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Samantha Vice’s proposal on how to live in ‘this strange place’ of contemporary South Africa, includes an appeal to the concepts of shame and silence. In this paper, I use Emmanuel Levinas and Giorgio Agamben to move the discussion of shame from a moral to an existential question. The issue is not about how one should feel, but about the kind of self that whiteness in South Africa makes possible today. Shame desubjectifies. Vice’s recommendation of silence is then taken as witnessing/listening, which I argue grounds the possibility of a recovery of the self.
Shame and Silence
Bruce B. Janz
Dept of Philosophy
University of Central Florida
Samantha Vice’s proposal on how to live in ‘this strange place’ of
contemporary South Africa, includes an appeal to the concepts of
shame and silence. In this paper, I use Emmanuel Levinas and
Giorgio Agamben to move the discussion of shame from a moral to
an existential question. The issue is not about how one should feel,
but about the kind of self that whiteness in South Africa makes possi-
ble today. Shame desubjectifies. Vice’s recommendation of silence is
then taken as witnessing/listening, which I argue grounds the possi-
bility of a recovery of the self.
Samantha Vice’s article is a rich, careful, and empathetic set of reflections on a very
real issue within South Africa today. The question of how to live in ‘this strange
place’ is a recognition not only that South Africa has changed, but that the terms of
reference and social assumptions have, for many people, also changed. To be sure,
some things have not changed – strong social and cultural allegiances, deep and abid-
ing inequities of means and of opportunity, which can be mapped both by race and by
class, and a strong sense on the part of many that the legacy of apartheid has not yet
been fully addressed or even understood, despite concerted and deliberate efforts over
the past twenty years. Strangeness is the experience of the unfamiliar in the familiar.
Vice frames the issue as one of personal ethics – ‘how do I live,’ as opposed to ‘who
should be blamed?’ She searches for an authentic and ethical stance that whites in
South Africa might take (she suggests shame as appropriate) along with an ethical re-
sponse that this stance might yield (she suggests silence here). Both of these are pre-
sented as tentative, and are meant as conversation starters. She clearly wants to do jus-
tice to the reality and scope of the problems, but also to the sense of aspiration and
identity that all in South Africa partake in. She does not advocate an option that we
might associate with post-genocide Rwanda, in which ethnicity is largely ignored and
Rwandans are encouraged to move forward as if the divisions of the past and the prob-
lems have been banished. She does not engage in an analysis, à la Karl Jaspers, of the
‘question of South African guilt’, analyzing different forms of guilt in order to decide
which can be properly assigned to whom.
Vice is also not talking about a shift of tactics in maintaining white privilege.
Achille Mbembe, in a piece written a few years ago for the website Open Democracy
also raised the question of what it means to be white in contemporary South Africa. He
focused particularly on the continued privilege that whites enjoy, and the post-apart-
heid reframing that claims that ‘white racism can no longer be considered the most
fundamental cause of black poverty’ in South Africa. (Mbembe 2007) Vice explicitly
distances herself from that rhetoric, and makes clear that we are on a different issue
entirely. She is interested in the question of what it means when whites recognize and
inhabit their role as a group in the formation of the problems within South Africa. She
is interested in the possibilities of human existence in a place, as opposed to the
calculus and genealogy of responsibility.
It must be recognized, though, that a strong hermeneutic of suspicion is possible to-
ward any analysis on the part of whites toward theorizing their place. Mbembe makes
clear that, as with any anti-racist movement (his example is the American struggles for
racial equality since the end of slavery), success does not so much banish racism and
set the stage for social equality, as it changes the terms of racism, and gives a reason
for the successes of anti-racist movements to be depicted as the end of racism, and in
fact, even as the reversal of racism such that the previously dominant group becomes
the oppressed group.
Vice’s paper is not, furthermore, about liberal guilt, finding some token action that
will ‘get us off the hook’ and help whites sleep at night. That is just a plea for forgive-
ness, which is the proper response to guilt, and this lies solely in the hands of those
wronged. Nor is her discussion about regret, the proper response to which is some
form of making amends. It is not about setting up some liberal version of social equal-
ity, which will make things all better. It is not a plea for a humanism that transcends
race. Nor is it an attempt to convince South Africa’s non-whites that that was then and
this is now, and we can start all over as if nothing happened if only everyone is willing
to forgive and forget. As the King of the Swamp Castle absurdly said in Monty Python
and the Holy Grail after he had killed people for no good reason, ‘Let’s not bicker and
argue over who killed who.’
Vice’s paper is also not about being a race traitor. Using the frame of ‘whiteness’ in
South Africa is an interesting choice, in that it elides the Afrikaner/English distinction,
and so might suggest this direction, but it is not the issue at stake in the paper. It is not
about ignoring the status or plight of poor whites, nor is it about denying the signifi-
cance of community for anyone in South Africa. It is also not about the search for a
new kind of heroism, however, the kind of self-sacrifice that establishes once and for
all that the great evil of apartheid can bring forth the great good of restoration, again in
the hands of the white actor. It is not a re-inscription of the myth of non-white passiv-
ity. There is no search for the virtue of abasement here.
Vice is, therefore, walking a tightrope in writing this article. So, it is gratifying to
see just how successful she is. The success is, in part, with what she avoids, and in
part with what she accomplishes. For Vice, it is about the nature and source of shame
in this specific place, different from the source of guilt and regret, and what can be
done about it. Her intent is more personal, and in that, I think there is an opening to
take her further, or rather, to tease out what might be a more existential issue that un-
dergirds her essay in ethics. In what follows, I will consider the nature of shame, and
the nature of silence, in order to think about what might come out of the current situa-
tion that is creative and constructive for all.
Existential Shame in Levinas and Agamben
The ‘strange place’ of Vice’s title is not a place that has changed, but in which the po-
tential for self-creation has changed. The selves within the place have changed. The
S. Afr. J, Philos. 2011, 30(4) 463
central question here is what kind of self can be created in this place, under these cir-
cumstances? Is there a self-to-come, after what has happened?
A prerequisite of the self-to-come, for Vice, is a sense of shame for ‘falling below
the standards one sets for oneself’ (328). Her tentative recommendation is silence. But
this formulation seems too weak, too apt to frame shame as just a moral concept. In
what follows, I will argue for a more existential sense of shame. Vice’s version of
shame leads, at best, to a re-ordering of the moral universe, whereas I want to argue
for a reconstitution of the self. For this, a fuller sense of shame will be required.
Shame is based in visibility. The visibility is racial visibility, but it is also class visi-
bility. The visible source of shame comes not just from the mere fact of whiteness, but
also from the evident privilege inherited through the exercise of past oppression. I will
put Vice in conversation with an early essay by Emmanuel Levinas, translated as ‘On
Escape’ (in a volume by the same name), and a later work written partly in response to
it, by Giorgio Agamben.
As far back as Max Scheler, through phenomenological accounts in Jean-Paul Sartre
and Simone de Beauvoir, and certainly through Levinas and Agamben, shame is seen
as more than just an emotion, but as being in some way a mode of being for the self, or
a construction of the self. For Scheler, it is one of several feelings ‘through which we
can feel our own selves.’ (Emad 1972: 362). Levinas in ‘On Escape’ depicts it as a
kind of nakedness – ‘we cannot hide what we should like to hide’ (Levinas, 64). Not
all nakedness is shameful, though – it becomes shame when it is ‘the sheer visibility of
our being, of its ultimate intimacy.’ Intimacy is ‘our presence to ourselves’, which re-
veals ‘not our nothingness but rather the totality of our existence. … Shame is, in the
last analysis, an existence that seeks excuses.’ Levinas anticipates Sartre’s analysis in
Being and Nothingness, where Sartre uses the idea of shame to establish the impor-
tance of the Other – ‘But the Other is the indispensable mediator between myself and
me. I am ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other.’ (Sartre 1966: 272)
If Levinas (and Sartre) are correct, the question arises as to who the Other might be,
in whose presence nakedness might evoke shame. The obvious answer within the
South African context is that the Other in this case is the non-whites. But this is also
what might be termed ‘collective shame’ (Karlsson & Sjöberg 2009: 344), in other
words, it is shame felt due to membership in a group. The nakedness, then, is different
from that in which someone wants to keep something private, and it is shown to the
world. In fact, some white people might wish for more transparency as a way of allevi-
ating shame if, for instance, they or their family were involved in the resistance to
apartheid. The individual might see that as mitigating membership in an otherwise
privileged group. ‘If only people could see how we are clothed in virtue’, one might
think, ‘the nakedness of our visible racial affiliation would be less of a taint’. And yet,
it is not at all clear that such a moral calculus would in fact relieve much shame. There
are not moral ‘offsets’, akin to carbon offsets, that one can buy to make everything
balance out. And, even the hyper-nationalist posturing of the extreme right (both in
South Africa and elsewhere) is an admission of nakedness – the collective body is
clothed in the flag and in other symbols of national pride, in an effort not to have to
face the nakedness and shame that comes with it. It is still the ontology of whiteness
that is implicated, and produces the shame.
All this does raise the question of whether one can decide to experience shame, or
whether its experience is the prerequisite for any further inquiry into one’s subjectivity
in a place. Vice searches for the proper term to describe what she sees as the appropri-
464 S. Afr. J, Philos. 2011, 30(4)
ate emotion for whites, and arrives at shame over the (also appropriate) emotions of
guilt and regret as capturing the ‘identity and phenomenology of the white South Afri-
can self.’ (332) At times, though, she seems to suggest that the presence of a sense of
shame is the proper starting point for progress toward social justice. There are, of
course, plenty of whites who might not feel shame for a variety of reasons – they do
not feel personally responsible for social injustices, they do not feel as if the inequities
are really unjust, they feel as if whites have worked harder or smarter and so deserve
their privilege, or perhaps they feel as if social conflict is the way of the world, and
some people win and others lose. From my perspective, these are deeply problematic
reasons for not feeling shame (I agree with Vice that shame ought to be felt by whites,
in South Africa and elsewhere, for a whole variety of reasons). But the issue here is
this: If shame is existential and phenomenological, the question of whether one per-
sonally feels pain or not is beside the point. Shame may manifest itself in feelings of
shame, but it may also manifest itself in hyper-nationalism, hyper-individualism, and
other self-justifying social stances. If it is moral, it is about one’s personal reactions to
wrong, but if it is existential, there’s something else going on. That ‘something else’ is
described by Agamben.
Agamben starts from a different place than does Levinas. When he talks about
shame in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, it is the shame felt by
the survivors of Auschwitz. It is, in other words, the shame of the victim, not the
shame of the perpetrator. He presses Levinas’ version of shame further:
To be ashamed means to be consigned to something that cannot be assumed.
But what cannot be assumed is not something external. Rather, it originates in
our own intimacy; it is what is mostintimate in us (for example, our own physi-
ological life). Here the ‘I’ is thus overcome by its own passivity, its ownmost
sensibility; yet this expropriation and desubjectification is also an extreme and
irreducible presence of the ‘I’ to itself. It is as if our consciousness collapsed
and, seeking to flee in all directions, were simultaneously summoned by an ir-
refutable order to be present at its own defacement, at the expropriation of what
is most its own. In shame, the subject thus has no other content than its own
desubjectification; it becomes witness to its own disorder, its own oblivion as a
subject. This double movement, which is both subjectification and
desubjectification, is shame. (Agamben, 105-6)
Shame, then, is a kind of existential nakedness, as for Levinas, but it is also a
desubjectification. Shame is the subject ‘summoned ... to be present at its own deface-
ment’, in other words, the subject not under total loss or dissolution, but the subject as
constituted enough to recognize its own nakedness. The self is a ‘witness to its own
disorder, its own oblivion as a subject’.
While Agamben’s focus is on the shame of the victim, there is something useful
here for Vice’s argument. Shame must always be predicated on a recognition of the
self as out of place. This is not regret, as Vice points out. One might regret doing what
was necessary to do. Here, though, there was no necessity, and that is part of what
leads to the oblivion of the subject.
It is noteworthy that, between Levinas and Agamben, there is a sense that shame
could occur on many sides of a social situation. There is shame in being a perpetrator,
and there is shame in being a victim. While these may not be the same shame, they
both involve the question of one’s constitution as a subject, and the contradiction one
S. Afr. J, Philos. 2011, 30(4) 465
might feel in being brought face to face with one’s nakedness. Clearly there was
shame during the apartheid era, as humiliations mounted year after year. The shame
was multiplied through the putatively ‘rational’ account given for this violence – the
laws were for social order; everyone was better off if non-whites became like whites
as much as possible; other races were like children, and required discipline. It is one
thing to be oppressed openly, and quite another to be asked to discipline oneself into
believing that the rules are there for one’s own good. In a Foucauldian account, such
self-surveillance and abjection leads to a kind of shame.
But the shame that Vice sees as appropriate is a different kind. It still has this sense,
as seen in Agamben, of the self coming face to face with itself, nakedly witnessing its
own disorder. That disorder comes in part from the recognition that the white South
African self cannot truly own its place in the social order, since that place has come at
the cost of others, if only indirectly. It is, of course, also possible that there is still di-
rect current action on the part of well-meaning whites that undergirds the inequality in
South African society. That would be cause for regret. And, it is also possible that
there was past action perpetrated by someone, which would be the cause for guilt. But
shame is different – it is the residue of the self after we have accounted for the sources
of regret and guilt.
Agamben moves from a phenomenology of shame to one of testimony.He notes that
Primo Levi considers the ‘impossible dialectic between the survivor and the
Muselmann’ (Agamben 120). Testimony is a process that involves the survivor, who
‘can speak but who has nothing interesting to say; and the second [the Muselmann],
who ‘has seen the Gorgon,’ who ‘has touched bottom,’ and therefore has much to say
but cannot speak.’ Agamben points out that it seems as if the survivor is the one who
has borne witness to the inhuman, but in fact, ‘the subject of testimony is the one who
bears witness to a desubjectification’ (120-1, italics in original). This, he says, means
that every testimony ‘is a field of forces incessantly traversed by currents of subjectifi-
cation and desubjectification.’ In other words, testimony is tied to shame. And, that
shame is not only the shame of the survivor, but of the perpetrator. Agamben’s formu-
lation about testimony is that ‘human beings are human insofar as they bear witness to
the inhuman.’ (121)
Agamben suggests here that there is a perspective on subjectification and
desubjectification which bears witness to the inhuman, and in the testimony that comes
out of that, makes something human possible. This is not to elevate or privilege the
position of the perpetrators of apartheid, as if their perfidy affords them a special un-
derstanding of evil that somehow makes them more human than those who had that
evil perpetrated upon them. But they too can become abject.
The primary focus for Agamben is on the phenomenon of Auschwitz, and in particu-
lar, the question of what it means to be human in the face of the abject condition of the
‘Muselmann’. This is the term used by inmates at Auschwitz and in other camps for
other inmates who were at the edge of human existence, the ‘absolutely unwitnessable,
invisible ark of bio-power.’ (Agamben 156). Agamben (partly via Primo Levi) ad-
vances several hypotheses as to why ‘the Muslim’ (the direct translation of
‘Muselmann’, although without the connotations that became attached to that figure in
the camps, and without necessary literal reference to Islam itself) becomes the face of
abjection, which revolve around the effects of malnutrition and abuse on the body. It is
the person so abject that looks like he is permanently praying, so abject that even other
concentration camp prisoners shun him: ‘No one felt compassion for the Muslim, and
466 S. Afr. J, Philos. 2011, 30(4)
no one felt sympathy for him either. The other inmates, who continually feared for
their lives, did not even judge him worthy of being looked at.’ (Agamben 43).
Agamben’s point in considering this extreme case is to raise the question of the line
between the human and the inhuman, and in doing so, bring the human back into fo-
cus. The Muselmann is the ‘non-human who obstinately appears as human’ (Agamben
Bruno Bettelheim spent time in Auschwitz during the war. He sees the Muselmann
as a moral figure. Paradoxically, he describes the commander of Auschwitz, for in-
stance, as a ‘well fed and well clothed’ Muselmann, who had to ‘divest himself so en-
tirely of self respect and self love, of feeling and personality, that for all practical pur-
poses he was little more than a machine functioning only as his superiors flicked the
buttons of command.’ (Bettelheim 1960: 238). The victim, then, is not the only one so
abject as to embody shame. The same can be true of perpetrators. They share dehu-
manization, even if the culpability is all theirs. The commander is the existential
The situation and history in South Africa is different. The point here is not to find
analogues for the Muselmann in South Africa. Indeed, the point is not even to ask
about whether there is some analogous collective shame that exists, or should exist,
between post-war Germany and post-apartheid South Africa. Among other things,
there would be a danger of diminishing the Holocaust. The point is to ask about the
nature and trajectory of shame. And that is the question Vice raises. The ‘strange
place’ in which white people live in South Africa is a place in which there is a real
reason for shame, based on the immiseration and oppression of blacks during apart-
heid. Any real healing in South Africa will have to involve changes in the material
conditions and opportunities for all who were previously disadvantaged. That is a nec-
essary, but not sufficient condition, as changes in material conditions do not
necessarily banish the basis for shame.
The significant aspect in this discussion of shame is the double movement, the si-
multaneous condition that shame witnesses, that as subjects we are desubjectified, and
each act of desubjectification bears witness to a subject (Agamben 112). To whites,
who have collectively regarded themselves as actors, and also have been used to re-
garding non-whites as passive, there is a new passivity. Shame freezes the subject, in
two senses – the subject is both morally frozen, that is, it does not know how to act or
go forward, and also the subject finds itself in a ‘frozen now-ness’ (Karlsson &
Sjöberg 2009: 351ff). The event or condition that provoked the shame seems like it is
out of the ordinary temporal flow of life, and exists as a now-moment. When shame
comes from a specific event (for example, being ridiculed as a child), the memory of
the event later can bring back the same sense of shame that was felt at the time. Col-
lective shame may not have the same specific trigger, but in a way this can make the
situation worse, since it is not just one event, but one of many that could trigger the
sense of shame.
The double movement is painful for the one experiencing it, as shame questions the
very being of the person feeling it. One is abject to oneself. The question naturally
arises, how do we deal with shame in such a way that the source of legitimate shame is
not ignored or minimized, but so that the self does not remain frozen?
S. Afr. J, Philos. 2011, 30(4) 467
Silence as Witnessing and Listening
Phenomenologically, shame is more closely associated with vision than with any of
the other senses (Karlsson & Sjöberg 2009: 347). It is about the self being seen in its
nakedness and perceptually objectified. It is therefore interesting that Vice proposes a
response to shame which is most closely associated with hearing and sound – silence.
There is, of course, a visual analogue to silence, which is invisibility (it is not equiva-
lent, of course, since the epistemology based in the two senses differs greatly – see
Ong 1977). But invisibility has its own history, in particular within racialized contexts.
One or more groups may be invisible to the dominant group. Advocating this, even in
only a political context, would be untenable, as visibility comes with connotations of
representation, agency, and so forth. Having said that, Agamben does continue the vi-
sual metaphor, not to speak of invisibility (the Muselmann is the ultimate invisible
person), but to speak about witnessing. The Muselmann has reached the edge of the
human and non-human, and at that point he has, as he terms it in Homo Sacer, ‘bare
life’. And with this turn to witnessing, we have a potential connection to silence.
Vice is clear that not all silence is the same, and that enacting it could even lead to
moral failings if not handled properly. For instance, silence must not be passive, nor
should it be a failure to listen and engage (335). While there may be a philosophical
responsibility to engage, Vice suggests that there may be a form of silence that contin-
ues to allow and enable conversation and philosophical thought. She characterizes this
as political silence. She recognizes, of course, that South Africa is the home for whites
as much as it is for anyone else born and raised there, but argues that despite that, the
shame of whites is too recent to simply go on as if nothing happened. The fact of con-
tinued white privilege makes silence a reasonable moral option, for now. As I have ar-
gued, though, the issue is existential, and not just moral.
There is a kind of religious subtext to the argument that Vice advances. The inheri-
tance of an inequitable and unjust advantage bears some resemblance to original sin.
Shame is a kind of response to the recognition that this sin is part of one’s being, and
not just the result of some isolated act. Adam and Eve, after all, became aware of their
nakedness and were ashamed. And, silence and humility are classic steps on the via
negativa, the negative path back towards wholeness and integration with the divine.
The negative path is one of the renunciation and denial of possessions including, im-
portantly, knowledge and power, which are kinds of possessions. The result of walk-
ing this negative path is to re-integrate the fractured self. Vice’s plan, therefore, has a
long pedigree. Significantly, this pedigree treats silence as an existential, not just a
moral feature of the self.
For Agamben, silence would seem to be a strange result of any analysis of shame.
We are political animals, who become what we are through speech and politics (Cole-
brook 112). In his analysis of Auschwitz, the Muselmann is silent, and that non-speech
is that to which witness is borne. At the same time, he is the only one who can truly
bear witness. It is the bearing witness that makes the horror into something potentially
One way to think about the constructive potential of silence is to frame it as listen-
ing. Vice suggests this, and it is a suggestion worth developing further. Listening is a
form of witnessing. What is being witnessed? Bare life. It is the bare life that existed
as a result of white action during apartheid, and also the bare life that became apparent
within whites by virtue of the actions of other whites. For Agamben, the concept is
468 S. Afr. J, Philos. 2011, 30(4)
part of a discussion of biopolitics, or the recognition within modernity that political
life had to deal with biological existence.
It is important to note, again, that the purpose of this paper is not to map the South
African situation in any direct manner onto Agamben’s discussion of the camps, the
Muselmann, and so forth. It is not that whites are the Muselmann, or for that matter,
that non-whites necessarily are, or that South Africa was identical to Auschwitz.
Agamben intends for us to learn from this limit situation, not to use it as a template.
He intends to establish the possibility of a new theory of the self, one not dependent on
some Kantian sense of dignity. It is a philosophical anthropology based on testimony,
or witnessing, as a mechanism that recovers the subject from the threat of oblivion.
How Do I Live In This Strange Place?
We can now return to Vice’s question. To some extent, this begs the question of who
‘I’ am. Vice, as a philosopher, may find a different path than other whites, and to some
extent, the existential shame that may be appropriate to South African whites may
have to become manifest as one’s own shame, one’s own encounter with the past and
the present. But further, I think it must begin by harnessing the ability to witness bare
life. This is a path with risk – there is no guarantee that the witnessing of bare life nec-
essarily yields the re-integration of whites into the political life. Arguably, bare life
could yield nihilism (e.g., Ziarek 2008). However, if we suppose that the point of wit-
nessing is to re-ask the question of how one might live in this strange place, Agamben
would say that that leads us back to politics, and the potential to live again.
Witnessing/listening means refraining from ‘speaking’, or asserting what we think
we know. Too often, generalizations are made about how ‘they’ live, what ‘their’ real
intentions are, what ‘their’ character is like. These assumptions are a form of speaking,
in that they determine a mode of understanding. If I already assume that ‘they’ are
lazy, I will not hear anything else. I will have a confirmation bias. Witnessing/listening
means hearing the inhuman in ourselves, not to flagellate the self, but to make it possi-
ble for us to countenance the inhuman in others.
How does one witness/listen? It is not a provisional listening, waiting to hear what
non-whites want, or what it will take to satisfy those who have been wronged (as
much as that may also be needed). That listening does not take existential shame seri-
ously, and has no sense of bare life, either that of those who were marginalized, or the
bareness of the life experienced by those who justified the apartheid system to them-
selves and to the world. That is not listening which comes from the recognition that
apartheid brought all of South Africa to the edge of the human and the non-human.
The listening that is needed is in part aesthetic, as whites find ways to articulate the in-
human inarticulable (e.g., J. M. Coetzee’s articulation of evil in Elizabeth Costello). It
is a moment on the way to a renewed ability to speak. The testimony that becomes
possible when true shame is felt, when bare life is experienced, is the testimony that
both speaks the truth of what happened, and also bears witness to the lengths we and
others would go to follow a prescribed view of the world. Even if that view was admi-
rable (and of course, it was most certainly not), its use to justify pain and suffering
brings us face to face with the inhuman.
The witnessing/listening that is, I think, consonant with Vice’s concerns, is one
which does not merely passively hand over the processes of governance and bureau-
cracy to others, but rather, finds new ways to speak to their inhuman potential. That
inhumanity is more than just a cautionary tale. For Agamben, ultimately it issues in a
S. Afr. J, Philos. 2011, 30(4) 469
legal framework that, instead of establishing a permanent ‘state of exception’ to law
(as seen in the concentration camps), establishes bare life as a new political subject.
This, now, is the one that politics must account for. But short of that (which would
take considerably more room to explore), there is still the more modest implication of
this listening/witnessing.
How might someone live in this strange place? Those who live in the place need to
determine this, but the cost of not witnessing is apparent. Despite being a different
place with different politics, the USA after slavery is an instructive example. The fall
of slavery and reconstruction gave the hope but not the reality of restoration. Too
many who bore shame were unwilling to witness it, and as such, facing up to the inhu-
man, the Muselmann, did not happen at a social level. And so, the problems continued,
until the issue was pressed home during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Still, too
many in the USA are unwilling to witness the shame, and despite the real changes that
happened during that time, the public record of the source and nature of shame (that is,
the experience of bare life, the edge between the human and the inhuman) remains
partial, leading to a situation in which many in the US can pretend that race is no lon-
ger an issue and all problems are ones of individual character.
South Africa has not, and will not, take the same trajectory, but the failure to witness
shame has consequences. It means using all the arts to speak the truth about contempo-
rary South Africa.
There is no single way that this witnessing will occur, and it will surely be different
for South Africa than for anywhere else (including elsewhere in Africa). But this, it
seems to me, is a potentially restorative way to live. The questions brought by guilt
and regret still have to be addressed, of course, but this is a way of addressing the
question of shame.
Agamben, Giorgio (1999). Remnants of Auschwitz. Zone Books.
Bettelheim, Bruno (1960). The Informed Heart. New York: The Free Press.
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In this paper I put Emmanuel Levinas and Samantha Vice into conversation on the topics of shame and politics to demonstrate how each’s understanding on these can help attenuate shortcomings in the other’s position. Vice’s ethical inquiry into how white South Africans can be and live well, is I argue, problematically conceptualised. This tracks a problematic distinction between shame and guilt respectively, and consequently, undermines Vice’s suggested remedy of political silence. Levinas’s account of ethical subjectivity, in which the self is hostage to the other person, requiring a total apology for its shameful being, however, renders the subject so fundamentally passive that it becomes unclear how the passage to politics can be negotiated. In the first movement of my argument, I deploy Levinas to recast Vice’s project, to be and live well (in South Africa) as an ethical project always already a political project. In the second (but diachronous) movement of my argument, I argue that Vice’s prescription that those implicated in, and continuing to benefit from, systems of oppression should remain politically silent, offers a practical way to cash out Levinas’s zig-zag movement between ethics and politics. A secondary contribution of the paper adds to the project of putting analytic moral philosophy (broadly Vice’s position) into dialogue with continental philosophy as exemplified in Levinasian ethics.
Using the social interpretation of disability, Foucault's theory of disciplinary power, literary devices, and feminist literature, I write an affective narrative of mothering disabled children. In doing so I illustrate the ways in which the materiality of normalcy, surveillance, and embodiment can produce emotions that create docile mothers ashamed of their contribution to the world, conflicted mothers struggling with dissonant affects, and unruly, angry mothers battling against the architectures of their children's oppression.
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This book is open access under a CC BY 4.0 license. This book examines the concept of care and care practices in healthcare from the interdisciplinary perspectives of continental philosophy, care ethics, the social sciences, and anthropology. Areas addressed include dementia care, midwifery, diabetes care, psychiatry, and reproductive medicine. Special attention is paid to ambivalences and tensions within both the concept of care and care practices. Contributions in the first section of the book explore phenomenological and hermeneutic approaches to care and reveal historical precursors to care ethics. Empirical case studies and reflections on care in institutionalised and standardised settings form the second section of the book. The concluding chapter, jointly written by many of the contributors, points at recurring challenges of understanding and practicing care that open up the field for further research and discussion. This collection will be of great value to scholars and practitioners of medicine, ethics, philosophy, social science and history.
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In this contribution, I introduce witnessing as one mode of action and interaction of midwives and women during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum stage. I understand witnessing as an embodied interrelated presence of midwives and women which takes place in specific configurations. Witnessing is contractual: midwife and woman have to fulfil their role in order to make it work. Witnessing can be an assuring external interpretation of body states. It might lead to alienation if the woman feels exposed and distanced. I show that touching can be a witnessing strategy if it is not imposed and not aimed at producing medical testimonials only. Trust is a strategy of the witnessed woman which anticipates the vulnerable intimateness which is expected from the midwife. As witnessing is embodied and situated, it might compete with the supposed higher truth of technical testimonials like those created by the CTG (cardiotocograph). If and how, where, and under which circumstances witnessing is enacted relates to midwives’ and women’s “scope of action”.
This study explored experiences of shame in the context of racial and cultural belonging. Participants were a multiracial purposive sample of 11 South Africans (five females and six males, four white, two coloured, two Indian and three black Africans; in the age range between 40 to 61 years). The participants completed a semi-structured interview on their perceptions of shame in the context of family and community. The interview data were analysed utilising interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA). Participants from all racial groups considered shame experiences primarily in relation to violation of family and community norms and values. Findings show that male white Afrikaans-speaking participants narrated shameful experiences mainly with regard to the violation of religious (Calvinist) norms and values. Furthermore, the violation of racially constructed boundaries was also likely with females with an Indian and white Afrikaans culture background. Overall, the findings suggest white Afrikaans culture to be less shaming of individuals in comparison to black, coloured, or Indian cultures. Shame beliefs appear to be culturally nuanced in their salience to members or racial-ethno groupings.
This article builds on Samantha Vice’s argument on the problem of whiteness in contemporary South Africa. I will explore the thesis of invisibility regarding whiteness and argue for its relevance to the rich per se. This thesis demonstrates how white privilege and affluence, despite being glaringly visible in a concrete sense, is rendered invisible together with the mostly black poverty by which it is contrasted. The invisibility of whiteness translates and flows into the so-called ‘invisibility of richness’, which involves anyone who is economically affluent in this country and has the same effect of rendering poverty invisible. The massive and ever-growing divide between rich and poor means that both have fundamentally incommensurate experiences of life in this country, which is why post-apartheid South Africa is such a strange place to live in for all of its inhabitants. In the latter part of the article, a suggestion will be made about what the appropriate response to the injustices of this strange place might look like for whites.
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In this paper I respond to Samantha Vice’s prescriptions for living morally as a white person in South Africa today. I allow that her ‘How do I live in this strange place?’ (2010) is convincing when read - probably against intent - as a descriptive account. It fails, though, in its attempt to provide an attractive set of moral prescriptions. I set out an argument against both shame and silence, focussing primarily on shame as I contend that the need to withdraw or keep silent follows from feeling ashamed. I argue that shame is experienced as a diminution of the self, whereas guilt is experienced as a burdening of the self by wrongful behaviour; the diminution of the self in shame experiences is intrinsically harmful, and instead of enabling the self to be moral, actually inhibits the moral instincts of a person by cutting the self off from other selves. In a group context this type of severance has unhealthy moral features, as well as negative consequences for inter-group relations.
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This study aims at discovering the essential constituents involved in the experiences of guilt and shame. Guilt concerns a subject’s action or omission of action and has a clear temporal unfolding entailing a moment in which the subject lives in a care-free way. Afterwards, this moment undergoes a reconstruction, in the moment of guilt, which constitutes the moment of negligence. The reconstruction is a comprehensive transformation of one’s attitude with respect to one’s ego; one’s action; the object of guilt and the temporal-existential experience. The main constituents concerning shame are its anchorage in the situation to which it refers; its public side involving the experience of being perceptually objectified; the exclusion of social community; the bodily experience; the revelation of an undesired self; and the genesis of shame in terms of a history of frozen now-ness. The article ends with a comparison between guilt and shame.
In this essay, I argue that Giorgio Agamben's revision of biopolitics poses the pressing political question of whether bare life itself can be mobilized by emancipatory movements. Yet, in order to develop the possibilities of resistance, we need to reconsider first of all the way bare life is implicated in the gendered, class, colonial, and racist configurations of the political and, because of this implication, suffers different forms of violence. The central paradox bare life presents for political analysis is not only the erasure of political distinctions but also the negative differentiation, or privation, such erasure produces with respect to differences that used to characterize a form of life that was destroyed. In order to show how this paradox opens up new possibilities of resistance, I supplement Agamben's genealogies of bare life with two different political cases—the first one represented by Orlando Patterson's discussion of premodern and modern forms of slavery, and the second case being the hunger strikes of militant British suffragettes at the beginning of the twentieth century. At stake is not just a diversification of the genealogy of bare life but a new feminist reflection on the possibilities of political praxis in the age of biopolitics.
Throughout his philosophical, political, exegetical, and aesthetic writings, Giorgio Agamben refers ceaselessly to the concept of potentiality. Only if we understand this concept, and the peculiar status it has for the definition of the human, will we be able to forge a new politics. It is through humanity's potential not to realize its proper being—evidenced both in the horrors of the death camp and in the fall of art from its proper essence—that we also understand what humanity ought to be. This essay argues that Agamben's appeal to potentiality harbors a normative and gendered image of life.
Being and NothingnessHow Do I Live In This Strange Place
  • Sartre
  • Jean
Sartre, Jean-Paul (1966). Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press. Vice, Samantha (2010). 'How Do I Live In This Strange Place?', Journal of Social Philosophy 41:3: 323-342.
Remnants of Auschwitz
  • Giorgio Agamben
Agamben, Giorgio (1999). Remnants of Auschwitz. Zone Books.