‘For the world to look at’: On colonial shaming

Author: David Lloyd (University of California, Riverside)

NB: Draft only—not for further circulation or citation


The chilly Irish house I grew up in was quite ineffectively warmed by electric heaters distributed in various rooms. Over the child huddling close to them to absorb as much warmth as possible, they exerted a peculiar fascination. These heaters consisted of a curved metal reflector that radiated the heat from a single element or bar that glowed bright orange when operating. The front of the heater was covered with a grill, its wires spaced widely enough to allow one to drop in between them small flammable items, like cellophane sweet wrappers, and watch them ignite in a flash. They were also widely enough spaced to have permitted a child’s hand to pass through and touch the red-hot bar.

The attraction to do so was almost compulsive. You could imagine your hand drawn in, as if by some spell, to grasp the glowing element. And with no less repulsion, you could imagine, enact even, the quick retraction of the hand with a shudder of thrilled fear.

This dialectic of compulsive attraction and repulsed aversion seems to me akin to the dialectic of shame. Shame etches a red sear across a life that marks the abrupt passage from one imago to another. It leaves a mark on the flesh that the mortified subject obsessively returns to and, with equal and opposite velocity, turns from aversively, in shame at shame. The gaze is drawn to it, the gaze as suddenly veers away, appalled, in shame, in shame at shame, at the dangerous thrill of shame. Shame is, as Silvan Tomkins put it somewhat insensitively, “an ugly scar” [172]: if hidden it must be, it is hidden in plain sight and the subject’s own gaze is as compulsively drawn to it and averted from it as is the other’s.i The biblical mark of Cain, it draws attention to what the subject would most desperately wish to hide, preferably to erase entirely from their history. The mark is not a punishment: unlike guilt, shame does not elicit the punctual enactment of a sentence, or the demand for expiation and reparation. The sentence of shame is performed in its living on: undying shame. The pity of it is that its mortification is not mortal, but a rupture to which the memory cannot help returning, each time appalled anew.

One may, like Cain, be guilty of a deed that is proscribed. But shame attaches not only to deeds declared crimes, but also to acts, or thoughts, or desires that another might find harmless, forgivable, trivial even, “qui n’avait l’air de rien”, as David Bernard puts it [12]. Shame, observes Bernard Williams, “looks to what I am”: “Even where it is certainly concerned with an action, it may be a matter of discovery to the agent, and a difficult discovery, what the source of shame is, whether it is to be found in the intention, the action, or an outcome.” [93] Shame is a discovery: what is suddenly exposed in and by shame is not the deed or the desire, but its meaning in the eye of the other that becomes, ineradicably and with a certain shock, the eye of the self. Shame “is an experience of the self by the self. … Shame is the most reflexive of affects in that the phenomenological distinction between subject and object is lost.” [Tomkins, 136] Like any so-called discovery, it comes upon what was always already there, but it sees it with new eyes and utterly transvalues it. What was, say, an object of enjoyment or even a thoughtless moment of self-regarding malice, a cutting remark made sotto voce more for its cleverness than with the intent of hurting, suddenly becomes seen or heard in a way that exposes the subject and its cathexes in a new and fixing light. Suddenly, the subject is revealed as unacceptable. “You’re a disgrace.” “You should be ashamed of yourself.” “Shame on you.”

Tomkins illuminates what is at stake in this transvaluative, ruptural effect of shame. In his etiology of the “shame syndrome” [143], it is the blocking of the child’s excited, amoral enjoyment or interest in the world—its noisy boisterous play, its ambivalent desire to stare at a stranger, its identification or emulation of the parent—that induces shame [153-4]. Suddenly, what was merely a source of engagement and pleasure is deemed inappropriate and censured: hence the shock that attends the moment of shame and the sense of a disproportionate response that makes being shamed resemble being the object of another’s sudden rage. In this respect, the temporal structure of shame bears some similarity to that of trauma. It is not so much that the shameful event itself necessarily passes, like trauma, outside the consciousness of the subject, but that from the perspective of the mortified consciousness the act committed in a moment of unwary ebullience, in which one may even feel full of oneself, as the saying goes, abruptly appears as a thoughtless leap into irrevocable disgrace in which the very thoughtlessness becomes an object of shame. Though shame is most frequently described as “a painful emotion responding to a sense of failure to attain some ideal state”,ii as a falling-short of some ideal of perfection, we should perhaps dwell for a moment on that other aspect of the dynamics of shame, which is the abrupt transition in the subject from an immersion in the world and in its own abundance in the world—a feeling, perhaps, of power and capacity, or jubilation, as Bernard has it [27]—to the irrevocable horror of self-consciousness and exposure as lacking, faulty, and belittled. This sudden or abrupt passage from some ignorantly blissful state to the burn of mortified exposure seems typical and critical. As Bernard asserts, shame is a “catastrophe instantanée” [111] that precipitates the subject out of its momentary fullness into a humiliated awareness of its imposture [32]. Shame characteristically comes as a surprise: it ambushes its victim in the midst of its preoccupations, at the height even of self-satisfaction, as a moment of wounding whose mark is indelible and morbidly fascinating.

Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim almost unbearably elaborates this dynamic of shame as Jim painstakingly and painfully unfolds the circumstances of his disgrace to the narrator Marlow—there is, as Marlow remarks “Nothing more awful than to watch a man who has been found out, not in crime, but in a more than criminal weakness.”iii Though the fault in which Jim’s weakness is revealed takes less than an instant, it marks and haunts him relentlessly—for “there are,” Marlow observes, “things—they look small enough sometimes too—by which some of us are totally and completely undone.” [38] First mate of the tramp steamer the Patna, captained and crewed otherwise by a bunch of washed-up and literally shameless old mariners, the young Jim finds himself on the bridge as the ship strikes some object that rips open its hull. Determined to do his duty and stay with the ship that threatens to sink in an oncoming storm with all its passengers, pilgrims on their way to Mecca, Jim disdainfully refuses to participate in the efforts of the other crew members to launch one of the few lifeboats and scurry from disaster. But at the last second, as the crew launch the boat and the squall breaks, Jim makes his fatal leap to safety. His act passes in a moment of unconsciousness and is the occasion of the undying shame from which he perpetually flees. Conrad unfolds the rhythms of shame penetratingly:

“I had jumped …” He checked himself, averted his gaze. … “It seems,” he added. [Conrad’s ellipses]

“I knew nothing about it till I looked up. “ he explained, hastily. And that seemed possible too. You had to listen to him as you would to a small boy in trouble. He didn’t know. It had happened somehow. It would never happen again. [88]

And yet, even as the moments of shame of the adult repeat precisely the movements of shame in “a small boy in trouble”, in retrospect Jim knows that his shameful act will happen again, and again, everlastingly. As he looks back, the ship’s hull has become the abyss into which he has leaped, precipitating in one catastrophic instant a fall from which he can never recover:

“She seemed higher than a wall; she loomed like a cliff over the boat. … I wished I could die,” he cried. “There was no going back. It was as if I had jumped into a well—into an everlasting deep hole….” [88-9: Conrad’s ellipses]

Even in the few if intense hours in which he relates his tale to Marlow, Jim returns obsessively to that unwitting leap into the abyss, focused intently on the jump he does not recall: “Oh, yes, I know very well—I jumped. Certainly. I jumped. I told you I jumped. …” [97]. “Hadn’t I jumped? … Weren’t we all in the same boat?” [99] “I had jumped—hadn’t I?” he asked, dismayed. “That’s what I had to live down.” [104]

At moments, Jim’s obsessive repetition of this catastrophic instant of “the exposure” [105] is counterpointed with his equally unconscious, trance-like reversion to the innocent moment before, of unselfconscious fullness or bliss as Marlow observes it: “A strange look of beatitude overspread his features, his eyes sparkled in the light of the candle burning between us; he positively smiled.” [68] This brief trance is, however, occasioned by his contemplation precisely of what he has lost, “a chance missed” [68], the chance at “the impossible world of romantic achievements.” [68] At stake here is less any ethical ideal that Jim has failed to measure up to than the abundance of an imaginary relation of the subject to an ego-ideal all “full of itself.” Its loss cuts far deeper than any violation of the law or moral code:

He turned upon me, his eyes suddenly amazed and full of pain, with a bewildered, startled suffering face, as though he had stumbled down from a star. Neither you nor I will ever look like this on any man. He shuddered profoundly, as if a cold finger-tip had touched his heart. [68]

This fall of Jim’s will prove irrevocable, both to his own consciousness and—though we may read here also the projection of his own sense of the eternity of his shame—in the eyes or in the ears of others: Marlowe records that “this affair … had an extraordinary power of defying the shortness of memories and the length of time: it seemed to live, with a sort of uncanny vitality, in the minds of men, on the tips of their tongues.” [107] Shame lives on as a kind of possession, a haunting, perhaps a hauntology, to play on Bernard’s Lacanian invocation of a hontologie in which the “catastrophe ontologique” [111] inflicts the rip or tear in the subject that opens onto a fundamental and inescapable lack in being. [60] This fall from which there is no escape is also the impetus to a futile impulse to flee that is the often overlooked counterpoint to the characteristic posture of shame, its fixity, head hanging and cheeks flushed, that Jim more than once adopts. Flight from the gaze and the voice of the other, from the mark that this wounding has exposed, is as compulsive as it is unavailing: “He was running. Absolutely running, with nowhere to go.” [120] For the shamed has “no place where he could … withdraw” [131]: again and again, Jim will flee places and employment at the first hint of any threat that his shame might be brought to light, “hugging his secret”, only to discover that “all his recklessness could not carry him from under the shadow.” For “it is impossible to lay the ghost of a fact.” [150-1]

Ultimately, however, it is not from the eye of the other that Jim cannot withdraw. It is from his own gaze, compulsive and judging, that he seeks to flee. For the shamed, the other’s gaze is a projection: irrespective of who else knows, the subject is now viewed by a consciousness transformed by the experience of being shamed. Again, as with traumatic experience, the subject appears obliged to return over and over to the moment of shame at the same time as startling back from it in horror: “How could I have done that? How could I have been so stupid? What possessed me?” But the event and, most tellingly, the disgraceful quality it reveals in the subject, are ineradicable: the failings of the subject have been exposed, outed, and cannot again be covered up. Covering, indeed, is too late: it is the being of the subject that has been brought to light, its most intimate and secret parts, and not just the deed through which they were revealed. Nothing can be taken back; one can only go back, again and again, with neither excuse nor expiation, precisely because what has been declared shameful was a source of interest or enjoyment, dear to us and to our ego-ideal that has now proven less than ideal. As Elspeth Probyn puts it, “When we feel shame, it is because our interest has been interfered with but not canceled out. The body wants to continue being interested, but something happens to ‘incompletely reduce’ that interest.” [15] The head hangs, the cheeks redden, the feet shuffle, but “excitement or enjoyment is only incompletely reduced.” [Tomkins 137] Shaming socializes but something in shame resists. The other face of shame, betrayed even in the lowered head and shuffling feet that seek to evade the other’s eye, is stubborn attachment, the defiant refusal to relinquish the moment of absorption and abundance that was once in the subject’s grasp and the subject’s gift.iv


Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, written more or less contemporaneously with Lord Jim, works through the full gamut of this phenomenology of shame. It is, in the first place, an exhaustive record of the transvaluation of past enjoyment that shaming obliges. Given more time, I would want to attend to Wilde’s sense of his fall as specifically tragic and to the terrible sense of disproportion that haunts his experience of being publicly shamed: [Add here relation of hubris and hamartia?] “With what a crash this fell!” as he wrote to friends from Bow Street Police Station. [Ellmann 458] Wilde’s shock is not the consequence of his ignorance of having transgressed social norms. On the contrary, as Ellmann points out, Wilde consistently took pleasure in flaunting his transgressions, sailing close to the wind of scandal, “always bringing himself to the brink.” [391] Neil Bartlett beautifully captures the ambivalence, the terror and the thrill, of Wilde’s play with open secrecy: “All his characters are in terror of being discovered. Their elegance of diction is only a front; anything rather than speak the truth. They sweat, they talk with revealing hysteria about the secret of life.” [93] At the same time, Wilde’s play with discovery, living on the brink, evokes Tomkin’s child, suddenly crashed down upon in the midst of an enjoyment it knew from repeated performances of like kind to be bold, but not to be unacceptable. Paradoxically, and for all its elegant and knowing paradoxes, there seems something quite innocent about Wilde’s arrogant and publicity seeking brinksmanship. One is tempted to say that he displayed an innocent hubris that exacerbated his downfall and that his recasting of the events in De Profundis as tragic is less recuperative than diagnostic of the profound relation between shame and the shock at the rupturing effects of disgrace on the self’s sense of itself.

A peculiar moment in Wilde’s recollections of his downfall, a moment that is at once cited and hurried over, both dwelt on and passed on, appears as a kind of nucleus of shame and its spatial and temporal structure. In the midst of his transfer from Wandsworth Prison to the Reading Gaol his own ballad later made famous, Wilde is obliged to stand on a station platform in penal uniform and shackles:

Everything about my tragedy has been hideous, mean, repellent, lacking in style; our very dress makes us grotesque. We are the zanies of sorrow. We are clowns whose hearts are broken. We are specially designed to appeal to the sense of humour. On November 13th, 1895, I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. … Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half an hour I had stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.

For a year after that was done to me, I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time. [DP 881]

A relatively brief moment of humiliating exposure extends into an endless time and is for a year compulsively returned to, the date and time obsessively recalled: “With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain”, Wilde writes of “the season of sorrow” that is at once his experience of imprisonment and his fixation in shame:

And in the sphere of thought, no less than in the sphere of time, motion is no more. The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again tomorrow.

The avatar of elegant dandihood, who had found risky delight and stimulation in “dining with panthers” or with “gilded snakes” [882], now sees himself seen as both clown and convict, in the eyes of the other. The recursive temporality of this revision of his experience of his pleasurable investments, from exquisite aesthetic pleasures to shabby criminality, is repeated in the temporality of his exposure: at first in the deliberate anonymity of penal garb, then, in a second moment, exposed as who he is or rather, as what his name now communicates, the shameful exhibition of Oscar Wilde.

In what can only represent an Ecce Homo scenario on the platform, Wilde’s penal garb doubly performs a double function, at once lure and screen for the other’s eye and as object of shame and object that averts the gaze from the shameful enjoyment. To the mob of onlookers, Wilde’s shame is concentrated in the signs of his criminality: his uniform, his handcuffs, his downcast head and eyes present a spectacle that is itself shameful and ridiculous. At the same time, it deflects their gaze away from the scene of his illicit enjoyments in which his interest is doubtless “only incompletely reduced.” Likewise, for the gaze of the self, shame is focused on the ugly and humiliating garb of the convict: Wilde’s performance of this role, as of that of “zany of sorrow” or broken-hearted clown, functions to preserve and keep secret the actual enjoyment that has been struck down in shame, even as his former roles of dandy and aesthete had succeeded in maintaining the secret in full display. The structure of shame protects and displaces its object, in this resembling fetishism, where the valued object that is to be protected is masked by a metonymic figure that takes its place. De Profundis could, I think, be seen as a lengthy diagnosis of both the temporality of shame and of its structure of displacement and substitution.

Wilde’s aversion from his identity as convict thus initially has an ambivalent grammar: “This is what I am reduced to; this is not what I am.” If, at first, he stands off from this new role, however, it is possible to trace the movement by which he gradually assumes—performs in the fullest sense—the part that he has been assigned. Already he has suggested, with rich ambiguity, something other than his isolated pillorying by the crowd of jeering onlookers as the singular exemplar of shame. Posed against “my tragedy” is the phrase “our very dress”, the dress that “makes us grotesque”. For the dandy whose manner of dress had often enough been the object of ridicule and satire, from Gilbert and Sullivan to cartoons in American newspapers, the phrasing looks at once forwards and backwards. From the former “we” that would have embraced aesthetes and queers (or “sodomites”), and that must surely for a moment seem to invoke the interlocutor of the letter itself, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), Wilde finds himself precipitated into a new identity as and identification with the convict: “We are the zanies of sorrow. We are clowns whose hearts are broken.” If the convict’s uniform serves as a cover for unrelinquished attachments, it also offers Wilde the means to perform that stubborn defiance that is the other side of shame—and to do so in an unprecedented assertion of collective belonging that simultaneously, and ambivalently, preserves the space for disidentification and unrepentant attachments.

The anonymous attribution of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” to convict “C.3.3” (yet another open secret) is in important ways quite earnest, exceeding any pragmatic desire for anonymity.v As Sean O’Brien has painstakingly documented, not only did Wilde, once released, dedicate himself to exposing the evils of the British penal system, but he did so also in close association with a specifically Irish experience of political imprisonment. He sought out both the nationalist journalist T.P. O’Connor and radical nationalist MP and Land League agitator Michael Davitt as possible candidates for writing a preface to the poem. Wilde—as Eibhar Walsh has shown in some detail—was often enough identified by others as an avatar of the nationalist in the dock, “constructed retrospectively” as a patriotic martyr [8] and “reclaimed as an Irish rebel” [4], generally by association with his mother, the Young Ireland poet who wrote under the pen-name Speranza. But his own identification is at once more particular and less specifically Irish: it is with and as the convict, victim of a British prison regime that devoured its criminalized classes, including, by no means exclusively, Irish felons, the term under which British law criminalized and sought to disgrace political struggle.

Wilde’s prison experience is, in a certain sense, chiasmatically involved with the experience of the Irish anti-colonial felon of his moment. His posture on Clapham Junction platform is double: first, recognition of his identification as and with the convict; second, refusal of that identification in the name of the very individuality that, he claims, “put into motion the forces of society” that convicted him. [882] In the second stance, he stands beside himself as convict, sees himself shamed as convict, but disidentifies. The slight disjuncture or lacuna between being shamed and being a-shamed intervenes to keep open the space for a defiant maintenance of the “interests” that continue to detain him. To be ashamed of the dress of the convict still allows the displacement of the other’s gaze—including the inner other’s—from the actual enjoyments that “social forces” have declared shameful. It preserves and exploits the “space of unrepresentability” in which attachments declared illicit can still be entertained.vi

Wilde here plays out in reverse a process familiar to any Irish rebel convicted of felony by British courts. As O’Donovan Rossa had understood a generation earlier, when imprisoned for his Fenian publications in the mid-1860s, the function of what would later be termed “criminalization” was to render shameful nationalist activism and to disgrace the perpetrator. As I have discussed elsewhere at greater length, O’Donovan Rossa learnt in prison exactly how to preserve a space that he too understood as individualizing in face of the anonymizing regime of the prison, with its uniforms and serial numbers. He did so precisely by playing on the dialectical possibilities of identifying with and disidentifying from the convict population. Even the humiliating daily routine of being publicly stripped, which he “felt … more than anything connected with my prison life” [152], becomes the means to assert the political, and therefore unshameful, nature of his deed.vii In response to the Governor who denies the existence of “politicals” in English jails, O’Donovan Rossa retorts: “You don’t keep the gas burning in the cell of every other prisoner all night; nor do you strip every other prisoner naked once a day.” [158] Being shamefully stripped of the shameful prison garb—a process he admits to considering “the most arbitrary outrage [one] could suffer” [152]—becomes the sign of his difference from the “ordinary convicts”, just as his “disciplinary separation” becomes the means of forcing the prison regime to recognize that difference. [161]

Doubtless, as Eibhar Walsh argues, the parallel between Wilde’s Irishness and his homosexuality is a retrospective construction, often, indeed, a shamed displacement, though Walsh is certainly right to argue that “his disgrace radicalized Wilde’s own sense of his sexuality”. [9] But the parallel may lie less in any correspondence between the colonization and criminalization of the Irish and the invention and criminalization of homosexuality in the late 19th century than in the dialectical play with shame and resistance that both the Irish felon and the sexual convict discover in prison. For both O’Donovan Rossa and for Wilde, part of the economy of their prison experience is the movement from repudiation of the convict as the very instance of shame to a mobile and provisional identification with the convict that opens an alternative space of defiance. This is what I would want to term the dialectics of colonial shame and what brings Wilde to understand his experience retrospectively in relation to, though not as identical with, an Irish anti-colonialism with which he had not seriously engaged before.

This colonial shame of Wilde’s serves as a displacement and a cover, perhaps, for the stubborn attachments that, for being shamed, he must of necessity disavow.viii And yet it takes him, if temporarily, to a place where the dialectic of being shamed and being ashamed plays out rather differently and considerably more defiantly than in the standard psychological literature that seeks to retrieve from shame a normalizing or moralizing function. Léon Wurmser, whose work forms a constant touchstone in the therapeutic discourse on shame, offers a tripartite schema of this kind, proposing that “we can discern three forms of shame: shame anxiety, shame affect, as a complex reaction pattern, and shame as a preventive attitude.”ix These three modalities of shame represent a chronic fear of being shamed, actual shame at being exposed to contempt or disgrace, and “pudeur”, modesty, or the respect that prevents one from being shameless or acting in a shameful way. The third of these, precisely because unlike some forms of guilt, shame is a necessarily social phenomenon involving the publicly remarked transgression of norms, conduces to the ethical normalization or normativization of the subject. In other terms, it functions as a disciplinary affect and consequently is considered a salutary response. As Angela Connolly puts it, “We feel shame when we transgress a boundary and as such it has important regulatory functions, both in the personal and in the social sphere.”x

Connolly’s definition of shame as a “borderline concept” [101], indeed, suggests its intimate relation to the establishment and safeguarding of the nomos, which, as Carl Schmitt argued, derives from the foundational act of boundary-drawing or partition [nemein] that constitutes any system of laws and norms.xi We might say then that shaming, not unlike rage, can have the function of a “mere manifestation” whose function is to draw the line between acceptable and transgressive modes of conduct. Like rage also, such normalizing ascriptions of shame can fall on the subject “out of the blue” and in consequence of acts that might seem quite trivial or unremarkable under other circumstances or if performed by other actors: their function may not be to correct supposed transgressions but “merely” to mark a boundary.xii Anyone—everyone?—who has experienced the rituals of what one might call exemplary shaming in the course of schooling will recognize this ritualistic and normalizing function of shaming and the terror that can attend both the undergoing and the witnessing of such practices.


But what if these rituals of shaming are not about the singling out of the scapegoated individual, but directed collectively at a people “in their being”? In racial regimes, shame gets attached not to specific a transgressions or misdeeds, but to properties attributed to the racially subordinated population as a whole in a process whose function, as Fanon famously showed, is intimately bound up with the maintenance of the boundaries or “compartments” that police the Manichean space of the colonial or racial state. There “the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil”:

The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negations of values … He is the corrosive element, destroying all that comes near him; he is the deforming element, disfiguring all that has to do with beauty or morality; he is the depository of maleficent powers, the unconscious and irretrievable instrument of blind forces. [41]

These shaming projections are the psychic correlative of the tightly policed spatial boundaries that restrict the native to “a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire” [39] and that are policed by a constant threat of violence that reduces the native to “a state of permanent tension.” [52] It is striking how far the epithets that Fanon here ventriloquizes—corrosive, disfiguring, deforming, crouching, wallowing—externalize the inner voices of the shamed, the person who, subjected to what Irish psychiatrist Garret O’Connor has dubbed “malignant shame”, registers their own being as not only worthless but as actively and helplessly “maleficent”. Malignant shame, as O’Connor defines it, emerges when shaming “is used as a weapon by individuals or groups in authority to control or manipulate the actions and attitudes of those under their power.” It is “more than a simple emotion … an identity: a more or less permanent state of low self-esteem that causes even successful persons to experience themselves as unworthy” and to feel themselves “as objects of disgust.” Malignant shame is an affect that O’Connor identifies specifically as endemic to Irish culture but also defines more generally as a consequence of colonial racism.xiii

Precisely because it is aimed collectively, at a population as a whole and not simply at the being or deeds of an individual person, the malignant shame that colonial and racial regimes generate can launch a peculiarly vicious cycle of self-abasement, disidentification and self-oriented recrimination. Let us say I am shamed in some moment of excess, of sentiment, of speech or impulsive gesture, and shamed in a way that makes it clear that I have just manifested not only my own default, but moreover one that is supposedly typical of the Irish. My shame may lead me to disidentify even as I identify the traits that are the Irish in me: I seek to deny that identity even as my shame and my disavowal betray it. In turn, my disavowal feels shameful: why could I not embrace that Irishness in me before my ironically amused English interlocutor? But if I do so, do I not merely confirm the stereotypes that have been the source of my shame and evidence of the general cultural unruliness of the Irish that I have just exemplified? And yet, is there anything more shameful than to have one’s secret disavowal endorsed with some such back-handed compliment as “But then, you’re different. You’re not like the rest of them.” That is perhaps the most humiliating index of the shame of assimilation that afflicts the “good” colonial subjects, whose assimilation manifests above all in a kind of visceral distaste for the traits and the material culture that education and “success” has distanced them from. The little distance that assimilation confers on the colonized, a difference that in any case at any moment the colonizer may rescind, is always tarnished by the shame at the shame that maintains it.

Fanon’s compatriot. the Martinican francophone poet Aimé Césaire, in his Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, presents just such a ravaging scene of shame, shamed repudiation and final identification in order to reveal the “obtuse vanity [vanité stupide]” and the cowardice [lâcheté] of the would-be black intellectual, with his schooling and his pride in his “civil rights” [droits civiques] [116-119] This scene, where Césaire confronts in a Paris tramcar another Black man, worn down by labor and poverty, has long been recognized as a pivotal or transitional passage in a long poem that could be understood as a fiercely corrosive lysis (to use one of Fanon’s medical borrowings) of the effect of generations of shaming on the francophone Black intellectual alongside the material impact of enslavement and racism that has produced the impoverishment, squalor and stagnation of the “native land” to which he returns.xiv

The opening of the poem, indeed, hardly offers a picture of the joyous homecoming of the poet returning “full of himself”, as Fanon put it, but rather a devastatingly negative portrayal of the scandalous conditions of the still colonized island.xv It is the very image of the native town that Fanon describes in Wretched of the Earth, “a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire” [39]:

In this inert town, this crowd doleful under the sun, sharing in nothing that is remotely self-expressive, self-affirming, or self-liberating in the full daylight of this land it calls its very own—sharing neither in the French empress Josephine daydreaming far above the black masses [la négraille], or in the Liberator of the Slaves frozen in the white stone monument of his liberation, or in the Conquistador—neither in the disdain of the one, nor the liberation of the other, nor the effrontery of the third.

At the close of foreday morning, this inert town with its hinterland of lepers, of consumption, of famines, of fears covered in gullies, of fears perched in trees, of fears buried in the ground, of fears drifting in the sky, of accumulated fears and their fumaroles of anguish.xvi

Césaire’s litany of the humiliation of this “inert town” and its “négraille” (which Eshleman translates more bluntly as “nigger scum”), a humiliation enforced here by the monuments to white supremacy that write the black masses out of history and agency, continues a with furious verbal energy infused with disgust and disdain for a further eighteen verse paragraphs that culminate in the vision of his own natal home, “another little house with an unpleasant odor in a very narrow street, a miniscule house that shelters dozens of rats within its rotten wooden entrails” [89]. There Césaire grew up with his siblings, his “mercurial father, slowly wasting away from a unique malady” and subject by turns to “a melancholy tenderness” or “giant flames of anger”, and his seamstress mother, ceaselessly “pedaling” the Singer sewing machine to satisfy the children’s “unflagging hunger” [89]. Césaire offers no mitigation of the squalor or the shame that attaches to this home or of the street where it stands:

A disgrace, this Straw Street [une honte, cette rue Paille]

An obscene appendage, like the private parts [les parties honteuses] of the village, which extends left and right along the colonial highway, with its grey ground-swell of shingled roofs; but here there are only straw roofs made brown by salt spray and stripped away by the wind.

Everyone despises Straw Street. [91]

It is at this juncture, at the nadir, perhaps, of Césaire’s angry, tender and shamed description of his native land, that the spectre of Europe—that has in any case hovered over these inaugural stanzas of the poem—materializes as another dawning laden with its own history of misdeeds and shames: “At the close of foreday morning, there rises the wind of bygone days: of faiths betrayed, of ill-defined duties shirked; and that other foreday morning, which is Europe …”. [91, ellipses in original]

What follows, in keeping with the oscillating, wave-like rhythm of the poem that rises and falls like shame itself from abject humiliation to stubborn pride, is not—as one might expect from the tradition of the Caribbean Bildungsroman—the journey to Europe and to its completion of the “civilizing process” that Césaire and so many of his fellow Antilllean students supposedly underwent. Instead, the poem offers, in a peculiarly foreshortened temporal shift, the vista of his leaving not to Europe but from it, armed with the knowledge not of a “cycle of completion” but of the “real face” that he embraces:

To leave:

As there are hyena-men and panther-men, I would be a jew-man.

A kaffir-man,

A hindu-man-from-Calcutta,

A Harlem-man-who-does-not –vote …. [93]

Doubtless with some irony, the poet imagines his return as a movement of generous commitment to or identification with those he had left (a movement that will climax some stanzas later in his ode to Toussaint L’Ouverture, that figure of enlightened insurrection):

To leave. My heart murmured with pronounced altruism [de générosities emphatiques]. To leave … I would arrive suave and young in this land of mine and I would say to this land whose mud is an ingredient of my flesh: “I have wandered for a long time and I am coming home to the abandoned ghastliness of your sores.”

I would come to this land of mine and I would say to it: Embrace me without fear … And if I only know how to speak, it is for you that I shall speak.”

And I would say to it also:

“My mouth shall be the mouth of adversities that have no mouth, my voice, the freedom of those who languish in the dungeon of despair.” [95]

This assumption of a prophetic or representative role as the voice of the oppressed black masses is generally taken to be both the ambition and the ultimate achievement of the poem, “this first major epic of the black experience”.xvii But, in the face of the tenacity of colonial shame and the insidiousness of Europe’s arrogation of civilizing power, that capacity to identify with and speak for the négraille is not so easily achieved by the good subject of education and assimilation. The turning-point passage in question, an abject rite of passage that Césaire still must undergo, follows yet another long and defiant chant that rages against the legacy of enslavement, biological racism and the horrors of the Middle Passage. That passage concludes assertively, a little full of itself, let us say: “And I, and I, / I who was singing with clenched fist […]”. But the next line transitions immediately into the following scene that undercuts that arrogant proclamation: “you should know just how far I pushed my cowardice.” “One evening, in a streetcar opposite me”, Césaire finds himself confronted by “a comical and ugly nigger” who is rendered in long and pitiless detail:

A black man as huge as a great ape was trying to make himself small on the bench of a streetcar. He was trying to shed, on this filthy tramcar bench, his gigantic legs and his shaking, starved boxer’s hands. And every bodily part had deserted, was deserting him: his nose which resembled a peninsula adrift, even his blackness, which was becoming discolored under the action of a relentless tawing. And the tawer was none other than Poverty. … Or rather, Poverty was an untiring artisan working on some grotesque cartouche. [117]

Césaire’s initial response to this “shameless nigger” is a grinning complicity with “some women seated behind me [who] snickered at the sight of him”:


COMICAL AND UGLY that’s for sure.

I spread a branching smile of complicity ….

My cowardly self [ma lâcheté] rediscovered!

I salute the three centuries that sustain my civil rights

and my devalued blood!


But this initial response intended for the public on the streetcar is already a revision, an overly compliant and exaggerated performance intended vainly to conceal the identity visible to all between the refined Negro intellectual Césaire and his down-and-out counterpart. For all Césaire’s insistence, it is not only Poverty that has scoured or “tawed” this black migrant, but blackness itself and the racism it meets. His complicity with the white women is the index of his shame at being identified with the other’s blackness, as if that identification could ever be concealed from the shaming gaze of the racist other. As David Marriott has put it, in a beautiful reading of this poem and of this specific moment in it, “what makes this man into a nigger is the racist laughter that demeans him, but what disarticulates the poet is his complicity with this laughter in his role as an imaginary white man.” [42] But in fact Césaire’s shame is not extricable from what shames his counterpart, this “comical and ugly” negro. Rather, he finds himself suspended in motion between the apices of a triangular movement that I am arguing to be characteristic of colonial shame: his shame, in his imaginary identification as good Normalien with whiteness or Europe, is to be identified with the black man by these snickering white women; his shame, as an anti-racist student full of militant, fist-clenching and righteous anger that is another fullness of self, is in his being caught falling complicitously into aversion to identifying with the black man; his shame is to be caught, by himself and by these women as representatives of the white gaze, trying transparently and ludicrously to disidentify from the black man with whom he is inevitably identified by the objectifying force of racist dictates: “after all, they’re all the same.” The dynamic of his shame leaves him ricocheting like a pinball through these simultaneous but distinct positions in each one of which his imago fractures and his performance of one or other identity fails, or, as Marriott nicely puts it, “corpses”, as an actor falls out of role.

The failure of Césaire’s initial effort to mask his blackness with the compliant smile of the would-be-civilized Normalien plunges him into a second movement of shame that reflects back to him his real face and recalls him to where it is he comes from:

My heroism, what a farce!

This town is my measure

And my spirit is prostrate. Like this town prostrate in filth and mud.

This town, my face of mud.

For my face I lay claim to the erupted tribute of spit! … [119, Césaire’s ellipses]

The peculiar temporality of shame surges here again: this moment on the tramcar in Paris flashes into the other place and time—both past and present—of Fort-de-France in a searing reopening of the wound. Shame repeats and connects across the life of the ashamed. But even this moment of prostrate abjection yields for a moment to a third movement, of stubborn return to an image of black resilience:

and this people is heroic in its resilience

and our limbs dismembered in vain by the most sophisticated tortures

and the life force more virulent springs forth from this dunghill […] [121]

The cherished dream (“ce rêve vieux en moi”) of the student is negated by the image in the other’s gaze of “cannibal cruelties” and Césaire finds himself thrown again from resilience to abjection:

I was hiding behind an obtuse vanity destiny was calling me I was in hiding in the back, and look at me now a man flat on the ground, his frail defense dispersed,

his most revered maxims trampled underfoot, his pedantic declamations blowing hot air through every gash.

look at me man flat on the ground

And his soul is virtually bare

And destiny triumphantly contemplates

this soul that defied it molting in the ancestral slough.


I declare that this is just fine.

I live for the nadir [le plus plat] of my soul.

For the most sullied part of my flesh! [121, translation modified]xix

Césaire’s repudiation of the vanity—in its double sense—of “acting white”, of seeking to leverage his intellectual and civilizing formation as a means to dissociate himself from his blackness or negritude culminates in his “trembling now with the communal trembling that our compliant blood sings in the madrepore.” [123] The assumption of colonial or racial shame substitutes collective being and enjoyment for the failed identification with whiteness or the civilizing mission. What follows is Césaire’s tremendous hymn to the ethic of dispossession and non-sovereignty that is the true historical legacy of those who have been “inoculated with debasement” [123]:

Hurray for those who have never invented anything

for those who have never explored anything

for those who have never vanquished anything

but they surrender, possessed, to the essence of everything

[mais ils s’abandonnent, saisis, a l’essence de toute chose]

ignorant of surfaces by possessed [saisis] by the movement

of every thing

unconcerned to vanquish, but playing the game of the world

truly the elder sons of the world

permeable [poreux] to all the breaths of the world [127]

This ethical relation to the world appears not as an essence, however often Césaire’s négritude has been mistaken for the expression of an ontological essence of blackness, but as a relation—“porous” and non-possessive—to the world forged through, but not assimilated to, the violent histories of colonial capitalism and enslavement.xx In relation to that tradition, the militant student, “fist clenched”, becomes now the extension rather than the representative of this “unique people”: “Faites-moi rebelle à toute vanité, mais docile à son genie / comme le poing à l’allongée du bras!” [128]xxi

Césaire’s self-abandonment to this radical black tradition, seized by its specific and particular and very materially forged genius, seems to me to resist any effort to make of the overall movement of the poem an allegory of the individual’s progress from malignant shame to a recuperative transvaluation of denigration into negritude. The poem does not perform a dialectical overturning of the racist negation of blackness into a positive essence that subsumes all the negative stereotypes into values, even if at moments Césaire defiantly accepts those qualities, taking them on in every sense of that phrase. To have simply transvalued the shameful into the affirmative would have been to reinscribe the black radical tradition into a history and, indeed, a general philosophy of history in which a gradual ingathering of peoples affirms the generous subsumptive capacity of the universal of which colonial capitalism has been the leading edge. So redemptive a story is not the one Césaire would or could tell, since to do so would have been to write out of what Walter Benjamin called “the traditions of the oppressed” the defiant refusal to be part of, to belong to, even to desire belonging to the sovereign project, values and ends of an ever violent, accumulative modernity.xxii This historicist project is what Fanon so famously refused in the critique of Sartre’s Orphée Noir in Black Skin White Masks, to which we will return momentarily. But it’s also why I hesitated to describe the shameful and shaming scene that played out on the tramcar as the “nadir” of the poem’s movement, or to endorse Gregson Davis’s translation by that term of Césaire’s experience of prostration, “I live for the nadir [le plus plat] of my soul.” The poem does not describe a descent to the lowest point from which it bears the poet on an upward trajectory to a triumphant conclusion—and the end of the Cahier is notoriously perplexing, even simply at a semantic level.xxiii Le plus plat connotes rather being leveled, and, by reference to the soul, also a sense of “flatness”, being dull, exhausted, “sick and tired of being sick and tired”, a moment where to be fed up is also the obdurate resistance of the thingly, where having had enough of shame and humiliation is the discovery of an exit in going nowhere, “tired of giving in”: “Accommodez-vous de moi. Je ne m’accommode pas de vous!” [“Adjust yourself to me: I refuse to adjust myself to you!”: 108/109]xxiv

In the Cahier, le plus plat gives way to “the communal trembling” with which its hymn to dispossession commences. The movement of the poem though such flatness is precisely swell-like: or, rather, like the pirogue, one that must abandon itself to the motion it rides in order to “come forward rising and falling on the /pulverized wave” [avancer par escalades et retombées sur le flot / pulvérisé”: 130/131]. The crest of the wave does not abolish the trough and, indeed, what Césaire seeks is not arrival “on orchards of the future”, but precisely this suspension in the passage itself in order to hold to the “persistence” [obstination] of the vessel’s course [131]. So too, towards the poem’s ending, the slave ship liberated by the négraille, now “upright / and / free, [debout / et / libre]” heads for no destination in its “seaborne freedom and destitution”:

Upright and by no means indigent or mad in its seaborne freedom and

destitution, turning and turning in a perfect drift [girant en la dérive parfaite: 144/145]xxv

Dérive is one of Césaire’s complex puns or portmanteau words, condensing its technical nautical use (drift or leeway) with a pun on the absence of or turning from the shore [rive] and the metaphoric sense of a turning away or deviation from the proper course—a sense in which he anticipates the Situationist deployment of the term. The intent of liberation is not directed towards a goal or haven, however utopian, but is, rather, a deviation, a turn away from any proper destiny or historically determined end. Here freedom and destitution are one. Here too, “the shards of our shame rot away” [maintenant pourrissent nos flocs d’ignominie: 144-5].

To return to the poem’s conclusion, that too seems to confirm this peculiar sense of motion in stillness or directionlessness in “immobile verrition” [“sweeping stillness”: 148-9]: in its sweep or turning (both of which Césaire’s coinage seems to allow), it gathers and scatters the mutilated shards of the past only to hold them in suspension. Like Benjamin’s angel of history, the gaze of the white dove that ascends may be towards the past, but it is no longer appalled: in the black hole [trou noir] in which the poet fishes for the Calibanesque “maleficent language” [langue maléfique], in the record of disaster and revolt that shaped the black radical tradition through the Atlantic triangle, the poem has found the resources for an alternative conception of history and value—among them the poet’s language itself. Césaire turns aside from the injunction that would insist that to be “upright / and / free” requires autonomy and to be the sovereign subject of history. Punning homonymically and almost antithetically on “libre” (free), Césaire presents his his delivery as a self-rendering to the world of both damage and potential together:

je te livre ma conscience et son rhythme de chair

je te livre les feux ou brasille ma faiblesse

je te livre le chain-gang

je te livre le marais

je te livre l’intourist du circuit triangulaire

dévore vent

je te livre mes paroles abruptes

to you I deliver my consciousness and its carnal rhythm

to you I deliver the fires in which my weakness glistens

to you I deliver the chain gang

to you I deliver the swamp

to you I deliver my visa for the triangular circuit

devour, wind

to you I deliver my brusque utterances [146-7]

The working through of colonial or racial shame is not envisaged as an overcoming but as an inhabitation or “embrace”, a “binding” [#173, p. 149] that ties [lie] the I to the we—“embrasse-moi jusqu’au nous furieux [146]—without remorse. If shame appears, according to Bernard, as an “ontological catastrophe” in face of the essential lack-in-being of the subject, Césaire’s response to the historical shaming of the “bitter fraternity” [149] to which he is bound by his negritude is to embrace a principle of incompletion. Césaire’s certainly enacts this refusal of completion in what seems to many readers, schooled to seek the culmination of the work in reconciliation or in dénouement—an untying of the knot—the perplexingly abrupt ending of the poem. But also reflected in the principle of the poem’s composition though the numerous phases of revision and accretion the Cahier underwent over nearly twenty years of composition and recomposition.xxvi

We may say then that for Césaire, sensitive as he is to shaming as one of the fundamental instruments and effects of any racial regime, shame is neither something to be overcome though an intellectual labor of self-assertion nor an affect that can be transvalued into a higher moral impetus. Shame becomes incorporated into the larger body of materials that are the insults of racial colonial history and along with them subject to a constant reworking and an ongoing unsettling. As Césaire proclaims in the magnificent opening of a later poem, “Dit d’errance”:

Tout ce qui jamais fut déchiré

en moi s’est déchiré

tout ce qui jamais fut mutilé

en moi s’est mutilé

[Everything that was ever torn

has been torn in me

everything that was ever mutilated

has been mutilated in me]xxvii


In light of this embrace of historical wounding and refusal of closure, we might see Frantz Fanon as Césaire’s acutest of readers, including in his acuteness the blindnesses that may belong with any good reading. It is well known that Fanon engages with Césaire explicitly throughout Black Skin, White Masks, in particular in the pivotal chapter, “L’expérience vécue du Noir”, best known in translation as “The Fact of Blackness”, where he cites at length both the Cahier and the play Et les chiens se taisent [“And the Dogs Fall Silent”] from Les armes miraculeuses [1946]. Less obvious is the ubiquity of Césaire’s imprint throughout “The Fact of Blackness” in unmarked allusions and quotations that make of the Cahier an intertext though which Fanon works as he works through his own response to racial shaming.xxviii I would even argue that in “The Fact of Blackness” Fanon deliberately repeats the rhythm and movements that Césaire shapes in the Cahier even as he uses that text as a foil against which to calibrate his own reflective movement through the experience of racial shaming that culminates in what is in effect a distinctly intellectual shame in face of Sartre’s Orphée Noir. Moving through and with the Cahier, Fanon theorizes the refusal of historicism that is the poem’s challenge to the shame-inducing essentialisms of racial judgements.

Shame, as Williams remarked, “looks to what I am”: more than any other affect, it seems to concern the very being of the self. In the colonial sphere, however, as Fanon remarked in the chapter of Black Skin White Masks that most explicitly responds to Césaire, “every ontology is made unattainable” [109]. Racial shame is historical, not essential, a product of a situation that is “sociogenetic”, not ontogenetic, one in which there is always the third term of the social situation, or “historico-racial schema” [111], rather than the simple presence of the Other to which primordial or ontological shame is attributed. The well-known opening of this chapter—“Look, a negro!” (“Tiens, un negre!”: 109/88)—peculiarly repeats, without citing it, the scenario of Césaire’s shaming on the tramcar while removing the presence of the “comical and ugly” black man. In a certain respect, Fanon seems to aver, the ravaged old man’s presence is superfluous: if, as his analysis goes on to assert, “I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors” [112], then he is always already “given two frames of reference” [110]. He is at once the “Sale negre!” and –“simply”—the Negro or Black man of the chapter’s opening sentence. Though the first of these interpellations is often omitted, perhaps out of sensitivity or respect, from discussions of this chapter, its explosive initiation of the scene is crucial to its logic: Fanon’s point is that there is no “simple” observation by the white gaze of the Black without the almost simultaneous unfolding of “a thousand details, anecdotes, stories” [111] that occasion ridicule, disgust, or fear. “Look, a Negro!” rapidly devolves into “Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” [111-2] Even in the white child’s eyes, Fanon as a Black man is inseparable from the Black man as repository of what he will analyze in the following chapter, “The Negro and Psychopathology”, as the projection or “inversion” of whites’ anxiety about their own inadmissible desires and fantasies [156].

Accordingly, Fanon finds himself, as did Césaire, triangulated into multiple positions: “In the train it was no longer a question of being aware of my body in the third person but in a triple person. In the train I was given not one but two, three places. … I existed triply.” [112] Given how insistently Fanon here marks the resemblance between the situation in which both he and Césaire find themselves, trapped in the intimate and proximate space of public transport where there is no escape and no withdrawal into privacy, his disavowal of the similarity is almost as marked as his later misreading of that scene in “The Negro and Psychopathology”.xxix There he insists that when “Césaire ‘discovered his cowardice’ … he could never say why.” Indeed, Fanon claims, “in none of his writings can one trace the mechanism of that cowardice. … The Negro in the streetcar was funny and ugly. Certainly Césaire laughed at him. That was because there was nothing in common between himself and this authentic Negro [véritable negre].” [193/156]xxx As we have already seen, this is far from what the dynamic of this passage in the Cahier actually reveals: Césaire is all too painfully aware of the educated and militant Black student’s oscillation between identification with and disidentification from this véritable negre and of the racial dynamic that motivates it. Fanon’s disavowal of the relation is all the more striking precisely because—with a similarly recursive, rising and falling movement—his “lived experience” of shame virtually repeats that of Césaire, if in different registers.

Fanon’s blindness to or misreading of Césaire, if that is what it is, at this crucial juncture where the racial scene is re-enacted for the nth time, indicates what is at stake, each time anew: the insertion of the Black as singular being into a social situation that precedes them and is not of their making but “the unreflected imposition of a culture” [191]. General and collective as the experience is, precisely because it is motivated by the imposed “genericity” attributed to the racialized subject, it must be undergone as the paradoxical and painful scene in which the subject is annihilated in their subjecthood: “an object in the midst of other objects”, fixed, “in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye”, though also in another sense of the French fixer, to be riveted by the stare of another [109/88]. In one respect, of course, the dynamic of shame that Fanon painstakingly records shares in the characteristic phenomenology of shame, including both the momentary unconsciousness and Nachtraglichkeit of shaming itself and the compulsive return to that moment. If the chapter opens with that famous interpellative hailing, “Look, a Negro!”, it steps back almost at once to the moment immediately before shame made the subject’s unselfconscious “fullness” shatter and dissolve: “I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.” [109] Or, as he puts it in one of the many revisions of his experience that reveal its compulsive hold on him, “Je hélais le monde et le monde m’amputait mon enthousiasme.” [92]xxxi In the midst of his enthusiasm for the world, he has, as he would say of his fellow upwardly bound Antilleans, found his real face there.xxxii

Except that what he has found is by no means his real face, but rather the face of shame in face of which the “real face” is lacking, unseen, deferred along with all those things it sought to be in face of. Instead, Fanon—pinioned as the Black man—is obliged to suspend and postpone his seeking for the meaning of things in order to investigate instead the meaning of the racial schemas by which he is painfully “anticipated” [121] as “the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of [him] but of [his] own appearance” [116]. Far from allowing “the completion of a cycle”, shame inaugurates “the infernal circle” into which Fanon finds himself “locked” [prisonnier: 116/94]. Indeed, the peculiar movement of the chapter, its repeated rhythms of affirmation and collapse, are dictated by the phenomenology of shame that they play out. Though this moment in the train appears as inaugural, as the chapter reveals it is far from that: it repeats in its structure and its affective responses the “racial schema” that precedes any approach to the world that Fanon could undertake and that entails that no specific moment of shaming is original. Part of the painful desubjectification that racial shaming imposes is precisely this sense of being anticipated, of occupying a place already prepared for one: from the start, as Fanon later phrases it, “it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me.” [134] This painful paradox infuses the chapter: the structures of shaming precede the subject, await him, are even familiar by virtue of their repetition; yet every moment of shaming is necessarily an abrupt and as-if-unprecedented irruption into the unselfconscious self-absorption of the subject that is his respite and claim to enjoyment of his humanity.

The opening pages that frame and dramatize Fanon’s scenario of shaming set the pattern that is characteristic of shame’s oscillation between self-abasement and stubborn resistance. It is as if he returns again and again to a traumatic moment that gathers lacerating force from the very structure of its repetition and its ubiquity. In shame in general, the moment of shaming acts as an abrupt and singular wounding to which the subject compulsively returns; racial shaming is an inescapable and repeated assault that awaits the subject at every turn and in every dimension of their existence. Its compulsion is not subjective, but an objective and objectifying social condition. Neither intellectual analysis nor rational refutation avail against it, since, as Fanon dramatizes, every effort to escape shame by reason or by rage succumbs to interruption, whether by a white gaze or a white phrase. Fixed by the phrases that open the chapter, Fanon responds at first with indignation, only to “burst apart” into fragments [109]. In the following two pages it is as if he seeks to put those fragments together again [109] by naming and analyzing the “historico-racial schema” by which he has been fixed. Then the phrase irrupts yet again: “Look, a Negro!” [111]. Like Césaire, he tries complaisance with “a tight smile,” making “no secret of [his] amusement.” [111-2] Next, the child’s fascination transforms into fear, and “laughter had become impossible.” Fanon seeks to withdraw from his hypervisibility as a Black man, his invisibility as a unique being, converting his objectification into a mask:

On that day, completely dislocated, unable to be abroad with the other, the white man, who unmercifully imprisoned me, I took myself far off from my own presence [je me portai loin de mon être-la], far indeed, and made myself an object. What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood? But I did not want this revision, this thematization. All I wanted was to be a man among other men. [112].

From there, Fanon returns to his analysis, as if “to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help to build it together.” [112-3] And once again, the solace of intellectualization is interrupted by other phrases, this time at first those, equally fixing, of what we would now term the “post-racial” white ally:

“Quite, the Negro is a man like ourselves… It is not because he is black that he is less intelligent than we are….. I had a Senegalese buddy in the army who was really clever….”

Where am I to be classified? Or, if you prefer, tucked away?

[Ou me situer? Ou, si vous préférez: fourrer?]

“A Martinican, a native of ‘our’ old colonies”

Where shall I hide? [113/91]xxxiii

So it turns out that the ingratiating disavowals of racism in these well-meaning phrases mean nothing other than “Look, a Negro!”, the phrase that echoes again at the end of this passage, followed by the reiteration of a further slew of racial insults.

But if hiding behind the shield of one’s objectification is no defense, neither is the direct and assertive riposte:

Where shall I find shelter from now on? I felt an easily identifiable flood mounting out of the countless facets of my being. I was about to be angry. […]

“Look how handsome that Negro is!…”

“Kiss the handsome Negro’s ass, madame!”

Shame flooded her face. At last I was set free from my rumination. [114]xxxiv

But the initial deliverance obliges him to continue or commit to asserting himself in his indignation “as a BLACK MAN” [115]. Thus his defiant gambit leads only to being trapped in a further fixing: “I am laid bare. I feel, I see in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new kind of man, a new genus. Why, it’s a Negro!” [116] The infernal circle closes again as Fanon’s angry self-assertion is checked once more by an objectifying phrase, plunging him back into the flush of “Shame. Shame and self-contempt.” [116]

This cycle of oscillations between moments of self-affirmation, sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes merely obstinate, and the plunge back into shame will continue throughout the chapter, and not least in the staging of its most intellectually agonistic passages, his critique of Sartre’s dialectical appropriation of the negritude poets in “Orphée Noir”. Fanon’s critique is famously preceded by his famous and infatuated immersion in the philosophy and poetry of negritude, another moment of enthusiastic self-affirmation: Citing Léopold Senghor, he envisages “the Negro recognized, set on his feet again, sought after, taken up, and he is a Negro—no, he is not a Negro but the Negro, exciting the fecund antennae, placed in the foreground [l’avant-scene] of the world, raining his poetic power on the world, ‘open to all the breaths of the world’.” [127/103]xxxv Despite the check that Fanon’s investment in negritude is about to receive, leaving him utterly exposed and bereft of all resources to resist his objectification, we would be too hasty to dismiss his ardent espousal of the movement as entirely ironic, even satiric of its excesses and its embrace of the irrational and the mythic. His whole struggle—as the later chapter, “The Negro and Recognition”, elaborates—is to gain recognition, visibility as a subject. Apart from the fact that Fanon later credits Césaire, coiner of the term and guiding spirit of the movement, with having made it possible for the Antillean “to think of himself as a Negro” and enabling “the acceptance of negritude and the statement of its claims” [153], to read in these passages a mere dismissal would be to underestimate the predicament of someone who finds themselves “up against something unreasoned” [118]. For one exhausted by the effort “to rationalize the world and show the white man he was mistaken” [118], the appeal to embrace the irrationality that is one’s essence has an inevitable appeal: “Out of the necessities of my struggle I had chosen the method of regression” [123]. Besides, when the claims of negritude not only to a primeval authenticity but also to historical civilizations put the white man on the defensive, can one but feel rightly exhilarated, full of oneself again?

I put the white man back into his place; growing bolder. I jostled him and told him point-blank, ‘get used to me, I am not getting used to anyone [accommodez-vous de moi, je ne m’accommode de personne].’ I shouted my laughter to the stars. The white man, I could see, was resentful. His reaction time lagged interminably…. I had won. I was jubilant.” [131-2]xxxvi

But in this interminable game of chess that is Fanon’s struggle for recognition or, more hopelessly even, self-justification, even the slogan of defiance, borrowed once again from Césaire, is unavailing. Fanon’s jubilance is checked once again, this time by the “accommodation” of the Black within the terms of a white reason that arrogates to itself both history and universality. Negritude is no more, in Sartre’s account, than “a term in the dialectic” [132], a phase (with all the overtones of developmental psychology as well as universal history) that is destined to be overcome, that “passes” (in the Hegelian sense, as Sartre says, but with other overtones also) into the larger struggle of humanity that the proletariat represents. “Help had been sought from a friend of the colored peoples, and that friend had found no better response than to point out the relativity of what they were doing.” [133] Worse, negritude appears as “the minor term of a dialectical progression” and “Thus negritude is the root of its own destruction, it is a transition and not a conclusion.” [133]xxxvii Albeit with the highest degree of “intellectualization” [134], Sartre’s all too accommodating blow—in effect, the trumping of Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter—cannot but be apprehended as another, very intellectual shaming: at the height of his excited discovery of his negritude, Fanon finds it “snatched away” [132], as he is prescribed his meaning, “pre-existing, waiting for me” [134]: “The dialectic that brings necessity into the foundation of my freedom drives me out of myself. It shatters my unreflected position.” [135] Sartre “a détruit l’enthousiasme noir” [destroyed black zeal: 109/135].This shattering of an unreflective jubilance is the philosophical repetition of the common dynamic of racial shaming, the “amputation of enthusiasm”, that has already occurred several times in the more visceral forms of the verbal insult and the contemptuous gaze. Though he may one more time stubbornly hurl back the poetic phrases of Césaire, Jacques Roumain and David Diop, Fanon’s affective and physical response as he describes it to us is precisely that of the shamed: “my shoulders slipped out of the framework of the world, my feet could no longer feel the touch of the ground.” [138] The psychic and corporeal posture of shame is the index of a loss of any ontological or deontological foundation, a plunge into the abyss of a racial hontologie: “Without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.” [140]

And yet, “Sartre had forgotten that the Negro suffers in his body quite differently from the white man.” [138] Fanon’s footnote to this remark is crucial:

Though Sartre’s speculations on the existence of The Other may be correct (to the extent, we must remember, to whichBeing and Nothingness describes an alienated consciousness), their application to a black consciousness proves fallacious. That is because the white man is not only The Other but also the master, whether real or imaginary. [138, n. 24]

Fanon’s reference back from Orphée Noir to Being and Nothingness is telling here, not least because the latter work is among the classic reference points for philosophical and psychoanalytic discussions of shame, seen by Sartre as the experience of alienation of the unself-conscious subject into agonized self-consciousness by “the gaze that surprises me and reduces me to shame,” or “a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other”, as Jacques Lacan puts it.xxxviii But the note is also a recall to what Sartre’s existentialist rewriting of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Perception displaces from that work. In rewriting as the dialectic of Self and Other Hegel’s dialectic of Master or Lord [Herr] and Slave or Serf [Knecht], in which the latter struggles to wrest recognition [Anerkanntsein] and independence [Unabhängigkeit] from the former,Sartre removes even those terms’ very attenuated acknowledgement of the social foundations of consciousness and its formation, as, indeed, Fanon will later elaborate fully in bringing Hegel’s dialectic to bear on the history of French abolitionism and the contemporaneous US civil rights movement.xxxix There, the abolitionist’s granting of freedom to the enslaved without the latter’s struggle leaves the formerly enslaved acted upon rather than actional: “Unable to ever to be sure whether the white man considers him consciousness in-itself-for-itself [en-soi pour-soi], he must forever absorb himself in uncovering resistance, opposition, challenge.” [222/180]. In this, his condition differs absolutely from that of the Hegelian slave “who loses himself in the object and finds in his work the source of his liberation”:

The Negro wants to be like the master.

Therefore he is less independent that the Hegelian slave.

In Hegel, the slave turns away from the master and turns towards the object.

Here the slave turns toward the master and abandons the object. [221, n. 8]

Just as, at the opening of “The Fact of Blackness”, racial shaming tore Fanon from his absorbed relation with the world, here, inversely, the unfinished struggle of the slave against the master that forecloses an unmediated relation to the world of things is the source of a ceaseless and intolerable shame. This is not an ontological or primordial shame, but one framed and determined by the historical conditions of a society—that is, every society—organized around a racial axis.

What can be said of racial shame, in the terms Fanon invokes in the Introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, that it is sociogenetic rather than ontogenetic, necessarily opens out onto shame as an affect in general. Shame is, as both Césaire and Fanon acutely grasp, a reactive affect, a response to discovering that one has been anticipated in the midst of one’s self-absorbed enjoyment and enthusiastic fullness. It precludes the subject from apprehending itself “as an absolute intensity of beginning” [comme tension absolue d’ouverture: BSWM 138/112]. Hence the sense of shaming as a check, the imposition of a boundary where none had been anticipated. It is the notion of shame as a beneficial check on the narcissistic desires of the subject that brings the moral psychologist to see in shame a potential and general mode of benevolent discipline, “healthy shame.” This check on the subject’s desires operates, like the “Hey, you!” or “Tiens!” of interpellation, as a subjection of the subject that shapes its ethical development in line with social norms, as a good subject free within determinate bounds. Precisely because shame is held to address the subject in its most intimate being, captured in the gaze or voice of the imagined Other, shame can appear as an individual affair, an ontological given repeated in every life. But what if, instead, we recognized in shame an index of our mutual incompletion, not as ethical fault to be checked but as the foundation of a life in common predicated not on the freedom and self-foundation that Fanon never ceases to desire even in face of the acuteness of his analysis of their limits, but on the dialectic of “closure” and “beginning” that Césaire calls for out of his embrace of a history of dispossession and thingliness? If racism be seen as the hatred or fear of difference, the form that difference takes is not identity but historical incompletion, a form infinitely preferable to engulfment by the universal. What I think Wilde’s, Césaire’s and Fanon’s eventual inhabitation of shame may offer is the possibility of finding within shame, and within the challenge it poses to the integrity or fullness of our being, a space in which to repudiate the “destiny” to which shame is charged with directing us. There we might entertain instead the interests and enjoyments and vulnerabilities that we find we share in common, in our mutual incompletion as historically situated subjects.


i David Bernard similarly describes the “mark” of shame: “Mais elle [la honte] est aussi ce qui pointe au corps de ce sujet, et y imprime sa marque. Eternisant l’instant fatal qui n’avait l’air de rien, et laissant sur ce corps, l’entame irratrappable d’une <<mortification>>. Vraie <<petite trace rouge et striée>> d’une vraie <<petite douleur perfide>>,” in Lacan et la honte; de la honte a l’hontologie (Paris: Editions du Champ Lacanien, 2011), p. 12.

ii See Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law (Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 184. Analyst Jon Mills similarly remarks that “Shame is the emotive corollary of self-consciousness as the recognition of one’s failure to live up to one’s own self-imposed ideals that brings about self-condemnation and narcissistic depletion.” See Jon Mills, “The Unbearable Shame of the Analyst’s Idealization” in Ladson Hinton and Hessel Willemsen, eds. Temporality and shame: perspectives from psychoanalysis and philosophy (New York: Routledge, (2017), p. 35.

iii Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim: A Tale (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 38.

iv Bernard reads this as the gift of itself that the little child would make to the mother to make up for her missing phallus, “petit fétiche qu’il deviendrait dans le regard de sa mere, grand qu’il s’estimera déja de pouvoir combler son manqué.” But this specular image is formed “sur la base d’une tromperie, d’une imposture, structural et ontologique.” [27]

v Agreeing with the proposal to publish the ballad anonymously, Wilde commented “I see it is my name that terrifies”, a remark that once again proudly flaunts his shame while concealing it. Cited in Eibhear Walsh, Oscar’s Shadow: Wilde, Homosexuality and Modern Ireland (Cork: Cork University Press, 2011), p. 16.

vi The phrase is attributed to Margot Backus in Walsh, Oscar’s Shadow, p. 20 citing her essay “’Odd Jobs’: James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and the Scandal Fragment”, Joyce Studies Annual (2008), p. 113.

vii Jeremiah O’Domnovan Rossa, Irish Rebels in English Prisons, ed. Thomas J. Cox (Dingle: Brandon Books, 1991), p. 152. I discuss O’Donovan Rossa’s memoir of political imprisonment at some length in Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity, 1800-2000: The Transformation of Oral Space (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 135-39.

viii The last chapters of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde offer abundant testimony to Wilde’s refusal to abandon his attachment to Lord Alfred Douglas and, more broadly, to his homosexuality, once released from prison.

ix Léon Wurmser, “’Man of the Most Dangerous Curiosity’: Nietzsche’s ‘Fruitful and Frightful Vision’ and his War Against Shame”, in Joseph Adamson and Hilary Clark, eds. Scenes of Shame: Psychoanalysis, Shame and Writing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), p. 121, citing Wurmser, “Shame: The Veiled Companion of Narcissism”, in Donald L. Nathanson, ed. The Many Faces of Shame (New York: Guilford Press, 1987), p. 68.

x Angela Connolly, “Abject Bodies: Trauma, shame, disembodiment and the death of time” in Ladson Hinton and Hessel Willemsen, eds. Temporality and Shame: Perspectives from Psychoanalysis and Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2018), p. 101.

xi Carl Schmitt, Nomos of the Earth

xii I draw this language of rage as “mere manifestation” and as boundary making from Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” [1921], translated by Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913–1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 248.

xiii See Garrett O’Connor, “Recognizing and Healing Malignant Shame”, in Trisha Ziff, ed, Distant Relations/ Cercanias Distantes/ Clann i gCéin (New York: Smart Art Press, 1995), p. 138 and passim.

xiv Fanon, in Black Skin White Masks, p. 12, describes the project of that work’s laying bare of the “anomalies of affect” that the structure of racist societies produces as attempting “a complete lysis of this morbid body.”

xv Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, p. 19 n.3: “Negroes who return to their original environments convey the impression that they have completed a cycle, that they have added to themselves something that was lacking. They return literally full of themselves [plein d’eux-mêmes].” Note, however, that Fanon negates this little narrative of Bildung later, in yet another footnote, p. 153 n. 16: “the Antillean who goes to France pictures this journey as the final stage of his personality. Quite literally I can say without any risk of error that the Antillean who goes to France in order to convince himself that he is white will find his real face there [y trouve son veritable visage].”

xvi Aimé Césaire, Journal of a Homecoming / Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, bilingual edition, trans. N. Gregson Davis, Introduction, Commentary and Notes by F. Abiola Irele (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), pp. 80-1. It’s worth noting that on May 23, 2020, two of the statues commemorating the “Liberator of the Slaves”, Victor Schoelcher, were torn down in Fort-de-France by demonstrators whose communiqué stated that « Schœlcher n’est pas notre sauveur »: https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2020/05/23/deux-statues-de-victor-sch-lcher-brisees-par-des-manifestants-en-martinique_6040559_3224.html (consulted August 3, 2020). In Black Skin, White Masks, p. 220, Fanon affirms that with Schoelcher’s declaration of the abolition of slavery in 1848, “The upheaval reached the Negroes from without. The black man was acted upon.” This seems a more accurate echo of Césaire’s attitude here than Irele’s claim (p. 159) that the poet was distressed “that the name of Schoelcher and his achievement seem to elicit no response from the generality of West Indians.”

xvii The phrase is David Marriott’s, in his  “Corpsing; or, The Matter of Black Life.” Cultural Critique, vol. 94, 2016, p. 40.

xviii Note to Baudelaire’s “L’Albatros”

xix Translation is modified to remove punctuation added to this passage and restore the punctuation actually in the original. Gregson Davis’s addition of semi-colons to the English unfortunately disrupts its vertiginous headlong motion for the sake of an unnecessary clarity.

xx Note to Cedric Robinson

xxi I cite the original here as Gregson Davis’s translation seems to lose some crucial connotations: “Make me eschew all vanity, yet be open to its power, / like a fist at the end of an outstretched arm!”. The first line loses the connotations of rebellion (against the vanity that was earlier connected to the assimilative intellectual’s futile civilizing mission) and the transformation of the word docile, earlier in the text associated with the docility of the enslaved and translated as compliant [eg, 123, #107], which now expresses the poet’s submission to the génie of the people, not to the power of vanity.

xxii Benjamin Theses; Robinson Black Marxism

xxiii See Irele’s note, 292-3, absorbed in the Absolute, vs. René Hénane, pp. 138.

xxiv Or, as Fanon puts it, “from time to time one would like to stop. To state reality is a wearing task.” [BSWM 137] I allude to the well-known words of Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks, words that might not initially seem to the political militant the most inspiring of words. That’s precisely the point.

xxv Gregson Davis’s allusion to Yeats’s “Second Coming” raises unfortunate associations with that poem’s authoritarian bent.

xxvi See Melas on incompletion.

xxvii Eshleman, 254/255.

xxviii See for example [allusions to Césaire in BSWM].

xxix Note on public transport and shame.

xxx Markmann’s translation of véritable negre here uncharacteristically cleans up Fanon’s phrase, which should probably be translated “real nigger”, echoing the “Sale negre!” of the previous chapter. Fanon’s point is Césaire is disidentifying from the “nigger” that the white women see him as.

xxxi Markmann’s translation lacks the clinical terseness of the French and the specific phenomenological force of “hailing”: “I shouted a greeting to the world and the world slashed away my joy.” [114-5].

xxxii Fanon’s remarks elaborate his terse and ironic footnote: “The black man among his own in the twentieth century does not know the moment at which his inferiority comes into being through the other. … And then the occasion arose when I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me.” [110, translation slightly modified].

xxxiii Markmann’s translation of the line added in French should probably be modified to read: “Where should I position (situate) myself? Or, if you prefer: stuff myself?” “Se fourrer” is a peculiarly ambiguous phrase, connoting at one and the same time to intrude and to put away and captures precisely Fanon’s sense of being de trop, an “embarrassment” on the scene.

xxxiv It is, of course, important to note, at a time when white fragility stands aghast at being shamed when its liberal racisms are pointed out, that in the subsequent chapter, “The Negro and Psychopathology”, Fanon’s analysis of the dynamics of white negrophobia would suggest that the white woman’s shame here is actually not at Fanon’s vulgar response to her own appreciative remark, but to her underlying inadmissible desires that it has named.

xxxv The closing citation is from Césaire’s Cahier, #117, p. 126-7, “poreux a tous les souffles du monde”. The full passage is cited earlier in this essay.

xxxvi The citation is again from Césaire, Cahier, #74, pp, 108/9.

xxxvii These phrases are cited as being from Jean-Paul Sartre, Orphée Noir, preface to Anthologies de la nouvell poésie negre et Malgache (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948), pp. xl ff.

xxxviii Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Book XI of the Seminar of Jacques Lacan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), p. 84.

xxxix G.W.F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, Werke, Band 3 (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp1986), p. 151.

Cite this blog post
webmaster (2021, February 13). ‘For the world to look at’: On colonial shaming. Shame Network. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/u59j

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