The Shame of Being a Man

The Shame of Being a Man

 Steven Connor

This is an expanded version of a paper given in the Gender and Sexuality seminar series, Institute of English Studies, 30 November 2000. A shortened version appeared in Textual Practice 15 (2001): 211-30.

I Being a Man
II Shame and Guilt
The Body of Shame
III Shame and Masochism
IV The Force of Shame
‘It makes women feel like to cry and die,’ said Chhunni-ma, ‘but men, it makes them go wild.’
‘Except sometimes,’ his middle mother muttered with prophetic spite, ‘it happens the other way round.’ (Salman Rushdie, Shame)

As for himself, though he could no longer call it a man, with the intuition that he was perhaps not talking nonsense, yet he could not imagine what else to call it, if not a man. (Samuel Beckett, Watt)


‘The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?’ wonders Gilles Deleuze, and so do I. Here, ‘a man’ names a principle, a force, perhaps even force itself for Deleuze. It names blockage, formalization, dominion, man ‘insofar as man presents himself as a dominant form of expression that claims to impose itself on all matter’. ‘Woman’, on the other hand, and impeccably as usual, means the opposite, for ‘woman, animal, or molecule always has a component of flight that escapes its own formalization’. Perhaps what this slogan means, therefore, is that to write is to be unmannned, meritoriously to unman yourself, by taking flight into the condition that Deleuze calls ‘becoming-woman’, though he is careful to specify that being a woman in the first place would not mean that you had won the race away from domination, but would simply give you a head-start, since ‘even when it is a woman who is becoming, she has to become-woman, and this becoming has nothing to do with a state she could claim as her own’.

Here, I will try saying that to write is not to free oneself from the shame of being a man, or not, at least, but for sure, if you are this one. Writing might also be a way of meeting with shame, a coming in to male shamefulness. I have surprised myself by wanting to be able to conclude that male shame, or my kind, is less to be regretted than one might at first think.

I will say this. First, that men are coming into shame; men have often before been ashamed of particular ways of falling short of being a man, but now some men are encountering the shamefulness of being a man as such and at all. To be honest, being a man has always been a bit of a gamble, and has always involved jeopardy, the risk of falling short of being a man. Now, however, there is a swelling certainty that to be a man is in and of itself to fall short. Secondly, I will briefly review some of the thinking about shame, especially in its relations to guilt that has been done in philosophy, psychology anthropology and sociology during the last century. I will suggest that, where shame tends nowadays to be seen as a moral emotion, and to be discussed as an ethical problem, its reach is larger than this. I will argue that shame is not only to be thought of as a moral prop or provocation, but a condition of being, a life-form, even, and will offer a brief, wild phenomenology of it. Thirdly, I will suggest that male masochism is not so much the expression of shame, as an attempt to exorcise it, by turning shame into guilt and thereby taking its measure, and making it expiable. Fourthly, I will consider the power of shame, suggesting that it has possibilities beyond those traditionally claimed for it. Doubtless, one can die of shame, as Salman Rushdie has said; but, stranger than this, it seems one can live of it too.


Let it at once and without fail be known. I am ashamed of being a man. Whether I have grown ashamed of being a man, or merely grown aware of always having been so, I do not yet know how to tell. Why be ashamed of being a man? To ask the question is to answer it. To be a man is more and more to be – to be able to be, for it appears to be a power as well as a predicament – a disgrace, to be disgrace itself. Men are spent-up: masculinity is a crashed category, the very name of ruin. It’s a bust. How queerly all this coincides with the fact that it is now compulsory to be a man, for all. All must strive for, and to be, the phallus, and size, as every advertisement coyly sniggers, matters. Women must be men, in order to be real women, and all the men must too, the only difference being that men can be counted on to come a cropper at it and thus body forth the failure of being a man. Anyone can be a man, in fact, everyone must be a man, there’s no choice but to be, for anyone but me, with any luck, if there’s any justice, so help me.

The Cretan statement ‘I am ashamed of being a man’ is as self-falsifying as the statement ‘I am dead’. It is out of the question to be ashamed and in the same breath to say you are. The moment that you can say you are ashamed, you break free of shame’s suffocating clasp and start puffing the pungent whiff of imposture, even though you are now exposed to the new, but only minor shame of having distorted your shame into intelligibility, shame made over into wordy sham. You have in fact taken on one of the many ‘masks of shame’ so finely described by Léon Wurmser. Properly, innocently shamed people have no words at their disposal, with which to clear their muddied names. Shame is bottomless, there is far too much ever to tell of it, and so it holds its tongue. To speak of shame is to prolong or exacerbate it. I am ashamed of being a man; I am ashamed to speak of this shame, and ashamed of the need I feel to do so, which I accordingly pretend is a gratuitous and shameful pretence, a need for which there is really no need. Speaking of it, speaking of any shame, from within it, is nauseating; it is infection, infliction, insult, sullying, insolence. Shame is never so shameful as when it owns itself. This is why we are determined that people should own up to their guilt, but put strict limits on the speaking and display of shame. People are to be shamed, but their shame is not to be countenanced; allowing yourself to be shamed, is in itself shameful. Shame is a dose to be gulped, not a state to be faced.

Still, I am though. I am ashamed of being a man. Statements of this kind seem to call for rosters of reasons and remedies. What is there to be ashamed of in being a man, my son? Well, though my shame has no definite causes (I am going to say a little later that no shame does), it does have attributes and occasions. As follow. I am ashamed, for example, of the advantage of having been a man, and of its arrogant privilege and prospects. I am ashamed of the will-to-manhood involved in being a man. I am ashamed of the stupidity and selfishness and certitude and pettiness of being a man. I am ashamed of men’s shoving voices and the sound of my own, of which I hear a lot. I am ashamed of the things men carry on agreeing to want and ashamed as well of what men have done, and what I believe being a man continues to entail doing, to women and to other men, and not just accidentally but systematically, as part of the long, and now almost comprehensively rumbled, plot of patriarchy. I am ashamed of all that is male in my sexuality, which is all there is of it, that pittance, all the way down, not far, to the bottom, and sorry for bringing it up. I am ashamed most of all of the violence that is inseparable from being a man. We boys and men grow up in an atmosphere and the expectation of violence. Violence against women and female children is a visible horror and a scandal because, despite everything, we still know it to be exceptional. But the assaulting of boys and men is the default condition, ignored or even incited on all sides, because it is almost entirely undertaken by other boys and men. If this makes the whole thing look weirdly consensual, a fight club in which we slug it out between ourselves, within ourselves, it is because it is. To continue to recognise myself as the sort of being who has accepted these conditions of violence and agreed to identify with the givers of it, is to own up that it is too late to dissolve the essential solidarity between being a man in the way I have always been and this particular kind of moral insensibility. I didn’t get where I am today without being a man and so have always had it coming to me, this shame I promise I’m coming to, and nothing but shame will do, at last, for that, for me.

And so on. But you can tell I am not really ashamed of these things, or I would not be bragging about them like this. I am trying here to find a way of getting underneath this kind of nameable shame – which you will soon find I will want to class as precautionary guilt. No, unfortunately my shame does not come from the shivering apprehension that it is all my fault, and I am scornful of men (like me, and they are legion) who load up with this tumescent culpability. I want to think I mostly have not done the worst of the things women and men have had done to them by other men, though it would be a kind of relief if I had. But in any case, to be ashamed of a wrong, or one’s part in it, in the way in which one might be abstractly ashamed of one’s part in the history of slavery, or the potato famine, or the Holocaust, is not really to be ashamed, in the sense I want to try to reserve for it; it is already to have entered into measure and apportioning and reversibility and atonement. Sadism, Laura Mulvey once wrote, demands a story. Masochism craves the demand for story, and guilt supplies both with the script they need. But there’s no story and so no pay-off, with shame. Guilt gives us the whodunnit, even with its ever-present possibility of the youdunnit – Oedipus Rex, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Shame gives usThe Trial.

I have never been able to think of being a man except as a form of shame, though I am not angry at it. In this time of hormonal ebb, ‘my’ masculinity is but a battered kettle at the heel. But don’t we all find it hard to take masculinity as seriously as we suppose. You must have noticed that there is now no word for the condition of being a man that doesn’t have tucked into it a snicker at its bumptious presumption – ‘masculinity’, ‘manhood’, ‘virility’? Even the seemingly bleached-out zero-degree word ‘maleness’, sports a daft little swagger that ‘femaleness’ does not. I cannot yet take masculinity studies as seriously as I promise I will in the end, for when I hear the word ‘masculinity’, I can call to mind only clownish and poignant prostheses: shaving-brushes and cuff-links and collars and tie-pins and jock-straps and string-vests and trouser-presses and belts and braces and, for the love of God, sock-suspenders, along with all the other funny junk of the whole hopeless, hyphenated, lofalutin’, penny-for-the-guy put-up job of being a man. I cannot call any of this mortuary stuff to mind without thinking of it coming back in a suitcase from the hospital, with the teeth. Let me hasten to say that I hope nevertheless at all costs to restrain the comfortable envy of becoming-woman of which Deleuze writes. I envy women only the fact of their not being men, in the way I envy stones or sheep, and would regard the desire to be a woman, in me at least, as a compound disgrace, the crassest, most puerile expression of male ressentiment. ‘I have been a man long enough, I shall not put up with it any more’, I read in the words of the done-for Moran. It has been a long time and one does grow tired of being a man, though perhaps not yet quite enough, in spite of all. And maybe, all the time, the condition of being a man, the imperative Dasein, the being-stuck-with-being-a-man of being a man, is growing in its turn weary of us, and starting to look elsewhere for a living. Let us hope, without much conviction, that there may yet be leave for such as us to hope, so.

But if all else fails, as it assuredly will, there will always be the chance of keeping my head down amid all the flood of contemporary explication on the subject of man. For masculinity to be the subject of so much discussion (I am reminded of Virginia Woolf marvelling, at the beginning of A Room of One’s Own, at the yards and yards of male-authored books on ‘Woman’ in the British Library catalogue), for it to have this engrossingly public existence, for ‘masculinity’ to have become the name of being a man, is doubtless gratifying for attention-seeking men and, I would have thought, renewedly annoying for women already fed up with having to minister to said men’s need for attention. But being outed as a heterosexual man also opens up avenues of escape, nooks of concealment, that look promising to me. I am ashamed you see, and the first and last impulse of the ashamed is to hide out. And where better for a man to hide out today, than in broad daylight, in the quick of this withering lucidity, this penitential publicity? It might perhaps be more natural to hide in, for where is there to hide outside, in broad daylight? But no, what it occurs to me to do, or represent what I want to do as being, is to hide out in masculinity. Shame is exposure: but a certain kind of exposure can be reassuring and defending. Being a man is real TV.

I also know that ironic incognito – ‘you won’t get masculinity to stick on me’ (and more of stickiness later on) – is the costless posture of first resort among many men writing on such issues. Will Self is one of the most recent recruits to the cause of this sulkily noncombatant masculinity.

When someone asks me to write on the subject of ‘masculinity’, of ‘manliness’, of what it is to be one – I find myself seized with the most awful sense of inertia. I feel myself to be plunging towards watery extinction, weighted down with the ballast of my own masculinity, yet I cannot assay it, I do not know what it is. I feel like a kitten, spinning around and around in a vain attempt to catch sight of its own tail. Yet whenever I’ve voiced this sense of indeterminacy which surrounds my masculinity and inheres in my very encoding – the combinations of deoxyribonucleic acids that make me one – men smirk, women laugh, and the consensus is that I could not be any more of a man if I shaved my head, pierced my foreskin, shoved a rag soaked with butyl nitrate in my face and joined a conga line of buggery.It is plain that this mode of conscientious objection, a male shadowing of the more difficult act of female self-unrecognition performed for example by Denise Riley in Am I That Name?, is an easy and a natural one – a confection of rather than any defection from masculinity. I find smug defiance in its Oblomovian lethargy, even as I borrow and wallow in it.

If this numbness or assumed insensibility is the commonest mask of shame, anger is another. Shaming people makes them angry. Sometimes the anger is a flaring refusal of shame. Sometimes, it breeds with shame, and becomes a composite anger-shame – the physical signs of shame and anger are so close, that this association is easily made. As Agnes Heller has observed, shame can then be used as a weapon or angry mirror. The shamed one refuses to hang his head, but angrily makes a spectacle of his shame, prolonging and exaggerating it, in an attempt to shame the shamer. Look at the shame you have perpetrated, look at the debasement of which you are the cause! If the shamed one turns his spit-streaked face away from the shamer, the shamer is then also impelled to turn away from the degradation she has brought about. Inhabiting shame gives one the power to exhibit it. I see plenty of signs of men learning clumsily now to flash their shame in something other than sheepishness or clownishness.

What is more, disgrace itself may even be becoming a male speciality. I am astonished at the lack of concern about President Clinton continuing to serve as President for so long in his maimed condition, and how his humbling gave him in the end a sort of Hester Prynne-like poise. (For, efter awll, he’s jist a mayan.) The generalisation of male shame gives fuel to the strangely intensified powers of shaming and disgrace we seem to be seeing in contemporary media culture, which creates disgraced people hungrily, as previous eras created stars and heroes. Oscar Wilde was the first modern victim of media disgrace, but he was put out of sight and out of mind; we seem to want to keep our disgraced people on show, if never exactly in full view, and they too have been made to learn to crave and survive in their exhibition. The electronic media are amplifying the role discharged by newspapers for over a century now as engines of shaming. Fleet Street was known as the Street of Shame, because of this close association with newspapers and shame. The name should make us aware that pitch defiles, that mud sticks even to the flinger of it. Fame is a hair’s-breadth away from shame, and this is now part of its meaning, especially for its male bearers: the shame of being caught, in lavatories, rented rooms and Baker Street dungeons, and the shame of being ashamed of it. And maybe the example of the President of the United States shows that there is prestige in this potlatch.

Most discussions of the nature of shame get their footing by contrasting shame with guilt. Shame cultures – the examples given are often ancient Greek or Viking cultures, and contemporary Melanesian cultures – are said to be those in which feelings of responsibility are borne in upon the self from the outside in. By contrast, a guilt culture, such as ours is thought to be, is one in which the self feels responsibility for itself, so that guilt is taken deeply into, or may even be thought of as arising in the self. Shame is therefore associated with the maintaining of codes of conduct in the group, but does not lead to sickness and despair, as it does in Western cultures. It is sometimes said that it is for this reason that shame is something that not only manifests itself on, but also belongs to the skin, or the outside of a person. Though some have doubted the absoluteness of the distinction between shame cultures like theirs and guilt cultures like ours, it remains intact in many quarters, for example in this recent characterisation by Susan Benson of the contrasting attitudes towards skin-adornment in Melanesian and Western cultures in terms of

the difference between cultures where persons are explicitly seen as outcomes of the actions of others and whose own potential for action is to be understood in terms of relations to others, and cultures where the meaning of personhood and the capacity for action is located in ideas of personal autonomy and separation.A similar distinction guides Rita Felski’s discussion of the shamefulness of being lower middle class:

Guilt is a sense of inner badness caused by a transgression of moral values; shame by contrast is a sense of failure or lack in the eyes of others. It has less to do with infractions of morality than with infractions of social codes and a consequent fear of exposure, embarrassment and humiliation.There is plenty that is opaque to me in this definition – why moral values are thought not to involve the prospect of exposure to the judgements of others, for example – but it has enough clarity for us to see its inadequacy. Felski distributes guilt and shame in terms of two different kinds of infraction, of moral codes and social conventions. In reality, our use of these words and experience of what they name involves a distinction between infraction and non-infraction, with an associated distinction between the different provenances of the feelings. The distinction between guilt and shame is a distinction in terms of where the feeling comes from.

Guilt is certainly experienced on the inside, but what is experienced is the infraction of codes, moral and social, that are not themselves endogenous. Guilt can certainly be introjected, and, indeed, the point of guilt is that it should be, if it is to act as a regulative principle. But guilt does not arise in or possess the self: it occurs to it. Guilt represents the adjustment of the self to codes of good and bad that are extrinsic to it.

Shame, by contrast, represents a judgement that appears to come from the inside, as that inside meets and amplifies a source or correlative in the outside world. It can be thought of as an intense internalisation of guilt, but this is not really a clarification of the nature of shame, so much as a prematurely clarifying transformation of it into something else. Indeed shamed people obtain great relief from the prospect of reducing their shame to manageable proportions through the assumption of guilt, hence the irrepressible desire for confession. Confession is not the desire to relieve guilt: it is the desire to get shame to run along guilt’s grooves. Shame is only knowable through its feints and counterfeits, of which guilt is the most important.

And yet, since it depends upon my sense of another’s estimation of me, shame also essentially comes from the outside and manifests itself on my outside. More than this, it manifests me as my outsidedness without residue. In truth, shame is an ‘outing’. This is why the experience of shame is ecstatic, for in shame as in ecstasy, one is suddenly beside, or without oneself. The meaning of shame is that I suddenly am to have no innerness any more, that I am all-in-all the me that is exposed to another’s gaze. I am a temporary, indefinite detention in this me, I must take myself to be the me that is all that others can make of me. This is not simply a diminishment. In shame, the I spreads and swells grandiosely to meet with its infinite belittling as the me, which is maybe why Blake thought shame the secret name of pride.

The word me is the shame-word. Guilt, by contrast, is of the I; it represents an inner acknowledgement of my sense of infraction. Where shame results in aversion, disavowal, deflection, guilt requires confession, the making of affirmation. Indeed, guilt cannot exist without this move to acknowledgement. Guilt is a choice, an exercise of freedom, which cannot be coerced. You can force me to say I am guilty and treat me as though I were, but it is a much harder job to make me feel that I am indeed truly so. And yet, despite this innerness of guilt, despite the fact that it is an affirmation of the person, guilt is a partitioning of the self, since it is concentrated only in that compartment of ourselves – the person – that is implicated in the infraction and its acknowledgement. It is for this reason that you can embrace and even affirm guilt. Indeed, our legal system requires accused persons to make such attestations: do you plead guilty or not guilty? You can acknowledge guilt, and identify yourself as a guilty person because what you are responsibile for is accidental rather than essential; guilt is not of you. Guilt opens up and preserves a saving distance in the self between what it is and what it has done, between knowledge and experience. Guilt is referential, and transitive: I dunnit. Shame is intransitive, so that its subject is the bearer of it, not its cause: shame on you. You can’t embrace, or identify, or acknowledge your shame, because you are proximally inundated in it: your ‘you’-ness meets the tsunami of ‘it’-ness. The ashamed person cannot identify with his shame, because he is identical with it. English makes this distinction visible in the difference between being shamed – which is what happens when you are given a dressing down, or when collaborators are ritualistically tarred and feathered – and being ashamed, which has come to mean something more intransitive and intractable and incomparable and unspeakable. Like the phrase I am avenged, the words I am ashamedsignify and bring about a force bigger than mere individual will and the actions which accomplish it.

So, although guilt may reach further than shame into the self, it does not include so much. Shame is more superficial than guilt, but, as Helen Lynd has pointed out, it involves the whole being. In fact it gives you an agonising entirety you might never have had before. It is synecdochic, the part for the whole, the part become the whole. I am guilty of a crime: but I am ashamed of myself. This makes shame inexpiable:

[A]n experience of shame can be altered or transcended only in so far as there is some change in the whole self. No single, specific thing we can do can rectify or mitigate such an experience. Unlike guilt it is – in specific terms – irreversible. “In shame there is no comfort, but to be beyond all bounds of shame.”… [A]n experience of shame of the sort I am attempting to describe cannot be modified by addition, or wiped out by subtraction, or exorcised by expiation. It is not an isolated act that can be detached from the self. It carries the weight of “I cannot have done this. But I have done it and I cannot undo it, because this is I.” It is pervasive as anxiety is pervasive; its focus is not a separate act, but revelation of the whole self. The thing that has been exposed is what I am.So guilt relates to actions, shame to being. Guilt has reference to what you may have done in the past: shame is what you carry on being. Guilt is what you are made to feel when you have been found out: shame is what you feel when you seem to have got away scot free. Shame has little to do with the superego, with the Freudian distribution of the self into the polarities of subject and object, parent and child, punisher and victim. It is not the self become an enemy to and accuser of itself. It is perhaps rather a haunting of oneself. The sinner can abhor her sin and the malefactor loathe the guilt in him. But the one in shame is always on the side of his shame, there being no other side for him to take.

Having no definite origin, and no definite object; no definite sense of scale or scope, being governed by no determinable processes, the experience of shame is an experience of the paradoxical and the indefinite.. Shame means suspecting everything you are and do and feel; means knowing that you do not have to do anything to deserve your shame. I’m in the clear, I have done nothing, there are no flies on me: you’ll never get anything to stick on me (except shame, which sticks to me as I stick to myself). Because it measures the self against the outside world, guilt can itself be measured, and makes ordeal and penalty and the doling of debts to society possible (the association between the words guilt and Geld is not accidental), You can account for guilt, but you can never account for shame (except by first cashing it in for guilt). It is for this reason that, where guilt is a matter of weight and measure, shame appears to have no recognisable scale or units of currency, and can appear so excessive and immeasurable. As Helen Lynd tellingly observes, shame is sometimes caused by trivial things, and then intensified by the recognition of this very triviality:

      Because of the outwardly small occasion that has precipitated shame, the intense emotion seems inappropriate, incongruous, disproportionate to the incident that has aroused it. Hence a double shame is involved: we are ashamed because of the original episode and ashamed because we feel so deeply about anything so slight that a sensible person would not pay any attention to it.

Shame is hot and cold at once, tiny and exorbitant at once – ‘It is too small to refer to; but it pervades everything.’ The question of cause is only weakly operative in shame, and then, I suspect, as a prophylactic against it. Shame just is the excessiveness, the immeasurability against which guilt protects. It can involve social gaffes or infractions of codes, of the drinking the fingerbowl kind – but it need not. Indeed, an explanation of shame in terms of its causes and occasions wipes away the phenomenological essence of shame, which is to be exaggeration and disproportion. Shame is the inner certainty of unworthiness, of a baseness that one takes on and inhabits. How can I bear the shame? one thinks. But it is not a case of bearing shame. Precisely because shame is of the whole person and not a part of the person, there is nothing to bear and nothing to bear it with. In his play Les Mouches, Sartre represents the national shaming of the French people not as a burden, but as an appalling sense of weightlessness, and a longing for the heaviness of guilt. If there is somebody still there to bear shame, to wear it as a mask, or a caption, then shame has begun to be beaten back, as it always must.

Shame and guilt have both tended to be analysed as moral emotions, which enact the involvement of the person in the judgements of others as to rightness or worth. Shame ‘is the only inborn moral feeling in us’, writes Agnes Heller Arguments about shame are usually arguments about the relations between emotion and morality, and claims for the uses of shame as an emotion have either condemned it as heteronomous, as the sign of the willed or unwilled subjection of the self to the judgements of others, or, eschewing such strong Kantian notions of moral autonomy, approved of shame because of its evidencing of the ways in which the moral claims of the other reach into the self. Writing about shame can often be reduced to two principles: you ought to be ashamed of yourself (sin), or you should be ashamed of being ashamed of yourself (bad faith). Either way, shame is thought of as a vehicle or prompt to improvement, a way of either making you something other from what you are, or preventing you from being degraded into something other then what you are.

Female and male understandings of shame seem to split along the line separating heteronomy from autonomy. Female shame has been presented frequently as the heterogenic or other-originating force of a shame imposed against the assertion of autonomy (the curiosity of Eve). Male shame seems to be understood more frequently as autogenic or self-authorising shame at the failure of autonomy. So women are shamed for breaking out, men are ashamed of falling short. Female shame has mostly been regulatory and disciplinary. In the shame attaching to menstruation and pregnancy and illegitimate birth and excessive or unfeminine behaviour (drunkenness, ribaldry, lewdness, loose talk), shaming has worked to keep females in bounds, docile, infant, obedient. Male shame has traditionally not been the shame of having overstepped the mark, of having exceeded definitions, but the shame of failing to exceed definition as such. This is why so much male masochism depends upon fantasies of grandeur projected into the torturer. Male masochists seek to come up against illimitability in order to be defeated by it, and thus to swallow down some of the heroism of failure with its bitterness. Both female and male shame might be thought of as forms of enforced social coherence, but men are more able to think of shame as a kind of acknowledgement or affirmation. Perhaps this means that male shame is more apt to be taken up into masochistic pleasure, in that it allows for self-transcendence through shame, or diminishment in the interests of expansion.

This view is crystallised in the Hegelian tradition which sees the historical destiny of humanity as the progressive overcoming of shame. Sartre’s definition of shame, famously dramatised in the peeper at the keyhole who suddenly realises that they are themselves being watched, involves asymmetry – the for-itself suddenly forced to take itself as an in-itself for another. For Sartre, ‘shame is shame of self; it is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging.’ This definition is probably derived from Max Scheler’s earlier definition of shame in terms of disproportion. For Scheler, shame ‘is always conjoined with an element of “astonishment,” confusion,” and an experience between what ideally “ought to be” and what, in fact, is. Scheler maintains that the human susceptibility to shame comes from the maladjustment between our absorption in our own projects, in which we reach beyond ourselves, beyond the experience of sudden shrinkage, and our sudden resiling into the feeble, needy condition of the living-dying animal self.

      [O]ne feels in one’s depths and knows oneself to be, a “bridge,” a “transition” between two orders of being and essence in which one has such equally strong roots that one cannot sever them without losing one’s very “humanity.” No creature, therefore, which is beyond this bridge and transition on either of its sides can have a feeling of shame: no god and no animal. But man must feel shame – not because of this or that “reason” and not because we can be ashamed “of” this or that – , we must feel shame because of our being a continuous movement and a transition itself. Ultimately, man feels ashamed of himself and feels shame “before” God in him.

There are striking structural resemblances between this definition and Bergson’s definition of the comic. Shame and masochism are comic in their nature, though they represent different moments of the comic. Bergson saw laughter as the dissolution of the problem that was the comic, the sudden, saving assertion of life, or flaring out of élan vital against the threat of death-in-life, in what is nevertheless described as ‘an anaesthesia of the heart’. Masochism is perhaps the mode of this simultaneously intensified and anaesthetised life. Masochism is the laugh of shame: masochism is to shame as laughter is to the degradations of the comic.

Scheler ends his essay on shame by unashamedly claiming the prerogative of shame for men. Ullaliina Lehtinen argues that men’s experience predisposes them to see moral autonomy, or the power whether or not to accede to shame, in situations – her example is a French collaborator with shaven head and German babe in arms being forced to run the gauntlet of jeering neighbours – which women’s experience of shame predisposes them to see as leaving no possibility of standing out against. The kind of arguments espoused by writers such as Nathan Rotenstreich and by Gabriele Taylor exemplify what Lehtinen calls ‘the aristocrat’s shame’, in which shame is a tonic episode in the life of a subject, who remains ‘autonomously free – has a privilege – either to internalize or to defy the episodic dis-esteem and de-valuation’. The systematic sense of undervaluation analysed by writers like Frantz Fanon and Sandra Lee Bartky produces shame as ‘a pervasive affective attunement to the social environment’. The argument is a strong one, and I agree that the kind of shame which allows one room to reserve judgement on oneself is not really shame at all, in the perhaps too-remorseless sense I have been shaping for it here.

I imagine that Lehtinen may feel that male attitudes to shame are not only mistaken but also dangerous and regressive, in that they underestimate the power of negative social attitudes and pressures to corrode the self-esteem of disadvantaged groups. However, it is clear that she shares with the aristocratic conception of rational shame a sense of the pure negativity of shame, a sense that the only question attaching to shame is how to reduce or get rid of it. For the aristocratic-individualist, it is shame that is shameful, while for the feminist-collectivist, it is shaming that is shameful. But for neither is there any question but that shame must be a spur to improvement, ethical or political. Perhaps this is just as well. I have no interest in prolonging or ignoring the miseries of self-undermining endured by disadvantaged groups, nor in persuading them to make the best of it, and, if I were writing moral or political philosophy, or thought that the writing of it could contribute significantly to reducing the violent uses of shame, I would be saying very different things. However, I do suspect that the conditions of shame as a whole way of life have been more thinly-described than they could be. So I am not speaking for the time being about the part that shaming plays in rational morality or moral reasoning, nor about the forceful uses of shame: not because there is nothing to be said about these things, but because other things strike me as having been unsaid about the phenomenology of shame, about the kinds of life it procures. I do not want to make shame more desirable, as though that were anyway possible, but I hope to make it more describable. I think that the chances of persuading Ullaliina Lehtinen that the kind of male shame of which I am attempting to write could ever be other than the ruffling of aristocratic composure are very remote, but for that I see no help. (For this, I look forward to a scolding the like of which she hands out to the two men, apparently standing for all men, who essayed to suggest that another reading of her exemplary situation was possible.)

The Body of Shame
The principal reason that shame gives no quarter in which to reserve oneself is that shame is of the body. Guilt, especially guilt centred on the body, opens up the distance between selfhood and corporeality. I can hide my guilt, but cannot veil my shame except with the blush that blurts it out. Shame is essentially of the body, the self-suddenly-become-body.

Embarrassment is usually treated as a minor form of shame, though I hope we have begun to see that it is hard to establish scale and proportion in matters of shame, in which less is always more. I am suddenly embarrassed, by the display, or the thought of the display, of some folly or awkwardness or weakness, and I blush. I seem smothered with a prickling mist of blood (‘covered with confusion’), and I become nothing but my burning face, which is why I cover it, but in vain, for my trembling fingers then take on my face. We say that in shame we lose face, though it is also true that in my shame I am nothing but face. This is because I lose the power of the face to confront the world and others, to meet it front to front, to project myself as a front towards the world. I don’t have a front because I don’t have a back: if I turn my face, as I must, my back becomes a face too. Perhaps in truth, embarrassment not only casts us down, but also dissolves our sense of bilaterality, turning us, like Dante’s damned, arsy-versy. I can even imagine a Desmond Morris style of explanation which would associate the blushing face with the simian arse slapped into submissive come-on-in-boys rosiness. The fact that shame and embarrassment take us unawares makes it as though, in Helen Lynd’s telling phrase, ‘we were suddenly invaded from the rear where we cannot see’. Since it is there to be looked at rather than looked out from, my face might as well be my backside.

At the same time, my tongue grows thick and fumbles, I pant, in an asphyxia like that felt in the proximity of absolute beauty, my fingers become icy, insensate slabs (clumsy is from Norse klumse, icy-cold, and, close toshame in my dictionary, I find the now unheard-of dialect word shram, to benumb with cold). Blushing and shame have traditionally been treated as visual phenomena, but just as important are their thermal properties. Flaring in my blush, I am a heat-exchanger, a thermodynamic catastrophe, there is a blizzard on my skin, yet hot siroccos crawl there. I drop things, I barge absurdly into walls. Flogged on by the adrenalin, everything starts to lurch and hurtle; and yet I feel myself flailing like a diver in deep, syrupy water. The world booms and bellows in my ear, and yet I am so far away I cannot hear a thing. Half of me is more alive than at any time in my life, alert and whirling in my blood, the other half is half-dead (‘I nearly died’). To be embarrassed is to be a walking corpse, undead, lugging yourself about like your own Siamese twin.

If you want an image of the body of the embarrassed person, look at the clown, with his ruby nose, his painted face, and his gloved hands too big to move (as though his feet wore gloves and his hands had become shoes). Look at his gaudy redness and his chalky whiteness, the chromatic commerce of his hot and his cold. Embarrassment is the meaning of the clown. This must be why we ‘mug’ when we are embarrassed – to take on voluntarily something of the clown’s grotesque face and body in order to wield them as a front, and keep them at bay. (Once again, the actuality of shame can become its mask.) Sartre’s account of the objectification of embarrassment, the sudden reduction to the condition of an it that it involves, does not capture its true clownishness, which is to say the swirling vortex of objecthood and subjecthood, cadaver and person, the heightening, the attentiveness, the tremor, the fever, the chill, the nudity, the closeness, the exposure to things, to the kind of unspeakable thing the self has had, for this intolerable, incessant moment, to become.

Intolerable and incessant. Embarrassment soon passes, as it must, for it is intolerable, but it is never resolved, only looked away from. Embarrassment, like the elephant, never forgets. Every embarrassment goes on for ever, and can jerk us into wakefulness a lifetime after the incident. Its lastingness gives us an insight into the ways in which shame can become more than a particular affect, a response to a stimulus, a pathology. Shame is a form of life: an entire underworld, a way of seeing and feeling and being. Because it endures, it can itself be a form of endurance.

Shame is so powerful because it is a force rather than a power. What does this mean? A power is a pouvoir, a being-able, a can-do kind of thing. A force is powerful, but its power does not lie in itself. A power possesses its own potentiality: a force does not. A power returns upon itself, completes itself in the exercise of its power. A force does not. A power is exercised as one exercises a right, or one’s right arm, a prerogative or a property, something apart from ourselves. You exercise your body as you exercise your horse or your dog, as you exercise the power of choice, or the divine right of kings. For something we want to call a power, there is the notion of an agent that precedes and deploys the power, a who looming through the what. A force, by contrast, exerts itself, and exerts itself on itself. The subtle difference between exercise and exertion embodies the difference between power and force. Exertion is intransitive: a force is exerted, not exercised. Gravity forces itself, the force of gravity is exerted in the force of gravity. Jürgen Habermas speaks (in his English translation) of the ‘unforced force of the better argument’, but the concept would lose its power if the word power were used instead: ‘the unforced power of the better argument’, suggests some wielding, some willed coercion. There are no personifications of natural forces: where are the gods of gravity or magnetism, or inertia? ‘Ye heavenly powers!’, not ‘ye heavenly forces’. Power is deposited in symbols which imply their users: the scales, the sword, the whip, the fist, the phallus. There are no symbols, or only mathematical ones, for forces. Though shame can be exercised as a power, it is lived as a force.
Guilt involves anger. The guilty person imports into themselves the anger of a wronged victim. A wronged person, or someone who identifies with the wronged person, wishes to assign guilt out of anger. The sensory modality of guilt appears, interestingly, to be the voice. In our systems of law, you cannot be guilty without the avowal of guilt. Shame, by contrast, involves neither anger (except as a ruse to escape shame, as described earlier) nor its close relative, fear, but rather disgust. In guilt, the victim or the accuser fixes on the guilty one: they ‘point the finger’, and they require the guilty one to face their guilt. The shamed or shameful person provokes disgust and recoil. Yet this may seem to contradict something that is regularly observed of shame, namely its powerful association with the optical or visual as opposed to the vocal or auditory. To be subject to shame is to be subjected to the humiliating gaze of others. It is associated in many cultures with the unwilled exposure of the genitals, or with being seen copulating, masturbating or urinating. The person exposed to the scorching scrutiny of shame is nothing but what can be seen of them – which is one of the reasons why shame is figured so upon the skin, in blush or blemish or stigma.

The fact that shame belongs to the skin is borne out by the fact that its characteristic preposition is ‘on': shame on you!. Guilt too is something that rests or descends upon one, but in a different modality, so to speak, of the ‘on’. If, as I have said, one bears guilt as a burden, a weight that presses redeemingly down on one, shame is on the person like a smudge, or an insect. Guilt pricks (agenbite of inwit) and is stigmatic (in feeling compunction, from com-pungere, one feels pricked all over, like the voodoo doll). Shame, like mud, sticks, but so that your superficiality can go all the way down. Recently, a number of world leaders and businessmen have been the recipients of custard pies thrown by protesters. The pie in the face (or the tomato, with which a woman defiled Tony Blair’s suit a few days ago, reversing the story of the woman with an issue healed by the touch of Christ’s hem – all that matters is that it should be squishy) is shaming because it reduces its victim to an object of comedy and pity. In a sense it relieves its victim of whatever charge might be being brought against him: capitalist exploitation, political corruption, repression of minorities, etc. For the pie in the face is not accusation through disfigurement: rather, it is the disfiguring of accusation itself. It aims, not to denounce, which would require and allow a response, acknowledgement, apology, exculpation, but to degrade, which leaves no possibility of response, because it insults the offence as well as the subject, therefore depriving the subject of the dignity of his guilt. You may have thought you were being wicked, or doing wrong, but in fact all you were doing was being a prat.

Shame is signified through signification itself, in its infrequently-remarked adhesive aspect. Tattooing, though it often appears to branch through the delays of shame, in fact represents the saving assumption of shame, the taking in to the self of a writing that cuts into the skin, or gets below its surface. Tattoos are also precise, visible forms, the purpose of which is to give the skin definition and visibility. Guilt impresses. But, because it is the becoming-essential of the inessential, shame hangs on to the outside of a person, clinging rather than cutting, and weighing nothing. This is why it is so easy to be ashamed of your clothes, and why shame is so frequently signified through clothing, especially clothing that hangs and dangles, or through feathers that are as light as air. This is also why and how punk, which came closer to the embrace of shame than any other recent fashion, protected itself, through the violence of cutting and slashing and piercing, from the very clownishness with which it flirted.

Shame is a skin thing. Shame is present in the markings of the skin, the stigma. Shame is having your skin taken away, as in the flayings of artistic and religious tradition: Marsyas, St. Bartholomew, the Judgement of Cambyses. But it is not precisely the taking away of the skin that constitutes shame. It is the degradation of its wholeness, the turning of the skin from the richest possible symbol of the self into a loathsome and degraded thing. What is it that makes the marking of the prisoner in Kafka’s ‘In The Penal Colony’ tantamount to a flaying? Flaying involves the taking away of the interiority, the insidedness of the skin. The skin is our outside, inside of which we live. The flayed skin, like the skin that bears shameful marks, has been turned into a mere surface for writing, and so no longer has this two-sidedness, no longer has an invisible inside that counts for anything. Your two-sidedness as a living person depends upon your condition of exposure, depends upon the noncommunicating connectedness of your inside and your outside. Ordinarily, to be the inside of the outside that is your skin means that you cannot really write on your own skin, because you cannot stand in front of yourself, you cannot face yourself and you cannot get behind the insidedness that is your relation to your embodied self. When the blood blooms through the skin in a blush, it puts your inside on show, depriving you of that insidedness. When you blush, you are haemorrhaging out on to the outside of yourself. This is why shame is a matter of bearing marks, especially marks that mimic the effects of blushing. The blush shows the shameful, secret submission of the self to the outside world. It says, everything that is inside me might just as well have been stuck on from the outside. Darwin and others before him had wondered whether black people could blush like white people: but Bergson fills in this gap in his On Laughter with the monstrous argument that blackness is funny because it looks painted on.

It is often said that this link between the wearing of shame on the skin – in blushing, or the dermographia associated with hysteria – is a sign of a difference between shame and guilt, the shame that merely attaches to the self and the guilt that eats away at it from the inside. This view of things is mistaken, or partial, because it depends upon the very evaluative contrast between the incidental outside of ourselves and the essential inside which it ought to teach us to suspect. Precisely because it can be internalised, guilt preserves the difference between the inside and the outside. Shame can’t be exteriority as opposed to interiority because this is the very difference that it abolishes.

The bearing of marks is also a protection against shame, for the bearing of marks can help put my skin back on. The bearing of marks can be an assumption of your own stigmatized flesh, making yourself your own author, facing yourself, getting on the world’s side. This is why face-marking is the most powerful signal of identification. Slaves were marked upon their brows with the signs of their shame and servitude; to mark yourself in this way, to devote yourself to the cause of your clan or your football team through painting of the face, is to put yourself in the position of the one who sees you, to have eyes only for yourself. It is to say, I have determined what of my face you see, I claim ownership of this face that ordinarily is the visible part of me that I do not see.

But if exposure and exhibition and subjection to the eye are an important part of shame, they are not the most important part of it. For shame does not involve merely looking, but, more precisely the inversion or ruin of looking. Shame is essentially not a looking on, or a being seen, but rather a looking away from being looked away from. The shamed person loses face, they have nothing to see with. The shamed person casts down his eyes, wishing to sink into the earth, to surrender the uprightness and eminence that is inseparable from looking. Shame is the abasement of the gaze. The shamed person may be subject to public mockery and humiliation, as in the institution of the pillory, or in the public exhibition practised on Hester Prynne at the beginning of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but what is really happening is that the shamed person is being shown that people cannot bear the sight of him. He is being ceremonially looked away from, and required to lower or avert his own gaze, to look away from himself. Shame is therefore not the apotheosis of the eye, but its abomination. This is why, if anything, shame is smelt and tasted rather than seen: it is emetic and gastro-intestinal, rather than visual. It is sight degraded into stink. This helps account for the odd reversibility of shame and disgust and the fact that we need not ourselves be responsible for many things of which we are nevertheless ashamed. Because shame provokes disgust, it is enough to be disgusting – because of our acne, or our body-size, or body-odour, or the shape of our nose – to be ashamed. Jews in Germany were systematically ashamed by being displayed to the camera as vile and subhuman, but it was the offence to the Nazi nose, twitching at the fetor judaicus, that really established Jewish shame.

We seem to be seeing, in what looks like a marked increase in male masochism, which might well mean just an increase in my own, or an increase in its visibility, or its visibility to me, a new, heightened alertness to shame. But what has shame to do with masochism, or masochism to do with shame?

In the first of a series of works which bear variously upon the assumptions of shame, his long essay on Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Gilles Deleuze proposes a series of distinctions between sadism and masochism, both of which he insists are entire and specific and self-determining worlds, rather than different combinations of invariant elements. One of these absolute distinctions is between the principle of negation that is at work in sadism – the destruction or setting at naught of what is called ‘secondary nature’ – and the principle of disavowal that is at work in masochism.

Disavowal should perhaps be understood as the point of departure of an operation that consists neither in negating nor even destroying, but rather in radically contesting the validity of that which is: it suspends belief in and neutralizes the given in such a way that a new horizon opens up beyond the given and in place of it.Is Deleuzian masochism beyond good and bad, less and more, because it is so entirely within it? According to this account, sadism is a form of organisation, masochism a Deleuzian plane of immanence, which tilts and agitates every sign and value. Sadism seeks to go beyond number and quantity in its search for universal suffering, though, as in the works of the dreary and ubiquitous Marquis, it is condemned to the counting and enumeration of acts for this very reason. Sadism is just more of the same: survival of the fittest, per ardua ad astra, business as usual. Masochism does not try to get outside or beyond anything, but rather toils to worm itself into the inside of the inside of things. It finds its identity in the extremity of its proximity, its inwardness with exposure, exposure not to truth, but to dissimulation and disavowal. Masochism has no time for identity. This is why, as Anita Phillips has said, sadism is avid, hungry, but masochism is inquisitive.

There has been a tendency among recent writers on masochism, emboldened by Gilles Deleuze’s essay on the subject, to approve or even glorify it, as a way either of making a kind of contractual accommodation to mortality, finitude and suffering, or of bracing oneself against these things. Masochism is said to be, and probably is experienced by many, as a life-enhancing exposure to and immunisation against misery and death. But there are many kinds of masochism, and it is not advisable to found a politics on too limited or idealised a conception of it. For some, and perhaps disproportionately for male masochists, the desire to subject oneself to ultimate ordeals, the desire, not to establish and maintain contracts, but to enact their dissolution, means that the desire for indifference to one’s own suffering may not easily be kept apart from a desire for indifference to suffering as such.

We should note that male shame, like male masochism in general, has a crudely and traditionally heroic aspect. Jeopardy is at the heart of maleness, and the risk of being shamed is under some circumstances as bracingly life-enhancing as the fear of death or injury. (The ‘crisis of masculinity’ is what masculinity has always been.) There is a huge power, for example, in the forms of suffering traditionally claimed by men in many religions. Christianity is an irresistible religion, because its central image, the crucified Christ, is one of shaming and suffering, rather than power and triumph. Christianity has been powerful, but has prospered on the opportunities for servitude and humiliation that it offers. The prostrating power of Islam, which means submission, comes a close second in this respect, and for the same reasons. Of course, it is a male body which is so tormented, and the prerogative of shame has of course been appropriated by men in the Christian Church. The Origenic hankering for self-emasculation which is so regularly attested to among males of displaced or humiliated cultures, or those now aspiring to such debasement – the good people who party at, for example – is now undergoing a minor revival across the West and wherever else the wires can reach. Such acts and urges are a reassertion of a male power of debasement that women have often been unable to prevent themselves wanting for themselves. For women who have taken on the glory of the stigmata, there is an extra humiliation, and therefore extra glory, in the shameful display of their selfish hunger for glorious degradation. We have put aside the religious and mystical languages which allowed the copulation of pride and shame to be thought on, but we perhaps have need of them still to make sense of the embracing of the signs of degradation, the degradation into the condition of a sign, which are so abundant today. The Christian Emperor Constantine forbade the marking of slaves in the fourth century, on the grounds that this kind of shaming of the body was a shame for the perpetrators as well as the victims. The survival of ideas of stigmata, into cosmetic practice and sexual ritual, is a refusal of the Levitican prohibition on the marking of the skin, a shameful transgression at the heart of Christianity, which will not allow the new skin of the immaculate conception.

It is not just the jeopardy of the body that tempers masculinity, but also the jeopardy of the self’s dignity and self-worth. If one were to take the representation of men in contemporary Europe and America at face value, you would think that men were universally despised. Men have never been represented as so clownish and ridiculous as we are today; men nowadays are represented on every front not as wicked and cruel and dangerous and demonic but as slow and oafish and absurd and tedious. This is not reversible, since playing the idiot is a traditionally male form of self-defence and attribute of power. Thus, a man dressing as a women is comic, is clownishness itself; nowadays, a woman dressing as a man may be disturbing, fascinating, sexy, interrogative, but it’s not funny: more than this, it is carefully unfunny. The one exception I can think of to this, the transformation of Bella the prostitute into Bello in Ulysses, is so screamingly funny precisely because it is not female cross-dressing, but an acting out of Bloom’s absurd fantasy of maleness. Only a few women have really wanted to embrace male clownishness, as opposed to the traditional female comic arts of sassy and self-securing wit. Ridiculing the phallus – and Mr Punch the phallus has always been more likely to provoke laughter than fear – is perfectly compatible with securing its power. On the other hand, there has always seemed to be something truly dangerous in allowing the floodwaters of contempt and fear to rush through on to women.

No doubt female masochism continues to exist and perhaps even calmly to multiply, but in traditionally much more circumspect and self-preserving forms. It is striking that the theme of the contractual basis of masochism, first identified by Deleuze in his Coldness and Cruelty essay, has been stressed by female writers on the subject. So, if masochism represents itself in one sense as a taking on of the helplessness and passivity traditionally associated with woman (though not, let us note, by many male masochists), it is clear that it also allows a pretty traditional male exposure to risk and what can be called the infinite of finitude, the finitude that goes infinitely far beyond me in putting a stop to my hubristic reaching after illimitability. It is hard for men to write in shame without attempting to coin glory from it. Writing of sacrifice, Georges Bataille evokes the Christian ‘man-god’ who dies ‘both as rottenness and as the redemption of the supreme person’. In its proleptic embrace of the ‘empty infinity’ of its death, ‘the me raises itself to the pure imperative, living-dying for an abyss without walls or floor; this imperative is formulated as “die like a dog” in the strangest part of being.’. Deleuze too looks to shame for its possibilities of glory. I am unpersuaded or perhaps just insufficiently insufflated by all these phallic, masterful, life-enhancing, willing-to-power kinds of destitution, knowing full well that I do not come up to them, and meaning not to. Deleuze’s Life is shameless, an immortal mortality. Not, alas for me, and the legion such as me, the flight from shame into shameless becoming.

Female shame expresses itself as alienation: to be ashamed of your body is to be alienated from the ideal form of it one wishes one had. Female shame cooperates with narcissism, male shame with centreless self-disgust. Females are encouraged to hate their bodies, as a way of keeping them in agreement about the ideal forms of beauty attainable in the female form. Men are disgusted by their bodies, not because they feel they fall short of some equivalently agreed ideal male form, but because they are so much like other men’s. Female shame is shame by reference to a model: male shame is shame by reference to the transcending of models. Corporeality used to be thought of as female; corporeality, the body as dog’s body, is now male. Deleuze and Guattari are right to identify shame with the animal, or with the becoming animal. The gendering of animals and the animalising of gender has perhaps been insufficiently inspected. Women of course are snakes, swans and cats, and men are pigs, bulls and dogs, but above all and in particular, dogs. There is an advertisement which was being widely shown on British TV a few months ago. I can’t remember what it was advertising (breakfast cereal? pet-food? depilatory cream? online shopping?), but what its narrative recruited us to was the revenge taken by a woman who wakes up to the disgusting sight of her spouse or partner snoring in the bed beside her. What more natural than that she should pile a bowl full of dog-food, plant it on her slobbering spouse’s chest and whistle smirkingly for the dog? That the man wakes up to see in the dog’s breakfast that has been made of his body the image of what he is, seems to be the only point of the advertisement (well, all right, for me). What pleasure for men of my temper to see hers? What, now, are men, but dogs? What, now, do we want, but intervals when we can stop pretending that we are not? (The word ‘we’ has its usual Pickwickian application.) Dominatrices and maso-tourist institutions such as the Other World Kingdom in the Czech Republic also provide opportunities for their clients to be treated like pigs, sheep, and ponies, though not, as far as I can see, cats or monkeys or battery hens or other animals that are victims of human use and abuse. But when it comes to knowing oneself as pure, slavering servitude, mere dog’s body, a dog is indeed man’s best friend. So, from Istanbul to the Isle of Wight, no dungeon worthy of the name lacks its kennel.

Male shame operates without models or objects. This may be one of the reasons for the energetic production of consensual male narcissism to match that of women. Without the projection and internalisation of narcissistic ideals, the intensity of shame being undergone by men would be quite unbearable. (But it is you see.) To be ashamed of oneself without a regulatory ideal, or sense of a standard from which one has fallen short, for that kind of unorientated self-disgust to prosper, would be dangerous indeed. In one sense, a strong pedagogy of the masculine such as we have today – with all these tips on male grooming, emotional literacy schemes, encouragement to new forms of citizenship, the conduct manuals of women’s magazines, men’s magazines, and, far from least, masculinity studies – multiplies the opportunities for regulatory shame of the kind traditionally directed at women. It thus gives a containing shape and coating to shame, allowing shame to become savingly attached to men’s actions or omissions and then their making good, rather than their being. It serves the purposes of masochism, and is enlisted (unavailingly) against the true, quivering, speechless shame of the dog’s body.

Shame is the exposure of the first person. Shame must be in and of that first, last person. This is why shame cannot be wholly negative: why it takes the disgraced person in a sense beyond good and bad. The shamed person has been given a kind of inviolability, through being made to be identical with their wound, or their mark. This is part of the shameful secret of shame, its secret, paradoxical potency; that you cannot be made ashamed by being dehumanised, or brutalised, or impersonalised. To be ashamed, you must be given yourself, or given to it: a new self, to be sure, a vacuum-self made of nothing, or nothing but shame, for ever, but, undiminishably a self, or a form of being in shame. Shamed people often prefer the flight into nothingness from the strong selfhood that shame gives them. Judith Butler writes that the term ‘queer’ ‘has operated as one linguistic practice whose purpose has been by shaming of the object it names, or rather the producing of a subject through that shaming interpellation’ . Here Butler seems to be on the brink of being able to go beyond or get on the inside of her habitual cultural-determinism, to recognise the unpredictable power of shame. The wielders of shame want to silence, objectify and discipline – to make subjectivity impossible. But they always risk creating powerful subjects-in-shame, or subjects resistant to shame – queers, niggers, fundamentalists, Nazis, paedophiles. For describing the world does not fix it – it changes it, readies it for change (though not every time and not always the same kind or degree of change). Descriptions – whether in the world, as in the shaming descriptions evoked in The Satanic Verses, or of the act of description itself – annihilate their objects, not because they move into their place, but because they release them into the wild, free them to become something else.

‘The shame of being a man, what better reason to write?’ This shame is the best reason, or, at least, a reason than which no better can be found, to write. It is a writing which ‘exists only when it discovers beneath apparent persons the power of an impersonal – which is not a generality but a singularity at the highest point: a man, a woman, a beast, a stomach, a child’ . But, seen in this way, writing is not itself shameful, but the harvest of shame. For Deleuze, one flies from shame into glory, as in the writings of T. E. Lawrence. Shame, not fame, is the spur for Deleuze, and when he says ‘a man’, he means ‘Man’, the man who masquerades as one. Deleuze’s shame, like Skegness in the ancient poster, is so bracing. Shame can be like laughter, which Hobbes describes so remarkably as a ‘sudden eminence’ of self-assertive glory.

This is why shame is an ideal condition for writing, for the kind of writing on writing of which Deleuze speaks in his dialogues, despite the fact the Deleuze sees writing as the attempt to avoid shame:

My ideal, when I write about an author, would be to write nothing that would cause him sadness, or if he is dead, that would make him weep in his grave. Think of the author you are writing about. Think of him so hard that he can no longer be an object, and equally so that you cannot identify with him. Avoid the double shame of the scholar and the familiar. Give back to the author a little of the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics that he knew how to give and invent.And it is also why writing about shame might at this moment again be feebly flaring: because there is a certain affinity between shame and writing. It seems certainly true for example that there is a strong male tradition of attempting to write the weakness of shame, beginning perhaps with Swift and extending through Melville, Kafka, Beckett, Genet and Coetzee, while women writers – with certain exceptions, perhaps Rhys, Duras – have seen their task as the much more urgent one of writing themselves out of shame rather than into it. Women may then temporarily have abandoned, in the sure and certain hope of the life to come, some of the fugitive advantages that the inhabitation of shamefulness can give. When he writes of this male tradition, Deleuze seems to see writing as the attempt to expiate shame, to find the glory in shamefulness, as in his essay on T.E. Lawrence. But to write about Kafka, to hope to ‘please’ the writer who wrote of the hope for an enduring shame, wrote for and in the endurance of shame, can never simply be to restore ‘the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics’. When he glosses the final phrase of Kafka’s The Trial – ‘it was as if the shame of it must outlive him’ with the judgement that ‘shame enlarges the man’, Deleuze surely succumbs to the double shame against which he warns himself. For he rewrites Kafka aggressively on his own terms, as he does in the superbly cowardly reading he undertakes with Guattari of Kafka as a kind of Lawrentian prophet of life and becoming. Shame is not to be identified with the ‘life’ on which Deleuze and Guattari so tediously and oppressively insist, but then, life isn’t everything.

For shame is not a merely negative condition, any more than masochism is the simple embrace of suffering, the mistaking of suffering for life. Shame is a whole mode of being, not a deprived or depleted version of ordinary ‘full’ being. Shame is not a lack of being: it is an intolerable excess of it. Shame is heightened attentiveness, which may be why shaming or humiliation are so important in rites of passage. Guilt looks on itself, face to face, seeing itself for what it is. Shame seems rather to be of the ear, for it cannot see round itself, or even of the listening, prickling skin. It is an aversion of the eye, a straining to hear, an absorption, a curious obedience.

I have kept circling back to Léon Wurmser’s insight that what we take to be shame is always in part a front or mask, protecting against the annihilation of shame itself, than which nothing can be more annihilating, aside from pain and bodily destruction itself. But any prophylactic also harbours the thought and possibility of that which it forfends, becoming its secret home. Many of the signs of shame – stony pallor, bowed head, downcast eyes – are inhibitions or dammings of the flooding overstimulation of shame, that also hold and hoard it. The mask of shame preserves shame for the ego, as well as preserving the possibility of an ego against it. There is strength and value in this manner of narcissism, which can open on to the being in unbeing of the self. There is elation in the mortifications of shame, and also exaltation, longing, quickening, tenderness, endurance, awe, astonishment and the taking of exultant care. You cannot live in shame, but until you’ve been ashamed, you’ve never lived. The opposite of shame is honour, but what is its negative? Shamelessness. Oh, but shame is so big and hungry it gobbles up both opposites and negatives, and so shamelessness belongs to shame. Shame is exorbitant, addictive, excessive, wanton. Shame is itself shameless, which is why it can cause such anger and resentment in those who encounter it. The disgraced must be kept on display, but the truly ashamed must be got out of our sight, for they make our skins crawl. Shame is dangerous, people die of it, but it is also powerful. Shameless shame has been virulently operative in the history of religious feeling, in the heretical eruptions of spiritual and bodily destitution to be found in medieval mysticism and seventeenth-century religious dissidence, for instance, before they were themselves subjected to saving, shaming discipline on the part of religious institutions. Many of these unbound affects in religious enactments of shame have passed across into the erotic, that great swirling sink of unfinished business, though perhaps that erotism is now already fidgeting to be on its way to being something else. Shame is not a state, or an emotion. It is an inflammation, an inundation, a hunger, a cataract. Shame is on the move, as always. What can it want from us? Whatever it can get, our shame, more and more of it, for ever, as though it were meant to outlive us, and it is.