2003-04 Pembroke Seminar

"Shame" 
David Konstan
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center
John Rowe Workman Distinguished Professor of Classics

In 2003-04, the Pembroke Seminar will explore the subject of shame and related sentiments. We will look at both cross-cultural and historical manifestations of shame and congruent concepts. We will examine the relationships between shame and its purported opposites, such as honor and pride, and between shame and its other, guilt, taking note of how these tensions have entered into the construction of social ideologies. In particular, attention will be directed to the role of shame in constructing differences of gender and class.

The Seminar will examine the problem of comparing emotional and psychological concepts in different languages: how does one determine whether ancient Latin pudor or modern Japanese amae corresponds to a given English term? Did the concept of shame undergo important changes after the Enlightenment, or with the advent of Romanticism? Is it differently construed within the so-called “Western” tradition and in other societies? Does the concept of shame in modern psychology and psychotherapy differ from the way shame is understood in popular culture?

How does shame relate to guilt? Some psychoanalytically minded investigators, following in the footsteps of Helen B. Lewis, have treated shame as the emotion most destructive to the self; they have argued that it is far more devastating than guilt, which is limited to a sense of responsibility for a specific act. Guilt invites reparation; shame produces a desire to disappear from view. Others, particularly scholars writing in the Christian tradition, reverse the priorities and see guilt as being both the more advanced and also the more profound emotion; guilt, it is argued, involves an interiorized sense of responsibility and a developed sense of self, whereas shame is a mere reflex to public opinion. This latter view received a boost in anthropological circles when Ruth Benedict launched the distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Since then, there has been a backlash, particularly among Japanese scholars, who have regarded the privileging of guilt as a manifestation of Western arrogance. Is there in fact a trans-historical distinction between shame and guilt?

One of the fundamental anthropological constructs, particularly in the study of Mediterranean cultures, has been the polarity of shame and honor. In this context, shame is both sexualized and differentiated according to gender: the shame of a woman constitutes a blot on the honor of her menfolk, who are then bound to avenge the slur. Some scholars have projected a similar distinction upon ancient Greek and Roman societies, while others have argued that it was foreign to classical culture. What is the origin of this construct? How widespread is it? What, in particular, is the relationship between shame and sex? Does the distinction between shame and honor say as much about anthropologists’ views as it does about those of the cultures under investigation?

Today, it is commonplace to describe pride as the opposite of shame. Yet in many languages, pride (or the nearest equivalent) is a negative idea (as in “pride goeth before a fall”), and no positive equivalent seems to exist. Is the idea of pride as self-esteem a modern innovation, and is the corresponding notion of shame as a negative or unhealthy sentiment equally specific to modern cultures? We still think of “shameless” as an insult; ought people to have shame? Is there a difference between a sense of shame and being ashamed? Do there exist corresponding differences in other cultural and linguistic traditions? How necessary is shame to morality?

Finally, what are the politics of shame? How is it exploited in the media? The seminar will also consider the effects of modern technology on shame: what does it mean to have access to chemical means of reducing feelings of shame? How and when did shame become pathologized? Who feels shame, and why?