Voice Off: Facebook and the Confessional Self

Lucía Sanromán

An inner voice accompanies us throughout life. This internal monologue, constantly running at a conscious or semiconscious level, is related to thought processes but seems to have a separate function in cognition, one tied closely to a sense of self or to self-awareness. Without identifying it fully or understanding it completely, each of us locates our subjectivity in this ongoing inner narrative. That voice in our head constantly speaking as if in voice off mode—a term used to describe off-camera or off-stage commentary in film and theater—captures the “I” that we recognize as ourselves.

In the past that voice-off self existed exclusively in the mind and was made public only under conditions of confession, mental illness, religious rapture or as a speech device in literary narrative. However, the advent of social-networking websites as omnipresent media for communication has altered the relationship to that inner narrative, to the voice-off self identified with subjectivity, making it a public form of speech and the basic currency for the negotiation of social capital both within and outside the Internet.

Susan Silton’s project BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN; BY THE CROWD THEY SHALL BE HEALED (2009) focuses on this confessional voice-off self that continually and publicly narrates each of our actions and thoughts to ourselves and to others. Located between a sense of selfhood that is private, circumscribed and unvoiced and one that identifies the “I” in a networked, communicative self, Silton’s work offers a revealing and nuanced critique of the function and commodification of the confessional self in the Internet age.

BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN consists of fifteen weekly Facebook postings of famous confessions in American public life and politics sent by Silton to her network of Facebook “friends” over the course of the summer of 2009, starting on June 22 and ending September 28. The first post was an animated avatar portrait recreating lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s public apology for defrauding American Indian tribes, a crime to which he pleaded guilty in 2006; later also found guilty of corrupting public officials in 2008, Abramoff was eventually sentenced to four years in prison. Silton appropriated excerpts from the remorseful statement he delivered at his sentencing hearing and redelivered it via JACK, an Abramoff look-alike avatar Silton created using SitePal, a Web utility that produces custom animated talking avatars. Fourteen other avatar-delivered confessions followed: JIMMY (Jimmy Swaggart), MICHAEL (Michael Richards), MARION (Marion Barry), TED (Ted Haggard), TRENT (Trent Lott), JAMES (James McGreevey), LARRY (Larry Craig), CHRIS (Chris Brown), JOHN (John Edwards), MEL (Mel Gibson), BOB (Bob Packwood), MARK (Mark Sanford), JESSE (Jesse Jackson) and BILL (Bill Clinton).

Susan Silton, #14: JESSE (still) from BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN; BY THE CROWD THEY SHALL BE HEALED, 2009; Facebook project; courtesy the artist

Susan Silton, #11: MEL (still) from BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN; BY THE CROWD THEY SHALL BE HEALED, 2009; Facebook project; courtesy the artist

Like the public figures they portray, the look-alike avatars disclose their wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness. Although the simplified representation of the SitePal avatar limits physical expression to eye and mouth movement, the animations nevertheless convey a remarkable degree of emotion and sincerity. Much of this may be tied to the fact that each confession script is read aloud by Silton in her own measured voice, which endows each declaration with life and gravitas. Susan’s calm and empathic reading of texts that are chock-full of moral attitudes, pleading and remorseful entreaties—rather than facts—is in sharp contrast to the lifeless artificiality of the avatar’s visual representation. This opposition emphasizes the rhetorical nature of public confessions and points to the manipulation at work in these performances.

Creating an emotional connection between the avatar and the Silton’s network of Facebook friends, her readings highlight the role that confessional speech plays in American public life, namely, ratifying the implicit bond between the public figure and his constituency or audience. This is most clear in the confession of a politician or public official, although it applies to other fallen public figures as well. Arguing for the reinstatement of the confessant back into the community from which he has strayed, the confession reminds both the leader and his followers that they are indeed codependent, and that one cannot act without the other. The confessant must repent first and then ask for absolution in order to overcome his burden.

Of the fifteen avatar confessions in BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN, BILL offers the clearest explanation of this pattern. BILL’s script is excerpted from an emotional speech President Clinton delivered at the annual White House prayer breakfast on September 11, 1998, in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He begins by admitting guilt: “I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned”; then adds, “but I believe that to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required—at least two more things: First, genuine repentance, a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented. Second, what my Bible calls a ‘broken spirit,’ an understanding that I must have God's help to be the person that I want to be.”

Those that hear a confession play the role of judge, adjudicating the sincerity of the declaration and granting absolution. The confessor partly shares the confessant’s burden through empathy, for the absolver recognizes that he, himself, is another potential sinner. Clinton ends the speech by asking the audience to “share” in his guilt and to help him enter back into community: “I ask you to share my prayer that God will search me and know my heart…I ask once again to be able to love my neighbor—all my neighbors—as my self….”

Confessions in American public life are most commonly mediated through television or other forms of mass communication and are meant to reinstate an ethical or moral order that has become disturbed. Such public disclosures may also serve another function. They cathartically dissipate the need to further question society’s ethical foundations, actually containing public debate by transforming pernicious actions that affect the community at large into individual wrongdoings signified by a single individual, thereby limiting the possibility of a wider social understanding of ethical dilemmas or of accountability and justice. By utilizing Facebook to mediate each avatar’s confession, Silton allows the judgments of the audience—which is also her network of friends—to perform the part that public perception plays in the social ritual of public confession, and to give evidence of the gradual dissipation into wider commentary (including gossip) on the ethical or moral issues in question.

Susan Silton, BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN; BY THE CROWD THEY SHALL BE HEALED (screenshot), 2009; Facebook project; courtesy the artist

Susan Silton, #3: MICHAEL (still) from BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN; BY THE CROWD THEY SHALL BE HEALED, 2009; Facebook project; courtesy the artist

BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN foregrounds some of the more bewildering and uncomfortable implications of the widespread use of social networking websites as modes of communication. Popular sites like Facebook and Twitter function on the premise that the everyday must be revealed in a constant process of self-exposure that brings to mind Michel Foucault’s observations on the rise of the confessional mode as the West’s primary form of self-representation. “Western man has become a confessing animal,”1 Foucault wrote in the History of Sexuality, where he claimed that confessions provide the primary means for the production of truth on par with testimony and empirical analysis. For Foucault, the confession offers a way of exerting power over our inner thoughts, desires and feelings by introducing self-surveillance as the first step in the confession ritual. As BILL explained, a person must first analyze himself deeply, holding up his actions and thoughts to inner scrutiny. Yet absolution from real or imagined wrongdoing is granted only after our deeply held mental processes—the voice-off self that exists in language but before speech—are made public.

Foucault argued that disclosure of the voice within our head externalizes or separates the self from ourselves—a process that also reiterates the emergence of the modern concept of selfhood in the Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, began his Confessions with the pronouncement: “…I have undertaken to reveal myself absolutely to the public, nothing about me must remain hidden or obscure. I must remain incessantly beneath his gaze, so that he may follow me in all the extravagances of my heart and into every least corner of my life. Indeed, he must never lose sight of me for a single instant….”2 Rousseau’s Confessions mark the appearance of the self as the thematic focus or subject of oneself, and prepare the ground for the association of the revelation of the true self with narrative disclosure.

As the avatar confessions in BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN remind us, today we implicitly presuppose that our inner truth can only be explored and expressed fully by speaking or writing out of ourselves what normally lies hidden. When BILL, MARION, TED or JIMMY throw themselves at the mercy of Susan Silton’s Facebook friends, who see and hear their heartfelt revelations, the avatars are only simulating a more acute form of the type of communication expected on Facebook pages, that is, the constant enunciation of the voice-off self for public consumption. The overwhelming use of social-networking sites for communication and community building in technologically advanced societies fulfills, perhaps, a Foucauldian confessional nightmare: the real-time disclosure of every person’s mundane actions, profound or vapid observations, and passing thoughts, posted online for all to consume.

Although social media generate alternative communities that can potentially create freer forms of communication, the phenomenon has also led to other unpredictable, even disturbing, consequences. By making public the voice-off self through social media, one scripts oneself into a networked narrative threaded together from a multiplicity of posts, tweets, comments or hits by a variety of people. Much like the public apologies delivered by the public figures of Silton’s project, this has the effect of making the ephemeral “I” a strange commodity to be negotiated, valuated and exchanged, leading to its inflation in status in both the online and offline social network.

The currency at work in this process is social capital—a well-established sociological concept that describes the value accrued through creating positive connections in a specific community or network. The nonhierarchical, democratic nature of Facebook as a system of communication allows for the configuration of a space for intimacy online, but it also tends to dissociate the Facebook writer from him or herself. It opens a space for the voice within our head—the voice-off commentary that accompanies each banal or thoughtful act of our everyday. This rhetorical device makes a spectator of ourselves and others in the real-time production of an apparently untrammeled but nevertheless highly manufactured and spectacularized self. This self-representing confessional exercise is tied to social networking as a distribution system and to public relations by networking in the micro-scale, to marketing and to the trade of our private selves for currency in social capital.

BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN highlights the confessional speech structure underpinning social networking sites in general, as well as the spectacularization and commodification of the voice-off self. The content of the work and its means of dissemination share the implicit forms and processes that condition Facebook as a communication system, but uniquely Silton’s project acquires value in social capital through circulation in the media it critiques.

In its relationship to Facebook as a medium of production and distribution, BY THE CROWD THEY HAVE BEEN BROKEN surprisingly and perhaps ironically brings to mind Clement Greenberg’s famous assertion on the imbricated relationship between painting and its medium. “The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence,” Greenberg wrote in the essay “Modernist Painting.” Silton is not a “Modernist,” and her aim is not to “use the characteristic method of a discipline” to “entrench it more deeply in its area of competence” but, rather, the opposite: to use the methods characteristic of a system of distribution in order to subvert it—to reveal its implicit structures in order to critique it from within.

1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, Random House, 1978), 59.

2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, first published 1781 (London and New York: Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1953), 65.

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