Contra the received wisdom on the matter, shame seems to be the most primordial ethical experience of humanity. In the story of Scripture, we find that this shame is intertwined with the first human experience of lack – nakedness.
The book of Genesis records in its third chapter that when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (v7) When God subsequently finds the two of them hiding from Him, Adam confesses that, “’I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” (v10)
In our forefather Adam's words, we stumble upon the first description of feeling shame. Guilt is not yet operative here, and must be imported from elsewhere via a post hoc interpretation if we are to find it in this text at all. Instead, shame seems to be the primary concept which structures the break in the relationship between God and the first humans.
This knowledge that we are "naked" – is it not the most human of notions?
To realize that one is naked is to have a sudden realization of one's lack. A human being without clothes simply appears exactly as they are, with no covering or supplementation, yet somehow this zero-level is nonetheless lack-ing in our eyes.
This lack must be something which we add to reality, for it does not appear through an inspection of raw sense data, but rather becomes apparent only in the experience of a life-world. This lack becomes included within the object itself, and rather than the lack appearing as its own distinct object within experience, this inclusion of the lack changes the original object into which it is incorporated.
Žižek frequently refers to a joke which brilliantly illustrates how the inclusion of a lack fundamentally changes an object – a customer in a café requests from the waiter "coffee without cream." However, the waiter replies that the café does not have cream. Instead, he says, the café only has milk, and thus the customer will have to be satisfied with "coffee without milk" instead of "coffee without cream."
Regardless of which option is chosen, the customer will be served black coffee. But why does the customer (and perhaps even the hearer of the joke) feel disappointed by this outcome? The inclusion of a different lack changes the object. No longer do we receive coffee without cream, but now we must be satisfied with something else.
So too with nakedness. Regardless of whether one is a human-without-socks or a human-without-shirt, they will appear the same – skin, hair, and bones. The other animals have no such understanding that they are naked, for they really and truly are not naked. They simply are. They have no sense of lack in this regard.
In our minds though, to sink to the level of nakedness is to become less than human, in some important sense. There is something utterly abject about a naked human being. This is why we not only feed the poor, but we also give them clothes, for these clothes mark their dignity and attest to the common humanity we share with them. We honor them by covering them.
In the wake of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the new default state of the human, this creature plagued by self-consciousness, is to be clothed. The natural state in which the human is born into the world is no longer the baseline level for human life, and this original state of skin and hair must be supplemented by a covering.
We must not fail to notice that the act of covering is what creates nakedness, that is, by veiling our animality, we create nakedness. The two notions are intertwined and mutually determinative. Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit and suddenly became aware that they were naked, what they were realizing was that they lacked covering – introducing both the object lacked and the consciousness of that lack.
This is what we would call a dialectical notion – a concept which functions on the inclusion of its own lack within itself. This dialectical movement is the unique provenance of human beings, and is enabled by the form and operation of our consciousness to think.
Nakedness is a dialectical notion because in its production we have created a new possibility for understanding the world, one which was not there previously. By taking the complex state of affairs of "lacking covering" and sublating this into a highly useful and operative concept we now call "nakedness," we witness the sort conceptual achievements which human consciousness has the capacity to generate.
In closing, I want to leave you with a distinction that I intend to unpack at a future time, but which will hopefully help you start to make some interesting connections – I believe that nakedness indicates the primary difference between the ethical notions of shame and guilt – shame is a being seen by the Other in a certain way, whereas guilt is a pronouncement about one's status in relation to a standard (the Law).
In this way, shame is connected to lack and to the eye (especially of the Other's gaze), and guilt is connected to speech and the context in which it is spoken. Those who are familiar with psychoanalysis, especially Lacan, may already see where I'm going with this distinction, but for now I will have to leave the reader to work on that puzzle for themselves.
That's another week at Samsara Diagnostics in the books. In addition to this morning's post, I also released an unplanned episode of Samsara Audio!
In this most recent episode, I interviewed Shinkyū, a Twitter mutual who has practiced Zen for over two decades and teaches at his local temple. He's well versed in both the practice and theory of Zen, so this conversation really brings the listener into another world of religious practice that might feel unfamiliar.
Shinkyū talked about the various ways to interpret the concept of re-birth and why the no-self demands an even higher ethical standard from its adherents, while also providing us a glimpse into the state of Buddhist-Christian dialogue at a local level in the Midwest. I learned a lot through talking with Shinkyū, and I hope that you find our conversation illuminating as well!