The culture of confession

I little while ago I did a few reviews on The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault. For those of you who remember, Foucault argues that a lot of our history of sexuality is formed around a history of ‘confession’. As I said in the second review:

“In the Western World however, scientia sexualis is focused around the method of confession. Foucault argues that since the Middle Ages, confession has been a major tool used in the West as a means to reveal the ‘truth’. This ritual of discourse is one which unfolds in a very distinct power relationship, one in which the confessor has some authority above them that requires the confession. The confession however, also provides a sense of purification for the confessor – it absolves them of their sins. In that sense therefore, confession is a bottom-up process – one in which the confessor is the instigator through coming to the confessional booth.”

In the latest version of the Overland Journal Fiona Capp looks at our culture of confession, it’s history, and where it sits in the modern world. Capp goes through an interesting historical analysis of the use of confession, covering Salinger, Foucault, and the works of Rousseau and his piece ‘The Confession’. What I thought was interesting about her piece though is how this connects to the modern world.

When we think about the art of confession, we would often think about the catholic church, and the art of the confessional as part of religious practice. In that sense, confession is an ancient tradition, something many of us would have very little connection with today. Capp argues however, that the culture of confession has just adapted to the modern world:

“In the twentieth century, psychoanalysis, with its concepts of repression, the unconscious and slips of the tongue, took over from the religious confession as the model for popular confessional culture: from Oprah Winfrey and game shows like The Moment of Truth (where contestants are tested on how honest their confessions are) to talk back radio and personal diaries posted on the Internet.”

This new reality of confessions opens up an interesting take on the power relations around confessionals. Historically, confessions have had a real power dynamic behind them – the church forces confessions to ensure someone can go to heaven, the state demands confessions to convict criminals etc. And whilst these forms of coercive confession still exist, they are being eclipsed by a new culture of confession, one in which we are all actively confessing our sins with no direct power forcing us to do so.

What’s interesting about this though, is that this new form of confession, brings with it its own power relations. Not only are we now placed in a social position that confession is seen as an important part of our life, but it also provides state and corporate power over our information, and the very things we are confessing. As Capp explains:

“The head of the Nazi Labour Office, Robert Ley, reportedly said that the only private individual was someone asleep. Although we are hardly witnessing invasions of privacy comparable to those perpetuated by the Nazis, the intrusions which our confessional culture sanctions (not to mention the intrusions of government and business into our affairs through CCTV surveillance and centralised collation of medical, financial and other personal records etc.) have become disturbingly all-pervasive.”

The modern confession retains its position as power-tool – one in which we all confess our ‘sins’ as a way of repentance and punishment. The difference now is that this power is being wielded when we’re not even realising it, and in fact we are voluntarily partaking in it. And that is the most effective form of power of all.


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