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The Censorship of Interiority One of the finest illustrations of this psycho-philosophical point is found in Joan Riviere’s justly famous case study.35 The unnamed patient is a woman who constantly battles anxiety. Curiously, this does not manifest itself as performance anxiety; a political activist with a strong intellect and oratorical skills, she frequently delivers public lectures. Her problem is a post-performance anxiety that befalls her after these speeches, which she deals with through “compulsive ogling” and flirting with men from the audience and through the fantasmatic production of scenarios in which she submits herself sexually to black men while plotting against them. Riviere contends that the woman’s anxiety is aroused by a fear that she will be caught in possession of something (the phallus) that is not rightly hers (but has been stolen from her father) and that her defense strategy is to pretend not to have it by concealing her possession of it. We know that anxiety is caused by a surplus that one feels is not rightly one’s own; but that surplus possesses the subject, not the other way around. It is obvious that this woman wants desperately to make an appearance, to exhibit herself on the public stage in order to escape the oblivion anxiety threatens, but her public speech-making seems inadequate to the task. The reason? Alienating herself in her professional role, she disappears into it; there is no remainder, no subject left over.
A number of other questions spring from this; let us return to the fresh milk sequence (readable alongside the other scenes of shame we have looked at) and approach them from there. A simple village girl and a minor character in the narrative, Zeynab moves about her world without any particular self-awareness, absorbed by everyday chores. In the intimate grotto-like space in which the scene is set, however—a space associated with burial, unforgettable ancestors, and the pressure of their desire on her—she is foregrounded, drawn out of herself. It is not Behzad’s impertinent look that disturbs her; she is relatively indifferent to him and his bad manners. What interrupts her complacency, her full absorption in the world, is the erotic poem by Forugh Farrokhzad that Behzad reads to her as part of his bungled attempt at seduction. From the interior of the poem, the gaze emerges and is even explicitly mentioned: “the earth/ screeching to a halt,/ something unknown watching you and me/ beyond this window.”36 Visibly fascinated by this poem, the red-robed Zeynab is not entirely exposed (for this would render her simply passive), but rather exposes herself (an active passivity) as desiring. It is important to reemphasize this distinction to prevent shame from being reduced, as it too often is, to a retiring shyness, even though some have correctly observed that this affect often manifests itself as a “bold […] 258 Penumbra candor,” in candid acknowledgments of the libidinal investments that ravish and surprise.37 Another point not to be missed, once again, is that this feeling of submission to one’s own jouissance (which appears to us as something that attaches itself to us) is not a solipsistic experience, but only arises in connection with an investment of one’s jouissance (its attachment to objects) in a way that allows Zeynab to appear without losing herself in her appearance.
How to appear without disappearing into our appearance? This is finally the question we must answer. Think of the extreme poles of shame scenarios.
On the one hand, the first horrified sight of the death camps by liberating armies, which was said to have aroused shame and thus to have forced witnesses to look away. On the other, “actions of love and extravagant generosity,” in response to which Nietzsche once said, “nothing is more advisable than to take a stick and give any eyewitnesses a sound thrashing.”38 Why do we avert our gaze and feel shame in response to the inhumanly awful and the exquisitely beautiful? The first answer likely to be offered must be discarded, for shame involves no taboo against looking or touching. To distinguish this affect from guilt requires us to refuse taboo—which is uttered from a beyond in order to protect a beyond—any say in the matter. Declaring something untouchable, out of bounds, taboo not only creates a beyond, a sacred zone set apart from us; it also incites, as we noted, a counter-imperative to transgress the boundaries excluding us from that sacred place, to touch, finger, penetrate with our look all it would withhold from us. Still, we cannot deny that shame often betrays itself in an averted look. The averted look is not, however, a sign of obedience to a stricture against looking, but of the appearance of a new opportunity to look: inward. It is as if our attention were directed not to a parallel, transcendent space, but to an oblique one slightly detached from visibility—the space of a self into which we could withdraw from the scene that engages us. This simultaneous relation between exposure and concealment now needs to be formulated.
In contrast to guilt, which introduces through prohibition a division between the sensible world and an ideal one that transcends it, shame operates without recourse to prohibition, ideals, or a heterogeneous realm outside the sensible; it operates, in other words, entirely within the sensible realm of vision, introducing there—within the visible—a division or slight separation of the visible and invisible. One could describe the experience of shame, in sum, as that of witnessing oneself hiding, as the sense that one has ducked behind one’s appearance. Between the appearance and what remains invisible no interdiction intervenes; nothing is prohibited from appearing. It is a question, rather, of an appearance that permits something to disappear.
What is it that thus permits me to disappear? What allows me to camouflage myself behind my visibility? That very thing that has dominated the scene while avoiding analysis up until now: the gaze. Sartre brings it into focus and makes a breakthrough in conceptualizing it. The gaze, he says, The Censorship of Interiority cannot be matched to an actual pair of eyes; it is not locatable in a person.
The gaze has no bearer, belongs to no one. If, feeling a gaze rest upon me, I scan the subway car to try to pin it on some suspicious-looking person, the experience of the gaze will evaporate at each point on which my accusation alights. There is a fantasmatic dimension of the gaze that suggests it cannot be contained within an intersubjective dialectic. But, in the end, Sartre does not follow up on this suggestion and thus the a-personal dimension of the gaze serves in his account merely to enhance the power of the Other by effacing his limits. The fact that I cannot attach it to the actual eyes of an objectified other gives the gaze all the more power to objectify and limit me. This is
a point Val Lewton, the legendary producer of horror films, well understood:
do not show the horrible thing directly embodied in a person, for this will only have the effect of attenuating the threat.
Lacan reads the fantasmatic dimension of the gaze differently. There is no warrant, he argues, for Sartre’s placement of the gaze exclusively on the side of an adversarial other. Detached from every observer, it is detached, too, from the voyeur and not only from the Other. It is as if, through participation in the social or public field, the voyeur were lent a gaze by which he is permitted to see himself appear. The gaze lends the subject the exteriority or detachment necessary to look back and see the one thing he was unable to see: his own appearance. What this recurvant gaze sees, however, is not merely the subject’s emergent image, but the detachment that permits it to emerge. My image is my disguise, my veil; it enables me to appear in public while preserving my privacy. In a gesture of sleazy flattery, Behzad tries to establish some silly points of coincidence between Zeynab and Forugh, the leading Persian poet of the twentieth century. There is absolutely no sign, however, that Zeynab is interested in being like the poet. What interests Zeynab is dissimulation (the possibility of which is opened by the poem), the possibility of being able to present herself in public while remaining concealed.
Unlike anxiety, shame is not a signal to take action; it does not cry out for cover. It accompanies an action taken; it is the feeling of having found cover in the folds of one’s appearance. Not “I am here,” but “I lie here disguised.” An S.S. officer may order me to step forward and I may obey by presenting myself before him. But to experience shame in doing so is to stand a little to the side of one’s appearance and to remain there, undetected. Make no mistake: I can have no shame or shield apart from my appearance, for my interiority or self-intimacy is not a primitive condition but the recurvant effect of a certain form of publicity. If one takes anxiety as the subject’s primitive condition, one sees that the “gaze of the Other”—the gaze I borrow from the Other, from the space of the Other—does serve to limit, not my freedom, but my devouring, limitless libido.
This is not inconsistent with my earlier point that the gaze enflames desire.
The paradox of libido uncovered by Freud is that some limitation or obstacle 260 Penumbra is necessary, not to prevent it from spilling over into public space, but to “raise its tide,” to reduce it to the measure of desire. Limitless, libido can only be felt as a danger to my publicity, to my emergence into appearance. The gaze is, however, a factor of limitation, it frames libido by objectifying it slightly, setting it at a minimum distance from me. Through contact with the external world, I meet with an obstacle. The gaze registers this obstacle by sending my look, like a shuttlecock, back toward me; it sees me as part of the world, but does not censor or judge. In fact it acts as a prophylactic to protect us against any all-seeing Censor.
The point is often made that censorship does not merely negate but is also productive. Without the Hays code, for example, no one would ever have known the “Lubitsch Touch,” just as without hejab regulations, Iranian cinema might not have blossomed as it did. This flat dictum has never seemed satisfying to me. It is not simply censorship that produces great works of art, just as it is not every obstacle that raises the tide of libido. We know from our discussion of ego and social ideals that that there are some obstacles that can never be overcome because acts of transgression only fortify them. For censorship to be productive there must be some recognition that the Censor has a blind spot and thus some positive belief that the order of appearances is neither fully transparent to the Censor’s or any other look, nor simply a realm of illusion and distortion and thus an inappropriate vehicle for the truth. The gaze looks back at me not only at that point where my look encounters its limit, but also where it encounters a fissure in the world or in the Censor’s eyeball. I look at the place where the Twin Towers once stood or into the eyes of an S.S. officer and I encounter not just an obstacle to my look, but this fissure, this blind spot of the Other, from which point no destiny can be foreseen, not mine, not anyone’s. For even if this moment marks the hour of my death, it is the accident of this death that shame highlights. My destiny finds harbor in my appearance and remains undisclosed, even to me.
A final point about the fresh milk sequence in Kiarostami’s film. While I have attended only to the diegetic unfolding of shame in it, it is clear that a sense of shame pervades not only the diegetic situation, but also the audience’s relation to this situation. Extremely discomfiting, the scene does not allow us to sit unobserved in the darkness of the auditorium, but forces us to experience our own uneasy, hidden presence on the scene. A gaze looks out from the screen and invites us to feel shame. The final quarrel I have with Dabashi’s outraged response to the sequence is that it declines Kiarostami’s invitation; it refuses shame by instead expressing shame for or on behalf of Zeynab, as if to distance Dabashi from the experience itself. I repeat my initial proposition: there is no such thing as “shame for.” There is only shame, the experience of submitting to the gaze oneself. There are no spectators or witnesses to shame; one is always interior to the experience of it. Yet there is no denying that the gaze wounds; it severs the subject from herself and causes The Censorship of Interiority her to submit to an experience whose disturbing complexity is not adequately captured by the terms “pleasure” or “enjoyment.” What happens, however, when one resists and tries through an alternative view of shame to defend oneself against the experience of it? In this case the gaze will be perceived, as in Sartre, as coming from without, from an annihilating other, and as falling on some poor others who are made to feel shame. From a safe distance, unaffected by its wounding, I will experience shame only secondhand, on behalf of these others. This is not, I would argue, a scenario of contagious sociality, but of a false, self-protective chivalry.
I have placed this discussion of shame as a provocation at the point of conflict between Islam and the West. One of the most heated and defining debates of that conflict centers on the forced wearing of the veil and the hejab system generally, which are met with violent condemnation in the West. The debate has thus far been too narrowly framed and ought to be broadened, I suggest, on the basis of a proper ontological understanding of shame. This understanding will raise serious challenges to both sides of the argument.