Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Essay on Augustine’s Confessions, Oct 20, 2004

This is the tenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

In the next few Recovered Writing posts, I will present my major assignments from Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel’s LCC 3314 Technologies of Representation class at Georgia Tech. LCC 3314 is taught in many different ways by the faculty of the Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, but I consider myself fortunate to have experienced Professor Knoespel’s approach to the course during the last phase of my undergraduate tenure. The ideas that we discussed in his class continue to inform my professional and personal thinking. Also, I found Professor Knoespel a great ally, who helped me along my path to graduation with side projects and independent studies.

In this post, I am sharing two versions of an essay that explores Augustine’s Confessions. First, I include the revised version of the essay that incorporates suggestions from Professor Knoespel dated October 20, 2004. Then, I include my draft essay that I turned in on September 7, 2004. The ideas and reflections contained in Augustine’s Confessions played some role in my blog-like websites from that era and the blog that I began as a MA Student at the University of Liverpool that continues to exist as dynamicsubspace.net today.

Final Draft

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel

LCC 3314 – Technologies of Representation

October 20, 2004

Augustine’s Confessions Paper – Revision

By the Platonic books I was admonished to return into myself.  With you as my guide I entered into my innermost citadel, and was given power to do so because you had become my helper (Ps. 29:  11)…And I found myself far from you ‘in the region of dissimilarity, and heard as it were your voice from on high:  ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me.  And you will not change into me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me’ (Augustine 123).

Augustine constructs his Confessions by embedding text and the voices of others in his own personal narrative.  By embedding these other sources in his own narrative, he is able to situate himself in the larger cultural and historical picture.  He writes about how he got from point A to point B in his life but his linear narrative is augmented with references to works and ideas that had an impact on his life.  He builds connections between himself and the works that he has read.  He then takes this a step further by looking at the connections between these referenced works.  Additionally, Augustine employs particular writing technologies in the construction of the Confessions which add to the ideas that he is expounding.

Augustine refers to the Neo-Platonic books as being very important to his personal development.  Augustine wrote, “First you wanted to show me how you ‘resist the proud and give grace to the humble’ (I Pet. 5:  5)…Through a man puffed up with monstrous pride, you brought under my eye some books of the Platonists” (121).   These books provide the key to his journey of self-discovery.  Augustine then quotes biblical passages regarding the word of God and the relationship between the Father and the Son (121-122).  In each of these examples Augustine notes that he did not find these stories in the Platonic texts.  He connects the Neo-Platonic books to the Bible to develop a nested structure.  The ideas of one are intermeshed with the other and vice versa.  Through his use of contrast between these two groups of texts he sets apart his belief in the church (through the stories of the Bible) and the philosophy offered him by the Neo-Platonists.  The Bible offers truths and a belief system, whereas the Neo-Platonic ideas offer a system of thought that he extends to a process that leads to the attainment of the individual self.  Augustine writes, “By the Platonic books I was admonished to return into myself.”  Introspection leads Augustine to self-discovery.  He combines introspection with his faith in developing his Confessions, and in turn, his personal identity.

Augustine’s Confessions is a nested narrative written later in his life after he has become a member of the Catholic Church.  The autobiographical portion of this book relies on his memory to recall and then record the things which he remembers.  On the first level, Augustine is writing about his life recalled from memory.  On the second level, he is writing about the books that he has read.  These too are part of his memory, but they are a physical artifact that played a definitive part in the development of his identity.  Books serve as an artifact that guide introspection by enriching the reader with what is written in the book.  Then a third level would be the connections, both implicit and explicit, between the texts that Augustine references.  These connections form a web of cultural and historical contexts that he situates himself in.

The two most powerful texts that he builds connections between are the Bible and the Neo-Platonic texts.  The most cited texts in Confessions are from the Bible.  The Church has become a large part of his life by the time that he writes this book.  The narrative form that he employs is that he is confessing to God, but it is also a confession that will be read by others.  In the quote above he is referring to his beginning the path of introspection after reading the works of the Neo-Platonists.  In this part of Book Seven he nests the Platonic texts and the Bible together in a way that they play off of each other.  The connection between Neo-Platonism and Christianity was known to others such as when Augustine records his meeting with Simplicianus, “he congratulated me that I had not fallen in with the writings of other philosophers full of fallacies and deceptions ‘according to the elements of this world’ (Col. 2:  8), whereas in all the Platonic books God and his Word keep slipping in” (135).  The Neo-Platonic texts do not contain verbatim the “important” biblical stories, but they serve as a spring board for his personal introspection.  It is by looking inward that Augustine learns more about himself and his faith in God.  When he looks at the connections between these texts he searches for ways to situate himself between those connections.

Augustine shows, by referencing and connecting other texts and voices with his own, that he has internalized what he has read and heard.  These other texts and voices mean something to Augustine and he wants to relate to the reader how this is so.  One interpretation is that he is setting down a reading list (and a list of his own experiences) that helped him to become who he is.  He situates himself in the “Great Chain of Being” by connecting himself with these other works.  The Great Chain of Being connects the lowest element of Earth with the highest apex, God.  Humanity lies on the Chain depending on hierarchy.  Augustine looks for his own place on the Chain by developing the self through this autobiography.  In order to situate himself in the Chain, he must also situate the texts he references in relation to one another.  The Neo-Platonists reinterpreted and expanded on the works of Plato and his followers.  They would have been writing and working when Christianity was gaining momentum.  Ultimately the Christians usurped Neo-Platonism (which was initially a philosophical basis for paganism) and its ideas.  Additionally the Neo-Platonists may have been influenced by Christianity through Gnosticism and the early Christian sects.  Augustine implicitly builds these connections by showing how closely the two systems are similar and he ties them to himself by writing about how they have influenced him.  Thus, the individual becomes the link in the Chain that ties interconnected ideas together.

The technologies of reading and writing are already embedded in Augustine’s Confessions.  He does not say that his book must be read silently, but the practice of reading silently is related to the practice of introspection.  He writes of Ambrose, “When he was reading, his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent” (92).  Reading silently was not common in Augustine’s time, but it is known that some people did read that way.  Augustine is also credited as a silent reader.  The time when Augustine was alive was a time of transition.  During the time of Socrates and Plato (approximately 700 years before Augustine) there were conflicts between the oral tradition and the new technology of writing.  Socrates believed in the oral tradition and his student, Plato believed in recording his teachings on a written medium.  By Augustine’s time there were many texts, but most reading was done by reading out loud.  It was a synthesis of the oral and written traditions.  This means that other people can hear what is being read and the reading can be critiqued and questioned by others.  The beginning of silent reading is a precursor to expansion of individual analysis and introspection.  Reading was moving from the public sphere to the private sphere.  Along with this move was a greater burden on the reader to understand and interpret the text that was being read.  Instead of having the proverbial “person reading over your shoulder,” the reader did not have an audience who could provide feedback on the text being read aloud.  Augustine reinforced the shift to silent reading by signifying more weight on the individual through autobiography of an individual who reads silently and utilizes introspection for the building of identity.

The technology of organization that Augustine used was embedded in the book technology of that time.  The artifact/text known as Confessions was constructed out of thirteen numbered “books,” the books were built of numbered chapters, and the chapters were made of numbered paragraphs.  The numbering in each category of text was ascending (from one to two to three, etc.)  This kind of ordering was useful at that time because books were hand copied and they may have been copied on to different media such as scrolls or codex.  Because different kinds of writing and sizes could be employed, it would not have been as advantageous to use a page number system like we use today because “page 100” in the scroll copied by one scribe may have text from a different portion of Confessions than “page 100” in the codex copied by another.  One writer may fit more material on one page than another which would lead to one written text being “ahead of” the other.  The readers in Augustine’s time must have had an understanding of how his book’s structure worked in order for them to read it from “start to finish” and reference it in a meaningful way.  The technology of reading and using his book was already understood to the educated of his time.

Augustine made a powerful choice to write down his autobiography along with the process of his introspection. He writes in Book Ten, “Nevertheless, make it clear to me, physician of my most intimate self, that good results from my present undertaking.  Stir up the heart when people read and hear the confessions of my past wickednesses, which you have forgiven and covered up to grant me happiness in yourself, transforming my soul by faith and your sacrament” (180).  He is not writing all of this for God’s sake.  He has confessed to God and God has forgiven him.  The Confessions is a recording of his own self-discovery.  This quote reveals that he hopes that God will “stir up the heart” when someone else reads his book.  This text acts as a program that must be executed by the reader through reading.  These are the steps and the thoughts that allowed him to arrive at self-discovery.  His readers may use this as a guide on their own paths to this same goal.  The difference between the oral and written traditions is that with a written tradition you can reach a much wider audience than with an oral tradition.  Augustine can help guide many more readers than he can individuals in person.  The process does require an active agent to copy the text for distribution, but it spreads not unlike a virus into the collective consciousness.  More connections are built between his text and others (before and after) as time progresses from its completion.

The “code” being read is open to interpretation of the reader.  Augustine writes on this topic in reference to the differences in interpretation of Moses in Genesis.  He writes, “For through him the one God has tempered the sacred books to the interpretations of many, who could come to see a diversity of truths…if I myself were to be writing something at this supreme level of authority I would choose to write these matters each reader was able to grasp, rather than to give a quite explicit statement of a single true view of this question in such a way as to exclude other views–provided there was not false doctrine to offend me” (271).  Augustine’s view of allowing interpretation to take place allows for the reader to become engaged with what the author is writing.  Keeping things open to the reader’s interpretation allows for interaction to take place between the reader and the writer.  He poses many questions, but he does not answer them all.  The book medium allows for this interaction to take place in the mind of the reader without the author needing to be present.  The reader interfaces with the book by reading it, then the reader reflects on what has been “said,” and finally, the reader comes to a new awareness or understanding based on what has been read.

Augustine’s Confessions, acting as a program, assists the reader in their development in a similar way to how God is represented as helping Augustine when he writes, “And I found myself far from you ‘in the region of dissimilarity, and heard as it were your voice from on high:  ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me.  And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me'” (123).  His personal identity and the development of his “self” are linked with his belief in God.  Augustine’s active belief in God ultimately leads to the fusion of the individual with the Almighty.  Thus, he is showing how his process of developing greater self-consciousness (in the network of ideas) can raise the individual up the Great Chain of Being to the ultimate height of God (other relevant texts on 130, 145, 152-153, 160, 163, 258).

—————————-

Earlier Draft

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel

LCC 3314 – Technologies of Representation

September 7, 2004

Augustine’s Confessions Paper

By the Platonic books I was admonished to return into myself.  With you as my guide I entered into my innermost citadel, and was given power to do so because you had become my helper (Ps. 29:  11)…And I found myself far from you ‘in the region of dissimilarity, and heard as it were your voice from on high:  ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me.  And you will not change into me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me’ (Augustine 123).

The Platonic books play a large part in Augustine’s personal development which he writes in his book, Confessions.  Augustine wrote, “First you wanted to show me how you ‘resist the proud and give grace to the humble’ (I Pet. 5:  5)…Through a man puffed up with monstrous pride, you brought under my eye some books of the Platonists” (121).   These books provide the key to his journey of self-discovery.  Augustine then quotes biblical passages regarding the word of God and the relationship between the Father and the Son (121-122).  In each of these examples Augustine notes that he did not find these stories in the Platonic texts.  He plays one the Platonic books against the Bible to develop a nested structure in his Confessions.  Through his use of contrast between these two groups of texts he sets apart his belief in the church (through the stories of the Bible) and the philosophy offered him by the Neo-Platonists.  The Bible offers truths for Augustine, whereas the Platonic books allow him to do the thing which made the Confessions possible.  Augustine writes, “By the Platonic books I was admonished to return into myself.”  Introspection leads Augustine to self-discovery.  He combines introspection with his faith in developing his Confessions.

Augustine’s Confessions is a nested narrative written later in his life after he has become a member of the Catholic Church.  The autobiographical portion of this book relies on his memory to recall and then record the things which he remembers.  The first level is Augustine writing about the things that he remembers.  On the second level, he is writing about the books that he has read.  These too are in his memory, but they are a physical artifact that played a definitive part in the development of his identity.  Books serve as an artifact that guide introspection by enriching the reader with what is written in the book.  The most cited texts in Confessions are from the Bible.  The Church has become a large part of his life by the time that he writes this book.  The narrative form that he employs is that he is confessing to God, but it is also a confession that will be read by others.  In the quote above he is referring to his beginning the path of introspection after reading the works of the Neo-Platonists.  In this part of Book Seven he nests the Platonic texts and the Bible together in a way that they play off of each other.  He is saying that the Platonic texts did not contain verbatim the important biblical stories, but they serve a purpose for him in that they are a spring board for his personal introspection.  It is by looking inward that Augustine learns more about himself and his faith in God.  The Platonic texts serve as a basis of education for his development towards attaining the education of God.

Augustine’s writing follows from his memory to his pen to the paper.  Within the narrative he references other texts such as the works of the Neo-Platonists and the Bible.  When he refers to these other texts he has internalized what he has read and he is laying them down in his book in such a way to convey his understanding of those works as well as the way in which they influenced his development.  The connection between Neo-Platonism and Christianity was known to others such as when Augustine records his meeting with Simplicianus, “he congratulated me that I had not fallen in with the writings of other philosophers full of fallacies and deceptions ‘according to the elements of this world’ (Col. 2:  8), whereas in all the Platonic books God and his Word keep slipping in” (135).

The technologies of reading and writing are already embedded in Augustine’s Confessions.  He does not say that his book must be read silently, but the practice of reading silently is related to the practice of introspection.  He writes of Ambrose, “When he was reading, his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent” (92).  Reading silently was not common in Augustine’s time, but it is known that some people did read that way.  Augustine is also credited as a silent reader.  The time when Augustine was alive was a time of transition.  During the time of Socrates and Plato (approximately 700 years before Augustine) there were conflicts between the oral tradition and the new technology of writing.  Socrates believed in the oral tradition and his student, Plato believed in recording his teachings on a written medium.  By Augustine’s time there were many texts, but most reading was done by reading out loud.  It was a synthesis of the oral and written traditions.  This means that other people can hear what is being read and the reading can be critiqued and questioned by others.  The beginning of silent reading is a precursor to expansion of individual analysis and introspection.  Reading was moving from the public sphere to the private sphere.  Along with this move was a greater burden on the reader to understand and interpret the text that was being read.  Instead of having the proverbial “person reading over your shoulder,” the reader did not have an audience who could provide feedback on the text being read aloud.

The technology of organization that Augustine used was embedded in the book technology of that time.  The text known as Confessions was constructed out of thirteen numbered “books” and these were constructed of numbered chapters and the chapters were constructed of numbered paragraphs.  The numbering in each category of text was ascending (from one to two to three, etc.)  This kind of ordering was useful at that time because books were hand copied and they may have been copied on to different media such as scrolls or codex.  Because different kinds of writing and sizes could be employed, it would not have been as advantageous to use a page number system like we use today because “page 100” in the scroll copied by Arturus may have text from a different portion of Confessions than “page 100” in the codex copied by Crispianus.  One writer may fit more material on one page than another which would lead to one written text being “ahead of” the other.  The readers in Augustine’s time must have had an understanding of how his book’s structure worked in order for them to read it from “start to finish” and reference it in a meaningful way.

Why does Augustine record his Confessions on paper so that others may read it?  He writes in Book Ten, “Nevertheless, make it clear to me, physician of my most intimate self, that good results from my present undertaking.  Stir up the heart when people read and hear the confessions of my past wickednesses, which you have forgiven and covered up to grant me happiness in yourself, transforming my soul by faith and your sacrament” (180).  He is not writing all of this for God’s sake.  He has confessed to God and God has forgiven him.  His Confessions is a recording of his own self-discovery.  This quote reveals that he hopes that God will “stir up the heart” when someone else reads his book.  Confessions acts as a program that must be executed by the reader.  He is saying this is how I arrived at self-discovery and maybe my way of doing it will aid you, the reader, along that same path.  The difference between the oral and written traditions is that with a written tradition you can reach a much wider audience than with an oral tradition.  Augustine can help guide many more readers than he can individuals in person.

The “code” being read is open to interpretation of the reader.  Augustine writes on this topic in reference to the differences in interpretation of Moses in Genesis.  He writes, “For through him the one God has tempered the sacred books to the interpretations of many, who could come to see a diversity of truths…if I myself were to be writing something at this supreme level of authority I would choose to write these matters each reader was able to grasp, rather than to give a quite explicit statement of a single true view of this question in such a way as to exclude other views–provided there was not false doctrine to offend me” (271).  Augustine’s view of allowing interpretation to take place allows for the reader to become engaged with what the author is writing.  Keeping things open to the reader’s interpretation allows for interaction to take place between the reader and the writer.  He poses many questions, but he does not answer them all.  The book medium allows for this interaction to take place in the mind of the reader without the author needing to be present.  The reader interfaces with the book by reading it, debates the work within themselves with introspection, and the reader comes to a new awareness or understanding based on what has been read.    For Augustine this is best represented in finding truth through God when he writes, “And I found myself far from you ‘in the region of dissimilarity, and heard as it were your voice from on high:  ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me.  And you will not change into me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me'” (123).  Through his faith in God and his understanding of God he “will be changed into me” (i.e., God, the truth).  Truth, for Augustine, is attained through the union with God.  This is the path that he sets down for others to read in his Confessions.  Augustine says of God, “With you as my guide I entered into my innermost citadel, and was given power to do so because you had become my helper (Ps. 29:  11)” (123).  Whether Augustine was conscious of it at the time when he began reading the Platonic texts he claims God was his “helper” in his process of introspection.  Perhaps he writes this book so that he can be a helper to others on their own path of introspection and personal development.  For Augustine, God would be present for anyone in search of their faith, but Augustine’s book serves as a tool to help others in much the way that other texts aided in his own development (e.g., other texts on 130, 145, 152-153, 160, 163, 258).

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Georgia Tech, Recovered Writing
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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