Foucault, Sexuality & the ‘Confessing Animal’ – Josh Mcloughlin

Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor at Sonder.

Foucault, Sexuality & the ‘Confessing Animal’: The History of Sexuality Explained

Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, a foundational text for understanding the formation of sexuality in western modernity, centres on the claim that ‘western man has become a confessing animal’.[1] But what exactly does Foucault mean by that claim? And does that claim stand up to scrutiny? When we consider this claim, two important points emerge.  First that ‘western man has become a confessing animal’ (my italics) implies that western man was not always this way, and so it is necessary to explain Foucault’s account of this process, detailing its initiation and development. Second, we need to understand exactly what Foucault means when he calls man a ‘confessing animal’. This essay will begin by examining Foucault’s account of the ‘point of formation’ and the subsequent ‘multiplication of discourses’ which constitute the process whereby man ‘has become a confessing animal’ before proceeding to a full critical evaluation of Foucault’s theory of sexual subjectivity.[2]

Point of formation

The confessional act is a discourse, a certain ‘way of speaking’, but Foucault does not locate the ‘point of formation’ – the initiation of the process of man becoming a confessing animal – merely in the advent of confession itself. [3] Rather, Foucault identifies a modification in the discourse, in the ‘way of speaking’, of religious confession, which for the first time serves to implicate the speaker in the confessional act. This modification, Foucault claims, occurred at the ‘Lateran Council of 1215, [which] result[ed] [in the] development of confessional techniques’, whereby ‘obligatory, exhaustive, and periodic confession [was] imposed on all the faithful by the Lateran Council’.[4] An examination of the language used by H.J Schroeder to record this council bears out Foucault’s claim. The summary of the entry for Canon 21 states that ‘everyone who has attained the age of reason is bound to confess his sins at least once a year to his own parish pastor’.[5]  That the faithful are ‘bound’ to confess clearly aligns with Foucault’s conception of the ‘obligatory’ nature of this modified confession. The ‘periodic’ nature claimed by Foucault is validated by the phrase ‘at least once a year’. Perhaps most important though, is not the obligation or the frequency of the confession, but what Foucault calls its ‘exhaustive’ quality. The canon demands the elicitation of ‘all their sins’, but more significantly, directs the priest to ‘carefully inquir[e] into the circumstances of the sinner and the sin.’[6] This is what underpins Foucault’s claim that a modification in the discourse of religious confession initiated a ‘shifting [of] the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings […] of desire.[7] Canon 21 gives explicit command to the priest to extract not only details of ‘the sin’ but to elicit details of ‘the circumstances of the sinner’: this exposition of interiority functions to locate the focus of confession not in the sins committed, but in the confessor. Foucault’s account of the changes decreed at the Council of Trent show how the demand for a ‘painstaking review of the […] act’ made way for the ‘imposition of meticulous rules of self-examination’.[8] This modification of confession is a discursive transformation: it is an alteration in a certain ‘way of speaking’, which for the first time implicates the sinner in a confessional act hitherto concerned primarily with the sin. Thus, Foucault locates the ‘point of formation’ in the process of man becoming a ‘confessing animal’ as the shift away from a discursive focus on sins confessed to sinner ‘confessing’.[9]

Multiplication of discourse

 Whereas the ‘point of formation’ in the process of man becoming a confessing animal is located in a modification of discourse, the development of this process is a corollary of a ‘multiplication of discourse’.[10] The religious obligation to confession came to be superseded by a ‘plurisecular injunction’[11]  and Foucault employs two seemingly different examples in order to illustrate the secularization of the act of confession which took place over the 18th and 19th centuries. Firstly, the ‘licentious Englishman’[12] is read by Foucault not as ‘a courageous fugitive from a ‘Victorianism’ that would have compelled him to silence’ but as ‘the most direct […] representative of a plurisecular injunction to talk about sex’.[13] The confession is secularized, Foucault argues, but nonetheless retains those characteristics of the discursive modifications decreed by Canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council 1215: ‘obligatory, periodic and exhaustive’.[14] This deserves a closer look.

The ‘licentious’ author’s statement, ‘a secret life must not leave out anything’, is emblematic of both the obligation of confession  (the ‘must’) and of its exhaustive nature (to ‘not leave out anything’).[15] Further, that the author recounts ‘every one of [his] episodes’[16] marks the periodicity of the confession: each new episode requires articulation.  Foucault argues that the very different example of the ‘farm hand from […] Lapcourt’ exhibits the same qualities of secularized confession. [17]  Certainly the farm hand was obligated to give an exhaustive confession by secular legal and medical authorities who ‘made him talk […] [and] questioned him concerning his thoughts, inclinations, habits, sensations and opinions’.[18] The periodicity of this example lies in the multifarious forms in which confession was elicited and communicated: the ‘mayor’, the ‘gendarmes’, the ‘judge’, the ‘doctor’ and ‘two other experts’ ensured a long repetition of the confessional act. [19]  There are differences between the examples – one is ‘in confidence’, the other ‘an authoritarian interrogation’[20]  – but Foucault argues that they both represent a proliferation of the characteristics of confessional discourse in a ‘plurisecular’ form: both demand ‘obligatory, exhaustive and periodic confession’.[21]

The ‘Confessing animal’

In suggesting that western man is now a ‘confessing animal’, Foucault is claiming that confession has become a fundamental aspect of lived experience. This fundamental aspect is the production of identity, that is, of subjectivity. Foucault notes that the incitement to confession constitutes ‘an immense labour to which the west has submitted generations in order to produce […] men’s subjection’.[22]  Determining the extent to which confession has become a fundamental aspect of lived experience – that is, the extent to which confession can be considered as productive of subjectivity –  allows us to grasp the importance of Foucault’s claim that ‘western man has become a confessing animal’.[23]

It has been shown that what began as a modification in the discursive act of religious confession became secularized and proliferated through ‘distinct discursivities which took form in demography, biology, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, ethics, pedagogy, and political criticism.’[24] The effect of the proliferation of the institutional incitement to confession is to produce ‘intrinsic modifications in the person who articulates’.[25] This is because those discursive structures (biology, medicine, psychiatry etc) which constitute the ‘plurisecular injunction to talk’ use confession as a means to regulate or control those confessing.[26] The regulatory effect, critic Bob Plant states, is to define as permissible ‘certain kinds of behaviour and language’ and the consequence of this effect is to produce and inscribe individuals in discourse. [27] This requires elaborating. The actual effect of man becoming a ‘confessing animal’, incited to reveal his every inner thought, is to put him in contact with his own interiority. This is ensured by the ‘impos[ition] of meticulous rules of self-examination’ which in turn make man aware of his distinct identity.[28] This self-awareness has its origins in the ‘shifting [of] the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings […] of desire’, which has the effect of implicating the speaker in the articulation of a confession which had hitherto addressed only the act itself.[29] Thus, the discursive modification which foregrounded the speaker generated an awareness of identity. However, this awareness of identity, this self-identification though ‘self-examination’ is not the realisation of a ‘true’ identity. Instead the identification foregrounded through confessional articulation – the realization of a personal and distinct ontology – is the productive effect of discourse. The subject comes to be produced by, that is, its ‘identity’ is formed, and inscribed in the very discourse that reveals it. Because of the regulatory effect of confessional discourse, then, the ‘identity’ produced by the articulation is delimited by the discursive ‘fascilitat[ion] [of]certain kinds of behaviour and language’.[30] Therefore, Foucault, argues, the confessional discourse foregrounds and, crucially, produces an identity and subjectivity. Let’s look at a concrete example in order to see how, in Foucault’s account, the various forms of secularized confessional discourse can be said to produce subjectivity.

 

Foucault uses the example of the discursive construction of the homosexual to show how an effect of the secularization of confession was the capacity for ‘interventions of power’[31] to produce individuals as subjects. Judith Butler states that ‘the subjects regulated by such structures are, by virtue of being subjected to them, formed, defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements of those structures.’[32] Following Butler, we can say that subjectivity can be shown to be ‘produced’ by discourse insofar as the way in which the individual is discursively defined comes to form the fundamental aspect of individual identity. Foucault notes that ‘in ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts’, and so the individual identity was anonymized in the form of the ‘perpetrator’[33]. However, the effect of the secularization of confession and the rise of institutional ‘interventions of power’ – in this case sexological discourse – was to produce not a ‘category of […] acts’ but a category of ‘personage’[34]. Catherine Belsey has written that ‘subjectivity […] is […] discursively constructed and displaced across the range of discourses in which the concrete individual participates.’[35] Therefore the ‘psychological, psychiatric, medical category[isation] of homosexuality’ can be said to be productive and constitutive of an individual whose ‘habitual sin’ becomes ‘a singular nature’[36] in the process of the ‘shifting [of] the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings […] of desire’.[37] The result is that, whereas ‘the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’[38]. Insofar as ‘nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality’, man’s sexuality can be said to constitute the fundamental aspect of his subjectivity.[39] This is why, throughout his work, Foucault places sexuality at the centre of his analysis of history, society and psychology.

 

Conclusion

To recap, then, because subjectivity is ‘discursively constructed and displaced across the range of discourses in which the individual participates’ and because these discourses all employ the secular form of confession, an effect of confession is that individual subjectivity is produced by and inscribed in discourse. [40]

 We have seen how Foucault’s account of a discursive modification of religious confessional practice as constituting the ‘point of formation’ in the process of man becoming a confessing animal sheds light on modern sexuality. By examining the extent to which secularized confessional discourse retains qualities of religious confession, we have unfolded Foucault’s use of two very different examples to account for the proliferation of confessional discourse in a ‘plurisecular’ form is shown to be effective.[41] For Foucault confession, in all its multifarious deployment and elicitation, functions as a way in which subjects can be produced by and inscribed in discourse. Insofar as confession can be used to produce and inscribe individuals in discourse – that is to say, by virtue of its ontologically productive capacity – it seems legitimate to claim, as Foucault does, that ‘western man has become a confessing animal’.[42]

 

 

Bibliography

Belsey, Catherine, Critical Practice (London: Meuthen, 1980)

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999)

Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M Smith (London: Tavistock,

1972)

Foucault, Michel The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Vol.1, trans. Robert

Hurley (London: Penguin, 1998)

Plant, Bob, ‘The Confessing Animal in Foucault and Wittgenstein’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 4, (2006), pp.533-559

Schroeder, H.J, ‘The Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council 1215’, Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation and Commentary, (St. Louis: B.Herder, 1932)  found at <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp&gt; [accessed 29 October 2013]

 

[1] Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Vol.1, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1998), p.59.

[2] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p116; Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.30.

[3] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M Smith (London: Tavistock, 1972), p.193.

[4] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.116.

[5] H. J. Schroeder , ‘The Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council 1215’, Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation and Commentary, (St. Louis: B.Herder, 1932)  found at <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp&gt; [accessed 29 october 2013].

[6] Schroeder, Disciplinary Decrees of the General Council,<http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp&gt;.

[7] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.19-20.

[8] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.19.

[9] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.59.

[10] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.30.

[11] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.22.

[12] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.32.

[13] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.22.

[14] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.116.

[15] Quoted in Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.22.

[16] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.22.

[17] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.31.

[18] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.31.

[19] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.31.

[20] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.32.

[21] Foucault, The History of Sexuality p.116.

[22] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.60.

[23] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.59.

[24] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.33.

[25] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.62.

[26] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.22.

[27] Bob Plant, ‘The Confessing Animal in Foucault and Wittgenstein’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 4, (2006), pp.533-559, p.535.

[28] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.19.

[29] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.19-20.

[30] Plant, ‘The Confessing Animal in Foucault and Wittgenstein’, p.535.

[31] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.30.

[32] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999), p.4.

[33] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.43.

[34] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.43.

[35] Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Meuthen, 1980) , p.61.

[36] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.43.

[37] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p19-20.

[38] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.43.

[39] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.43.

[40] Belsey, Critical Practice, p.61.

[41] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.22.

[42] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p.59.

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