Confessions of a Surveillance Society

7 01 2010
Peter and Jefferson

You looking at me?

It seems that confessions are replacing baseball as our national past-time. Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, Jim McGreevy, John Edwards, Mark Sanford and far too many others are clogging up the airwaves with their heartfelt, public confessions, loyal wives often at their sides, promising penitence and reform. I have never understood the “loyal wife” role in such cases, though I do sympathize strongly with notions like repentance and forgiveness, some of the first lessons of marriage, after all. But at least Jenny Sanford had the good sense to be out of town with the kids while her husband went on and on about his “soul mate” in Argentina before a live national audience.

Part of what troubles me about these confessions is that there is a sense that a good, public confession will settle everything and that afterwards everyone can go back to business as usual, as though the act of confession itself, particularly when performed in public, serves as an automatic expiatory balm that sets everything in order again. And given our heavily Protestant culture, we do not really understand what private confession is, causing me to wonder aloud with John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s excellent play, The Crucible, “Is there no penitence but it be public?”

Certainly, Puritans and Protestants have long turned to their private journals for their confessions, filling in a space for penitence left empty by the absence of the confession booth. But today, in an age where the sacred divide between public and private is collapsing, where the written word can be quickly disseminated to thousands, and where blogs are often performing, particularly among young people, many of the functions of the now almost anachronistic “private diary,” it appears indeed that there is hardly ANY form of communication anymore but it be public. So out come the Ted Haggarts, the Kobe Bryants, the David Patersons, and so on.

Of course, it is precisely the loss of this distinction between the public and the private sphere that leads to such a confessional society. When technology allows us to gaze into the lives of others– think reality shows (with their appropriately-titled “confessional” scenes), blogs, the social networking sites such as the mystical one our esteemed Secretary of State once referred to as “MyFace” and my mother regularly calls “Spacebook,” YouTube moments that derail presidential aspirations (“Macaca,” Mr. Allen? – “I respect and will protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mr. Romney?) and invite access to the most intimate of strangers, not to mention wiretapping, patriotic library snooping, and ever-present surveillance cameras, whether I’m buying groceries or visiting the restroom at the public library (yes, they even have cameras in there…)– confession becomes a necessity, since there is a sense that everyone is already watching, so we may as well come clean, and thereby claim our subjecthood by rejecting the inevitable objectification of ourselves that such a surveillance society surely brings.

Little wonder, then, that Arthur Miller’s Puritan Salem would require such public confessions, “nailed to the church,” for here was also a society under constant surveillance, not from the technologies available to us today, but from the close scrutiny and watchful eye of neighbors under which everyone in the community lived. And little wonder that my students, accustomed to constant connection (albeit artificial) with others, and to the ensuing surveillance by others into their private lives that such a connection ensures, all too often confess transgressions and intimacies related to their personal lives in the writing assignments that they hand in to me, something which embarrasses me but seems natural to many of them. After all, if my Facebook site, my blog posts, my YouTube clips and my loud, public cell-phone conversations have already revealed these things, why keep them from my professor?

Because a confessional society is a surveillance society, and a surveillance society is a confessional society.

Peter Eubanks teaches literature at a large university in the Midwest, and wants you to know that he’s watching you.

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