Books of the year 2011: Olivia Laing

Humiliation - Wayne Koes­tenbaum

 

It isn't the cheeriest of topics but Wayne Koes­tenbaum's Humiliation (Picador US, £8.75), arranged as a sequence of numbered fugues, is one of the most illuminating pieces of cultural criticism I've read in years. Koestenbaum, an American poet and academic, wanders thoughtfully though senatorial sex scandals, human rights abuses and the sexual opportunities offered on Craigslist, bringing in such diverse figures as Michael Jackson, Antonin Artaud and Richard Nixon. "We have an obligation to keep asking questions about experiences that are not our own, experiences that are worse than our own will ever be," he writes, adding: "There is nothing more basic to two human beings standing near each other than that one has the capacity to destroy or debase the other." Few critics possess this sort of deep courage, let alone the ability to express themselves with such elegant, appalled precision.

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