I could tell you— Impasse, Langston Hughes.
If I wanted to,
What makes me
What I am.
But I don’t
Really want to –
And you don’t
Give a damn.
I stopped writing my memoir a year ago. Not for lack of interest, but for lack of understanding, maybe. I shit you not, I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe. But why should I tell anyone about it? I stopped because I realised that forcing someone to look at me is no guarantee that I will be seen. How could I write about, say, my experience with a cult that abused and traumatised a loved one, among tens of others, culminating in a court case in which the offender was acquitted, and the complainants victim-blamed publicly, made the butt of jokes? How could I, when I am steeped in a culture which views cults as a joke: something to meme, or dedicate a season of a tween TV show to, or an episode of a podcast to, or to make into merchandise?
I listen to true crime podcasts, because I am obsessed with trauma – like picking at a scab. I am so scabby that in order to access a podcast’s online-only content, I pay to register as a member of the ‘Fan Cult’. As an unwanted reward for my purchase(s), I have received a pin, a t-shirt, and a hat, bearing that phrase. I can barely look at these items, let alone wear them. It’s humourless of me. When I was younger I would hang out on Omegle (text-only), chatting to strangers, and once one of my interlocutors wrote, ‘I seek to understand, whereas you wait to be understood’, and then our connection was lost.
A friend who is a memoirist and I talk about the compulsion to disclose. Like her, I want to make disclosures – build intimacies to overcome the sense that this is so fucking mundane, that we, freshly emotionally regulated full-time job holding perfect subjects of neoliberalism, are now trapped in a prison of pretending like we don’t want to talk incessantly about one of three things: trauma, sex, anti-capitalism, that we are ever thinking about anything but these things. The way that any sleepover builds this heterotopic space which devolves and opens up necessarily into a conversation about fucking. The way that every game of Never Have I Ever is about fucking. The way that we all want to say to each other what the worst thing we’ve ever done is, and be forgiven.
On the true crime podcast I listen to, one of the hosts – whom I love and adore – does a bit which sends the other host, without fail, into peals of laughter.
‘Shhhhh,’ she slurs. ‘Let me – I wanna tell you a secret,’ acting drunk, and you just know, although you can’t see her, that she is imitating leaning over real close to you at a bar. ‘Can I just – lemme tell you a secret. I wanna tell you a secret.’
The Political Function of Confession
It feels like a breakthrough when I make certain disclosures. But then I regret them. The conversation ends and I feel more alone. This pattern has taught me that not every impulse must be honoured, and that communicating authentically and communicating intentionally are not mutually exclusive. I have learned this through years spent practicing scripts for healthy communication, and have even stuck a list of ‘Reality Statements for Interpersonal Effectiveness’ on my bedroom wall, which include that ‘I have a choice to ask someone for what I want or need’ or that ‘I sometimes have a right to assert myself, even though I may inconvenience others.’ I also know that sometimes it is better to stay silent, and that speaking can’t help every situation. So why, in these lapsed moments, does it feel right? There is a visceral emphasis placed on unburdening oneself; getting it off your chest; on letting it out; on spewing, spilling, blabbing, slipping; spitting it out; shitting it out; on reaching catharsis.
In The History of Sexuality (1978), Michel Foucault writes of confession as one of the modern technologies of the self. Since its invention, which Foucault traces to the thirteenth century, Western subjects have used confession to produce truths about themselves. Confession has increasingly replaced reliance on others to vouch for us, making the rise of the confession coextensive with the modern rise of the individual. Outside of the church, the obligation to confess permeates additional quarters of society in increasingly secular forms: inside of scientific discourses such as medicine (if you’ve ever filled out a mental health questionnaire, or pulled down your pants to show a rash, or tried to donate blood but been denied); in the world of work (self-evaluations of performance; enumerating our agendas and goals; accounting for the perceived breaks in our career); in psychoanalysis; in literature, namely memoir; and through mediated communication such as social media.
That confession is widespread does not mean it is, to paraphrase Chloe Taylor in her book The Culture of Confession From Augustine to Foucault, an innate psychological need or a natural longing of the soul. That truth feels as if it demands to surface requires us to question the forces that make it feel this way. Speaking the truth cannot be inherently liberating inside a relation of power. I say this for two reasons. The first is that to confess is to transform something previously non-discursive into discourse. The second is that to speak is to open the self up to the external force of the witness; the one that, Foucault writes, plays the role of hearing and interpreting the confession, taking up the role of the master of truth, and using this power over the penitent to govern their behaviour.
As Capital is my Witness
Leave me alone, please. I’m very happy. I know I’m a good potter; I know that the stores, the good ones, like what I do. Does everything have to be on a great scale, with a cast of thousands? Can’t I lead my little life the way I want to?— Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, Philip K. Dick.
Saul Newman describes social media as a ‘mass confessional space.’ He writes that ‘today there is such an excess of confessional behaviour, such an overexposure of the private to the public, that the very notion of the confession – that which reveals what is most hidden and intimate, and therefore what is supposedly most significant to the individual – has almost lost all meaning.’ On the internet, another name for confession is over-sharing, and it has become synonymous with how we use social media platforms. People can’t get a hold of me over text, but they can just read my tweets: it’s all there, every beat of my mental state.
I may never tell you in person that I last cried at work in February, or that my parents have $3000 to their name and that concerns me greatly, or that I think that I look like I have a five o’clock shadow in certain lighting, or that my mother’s chronic illness makes me feel miserable all the time, or that I recently lay on the floor because I was too burnt out to get up, or that I missed MasterChef on June 29 because I was helping my mother through a panic attack, but that MasterChef is what stops me from having a panic attack. But, somehow, these are all things I posted in the past week. Writing these tweets has surely helped me cope: in therapeutic terms, they are the canoe that helped me safely travel from one side of the river to the other. But now that I have reached the next shore, it might be time to build myself a better boat. In other words, I wonder if my over-sharing functions as a half-measure. I am worried that this is a way of pantomiming a level of comfort with vulnerability that I actually lack; that I am screaming into the void without having to receive any feedback. Or, put another way, I fear that to over-share is to seek out the rewards of being loved without submitting to the mortifying ideal of being known. Dropping a tweet thread but committing to not reading the replies. Posting anonymously on my throw-away so I can say everything.
Identity formation under these circumstances is fraught. When did I learn to check if I exist by asking a machine? The map tells me I am a being in space. The clock tells me I am a being in time. The astrology app tells me I am a Sagittarius. David Lynch’s Ominous Statement Generator tells me, ‘The caves cannot reach you. Sleep well: they, too, have teeth.’ And this has also been a form of telling on myself: now you know my birthdate, my eye colour, my birth order, and my hair colour. All this self, staged publicly.
These are frivolous examples, but they do suggest to me a relative decline in older ways of being known or making oneself known: in the private sphere, one-on-one, in ongoing dialogue with individuals known to me and who form part of my community, who form part of my network of accountability, and who, more than anyone else, should get to witness, vouch for, and provide input on who I am. As astrology undergoes a modern renaissance, I have had two birth charts made for me: one by a good friend in an AirBnB on a weekend away in the Blue Mountains, just the two of us, as she explained what my chart may mean cross-referenced and improved against what she knew about me, Eda. The other was made by an AI, which sends me garbled push notifications every week. For me personally, I wonder if tweeting replaces seeking out the company of friends or my therapist because it’s a lot less uncomfortable than making an appointment, commuting forty minutes, sitting in an enclosed and unfamiliar space, fully embodied, and making eye contact for sixty straight minutes while my ass gets read.
To confess is to transform desire into discourse. Each of my Google searches charts a desire. I have told on myself again, by telling the algorithm what I want. My use of Domain and RealEstate indicate that lately I want to move house. The advertisements for Curable on Facebook tell me that I want a solution to my mother’s chronic pain. The advertisements for language learning platforms tell me that I want to get so fluent in Turkish that my parents and I never misunderstand each other again. And they also tell me what I should want, or things I want that I didn’t know I wanted: to be pregnant (but still find time to work out); to manicure my nails and dye and style my hair (rather than avoiding these services religiously, and having friends give me trims); to be comfortable wearing shorts (belted); or to wear more deodorant (admittedly not a bad suggestion). My desires are sublimated and sold back to me in the form of products. I can’t buy my way out of these sensations: of bearing witness to the suffering of others; of how I feel about my body; of uncertainty around the management of difficult relationships; of contemplating what sort of parent I may or may not go on to make. But I can tell you I’ll never wear shorts.
These disclosures are largely involuntary – without our knowledge, when we go online, we have become workers, producing ‘information, services, relations and networks’ for a handful of tech CEOs who own the platform. Most importantly, we produce data, which is sold at the highest profit margin possible – extracted from us for free, sold to others, and later used to induce purchases through targeted advertisements. The products of our virtual labour do not belong to us. Indeed, the majority of us do not even know what information has been sold, to whom, or for what price. It is for this reason that Jodi Dean has stated that all of us who work in the knowledge economy, or even just use the internet, and produce ‘information, services, relations and networks’ that are ‘proletarianized under communicative capitalism.’ It’s worth every second of immiseration to know what my personalised David Lynch Ominous Statement is.
Communicative capitalism has gone on to replace the scientific establishment, which Foucault critiqued, as the most significant repository of our confessions. I am much more liable to Google my symptoms than to consult a doctor as a first measure, although I live in a country with decent access to healthcare. Many of us have accidentally or otherwise made a worrying enough search to trigger the number for Lifeline at the top of our screens: this is the computer telling us we are not doing okay, and have thought something so unhealthy that it is actually a symptom, perhaps of depression or an eating disorder. During the height of the Ebola pandemic in West Africa, tracing of the disease took the form of surveilling private text messages for suspicious missives that indicated that a citizen might be symptomatic or ill. Likewise, in South Korea during the COVID-19 crisis, reams of individuals’ data have been released to facilitate contact tracing. The witness of the truths of our bodies is these algorithms, which pick us out and diagnose us. While these measures are implemented in the name of public health, it is unlikely that algorithms can escape the racist and sexist biases of their creators. For example, big data has been used in 2020 to identify regions of the US and Australia that contain higher or lower numbers of infractions of public health orders regarding COVID-19 – high levels of movement gleaned from location data, for example – but without attention to the social and material conditions that make it impossible for poorer people to stop leaving their houses and travelling to work. In July of 2020, thousands of poor, mostly Black, former refugees, and/or formerly incarcerated individuals were trapped by the police in social housing units in Melbourne. Meanwhile, such technologies have not been applied to single out and criminalise the wealthy, such as those who fled to second homes when the crisis began, or readily cross borders that are closed to others. These disparities that exist between those who do and do not receive dispensations from the requirement to confess demonstrate that only some of us are sick, while others get to be rich.
It Happened To Me
Think of that obscure partisan … who had come to rejoin the Serbian resistance deep in the mountains; his superiors asked him to write his life story; and when he brought them a few miserable pages, scribbled in the night, they did not look at them but only said to him, ‘start over, and tell the truth.’— The History of Sexuality: Vol 1, Michel Foucault.
Confessional writing has existed for longer than we have had a name for it. Pre-dating the rise of capital, but not the church, St Augustine’s Confessions, which date to the fourth century, are written in the form of a prolonged act of repentance. In it, the author discloses his sins, and his sorrow about his sins, to God, asking to be forgiven and made whole again. Confessional magazines of the early twentieth century were likewise designed to enforce morality. They featured stories primarily of women who committed some act of life-ruining indiscretion – adultery, for example _ going on to regret their actions, repent and learn the lesson of obedience. Both the magazines True Story and True Confessions continued publishing as late as 2017, and the genre has been rightly identified and criticised as a means of disciplining women and codifying norms that vilified their sexuality.
Despite its murky origins, the real emancipatory potential of the confessional mode began to be acknowledged in the middle of the twentieth century. Although still a gendered form, confessional writing allowed the author to speak out of traditionally silent spaces: the domestic sphere, and from societal margins. The form allows its authors to make tricky disclosures, such as about abuse, sexual assault, individuals’ histories in the sex work industry, or abortion. In 1976, for example, Maya Angelou disclosed publicly for the first time in her memoir Gather Together in My Name that she had been a sex worker in her youth: it was important to her and her family, despite her doubts, that she write in an unvarnished manner about her survival and success in a society designed to oppress poor black women. Later, reflecting on the work, Angelou shared an anecdote of a young black sex worker who came to one of her book signings, and told Angelou that her writing had given her hope; it had made her feel seen.
As online platforms collapse some of the boundaries between public and private means of documenting one’s inner state, fears arise that we are increasingly losing the moral or political edge that made the literary confession not the ends, but the means to a greater critique: whether a puritanical one aimed at enshrining conservative sexual mores, or a more radical one aimed at subverting patriarchy and racial capitalism. The practices of blogging and microblogging, popularised by websites such as LiveJournal, Medium and Tumblr, were, in their foetal state, conceived of as enabling the curation of an intimate space maintained for only a handful, a means of updating family and friends only. As these platforms have expanded, the audience of such documents has widened to include the public, meanwhile that the style of the content, fundamentally personal, has altered little.
In 2015, Laura Bennett, writing for Slate, coined the term ‘first person industrial complex’ to refer to the economy that had blossomed around the genre of online writing that prized confession. At the time, websites such as xoJane and Jezebel accepted submissions in the ‘true story’ or ‘it happened to me’ genre, and its ethics became hotly debated. Although part of a long historical trend inaugurated by magazines such as True Story and True Confessions, editors involved in the publication of these tales, such as Jia Tolentino, began to voice concerns arising out of the fact that these pieces were increasingly un-curated and un-edited. The writing also did not enjoy the lead times that work published through traditional publishing did, no longer affording the author a ‘cooling off’ period for serious contemplation of the social consequences that the publication of a piece – containing revelations of racism, incest or criminal activities – might induce.
As readers and writers – such as Tolentino, who began as an editor at Jezebel before moving to the New Yorker and publishing her essay collection Trick Mirror in 2019 – transition between the online and traditional publishing spheres, they can no longer be said to be separate. And so they risk being absorbed into the same circuits of capital which demand virality, and are geared at milking us for all the content we contain. To not shut the fuck up when someone wants you to is powerful. However, to speak, when asked to speak by market forces, in circumscribed ways, feels more like telling on yourself. Confessional writing is prized, yes, but it is also demanded, and this demand for ever-more unfiltered work creeps into all spheres of publishing, to the point that the honesty of the work increasingly supersedes other artistic concerns.
In 2017, journalist and memoirist Alex Tizon published what was to be his final work. It appeared as the cover story for the June issue of The Atlantic, and was entitled ‘My Family’s Slave.’ The work narrated the author’s experience being raised by a woman named Eudocia Tomas Pulido, but whom the author knew as Lola. Tizon tells of piecing together that Lola was the family’s personal slave, and realising that she was prevented, by her domestic duties and lack of personal documents, from travelling back to her home, a status quo which was maintained by the family for over five decades. The confession was made possible by Tizon’s death. The piece went viral. Initially, I watched it be lauded as an aesthetic feat: beautiful because of its ‘honesty.’ Following this wave of praise was an avalanche of critique, which noted that fessing up to being a slave-owner was not meritorious in and of itself.
In 2018, writer Junot Diaz published an essay in the New Yorker entitled ‘The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.’ In it, Diaz disclosed publicly for the first time that he had been raped when he was eight years-old. He situated this confession inside a second confession to his pattern of ‘hurting other people in the process’ of grappling with this serious trauma. In similar fashion to Tizon, the piece went viral, and was at first embraced as important, raw and vulnerable: I know this is how I felt upon reading it. But then, following escalating accusations of sexual misconduct and misogyny levelled at Diaz from female writers, primarily black women and women of colour, the piece was re-appraised as theatre: arse-covering, an attempt to hide behind authenticity in order to pre-empt critique.
In these two instances, some readers have judged that the naming of an act cannot trigger absolution in and of itself. Rather, it risks narrating a wrong without analysing the wrong, or stepping into more material practices of accountability that entail true justice. Without devolving into a discussion about the line between repentance and penance – as my goal is not to moralise – my concern in raising these examples is to call attention to the way that artistic judgements are increasingly made on the basis of the quantity of confessions contained within a work.
The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgard has sold books in the order of millions. His work is described as uncomfortably honest, deeply exposing, unflinching and unsparing, and reviewers remark that he describes moments of ‘near-rape’, ‘attraction to inappropriately young women’, and that he has hurt many of the people around him. But, they note, because he is an open book, because his style is sloppy by design, because there is not a fault that he won’t cop to having, criticism cannot touch his work. An aesthetic determination is made on the basis of how much is said, and not what is said, or how. When they do not lift the lid on a zone of silence, but rather only amplify a cultural chorus, admitting to something shocking – such as mistreating a woman – becomes, in my view, not that shocking.
To be clear, I am not calling for a revival of the morality tale, or demanding that we as a society need to rediscover shame. Rather, I hope to note the danger of hiding behind verisimilitude, when it leads to doing nothing with one’s admission but waving it about. To do this is to yield to the demand made by capital that we disclose mindlessly. As these disclosures become increasingly de-linked from how they refer to real-world relations of power, they encourage a descent into discourse.
The Pleasure of the Confession
Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life. Well, not small, but valuable. And sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void.— You’ve Got Mail, Nora Ephron.
I don’t mean to sound like a techno-pessimist. I get it: Foucault is not my dad and so I need not let him tell me what to do. I admit that it is possible that critical theorists may be out of touch on this one. Some of these folks are the types who are startled every time their phone gurgles ‘Sorry, I didn’t quite get that’; whereas the rest of us are just thrilled to have someone to talk to.
The problem is I can’t make up my mind about confession. Maybe I’m fearful-avoidant; maybe I want you to come closer but to also go away. I write in fits and bursts, and then I delete it. I am writing Schrodinger’s memoir. In other words, it is possible that I take pleasure in disclosure until it yields discomfort, and then there’s a million reasons why it’s problematic. The fact is that confession is the (historically contingent) yearning of my soul and to suggest otherwise would be self-denial.
During this crisis, I have spent tens of hours with my dear friends on Zoom completing questionnaires and personality quizzes, collaborating on our answers and picking apart the results: what fictional character are we? what Seinfeld character are we? what sense are we? how do our astrological charts impact our compatibility with one another? what are our attachment styles? what is our Myers-Briggs type? what is our Harry Potter Myers-Briggs type? what are our schemas? My friend puts together a spreadsheet standardising our results so that we can understand our scores better:
I have successfully gotten each one to hassle their mother to request their birth time, in order to sign them up for a Co-Star profile. On one occasion, a friend had to fossick through his house and dig up his birth documents to find this information. He flicked through the blue baby book for us, holding it faced up to the camera, to walk us through each page. It reminded me of show-and-tell and being a child. I find that these activities build intimacy in safe ways, with oneself and others. It’s easier to say ‘I’m Severus Snape, LOL: dutiful and loyal and with greasy hair’ than to say that ‘I was raised via my mother’s belief that she would be left to die alone, and much of my upbringing involved daily reminders that I must never abandon her.’
When I religiously read my Co-Star horoscope, it is not because I view the app’s insights as determinative. Rather, it is because I think of these technologies as heuristics for learning not only more about oneself, but learning to understand and to be a good friend to those who ‘believe in that sort of thing’: undeniably, the insights of this application inform many young people’s behaviours and self-perception, and if we accept that identity is performative or constitutive – that is, that it is brought into being by discourse – then this is important. For me, I find it meditative to click through one hundred and five questions that ask me to evaluate myself from many angles. This gentle probing constitutes a form of self-inquiry, and it facilitates one to learn not just that they are caught somewhere half-way between Elaine Benes and George Costanza, but also to liberate hidden truths about oneself. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t thrill in being told about themselves, and these data-mining confessional exercises are just new ways of being seen.
Where medieval Catholics used to have to recount to a priest every one of their sexual thoughts, words, acts, and positions, we now tell the void. My purity score is 54.1: I didn’t know that until now. It’s likely that you don’t care, although you may now complete this test yourself. Somehow I think the priests may not have been so apathetic about this information: perhaps it might have gotten back around the town and I would have been locked in a pillory for a day. The void doesn’t care if you’re a slut.
I like that online confessional practices erode the ‘I’ of the self. Anonymous posting, for example on confession pages, is rife, and allows us to speak without inducing the usual social consequences. I don’t know anyone from my peer group in secondary school who didn’t peruse PostSecret, nor a single peer from university who didn’t read our institution’s confession page, ironically-or-not searching for their name amongst the disclosures of missed connections and crushes, or for validation about collectively despised teachers. And I think these forms of speech might get us closer to breaking out of our subject-positions, and help us to speak in less circumscribed ways.
When I look at the online advice subreddits r/relationships and r/AmItheAsshole, the most popular posts are those that involve an individual grappling with a romantic partner who so clearly must be broken up with that it inspires spectacle. On one particularly memorable post about the seemingly mundane, but actually quite abusive, exchange of Christmas gifts between husband and wife, the wife in question finally commented, after 1,600 responses: ‘I think I need to admit how unhappy with my marriage I am. I’m sorry if my replies are increasingly short. Thanks again everyone. It’s a pretty hard wake up call that people see these glaring problems I’ve been avoiding. This advice is all appreciated and welcome.’ Part of me doubts that these individuals would ever name their uneasiness, the things that they suspect but won’t admit, in the absence of the relative anonymity afforded by the internet. OP emerges out the other end a changed self, not just modified, in Foucault’s words, by the act of confession, but more importantly re-constituted by the validation of thousands of others: a public way of being known, yes, but also a means of yielding into the public sphere what some have wished remained private.
That brings me back to the beginning: that when I say that people like for you (not) to talk about trauma and that actually I’m going to talk about it forever and ever and ever, and also never again, what I mean is this: within a singularly confessing society, being a confessing individual is not so singular. It is the price of entry: I pay it in order to exist.
Angelou, Maya. 2004. “Maya Angelou.” In A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak, edited by Camille O. Cosby and Renee Poussaint, 1–6. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Bennett, Laura. 2015. “The First-Person Industrial Complex.” Slate, September 14 2015 .
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. Melbourne: Text.
Dean, Jodi. 2016. Crowds and Party. London: Verso.
Foucault, Michel. 1978. History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.
Garner, Dwight. 2015. “Review: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle: Book Four.’” The New York Times, April 20.
Glancy, Josh. 2015. “Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Traitor to His Family,” November 6.
McCarthy, Rebecca. 2017. “Ninety-Eight Years of Fallen Women.” The Awl. August 16.
Newman, Saul. 2018. Political Theology: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity.
Pauls, Alan. 2019. “Mi Lucha, El Libro de La Década (My Struggle, the Book of the Decade).” La Tercera, December 29.
Stevens, Heidi. 2017. “‘My Family’s Slave’ Is Haunting, Essential Reading.” Chicago Tribune. May 17.
Taylor, Chloe. 2008. The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault: A Genealogy of the “Confessing Animal.” London: Routledge.