News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Confessing America: The TV as Confessional

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Confessing America: The TV as Confessional

I used to think that the fascination that Americans have with popular detective shows is about a sense of justice--something related to the insecurity people feel in their lives. In my more radically social moments, I could even engage in a conversation that cop and detective shows exhibit a form of control underlying the class structure of American culture.

My attention has recently been caught in watching the various Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) spin-offs, CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. Amid the dazzling lighting, the sophisticated camera shots, the glamorization of technology, the music video touch to test tubes and microscopes, the underlying paean to the scientific method... amid all this, there's a strange sense of unease that permeates the certainty of the evidence, an unease that appears as a form of confession. …

After spending one Thanksgiving week at a monastery called Christ in the Desert, I penned the following words:

What is the guilt?
Is it that ancient
blood curse that wants
to kill the father,
marry the sister,
or have the mother?
Or is it a plastic doll
in whose cavity
I'd deposit my jism
of loneliness?

Or is it this face,
pitiful in want
and regret?
Horrible with tears,
reduced to act
and be
what others want.
Without time,
condemned to time.

The priest's witness
fills my question
with presence.
My confession
to a face
beyond the screen
of anonymity
or the social mask
stripped bare.
What is confession? Who do I confess to? If I confess must there be someone there to hear to make it legitimate? Or can I speak into the blank face of the dark night and confess my fears and despair and failings and expect some form of validity.

The German philosopher Wittgenstein once said that if someone confesses an intimate secret to you, the notion of truth or falsehood--what's known as verisimilitude--comes little into play. Instead, we talk of the truthfulness of a confession--not whether it accords in a way that you could videotape and show back to people to get a consensus on what's real, ostensibly the results of scientific study. Instead we talk about how much the person believes what they did, how they hid it from others and themselves and why—how truthful they’re being in their confession.

Wittgenstein would be the last person to endorse introducing biographical information into a grammatical discussion of the meaning of words. Hoping to transgress that peeve, I’d note that during bouts of suicidal despair he’d often seek out listeners to hear confessions of things he’d done. For Wittgenstein, confession meant telling someone—a perfect stranger perhaps—what I did and to hear my stuttered reasoning for why I did it.

In the Hebrew Testament, a seminal passage concerning confession includes the public recitation of the people’s sins by the high priest in the Temple. Part of this ritual included the transmission of those sins into the body of a scapegoat—a goat--which was then sent out into the wilderness, no doubt to be killed by predators.
And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send [him] away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)
Much sociological, theological, and ethnological literature has been written about the scapegoat. This appears to be a universal practice and is found among many cultures around the world. An excellent dramatic rendition of the ritual is seen in Wole Soyinka’s play, Death and the King's Horseman.

In Christianity, the notion of confession incorporates the Jewish social aspects of sinfulness but adds the further qualification of faith in God and Jesus as savior capable of taking away those sins, as well as the one whom one must acknowledge as the bearer of the meaning of God’s revelation.
Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God…
It is the social aspect of the scapegoat that perhaps provides the most promising way to understand the secularization of confession found in the cop shows I have mentioned.

The cop shows are geared to proving guilt and wrong-doing of an individual who will suffer society’s banishment (prison) for the wrongs committed by that individual. It’s perhaps important to bear in mind that the secularized version here of sin bears little resemblance to the way that some Christians would understand sin. For modern Americans, there’s not much difference between sin and moral failings.

Fixing people or getting away from sin is perhaps the most attractive part of crime shows like CSI. A clearly defined method at identifying evil and putting it under a microscope or distilling it in a test tube gives many the hope that why people do evil can also be identified and codified in some form of scientific operating procedure.

Whether these sins are simply those of the individual under investigation—showing the American notion of individuality—is questionable. For it’s during this investigation of one individual’s crimes that the confessions of the investigators themselves often make their appearance. These little confessions come in the form of bringing to light the failings or small slip-ups—the character quirks and morally ambiguous behavior that add greys to life.

No doubt, these little confessions play a dramaturgical role. They’re meant to display something of the character’s personality. Yet, within the context of the search for how and why someone committed a crime, the character defects take on the quality of confession. That is, the investigation into the crimes of a single individual serves as the context in which others face and proclaim to others their own faults (sins).

American culture thrives on confessions—whether it’s the confessions of music or film stars, wayward and corrupt politicians—an entire industry called entertainment news specializes in revealing the little secrets of people who apparently enjoy more of the American dream than we do. Carried in one direction, this fact can be understood along distinctly class lines; that is, the lower classes envying the power and status of those more fortunate. While this may form part of the phenomenon as form of of resentment, I do not think that it captures the full depth of it.

In the context in which I have been arguing, though, I think there’s a fruitful way of looking at this phenomenon as what I’ll call the de-subjectivization of America. One of the main assumptions of many is that it is a subjective process by which what’s inside us comes out for others to see. This assumption has come under increasingly critical questioning by philosophers who use scientific studies of the brain and various schools influenced by postmodern notions. For these thinkers, there is no subjectivity to be found—no inside there—and so the public confessional of the television makes as much sense in terms of the essentially social nature of human beings as anything else.

So what do Americans find worth confessing about? Even a cursory glance at the plots and themes of shows such as CSI, Law and Order, Monk, and The Closer—to mention a few—exhibit the diversity and level at which the various shows deal with America’s anxieties and despair. The fact that several of these shows draw many of their plot lines and subjects from news headlines points up the fact that they deal with America’s most pressing anxieties. The themes of these shows deal with the more sensational and spectacular cases. But, as Dostoievski knew, it is the exception that often points to the rule. If true, the source of many Americans’ anxieties revolve around sexuality, multiple murders, social ineptitude, and various forms of envy.

I am not usually a stickler for proscribed definitions of words, believing as I do that words often have meanings that verge on the meanings of other words and concepts. While it is true that many in the diminishing Judeo-Christian culture of modern America might mean by the crimes they witness in the news or see in TV as a kind of sin. Is American society’s televised confessional an occasion for displaying cultural artefacts that echo dying traditions passing into new expressions or do they perhaps reflect deeper, more durable traits that are part of what once used to be called human nature? I don’t hope to answer that question here but it is important to bear in mind while reading the following comments.

I am not usually a stickler for sticking strictly to proscribed definitions of words, believing as I do that words often have meanings that verge on the meanings of other words and concepts. While it is true that many in the diminishing Judeo-Christian culture of modern America might mean by the crimes they witness in the news or see in TV as a kind of sin, it is important to differentiate that understanding from what a Christian thinker like Kierkegaard might understand to be sin. It is important to differentiate that understanding from what a Christian thinker like Kierkegaard might understand to be sin.

As Christians like Kierkegaard understand sin, however, the notion of sinfulness is a willed desire to do evil—sometimes unconscious, often not—that characterizes the very basis of human decision-making. The ethical understanding assumed by many in post-Judeo-Christian America, though, assumes that if the reasoning can be gotten right then the sin can or proclivity to sin can be fixed.

Kierkegaard used to say that one characteristic of modern secular culture is what he called envy. By this he meant that people in modern societies continually compare themselves to what others are doing and gauge their own sense of who they are by how well they measure up to that comparison.

For Kierkegaard this is a basic feature of human nature. That is, the formation of our self is based on a continual imitation or mimicking of the actions of others. From the very earliest stages of development as children we are continually looking at those like our parents, our siblings, our friends, cultural icons and adapting ourselves to what we find that we wish we had and incorporating into our psychology.

In the ever continuing saga of televised confessional, perhaps it is this deep-seated envy and resentment that spurs the public on and on to witness its own destruction of its loss of moral and ethical clarity.

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