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.

Continue reading Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Poetics of Infraction”

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

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.

Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Political Theology of Jinn?

Stefania Pandolfo’s book provides us with an intersecting account of the wounds left open by the trauma of colonization in Morocco. It is less a theoretical work than an attempt to be true to the lives and experiences of those to whom she has lent her ethnographic ear. Their lives and experiences are outlined and unfolded in terms of dialogue between Islamic psychology and psychoanalysis that she finds to be already well underway—not only in colonial and postcolonial debates over psychiatric practice in France and Morocco, but in the most authoritative texts of psychoanalysis itself. Yet even this framing is inadequate, as her rich exploration of the artwork produced by Ilyias while in a psychotic “state” (hāla) draws on the aesthetics of Aby Warburg and Giorgio Agamben as well as Islamic thought on the importance of the image and the imagination. Here above all, we can see that her theorization follows her ethnographic subject rather than the other way around—a priority that had already become clear in Chapter 6, “The Burning,” which is made up largely of her interlocutors’ debate over whether risking the passage to Europe amounts to suicide. Indeed, she concludes her work with a harrowing account of the Imam’s use of Qur’anic healing to drive out a jinn.

There is much in this work to instruct a Western reader—I certainly learned a great deal. Few academics in the West know much of anything about the history of public policy in any postcolonial society, and in that respect her discussions of the debates surrounding psychiatric care in Morocco were very informative. Here and elsewhere, she shows the Western debate to be parochial and narrow compared to what is found in the postcolonial world, where intellectuals engage with Islamic traditions and Western thinkers as a matter of course. Hence when she draws her own analogies with Freud, Lacan, Warburg, Agamben, or any number of other Western thinkers, it comes across as a suggestion or a hypothesis rather than an “explanation” in any strong or reductive sense. She never claims that the jinn simply “are” unconscious drives, for instance, even if psychoanalytic explorations of the drives can shed some light on the dynamics of the fraught relationship between human beings and jinn. If the Imam can live in a world in which Western psychiatry and Qur’anic healing can coexist without fully reducing one to the other, then so can she.

While I admire this approach, I did find myself wishing for more explicit theorization. Continue reading Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Political Theology of Jinn?”

Interrupted tragedy

For the last couple weeks, my first year seminar on “Deals with the Devil” has been focusing on Goethe’s Faust. On the day when we read Goethe’s fragmentary and suggestive account of Faust and Gretchen’s tragic romance, I played for them Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” a youthful composition that revolutionized the approach to song in classical music.

This class exercise brought together two fascinations of mine. In addition to becoming ever more invested in Goethe’s Faust after teaching it for several years, I am also an amateur pianist and have been working at playing Schubert’s final piano sonata for a long time now. I will probably never have it performance-ready, but I am beginning to understand the piece in a way I have never understood a piece of music before — the complex development of key signatures, the parallel structures between movements, and above all, the abrupt and sometimes stunning transitions. (See score here.)

One thing that makes the piece approachable is that it is so clearly broken down into units of a page or a page and a half, which often seem to have nothing to do with what preceded them. Sometimes the effect is transformative — above all the abrupt shift into a pure C-major in the final lines of the second movement (pp. 15 to 16 in the PDF) — but often it is simply puzzling. For instance, one of my favorite passages in the first movement shifts the very recognizable “molto moderato” theme into a minor key (pg. 5), but the the chord that would resolve the melody line shifts into the beginning of a variation on an oft-repeated spritely theme that seems to shift back and forth promiscuously from major to minor. More striking is the most technically demanding passage of the fourth movement (pg. 24 of the PDF), which evolves out of the main theme of the movement seemingly without warning — only the shift from an eighth note to a sixteenth note on the first anticipatory beat of each phrase announces a change — and then shifts into a seemingly even higher gear in the following measures (pg. 25). But that “dramatic” gesture slowly fades, until we are simply reintroduced to the movement’s signature opening “chime,” as though nothing had happened.

I wonder, now, if Schubert was returning to his earlier fascination with Goethe. There is a fascinating article by Benjamin Bennett called “Interrupted Tragedy as a Structural Principal in Faust” (available in the Norton Critical Edition of Goethe’s play), where he argues that Goethe systematically undermines any cathartic moment — precisely so that the reader will not be able to purge or purify the emotions they are experiencing, but will be left to grapple with them. This seems to me to account for the abrupt ending of Part 1, where we get no resolution of the “main plot” involving the bet with Mephistopheles but are instead left to sit with the devastating human encounter between Faust and the woman whose life he has destroyed and whom he no longer loves. In most of Part 1, Mephistopheles is the tragedy-interrupter, injecting jokes and irreverence whenever Faust is having a “deep” moment of insight or tragic self-regard.

Something similar seems to be happening in the Schubert, where borderline-romantic passages, often in a minor key, often with a lot of black on the page, are abruptly interrupted with playful asides or simply left to fizzle out. And even the most sustained “serious” minor-key passage — the opening theme of the second movement — is constantly “deranged” by the repetitive left-hand gesture that jumps around the keyboard in seeming indifference to what the right hand is doing (beginning on pg. 12 of the PDF). Perhaps here we can recall Mephistopheles in his guise as a poodle, nipping at Faust’s heels as he muses about the restorative powers of nature and human companionship. This dynamic gives way (on pg. 13 and following) to a more “heroic” theme — but one that fizzles out, to be replaced by a return to the main right-hand theme that is even more insistently harassed by the left hand (pp. 15 and 16). Yet this is precisely the moment of the almost transcendent appearance of the C-major triad, a light piercing the darkness. But only for a moment.