Commenting on the significance of Rousseau’s Confessions, Gutman (1988, p. 102) states: “…there has indeed been an immense labor to turn man into a subject (an individuated self and a defined personage in the social order) in order to subject him more completely and inescapably to the traversals and furrowings of power.” For Gutman the confession sits at the heart of this labour, the very techne for its elaboration.
The confession is central to Foucault’s understanding of the workings of power. In The History of Sexuality: An Introduction Foucault describes how “Western societies have established the confession as one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth”. He outlined how a “…continuous incitement to discourse and to truth” (Foucault, 1978, p. 56) emerged concurrently with an ever-expanding array of confessional techniques beyond those codified by the Christian church; and these “helped to give the confession a central role in the order of civil and religious powers.” (Foucault, 1978, p. 58)
…the confession became one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth. We have singularly become a confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relationships, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses ones crimes, one’s sins one’s thoughts and desires, ones illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell. One confesses in public and in private, to one’s parents, one’s educators, one’s doctor, to those one loves; one admits to oneself in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell to anyone else, the things people write books about. When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat…Western man has become a confessing animal. (Foucault, 1978, p. 59)
Our society has become obsessed with “the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself, in between the words, a truth which the very form of the confession holds out like a shimmering mirage” (Foucault, 1978, p. 59).
In the West “ the obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points…that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us” (Foucault, 1978, p. 60). We have become accustomed to believing that power constrains us, holds us back and pins us down and that it is only through confession, through the revelation of all of that is inside of us that we can finally become free.
Sex has become a “privileged theme of confession” (Foucault, 1978, p. 61), a form of confession that compels individuals to confess any and every sexual peculiarity. Its effect is to reinforce heterogeneous array of sexualities. Foucault (1988, p. 16) believed that “sexual interdictions are constantly connected with the obligation to tell the truth about oneself”. Through the confession of inner secrets truth becomes the means by which sex is manifested.
“The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement” (p. 61); and it this ritual which takes place within relations of power where much is at stake. Confession within a relationship of power gives to the authority demanding the confession a resource or tool by which the individual can be assessed and dealt with in accord with the wishes of those in authority.
The confession of truth requires effort, for the revelation of truth must overcome resistance
The confession of truth has the effect of modifying the person making the confession. Whether by way of experiencing a sense of liberation, of being unburdened or being forgiven for ones sins the confession works directly on the confessor.
The confession does not work as a top down power structure, as in a dictate from above. Rather it works by presupposing the existence of a secret that must be revealed in order to liberate and to finally reveal the hidden essence of the confessor.
Whereas the confession was once something that was performed in ritual in modern society it has now become widely dispersed (Foucault, 1978, p. 63), embedded within the very fibre of day-to-day life. From the church, to family life, to pedagogy, to policing, psychiatry, medicine and labour relationships, each employ the confession as a central strategy to the outworking of power.
The confession involves not merely confessing an act but to all of those thoughts, sensations motivations and desires that accompanied the act.
This great incitement to confess is accompanied by an equally great labour to record that which is confessed. This body of work is, through medicine, psychiatry and pedagogy, studied, categorised and analysed. The confession, and therefore the confessor, has thus become an object of study within fields of scientific research that themselves have only emerged from the discourse surrounding the confession. Foucault (1988, p. 18) understood these “sciences as very specific “truth games” that human beings use to understand themselves”.
Much of Foucault’s commentary on confession is situated within his an analysis of the ways in which sexuality has become an object of science; scientia sexualis.
The confession, he argues, has been impressed into the service of a scientific discourse. By declaring sex a causal instinct, by combining the medical examination with the act of confession, by declaring sex as something that hides the truth within and privileging the confessional listener with powers of decipherment and truth validation, confession has become central to the workings of our society. Sex is everywhere; therefore the confession is everywhere, for by confessing ones sexual minutiae one discovers the hidden secret of oneself.
At least, this is the promise of the confession. But this will to knowledge is used as a tactic of power within the discourse of sex. It is a tactic that began in the early Christian church, one that resulted in an “institutional incitement to speak” (Foucault, 1978, p. 18) that urged each to tell, in infinite detail, the most intimate details of the act and of every thought, idea, image and emotion. If we are repressed then it is only through a detailed expurgation of all of our aberrations and deviations through confession can we discover who we really are. The more detailed and thorough the confession, the more likely we are to discover our essential nature.
It is here that Foucault’s work on confession and sexuality is usefully applied within a broader context. As already noted, Foucault (1978, p. 58) understood confession as having “a central role in the order of civil and religious powers…The truthful confession was inscribed at the heart of the procedures of individualization by power [and has become] one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth”.
Foucault (1982) contends that individualising power finds its modern day expression in pastoral power. Whereas pastoral power was once found only within the Christian church it is now commonly found in more secular forms. In the church it offered salvation of the soul in the next life, but in Western society it promises secular salvation through taking care of a person’s health and well-being.
In each case the promise of power is that the soul will be taken care of for life.
Significantly the price of the care of the soul comes at the cost of intimate confession for pastoral power “cannot be exercised without knowing the inside of people’s minds, without exploring their souls, without making them reveal their innermost secrets. It implies a knowledge of the conscience and an ability to direct it (Foucault, 1982, p. 783).
It is here the line of Foucault’s thoughts on confession take a recursive loop back to the panopticon. In Discipline and Punish Foucault outlined a diagram of surveillance that described how individuals within a surveillance society internalise the rules and regulations of their own subjection. And it is here that the outworking of the confession is at its most effective.
Through confession individuals take an active role in their own surveillance acting at once as the governor and the governed, the prison and the warder, the watcher and the watched. By confessing all that is within, all that is hidden and all that can be known individuals deliver to power the means by which a person can be forgiven, counselled, punished, dealt with, judged and corrected. The promise of lifetime care of the soul through better health, elevated social status or greater riches is the irresistible mirage that compels one to confess. But the even more compelling mirage is the promise that confession will finally deliver to the individual the truth of who they are or who they ought to be, the secret of the heretofore hidden self.
There is another form of confession that is contemplated by Foucault: the writing of and about the self. This was, in Hellenistic culture, a theme of writing, especially in correspondence with another. This writing often addressed the nuances of “life, mood…the experience of oneself was intensified and widened by virtue of this act of writing” (Foucault, 1988, p. 28). The focus of the writing was often that of bodily sensations but there was often an examination of conscience, something that could later be found within the Christian confession. “This examination of conscience begins with this letter writing. Diary writing comes later. It dates from the Christian Era and focuses on the notion of the struggle of the soul.” (Foucault, 1988, p. 30)
This writing was a part of adhering to the Greek practice of taking care of oneself (epimelésthai sautou) (this practice differed from the Delphic principle gnothi sauton, to know yourself). Even more, these writings became a kind of daily stock take of what was to be done and what was actually done. Unlike the Christian tradition of finding fault this writing was simply an accounting without attempt to add guilt or meaning. Whatever errors were made were errors of strategy rather than of virtue.
Further, this form of writing was aimed at remembering truth not uncovering truth as in the Christian tradition. If anything is forgotten it’s that which should or ought to have been done, not the writer’s true nature. There is nothing to decipher, as in Christianity, simply rules of conduct to remember (Foucault, 1988, p. 34). In Stoic tradition truth could be found in the logoi, the teaching of the teachers, and it is these truths that must be memorised and turned into rules of action. On the other hand, in Christianity the obligation is to know who one is and what is going on within oneself. From this knowledge comes the obligation “to acknowledge faults, to recognise temptations, to locate desires, and everyone is obliged to disclose these things either to God or to others…The truth obligations of faith and self are linked together. This link permits a purification of the soul impossible without self-knowledge”(Foucault, 1988, p. 40).
There is in Technologies a small, but important consideration of correlation between self-disclosure and self-renunciation. At this stage I intend to leave this alone as I’m not clear on its relevance to my project.
Confessions and blogging
I will briefly look at how Foucault’s observations of the confession might be applied to the question “What is a blog?”
Personal blogs are often intense confessionals in the Christian sense. They often address what was done and then seek underlying, hidden reasons that motivated the action. This is particularly evident in dooce where themes from her early childhood continue to surface, even to this day.
How could I think of the video posted by the young Scandinavian man who killed all those people recently? Is that a form of confession? Is that an attempt to uncover the secret of his existence? Was it a form of confession as resistance?
Personal blogs can also take the form of the confessions found in correspondence and in writing that is a form of daily stock-take.
Those that take the form of correspondence are often written with both a known and unknown audience in mind. They address the mundane with little or no attempt at introspection. “I went to Leederville. I had an ice cream. I went home.”
Those that take the form of a stock-take are more in the form of this is what I did and this is what I could do better/differently next time. For example, a person blogging as a training journal would look at how they performed and how they might improve their times.
Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.
Foucault, M. (1982). The subject and power. Critical Inquiry, 8(4), 777-795.
Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the self. In L. Martin, H. Gutman & P. Hutton (Eds.), Technologies of the self. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Press.
Gutman, H. (1988). Rousseau’s confessions: A technology of the self. In L. Martin, H. Gutman & P. Hutton (Eds.), Technologies of the self (pp. 99-120). London: Tavistock Publications.