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”

Graduate Conference Call for Abstracts: Negativity, Pessimisms, and Sad Affects in the Study of Religion

The following graduate conference may be of interest to a number of our readers:

Negativity, Pessimisms, and Sad Affects in the Study of Religion
University of Toronto
April 18-19, 2019

Keynote Speakers:
Rinaldo Walcott (Toronto), Anthony Paul Smith (La Salle)

The Graduate Student Association at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion invites graduate students from all disciplines to participate in a symposium that explores the significance and relevance of forms of theoretical negativity for the study of religion. We invite contributions that consider negativity from a number of different angles.

First: a recurrent feature of materials and movements marked as ‘religious’ is negativity towards the present order of this world. White Evangelical conservatism, global Pentecostalism, and Islamic piety movements of various political stripes—to name just a few examples—are all marked, to vastly different ends, by antagonism toward ‘worldly’ powers and influences. Whether indexed by themes like hope and optimism in the face of the present, expectations of apocalypse, or forms of world-denial, postures and habits of negativity—of saying ‘no’ to the current order of things—can be found across politically, geographically, and historically disparate contexts.

Second: the 17th-century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza famously claimed that all negation was merely “imaginary:” a failure to grasp the real order and connection of ideas. In recent decades, this idea has undergone something of a renaissance. As a result, there has emerged a tendency to explain the habits of negativity and ‘sad affects’ scholars find in cases like those above in terms of their positive causes and effects. Theorists and philosophers have turned to concepts like ‘process,’ ‘network,’ ‘assemblage,’ ‘affect,’ ‘action,’ and ‘becoming’ in an attempt to build a conceptual grammar adequate to the ontological and epistemological critique of negation.

Finally: a number of significant but disparate developments across the humanities have again placed forms of negation and negativity at the center of theoretical concern, rather than simply locating negativity in the materials theorized. In queer theory, moves to recenter the negative are visible in turns toward antisociality and the refusal of futurity (Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, Lee Edelman). In critical race theory and black study, we find black feminist refusals of whitened figures of ‘being’ and ‘the human’ (Saidiya Hartman, Katherine McKittrick, Christina Sharpe, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter) and turns toward Afro-Pessimism and its call to ‘end the world’ (David Marriott, Jared Sexton, Calvin Warren, Frank Wilderson III). Elsewhere, projects exploring logics of ‘no’ or ’non,’ including François Laruelle’s non-philosophy, transform philosophy and theory themselves into objects of negation.

While turns to ‘religious affect’ and other affirmative frameworks have made quick inroads into religious studies, these latter forms of theoretical negativity have been slower to gain traction within the discipline. This conference aims to provide a forum in which to explore issues pertaining to the use of theoretical forms of negativity and pessimism for the study of religion, or to the significance of habits of negation and sad affects in religious materials.

Participants are encouraged to submit proposals for papers that reflect on questions such as the following:

  • To what extent are postures of theoretical negativity (including but not limited to non-philosophy, Afro-Pessimism, antihumanisms, or antisociality) appropriate or applicable to the study of religion?
  • To what extent do recent interventions (i.e. Fred Moten’s ‘black optimism,’ Ashon Crawley’s treatments of Blackpentecostalism, returns to Sylvia Wynter) trouble the opposition between theoretical negation and affirmation through affirmation or love for, e.g., blackness?
  • What homologies exist between forms of negativity found in materials marked as ‘religious’ and those marked as ‘philosophical’ and ‘theoretical?’
  • What is the relationship between ‘theoretical’ and ‘religious’ calls for ‘the end of the world?’
  • What is the significance of recent right-wing religious and nationalist movements for negativity and pessimism in the humanities?
  • What is the relationship between new orientations towards the ‘post-critical’ or the ‘critique of critique’ and forms of theoretical negativity and affirmation?
  • How should we think about the forms of negativity and pessimism we encounter in ethnographic or textual materials? How should we consider ethnographic and textual encounters with apocalypse, resentment, depression, shame, etc.?
  • What is the significance of ‘sad affects’ like repugnance, pessimism, and failure when they constitute the scholar’s relation to her materials? To what extent are postures of negativity compatible with—or disruptive of—the ethnographic imagination?

Guidelines  for submissions:  Please  submit a  250-word abstract  outlining the topic  and main arguments of  the paper by January 20th,  2019. Proposals should include  all contact information and institutional  affiliation. Please send proposals, as well  as any questions, to dsrsymposium19@gmail.com.

Knot of the Soul Book Event: Knots

I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Thinking amidst the ongoing catastrophe of colonialism’s legacy in Morocco; in homes, hospitals and sacred places riven by trauma; alongside families, doctors and imams seeking if not for healing then for ways to survive, Stefania Pandolfo invokes Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. A central question of Knot of the Soul has to do, she says, ‘with the possibility of reorienting the existential and ethical position of the subject in the world by an act of imagination; of interrupting a habitus of entrapment, resentment, and self- reproach in relation to a history of loss, thereby transforming one’s relation to that history, opening up the possibility of living again— of futures unforeseen.’ I was struck, by the book’s resonances with the work of Sylvia Wynter, whose ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth /Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument’ ends by invoking the same text: ‘The true leap, Fanon wrote at the end of his Black Skins, White Masks, consists in introducing invention into existence. The buck stops with us.’

For Wynter, the central struggle of the contemporary world is between, on the one hand, those who seek to ensure that a particular (white, Western, masculine, property-owning) conception of the human continues to be seen as universal and normative and, on the other hand those who work instead for ‘the well-being, and therefore the full cognitive and behavioural autonomy of the human species itself/ourselves.’ There is a complex interplay in Wynter’s work between, on the one hand, her rejection of modern accounts of the human and, on the other, her affirmation of our need to recognise that human life is what we make it, to take responsibility for our own collective self-fashioning, what Fanon called sociogeny; between, that is, the rejection of modern notions of sovereignty and the affirmation of human responsibility. I want to suggest that Pandolfo’s work is located in the middle of this tension.

Knot of the Soul plays out around two key figures of human life – the figure of jihad, struggle, and the figure of ibtila, ordeal. Jihad signifies struggle against the world and the self in order to transform them. It is both the ongoing grappling with ‘an internal enemy, impossible to eliminate, and in fact also necessary for life’ and also ‘a war against an external enemy’ the fight against the injustice and violence of the world which threatens to violently tear apart social bonds of care and solidarity. Ibtila, ordeal, calls instead for endurance and discernment; the ordeal ‘is not just what falls on us, what breaks our lives and hurls us into bereavement or disablement; it contains an address, the sign of a divine interpellation, even when we don’t understand its meaning.’ To struggle with the world but also to bear it; to resist violence and trauma but also to suffer them.

If the birth of modernity is characterised by the secularisation of theological concepts, including the transfer of characteristics previously attributed to God onto the figure of sovereign (white, wealthy, rational) Man, then the Copernican revolution of which psychoanalysis is a part signifies a second decentring of the world. Not only are human beings not the centre of the universe, Freud teaches us, but we are not even the centre of our own selves. For all that it might seem as though our minds revolve around our conscious intentions, for all that we might envision ourselves as prime movers of our own being, eppur si muove; we are in the hands of unconscious forces, endlessly locked in an ordeal in which we must endure what we is given to us, including our own selves. What does it mean, Pandolfo’s book asks, to struggle for a better world when we cannot control even that which is most intimately our own?

The book is marked by a commitment to kind and careful examination of madness, by an affirmation of Piera Aulagnier’s suggestion that sometimes, often, ‘people said to be crazy in the ordinary sense of the term, show us what it was necessary to do in order to survive’. It is significant, then, that the key moments when Pandolfo struggles to reconcile herself to her interlocutors’ ideas are those where she finds her belief in the crucial importance of revolutionary struggle to be at odds with that of the Imam (a Qur’anic scholar and healer, her most important interlocutor), for whom the Arab Spring is better understood not as faithful jihad, but as a refusal of ibtila. Like ‘people in the West’, too many of those around him ‘want to be the way they themselves want, but life, our life span, is decided by God. They end up clashing with the real … They are hit by reality; and in the end become sick.’ A similar conflict plays out too, in the theological debates Pandolfo describes between Kamal and Jawad, two young Moroccan men, who argue whether the decision to risk one’s life in the attempt to migrate illegally to Europe (l-harg, the burning), is better understood as the struggle for a better life for oneself and one’s family or as a failure of patience and endurance. What is at stake in this disagreement is not, for Kamal and Jawad, merely a question of tactical wisdom. Like the passage to Europe itself, the question of when to act, to struggle against the world, and when to endure, to bear with what is given to us, evokes ‘the sirāṭ, the traverse or narrow bridge over the chasm of Hell; the bridge thinner than a blade or a thread, which will widen up like a highway to let across the saved, or instead shrink like a blade to make the damned fall, pushed down into eternal fire.’

The buck stops with us; and to fully assume this responsibility Wynter says that we must come to sociogeny as a new object of knowledge, to learn how we are formed by the narrative principles which create the worlds we inhabit so that we might re-write them, tell different stories about our selves, introduce invention into existence. What Knot of the Soul suggests is that that task of knowing ourselves is endless; that to be human is to be constantly following the thread which ties our individual self to others, and to our cultural, linguistic and religious heritage. The ‘knot of the soul’ is the name that a mother Pandolfo speaks to gives to ‘a wound … the intertwining of her suffering with that of her son’; because what we are is the ways we have been broken by the world, the ways we struggle against and bear with that brokenness, the ways we inherit and transmit that brokenness. The buck stops with us; yet we are not ourselves but, as Lacan has it, that which is in us more than ourselves, that which is to be struggled against and endured, that which goes by the name of God, or the jinn; that which is nameless and unknown.

The Political Theology of Trump

I have a new web piece up at n+1 on evangelical support for Trump. Here is a preview….

WHY DO EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS SUPPORT TRUMP? Again and again, through every new scandal, they have proven themselves to be among his most loyal and unshakeable defenders. This is an aspect of our bizarre political moment that has provoked widespread confusion and accusations of hypocrisy, but I’ve approached the topic with something more like urgent despair. I was raised in a conservative evangelical church and my parents remain active members. Both of them found a way to overcome their initial misgivings and support a strikingly amoral candidate. Hearing their rationalizations, hearing my mother in particular claim that she and her friends had thoroughly discussed the matter from a religious perspective and prayed together for guidance, I was shocked and angry—not only about the destructive agenda they had talked themselves into supporting, but about my entire upbringing.

The Blackness of Marx’s Jewish Question, a Theo-Political Remix

The United States of America,
The Black Question,
Chicago, 20181

The American Blacks desire emancipation. What kind of emancipation do they desire? Civic, political emancipation.

America replies to them: No one in America is politically emancipated. We ourselves are not free. How are we to free you? You Blacks are egoists if you demand a special emancipation for yourselves as Blacks. As Americans, you ought to work for the political emancipation of America, and as human beings, for the emancipation of mankind, and you should feel the particular kind of your oppression and your shame not as an exception to the rule, but on the contrary as a confirmation of the rule.

Or do the Blacks demand the same status as White subjects of the state? In that case, they recognize that the White state is justified and they recognize, too, the regime of general oppression. Why should they disapprove of their special yoke if they approve of the general yoke? Why should the American be interested in the liberation of the Black, if the Black is not interested in the liberation of the American?

The White state knows only privileges. In this state, the Black has the privilege of being a Black. As a Black, he has rights which the Whites do not have. Why should he want rights which he does not have, but which the Whites enjoy?

In wanting to be emancipated from the White state, the Black is demanding that the White state should give up its racial prejudice. Does he, the Black, give up his racial prejudice? Has he, then, the right to demand that someone else should renounce his race?

By its very nature, the White state is incapable of emancipating the Black; but, adds America, by his very nature the Black cannot be emancipated. So long as the state is White and the Black is Black, the one is as incapable of granting emancipation as the other is of receiving it.

The White state can behave towards the Black only in the way characteristic of the White state – that is, by granting privileges, by permitting the separation of the Black from the other subjects, but making him feel the pressure of all the other separate spheres of society, and feel it all the more intensely because he is in Black opposition to the dominant race. But the Black, too, can behave towards the state only in a Black way – that is, by treating it as something alien to him, by counterposing his imaginary nationality to the real nationality, by counterposing his illusory law to the real law, by deeming himself justified in separating himself from mankind, by abstaining on principle from taking part in the historical movement, by putting his trust in a future which has nothing in common with the future of mankind in general, and by seeing himself as a member of the Black people, and the Black people as the chosen people.

On what grounds, then, do you Blacks want emancipation? On account of your Blackness? It is the mortal enemy of the state race. As citizens? In the United States, there are no citizens. As human beings? But you are no more human beings than those to whom you appeal.

America has posed the question of Black emancipation in a new form, after giving a critical analysis of the previous formulations and solutions of the question. What, he asks, is the nature of the Black who is to be emancipated and of the White state that is to emancipate him? He replies by a critique of the Black race, he analyzes the racial opposition between Whiteness and Blackness, he elucidates the essence of the White state – and he does all this audaciously, trenchantly, wittily, and with profundity, in a style of writing that is as precise as it is pithy and vigorous.

How, then, does America solve the Black question? What is the result? The formulation of a question is its solution. The critique of the Black question is the answer to the Black question. The summary, therefore, is as follows:

We must emancipate ourselves before we can emancipate others.

The most rigid form of the opposition between the Black and the White is the racial opposition. How is an opposition resolved? By making it impossible. How is racial opposition made impossible? By abolishing Blackness. As soon as Black and White recognize that their respective races are no more than different stages in the development of the human mind, different snake skins cast off by history, and that man is the snake who sloughed them, the relation of Black and White is no longer racial but is only a critical, scientific, and human relation. Science, then, constitutes their unity. But, contradictions in science are resolved by science itself.

The Black American, in particular, is confronted by the general absence of political emancipation and the strongly marked White character of the state. In America’s conception, however, the Black question has a universal significance, independent of specifically American conditions. It is the question of the relation of Blackness to the state, of the contradiction between racial constraint and political emancipation. Emancipation from Blackness is laid down as a condition, both to the Black who wants to be emancipated politically, and to the state which is to effect emancipation and is itself to be emancipated…

America, therefore, demands, on the one hand, that the Black should renounce Blackness, and that mankind in general should renounce race, in order to achieve civic emancipation. On the other hand, he quite consistently regards the political abolition of race as the abolition of Blackness as such. The state which presupposes race is not yet a true, real state.

At this point, the one-sided formulation of the Black question becomes evident.

It was by no means sufficient to investigate: Who is to emancipate? Who is to be emancipated? Criticism had to investigate a third point. It had to inquire: What kind of emancipation is in question? What conditions follow from the very nature of the emancipation that is demanded? Only the criticism of political emancipation itself would have been the conclusive criticism of the Black question and its real merging in the “general question of time.”

Because America does not raise the question to this level, he becomes entangled in contradictions. He puts forward conditions which are not based on the nature of political emancipation itself. He raises questions which are not part of his problem, and he solves problems which leave this question unanswered. When America says of the opponents of Black emancipation: “Their error was only that they assumed the White state to be the only true one and did not subject it to the same criticism that they applied to Blackness,” we find that his error lies in the fact that he subjects to criticism only the “White state,” not the “state as such,” that he does not investigate the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation and, therefore, puts forward conditions which can be explained only by uncritical confusion of political emancipation with general human emancipation. If America asks the Blacks: Have you, from your standpoint, the right to want political emancipation? We ask the converse question: Does the standpoint of political emancipation give the right to demand from the Black the abolition of Blackness and from man the abolition of religion?

Footnotes

1. Original text, Marx, On the Jewish Question

Christianity, Race and Colonialism

My other new course this year is a new module I’ve designed entirely from scratch on Christianity, Race and Colonialism, which I’ll be teaching to second and third year undergraduates. I’m really excited and also extremely nervous about it, but currently feeling pretty pleased with the syllabus. I teach alternate week advanced seminars with the third years, so for those sessions we’ll be focusing on more advanced theoretical material and trying to think through how those additional readings relate to the course. I’ve given all the students a relatively open brief for the oral exam at the end of the course and am really excited to see what they come up with. The syllabus runs as follows:

Continue reading “Christianity, Race and Colonialism”

Dazzling Darkness: Mysticism and Philosophy Syllabus

We’ve launched a new MA programme at Winchester this year, and I’m looking forward to teaching postgraduate students again. We run a theology, a religious studies and philosophy module every year and this year I am designated philosopher, syllabus as follows and, as you might expect, featuring several of my co-bloggers and friends of the blog:

Continue reading “Dazzling Darkness: Mysticism and Philosophy Syllabus”