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The Confessional Ethic and the Spirits of the Screen. Reflections on the Modern Fear of Alienation

The Confessional Ethic and the Spirits of the Screen. Reflections on the Modern Fear of Alienation

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The Confessional Ethic and the Spirits of the Screen. Reflections on the Modern Fear ofAlienationAuthor(s): Peter PelsReviewed work(s):Source:
Etnofoor,
Vol. 15, No. 1/2, SCREENS (2002), pp. 91-119Published by:
Stable URL:
Accessed: 11/05/2012 08:09
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TheConfessionalEthic and theSpiritsof theScreen.
ReflectionsontheModernFear ofAlienation
PeterPels,UniversityofAmsterdam
ABSTRACT Modern confessionsexpectamomentofde-alienating authenticity,ofrevealingone'strueself.Yet,indistinguishinganimperfect,existingselffromthematureidealtowardswhichitshouldgrow,modem confession also divides theself,raisingthequestionwhether itsmaindealienating presupposition-that thereissuchathingas anauthentic self-canbeupheld.Thisessayaimstotracethecareerofthistypicallymodemparadox.Itarguesthatthecombination ofanundertowofmodem occultism and thedevelopmentof the'societyof thespectacle' throughcommodification andscreentechnologyhasincreasinglyshiftedconfession towardsamultiplicityofspiritualideals of self-reform.Thus,itundermines the individualautonomyonwhichhumanistmodernitybased its fearsofalienation.
In1982,aSt.Louis,Missouri broadcastcompanyangeredand offendeditsviewers whenitinterruptedsoapoperawithnewsflashes oftheattempttoassassinatePopeJohnPaulIIinRome. Notonlydidtheactualityofglobalnewsdisruptthe viewers'soap opera,itdidsofornogoodreason,since thevictimwasnoteven anAmerican(asreported byKeyser[2000:28]).Itseemsthat,forsome,the televisionscreen's fictionsoverruled thenewsofwhathappenedtothemostpowerfulreligiousleaderin theworld.Apuzzlinghierarchyofvaluesappears:the simulacrumof thescreen seemstobepreferredovertheactualityofglobalnews.HadthePopebeenanAmerican,the reactionmighthave been differentbut thatmerelyraisesthequestionwhysomeimaginedcommunitiesareprivilegedoverothers(Anderson1983).Mostbelieversinagrandnarrative ofmodernizationorprogressiveemancipationwillinterpretthiseventasdegenerationoralienation.Whetherclassifiedas atemporaryaberrationor as adoomsdaypredictionofthe declineofcivilization,itmarksaloss ofobjectivity,afailureofreasontochoosefactoverfiction,andaloss of individualautonomytothepowersofthecultureindustry.ncontrast,certainpoststructuralistthinkerswouldreadtheeventas achallengetothegrandnarrativesofrationalizationand individualizationandseeitas aninvitationtoexplorea newpoliticsofsimulacra,fictionandsubjectivity,alternativetoonebasedonemancipationby objectiveknowledge.Iwouldliketokeepaninitialdistancefrom themoralimperativesof bothpositions,andstartwith thesimpleobservationthatwhatweencounterhereisacapacitytofixate one'slifeon atelevisionscreenthatviolatesacertain'modern'expectationofhowlifeshouldbe lived.This raises
ETNOFOOR,XV(1)2002,pp.91-11991
 
twoquestions.Onewouldbetoask what enables andauthorizespeopletolive,atleastpartly,their 'lifeonthescreen'(cf.Turkle1995);theother,whyand how suchalife
violates 'modern'expectations.
Withoutpretendingtogiveanexhaustiveanswertothesequestions,thisessayaddressestwoissues thatconnectthem. The firstquestionraises,Ifeel,the furtherquestionofwhatform of life(Wittgenstein),Lebensfiihrung(Weber)ortechnologyofself(Foucault)supportslifeonthescreen-understood hereas asurfaceonwhichtodisplay somethingtoanaudience.1Thesoap operaprovidesaninterestingcluehere,formostof its drama(or,somewouldsay,lackofit)residesinthe emotional tension between confession andconcealment,of'bringingtothe surface theunofficialtruths ffamilialrelationships'likeincest,adulteryorillegitimacy(Das1995:169).DidXlietoherpartnerabouther abortionornot? HasYbeenhonesttohis wifeabouthisgaypast?Thisconstantvaluationandviolation of theneedtoreveal oneselftruthfullyarks theoperationof whatIwould liketocalltheconfessional(ortestimonial)ethic. Itseemstofindits fullpopularizationanddemocratization insoap operas,inthecloningofOprahWinfreyshows,andinthewaysinwhichso-called 'real-life' television revealsone'spersontotheBigBrotherorSister
named Audience.
However,thisessaydealsonlyobliquelywithsoap operasand television. Theconfessionalethicwas acentral featureof modern culturelongbefore the riseofthetechnologiesof thescreen.FromJean-JacquesRousseau'sConfessionsonwards,thistechnologyof the selfdefined authenticpersonsaspeoplewhotrytofreetheirgenuineselves fromthe indoctrinationbysocial conventions.Bytheirconsciouseffort,theyhopetogrowtowardsafuturegoverned bythevalues thattheywouldindividuallychooseforthemselves. Thisconception providesatleastaprovisionalanswertothequestionofwhymodernpersonswouldregardlifeonthescreen asalienating:itsquasi-evolutionistconceptionof theselfarguesthatoneshouldprogressivelyshed one'sconventional,religiousortraditional blinkers infavor ofanunobstructedview ofobjectivenature,includingone'sown-anindividualisticparalleltothedominantaculturaltheoryofmodernity(Taylor2001:173).Suchtheoriesdonotlookapprovinglyatadultindulgenceinfictioninstead offact.Accordingtosuchaview,theviewersinSt.Louis,Missouri,losttheirselftothe(fictional)confessionsof thesoap operatheywerewatchingratherthanconstitutingthemselvesthroughtheirindependent,rationalassessmentof thevalueofglobalnews.However,thereisaparadoxhere,onethatisconstitutiveofthestructuresoffeelingofmodernity.2Modernconfessions,fromRousseautoOprahWinfrey,expectamomentofauthenticity,flayingbarethe factsaboutoneself-ofde-alienation.Yet,indistinguishinganimperfect,existingselffromthematureideal towardswhichitshouldgrow,confessionactuallydividestheself,raisingthequestionwhetheritsmain dealienatingpresupposition-thatthereissuchathingas anauthentic self-canbeupheld.Thisessayaimstotracethecareerof thistypicallymodernparadox.Itdoessointhreesteps:firstly, yshowinghow themediationsof theconfessionalethicconstantlyunderminedthepossibilityofreachingthemodern,purifiedideal ofthehumanistic,non-alienated,self92

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