Timothy Bewes' The Event of Postcolonial Shame (review)



Document Type

Book Review

Publication Source

Modern Fiction Studies. Volume 58, Issue 2, Pages 386-388.

Publication Date




In this important and appealing contribution to literary theory, Timothy Bewes explores a question that hovers in the background of postcolonial criticism: what is the significance of shame for a literature defined by its engagement with histories of imperial domination, violence, and exclusion? Bewes' approach is innovative and remarkably productive of critical insight. He addresses shame not, as we might expect, as an affect or emotional result of some morally-compromising experience, but as a structural effect of writing itself. Shame should be seen, he argues, neither as a "subjective emotion" (23) nor an "ethical response" (28) to particular experiences. Rather, it is a manifestation of the structural inadequacy of writing to communicate traumatic histories; it is, in other words, "the experience of a prolonged incommensurability between a form and a substance" (2). In reformulating shame in this way, Bewes draws inspiration from Lukács' famous account in The Theory of the Novel of how modern literature is defined by aesthetic incompleteness, making shame intrinsic not only to the representation of certain historical events, but to the very attempt to write at all. "Shame is a quality of writing," Bewes argues, "it cannot exist outside writing or, more accurately, outside the relations of incommensurability that writing emblematizes; nor can shame be adequately encoded or conveyed within a literary apparatus. There is no shame without form; moreover, in a [End Page 386] world of 'absolute sinfulness' there is no form without shame. Form materializes shame by its inadequacy" (46). As the book's title suggests, postcolonial shame is neither an emotion nor an affect; it is an "event," one that no writing can avoid.