Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Poetics of Infraction

The following post comes to us from Aaron Eldridge, PhD candidate in Anthropology and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation research, staged in Lebanon, concerns the foreclosures/inheritances of revival in Arab Orthodox Christianity.

“Lost in the rift of classification, there remained the question of the soul” (309). Knot of the Soul forays into the rift of thinking itself. Just as in the now famous preface to The Order of Things, wherein the “et cetera” of Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia, “the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.” But the question of the soul remains. It does not present an epistemological limit (for that is not what thinking is), a horizon of knowledge whose beyond can only be understood as the critical boundaries of interpretation. Instead, the question of the soul, as rendered here, is an enfolded extimacy that striates the necessarily assumed borders between psychoanalysis and Islam, madness and sanity, visible and invisible, the secular (immanent) and the Divine (transcendent). It is a wound, or, more precisely, a wounding. The question of the soul remains, addressing us through scenes of marginalia: immiseration, the ruin of community, the traumatic history of the subject.

Nor should fabulation be taken as incidental to the task of Knot of the Soul. For the question of thinking (and, if Heidegger is right, we have not yet begun to think), is not a departure away from but into the dream-space of the fable. That is, to begin to think at the rift is not a question of epistemological clarity but of transformative encounter. Hence, the book does not offer a hermeneutical interpretation of the soul in Islam, but sets out explicitly to capture psychoanalysis and the reader within the ambit of the question of the soul; the nafs is “something that addresses us directly, concerning the possibility of transforming our soul today” (241). If Knot of the Soul as method is not one of interpretation but of address, it is because the soul itself is the question of address. In other words, not of quiddity but of becoming. Ethnography here emerges as fabulation, a Traumarbeit, that stakes transformation at the site (for it could not be otherwise) of the rift.

“In their stories there is a lesson (‘ibra) for those who are endowed with insight” (245). But who has the insight? Who has the capacity to receive the lesson? And what does it mean to receive a lesson (initially I wrote lesion) anyway? If we want to think Knot of the Soul in line with the genre of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, then the task of the anthropologist, like that of the historian, is to read the scenes of the human world seized by the historical time of catastrophe, as signs and lessons disclosing a “nonhuman time”—an opening of both the hereafter and invisible (batin) within the time of the now. If to do the work of history, of ethnography, is to work at the point of the rift (which is to do any work at all), it means to countenance that work’s own recalcitrant core. Namely, that which cannot be worked upon; the jinn who will not speak, the non-human/Divine gaze of the painting, the death-drive.

What is at stake in the text, then, is the striating possibility of a relationship with this recalcitrant core. In Pandolfo’s eschatological rendering of the nafs, its incapacity is linked to a symptomatic impossibility of a relationship to death. Consequently, the dialect of the drive seizes and so too the ground of that form of life. The annihilation of the subject, consummated in suicide, is born of an incapacity to register a relation to death; it is a consequence of an existence of “living dead” where “the proximity with death is such that there is no longer a relation, “death” can no longer be “imagined”” (325). In other words, there is no relationship of address between the death drive and the subject. The faculty of tasawwur (image-formation) is overcome with specific, hallucinatory images of the death-drive: the media image of death, the commodification of desire and its production of frustrating lack. This is what disallows the subject from, using al-Ghazali’s term, “tasting” death and hence forming a relationship with it. Si vis vitam, para mortem, as Freud wrote. If you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death.

To “taste” death is clearly not to objectify it, nor to truly apprehend it in its immediate, rather than illusory, reality. Indeed, it seems that the impossible objectification of death—attempted either as part of the calculus within an economy of the good, or as sovereign extraction—constitutes this non-relationship. Tasting signifies a different engagement with the imaginal faculty; if it is to be possible to remember death, “we must become capable of inhabiting and tasting our pain” (328). Tasting death via pain enables the analogical (qiyasi) sensorium invoked by al-Ghazali. That is, it is the opening of relation as such. The welcoming of the trial and struggle (which is found in both good and bad conditions of life) “shifts the coordinates of the real. It means to move from a modality of the world in which things are transformed into objects in order to be “grasped,” used, possessed, to a modality in which they are transformed into that which “cannot be grasped”” (226). To taste our death is, to use the terminology of Lacan’s Ethics of Psychoanalysis, the possibility of courtship, of a poetics that may shift the coordinates of the Thing.

What, then, is relation? It is the knotted nafs inscribed as the question of the soul. Forged in the remembrance of death, which is not an object but an infraction—the “rift in classification.” The possibility of the courtship of the soul (which is both mine and not mine) is only possible within the remembrance of death, that painful infraction that breaks the heart.

What is the work of anthropology when relation itself originates as an infraction? A consequence is that ethnography cannot act as a neutral, objective ground on which relations play out. Knot of the Soul reorients the ethnographic scene from one braced between anthropologist and the world to one in which relation itself is staked—from an anthropology where death qua recalcitrant body is mediatized (translated) into a neutral meaning to one in which the addressee is captured by this encounter. If Knot of the Soul methodologically renders an address or lesson, then its poetics seek to break our heart, our soul. The topographic continuity between Ilya’s painting and Pandolfo’s writing on that painting is only possible within this re-coordination, one in which non-human time interpellates equally the now-time of ethnographer and painter alike. Its lesson is a poetics of infraction.