Temporality is lived time, the time of our lives, and not the abstract time of the physical sciences. The human species might well be called homo temporalis (coined by Hinton) because of its unique capacity for temporal awareness, as the creature who knows it will die.
The spectres of the past may reappear at any time; many of our cultural and personal defences have to do with managing our primal helplessness and vulnerability, and our desire for future security. Haunted by the past and apprehensive, but also excited, about the future, we scheme to control the vicissitudes of temporality. However, we cannot so easily evade our personal and cultural memories, and knowledge of our eventual demise; those forms of awareness lie at the core of what we are.
When human beings become aware of their evanescence, of their eventual fading away, they become conscious of a beginning and an end, of intrinsic limitations, and of void and loss.
These realisations of finitude and transience are painful and are often concealed from self or others because of the shame they evoke. Indeed, the etymology of shame means to cover or hide. Our sense of helplessness and exposure creates shame. The awareness of time means that when life and time is lived, it is also lost. A moment is past, an ending is closer, or an opportunity has arisen; no moment is the same as the moment before. When, during these moments, our emotional state or our sense of self shifts unexpectedly, we feel painfully and perhaps dangerously revealed to the eyes of others or ourselves. They and we see our fragile defences and our helplessness. As a consequence we may want to disappear.
Much of our character and our customs have to do with shame avoidance, and we fill our lives with compensatory ‘prosthetics.’
Memories of extreme traumas often create chronic shame, making it difficult to fully participate in life. On the other hand, it is important to remember that shame can slow us down and force us to take a look at ourselves and our relation to the other; when accepted in a reflective way, it can have a kenotic effect, be a teacher, and facilitate the unveiling of new dimensions of truth.
Temporality and shame constitute two key issues about which scholars are writing today. Remarkably, despite the surge of interest in these critical areas, very little work has been done on the relationship between the two. This is all the more striking given the many ways in which temporality and shame intersect and interrelate. Our volume, Temporality and Shame, proposes to fill this crucial gap in the literature.
Ladson Hinton and Hessel Willemsen’s edited book “Temporality and Shame” will be available from 31 January 2018.