From the Archives: Confession

From the Archives: Confession


Before I was to receive the Sacrament of Penance, I had to practice. For seven Sundays in anticipation, I postured confession, walked down the aisle of the church with the other children, recited the prayer for the teacher.  “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.” An act of memorization, mimesis, or sophistry, an anxious delay of the actual blessing.

The confessional booth was in the sanctuary of the church, a construction to be witnessed by the families who had come for the reconciliation. Enclosed and on display, I was to sit inside the booth and absolve myself. I was six years old and considered my transgressions to be little more than attitude and small lies. But I was atoning, really, for the condition of sin, for the capacity of the potential, for the subsequent guilt that Catholicism finds in itself. I was atoning, too, for the imprints of my own sins: the ones that had occurred, and the ones that would.


There is, in a sense, very little use in beginning this introduction with a bit of personal narrative––even less so in indulging in self-reference. But confession is inextricable from autobiography, from the experiences that make up one’s life. In both religious speech and the secular written word, confession requires the past: a deed done, a thing happened, a time passed. Memory is both its object and its medium. Confession is bound up with pastness, with rearticulation, with repetition and revelation.

St. Augustine’s Confessions is perhaps the most reinscribed entrance into the genre, a canonical text of Catholic guilt as much as an articulation of the self. In the Confessions a peculiar passage appears in which St. Augustine repents for the theft of a pear, writing “I was in love with my own ruin, in love with decay…I was depraved in soul.”1 For the sin of plucking a pear from a branch not belonging to him, St. Augustine admits a profound failure, instantiating a long tradition of confession as statement, as speech. By disclosing a misdeed, the subject is absolved of guilt––emotional and legal included. By disclosing a misdeed, Augustine enacts speech as a performance of cleansing as much as punishment. In confession, the implied audience of God is secondary to the immediate audience of oneself, the one hearing this cleansing occur. 

The “use” of confession, then, is what? Is the confession an admission, an intervention, an apologia? A shield or an arm’s length? It is, after all, a declaration––a mere declaration, even. The confessional poet Robert Lowell said in an interview that “I’ve always regarded the poem as declaration of my faith or lack of faith.”2 Lowell and fellow postwar American poets came to define the genre by a penchant for personal experience and immediacy, a near-unbearable candor that dissolves the boundaries between the self and the writing I. In confessional writing, declaration becomes confession, both promising the effects of performative speech, spiritual regeneration. At once elusive and naked, writing in the confessional often becomes an exercise in restraint, in defining the autopoietic pores of poetry and meaning. The confession absolves, erases, forgets, remembers, shames, forgives, performs, represents, reveals. It is a techne of language and experience. For the children receiving the First Reconciliation, its use is medicinal, a relief; for the accused, its use is excusatory, a cleansing by the law. It is a multipurpose machine that requires, nonetheless, the individual. 

Confession is very often, as above, restricted to a role as the sine qua non of a society ostensibly born of Abrahamic religion. But its means and ends permeate disciplines and intellectual traditions outside of Catholicism––though it is tempting to always read religion into its history, confession has also become a form of poetry, of philosophy, of media, and experimentation outside the booth’s walls. For Montaigne, writing itself was a kind of confession, an articulation of the individuated experience of the self, of movement, an admission to a thought without the desire for repentance. The free self, Montaigne’s humanist fulcrum, could write itself into existence on the page and account for itself––morally. To write an account was to generate the self in the very act of writing, to render oneself dutiful to the social as much as the individual.

“A confession is always shared,” writes Rene Bennett explores in her piece on Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask. The “shapeshifting other” is always there, emerging from psychoanalytic discourse, to render ourselves whole, to require us to account for ourselves. And confession can be drawn out from a subject in psychoanalysis––automatic, even machinic. Alice Cai examines this coalescence of confession and technology in her piece on ELIZA and psychotherapy, noting those who grew dependent on this therapeutic program that promised answers to their emotional queries. Preceding computational answers, confession as style often promises something like a gesture toward the unconscious, though. In “White Buttons,” Mary Ruefle writes “I am sorry I did not / go to your funeral / but like you said / on the phone / an insect cannot crawl / to China.”3 To recognize what has happened, to make it happen in the present––confession promises this collapse of temporalities, an exorcism of the locked away.

Describing the progress of patient, Freud wrote that “the critical illumination of his own self had a completely successful result.”4 What is secularized confession if not the critical illumination of the self? But Freud goes on to write that the patient, following this illumination, “married the woman he loved and turned into a friend and teacher of his supposed rivals.” Confession, applied as psychoanalytic salve rather than Catholic ritual, nonetheless functions as a rite of purification, of exorcism, of reaffirming the health of the soul and the community. Apology can appease the anxiety of a fractured public––can restore health to communal space. But accountability often requires only acknowledgment, quite literally an accounting for an event. When law requires “only” confession for its functioning, what exists beyond this axiomatic logic? Where does confession reach its limits? Where do its uses turn on themselves? 

Over the past decade, students have often approached confession with a curiosity that sidesteps questions of religion and law. Central to their approaches are the technologies that make confession possible, that form its ground of being. Augustine himself noted the difference between trifling pronouncement and serious confession––several of these writers have taken up the effects of trifling pronouncement, of the politics and poetics of confession in the age of media and digitality. Without God as one’s witness, to whom does the author confess? To whom does the speaker perform? The abstracted virtual publics are anonymized and totalizing––the self reveals itself in a new kind of confession and uncovering, of disclosure and concealment. “The author wishes to assert (or perhaps just wishes) that he is less unlikeable than the narrator of the following story,” Logan Rozos notes in his self-referential writing, an exercise in memory and form through meditations on composition, performance, and language.

In place of Montaigne’s self as confession and as process, the internet environment has configured confession as an act of exchange in which we render experience as an object to be withheld or exposed. Jay Eisenstat incorporates this interaction of communication and capitalism in his piece on hype and commodity fetishism––confession, from the perspective of the hyperonline, becomes another iteration of the objectification of the self. Sammy Tavasoli’s essay on TikTok and mental health suggests a new kind of public that renders the formerly hidden as object of display, and Alison Fortune’s fragments of memory implicate forgiveness and admission in each other, a confession in an age of auto- and creative non-fiction.

Confession can be located in the embodied self of liberalism, a simple ancestor of Augustinian declaration. But it can also reveal itself in the post-human, in media environments, in code, and in scientific order. Davina Carreras Weprin examines DNA as a technology of truth in the courtroom, attending to the Mississippi justice system as an instance of science’s assimilation into rhetorical maneuvers of objectivity and innocence. Photography too is intertwined in the discourse of the real, as Vasi Bjeletich writes: it is “an automatic record that utilizes the situation itself to explain its recording,” to admit itself as process, to confess its workings, to reveal and conceal itself in a single instance. Daniels Mekss examines photography in a similar vein, as a process of utterance and disclosure, and ontological revelation, meditating on Berger’s unseen and a photograph’s repression of its contents. Like the documentary zeal of photographic criminology or the fetishism of cinema verite, technology is an ecstatic––hysterical––threshold into what is really true. These objects confess themselves.

Media can thus become an object of fascination as much as science. As with ELIZA, we become dependent on the outlets of confession offered by technology. Ankita Sethi’s “Indulgence” plays with the fragmented nature of online culture, asking for secrets in exchange for the irreducible complexity of communication. What can be revealed by contemporary technology is also what is revealed in more abstracted technologies of language––language that does something, that requires something, that constructs a relation in itself. Each student, whether tending to confession explicitly or not, has thought critically about the possibilities that disclosure manufactures and forecloses. Sometimes writing distances itself from its subject; sometimes it is implicated in its conditions. Confession is an act of producing distance so that one may erase it, so that writing revels in its own destructive capacity. To confess is to make the self particular and so to abstract it, to pull at its threads, to render it both unwavering and unknowable. As Elizabeth Lowell writes, “We leave Santos at once; / we are driving to the interior.”5


I Confess


Eliza Re-Examined


Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and the Hypebeast


A Perspective on TikTok’s Mental Health Epidemic


I Will Fix The Crack on My Next Attempt


The Evocative Archive


Photography and the Unseen


DNA: A Reflection on Truth




  1. Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. The works of Saint Augustine. New City Press, 1997, p. 68.
  2. Giles, Paul. American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics. Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 224.
  3. Ruefle, Mary. “White Buttons.” Poetry, 2011.
  4. Freud, Sigmund, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press, 1964.
  5. Lowell, Elizabeth. “Arrival at Santos” in The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1980.
Back to Top