Foucault is interested in how “technologies” of confession shape one’s personal and communal identity. He understands, for example, the emergence of monastic practices of self-examination as “power technologies that enabled persons to navigate themselves and others” through common perils (136). These “self-examining and [self-]renunciating practices” are likewise structured by various “relational rules” (137). Though such practices were a significant part of the Christian Middle Ages (and of course are still operative today), Foucault is interested in the ways that the modern State alters, incorporates, and puts them to use for secular purposes. Augustine, like Foucault, recognized that the Christian practice of confession whether spoken or written was “never simply an act of expression; it was an act of making or constructing”; it was an act of remaking the individual (137). As the self turns inward, it discovers various hidden places and “encircling shadows,” and this leads the self to an understanding that it will not be abandoned, but retrieved by the Good Shepherd. “The biblical images of the good shepherd establish the basic social expectations in early Christian monastic culture and shape…a complex field of social power within which persons search for self-knowledge, truth and perfection” (139). The confessor-confessee relationship does involve an assymetrical dynamic; that is, each partner has a definite role and must play by certain “rules.” As Schuld explains, “[s]tructuring the social relations of this narrative…are…on one side, a selfless kindness whose only concern is the welfare of those who need tending…On the other side, being looked after in such a way calls for and exemplifies a social response that is grateful, humble and obedient. Ever-present care can only be assured by renouncing the self in ‘a kind of everyday death’ and thereby becoming utterly trusting of and reliant on the devoted other” (139). For Foucault, this asymmetrical dynamic, lays the ground rules for “a strange game” whose success can only be achieved by a “detachment with respect to oneself and the establishing of a relationship with oneself which tends toward a destruction of the form of the self” (140). However, as he warms to the idea of “monastic technologies,” Foucault comes to see it more as a “chastity-oriented asceticism” in which renunciation works on the self as a whole (140). This new perspective comes via Cassian’s insight that vices and virtues have an inherent interconnection (140). “To reform one, they must be reformed together. Purity, therefore, is always a labor involving the whole, even though it works on particulars as it strives for a harmonious self-identity. Yet, the individual cannot reach the truth on his own and thus must labor “by way of submission to the wise mediation of another” (140).
Given that power relations can be both positive and negative, formative and de-forming, Foucault highlights some possible dangers in confessional technologies. It’s not that relation is asymmetrical that makes it problematic—for Foucault, asymmetry is not a social evil in and of itself (141). Nonetheless, he takes issue with such relationships on two fronts: (1) “it inhibits a fluid and reversible flow of power among participants”; (2) “It increases the opportunities to manipulate and exploit others without their being sufficiently aware or sufficiently empowered to resist” (141). Moreover, Foucault’s suspicions and concerns regarding asymmetrical power relations grow as such relations take on new forms and are instantiated in modern institutions (for example, hospitals, schools, prisons etc.) As Schuld observes,
[b]y examining fractures and shifts that surface as ancient monastic practices of confession become institutionalized for medieval and Tridentine purposes, we begin to see the lay of geography that modernity builds itself on and adapts to its own secular ends. […] Foucault … signals that something important has occurred, changing how these cultures comprehend and respond to the dangers of the desiring person (141).
Next, Schuld traces two conceptions of the self that lead up to our situation of a “scientized self.” Both involve practices of the self and of sex. In the early monastic attitude, the focus was not on a list of forbidden or permitted actions. Rather, in Cassian’s ethic of chastity, changes were made to a “moving whole, not to isolated fragments” (143). In contrast, the later medieval and early modern developments, created a rigid systematic codification in which “compilations of rules, acts, and satisfactions could be classified in unambiguous categories of kind and degree, making it easier for persons to sort, identify, evaluate, and effectively make reparations for explicitly detailed transgressions” (142). Thus, uncertainties and apprehensions could be controlled with exactitude. With regard to the second more rigid and codified approach, Foucault highlights a two-fold danger: (1) Rather than desexualize the self, the intense concentration on specific details would have actually sexualized one’s religious identity (144). (2) “In analytically breaking down the subject into fragments and privileging sexual vices and virtues over other formative desires, there is a dual danger of neglecting valuable aspects of the self while marginalizing and hounding others” (144).
Part of Foucault’s project involves a genealogical retrieval of the changes occuring in specific cultural practices from one epoch to another. The modern era, according to Foucault, has been formed significantly by incorporating their own secular version of Christian confessional techniques. In other words, our present story is built on many older ones. In important ways our drama is similar to the ancient ascetics; however, we have translated former religious practices into a scientized realm replete with its experts as to what is best for our de-souled bodies.
[W]e exercise powerful practices on our desiring selves and submit ourselves to the wise counsel of others as we pursue promises of truth and perfection. Even in the most secular corners of the world, the story of the good shepherd still generally governs our expectations…we [still] set our hopes on living under some protective knowledge that is shielded from error (145).
Our modern drama, however, is different from the former drama in that we refuse “to acknowledge that we in fact live storied lives” (145). We desire a security that drama with its contingencies cannot provide. “For Foucault this change in sentiment is the principal reason that our particular story has proven so compelling. It is a story that promises to alleviate such fears and clean out all dangerous spaces, and it claims to have the power to do precisely that because it is no longer a story” (146-7).
Lastly, our search for the purity of truth and the safety of certitude becomes validated scientifically (147). The modern version of confession employs a variety of techniques that claim to yield an “unclouded knowledge of ourselves and others through the rarified and neutral viewpoint of science” (147). However, the presuppositions of the modern drama, despite its efforts to “withdraw itself from the messiness of the drama…traditions and rituals…manifests elements of them all” (for example, Foucault’s description of the “carefully staged” regimens of a hospital, 147). Though the modern drama has different costumes, props and stages, it “still has privileged players and spaces and ritualized patterns of interaction with coded contents” (147). Its claim to objectivity, precision and cool disinterest … “bolsters our confidence that finally we have managed to leave behind fallibility, contingency, uncertainty and disorder” (147).