Guilt : Joshua Dubler

C.A. / Eleuthera

Guilt : Joshua Dubler

As political technologies, we might consider the two principal types of guilt as akin to the American folkloric dyad of the short con and the long con. The distinction, if you recall, is as follows: in the short con, the conman takes the mark for whatever he happens to have on him, whereas in the long con, the mark is sent home for more. So while the short con is more or less a visceral operation that exploits the mark only for his obliviousness, the long con plays on the weaknesses in the mark’s character—his longings, his rapaciousness, his vices—so as to enlist the mark to become an active agent in his own fleecing. A great deal of the narrative pleasure of the long con, then, is that by the time the mark is done being taken, his victimization has become to a substantial degree his own fault.

As an analogue to the short con, guilt is a purely objective marker affixed to those individuals we deem directly responsible for a social ill, on the basis of which they are subjected to moral censure and retributive force under the law. In its second instantiation, which is analogous to the long con, guilt is regarded as a subjective condition, a core component of the subject, and perhaps even the prime mover of subjectivity itself. As two interdependent but distinct ideas, we might henceforth differentiate the two concepts by designating the former, guilt, and the latter, guilt-senseguilt feeling, or simply, “guilt.” Admittedly a cloying device, the quotation marks capture allusively the consensus over the latter concept’s dubious ontology. For, indeed, as we shall see by considering them in turn, the oppositional relationship that characterizes the two concepts on their respective surfaces carries through, albeit inversely, to their depths. That is to say, outwardly directed assignments of guilt deny their objects subjectivity, while with only cursory introspection, “guilt” is to be diagnosed as a fictitious condition, a psychic pathology devoid of any objective referent whatsoever.

In its simpler, shorter variant, the thing being extracted from the subject is violence. In passing judgments over guilt, we direct our violence, whether tangible or merely symbolic, toward those whom we are licensed, or potentially mandated­, to harm. Guilt then functions performatively as a designator of exclusion. Guilt of this first type is the other guy’s guilt. This guilt is ascribed through public rituals that mark culpability and assure that the requisite censure falls upon the correct object—the presumed agent of malfeasance. I emphasize “agent” because at least in principal guilt presupposes, for we moderns, autonomous action malignantly directed. Ergo the M’Naughten Rules of Victorian era British common law that in order to be found guilty of a crime, one must be able to distinguish between right and wrong. Things like children, animals and hurricanes may be deemed responsible for damage in a narrow causal sense, but they cannot bear moral or legal guilt as a consequence. As Nietzsche characterizes this wholly naturalized rationale: “the criminal deserves punishment because he could have acted differently.”1

Assignments of guilt are efficient and compelling. Within a given habitus, guilt automatically inheres to its rightful, culpable object. That is to say, seemingly baffling or capricious determinations of guilt such as the criminal prosecutions of Hester Prynne for adultery or the Scottsboro boys for rape, faulting Oedipus for the plague or the stoning death of the Sabbath wood gatherer in the Book of Numbers ought to register to us not their senselessness, but rather the chasm between ourselves and the alternative social orders where their sense would have been seamlessly made. When looking less far afield, the guilt of the criminally and morally guilty manifests to cultural and subcultural insiders as being as obvious and natural as the guilt of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Nuremburg defendants, or whoever else the guilty might plainly happen to be for you, which depending on your habitus, might well be Dick Cheney, David Addington and John Yoo, irrespective of what the lawyers of the land might have to say about it.

On account of their binding force, of course, the opinions of the bar do enjoy special purchase. For citizens of the modern nation state, guilt is assigned most prominently and definitively by means of the repressive apparatuses of the state. The law, courts, police forces and prisons: these constitute the highly rationalized and ritualized sphere of the public designation of guilt. An essential civic function, by alienating the culpable through the assignment of criminal guilt, agents of the state restore the given social order to its putatively unsullied state and ensure its perpetuation by reasserting the state’s ongoing monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.

If, in theory, the power to determine guilt belongs exclusively to the state, in practice such assignments are enacted less by monopoly than by cartel. That is to say, the cool violence of civil procedure is but the showpiece of the operation. The guilt of the guilty is manufactured both in the courts, and on cable news, and in church on Sunday, and around the seminar table. Often, these latter, ancillary sites work to complement the official state sponsored practices of public guilt making. In other instances, however, as already intimated, these more diffuse operations exist in tension with the state’s formal mechanisms. And while it is true that when divorced from the repressive power to arrest and detain the body of the guilty party, the stakes and consequences are wholly different, the logic of such private guilt-finding remains essentially the same. In marking guilt, the culprit always gets his due, even if, in our fallen world, the just deserts awaiting him must often remain a wish left materially unfulfilled.

Out of the interests of urgency and emergency, I feel compelled to follow a line of inquiry in which guilt might prove something of a red herring. To wit, the assignment of guilt is at its most circular and efficient, and consequently conducive to the justification or incitement of lethal force, when applied not to individual violators but across-the-board to a guilty class. An important qualification here: the operations discussed above will have already evinced more than a hint of circularity, since far from being drawn from the population at large in equal measure, the ranks of the guilty are, rather, extracted disproportionately from specially designated groups. That is to say, even the à la carte guilty (the criminal, the terrorist) is in all likelihood already a member of a suspect class (African-American, Arab/Muslim), the membership in which renders him (or her, but more commonly him) a plausible candidate for criminal guilt. But a yet broader brush exists, one we find ready-to-hand for subjects of any social order with the legs to stick around through the day after tomorrow. That is the ascription of guilt to an entire class at once. Such guilty groups may be found either in our midst or over and out there somewhere. They might be demographically indexable or wholly spectral. In whichever case, what they have done and, consequently, who they are poses an existential threat to—and a concurrent justification for—our way of life.

My universalization of this grotesque principle likely reflects the fact that we live (as I would myopically posit, we always do) in crude, Manichean times. Since 9/11, paradigmatically, Muslims fit this mold, as until recently did Communists, as elsewhere do Jews, and as for some of us do hedge fund managers. Not merely an aggregation of the individually guilty, these collectivities constitute an irreducible force, a force that serves as the dark complement to the present body politic, a force that helps us to make sense of the world and to make sense of the good by rendering theodicy redundant inasmuch as we already know with confidence who is to blame. Such cosmic guilt inheres in guilty corporate entities necessarily as a consequence of something done in fact, and done knowingly, though the timeframe for the foundational crime’s commission is wholly fungible. The crime might have been committed in the past year, or the past century, in the way-back-when-times when giants ruled the land, or even in a prophesized end times yet to arise. Such radical, corporate guilt often bears the over-insistent, Möbius-strip logic that is the hallmark of demonization: Such and such a people is guilty for what they have done because of who they essentially are because of what they have done.

This stain of guilt that cannot be unwashed is, I suppose, guilt as the defining attribute of evil. The paradigmatic instance of this marking of guilt from the tradition of my own upbringing is found in the biblical and rabbinic treatment of the tribe of the Amalekites. Amalek’s crime occurs in the Book of Exodus, where the tribe attacks the wandering Israelites in the rear, slaughtering the elderly and ailing. Which is why Deuteronomy instructs: “Remember what Amalek did to you . . . when you were leaving Egypt. . . . You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven—you shall not forget.”2 At once, the Israelite is commanded to preserve the memory of Amalek’s misdeed and to expunge all record of the people. Because of what it did, Amalek is simultaneously set up as a perpetual scapegoat and marked for vengeance unto extinction. And yet, inasmuch as the genealogies of Genesis identify Amalek to be the descendent Jacob’s brother and mortal rival, Esau, the rabbis determine evil to have been present in Amalek’s blood from the start. In the closed loop running between deed and essence, the human is made vermin. The complete and utter extermination of the Amalekites in the time of Saul’s failing Kingdom only manages to unleash the archetype qua archetype. Haman, whose malfeasance in the Book of Esther underwrites a festival of Jewish vengeance, is identified as a descendent of Amalek, as nowadays are Hitler and the enemies of the State of Israel. As a case in point, it was on the holiday of Purim, the day on which observant Jews read the Book of Esther that, in 1994, a settler named Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims in Hebron.

So that’s the short con of guilt. And calling it “short” isn’t to imply its secondary importance or simplicity for the purposes of description. It’s only to suggest that, as is true of the short con’s exploitation of the mark, it demands little of the subject-at-large beyond the visceral pleasures of righteous judgment, acts of conventional citizenship in support of the existing social order, and, every now and again, murderous zeal. As it appears to me—as a Jew, as a reader of Nietzsche, and as a citizen of these United States—the short con of guilt is quite a generic feature of ideology in practice. The long con of guilt, which pertains not to the other guy’s guilt but to my own, strikes me as more curious and more locally particular. Specifically, as “guilt,” the category reflects a uniquely modern, secular, and, most crucially, post-Freudian provenance.

The arrestingly paradoxical instruction for one not to forget to erase the memory of Amalek calls to mind the intimate relationship between guilt and memory, a relation born, according to Nietzsche, in the infliction of suffering. As revealed by the open secret of the German homophone, guilt (schuld) is but the moralization of debt (schuld), and as such is the narrativized justification for the creditor’s license to issue physical harm onto the debtor. In this regard, Amalek’s guilt as an accrued debt that can be paid off only in violent death is plainly the exception—a generic exception but an exception nonetheless. For the rest of us for whom the collective has other and more varied expectations, the suffering inflicted in the form of guilt is an investment as well in the production of the normative subject, a subject whose social standing may be restored by means of appropriate recompense. Here, the marking of guilt, of moral failure or of deviance under the law, is an essential component in the project of making good, law-abiding subjects. Which is why to the assembly line of guilt production we must add to the ranks of police officers, prosecutors, judges and wardens, a rabble of criminals and would-be criminals as well—those who perpetrate crimes, those who make penance for their crimes or refuse to do so, and all the rest of us who respond merely as conditioned with that sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs when we belatedly realize that we’ve just unwittingly driven past a state trooper in a speed trap. That is, castigatory spectacle is but the didactic surface of punishment. The bottom line is disciplining responsible men and women. This is Nietzsche’s point in the beginning of the second essay in the Genealogy of Morals: the mnemonic function of suffering in making animals with the right to make promises.

Nietzsche’s Genealogy, however, is only the second most important modernist fairy tale on the subject of guilt and the emergence of the human. The most crucial is Freud’s Totem and Taboo, whose central storyline, ever so quickly, goes like this: in the beginning, there was the Darwinian horde, which was ruled over tyrannically by the primal father. To preserve his exclusive sexual rights to the horde’s women, the father would chase away potential rivals as they came of age. Such was the primeval social order, which to the degree that it was social and political at all, was the society and the politics of the wild. In exile, however, something extraordinary happened. The banished brothers realized that if they only banded together, they could out-muscle their father. And so, one day, they returned, and killed and devoured him. In the aftermath, the brothers felt both emboldened and somewhat chastened. “A sense of guilt made its appearance” Freud writes, “which in this instance coincided with the remorse felt by the whole group.”3 It was out of this shared sense of guilt that the complementary restrictions of totemic taboo and exogamy were generated to honor the triumphant and scandalous event, and it was in this ritual regimen that the emergent, more horizontal, social order was preserved and nurtured. Freud dubs the loyalty to these blood soaked restrictions “deferred obedience,” or alternatively, as “docility after the fact.” The obedience that had been so productively suspended during the murderous frenzy became, in the collectively enforced proscriptions over who and what we kill, eat and fuck, the sentinel over our inchoate civil society. For Freud too, then, the political is war by other means, and the hinge that makes it all possible is guilt. For it is in the collectively wrought sense of guilt that the rule of undisguised violence is overcome.

Innovative as it may be, Freud’s tale arrives to us already familiar. For while Freud reads the Christian myth of the deicide and, by the end of his life, the murder of Moses by the Israelites as mythic derivatives of the primordial patricide, we may be confident that the narrative influence runs the other way around. Without the long shadow cast by Christ on the cross, there would have been no primal murder for Freud. Similarly, it is on account of the prototype of original sin that the idea of an originary guilt passed down through the generations rings halfway true. If for Augustine, the problem of original sin calls for grace as deliverance, Freud demands a more active form of remediation. To stand tall as fully mature ethical subjects, modern people must slough off the childish illusions they have about the world and their place in it.

Not that the sense of guilt ought to be overcome entirely. As is true for Nietzsche, Freud recognizes the pivotal importance of guilt in making mature individuals. As superego, Oedipal guilt comes to the psyche like ”a garrison in a conquered city,”4 rendering the experience of civilization more than a bit chafing to be sure, but tolerably so given the alternatives. Some amount of self-censure, of inwardly turned aggression—of guilt-sense—is essential if we are to evade the temptations of Dionysian violence, and cultivate a responsible citizenry capable of implementing a hale civil society. But taken in excess, which is how modern men and women commonly take it, guilt is a cultural disease. Especially in the ritualized regime of Oedipal ambivalence that is religion, guilt is mass obsessional neurosis, arrested adolescence on a civilizational scale. For if guilt sense was the sine qua non of emergent human subjectivity, as a residually dominant mood, guilt sense is a primitive hangover. In the form of religion, “deferred obedience” is for Freud the bad faith of autonomy refused.

And so, in the transvaluation of guilt from purported human condition to mass delusion is the genre of ideology critique born, although this story might be appended with an instructive preamble. The exposure of the tactic of the long con of guilt may properly be dated centuries earlier, back to the very inception of modernity, and specifically to Luther’s whistle blowing of Rome’s indulgence racket. For as Luther campaigned, in laying claim over the right to forgive sin, the Church had usurped a divine power on which it had no legitimate right. But this disillusionment would prove double edged. For in so successfully establishing, as young Marx would later point out, Luther’s revolution from Church sacraments to faith alone freed the body from chains only by enchaining the heart. Indeed, it might be said that in Luther’s theses, ideology critique actually began as practice critique with a call for less practice and more ideology. At the dawn of modernity, then, in Marx’s view, Luther ratcheted up the problem that for Nietzsche lies at the rotten core of Christianity. That problem is guilt. For Nietzsche, the Christian path to redemption allows not for the discharge of debt but a doubling down on debt. Christian guilt yields not responsible men of conscience but precisely the opposite: irresponsible men of bad conscience, men who opt for self-torture rather than answering the call to become fully human.

For the suspicious, then, the incitement to internalize guilt comes to be regarded as a malevolent political tactic, an illusion that serves, at best, the interests of some at the expense of the many, or at worst, an illusion that serves none at all. By the same token, maturity, humanness and, most of all, freedom depends on guilt’s demystification. Taking Freud and Nietzsche less as archeologists of prehistoric times than as informants about their own intellectual moment, it would seem as though a funny thing had happened on the way to man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Far from being overcome, modern man’s subjection to his own guilt—which is to say, his subjection to the guilt implanted inside him by others—had only intensified. As Freud and Nietzsche attest, in their more messianic moments as an exhortation and in their more prophetic moments as a lament, rather than demolishing the torture chamber of Christian interiority, the Enlightenment made our twisted insides only more claustrophobic and baroque.

While I have zero stake in establishing that, in aggregate, the medievals were somehow less neurotic than are we moderns, as no one operating in the shadow of Foucault will be surprised to hear, a brief survey of the philological data seems to bear out precisely this regression. The O.E.D.’s first six definitions of the term guilt, which date from the 10th to 18th centuries, delineate an objective condition in the domain of law or ethics: dereliction of duty, fault, merit and criminal culpability. It is the O.E.D.’s 7th sense, first recorded in the 19th century, which comes most readily to us, however. That is: “a mental obsession with the idea of having done wrong” in which guilt often appears combined with -feeling, -sense, -haunted, -laden, -sick,  -stricken, and of course, -complex.5 Over the last 200 years then, its heyday, the concept of guilt has drifted from the denotation of an objective condition to the denotation of a subjective feeling. But this is only half of the story. For as we all know (or should I say hope) rather than reflecting an objective reality, such ugly feelings are, in fact, as a general rule, gross distortion of that reality. Guilty feelings may well point to any of a slew of things—self-loathing or stifled resentment, a precipitating trauma or ongoing repression. But what guilty feelings rarely if ever index is actual guilt. A sense of guilt is a symptom of a repressed cause, a cause other than the one pathologically alleged by the guilt-stricken party. And so, in the twentieth century, the human, a being presumably long stained by the mark of original sin becomes a being suffering under the delusion that he or she is stained by sin, whether original (as in the case of the religious neurotic) or idiosyncratic (as in the case of secular one). If the bad news is that we feel guiltier than ever, the good news is that the guilt we feel is merely “guilt,” and is, as such, only in our minds.

Not by necessity did the subjectivization of guilt demand the evacuation from the concept of all objectivity. I note again that in its non-pathological instantiation, guilt, for Nietzsche, stems from a real state of material indebtedness, just as for Freud, Oedipal guilt reflects both real desire and, arguably, a real event. Not so long ago, then, subjective “guilt” was presupposed as being, objectively, a universal or quasi-universal condition, rendering each of us in need of Zarathustran transformation or, at the very least, a candidate for psychoanalytic fine-tuning. If for Freud and Nietzsche, “guilt” as a subjective condition was not always easy to disentangle from its objective counterpart, since World War II, it seems to me, we have grown increasingly adept at drawing a stark line between the two entities. Three emblematic episodes of this cultural drift may be culled, in turn, from postwar anthropology, criminology and popular psychology.

If “guilt” was once imagined as universal, ethnographic data from wartime Japan provincialized this presumption. For it was there that Ruth Benedict discovered there to be not one but two types of societies: guilt societies and shame societies. Whereas in a guilt society like our own, civilization ensures conformity by erecting psychic garrisons that regulate and empower individuals to exercise their own judgments, in a shame society like Japan’s, social control is secured through the thoughts and judgments of others. So while in a guilt society, punishment becomes a reasonable expectation for those who step out of line, in a shame society, it is the threat of being ostracized that is paramount. In the mirror of Japanese culture, then, a field of difference imagined as at once hyper-antiquarian and at the same time hyper-modern, postwar anthropology established that not all of us are subject to feelings of guilt. The particular face of the exception was especially instructive. In the imagination of the American public, none were as manifestly guilty for their wartime conduct as were the Japanese. And yet, as Benedict showed, the Japanese were not, in their own minds anyway, a “guilty” people.

If postwar anthropology denied to guilt sense its earlier universality, criminology soon followed suit for actual guilt. For, after a leftward sloping arc that culminated in the progressive penological innovations of the 1960s, administrative and popular discourses on crime and punishment lurched decisively and brutally to the right. In the popular conceptualization of crime, social constructivism gave way to Calvinist fatalism. While the preceding generation had conceived of crime as a malady with causes distributed across the society at large, under the new paradigm, criminal culpability was placed solely with individual criminals who were deemed to be exclusively responsible for their actions. And so, in our current era of mass incarceration, root factors such as poverty have been marginalized as legislatures and administrators have come to direct their attention almost exclusively toward the identification and isolation of the individually guilty. As for the public at large, who are promised the State’s paternalistic protection even as the threat of criminal and terroristic danger are dangled perpetually before us, we owe nothing more taxing than righteous vigilance for our dependents and contempt without mercy for those who might do them harm.

Perhaps the most convoluted but revealing episode in the postwar disaggregation of guilt and ”guilt” may be found in popular psychological and moral discourses about the human capacity for evil. Ground zero here would be 1963, which saw the publication of both Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem as well as the first scholarly articles stemming from the Milgram experiments at Yale. Whether or not a proper reading of Arendt or science worth the name, as processed in the public square, the emergent lesson of each was clear: placed in the wrong conditions, each and every one of us is capable of unspeakable atrocity. The Cold War was not incidental to this collective realization. With West Germany now our ally against a new foe well on its way to being the Evil Empire, the public reception of Arendt and Milgram served to disaggregate Nazism from Germanness. As evil was pushed out to the east, the Nazi became a deployable type. Looking inward, meanwhile, the bone-chilling intimations of the banality of Eichmann’s evil and the absentminded murderousness of Milgram’s subjects putatively signaled the re-universalization of guilt. But this was true only in the past conditional tense. Against the backdrop of the purported sui generis character of the Holocaust, the lesson of the one-two combo of Arendt and Milgram was less “we all could be guilty of murder;” than it was “we all could have been guilty of murder,” which is to say, “we all could have been guilty of murder (but as a matter of fact were not and are not).” Indeed, if the popular reception of Arendt and Milgram made us all anything, then, it rendered us not guilty but “guilty,” and therefore, as purified by the abstraction and absolved by our self-awareness, pristine in our irreproachable innocence.

And so, over the past two thirds of a century or so, as we have erected monument after monument in honor of the objective guilt of others in the forms of holocaust memorials, cold war arsenals and the prison industrial complex, we have simultaneously debased, disowned and disavowed our own subjective “guilt.”

We may locate a wonderfully genealogical snapshot of the disassociation of subjective “guilt” from its objective counterpart in one of the twentieth century’s definitive works on the subject, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Released the very month the war ended in Europe, Spellbound is both a whodunit as well as a who is it. Gregory Peck plays a man presumed to be the Dr. Anthony Edwardes, the famous author of The Labyrinth of the Guilt Complex. Through psychoanalysis, however, Edwardes is revealed to be instead the amnesiac John Ballantyne, a man suffering from an unresolved guilt complex on account of his erroneous belief that he himself killed the real Dr. Edwardes. The dialectic between guilt and “guilt” that animates the film as a whole finds consolidated expression in one early scene in which Dr. Constance Peterson, played by Ingrid Bergman, has the following exchange with a spacey young patient named Garmes.

Garmes: “I didn’t want to come to this institution but my brother insisted. I can see no sense in it myself. You see, I’m convinced that I’m not suffering from any hallucination but that my guilt is real. I know…that I killed my father and I’m willing to pay the penalty…”

Dr. Peterson: “You’re here to see if we can cure your guilt complex by psychoanalysis, Mr. Garmes.”

Garmes:  “But I have no guilt complex. I know what I know. I killed my father and I’m…”

Peterson: “No, you didn’t kill your father. That’s a misconception that has taken hold of you. People often feel guilty over something they never did. It usually goes back to their childhood. A child often wishes something terrible would happen to someone and if something does happen to that person, the child believes he has caused it. And he grows up with a guilt complex over a sin that was only a child’s bad dream.”

Garmes: “What I am thinking isn’t true then…”6

An ethereal look of relief overtakes Garmes’ wide-eyed face. Dr. Peterson offers Garmes further reassurances, and Garmes departs her office. Peterson orders her patient up a prescription and the scene ends. Throughout, the film gives us little reason to doubt Dr. Peterson’s judgment. Plainly, Garmes’ affliction, which later will also prove the proper diagnosis for the amnesiac Ballantyne, is not guilt but “guilt.”

The irony, however, is that in his droll iconoclastic way, Hitchcock is taking Garmes’ side here. For Hitchcock, orthodox Catholic and orthodox Freudian both, Garmes’ problem is not merely a sense of guilt but also the condition of guilt in fact, which is to say, not merely a guilt-complex—“a child’s bad dream”—but, rather, guilt proper. As stained both by the original sin accrued in the Fall and constituted indelibly by deferred obedience to the murdered primal father, for Hitchcock, each of us carries inside of ourselves a real guilt, the expiation of which requires not merely the tools of modern medicine but also divine grace. Garmes may diligently pursue the talking cure and faithfully take his meds, but the theological and anthropological roots of his wretchedness will remain unaddressed. As dramatized by the film’s climactic sequence, in which, in a point of view shot, Edwardes’ real killer turns his gun onto himself and fires, for Hitchcock, guilt and “guilt” may well be different in person but they are not fundamentally different in kind. Even the nominally innocent are not exempt, not Garmes, not Ballantyne, and not those watching in the theater or reading this sentence. In the end, all will be judged and, if judged fairly, all will be found guilty. But such an unpleasantly dark and comprehensive conceptualization of guilt is by now, in our churches no less so than in our analysts’ offices, a decidedly minority opinion.

To conclude by rehearsing our opening metaphor: the short con of guilt is thought to sprout from the juridical and functions as an objective marker. The long con sense of “guilt” is seen as coming out of religion and has a subjective character. While as fragments of discourse, these two notions of guilt inform one another dialectically and will continue to bounce off of each other and other concepts in years to come, the relationship between them presently is almost perfectly diametric. As we find them operative among our friends and colleagues today, the externally directed short con of guilt ruthlessly denies to the guilty any subjectivity, while the internally directed long con of guilt, which has been exposed largely as precisely this—a long con—denies to our own subjective feelings of “guilt” any claim on objectivity.

As a political technology, guilt demands from the subject his or her willingness to dehumanize, censure and otherwise participate in the rituals through which the guilty are castigated and punished. As for “guilt,” its politics are intelligible primarily in contradistinction to the presumed politics of its imagined other: that being those feelings of “guilt” mistaken by rubes and reactionaries for actual guilt. And so, if in its antiquated form, guilt calls one to sacraments, or works, or penance, or vigilance unto grace, then enlightened “guilt,” calls one to demystify these things. If the politics of authoritarian guilt belong to the conservative practices of deferred obedience to patriarchal dominion, the politics of “guilt” participate in a progressive politics of personal liberation. If in naïve guilt, the law is a precondition to sovereignty, then in emancipated  “guilt” the law must be transcended for sovereignty to manifest. If, as we imagine it, nostalgic guilt binds the subject in obligation to his or her ancestors, nation and his God, modern “guilt” binds him or her to the existential obligation of overcoming such unworthy obligations, to reject the power by which we have been enlisted to subjugate ourselves to such false idols. As the tribute that the modern antiauthoritarianism pays to pre-modern traditionalism, the politics of “guilt” is the skeptic’s creed whose cardinal tenet is the stiff-necked refusal to be conned any longer.

For the would-be liberated self, the stakes could not be more forced or momentous. Consider, for example, the American vernacular of “Jewish guilt,” “Catholic guilt,” and to a lesser degree, “white guilt” or “liberal guilt.” Whether as lament or as self-accusation, in all of these “guilts” we encounter a self in a stunted stage of fulfillment, a self fallaciously moored in religion, tradition or history against its own becoming. Until the aspiring free spirit has worked through such coercive or sentimental psychopathologies, full ethical, political and sexual selfhood will remain unattainable. This is the inward war the subject must wage. As for those others, those poor and contemptible old school normative subjects who defend with all alienated zeal the absurd conceit their “guilt” is real? They are, by now, the deserving victims of ideology’s long- con.

Fortunately, there is further linguistic data to suggest that we are continuing to wise up to such bald-faced strategies of repression. Returning to the OED, we may note the December 2006 draft addition of an emergent yet wholly familiar sense of the verb “guilt”—a transitive usage meaning to “guilt-trip.” First pinpointed in a 1971 issue of the feminist journal, Off our Backs, the OED also records a recent instance from the 2001 novel, The Corrections, in which Jonathan Franzen’s writes: “He weathered a spasm of hatred of Denise for having guilted him into inviting his parents to lunch.”7 If “guilt” betrays the gravitational pull of the subject’s unvanquished religious tradition, in this case it reflects as well an even more common and annoying condition, one that afflicts all of those sad straight men with the ill fortune not only of having been raised by a mother, but of later having married her too. As is evident in Franzen, however, the heavy-handed tactic of maternal guilting that drove a generation of Alexander Portnoys half mad is by now plainly legible as little more than a weapon of the weak.

In sum, if guilt serves to exclude, in the discourses of “guilt,” it is guilt itself that has been marked for exclusion.


Joshua Dubler is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester.


1. Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. New York: Vintage, 1989, 63.

2. Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.

3. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990, 177. In English translations of Freud, “sense of guilt” is used to render two different categories, schuldbewusstsein and schuldgefühl. See Herman Westerink, A Dark Trace: Sigmund Freud on the Sense of Guilt. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press2009, xii.

4. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1989, 84.

5. Guilt,” Oxford English Dictionary. Accessed on the worldwide web on December 1, 2010.

6. Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound, 1945.

7. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2001), 93.