- The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault: A Genealogy of the 'Confessing Animal'
Critics frequently observe that contemporary culture in the West is a confessional culture peculiarly devoted to the translation of the 'personal' [End Page 366] and the 'private' into the public frame. Variously diagnosed as (among other things) a post-Freudian symptom, a decadent solipsism, or an amplified effect of our hyper-mediatized age, the character and consequence of the post-modern confessional has been debated, a continuum with emancipatory truth-telling at one end, disciplinary coercion and subjectivation at the other. Into this fray enters The Culture of Confession, a revision of Chloë Taylor's 2006 dissertation in philosophy at the University of Toronto, which emphasizes the double-edged character of confession - 'the interconnectedness and inseparability of discipline and self-care' (9), as Taylor puts it in Foucauldian terms in her introduction - and proposes aesthetic/artistic alternatives, modes of resistance to the disciplinary regime of confession.
The book is divided into five chapters: 'Confession from Antiquity to the Counter-Reformation,' 'Confession and Modern Subjectivity,' 'Psychoanalysis,' 'Confessing the Other,' and 'Alternatives to Confession.' Foucault is Taylor's primary interlocutor since, although she offers a critical supplement to his theorization of the history of the confessional, Foucault's genealogical method, his archive, and his oeuvre are central to the framing and the content of this book. Taylor's archive also extends beyond Foucault's, including readings ranging from Augustine's Confessions (a work Foucault curiously did not engage in his work on confession), Rousseau's Confessions (and readings of it by Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida), Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, the films of Ingmar Bergman (mentioned suggestively twice in passing), Annie Ernaux's painfully exhibitionist memoirs, Freudian case studies (notably the case of Anna O.), autobiographical literary criticism, and (surprisingly but instructively) the paintings of Artemesia Gentileschi. In all of these readings, Taylor challenges the view that confession is the product of some essential human impulse and emphasizes the double nature of confession, at once self-revelatory and self-confining.
Taylor's project is staged primarily as a debate with Foucault, and she offers any number of insights on this front that are indeed salutary. Unfortunately, she takes Foucault's engagement with pre-modern sources more or less at face value, her addition of Augustine to the picture notwithstanding. She therefore repeats some of Foucault's numerous faux pas vis-à-vis ancient, especially early Christian, and medieval sources. Among the most notable are his idiosyncratic readings of the Greek terms exomologēsis and exagoreusis, whereby he retrojects medieval and early modern practices back into the late ancient frame and misapprehends the early Christian notion of 'confession' as 'testimony to one's identity as a Christian' (rather than as 'public recitation of one's sins'). Throughout the chapter on pre-modernity, Taylor has been dependent on Foucault and a small number of secondary sources, with limited [End Page 367] evidence that she has fully engaged with the primary sources she references. This is disappointing, since the late ancient and medieval archives contain rich material for a genealogical study of confession, an archive that still awaits careful mining precisely for the evidence of critical difference that would serve Taylor's overall project so well.
Taylor seems to be on firmer ground in her later chapters, and her efforts to locate aesthetic and philosophical alternatives to the disciplinary coercion of confessional practice are ones with which many contemporary readers will feel considerable sympathy. One does not need to be fully persuaded by every reading of every text in this section - I found the interpretations of I, Pierre Rivière and Herculine Barbin in chapter 5, as examples of counter-confessional resistance, less compelling - to appreciate the critical move Taylor is trying to make to escape the sense that il n'y a pas de hors-confessionnal. Raising the question of sexual difference in this chapter - from the artistic production of Artemisia Gentileschi to the psychoanalytic case of Anna O. to the...