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.

What instead takes place is an encounter whereby each tradition is transposed into or via the other. In this encounter, what I have called the Outside repeats itself only ever in terms of one tradition or the other, such that the validity of its repetition consists in nothing but the transposability of these terms—a transposability that is necessarily tensive, and that ineluctably involves resistances as well as expansions on both sides. There is the divine in transpositional tension with a psychoanalytically rendered “risk of madness at the very heart of life and subjectivity” that opens “the ‘metaphysical’ question of an ever-present virtuality: the virtuality of [what Lacan calls] ‘a fault (faille) opened up in its essence.’” (21) Similarly, when speaking of whatever illness is the concomitant of this differentially repeating Outside—this repetition that cleaves together psychoanalysis and Islam only through the cleavage between them—there is trauma in transpositional tension with possession by the jinn.

In each instance, illness is bound up with the Outside in such a manner that the question of its end remains unanswered, or necessarily suspended. Whether as ordeal or essential fault, illness concerns an Outside that is irreducible to the coordinates through which the sense of an end is located, and that thereby reveals the limit of well-being in terms of such coordinates. It is in this sense that illness concerns a voiding of sense—that is, a voiding of the well-being coordinated by and as the colonial world. If the end of illness remains unknown, then this is inseparable from the fact that knowledge of such an end would remain within a world that makes ill.

How, then, is one to approach the end of illness as unknowable? What is entailed by a habitus of unknowing? This is to ask, among other things, about a temporality of illness’s end. If illness involves a moment in which it becomes manifest that its end cannot be known within the world, does this entail that there is yet another moment in which the end of illness would become known?

The possibility that this nexus of illness, end, and unknowing might involve a relation between two moments is one that appears, for instance, when Pandolfo writes: “What from the perspective of the temporal world is experienced as a calamity may prove a gift in the world of the soul, or vice versa.” (17) This characterization draws attention to the capacity of ordeal to scramble the coordinates of worldly sense-making in an essential manner. To say that such scrambling is essential is to observe that the ordeal is something more than a contingent hiatus of narrative sense-making. The ordeal does not disrupt and reconfigure the coordinates of sense so much as it calls into question the very capacity to make sense: “calamity” and “gift”—terms that give sense to one’s being in the world and that gain sense through their basic opposition to one another—become ultimately indistinguishable or continuously substitutable by way of  an irresolvable oscillation.

One finds oneself imagining a moment in which experience is understood as calamity, as well as a moment in which the same experience is understood as gift. If these two moments cannot be distinguished in the last instance, then this is because one understands them as looping into, upon, or through each other, in something like a dynamic standstill. Yet the possibility of an ultimate distinction does remain viable in so far as the phrase “may prove” is read in terms of definite temporal succession. On such a reading, this phrase does not simply entail a reversion of calamity into gift and gift into calamity—the irresolvable oscillation of “vice versa.” It advances (to) the possibility of a temporal passage from misrecognition to recognition. Along these lines, the narratival impetus that is scrambled or essentially undone by irresolvable oscillation becomes renewed through a temporal succession of one moment by another: what appears in an initial moment as calamity or gift comes to be properly recognized in a subsequent moment as the contrary; an initial moment of recognition is subsequently recognized to have been a moment of misrecognition, and this because it is in the subsequent moment that experience finds its proof.

The question of temporal succession is entwined with the question of eschatology. This is already evident, of course, in view of the fact that the oscillation between mutually exclusive terms itself appears in terms of an incommensuration between “the temporal world” and “the world of the soul.” What is in question, then, is whether the incommensurateness of the latter to the former is to be temporally expressed. Do the temporal world and the world of the soul relate to one another as temporally successive moments? Or does the eschatological dimension of the world of the soul, precisely because of its incommensurateness to the temporal world, demand the abolition of temporal expression as such, even when it is eschatological encounter—such as the ordeal—that is being expressed?

The line of thought opened by this last question requires confrontation with a problematic already implicit in the nexus of illness, end, and unknowing, namely that of illness and address. To express illness in terms of temporally successive moments is to maintain the possibility of addressing the end of illness, even when unknown, for such unknowing can appear as an initial moment in relation to a subsequent moment of the end. But what would it mean to eschatologically address illness without such temporal expression? Would the question “what is the end of illness?”—in view of its temporal register—become not only something unknowable, but also something that should not be addressed?

This is not to suggest that illness itself remain unaddressed—by no means. It is to suggest, on the contrary, that the exigency of addressing illness may be foreclosed by a concern to address the question of the end of illness. At stake is the potential non-relation between illness—construed in terms of a moment without relation to another, or as an event—and the structure of address produced through the question of an end of illness: How might one address the event of illness without addressing, or finding oneself addressed by, a question concerning the end of this event?

Pandolfo writes that the ordeal “contains an address, the sign of a divine interpellation, even when we don’t understand its meaning. It is the encounter with an event that summons us to what the Imam calls a ‘decision’ as for the actualization or the annihilation of an inner potential.” (225) One might here find an instance of the tension between Islamic and psychoanalytic traditions, at least in so far as the latter is defined by an insistence that the very structure of address is ultimately absent of meaning—a fault that is essential.

This is because such absence overlaps with, yet is not identical to, emphasis on a moment in which meaning is not understood. One can affirm that meaning is not available for understanding, or knowledge, while still maintaining a horizon of meaning; meaning may be absent to the understanding while remaining enigmatically or opaquely present in the structure of address. The absence at issue in psychoanalysis, on the other hand, holds both at the level of momentary understanding and at the level of structure. Read in this manner, psychoanalysis certainly affirms that meaning does not exist within understanding—but it affirms furthermore, and more fundamentally, that such meaning does not exist at all. The imagination that it does exist, or the temporality of its expectation, is thereby determined to be the product of a structure of address that in reality is ultimately without meaning.

What is in tension, then, is not whether there is an address, nor is it whether such address may be enigmatic and opaque in a manner too much for knowledge. All of this is affirmed both by the ordeal and by the essential fault of psychoanalysis. The tension has to do, more precisely, with the way that one articulates the unknowability that emerges in the interval between reality and address. This is to say that what is central is how one makes sense of the nonsense of address, how one articulates the absence of meaning at the level of address.

Ordeal articulates the structure of address in terms of a divine reality: “the sign of a divine interpellation.” This means that the structure of address, even (or especially) when absent of meaning, is maintained—via divine interpellation—as a locus of what is ultimately real. To conceive address as ultimately (even if enigmatically or opaquely) consonant with the divine is therefore to grant a certain reality to its structure. The articulation of an essential fault, on the other hand, can be read as a divestment from such structure, or as the manifestation of an antagonism between reality and address.

Such an antagonistic reading becomes possible, I think, if one understands essential fault in terms of the interval between the event of illness and the structure of address. Fault thereby articulates the manner in which the event falls short of, fails to succeed in terms of, the structure of address. To characterize such fault as essential is to insist on a certain inevitability when it comes to efforts of or at address. It is likewise to insist that the event marks an intensity that is irreducible—one might say ontologically irreducible, if being were not already a matter of address—to the interpellative structures by which its meaning, or the sense of its end, is supposed to become known. It follows from this that an attempt to address the event of illness requires a certain antagonism to the structure of address.

As with ordeal, then, essential fault concerns an interval between address and reality. Yet what it reveals is that the structure of address is itself a hallucination: the structure of address does not enigmatically convey—relate or relay—an opaque reality; it occludes a relation to reality as such.

It is worth noting that this line of thought objects not to the articulation of reality as divine, but rather to the articulation of a divine interpellation—that is, to an articulation of the divine that, in its use of or consonance with structures of address, might moderate antagonism towards such structures. This is to say, as well, that such objection has nothing to do with the secular tendency that Pandolfo compellingly criticizes through her description of psychoanalysis as an “analytic tradition of the soul” and her observation of Bruno Bettelheim’s contention that Freud’s “concept of Seele (soul), the soul that is the psyche, was evacuated in its English rendition as ‘mind’ for the Standard Edition.” (240) If there is a justification for resisting a translation of the psyche into the soul, then it is one that holds all the more for resisting its translation into a secularizing mind: the fault at the essence of the psyche concerns a nonsense that cannot be addressed within, and that entails a breakdown with regard to, the structures of the world.

Can eschatology be understood as the space of this breakdown? Such a spatial (rather than temporal) rendering of the eschatological might follow from Pandolfo’s account of the Imam’s response to “soul choking.” (232) While “opening and closing, expanding and constricting” (228) are certainly processes marked by time, these processes—which once again involve a kind of oscillation—would seem to be best described in terms of space. The movement that takes place is closer to a dance than to a journey: manifestation has to do with what happens in and as space, rather than with what happens when one passes from one space to another.

A spatial eschatology might likewise be regarded in Ilyas’s paintings, the “visionary geography” of which “rests at once in the material world of experience, in its historical reality, and on the autonomous ontological status of the images themselves.” (156) The event of illness is here addressed as its spatialization: the imagination of past and future is collapsed by, or into, an intensity of space; there is time only as the moment that is now, as the taking place of this space here.

Yet the demand for a spatial rendering of eschatology, as I understand it, follows most forcefully from the thought of Fanon, which Pandolfo cites and comments upon at many instances in Knot of the Soul. Perhaps the most striking of these instances is the discussion of Fanon’s question: “But can we ever escape the sense of vertigo?” (243). This question raises many others surrounding the referent of “we” and the relation (or difference) between a world defined in terms of coloniality and a world defined in terms of anti-blackness. Keeping to the question of eschatology and space—while also keeping in mind how these other questions might variously inform an understanding of the space at issue—it becomes apparent that the fundamental limit of a temporally successive eschatology is its foreclosure of the question posed by Fanon.

This is to say that such a temporal eschatology takes as given precisely what Fanon insists upon as questionable: that one can escape from the spatial uncoordination involved in vertigo. What would it mean for eschatology to become addressed by this question? Might the scrambling of coordinates that follows from the eschatological be articulated as a cartographic nowhere? At the very least, it is clear that eschatology, in order to become worthy of Fanon’s question, must become unable to move past the space that is vertiginously now.