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he also broached the question of cinema directly. As might be expected, he vehemently denounced the cinema of that “vile traitor,” the ousted Shah, as “a center of vice,” but he refrained from banning cinema outright as a wicked modern invention.1 For, Khomeini recognized immediately the value of cinema, the possibilities for mobilizing it in the service of his grand scheme to reeducate the people in the ways of Islam. Post-revolutionary Iran witnessed, then, not the tabooing, but the flourishing of a heavily subsidized and officially promoted cinema, though one strictly regulated by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which explicitly forbade the smallest signs of foreign influence—such as the wearing of ties, the smoking of cigarettes, and the drinking of alcohol, and so on—and, more importantly and more globally, any infraction of the Islamic system of hejab. In its strictest sense, hejab is a veil or cloth covering used to obscure women from the sight of men to whom they are not related; in the widest sense, it is the entire “system of modesty” that demands the concealment of even the contour of a woman’s body, which 240 Penumbra is always in danger of being revealed by her gestures and movements. Indeed, hejab seems to be motivated by the belief that there is something about women that can never be covered up enough, that surreptitiously bares itself even beneath her clothing.
The impact of hejab regulations on cinema was massive.2 For, it was not just the figure and movement of the woman that required veiling, but also the look directed at her. Strictures against the eros of the unrelated meant that not even religiously sanctioned forms of erotic engagement between men and women could be represented, since filming made women vulnerable to the extradiegetic look of the director, crew, and, of course, the audience. Thus, the look of desire around which Hollywood-dominated cinema is plotted had to be forsaken, along with the well-established system of relaying that look through an alternating pattern of shots and counter-shots and the telling insertion of psychologically motivated close-ups. Besides restricting narrative situations and tabooing the most common style of editing, the system of modesty also obliged any filmmaker committed to maintaining a modicum of realism to shoot outdoors. Although, in real life, Iranian women need not and do not wear headscarves at home, in cinematic interiors they were forced to don them because of the presence, once again, of the extradiegetic look which exposed them to the view of unrelated men. But incongruous images of headscarves in scenes of family intimacy were more than unrealistic; they were oftentimes risible, and filmmakers thus tended to avoid domestic scenes as much as possible. Ultimately, then, it was interiority that was the most significant cinematic casualty of hejab. Iranian cinema came to be composed only of exterior shots, whether in the form of actual spatial exteriors—the improbable abundance of rural landscapes and city streets, hallmarks of Iranian cinema—or in the form of virtual exteriors—interior domestic spaces in which women remained veiled and secluded from desire, outside the reach of any affectionate or passionate caress. The challenge facing all Iranian filmmakers, then, is to make credible and compelling films under this condition, namely: the censorship of interiority, the taboo of intimacy.
Revelations of American torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib brought to light an abusive reaction to the Islamic system of modesty. It turns out that The Arab Mind, a book first published in 1973 and reprinted only a few months prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, got into the hands of pro-war Washington conservatives and became, in the words of one academic, “the Bible of the neo-cons on Arab behavior.” Of special interest to these conservatives was a chapter on “Arabs and Sex,” which argued that “the segregation of the sexes, the veiling of women…and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world.”3 It was this sort of speculation that The Censorship of Interiority was responsible for planting in the heads of calculating conservatives the idea that shame would be the most effective device for breaking down Iraqi prisoners psychologically. According to a report in The New Yorker, two themes emerged as “talking points” in the discussions of the strategists: (1) “Arabs only understand force,” and (2) “the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.” In brief, shaming was chosen as the method of torture precisely because the torturers believed that Arab culture made the prisoners particularly vulnerable to it.
This belief was nourished on the banquet of that crude and—one would have thought—thoroughly discredited sociological division of the world into “guilt cultures” and “shame cultures.” The distinction classifies guilt as an affect characteristic of advanced cultures, whose members have graduated to the stage where they possess an internal principle of morality, and shame as a “primitive” affect characteristic of cultures forced to rely, for want of such a principle, on the approving or disapproving gaze of other people to monitor morality. I will focalize my criticisms by offering my own curt and contrary thesis: The affects of shame and guilt are improperly used to define kinds of cultures; what they define, rather, are different relations to one’s culture. I use culture here to refer to the form of life we inherit at birth (not our biological birth, but our birth into language), all those things—family, race, ethnicity, sex—we do not choose, but which choose us, the entire past that precedes us and marks our belatedness. The manner in which we assume this inheritance, and the way we understand what it means to keep faith with it, are, I will argue, what distinguish shame from guilt.
Distancing herself from the dubious correlation of affects with stages of cultural and moral development, Eve Sedgwick offers an alternative to the neoconservative view of shame as she reflects on her own experience of it in the aftermath of another violent confrontation between America and Islam, the attack of September 11. Sedgwick tells us that she was suddenly overcome by shame whenever she happened, post-9/11, to catch a glimpse of the void that occupied the site where the Twin Towers once stood.4 This example is striking in its uncommonness, for the circumstances that give rise to her shame are not the sort one usually associates with it. This is, however, Sedgwick’s point: shame is not occasioned, as is usually thought, by prohibition or repression, by a look of condemnation or disapproval. It is a response, rather, to a rupturing of the comforting circuit of recognition and social exchange that ordinarily defines us. The absence of the Towers—the demolition of the edifices that stood as icons of the reinforced invulnerability of the U.S. and as landmarks by which New Yorkers used to orient themselves in the city—signal the point of a rupture. Witnessing their absence, Sedgwick experiences a loss of familiar coordinates, a fundamental disorientation. It is in this context that she describes the blush of shame as the “betraying blazon of a ruptured narcissistic circuit.”5 Shame always results from a sneak attack, an upsetting 242 Penumbra of expectations that wounds ego identity. Yet what is odd is that this wound is not accompanied by a simple feeling of isolation, of being separated from society. This is the second important point. Sedgwick describes the paradox of shame as a simultaneous movement “toward […] individuation” and “toward uncontrollable relationality,” or social contagion.6 That is, alongside the feeling of a disconcerting and often searing self-awareness, shame is marked by a kind of group sentiment, a feeling of solidarity with others.
In an effort to interpret this often-remarked paradox, Sedgwick insists that the shame she felt after 9/11 was not for herself, but for the missing Towers. That is, she interprets her social sentiment as a feeling of shame for or on behalf of something other than herself. But this is a mistake, for it gives shame an object, here: the destroyed Towers. Strictly speaking, however, the syntagm “shame for” is a solecism; one feels shame neither for oneself nor for others. Shame is intransitive; it has no object in the ordinary sense. To experience it is to experience oneself as subject, not as a degraded or despised object. I am not ashamed of myself, I am the shame I feel. Giorgio Agamben makes this point clearly when he designates shame as the “proper emotive tonality of subjectivity” and as “the fundamental sentiment of being a subject.”7 And, indeed, Sedgwick herself points in this direction when she describes shame as the sentiment that “attaches to and sharpens the sense of who one is,” noting—and this is a crucial qualifier—that this sentiment of self also consists of a feeling of not being “integrated” with who we are.8 In shame one encounters one’s self outside the self, engaged in society.
Let us put aside for the moment this inquiry into how we in the U.S. understand or misunderstand shame and look at it from the other side. Turning back to the Islamic system of modesty, let us take a closer look at the films of Abbas Kiarostami, one of the most important and best known directors to make films under this system. What gives the neoconservative association of shame and hejab its legs, of course, is the fact that both involve veiling. In the modesty system, as with shame, a curtain is always drawn, looks averted, heads bowed. On first approach, it would seem that no director is more in tune with the hejab system than Kiarostami, for his is a cinema of respectful reserve and restraint. This reserve is expressed most emblematically in his preference for what can be described as “discreet” long-shots. Especially in moments of dramatic intimacy—a skittish suitor’s approach to the girl he loves, the meeting between a man who impersonates another and the man he impersonates—Kiarostami’s camera tends to hold back, to separate itself from the action by inserting a distance between itself and the scene and refusing to venture forward into the private space of the characters. So marked is the tactfulness of his camera that Kiarostami sometimes seems a reluctant filmmaker.
In light of this overall filming strategy, one sequence from The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) stands out as an aberration. Its protagonist, Behzad, a The Censorship of Interiority documentary filmmaker, has traveled to the Kurdish village of Siah Darreh with his crew to film the ceremony of scarification still practiced by mourning villagers after someone from the village dies. In the sequence in question, Behzad, biding his time as he awaits the imminent death of Mrs. Malek, the village’s oldest inhabitant, amuses himself by attempting to purchase some fresh milk from Zeynab, a young village girl and the fiancée of a gravedigger he has befriended. Hamid Dabashi, author of a book on Iranian cinema and normally a great admirer of Kiarostami, excoriates the director for the utter shamelessness of this sequence in which, in Dabashi’s view, an Iranian woman’s privacy and dignity are raped by a boorish Iranian man, whose crime is all the more offensive for being paraded before the eyes of the world.9 This is what Dabashi sees: Behzad descending into a hidden, underground space, penetrating the darkness that protects a shy, unsophisticated village girl from violation, and aggressively trying to expose her, despite her obvious resistance, to the light of his lamp, his incautious look, his lies, and his sexual seduction.