The Less-than-Perfect Shame Machine

LI has been meditating on Ruwen Ogien’s article on “diffuse sanctions” for the past couple days. We have seen more and more in this article. Perhaps we should translate the entire thing. Maybe we should write to Ogien. Maybe he has been translated.

Ruwen’s comments on the “informal moral sphere”, which he uses interchangeably with the “domain of interaction”, helps us a great deal in thinking about one of the great puzzles of happiness – how did happiness ever become a collective passion? How did it happen that, in the eighteenth century, men and women started to dream of the happy community? And how could they ignore a social fact that stared them in the face every day – that often, the happiness of one person is the direct cause of the unhappiness of another person?

To get back to Ogien – Ogien begins with Durkheim’s notion that “sanctions” form a continuum. Whether the sanction is informal, such as being laughed at, or formal, such as being imprisoned, what (negative) sanctions necessarily entail is punishment. This isn’t to say that every legal breach is punished – only that, in theory, the state has to punish criminals. That is involved in the very notion of crime. A crime that encoded no punishment would not be a crime. A criminal could, on the other hand, be pardoned – but the pardon wouldn’t separate crime from punishment in general, but would plead some special instance. In other words, there is a necessary bond between crime and punishment.

Ogien, rather brilliantly, suggests that this is where Durkheim went wrong. Because the legal sanction includes this necessary relation, Durkheim assumes – as he must, if sanctions are simply a continuum – that informal moral sanctions also contain this necessary tie.

Ogien contends that they don’t. Rather, informal moral sanctions are synthetic. If the victim of some shamemaking gesture does not feel shame, does not manufacture within him or herself the appropriate sentiment, the informal sanction fails. Notice, this isn’t true of a crime – the punishment of the crime does not depend on the manufacture of any particular sentiment on the part of the criminal. There is an informal dimension to punishment – the notion that the criminal should repent. But this is separate from the punishment inherent in being judged a criminal.

Ogien casts a wider net for sanctions, which can include positive sanctions in the domain of interaction – praise, for instance.

Now, this is the thing about the informal moral sphere – the sanctions are always synthetic, and thus depend on a certain sentimental education. And that education can go awry – in fact, as nineteenth century psychology and twentieth century psychoanalysis teaches, possibly, it always goes awry. It is more than possible that praise, for instance, can bring up shame in the person so praised. Dostoevsky might have called this whim, Freud neurosis. And Herder would see, here, the ambiguous passage of Nemesis.

Ogien extends his point with an image: the difference between the state’s punishment machines and shame machines. I’ll end here, with an extensive quote from Ogien:

The blamer can count on the fact that this sarcasm will impose itself, but he will never be entirely certain of that. And this incertitude is not a matter of his lack of imagination, nor of the feebleness of the means he possesses. The best organized of police can’t ever guarantee the execution of a punishment if that punishment is shame. And the most satanic pedagogue would have a great deal of trouble to invent a machine to make shame or a dispositif capable of producing it with certainty.

Of course, we can’t say we are lacking in fertile imaginations that have conjured up modes (dispositifs) of diabolical punishments. Lichtenberg, Kafka, Foucault (among others) have given us frightening illustrations of our capacity for imagining the worst for our neighbors: but one shouldn’t think that this is a question of anything other than some horrible utopias. None of these modes could guarantee the effect produced, and this is rather happy.

It is precisely this incertitude in the relation between blame and punishment which gives diffuse sanctions their non-necessary character – synthetic, or casual. Between blame and diffuse punishment (all together: sarcastic remarks, laughs of the audience, shame of the victim, for instance), the relationship is only probable.

However, nothing forbids us from going further in the dissociation, and affirming that the relation between blame and diffuse punishment escapes all regularity and by the same way all possibility of causal analysis. If one wants to be convinced of this, it is sufficient to return to what Kant says of laughter and the difficulty of discovering means to excite it among rational men: “Voltaire said that heaven has given us two means to counterbalance the multiple pains of life: hope and sleep. He might have added laughter, if the means to excite it among reasonable people were easy to discover.”

The enigma of the causality of laughter is as deep as that of the causality of shame (or of every other form of moral sentiment – humiliation, indignation). And it is as difficult, it seems to me, to conceive of a good shame-making machine as one that is efficiently laugh-making. (600)


Anonymous said…
So Ogien assumes the utterance that constitutes the sanction for its realization involves only the addressee and not other classes of auditors?

Chuckie K
roger said…
Mr. K, I don't think Ogien is assuming that there is only one individual addressee - there could of course be a group. Or one could be a representative of a group. Or the target of the laughter of a group. It is in fact central to the identity of the group that the informal moral sphere can be operated upon - that, in other words, there is a possibility of evoking x sentiment in the hearts of the members of the group. One isn't involved, here, with the byplay between two Kaspar Hausers. But it is important that this is a possibility that never becomes a necessity. It is for this reason that groups can fission.
Anonymous said…
'If the victim of some shamemaking gesture does not feel shame, does not manufacture within him or herself the appropriate sentiment, the informal sanction fails.' It was this formulation that puzzled me. Since the shame would be the addressee response only. I was just thinking of Middle High German where 'scham' would be the addressee's response, but 'schande' disgrace the complex, not merely emotional, response of auditors.

The beauty of institutionalized ways of sanctioning without claim to the legitimacy of law or to monopolies of force is that they are not bound to a defined roster of offenses and can invent them.

Although the distinction between formal and informal might be considered a product of the creation of contemproary style states. Here I'm thinking of the scene in Gottfrid's Tristan when Tristan confronts Morolt, who has come from Ireland to collect the tribute owed his lord. By sheer dint of persistant oral artistry, Tristan transforms the transaction from a collective public shaming into a 'formal' legal proceeding. A flexible boundary in that pre-legislative, pre-regulatory political system.

Chuckie K