Jan/Feb 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

As Through a Glass Darkly

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Reinventing the Soul.
Mari Ruti.
New York: Other Press. 2006. 242 pp.
ISBN 1-59051-123-9.

"Modern secularization," begins Jan Bremmer, in his The Early Greek Concept of the Soul, "has made the salvation of the soul a problem of diminishing importance, but the prominence in Western Society of psychiatry and psychology shows that we still care for our psyche, or 'soul.' Our idea of the soul has both eschatological and psychological attributes..." (3) The Hebrew people, for their part, all but lacked a concept of the soul until the 5th century B.C.E. when the Babylonian exile community absorbed the idea of an eschatological battle between good and evil from the Persian culture by which they were surrounded. Many from the wealthy community in Babylon had remained behind in the great city after it was conquered by the Persians and they were released from exile. They were thoroughly cosmopolitan, far more sophisticated than their Palestinian cousins, and, therefore, particularly influential in matters of theology.

It is from the Persians, then, that we first received the more or less modern idea of the soul which arrays itself on the side of good or evil—Ahura Mazda or Angra Mainyu, God or Satan, light or darkness—and accordingly receives its due rewards in the supernatural kingdom of its chosen lord. Together with this came the attendant belief that there would be a great final conflagration that would cleanse the evil world in which we live. The idea was incorporated into Judaism by the community in Babylon which had been smitten with that particular aspect of Zoroastrianism. The attraction of the eschatological idea was so powerful that it soon infused the Pharisaical sect of Judaism and made it dominant in Jerusalem.

As for the Greeks, their soul was composed of progressive observations on the "non-material" aspect of man: the qualities that depart the human being upon death or fainting or that surge up unbidden from inside under extreme circumstances or while dreaming. The Greek soul is multi-faceted, then. Its Hades, land of the dead, is slightly more developed than the early Hebrew Sheol. Its heaven, inasmuch as the Elysian Fields can even be called such, was a strange late-comer pasted on from Egyptian influences. In a phrase, the Greek soul is the result of proto-psychological observations. It had little to do with heaven or hell.

The Persian/Hebrew soul, then, might be called the "moral/eschatological soul." The Greek soul, on the other hand, might be called the "rational/psychological soul." In the 300 years before the Common Era, the two mixed in various more or less stabile combinations along the trade routes between these civilizations: those routes composing what we now call Palestine, Upper Egypt and Asia Minor. At the spiritual and intellectual center of these routes was the city of Alexandria. Here, too, there was a cosmopolitan Jewish quarter. These Jews spoke Greek as their primary language, and, although they continued to cherish the law and the moral soul, there is evidence that at least some of them felt that Judaism lacked something vitally important: it lacked sufficient provision for the individual psyche.

Of all of the mixtures, one, in the end, survived to dominate the history of the Western world for a millennium and a half. It did so through luck, brutality, guile and calculation as much as through the tremendous attractiveness of the beliefs it developed as the result of combining the moral soul with the individual psyche.

Among the terms the Greeks had developed in order to describe the various aspects of the individual soul was the term "noos." The poorest of cousins in Homer's time, barely worth mentioning at all, it had begun to find its stride as the Common Era approached. Today we would call it "intellect" without realizing that the word ("entelechy," in Greek) originally implied a balance of reason and emotion.

Wherever the eschatological soul was strong, however, noos was reviled. St. Anthony, in his cave, for instance, declared quite positively that predicting the future through reason was no less than false prophecy and a gross interference with the perfect will of God. It was the devil's realm. Moreover, it deflected men's thoughts from making ready for the great final conflict between good and evil. Such internal fault-lines are inevitable when two powerful ideas are glommed together.

As Christianity took on governing and administrative functions, eschatology became a rather more abstract consideration. There were roads to be constructed and treaties to be negotiated. There were mouths to feed. The rigorous moral imperative for which the eschatological idea was originally the necessary vessel was sufficiently internalized in the soul of the West that it would survive without belief in a great conflagration close at hand. It was the perfect environment for noos to thrive.

St. Anthony's intuitive understanding of the danger of noos to the soul, it bears mentioning, was not misconceived. The secularization spoken of by Jan Bremmer could be described as the victory of the noos over the other aspects of the soul. A victory that threatens to destroy the soul itself or to convert it into something the crusty saint would have found utterly unrecognizable.

It is at this point that we come to Mari Ruti's Reinventing the Soul. Ruti is an academic with a Ph.D. from the Harvard University Comparative Literature Department. She specializes in the fields of Feminist Theory and Queer Studies. As such, she is called upon to support the constructivist philosophy prevalent among her peer group. She tries very hard to do just that—issues frequent disclaimers in order to avoid any impression that she might not—but she finds herself compelled to try to improve upon it by revisiting key concepts.

Her reasons for equivocating are not unfamiliar to the reader who strays into the precincts of constructivism without having been debriefed:

... the constructivist emphasis on the fractured, decentered, and alienated self has made it difficult to think about the "meaning" or "value" of life without thinking that one has been hoodwinked and seduced by sirens of humanist metaphysics. It is then with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I present you this book that attempts to honor the major insights of constructivist theory while at the same time foregrounding the kinds of concerns over the meaning and the value of life that have in recent decades been designated—and quite often denigrated—by the label "humanistic." (1)

Again, this observation is common among intelligent amateurs. What makes it remarkable here is that it is made by a conflicted constructivist academic. This alone is enough to make Reinventing the Soul a remarkable book. The very mention of "the soul," in such a context, is heterodox at best.

Ruti equates the reinvented soul with such terms as "interiority," "self-actualization" and "agency." She fully embraces the postmodern credo that the "original" soul was a tool of "hegemony." That is to say, dominant members of societies used it to oppress sub-dominant members. In particular, male heterosexuals used it to oppress women and persons of alternative sexuality.

The author of Reinventing the Soul never does, however, provide the reader even a nutshell description of the original soul. It is for this reason we supply the lacuna, here, with a few (necessarily too brief) paragraphs describing the soul which she desires to reinvent. While the description is unlikely to meet with her strict approval, bearing, as it does, a striking resemblance to a structural/historical model, it highlights more than one aspect of her thesis. By virtue of it we can point out that, in general terms, our author wishes to lop off the moral soul all but completely. Ethics deserves but two direct mentions, morals none. The first reference is standard postmodern fare:

...poststructuralism has revealed that the Western drive to force people, concepts, and forms of knowledge into neat categories has historically gone hand in hand with extreme forms of violence. As a result, while poststructuralism has frequently been reprimanded for lacking an ethical charge, I would contend that its ethical genius resides in its recognition that the quest for absolute truth and firm categories of knowledge all too easily produces and reproduces normativity in its most brutal forms. In this sense, the valorization of ambiguity and uncertainty that poststructuralist thinkers so often exhibit should be understood as an ethics of a sort. (7-8)

But this is not only a precis of postmodern orthodoxy. It is a simplistic wholesale rejection of ethics hitherto (and more) which is intended to dispose of the subject in summary fashion. She has no more use for morals or ethics, in any traditional sense, than her peers and for the same reasons: one person's ethics are another person's oppression.

Her vision of a new ethics is treated as blithely as the old:

The search for a loving community that will hold and protect one against the violence of hegemonic culture is not only psychically and socially necessary but also... potentially a powerful foundation for an alternative vision of ethics. (100)

Such treatment may seem excusable given that Ruti is primarily trying to prevent any confusion in her readers and peers as to whether her desire to reinvent the soul might amount to an attempt to have morals back. It is inevitable, however, that she is also establishing a subtext in which sub-culture equals virtue, and, in this regard, it is problematical.

Reinventing the Soul relies foremost on certain of the theories of Jacques Lacan. Ruti explains Lacan's ideas (as they pertain) more clearly than he did—a requirement if one is to explain them at all:

The goal of analysis for Lacan is not to fill or cover over the subject's sense of alienation, but rather to translate this alienation into something that can be meaningfully articulated; "healing" is therefore not about suturing the subject's sense of lack, but rather about teaching it to transform this lack into a manageable psychic reality. (15)

Her choice is inspired. This is the kind of foundation upon which one might conceivably build a soul: simple, intuitive and profound.

The means by which healing is to be achieved, according to the Lacanian model, is by the creative use of language:

Lacan... wedded structural linguistics with the best insights of Freud to produce a psychoanalysis wholly divorced from the last traces of biological determinism, and capable of providing a powerful account of the manner in which subjectivity emerges at the intersection of language and desire. More generally speaking, it was the mounting emphasis on language—the realization that the subject can have no relationship to itself, others, or the world except through structures of signification that predate its birth and that will endure long after its death—that triggered the groundbreaking transition from essentialist (humanist) to constructivist models of subjectivity. (42)

Again, language is so deeply fundamental that one may believe it could be up to the enormous task of reinventing the soul. For some fifty years now, the systematic study of its various manifestations, linguistic, psychological and semiotic, has yielded valuable insights into all aspects of our social and personal lives.

And, of course, language leads, these days, inevitably to the subject of narrativity and its gratifying personal and political implications. On the personal level, life is a creative act. One's personal future is expanded by one's skills as story-teller. On the political level, all narratives are sacred and inherently of equal value.

But, for Ruti, narrative must not stop there. The narrative of accepting alienation and transforming it into the source of personal creativity must escape the constructivist shackles that make the individual's sense of continuity and agency mere social constructs, illusions. This creativity must, in turn, give personal meaning and become an active constituent of new, inclusive societal myths.

She finds the most promising model in the works of Nietzsche, the immediate advantage being that her convenient reading of the texts involved is consistent with some forty years of constructivist practice. One strain of Nietzsche's thought, one of his moods, has the distinct advantage of prefiguring central tenets of constructivism while declaring that there is a way out:

Truth, Nietzsche maintains, is merely "a sum of human relations" which becomes "poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned and after long usage seems to a nation fixed, canonic, and binding." What is at first merely appearance "becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence and is effective as such." Truths are therefore fictions that are so thoroughly convincing that we come to forget their fictitious origins and instead experience them as compelling psychological realities. (50)

On the other hand, his resolution of that mood is available only to a tiny minority of society if to anyone. With the rest he will have no truck. In short, Nietzsche is a famous elitist. The reader of Reinventing the Soul is, accordingly, called upon to dust off his or her phenomenological method and "bracket" these facts:

Bracketing for a moment the fact that Nietzschean self-mythologization seems to assume the kind of mastery over the self that contemporary theory has taught us is impossible—and overlooking for the time being the fact that it advances an explicitly elitist vision of existential nobility—it is clear that it seeks to promote those parts of life that remain alive and capable of transformation. (54)

The instruction to remove these brackets is never given. Nor is an explicit statement of Nietzsche's resolution, thus avoiding the need for a great many more brackets.

Instead, Nietzschean askesis is conflated with that of the post-1978, individualist version of Michel Foucault and other less definable qualities with Judith Butler's Performance Theory. Ruti celebrates Butler's selective use of a metaphorical passage in The Genealogy of Morals, illustrating that "'the doer' is merely a fiction added to the deed," while dissenting from the conclusions drawn. It is difficult to care particularly much given the fact that Butler has been quoted out of context in the first place. Furthermore, striking as the metaphor may be, it was originally intended to apply only to a narrow case—a fact acknowledged by neither Butler nor Ruti.

Nietzsche does, in fact, argue, in a single aphorism, that act and actor posit a false distinction in a certain case. He does so to drive home the point that the strong are only strong by virtue of their actions. The idea, he suggests, that one can be inwardly strong but outwardly display only acts of humility and selflessness posits an insuperable contradiction. Humility and selflessness are only acts of the weak, the herd: aspects of fearfulness repackaged by the fearful in order to comfort themselves that their weakness is in fact strength.

As Ruti understands Butler's narrative, this posits that action (performance) occurs without an agent. Nothing could be less to her purposes. She needs both performance and agency or all is lost. Performativity is necessary in order to realize the individual narratives that create meaning. One must live one's narratives (if only to the extent of creating them). This is her very definition of "agency." These are the basic building blocks of interiority. But how can one have an interior if one doesn't exist?

Ruti finds her way out of this dilemma by equating the agent with the congealed remains of its past myths. In the final analysis, our truths are only fossilized collective fictions. The fiction of individual agency is, therefore, by the same method, converted into a "truth." The individual agent takes its identity from the fossilized collective fictions it has absorbed including, it would seem, the fiction that it exists. Over and against the fact that this leads to the conclusion that the individual's identity is thus entirely an external construct, the reader is offered the prospect of good old fashioned reflection, and a personal will, somehow above its circumstances, that can perhaps "retroactively reconfigure" itself.

Suffice it to say that Nietzsche himself would surely have been amused to learn with what his aphorism had come to be freighted. It likely never occurred to him that a sanitation engineer, by his reasoning, would not exist as anything more than the acts associated with waste handling, or, to return to the politics underlying all of this, that a heterosexual is only a heterosexual while engaging in sexual acts that fall under that descriptive term and not by the existence of any essent called "heterosexuality." His credentials in the politics of "essentialism" amount to thousands of pages of published text, among which, surely, it was impossible not at some point to have said something allegedly anti-essentialist.

As for Foucault, the nihil obstat given his earlier, rigorously constructivist, work is used to co-opt what is attractive in the later. As comparatively little as Ruti refers to Foucault, her effort in Reinventing the Soul resembles nothing so much as a recapitulation of the later interviews he orchestrated, in lieu of published work, in order to explain why he had contradicted neither the archaeological method nor the concomitant social determinism of his enormously famous earlier books.

Regardless, the pages on askesis return the reader to solider ground. The irony that true freedom is acquired through restraint is explored. A brief catalogue of the adherents of various degrees of self-restraint—of asceticism—gives the topic (and, to a lesser extent, the book) an historical ballast uncharacteristic of critical theory. This is the stuff of good old fashioned Philosophy 101 and well chosen as a counterbalance to high theory.

With this (and a few comments on the "transformative potential of myth-making") part one of Reinventing the Soul ends. Part two (there are five) begins on a familiar note:

One of the most persistently recurring themes of twentieth-century theory... is the idea that there is something about the assaultive, fragmenting, and numbing quality of life in post-industrial Western societies that devastates human interiority in a manner that leaves us psychically crippled—that "cheats" us of soul. Horkheimer and Adorno, for instance, maintain that the mass-produced "culture industry"—which includes the various messages disseminated by radio, television, the movies, magazines, advertising (and these days, the Web)—leaves the subject nominally free (in the liberal capitalist sense) while directing "its attack on the soul." (73)

Like the Sicilian Defense, in chess, this is a standard opening that never seems to grow tiresome. While the lines of play can be predicted once the first piece is moved, it is bound to result in a spirited effort nonetheless, an interesting game.

But interesting as the line of play might conceivably prove to be, it has nothing to offer us until the rules are established. If part one is intended to do just that (and it is), then it is arguable that the better choice had been to revisit those themes in the first part that need clarification or further development. Otherwise the game must be played willy-nilly and nothing is less to any point than that.

While the first part of the Reinventing the Soul may have been a little too intent, in various ways, to prove that the author is a dependable team player, at the expense of the business at hand, the parts to come have little more to offer than name dropping and postmodern bromides on sexual desire. The best of it is Ruti's constructive and consistently interesting redaction of the theories of Lacan. The excursus on Heidegger is gratuitous, on Kristeva truistic.

Periodically returning to the theories of Lacan helps matters (but can not prevent the inevitable). We yearn for wholeness, we learn, for the mythical sense of fusion we once experienced. We can not, however, return to it, in part because it is an illusion, as we remember it, and our compulsive attempts to do so waste our creative possibilities. Lacanian analysis involves a second weaning (psychological this time) from the wish to inhabit a fusion state. The new object, to which the transfer will be made, will be the signifier, the sign, as "the only form of agency that (the subject) will ever possess." Once this is accomplished genuine progress may begin. The pain of alienation will remain but there will be a legitimate means of grappling with it.

Lacanian theory serves to give unpalatable insights a trendiness. But make no mistake about it, they are unpalatable because they are hard-headed, imply delayed and indirect gratification, and are often historically derived. Lacanian askesis is nothing more, as explained, than Epicureanism. The entire idea of asceticism, which very appropriately plays a considerable role in Ruti's attempt to reinvent the soul, is steeped in history. It is counterpoised against hedonism—unbridled pursuit of direct gratification—in a conflict that has existed for all of recorded history. The victory of asceticism, in its various forms, is the basis of civilization.

Predictably, the closing pages of Reinventing the Soul have little conclusive to say by way of conclusion. Ruti touches upon the themes of suffering and consolation, the cyclical nature of existence, amor fati, etc., without finding in them a recognizable soul, much less a reinvented one.

...the understanding of the posthumanist soul that I have advanced in this book includes the idea that soulfulness is a matter of learning to live with the volatility and unknowability of existence without falling into states of psychic rigidity... Soulfulness then entails a degree of resourcefulness in negotiating the frequently quite confused outlines of our lived experience... The signifiers of our desire allow jouissance to erupt in the realm of symbolization. This is why they might be able to guide us in our search for a more affirmative—less fragile and vulnerable—vision of psychic life; they might help us reinvent the soul (223).

The reinvented soul, inasmuch as it can be discerned at all, is difficult to distinguish from the desecrated psyche from which Ruti seemed intent to save us.

By the end of Reinventing the Soul the promising idea of soul as psyche reinvested with postmodern versions of "interiority," "self-actualization" and "agency," has been lost in the qualifications that have been necessary in order to avoid the accusations of "humanism" and "essentialism." Had Ruti ended her book at part 3, it might have passed for a flawed but unusually promising prolegomena on the posthumanist soul. But her professional audience would have been left feeling very uneasy about the implications of those 155 pages, and, in the face of that fact, she lost the courage of her convictions. Some 80 further diffuse but comforting pages ensued.

Mari Ruti would seem to have a sense of this herself:

I was prompted to write this book because I kept asking myself how I should live my life so as not to squander the brief existential interval that I so miraculously possess. I am now no more capable of answering this question than when I was at the beginning of my inquiry...

But, by virtue of the process of writing her book, she sees as through a glass darkly:

...yet I am closer to comprehending how it becomes possible for the subject to reclaim its past in ways that yield not only meaning, value, and beauty, but also a degree of consolation.

Or, better said, she sees through professionally imposed limitations vaguely. Acceptance by her peer group—belonging—is a sufficient basis for "meaning, value, and beauty," inasmuch as she has the courage to pursue them, and most definitely a consolation in the face of what it may place beyond her grasp.


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