a culture of humiliation: Zizek, shame, and what does it mean to be American?

Today was the first meeting of Gottlieb’s “Theory after 9/11” Seminar. During class we read Slavoj Zizek’s In These Times article What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib. Zizek argues that despite the claims of the media and Bush administration that the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was not symbolic of the United States military and were instead “isolated crimes,” that these abuses are actually part of a systemic system of American humiliation and initiation:

To anyone acquainted with the reality of the American way of life, the photos brought to mind the obscene underside of U.S. popular culture—say, the initiatory rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo to be accepted into a closed community. Similar photos appear at regular intervals in the U.S. press after some scandal explodes at an Army base or high school campus, when such rituals went overboard. Far too often we are treated to images of soldiers and students forced to assume humiliating poses, perform debasing gestures and suffer sadistic punishments.

The torture at Abu Ghraib was thus not simply a case of American arrogance toward a Third World people. In being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture: They got a taste of the culture’s obscene underside that forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy and freedom. No wonder, then, the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not an isolated case but part of a widespread practice. On May 6, Donald Rumsfeld had to admit that the photos rendered public are just the “tip of the iceberg,” and that there were much stronger things to come, including videos of rape and murder.

We discussed during class “initiation,” because it seems that the prisoners at Abu Ghraib can never fully be initiated into America, because they can never be America. This brought us to alterity: it seems that one can only be fully initiated once one becomes fully American: that is, once one is fully white, male, straight, middle class, able bodied. The humiliation continues as long as one remains not fully American: a person of color, women, queer, poor, disabled, and so forth. I was immediately reminded of Sandra Lee Bartky’s “The Pedagogy of Shame,” in which she discusses this very act of shaming our culture engages in towards women (I discussed Bartky here).

When I took Creative Democracy last year, we discussed very early in the term what it meant to be American, and some of us came up with: white, male, straight, middle class, able bodied. Those outside the center, those disenfranchised by the system, are never quite fully American. And if you are not, you are attacked consistently with this cultural pedagogy of shame: a regimen of humiliation that continually tries to initiate you into the system until you are finally straight, man enough, middle class enough — or, for women, impossibly, male enough, and since, without undergoing transition, a woman is not a man, she is forever shamed. Indeed, all these folks are forever shamed, for shame and humiliation is something we carry with us. The poor person who becomes middle class carries with the self the shame of internalized classism. The queer person who “reforms” and “becomes” straight surely carries with hirself shame: I was once abhorrent and can only cast aside this abhorrence by casting it as sin and myself as a sinner.

But the prisoners of Abu Ghraib, stateless, homo sacer, can never become Americans: They are too brown, too Muslim, too militant…

This entry was posted in English 575 Post 9/11 Theory (Winter 2008), Philosophy 599: Creative Demcracies (Spring 2007). Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to a culture of humiliation: Zizek, shame, and what does it mean to be American?

  1. Jill says:

    But what about the millions of people who are white, male, straight, middle class, able bodied and yet definitely NOT American?

    I guess I come at this from a different tack: I fulfil all your criteria for “being American”, except that I’m a woman, and of course, I’m by citizenship an Australian and by residence a Norwegian. But I’m now married to an American, currently in the US for a five week stint and planning to move here in 7-10 years time. So “being American” is of quite some interest to me.

    Previously when I visited the US I saw Americans from the outside. I’d stand there with the other Europeans and observe them as though we were at a zoo. I mean, we enjoyed talking with Americans, but the DIFFERENCE was always very apparent and clearcut, and easily fit into our stereotypes. Our idea of America was shaped by television and what we saw in “real” America matched that perfectly.

    I can’t imagine I’ll ever “be American”, even when I have a green card and even when, even if I even further down the line, I became a US citizen. That has little to do with my gender. Probably I’ll always be marked as “not-American” by my accent (though accents can be learned) and by my ignorance of all the American popular culture I would have gleaned in childhood and youth (although I could learn much of that with hard studying).

    But really from my experiences of America since I was married into an American family I’d say “being American” is so many different things, such diversity – and such drastic difference from Northern Europe, in so many ways. The fourth of July where we tried to go to an outdoor concert, found there were NO other white people there (a true American might have read the cultural signals earlier and been prewarned, never showing up) and, slightly scared, walked around the corner to find a bar of tired-looking old white people playing bad music, and finding we were still much more at home there than with the groovy African-American music. The endless suburbs with no centre. The Pleasantvilles you drive through, not stopping, where there are no white people at all. My sister-in-law who said she’d vote for Oprah if she ran for president. The TV debates where people think Hillary’s being just the slightest bit annoyed damns her forever but approve when she plays the predictable coy little girl role and says it “hurts her feelings” to be thought “less likeable” than Barack Obama. Women who quit their jobs to have children because there’s no maternity leave. Incredible kindness and generosity, combined with astonishing waste. Beggars on the street who are genuinely hungry and homeless. People who chat with you on the bus. Busdrivers who are underpaid and grumpy. Tipping. Not having a passport, but being bilingual and used to diversity. Not really mixing with other ethnic communities.

    The real problem with your definition of “being American” as being “white, male, straight, middle class, able bodied” is of course that it is so ultimately AMERICAN in its assumption that America is the centre of everything. It forgets all the people who don’t WANT to be American, whether they live inside or outside of the US. And while the idea of initiation as being a key cultural aspect of the “hazing” of those who don’t fit the “American” mould is really interesting, its cultural specificity (because those college rituals really aren’t part of Scandinavian culture, for instance) ignores the more general ways in which alterity is oppressed, or kept other.

    Which is fine, so long as one is aware of using culturally specific terms and understandings.

  2. Michael says:

    Jim Brown wrote me:

    It might be important to draw a distinction between being initiated
    into “America” and being initiated into “American culture.” Zizek is
    talking culture and you seem to be talking “identity.” So, yes…these
    folks are definitely “too brown, too Muslim, too militant” to be
    initiated into America the nation (the fraternity), but that seems to
    be different than being initiated into American culture. American
    culture is so ubiquitous, that millions who are not Americans are
    initiated daily (via film, video games, etc.) This seems to be Zizek’s
    point: prisoners at Abu Graib were not victims of the perversions of a
    few members of the military, they were being introduced to what Z.
    might call the American way.

  3. Michael says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Yes, I didn’t mean to imply that all white, male, straight, able-bodied folks are automatically American — I was trying (but perhaps failed) to be culturally specific, by talking about those who are within American borders. I think you also brought up something very important that’s missing from what I wrote about: that there are various other ways in which folks are oppressed outside of this “initiation” system — and as well, I didn’t really address sexism nearly as adequately as I could. Your comment alludes to the double bind for women: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That women must simultaneously perform “manliness” (Clinton must be strong and not emotional) and “womanliness” (she is chastised for being too cold and manly).


    I think you’re right, that I was conflating identity and culture, though what defines American culture? I don’t mean to be deterministic or simplistic, and I realize that this is a lot more complicated that what I am claiming here: but, to a degree, American culture is about manhood and whiteness, which (I’m in debt to WEB Du Bois and radical feminists such as Katherine MacKinnon, among others) are identities defined by and performed through domination.

    Thanks for helping me work through this, as I continue to think about it and revise my thoughts. I look forward to any other thoughts you (or anyone else) have.

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