- Shame Now: Ruth Leys Diagnoses the New Queer Shame Culture
In From Guilt to Shame, Ruth Leys follows up on her earlier work on the genealogy of trauma studies by tracing the emergence and eventual discrediting of theories of survival guilt since the end of World War II.1 In the process, she tells a fascinating story of a gradual shift in trauma studies away from psychodynamic theories that emphasized the subject’s uncontrollable mimetic identification with the aggressor towards anti-psychoanalytic understandings of purely external stressors and traumatic images as the causes of trauma. In the book’s latter chapters, however, the focus shifts to a critique of recent work in affect theory, including a highly problematic reading of the work of the late queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Leys interprets the work of Sedgwick “and her followers” not only as a further development of the anti-psychoanalytic tendencies that have conspired to discredit the diagnosis of survivor guilt, but also as symptomatic of a larger, culturewide shift “from guilt to shame,” away from “questions of agency and responsibility” and towards what she misleadingly characterizes as a disengaged and solipsistic focus on identity. Since the publication of this book in 2007, Leys has continued to mount similar critiques, both of Sedgwick’s work and of the whole enterprise of shame-based affect theory. This review attempts to address that critique as it appears both in From [End Page 623] Guilt to Shame and in an interview and article that have appeared in the interim.2
First I should make it clear that Leys’s book does provide an impassioned, and I would say important, defense of what she calls the mimetic school of trauma theory. In this way of thinking, traumatic experiences are marked and exacerbated by uncontrollable identification and merging with others, sometimes even the aggressor responsible for causing the trauma. The founding instability of the subject that this reflects is one of the most fundamental tenets of psychoanalysis, so it is easy to understand why Leys, as a thinker with a strong psychoanalytic bent, might be critical of the attempt to replace it with antimimetic theories like that of Terrence Des Pres and others for whom the cause of trauma is understood as entirely external to the subject and “uncontaminated by any mimetic, fictive, or fantasmatic dimension” (15). The importance of survivor guilt to Leys has to do with the fact that we experience it over actions that occur only mimetically and in fantasy (like our “murderous” wish that someone else would die in our place), so it serves as a sort of proof of the mimetic theory of trauma. As she puts it, “[T]he concept of survivor guilt is inseparable from the notion of the subject’s unconscious identification with the other” (10). Our ability to feel guilt over crimes we have not actually committed is a sign of the permeability of the subject and its vulnerability to immersive mimetic identification and the sway of fantasy. Another way of saying this would be that the notion of survivor guilt is incomprehensible without a psychoanalytic understanding of subjectivity. So the denial of survivor guilt is tantamount to the repudiation of psychoanalysis. One goal of Leys’s book, then, is to remind us of the psychoanalytic insight that we can think and desire things in our unconscious that we would find morally repugnant in our waking lives, but that this does not necessarily make us complicit with evil.
In chapter 4, however, which she describes as “arguably the heart of my book,” Leys moves into more problematic territory. Here “the theme of trauma . . . recedes,” and she draws a connection between the antimimetic critiques of survivor guilt and contemporary shame theory, which she sees as having “taken the place” of survivor guilt, replacing its “intentionalist paradigm” with an “anti-intentionalist” and “material” one (16). In Leys’s narrative, the rejection of survivor guilt gives rise to a culturewide preoccupation with shame as “a dominant emotional reference in the West” (4). She portrays this...