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political shame Arrow vol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 1, 2004


The Political Significance of Shame

Ann Murphy
University of New South Wales


The Denigration of Shame

1. In recent debates concerning the responsibilities that individuals and nations should or should not assume, the issue of justice to the past looms large. In recent politics, we witness an increasing reluctance on the part of individuals to acknowledge and apologize for the horrors of history. Witness, for instance, the various debates surrounding reparation and apology in the United States and Australia. The current denigration of collective responsibility – accomplished through an ahistorical understanding of obligation and justice – attests to a dangerous unwillingness on the part of many to consider the ways in which past wrongs reverberate in the present. It is argued that political responsibilities cannot be delineated by history, for this would make them too expansive. It is this ahistorical rendering of responsibility that has contributed to an ever diminishing sense of shame and responsibility in politics.

2. The insistence on the ahistorical nature of responsibility is particularly obvious when one takes note of the denigration of shame and guilt in current politics. Shame is of interest as a political phenomenon to the degree that it signals cognisance of individual and collective responsibility. Knowing this, one should take note of the dangerous dismissal of guilt and shame in contemporary politics by both the right and the left. The right’s attack on guilt has frequently been couched in terms of the "bleeding heart liberal," whose attempts to be empathetic to others is condemned as a delusional and wrong-headed approach to issues of cultural difference. In an attempt to publicly undermine the efficacy of social policies such as welfare, the right has persisted in labelling the advocates of such policies "bleeding hearts," whose rational capacity for judgment has been clouded by their emotions. Allegedly, "bleeding hearts" cannot be trusted to rationally deliberate issues of politics. This line of argumentation is likely grounded in the belief that we inherit from Kant, and those who work in his wake, that justice in its proper sense is to be rendered via the avenues of reason, and not those of the heart. In this context, shame and guilt become problematic insofar as they hamper political rationality.

3. It would be disingenuous, however, to assign blame wholly to the political right. To be fair – and admittedly with a few notable exceptions – the discourse on shame has arguably suffered equal abuse at the hands of the left. While there is no disputing the claim that the right has frequently coopted the discourse on empathy in order to shirk certain social responsibilities, it is also the case that the left has demonstrated a marked reluctance to delve into the politics of collective guilt. Particularly amidst a theoretical landscape – inherited from Levinas and Derrida – that privileges the stranger, the foreigner, and the radically other, the worry surrounding guilt and shame is that there is something in the experience of these emotions that is perhaps narcissistic, indulgent, and even patronizing. In short, the fear of addressing shame and guilt is grounded in the worry that these emotions in the end only recuperate certain privileges. Shame and guilt are self-regarding emotions, and so one worries that they may detract from the genuine consideration of others and that at heart they are egoistic. Add to this the worry that guilt in and of its own right does not necessarily motivate concrete action, and one sees why even those with progressive political agendas express reticence regarding the issue of guilt, not simply in regard to the danger of appearing patronizing, but likewise out of suspicion regarding its efficacy in motivating action.

4. What is worrisome, however, is the fact that the hesitations surrounding the issues of guilt and shame may be read as symptomatic of the diminished sense of responsibility that seems to reign in politics these days. Perhaps just as ominous is the fact that the very same dispassionate thinking that is used to pathologize and vilify shame is also being employed to undermine charitable social policy. This refusal to acknowledge the importance of shame and guilt is tied to the indictment of charity insofar as both are motivated by a refusal to assume responsibility for others, and most especially for the privileges that one inherits historically. For the purposes of this essay, I would like to explore what is behind the progressive erosion of social responsibility, an erosion that motivates not only the devaluation of shame and guilt but likewise the virtues of political generosity.

Responsibility and the Social Contract

5. Exactly what is motivating this flight from responsibility in politics? Rationalism or liberalism run amok perhaps? One might suggest that it is the obsession with reason in politics that has motivated the divisive treatment of emotion and affect, as they come to be construed as some type of contaminant that perverts political rationality. For those aiming to protect political rationality, shame and empathy alike represent the threat of affect and emotion. One could likewise attribute the degradation of collective responsibility to the prominence of political liberalism and its attendant focus on the individual as the locus of power and right. For the purposes of this paper, however, I would like to focus on the claim that it is the increasingly contractual nature of obligation and responsibility that has eroded our sense of social responsibility.

6. To presuppose that one’s responsibilities to another are to be derived from a social contract – however tacit one’s consent to this contract may be – is to presuppose that these obligations are finite and calculable, and that consequently they are responsibilities from which one might excuse oneself. Hence the litany of excuses that have become all too familiar regarding one’s responsibility for past injustices, excuses that have come to mark various discourses on reconciliation, reparation, and apology. ("I wasn’t even alive then, why should I be held accountable," etc.) Such excuses are indebted firstly to a convenient amnesia regarding the way in which past injustices reverberate in the present – and consequently continue to bestow benefits on some and injustice on others – and second to an inability to recognize that the very being of the oppressor/colonizer has grown and defined itself in reference to the subjugation of the oppressed. It is to presume that complicity is to be debated and chosen, and that it is not always already constitutive of the self. In order to deny one’s complicity in the oppression and suffering of others, one must somehow denigrate the ties that bind one to others historically and materially. To conceive of responsibility as strictly contractual is in many ways to do just that.

7. As Nancy Fraser has suggested, the result of the increasing hegemony of contractual norms is that there appears to be less and less conceptual space for the forms of noncontractual reciprocity and solidarity that constitute the moral basis of citizenship (Fraser 1994: 61). As justice is rendered in reference to the calculus of contract and legality, the space for charity and political generosity is being eroded. This erosion seems to be accomplished as a double movement; firstly in the division of justice and charity, a breach that seems to imply that the two are antithetical, and secondly in the increasing erosion of charity by the calculus of justice. As charity is increasingly construed as the "other" of justice, it is – not unlike the experience of shame – construed as an phenomenon that surpasses and exceeds the obligations to others that are dictated within the parameters of the law, or the discourse on rights. Thus justice and charity are increasingly thought in opposition to each other, as though there is something in charity that is excessive and superfluous, something that the scales of justice do not and should not weigh. The dangerous implication of this way of thinking is that justice is not – nor should it strive to be – charitable.

8. And this is to say nothing of the way in which charity itself is being subsumed beneath the calculus of distributive (and retributive) justice. As the hegemony of the contract helped create the illusion of charity as its other, "charity appeared as a pure, unilateral gift, on which the recipient had no claim and for which the donor had no obligation" (Fraser 1994: 67). When defined only against contractual relations, charity does not simply become the other of more legalistic bonds of reciprocity, but even becomes politicised, as the giver is typically the beneficiary of social commendation while the recipient is only further stigmatised. Thus charity may readily morph into its opposite, a means of subjugation. It is here that one sees the emergence of the now familiar discourse on the gift that has been with us since Marcel Mauss, who argued that receiving a gift may well result in one’s social subordination so long as the gift is situated within the horizon of a symbolic economy wherein the recipient of the gift becomes materially or socially indebted. A number of the authors writing in this tradition would agree; Charity has ceased to be – ideologically or concretely – a relation of reciprocity. Presumably, this is why Derrida (1991) claims that the condition for the possibility of the gift is forgetting, as to recognize the gift as such is to annul it by situating it within the confines of a cultural economy.

9. If we take seriously the claims emerging from the discourse on generosity and gift-giving, when generosity is thought within the confines of contract, it may become an occasion for the substantiation of debt. In a political time where the space for the conception and establishment of charitable and empathetic political institutions is being eroded by a politics that favours the language of economy and retribution, we are in dire need of a different elaboration of the place of shame and complicity in politics. As political generosity becomes warped and diminished by this political calculus, shame comes to be figured as problematic as well, to the extent that it also signals a responsibility that is not being accommodated in contemporary politics, a responsibility that is vilified due to its alleged "excesses." Yet it is precisely this excess that Emmanuel Levinas applauds it seems, concerned as he is to illuminate a responsibility to others that he names "unconditional, undeclinable, and absolute" (Levinas 1974: 124). While the Levinasian elaboration of responsibility may indeed serve as a corrective to more contractual and legalistic understandings, it is not clear that Levinasian responsibility is not ahistorical in its own right. However, the reticence that Levinas displays concerning the historical location of responsibility and obligation is testament to the infinite nature of responsibility, as Levinas understands it. Hence the Levinasian account of responsibility is ahistorical by virtue of its infinite and irrecusable nature, and surely not by virtue of any desire to deny responsibility for the past.

Shame and Responsibility in Levinas

10. For all of the attention that has befallen the Levinasian elaboration of responsibility, less attention has been granted to how responsibility is, for Levinas, experienced as shame. "Shame" – as is the case with almost every ethical term that Levinas employs – undergoes a certain metamorphosis in his work. Of particular interest is the fact that Levinas seems concerned to distance shame from guilt over the course of this writing. For instance, Levinas is careful to describe shame as "guiltless responsibility." Presumably, for Levinas, guilt connotes a failure to do right in a particular instance, an inadequacy felt in the face of determinate ethical norms. Shame is meant to connote a responsibility much more thoroughgoing and inescapable, a responsibility that Levinas renders as "infinite" and "irrecusable." This is presumably why Levinas is careful to dissociate shame from guilt, as guilt would imply the finitude of responsibility, or a specific breach of a contract.

11. Indeed, Levinas goes to great lengths to sever shame from more contractual or legalistic understandings of responsibility. In part, Levinas’s reticence in the face of the traditional construal of shame may well be derived from the observation that in the face of a contractual or legalistic understanding of responsibility, the overwhelming response to the accusation of complicity would be attempts at exoneration and disavowal, the offering of excuses. It is precisely this tendency that Levinas warns against, and it is for this reason that he identifies his philosophical project as the overcoming of good conscience (Levinas 1961: 304).

12. One of the notable characteristics of Levinas’s earliest discussion of shame is that it does not occur in reference to the ethical relation. In the very early essay "On Escape" shame is figured as a mode of the subject’s relation to the world, and notably not in reference to others. Indeed, Levinas explicitly notes that shame should not be reserved only for phenomena of the moral order. (Levinas 1932: 63) As Levinas resists locating shame in reference to morality, he claims that shame is first and foremost a phenomena resulting from our inability to escape ourselves. "Shame is founded in the solidarity of our being;" it is what demands that we take responsibility for ourselves. It is rendered, here, as a function of the self’s very being, and not as a response to some determinate act. What appears in shame is the fact of being "riveted to oneself," "the unalterably binding presence of the I to itself" (Levinas 1932: 64). "Shame is, in the last analysis, an existence that seeks excuses," but it is equally an existence that is unable to escape itself (ibid.: 65). Hence shame is at once the necessity of the impulse to flee the recognition of one’s responsibilities and the very impossibility of this flight. This notion of shame as an inescapable binding to the self is revived in Levinas’s later work, Otherwise than Being.

13. Whereas shame was once rendered as a riveting to the self, it is now described as identity’s "gnawing away at itself" in remorse (Levinas 1974: 114). What earlier appeared as the cementing of identity, however, is described in the later work as an "exasperated contracting" of the self, a persecution "which the limits of identity cannot retain" (ibid). Hence while this accusation, persecution, and remorse that I feel in the face of the Other may indeed be a function of the impossibility of my fleeing myself, it is likewise, a "riveting" to the self that motivates the dissolution of identity and not its reification. Shame, writes Levinas, "is on the hither side of the limits of identity" (ibid). "It is to hold onto oneself while gnawing away at oneself" (ibid). In "On Escape," shame arose in the binding of the self to itself, and in the inability to fail to take responsibility for others. What emerged was the sedimentation of the self in shame. What is noteworthy, then, about the later discussion of shame is that it now disturbs the boundaries of the self and troubles the limits of identity. Shame is in this sense destructive of a notion of responsibility that is finite and historically contiguous; indeed, shame corrodes the very coherence of the subject.

14. It is difficult to understand Levinas’s conception of shame without making recourse to his thought on freedom. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas critiques the European philosophical tradition for its failure to recognize that shame is above all founded in an experience of unworthiness, and not in the experience of an inadequation or failure to live up to this or that moral stricture (Levinas 1961: 83). To prioritise a conception of shame that invests itself in the knowledge of success or failure in regard to certain norms is to once again subordinate the ethical to the theoretical as shame remains, here, a function of knowing. It hence prioritises the experience of the theoretical over the ethical, and the dimension of interiority over exteriority and the exposure to alterity.

15. Freedom is not a spontaneous faculty that stands to be limited by the moral law. The exact inverse is true for Levinas; shame and responsibility found freedom. It is for this reason that Levinas critiques the traditional understanding of guilt. The guilt complex presupposes an initial freedom that is responsible for others after the performance of a certain act, but for Levinas, there is no original or spontaneous freedom that pre-exists the assumption of responsibility for others. Rather, "the freedom that can be ashamed of itself founds truth" (ibid.: 84). My shame before the other founds my freedom. The Other is not presented as an obstacle, a hindrance, an imposition, rather, "he is desired in my shame" (ibid). Levinas claims that "shame does not have the structure of consciousness and clarity. It is oriented in the inverse direction; its subject is exterior to me" (ibid).

16.In the later discussion of finite freedom in Otherwise than Being, Levinas speaks of a responsibility "over and beyond" one’s freedom. Refusing to reduce the self to "the auto-affection of a sovereign ego that would be, after the event, ‘compassionate for another,’" Levinas persists in arguing for a sense of responsibility that precedes the deliberation between good and evil. Indeed, it is in the context of this indeclinable responsibility to others that the world is rendered intelligible in these terms (Levinas 1974: 123). To be sure, there is no way in which the presumption of an original responsibility detracts from the dignity of freedom, for Levinas. Responsibility does not limit but founds my freedom (ibid: 124).

Responsibility beyond History

17. What emerges from the discussion of shame in Levinas is the ahistoricism of his account of responsibility. Given that history is understood to be synonymous with totality and war, it is clear why Levinas would go to such pains to distance himself from a historically binding understanding of shame. Levinas’s refusal to locate shame in history places him in stark contrast to those who would dismiss demands for reparation on the basis of historical arguments, however. The ahistoricism of his account of responsibility is not intended to undermine historically grounded arguments for reparation or reconciliation but rather to illumine the more expansive nature of our responsibilities for others and their differences from us.

18. History’s soil is too finite a ground upon which to situate the limitless responsibilities one has for and to others. Inasmuch as recent politics testify to the uncharitable and restrictive ways in which many chose to take on the issue of justice to the past, Levinas argues for a sense of responsibility that escapes history not to evade it, but because such arguments are for him symptomatic of the contractual and legalistic understanding of shame and responsibility that he critiques. In direct contradistinction to those who would indict charity and shame alike, on the grounds that these responses somehow pervert political rationality, Levinas argues for the priority of care over contemplation. If complicity in the suffering of others is not to be debated or chosen, if it is rather constitutive of the very notion of a self, then Levinas is compelled to put forward a notion of responsibility that is ahistorical by virtue of its expansive and infinite nature, and not by virtue of any desire to deny responsibility for history’s horrors.

19. Shame, for Levinas, is derived from an absolute passivity that forbids a coherent notion of self to emerge from the continuity of one’s past. To locate shame in reference to a certain historical moment would seemingly forego the type of responsibility that Levinas wishes to illuminate. It would confine this responsibility to the interests of law courts and tribunals and hence refuse its irrecusable nature. Regarding, more specifically, the issue of shame and history, Levinas could be no more explicit. The responsibility that fills me with remorse is found in the "prehistory" of the ego. Elsewhere, Levinas describes responsibility as an "immemorial susceptiveness" to the call of the other (Levinas 1964: 122). It does not concern the concrete past, for "persecution is the disqualification of apology" (ibid.: 121).

20. Levinas is not only reticent to situate responsibility in reference to history because such a move would render responsibility finite. His reluctance is also grounded in the belief that to situate an individual with reference to history is in some way to compromise the alterity of the Other. It is none other than this worry that motivates his critique of the phenomenological tradition.

21. Levinas embraces Merleau-Ponty’s account of intersubjectivity as affectivity, and radicalises it such that responsibility for others comes to be the condition for the possibility of sensibility. "This describes the suffering and vulnerability of the sensible as the other in me" (Levinas, 1964: 124-125). Shame before another becomes much more than an indictment of self, it becomes a symptom of sensibility. Compassion and responsibility appear as the condition for the possibility of sense at all. This resituating of humanity in a capacity for sensibility, and not in the human capacity for reason, marks an important and radical symmetry between Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. Despite this congruence, however, Levinas distances himself from the phenomenologists when it comes to the way in which history is understood to inform meaning.

22. Indeed, the Levinasian descriptions of shame and freedom are consistent with his thinking on the relationship between history and meaning (sens). "Meaning" in the French phenomenological tradition carries the connotation of a certain directedness of thought, a prereflective content that endows thought and history alike with an intention derived from an originary subjective project. Levinas takes the phenomenological tradition to task for its historicism, an historicism that manifests as an affront to alterity and that is hence ethically problematic. Against the historically laden account of meaning that emerges in the phenomenological tradition, Levinas describes an absolute responsibility that transcends history. The indictment of phenomenology, here, concerns the focus on the totality, continuity, and unity of history as it is grasped by consciousness, a unity and totality that refuses the alterity of others.

23. For Levinas, the integrity of ethics is bound to exteriority – the transcendence of the Other – a face of humanity that overflows any idea, concept, or representation. (Levinas, 1961: 53) Indeed, the experiences of conscience, of the self accused, and of shame, are not commensurate with any conceptual experience; it is a "conceptless experience" as it is irreducible to representation or disclosure within the political arena. Levinas would distance himself from the language of intention and experience that pervades the phenomenological tradition. The ethical relation in Levinas is consistently figured as a relation that disrupts totality, and the seamless continuity of a world that is given over to a constituting consciousness. For Levinas, the power of ethics is contingent precisely upon the transcendence of the Other, or more precisely the Other’s transcendence of history, his or her irreducibility to soil of the collective past. Levinas leaves no doubt of this when in the preface to Totality and Infinity he equates history with war, totality, and politics, and laments the sacrifice of the future to the "already plastic forms of the epic" (Levinas 1961: 22). The responsibility to the Other before whom I feel shame exists prior to any contract that would isolate or prescribe a moment of reciprocity.

24. To understand shame and the attendant conception of responsibility as constitutive of the self is to indict thinking that would progressively retreat from the legitimacy and necessity of social and political generosity through appeal to the finite nature of one’s obligations to others. As is always the case with Levinas, however, his theory is not readily imported into debates about reconciliation and reparation, collective guilt and responsibility, without complication. Because the locus of shame resists location in history, the discussions of guilt and exoneration with which we are familiar would be, for him, situated firmly in the realm of the political. Hence despite the intimate ties that bind ethics to justice, the unassumable nature of shame and responsibility problematize their location in history. Levinas complicates the historical nature of responsibility, however, not in order to deny complicity for past wrongs, but in order to call attention to a notion of responsibility that is more expansive. The problem is not that we cannot be responsible for history, but rather that we cannot be responsible enough.


Ann Murphy is currently a New South Global Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. She received her PhD from the University of Memphis, where she wrote her dissertation on the relationship between ethics and politics in Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Foucault. Her background is largely in Phenomenology, Social and Political Philosophy and Feminist Theory. Her current research focuses on the relationship between symbolic and material violence in relation to race and gender. Email:


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________ (1969) Totality and Infinity. trans. A. Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Dusquesne University PressTotalité et infini. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1961.

________ (1981) Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. trans. A. Lingis. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. Autrement qu’être ou au-delà l’essence. Phaenomenologica 54, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,1974.

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