Remembering to forget: Theological tropologies of confession and disavowal

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




M. Gail Hamner


Confession, Disavowal, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Derrida

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Religion


This dissertation examines the philosophical nature of confession and how every confession is also a disavowal. In Book X of the Confessions , Augustine asks about the source of forgetting and proposes that some logic underwrites its operations. I contend that one name for this logic is "disavowal," a term Slavoj Zizek uses to mean consciously setting aside knowledge or holding two contradictory positions at the same time. For Zizek, disavowal operates like the fetish, in which the subject fashions a stand-in for the object of its real desires, which it can never fully attain. As an expression of desire, fetishistic disavowal functions to sustain what he calls "ideological fantasy," a positive means of structuring and framing experience. Thus disavowal does not emanate from knowledge, but as an expression of desire.

In the same way confession, which is both a profession of belief and an attempt to adjudicate a wrong, is concerned not with knowledge but with desire. And yet, as Augustine attests, the confessing subject is opaque to itself and so can never fully know what or how to confess. Following Jacques Derrida's Circumfession , I argue that desire and undecidability underwrite both disavowal and confession, revealing them not as dialectical and in need of resolution but rather as nonoppositional and productive phenomena.

The immediate application of my argument for theology is that, as an institution, theology is both problematized and enabled by disavowal. It is a problem for theology whenever concepts, words, habits and practices become fixed, hardened and taken to be "natural." Conversely, disavowal enables theology by allowing it to "forget itself" and its previous formulations through what Derrida calls "iterability," such that theology can continue its never-ending need for reconfiguration and reterritorialization. The aim, then, is not to overcome the structure of disavowal-confession, but rather to negotiate it in such a way that avows its inherent risks but also the abiding desires motivating it in the first place.


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