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Shame As A Structure of Feeling: Raped and Prostituted Women

In J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Futhi Ntshingila’s Shameless

Sarah Bezan
University of Alberta

If colonialism and apartheid shaped the masculinities of the past, the transition
to democracy in South Africa in the 1990s has had the effect of unsettling and
unseating entrenched masculinities: masculinities which were, in the main,
patriarchal, authoritarian and steeped in violence.
– Graeme Reid and Liz Walker, “Masculinities in Question”

While seemingly fertile ground for the negotiation of the gendered, racial, and
sexual politics of post-apartheid South Africa, the raped and prostituted female
body in South African fiction demands de-metaphorization. In her essay, “The
Rainbow Womb,” Meg Samuelson contends that “the metaphorical use of
women’s bodies eclipse[s] and distort[s] the social and political realities they
inhabit” (88). Samuelson’s point elucidates the problematic rendering of the
female form by South African writers as penetrable and violatable, and yet as a
self-contained, abstracted symbol of national fantasy. Reduced either to abjected
materialism or abstracted symbolism, women’s bodies appear to function as the
un-integrated, de-contextualised, and convenient dumping ground for masculine
anxieties and desires.
Rather than reinforce the notion that the female form is a carrier and
container of meaning, it is essential to acknowledge the mode of affect – that
is, shame – that motivates acts of violence against women in the first place.
Sexually independent and newly-empowered women in the workplace, for
instance, effectively threaten patriarchal power, resulting in feelings of shame
on the part of men, followed by an attempt to recover dominance through
sexual violence as well as through the displacement of shame upon women
in the form of public stigmatization. An approach to raped and prostituted
women, then, ought not to privilege the female body as the preferred site of
negotiating colonial trauma, the tensions of post-apartheid democratization, or
the destabilising of Zulu masculinities, but should examine the affect of shame
as the embattled ground of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic systems. In
J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a system of anxious masculine desire is mobilized

through feelings of “disgrace” – a structure of feeling that carries with it
notions of private (inward) shaming and public stigmatization. Similarly,
in Futhi Ntshingila’s Shameless, the rhetoric of “shame” is directed toward
the prostituted, female body. Intriguingly, though, shame is not represented
statically, but is enacted in both novels through its concomitant avowal and
disavowal. In Disgrace, Lucy Lurie (a lesbian) is gang-raped and impregnated
by three violent black men, and yet refuses to publically acknowledge the
trauma of this act – just as her father, David Lurie, publically denies the effect
and affect of his sexual assault on one of his students, Melanie Isaacs. In
Shameless, protagonist Thandiwe renounces the stigmatization of prostitution,
arguing that to be a female labourer in any sector of society is simply to be
another “kind of whore” (59). The disavowal of shame on the part of the female
protagonists in these fictions serves to negate a reading of the female body as
the passive receptacle of masculine fear and fantasy, and points instead to the
political and social pressures that are its cause. To be sure, along the complicated
nexus of shame, who is ashamed and who is shaming another is never an
entirely divisible line.
Tracing the workings of shame as a “structure of feeling” underscores
the complexity of its distribution and circulation in both the private and
public spheres. For as Raymond Williams writes in Marxism and Literature,
structures of feeling are the products of interrelating subjects, creating a set of
“specific internal relations at once interlocking and in tension” (132). Williams’
formulation of the interlocking and dividing elements of relational subjects is
remarkably compatible with an examination of the operations of shame, since
shame is at once inward (opposed to, or turned away from the community)
and vicarious (shared by members of the community). While shared shame, as
Silvan Tomkins suggests, can be “a prime instrument for strengthening the sense
of mutuality and community,” inward shame is “an ambivalent turning...away
from the object toward the face, toward the self” (156, 137). More generally,
as Tomkins goes on to argue, “shame is the most reflexive of affects in that
the phenomenological distinction between the subject and object of shame is
lost” (136). The unstable, mutable relationship between who is and who is not
ashamed, then, demonstrates the way in which shame is circulated in the space
of intimacy or privacy through sexual relations, as well as in the broader context
of public interaction. Moreover, in matters of sexuality and gender, as Daniel
Altman argues in Global Sex, it is productive to “think in terms of structures

rather than specific issues or identities” (34, my emphasis). To read Coetzee’s
and Ntshingila’s works strictly through the lens of embodied symbolism
assumes that shame is an isolated and contained affect. However, the affect of
shame is the terrain of warring masculinities and femininities; the battlefield of
sexual politics.
The feelings of shame that arise from the presence of racially othered,
independent female subjectivity in Disgrace – from Soraya, to Melanie, to
Lucy – results in the commingling of masculine anxiety with desire, the public
with the private, the ashamed and the shameless. When David Lurie encounters
Soraya with her children one Saturday morning, he becomes aware of her public,
independent life – separate from the privacy of their Thursday hotel room (6).
Uncomfortable with the traversal of this public/private boundary, a moment that
David refers to as an “accident” (6), Soraya eventually quits the Discreet Escorts
agency, leaving David desperate and starkly reminded of his faded power over
women; his lecherous, enfeebled, and increasingly repulsive sexuality. Existing
in “an anxious flurry of promiscuity,” David attempts to reclaim his station of
authority: “if he wanted a woman he had to learn to pursue her; often, in one
way or another, to buy her” (7). As an educated white male advancing farther
from youth as he is from the apartheid era, David Lurie’s hold on a position
of privilege is slipping from his grasp. As Pamela Cooper states, David is the
“representative of an older social order: the officially defunct South Africa of
Afrikaner dominance, statutory racial oppression, and the uneasy pleasures of
white privilege” (22). Desiring domination rather than mutual sexual pleasure,
David Lurie seeks out “ethnic” females in an anxious attempt to re-enact the
colonial legacy of racial and gendered oppression. Additionally, more than
simply a desire for a position of power over “ethnic” women, David has anxiety
about desire – or more specifically, over being desirable (of having power over
women by appealing to their sexual appetites). David envisions Soraya speaking
with her fellow prostitutes: “they tell stories, they laugh, but they shudder too,
as one shudders at a cockroach in a washbasin in the middle of the night. Soon,
daintily, maliciously, he will be shuddered over. It is a fate he cannot escape”
(8). Later, when David hires a detective agency to find Soraya, his phone call is
met with a shrill demand by Soraya never to contact her again (9). Spurned and
embarrassed by the loss of his womanizing charms, David’s shame is directed
into lust, later to be passed off as “Eros” when he encounters Melanie Isaacs,
whom he refers to as “Melani: the dark one” (18). As with Soraya, David’s

seduction of Melanie “is an attempt not only to reclaim sexual privilege, but
to emphasize the traditional patriarchal procedures of the European culture,
in which such privilege, like Lurie himself, is embedded” (Cooper 25). In
addition to this adoption of performed patriarchal entitlement, David’s “sense
of sexual right rests on his mastery of the symbolism of desire and otherness
entrenched within the Anglo-European tradition” – an association that stations
him alongside the European colonizer, as well as within a literary history that
generally regards women as merely intangible personifications – including
manifestations of Beauty and Eros (Cooper 25). In a foreshadowing of David’s
own fall (in addition to the readily available David-Bathsheba subtext), David
tells Melanie of William Blake’s escape from Italy after the scandal of the “last
big love-affair of his life” (15). Rejected by both Soraya and Melanie, David’s
desire is co-mixed with and perhaps even compounded by the embarrassment of
this rejection, resulting in the putting on of desire as a disguise for shame. In the
hearing in Dr. Hakim’s office, for instance, David relates:

I was walking through the old college gardens and so, it happened, was
the young woman in question, Ms Isaacs. Our paths crossed. Words passed
between us, and at that moment something happened which, not being a poet, I
will not try to describe. Suffice it to say that Eros entered. (52)

Intriguingly, David’s recollection of their meeting is over-indulgent to say the

least. For earlier, David is described as “mildly smitten with [Melanie]” and that
“it [was] no great matter: barely a term passe[d] when he [did] not fall for one or
other of his charges” (11-12, italics mine). Masquerading as the tragic subject of
the ungovernable impulse of Eros, David publically justifies and renounces the
stigmatization of Melanie’s rape.
David’s lack of a sincere apology and his refusal to publically acknowledge
the assault, along with his fanciful illustration of himself as a “servant of Eros”
(52) demonstrates the way in which shame (though masked as desire) is felt
by men as a response to threatening femininity. Sexually independent and in
the pursuit of a university degree, Melanie may have been a target of rape as a
punishment – so as to “know her place.” Helen Moffet argues that rape in the
post-apartheid context is a stationing practice – a punishment for “independent
[black] subjectivity” (138). When women, Moffet explains, “visibly demonstrate
a degree of autonomy or self-worth that men find unacceptable, they are

perceived as sufficiently subversive and threatening as to compel men to
‘discipline’ them through sexual violence” (138). Considered alongside
Melanie’s rape, Moffet’s observation reveals the way in which the publically
autonomous female is punished in the private sphere (thereby demonstrating,
to use a Foucaultian turn of phrase, the politicization of sexual relations). That
autonomous, independent femininity should invite punishment serves to bear the
question: Who is ashamed? With whom does shame begin? Like David Lurie,
who displaces his disgrace upon Melanie in the hearing, a participant of “gang-
banging” rape in Moffet’s interview indignantly argues that his female victims
“force [him] to rape them” (138). The participant elabourates: “it’s the cheeky
ones – the ones that walk around like they own the place, and look you in the
eye” (138). Characterizing Melanie’s smile as sly (11) and her air as indifferent
(13), David seems to justify his sexual advances: “not rape, not quite that” (25).
David’s refusal to be “disgraced” can be read as a martial strategy in the realm
of sexual politics. For by renouncing the assault, David transfers the shame
he feels upon Melanie in an attempt to bolster his wavering masculinity and
subdue her threatening femininity. Yet the line separating the ashamed from the
shameless is not altogether clear. Is Melanie inwardly ashamed or publically
stigmatized by the rape? Is David inwardly disgraced? Is David disgraced by
Melanie’s disgrace?
The division between who is and who is not ashamed become even
more indecipherable surrounding the events of Lucy’s rape. Like David, Lucy
publically denies the existence of sexual assault. Unlike David, however, she
appears to suffer inwardly. A lesbian, a landowner, and a white woman on
African soil, Lucy infringes upon the bounds of traditionally patriarchal African
culture. Whether the cause of Lucy’s violent gang-rape can be reduced to her
identity and social position is not entirely clear, since the involvement of her
black neighbor and caretaker, Petrus, is never sufficiently uncovered in the
narrative (despite David’s accusations). Regardless, the reasons for Lucy’s
refusal to inform the authorities of the rape seem illogical. David thinks: “the
men will watch the newspapers, listen to the gossip. They will read that they
are being sought for robbery and assault and nothing else. It will dawn on them
that over the body of the woman silence is being drawn like a blanket. Too
ashamed, they will say to each other, too ashamed to tell” (110). Lucy’s silence
runs the risk of establishing her own body as a site of “payback” for the colonial
history of violence, or it may even, as Meg Samuelson points out, cause us “to

see David’s sexual relations with Soraya and Melanie as a corollary of Lucy’s
rape” (90). To be sure, Lucy’s eventual marriage to Petrus and her continued
silence (read as acceptance of rape) reflect a rather bleak outlook of post-
apartheid conflict. However, Lucy’s silence may also be seen as the disavowal
of male shame and public stigmatization: a deflection of the attempted transfer
of disgrace by men who are made uneasy by her status as an autonomous female
subject. Moreover, Lucy sees the assault as “a purely private matter” (112), and
insists that her father does not know what happened (134). This attempt to shield
herself from the public, political implications of “white peril” rape reflects her
desire to control the symbolic meaning that men – including her father – wish
to project upon it. For David, the shame of Lucy’s rape becomes vicariously
wrapped up in his own: he takes on “Lucy’s secret” as “his disgrace” (109).
In this way, the interlocking and dividing elements of vicarious shame at once
position David as the object and the subject of disgrace, as David’s sympathy for
his daughter leads to the scene of his apology to Melanie Isaac’s father. While
Lucy’s rape is seemingly compatible with a symbolic reading of her body as a
repository of gendered and racial tensions, it is more productive to consider her
trauma as the result of masculine fear and shame – a symptom of her “deviant”
sexuality and material independence. On the one hand, Coetzee conforms to a
construction of femininity as a subject-less site of projection. Yet on the other
hand, Coetzee gives readers a glimpse of the masculine anxiety that perpetuates
sexual violence against women as a way of opening up the gendered tensions
of the post-apartheid regime. The feelings of shame that surround Lucy – from
David’s disgrace, her inward shame, and the anxiety (conveyed as desire) of
the men who raped her – reinforces the notion that shame is a feeling that is
distributed and circulated, rather than simply, and problematically, embodied.
In Shameless, shame is enmeshed with the material and symbolic capital
attributed to the body of Thandiwe, a prostitute. Combined with the framework
of fantasy and symbolism already inherent to the pecuniary system of exchange,
the circulation of shame in the workplace reveals the way in which women
(earning money through labour) threatens patriarchal power. Shameless depicts
Thandiwe as a liberated and yet oppressed subject, exchanging sexual pleasure
(and intellectual collabouration) for material goods and domestic security.
As a sex/worker, Thandiwe is problematically defined by her body and the
monetary value of its productions: her status as a prostitute seemingly binds
her in the class-sex system. Thandiwe’s adamant refusal to be “subjected to

the humiliation of being an affirmative action token” for her white, male boss
repudiates the stationing of women as carriers of meaning in a male-dominated,
post-apartheid workplace (34). Seeing sex work as “less pretentious” than
laboring for a company, Thandiwe attempts to re-direct the symbolic capital
(that is, the token symbol of progress) attributed to her young, black, female
body (34). The exchange of labour for material goods in the workplace is set
apart from sex work, according to Thandiwe, because of its pretensions –its
re-inscription of colonial anxieties of race, sex, and gender relations. Thus,
Thandiwe’s unyielding opposition to the affirmative action campaign is a
response to her boss, Dickson, who does little more than artificially reproduce
a stable and amiable workplace of race and gender equality. While accurate in
her analysis of the workplace and of Dickson’s insincere compliance with the
affirmative action campaign, Thandiwe is nevertheless tragically subject to the
system of masculine desire and shame as a sex worker. Although “a Joe [male
customer] willingly chooses me for his fantasies,” Thandiwe explains to Kwena
(34), “they come to use her but they leave feeling used” (2). Fantasy and desire
bring them to her: shame makes them leave.
These feelings of fantasy and shame intersect in problematic ways,
reverberating Karl Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism, while also
contradicting views of transactional sex as unfeeling, disembodied intercourse.
In Capital, Marx discusses not only subject-object relations (exploring the way
in which commodities are “fetishised” in the process of labour production),
but also of the “possessor of labour-power,” whose value, “like every other
commodity, is already determined before it enters into circulation, [since] a
definite quantity of social labour has been spent on the production of the labour-
power” (277). As Marx argues elsewhere, commodities have their “natural
[material] form” and their “value [symbolic] form” (138). The female body,
then, is at once made into a material thing, and a fetishised symbol. That the
labor system and exchange of commodities is already structured by fantasy and
fetishization works to doubly invest the commodified female body: as a woman,
for instance, Thandiwe, is a site of fantasy for males, but also, more literally,
as a desired commodity. The intersection of commodity and symbolic systems
ought not to reduce women to their material bodies, but should instead reinforce
the structures of feeling that motivate the projection of male fantasy and shame
upon sexed female corporeality.
As the female body has often been problematically reduced to a material,

distribute-able good, the feelings that might arise from it (which have
tremendous political value for potential change) are often elided. To move
beyond symbolization, then, it is important to recognize the way in which the
body is mediated as an object through a structure of power, but also instates
itself politically through a structure of feeling. The first step in advancing this
notion is to complicate the simple formula often attributed to transactional sex.
The formula of “man fucks woman” (or “subject verbs object”) leads us to
think, as Belinda Carpenter suggests, that a woman can be strictly “embodied”
(115). Since the bodies of women – especially prostitutes – are often reduced to
their bodies as material, purchase-able objects, Carpenter resolves to disrupt the
notion that a disembodied man (that is, a man cut off from his emotions) simply
enacts his desire for an embodied (that is, an objectified) woman (113). Instead,
Carpenter suggests that a prostitute is “both deviant and worker, embodied and
disembodied, natural and unnatural, subject and object” (115). While a prostitute
and her client may be emotionally “switched off” during sex, Carpenter suggests
that there are complex reversals of Victim/Agent, Pleasure/Power, Embodiment/
Disembodiment, and most importantly, Exploitation/Liberation, and Sensation/
Feeling (115). That a body can at once be a site of materiality and economic
exchange as well as a site of feeling demonstrates the way in which the female
body is relational and interrelated with other bodies: not simply an isolated
symbol. Moreover, that the female body is capable of desire (rather than simply
the object of desire), is politically powerful. In her article, “Sexual Pleasure as
a Feminist Choice,” McFadden argues for the political implications of pleasure
(1), explaining (along a similar vein to Audre Lorde, in her work, “Uses of
the Erotic”), that to have erotic power is to be self-loving individuals: we are
to “reach into our depths and find the power within us” (1). For Audre Lorde,
the erotic is associated with feeling and liberation (57). Since these feelings
of liberation and agency are tied with self-love (and since prostitutes cannot
easily be read as self-loving), it is difficult to read the commoditized body as
a “feeling” subject. However, this is precisely an analysis of “shamelessness”
First, we have to recognize that the seemingly disembodied male client
is perhaps not so emotionally detached. To reduce the client’s body to a site
of physicality alone negates the feeling associated with it. As Daniel Altman
explains, “there is a need for some exploration of the erotic charge of paying
and being paid...even if the idea of paying (controlling) someone excites them

in advance, after they come they feel insulted” (113). In addition, men are
often dissatisfied with the lack of emotional connection they feel, as Carpenter
suggests (115). And as Aunty Muthoni tells Zonke, the tradition of female
genital mutilation – perhaps the most horrific destruction of sensation of feeling
– was something that not only denied women pleasure, but also caused men to
lose something in the process (61). Note well: the feelings of dissatisfaction and
of insatiable desire experienced by the male client are precisely what perpetuate
the economic exchange of the female body as a material good. A reading of the
merged structures of power and of feeling, therefore, is paramount. When it
comes to Thandiwe, the only indication that she experiences pleasure is perhaps
when she says that she wishes to crush men like parasites (36). In relation to
Liberation/Exploitation, then, it is certainly difficult to read whether her position
is truly one of agency. However, her self-proclaimed status as “healer” allows
us to read her as powerful and even self-loving. She tells Kwena that “there is
healing involved, there is conversation and there is forgiveness” (21). In this
exchange of bodies, then, there is feeling. Not simply an economic exchange,
Thandiwe instates her body politically through her feelings of shamelessness.
These feelings of shamelessness arise from an acknowledgement of the range of
transactions consistently taking place in the class-sex system. While it is perhaps
difficult to ascertain how successful Thandiwe is at rejecting the role of “token
as affirmative action” (since she seems to have exchanged the set of corporate
transactions for sexual transactions), she nevertheless claims to be shameless in
that she is “free from illusions” (108). To be sure, the distribution of materials
and the production of pecuniary wealth, in addition to the circulation of bodies
and money, are ultimately hinged on feelings of shame and desire.
Never a clearly drawn line, the division between who is and who is not
ashamed reveals the way in which shame is neither containable nor static. The
system of anxious masculine desire that forms out of the feelings of disgrace
and shame in Coetzee’s and Ntshingila’s novels are at once avowed (through
silence, as with Lucy) and disavowed (as with Melanie and Thandiwe). While
often entrapped and entangled in the complicated apparatus of masculine shame
and fantasy, these women ultimately refuse to carry the burden of colonial
residues, shifting masculinities, and the conflict arising from post-apartheid

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