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. Pandolfo’s work cannot be reduced to the level of journalistic sentimentality, to the weary voice of some media-friendly intellectual bringing the story of the Other to a sympathetic audience. The pervasive melancholic mood in her ethnographic work is presented in a way that is, frankly, unfriendly to mediatized and familiar narratives of liberal humanitarianism. We should read this mood in the light of her understanding of the ethnographic project: “the writing of the Other, not one that fixes the other person or culture in place as an object of knowledge but one that allows itself to be pierced and guided by the Other, at once an elucidation and a working through (19).” The mood and presentation of suffering throughout Knot of the Soul is a summoning out of our self, out of the Self. This writing is not concerned with eliciting pity for the Other, in this case the various suffers of psychological maladies in Morocco and their intertwined reality with colonialism and the postcolonial reminder of European violence. All of that is part of the analysis, part of being guided by the Other, in this work, but these others take us not to a culture for transformation or renewal, but towards self-annihilation (itself a persistent theme throughout the book).

Ethnography as self-annihilation strikes me as intimately connected to what I understand to be the philosophical project Pandolfo references in the epigraph above. In what follows I want to think with Knot of the Soul about the philosophical nature of ethnography, specifically attempting to tease out the architecture of that philosophical project as present in the ethnography there. Ultimately, being pierced by the Other and self-annihilation are two ways of speaking about the same essence that risks settling into an amphiboly of Other and Self. Ultimately, I think that resists this sedimentation, but there are costs incurred. In tracing out the shape of a philosophical ethnography my hope is that we will begin to see the power and limits of such a project.

The two practices of thought—ethnography and philosophy—are not often thought explicitly in relation to one another, at least not in a positive register. There is no shortage of snippy asides in philosophy texts about attempting to move beyond “mere anthropology” and no shortage of pleading in anthropological texts to heed the dangers of being taken away on the wings of philosophical speculation. Given the pressures that face scholars to stay within the bounds of their discipline, why would Pandolfo risk this blurring and collapse of the border? While she may, of course, answer for herself, if we want to engage with her work it may be helpful to think about what is constrained within these two names. To do so, let’s consider here own description of a philosophical ethnography that she intends as a reply to Benslama’s incomplete attempt to think Islam and psychanalysais through the dangerous encounter of the other:

“It is from this perspective that the philosophical ethnography that follows might offer, as a reply to Benslama, the elements of a differing reading of (and a different relation to) a set of practices that seek not a ‘return to the origin,’ much less of a delusional one, but instead aim at addressing the predicament of feeling and thinking in a context of social, political, and spiritual crisis, and do so through the confrontation with human vulnerability and unreason, through a concrete ethical engagement in the world, and through the task of critique (137).”

Ethnography is the occasion and material through which the philosophical work is undertaken. In an obvious way, the empirical research of ethnographic work provides the material, since philosophical reflection and analysis requires material upon which to work. The material surfaced in her witnessing of encounters between patient and doctor, in their own reflections and analyses of their lives and world, all becomes part of a philosophical dialogue. But Pandolfo’s philosophical ethnography is more powerfully philosophical because it does not only subject the ethnographic material to philosophy. Consider the comparison between Benslama’s and Pandolfo’s projects. Benslama’s intertwining of philosophy (via psychoanalysis) and something akin to ethnography as the reading of the history and life of ideas is marked as less powerful (on my reading) in its encounter than Pandolfo’s philosophical ethnography through an overarching decision in favor of one moral position (a kind of modernized or psychoanalytically healthy Muslim community) over another (the Islamists and suicide bombers). Whereas, in Knot of the Soul, the philosophical traditions deployed are also made equivalent as material to the thoughts and analyses of Ilyas, Dr. R, the Imam, or any other interlocutor found in the text. The encounter with philosophy is as part and parcel of the empirical research of ethnography. Where Benslama, again on my reading, cannot resist the temptation to place a community and culture in a hierarchical relationship to philosophy, Pandolfo practices an equivocation of the two.

The comparison between the two is instructive. In the case of Benslama there is a shying away from the encounter. Philosophy comes to structure and have sovereignty over the thought presented. It becomes a kind of good father, not directly inflicting violence to shape the life of the subject, but still resisting the nature of encounter by deciding in advance what can be made coherent and what will have to be beaten out. Philosophy comes to be primary and in Knot of the Soul the encounter is primary. This is how I came to understand a particular sense of frustration I had in reading the book. It has some of the most beautiful passages and fascinating conceptual constructions I have read in recent memory, while at the same time I did not find a coherent framework being argued for in the text. This strikes me as fundamentally different from most philosophical work, where the coherence of the argument is central to the identity of the work as philosophical in nature.

In fashioning the encounter as primary over coherence, even if it is an encounter with two sites of coherence (a world and a tradition), we see the way philosophy can be transformed by ethnography and how both might come to be practices that witness to a greater incoherence even as they still produce transcendental and empirical hallucinations of coherence.

In response to the question “what is philosophy?” Deleuze and Guattari tell us that philosophy is the creation of concepts. The concepts of philosophy are never simple but always multiply, they claim. These philosophical concepts are distinct to the “functives and prospects” that the sciences create and the “affects and precepts” that art creates. Whether or not these are the right formulations for these disciplines and practices and whether or not we can fully divide disciplines in this way, there is a powerful conceptualization of what these disciplines do in relation to their encounter with reality. Deleuze and Guattari conceive of reality as a kind of chaos and the various modes of human knowing are part of the encounter with that chaos. There is an implicit Spinozist sense of ethics lying beneath their conception of philosophy, where some philosophies are ethical in their encounter and others failing to be so, merely reducing philosophy to function or shifting to the realm of religion. The ethical practice of philosophy begins by placing a sieve over chaos, giving it consistency as the plane of immanence. Chaos, they tell us, “is characterized less by the absence of determinations than by the infinite speed with which they take shape and vanish (42).” Philosophical concepts slow down the emergence of these determinations, allowing the time for them to be taken in. Such a taking in is philosophical understanding, since the infinite speed of chaos does not truly slow down, we do not defeat what appears as death here. Philosophy’s coming to know is a matter, then, of whether or not we bear the birth and death, the coming to be and the vanishing, of all things and in what way the philosopher bears them.

Philosophy does not tolerate sentimentality. To take in or bear all things is not a matter of pity. Not being a matter of pity does not preclude it being a matter of compassion, as Laruelle details in his General Theory of Victims, but compassion is distinct from pity in that compassion is a kind of self-annihilation. The suffering of the other becomes my suffering or I begin to suffer what the other suffers in taking the same posture and moving towards the position of the other, without, of course, taking that position. This other, at the center of the ethnographic project according to Pandolfo, is a concept according to Deleuze and Guattari and one with a history that goes back to Leibniz’s possible worlds: “The other person appears here as neither subject nor object but as something that is very different: a possible world, the possibility of a frightening world. […] The other is a possible world as it exists in a face that expresses it and takes shape in a language that gives it a reality. In this sense it is a concept with three inseparable components: possible world, existing face, and real language or speech (17).”

It might be tempting to think that the presence of the concept of the other in ethnography means that Pandolfo’s project of a philosophical ethnography is superfluous. It is a matter of intention and intensity, of making explicit the philosophical aspect of ethnography. We must also avoid the mistake of thinking that philosophy ought to take the lead in the project of a philosophical ethnography. What we see in Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the concept of the other, and throughout their discussion of philosophy in What is Philosophy?, is a focus on world. Philosophy becomes a tool of self-defense against the chaos that threatens dissolution through speed. Even in the way the other suggests the possibility of a threatening world, there is still a world that threatens. In distinction to this vision where ethnography would be assumed to serve philosophy as a tool in its defense against chaos, Pandolfo’s philosophical ethnography undoes world through the “torment of life.” Instead of the threatening other, the face of the other, the project of writing of the torment of life tears open ever more the holes that populate the various lay lines of the plane of immanence that philosophical concepts constitute.

It might be asked what value this adds to the philosophical project. I am struck with the conclusion that there is none. Taking in the torment of life is what leads to the fragmentary nature of Pandolfo’s writing. Not fragments in the sense of snapshots, but fragments as in the writing reflects the ruins of the lives witnessed to. Even as concepts populate that writing, what we see is they fail to provide any kind of lasting consistency, or any kind of lasting salve. To be guided by the other, to self-annihilate in thought, is to find the consistency of our thought to be continuously pierced or opened up by that other. Philosophy does not come to an end in ethnographic writing, it just comes to ruin. We see witnessed throughout Knot of the Soul that such ruins are inhabited, that such pain is lived, that as with Ilyas and Samia, while philosophy might look to heal, the ethical act might be found elsewhere in what they call their “story of love.” How might we rethink this without sentimentality?