Thought-perception beyond form or, the logic of shame.
Few books published recently in the field of postcolonial studies can rival the virtuosic brilliance of Timothy Bewes' The Event of Postcolonial Shame. Dense, challenging and thought-provoking, the work's dazzling erudition, which combines highly inventive readings of an impressive array of philosophers, writers, literary and cinematic texts, opens new critical inroads into the relation between ethics and aesthetics. Bewes' central thesis is that shame constitutes the event which gives material form and expression to the irresolvable tension between the ethical and the aesthetic that is the hallmark of postcolonial literature, indeed of all modern writing. Pace Joseph Conrad, Bewes defines shame as 'the experience of a prolonged incommensurability between a form and a substance ... in a world of desolate unintelligibility' (pp2-3). Shame in other words, is the text's formal articulation of its ethical, political and representational inadequacy. Sartre's insight into the 'shameful' structure of perception, which destabilises the encounter between the subject of knowledge and the object of its comprehension, functions as Bewes' analytical point of departure, while Hegel, Lukacs, Adorno, Badiou and Deleuze provide the conceptual tools needed to theorise a practice of postcolonial writing 'freed from the shaming, subtractive consciousness of a being who writes' (p192). True postcoloniality, or freedom from the shame built into the very structure of colonialism: such is the radical thought to which Bewes' book attempts to give form. Illuminating the paradoxically inseparable distances, gaps and dislocations between the subject and object of perception, form and event, revolutionary potential and realisation, aesthetics and ethics in the works of writers such as Joseph Conrad, T.E. Lawrence, VS. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, J.M. Coetzee, Caryl Phillips, and Zoe Wicomb, The Event of Postcolonial Shame seeks to reformulate critical enquiry within postcolonial studies 'not positively, by the presence of certain cultural motifs, identity formations, historical struggles, or emancipatory goals, but negatively, by an incommensurability that is materialized whenever such presences are produced or named as the object or the subject of a work' (p7). As I will suggest a little later, the luminous clarity of Bewes' negative critique, which posits the necessary conjoining of shame and form, and which attempts to shed light on the event of shame as 'a modality of thought that cannot adequately be accounted for by language, or reduced to what is expressible in language' (p14), risks leaving the political in the dark by underscoring failure as the constitutive measure of the success of literature and by privileging the ethical as 'a permanent rendering inadequate of form' (p19).
As mentioned earlier, shame is the literary form that emblematises the gap within the perceiving subject, 'between the I as experienced by the self and the self as it appears to and is reflected in the eyes of the other' (p24). Bewes deconstructs the ontology of the subject that sustains Sartre's formulation of the perceptual relation that engenders the structure of shame (a formal relation that cannot be viewed as an ethical response to political inequality, but must be seen as a determinant condition built into the very apparatus of power), by arguing for shame as an experience of the dissolution and evacuation of the self. The vector of this process of de-subjectification, as Bewes demonstrates through his Deleuzian reading of Lawrence, is the negation of perception (and perceptibility) towards nothingness and abstraction (p36). The impossibility of representing the dissolution of the self towards imperceptibility finds formal expression in the shame of the postcolonial novel, of shame as the form of the experience of perceptual dissonance and discrepancy (p46). Invoking Lukacs' definition of the novel as the form of the age of 'absolute sinfulness' (p44), Bewes describes shame as both the experience of incommensurability between a subject and the world, as well as the formal resolution of that discrepancy (p45). He then proceeds to raise one of the most important questions of the book: how does one think in the absence of form and how does one think the absence of form (p46)? This query serves as the fulcrum upon which hinge the true stakes of the book's 'postcolonial hypothesis': To conceive of and realise a revolution without betrayal, and to think 'the possibility of postcoloniality (that is to say, freedom) in circumstances in which it has not yet been achieved' (p101). Hegel, Adorno, Fanon, Badiou and Deleuze are summoned as building blocks for the elaboration of the radical heterogeneity between concept and form, between freedom and its instantiation. For Bewes, true decolonisation and postcoloniality, or freedom, can only take place through an abandonment of the metaphysics of fidelity and betrayal that undergird the idea of revolution as a project to be realised, an assumption that drives the very logic of the colonial enterprise (pp102-107). Following Adorno's reflection that Hegel's philosophy addresses itself to that which is unthinkable within predetermined forms of thought, Bewes underlines the startling similarity between Hegel and Deleuze: both philosophers attempt to conceptualise absolute, radical freedom by positing 'the possibility of a thought that would take place outside form, that is to say, a thinking of form as such' (p103). The concept of a thought that would be irreducible to a pre-given or existing thought-form, or a thinking that would be capable of thinking its disappearance, holds the key to understanding the paradoxical aesthetics, ethics and politics of writing produced in the wake of colonialism; complexities that Bewes unearths in persuasive fashion through close readings of a wide range of literary and cinematic texts. However, the varied instances of the colonial and postcolonial tensions that Bewes illustrates through his analyses may be crystallised within the following observation about Conrad: such forms of writing seek to express 'the indescribable precisely in its indescribability; the non-iterable in its non-iterability; the unconceptualizable in its unconceptualizability (p110). Bewes' demonstration comes to a full circle: the disintegration of novelistic forms is nothing other than the formal expression of shame, where shame is the form that expresses the disjunction between thought and form, freedom and instantiation, revolution and realisation, aesthetics and ethics.
In the final and to my mind, most incisively brilliant chapter of the book, Bewes seeks to break the circle through the idea of a thought-perception liberated from the oppositional logic of identity and difference that informs subjectivity and human relationality. Conceding that shame is structurally immanent to perception, he proposes a form of perceptual thinking that would arise from a violent encounter with incomprehension, or a departure from pre-constituted categories such as subject-object, self-other, colonizer-colonized, 'percipere and percipi' (p172). Invoking the Bergsonian notion of a pure perception that would extend beyond every form given to human comprehension, as well as the Deleuzian principle of subtraction which would suspend subjective relationality in favour of the machinic impersonality of the nonhuman, Bewes constructs the concept of freedom as a thought-perception liberated from the formal logic of shame.
The Event of Postcolonial Shame has the singular merit of shifting intellectual debates within postcolonial literary studies away from the more commonplace discursive terrains of cultural identity, multiplicity, diaspora, hybridity, creolite and the like, towards a more rigorous investigation into the significance of the forms and structures of aesthetics and ethics in the aftermath of colonialism. The study however, raises some other questions. As stated earlier, the notion of political agency recedes into obscurity within an analytical framework that primarily examines writing as the locus of an irremediable tension between the aesthetic perceptibility and the ethical representability of freedom (pp140-141). 'What is most shaming about writing is its ability to abstract from the body, to sublimate sensation into ethical prescription' (p153). Lukacs' insight that the novel is the form of the age of absolute sinfulness is pivotal to Bewes' elucidation of the form of shame, or rather, of shame as form. But as Lukacs' reprisal of Fichte's observation shows, absolute sinfulness, which Lukacs alternatively characterises as a world abandoned by God, designates the absence of a transcendence that orders and organises the signifying forms of immanence, and refers first and foremost to an age, an epoch, and a condition. The formal (but provisory and oft-repeated) resolution to the demonic power of contingency, or an immanence abandoned to itself, is irony. 'Irony' writes Lukacs, 'consists in [the] freedom of the writer in his relationship to God ... Irony ... is the highest freedom that can be achieved in a world without God'. (1) By displacing a condition (sinfulness) onto a structural and formal solution (shame), Bewes paradoxically transforms the freedom of a structural form into a determining condition. While Bewes is careful to distance himself from the ontology of the subject that dictates the Sartrean logic of perceptual shame (of shame as perception itself), his analyses nevertheless seem to elevate the structure of shame to an ontological categorical imperative that would determine every available form of human perception, consciousness, and comprehension. Theorising shame as an unspeakable and unnameable event that would lie beyond the expressibility of language, but whose inexpressibility would find constant inscription as inadequacy within writing raises the 'affection-image' of shame (p175) to the quasi-transcendental status of an unsurpassable limit-horizon. Why shame ought to constitute the privileged category of analysis over other affections is not always clear. For Deleuze, the experience of shame opens lines of flight away from its reactive negativity towards the affirmative power of other affective or perceptual becomings. The mobile, vitalistic and material force of thought-perception in Deleuze tends to be blunted or obscured within a reading that valorises the logic of shame as an ur-event. As Deleuze argues in The Logic of Sense, sense is precisely the fourth dimension of language that makes possible the inherence and expression within language of the aliquid, the world of pre-individual, nonhuman singularities or events, becomings, and thought-perceptions that lie beyond the pre-given forms and significations of subjects, objects, bodies and things. Deleuzian sense, in other words, is the conceptual dimension that frees the potentiality, possibility and agency of thought-perception (or eidaesthetics) from the dialectical binary logic of possibility-impossibility, failure-success, speakability-unspeakability, and so on and so forth.
Confucius remarked that what interested him as a philosopher and thinker were not the answers, but the questions. By framing and asking a set of fresh and inventive ones, Timothy Bewes challenges us with the task of creating a more rigorous intellectual engagement with the aesthetics and ethics of postcoloniality. The Event of Postcolonial Shame is a remarkable and stunning work of scholarship.
(1.) Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel, Anna Bostock (trans), Cambridge, Massachussetts, The MIT Press, 1971, pp92- 93.
Raji Vallury is Associate Professor of French at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of 'Surfacing' the Politics of Desire (Toronto, 2008), and is preparing a book on the politics of postcolonial fiction.