An Augustinian Improvisation on Bakhtin’s Two Categories of Discourse

Throughout his narrative in the Confessions, St. Augustine brings to our attention the ways in which his social context shaped him. In other words, although an actor in an unfolding drama, Augustine also recognized that his decisions were influenced by cultural discourses, contingent events, his particular educational background, and so forth. Surveying his past, he traces multiple intersecting events in which the discourse of others—everything from Monica’s prayers to Ambrose’s preaching—had a transformative impact on his life.

Improvising somewhat on Mikhail Bakhtin’s two categories of discourse—“authoritative discourse” and “internally persuasive discourse”— having earlier rejected the “authoritative discourse” of the Catholic Christian tradition, Augustine now had come to embrace it. In other words, the authoritative discourse of the Catholic tradition became an internally persuasive word for Augustine because Augustine himself through social, self, and divine “construction,” had changed. With a new openness and a willingness on his part to seek truth wherever it might be found, Augustine’s hermeneutical horizon expands. This broadened interpretative horizon creates a reconfigured background “space” in which his former questions can be engaged from a new perspective. For example, when Augustine sits under St. Ambrose’s instruction and learns how to read Scripture allegorically and spiritually, he is able to address, in a way previously unimagined, his concerns about how to reconcile God’s character with divine moral directives that change over time.[1]

Bakhtin’s explanation of authoritative discourse emphasizes its dangers and abuses and issues a warning against unreflectively embracing such discourse. However, authoritative discourse can also have a positive side; that is, it can be true, salutary, and beneficial both individually and communally. Through Augustine’s eventual acceptance of the Catholic Christian tradition, we gain insight into the double-sidedness of authoritative discourse. Again, to use Bakhtinian language, in Augustine’s process of “ideological becoming,” he learned to reconfigure various strands of the philosophical, socio-political, and religious authoritative discourses of his day. Just as with Foucault’s notion of reverse discourse, authoritative discourses can be used to construct counter-discourses.  Thus, there is a sense—even for Bakhtin—in which the calcification of authoritative discourses can be broken, softened, and ultimately reconfigured.[2] Nonetheless, Bakhtin emphasizes the productiveness and flexibility of the internally persuasive word. Stated otherwise, though both discourses have some degree of flexibility, internally persuasive discourses are more readily “available” for alteration because their “center” hovers around the subjective and, thus, individual side of the individual-community symbiotic relationship. This availability should not, however, be equated with ease. A person can maintain and be internally persuaded by a false belief for many years—as was the case with Augustine—or for the entirety of his or her life. However, generally speaking, because authoritative discourses hold sway over societies, nations, disciplines, and so forth, their “lifespan” both antedates and postdates the individual. With these factors in mind, we can see how authoritative discourses have a tendency toward greater solidification, whereas internally persuasive discourses are, generally speaking, more permeable.

None of this is meant to imply that an individual herself, through accepting an internally persuasive word, can then single-handedly change authoritative discourses. The two discourses are always socially-oriented, intertwined, and always act on one another even when reharmonized. Moreover, for authoritative discourses to change substantively, numerous socio-political, cultural, economic, and institutional factors must converge—factors involving yet transcending an individual or small group of individuals and their beliefs. Because of its greater flexibility and “space” for personal assimilation, internally persuasive discourse is capable of a greater dynamism. As Bakhtin explains, it possesses an openness “to new material, new conditions; it enters into interanimating relationships with new contexts.”[3] But, just as the more stable authoritative discourses possess some degree of flexibility, so too the more open internally persuasive discourses possess (or at least can possess) a staying power. The stability of the latter discourses, however, is not to be equated with mathematical certainty. Rather, it has more in common with the constancy and trust one experiences with a friend of good will.

Chapters seven and eight of the Confessions provide us with a few concrete examples to illustrate these slightly modified Bakhtinian categories. For instance, in chapter seven, Augustine recounts his unsuccessful struggles to understand the origin of evil theologically.

Yet you allowed no flood of thoughts to sweep me away from the faith whereby I believed that you exist, that your essence is unchangeable, that you care for us humans and judge our deeds, and that in your Son, Christ our Lord, and in the holy scriptures which the authority of your Catholic Church guarantees, you have laid down the way for human beings to reach that eternal life.[4]

In the passage above, both Scripture and the Catholic tradition function as authoritative discourses, which, in the following chapter, Augustine tells us he had come to accept. That is, he explains that he had come to a place where he was, on the one hand, convinced of Christianty’s truth, yet on the other hand, he was comfortable with the mystery inherent to the faith and no longer sought the mathematical certainty for which he longed in his youth.  As he puts it, he no longer desired to attain a “greater certainty” about God “but a more steadfast abiding” in Him.[5] Embracing at this point in his life what Schuld calls an “ethic of humility,” Augustine accepts his creaturely limitations, which in this life include not only finitude but fallibility. Thus, even with the ever-present open-endedness and amenability to change of his faith-discourse—or to use Bakhtin’s language, his own internally persuasive word—Augustine, nonetheless, has found an abode in God whose self-giving love surpassing human reason transforms the silence of Augustine’s soul into prayerful wonder.

Augustine’s ethic of humility flows out of his having embraced what, he claims, the Platonists could not—the incarnate, crucified “humble Jesus.” Commenting upon his own pride, which, given his appraisal of what was lacking in the Platonists’ writings,[6] is likewise a fitting description of their condition, he writes, “[n]ot yet was I humble enough to grasp the humble Jesus as my God, nor did I know what his weakness had to teach.”[7] Continuing this strain, Augustine stresses how Jesus receives those who, having been brought low, turn to Him. For example, Augustine writes:

He heals their swollen pride and nourishes their love, that they may not wander even further away through self-confidence, but rather weaken as they see before their feet the Godhead grown weak by sharing our garments of skin, and wearily fling themselves upon him, so that he may arise and lift them up.[8]

Again, we see Augustine’s emphasis on the dependent, heteronomous self—the self as, to employ Schuld’s term, “antihero” whose weakness paradoxically becomes strength when it passes through the cross.


[1] See, for example, Augustine, Confessions 6, esp. 6.3.3–6.4.8; 137–42.

[2] Although, because Bakhtin’s emphasis is on the dangers of authoritative discourse, he highlights, and understandably so, the resistance that such discourse evinces to change.  My comments here on authoritative discourse are, as I note, improvisations; thus, I am focusing on minor, almost imperceptible themes in Bakhtin’s conception of authoritative discourse and developing them in conversation with Augustine’s experience.

[3] Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 345–46.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 7.7.11; 168.

[5] Ibid.,; 184. For a more detailed and decidedly theological discussion of this topic, see Nielsen, St. Augustine on Text and Reality.

[6] See, for example, Augustine, Confessions, 7.9,13–14; 169–70.

[7] Ibid., 7.18.24; 178.

[8] Ibid.


Part II: Augustine and Foucault on Developing an Ethic of Humility, Confessional Technologies in a Secular Key, the Birth of the Scientia Sexualis, and the “New” Priesthood

Having spent several pages offering critical analyses of his failed education, Augustine highlights a specific event in which he comments on his own misdirected love while also calling into question the values of the educated Roman elite. Similar to the passage in book four where Augustine characterizes his weeping as misguided, here too we read of a weeping Augustine—this time; however, he weeps not over the loss of a dear friend but over a fictive literary character, Dido. As he explains, his having acquired the skills of reading and writing were “far more useful” than the stories he

was forced to memorize the wanderings of some fellow called Aeneas, while forgetting my own waywardness, and to weep over Dido, who killed herself for love, when all the while in my intense misery I put up with myself with never a tear, as I died away from you, O God, who are my life.[1]

Here Augustine, no doubt, discusses his personal shortcomings, primarily his failure to care for his own moral and spiritual development. Yet, in the passage just mentioned and the paragraphs which follow, Augustine simultaneously chides the elite, educated class and those aspiring for membership in this group. After all, the Aeneid had an almost canonical status in Augustine’s day, and Aeneas—the great founder of Rome—was heralded as the hero extraordinaire. In stark contrast, Augustine refers to him rather casually as “some fellow called Aeneas,” thus demoting him of his hero status and calling into question Roman constructions of virility, honor, and pride. Again, Augustine’s retelling of his own wanderings manifest theological and socio-political aims.  That is, just as Augustine through his own self-questioning had come to value humility and a proper assessment of our frailty over the self-aggrandizing narratives inculcated through the Roman educational system, he wants his readers to put themselves and their own socially constructed narratives into question.

Like Augustine, Foucault also values a more humble view of ourselves and our claims to knowledge.  As Schuld observes, Foucault offers critical analyses of how, with the ushering in of modernity, “scientific or pseudo-scientific” discourses and practices come to be seen as definitive, unassailable,[2] or to utilize a Bakhtinian grammar, a negative instantiation of authoritative discourse. One of Foucault’s greatest concerns is what happens “when such presumptuous modes of knowledge take as their task examining, classifying, and eradicating the frailties and imperfections of human lives.”[3] As he traces the transformation of Christian confessional technologies whose emphasis had become fixated increasingly on sexual sins, categorizing and defining them ad infinitum, Foucault traces how confessional technologies are transposed into a scientific key. In the History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault provides a lucid account of this transformation:

The obtaining of the confession and its effects were recodified as therapeutic operations. Which meant first of all that the sexual domain was no longer accounted for simply by the notions of error or sin, excess or transgression, but was placed under the rule of the normal and the pathological (which, for that matter, were the transposition of the former categories); […] sex appeared as an extremely unstable pathological field: a surface of repercussion for other ailments, but also the focus of a specific nosography, that of instincts, tendencies, images, pleasure, and conduct. This implied furthermore that sex would derive its meaning and its necessity from medical interventions: it would be required by the doctor, necessary for diagnosis, and effective by nature in the cure. Spoken in time, to the proper party, and by the person who was both the bearer of it and the one responsible for it, the truth healed.[4]

In the modern episteme where the discourse of medical science and its truth games predominate as opposed to the theological discourses of the Middle Ages, not only sexual acts but sexuality itself becomes an object for medical experts to diagnose, treat, and allegedly “cure.” Whereas the Christian tradition—and Augustine expresses this repeatedly in his narrative—understood certain sexual desires and acts as sins, which like all other sins must be bring into the light and dealt with, it in no way claimed to heal or cure the person in this life.  Rather, it recognized sin as an ongoing struggle of our earthly pilgrimage requiring a constant renunciation of self and dependent reliance on divine grace, as well as the help of likeminded others—others, who were also in need of grace.

In contrast, with the birth of the scientia sexualis and sexuality as a medical category and thus open to “normal” and “pathological” instantiations, an entire discourse and set of discursive practices likewise emerged, infiltrating society at large and promising definitive cures for its ailing patients. Thus, the history of sexuality quickly thrusts us into the history of discourses wherein sex becomes a discourse reverberating throughout the body politic, bidding us to engage in our own sex-talk. “As if it suspected sex of harboring a fundamental secret. […] As if it was essential that sex be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge.”[5] Sex was now the secret to human identity—if only we could get to reach this truth buried deep within, we could at last realize the Socratic imperative, “know thyself.” We demand, as Foucault explains, that sex “tell us our truth, […] that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness. We tell it its truth by deciphering what it tells us about that truth; it tells us our own by delivering up that part of it that escaped us.”[6] As this mutually shaping dialogue formed over time, it produced “a knowledge of the subject; […] of that which divided him, determines him perhaps, but above all causes him to be ignorant of himself.”[7] This ignorance about our sexual desires and sexual “identity” requires the help of medical and psychological experts, those who have helped to create the “scientific” categories into which they now place us. As we trace the transmutations of Christian confessional technologies through modernity, we become increasingly aware of the reduction of human beings to (essentially) sexual beings.

[T]he project of a science of the subject has gravitated, in ever narrowing circles, around the question of sex. Causality in the subject, the unconscious of the subject, the truth of the subject in the other who knows, the knowledge he holds unbeknown to him, all this found an opportunity to deploy itself in the discourse of sex. Not, however, by reason of some natural property inherent in sex itself, but by virtue of the tactics of power immanent in this discourse.[8]

Moreover, as these newly reconfigured secular practices migrated into the broader social domain—the family, pedagogical relations, psychiatry, medicine, the legal system, prisons, and so forth—a complex machinery was established. This newly opened field of truth had little place for religious or theological answers for our human condition; modern discourses of truth must be spoken using a scientific grammar, as this, rather than God’s “sweet truth” [dulcis veritas],[9] was the language, the new melody that had become pleasing to the ear. As human history attests, because our lives are all too often interspersed with suffering, injustices, and disappointments, myriad opportunities exist for the “new priests,” the specialized experts, to proclaim their gospel of health and happiness, wholeness and self-fulfillment now rather than in some other-worldly “heaven.” Thus, Schuld notes the irony of how these discourses have gained power, not through external compulsion or violent force, but through our own socially conditioned desires and beliefs that we can achieve—whether through a finely-tuned exercise regime, a nutritionally balanced diet, regular medical examinations, and the list goes on—a more stable, secure, defect-free existence.[10] “In an attempt to flee [our] fragility, however, [we] have made [ourselves] more vulnerable.”[11]

As we have seen, with the old categories of sin and salvation transmuted into the language of pathology and cure, the role of experts in our everyday lives becomes increasingly common and (seemingly) “natural.”


[1] Augutine’s Confessions, 1.13.20; 53 (Boulding trans.).

[2] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 129.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 67.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 69–70.

[7] Ibid., 70.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Augustine, Confessions, 4.15.27; my translation.

[10] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 129.

[11] Ibid.


Part III: Frederick Douglass on Self-Writing “in the Spaces Left” and the Heteroglossia of Literacy

With Bakhtin’s categories in mind (see Part II), Sisco singles out the notion of literacy and its function within the hegemonic discourses of nineteenth-century proslavery America. When Mr. Auld terminated Douglass’s reading lessons and provided his commentary on why the slave must remain illiterate, Douglass became aware, in a way he had not been previously, of the conjoint character of power and knowledge. At that “pre-literate stage” (Sisco’s term), Douglass internalizes and begins to assimilate the authoritative discourse of his masters and commits himself to the task of becoming literate in order to attain his freedom and to subvert the master/slave relationship. “Aware that Auld uses literacy as a means to assert superiority over his slaves, Douglass plans himself to change his own position among these binary oppositions by using literacy to assert power over his master.”[1] As Douglass’s narrative unfolds, part of what we see is not only his growth in literacy and education but also his, using Bakhtin’s term, “ideological becoming,” in which he struggles with authoritative discourses, assimilating them as internally persuasive discourses that take into account his distinctive experiences as a slave and a black other forced to live in white America.

Because slaves were denied the opportunity of formal education and discussion about the topic was considered taboo, Douglass had to engage in creative resistance tactics in order to continue his studies. As we shall see, Douglass’s understanding of and relation to literacy becomes increasingly complex. His determination to learn to read and write in the face of systemic socio-political as well as local opposition required innovative improvisatory maneuverings on his part.  The drama he depicts of his struggle to accomplish his educational goals “reveals that literacy exists in many varying capacities in the rich interstices between and around freedom and enslavement, in marginal spaces free from such confining structures and ideologies.”[2] Douglass recounts, for example, how at age twelve when he was sent to do errands for his master, he always brought a book with him and a few extra pieces of bread.  He would complete the errand as quickly as possible so that he might interact with the white boys playing in the streets, some of whom were quite poor and hungry. Douglass befriended the boys by giving them bread to eat and over time “converted [them] into teachers.”[3] By engaging in these resistance tactics, he was able to secure a reading lesson with every errand.

For his writing lessons, Douglass was equally creative. While walking through the shipyards one day, he noticed that the ship carpenters used a letter abbreviation system to mark the various pieces of wood to be used for the different parts of a ship.  The letter “L” indicated a board for the larboard side, the letter “S” the starboard side, “S.F.” the starboard side forward, “S.A.” the starboard aft, and so forth. Douglass learned in a relatively short amount of time both the names of these four letters and how to write them.[4] As Sisco observes, “[o]n the body of ships which both represent freedom and facilitate slavery, literacy is used by the shipbuilders for a purely utilitarian purpose”; however, Douglass is able to recontextualize this “functional use of literacy” and “to transform the shipyard into a scene of self-education and an act of political resistance.”[5]

His next subversive move was to find a white boy and challenge him to a writing “duel.” That is, Douglass would inform the white boy that he could write as well as the latter. The white boy would then demand that Douglass prove it; Douglass would write a letter and the white boy would follow suit. In this way, Douglass received his “public” schooling, obtaining numerous writing lessons from the white boys by playing on their desires for one-upmanship, especially with respect to a challenge from a slave. Quite cognizant of how “literacy, as a form of knowledge, signals a kind of mental superiority for whites over illiterate blacks,”[6] Douglass takes advantage of this antagonism and creates educational sites wherever he goes. Describing his non-traditional classroom during that time, he writes, “my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk.”[7] Finally, Douglass’s basic writing lessons were completed when he was able to copy “the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book” by memory.  At this stage, he had been using little Master Thomas’s (Mr. Auld’s son) old copy-books, which had been more or less discarded. As Douglass explains, while Mrs. Auld was away at a meeting on Monday afternoons, he would “spend time in writing in the spaces left in [little] Master Thomas’s copy-book, copying what he had written.”[8] At last, over the course of seven years at the Auld’s, Douglass succeeded in reaching his goal of learning to read and write via his willful acts of “subterfuge, antagonism, direct imitation, and ultimately self-insertion in the margins of the ‘authoritative discourse’ of a southern ideology of literacy.”[9] Working within the racialized structures, authoritative discourses, and unjust practices of white southern society, “Douglass […] emerges as a literate individual in the marginal spaces between the world sanctioned by slavery and an alternating space of his own making free from its oppressive limitations.”[10]


[1] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 197.

[2] Ibid., 199.

[3] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 41.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 202.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 44.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 201. Sisco goes on to describe Douglass’s tactics as involving a “rather deconstructive insight [in which he] sees that whenever literacy is used for a particular purpose by whites, there is at that very same moment a whole host of ‘spaces left’ for literacy to be also performing other functions. Increasingly aware of those spaces, Douglass manages to exploit their rich potential” (ibid.).

[10] Ibid., 203.  Sisco adds that “[t]hese scenes capture what Bakhtin calls a ‘double-voicedness’ in that Douglass simultaneously acknowledges both the ‘authoritative discourse’ of the institution of slavery and his own ‘internally persuasive discourse’ about literacy” (ibid.).


Part II: Frederick Douglass on Self-Writing “in the Spaces Left” and the Heteroglossia of Literacy

In the previous post, I introduced Bakhtin’s notions of authoritative and internally persuasive discourse. In broad strokes, authoritative discourse, whether “religious, political, or moral,” comes from those holding positions of authority—“the word of a father, of adults and of teachers etc.”[1] In contrast, internally persuasive discourse in its most common variant “is denied all privilege, backed up by no authority at all, and is frequently not even acknowledged in society (not by public opinion, nor by scholarly norms, nor by criticism), not even in the legal code.”[2] The latter also cannot but arise out of the heteroglossia of authoritative discourses; yet, it can be reharmonized and reframed in a way that “pure” authoritative discourse cannot. The latter comes “with its authority already fused to it. The authoritative word is located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher. It is, so to speak, the word of the fathers.”[3]

Because its history as already-accepted authority precedes us, authoritative discourse is not simply one discourse among others. Rather, it resists egalitarian status and imposes itself as sovereign. Manifesting in the form of religious, political, or scientific dogma, “[i]t is given (it sounds) in lofty spheres, not those of familiar contact. Its language is a special (as it were, hieratic) language. […] It is akin to taboo, i.e., a name that must not be taken in vain.”[4] In other words, one ought not question authoritative discourse—to do so is itself a transgressive (in the negative sense) and a treasonous act, a sign of rebellion or perhaps backwardness. Not only does a certain rigidity and calcification characterize authoritative discourse, but likewise its “framing context” is immovable, frozen. “[I]t remains sharply demarcated, compact and inert: […] it is fully complete, it has but a single meaning, the letter is fully sufficient to the sense and calcifies it.”[5] One cannot improvise with authoritative discourse, nor can one reharmonize its melodies; it requires a unison voice; it demands complete replication with no key changes, modulations, or ornamentations. It calls for “unconditional allegiance” and “permits no play with the context framing it, no play with its borders, no gradual and flexible transitions, no spontaneously creative stylizing variants on it. […] one must either totally affirm it, or totally reject it.”[6]As my brief description indicates, authoritative discourse and internally persuasive discourse are polysemous and have (ongoing) dynamic dialogical relations with one another, pressuring, convincing, infusing and at times coinciding and merging harmoniously with one another.[7]

Since we are born into and inherit authoritative discourses, at least some of these discourses are experienced as internally persuasive even if unacknowledged. Here, the qualifier “internally persuasive” signifies a kind of unreflective embrace of authoritative discourse. However, when an individual actively in process of “ideological becoming” experiences an event or encounters a counter-discourse compelling him or her to question the authoritative discourse, a gap between these two kinds of discourse occurs. As Bakhtin explains, “consciousness awakens to independent ideological life precisely in a world of alien discourses surrounding it, and from which it cannot initially separate itself; the process of distinguishing between one’s own and another’s discourse […] is activated rather late in development.”[8]

Prior to an individual moving toward this more reflective mode of discourse discrimination and active appropriation, he or she first experiences a “separation between internally persuasive discourse and authoritarian enforced discourse.”[9] Because internally persuasive discourse is constituted from a cacophony of alien discourses, even when we shape a discourse of our own, that new discourse is of course never simply ours. Nonetheless, there is a productiveness and flexibility about internally persuasive discourse creating space for personal assimilation. It allows “new” words and discourses to emerge out of the discourses with which we are already familiar and within which we live; it manifests an openness, a dynamism fostering development and application “to new material, new conditions; it enters into interanimating relationships with new contexts. More than that, it enters into an intense interaction, a struggle with other internally persuasive discourses.”[10] In fact, according to Bakhtin, “[o]ur ideological development is just such an intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions and values.”[11]

Lastly, in contrast with the rigidity of authoritative discourse both in terms of content and surrounding or framing context, internally persuasive discourse promotes an improvisatory ethos. One can reharmonize its words by re-orchestrating the framing context, extending its former boundaries, opening up its semantic fields, and developing its themes in conversation with contemporary concerns. The internally persuasive word is perpetually pregnant with “further creative life”; it continues as an unfinished symphony in which multiple composers and performers improvise on its themes, stretch its form, and refuse to allow a final note to sound. The essence of internally persuasive discourse is dynamic and inexhaustible, always yielding new insights as we “put it in a new situation in order to wrest new answers from it, […] and even wrest from it new words of its own (since another’s discourse, if productive, gives birth to a new word from us in response).”[12]


[1] Baktin, The Dialogic Imagination, 342.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 343.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For example, one can perceive the polysemous as well as the thoroughly historical character of Bakhtin’s notion of internally persuasive discourse in the following passage: “[t]he internally persuasive word is either a contemporary word, born in a zone of contact with unresolved contemporaneity, or else it is a word that has been reclaimed for contemporaneity; such a word relates to its descendents as well as to its contemporaries as if both were contemporaries” (ibid., 346).

[8] Ibid., 345.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 345–46

[11] Ibid., 346.

[12] Baktin, The Dialogic Imagination, 346.