Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Confession and Culture

Yesterday's Keele sociology seminar heard a presentation from Siobhan Holohan on the place occupied by the confession in Western cultures. When she was researching the portrayal of deviants and criminals as scapegoats in the media, Siobhan became interested in how the confessional preserved the prevailing structural order. Her presentation looked at the place it has occupied in Western culture, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Catholicism is associated with the first widespread practice of confession in the West. The power of the church exercised control over its congregations by requiring them to talk about their sins and then throw themselves at the mercy of the priests. Only they, as God's representatives on Earth, had the ability to forgive sinners their transgressions. Thanks to the doctrine of original sin we are of necessity sinners, so we always have something to confess. If we do not, we are a threat, because those who remain silent by not attending confession represented a latent threat to structural control. According to Mike Hepworth and Bryan S. Turner's 1982 book, Confessions: Studies in Religion and Deviance, confessional themes do occur in other forms of religious belief. For example, some strands of Islam allow a role for confession, but forgiveness is dispensed only by Allah.

As the centuries passed the confession was secularised. Foucault showed how central the confession was for the institutional imposition of rules on minds and bodies. Just as the metaphor of Bentham's Panopticon is a useful way of understanding how inmates in total institutions regulated their behaviour (i.e. the idea they could unknowingly be subject of the authorities gaze at any time 'disciplined' inmates conducts), the confession was another 'technology' for constituting disciplined subjects. As subjects confess their deviance/crime it legitimates the institutions set up to regulate them - they produce a 'truth' requiring a series of professions to interpret, specialise, and advise on the nature of such truths.

In post-Christian West European societies the redemptive quality of the confession has long been a central feature of legal systems, and silence can be seen as a tacit acceptance of guilt. For example the current police caution in Britain grants suspects the right to silence, but at the same time they are informed this silence could harm their defence later down the line. If however you do confess then the court system - depending on the nature of the offence - sentencing will tend to be lighter, and continued acts of contrition while inside are taken as evidence of rehabilitation. Indeed, the government's mania for trying to increase detention without charging all the way up to 90 days is based on expert advice that the longer a suspect is held, the more likely they are to own up to their charge.

Now the confession has popular culture in its grip. "Therapeutic" talk shows, kiss and tells, ghost-written autobiographies, the media has fetishised the confession and it has become an everyday pasttime. The confession still regulates, but it also sets us free. For example, Jade Goody's attacks on Shilpa Shetty in last year's Celebrity Big Brother saw a public outpouring of anger. As a result she has publicly apologised and confessed her sins in as many media outlets as have been open to her, and now she is as much a glossy/gossip magazine regular as she was before the January 2007 evenements. Other high profile beneficiaries of the redemptive qualities of confession are Bill Clinton and Hugh Grant - who now holds their sexual indiscretions against them?

Public confession is available to "normal" people too. Reality TV like Big Brother and X-Factor is one outlet for the "lucky" few. But the internet revolution has allowed for all manner of semi-public avenues of confession. Blogs, social networking, forums, and adult chat sites can afford spaces of anonymity where people can confess their innermost thoughts. The question Siobhan ended on why is there still this confessional draw? Why do we need to unburden ourselves? Are they attempts at finding authenticity in an atomised media-saturated society?


thinkingdifference said...

thank you for this interesting (for me!) research. i am wondering about the implications and power dynamics the authors observes today in relation to the drive for confession.

the discussion of the confessional as a technique of the self is already detailed in Foucault, i think. insisting on the main difference between confession in the eyes of God and public confession on TV or private confession to an expert - that is intriguing.

it's interesting to raise the question of authenticity in this context - and to link this to the Western doctrine of individualism - and then to link it back to capitalism and nation-states. i've recently come across a rather old argument on authenticity in Ernest Gellner (thank God for older books ;) - and i've blogged on it.

Frank Partisan said...

The Jewish people have Yom Kippur. That is the day of repentance for sins to God. That is not exactly confessional, but it is close.

Seán said...

Bless me Father, it has been twenty two years since my last confession...

Oh! Sorry wrong site. ;)

Anonymous said...

Have you seen this site where people confess their sins online, anonymously?