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He does not reject Sartre’s argument that the gaze of the Other does not judge the act of the voyeur as socially unacceptable, nor try to stop it by prohibiting it. But to deny the censoriousness of the gaze is not to deny any The Censorship of Interiority relation between it and desire. Lacan’s point is just that: rather than condemn or prohibit, the gaze enflames desire; shame is a sexual “conflagration.”30 Excising sex, Sartre produces a chaste reading of the shame scenario, which he turns into a bathetic drama wherein an abstract and sovereign act of looking is forced to confront its anchorage in the vulnerability of its bodily foundations. The rustling of leaves functions as a kind of index finger that picks out the voyeur, rendering him painfully conspicuous, a body too much in a scene where he thought himself bodiless and unobserved. The emperor of seeing is suddenly brought down, reduced to the dead weight of his body, his body as object. Sartre trades the censoring function that is usually ascribed to the gaze for an alternative function: limitation. In his interpretation, what the gaze exposes is the subject’s finitude; it reminds us that others as such set limits on our freedom, impede our actions and get in the way of our plans. The body exposed by shame is thus nothing more than a figure for this limitation of my freedom; it is a body that can be hurt by others, that remains ever vulnerable to all that is external to and opposes it.
From this point we can begin to measure the consequences of Lacan’s opposition to Sartre’s sanitization of the scene, which is stated in the following counter insistence: “It is not the annihilating subject, correlative of the world of objectivity, who feels himself surprised, but the subject sustaining himself in a function of desire.”31 If it is not the subject who experiences his freedom as limited by others who experiences shame, then neither is the body at stake in this experience the stupid, delimited object Sartre imagines. One problem with the latter’s reading is that it fails to capture the squirminess of shame, which is more clearly evoked in Kiarostami’s sequence by the camera’s exposure of the cow’s udders as they are being milked by Zeynab. It is not the body as figure of limitation, but the body as figure of one’s nakedness that is exposed by shame. The nakedness of the body is not, however, a simple function of its being unclothed. As is attested in Kiarostami’s scene and by the obsessive fears that, at its extreme, haunt the hejab system—which visualizes in the clicking of a woman’s heels the place where her legs join her body, and in the cadences of her voice the softness of her skin—one can remain naked beneath yards of clothing. As we will see, the dialectic of shame eschews simple opposition (naked/clothed or exposed/concealed). For now, we can say that the body’s nakedness is a function of its sexualization. Sexualized, the body is vulnerable not, as in Sartre’s version of the story, to other subjects, but to the savage otherness of its own libido. The sexualized body is one whose boundaries have already been breached, one that has suffered an irreparable and constitutive hurt.
Lacan’s reintroduction of sexuality into the Sartrean account of shame paves the way for us to reconnect shame to anxiety, while reexamining Levinas’s argument about their relation and the question of cultural inheritance they raise. Although Levinas does not explicitly conceive the surplus 254 Penumbra that rivets the subject as libido, his argument does broach the question of racial inheritance, and sexual pleasure does emerge in his discussion at the point at which shame is introduced.32 Levinas’ argument is that, while pleasure promises escape from anxiety, shame testifies to the inadequacy of sexual pleasure, which proves incapable of delivering on this promise. Earlier I left hanging the question of the validity of this argument about shame’s disappointment. I return to it now by taking a look at one more scene of shame made famous by its theorization: I refer to the scene Agamben introduces in Remnants of Auschwitz to flesh out Levinas’ theory of shame.
Originally recounted by Robert Antelme, the scene concerns a student from Bologna who is arbitrarily picked out of a line of students by an S.S.
officer and thereby marked for execution.33 Remarkably, the unfortunate student does not question his selection nor persist in looking over his shoulder in hopes of discovering that it was someone other than he who had been selected. No, the pink flush of his cheeks signs his recognition that it is he who has been designated and that he will not try to escape this fact. The dead certainty that accompanies anxiety sticks, too, we see, to shame. This common sense of certainty may in part be what leads Levinas to nearly conflate the two affects, with the small distinction that shame is certainty more emphatic because more fatalistic. Not only do I know beyond doubt that I am that, that which rivets me; I also know that there is no escape from that. That is that. The reddening of the Italian student’s face would seem to blurt out an “I am here,” a resigned surrender to the fate handed him by the S.S. officer. But is that really the end of it? Does the sudden surging up of the question of pleasure in Levinas’s discussion of shame not betray a disavowed recognition that some difference is being overlooked? Is Levinas not guilty, in short, of the same error as Sartre, of de-eroticizing shame? The heat and glow that suffuses the face of the one shamed telegraphs this eroticization and their error.
On the elementary level of description there is a common distinction between anxiety and shame that we must now consider. While anxiety manifests itself in an impulse to flee, shame is manifested in an impulse to hide.
Levinas’s argument depends on our reading this transformation of the impulse as necessitated by the defeat of its first manifestation: because flight is hopeless, all I can do is try to hide. But this is not the proper way to read this transformation, which depends, rather, on an alteration of my relation to that which anxiety desires to escape. To test this hypothesis, we need to take a closer look at the relation between exposure and concealment, which may be said to substitute for the anxious relation between paralysis and flight.
Although the relation is usually assumed to be sequential—exposure coming first, followed by the defensive attempt to conceal—the pink cheeks of the student from Bologna raise questions about this assumption. As much as his blush broadcasts his presence, it also seems like the lowering of a shade to The Censorship of Interiority shutter or shield him from view. It is as if in his very exposure, his very visibility, he were announcing his disappearance from view, his retreat.
If blushing, the most common visual manifestation of shame, is critical to understanding it, this is because this affect has a special relation to sight, to the gaze, in contrast to guilt, in which the relation to the voice is what matters. Even when it is a sound that occasions shame, the experience of it is one of being looked at, submitted to a gaze. This is how it happens that the question of shame intersects the question of the image in Kiarostami’s cinema. What shame seeks is the same thing Kiarostami, as filmmaker, wants to create: an image that is capable of capturing the reflection of what has no image. Be attentive, for here is where the detour through anxiety repays its costs. Those who dispense with this detour are precisely those who end up regarding shame as a passive suffering of exposure to a look against which only a pathetic defense is available: cowering beneath covers. Exactly what does the gaze expose? This is a question about which there is far too little reflection. It is easy to accept the description offered above—shame erupts in response to a rupturing of the circuit of communication-recognition—as supplying the following answer: the gaze exposes a different, less flattering image of ourselves than we previously held. But this is clearly a mistake, for what the gaze makes visible is that very thing that has no image, that unassumable, opaque surplus of self that anxiety wants to be rid of. In shame, however, the inalienable alienness that attaches itself to me no longer threatens me with its suffocating over-presence, but comes to define the intimate distance that constitutes my sense of interiority, my sense of myself as subject.
I have from the start been trying to define shame as a sense of self. It might be helpful at this point to turn this strategy around by defining the experience of self through shame. Philosophers have taught us that the self, or subject, can never be experienced as a coincidence of the self with itself, but is experienced rather as the gap or void that forever separates me from myself. The void left by the destruction of the Twin Towers would thus conveniently serve to represent Sedgwick’s feeling of shame as a feeling of self.
But while this account is not altogether incorrect, it is anemic. We look to psychoanalysis, then, for a more robust account of the same experience, and begin to locate it in the proposition that the subject’s inability to coincide with herself stems from the fact that (her) libido or jouissance appears more like something that attaches itself to her than something she is. The various affects of anxiety, guilt, and shame make plain a further inadequacy of the bald philosophical assertion that the subject experiences herself as void. For not every—but only one particular—experience of the gap separating me from myself offers an experience of self. In anxiety, the gap is felt as an overwhelming and paralyzing opacity; in guilt, as an exclusion from myself. How can the experience of my non-transparency to myself be anything but a negative one, as these two—of pending annihilation or continuous failure—are? How 256 Penumbra can the gaze that causes shame expose, make visible, the jouissance I cannot assume without making me transparent to myself? What is the experience of self to which shame holds the key?
Imagine a young girl sitting contentedly at a soda fountain with her polite, well-to-do friends, sipping a milkshake as she looks distractedly into the mirror behind the counter. Suddenly the image of her mother, who has just ambled into the drugstore, appears in the mirror. It is a ridiculous image of a preposterously festooned mother; seeing it, the daughter burns with shame.34 If shame is the experience not of some object (and the girl does not therefore feel shame for her mother or for herself), but is rather the feeling of self, how is this truth exemplified in the scene? Why does the appearance of the mother’s image cause shame? It is unlikely that the reflection in the mirror would have caused shame if it had been that of a stranger or an acquaintance to whom the girl was indifferent. It matters that there is a strong bond of love connecting the daughter to the mother; without this there would be no shame. Something about the daughter that is normally hidden is exposed in the scene, but it is not that this silly woman is her mother, nor is it that she is more like her mother than her fine manners and tastes have so far let on.
What shame exposes is her love for her mother—though to state it this way is not yet to capture the feeling precisely. The daughter’s love for her mother has been fully evident before this event, to others and to the daughter herself, just as the interest of Sartre’s voyeur in what is happening on the other side of the keyhole is evident. But these experiences of love and intense curiosity are, up to the moment the gaze appears, consumed by the objects on which they are lavished and the actions they entail. The moment of shame arrives when the subject who loves or peers intently through the keyhole makes herself visible to herself and others as a subject, as the one who loves, is curious, desires. The subject sees herself as desiring, as actively submitting to the passion of her attachments. It matters less what incident occasions the feeling or what else the subject is doing at the time; what matters is that, at the moment the gaze appears, the subject experiences herself as engaged in active submission to some passion.
To put this in terms of the proposal I made regarding the psychoanalytic invigoration of philosophy, this experience of self as subject is the same one philosophy describes, an experience of the void that prevents me from coinciding with myself, understood now as an encounter with jouissance. In contrast to the feeling of being parasited by a crushing presence or punishing superego, however, this feeling is one of enjoying one’s jouissance. It may at first seem surprising that the experience of oneself as subject is not one of “pure activity,” but one of “passivity,” or the assumption of a “feminine attitude” (to use Freud’s terms), but this is the description of the experience of self that shame makes available.