A year ago, I logged onto an online conference panel to see a dear friend give a talk about shame. Her argument, as she’d laid it out to me when I asked about her paper, was about the role shame was playing in the so-called CanLit culture wars. She wanted to distinguish between the experience of being shamed—a kind of emotional violence intended to silence—and the experience of feeling shame, an emotional reaction to having done something we maybe don’t feel great about. She argued that those in positions of power often struggle to recognize the difference, or—as she recently clarified in our group chat1—to see the utility of shame.
Imagine my surprise when the first paper in this panel turned out to be about my very own work. About Refuse, specifically: about how it pathologized Canadian literature, about the violence of shaming people (in this case, “people” being an allegory for a national literature, I suppose). I bring this up not because the paper itself was particularly noteworthy; it certainly wasn’t the first presentation on the evils of my own scholarship that I’ve had sprung on me at a conference (and I’m sure it won’t be the last!). But ever since then, I’ve been thinking about shame and about the role that shame may play in feminist critique as praxis,2 both within and beyond the study of Canadian literature.
I am, indeed, ashamed of Canada. This country is founded on profound violence: extractive resource mining, Residential Schools, antiBlack and antiAsian immigration policies, genocide, and eugenics. These are, as the saying goes, features rather than bugs: they are integral to what Canada means, a constant reminder that a just orientation towards the nation-state is not to redeem but to destroy it. We should be fighting for the abolition of Canada and for the abolition of institutions and cultural industries that perpetuate it, CanLit included. But we’re all feminists here, so I probably don’t need to convince you that the nation-state is bad news. No, I want to talk about shame.
You see, I’m not really a Canadianist anymore, these days, but I am definitely a feminist, and the question of feminist critique is at the heart of my work. More than the content of this critique, I’m interested in its shapes, its effects and affects: Where does feminist critique take place, who participates in it, and how does it make us feel? If it’s true that feminist critique has a tendency to “ruin” things—to kill joys, as it were—then what are we supposed to do with the bad feelings that result? I’ve been particularly thinking about these questions in light of a podcast I used to make about Harry Potter.3 Yes, the same Harry Potter written by an unrepentantly outspoken TERF who is actively using her enormous cultural and economic capital to strip trans people of their rights and spread propaganda that endangers the lives of a community I love deeply. My co-host Marcelle Kosman and I grappled regularly with our feelings of shame as we asked alongside our listeners: Should we still be reading and discussing this book series? What do we do with the shame we feel for ever having loved these books, for loving them still, despite knowing what we now know about the author? How do we find space for the vital work of feminist critique without sliding to extremes, either demanding an impossible moral purity from the culture we love or pretending that there is nothing politically at stake in how we choose our objects of study?
Making this podcast has convinced me that shame, far from being damaging or cruel, is in fact a deeply productive affect, one that is useful for thinking with and through. In fact, shame can be a particularly feminist feeling. Feeling ashamed provides me with ethical information—a gut check, of sorts—that serves me in navigating the complexity of cultural production and the work of feminist critique. Shame has helped us to divest of all activities that financially supported the series’ author, to lift up the voices of trans and gender nonconforming readers and critics, to always put our readings in conversation with the real-world consequences of the author’s actions. Shame, I believe, makes us better scholars and teachers and feminists—and, in this sense, it can be a useful counterbalance to the work of critique, which slides so easily into a positioning of the critical self as outside the problem. Critique goes hand in hand with quitting, I think, which is why the most stringent critiques of academia are often articulated by those who have left. But shame? That’s for those of us who are still in the thick of it. Shame, in fact, is very good at reminding us that we are in the thick of it, not standing on the outside looking in; shame reminds us of where we stand in relation to power and nags at us until we do something about it.
It’s fine to keep working on and through objects of study that make us feel ashamed, but it’s fine with an asterisk. Fine like we’ve been saying we’re fine for the past three-and-a-half years, almost always meaning: not fine, not okay at all, dreadful really, but this is the world we live in, we’re up against it, we can’t get outside of it, so we’ll keep moving through as long as we’re able. Fine as in: I’m dragging what I can from the smoking wreckage of the world, do you want to help? Fine as in: let’s not forget that things could be otherwise, let’s not stop feeling our way, collectively, through shame and rage and grief, towards something else.
1. The group chat is one of my primary sites of feminist meaning-making, a discursive space that is liminally situated between the privacy of my own mind and the publicness of a social media feed or conference presentation. In the group chat, ideas might be tested and teased out as part of a collaborative feminist praxis.
2. My understanding of praxis is relatively straightforward: it is the intersection of theory and practice, the point where the two meet. I am interested in feminist critique as praxis rather than theory, which is to say, I am interested in feminist critique that does something.
3. You can listen, if you like. The podcast is called Witch, Please and I think it is very good. I’m making a new podcast now called Material Girls, which is even better.
McGregor, Hannah, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, editors. Refuse: CanLit in Ruins. Book*hug, 2018.
Hannah McGregor is an academic, podcaster, and author living on the traditional and unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. They’re an Associate Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University, where their research and teaching focus on the intersection of publishing and social change. McGregor is the co-director of the Amplify Podcast Network and the creator of its pilot podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda. She has also co-hosted Witch, Please, a feminist discussion of the Harry Potter series, and currently cohosts Material Girls, a scholarly podcast about pop culture, and The Spoken Web Podcast, part of a collaborative scholarly project exploring audio literary archives. They’re the co-editor of the collection Refuse: CanLit in Ruins (Book*hug 2018) and the author of A Sentimental Education (Wilfrid Laurier UP 2022). She has books forthcoming about podcasting and peer review, and about dinosaurs.
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