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In Others' EyesReview - In Others' Eyes
An Analysis of Shame
by Gunter Harry Seidler
Psychosocial Press, 2000
Review by William Alejandro Martin
May 22nd 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 21)

Gunter Harry Seidler's In Others' Eyes: An Analysis of Shame is significant in its diachronic and clinical capacities, prevailing on his reader a (refreshingly) coherent analysis of the importance of shame affect therapies. Seidler, a specialist in neurology and psychotherapy, as well as a senior lecturer in psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy at the University of Heidelberg, is well versed in the history of psychiatry, neurology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and literature, and like many of his associates, has an excellent cultural milieu from which to situate the materiality of his discourse. Not unlike his intellectual and clinical mentor Leon Wurmser - who, not incidentally, writes the work's Foreword - Seidler is a tremendous erudite with the ability to non-pedantically maneuver through any number of disciplinary jargons, and answering pertinent questions with coherent theories and clinical situations. As Otto F Kernberg relates, "Seidler's approach includes a subtle expertise in bringing philosophic understanding to psychoanalytic exploration, a sophisticated and critical weaving of contemporary affect theory into psychoanalytic theories of development, object relations, and drives. This bridging of various disciplines enriches his analyses and opens new horizons for psychoanalytic explorations" (xv - xvi).

Seidler's explorations explicitly engage the clinical work of interpretation in identity construction, and as one might expect, speaks about it in logical, psychosomatic terms. He reminds us that shame is synchronic, immune to a temporal axis, and consequently, virtually phantasmatic. Resonating Wurmser's recent work (2000) The Power of the Inner Judge, Seidler believes the term "shame disorder represents a crass oversimplification" of a complicated set of shame affect structures, and stresses that it is "of major importance not to allow an immediately obvious phenomenon to dictate the thrust of inquiry" (312). In contrast with those whose practice coincides with the work of O. F. Kernberg (1975 - 84), Seidler examines both the necessity of shame affects -- "the indispensable precondition for experiencing shame is the ability to assume a self-limiting position, i.e., an observer position consisting of the internalization of the outside object and the gaze of that object" - and how they can become malignant when there is a "split between illusory anticipation-misprision and present reality" (7). That is, an affective structure whereby one feels as if she is an "unfamiliar object," which in turn, potentiates a deep "alterity" within oneself (7). More importantly, this "otherness," disrupts the flow of anticipatory pleasure," in effect, "throwing" her upon herself through the process of reflection. Instead of the pleasure of 'being recognized as being familiar" she "experiences the shame of being unfamiliar" (7).

Phenomelogically considering the sociality of shame as Seidler does invites a liberal quoting of Wurmser's work. Pointedly, he quotes Wurmser's brilliant Mask of Shame, where the latter previously showed how "shame demolishingly takes over when one has given all of oneself only to be responded to by a selfish, calculating demand, by duplicity, a cold stare, a sarcastic comment. There is no greater humiliation than giving oneself trustingly and absolutely and being countered with selfishness and betrayal" (as quoted on page 25). That is, such a betrayal manipulates not only future object relations but the object relation of me/you, which, in turn, traumatizes or, shames the individual into becoming a non-functional social being via the internal mechanism of judgment.

Additionally, he stresses how the judgment of conscience is a function of active programming rather than a fixed set of social grammars, a dynamic internalization of the other's perceived judgment. "Of course conscience is not in itself bad, only the knowledge of things that make conscience 'guilty.' These alone can be the object of judgement, and the judgment will be a negative one. This is presumably a function of the distance between the gaze and the gazed-on; judgement presupposes a discriminating gaze" (90).

Moreover, he corroborates how internalized, "dislocating" judgment is demonstrative of how affective shame is an "interface affect," meaning, "the experience of which separates familiar from unfamiliar and performs a boundary-forming function between inner and outer worlds" (44). As such, it is coherent for him to suggest superlative clinical techniques must begin with the "assumption" that the other "perceived by the ego constitutes the relevant limit which, after the reappropriation of the gaze, manifests [itself] between [the] ego and [the] self within one and the same person" (56). That is, in realizing how dysfunctional social relations are a secondary response to an earlier chasm awake in the patient's psyche. In short, shame affect problematic "manifests itself in the consciousness of being perceived by the other" (223), and in noting how the "[a]bsence of the shame affect in the genuine sense of the term is identifiable as a failure to perceive boundaries of privacy/ intimacy" (261). This is more important than it may at first appear. For as Seidler rightly states, the incoherency of internalized judgment results in "the loss of the ability to rationalize, to relativize the other, the vis-à-vis, to 'relate' to him or her in a space defining both (1) distance and relation between the intended other and other objects, and (2) distance and relation between this other and the intending subject" (92).

As such, Seidler insists that "compared" with "the traditional definition and classification" of shame affect largely influenced by the work O. F. Kernberg," he attaches "a greater significance to the progressive progress of internalization and appropriation of the 'gaze' of the other, i.e., a the progress of the relational exchange and the external conflict from the interactional dimension to the symbolically representable, 'mentalized' dimension at later stages of maturity" (312). Seidler stages the three degrees of healing on the mythological axis of Narcissus, Tereisias and Oedipus. And does so after engaging what is undoubtedly the two greatest clinical problems with coherent shame affect analysis. Firstly, the problem of defining shame since, "in itself [it] is neither an illness nor a symptom" (315). Secondly, the problematic originating in the "impasse" between self and other that is "vital to establishing the subject's consciousness," and is therefore urgently needed, for it "represents qua object a source of intolerable mortification" (313).

Seidler constructs, however, a 4-step criteria for the clinical diagnosis of shame, noting that the "main criterion determining pathological forms of shame is nonavailability" (311-12). Apropos Wurmser's recent work, Seidler's four criteria are resonant of those normatively associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Seidler's data concerns (1) the "observable perception of fragments of the affective process of shame;" (2) "[p]atients' descriptions of the external relations;" (3) "[i]ntrospective perception of the therapist's own experience in relation to patients," and (4) "The formation of theory-guided hypotheses on the basis of the overall impression gained during contact with the patient" (312). The real importance here is attention to the first 2 principles that endeavor a clinician to see shame as traumatically constituted. Again, this idea, too, is not original. Herman Lewis' concept of 'by-passed' shame, for example, as E. Tugendhat observes, "seeks to capture in theoretical terms the fact that shame cannot be verbalized simultaneous to its experience" (1979). And Seidler's quoting of both men suggests the proximity of his work to theirs, as well as that of Wurmser whose latest work directly associates trauma with shame affect.

However, there also limitations to this work. The biggest omissions happen, however, due to publication processes rather than intention. The only Wurmser work heavily quoted here is The Mask of Shame, a work whose pioneering ideas are brilliant in their own right, but qualitatively different from The Power of the Inner Judge. For example, Seidler challenges Wurmser's 1981 claim regarding shame bi-polarity, never engaging how he has discarded the idea in his latest work. Thus, Seidler is somewhat inflammatory when he insists his method "differs" from Wurmser in being "conditional on their manifestation" (41). That is to say Wurmser's 2000 work rejects the notion of bipolarity and instead communicates a vision of problematic intrasubjectivities placed under the useful term of "masochism." Masochism, in Wurmser's 2000 formulation, is a blanket term for a number of pathological, recalcitrant reflexes helping the individual overcome pre-existent inceptive traumata. Wurmser sees affective shame as part of severe traumata, or the non-affects of a non-textualized experience (a "proto-experience"). That notwithstanding, the student of shame might be intrigued by delineating how Seidler arrives at Wurmserean conclusions without having read the latter's most recent works.

In conclusion, Seidler's work is informative, engaging and proficient as regards the philosophical and clinical ramifications of shame affect theory and therapy. His etiology is coherent and instructive, as is his psychosomatic engagement with therapy. And although Wurmser's work could be seen as counteracting distinct points made here, it is more fruitful to see the diachronic and clinical formulations in the work of both men as constituting a coherent beginning to a (much needed) sober forensics about shame affect symptomology. The importance of Seidler's work, then, arrives not only from its pioneering clinical techniques but its constructive examination of shame affect mechanisms and the potentiality of therapy.

© William Alejandro Martin 2001

William Alejandro Martin is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of English, McMaster University.


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