ACLA 2018 - Postsecular Confessions: The Confessional Novel and the Religious Turn

deadline for submissions: 
September 20, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
American Comparative Literature Association
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Postsecular Confessions: The Confessional Novel and the Religious Turn
ACLA 2018, to be held at UCLA from March 29th to April 1st
Seminar Organizer: Ryan Siemers

In his history of sexuality, Michel Foucault famously states that “Western man has become a confessing animal.” To support this claim, Foucault provides us with an account of confession’s secularization (as Molly McGarry observes in “‘The Quick, the Dead, and the Yet Unborn’”). Central to Foucault’s version of secularization is “adaptation”: science adapts ritual confession to function within secular norms as a technology of power. But given the rejection of secularization theory in sociology, perhaps some reconsideration of the assumptions that underlie Foucault’s analysis is warranted. Ascendant in the mid-twentieth century, secularization theory held that modernization inevitably brings about religious decline. Peter Berger, a one-time proponent of this theory, admitted in 1999 that it was “essentially mistaken,” noting that “the world today … is as furiously religious as it ever was.” The failure of secularization theory raises the question: just how straightforwardly secular, how well adapted by scientific discourses, is modern confession?

For answers to this question, the confessional novel recommends itself as an object of study. While in literary criticism generally the demise of the secularization thesis has inspired an examination of religion and pseudo-religion as they relate to works previously treated as largely or entirely secular, the sub-genre of the confessional novel has yet to receive such attention. In Troubling Confessions, Peter Brooks touches on the subject, but primarily with respect to the law. Peter M. Axthelm, whose 1967 book The Modern Confessional Novel remains largely representative in its approach to religion, defines the confessional protagonist as someone engaged in a secular search for self-knowledge. “This goal is inherited from the religious idea of purgation or absolution through confession,” he writes, but he hastens to add, “The vision sought by the modern hero, however, is unrelated to the forgiveness of any external religion.” Axthelm’s assertion of a religious inheritance that is nevertheless “unrelated” to its modern practice presents us with a contradiction that the secularization thesis once helped obscure. Not content to dismiss religion, we might ask, what is the actual relationship at work here?

This seminar seeks to understand more deeply the relationship between religious formations of confession—be it the sacrament of penance, the Protestant spiritual autobiographical tradition modeled on Augustine’s Confessions, or other religious analogs—and the confessional novel. What does the confessional novel inherit from religion? What does it reject? What does it change or distort? What are the formal, historical, and psychological consequences of this religious legacy? Submissions related to confessional novels (loosely understood here as fictional autobiographies narrated in the first person) from any language and period are welcome.

Proposals, limited to 1500 character with spaces (around 200 words), are due Sept. 20 through the portal on the ACLA website: