The Freud Museum

Events Archive

16 April 2005

Shame and Sexuality - Psychoanalysis, Anthropology, Visual Culture

A multidisciplinary conference to celebrate the centenary of Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

Freud Museum and Middlesex University Day Conference April 16 2005

Phil Mollon (Psychoanalyst)
The inherent shame of sexuality.

Stephen Hugh-Jones (Anthropologist)
Moons, mooning and monthlies:
Some anthropological reflections on shame.

Griselda Pollock (Cultural theorist)
The Visual Poetics of Shame.

Nicola Abel-Hirsch (Psychoanalyst) and Penny Woolcock (Filmmaker)
The Principles of Lust (provisional title)

Amna Malik (Art historian)
Shame, disgust and idealisation in contemporary Black Art.

Claire Pajaczkowska (Reader in visual culture)
The Garden of Eden: Sex, shame and knowledge.

Film Screening
Friday April 15th 7pm - 9pm Tate Modern
The Principles of Lust with director Penny Woolcock and Nicola Abel-Hirsch in discussion

Conference Report

Shame and Sexuality was a multidisciplinary conference to celebrate the centenary of Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. It was intended to link the conference with the exhibition by Greek-South African artist Penny Siopis, which explored the phenomenon of shame in its personal and socio-political dimensions. Shame marks this convergence of private and public experience of sexuality, and is uniquely human. It is also, for Freud, highly ambiguous. On the one hand it is linked with 'disgust, pity and morality' as mental forces which impede the course of the sexual instinct and restrain it "within the limits that are regarded as normal". On the other hand it is precisely these restrictions - shame, disgust, pity and morality - which have to be confronted and overcome in order to enter into the domain of a sexual life. Overwhelmed with 'pity' or 'disgust', sexual desire becomes impossible to realise.
The conference began with an example of this ambiguity. Penny Woolcock's film The Principles of Lust is a compelling and sometimes discomforting story about the essential instability of sexual excitement. Paul falls in love with Juliette and begins a passionate affair. At the same time, he befriends a charismatic and dangerous risk-taker, Billy, who exposes Paul to a different side of life. When the initial fire in Juliette and Paul's relationship begins to wane, Paul is torn between settling down with her and her young son, or following Billy on his quest for an endless high. The film was screened at Tate Modern on the Friday evening before the conference and introduced by Penny Woolcock and psychoanalyst Nicola Abel-Hirsch.

The following day provided ample opportunities to explore the connections further. In his opening paper "The inherent shame of sexuality" Phil Mollon, author of Shame and jealousy: The hidden turmoils (Karnac Books) took the bull by the horns as it were and asserted, as Freud so often did, that sexuality itself is frightening for human beings because it threatens the symbolic nature of our socio-cultural world and personal identity. He pointed out that shame is associated with the desires and other aspects of self that are not allowed access to shared discourse. They may be conscious but they are barred from the social realm of shared experience.

From banishment of parts of the self, Claire Pajaczkowska (Reader in Visual Culture at Middlesex University) turned to shame and banishment in the mythical realm. Images of the expulsion from Eden after eating from the tree of knowledge (a less heinous crime, incidentally, than eating from the tree of life) are an important part of Christian iconography. Claire examined Massacio's famous painting from the Brancacci chapel in Florence. In a brilliant and wideranging dissection of the myth and its pictorial representations, she connected the Genesis story to Oedipus Rex as narratives about the origin of the human subject, noting that "Loss is what opens up a space that allows narrative to move forward."

Griselda Pollock spoke next on "The Visual Poetics of Shame" Struck by a news item that suggested that a Korean movie star committed suicide because of the transgressive elements of a recent screen role, she was led to ask: Can one die from shame? Further research revealed different motives behind the death of Lee Eun-Je, but the cultural narrative was already in place to explain the death by linking femininity, sexuality, shame and death. Griselda showed clips of the film in question and linked them to a close reading of Freud's Three Essays and Penny Siopis's installation at the museum. Paradoxically, the visual poetics of shame as explored through Penny Siopis' paintings and that of the film, in which shame is associated with adultery, lesbian sexuallity and miscarriage, converge in unexpected ways around the theme of blood - the one area Freud does not discuss. Questions about menstruation and female circumcision were raised in the discussion which followed.

The question of menstruation and female fertility came up in the next paper as well. Anthropologist Stephen Hugh-Jones looked at the realm of myth and ritual from a cross-cultural perspective in his intriguing and entertaining paper "Moons, mooning and monthlies: Some anthropological reflections on shame". Using an array of fascinating examples - his own fieldwork among the Barasana tribe of South America, Margaret Mead's famous, and famously re-evaluated, study of adolescent girls in Samoa, rituals of deforation in contemporary Andalucia - he demonstrated the subtle socio-cultural mediation of shame and its diversity of expression in different cultures. And here another paradox; sexuality subverts and undermines social rules yet sexual expression is defined by rules and regulations. And to complicate the situation still further, definitions (such as 'shame' and what is supposed to cause it) may be contested by different groups or be differently expressed in different social contexts. This combination of the individual and context-dependent with the universal was not unknown to Freud, but it still puzzles the psychoanalytic will.

If shame and disgust seem to form a natural pair, art historian Amna Malik added a third term in her paper "Shame, disgust and idealisation in contemporary black art". The inclusion of the term idealisation may seem incongruous at first, but it turns out that the coupling of disgust and idealisation was first posited by Freud in the Three Essays. "It is perhaps in connection precisely with the most repulsive perversions that the mental factor must be regarded as playing its largest part in the transformation of the sexual instinct. It is impossible to deny that in their case a piece of mental work has been performed which, in spite of its horrifying result, is the equivalent of an idealisation of the instinct." In Kara Walker's satirical and disturbingly sexualised caricatures of slavery, Amna found a perfect visual register in which to explore this puzzling connection. The sillouette images depict an idealised version of the American South while exposing the perverse cultural phantasies which underpinned it and which, according to Walker, still operate today. Walker's frankness and willingness to explore such difficult ideas in her work, such as the masochism of black women's experience, has caused much controversy.

The day ended with Penny Woolcock and Nicola Abel Hirsch presenting a joint paper based on The Principles of Lust. The film excites strong feelings for and against, as do the various characters depiected in the it, and in a deft two-hander, the speakers demonstrated some of these conflicting opinions. Ultimately, they argued, Paul can only come alive by experiencing the trauma (shame, disgust, fear) which his encounter with Billy entails. A lively discussion followed - but you will have to buy the DVD to judge for yourself.

The conference was supported by Middlesex University Department of Visual Culture, and we would like to thank especially Prof. Adrian Rifkin and Claire Pajaczkowska for their commitment to the project and their invaluable help throughout.

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