Shame and the Act of Writing Symposium, September 19 2014

Shame and the Act of Writing Symposium, September 19th 2014
It isn’t only as theoreticians that academics engage with shame, but also as writers; shame is not only
a moral idea, but also an affect which disturbs and excites in us a critical and creative self-awareness.
The aim of the ‘Shame and the Act of Writing’ symposium was to consider these aspects of shame
from different disciplinary perspectives and to come up with new approaches to thinking about shame
as a fundamental condition of poetic, psychological and social activity.
Over forty scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and from across Europe gathered for
this one day event held in Millburn House to offer their expertise and reflections on the topic of shame
and its peculiar relation to the act of writing. Charles Turner (Warwick, Sociology) opened the day’s
proceedings with a discussion of ‘Shame and Plagiarism’: does the collective will to shame plagiarists
belie an excessive desire for the rituals of shame; can plagiarism really be conceived in terms of victim
and a perpetrator? Rebecca Webb & Valerie Hey, (Education, University of Sussex) followed this
provocation with a joint presentation on the two-way shame relation intrinsic to the supervisor-Phd
student relationship. Bravely, they explored concerns about power, authority and the capacity to
shame and be ashamed, by relating their topic to the dynamic of their own academic relationship.
Next we heard from Douglas Morrey (Warwick, French) whose presentation on contemporary French
literature usefully connected shame with current medical discourses surrounding depression. The
morning concluded with a broader historical perspective. Papers from Christopher Müller (Cardiff,
Philosophy), Michael Rowland (Sussex, English) and Agata Sikora, (Warsaw) placed shame and writing
in the context of intellectual and literary history, especially the discourses of sentiment and sincerity.
After lunch we examined some literary case-studies: James Brown (Birkbeck) discussed the impossible
distinction between shame and guilt in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim; Mary Flannery (Lausanne) pointed
us to the humility topos in English literature after Chaucer; and Warwick PhD student Jenny Mak
presented on shame and post-colonialism in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy.
The next session provided a change of form and mood, with David Morley (Warwick, English) chairing
a compelling round table discussion with two award winning poets – who also happened to be
philosophers and translators: Denise Riley (University of East Anglia) and John Goodby (Swansea).
Each poet interspersed readings of their own work with critical reflection, managing to be, by turns,
humorous and truly moving. These poets concretised for us the inescapable pain, societal culpability,
but also the strange productivity of the shame affect.
Our keynote address was delivered by Geoff Gilbert (American University of Paris), a fitting end to the
day. In a bravura performance Geoff combined popular culture, autobiography and literary close
reading to consider the future of shame discourse. He asked us to think carefully about the ends of
affect theory – now having been prominent in university discourses for over two decades – and the
means by which an often paralysing and isolating phenomenon such as shame can be theorised
responsibly in social and literary contexts.
Overall, this symposium was a resounding success. Mary Flannery’s tweet afterwards, ‘This has been
a *very* thought-provoking (& reading-list-expanding) day […]’ was a typical response. Already there
are associated publications, including a Warwick Review 8.3 interview ‘The poetics of
Embarrassment’ with John Goodby (more information here:; and plans are in place for
new forms of collaboration among those who attended.
This symposium constituted the plenary event for one strand of the larger ‘Test Cases in Shameful
Sociability’ project led by IAS Global research Fellow, Julie Walsh. The symposium was organised by
Julie, along with Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University College, Dublin,
Barry Sheils.