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Wednesday, October 25, 2006 

Levinas and Shame
Topic: Philosophy

Levinas And the Inner Demons: Guilt and Atonement
We were just wrapping up with Emmanuel Levinas' take on guilt, and here is the section on that close corollary, shame.

So must end our discussion of guilt. The reader may have noted that we have already allowed language such as ‘shame’ to creep into our discussion, and so defining that and other terms, and their relationship to guilt, must now be our subject.


Perhaps the best way to find our bearings on shame is to understand it in relation to guilt. When asking if shame is, for Levinas, the same as guilt, a unique answer is given. Within Levinas’ project, shame is nearly always the same as guilt. It usually takes on all of the properties described above that were linked to guilt, yet occasionally within his monologues, shame takes on a slightly nuanced understanding that seems somehow different from guilt.

The majority of Levinas’ work reflects a congruency between guilt and shame. Plenty of examples could be cited, but here a few instances will have to suffice. He says, “The event of putting into question is the shame of the I for its naïve spontaneity…”[1] Earlier we saw how being put into question by the Other produces guilt. Or elsewhere, “Responsibility for the other, and not responsibility for being, is the beginning of philosophy. Shame before the other, and not spontaneous reflection or exacerbation or being-toward-death, breaks the subject of its naivete…”[2] As guilt was shown to increase infinitely, here Levinas shows shame to do the same: “The more I answer the more I am responsible; the more I approach the neighbor with whom I am charged the further away I am. This shame which increases is infinity as an infinition of the infinite, as glory.”[3] Often, Levinas will use guilt and shame interchangeably within the same topic.

However, there is an instance that occurs in his project that highlights a special category of shame, the genitive case of shame.[4] This case has to do with the eyes, with sight. Commenting on Levinas’ project, Steven Tudor notes, “A recurring theme in discussions of shame is the sense of one’s being exposed to others. The notion of exposure here connotes more than simply being an object of another’s cognition. Something is ‘exposed’ only if it is preferably covered up or concealed…”[5] Shame highlights a relational activity that has to do with the Other seeing that which the self does not wish to show. Specifically what is seen, that the self does not wish to reveal, is failure. I do not want my own failure, especially that of my Said, to be revealed for what it is. It is natural for Levinas to highlight this aspect from the Old Testament, specifically the story of Adam and Eve. Michael Michau, of Purdue University, comments on feeling the need to escape this shame:
At the moment of discovering the failure of pleasure to escape being, one is left in a state of shame. Levinas here shifts the discussion to a brief exploration of this phenomenon. In the Garden of Gethsemane [sic], Adam and Eve disobey God, and eat from the tree of knowledge. At this point, they discover that they are naked, and thus feel ashamed of their situation. They then choose to hide their nudity. Levinas observes, “Shame arises each time we are unable to make others forget our basic nudity.” Levinas writes, “Shame…depends…on the very being of our being, on its capacity to break from itself.” Because she is faced with herself, she has no option but to take responsibility for herself and her actions.[6]
So there is a sense in which I feel shame that is special to and set apart from guilt. This, perhaps more than guilt, highlights the individual, isolated sense of wrongdoing, more than perhaps guilt does. While guilt can at times be used to talk collectively of our guilt (as Dostoyevsky does), shame, when Levinas uses it in its special sense, is almost always individualized. “[He] says that, whereas shame ‘looks to what I am,’ guilt looks toward ‘an outer world of harm and wrong…towards what has happened to others’.”[7] However, it should be restated that this is the exception, this genitive of shame, and that for most purposes, shame is synonymous with guilt unless otherwise noted.[8]

[1]Levinas BPW p. 17. Back

[2], Richard A. Ethics, Exegesis, and Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2001) p. 97. Back

[3]Levinas GDT p. 235. Back

[4]This is only a friendly play on Levinas, who is fond of noting the accusative “to me.” I say genitive, because shame here in this sense is particularly the shame “of mine.” Back

[5]Tudor, Steven Compassion and Remorse: Acknowledging the Suffering Other (Paris: Peeters Publishing, 2001) p. 167. Back

[6]Michau, Michael R. “A Review of Emmanuel Levinas’ On Escape (De L’evasion)” trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford Press, 2003). Taken from December 15, 2003. I’m not sure why the Garden of Gethsemane is listed, though I am sure it is a simple mistake and should read “Garden of Eden.” Back

[7]Tudor Compassion and Remorse p. 176. Back

[8]Some people have read into shame a justification for the self, and an attack on the Other. In looking at my shame, critics say there seems to be forcefulness, an unwanted glance, a rape with the eyes. Since I do not want the Other to see the phenomenon of which they see in me, isn’t this a violation by them? Unfortunately, due to the scope and range of this paper I do not have the time to pursue that question here, but I think the answer is no. I say that at least partly because Levinas would never allow us to justify ourselves and indict the Other, and secondly because part of the shame is that we do not want the Other to see this phenomenon. We are doubly at fault. Back

[Levinas] | [philosophy] | [shame]



Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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