vrijdag 21 juni 2013

For and against shame

It is not always convenient that Levinas – and I in his wake – works a lot with the concept of ‘shame’. Because although in a levinassian context that word has no negative connotation – shame can help people to break free from their illusions and mental limitations – nevertheless embarrassment for many people has strong unpleasant connotations.

In everyday language the word shame certainly cán evoke the just mentioned positive associations. But at least as often people’s first association with the word is negative in nature. Then applies: shame, that’s what you obviously want to get rid of. In such cases, it’s difficult to still use the word as having a potentially helpful meaning.

A striking illustration of the heavy negative load of the word is provided by the Dutch sociologist Goudsblom in the introduction to his memoirs. “A beautiful summer afternoon with a clear blue sky. On the street along the new Provincial Road a mother cycles with her son back in the basket. They are both good-humored, the mother cycles, the boy sings a cheerful song. Then they pass a few playing girls. One of the girls says: “Listen to that boy singing”. That’s all she says, but the boy has heard something scornful in her words, and he immediately stops singing. He feels caught, without knowing why”.

Goudsblom begins his memoirs with this event “because the fight against shame remained a constant in my life”. Here shame and the determination to finish it appear as a guiding theme and program for an entire lifetime.

A slightly different approach to shame I find in A.F.Th. van der Heijden. This writer also departs from the negative interpretation of the concept but he ultimately bends the negativity into something positive. Shame is a dismal experience which should be avoided as much as possible, but yet it may excite feelings of honor and encourage people to exceptional performance.

Following the death of his son Tonio, Van der Heijden notes that he has become grimmer and more pretentious. “From Tonio's death I have learned to never do something just like that. That has to do with a process that I call ‘enshaming’: things I used to be proud of have lost their luster. This shame challenges my creative ambition: to get above it, that’s what concerns me now”.

A third, more positive, view of shame is presented by Coen Simon in his book Guilt. About the things we do not need. Guilt and shame with him are no ‘sin’ or something that you have to overcome. They are implicit in the human condition and therefore things to be accepted. Because of the lack of an absolute starting point we never know how to act. But we pretend we know it, says Simon. And then get ashamed. There’s nothing wrong with that, it is a way to come closer to reality.

How is it possible that the associations with the word shame are so varied with  different  people? I think the differences in approach can to a large extent be explained because there are different kinds of shame at stake. In the more positive views of the word (as in Levinas and Simon) it is in fact all about think-shame: the realization that all thinking – that is: also your own thinking – produces illusions. Being caught producing illusions can certainly be painful, but it does not necessarily feel as a failure-shame, because illusion production is too much linked to the nature of thought itself, and thus to our human condition.

The other – more negatively experienced – kinds of embarassment involve failure-shame: you  perform sub-standard, at least below the level that you or others expect from you. You feel put on show in front of collegues and others. And that’s what you are determined to avoid henceforth.

I do not think it is wrong to use the word ‘shame’ to indicate both the feeling of embarrassment that occurs in the unmasking of an illusion, and the awkwardness which comes with underperformance. But it is good to keep in mind which type of shame can be associated only with negativity, and which type can also be interpreted positively.

Also see Hazardous and Something small

donderdag 13 juni 2013


Am I right to notice a kind of amazement in the coverage of the Israeli response to the Syrian uprising? As if there is no compliance with the image that exists of Israel, namely of being the imperialist aggressor or determined ally or adversary. ‘The Mossad’ did not sprinkle poison yet in President Assad’s wineglass. Expectations on the basis of the images do not materialize and therefore with some people confusion strikes.

First there was for many years rhetorical violence to and fro between Syria and Israel, while the actual situation was one of armed peace. This situation was enforced as strictly as possible by both countries, precisely for the sake of stability. When the revolt broke out in Syria Israel watched this with concern, because it is better to have for neighbor the enemy you know than one or many you do not know.

But early this year an Israeli military official told that his government would like to strengthen some groups of Syrian rebels, namely the more moderate and "friendly” ones which according to him exist between them.

On the other hand, in March the Chief of Staff of the Israeli army Lieutenant General Benny Gantz believed the risk of escalation is great. “We can only hope that the strategic reserves of the Syrian army including chemical weapons will not fall into the hands of the terrorists”, Gantz said. He found things were safer in the hands of the Assad regime.

At the end of May Israel warns Assad that the army “knows what to do” in case the much bespoken delivery of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles to the regime of President Assad would actually take place. At that moment Israel had executed already several air raids in Syria, by which probably arms supplies were destroyed that were destined for Hezbollah.

So, what is Israel’s position exactly? And should one suspect imperialist plans behind it?

Or could it simply be that Israel wants security and lets itself be guided by that consideration in its actions? It’s true, they exist: Israeli expansionists bent on expansion of Israeli territory. These are the settlers in the West Bank, which insidiously usurp areas. They are dangerous and unsympathetic indeed, and their violence can not be crossed off against barbarity – however large – which takes place elsewhere in the region. And it is also true that the Israeli army lets itself be used too often for their interests: settlers in the West Bank are considered citizens who are entitled to protection. Even though many officers and soldiers do not agree with their behavior.

But with regard to the Syrian question it are sober security experts who try in a cool and reasoned manner to keep the ammunitiondump as wet as possible. Fortunately that’s the the Israeli army’s core business.

dinsdag 4 juni 2013

Levinas and Arendt

It is possible to consider Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt as complementary thinkers. In this approach, the strengths of Arendt complement the weaknesses of Levinas. And conversely, the work of Levinas can make visible the blind spots in the work of Arendt.

For a weak spot in Levinas one can point to his political theory, or better: the complete lack of it. That is not to say that Levinas does not care about the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, or the public debate. On the contrary, he makes clear at several places the importance he attaches to these achievements, which he often refers to as ‘Institutions’.

But perhaps his frequent use of that term indicates the boundary of his interest. The existence of those institutions is of immense importance for him, but essentially related issues such as power play, public speaking and performance, or rhetorical communication can captivate him less. In any case, he did not write about them.

However, these latter elements constitute precisely the area where Hannah Arendt feels at home. The political praxis in the public space is for her a stage on which we realize ourselves and the communal life. At the political scene everyone gets a chance to show who he is, and there a multitude of voices can shape politics.

This is a catchy vision, especially because it assigns to democratic politics the task of doing justice to the individuality of people. And instead of arriving at a simplistic thinking in terms of majority-versus-minority it seeks after true pluralism.

But at the same time she perhaps has a bit too much faith in the possibilities of noise-free communication and of presenting oneself to others. That has to do with her deep-rooted confidence in reason to which mature, educated people have access and which can serve as infallible tool for the organization and content of the required communication.

Apart from the caveat that can be made that Arendt’s utopia requires highly skilled individuals, Levinas shows us this other blind spot in Arendt. Namely the fact that reason is perhaps not as reliable as she thinks it is. Because according to Levinas reason permanently produces illusions and therefore misunderstandings. Not because the people participating in politics and debates are malicious (although that could in addition be the case), but because reason according to Levinas has a somehow autistic character, which one cannot, again with the help of reason, eliminate just like that.

For unmasking of these illusions Levinas refers to the appearance of the Other, because he – the injured one – can make us aware of them. Maybe not necessarily by his appearance in public space, and with less glare than Arendt attributes to ‘showing yourself’. But with at least as much power and an equally large contribution to the plurality of the community.

Also see Totalitarianism is with us and Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further