Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guilt and Shame, and their necessities

Shame and guilt are very well studied concepts, and it is very well known that they are making up (along other feelings) the very core of social psyche. It is also well-established that some societies are giving priority to one over the other in their structures. As such, Japan is widely believed to be the archetype of a shame society, in that it is contrasted with the occidental civilization (Judeo-Christian), which, in turn, is taken as the archetype of a guilt society. This approach is, for instance, the one proposed by Takeo Doi, in his seminal work about Japanese psychology: 甘えの構造 (Amae no kōzō, The anatomy of dependence).
Obviously, nobody is seriously asserting that shame is unknown in the West or guilt is unknown in Japan (or in other Asian countries). It is clear that any non-pathological individual experiences, to various degrees, some amount of shame and guilt, what is interesting is to consider which feeling comes to dominate within the psychological structure of a given society, and when one dominates, whether this domination entails consequences in the intellectual outlook of this society, for example.
It is to such consequences that Elie Ayache seems to allude when he wrote on page 202 of “The Blank Swan”:

“Necessity is a later, almost guilty, stage; it is a return, a turning-back to the absolute, a form of regret.”

In this post, I intend to discuss this sentence in some details, in order, first, to precise the connections between guilt and necessity, and afterwards, to go a little beyond, in exploring how shame may enter the picture.

I shall start by quickly considering the word “almost” in its mathematical sense, as in “almost everywhere”, that is, I read the sentence as saying that necessity is almost nowhere non-guilty, that it is non-guilty in a domain of null measure. The question is therefore whether there is room in this domain for discourse; can we say anything about this seemingly guiltless necessity? Is this necessity as shameless as it is guiltless? I will consider these questions later on.

A substantial difference between guilt and shame is the transparency of guilt; one will always know what he feels guilty about and why he feels so, on the other hand, while one may know what makes him feel shameful, he may be at a loss as to the why of such a feeling. So guilt appears as the logical consequence of a given situation, it seems more consciously motivated than shame, whose obscurity may even feed itself, one can then be ashamed of feeling ashamed for a futile reason.
Whereas guilt does provide an obvious rationalization, shame looks like a black hole ready to engulf the whole individual in a whirlpool of despair. Besides, one can hardly feel guilty of feeling guilt; on the contrary, feeling guilty is often seen as the first step towards redemption and therefore out of guilt
Furthermore, shame is mythologically older than guilt, within Judeo-Christian civilization, since Adam and Eve felt shame as soon as they realized they were naked, just after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but it’s only after they got cursed by God that a sense of guilt can be conceived of, guilt therefore hinges on the original sin as a sin entailing punishment (the sense of guilt just being the internalization of this sequence), while shame seems to only derive from pure self-awareness.


As seen above, guilt seems therefore a relatively safe feeling. This is not to say that it cannot lead to severe depression and even suicide. Guilt can indeed be muddied by too strong a belief (sometimes fanatical) about what a sin is and how evil it is (to the point of being deadly), that obscures all attempt at rationalization and at redemption via a reasonable sequence of remorseful penitence. But it provides, at least, a favorable ground for the individual to overcome the first affliction of guilt, by laying out a standard process to escape it and be forgiven. In this sense, guilt is, most of the time, equivalent to a redeemable debt.
The safety of guilt is then this framework, analogous to an accounting practice, where causality is well-established and determinism is assured. Necessity naturally follows from there. As guilt establishes its dominion on most social interactions, conditioning individual’s psychology from an early age, thought admits causality as the natural way of things, and if something is, then, surely it must be necessary.

But this is not quite what Elie Ayache is saying in the above passage. His idea is to say, if I understand it properly that thought is feeling guilt, along nostalgia from its “self-inflicted banishment from the absolute”, and build necessity in a way to redeem this guilt or to comply with this nostalgia.
Nonetheless, I contend that it is largely because of the framework of safety and stability, that is inherent to the logic of guilt, and that is encrypted in the western mind that, first, thought branches itself onto this logic to expiate his abandonment of Fideism and, then, redeem itself by acknowledging necessity, a necessity that, contrary to Meillassoux’s ambition to “discover an absolute necessity that was not leading to an absolutely necessary being” (“(…)nous devons découvrir une nécessité absolue qui ne reconduise à aucun étant absolument nécessaire”(p.47, Après la Finitude), has so far (until Meillassoux) been one founding a dogmatism, in its pre-Kantian form, or one asserting the a-priori absoluteness of the principle of non-contradiction in the post-Kantian weak correlationism (to use Meillassoux’s vocabulary).
The rejection of all form of necessity then leads to the strong correlationism, but this one entails an incapacity at opposing any form of fanaticism, as it disallows all possibility of a speculative rational discourse about the absolute, even a refuting one.


I published earlier a post on Igor Markevitch’s “Le Nouvel Age”, and shortly commented it as involving a reflection on shame. Here, I wish to examine another composition from Markevitch: “Le Paradis Perdu (Oratorio)”, which can be purchased here, and whose full libretto can be found here.

In my opinion, Christopher Lyndon-Gee is totally missing the point of Markevitch’s intention in his analysis, when he wrote the following, whose content is perfectly right (except for redemption that is precisely never achieved) but whose overall condescendence is out of place:

“Markevitch’s Eve is a self-pitying rag doll; Milton’s has dignity and responsibility. Indeed, a Lucifer who can declare “Quelle proie facile” (“what easy prey”) or can refer to Eve as “stupide épouvantail” (“foolish scarecrow”) does not fall from the pages of Milton, in whose poetic vision the opponents in this cosmic clash that affects the destiny of the known universe inhabit a higher moral plane. Redemption is achieved (all too quickly) without effort or confrontation with the terrifying majesty of God. The “Spirit” that “points the way” is a cross between a Victorian sentimental comfort-cushion and some kind of pantheistic prop of Futurism.”

Markevitch’s Eve is indeed a self-pitying rag doll, just like Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway or Chekhov’s three sisters, just like Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s soldier’s wife:

From there to “conclude that our musically gifted, very young composer had merely normal literary abilities”, is not to make justice to Markevitch (neither it is to Cocteau and Ramuz who advised him on this matter), Markevitch didn’t want to put Milton’s poem in music, he obviously aimed at adapting it to his times, and that is what he did by taking his characters away from the dogmatic universe of Milton, to immerse them into the contemporary post-critical correlational circle, where they indeed become “easy prey” and “foolish scarecrow” for all kind of fanaticism.

Elsewhere, Lyndon-Gee writes:

“Acceptance of guilt is the first building-block of redemption for Milton. Markevitch, on the other hand, posits redemption through a vague, almost Hollywoodised notion of Love and aspiration towards “the Spirit”

In Milton’s dogmatic context, which is the natural space of guilt, such an acceptance reflects indeed the necessity that is articulated by the logic of guilt: sin-guilt-punishment-redemption (equivalent to the logic of debt-redemption), itself made efficient by the presence of dogma. In the post-critical world of Markevitch, redemption can only be a vague and dream-like yearning for an impossible absolute, such is the tragedy of the correlational circle, that it deprives you of redemption while maintaining you in guilt.
But it obviously is in the music itself that all this is most apparent, and particularly towards the end of the piece when the futuristic machinery is entering the scene to uplift mankind to a fideist beatitude of pure spirit. Here again, a subtle irony pierces through the superficial triumph of the Spirit, an uneasiness is felt, a pretentious vulgarity, which at times derails cacophonously from the main harmony, contradicting the emphatic pronouncement of redemption; Markevitch clearly demonstrates a defiance to modernity, in extreme contrast with the bombastic optimism of Prokoviev’s “The steel step” for instance:

Markevitch’s view of modernity is certainly closer to the one Chaplin depicted in “Modern Times”:

The pressing question is then now whether there is a possibility for a guiltless necessity, a necessity that would not be accidental, coincidental to guilt, and that would not therefore appear as a mere expedient to fulfill its logic. This necessity is of course the necessity of contingency, but it remains to be seen whether it is not just a new trick from guilt to reassert its dominion on human thought.


If we now turn our attention to shame, we see that, whereas guilt is a process that aims at redemption, and therefore at its own cancellation, shame is unredeemable, it can never be expiated, it can’t be erased by the purchasing of an indulgence or the enduring of a punishment. Its mark is indelible, it is a hole in the flesh. The readers of the Blank Swan will already have made the connection with the following passage found on page 365:

“The individual degenerates into an identical individual again; he didn’t evolve into a differentiated organism, a body, a corporation, a company.”

This is how Elie Ayache qualifies debt, it could, I believe, apply equally to guilt. By contrast, shame is differentiating, it alters an individual and forces him into a becoming. Interestingly, in Japanese, there is no direct translation of “must”, the necessity of acting in a given way is rendered by the verbal suffix:
…なければなりません(nakereba narimasen)
which, literally translates as:
If you don’t do it, it will not become.
It is then, here, at the linguistic level, not a call to guilt but to shame properly, for preserving the becoming of a process, by himself accepting to become other. And this leads us to a very similar call from Meillassoux, on page 96 of his book:

“It is necessary for this to be this and not that or anything else, for this to become that or anything else.”

Hence shame does imply a necessity, a necessity for things to become, that is, the necessity of contingency.

Incidentally, I would suggest that the dynamics of shame is identical to the dynamics at play in the construction of the Cantor set (and other such constructions), but I shall not dig into this matter further as of now.

What is clear, is that shame proceeds according to an hollowing principle, it does not build relationship between individuals according to a logic of debt, but according to a logic of basho (場所), of place, that relates to the works of Nishida Kitaro. Shame makes room, makes place for the others and the world to become.

I shall stop here for now, and see whether it triggers any discussion, there are certainly many imprecisions, simplifications and perhaps some mistakes, but this is still a thought in progress. Shame on those who would not let it become!


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