Shame in the Age of Austerity
This post is a summary of a recent academic publication: 'Towards a geographical account of shame: Food banks and the spaces of austere affective governmentality.' Published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, the article is open-access and can be read in full.
Geographies of shame
Shame is not equally or naturally distributed. It clusters around particular behaviours, people and places that appear to transgress what is deemed normal or acceptable in a given society.
We might think of shame as an emotional response to societal stigma - where stigma describes a reputational blemish. As many scholars have noted, these blemishes are frequently mobilised as political tools: making something appear as incorrect or out-of-place is an effective way of encouraging people to vote for certain parties, to accept certain policies, or to change their own behaviour.
If shame is something that is politically directed towards certain people and places, then we can chart it in our everyday lives. In the article, I use the example of free food.
Everyone has a close experience with free food, even if it doesn't appear notable. When we think back, we will recall times we have been given subsistence without paying (or sometimes, without asking) for it. It might have been a lollipop rewarded after a traumatic dentist appointment; it might be a replacement dish given by a restaurant after a complaint; or it might be a free food sample given to you by a company launching a new product.
In each of these cases, gifting free food is used to frame broader processes: to make you feel better about an experience, to encourage you to shop in the same restaurant again, or to push you towards new consumption habits.
Food banks and austerity
If free food is such a banal experience, why is it that receiving free food from a food bank is accompanied by feelings of shame? In the article, I examine the testimonies of food bank users reflecting on this shame to demonstrate its explicit connection with austerity.
I argue that shame is something that is heightened, mobilised and transmitted at a time of austerity to encourage people to behave in increasingly neoliberal ways: namely, to pursue a market-based form of citizenship. Shame clusters around food banks spaces and users because food bank users are marked by an inability to consume through the market.
But food banks also help people to challenge, interrupt and re-move shame. Through the kind acts of volunteers and the sharing of experiences amongst users, food banks demonstrate that a geographical account of shame must detail its resistance and re-scripting.
Understanding shame in this fashion allows us to broaden out our questions of what a right to food might actually look like. Any such right must work against the attachment between free food and shame. This can only be achieved through a more radical break with the policies, practices and ideologies of the austere present.