Simon Copland, “The Culture of Confession”

This short blog post on the Moonbat (Big ideas, big politics.) makes the same, limited move that much of what I’ve read before does: Copland begins with a nice little summary of Foucault’s confessional, and then turns to apply it to the Internet, and stops when he gets to corporations and government gaining control of information. The confessional originally consisted of a more explicit power dynamic–an authority like the Catholic Church can cleanse a sinner by pulling his story out of him–but, that culture of confession has entered the modern age, through psychoanalysis, then talk shows, and now “personal diaries posted on the Internet”–rather unnuanced and, again, limited. What is this 2003 when people had web journals?

Of course Copland is quoting Fiona Capp there, and using her thinking to connect the confessional to today, but, this was written in 2013, and Facebook/ Twitter/ Instagram/ Tumblr/ even LinkedIn are much more the sites of Internet-users’ “diaries,” and in much more subtle ways, these are confessions.

Copland draws his conclusions from Capp: now, confession is not only “an important part of our life, but it also provides state and corporate power over our information, and the very things we are confession.” He worries about the violations of privacy that these agents are able to get away with now, and the ways that power and control might be gained over us, even when we are not paying attention to our confessing selves online. But, I worry about the ways that we are already self-policing because society and social norms are our audience; I worry about the ways that a culture of confession pulls our stories out of us, in the name of sharing, forcing us to put them into language, subjecting that language to judgment and discipline by society; I worry about the ways that the Internet is not merely a form of explicit, governmental, capitalistic control, but a form of social control of ideas and bodies.

Copland, Simon. “The Culture of Confession.” The Moonbat. 11 Mar 2013. Blog post.

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Three Voices: Taking a Bit from Jukuri’s Chapter in Stories from the Center

Special Interest Group discussion in another class, Critical Issues in the Teaching of Writing: Histories, Theories and Practices of Writing Centers and One-to-One Teaching, brought me Stephen Davenport Jukuri’s chapter in Stories from the Center, “Negotiating the ‘Subject’ of Composition: Writing Centers as Spaces of Productive Possibilities.” The chapter is great, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to think about subjectivities and identities in teaching and learning, but there’s a moment that I’d like to bring up here, when Jukuri invokes Foucault and the idea of two, opposing voices that subjects might use.

Jukuri cites Kurt Spellmeyer’s Common Ground (1993) that inherent in language is two opposite poles of positionality: between “fitting students into over- and predetermined positions” and “letting them do and say whatever they want” (60). Spellmeyer thinks about Foucault’s “Discourse on Language,” and the two voices that map onto these positions: the voice of “Institution,” which offers the “safety of roles prepared in advance” (Spellmeyer in Jukuri, 60), and the voice of “Inclination,” which is based on an ideal of utter and complete freedom from social constrictions or roles. The latter is a myth, of course; the former, terrifying, and, probably also a myth in reality.

Jukuri adds to Spellmeyer/Foucault here, though, and says that there is a possibility for a third voice:

“It would be a voice that can learn to work between those two extremes, to facilitate a mutual negotiation between the individual and the institution, working with individuals not only to occupy and employ a multitude of subject positions but to gain some control over their construction, to negotiate their terms, to re-create them, and to open up new fields of possibilities for ourselves and each other” (60, emphasis mine).

My group members smartly name this the voice of “Acknowledgement,” in which one is aware of the Institution and the Inclination, and their false binary opposition to one another, and learns to not only work between and among them but learns to make them both work for her.

I see this working with my own thinking about internet expression and storytelling as a Foucauldian digital confessional in that we are usually given two options online: we can fit ourselves to the confessions demanded by Facebook, Twitter, etc.; accept the privacy settings as they are; embrace our subject positions OR we can resist; create groups that value and privilege an open kind of communication, art, creativity, experience. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive–that is the myth–and maybe the Acknowledgement of the interplay between the two, Acknowledgement of the ways in which inclinational expression is institutional, and institutional expression is inclinational, can create a middle-space, a third voice, a space of negotiation and re-creation that answers the problem of the digital confessional.


Jukuri, Stephen Davenport. “Negotiating the ‘Subject’ of Composition: Writing Centers as Spaces of Productive Possibilities.” Stories from the Center: Connecting Narrative and Theory in the Writing Center. Eds. Briggs, Lynn Craigue, and Meg Woolbright. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000. 51-69.

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Mitchell McInnis, “Conversation with a Dead Man: Foucault on Facebook and Confession”

Turning from panopticism (which I’m still unsure is a word) toward Foucault’s confessional, I look at Mitchell McInnis’ blog post from, which seems to be a possibly-temporarily-defunct online publication about wandering. I annotate this because the beginning raises an interesting lens for thinking about Facebook–a similar lens to the one I am thinking through–though it abandons this framework after introducing it and then meanders (wanders, like a hobo?) to think about how Facebook/online connectivity “undercut[s]” the ability to transform oneself by moving to a new place, meeting new people, making new art.

But, in the relevant part of this blog, McInnis imagines a conversation with Foucault about the publicization of the confession, and the embrace of it, especially with the dawn of Facebook (written in 2009, just after I got my own Facebook as a senior in high school). Foucault traces confession back to its Christian roots; “Freud called out Christianity’s function of installing a cop in the head of each individual.” This kind of “soft power structure”–perhaps, what I’ve been calling implicit power, or, a kind of sneaking, subtle use of power in the creation of self-policing/self-oppressing individuals. Glossing over lots of history, McInnis carries the confessional into the public, with the invention of talk shows– “the host, live audience and viewing public providing novenas by way of understanding, applause as well as jeers.” With our love of celebrity, McInnis says, the talk show brought together people’s 15 minutes and their confessions. What he does not go into here is the influence of the social good of “story-telling” here–the idea that everyone has a narrative, a story, an experience, to share–expression is a good thing. And, sure, it is, but it also makes our experience, not only public, but linguistic–in the language of the hegemony, “of the oppressors” (who’s this? Freire?). And, nowhere is this “democratization” of celebrity joined with the confessional more apparent than on Facebook, where everyone can “share” their “status,” where everyone can make their confessions.

Many of these connections are implied in/imposed on (by me) McInnis’ post, but it is good to read someone else thinking through at least the beginning framework. Looks like I’m going to have to turn back to History of Sexuality soon. Probably lengthy post to come on that.

McInnis, Mitchell. “Conversation with a Dead Man: Foucault on Facebook and Confession.” 5.4 (2009).

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Electronic Scholarly Editions: Using Electronic Maps to Explore Willa Cather’s Life and Works

Looking around a few different electronic scholarly editions of authors’ works this week, I came across the Geographic Chronology project, which maps American author Willa Cather’s life and travels, in order to think about how they relate to her writing. Willa Cather, known widely for  O Pioneers!My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark, according to Wikipedia, and known to me for “Paul’s Case,” which I read in a class once, traveled throughout her life, and this is evident in her works. This project uses her biographical information and her works themselves to plot the chronology of her life in places in the United States and Europe on a specialized Google Map.


Viewers can browse by date range, by location, or by the entire chronology of her life. This is a very cool way to visualize and think beyond “close reading,” and to map out more “distant” patterns in literature.

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Tom Brignall III, “The New Panopticon – The Internet Viewed as a Structure of Social Control”

I would have never guessed that this article was post-9/11, but according to this vaguely-identified HTML version of it, it was published in 2002. I don’t know why no one has considered the panopticon and the internet more recently, but maybe that’s why I have to bring it back to the fore. I’m so noble.

This article thinks about Bentham’s/Foucault’s panopticon in relation to the internet, quickly becoming an important way to communicate and get information (and porn) at Brignall’s writing. As has been described before, the panopticon works because it makes the prisoner “self-oppress” because of the possibility but unknowability of always being watched by those in control. It is not the government/laws that we need to worry about on the internet, though, says Brignall, but the multinational corporations like AOL (lol) and a bunch of companies I’ve never heard of which are taking liberties to watch their customers’ activity for marketing research–for surveillance and for behavior-modification for those who engage in activities that might damage the profit margin of these companies. Brignall argues that the panopticism of the internet is in its potential to conform internet-users to good citizens of capitalism, rather than of democracy, as Foucault focused on.

My own addendum to this goes beyond the corporations or the government, to think about the way that society as a whole, as a collection of individuals, polices behavior (and thought and discourse) on the internet. I latch onto one Foucault quote that Brignall pulls: “The power of the panopticon becomes ‘a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posed everywhere, mobile attentions ever on the alert'” (Foucault, 1972 in Brignall 7-8 in the PDF). It is not “Big Brother” that we need to worry about, Brignall says, but “‘Little Brother’ (or other inmates)”–though he thinks of these Little Brothers as sort-of hired surveillance teams for the corporations, and I think of them as agents/subjects of social hegemony.

From here, Brignall thinks about peer-to-peer networks, like Napster; surveillance technologies, like the FBI’s Carnivore system; and consumer programs that gather marketing data, and the ways that these technologies work to watch, to invade privacy, to trod upon the right to privacy. If we are willing to let ourselves be watched–for safety, for access to openly-shared music etc., for better consumer experiences–we are aware that we may be being watched at any moment, and we self-oppress, and “the culpability of oppression shifts from the oppressor to the oppressed” (14).

But, some theorists (12 years ago) argue that the internet could become a liberatory tool. Brignall is skeptical: “Is the distribution and dissemination of ideas sufficient to foster and create a social revolution?” (15). Yes, he admits, the internet may give rise to counter-cultural ideas, but these are merely ideas! Merely words and codes! Not even the stuff of the hardware of the internet could stand in for the materiality of meeting in groups, interacting, and starting revolution through the exchange of these group values! For someone that has read Foucault, Brignall doesn’t really seem to grasp the idea of discourse. Yes, I say to him, the internet is a symbolic structure, but so is the meeting room that a counter-cultural group meets in, so is a government building from which democracy spreads its values, so is the 30-story building from which the corporation monitors internet use. Yes, the internet is a symbolic structure, but so is everything, so how does that devalue the internet’s liberatory potential? What is Brignall doing now that the internet has elected a President, spawned revolution around the world, even changed the face of TV commercials?

Yes, the internet has liberatory potential through the sharing of ideas. But, returning to my goal here, that sharing of ideas also opens them up to surveillance, panopticism, social control, self-oppression. So, is it really liberatory?

Brignall III, Tom. “The New Panopticon – The Internet Viewed as a Structure of Social Control.” Theory & Science (2002). 


Read it in HTML.

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Crowdsourcing, Undergraduates, and Digital Humanities Projects

Rebecca Frost Davis

Crowdsourcing could be a silver bullet for integrating digital humanities methods into the undergraduate curriculum.  Why?

“Crowd” by flickr user James Cridland

Crowdsourcing means getting the general public to do tasks. Jeff Howe explains the phenomenon in “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” (Wired Magazine, June 2006) by analogy with outsourcing.  This method of labor is growing for scholarly and cultural heritage projects, and that’s where it intersects with the undergraduate curriculum.  Collaborative manuscript transcription projects, like Transcribe Bentham, have received quite a bit of the attention, but there are a variety of opportunities out there for motivated students to engage in the process of digitizing, preserving, and studying collective resources and data.  For example, the Perseus Digital Library (whose flagship collections cover the history, literature and culture of the Greco-Roman world) has drafted a call to

Advance our understanding of the Greco-Roman World! Contribute to…

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James Boyle, “Foucault in Cyberspace: Surveillance, Sovereignty, and Hardwired Censors”

Jeez, I thought the last article I read was too old. This 1997 article applies a somewhat Foucauldian framework to thinking about the “Holy Trinity” of the internet in its adolescence–three ideas which have had a profound impact and may be seen as foundational to today’s internet culture:

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

“In Cyberspace, the First Amendment is a local ordinance.”

“Information Wants to be Free.”

Moving through these, they start to sound more and more like aphorisms from The CircleUsing Foucault’s ideas about sovereign power–and its main work happening through daily surveillance and social policing rather than explicit, after-the-fact laws and control (negative power)–Boyle looks at legislation and technology that has sought to censor explicit or offensive content on the internet. Explicit legislative action has been largely unsuccessful, because of the difficulty of watching the whole internet, but “quotidian shaping and surveillance of activity”–I would add, beyond the government level–have infiltrated even that Holy Trinity.

Here I want to point out the ways in which that Holy Trinity, like Foucault’s confessional, have encouraged the expressing, sharing, putting-into-language of ideas online as a social good. Censorship is Theft; You Have the Right to Freedom of Expression Online; Information Wants to be Free. If we put our experiences and ideas into the hegemonic discourse–if we post online, if we write our poem or our digital story–we are allowing it to be watched, shaped, and policed by, not only legal norms, but social ones. This is a good source for discussing the culture of openness and sharing on the internet for me.


Boyle, James. “Foucault in Cyberspace: Surveillance, Sovereignty, and Hardwired Censors.” University of Cincinnati Law Review: Corporate Law Symposium 66 (1997). 177-204. PDF File.


Read it as HTML

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Andrew Hope, “Panopticism, Play and the Resistance of Surveillance: Case Studies of the Observation of Student Internet Use in UK Schools”

This 2005 article is based on a study of UK post-primary schools: the researcher observed and interviewed students, teachers, and staff about methods of monitoring what students do on school computers and students’ resistance of these methods. He begins by establishing a framework based on Bentham’s panopticon, which, importantly, works via the prisoners’ perception, but not knowledge, that they might always be being watched, leading to self-policing behavior. Online, Hope argues, we may not always be aware of the ways that we are being watched and our identities being labeled and monitored. Within the network of surveillance and information gathering created by the internet, though, Hope finds examples of play in resistance to surveillance, in the attempt to game the system and get around surveillance methods. In addition, there is a similar kind of play in ‘sousveillance’, in which the watched turns these methods around in order to watch the watcher.

In schools  students are aware of the systems in place to monitor them–physical surveillance as well as virtual–and engage in similar resistant behaviors as a form of play. Students (in 2005, remember) might turn their monitors, use a different students’ internet passcode, or *gasp* minimize windows when teachers walk by. Why they aren’t just clearing internet histories, I don’t know. It’s clear from this study that students at these schools were learning to get around the panopticon, fully aware of its existence.

Useful for me from this article is Hope’s context, especially the panopticon as productive of self-policing behaviors because the object never knows for certain when and if she is being watched. While Hope finds that the internet might obscure more official surveillance that is happening, I’m more interested in the surveillance of all by all–the self-policing that comes from knowing that, “if I post this Facebook status, society will see it.” The idea of play through resistance is also interesting–in this article, I think it speaks to a generation gap in internet saavy; in general, it might point to a way to critique hegemonic control.


Hope, Andrew. “Panopticism, Play and the Resistance of Surveillance: Case Studies of the Observation of Student Internet Use in UK Schools.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 26.3 (2005). 359-373. PDF File.

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Google Ngrams

Thank you, Google! This is such a neat tool, and if I had a project that involved more intensive big data-type research, this would be amazing. Google Ngrams allows you to enter search terms, and then it graphs the occurrences of those terms across all of Google Books’ holdings. For now, I played around on it a bit, to see the frequency of the development of some terms, like “undergraduate research” (big spike in the 1970’s!), and “writing” as compared to “crisis of writing.” Most interestingly, I used it to look into something for another project of mine. In my Victorian novel class, I plan on writing about psychopathy and female characters in Great Expectations and Daniel Deronda so I searched for “psychopathy.”

From this graph, I wondered what the earliest uses of it were, so I clicked on “Search in Google Books: 1800 – 1930” and found some very old texts that use the term. But, “psychopathy” was apparently originally used as a term for a different sort of medical healing, one more in tune with the “spirit” and the “body” together. Some Wikipedia perusing confirms that “psychopath” was once a title for doctors/healers who dealt with mental disorders, and that, in some cases, “psychopathy” could be applied to the treatment of physical conditions via “psychological or spiritualist methods.” I had already learned from my research that “psychopathy” was used to describe a wide variety of mental disorders in the nineteenth century, but this emphasis on the mind/body/spirit together is interesting, and may prove useful to me!

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Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture

I only read the intro to this book, because who has time to read more?, but Lessig sets up an interesting argument here. He begins with two stories: that of the Wright brothers and the subsequent Supreme Court case in with the Causby brothers challenged airlines’ rights to trespass in their “property”–the airspace above their homes, and that of Armstrong, who invented FM technology and then faced a long and tragic battle with RCA over property rights. In the first instance, it was decided that “common sense revolts” at the idea of individual ownership of something as public as airspace. In the second, the big corporation won the day in being able to legally silence then steal from Armstrong.

Lessig likens the current (well, ten-year-old) property rights situation created by the Internet to the latter story. The Internet, he says, has opened a space for the sharing and publication of once-noncommercial creative work–building on existing work without needing to seek permission has existed for a long time, but, now that sort of work happens online, where it can be monitored and regulated, and the property rights of those previously existing works can be “protected.” In most cases, those who control the property are big corporations, who gain the support of the government through corruption, but also through the value on property that has been inculcated in American society. Many of us, Lessig points out, are on the side of the property-holders. This book seeks to ask why? Seeks to explore the creative community made possible by the Internet, and the ways that that creative work is squashed and prohibited by law and culture. Culture may be being held too tightly by culture.

Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. NY: The Penguin Press, 2004.

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