Is the blog a confession, the public a parent, a priest, a pastor?
This question was recently prompted by a blog series my friend Justin Tse just started that reflects on his own blogging practice. “[I]t’s only now that I’ve begun to discover what I’ve been doing all along on the blogosphere,” Justin writes, after over a decade of sustained blogging. Discussing his writing paralysis, which paradoxically has produced “reams and reams and reams of posts,” Justin cites his theorist companion Sam Rocha’s analysis of Slavoj Žižek’s overabundant writing as a function of Žižek’s confessional hysteria. By doing so, Justin suggests that his paradoxically productive writing paralysis is a function of him being, in Rocha’s words, “someone who has a lot to confess.” Hence the question at the forefront of my mind.
While I do not share Justin’s Christian practice, of which confession is central, I do have a sense of kinship with him in how we have been approaching our respective blogs. Indeed, Justin’s blog is one of the primary reasons I got into blogging in the first place, and I am indebted to him for introducing me to this much needed outlet. In this blog post, I hope to do some of my own reflecting on my blogging practice. Perhaps a function of hanging out with too many cultural anthropologists, I am not afraid to engage in what more hard-nosed social analysts derisively call omphaloskepsis, or navel-gazing. In fact, I welcome it, relish it, and invite such opportunities as leavening agents for my own thinking and pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
In addition to Justin’s blog series, I’m thinking about confession because I am reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (1978 ), hereafter abbreviated as HS1, this semester for two grad seminars that I am sitting in on. In HS1, Foucault launches two main projects: first, to critique the repressive hypothesis of sexuality, and second, to sketch a preliminary portrait of his analytics of (bio)power. Briefly, Foucault conceives of the repressive hypothesis as the conventional story of sexual liberation that goes something like this: a rather open and tolerant atmosphere around sexual practices was rudely seized during the seventeenth century by an “age of repression” (p. 5), which prohibited all sexual practices outside of procreative acts within heterosexual monogamous matrimony; this shift is said “to coincide with the development of capitalism” and hence “becomes an integral part of the bourgeoisie order” (ibid.) insofar as Victorian sexual mores both ensure the stable reproduction of the proletariat labor pool vis a vis steady hetero-nuclear procreation and also function to divert (or sublimate?) the proletariat’s energies away from wanton pleasure and towards industrial production; sometime during the 20th century, society finally “liberated” itself from this “repression” by consigning that repression to a bygone era. Foucault critiques the repressive hypothesis on the grounds that it assumes an essential sexuality that can be “repressed” by bourgeoisie ideology, but more interestingly because of its presumed theory of power as a negating force that impinges upon the liberal subject. This brings us to Foucault’s second project. In contrast to a “juridico-discursive” notion of power that operates through a body of laws that are mandated down to obedient subjects under threat of sanction, Foucault advances an analytics of power that is more diffuse and distributed, one that is not centrally concerned with the meting of death but rather the differential allowance of life. Power, according to Foucault, is productive, not negative. It is through the operations of power that the subject itself is constituted, finding itself as “subject.”
While more could be said about Foucault’s description of biopower in HS1, for the purposes of this blogpost I want to hone in on the centrality of confession for his two projects as I have just summarized them. Confession is a key part in Foucault’s genealogy of sexuality contra the repressive hypothesis. The Christian practice of confession, especially its foundational idea of the interiority of one’s true self that is divulged to another through the act of confessing, Foucault contends, spread into the secular world and set the stage for the confession of sexual information to doctors, psychiatrists, governments, and other experts. Along with the development of a clinical taxonomy codifying various forms of sexual practices, confessions of sexual information came to constitute confessions of sexual identity. That is to say, acts of sexual deviance became sexual deviants—or, to borrow Foucault’s oft-quoted line: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (p. 43). Foucault calls this tripartite process of (1) increasing the array of locations where sex was inquired into, spoken about, and documented, (2) developing analytic categories for what was spoken, and (3) composing sexual identities based on these divulgences and categorizations “The Perverse Implantation” (p. 36). In other words, through this incitement to discourse, an array of sexual heterogeneities—or “perversions”—were reified, speciated, and ‘taken up’ as sexual identities.
I hope my shoddy summary is sufficient enough to show the unity of Foucault’s dual project in HS1, as well as how the practice of confession figures prominently into Foucault’s general argument about how power operates in the modern world and his specific genealogy of sexual speciation. It is this Will to Knowledge, as the subtitle (la volonté de savoir) of the original 1976 French publication puts it, at the heart of confession that I am concerned with here as I reflect on my own practice of blogging. So let us return to my opening question: Is the blog a confession? Or, to what extent does this particular genre of speech acts purport to divulge hitherto unspoken interiorities and hence aid in the production, reification, and consolidation of certain kinds of selves—and, importantly, to what extent are these productions of the self ensnared, entangled, and ensconced in networks of power that make such pronouncements possible?
Generally speaking, blogging can be considered confessional insofar as it assumes a more casual tone reminiscent of everyday conversation in which actual confessions would take place and occurs within a close temporal proximity to the author-blogger’s supposed interiority. In other words, blogging is mimetic of conversation and meant to be fast-paced, sloppy, and processual, giving off the impression of instinctual thought, gut writing, and unmediated voice. The concern here is not complete and coherent arguments, but rather the utterance of something true as that truth unfolds in real time. Furthermore, blogging always occurs in relation to an audience, a (petite-)public (blogo)sphere where one’s pronouncements are received, considered, and responded to. In this way, the public is indeed a kind of parent, priest, and pastor.
Like Justin, I too am someone who has a lot to confess, and I have been doing a lot of confessing since starting this blog, mostly around my involvements with American evangelicals throughout college and my subsequent attempts to depart from this social world. These confessions are surely confessions of renunciation in the classic Christian sense, whereby one excavates the concupiscent truth of one’s inner-most condition and lays it out before the priest or pastor who serves as a conduit (sometimes literal, sometimes figural, depending on which specific Christian tradition one is practicing under) for the ultimate judgement of a benevolent and all-loving God. Renunciatory confessions are performed in order to rid the confessant of the contents of their confession and occur in a context where the confessant is beholden to the judgement of the confessor. To what extent am I, through my writings on this blog, confessing myself to an imagine public-parent-priest-pastor in hopes of an absolution of perceived wrongs? The answer should be obvious: A lot.
But this analysis doesn’t seem to fully capture what I am up to on this blog. It presents a rather simplistic picture of the blog as confession whereby the blogger-confessant barfs truths for the public-confessor to judge. As I put it in my inaugural blogpost, I am engaged in a practice of self-cultivation. While this self-cultivation surely involves confession, it is not exactly the kind of confession to which Foucault would throw much shade. Foucault’s concept of confession keeps separate and distinct the roles of confessant and confessor; the two are separate entities that relate to each other on a gradient of power, the latter equipped with Prince Mangogul’s magic ring. Be it a parent, priest, pastor, doctor, teacher, or a vague notion of “the public” or “society,” the confessor has the final say on the veracity of the confession, and therefore on the very truth of the confessant, who is figured as a passive recipient of this adjudication. This begs the question: Who is my confessor? For whom do I write?
While I am certainly mind-jousting with friends, colleagues, demons in my past, and potential interlocutors in the present and future through my writing, I am my own confessor. I write for myself. Foucault is spot on when he says that confession is “one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth” (p. 59). It is precisely this truth-producing, subject-consolidating potency that I seek to harness from confession. Is the blog a confession? Yes. But more precisely, this blog is a confessional, and I am both sitting comfortably and kneeling anxiously.