New media is often envisioned as a liberating environment wherein users can divulge personal information. But do the same power dynamics governing prior forms of confession remain at work? To explore this, I want to review the work of Foucault, who, among many other intellectual pursuits, investigates the sociohistorical dimensions of confessing, before analyzing one of the most well-known online hubs of confession, PostSecret. The site cements the “confessional science” that Foucault discusses while rendering the act of confession into an art form.
Foucault discusses confession in A History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. He states that “the confession became one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth” and “plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations” (Foucault, 1978, p. 59). The prominence of the confession has led to the illusion that “truth . . . ‘demands’ only to surface; that if it fails to do so, this is because a constraint holds it in place, the violence of a power weighs it down, and it can finally be articulated only at the price of a kind of liberation” (Foucault, 1978, p. 60). Likewise, speakers inherently render themselves as subjects in the act of confession (Foucault, 1978, p. 61). This rendering of speakers as subjects ushers in a “confessional science” which codifies the act of confession as empirically observable and open to interpretation (Foucault, 1978, pp. 64-66). In this, there is a subject who confesses that feels “the delights of having one’s words interpreted” and the subject who hears the confession, becomes empowered, and experiences “the formidable ‘pleasure of analysis’” (p. 71).
Foucault’s discussion of the confession can be applied easily to PostSecret. Users submit their secrets in creative ways to the site’s creator, Frank Warren, for posting on the website. The site provides a space for public yet anonymous confession. Accordingly, there is no commenting functionality; in Foucault’s view, perhaps the reason for this is that without comments, there is no record of a tangible subject hearing the confession itself. In this particular online space, an “I” of a confession can be articulated without necessarily rendering a particular “you” who hears it, even though the “you” is implied through an indirect mode of address. Hence, since there is no identifiable hearing the confession, implied by the pronoun “you,” the power relation Foucault traces behind the confession is naturalized in PostSecret. This is because those who hear the confession are not allowed by the site to express any possible judgments over the confession. This is a clear regulatory decision on the part of website management. However, as seen in the site’s popularity, people can still obtain pleasure from viewing the secrets of others, cementing Foucault’s pleasure-power interplay in hearing a confession.
There are many PostSecret pieces I could share that would relate to Foucault’s work. However, this one in particular caught my eye:
The site adds in a new wrinkle: the act of confession itself becomes overtly artistic. In the text of the image, the subject recognizes that he or she disclosed something that had consequences upon a relationship. The text implies that the confession failed to improve the subject’s circumstances, leading to a second truth requiring validation that the subject feels a need to confess. So, for the subject’s second confession, instead of confessing directly to the subject of address, PostSecret’s audience assumes that subject position, “hears” the confession, and, in interpreting it as art rather than conventional discourse, validates it. Of course, in all of this, power, judgment and pleasure are still at play in this space. But all three are less overt with commenting disabled and with the transformation of confessions into art, naturalizing the subject positions at play to make the space seem less judgmental.
Ironically, this is conveyed through the image chosen for the convention: a subject taking a polygraph text. While the image does not contain an administrator of the polygraph test, there typically is such a figure hearing what the subject presents as truth. Given the veiling of subject positions through PostSecret, it is certainly a fitting image for a PostSecret confession.
Overall, the success of PostSecret justifies Foucault’s assertion that subjects feel a deep need to confess, demand a more liberating platform to do so, and gain pleasure by hearing the confessions of others. PostSecret reinforces and updates the “confessional science” that Foucault proposes in the new media age. There is added anonymity and accessibility, yet the power dynamic behind it remains the same.
Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
PostSecret. Retrieved from http://www.postsecret.com/.