To lie is not only to say what isn’t true. It is, also and above all, to say more than is true, and, as far as the heart is concerned, to express more than one feels. This is what we all do, everyday, to simplify life.”
--Albert Camus, 8 January 1955
|In The History of
Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction, Michel Foucault overturns the
commonly accepted repressive hypothesis of sexuality by stating that sex
has not been relegated to “a shadow existence” but that it has been
exploited in an “endlessly proliferating economy of … discourse”
(35). The impact of this
thesis is multifarious in relation to Western conceptions of power and
pleasure. Simply stated,
the economy of sexual discourse reveals a subtle though efficacious
reversal of what is taken for granted in the West: that is, the expected
(that which is assumed) is merely that which is expected and might
actually be otherwise when examined in terms which supersede everyday
Given Foucault’s argument that certain diverse power mechanisms, “beginning in the eighteenth century, took charge of men’s existence” and continue to make us what we understand ourselves to be today (89), it becomes clear that power is elusive and manifold, resultant from “a multiplicity of prior powers, and to a certain extent in opposition to them” (86). In short, human beings are social constructs, not biological realities, and, accordingly, are subject to an examination much like that utilized in the study of language, syntax, and grammar. In such a manner, through an analysis of culture as a technology (as a kind of grammar) for producing “social constructs”—i.e. “the individual human being”, “the individual identity”—one finds that such a critique reveals the vagaries of control and meaning. Control is not central. Therefore, the regulation of behavior in society is generative and arbitrary. To exemplify this assertion, the following discussion will delve into the common practice of saying “I’m sorry,” seeking to elucidate its relation to Foucault’s understanding of the practice of confession while also exploring the variety of implications and manifestations implicit to such a an ordinary utterance.
To begin, a linguistic analysis is in order. Just what does saying “I’m sorry” mean? On the literal level, it can essentially mean two things: (1) “I empathize” or (2) “I regret.” Each of these meanings has differing levels of intensity (sincerity?), but, curiously, they each refer to some degree of suffering, sorrow. They are thus predicated upon a kind of “soreness” which obviously relates to a negative, undesirable condition. It is at this point where the “literal” implications of “to be sorry” end without clarifying much. Still, the examination is incomplete, and it is only by studying “I’m sorry” as a cultural technology that more profound realizations can be understood.
“I’m sorry” can be considered in the context of cultural dynamics as the technology, the grammar and syntax, of expected learned behavior. Generally classified this way, “I’m sorry” relates to the medieval church practice of confession. In stating “I’m sorry” the speaker acts in the role of penitent, and the penitent is seeking absolution through the expunging of guilt, the assuaging of a “sore conscience.” In this way, the recipient of the apology is given the power to “medicate” the penitent’s “sore conscience”; indeed, the listener is obligated to forgive and even to exact purgative punishment. Hence, in a way, the listener is clearly given a certain power, but, in addition to this, doesn’t the penitent reserve a certain power as well? This is most clearly evident in the case of Catholicism. Under this religious schema, the so-called penitent can lead the most salacious of lives, performing acts of undeniable “evil,” and merely by performing the acts of confession and extreme unction at the time of imminent death gain reprieve and admission to paradise by compelling the listener, the priest, to absolve and cleanse his or her soul.
Beyond this case, in everyday life, a person who says “I’m sorry” performs a ritual with expected results just like the “penitent” sinner on his or her deathbed. This is the realm of the standard apology that still bears witness to medieval thought and the matrix it encompasses. The standard apology is directly referent to ideals of humility and suffering, if not in reality, then at least in performance. A child quickly learns the magic of the phrase “I’m sorry” without even fully knowing it. The “magic” works simply: “If one does something ‘wrong,’ one simply apologizes, even acts ‘sorry,’ in order to bring the matter to a close—either forgiveness is dispensed immediately or purgative punishment is dispensed with the later overall consequence of forgiveness.”
Returning briefly to the literal meanings of “I’m sorry” and combining them with the element of learned behavior, the idea of “I regret” is relative to the economics of confession and absolution, a unique, pervasive power matrix, but the “I empathize” meaning has a distinct but nonetheless equally conditioned power complex. This is the practice that generates a great deal of revenue for Hallmark Cards. For example, upon the death of someone, whether this person is a close relation or the close relation of another, the common practice is to send a “sympathy” card or to voice the sentiments of such a card in person to the grieving parties affected. The saying of “I’m sorry” given as such a common, expected practice is a power-related matrix. This is most obviously so because of etiquette but also of self-interest. One is glad that one is not dead or that the death of someone else does not directly affect oneself. Additionally, one behaves in such a manner as one would hope to be treated at “a time of loss.” The most significant thing here is that the dead person has little or no bearing upon the behaviors enacted in the sympathy ritual. Rather, the “I’m sorry”-in-sympathy rite is performed only for and by the living.
|These syntactical and
cultural examinations directly tie literarily and philosophically to
Albert Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger.
In fact, Camus, ironically summarizing his novel, states,
“’In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral
runs the risk of being sentenced to death’” (“Preface” 335).
The truth of his statement relates directly to Foucault’s
theory of power technologies in culture.
In The Stranger the power matrix of “I’m sorry” is
relative to the whole cultural machinery Camus exposes.
Because Meursault does not perform the “appropriate”
expressions of “I’m sorry” at his mother’s funeral and,
likewise, does not state his “regret” for senselessly killing an
Arab, he is expunged through the machinations of society in its guise as
the legal system at his trial, in its guise as religion when the prison
chaplain visits him in his cell, and, lastly, in its guise as romantic
love when his girlfriend stops seeing him in jail.
Therefore, in the novel, the variegated masks of power condemn
Meursault, and, even as a
fictional character, he is condemned as “a piece of social
wreckage” by French literary critics of the 1940s (“Preface” 336).
Meursault is cast out—destroyed—not because he is a rebel but
because he is a “faulty” component
which does not, cannot,
conform to or function in the individuating technology (cultural
practices) which dominates as the societal (subliminal?) grammar and
syntax of “I’m sorry.”
Undoubtedly, the phrase “I’m sorry” must be considered in context. There is at work a system of silence versus compulsion in relation to “I’m sorry.” Part of Meursault’s crime is his silence with a singular exception when he speaks with the examining magistrate: “He [the magistrate] simply asked, … if I was sorry for what I had done. I thought about it for a minute and said that more than sorry I felt kind of annoyed” (Camus, Stranger 70). The indirectness of Meursault’s response can be taken as a kind of “hostile” silence, for instead of saying, “No, I’m not sorry,” he speaks of his personal feeling on the matter. Given the conditions, when one is asked if one is sorry for something, one should most desirably perform contritely or say “I’m not sorry,” both of which fit into the grammar of being sorry while other responses do not fit into the formula.
Further considering the context equation of being sorry, one notes gender variables. If a car accident occurs, and it is a woman’s “fault,” she is likely to say she is sorry, even to say so profusely. On the other hand, if the accident is a man’s “fault,” he is likely to say to the other party, “What the hell were you doing?” He thus shifts the issue of his culpability into the realm of another’s ignorance or inferiority. Given that this is a hypothetical context, the examples are nevertheless revealing. When a woman says “I’m sorry,” she is often regarded as being sincerely apologetic for her actions often to an extent that is copious and beyond the “reality” of the situation; after all, in the example, the occurrence was an accident. Psychologists have verified this behavior and its interpretation in the dynamic of social interaction between women and men. Such an understanding, if accepted, reveals the over-apologetic “nature” of women as relevant to the hysteric, emotional stereotyping of women in Western culture. Hence, cultural preconception buttressed by the auspices of social science preserves the bias of gender issues at the heart of the technology of individuation not only in theory but in everyday practice as well.
Finally, one must look at the habitual practice of saying “I’m sorry.” People say they are sorry for a great variety of significant and insignificant things, many times without thought, in order to move on to other concerns that seem more important, “to get to business,” “to get things done.” Understanding the speculative approaches so far examined, “I’m sorry” makes up a good deal of power/pleasure matrices common to but unrecognized in this culture. “I’m sorry” acts as the currency of pleasure not only for the sayer but for the receiver too within the realm of reciprocity and the codes of societal behavior. The significance of habitual apology lies in its “secret” functions which, despite the drive for truth and knowledge, most readily show the cultural necessity for fictionalized interactions that unconsciously support the multiplicity of power technologies that are directly resultant from indeterminate past previous power technologies.
In examining the practice of saying “I’m sorry,” the generative possibilities according to Foucault’s analysis become self-evident and produce a proliferation of meaning and controls hitherto unrecognized. The end result of such inquiry leaves questions of identity. One wonders, at least, if control, regarded as central, is nothing more than a construct amongst others, indeed, dependent upon others. Lastly, one wonders if there even is a one who wonders, or is that not just another ageless fabrication that acts in part to host the multifarious controls and dubious pleasures which constitute the Western syntax of existence?
Camus, Albert. “Preface to The Stranger.” Lyrical and Critical Essays. Trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Ed. Philip Thody. New York: Vintage, 1968. 335-37.
---. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.