the problem with confession

I recently presented at a conference, Confessional Cultures, held at Monash University. Confession is an interesting idea, but I don’t particularly find it all that useful as a critical term for my studies. Following from Foucault, confession – or the ‘avowal’ as I like to think of it – is mainly a rhetorical device for situating a subject in relation to others. With that, I should note some observations on how I see the ‘confession’ to function outside of a strictly religious mode.

By confession something about themselves, a subject aligns themselves in a non-normative comparison to some group. This group can be of roughly any sort: religious, legal, social, and so on; and the response from the group roughly relies on the institutionalization of that group. For instance, a non-normative confession in a legal context will usually result in punitive legal measures; non-normative confession in social settings will lead to the community performing self-work as to what individuals should do in future, or the degree to which individuals need to be ostracized. Behaviour that is not explicitly sanctioned as valid or invalid will result in the production of commonsense in various frameworks. In a legal context this will lead to the categorization of certain behaviour as legal or illegal, in a social context this is could be the determination as to whether something needs an apology or not. This leads to the observation that there are two categories of confession of non-normative behaviour: categorically defined behaviour, and non-categorical behaviour.

Categorically defined non-normative behaviour would be something that sits comfortably within a range of confessions that a society is pre-equipped to deal with, with regard to a general case. These are confessions for which the particular society sees some sort of non-standard behaviour, but, amusingly, the non-standard behaviour comes in an expected format. These are usually behaviours for which the given society has methods of recourse, or ‘solutions’ for resolving, and is maybe well prepared for. For instance, an alcoholic acknowledging their problem to a priest. These confessions are ones which society offers some sort of idea of a general response for the individuals hearing the confession, whether that be getting an alcoholic to start AA, or staging an intervention. These are general behaviours for which various institutions and social groups have prescribed practices prepared.

Non-categorical non-normative behaviour is behaviour that is not explicitly sanctioned against, but nor is it precisely accepted as normal and ‘correct’ within a particular society. I see two methods for dealing with these problems arising from this process: firstly, the concatenation within existing frames; secondly, the production of new frames when existing ones are insufficient. These cases avoid generalities, or else, attempt to avoid them. For instance, a catholic confession – in the sense of a confession to a priest within a confessional – is essentially a bit of close-work on trying to fit a particular bit of behaviour to an appropriate category of spiritual compensation. While ‘standard’ confessions will have their own appropriate number of associated ‘hail Marys’ every non-standard confession would have to have the priest perform the requisite work to determine what an appropriate penalty would be. This will always be in relation to a generality, or an ethos, or behavioural categories. It is difficult to think of an example, because I have defined these cases to sit outside standardization, but hopefully the category makes sense. I think of them as categories that can be fought over, where some contingency in the event that is being confessed causes it to not be a standard confession of some sort.

In either case, I do not find myself being able to say much useful stuff about the confession in terms of the work I generally do. While I did see some interesting uses of the confessional format in textual analysis at the conference, I did not really conceive of any ways to use it in my own work. As I mentioned at the conference, when used to talk about individuals online, practically every utterance is a form of avowal of the subject, of the self. Then we’re in the somewhat useless condition of claiming that all utterances are a form of confession, and, with any overly general case, not a particularly useful means of addressing behaviour over networks.

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