Knowledge and Society Seminar

Knowledge and Society Seminar

Speaker: Andrea Teti (Politics & IR, University of Aberdeen)

Title: Rethinking the Confessing Animal: Avowal and Confession in Foucault

Abstract: One of Foucault’s best-known claims is that ‘Western man has become a confessing animal’ (bête d’aveu). It is also one of his most misunderstood. ‘Confession’ has for decades been used to translate two terms – aveu (avowal) and confession (confession) – and a single power dynamic in which individuals are subjected to/in a hierarchical relation based on a demand to ‘render into discourse’ an inner truth about themselves. However, a systematic mapping of Foucault’s published works suggests that the two terms are associated with three distinct economies of power. The first (Avowal 1) is a simple judicial relation in which a person violating the law admits wrong-doing, pays a price for it, and rejoins society without their nature ever being called into question. The second (Avowal 2), is epitomized by the therapeutic or medical relation, in which a patient contingently occupies the field of the deviant/pathological, but can  start to emancipate themselves from this condition by avowing their deviance. In the third economy of power, Confession properly understood, the discursive framework constructs the Other's deviance as essential, ontological. This undermines the emancipation enjoined upon the Other and responsibilizes that Other for its apparent failure. Thus, this nominally emancipatory relationship not only produces failure but in so doing reproduces precisely the pathological alterity it supposedly aims to emancipate. While the first two dispositives are well known, the third is one neither Foucault nor secondary scholarship has clearly conceptualized or systematically explored. The centrality of failure to reproducing this dispositive can help explain the ongoing inability to resolve several topical political problems, including democracy, development, and debt. Contrary to the way in which it has been understood and applied across an array of Social Sciences and Humanities – from law and politics, to education, to nursing – Confession properly understood is not simply the injunction to avow one’s inner truth: it is a dispositive which undermines the emancipation it promises.

New Kings NK15