Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Introduction: Whose Guilt?

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Introduction: Whose Guilt?

Article excerpt

I.

"Why me?" that was my first thought when invited to edit a special issue on the topic of guilt for English Studies in Canada. I accepted immediately, although my reasons for doing so were at the time, and are still at the time of this writing, rather mysterious to me. Having no particular critical association with guilt, I have felt ill-equipped to speak on or to edit what others have to say about the topic. I guess this is the immediate response of an academic: to feel guilty that I don't know enough. And if I turned down the opportunity, one of my brighter or more ambitious colleagues would do a better job, which, of course, inevitably she or he would because, well, I'm dumber and lazier. Academic guilt--the worst kind--crystallizes itself when one gives one's first seminar presentation or conference paper, or leaps the tenure and promotion hurdle, or feels guilty for having tenure and promotion when so many don't, or feels not so secretly satisfied that one does but then feels guilty for being happy. As Adam Frank says in his contribution to this issue, even "[t]hinking about guilt ... makes me feel guilty" (11). Or perhaps the attempt to mask my ineptitude is a symptom of the academy's inability to confront its own, a version of Deena Rymhs's statement that "literary criticism avoids dealing with the larger political issues that may shake at its own foundations" (119).

After awhile such sin starts to feel rather primal. Part of my reluctance to take on a topic I knew so little about was, I also now realize, due to the fact that I knew too much. Guilt is too much and so much with us that we often take no notice of its presence. We need to ask what this eternal return of our shame might portend at the dawn of the twenty-first century, at a time when a consciousness of our responsibility for the globe is met by an equal sense that we don't matter, that we exist in some neglected corner off to the side of an infinite cosmos. Such is the nature of original sin. The human is a desire that understands all too well the uncanny relationship between a creation that cares little for it and a creature in whom such neglect returns in kind. Shame is the primal matrix of feeling that accompanies such hateful vulnerability; guilt is the human's compensatory staging of shame in order at once to repress and to recuperate its menacing affect. Our suffering for this compensation is the price we pay for our knowledge of it.

In a postcapitalist, Internetted, global arena of social interaction, the knowledge Prometheus or Adam took on in order to know the world of the gods' making, the knowledge that is the rabid spirit of the scientific mind mapped onto a planet that wants to know and thus to wed together all aspects of itself--by whatever means, to whatever ends, at whatever cost--makes guilt as profitable an affective commodity as it ever was. As Lacan writes, "the desire of man ... has quite simply taken refuge or been repressed in that most subtle and blindest of passions, as the story of Oedipus shows, the passion for knowledge. That's the passion that is currently going great guns and is far from having said its last word" (324). Or as Jung knew in his re-reading of Freud's Oedipal scenario, well in advance of Lacan's, guilt is the squandering of our psychic energy, an overcompensation for our neurotic lives. At what point, Jung asks, will the incestuous sin we have fetishized as a passion for knowledge become instead the incest of our desire to truly know the other as ourselves? Is such a knowing ever possible? Or is guilt the inevitable, even necessary, price we pay, as Jung or Lacan might say, for resisting our blindness as blindness? In one way or another the following essays address themselves to the issue of guilt as a passion for knowledge, the heterogeneous affect that accompanies human beings attempting to know themselves and their world as the fate of being human within the world. This only world that we have is, in fact, never ours, so that as our only world, we must take responsibility for a creation for which we never asked. …

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