Aeon, Firmin DeBrabander
"Foucault, however [contra Plato, Ed.], cast shame in a rather less emancipatory light in The History of Sexuality (1976). He argued that sex, in particular, was mediated in Western civilisation via the tool of confession, which involved the dispensation of approval and shame. ‘Man has become a confessing animal,’ he says. Starting with the Catholic sacrament, supplicants were urged to bare their souls, dig deep within themselves and let the truth, in all its ugliness, surge forth. This was the only way to be cleansed by one’s confessor, to avail oneself of the grace of God. In doing so, the priest relieved you of your guilt, and passed down sanction or authorisation for your behaviour.
Later, according to Foucault, the institution of confession shifted from religion to a host of secular traditions, such as confessional literature, medical examinations and psychoanalysis. But they all operated on the same principle, which was to patrol the boundary between what was normal and acceptable, and what was shameful and deviant. ‘The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us,’ Foucault wrote. ‘On the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, demands only to surface.’
Confession can feel like liberation, because it seems to unburden us of our shame. It can also be a forum for the display of democratic virtues, including the honesty, bravery and humility evident in St Augustine’s Confessions. But if one believes Foucault, it is always a ruse. We always confess to someone – in the presence of an authority, real or imagined. When people post online, it is always for a supposed audience; it is never purely gratuitous.
What manifests itself as a certain shamelessness [i.e., posting personal material online], then, might in fact be precisely the opposite. The approbation of the digital crowd has come to fill in for the authority of the confessor – or, to put it another way, it acts as a substitute for Socrates’ inner voice of moral conscience. People unburden themselves to their followers in the hope that their needs will be validated, their opinions affirmed, their quirks delightfully accepted. The result is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them.
Those in positions of power have always craved a mechanism with which to expose the inner beings of citizens, to reveal ‘the fragment of darkness that we each carry within us’, as Foucault described it. There are, or seem to be, rather dangerous and wild expanses within each individual. If we are to be controlled, that must be made known, and tamed. There is no better way to divide and subdue a people, and seduce them into self-regulation, than to expose their perversions but promise absolution."