Shame is a negative self-conscious emotion that is commonly understood to arise when we are concerned with how we are seen and judged by ourselves and/or others. Above and beyond other emotions, shame is theorized to be a foundational part of human life; it has been described by some social theorists as the ‘master emotion’. The aim of this lecture is to give an introduction to the politics of shame, looking at how shame plays a role in experience, health, social relations and political inclusion and exclusion. In particular, my focus will be on experiences of what is commonly called ‘chronic shame’ (Pattison 2000, Nathanson 1992, Dolezal 2015), where shame is recurrent, persistent or enduring in experience. To use the feminist phenomenologist Sandra Lee Bartky’s formulation, shame is not always an acute event, but can become a “pervasive affective attunement” (Bartky 1990, 85). Instead of experiencing shame as a discrete event with a finite duration, it is experienced as a persistent, and perhaps, permanent possibility in daily life. In chronic shame, the anticipation of shame (whether explicit or implicit) comes to be a defining feature of one’s lived experience and, in addition, has important socio-political consequences. Thus far, chronic shame has eluded simple phenomenological analysis, largely because chronic shame often does not have a clear experiential profile: it is frequently characterised by the absence rather than the presence of shame. My aim in this paper is to begin a phenomenology of chronic shame, drawing from Husserl’s formulation of the ‘horizon’ as a means a to discuss structural aspects of chronic shame experiences, in particular how chronic shame is characterised by structures of absence, anticipation and intersubjectivity, while playing a role in the formation of the character of one’s socio-political experience.
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