Foucault: Confession

I’ve just been listening to a podcast of Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope. And at the same time flicking through Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Denton made the interesting observation that we are fascinated by honesty – he’s certainly right – and the ABC must be cheering all the way to the Bank. But there’s more to it than just straight up honesty. MaskIt’s honesty about people. Denton asks people to confess before him the most remarkably intimate details of their lives. Certainly, there is titilation for the viewer/listener, but why do the interviewees do it? And why would you do it if placed in the same situation?

I’ve noted the irony of posting this on a blog, but it seems we’ve become a society addicted to confession. Confession is the silent partner in the modern pantheon of knowledge. We pay lip service to Scientific Empiricism, but when we seek to know the truths of ourselves we confess them to another. Pyschiatry, Blogging, the Gay “coming out”.

We are addicted to it because it reveals to us the truth about the only subject we are truly interested in – ourselves.

In any case, next to the testing rituals, next to the testimony of witnesses, and the learned methods of observation and demonstration, the confession became one of West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth. We have since become a singularly confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one’s crimes, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desires, one’s 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. One confesses – or is forced to confess. When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat; it is driven from its hiding place in the soul, or extracted from the body. Since the Middle Ages, torture has accompanied it like a shadow, and supported it when it could go no further: the dark twins. The most defenseless tenderness and the bloodiest of powers have a similar need of confession. Western man has become a confessing animal.

(History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, Vol 1, p 59)

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