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BlushReview - Blush
Faces of Shame
by Elspeth Probyn
University of Minnesota Press, 2005
Review by Raffaele Rodogno, Ph.D.
Sep 12th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 37)

There are five chapters to Elspeth Probyn's Blush. In the first chapter, "Doing Shame", the reader is introduced to the subject of shame through a number of examples emphasising the embodiment of shame. The bulk of the chapter, however, presents a particular psychological view of shame, namely the view developed in the 1950s and 1960s by psychologist Silvan Tomkins. One important claim of this chapter is that the social and human scientist's "emotion" and the biologist's "affect" are not exclusive notions. The affect-emotion divide should be bridged; only then can shame be more fully apprehended.

In the second chapter, "Shame, Bodies, Places", by recounting an episode from her personal life, the author illustrates "how the physiological experience of shame intersects with the physicality of place. The color, the place, the history of bodies all come alive in shame." (40) To sustain this claim, Probyn appeals to Pierre Bourdieu's habitus, a notion according to which "agents are corporeally informed by their social positions", and "our bodies continually speak of their pasts in everyday actions--gestures, manners, and small ways of being and inhabiting social space." (49) Against Bourdieu, however, Probyn thinks that habitus is not merely a determining and deterministic force. In particular, "Through feeling shame, the body inaugurates an alternative way of being in the world. Shame, as the body's reflection on itself, may reorder the composition of the habitus, which in turn may allow for quite different choices." (56).

In the third chapter, "The Shamer and the Shamed", the author moves on from shame in the body to shame in the body politic. In fact, at this point, though the reader is not warned, a subtle but important shift in the topic at hand occurs: the focus is no longer simply shame, whether individually felt or in the body politic, but also the practice of shaming. Probyn discusses the positive or negative nature of such a practice both within the law and in the public domain at large. She focuses more in particular on a critique of feminism as a shamer or shaming movement. Though much more cautious then those reached in Chapter 2, her conclusions concerning the role of shame for the body politic seem, all things considered, positive.

In the fourth chapter, "Ancestral Shame", the author considers how we are related to shame in the past. The idea is to explore the effect of shame over generations. "Ancestral shame reminds us of how we are forged in many different relations--those of kin but also those of geography and history. These different proximities produce very particular emotional responses and affective identities, which are transgenerational as well as intercultural." (107) This idea is explored through a discussion of "Half Breed", a poem written by the author's grandmother.

In the final chapter, "Writing Shame", Probyn explores the shame-based ethics of writing and argues that a form of shame always attends the writer. Primarily it is the shame of not being equal to the interest of one's subject. Drawing from examples taken from a range of writers--Stephen King, Gilles Deleuze, and Primo Levi--she elaborates on the different ways they tell us about the seriousness of writing, how writing shame radically rearrange bodies, and the precision and passion that constitute honest writing. The main claim, here, is that sometimes cultural theory gets carried away, forgetting that theories and theoretical writing are of interest for what they can do, what they let us understand, and what they make us question.

In what follows I will comment on issues concerning the psychology and politics of shame as treated by Probyn. Readers who are up to date with the psychological literature on shame would have liked to see how Tomkins's views on shame would fare in the light of the immense amount of empirical research that has been conducted on the topic. Since the 1960s, the psychology and neuropsychology of shame and the emotions in general has made a lot of progress (see for example J. P. Tangney's and R. Dearing's Shame and Guilt. New York: Guilford Press, 2002). What is more, Tomkins' view are not even argued for but simply presented by the author. This is unfortunate as much of the substantial conclusions of chapters two and three on the positive nature of shame seem to rely precisely on this particular view of shame.

Another point is connected to this one and concerns the positive nature of shame. Shame has traditionally been considered both as a negative and as a positive emotion. This is possible for there are at least ten different criteria to be found in the literature according to which an emotion is labelled as either positive or negative. Many, for example, agree that shame is negative with respect to its phenomenology while rather positive with respect to its moral or prudential value. In chapter 1, Probyin does write that shame is not positive insofar as it is a positive, good feeling (15). Rather, it is positive insofar as the interest to which it is tied is "opposed to a negative or substrative state: it adds rather than takes away. In line with what Foucault would call positivity, shame is always productive. In this sense, it produces effects--more shame, more interest--which may be felt at a physiological social, or cultural level. When we feel shame it is because our interest has been interfered with but not cancelled out. The body wants to continue being interested, but something happens to "incompletely reduce" that interest." (15) But what is so positive about producing effects? The only way of understanding this kind of positivity is the arithmetic notion of addition (which in fact is opposed to the subtraction mentioned in the quote). But surely to qualify shame as positive in this way is rather odd.

In the last quote, however, besides Foucault, Probyn is also referring to Tomkins who thought that shame only operates after interest has been activated and operates exactly by inhibiting such interest or by "incompletely reducing it". "Interest" is a rather vague notion and Probyn does not tell us much about it (is it an occurrence a disposition, an affect, a cognitive state?). Today, however, one of the main theories of emotions, namely appraisal theory, makes a claim that may be somewhat related to Tomkins', namely, that occurring emotions can only be understood as in relation to the individual's concerns with his or her well-being (on the nature of which the literature in question has something to say). Even granting that we all knew exactly what was meant by "interest", why think that reducing interest would be positive? Here Probyn may have something else to say: "without interest there can be no shame; conversely, shame alerts us to things, people, and ideas that we didn't even realize we wanted. It highlights unknown and unappreciated investments. Viewing shame in this way must disabuse us of shame's reputation as a miserabilitst condition." (14) Actually, shame's reputation is a mixed bag. Aristotle, for one, talked both positively and negatively about it and the same type of mixed judgements are to be found in the recent philosophical literature (Manion, J. "The Moral Relevance of Shame." American Philosophical Quarterly 19(1), 2002: 73-90; Tarnopolsky, C., "Prudes, Perverts and Tyrants: Plato and the Contemporary Politics of Shame and Civility." Political Theory, Vol. 32(4), (2004): 468-494). The real problem with the last passage, however, is that many psychologists today would think that all emotions, and not only shame, alert us to things, people and ideas we are concerned with, whether we realize it or not. If this is a criterion for positivity then all emotions would be positive; to qualify shame as positive would then have no particular significance.

In chapter 3, Probyn discusses shame and shaming without drawing a distinction between them which should be always drawn out in order to avoid confusion. Consider the following passage:

Clearly what emerges from the above discussion is that some uses of shame can close down all possibilities for better social organization...It really depends on where you think shame comes from and whether it is considered "bad" from the outset. ... if you think the shame response alerts us to the presence of another and attunes us to our actions in the world, it's hard to see why we would want to get rid of it. However, if shame is construed only as a means of reproach and becomes a way of wielding power under the guise of moral rectitude, its uses are likely to be unpalatable. (94)

Metaphors aside, shame does not "come from" anywhere outside one's own self. However, the event that may elicit shame may originate with another person or institution. This may be an event of shaming. In chapter 3, Probyn rightly claims that whether shaming yields shame or not often depends on the way the "shamed" conceives of the "shamer". However, she does seem to think that if shaming yields anything at all then it yields shame. Her metaphorical use of language blinds her to the possibility that, when shaming does yield something, it may be something such as guilt and/or remorse. In fact, as Harris, Walgrave, and Braithwaite (see "Emotional Dynamics in Restorative Conferences." Theoretical Criminology Vol.8(2), 2004: 191-210) have remarked, within criminal justice, shame and guilt seem to occur as a single response. This conclusion is so important that they go as far as wondering "whether there is any need to differentiate between shame and guilt to understand the emotional impact of shaming in criminal justice cases." (Harris, Walgrave, and Braithwaite, 193). At various places in chapter 1 and 3, Probyn attempts to distinguish between shame an guilt and insists that the object of her focus is shame and not guilt. Yet, in line with the findings of Harris et al., she fails to keep the two separate. At one point, for example, she mentions the offer of forgiveness as an important part of shaming. (89) This claim is not in itself problematic. It becomes so, however, when one insists that only shame is at play in shaming, for offers of forgiveness are indeed typically associated with guilt rather than shame.

I don't think that philosophers with a taste for argument and psychologists have much to learn from this book. Whether this conclusion can be extended to the chapters more directly addressed to cultural theory and hence to the book as a whole your reviewer cannot say.

 

© 2006 Raffaele Rodogno

 

Raffaele Rodogno, Ph.D., Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Geneva, Switzerland and Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Swiss National Center for the Affective Sciences.


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Welcome to MHN's unique book review site Metapsychology. We feature over 7900 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than thirty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.

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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716