From Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self”

Great. Another, even more cumbersome ancient Greek word to add to my social-media-analysis arsenal, to go along with parrhesia: exomologesis. Foucault notes how this form of public self-publishing represented “a way for the sinner to express his will to get free from this world, to get rid of his own body, to destroy his own flesh, and get access to a new spiritual life.

This brings to mind self-publishing in social media as a form of penitence that is at once productive and evasive—content is produced in the pursuit of new life unhampered by the limitations of the body. It makes me think of so-called digital self-harm, pro-ana Tumblrs, cutting blogs, and other forms of "self-bullying” through public online forums. 

Digital exomologesis is an effort at staging a spiritually cleansing ritual without the support of an institution or even a group of peers. It’s a form of solipsistic martyrdom, something that was once too oxymoronic to be considered. But now social media provide the illusion of audience and the rituals of self-publishing without the inconvenient, discomfitting presence of others. But this means these rituals fail to be cathartic, they are just momentary releases of pressure and doomed to be repeated on the model of addiction, with ever increasing enmity toward the self in the hopes of “saving” it.

Foucault notes that the public martyrdom of exomologesis “does not therefore have as its function the establishment of the personal identity. Rather, such a demonstration serves to mark this dramatic demonstration of what one is: the refusal of the self, the breaking off from one’s self…. The exomologesis seeks … to superimpose by an act of violent rupture the truth about oneself and the renunciation of oneself. In the ostentatious gestures of maceration, self-revelation in exomologesis is, at the same time, self-destruction.”

This fits with my thesis (developed here, through an analogy of compulsive social media usage to machine-gambling addiction) that sharing and self-fashioning in social media can be a process of self-purging as much as one of self-branding. Social-media use can be a pursuit of self-extinction through visibility.

Verbal confession and self-harm for Foucault become linked as this older form of penitence, exomologesis, merges with confession. As a result, he argues, “we have to sacrifice the self in order to discover the truth about ourself, and we have to discover the truth about ourself in order to sacrifice ourself… You will become the subject of the manifestation of truth when and only when you disappear or you destroy yourself as a real body or as a real existence.”

In other words, we know the self only in the process of dismantling it through expressing it. The goal of self-expression is not know oneself but to lose oneself at the same moment of knowledge.


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