C’mon, confess!

by Yule Heibel on April 6, 2004

I had a “virtual – real” overlap moment tonight while at S.I.D.E.S.‘s School Planning Council meeting. It wasn’t my idea at all, but somehow, another parent brought up the subject of “lurking” on websites, and that she lurks on my blog, too. We agreed that lurking is a fun and useful thing to do, and so far, so good. However, the vice principal of the school had her laptop in front of her, and the principal, sitting next to her, asked “You keep a blog?” Before I knew it, the vice principal had my website up and I watched the expression on her face turn serious. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised she might have been taking in the illustrations I used for the Orgasms make you smarter entry, and that the principal would probably look it up eventually on his computer. Gah. Oh well, at least they weren’t self-portraits….
But seriously, pleasure is good, so I’m not about to change my attitude on this. I have, however, been wanting to write something about why many sites devoted to sexual “exploration” make me want to hiss and spit, and possibly throw rockhard crabapples at the webwriter’s private parts. And lo, I found just the thing while reading a wonderful article in the current (Spring 2004) issue of Art Journal, “Between You and Me: Man Ray‘s Object to Be Destroyed,” by Janine Mileaf. She deftly summarises Michel Foucault‘s critique of sexual discourse in relation to Man Ray, but Foucault’s insight is equally applicable to contemporary pop culture, burbling memoirs, to the proliferation of sexual discourse on the various erosblogs, and to — gulp — blogging and its pursuit of “voice.” So let me reproduce Mileaf’s summary for you-the-reader’s delectation: it will save you reading the entire volume of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (New York, Vintage Books, 1980) and will, I hope, convince you that Foucault was totally, completely on to something:

Man Ray’s strategies of self-exposure conform to the ideology of the confession as theorized by Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality. Since the sacrament of penance was codified in the Middle Ages, confession has compelled speakers to acknowledge their most shameful and degrading thoughts and actions in order to gain absolution. Initiated under the guise of religion, the confession has become a fundamental component of everyday speech, invisibly governing not only the realm of morality but also “justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations.” [Foucault, p.59] The obligation to confess has been decentralized and naturalized. No longer associated solely with the church nor understood to emanate from any one origin, the need to confess now takes up residence in everyday conversation and daily life to an extent even Foucault could barely imagine. In every instance, the speaker is asked to articulate that which is most difficult to reveal; the privileged topic, of course, is sex. Yet the ubiquity of confession has not cleansed or purified society, but rather produced an excessive accumulation of sexual information. For Foucault, then, confession converts corporeal experience into discourse. Western society equates truth with the revelation of sexual transgression.
(…) …it seems crucial, in the present moment of increasingly humiliating and relentless public avowals and disclosures on talk shows and reality television, to consider Foucault’s analysis of the societal control that is rehearsed in the act of confession: “The agency of domination does not reside in the one who speaks (for it is he who is constrained), but in the one who listens and says nothing; not in the one who knows and answers, but in the one who questions and is not supposed to know. And this discourse of truth finally takes effect, not in the one who receives it, but in the one from whom it is wrested.” [Ibid., p.62] The confessor speaks, but is ultimately made to conform to societal norms.
[p.8, Art Journal, Spring 2004.]

Understand this: whatever is translated into discourse is instrumentalised as social control. It is not the case that chatter about your sexuality or your neuroses or your deepest darkest secrets makes society a freer place. It instead makes it a more fully explored, more discursive place, which in turn contributes to mechanisms of control. People and their exposures are turning into social maps, we’re less multi-dimensional and increasingly flattened into a one-dimensional discursive space. At the same time, however, I would add an idealistic qualifier that probably wouldn’t sit too well with Foucault: while your confessions strengthen societal mapping (and hence control), there is the one-off/ one-in-a-million possibility that they just might liberate you, individually. It probably happens very rarely, but therein lies the dialectical rub. People might yet be capable of surprising others. Just (ahem) remember to use your hands….


Stu Savory April 7, 2004 at 5:14 am

Did you forget the link to the little man on the Paris subway?

No, not Toulouse Lautrec, the Metro gnome 😉


Mike Golby April 7, 2004 at 2:46 pm

This intrigues and fascinates me. In a dollar-driven world, “…the obligation to confess” has become decentralized, naturalized and monetized. The individual’s confession now condemns him or her to conform to financially coercive models of sexual expression, modes of warfare, styles of politics, business, etc. There is also a tension and correlation between ubiquitous information classes, something I tried to illustrate in my most recent entry. Through our media, we perpetuate ‘acceptable’ social models of sex, entertainment, and warfare. Witness politically correct ‘activism’. Beneath a thin veneer of verbiage held in a frigid dynamic tension, i.e. Victoria’s Secret, HappyTreeFriends, and politically correct activism, violence against women, children and peoples runs out of control. Our confessions are Kafkaesque. The more we divulge, the more we compound the problem. Are you too fat? Yes? That’s okay, we have a diet program that will really screw you over and label you a slob for life. Caught in a media friendly, confessional lifestyle that makes money for others, we cannot counter the actions of those to whom we give our power. Because they will squash us like bugs. Witness the continuing description of mercenaries as ‘civilians’. Those flocking to the mainstream confessional (the media) are most at risk. Yet, not all is lost. Confession can be creatively couched, and used to counter its own abuse. It is, as Father Christopher taught me, always good to confess, but it is infinitely better to keep some in reserve :).

Doug Alder April 7, 2004 at 9:38 pm

“Understand this: whatever is translated into discourse is instrumentalised as social control.”

Is a pretty good description of the codifying of spiritual experiences into organized religion, which as we all know is a means of social control.

Joel April 8, 2004 at 1:45 am

The first picture that you put up was hilarious in the extreme and I wanted to know where you had found it.

I’ve been skimming the edges of Foucault and I like what I see. It makes a lot of sense. Foucault’s observations are not so rigid that he lades the blame on one party like some social reformers do. He leads us to think about ourselves. I find him therapeutic and better than confession for searching the soul.

Yule Heibel April 8, 2004 at 1:56 am

Doug, you’re right, and that’s where Foucault’s insight started — organised religion. Mike, I love the image of “frigid dynamic tension,” um-uhm, tasty? And confession is monetised, exchange = the great connector. That’s what makes Kombinat!‘s business plan so totally hip for the times: their model is all transparent by being murky as shit. …Now, as for Father Christopher, I think my confessions are safe here because I’m fairly certain that he doesn’t read my blog, bwahaha! Yeehaw, testify!

I have to add that I just love Theodor Adorno and how he fits into this. A couple of times I blogged about Adorno, and once — on a Tuesday evening excursion to the library — I blogged about finding an article about the relationship between Adorno & Foucault’s thinking. It struck me as the two of them making what I called “lesbian love,” in the sense that penetration didn’t occur. (It’s 2nd on the page, the entry on Nonregulated seriousness.)

Joel, I presume you mean the picture in the “orgasms” post? That came from the article about Habermehl — a German picture editor’s sense of humour perhaps?, regular tits-‘n-bums don’t work there anymore, Europe’s too saturated.

joseph duemer April 8, 2004 at 7:02 pm


O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we’d meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it’s done:
I’m back on Boogie Street.

A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it’s time to go.
I tidied up the kitchenette;
I tuned the old banjo.
I’m wanted at the traffic-jam.
They’re saving me a seat.
I’m what I am, and what I am,
Is back on Boogie Street.

And O my love, I still recall
The pleasures that we knew;
The rivers and the waterfall,
Wherein I bathed with you.
Bewildered by your beauty there,
I’d kneel to dry your feet.
By such instructions you prepare
A man for Boogie Street.

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One…

So come, my friends, be not afraid.
We are so lightly here.
It is in love that we are made;
In love we disappear.
Tho’ all the maps of blood and flesh
Are posted on the door,
There’s no one who has told us yet
What Boogie Street is for.

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we’d meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it’s done:
I’m back on Boogie Street.

A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it’s time to go . . .

[Leonard Cohen]

Yule Heibel April 8, 2004 at 9:18 pm

That’s really lovely, Joseph, “maps of blood and flesh” posted on doors, but in love “we are made, in love we disappear.” Leonard Cohen is so good. Boogie on, eh? …And if I get out from under this pile of laundry and dustbunnies and dishes, I just might, haha! There, another confession to post on my door… 😉

maria April 9, 2004 at 2:37 am

Ah, the consolations of laundry and the husbandry of dust bunnies … which gather and multiply as much on Boogie Street as they do in the corners of the remotest suburban homes miles from Boogie Street:

“’Let us work,’” said Martin, ‘without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.’

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not expecting Friar Girofl

Yule Heibel April 10, 2004 at 1:20 am

Maria, you get the Blue Ribbon — Candide and dust motes… ahahhh.

So, my particular hell these days has been providing meals, day in and day out, huge amounts of food for those growing adolescents, carting it in, preparing it, cooking it, cleaning up afterward. I keep thinking of that Yugoslavian film, Montenegro, where the closing line, after the mad housewife totally loses it, is “the fruit was poisoned…”

But you know, it’s nothing compared to being in a position of not being able to cart in truckloads of food and preparing it. And yet, The Ballad of Lucy Jordan (used in the film, whose fruit-poisoning heroine was Marilyn Jordan, has sometime resonance. Sometimes. 😉

Meanwhile, all real escalation continues in the war machine… What’s not to go crazy about????

Kate S. April 10, 2004 at 8:31 pm

I forgot how much fun it was to macrame Foucalt and Derrida, and the rest of the inter-outer-dimensional thinkers. Kind of like going on a merry-go-round after donning 3-D glasses.

Thank you for the thought-provoking piece!

Yule Heibel April 13, 2004 at 2:35 am

Thanks for the comment, Klondike Kate! I have stopped by your blog, too (via jr of noded, some months ago), and you cracked me up with your entry about nearly being done in by CO2 poisoning! I’ll stop in again, but I admit that it makes me nervous to think of all the interesting blog writers out there, spread from Alaska to Africa and all points inbetween, that I could — should? — be reading! It really is pretty mind-boggling… 😉

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