Tell No One: Pulp Fiction and the Shame-Humiliation Response


If the literature on shame does not actually begin with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, scholars developing theories about shame’s possibilities and shame’s effects usually start with reference to her essay “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel,” a piece that opens with an event frequently discussed by theorists of cultural trauma, the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Sedgwick’s reaction, in those weeks in late September, to the missing towers, was one, she says, of constant shame. In other words, what Ann Kaplan has referred to as the experience of cultural trauma, Sedgwick affectively experienced as one that flooded her with shame. I do not wish to confuse shame and trauma here – precisely the opposite – but I do think it is important to note that the two are perhaps already confused, or rather that trauma and shame might function as two different ways of looking at a single experience or a complex of related experiences. Shame might, in fact, be a way of moving away from “Freudian paradigms,” as the call for this working group annually requests. In an effort to speak clearly about shame and trauma and their possible intersections, my essay will first review some of the literature on shame and then move to a discussion of the ultra-violent rape/revenge sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction. I want to develop an argument about how Tarantino’s movie works to invest its audiences with shame; I propose that the effect of this shame is individualizing and silencing, and that it works to legitimate silence and shame (and violence and revenge) as the appropriate responses to the experience of violation.

Sedgwick’s own work on shame is indebted chiefly to the mid-twentieth-century psychologist Silvan Tomkins, whose theories about the affects (there are nine in Tomkins’ work) describe the affects in great detail and include the physical movements and facial expressions that attend each. For Tomkins, “the shame response is an act which reduces facial communication. […] By dropping his eyes, his eyelids, his head, and sometimes the whole upper part of his body, the individual calls a halt to looking at the other person, particularly the other person’s face, and to the other person’s looking at him, particularly his face.” As Tomkins describes it, shame is a hiding of the self – a reduction but not a complete refusal of communication – and this reduction is accomplished by covering the face, covering the genitals, hiding the eyes. It is, in other words, a profoundly individualizing gesture, refusing identification with the other.

Sedgwick, however, proposes that at the same time shame interrupts identification, it also “makes identity. In fact, shame and identity remain in very dynamic relation to one another, at once deconstituting and foundational, because shame is both peculiarly contagious and peculiarly individuating.” Put another way (by Douglas Crimp), “in the act of taking on the shame that is properly someone else’s, I simultaneously feel my utter separateness from even that person whose shame it initially was. I feel alone with my shame, singular in my susceptibility to being shamed for this stigma that has now become mine and mine alone.” This contagious but simultaneously individualizing quality of shame seems to me particularly relevant to trauma studies and to thinking about how theatre and film audiences respond affectively to representations of violation or traumatic experience. In Sedgwick’s account of how shame works, because shame is bound up fundamentally with who one is, shame works always to refer back to a kind of originary moment when shame flooded the body (usually a moment when the child was greeted with misrecognition by the mother). The experience of shame, then, (at least in Sedgwick) is a kind of revisiting of a consciously forgotten but unconsciously remembered scene of ur-shame, and we might hear an analog here to what we mean by trauma.