Towards a Taxonomy of Guilts: Part 1

Towards a Taxonomy of Guilts: Part 1
5 November 2021, 1.00pm - 2.00pm

Seminar series in partnership with the
Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory (CCM) and Birkbeck Guilt Working Group

Co-convened by Joseph Ford (IMLR), James Brown and Sam Ashenden (BBK)

This two part seminar will take place on 5 November and 10 December.

5 November: part 1 (1-2pm)
These two papers introduce some of the themes of the work of the Guilt Group by drawing them together in relation to an obvious core question about what we mean by guilt. There are several current definitions of guilt, and one of them (the one that is most commonly articulated by contrasting guilt with shame) has a particular salience. We seek to avoid definitions of that kind. That’s partly because guilt strikes us as intrinsically plural, and in turn because several different discourses and practices have conceptions of guilt that are in some degree internal to themselves. If that were the extent of guilt’s plurality, one would need a multidisciplinary approach to map its forms. The only snag is, they wouldn’t have much to do with each other, beyond the curious circumstance of these different conceptions all happening to be denoted by the same word: guilt, in legal, psychological, religious, political and other senses. But the situation is more complicated than this, for these different forms interact, and in this first paper we’ll seek to map these interacting forms of guilt, by locating them schematically in terms of several underlying dualisms. The result is an approach to guilt(s) that is at once genealogical (the mutations and interactions of guilts over time are among the things that make it resistant to definition) and generatively structural.
10 December: part 2 (1-2pm)
The second paper in this series aims to demonstrate the practical value of the approach to guilt that we outlined in November. We’ll do so by examining several cases. We won’t make a final decision about which examples to explore until after we’ve seen what’s of interest to members of the CCM/Guilt seminar. However, the peculiar ways in which guilt can figure in cases of contested whistleblowing are indicative of the kind of thing we’re likely to discuss. Much discussion of whistleblowing assumes more stability in relation to guilt in the way whistleblowing plays out than one can always find in practice, where the situation can easily become strange and fluid. Inasmuch as guilt is a feeling (something fully accepted only during the 20th century), the guiltiest in a legal and/or moral sense are sometimes all but immune to it. The relatively righteous whistleblower who seeks to call wrongdoers to account by the professed standards of the organisation in which they both work may well feel the guilt the guilty deny. Indeed, whistleblowers will often have a sense of guilt foisted on them, and sometimes identify with it so much as to seek to punish themselves - in extreme cases, by contemplating suicide. We’ll seek to show some of the complicated ways in which legal, psychological, moral, ritual and other kinds of guilt can interact, and will conclude by outlining a form of guilt that’s emerged as central in our thinking: constitutive guilt.

Samantha Ashenden teaches in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of Governing Child Sexual Abuse: Negotiating the Boundaries of Public and Private, Law and Science (2004), co-editor (with Chris Thornhill, University of Manchester) of Legality and Legitimacy: Normative and Sociological Approaches (2010), and (with Andreas Hess, UCD) of Judith Shklar’s lectures On Political Obligation (2019) and Between Utopia and Realism: The Political Thought of Judith N. Shklar (2019). With James Brown she co-edited the 2014 special issue of the journal Economy and Society on guilt. They convene the Birkbeck Guilt Group.

James Brown is an Associate Research Fellow in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He teaches theatre at Richmond University and theatre, literature and film at IES London. He has published on Shakespeare, social theory, science fiction, romanticism and literature in film. In 2014 with Sam Ashenden he co-edited an interdisciplinary special issue of the journal Economy and Society on guilt. They convene the Birkbeck Guilt Group.

All are welcome to attend this free online event - you will need to register in advance to receive the online joining link. To attend part one starting at 13:00 GMT on 5 Nov, please click on the Book Now button below to register.

To attend the second part taking place 10 Dec please click here.

Download guidance on participating in an online event (pdf)


Joe Ford
020 7862 8832