On Shame, or the Proof of the Other’s Inexistence

In analysis, one of the most frustrating questions an analyst can ask is: “Yes, I know that’s what you are saying, but is it really that way, or is what you are saying more of a wish?”  Or, I know that you think you are over this, or that you have identified the way this is making you feel, but do you really want to leave it behind, to move past it?  What the analyst is saying, in other words is that you may have recognized your symptom, but now comes the hard work of working through it, of talking about it from every conceivable angle until you come to a new relation towards it entirely.

But for every symptom there is a social dimension.  For Freud, the social dimension of the symptom relied on an Other that was consistent, an Other that produced what’s often called the “neurotic subject” that produced guilt, duty, prohibition, etc. this means that in Lacan’s terms, the Other provided the linkage for unraveling the symptom.  The semblant that was used to cover over the horror of the real was the Other. A semblant is a complex term that Lacan invokes, and suffice it to say that we will define it here as what splits from truth – as that which is used a prop for fending off the real.

What I’d like to explore in this post is the affect of shame, because it is shame that seems to be the predominant affect that takes place when we follow the formula that the Other does not exist to its logical conclusion.  We are presented with an Other that is riddled with holes, that is a fraud, that lets us down, and that can no longer guarantee anything for us.  Shame fills us also with the feeling that because the Other fails, our very own exceptions we set for ourselves, because they are in part mediated by the Other’s expectations of us, might also let us down.

Jacques Alain-Miller and Eric Laurent make the claim in their seminar, “The Other that does not exist and his ethical committees” that today, symptoms have no contradiction with the thesis of the inexistence of the Other.  The contemporary symbolic no longer achieves this dialectical crossing on which the Lacan of old indexed analytic experience – along the axis of the Other. On the contrary, the symbolic is dedicated to the image, and not to the Other as we found in Freud’s time.  The inexistence of the Other promotes the social bond by opening it up, and once the Other is presented in his inconsistency we are often left with a feeling of shame.

Psychoanalysis presents us with another formula that is important to our discussion on shame, and that is that to traverse the fundamental fantasy, we must move beyond dependence on the big Other, that the big Other does not exist.  In the early Lacan, we find the famous declaration that “there is no big Other” and the implication is that the big Other can still function and provide meaning to ones acts despite its nonexistence in the symbolic.  But by the time of Lacan’s late work on the real, he developed the idea that the big Other is merely a semblance. In this stage of Lacan’s theoretical work, the symbolic order does not have an order that controls it, and the problem lies around the existence of the big Other as such. By this stage of his work, the symbolic is itself alienated and thus its Laws function anonymously. Zizek notes that it is this anonymous order that is the big Other, particularly in the context of our postmodern and post totalitarian societies.

To return to shame.  If the cracks in the symbolic that reveal its lack of support by the big Other evokes the affect of shame, it is because in shame we are left naked, with no support from this Other that we have depended on.  As Joan Copjec remarks:

“Shame is awakened not when one looks at oneself, or those whom one cherishes, through another’s eyes, but when one suddenly perceives a lack in the Other.  At this moment the subject no longer experiences herself as a fulfillment of the Other’s desire, as the centre of the world, which now shifts away from her slightly, causing a distance to open within the subject herself.  This distance is not that ‘superegoic’ one which produces a feeling of guilt and burdens one with an uncancelable debt to the Other, but is, on the contrary, that which wipes out the debt.  In shame, unlike guilt, one experiences one’s visibility, but there is no external Other who sees, since shame is proof that the Other does not exist” (Imagine There is No Woman, Pg. 128)

Shame, unlike guilt, precisely because it is such an inter-subjective affect, requires a confrontation with the Other in his or her nakedness, and by extension, in one’s own nakedness.  There is a certain vulnerability, a precarity that shame evokes which gives its political role great power and potential. But we find that shame is a tool that is used in many countless ways by neoliberalism to further de-politicize civic and political life.  Shame tells poor people that they should feel in part responsible for their failure, by reducing their situation to a matter of choice:  you just didn’t work hard enough.  Or the even more brutal injunction:  you can work as hard as possible, but there aren’t any guarantees, you might just not get lucky.  With the fall of any assurance of success by a big Other, we fall into shame.


I am thinking now of the wild venture capitalism that we’re all experiencing, the type that leads even a new couple that are both doctors to live “paycheck by paycheck.”  What do we do in this new wild to fend off shame, and as Lacan said, once you get down to the heart of society you realize that there is so much shame that you won’t know what to do with it.  With the wild wild west of capitalism now afoot, it is only appropriate to quote the film The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin about three men that get lost in the woods:


Charles Morse: You know, I once read an interesting book which said that, uh, most people lost in the wilds, they, they die of shame.
Stephen: What?
Charles Morse: Yeah, see, they die of shame. “What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?” And so they sit there and they… die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would save their lives.
Robert Green: And what is that, Charles?
Charles Morse: Thinking.

Shame’s political co-optation of course coincides with the failure of the American dream.  I have heard from my analyst friends that a common experience for young people in psychoanalysis today, whose symptoms are often located at the site of the failure of the big Other, is that they have gone through all the meritorious motions that society asks of them.  They have technically found “success” objectively through the market and so on, but they are still left with a sense of emptiness.  But, the big Other – that force in their life that is there which assures meaning to one’s work – who assures that the dream will work is now gone.  Whereof does one find support for the vanquished Other that guaranteed some modicum of success?  The inexistence of this Other is leading to an even more brutal superegoic injunction for this path of merit, where the subject seeks out a surplus jouissance in the absence of the Other.

Shame and the Question of the Master

In a recent text, The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis: On Unconscious Desire and Sublimation (2011), Jamieson Webster presents us with a reading of Lacanian psychoanalysis that is tied to a new reading of Lacan based on the the centrality of shame to his entire practice and teaching.  While it might seem odd to think of Lacan to hold any belief in the virtues, Jamieson claims that if we were to posit just one virtue in Lacan it is the French term “pudeur,” which can be translated as modesty, shame, or humility. It is associated with the courage that comes with risk and the courage that opens us up to failure and weakness, etc.  Jamieson links Badiou and Lacan in interesting and potentially powerful ways for the future of psychoanalysis, but also for the question of how we might go about coping with and perhaps even sublimating shame.  She quotes Lacan:

“It is impossible for the honest to die of shame… You know… that this means the real.  If it happens now, well then, it was the only way to deserve it…  You were lucky.  “

What Lacan teaches us apropos shame is that if you want subversion you have to love the impossibility, the shame, of never being able to die from impossibility itself, or shame.  Shame is what psychoanalysis discovers through its “strength in weakness” approach, an approach that sees at the core of being the affect of shame come about.

Webster finds in Badiou something of a Master that is able to present psychoanalysis with a working through of shame as he holds the position of Master:

“Badiou, one could say, is the real master that Lacan said everyone has failed to understand – the father of the primal horde. He is the one who outlines the eternal place held by the father in all his many dimensions. He is, if we are to work through a continuing petit hysterie, the most important figure for psychoanalysis to begin to understand” (Jamieson, 2011 P. 99).

Webster points out that Badiou wants to know nothing about psychoanalysis and this puts him in the position of a master signifier precisely because he has shifted his relation to desire towards psychoanalysis’ knowledge (Jamieson, Pg. 133).

Shame, claims Jamieson is what enables Badiou to place a wedge between his four discourses (science, love, art, and politics ) with philosophy operating on the outside, and “labor under truth, labor as love.” Philosophy she argues can never be a modest endeavor because it is outside of the discourses operating as the fifth condition – as a sort of mediator of truths, but not itself having any monopoly on the truth.

Ultimately, the hysteric’s truth is always that the Master is castrated, and there is a certain comfort that the hysteric has with shame – at least a certain familiarity with it.  Jamieson puts herself in the position of the hysteric to Badiou, and as an aspiring psychoanalyst, Badiou became the last possible Master for her because as she says, he had “disavowed the value of semblance,” making him function as the “last master of the primal horde. ”

The master, in Jamieson’s account is that figure who inhabits a space that is an exception to the rule. The “rule” in Jamieson’s text is the deadlock between desire and love, a problem she sees as inherent to psychoanalysis since Freud’s work on Civilization and its Discontents, where Freud split the forces of desire and love across all of society – a tension that could never be resolved.  It is the Masterly figure of Badiou, the philosopher that resolves Jamieson’s deadlock on the side of love that presents the remedy. In his refusal to be drawn into the desire of the analyst, the philosopher (Badiou) is placed in the position of the impasse itself, occupying the place of the Master.

Does this leave us with the notion that at the far reaches of the wild, where we no longer have any support – we require a Master?  This is in part something that the discourse of the analyst shows – that we can indeed survive without the Master, but it takes a practice, it takes a virtue such as shame to do so.

9 responses to “On Shame, or the Proof of the Other’s Inexistence”

  1. Interesting. So do you run into this question a lot as an analyst? How many analysands do you have?

    1. Thanks – I am not an analyst, but I am going through analysis – currently on a slight hiatus, but I am committed to it. The reference I made was one that I have heard from several analysts and an experience that I have read about as well.

  2. severalfourmany

    Reblogged this on Several, Four, Many.

  3. […] The entire post “On Shame, or the Proof of the Other’s Inexistence” can be read here: https://danieltutt.com/2013/03/07/on-shame-and-its-virtues/ […]

  4. i found myself wondering, at the risk of provoking feelings of shame, how Badiou was not Alain and yet Webster was Jamieson? That said, a spirited interaction with Webster’s ideas. Looking forward to more!

  5. antepurgatory

    Reblogged this on alterities.tumblr.com and commented:
    “symptoms are often located at the site of the failure of the big Other, is that they have gone through all the meritorious motions that society asks of them. They have technically found “success” objectively through the market and so on, but they are still left with a sense of emptiness. But, the big Other – that force in their life that is there which assures meaning to one’s work – who assures that the dream will work is now gone. Whereof does one find support for the vanquished Other that guaranteed some modicum of success? The inexistence of this Other is leading to an even more brutal superegoic injunction for this path of merit, where the subject seeks out a surplus jouissance in the absence of the Other” – Daniel Tutt

  6. […] Tutt — 7 Mart 2013 — danieltutt.com Türkçesi: Işık Barış Fidaner, Canan […]

  7. collin237

    Why does there have to be an Other, even hypothetically? I avoid Shame by being the Master of my own philosophy. Is that really so unusual?

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