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New Perspectives on the “Confessing Animal”
Berlin, 22-23 July 2022
Few critics have questioned Foucault’s diagnosis of “confessing animal[s]” (or “beast[s] of confession,” which would be a far better translation of the French bête d’aveu). The more provocative of Foucault’s claims has likewise gone largely unchallenged: Namely, Foucault did not only argue that we have been conditioned into spilling our guts in public and in private, in speech and in writing—he also claimed that we have been tricked into believing that this constant and supposedly voluntary self-disclosure constitutes a rebellious liberation from taboos and censorship. “One has to be completely taken in by this internal ruse of confession,” Foucault writes, to believe that disclosing the most intimate aspects of one’s life to public scrutiny is proof of “freedom” from oppression.
Never has Foucault’s diagnosis been more relevant than it is today. The first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen an exponential growth of confessing, primarily, though not exclusively, in the vast digital archive of social media. Whereas twentieth-century confessional phenomena have received considerable attention from literary and cultural critics, the more recent manifestations of confessional culture remain largely unexplored.
On the other hand (though not unrelatedly), social media has also been linked to a new kind of social justice activism that takes place primarily online, as well as having been accused of the rise of identity politics more broadly. While there is good reason to remain skeptical about the media-driven publicizing and commodification of the most intimate details of people’s lives, especially this latter development demonstrates the urgent need we currently have for holding individuals (and other legal entities, such as governments or corporations) accountable for their actions. Confession, before the Romantic cult of subjectivity reduced it to “mere” self-expression, provided exactly this: a mechanism whereby people can not only be held accountable for their actions but also faced with the consequences of those actions, and, eventually, be released from the burden of their pasts.
These tensions are explored by DISCLOSURE, an interdisciplinary research group founded by a Ph.D. candidate, Sonja Pyykkö (Freie Universität Berlin), with master’s students from various departments represented within the Berlin University Alliance. Drawing on the group leader’s doctoral research project, which examines confession in the combined perspective of literary theory, history, and philosophy, members of DISCLOSURE have been investigating confessions across media since the spring of 2021.
We are inviting participants for a two-day symposium over a summer weekend in Berlin, set to explore the current state and future directions of the “confessing animal,” as Michel Foucault’s famous diagnosis from The History of Sexuality (1976/78) goes. Foucault was notably suspicious of what he saw as a ritual of voluntary self-subjugation, both in its ancient Christian and contemporary Freudian manifestations.
After decades of Foucault-inspired suspicious criticism, DISCLOSURE seeks to rethink confession in light of the crises of accountability that are becoming the hallmark of twenty-first century social justice projects. Like Foucault, we think that confession is indeed integral to secular modernity, but unlike Foucault, we do not think that this is an altogether bad thing: Rather than a dated and coercive ritual of self-policing, we take confession be a secular means of moral self-inquiry and an aesthetic of self-fashioning focused on character, defined by a set of moral values and principles—ethos.
For our first symposium, we invite scholars working on adjacent topics to join us in developing new critical approaches to the study of confession. We especially welcome comparative and interdisciplinary approaches and perspectives broadening our understanding of what constitutes “confession” in different 21st century contexts. Proposals for papers, to be presented either in workshop or panel discussion format, may wish to address the
- Confession in literature: contemporary poetry, essay, memoir, autofiction and autotheory, narrative nonfiction
- Confession in performance and media: true crime, podcasts, vlogs and blogs, video games, social media, stand-up comedy, spoken word, performance art
- Confession in society: social justice movements (e.g., Me Too, Black Lives Matter), identity politics (e.g., LGBTQI+), institutional and incumbent confession (e.g., churches, governments, corporations)
Junior researchers, including master’s students, are likewise encouraged to submit an abstract. Join us in asking what it means to confess in the twenty-first century!
Deadline for abstracts: 15 March 2022
This project is funded by the Berlin University Alliance.
For enquiries, please contact Elizabeth Neumann, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Organizing committee: Sonja Pyykkö (Graduate School of North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin), Elizabeth Neumann, Felix Fischer, Konstantin Helm, Hannah Maier-Katkin, Dilayda Tülübaş, Metin Turgut.