Shannon McHugh and Chris Tokuhama
Shannon McHugh is a doctoral student of Italian Studies at New York University and Chris Tokuhama is pursuing a Master's degree in Communication at the University of Southern California.
PostSecret, a community art project started by Frank Warren in 2005, represents a fairly simple concept: individuals anonymously divulge a secret on a postcard frequently adorned with a related image, which is then published on the Internet.
Growing up, I remember watching the first seasons of The Real World and Road Rules on MTV and I was always entranced by the confessional monologues. As a teen, the confessionals possessed a conspiratorial allure, for I was now privy to insider information about the inner workings of the group. Looking back, I wonder if my exposure to reality TV's version of the confessional changed the way I think about my secrets.
In the past decade, the confessional has become commonplace on reality shows, where confessors sit in an isolation booth, simultaneously talking to nobody and to everybody. The practice creates, for me, an interesting metaphor for how Americans deal with their struggles. Despite advances in modern networking technology that allow us to expand the size of our social circles, researchers like Robert Putnam would question the quality of these interactions. Social media has enabled Americans to broadcast their innermost thoughts, but the deluge of chatter has overwhelmed our audiences and turned our voices into noise.
For me, this question -- "To whom are you confessing?" -- brings to mind one of the oldest demonstrations of the act in the Western tradition, one in which the confessor simultaneously talks intimately to God and publicly to everybody. St. Augustine's Confessions can be a hard sell to college freshmen who are reading it for the first time. The students that I teach find it difficult to wade through all that moralizing and self-flagellating. These tougher elements make it hard for them to get to some of the more beautiful and "human" sentiments -- for example, Augustine's validation of the physical body, which for him negates the fear of God being terribly far removed from him, since He had once taken that very human form (X.xliii.69).
I recently asked my students to consider the Confessions in light of a phenomenon like PostSecret. I'm fascinated by this act -- taking a black little secret and setting it free in the world. Of course, not all of these secrets are nefarious -- some are lovely and optimistic, and many are just delightfully sardonic. In the spirit of Augustine, I read a few religious-themed ones to my students; they ranged from the wicked ("I make up sins so I can go to confessional and shock the priest") to the pitiable ("I use a bracelet of Jesus to hide my cutting scars") to the bemused ("God, will you still love me if I believe in Evolution? My boyfriend won't.") We conjectured about what Augustine's postcard might read: most likely something along the lines of, "I want God to give me chastity... but not yet."
Augustine's supposed obsession with sex is usually the modern reader's easiest point of entry into his works. But Augustine's perception of the word "confession" differs from modern usage. For him, it had two meanings: not only the act of admitting sin, but also praising God. A testimony to man's innate desire to glorify and turn to (to use the etymological root of "conversion") the Lord -- this was Augustine's understanding of confessing. Is it a stretch to wonder whether modern confessors might be trying to elevate themselves to something higher as well?
PostSecret, in some ways, is merely a more vivid take on Augustine's seemingly far-removed literary testimony and an extension of the modern practice of mediated confession: we hold our secrets in until we get the chance to broadcast them out across the Internet. We oscillate between silence and shouting -- perhaps we've forgotten how to talk? We are desperate to make connections, to find validation, and to be heard. We might attend to our secrets, keeping them safe because we derive our identity from the things that we hide.
PostSecret Founder Frank Warren addresses this idea by defining two kinds of secrets: the ones that we keep from others, and the ones that we keep from ourselves -- secrets that you keep and secrets that keep you. What he proposes with his project is release. But not everyone sees it that way. Sarah Boxer of The New York Times, for example, has posited that these confessors want anything but: "They don't want to get rid of their secrets. They love them. They arrange them. They tend them." Boxer suggests that PostSecret secrets are actually fetishes.
One of the most obvious reasons that we teach the Confessions to college students today is that it's an anchor of the Western canon. But I think there's something else that grabs them, given our confession-penetrated media. Why do we confess? What is Augustine's intention when he laments the theft of a few pears, or a monogamous but spiritually empty sexual liaison? To invoke Augustinian terms, is it perversion or conversion? In PostSecret terms, is it fetish or release?
Moreover, do we fetishize the secrets of others? We exist in a culture that has transformed the act of confession into a spectacle -- we celebrate press conference apologies and revelations of sexual orientation make the front page. Has our desire for information transformed us into a society hungry for secrets, compelling people to confess things they hope to keep to themselves?
This reminds me of Augustine's notion of "confession as contagion." As he recounts it, Augustine's spiritual transformation only took place after he encountered three other conversion stories. These "confessions" prefigure his own turning toward God. And Augustine hopes that his own text will incite a torrent of confessions, not unlike the epidemic of confessions we see today.
Confessions in the traditional sense might allow one to feel closer to God, but confessing to a community like PostSecret also offers a chance to reunite with humanity -- maybe even one's own.