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: 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.