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]

But what does such an overlap and an ontology of the Invisible mean in relation to the subject? Let us take, what I hope is, a short detour. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s work is, of course, foundational.  In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak demonstrates the subject’s dislocation, which is furthered in the colony’s epistemic violence, revealing the subaltern subject as both effaced and “irretrievably heterogeneous,” an effacement doubled in relation to the sexed subaltern[7] Freud is essential in pondering this doubly effaced sexed subaltern especially when we consider the famous and evocative sentence “White men are saving brown women from brown men.”[8] As Spivak records, it is Freud himself who “predicates a history of repression that produces the final sentence”—one with a double origin: “one hidden in the amnesia of the infant, the other lodged in our archaic past,” which, then implicates “a preoriginary space where human and animal were not yet differentiated.”[9] We find then the sentence’s history too has a double origin: “one hidden in the maneuverings behind the British abolition of widow sacrifice in 1829, and the other lodged in the classical and Vedic past of Hindu India, the Rg-Vega and the Dharamasastra.[10] Again, all of which is structured by a third point, for, as Spivak writes, “No doubt there is also an undifferentiated preorginary space that supports this history.”[11]

What do we do with this third point—the preorginary space—that is often invisible when we consider Spivak’s work? Well, it appears it loses its possibilities even though it is the point that structures the relations between tradition and modernization and is, instead, rendered a stable entity within a constricting historicity.[12] I took this, by now too long, detour into Spivak’s work to highlight how Pandolfo artfully inhabits the interstices between the “preoriginary space,” the “irretrievably heterogeneous,” and the “violent shuttling” Spivak adeptly locates, by refusing to evacuate tradition’s relation to the Invisible. In other words, rather than looking to defend the secular subject or provide representation or absent potentials altogether, Pandolfo astutely takes us to a space where subjectivity itself subsides and the symbolic fails while attending to the possibilities in that very ruin. By attending to this site, Pandolfo does not recover or provide finality to the subject, but instead considers its strangeness. In this disorienting space, Pandolfo asks we “ponder the reality of the loss of the symbolic itself; to explore the aftermath of culture, the realm of the ‘broken jar’ and the possible words that might be born in the vision of ruin.”[13] This is not to deny, for example, her interlocutor, Amina’s appropriations and possibilities, but neither is it to make her speak. Instead, to continue with our example, Amina sings while we listen, a song that fragments the narrative, rupturing the syntax of our own coordinates through its “cohabitation with impossibility,” within, perhaps, the absented preoriginary space.[14] Amina, within her shuttling, then, also bears witness, as Pandolfo writes, “to the impossibility of inhabiting the site of symbolic protection and belonging,” while still existing within a zone of ‘agony’ in relation to the Divine—her voice of song heralding “a life in the memory of God.”[15]

Pandolfo, consequently, provides avenues to consider both the centrality of colonial ideology and its continuous failure, the task of unsettling our desire for a satisfactory historicization—a space outside origins, inheritance, and becoming. And, in this challenge, the subject is not only bound in its colonial agony as a site of impossibility, but grounded in a relation to the Divine that provides not only conditions for the subject to speak, but to annihilate the very terrain that coordinates our requirement of speaking. The focus then shifts from representation and speaking in all their multiple valences to also listening to a pause of historicity itself. For listening (écoute), Pandolfo brilliantly reminds us, “grasps the possibility of a questioning, of movement, a transformation,” challenging the fixity of representation and comprehension.[16] This questioning opens the terrain of history itself. Drawing on Fanon, Pandolfo requires we consider this vertiginous nature of historical existence, which, produces ethical possibilities capable of being engaged, Pandolfo argues, from within the contemporary Islamic tradition.[17] Within this vertigo of historical time, the time of “soul-choking” and trauma, emerges the prospect to “leap to another time” for the time of calamity is simultaneously, a passage in “the tapestry of a larger cosmic history.”[18] Again, it is this opening up to a passage external to historical time, “beyond the human subject and human temporality, onto an Outside,” as Pandolfo notes, that undoes the very questions we ask of the subject—a disclosure of both “a temporality of the hereafter” and, therefore, “the ethical task of the historian.”[19]

I wonder what this “temporality of the hereafter” means for the study of South Asia in the present. To think about Pandolfo’s work in South Asia would require we eschew the demands for both origins and historicity, central to analyses of South Asia predicated on a shared spatiotemporal landscape. In other words, in South Asia, it is argued, translation is always already possible and, thus, alterity is an imposition. Difference, in such a reading, is reducible to the pluralist South Asian landscape—unless rerouted by nefarious forces such as colonialism. The subcontinent makes a brief appearance in Pandolfo’s work through the work of Veena Das. Pandolfo finds resonances between Asha and Munjit with the voice and life of Amina. However, to quote Pandolfo at length in relation to Das (and, also, Nadia Seremetakis):

Despite their resonance with the story I am telling here, these modalities of mourning presuppose the persistence of a collectivity in place, one spiritually capable of hosting the ‘stranger’ and having access to the symbolic language of burial.[20]

This “persistence of a collectivity in place, one spiritually capable of hosting the ‘stranger’” is precisely what scholars of South Asia continue to invoke against what they see as the ruins of the present, most visible in the violence of Hindutva.[21]

We only need to turn to another work on jinns, Anand Vivek Taneja’s Jinnealogy to see this point. Taneja presents Islam as a plentitude that provides “enormous potentialities for ethical life” to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This is because the jinn-saints amongst the ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla “speak of and speak to a deep history that constitutes the North India self, a self far older than the Partition based on the incommensurability of Hindu and Muslim.”[22] As the metaphor strains under its theoretical presuppositions, the ruins whisper of “hospitality to strangers,” they speak of “the long histories of translation that have made Islamic ideas and concepts an indistinguishable part of Indic life and ethic,” they tell us of “Islam as an ethical inheritance and not a religious identity, the inheritance of a premodern past shared by Muslims and non-Muslims.”[23] By comprehending these voices, we are invited to begin a conversation in a shared sense of enchantment.[24]

In a roundabout way, this brings us back to the theorizing of tradition itself. Pandolfo offers us a compelling understanding of Islam, which challenges attempts to posit tradition as a recoverable object or sublime inheritance. Instead, Pandolfo, importantly, foregrounds Islam’s relation to a “temporality of understanding” against an isolated “time of comprehending,” which assimilates the other “into a preexisting discourse or configuration of the self.”[25] A time of understanding, on the other hand, is not linear—it does not reveal the continuation of a spatiotemporal inheritance, but a “discontinuous space-time of structural positioning in relation to the Other; imaginary identifications, and hesitations, which lead to the ‘leap’ of performative affirmation: ‘the moment of concluding.”[26] Pandolfo is asking us to consider the possibility of alterity—which is rendered an impossibility in a shared South Asia that subsumes difference, incommensurability, and unknowing within its totalizing frame. Taneja’s jinns, in this sense, obstinate and historically deposited, shared in their inheritance, mirror the intractable and unsubmitted jinn of Najat, which we encounter in Pandolfo’s work. Such unsubmitted jinns demonstrate, Pandolfo notes, how love embodied in a shared form doubles as a “form of domination that admits no other, no alterity, no difference it absorbs and devours in the kingdom of sameness, ultimately as drive to extinction.”[27]

Against this domination, Pandolfo shows how tradition is “not a closed hermeneutic horizon,” but, as Pandolfo reveals in the lives of Kamal, Jawad, and others, “an open imaginal space” creatively working “with and against the limits of one’s cultural universe.”[28] This is jihad-al-nafs. Yet, jihad-al-nafs is not simply “the refinement or perfectibility of the soul,” but also, as it is for the Imam, “an actual struggle, fraught with danger and the never-resolved risk of a loss without return.”[29] And, this is precisely what ethical being is—not embracing heterogeneity in an all-inclusive hold—but “that intimate struggle with a heterogeneity that can never be resolved, and with a violence that is forever lurking.”[30] To return to South Asia, the key then is not to simply gild the ruins of Partition, for example, with alternate shared visions, but to encircle their very failure—to listen without resolving while remaining at risk, struggling and wrestling in suspension.

Pandolfo’s theorizing brings to the fore a central insight scholars have missed about Talal Asad’s foundational work. I want to posit there is an important overlap between Asad’s and Pandolfo’s projects that require we refuse easy reductions of Asad’s work to prescriptive authority. Instead, much like Pandolfo, Asad demands we inhabit the very struggle that constitutes tradition.[31] We can see this clearly in Asad’s robust theorization of time where he challenges us to not consider tradition “as though it was the passing on of an unchanging substance in homogeneous time” since such a rendering “oversimplifies the problem of time’s definition of practice, experience, and event.”[32] In its place, Asad argues, “in tradition the ‘present’ is always at the center,” disturbing the very coherence we try to provide historical existence, again, a vertigo.[33] In this temporality, “settled cultural assumptions cease to be viable,” as we saw with Amina, Reda, Kamal, Hayyat in Pandalfo’s work. Still, peoples continue to “inhabit different kinds of time simultaneously,” straddling the gap between experience and expectation—a gap sutured in our desire for an over-rapid exploration that becomes over-proximate with the impossible Thing at the heart of tradition. [34]

One could say then tradition is not simply constituted in relation to a desire for an unattainable Real through an addressing of a symbolic big Other, cathecting into an object, but also related to drive—that which brings us too close, addressing an eternal silence in an immanent encounter within the very terrain of history.[35] And, perhaps, this is why Pandolfo continually invokes Fanon, since he suggests the possibility for such an interruption by evincing “a leap that amounts to introducing invention into the midst of existence.”[36] Or, as David Marriott argues, revolution, the leap, is a moment of invention that allows for new symbolic forms, one that is a discontinuity (a radical overturning), but, importantly, also a “radical expenditure without subject or recuperation” tied as it remains to the unforeseeable, abyssal, and, therefore, Invisible.[37] For what we hear when we listen remains not only a question, but questioning, since the leap itself remains a question, existing as “an inscription that is always the abyss of itself, for it is written on nothing,” eluding our comprehension while cultivating a state of perplexity.[38]

Here we can return to how we started this piece, a modest encircling made difficult as I attempted to work through my own conceptual disorientation. Yet, is it not precisely this disorientation, rather than renewal or discovery that marks Pandolfo’s insights? In other words, psychoanalysis does not bring secular clarity to the subject or historicity; instead it provides a different form of ethical responsibility—one that requires we pause and refuse, as Pandolfo notes, “to become a discourse of comfortable complacency.”[39] Here lies Knot of the Soul’s tremendous importance: it reminds us to halt our own continual resuscitations that provide comfort and, instead, encounter our own annihilation and upheaval. In this demise of both the exploratory and cosmopolitan lies not an end in a so-called fundamentalism; instead, we are confronted with the darker ruins, awaited and to come, outside our times.[40]


[1] Stefania Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 43.

[2] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 42.

[3] Pandolfo , Knot of the Soul 9.

[4] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 88.

[5] Alenka Zupančič, What is Sex? (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 8.

[6] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 11.

[7] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” 284.

[8] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” 297.

[9] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” 297.

[10] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” 297.

[11] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” 297.

[12] For a fascinating discussion on religion, the political, and work centered on the ‘turn to religion,’ which is called, in Achille Mbembe’s reading, apologetics, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Religion, Politics, Theology: A Conversation with Achille Mbembe,” boundary 2 34 No. 2 (2007): 149-170.

[13] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 63.

[14] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 72.

[15] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 88.

[16] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 60.

[17] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 243.

[18] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 244.

[19] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 245.

[20] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 63.

[21] My concern is not with Das’s rendering, which can be read in interesting ways. However, Das does create this “ecology of connectedness” in relation to South Asia’s past. See, for example, Veena Das Life and Words: Violence and the Descent Into the Ordinary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 115.

[22] Anand Vivek Taneja, Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Though in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 9.

[23] Taneja, Jinnealogy, 9-10.

[24] Taneja, Jinnealogy, 272.

[25] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 137.

[26] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 137.

[27] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 289.

[28] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 196.

[29] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 321.

[30] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 321.

[31] Taneja, Jinnealogy, 139-141.

[32] Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 222. In contrast, Taneja ascribes to Asad a “linear account of transmission” (85).

[33] Asad, Formations of the Secular, 222.

[34] Asad, Formations of the Secular, 222.

[35] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 4-5.

[36] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 243.

[37] David Marriott, Whither Fanon? Studies in the Blackness of Being (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 275.

[38] Marriott, Whither Fanon? 276. Marriott argues that what Fanon “leaves us with instead is the attempt at an analysis which some might see as misplaced, of the unforesseable as an event that lifts time out of history and at the same time complicates the racist politics of invention” (244).

[39] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 132.

[40] I draw from Marriott, Whither Fanon?, xix.

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