On Shame and Shaming

In psychoanalysis, there is a clear distinction to be made between guilt and shame. Guilt implies a relation to the law. The law is the flipside of desire*, since its instantiation generates the possibility of its transgression (and hence of enjoyment through transgression). Thus, the law limits and regulates the very enjoyment it makes possible.

Shame, by way of contrast, involves no transgression, but it does always imply a relation to an Other. For a person interrupted by an Other in the course of his or her ablutions – bathing, for instance – shame may very well be the result, despite such ablutions being clearly outside the realm of law, desire and transgression. As Miller put it in his essay on shame, this latter touches on ‘what is most intimate in the subject’, specifically in terms of jouissance, and could be understood as logically prior to (and independent of) guilt. It is a ‘primary affect’, in other words.

In guilt, therefore, there is an Other who judges; in shame, an Other who merely sees, or who lets be seen. Despite the involvement of the Other (as gaze, real or implicit), shame as affect is decidedly on the side of the subject, not the Other. This principle falls into utter confusion when one follows the contemporary popular practice of reconstructing shame from a noun/affect into a verb/action, as the latter concept situates shame (as ‘shaming’ done by a ‘shamer’) entirely on the side of the Other, making the subject a hapless victim of it. This conception effaces entirely what is, in shame, particular to each who experiences it. One can compare shame in these terms to arousal, for instance. There is nothing intrinsically shameful (or arousing) in nudity. No infant is ashamed of his or her nudity, or bodily excretions. That this state of innocence changes, to a greater or lesser degree, cannot simply be attributed to the Other, since its changes are unique to each person (and culture), and never deducible in advance. One is the bearer of one’s own shame/arousal, and it is a bit of bad faith to reduce it to some self-evident effect of the ‘shaming’/arousing Other. It’s true that the Other’s body may be a metaphor for one’s jouissance (qua arousal)*, just as the Other’s gaze may become a metaphor for one’s shame, but a metaphor is, after all, defined as a displacement, and is not the thing itself.

There is something glib and paradoxical then in the popular demand for a right to jouissance without shame, whether this jouissance be of the sexual, chemical or some other variety.* Only under conditions of pure narcissism – namely, the total elision of the Other – could such jouissance exist. It is as if jouissance and desire are, of themselves, insufficient, and some further approval, or even applause is required. This misconception of ‘shaming’ causes difficulties in a range of areas, and one particularly relevant to my interests is in the domain of psychiatric medication. Even if one is broadly sympathetic to the use of psychiatric medications, one can nevertheless critique, for instance, the dependence of patients (and more pertinently, the psy-industries) on these medications, to say nothing of their dubious provenance and equivocal effects. Yet in advancing such a critique, one is greeted with accusations of ‘pillshaming’, and these are never as unedifying as when deriving from clinicians themselves. Of course, to prescribe is necessarily to interpret, to inscribe a patient’s symptoms within a medical discourse, and to situate a patient’s subjective suffering outside of subjectivity itself. Strictly speaking, ‘shame’ here is on the side of the pill-peddling doctors, and not the patients whom  they purport to be protecting through their accusations. If one cannot hear at least a whimper of self-interest in the shrill moralising of the anti’-pillshamers’, one certainly does not enjoy the best of hearing. As ever, shame sits with the shamed, not the shamer, however insensitive this latter may be in his or her discourse.

Thus, the tendency to evade criticism by accusing the critic of ‘shaming’ is a dead-end, both psychologically and politically. It situates agency with the Other, divesting the subject of the ability to assume his or her desires and enjoyments. And, in making the subject the  passive victim of the Other’s gaze, even (ludicrously) at the level of affect, it adds further mystification to psychic processes already labyrinthine in their conception, and nullification of the very desires and enjoyments it seeks to objectify and normalise.



  • See Lacan’s seventh seminar, for instance, where he develops this theme, riffing on St Paul’s letter to the Romans (7:7): ‘What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”’
  • J-A Miller, (2006), ‘On shame’, in Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis, eds. Clemens & Grigg.
  • See Lacan’s Seminar XIV on this point, especially the session dated 7th of June, 1967.
  • I am reminded of the attempts of some well-intentioned but misguided attempts by some activists who, in the interests of averting shame for clients and workers, seek to have the sex industry (for instance) constituted as a health service. Yet what could be more corrosive to the sex industry – or, to sex itself, for that matter – than to bring sexual jouissance into the domain of dosage and regulated, administered pleasure?




One thought on “On Shame and Shaming

  1. Pingback: The Lack of a Lack in ‘Evidence-Based’ Practice | Archives of a Divided Subject

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