The "New" Shame-faced Partisans of Capital: A Critique of Elspeth Probyn's Blush 

Julie Torrant


Editorial: Daily Lessons on Class
Teresa L. Ebert
Mas'ud Zavarzadeh

The "Crisis" in Feminism and Labor in Transition
Jennifer Cotter

Learning to be White: Class, White Shame and The Oxygen Man
Gregory Meyerson

Crash and the Ethnic Within
Kimberly DeFazio

Transnational Healing in "Karma Capitalism": Spirit and Class in House of Sand and Fog
Amrohini Sahay

Cyberculture and the "Crisis" of the Middle-Class: A Critique of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition
Rob Wilkie



Elspeth Probyn's Blush: Faces of Shame is part of what has become a significant shift to questions of affect in cultural studies and cultural theory which we might call "affective studies." Affective studies puts forward the "new" "post-theory" theory that it is (individual) psychology, and especially "feelings," that produce the social and its differences, not the social and its differences that produce individuals and their feelings. Probyn contributes to this literature by adding a book that does not deal with or attempt to theorize affect in general, but focuses on a particular affect, shame, and works to recuperate the "productive" potential of shame, which is commonly considered to be a negative feeling. Probyn is not alone in this project. This recuperation of "bad" affects has become a trend in cultural studies, including feminist and postcolonial cultural studies (see, for instance, Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings and Lauren Berlant's "Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture"). This turn to "affect" is in essence the left version of the right's war on conceptual thinking.[1] At a time when the fundamental class divisions of capitalism are manifesting in a world increasingly divided into haves and have-nots, "affective" theories assume a post-binary, post-class way of understanding the world that seeks to resolve the economic contradictions of contemporary, global capitalism at the level of the culture. In the name of breaking down "crude divisions" between "the objective and the subjective," affective studies puts forward a post-cultural culturalism that understands getting "in touch with," one's "innate," "human" feelings, such as feelings of shame, and thus in touch with the "value" of human connection, as the solution to contradictions that are produced by the objectivity of class and exploitation. They argue that "affect" is, in essence, beyond class and thus a space in which the classes can "come together" regardless of the division of ownership. By reading the social through the lens of "values," what is at stake in the turn to "affective theory" is, I argue, reproducing the kind of (ideological) consciousness among workers that is necessary for capital in order to prosecute the current series of imperialist wars now taking place. 

Probyn's overarching argument is that "shame" is a productive affect that can be used to resolve social contradictions and conflicts such as conflicts between colonial oppressors and oppressed. She argues, for instance, that "the shame of being out-of-place can ignite a desire for connection" and that "[i]n the Australian context, that desire is called Reconciliation. It is an inspiration for modes of coexistence between non-Indigenous and Indigenous that can succeed only if we acknowledge different types of shame and interest" (xvi). At the core of Probyn's argument is the way she takes up Pierre Bourdieu's notion of the "habitus" and weds it to the psychological theory of Silvan Tomkins (whose work has been anthologized by Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank). Pierre Bourdieu is the French sociologist who is known for developing a postmodern, "constructivist" notion of the self as culturally constructed and thus a site of difference, or what he calls "distinction," rather than a universal, natural fact. Probyn claims she is interested in Bourdieu's theory because of his emphasis on "speak[ing] across the great divides within the social sciences and the humanities" and breaking down boundaries such as the "[c]rude divisions" between "the objective and subjective, the inside and outside, cognition and noncognition, and the body and the social" (48). In particular, Probyn is interested in Bourdieu because of his concept of "habitus" and its emphasis on the body as a site of knowledge. Pierre Bourdieu's "habitus" is "embodied history." Probyn writes, "Bourdieu presents individuals as agents formed by and through the experiences of class, gender, and so on" (48). For Bourdieu "habitus" is a boundary between social fields or spaces such as the boundary between "academic" and "non-academic" spaces which work to determine, through unstated "rules," where the subject is able to move and function. Probyn describes Bourdieu's theory as follows: 

The field, then, refers to the set of rules inscribed on all social spaces. These rules are, by and large, unstated because we have incorporated them. Our bodies know these social rules. This "genetic" knowledge is what allows us access to certain spheres and enables us to operate within them. The rules that structure a field or a social space also repel outsiders. This is precisely what happens when a body knows it does not belong within a certain space (to recall my designation of out-of-placeness): in Bourdieu's terms, there is a schism between the habitus [the self's home field] and the field. (49-50) 

In other words what Bourdieu presents is a theory that describes and explains the obstacles and limits to movement between and among fields for culturally constructed subjects. She writes: "Habitus describes how and why individuals cannot move beyond the limitations inbred at an early age." Thus for Probyn, despite the promising emphasis on the body, and especially the body as a site of knowledge and agency, Bourdieu's theory of "habitus" is in the end a "miserabilist" theory, especially in terms of the way it frames and understands "emotion." Probyn writes: 

As we are shown [by Bourdieu's theory], emotion "'presents' an impending future"; it causes the body to adjust to the inevitability of the future as past. Bourdieu's phrasing of this is: "I'm a dead man"; "I'm done for." Earlier I queried the resignation that this expresses—a sort of sociological equivalent of "sod's law," where things go bad if they can. In this description, emotion presages and confirms the finality of the habitus. In line with this, as exemplified in the above quotation, the body can only reenact the past. (54) 

According to Probyn's reading of Bourdieu, when the subject is faced with the boundaries of their culturally constructed habitus as classed, gendered, raced… subjects, emotions are produced that block the subject from crossing those class, gender, race… boundaries. Emotions are, in this sense, an unconscious, but ultimately cultural, mechanism for disciplining the subject to "stay in its (social) place." Again, Probyn finds this to be a "miserabilist" theory which allows no room for change (54-55).  

Having theorized Bourdieu's habitus in this way, Probyn "intervenes" in and modifies Bourdieu's theory, drawing on Tomkins' theory of shame. She not only argues that it is in the schism between habitus and field that "shame often erupts" (which seems to repeat Bourdieu's notion of feelings blocking movement across boundaries, since shame is considered a negative emotion people want to avoid) but, significantly, she also argues contra Bourdieu that this "eruption" is in fact the most promising site and motivator of social change (50). She writes, for instance, "An individual's habitus will determine what is experienced as shameful. However, where I depart from Bourdieu is in my wager that blushing and feeling shame set off a nearly involuntary reevaluation of one's self and one's actions. This may also compel a radical rethinking and a shift in disposition" (55-56). It is important to note here that while Probyn sees "shame" as a prompt for re-evaluation, like Bourdieu, she focuses on change as change in the subject's cultural "disposition." 

In other words, Probyn starts with, or assumes, people who move across fields rather than positing, as she claims Bourdieu does, the impossibility of border-crossing. She uses the concept of "contact zones" to describe the spaces in which people from one habitus meet those from another and argues that crossing into such contact zones creates a disjuncture, a feeling of discomfort, which she calls "shame." Probyn takes from Silvan Tomkins the idea that "shame" is one of the "primary affects" and thus that humans have an innate capacity for shame. She writes, for instance, that "it is human to feel shame and the point is to do it well" (34). For Probyn, again drawing on Tomkins' theory, shame is important because it is closely associated with "interest," which Probyn, again via Tomkins, argues "involves a desire for connection" (x). Probyn writes: "From Tomkins I take the initially startling idea that interest and shame are intimately connected" and thus that "[o]nly something or someone that has interested you can produce a flush of shame" (ix-x). In this sense, shame works, for Probyn, to mark for us what our interests actually are, in the sense that it tells us with what or whom we wish to have a "connection," and this is important because it can mark for us our "true" interests beyond or beneath current cultural norms. She writes: "What makes shame remarkable is that it reveals with precision our values, hopes, and aspirations, beyond the generalities of good manners and cultural norms" (x). Here it is important to mark, again, the way in which Probyn frames the issues in cultural terms. For her, "interests" are a matter of subjective interests, or what she calls "values, hopes and aspirations." However, for Probyn such "values" are the "truth" underneath "good manners and cultural norms." This emphasis on the progressive "truth" of nature in the form of "affect," as I discuss further below, marks a significant shift in Probyn's theory away from the once-dominant "culturalism" put forward by Bourdieu and others from a postmodernist and poststructuralist position and towards a form of "post-cultural" culturalism that reproduces the notion that it is the cultural/subjective that is the cause (and thus the solution) to such conflicts, but understands culture as a reflection of the psychological and the psychological as fundamentally biological. 

It is Probyn's emphasis on "nature" as progressive that explains why she finds it so important to take up Tomkins' theory of shame as a biological "affect" rather than the notion of "emotion" which, as she indicates, is associated primarily with culture and the idea of feelings as culturally-based. She writes, for instance: "In the face of an undifferentiated lumping together of emotion and affect, I want to try to clarify the difference between the two terms. A basic distinction is that emotion refers to cultural and social expression, whereas affects are of a biological and physiological nature" and states that she is "taken with the argument that shame is biologically innate" (xiii). Probyn goes on to "spell out" the positive potential she sees in such an understanding of shame and its relation to habitus when she writes: "Through feeling shame, the body inaugurates an alternative way of being in the world. Shame, as the body's reflection on itself, may reorder the composition of the habitus, which in turn may allow for quite different choices" (56). In other words, according to Probyn, shame, as an "affect" (rather than an "emotion"), does not block movement from one habitus to another and thus block change. Instead, it is shame that enables change.  

For Probyn, shame has the potential to intervene in colonial oppression, and specifically the (white) colonialists' complicity with colonial oppression, because it can compel the (white) colonial subject to question her (race-based) cultural training ("cultural norms") and they way it has led her to take up practices that are complicit with the oppression of the colonial "other." Thus Probyn writes, for instance, that "shame compels an involuntary and immediate reassessment of ourselves: Why am I ashamed? Why did I say or do that? Can I rectify the actions that have either brought shame upon myself or caused someone else's shame?" (xii). A such, Probyn puts forward, in an updated language, liberal ideas about the power of human "caring" and "love" for others in overcoming historical conflicts which we do not need to "understand" but rather simply affectively "respond to."  

However, it is not an innate "desire" for human bonding that forms the basis of human "connection." Nor is it (racist) "cultural norms" that are the fundamental cause of dis-connection, or that which disrupts this so-called biologically-based human "connection." It is the need to labor in order to produce the means to meet needs that is the historical basis of human existence and thus of human connection. At the same time, the existing social relations of labor—private ownership of the means of production—explain the historical dis-connections between and among people within capitalism because these relations are based on profit not need. It is the class realities of production for profit and the way in which it drives capital to seek cheap labor and raw materials that produces such dis-connection, and it is the fight for the control of labor and socially produced resources that is manifest, for instance, in the Iraq War. This war is not fundamentally a matter of an affective dis-connection or disruption between US and Iraqi people that is produced by racist cultural norms, though racist ideology certainly facilitates the prosecution of the war and works to (mis)direct anger at its injustices in ways that serve capital. It is a war that, while prosecuted "on the ground" primarily by culturally "raced" and "gendered" US citizens, is fundamentally a matter of a regional (mainly US) bloc of capital attempting to re-divide the world's resources in order to more effectively exploit the global labor market. It is these class relations between exploiter and exploited, including both Iraqis and US nationals, that produce the "cultural" or "surface" "difference" between Iraqi and US and other subjects. Thus, by positing cultural "shame" as the marker of "true" (subjective) interests, Probyn is, in effect, displacing the conflict between the objective interests of the class of owners in production for ever-expanding profits versus those of the class of workers in production for meeting needs as the cause of imperialist conflicts with a lack of awareness on the part of those involved in such conflicts of their innate subjective "interest" or human "desire" for "connection" as the cause of such conflicts. In doing so Probyn puts forward a post-cultural culturalism that reproduces the notion that it is the cultural/subjective that is the cause and thus the solution to such conflicts, but she defines culture as a reflection of the psychological and the psychological as fundamentally biological. 

Here, I think we can productively understand Probyn's theory of "shame" and its relation to "place" and/or habitus and field, if we understand it as a theory of globalization. She is saying that what is significant about the contemporary moment is that formerly isolated subjects are increasingly compelled to cross the "habitus" boundaries which kept them divided. While Probyn provides no historical explanation for this compulsion, drawing on Marx's theory of globalization in The Communist Manifesto, we can understand this compulsion as a matter of the way in which the expansion of the capitalist market has "given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country" and "[i]n place of the old and local national seclusion and self-sufficiency," produced "intercourse in every direction" (Marx 58-59). In other words, the development of capitalism enables and compels crossing boundaries of once established and rigidly divided social "fields." Marx writes: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society" (58). The bourgeoisie cannot exist without revolutionizing the instruments of production, or the means of production because they are in competition with one another over who can produce the greatest profits. Because labor is the source of the capitalist's profits, the bourgeoisie is compelled to find new ways of reducing the costs of production by increasing the competition between workers and driving down wages.

On the one hand, this is accomplished by introducing new technologies that increase the productivity of labor, which gives the individual capitalist a momentary advantage to "out-produce" and "under-sell" his competitors and thus gain a greater market share for his goods. At the same time, however, this means that these "enterprising" capitalists must sell the larger volume of product they are now making to realize the surplus-value they have accumulated from the surplus-labor of workers as profit and this forces them to expand their sales into new markets, new territories. This compulsion to expand markets is one of the means through which capital breaks down boundaries such as the boundaries between nations and their national markets. However, once all capitalists in the field introduce new labor-saving devices, the rate of profit declines because the introduction of labor-saving means of production leads to a higher organic composition of capital. This means that capital is made up of a higher portion of fixed capital such as machinery as opposed to "variable" capital (i.e., labor). This leads to a decline in the rate of profit because the portion of capital invested in labor is the only portion off of which capital makes a profit. 

On the other hand, capitalism also lowers the cost of wages through its constant drive to find cheaper sources of labor. Capital, for instance, in the past 50 years, has brought a great number of women across the globe into capitalist labor relations who had formerly been excluded from entering the workforce. With this change of labor relations, the "ancient prejudices" that supported the segregation of the workplace by gender have largely been "swept away" as Marx argued they necessarily would be and the result is that gender boundaries and the "fields" they construct, to use Bourdieu's term, shift. Women, once relegated to their home, move into wage work and this wage work, for instance in the case of many Philippine women, often takes place not simply in another town or the city, but in towns in cities across the globe.

It is this dynamic of "revolutionizing" the instruments of production and along with them the social relations of production—and specifically the need on the part of capitalists to increase their rate of exploitation in order to buoy their rate of profit in the face of what has become increasingly intense, global competition, especially since the mid 1960s and the economic crisis of the 1970s—that has prompted a qualitative increase in the level of immigration between and among countries, especially between countries in the "periphery" such as Mexico and the Philippines to "center" countries such as the United States and Germany, including the immigration of many women workers. At the same time, this dynamic creates its own problems because each new round of revolutionizing of the means of production and thus the increase in the productivity of labor works, in the end, to undermine the conditions for profit-making and deepen the contradiction between the forces of production as they have developed under capitalism and what they make possible and the exploitative social relations of capitalism. Capital's compulsion to buoy falling rates of profit and thus to deepen the level of exploitation of workers through a search for cheap labor—and also cheap raw materials—has thus also set off a new round of imperialist wars in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond as rival capitalist blocs divide and re-divide the world's wealth in the form of access to workers' labor and the earth's natural resources such as oil in a desperate and deadly drive to provide for themselves the conditions to out-profit their competitors. In the meantime, all these movements of capital and its attempts to expand its profits lead to re-configurations of various national, racial, gender and status boundaries which were at one point relatively stable.

To return to the question of theory, it is important to note here that Probyn's criticism of Bourdieu's theory is, in essence, that it does not provide us with a sufficient theory of globalization, because it is a theory of stasis, or a theory that rules out change and thus cannot account for the ways in which boundaries of nation, class, gender and race have lost their meaning in a (supposedly) post-national, post-economic, post-race, post-gender world. This reading of Bourdieu is, however, not simply a mis-reading of his theory. Rather, what is at stake in the "contestation" is two different theories of globalization which correspond to the changing needs of capital. That is to say, Probyn's theory, in the end, updates the theory of globalization Bourdieu puts forward, which is a bourgeois theory of globalization that displaces exploitation as the logic of globalization. Moreover, it is an updating which has become necessary with the emergence of global or cyber capitalism and its sustained attack on workers around the globe, including the so-called "middle-class" workers in the imperialist nations.  

In this context, it is key that Probyn presents Bourdieu's theory as, ultimately, a theory of stasis. She writes in her passage on Bourdieu's treatment of emotion I have cited above, for instance, "in this description, emotion presages and confirms the finality of the habitus. In line with this. . .the body can only reenact the past" (54). However, if we turn to Bourdieu's work, and especially The Logic of Practice, which is the text on which Probyn relies most heavily, what we find is that Probyn's reading of Bourdieu is one-sided. Whereas Probyn represents Bourdieu's theory of habitus as a theory of "finality," Bourdieu is himself quite explicit about the fact that his theory has been constructed as against any theory of "finality." To explain, in this text Bourdieu's concern is to put forward a theory which, in his terms, is neither "objectivist" nor "subjectivist," that is, a theory in which neither the structuring of practices nor the effectivity of those practices is left out. In this context, it is noteworthy that while Probyn refers to the habitus as a matter of "rules," Bourdieu polemicizes against what he understands as a structuralist understanding of determinate "rules" that structure practices and rather argues that the necessary terms to understand the structured nature of practices are "regularity" and "regularities" (see The Logic of Practice 39-40). More importantly, the concept of "regularity" is, for Bourdieu, part of a theory of the dialectic between the structuring effect of habitus as (past) history and history as the existing movement and state of things. He writes: 

Because they tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in the conditions in which their generative principle was produced while adjusting to the demands inscribed as objective potentialities in the situation as defined by the cognitive and motivating structures that constitute the habitus, practices cannot be deduced either from the present conditions which may seem to have provoked them or from the past conditions which have produced the habitus, the durable principle of their production. They can therefore only be accounted for by relating the social conditions in which the habitus that generated them was constituted, to the social conditions in which it is implemented, that is, through the scientific work of performing the interrelationship of these two states of the social world that the habitus performs, while concealing it, in and through practice. (Logic of Practice 56) 

What is important to note here is that, contrary to Probyn's representation, Bourdieu does not see the conditions that produced the habitus, as the embodied history of race, gender, and class conditioning, as a "finality" because the "habitus" for Bourdieu is a sort of double(d), dialectical figure. That is, it is the "performance" or interaction of the past as it encounters the present. In other words, it is NOT that Bourdieu, as opposed to Probyn, disallows change, but rather that Bourdieu theorizes the agency of change differently than Probyn. Whereas Probyn views the subject of shame/affect as the agent of change, for Bourdieu it is, in the end, the subject of practice—as that subject is compelled to change by changing circumstance despite his/her "embodied history"—that is the agent of change. For Bourdieu, the subject of change is ultimately a pragmatic subject, a subject who, despite the conditioning of his or her early history, is compelled by changing circumstances, to "adjust" her habitus, or her dispositions, in accordance with these changing circumstances.

As a theory of globalization, Bourdieu's theory can be seen as manifesting the critical edge of capitalist globalization and the way in which it breaks down old, parochial boundaries because his theory understands the limits on subjects as cultural in the sense of imposed by their early conditioning within circumstances that no longer necessarily remain in exactly the same way. Since these limits are seen as cultural, and culture is understood as changing, the implication is that such culturally-imposed limits are themselves changeable. Although Bourdieu was writing into the 1990s, he developed his theory primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. At this point, Western capitalism was still in an expansive phase. In this context, a theory which understands changing cultural, or "experienced" conditions as a progressive force can "make sense" on an immediate, experiential level. In particular, at the time of at least Bourdieu's early writings, more and more "working-class" subjects were, due to capital's expansionary phase, able to rise in the status ranks, moving into the so-called "middle-class." These historically shifting status relations are reflected in Bourdieu's theory in his rewriting of the Weberian theory of class as "status." One might also understand Bourdieu's theory of habitus, and the way it was taken up in the 1980s and 1990s in the United States and elsewhere, as a reflection of concerns over the way in which the possibilities for rising status were once again shutting down.  

The more important point to make here, however, is that Bourdieu's theory is not limited as a "progressive" theory because, as Probyn would have it, his theory disallows change. In Boudieu's theory, it is ultimately the changing cultural circumstances such as shifting status boundaries within which subjects act (and not the compelling force of "affect" as in Probyn's theory) that allows for and compels change. Rather, the limit of Bourdieu's theory is that social practices are rendered simply cultural circumstances or "experiences" without cause and thus the fundamental division of property between owners and workers that capitalism depends upon becomes, instead, simply one of many social differences without determinacy. By severing class and property, Bourdieu thus effectively blocks any discussion of transforming capitalism from the outside, which is to say transforming the fundamental class relations between "exploiter" and "exploited," and, instead, reduces all discussions of social change to rearranging the conditions from within capitalism, thereby saving capitalism for the future. Put another way, Bourdieu's theory is, in the end, a bourgeois, culturalist theory—it is culture (in the form of "status," "experience," the "market") which defines social "boundaries," but culture itself has no "explanation" in terms of an economic outside. This is because while Bourdieu acknowledges that cultural circumstances in the form of  formative "experiences" of class, gender and so forth that define the habitus change, and further argues that these changing cultural circumstances compel change in the dispositions and thus practices of subjects whose original "habitus" (or dispositions) were forged in relation to different circumstances, he does not provide an explanation of the relation between the subject's practices, and specifically the economic practice of exploitation, and the formation of new cultural circumstances. Thus, in his aim to provide a theory that does not marginalize everyday "practice," he marginalizes the most significant, in the sense of explanatory, practice; namely, the practice of exploitation.  

In short, Bourdieu's theory of "habitus" is limited because for Bourdieu class is always a matter of "status," not exploitation (hence his theory of "cultural capital") and thus exploitation as the logic of globalization is erased. It is this theory of class, and not Bourdieu's refusal to acknowledge the productivity of shame, that makes Bourdieu's theory of "habitus" a miserabilist theory of globalization, because from the view of class as status, not only can we not understand why boundaries exist between different social "fields," but it is not possible to grasp how these lines of difference can be transformed. To explain, it is certainly the case that there are status differentials within the class of wage workers, and it is also certainly the case that the boundaries of these status differentials change over time. However, to understand why these differentials exist, and why they shift, one must have access to the concept of class as exploitation. This is because "status differentials" are not autonomous from, but an effect of exploitation and the profit motive embedded in exploitative class relations. Capitalists require "skilled" workers to do certain jobs and they promote these workers from among the pool of workers insofar as and only insofar as they do these jobs. If capital finds other workers to do these jobs more cheaply, as it has by outsourcing IT jobs from the US to India and elsewhere, then it does so, and these status lines shift. Bourdieu's theory is limited because it displaces the productivity of labor as the basis of change. As such, it also renders invisible the common interest of all wage workers to end exploitation and thus transform the existing boundaries and the inequalities they represent, not merely between and among workers but, more importantly, between workers and capitalists. Bourdieu's theory of the habitus is a "miserabilist" theory, in short, because it renders invisible the explanation for why the cultural circumstances of workers, including those so called "middle-class" workers in the West, have been rapidly deteriorating, or why their "experiences" of everyday life and work have been increasingly difficult, draining, anxiety-producing and so forth, while at the same time providing "status" differentials as the (largely implicit) "reason" for the impossibility of transforming the relations of production. After all, this logic goes, all there (ever) is are shifting cultural/status relations so all that is possible is a never-ending "war of all against all."  

In contrast to Bourdieu's limited theory of globalization and the limited change it proposes, Marxism provides a theory of globalization that explains the relation between subjects' practices and the emergence of new material circumstances as determined at the level of production, thus marking both the historicity of social relations as well as the conditions for transforming them. Unlike Bourdieu, the history of social practice is for Marx determined by a class struggle over the control of production which, under capitalism, has become "simplified" into a binary class system. The two classes are the bourgeoisie, or those who exploit wage labor on the basis of their ownership of the means of production, and the proletariat, those whose labor is exploited. As Marx explains in his famous "Preface" to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, it is the mode of production that determines the "circumstances" in which people live. He writes, "In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production" (20). In turn, it is the development of these forces that, as Marx goes on to explain, make social transformation possible. He writes, "At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing material relations of production… From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution" (21). In other words, in order to understand the circumstances in which people live, it is necessary to understand the economic conditions that have produced them. Under capitalism, the everyday practices of the majority are determined by the unequal property relations in which the exploitation of the labor of workers produces the wealth of the owners and necessarily deepens the divide between the classes.  

Turning back to Probyn's theory of "shame," what we see is that this theory is not a fundamentally new theory as compared to Bourdieu's theory of habitus, but rather a (re)newed way or providing an ideological erasure of exploitation as the logic behind the social and its "differences." As I have suggested, Probyn's argument is not simply a strange anomaly. This is marked not only by the fact that her text has been published by the University of Minnesota Press, a major research university press which has built its reputation on publishing "cutting-edge" theoretical analysis. It is also, as I have indicated, part of a larger theoretical and cultural movement that can be understood as a return to "sense-knowledge" in the form of "affect" as the "truth" of social being/experience (see, for instance, the texts by DeFazio, Sahay and Wilkie in this issue). In other words, I argue that Probyn's text is significant because it is symptomatic of the level of class struggle in the contemporary moment and the way this struggle is articulated within bourgeois theory.  

To explain, Probyn's intervention into Bourdieu's culturalist theory is significant on a theoretical level because she is intervening in the poststructuralist/postmodernist rejection of the notion that social being has levels of meaning or "truth." In other words, Probyn is intervening in the poststructuralist argument that there is no structure underlying the cultural, or experiential level of social being. Of course this postmodernist argument, exemplified, for instance, by Frederic Jameson's notion of postmodern "depthlessness," has been couched primarily in terms of an epistemological skepticism. In other words, from the perspective of the "post," the notion of levels of social being has been rejected on the grounds that there is no "truth" and the notion of existential social being (our experiences) being underpinned by social structures has been rejected on the basis that this posits a "truth" which implies that there is also something that is its opposite, called "falsehood" or "lie" and this is an illegitimate proposition on epistemological grounds. It is through such an epistemological justification that Bourdieu rejects the possibility of theory as an explanation of why bounded "fields" exist in the first place and thus legitimates that status quo. He writes, for instance that objectivism, which is his name for explanatory theory, "forget[s] what is emphasized by phenomenological analysis of experience of the familiar world, namely the appearance of immediacy with which the meaning of that world presents itself" and thus "fails to objectify the objectifying relationship, that is, the epistemological break which is also a social discontinuity" (26). Here, Bourdieu is arguing that the "problem" with theory is that it must necessarily make an epistemological break with practice, and that in doing so, the subject of theory must thus necessarily "forget," in the sense of failing to "objectify" her objectifying relationship to her object of theorizing/critique. For Bourdieu, the "objectivity" of this objectifying relation is the "social discontinuity" which marks the epistemological discontinuity. In other words, for Bourdieu, the condition of possibility of "theory" and thus "truth" is a certain social status which, he argues, must be forgotten in the process of theorizing. In this culturalist formulation, there is no "truth" (i.e., structure) underlying the cultural body and its experiences (or "senses"). There is only one culture/habitus among other habituses, or a series of what he calls "fields," the boundaries between and among which one cannot, from Bourdieu's perspective, historically explain. 

Probyn, as I have indicated, brings back the question of "truth" and its relation to "being" and structure. However, Probyn does not merely bring back the question of truth and its relation to being. Rather, she brings back this "question" primarily through her "answer" to the historical issues she is raising. For Probyn, and this is why her theory of "shame" is (merely) a reversal of Bourdieu's culturalist theory, the structure underlying culture and the "cultural" (i.e., experiential) body is nature and the natural body. This is why it is so important to her that one take up the notion, via Tomkins, of biological "affect" rather than cultural "emotion."  

It is through this "natural" theory of agency that Probyn reads globalization as transgressing the structures of habitus proposed by Bourdieu. Whereas Bourdieu argues that culture structures the available social practices that shape the habitus in a limited fashion, Probyn finds the means of resistance to the limits of culture in embracing a natural desire to explore and connect with new cultures. In this sense, she is translating the new needs of capital into theory. In contrast to a world in which differences are shaped by a transnational culture of consumption—the ideology of global capitalism on the rise—she instead portrays a world in which the global differences produced by capitalism require a cross-national politics of "recognition" and "feeling"—the ideology of capitalism in conflict. Insofar as "shame" assumes as natural the existence of unequal social relations, when she argues that people do in fact cross "fields," and in doing so form what she calls "contact zones," she works to naturalize the fact that the historical conditions of possibility of this border-crossing is the increasingly global nature of capitalism as a search for profits. "Globalization," in other words, is another name for intensifying exploitation—the extraction of ever-increasing levels of surplus value from workers in the forms of relative and absolute surplus-value. It is in this historical context that "contact zones" such as the imperialist war in Iraq become sites of conflict, including conflict between groups of workers who are forced to compete for the "privilege" of being exploited (employed by capital). Despite their surface differences, in other words, the US soldier who joins the army reserves to pay for a college education which should be provided for all and is sent to Iraq to fight for capital and the Iraqi civilian who is unemployed because of this war are one and the same. For capital, what becomes necessary in this situation is to block knowledge of the root cause of the various oppressive experiential effects of intensifying exploitation (surplus-value extraction) in the structure of capital.  

It is within this context of deepening international division between "haves" and "have-nots" that Probyn has returned, in an updated language, to the theory of nature (as transhistorical "biology") as the truth (structure) underlying culture/experience. By reading the social through the "biological," she nonetheless reproduces, in updated form, the culturalist rejection of the materialist theory of (cultural) experience and cultural conflicts as rooted in production and specifically class conflict. It is, I argue, only a materialist theory of social practices that connects the "truth" of experience to the mode of production that can enable the working class to intervene in the exploitation of labor and the colonial and the other forms of oppression that result from the capitalist system.  

The ineffectivity of Probyn's theory of "shame" for any sort of progressive politics become particularly visible when we turn to the implications of her advocacy of cultivating shame as a form of intervention into colonial oppression. While she focuses on the specific historical issue of the colonial oppression of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and other European colonies like Canada, a key historical subtext of her text, which was published in 2005, is the imperialist war in Afghanistan and Iraq. These imperial wars are the subtext, for instance, when Probyn writes that "Shame is very important right now: to discussions and debates about how to deal with pasts that could be called shameful; and to visions of life curtailed by the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong with feeling shame" (xiii). The issue that she is addressing, in her own terms, is how to intervene in the dis-connection between "Euro-white," colonial subjects and "Non-Euro-black" colonized subjects. By positing the answer to this problem as the (white) colonial subject's getting back in touch with her natural desire for connection via her "shame," Probyn is providing not only an a priori but natural/biological connection between and among (all) people as the basis for intervening in this (historical) dis-connection. However, from this perspective that understands that there is a natural/biological, transhistorical connection between and among (all) people, one cannot explain where this historical dis-connection (that is, contradiction/conflict) comes from. Dis-connection, in other words, can only be seen as an un/natural "fact," a sort of "pure" falsehood and thus is ultimately understood in the same way that dis-connection is understood by those such as George Bush who Probyn would, one would assume, criticize for understanding the colonial other and her acts of dis-connection ("terrorism") as "evil." In this sense, Probyn has returned to a traditional form of "empiricism" in which individuals, through their "senses," have immediate access to "truth." Probyn writes, for instance, that "[t]here is something pure about shame as a feeling, even as it publicly twists the very sense of self" (41). At the same time, Probyn conveniently posits a (cultural) "solution" to the problem that from her perspective one cannot explain as anything but "un/natural" when she posits getting "in touch with" one's sense of shame as the solution to dis-connection.  

These ideas do not constitute a coherent theory or explanation of the problems that Probyn wishes to address. Moreover, in terms of the evidence she herself provides, "shame" has not produced the kind of progressive change she claims it enables. In other words, on a political level, one can also see the incoherencies of Probyn's "solution." Probyn, in fact, and this is at the crux of the incoherence of her text and its argument for the productive nature of shame on a political level, provides powerful evidence of the actual ineffectivity of "shame" as a tool of intervention into oppression. She does so, in a particularly striking fashion, in her discussion of the role of "shame" in the struggle for the realization of human rights for Aboriginal people in Australia. She indicates that despite the work of the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council and the Australian Reconciliation Convention sponsored by this council in 1997, a convention which was concerned with enabling the realization of "basic human rights for Aboriginal people" since 1997, "interest levels in Reconciliation have dropped off. The Reconciliation Council has dissolved, big events have occurred such as the war with Iraq and the bombings of Bali, and whites are impatient with the continuing problem of Aboriginal people dying twenty years younger than the rest; interest seems to have turned elsewhere" (95). Thus, by Probyn's own admission, the outpouring of "public shame" around the issue of the violation of Aboriginal people's "human rights" was a failure. Although the purpose of the council was to publicize some of the most egregious historical violations of Aboriginal people's rights, such as the mass kidnapping of Aboriginal people's children, it has not even produced a lasting subjective "interest" in redressing the violences done to Australia's aboriginal peoples, much less produced any substantial change in the oppressive material conditions of these people's lives. This is because "shame" promotes the idea that the past is something that is "felt" and not explained. History is reduced to the history of tears and not class struggle.  

Shame erases that the causes which produced the colonial conflict between settlers and aboriginals in Australia and which continues today is determined not by "feelings" but by a fundamentally unequal division of property between the few who own and control the country's productive resources and the majority who are forced to survive either by selling their labor power or, to a decreasing extent, to struggle to live off of small subsistence farming on poor agricultural lands. What Probyn is thus unable to say, but which her own words mark, is that "shame" has (re)produced a mode of reading and a subject who cannot "see" the connection between the deteriorating conditions of her life (decreasingly access to education, health care, child care and so forth) and the oppression of colonial "others" such as the citizens of Iraq. The workers of Australia, in other words, have, in the main, acquiesced to the Australian government's participation in the colonization of Iraq not simply despite their "enlightenment" by the Reconciliation Council through its production of "public shame," but because the mode of reading produced/implied by "shame" can only reproduce the alienated subject of capitalism and the capitalist reification all "individual" cases and historical "events." At the same time, through the notion of shame as "pure," Probyn provides an alibi for maintaining such an ignorant stance by constructing shame as a critique-free space.  

In order to test this claim, I turn to a reading of one of the historical examples Probyn addresses in her text. The majority of the examples of "dis/connection" Probyn gives in her text revolve around relations between "native" people and "colonists," especially, for instance, Aboriginal Australians and white Australians. However, one of Probyn's most telling discussions of "contact zone" relations in the text is her discussion of her Canadian grandmother and her grandmother's writing on issues of native Canadians. Specifically, Probyn writes about a poem her grandmother wrote called "Half Breed."  

The poem is written in the voice of a native Canadian woman who has a "half breed" daughter whose father is a white man the native woman seems no longer to have a relationship with. It focuses on the way in which the speaker's mixed-race daughter, who is born with her father's light hair, "passes" within the white world and, in doing so, rejects her native mother. In fact, when the native mother comes to the daughter's door in a suburban neighborhood, the daughter denies that the woman is her mother. The poem revolves around expressing the deep suffering this rejection inflicts on the mother. When Probyn addresses such specific concrete instances of the way "contact zones" work, and the possibilities for change enabled by them, she is unable to completely abandon the skeptical epistemological stance informed by post-structuralism. For instance, in reading the poem, Probyn is compelled to distance herself from her grandmother's attempt to represent the "other" and her suffering. To be clear, this compulsion, or inability to completely abandon epistemological skepticism is not simply a matter of maintaining credibility as someone who has made her career, like all post-structuralists, problematizing the notion of "representation," and especially the possibility of adequate "representation," it is also a matter of needing to "acknowledge" cultural differences of class, race, gender and so forth because we are not in actuality living in a post-class, post-gender, post-race world. Probyn writes, for instance, that her grandmother's poem exhibits "excessive identifications" and that "[i]n terms of postcolonial and feminist critique, we would question the way in which she takes on the voice, experience, body of another—the white woman representing the pain of the other, who is silenced by a history in which white women collude" (124). Thus, here, Probyn abandons her earlier (re)turn to (a "traditional") empiricism when she argues against the notion that her grandmother can adequately "represent" the "other" even if she has been pushed into a "contact zone" where she is exposed to the "other's" habitus and thus jarred out of her own. However, beyond these immanent contradictions, the more crucial point to address here is that the poststructuralist (anti-) epistemological approach, which argues that one can never know the (truth of) the experience of the other's oppression including the "other within" in the end has the same limit as the traditional empiricist approach to knowledge because in either case the focus on (knowledge of/lack of knowledge of) the other's experience of oppression distracts all attention away from an analysis of why this experience is an experience in the first place.[2] In other words, bourgeois theorists who either focus simply on producing a description of the experience of oppression or on refuting the possibility of an adequate description of that experience or even—as Probyn's contradictory theory suggests—alternates between these two projects, will never produce knowledge of the cause of oppression and thus can never produce the kind of knowledge that is necessary to intervene in the production of oppression in its various forms.  

In contrast to this limited reading of the poem "Half Breed," Marxism reads the poem as an example of the pain and suffering caused by racism as an ideological manifestation of imperialism. Racism, from this view, is a matter of "oppression, of systematic inequalities in power and life chances stemming from an exploitative social structure" (Callinicos 11). The "half breed" daughter in the poem is able to "pass" as white, and thus is able to escape the direct effects of racist oppression while her mother is not only subject to systematic inequalities in her "life chances" in the form of poverty and deprivation, but is subject to her daughter's rejection in the name of an escape from this systemic oppression. From this view, the limit of the poem, and thus with the "sympathy" offered by Probyn's grandmother for women such as the mother in the poem, is that no amount of "sympathy" for such suffering will change the circumstances that produce it. What is necessary to change these circumstances, the circumstances of racist oppression, is the end of imperialism as the exploitation of the labor and resources of colonial "others" in the name of profit. This is because "race" is an invention, a cultural construct, but one which is produced in order to enable exploitation. Blond hair, for instance, does not naturally mean "pure" and "good" while black hair naturally means "dirty" and "tainted." "Blond" has any meaning only within a cultural system of binary oppositions that are produced in order to dehistoricize the exploitation of the labor and appropriation of the land of the "black haired," "native" "other." The meanings and feelings involved in rejecting "native" hair, dress, customs, and so forth is not a matter of natural animosity but of historical constructs necessitated by for-profit labor relations. As Marx writes, "A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave" (Wage-Labour and Capital 28). Analogously, a "native" only becomes a native within certain, imperialist relations. It is these relations that are at the root of various cultural meanings that surround "native." Thus, simply understanding the cultural meanings of racism, and being able to "feel" the pain that such meanings produce, will not end racist oppression or the meanings and feelings it produces. Simply "feeling" the pain of the other, without actively intervening in the system of exploitative relations that produces and requires these meanings and feelings, will in the end do nothing to actually transform these meaning and feelings. It will only, at best, provide a momentary "salve" for the oppressed subject while also providing an ideological cover for failing to transform the relations that produce racist oppression. In order to intervene in such oppression, which requires intervening in the imperialist relations that produce it, it is necessary for workers, including in this instance both the writer of the poem and the Indigenous people the poem represents, to not only develop knowledge of the cause of this oppression in exploitation as a contribution towards developing internationalist class consciousness but also, on the basis of this class consciousness, to join in collective struggles to end imperialism by ending capitalist exploitation. 

Despite her claims, Probyn's Blush acts as a text of complicity. The most obvious marker of this complicity is the way she theorizes difference. That is, in framing the issue of colonial oppression as one of the Euro-white colonial subject versus the non-Euro, black (Aboriginal) subject, she is in effect, like Bourdieu, erasing the global collectivity of white and black workers against their imperialist bosses and instead posits difference as differences of status within class. In other words, by framing these differences as a matter of (biologically-rooted) "shame," she is ultimately positing these differences as a matter of the un/natural. In doing so, she reproduces the subject of experience—the subject of the market and its (un)freedoms, the subject who cannot "see" the basis of "differences" and different "experiences" not in nature but in social relations of exploitation. However, this subject is not the transhistorical "truth" of culture and humanity. As historical materialism argues, there is a "truth," an essence or "structure" to human existence and thus a connection between and among people within a single historical moment as well as between and among peoples across time and that structure is labor and labor relations. Contemporary labor relations are relations of exploitation, relations that are responsible for the oppressive circumstances within which the majority of the world's people are currently attempting to live and work. However, these relations are no longer necessary and this is what ultimately explains why Probyn's text must be understood as bourgeois ideology. It is a text that is working to maintain the capitalist, imperialist social relations of production that are the most fundamental historical obstacle to meeting the needs of all those people who are being forced to try to meet their needs within these existing social relations. These people are today tearing each other apart fighting global wars because this system pits them against one another in a situation of manufactured scarcity. Probyn's text and affective cultural studies in general mark a need for social transformation that they themselves cannot and will not work to enable and, as such, must be abandoned for a historical and materialist approach to the urgent issues of global society.


[1] In terms of the right's war on conceptual thinking, I am thinking not only of such conservative scholars as E.D. Hirsch, Harold Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb, but also the Bush administration and others' attack on the sciences and, even more generally, the attack on what is perceived to be any kind of "critical" thinking in spaces such as Weekly Standard,, and

[2] See Kimberly DeFazio's critique of the "left" theory of the "ethnic within" in her essay in this issue.

Works Cited 

Berlant, Lauren. "Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture." Critical Inquiry 30.2 (Winter 2004): 445-451. 

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1990. 

Callinicos, Alex. Race and Class. London: Bookmarks, 1993. 

Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. Frederic L. Bender. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1988. 

___. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Frederic Bender. New York: Norton, 1988. 

___. Wage-Labour and Capital. New York: International Publishers, 1933. 

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. 

Probyn, Elspeth. Blush: Faces of Shame. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2005. 

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