… one major methodological weakness of some of the earlier studies…[was] an ethnocentric tendency to define the phenomenon in terms of its specific attributes in one’s own culture… these studies also tended to miss the problem’s complex linguistic dimension… for the term employed in a given language to communicate or express some complex emotional state may cover a range of meanings that do not coincide precisely with that of the term used in another. The fact that English has shame where French has honte and pedeur, or that German has Schande as well as Scham, shows that the point holds even within closely related cultures and should therefore alert us to the need for caution when we turn to more remote cultures such as those of New Guinea… In these circumstances the focus of analysis, at least initially, must surely be on the indigenous categories themselves and the attempt to tease out their range of meanings. (8-9)
The connection just made between the experience of shame and the sense of self brings me to the final point I wish to make here. Earlier we saw how in Busama the onset of shame was intimately linked with the failure to achieve the customarily defined standards by which in this society men and women gained and held the esteem of their fellows. The ability to produce food was quite central in this regard and no experience was more galling than being in a position where one had to confess that one was short of food so that on’es personal inadequacies were in this way exposed to the gaze of others… Shame in this context, then, becomes a bridge between society and the self. (20)
At the same time it should also be evident that, as with pain itself, the sense of shame can cary greatly in intensity; it may be dissipated very quickly, as with the fading of a blush; it may persist – as reference to the practice of self-exile shows – for considerable periods of time before it is fully discharged; or it may be so intense that release is only to be found in an act of suicide. Since shame always expresses some negative evaluation o the self, it also involves some measure of aggression, but how this problem is handled, to what extent it is directed entirely against the self, is re-directed outwards or some compromise solution is ground, it a complex issue turning on the interplay of a variety of factors: on social rules governing the display of aggression, on cultural expectations that are brought into play under particular circumstances, on the nature of the offence and, not least, on psychic processes at work within the individual(s) concerned. (20)
… an intrinsic attribute about shame itself. At least from the time of Darwin (1872), it has been recognized by those who have studied the expression of the emotions in man that shame is associated with self-consciousness. What is of interest from this point of view is that while the face is seen as the site of all the affects, it is experienced as most salient in shame. Awareness of the face by the self is an integral part of the experience of shame, and this is because, as Tomkins (1963: 133) observes, the self lives where it exposes itself and where it receives similar exposures from others. (31-32)
– Epstein A. L., The Experience of Shame in Melanesia: An Essay in the Anthropology of Affect (1984).
Shame becomes self-(physical)distancing, it removes intimacy.
But what if shame is self-intimacy in the sense that we become hyper aware of the Other’s expectations of us? What if shame is the manifestation of our conscious understanding of what the Other perceives of us, such that we are able to feel the disjuncture/incongruence to the extent that we are able to acknowledge and feel this lack?
Is it not also self-intimacy among our different personae, where one persona transverses the other in order to acknowledge a temporal melding of expectations that are required in a particular performance? Is shame not a manifestation of one form of self-intimacy?
When we say we feel shame or have shame for some one/thing, we also risk projecting our own thoughts and feelings and characterise the Other, our informants, for instance. Can there, then, be true empathy or true friendship if we can never wholly comprehend or see in the eyes of the Other? Don’t we need empathy to understand shame in context? How does the imperfection of empathy be reduced? Do we calibrate our misplaced/displaced empathy by attempting to emulate after or immerse in the experiences of the other? Is this not tourism? Are we playground Anthropologists?
Is shame not self-intimacy?