Two Paradigms of Islam and Psychoanalysis

In the literature on psychoanalysis and Islam there are two general paradigms of the subject. These two paradigms are primarily limited because they limit the question of subjectivization to the phenomenon of Islamism, violence, and fundamentalism, and they remain caught within a certain desire to impose a model of secularism that is rooted in a particular Christian model onto Islam.

Spreading psychoanalysis as an institution, as Derrida and Edward Said have cautioned, contains an almost imperial drive. In “Geopsychoanalysis… and the Rest of the World” Derrida rightly shows that psychoanalysis feeds an imperial drive that knows no borders, buried deep within the mission of psychoanalysis — to conquer the symptom.

But the missionary tendencies of psychoanalysis are not what interest me. The way that psychoanalysis is being instituted in Muslim countries is fascinating, (for more on this read Umbra’s 2009 edition, “Islam”) but I am more interested in the theories of subjectivity and libidinal constitution, i.e. how what Freud called, “the work of culture” is negotiated in an Islamic context.

The Passion for Abstraction:
The first paradigm for understanding Islam vis-a-vis psychoanalysis grows out of Hegel’s “passion for abstraction” narrative from the Philosophy of History 1837 lectures on Islam. In Hegel’s reading, Islam is an abstraction that vanquished the imaginary, which is why Hegel calls Islam “the religion of sublimity.” Islam is the great revolution of the East which made the absolute One the “unconditioned condition of existence” (Hegel, Philosophy of History, 356). Islam for Hegel is the high point of abstract thought because God is freed from any ethno-national particularity, and unlike Christianity, there is a full symbolization of the real in Islam.

Hegel goes so far as to claim that Islam is “the religion of fanaticism”, stating: “it is because of Islam’s abstract universality that it is expansionist” (107, Toscano, Umbra). Indeed, Islam’s “abstractive fanaticism” is presented as homologous to the French revolution’s “abstract egalitarianism”. Islam is thus the “religion of formalism” because nothing can take shape in opposition to God. For Hegel, fanaticism rears its head when, “the inwardness of religious doctrine seeks to trespass into the domain of objective law, and the state’s monopoly over it, when the communities whose doctrine remains at the level of representational thought assume a negative attitude towards the state, and their polemical piety brings them into confrontation with the state (109, Toscano, Umbra).

This passion for abstraction paradigm basically sees Islam as a political entity that is inherently expansionist and unable to integrate secularism. Fethi Benslama, probably the most important thinker on the intersection of Islam and psychoanalysis works in this paradigm. In Benslama’s most widely read English translated text, Islam and the Challenge of Psychoanalysis, he attempts to locate the core libidinal tensions that drive fanaticism and Islamism.

He locates these tensions in the following conceptual deadlocks stemming out of a textualist-based critique: the impossible God, the trans-parental God, and in the “repudiation of origin” that these impossible relations promote. Thus, instead of advancing a critique of psychoanalysis for understanding a normative subject in Islam, he analyzes the way in which Islam is sublated by extremists to then present an argument about the intersection of Islam and psychoanalysis.

Abraham's sacrifice

Benslama makes it clear that, “of course Islamism is not all of Islam, but we cannot dismiss it as a simple aberration” (214). The crisis that has led to Islamism is not so much the ravages of post-colonialism and the power vacuum’s this period of history has left in its wake, but rather, the crisis stems from “the caesura of the subject of tradition and the unleashing of forces of destruction of civilization that follow from it.”

In psychoanalysis there are two forms of repetition, there is symbolic repetition, the use of signs, i.e. the same sign produces meanings. The second form is with the encounter of a real that is impossible to symbolize. This is why God is always in the position of subject supposed to know. According to Jacques Alain Miller, in his important reading of the Names-of-the-Father, there are two discourses on God in psychoanalysis:

Theo-logy: the subject supposed to know is latent in theory.
Dio-logy: a distancing of theology and God study, i.e. of psychoanalysis to object small a. this is associated with Joyce, Eckhardt, and Moses.

From the Greeks we take God as associated with being, and from the Jews we take the relation of God and the real (The Inexistent Seminar, Pg. 26). The division is between God as subject supposed to know (Isaac, Abraham, etc.) and God as object a. The God of the philosophers is subject supposed to know.

Structurally, the jouissance of the primal father in all monotheism’s requires that the father kill the son, whereas in non-monotheistic religions, it is the reverse, the son kills the father. Benslama notes a difference in Islam between the primal father and the Father-of-Genesis, the primal father is one rooted in unlimited jouissance and radical alterity (Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam, Pg. 73). The intense and unruly jouissance of the primal father (in any mythic model) must be repudiated to allow for libidinal relations to function. Benslama argues, like Freud did in Moses and Monotheism that it was Ishmael, the familial founder of Islam who was declared a part of the Arab tradition by the prophet’s speech act – this act is what evokes the core problem of alterity that the primal father brings about for any community.

Benslama’s most original and provocative idea is around how Islam copes with this crisis of primal jouissance. His answer comes in the figure of Hagar, the prostitute who carried Ishmael for Abraham – she becomes the foreigner who must remain estranged in Islam. Hagar’s story is a refusal of origin that leads to a sort of universalized disavowal that founds the entire religion. The other woman (Hagar) provides the source of a kind of jouissance that is twofold: the knowledge of alterity (Hagar is a clairvoyant) and the jouissance of the body (Hagar inserts herself as a mistress between phallic jouissance and prevents Sara from accessing it).

From the repudiation of origin thesis, Benslama goes on to develop a whole series of provocative ideas of this crisis of alterity, and how the Islamic subject responds. While this work is analytically rigorous and important, I would like to suggest that it remains within the paradigm of a subject of fanaticism that as Alberto Toscano points out, “characterized by a destructive and fusional passion, and is to be understood by its negations (the sacred and the secular, the self and other, and so on).

The Perverted Subject:
The other paradigm for understanding subjectivity within the field of psychoanalysis is that developed by Slavoj Zizek and Mladen Dolar in their work on the subject supposed to believe. This paradigm is concerned with the pervert, or “the subject who determines himself as object, in his encounter with the division of subjectivity” (Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis). While this paradigm does not escape the desire to understand the subject of religious fundamentalism, it does not divide the subject into the liberal secular dichotomies that we find in the above paradigm.

The pervert is the undivided subject on the side of knowledge and displaces division upon the other. The pervert proclaims direct access to some big Other. Indeed, in this paradigm, we find tools to outdo the liberal secular view of the psychotic fanatic totally internalized unto himself. Here we have a paradigm that is much different than the Hegelian “enthusiasm for something abstract”.

Mladen Dolar, in his preface to the Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East, “The Subject Supposed to Enjoy from the “Sultan’s Court” writes that the construction of the subject is rooted in a certain fantasy that is deeply tied to the logic of fetishism:

“I know very well that our society is based on rational foundations and serves common welfare, nevertheless, I believe that power is based on the whim of the Other, that it demands unconditional subjection, that it is indestructible, that its bearers are untouchable and made of a stuff apart, that it is the place of an unalloyed enjoyment” (xv).

It is clear that this paradigm, while providing helpful tools that expand a secular definition of the Islamic subject, does not present an emancipatory subject in the Islamic subject such as Badiou, Zizek, and Ernst Bloch have done with St. Paul. For Zizek, it is the “fanaticism of the One” that prevents Islam from making the proper transition into modernity. In other words, what is needed in the larger theoretical work on Islam and psychoanalysis is the development of an emancipatory subject that does not seek to negate Islam, or remain too closely tied to a theory of fantasy relations stemming out of a textual corpus.

The problem we find in both paradigms is an underlying desire to impose a narrative of secularism onto Islam – in the first paradigm “the passion for abstraction” there is a close textualist fantasmatic assumption at work. The assumption that subjectivity is developed directly out of man’s relation to textual authority is far stretched and reeks of Orientalism. The second paradigm, that of perversion, seeks to secularize Islam through a fetishistic relation to the belief happening within Islam. This is certainly a more helpful paradigm because it shows that the logic of the subject supposed to enjoy in psychoanalysis is homologous to the subject supposed to believe, and that the fantasmatic constructs we develop of Islam from a European subjectivity are crucial to our the maintenance of our own fantasies.

4 Replies to “Two Paradigms of Islam and Psychoanalysis”

  1. Psychoanalysis is nothing but a grandiose waste of time. Give me three reasons why Psychodynamic/Psychoanalytical theory is remotely useful for the rest of this planet? Psychoanalytical therapists just judge you, convince you that there is a secret part of your self that only they can free you from (if you can cough up the cash of course) and that your a fundamentally broken soul with one (or more) of an endless list of mind boggling labels and only they can fix you of course. Gee that sure does sound a lot like typical European chauvinism, just substitute subject with faceless, self-repressed man of colour and therapist with enlightened, self-realised bourgeois white man.

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