic in comparison. I often feel like my head is just a camera on a tripod. I am so unconscious of my body because there are not as many oppressing aesthetics around it. Men also have body issues but the difference is that society does not judge them as much.
Another thing that had a big impact on your art is repetition. I connect repetition with boredom and ineffectiveness, which are very negative notions. Is that the same for you?
We do have a negative understanding of repetition. We complain about life being repetitive and want it to be a totally new thing every new day. I recently read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa and she writes about this woman she met, who told her that she would want to repeat her life in the exact same way, not changing a thing. Blixen writes about how dull and sad that is. She said a small melody can be repeated, but a symphony can not be repeated It ends and you don’t want to hear it again. That’s how Blixen wanted her life to be. That’s a bold statement. When I think about life in terms of music: wouldn’t it be fab to look back and see it as Bohemian Rhapsody?

A Fragile Beauty

Photographer Claudius Schulze has documented the concrete barriers that make up today’s landscapes. His photos are a reminder of what we fail to notice.

It takes a while until it dawns on you: These photos are no ordinary photos of nature. Each of them features a man-made structure, some barrier to protect the scenery or to keep us safe. German photographer Claudius Schulze has taken these shots to challenge our very idea of looking at landscapes.
“Idyllic nature,” Claudius says, “is really a product of protection agencies working hard to maintain order”. And humans have shaped the planet’s landscape so dramatically that our tools of protection have become part of the environment, neatly blending into the scenery.


Claudius spent the last five years criss-crossing Europe to document these bulwarks, working with a small crane and a large-format camera. He spent many hours laboring over satellite images and even more in the field, camera at the ready, waiting for the environment to be just right. “I wanted to show people interacting with nature,” he says – and the beachgoers, bikers, or pedestrians really underline the inherent sense of normalcy.
But the photographer’s neutral, almost technocratic perspective accomplishes more than just documentation. Claudius, who admits having been inspired by landscape painting, effectively tips the scales, making the beauty in his photos seem uncanny. And it poses a question to the viewer: Why does it take you so long to notice these structures?


Equally subtle is his message that many of the dams, reservoirs, and concrete fences protect both nature and people from the fallout of human-made climate change – and therefore from ourselves. “I wanted to emulate the perspective of a civil engineer,” he explains, “their job isn’t about finding the cause, but simply about the protection from its effects.”
Take some time and immerse yourself in these photos. See the people in the go about their lives, unaware of the structures around them. Admire the effort that went into their construction. And then try to image the landscapes without them. Chances are that you can’t.


Make sure to check out Claudius’ campaign on Kickstarter, where he is raising money turn this project into a photo book called “State of Nature”. It features many more photos, essays, and an original design. You can support the project here.

Photo: (c) Diane van der Marel


Claudius Schulze is a Hamburg-based photographer. He graduated from the M.A. program Documentary Photography and Photojournalism from LCC, University of the Arts London and has been a guest lecturer in photography at several universities – currently at Leuphana University Lüneburg. See more of his work at claudiusschulze.com

"The female body is a minefield"

Alexandra Kleeman

In her book “You too can have a body like mine”, writer Alexandra Kleeman describes the absurdity and shame that is linked to our bodies and their perception. We talked to her about the ideal world of pornography, body perfection, and why she distrusts anyone who dislikes Adam Sandler movies.
How much time do you consciously think about your body or appearance?
It varies quite a lot. When I write, the page is completely distracting. I sometimes even forget to eat when I am writing because if I remembered that I had to feed my body, I would also have to remember all the other things that go along with it. It is a very unhealthy attitude but it is healthy to me because it helps me to stay productive and therefore emotionally balanced.
The human body and looks are central themes in your book “You too can have a body like mine”. The characters seem to be very conscious about their bodies and how they look and feel – up to the point of complete obsession. It got me thinking about my own body and how I perceive it and I would say that most of the time when I think about it, I do so unconsciously because it has become a habit.
A lot of my habits for taking care of my body, habits for making my body appear to myself as my body, are deeply engrained. Processes become automatic, we do them without deciding to do them, and then we naturalize the end result. When I see myself 100% unmade-up, I feel like I resemble myself less than if I had just the eyeliner on. Our body rituals don’t take up that much mental space but they do take up a lot of time. When I think about the time I spend doing my routine – scrubbing, exfoliating, etc. – I feel cheated. It is time I could have spent working on something else.
In the book you write, that it is no wonder we care so much about our looks because it is the one thing that sets us apart from each other. It is a very true and yet also a very superficial judgement at the same time.
In terms of our culture, there is all this rhetoric about how people are not all that different from each other. You can shape your inner self to become a different person, one that fits the social surroundings. Our insides are undifferentiated; you can mould them like a piece of clay. In some ways the materiality of our outer selves offers resistance to this idea of infinite changeability. This surface can be altered, but only through labor and only with some pain or discomfort. It refutes the myth of transformation as a painless and liberating process.
The protagonist of the book, a girl called A, is afraid that her roommate, B, is trying to copy her looks and behaviour in order to come as close to her as possible. But it seems like it is not B’s strange behaviour that worries A but the fact that she can be copied and is therefore not unique.
Even though A is the person who is on stronger footing in the friendship, she starts to feel her personality as a delicate configuration of traits that can all be copied or even done better by someone else. She is afraid to realize that her personality is not what she wants it to be and she is nervous that others are able to see it too.

“We are under constant production”

The book’s focus on our body shows how much shame there is involved when we are conscious about our body and its behaviour. A lot of what is very natural, are things we want to cover up or at least ignore.
Yes, we have a measure of control over our bodies so we take on the responsibility of presenting it in an attractive way. We carefully produce images of ourselves that are supposed to reflect our personalities, our inner selves. If you turn on the TV, you can see how the pressure to perfect, fill, and define faces has constricted facial expression, and therefore the expression of emotion. It is almost as if these famous faces are trying to transcend their personhood, turn themselves into a flawless personified brand. When we reckon with our own body, we reckon with a physicality that is in a constant rehearsal process. We are never a finished product. We are under constant production. But there is a lot of shame involved because artificial personalities have become the benchmark, professionalized, weaponized bodies with personalities to match. You cannot compete with perfection.
It seems to me that the body shame in the book is exclusively female. The male character, C, seems very at ease with himself – except for his porn addiction. Was that your intention?
There are probably more similarities between the female and male world of beauty than we might see at first. I think that the female way of dealing with body insecurities is more open and direct, whereas men absorb and internalize these concerns. Men also worry about their weight or their body hair but are trained to reflect on it less, and are definitely trained to keep that type of anxiety contained. Maybe a man’s body also has fewer problem areas than a woman’s – at least in public perception. Our eyes are drawn toward areas that we’ve been taught can betray us, and the female body is a minefield.
C’s fixation on porn is striking because it highlights a pressure that many men feel: to be a true stallion that can satisfy all the women. His fixation is also superficial but on a different level.
When they select men for porn movies, it is less often about types and more often about performance. Women have to fit a certain type or role, they determine the genre of the film. Both are being objectified but in different ways. I wanted to include porn in the book because it does so much nowadays to shape how we perceive the act of sex. With porn, you are transported to this virtual place where you can be anyone in any given scene. It is like a scaffolding for your own fantasies. You even have the luxury of getting bored. In reality, you are more restricted and under pressure. The pleasure from having actual sex with a physical body and the pleasure derived from the limitless, virtual world of porn are profoundly different and yet very linked. It’s maybe similar to comparing books and e-readers.
C takes fantasy – in the form of porn – and tries to put it onto reality by making it part of his relationship with A. He thereby glorifies it because in contrast to the real world, the virtual porn world is a place where no desire is rejected. It is the ideal world of fulfilled desires.
I understand that it is controversial to glorify porn because it is loaded with problems and hidden power structures. Accepting or even liking porn is surely a minority standpoint and as a writer that is interesting to me. I don’t want to focus on how deadening or flattening porn can be, I want to explore why we like it, because it is hyperreal. I think of it as a technologically enhanced imagination space, that helps you expand your fantasies. But as I write in the book, it can also have a very distancing effect. There is a very subjective mixture of fantasies and you might not occupy the same fantasy as the person you are physically engaged with. The situations in the book are designed to show A sharing the same experience with other people but highlighting her discomfort with it. She is maladapted to C’s porn obsession.

“Food now exists for aesthetic pleasure”

One of the sentences that stayed with me after finishing the book is when A says that the female body never truly belongs to the woman. Do you feel that way?
I really feel that to be true, but at the same time I want to assure you that I am happy with myself. It is a problem that has been of interest to me for a long time and especially while working on this book. Being female in public, is an invitation for other people to comment on your looks and behaviour. Your body is unavoidably open to engagement from others who expect you to also engage with them.
Especially with the main character called A, it is easy to draw the conclusion that a lot from the book is autobiographical. The writer Chris Kraus once claimed that as a woman, it is almost impossible to be a-personal and that everything you do is understood to reflect your own experience. Do you feel that too?
I can relate to that, yes. But to write autobiographically, to mirror myself in this way, I’d need to know more about myself than I currently do. Because many events in the book seem out of this world, it should be clear, that this is a fictional account. A is constructed from many feelings and fears that I have, but she is not me. In some ways she exhibits the raw version of fears that I’ve trained myself to metabolize, fears that society defuses. It’s true that most foods were once living flesh—animal or plant matter. At the same time, it’s not useful to society or useful for an individual to keep this fact alive in your day-to-day reality. With A, I wanted to explore life in the modern world without the desensitizing calluses and coping mechanisms I’ve developed.
Food is another central theme of the book. The characters either seem to develop an obsession with it or feel complete disgust. It mirrors how we as a society glorify food but don’t want to know where it comes from or what effect it might have on our bodies. I would argue that people love food but hate the act of eating.
If you check Instagram, you can see how food has become completely detached from its primary use. It now exists for aesthetic pleasure. In a way, we are always asked to define ourselves through our eating habits. Food is the best metaphor for the relationship between an individual and his environment; it is the thing that links our insides to the outside world. In this sense, it’s a problem when that relation becomes visual rather than primarily nutritional.
A refuses to eat anything that is not purely artificial because she fears that by doing so, she would integrate herself into the food chain and be swallowed by something bigger than her eventually. Her reasons are not moral but purely self-protective, it seems.
You could argue that. Have you heard about the research they are doing on extreme caloric restriction? They were feeding one group of monkeys a normal calories-diet and another group a very restricted amount of calories. Over the course of five years, they found that consuming far calories made the monkey appear youthful. They speculated that the more one eats, the more the body is remade using the new materials—which means more chances of making mistakes in the replacement. In short, the finding was that everything you eat in a way speeds up your demise. This makes sense on a technical level, but is the point of life really to resemble yourself for as long as possible?

“A strange world can also offer comfort”

The novel describes the typical anxieties and problems of millennials yet there is very little indicating this: the Internet is virtually absent, instead the characters are all obsessed with TV for example. Was that intentional?
People say that TV is a dying medium and it certainly no longer exists in the way it used to when I was growing up in the 1990s. But it is still a very communal thing, as opposed to the more solipsistic, fractured content of the Internet. When you watch a movie on TV, you know that many other people are also watching this at that very moment. There is a big difference between watching TV all by yourself and watching it with other people – especially when you watch something that is generally regarded as bad or purely entertaining.
Because in a group you could not confess that you actually like what you see if you watch something like Sharknado?
If you watch Sharknado with other people, you adopt the reactions of the group. It is hard to have a private, distinct emotional experience when it is in conflict with the emotions surrounding you. But it is possible to have real emotions in a fake or staged emotional situation. One of the first things that got me watching TV again after college was the TV-series The Bachelorette. I watched this personal drama unfold and sometimes I couldn’t tell real from fake. Obviously the scenery and everything was completely fake but some of the emotions were very real.
I feel like your book does a similar thing by portraying people with real human emotions and fears in a completely surreal environment – not comparing it to The Bachelorette though.
I’m fine with it being compared to that show (laughs). You are right, there are real emotions in the book that take place in an unreal world. The characters in the book struggle with their environment but they are not sure whether the outside world has really gone mad or if they are just unable to cope with it. Also, coming back to The Bachelorette, we have already created a world that is so strange that I as a writer felt compelled to go one step stranger and create this bizarre nature. The only way to de-familiarize an already strangely familiar world is to push it even further. A strange world can also offer comfort.
How so?
I know that romcoms are completely unrealistic and bizarre but I find great comfort in them. I distrust anyone that doesn’t like Adam Sandler movies. I don’t watch romcoms with other people because I don’t want to know what they think about it, I don’t want to hear their critique. I just want to watch the rightness unfold: the good guy getting the girl, the bad guy losing out. I feel that romcoms are modern day myths. They tell a story we aspire to, a pattern we find over and over in the stories we tell about ourselves.
In a way, modern myths are tricky because they are no longer set in a land of fairies or dragons, so it becomes harder for us to understand them in purely mythical terms. We think that a perfect relationship is possible and get frustrated if it does not happen to us.
Yes, we believe that perfect communication in a relationship is possible. There are guides and TV shows telling you how to achieve it but nobody knows what it would be like because it does not exist. I honestly think we need new myths and they should be as detached from reality as possible. Anything else makes it too easy to substitute the myth for a reality.

"Shame is absolutely necessary"

Man wearing hat with card "Bread or revolution"

Jennifer Jacquet argues that shame is often our most potent instrument to enforce social norms and punish those that go against them. For her, shame is not just a strong emotion but a powerful political weapon.

Your book is called „Is shame necessary?“ Is it?
Shame is absolutely necessary. At the same time, it is a very dangerous and fickle instrument. It is difficult to characterize it in any general way.

Jennifer Jacquet

Jennifer Jacquet is an assistant professor at New York University and the author of “Is Shame Necessary?”. Read more about her on her website.


Because it can be completely different things depending on the situation or context it is being used?
There is certainly a dose-response issue, as well as an issue of proportionality. Sometimes a very mild form of shaming is being used for a severe transgression and vice-versa. Especially online we see a lot of intense shaming for sometimes very little reason at all. The cases that we are most drawn to are cases where the shaming is really disproportionate. Cases where shaming is used against innocent victims. That’s in part why we paint shame with a broad brush and label it a bad thing. That was my impetus for the book. I wanted to show that sometimes shame can be a positive thing.
In the book, you argue that shame is very often a weapon of last resort. How effective can it be, especially in an arena like international politics?
We should think about it as a tool of last resort, but on the other hand it might sometimes be the only available option – especially in international politics with issues like climate change commitments or human rights violations. Reputation is something indispensable and something every political actor cherishes. Shaming bad actors can sometimes be the best way to express social values. In the past, there were more sanctions, like trade sanctions, tariffs, and boycotts, that could be used but these have been diluted over time by agreements made, for instance, at the WTO. Reputation has become one of the only areas where countries and citizens can push back.

“Shame works in relation to norms”

Have shaming tactics worked in international politics? The UN is one big naming-and-shaming-arena and yet is often powerless.
There is evidence that it can work. There is evidence that in the absence of shaming campaigns, things would be much worse in areas like human rights. It is not a perfect tool but no form of punishment is. The problem on the state-level is that states have no conscience and sovereignty grants them a certain moral immunity, which can make them more impermeable to shame. We might expect that companies built on public reputation would be much more vulnerable to shaming than countries. Globalization has created so many regulatory vacuums. In some cases, we can’t wait for legislation to catch up. Shame is our best option to try to regulate certain kinds of behaviors.
The problem with international issues like climate change is that they are not just linked to one or two states but to almost all of them which makes shaming harder.
Shame often has more traction in small groups, but the real thing that mattes is how widely held the beliefs are. An issue like climate change is relatively new. Shame has a lot to do with rules and shared social values, and it helps if those rules have been established for some time, such as the rules of war or human rights or an obligation to vote. When shame fails, it is most often because the standards have not been established firmly enough. Shame can only work if there is a norm or standard that is disrespected, but I have confidence that action on climate change is reaching a new and global moral imperative.
But norms are very different and often in conflict: A bank manager has a responsibility towards his shareholders to make a maximum profit but that is often in conflict with his responsibility towards society at large.
Quarterly returns used to be the gold standard of publicly traded corporate metrics. Now more and more corporations, including banks, are keeping track of other things, including reputation with the public and its customers. This is what has led to the success of groups like BankTrack, which exposes the banks that are most heavily invested in coal and other fossil fuels. Partially as a result of their work, which relies on shaming, several very big banks have vowed to stop investing in new fossil fuel operations. I agree with you that profits and larger social values are in conflict, and the banks are, more and more, going to have to choose whose side they are on.

“Donald Trump is the perfect bad apple”

In the book, you talk a lot about “bad apples” – individuals that go against norms and thereby ruining the advantages of obeying the rules. If someone will start smoking in a non-smoking environment, other smokers might be inclined to do it too. It becomes contagious.
And it’s not just about contagion but also sometimes, in certain problems, just a few bad apples can ruin things for everybody else. A very good example is the trade in endangered wildlife. You might have 99% of people against the trade in endangered species, and not participating in it. However, just 1% of people engaging in the trade are capable of driving many animals to extinction. Carbon emissions are another example: if big polluter countries like China or the US are not on board to reduce emissions, other countries will be less inclined to curb their emissions since they would be paying the price for the damage done by others, while the bad apples went on polluting.
Benjamin Franklin argued that it takes many good deeds to build a reputation but only one bad deed to lose it…
…unless you are Donald Trump. He is a perfect example of a bad apple. Now people think it’s acceptable to be racist, misogynist or not pay taxes. His dismissiveness of the system has made certain kinds of behaviors and attitudes socially acceptable to a large group of people. He is changing the rules, but also our attitude toward the rules.
Would you agree that there are always ways to cope with shame and losing your reputation?
The very rich and the very poor seem to be the most immune to shaming. The poor because they have nothing to lose and the rich because they are insulated from the shame or can always try to buy themselves a good reputation. Coping with shame is easier for groups or states because they do not feel ashamed because they lack a consciousness. Shame is a very personal emotion, and individuals have a harder time coping with it than groups do.
You argue in the book that shame works because it can scale whereas a feeling like guilt does not. But often companies try to escape the shaming by putting guilt on individuals – the consumers. The shamed have become the shamers.
That is the consequence of neoliberalism in which individual consumption is at the core of everything. Chevron ran a campaign in Washington D.C. in 2008 that read “I will unplug stuff more” or “I will take my golf clubs out of the trunk of my car” with an individual’s face above the statement. The problem of high emissions that is produced by companies like Chevron and Exxon is blamed on individual consumers. The consumer became the scapegoat. That is an absurd view of responsibility given how locked into a system of fossil fuels we are, in part because of the efforts of major fossil fuel corporations.
Shame can also be misused by one company to harm its competitors and gain a market advantage.
Yes, you see fossil fuel companies jockeying for their place on the hierarchy, like how BP tried to call itself “Beyond Petroleum”. You can shame companies like Exxon or BP or you can just stigmatize fossil fuels, which means that any company involved with fossil fuels will be considered partly responsible. I think moralizing the commodity is a smart move. We stigmatized slavery itself, not only the companies that participated in it.

“Shame is being overused”

I sometimes feel that shame is being overused by consumers today because they see that it works against companies. Shaming a company on social media has much more public effect than calling a customer hotline and blaming them there. But once you have a hammer, everything resembles a nail and shame is being used for the most banal things.
Yes, that is a problem. Shame is being overused, and we’re using it excessively against each other, too. There is even an app that alerts your friends every time you hit the snooze button in the morning. Shame is most powerful and should be reserved for serious social problems that we all share.

Because it is being overused we might reach a point where shaming is being shamed.

We are already there. There is a documentary about the politician Anthony Wiener who was involved in multiple sex and infidelity scandals. There is a great moment where a woman screams “We don’t care about his private life, we are from the Bronx”. She was shaming the shamers. There is a backlash against the overuse of shame. We all have things that we can be shamed about and we have to be careful to not become a society of finger-pointers, but rather aim shame well and cautiously at those genuinely doing the most harm to widely held social values.