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Tomkins Topics

Tomkins' theories applied to various aspects of life and work

The Shame and Humiliation of the Precariously Employed

Phil Rose, PhD

Silvan Tomkins describes each of the innate affects as a continuum of intensity. In this way, we recognize that humiliation is the intensified experience of shame. He also points out that shame is not an affect proper, but an affect auxiliary response. This response acts as an inhibitor, and what is inhibited is continuing interest or enjoyment following the incomplete reduction of either. Tomkins adds that shame often ensues where one desires to maintain a positive affiliation, and thus can be seen as affective experience that is often inherently social.

Here I wish to examine how stimuli for shame can be systemically encoded in social structure, particularly for those we now identify as forming part of the ‘precariat’. I won’t be able to describe the general experience of the precariously employed, but in recounting my own experience as a member of the academic precariat, I trust others can resonate with my affective experience. I’ll describe some of the characteristics of my present life, particularly as it influences my relations with students, departments, my academic associations, with the university itself, and with life outside the academy.

First, I can say that precarity is unrelenting. It has characterized my own situation for eight or nine years now and has contributed to prolonged distress. This is in part because the academic precariat has to reapply every few months for jobs, to gain or regain the social affiliation we call employment. I confess I’ve been haunted by images of being on my deathbed and regretting the sheer amount of time I’ve wasted applying for jobs, a process that tends to involve the shame of constantly asking former teachers or colleagues for reference letters. I’ve found it can take days to rally the psychic fortitude to request yet another batch of references.

Recently I had a student ask me, “Is this your permanent office?” I had to reply, “I don’t have a permanent office,” admitting that I’m not part of the permanent faculty, and of this I was ashamed. I could have also told her that I share the office (which clearly doubles as a storage space) with nine or so other colleagues. In this I find myself lucky, however, at least in comparison with my American colleagues, many of whom don’t have even this kind of arrangement, being forced to meet with students in informal settings.

My students have at times been denied the use of multimedia equipment because I’m not a permanent faculty member. Moreover, we in the precariat are typically not included among the listed faculty on the department’s website, an area that usually features photos of faculty and descriptions of their research and teaching. Promoting a recent collection I had edited on an association online announcement list, I received kind congratulations from one of my full-time colleagues, who, in a message copied to two others, asked if the news might not be posted on the department website. There was no response (at least that I was copied on) and the announcement was never uploaded. But why would they, when I’d no longer be part of the department in another couple of months, and might never return for all they knew?

At another university, the department erected a display case during the term which exhibited the books of the full time faculty. I suspect it has yet to occur to them how this has the unintended side effect of shaming the part-timers (who, as far as I could tell, were actually out-publishing the permanent faculty.) In this department, we were not invited to faculty meetings, while, at another university, we were invited but asked to leave part way through, when the real department business was to commence. This once occurred in front of one of my teaching assistants who, as the graduate student representative, was permitted to stay, as well as to attend all other meetings.

I once overheard a seasoned colleague speaking in the hallway to a mature ex-student about how he was now teaching a new course, and that he hoped they’d be running it again, “because it’s a lot of work to design a new course”. Well, in the last two years I’ve designed five new courses, and I rarely have the opportunity to teach them a second time. Another significant difference between me and my full time colleague, however, is that I typically do that work for free, before the contract technically begins. And while sometimes we’re hired to cover a pregnancy leave, more often than not, we’re hired because full time faculty have received research funding for which only they are eligible to apply. The reason I have a job, therefore, is because of their success in securing external funding.

In order to manage my shame, I now make a point of avoiding the department, using my own laptop rather than having to retrieve the one belonging to the program prior to every class. I now avoid parties and teacher-student socials too. I’m often shamed by the broader society as well, as I’ve not been given enough courses to qualify for employment insurance that would help cover the months for which I’ve been laid off, typically from May to August. This is despite having had to contribute eight months of premiums to the very same employment insurance. In this regard, the first time I teach a course is considered the same as if it were the tenth or eleventh time. No account is taken of the substantial extra work represented.

I’m now ashamed to attend academic conferences that I’ve attended for years, even those of associations that I’ve led. Here, most of my mentors are full time academics. And though I had the privilege of being brought to Moscow earlier this year for a conference talk, I experienced shame just in the knowledge that my foreign colleagues assume I have a reliable full time position, even as I was about to become unemployed again.

I’ve experienced shame due to being shut out of the university’s electronic systems when there is no work for a term, during which time I have no access to important library databases. Other situations have reinforced the shame of non-affiliation with the university too, as when I received a communication from a doctoral student in Brazil, enquiring as to whether I could supervise his PhD dissertation. I had to reply that despite my interest and willingness to do so, because of my relationship to the university, I could not.

Outside the academy, when peers and others know your situation, this too is cause for shame. One may also experience the shame of having a successful spouse, whose impressive career and financial security is highly apparent both to self and others. For some men, I imagine, this may even create a different kind of shame should they have any residual attachment to traditional ideas regarding masculinity.

As I’ve suggested, managing the cumulative shame of precarity is unrelenting and leads to distress, and I can easily say that the suicidal ideation I’ve experienced throughout this duration far exceeds anything I ever experienced as a teenager. For some, being suicidal may also be an attack-self shame script. And there is anger: in addition to frequent real-life triggers for anger, the overload of chronic distress may escalate to anger-rage.

As Donald L. Nathanson pointed out in the 1990s, people in western societies seem to be moving from withdrawal and attack-self shame scripts to avoidance and attack-other. As we know, when shame leads to humiliation, it may also lead to radicalization and violence against others. Our societies should therefore be far more attentive to the situations we’re imposing on people by way of the insidious mass casualization of the labor force, particularly during this era of mass migration, mandatory retirements, and looming changes imposed by automation. We should recognize that it’s entirely possible and desirable to manage our organizations in such a way as to avoid structures of shame such as those I’ve outlined here. Indeed, doing so ought to be at the heart of community. In a democratic society, after all, we’re not intended to exist for the administrative convenience of our organizations. Rather, our organizations are meant to exist for us.