Shame and the Ruin of the Aristocracy

The enigmatic core of one’s self. The process of self-discovery. The aristocracy held the power and the privilege to these matters because they invented the grounds by which these adventures took place. But there is no utopia of self-discovery, even at the top. And despite having a privileged access point to the very question, or possibility of self-discovery, some of the lucky ones in the aristocracy became aware of the contingent nature of such hazardous processes. André Gide once wrote that to be interested in one’s singularity is the “luck of the aristocracy.” We’re all paying the price for the lucky ones now.

The meaning of ‘luck of the aristocracy’ should be understood in two ways: firstly, it was only the aristocracy who were able to pursue such means of discovery, and secondly, what they discovered resulted in an entire collapse of their world. This is because confronting the enigmatic core of the self results in the collapse of the very consistency of the enigmatic thing at the core of what makes you a singular self. This is also why the singular self is never realized through self-help and wisdom discourses that seek to apply some knowledge or practice that is universal about the self to an unruly inner-core that is impervious to all universality.

One of the things that Lacan pointed out was that there is a larger civilizational shift in our time regarding nobility. He argued, quite rightly, that nobility is dead. The aristocratic virtue that allowed for the luck of the aristocracy to locate the enigmatic core of the S1 is what Lacan called the master signifier and he claimed that it no longer exists in a strong enough way for the subject to draw upon for his or her self esteem. In what Lacan called the capitalist discourse, the subject no longer has a master signifier because the unit of the master signifier or S1 is converted into value — or it is attempted to be converted into something quantifiable — but the master signifier can never be quantified.

The aristocracy had hegemony over the S1 or master signifier (enigmatic core), even though it found its ruin there. Tragedy, heroism, honor etc. are inventions of this aristocratic confrontation with the S1. This ruin of the S1 is intimately tied to what it used to mean to be a hero as the hero persists in the face of what the S1 presents. Oedipus and King Lear are two anti-heroes in that they deny all pretense to the social goods of their fate and strongly identify with the truth of what the S1 (fate) represented.

Shame and the S1

Lacan’s conception of the capitalist subject was initially based on the same idea that we often have of the modern capitalist: frugal, puritan, more concerned with accumulating and sacrifice than with enjoying, spending and consuming. But Lacan noticed that the very capitalist discourse was undergoing a change in his time and this was a shift that had to do with a changed relation to the S1, and at the level of affect. The waning of the potency/consistency of the S1 means that shame is dead.

In his seminars on The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, shame is related to an Other prior to the one that judges. Shame is connected to a primordial other that sees or lets be seen. As a framework, Jacques-Alain Miller, a great Lacanian thinker says that guilt should be understood as relating to desire, while shame is related to jouissance, or enjoyment. So shame is an affect that Miller says “touches on that which is most intimate in the subject.”

When Lacan says that there is no longer any shame what he means is that “we are at a time of an eclipse of the Other’s gaze as the bearer of shame” (15). The Other enjoys with you – a new phase of capitalist discourse arises. A gaze that carries no shame is there but it causes a certain depression. It is you as subject and not as other that is looking because you are not wrapped up in the other’s discourse.

This enigmatic core of the self is what is called the master signifier, or the S1. For Lacan, a place where shame has disappeared means that aristocracy is justified because desire is bound up with the secret of nobility. It is the fact that your master signifier is contingent (21).

This means that we can now freely participate in the mutual pleasure that comes with the disappearance of the S1, but we pay the price of not discovering it and we are then faced with the challenge of how to bring back a minimal level of shame in order to continue to be singular beings. Singularity, according to this logic, thus requires the elevation of shame. Otherwise the entire edifice of honesty would erode. As Miller writes:

“The honest person is evidently one who has already renounced honor, renounced its emblem, and who would like it to be the case that shame did not exist – one who enrobes and veils the real of which this shame is the affect” (Miller, 2006: pg. 25).

An ethical project of psychoanalysis today might be to gauge the extent to which reinstating the agency of the S1 — so that we do not have to mention shame any longer — is possible. Today, we experience a situation where we have no shame in enjoying openly because the other that used to serve as the guardian of the S1 enjoys along with us. What this tells us is that we enjoy the luck of the aristocracy, a voyeuristic luck that never quite delivers us to the point where we reach ruin. An ethics of proper ruin is in order.

To read more on the strange affect of shame, see Jacques-Alain Miller's essay, On Shame" in the text, Reflections on Seminar XVII: Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis edited by Justin Clemens and Russell Grigg, 2006.

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