A Brief Note on the Confession

(this is a reworked section of a larger piece)

Photograph by Hervé  Guibert
Confessions of the Self in Butler’s Reading of Foucault:

Judith Butler, in their beautifully written Giving an Account of Oneself, posits that Foucault changed his political tune between volume 1 of his History of Sexuality and volume 3. “In the last years of his life, Foucault returned to the question of confession, reversing his earlier critique in the first volume […] where he indicts the confession as a forcible extraction of sexual truth” (Butler 2005, 112). One wonders, though, whether Foucault truly reversed his position on extracted confessional acts. The depiction of disclosure in the third volume, The Care of the Self, is fundamentally distinct from the confessions described in Discipline & Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality. In Discipline & Punish the torturous interrogation, the confession, and the plea are all elements of perpetual struggle with systems of sovereign power or, later on, disciplinary technologies that punish but are comparatively hidden.

Foucault saw the process of torture and interrogation in Discipline & Punish as a micro-war between the juridical apparatus and the incorrigible criminalized subject. It is an externally compelled extraction; a sapping of data in a pursuit of domination, eventually culminating in the reproduction of a truth via the spectacle of the scaffold. In Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality, the confession functions to establish a “system of legitimate knowledge and an economy of manifold pleasures” (Foucault 1978, 66). Each confession acts as a contribution to a system of knowledge that strengthens its normalizing power. It is not necessarily a question of suppression when it comes to the confession in the History of Sexuality, it is about exposure; it is all aimed at bringing these practices, behaviors, and affects to the proverbial light. At the center of Foucault’s refusal to accept the repressive hypothesis of sexuality is the role of the confession itself.

In The Care of the Self, the “confession”, if it can even be called that, functions in a quite distinct manner. This is specifically because of how intimacy and friendship provide a distinct contextualization around the act of disclosure itself. Foucault is not rectifying the value of a confession before the court, a plea, or an attempt at finding the truth of oneself on the couch of an analyst. Those are all mechanisms that serve a system of “indefinite discipline: an interrogation without end” (Foucault 1977, 227). They are dedicated to the extraction of a truth; always working toward “extracting the truest of confessions from a shadow” (Foucault 1978, 144).

A fundamental element of Foucault’s work, particularly later in his life, is the political nature of friendship. The notion of the care of the self and friendship are deeply intertwined:

All this attention to the self did not depend solely on the existence of schools, lectures, and professionals of spiritual direction for its social base; it found a ready support in the whole bundle of customary relations of kinship, friendship, and obligation.

(Foucault 1986, 55)

Foucault finds in the works of Galen, not a recommendation to disclose before authority, but to friends. Confiding to one another, “at one another’s request”, certainly does “establish or re-establish a bond”; however, the bond that is forged and strengthened is not that between a subject and power seeking to suppress or, more accurately, extract – it is between friends (Butler 2005, 131). It is important to remember that one of the fundamental mechanisms of panoptic surveillance is the prevention of communication. Each subject must be completely atomized – totally separated politically. If there is dialogical intercourse between subjects, it must be exposed to the gaze. The eye must have its due.

The formation of fused groups fails time and time again when it occurs under the gaze of power. The “confession” to one’s friend, the disclosure of oneself, is an inherently political act of group formation when it is done in a state of opacity. It is a commitment to the other when in the shade of power. It is an exposure of a now shared vulnerability that underscores a broader malignance of dominant power; one that must be met with revolt. A fusion occurs at the moment of interpersonal exposure. It becomes a union based in trust and commitment to the other in their vulnerability. In fact, one could argue that it is a very specific kind of love, a politically potent kind. It is a two-fold affinity. On the one hand, it consists of a recognition of the other in a state of unique vulnerability. On the other, it is an affinity with a political commitment that is presupposed by that vulnerability itself.

This disclosure is not an act of “truth production” or an extraction in the manner that one finds in Discipline & Punish or the first volume of The History of Sexuality. It is not a confession before the medico-juridical apparatus, a teacher, or any other conventional authoritative figure. If it is a production of a “truth” it is limited in the sense that it is an intimate and dark one. It could be more adequately described as a new affinity or obligation. It is a shared “truth” that accompanies the “possibility of a round of exchanges with the other and a system of reciprocal obligations” (Foucault 1986, 55). The care of the self is intertwined with the other and an important intimate obligation to them. In this intimate exposure, one does not meet their limitations, as dominant power does when it is exposed to aberrance or incorrigibility in subjects. Instead, one meets the capacity for a new collectivity. It is a collective that will, in its incipience, rely on an obligation and a unique trust.

This forging of a network of deep, intimate relations—where different parties confide in one another—is not a disclosure to the magistrates of Athens or any other authority. Disclosing in an intimate space, in the shade of power, can be a form of praxis. Even The Coming Insurrection tells its readers to not “back away from what is political in friendship” (The Invisible Committee 2009, 98). For Foucault, it is a disclosure with a very particular kind of political visibility that is inherently pernicious to the subject who wishes to evade capture. A disclosure in the shade can work towards the construction of a social machine aimed at escape. Often, The Care of the Self is overlooked precisely because of interpretations like Butler’s; interpretations that sap it of its political content and make it a purely virtuous ethical work. There is no doubt that such elements are present in the texts Foucault analyzes; however, a deeply political disdain for the magistrates of history pierces through with just as much literary intensity. However, as often is the case with Foucault, one does have to work to find it. Explicit prescriptions are rare in these later texts.

What does this mean? What is the point of making this note?:

The prescription of resistance is one comprised of verbosity with one’s friends and cold dead silence with the power that demands a disclosed knowledge of the self. The forming of friendships and the broader formation of a network of resistance go hand in glove. Friendship is the foundation of revolt. These networks forged quietly, these dark and intimate spaces that materialize outside the immediate grasp of power/knowledge, always seem to always present a threat to the contemporary regime.

This is not to say that operating in complete invisibility and under total darkness is possible. The distinction is between being seen and being known – becoming an object under the gaze of power. “The lesson to be taken is that ‘we all must live double lives’: one full of the compromises we make with the present, and the other in which we plot to undo them. The struggle is to keep one’s identity from taking over” (Culp 2016, 69). The radical politics of opacity comes with an admission of its own non-totality, it cannot shield or hide completely. One cannot always work within a network under the shade. Every tweet, every open discussion, this post itself are all concessions to the eye. However, this resistance can be maintained so long as the visibility one does concede does not completely take over.

The Books

Butler, J. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press.

Culp, A. 2016. Dark Deleuze. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.) New York: Pantheon.

__________. 1978. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. (R. Hurley, Trans.) New York: Pantheon.

__________. 1986. The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality Volume 3. (R. Hurley, Trans.) New York: Random House.

The Invisible Committee. 2009. The Coming Insurrection. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

One thought on “A Brief Note on the Confession

  1. this essay has that dynamic quality which excites in the reader a desire to do more, read more, connect more–more than that, uncovers (produces?) in the reader the very subject who understands himself as having revolutionary potential, a kind of already-being-in-motion.

    i look forward to reading more!


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