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New Perspectives on the “Confessing Animal”￼￼￼￼￼
July 22 at 8:00 am – July 23 at 5:00 pm Berlin/Germany
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.
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.
Organizers 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, they think that confession is indeed integral to secular modernity, but unlike Foucault, they do not think that this is an altogether bad thing: Rather than a dated and coercive ritual of self-policing, they take confession to 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.
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