I just finished reading Lisa Guenther’s really lovely article, “Shame and the temporality of social life” Conteingental Philosophy Review 2011. She explores the phenomenology of shame, starting with Sartre’s famous (and I like to think, true!) story about being caught peering into someone else’s room through a keyhole which grounds his account of shame as ontological, considering Levinas’ ethical account which situates shame as the pivotal moment that can enable murder or responsibility, then exploring Beauvoir’s account of gendered and colonialist shame as both oppressive and opening the way to solidarity. Given that my superpower is ambivalence, I love the way her account weaves together an image of the experience of shame as teetering, promising and refusing, offering and closing-down. I don’t want to discuss it in detail here, because it’s still marinating, but at the risk of spoiling you, I’ll just quote a paragraph or two from the end:
My aim in bringing these thinkers together has been to articulate the ontological, ethical and political ambivalence of shame as the feeling that most eloquently expresses our embodied entanglement with others, its its potential for both violence and solidarity, and to connect this ambivalent potential to the temporality of social life. In a world where social power is unevenly distributed along axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and so many other ways of cutting up identity, there may be no social position free from the stickiness of shame. For manyo f us, these axes intersect in ways that privilege us in some respect and oppress us in others, entangling us in multiple and conflicting forms of shame. There may be no clean way to resolve teh ambivalent dynamics of shame, but this does not mean that we are doomed to remain stuck in the repetition of the same. Rather, it suggests that the politics of solidarity and collective responsibility is more than just our ethical and political obligation; it is our future. We only have a future, both personally and collectively, if we respond to the ontological, ethical and political provocations of shame in a way that shifts the focal point from preserving our own self-relation – our place in the world, what Levinas might call ‘ my place in the sun’ – towards a responsibility relation with others. This is not to say that everyone must advocate for everything at all times, but thereis not time – no future for the struggle against oppression – without an investment of our freedom and our vulnerability in collective responsibility and political solidarity with others.
The ambivalence of shame attests to the irreducibility of our exposure to others, both as the site of relationality and ethical responsibility, and as the site of its exploitation through oppression. The opening of ethics is not simple, but dangerous; the same exposure that makes responsibility possible also makes murder possible. But this also means that the impulse to murder and oppress – to deny the other an open future – remains bound to the very ethical command that it violates. I can murder the other, but I cannot silence the ethical command of the other; I can be complicit in the political exploitation of myself or others, but I cannot foreclose the possibility of solidarity. And as Beauvoir’s own political action shows, even when I do commit myself in solidarity to responsibility for others, I cannot guarantee that my own motives will be pure of self-interest. This ambivalence does not foreclose the provocations that open and re-open my own actions to critical interrogation; it presupposes them. Shame would not be possible if others did not matter to us; and because others matter, oppression is not the last word on shame but only one of its ambivalent possibilities. (np)