Altizer as I knew him: A tribute by Ted Jennings

[Note: Ted Jennings shared this text with a circle of friends who are mourning the recent death of Thomas J.J. Altizer. It is published here with his permission.]

When I first came to Candler School of Theology at Emory in 1964 I heard stories of Tom Altizer and his motorcycle, subsequently sabotaged I believe. I became aware that many of my favorite professors were part of what was then known as the Altizer circle (Boers, Hoffmann, Mallard, Runyon, and a couple of others) who exchanged papers they dared not publish on radical theology. After 1965 (when I had become president of the student body) I organized a debate between the philosophical (but very conservative) theologian on the Candler faculty and Tom. It filled the largest venue then available at Emory, complete with press. In the course of setting that up I had my first conversations with Tom, whose energy was matched only by his unfailing kindness and generosity.

Continue reading “Altizer as I knew him: A tribute by Ted Jennings”

Clarification of my relationship with Zero Books

Since Angela Nagle, author of the Zero Books title Kill All Normies, has begun writing anti-immigration columns in pro-Trump publications, I thought it would be helpful to clarify my relationship with that imprint. Long story short, there was a complete and total turnover of editorial staff while Creepiness was in production. The new leadership obviously did not share the same values or editorial standards as the founders, as shown by the fact that they didn’t just publish Nagle’s deeply flawed, partially plagiarized book — they publicized it intensively. At the same time, they left “orphaned” authors like me to languish, even though I had already provided two of their previous bestsellers.

I had to do my own publicity for years, with very limited success, because I was told that they had no resources. So to see them finally put some effort into marketing for such a deeply questionable book was infuriating. Meanwhile, the New Yorker had requested a review copy of Creepiness and COULDN’T GET AN ANSWER from the publisher. They ignored a request from the New Yorker! I had to personally send them one of my author copies. When I complained about this situation, the new editor — who is now on record as saying that they don’t do editing and hence Nagle’s plagiarism is fine — offered to make it up to me by hooking me up with a podcast interview with a little-known Zero author. I declined.

So if anyone wants to paint me with a guilt-by-association brush here — you have your answer. They disowned me completely before I even realized what was happening.

Knot of the Soul Book Event: Oscillation, Eschatology, Space

This final post in the book forum is by Daniel Colucciello Barber.

“What if the heteronymous agency of the drive were seen from the perspective of Islamic eschatological ethics as having the structure of the ordeal?” (5) With this question Stefania Pandolfo elegantly adumbrates a central aim of her profound book, Knot of the Soul: the elaboration of a certain affinity or resonance—what she at one point calls a “family relationship”—“between the psychoanalytic and the Islamic traditions” with regard to illness. (11) The stakes, implications, and challenges of this resonance, as Pandolfo articulates it, might be observed by means of another question, which emerges out of the same problem space: What is the end of illness?

There is, of course, a double valence intrinsic to this question: on one hand, end invokes the practical question of a cessation of illness, of what might be imagined in terms of reaching health or well-being; on the other, end invokes the theoretical or even metaphysical question—can one think being as that which is well?—of a meaning, a sense or direction, in relation to illness. Such a metaphysical register is catalyzed by the fact that, at least on my reading, one of the proposed resonances between psychoanalytic and Islamic traditions is the reality of what might be called an Outside—a denomination I present only provisionally, since there is no presumption of a distinct third term in which the two traditions participate. This is to say that the encounter Pandolfo articulates between psychoanalysis and Islam does not proceed in terms of a logic of one and many, where the difference between these two traditions would be mediated in virtue of a point of reference that transcends each.

Continue reading Knot of the Soul Book Event: Oscillation, Eschatology, Space”

The Messianic Turkey

Thanksgiving is turkey pardoning season. For decades now, the U.S. president has been ceremonially releasing a lucky turkey from its fate as a family dinner. It is a bizarre custom, and NPR reports that it has its roots in an attempt to distract the public from the Iran-Contra scandal, which had raised questions as to whether Reagan would pardon members of his own administration who had been caught up in it. George H.W. Bush formalized the ritual, and it has been with us ever since.

Thus the turkey pardon is associated with the president who ushered in the neoliberal order and was confirmed by his successor, who presided over the transition to the “new world order” that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was the historical moment in which the U.S. President effectively became the global sovereign, unchecked by the counterweight of the Eastern bloc.

Giorgio Agamben teaches us that the fundamental activity of sovereignty in the Western political order is the production of bare life through the inclusion-by-exclusion of natural life or zōē. And it is certainly the case that the U.S. as global sovereign has consigned ever-increasing populations to the status of bare life, above all in the assertion of the power to carry out drone strikes anywhere in the world based solely on the president’s own decision.

In this context, the spectacle of the turkey pardon appears ironic or even parodic. At a time when the president can put virtually anyone to death based on his sole discretion, without any need for a legal trial or judgment, he also extends mercy to an animal, “including” it in the legal order by declaring its exemption from guilt. Yet what could this possibly mean? The turkey is not legally accountable for its actions and hence incapable of committing a crime. A pardon is not only superfluous, but incoherent. There have been cases of people who have maintained their innocence and therefore refused a pardon because it would imply a previous legal guilt. Yet the turkey is not even innocent — it is absolutely foreign the regime of guilt and innocence. To the extent that it is condemned to death, it is not for any kind of crime, but solely as a result of its de facto appeal as a human foodstuff. And even when it does have this strange encounter with the legal order, it does not generate new legal facts (aside, perhaps, from a transfer of ownership to the relevant wildlife sanctuary). Certainly it does not constitute the turkey as a legal subject with rights. Someone who killed the pardoned turkey would not be a murderer, but simply a jerk.

The encounter between sovereignty and the natural life of the turkey is thus a failed one, and therein lies the turkey pardon’s messianic promise. The ultimate sovereign prerogative of the presidential pardon falls idle in its application to a subject who is incapable of guilt or innocence. As against the “zone of indistinction” that opens up between law and life in the sovereign exception, here we have a separation of the two orders without any overlap — a law that is inapplicable, and a life that is simply lived, in blissful ignorance of the legal order. In the messianic kingdom, we will all, in a sense, be the pardoned turkey that is left to live out its life in peace.

Knot of the Soul Book Event: Encountering the Invisible

This post comes to us from Ali Altaf Mian, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Seattle University. His review essay on Knot of the Soul, forthcoming in qui parle, particularly considers how Pandolfo inhabits the “ethics of psychoanalysis” and the citational status of the Qur’an in her ethnography.

Say (O Muhammad): It has been revealed to me that a company of the Jinn gave ear [to the Qur’an], and they said: Lo! We have heard a marvelous Qur’an.

—Qur’an 72:1.

DJINN: according to the Muslim conception bodies (adjsam) composed of vapour or flame, intelligent, imperceptible to our senses, capable of appearing under different forms and of carrying out heavy labours (al-Baydawi, Comm. to Kur’an, LXXII, 1; al-Damiri, Hayawan, s.v. djinn). They were created of smokeless flame (Kur’an, LV, 14) while mankind and the angels, the other two classes of intelligent beings, were created of clay and light. They are capable of salvation; Muhammad was sent to them as well as to mankind; some will enter Paradise while others will be cast into the fire of hell.

The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd Edition, 2:546-7.

Their speech is an incised shape of silence, an intaglio,
in which the word is not a single, schisted bloc
of sense, like ours, but guards its pristine
opacity and is impossible
for any dragoman to approximate.

—Eric Ormsby, “The Jinn.”

Possession-form identities in dissociative identity disorder typically manifest as behaviors that appear as if a “spirit,” supernatural being, or outside person has taken control, such that the individual begins speaking or acting in a distinctly different manner. For example, an individual’s behavior may give the appearance that her identity has been replaced by the “ghost” of a girl who committed suicide in the same community years before, speaking and acting as though she were still alive. Or an individual may be “taken over” by a demon or deity, resulting in profound impairment, and demanding that the individual or a relative be punished for a past act, followed by more subtle periods of identity alteration. However, the majority of possession states around the world are normal, usually part of spiritual practice, and do not meet criteria for dissociative identity disorder. The identities that arise during possession-form dissociative identity disorder present recurrently, are unwanted and involuntary, cause clinically significant distress or impairment…and are not a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice.

—American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition

What does it mean to assume a subject position in the context of the ‘therapies of the jinns’?

—Stefania Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 87.

The invisible figures of jinns populate Muslim-majority societies. They come up not only in Qur’anic verses that report of their astonishment at Muhammad’s recitation of sacred writ but also in folk tales that portray them as paranormal parasites that possess or perturb bodies but especially brains. The idea of the jinn, living beings that many Muslims hold to be invisible to human perception, indicates for many of us in the Western academy a limit of the ontological thinkable. To assume that jinns are real existents, to take them not as figures of fiction but of fact—of veridicality—flies in the face of “enlightened man.”

Continue reading Knot of the Soul Book Event: Encountering the Invisible”

Knot of the Soul Book Event: Knotting South Asia

The following post comes to us from Rajbir Singh Judge, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life with affiliations in the Department of Religion and Institute of South Asia at Columbia University in the City of New York. He specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of South Asia, with a particular emphasis on the Punjab.

Is psychoanalysis doomed to fail, sullied, as numerous scholars remind us, by its colonial stain? Against this unavoidable historicization, there has emerged a different and important endeavor that undoes this originary moment by fragmenting psychoanalysis itself, unable to be contained within a singular historical trajectory emanating from the West. In Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam, Stefania Pandolfo embodies such queries, challenging historicist concerns without reproducing psychoanalysis as an atemporal universal. But, in her exploration of the “time-space of ruins”[1] and “the never-ending work of ethical struggle,”[2] another difficult question emerges that fragments the ordering of the first: Is it possible to “carve a path towards an encounter with the divine, as a possibility open at the very site of [colonial] agony?”[3] Here, in this unresolved space, the ground is no longer a void enacted by the colonial regime’s epistemic violence nor the tracing of a residual historical genealogy and, therefore, a continued symbolic belonging in relation to the void. Instead, our attention is forced to openings of the very temporal order, suspensions in the symbolic enacted by the Divine, which haunt the anguish that clouds the historical.[4]

I want to tentatively consider how Pandolfo’s insights enact this shift by questioning two interrelated concepts, the subject and historicity, in relation to literature on South Asia. Though brief, I hope to demonstrate how Pandolfo’s insistence on the dissonant and, thus, open encounter between psychoanalysis and Islam provides an opportunity to rethink our troubled conceptual terrain. Importantly, such an encounter reorients our disavowal of alterity, compelled as we are to take easier routes to more comforting destinations through a palatable and recoverable inheritance. A psychoanalytic approach offers another possibility, refusing ontic concerns masquerading as ontological ones that provide satisfaction in the production of meaning, heterogeneous or otherwise. Instead, the task of psychoanalysis provides an opportunity, as Alenka Zupančič tells us, “to slowly but thoroughly deactivate the path of this satisfaction, to render it useless,” through what we can think of as an “object-disoriented ontology.”[5] Pandolfo grapples within this disoriented space itself through ethnography, theology, and poetics, turning our attention to the Islamic tradition. And, rather than enact a satisfying closure through psychoanalysis or Islam as ontological totalities or multiplicities, Pandolfo guides us to the encounter between the two, which requires we consider “the productivity of taking seriously this overlap, and the participation of the knowledge of the unconscious in the ontology of the Invisible (al-ghayb) and divine knowledge.”[6]

Continue reading Knot of the Soul Book Event: Knotting South Asia”

Knot of the Soul Book Event: On Philosophical Ethnography

“Life is essentially itself.” — Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion, p. 290

“There’s no such thing as life, just phenomena after phenomena after phenomena.” — Co—star App, horoscope for the author algorithmically generated August 16th, 2018.

Knot of the Soul reflects a commitment to ethnography as both empirical research and a philosophical project. […] The stories, or ‘cases,’ are themselves theoretical sites of elucidation. Concepts emerge within the ethnography, and are brought into conversation with other concepts. […] The ethnography is more than just a description of the there-and-then of its anthropological object, be that contemporary Morocco, psychiatry, the life of patients, psychoanalysis, Qur’anic cures, or the Islamic ethical tradition. It has the nature of a coming to the fore, an encounter, with a world and a tradition, but more fundamentally with what Ilyas called the ‘torment of life’.’” — Stefania Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, pp. 22, 23

The attentive reader of Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam cannot help but by struck by the beauty of its sadness and the depth of the suffering attended to within its writing. It is this quality of the book that lies at the center of its resistance to the standard modes of academic commentary or review. What do you write about in the face of suffering? It’s a question that lies at the heart of Pandolfo’s project, as I understand it. How do you write and analyze in a way that is faithful to the incoherence of a life lived? How do you deploy concepts and stories, which are used to form coherence, without then shifting attention away from the suffering attended to?

Though these are but two ways of formulating the question, for me the configuration of this question demands a response that looks to the method of the project. Pandolfo’s book, like her earlier Impasse of the Angels, is beautiful at the level of its writing, precisely because her work takes seriously the melancholy of a life lived amongst a people, in a culture, positioned within a society. Yet, the method of her book is not simply to tell sad stories. Continue reading Knot of the Soul Book Event: On Philosophical Ethnography”