Autopoietic Networks of Humiliation and Grandiosity

Monday, 16 July 2018: 16:00
Oral Presentation
Christopher POWELL, Ryerson University, Canada
A critical reinterpretation of Norbert Elias's theory of the civilizing process suggests that state formation gives rise to networks of asymmetrical shame-esteem relations. In these conflicts, weaker-positioned subjects perform deference in order to defer physical or symbolic violence from stronger-positioned subjects. This performance of deference creates a subjectively felt self-esteem deficit, which subjects seek to rebalance by demanding deference from others still weaker-positioned than themselves. The result for subjects at the bottom of social hierarchies is vulnerability to chronic abuse in society compounded by powerful tendencies towards self-contempt. The interlocking chains of these relations give rise to emotional economies through which honour and humiliation circulate in opposite directions. State actors attempt to exploit these economies for surplus honour, in the process constructing national identities with figurative or virtual sovereigns. Discrimination works to take advantage of, and simultaneously reproduce or extend, fixed differences between groups of actors within the shame economy. Genocide can result when certain groups are radically excluded from these economies, i.e. when no performance of deference is sufficient to defer violence. This paper supports this model with two types of argument. First, psychological research is cited to corroborate the notion of shame transference at the micro level. Individuals seek to compensate for humiliation by seeking some dominance over others and suffer when they cannot obtain this. Second, system theory is used to bridge micro and macro levels of analysis by showing that individuals do not need to be aware of the systemic aspects of their actions for their actions to produce systemic effects; economies of shame can, in principle, emerge without any individual intent and are thus self-organizing or autopoietic. Implications for combating discrimination are discussed.