The Management Of Stigma

What might a future investigator into the archive of our time – a 22nd-century Foucault – find in the place of the lynchpin of identity? For Foucault himself, studying the development of 19th and early 20th century subjecthood, it was sexuality that stood out as the index of the subject: under this rubric, in order to see what, where and who the subject was, you would look where the signs of sexuality were pointing. What Foucault called “biopower” is to a large degree the management of sexuality – of the life and death of bodies, but always of those bodies as sexed bodies, subjected to norms of reproduction and sanctioned sexual relationship. The bios that resists biopower, whose resistance is incited within some biopolitical regimen, is a perverse bios. The norms pertaining to sexual behaviour become the lens through which “good living” is viewed: the unhealthy subject, the subject not living a good life, is the subject whose sexuality is not properly aligned and engaged.

What if, supplanting sexuality, the index of subjecthood were now stigma? Sexual stigma in the first instance – the stigma of ruined or ruinous sexuality – but, increasingly, stigma as a kind of polymorphous shame without necessarily sexual content or reference. The key operator is that of “abuse”: a different kind of operator from “perversion”, because it relates two terms, abuser and abused. One may be harmlessly, intransitively, perverted, but not harmlessly abusive (which is why it is often considered expedient to recast the pervert as self-abuser, someone who must be prevented from harming themselves). What is frequently at stake is the transfer of stigma from the abused to the abuser, from the person subjected to infractions of their person and dignity to the person who perpetrates such infractions. This is perfectly just, of course, but it’s interesting that it should now be what justice looks like to us (is it possible to punish, or seek reparations, without stigmatising an offender?). Ferocious battles are fought over the proper allocation of stigma: who is to be assigned to what position? Who should be ashamed of themselves? And, assuming this has been decided, the problem then arises of what to do with the person to whom the stigma adheres. How is it possible to make amends? Stigma is less revocable even than sexual orientation: it says something very definitive about who you are.

We have grown used to looking askance at the Victorians for their deep valorisation of shame, the sincerity with which they seem to have treated the condition of being in disgrace. A more permissive society has (in its own eyes) less use for all-consuming mortification, the vertiginous sensation of being morally ruined. But this creates a situation in which it is normal not to be ashamed: about the most reassuring thing you can say to someone is that their fallibilities are “nothing to be ashamed of”. To have something to be ashamed of after all is then exceptional and highly significant. When and why did the demand that we should stop shaming the wrong people, and start shaming the right people, become politically paradigmatic?