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The unctuous aggressiveness exhibited by Behzad toward Zeynab is only one episode of his generally insensitive behavior. As he hangs around Siah Darreh waiting for Mrs. Malek to die, he occupies himself not only with bothering Zeynab, but also with trying to take photographs of villagers who cover their faces and command him to put his camera away. The film clearly indicts him for his rudeness and indiscretion, but in what precisely do his crimes consist, and why do the villagers not want their pictures taken? If every subject as alien to herself lacks a proper image of who she is, why is Behzad’s attempt to offer the villagers photographs of themselves counted as an act of rudeness or malice, rather than one of kindness? One of the villagers in Life and Nothing More seems to respond directly to this question when he complains to Farhad, the film-director protagonist of that film, that the images of the villagers captured by his camera make the villagers appear “worse than they are.” It is not the taking of photographs per se, but these particular photographs that are the problem. Behzad and Farhad travel to the villages to document, to archive phenomena on the verge of disappearing. Their mission is to capture a world in the process of being lost, people about to die or presumed to be buried in rubble, ritual practices and ways of life on the edge of extinction.
Is Behzad’s obscene rudeness not of the same sort as that made scandalously evident in the Abu Ghraib photographs? The problem is not simply that the photographers in each case invaded the privacy of those whom they photographed; it consists, rather, in the same obscene denial that there is any obscene, any off-screen, that cannot be exposed to a persistent, prying eye. The ultimate crime of both series of photographs, the source of their malicious abjuration of respect, is their assumption that the photographed subjects have no privacy to invade. This is the bottom line, the point on which I am insisting: privacy cannot be invaded, cannot be penetrated, either by the subject or by others.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Nietzsche expressed his scorn for that century’s characteristic and misguided belief that it was possible to see through everything.23 He protested the lack of reverence and discretion that fueled his contemporaries’ tactless preoccupation with disclosing and unmasking everything. “Nothing is so nauseating in […] the believers in ‘modern ideas,’” he scoffed, “as their lack of shame, their complaisant impudence of eye and hand with which they touch, lick, and finger everything.”24 This frenzied desire to cast aside every veil, penetrate every surface, transgress every barrier standing between us and the real thing lying behind it installed in the modern world a new sort of “beyondness,” a new untouchable, one that is in principle there for the grasping, even if in actuality it is always out of reach. This secularized sacred, which inspires a new, modern desire for transgression, does not originate in a belief in the existence of another world, but in the belief that what we want in this world always lies just behind some roadblock preventing our access to it.
This new “beyondness” is held in place by a definable structure, that of guilt, which must be understood not in its limited, psychological sense, but in the sense I proposed above: a specific form of relation to one’s own culture.
Agamben offers in passing a broader definition of guilt in line with our own;
in Homo Sacer, he defines “the cipher of this capture of life in law” (that is, the cipher of biopolitics) as “guilt (not in the technical sense […] but in the originary sense that indicates a being-in-debt: in culpa esse), which is to say, precisely the condition of being included through an exclusion, of being in relation to something from which one is excluded or which one cannot fully assume.”25 It is the phrase “being in relation to something one cannot […] assume” that first catches our attention, because it happens to be the one 250 Penumbra Levinas uses to describe anxiety and shame, the complex feeling of being riveted to an inalienable and opaque surplus of being. Agamben sets Levinas’s phrase alongside an apposite one of his own, “being in relation to something from which one is excluded.” The latter phrase absorbs and slightly alters the former and thereby defines guilt as a transformation of anxiety. Like anxiety, the feeling of guilt consists in a feeling of being unable to coincide with oneself by integrating the troubling surplus of being; in guilt, however, this inability is no longer experienced as being stuck to an inalienable alienness, but as an inability to close the distance that separates us from something that excludes us. How does this transformation come about? How does one become excluded from a part of oneself with which one cannot quite catch up, rather than attached to what one cannot assume?
We find our answer in the Freudian theory of guilt, in the paradox of the superego (which punishes obedience with guilt) that is inextricable from the paradox of ego and cultural ideals (which we are simultaneously enjoined to live up to and forbidden to attain). Faced with the unbearable opaqueness we are to ourselves, with the unassumable excess that sticks to us, we unburden ourselves by allowing the ideals set up by society to become blueprints for our identity and action and to thereby provide us with some clarity. Through cultural ideals, the question of what it means to belong to a culture is silenced and replaced by mesmerizing cultural goals that gather awestruck subjects.
But because every ideal is sustained by a prohibition against attaining it, we are always in debt to them, always in arrears to our ego and cultural ideals, which insert us into our culture precisely by excluding us from its inner sanctum. The very prohibition/exclusion that binds us to these ideals also invites transgression. What is forbidden lures us with its unattainability—if only we could summon the courage to disobey, the fortitude to step over the line. In short, ideals are the source of that secularized sacred deplored by Nietzsche, the just-beyond-reach that ignores the impenetrability of one’s own as well as others’ self-opacity. What was hidden and paralyzing is now tantalizingly close and urges transgression.
The Ego and the Id presents an argument about guilt profoundly tributary to this one. There, Freud writes that “reflection […] shows us that no external vicissitudes can be experienced or undergone by the id, except by way of the ego, which is the representative of the external world to the id.
Nevertheless it is not possible to speak of direct inheritance in the ego. It is here that the gulf between an actual individual and the concept of a species becomes evident.”26 I understand this “no direct inheritance in the ego” as sanction to treat cultural inheritance as libido or jouissance excited by the brush with ancestral desire.
This inheritance can only lead to anxiety, however, and so must go through the external world, through society, if it is to be accessed or unfolded in some way. The meandering route of inheritance leaves its mark in the fact that the The Censorship of Interiority subject is never completely absorbed into her culture, but is always slightly misaligned with it.
We have yet to see what this means for shame, but for guilt we can now see that it entails a drive to attain what can never be fully acquired and a sense of exclusion from some sacred core of being. With regard to the question of photographic images that is raised in Kiarostami’s films, we can now add the following: if these images make their subjects look worse than they are, this is because the photographs taken by these diegetic filmmakers hold the order of appearances in disdain. For them, appearances are always only a nuisance standing in the way of truth; they lack the dignity of the true. In The Wind Will Carry Us, the fault lies not only with Behzad, but also with the villagers who scar themselves to attract the attention of their bosses. These villagers seem to have bought into the capitalist belief that there is nothing that is not ripe for exposure. They, too, have begun to acquire that immodest, capitalist taste for what C.S. Lewis referred to as a “very cheap [form of] frankness.”27 In this light, the Islamic system of modesty—with its volatile disdain for the modern passion for exposing everything, its loud protestations and rigid protections against the “touching, licking, and fingering” of everything— would seem to offer an important antidote to the global immodesty fashioned by Western capitalism. The system of modesty undeniably targets a worthy enemy, but the question before us is whether it adopts effective measures against its target, whether it succeeds or fails to protect the subject’s modesty.
With this question in mind, we return to the fresh milk sequence in The Wind Will Carry Us to determine if it deserves the tongue lashing Dabashi gives it.
SCENES OF SHAMEAs Behzad descends into the subterranean chamber, the catacomb, where he will catch up with Zeynab, we are invited to wonder, “What sort of place is this?” One need not know anything about villages in Northern Iran to know that not even here do people milk cows in pitch black underground caves. This is no ordinary or actual location, no touristic glimpse of some of Iran’s exotic landscape; it is rather an example of “visionary geography,” a liminal space defined in Islamic philosophy as the place from which new forms emerge.28 After Behzad crosses the threshold, the screen goes black for several long seconds, as if to mark the absolute separation of this from the other spaces in the film. Holding on the black screen for an uncomfortably long time, Kiarostami also allows the depth of the blinding darkness in which Zeynab remains enshrouded to sink in. From the bright sunlight outside, we pass into a place so luminous that nothing stands out against it; a place filled with a light so intense that nothing in it is distinguishable from anything else, a place of pure exposure, of dazzling blackness. While the screen is still black, the voice of Behzad inquires, “Is there anyone here?” Answerable in 252 Penumbra the negative, this question is more profound than it might first seem. For there is in fact no one here in this darkness, no “I,” only the milking of a cow, the gerundive form of the action Zeynab is performing substantivized, lacking any subjective support.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre describes a scene that is in many points similar to this one in The Wind Will Carry Us. A voyeur, crouched before a keyhole, peers through it intently. At this point, there is nothing but this pure act of looking, peering through a keyhole, the act that totally absorbs the voyeur.29 The voyeur himself is not present. He is precipitated out from his act as a subject only at the point when a sudden rustling of leaves startles him and fills him with shame. The voyeur appears only as the experience of shame, as shame-full in the precise sense. It is only when he senses his being looked at by the “gaze” of an indeterminate other that the voyeur acquires a sentiment of self. The sentiment of self and the experience of shame are synonymous.
The scenes from Kiarostami and Sartre are similar, then, in that in each the gerundive form of an act—milking a cow, peering through a keyhole—indicates the absence of a subject, whose emergence will be marked only later by the arousal of shame.
The apparent dissimilarity between the two acts may make my analogy sound tenuous, however, and so I will address this difficulty by focusing first on the scene of peering through a keyhole. What does Sartre say about it?
Surprisingly little. In fact, he seems remarkably intent on refraining from drawing too much attention to the act in which his Peeping Tom is engaged when interrupted by the gaze. This polite inattention is partly explained by the fact that Sartre does not want to distract from his point that he is not speaking of shame in the “civic” sense, as he says. By this he seems to mean that sense in which, having already entered polite society and learned its rules, one is disgraced by being caught breaking one of them. Sartre is concerned, rather, with a more fundamental sense of shame as that feeling that attends the insertion of the subject into society, his sudden immersion in a world of others. This insertion into the social precedes all measure and every rule by which a subject might find himself judged. It is not, therefore, the nature of his act, the fact that it is one of lascivious looking, that causes the voyeur shame, but the fact that the gaze makes him suddenly aware of the presence of others as such.
There can be no denying, however, that there is something more going on in Sartre’s refusal to utter a peep about this peeping. Plainly, he is sanitizing the scene, scrubbing it clean of sex. Less discreet, Lacan returns to the scene precisely to highlight the presence of sex in it. It is not by chance, he unblinkingly observes, that shame catches the voyeur in a moment of desire.