Shame (or the shame-humiliation response) marks a subject’s uncomfortable isolation or reaction to loss of social response from others. It results from a subject’s failure or inability to stimulate positive emotive states within or positive emotional responses from others. Shame is a form of communication as well as the a breach of positive contact, an affective response that both separates the subject from and connects the subject to others.

Eve Sedgwick famously links shame to visibility, spectacle, and performance, underscoring the affect as both deeply personal and intensely social. She labels it the “place where the question of identity arises most originarily and most relationally” (37) as well as a means of contact and communication. The capacity of shame to attach to and alter the meaning of virtually anything (objects, subjects, behaviors, ideas) accounts for its tendency to raise questions concerning individual and cultural identity. In experiencing shame, Sedgwick argues, someone “is something” (37), someone reflects something about oneself. The experience of shame thus develops out of and continually works toward the social. It acknowledges and aspires to consistent connection.

We can comprehend the ways in which shame operates by considering the network that it creates. Sylvan Tomkins lays out a kind of shame schema in order to account for the affective experience of shame. He contends that shame simultaneously generates and obliterates itself: “shame points and projects; shame turns itself skin side out; shame and pride, shame and dignity, shame and self-display, shame and exhibitionism are different interlinings of the same glove” (cited in Sedgwick 38). Shame, then, surfaces as a transformative affect. The subject who experiences shame proves almost equally self-aware and socially receptive. Sedgwick describes shame as a performance, one in which one absorbs and acts out the affects of others. As a potentially transformative performance, shame alternates between introspection and sociability. Shame is performed and observed because we can literally see its physical manifestations. To emphasize its physicality, both Sedgwick and Tomkins underscore the body’s expressions of shame (e.g. blushing, averting one’s eyes, lowering one’s head) as material means for shame’s transmission.

What distinguishes shame from its affective peers in Tomkins’s proposed basic set of affects? Tomkins contends that, like disgust, shame “operates only after interest or enjoyment has been activated, and inhibits one or the other or both. The innate activator of shame is the incomplete reduction of interest or joy” (135). Both Sedgwick and Tomkins advance an association between shame and a partial inhibition of interest. Similarly, Sedgwick highlights the active qualities of shame, as against guilt. Shame, she explains, hones one’s sense of self; guilt pertains more to one’s actions than one’s being.

Given its dual nature (as individual experience and as communication or performance), shame is a cultural barometer. Sedgwick contends that the network of associations and attachments founded on shame “is among the most telling differentials among cultures and times . . . shame is a component (and differently a component) of all [cultures]. . . . a record of the highly individual histories by which the fleeting emotion [ ] has instituted far more durable, structural changes in one’s relational and interpretive strategies toward both self and others” (62). Shame reveals social expectations and stigmas, drawing together cultural conventions. If experiences of shame vary across cultural and temporal boundaries, they also vary within individual persons in the same society at the same period in time.

As a means of performance, shame can provide us unprecedented ways of considering identity and gender politics. Sedgwick further reasons that shame, in its performativity and physicality, seems “uniquely contagious” (64) among subjects. All feeling subjects are susceptible to shame. Slippery and amorphous, dynamic and contagious, shame grounds acts of interpretation, reinterpretation, misinterpretation, and self-interpretation. Sedgwick explains that some persons who feel themselves most governed by shame find themselves labeled as “shy.” Similarly, she hypothesizes that the “queer” label might refer to those persons whose sense of identity is most enduringly structured by shame. Shame continually interprets and constructs both intra- and interpersonal identity, thus emerging as a primary mediating and analytic affect. As a result, the dynamics of shame enable us to comprehend more thoroughly the politics of other affects.

Rebecca McCann

Works cited:

Basch, Michael Franz. “The Concept of Affect: A Re-Examination.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 24 (1976): 759-777.

Broucek, Francis J. “Shame and Its Relationship to Early Narcissistic Developments.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 63 (1982): 369-378.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.

Tomkins, Silvan. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.