Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After

From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After

by Ruth Leys

See All Formats & Editions

Why has shame recently displaced guilt as a dominant emotional reference in the West? After the Holocaust, survivors often reported feeling guilty for living when so many others had died, and in the 1960s psychoanalysts and psychiatrists in the United States helped make survivor guilt a defining feature of the "survivor syndrome." Yet the idea of survivor guilt has


Why has shame recently displaced guilt as a dominant emotional reference in the West? After the Holocaust, survivors often reported feeling guilty for living when so many others had died, and in the 1960s psychoanalysts and psychiatrists in the United States helped make survivor guilt a defining feature of the "survivor syndrome." Yet the idea of survivor guilt has always caused trouble, largely because it appears to imply that, by unconsciously identifying with the perpetrator, victims psychically collude with power.

In From Guilt to Shame, Ruth Leys has written the first genealogical-critical study of the vicissitudes of the concept of survivor guilt and the momentous but largely unrecognized significance of guilt's replacement by shame. Ultimately, Leys challenges the theoretical and empirical validity of the shame theory proposed by figures such as Silvan Tomkins, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Giorgio Agamben, demonstrating that while the notion of survivor guilt has depended on an intentionalist framework, shame theorists share a problematic commitment to interpreting the emotions, including shame, in antiintentionalist and materialist terms.

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

From Guilt to Shame Auschwitz and After

By Ruth Leys Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13080-4

Introduction From Guilt to Shame

WHAT is the logic of torture? In an article on prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Mark Danner has shown that the methods used to soften up and interrogate detainees by American military personnel can be traced back to techniques developed by the CIA in the 1960s. The best known manual of such procedures, the CIA's Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistance Sources, produced in 1963 at the height of the Cold War, states that the purpose of all coercive techniques of interrogation is "to induce regression." The result of external pressures of sufficient intensity is the loss of those defenses "most recently acquired by civilized man ... Relatively small degrees of homeostatic derangement, fatigue, pain, sleep loss, or anxiety may impair these functions." The programmatic manipulation and control of the environment, including the use of blindfolds or hooding, sleep and food deprivation, exposure to intense heat and cold, sensory deprivation, and similar methods, are meant to disorient the prisoner and break down resistance. "Once this disruption is achieved," a later version of the manual observes, the subject's resistance is "seriously impaired." He experiences a "kind of psychological shock" as a result of which he is far more open to suggestion and far likelier tocomply with what is asked of him than before. Frequently the subject will experience a "feeling of guilt." If the interrogator can intensify those guilt feelings, it will "increase the subject's anxiety and his urge to cooperate as a means of escape." Viewed in this light, Danner remarks, the garish scenes of humiliation documented in the photographs and depositions from Abu Ghraib "begin to be comprehensible; they are in fact staged operas of fabricated shame, intended to 'intensify' the prisoner's 'guilt feelings, increase his anxiety, and his urge to cooperate'" ("LT," 72).

The terms of Danner's analysis imply that there has existed a single logic of torture extending uninterruptedly from the 1960s to the occupation of Iraq, according to which there is no important distinction to be drawn between the emotions of guilt and shame. Yet if we focus on the details of the manuals, reports, and protocols to which he has so usefully drawn our attention, differences become apparent. The CIA's approach to interrogation in 1963 was largely based on a watered-down Freudianism that emphasized the psychic relationship between prisoner and interrogator, especially the tendency of the latter to assume the role of a parental figure with whom the prisoner might unconsciously identify in an ambivalent and guilty manner. The 1963 manual says that its procedures aim not only to "exploit the resistant source's internal conflicts and induce him to wrestle with himself" but also to bring a superior outside force to bear upon his resistance. In other words, by virtue of his role as the sole supplier of satisfaction and punishment the interrogator seeks to assume the stature and importance of a paternal figure in the prisoner's feelings and thoughts. Although there may be "intense hatred" for the interrogator, it is not unusual for the subject also to develop "warm feelings" toward him. Such ambivalence is the basis for the suspect's guilt reactions, and if the interrogator nourishes those feelings of guilt, they may prove strong enough to influence the prisoner's behavior. "Guilt makes compliance more likely." The ultimate goal of the physical abuse and other manipulative techniques described in the manual is thus the production of a docile, compliant, and guilt-wracked prisoner so regressively bonded with his interrogator as to be willing to confess. We might define this 1963 logic of torture as an identificatory logic of guilt. According to the manual, hypnosis, suggestion, and narcosis may serve the same purpose, since they too are capable of inducing a regressive identification with the interrogator. Even the efficacity of pain is understood to depend on the prisoner's guilty attitudes. One telling detail in the manual is the advice that if audio and video recording devices are to be used, the subject should not be conscious that he is being recorded-as if the psychological dynamic between prisoner and interrogator conducive to successful interrogation can only develop when the captive is unaware of being seen or overheard by someone other than the interrogator.

Contrast this with the implicit logic of torture at Abu Ghraib forty years later. All the methods that have been described in the current scandal are designed to publicly humiliate and shame the prisoner. An American military pamphlet instructing troops on Iraqi sensitivities warns against shaming or humiliating a man in public, since shaming will cause him and his family to be anti-Coalition. According to the pamphlet, the most important qualifier for all shame is for "a third party to witness the act." It cautions that if an American must do something likely to cause an Iraqi shame, he should "remove the person from the view of others." Acts such as placing hoods over a detainee's head, placing a detainee on the ground, or putting a foot on him should be avoided because they cause Arabs shame. Likewise, the pamphlet says, Iraqis consider a variety of things to be unclean: "'Feet or soles of feet. Using the bathroom around others. Unlike Marines, who are used to open-air toilets, Arab men will not shower/use the bathroom together. Bodily fluids'" ("LT," 72).

As Danner observes, these precepts are emphatically reversed at Abu Ghraib. It is precisely because such methods induce shame that they have been exploited there and at other American interrogation sites, where detainees have been kept hooded and bound, made to crawl and grovel on the floor, forced to put shoes in their mouths, and worse. "And in all of this, as the Red Cross report noted, the public nature of the humiliation is absolutely critical: thus the parading of naked bodies, the forced masturbation in front of female soldiers, the confrontation of one naked prisoner with one or more others, the forcing together of naked prisoners in 'human pyramids'" ("LT," 72). The torture carried out at Abu Ghraib almost seems to demand what was counterindicated in 1963, the open use of the camera, because shame depends on the subject's consciousness of exposure. As Danner again notes: "And all of this was made to take place in full view not only of foreigners, men and women, but also of that ultimate third party: the ubiquitous digital camera with its inescapable flash, there to let the detainee know that the humiliation would not stop when the act itself did but would be preserved into the future in a way that the detainee would not be able to control" ("LT," 72). As a "shame multiplier" ("LT," 72) the camera epitomizes the logic of torture at Abu Ghraib, which can be defined as a spectatorial logic of shame.

In one sense, the resort to shaming techniques may represent a specific adaptation to the Arab context. But it is also true that the shift from a logic of torture based on guilt to a logic of torture based on shame reflects a more general shift that has taken place in the course of the last forty years from a discourse of guilt to a discourse of shame. It is not just a question of assuming, as anthropologists used to do, that the Iraqis belong to a more primitive "shame culture" than our own Western "guilt culture." Today, shame (and shamelessness) has displaced guilt as a dominant emotional reference in the West as well. A major purpose of my book is to examine and evaluate that displacement. In his recent study of humiliation and associated emotions, such as shame and embarrassment, William Ian Miller has noted the recent depreciation of guilt and resurgence of interest in shame among the self-help and related disciplines, but disputes the idea that a major paradigm shift has really occurred. He claims that "the makeover makes shame look not at all unlike guilt." I disagree. For all the interest of his study, Miller fails to see what is original and important about shame theory today, and misconstrues the stakes involved in the upsurge of books and articles that take shame as their primary point of reference. I argue instead that the change from a culture of guilt to a culture of shame in Western thinking about the emotions is highly significant and has important consequences.

My story begins with the centrality of guilt to post-World War II assessments of survivors of the concentration camps. The terms used in the CIA's 1963 training manual for the interrogation of resistant detainees bear an uncomfortably close proximity to those used by victims and researchers alike in the same postwar period to describe the psychodynamics of the tortured and shocked survivors of the Holocaust. Giorgio Agamben has recently observed in this regard that the survivor's feeling of guilt is a locus classicus of the literature on the camps. "That many (including me) experienced 'shame,' that is, a feeling of guilt during the imprisonment and afterward, is an ascertained fact confirmed by numerous testimonies. It is absurd, but it is a fact," Primo Levi observes in his last (and most troubled) book about his time in Auschwitz. Similarly the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, who was imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald in 1938-39, writes: "One cannot survive the concentration camp without feeling guilty that one was so incredibly lucky when millions perished, many of them in front of one's eyes ... In the camps one was forced, day after day, for years, to watch the destruction of others, feeling-against one's better judgment-that one should have intervened, feeling guilty for not having done so, and, most of all, feeling guilty for having also felt glad that it was not oneself who perished." Or in the words of Elie Wiesel, cited by Agamben: "'I live, therefore I am guilty. I am here because a friend, an acquaintance, an unknown person died in my place'" (RA, 89). And in a statement also cited by Agamben, Ella Lingens asks: "'Does not each of us who has returned go around with a guilt feeling, feelings which our executioners rarely feel-'I live, because others died in my place?'" (RA, 89).

In attempts during the 1960s to explain the phenomenon of survivor guilt, American psychoanalysts such as William Niederland, Henry Krystal, Bettelheim, and others borrowed from the work of Freud, Sandor Ferenczi, and Anna Freud in theorizing that the guilt feelings associated with survival were the result of an unconscious imitation of, or identification with, the aggressor. They argued that the humiliated prisoner, in the moment of shock, regressively defends against the persecutor's violence by unconsciously yielding to, or imitatively incorporating, the violent other. And since under camp conditions of abject powerlessness the incorporated aggression cannot be projected onto the aggressor, the violence is turned back against the victim, who experiences it in the form of a self-lacerating conscience. In short, from the start the notion of survivor guilt was closely connected to the theme of imitative identification and to the idea of the victim's defensive, unconscious bond of collusion with the situation of terror. In his highly influential discussion of the "gray zone," where "the two camps of masters and servants both diverge and converge" (DS, 42), Primo Levi-no admirer of psychoanalysis-likewise explored the question of the unconscious identification, "mimesis," or imitation of the aggressor that complicitously binds the victim to the violence directed against himself (DS, 48).

But it is precisely because of the taint of collusion associated with the notion of survivor guilt that almost from the start objections have been raised against it. To take one influential example, Terrence Des Pres, in his widely admired book The Survivor (1976), repudiated both the notion of identification with the aggressor and that of survivor guilt, emphasizing instead the role played in the victim's survival by social bonding, mutual care, and outright resistance. According to Des Pres, if imitation of the SS took place in the camps, as Bettelheim and others claimed, the imitation was not an unconscious, collusive identification with the enemy but merely a strategic mimicry undertaken consciously by political prisoners in order to obtain positions of power and to assist other victims in the struggle for life. A similar repudiation of the notion of unconscious imitation and survivor guilt marks the more recent literature on trauma. In 1980, when the diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was introduced into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIII), survivor guilt feelings were regarded as a characteristic symptom of the disorder and were included in the list of diagnostic criteria. But in the revised edition of the manual of 1987 (DSM-IIIR), the American Psychiatric Association after considerable controversy downgraded survivor guilt to the status of an "associated" and noncriterial feature of the condition. As we shall see, now that survivor guilt has disappeared from the official list of criteria for PTSD, shame has come to take its place as the emotion that for many investigators most defines the condition of posttraumatic stress.

In a similar movement, literary critic Lawrence Langer, known for his analyses of Holocaust video testimony, has rejected the notion of survivor guilt, not only because he thinks it deflects blame from the real culprits onto the victims themselves, but more generally because it belongs to what he regards as a normalizing, therapeutic, redemptive approach to the misery of the Holocaust that estranges us from the ultimately incomprehensible and unredeemable reality of the camps. This leads him to call for a post-Holocaust revision of ethics that would go beyond the dilemmas and contradictions posed by the unheroic "choiceless choices" that ruled the victims of the Nazis. Although it is not clear what Langer thinks an alternative, post-Holocaust ethics might look like, he hints at one direction to follow when he suggests that "shame" might be a better word than the troubling concept of "guilt" for the anguish experienced by the survivor. Embracing a distinction between guilt and shame that Primo Levi himself does not observe, Langer states that Levi did not enjoy using a word like "guilt" when raising the problematic topic of collaboration. In the end, he claims, Levi preferred to speak of "shame" as the "primary legacy of the moral swamp into which German coercion had sunk its prey." Agamben makes a similar gesture when he criticizes the notion of survivor guilt and rejects as "puerile" Levi's self-reproaches for minor wrongs committed by him during his time in the camps. Agamben suggests that the reader's supposed unease with Levi's writings on this topic can only be a reflection of the survivor's embarrassment at being unable to master shame (RA, 88). Agamben's larger claim, which goes far beyond Langer, is that the concentration camps were nothing less than an "absolute situation" that revealed shame to be "truly something like the hidden structure of all subjectivity and consciousness" (RA, 128).


Excerpted from From Guilt to Shame by Ruth Leys
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Toril Moi
Ruth Leys's new book is a brilliant interdisciplinary investigation of a striking cultural transformation. From Guilt to Shame is original, with a compelling subject treated in a way that places it on the cutting edge of recent science and cultural studies.
Toril Moi, Duke University
Allan Young
From Guilt to Shame is original and incisive, and Leys's exposition of her provocative thesis is thoroughly persuasive. The superb chapter on Giorgio Agamben is the perfect conclusion to this excellent work, which should attract interest from readers of trauma theory, the history of traumatic stress, comparative literature, moral philosophy, and Holocaust studies.
Allan Young, McGill University

Meet the Author

Ruth Leys is director of the Humanities Center and Henry Wiesenfeld Professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her books include "Trauma: A Genealogy".

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews