Self-Revealing Loves Self-Concealing: The Rise of Camfess

Ned McDougall 27 February 2019
Giuseppe Molteni's 'La Confessione'

‘Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés’, as the French proverb runs: ‘to live happy, live hidden’. Nowhere can we see a finer expression of this maxim than in the rise of Camfess, a Facebook page which sprang up last summer to replace the long disused Cambridge Confessions. Both of them were inspired by the impressive success of Oxford’s Oxfess, which has now received and posted more than thirty-two thousand submissions. It is clearer than ever that, to modify Foucault’s assertion slightly, the Oxbridge student has become a confessing animal.

One is encouraged to submit thoughts of a personal, confessional nature to these pages, which are then posted anonymously amongst others of their kind: but what is it that perpetuates this platform? Our obsession with confession seems paradoxical; it looks as though we yearn to expose ourselves, but only if we are guaranteed the anonymity that prevents our exposure.

Friends tag one another in posts, either sympathising themselves with the anonymous confessor, or projecting the crime onto someone else: the system offers a sort of redistribution of guilt. In this economic model, guilt (assuming the Camfession is not too sinister) is sublimated into laughter; and thus Camfess, like Christ, takes on the sins of the University to absolve us of them.

Yet other Camfess submissions do not represent confessions of ‘sins’ in a proper sense, but express opinions which range from the mildly controversial to the banal; indeed, other such platforms, Grudgebridge and Rumourbridge amongst many, were mostly used at the height of their success to publish virtually identical points. One wonders why some ‘Controversybridge’ has not taken off in the wake of these pages, whose express purpose would be to spark debates on such all-important issues as whether Cindies is better than Life, or how alumni of public, grammar, and state schools can live together in harmony.

This pattern was observed within the system itself at an early stage; Camfession 201 read: ‘Camfess is already being ruined by people posting about class/race/feminism. I know these issues are important but do they need to feature on every anonymous platform? Can we not just share funny embarrassing secrets and stay away from politics?’

So why is it that people are looking for a way to sever their connection not only with their ‘sins’, but with their very opinions? Popular wisdom on one side holds that ‘actions make the man’, on another that our identities are based on personal experiences and beliefs. Today, neither is the case; rather, identity is sifted off into the anonymous multiplicity of the confessional collective.

Camfess, on the other hand, is a hive-mind of neurosis; of unexplored desire, shame, and resentment. If Christian confession was the probing of a conscience, and psychoanalysis of the individual unconscious, Camfess probes the unconscious mechanism formed from a vast collection of conscious minds. In Grudgebridge, as in 4chan, as in countless studies into mob psychology, we saw how anonymity can unleash an incredible cruelty in ordinary, compassionate subjects. In Freudian terms, the mob gives voice to the id of each subject; now Camfess amplifies a swarm of superegos.

The case of Camfess shows us how, in a space where reaction is anonymous, action must also become anonymous. Views, desires, impressions may be recognised no longer as belonging to individual subjects, but to the community that submit and comment on them. Camfess has become a subject in itself, with the thoughts that inspire anonymous posts operating in anonymous minds at a level of entanglement and complexity not dissimilar to that in the human unconscious. It is thus that Camfess presents Cambridge as a single ‘anonymous subject’, and this central contradiction in the page itself has incited all the manifold responses to it.

How then should we interpret the rise of Camfess? It is a reflection of our impossible desire at once to draw attention to and away from ourselves, to be special and to be normal, to be and not to be. In Camfess, we are one and many and none at all. An old Jewish joke springs to mind, popularised by that great entertainer of the age, Slavoj Žižek:

Three men are confessing to God in a synagogue. The first, a rabbi, proclaims, ‘O God, I am worthless! My Lord, king over all the earth, truly I am nothing!’ and so on. The second, a businessman, concurs in his prayers: ‘Yes, my God, I am nothing! I fall suppliant at your feet!’ The third, a beggar, cries, ‘I beg your mercy, my Lord, for I am nothing!’ Whereupon the businessman turns to the rabbi and says, outraged, ‘What insolence! Who’s this guy to say he’s nothing too?’

So in Camfess we seek a way to turn ourselves into a sort of nothin: at the same time identifying ourselves with our symptoms and denying those symptoms an identified subject, we anonymise all who participate in the ritual of Camfession. To let go of one’s sins is to let go of oneself, and this ‘ego death’ is at the heart of the page’s success. In Camfess, we all make scapegoats of ourselves when we identify the most spectacular and bizarre posts with our own daily banalities. Camfess’s violent eruption onto the Cantab’s feed has picked off individuals ego by ego and collectivised us all once and for all into a mass of anonymity.