Pedagogies of the Soul, an Anthropologist in Isolation, and the Cut

The COVID-19 pandemic, its demands for physical separation, isolation, and their psychic toll give rise to a set of reflections on how conceptual work can inform psychological anthropology. Following Stefania Pandolfo (2018), here I draw on psychoanalysis and on Islamic philosophy and mysticism to focus on “the cut.” The primordial cut of psychoanalysis is the necessary separation from the mother that enables entrance into the symbolic and relational world (Lacan 2006). The cut is the psychic experience of separation that forges recognition of the limits imposed upon the self as one journeys onward with others. The separation afforded by the cut creates a space in-between self and other that can produce either movement or stasis. Cuts can either give rise to new forms of relationalities or be incorporated into the self as despair. Throughout this pandemic, I have been thinking a lot about how the cut informs my personal life, my pedagogy, and my chosen profession of anthropology.

First, there is my story of embarking on the journey to obtain a PhD in medical anthropology. I am the only daughter in a family of eleven. My parents grew up on village farms in Yemen, had no formal education, and embodied the praxis of egalitarianism and hospitality of the tribes and the mysticism of Sufi scholars. My mother, a descendent of the renowned Islamic scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, had long felt ambivalent toward my studies. She feared that my doctoral studies in a discipline historically hostile to non-Western forms of knowledge would cut me off from her tradition. A year into my program, I almost gave up until my advisor reminded me that what mattered most was not how well I knew Kant or Hegel, but that I could think from and through another tradition. Then, when I was planning my field research, a series of events—the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the war breaking out in Yemen in 2015, a US “Muslim Ban” on Yemenis in 2016—confronted me as other cuts, ruptures in the coherence of the world I hoped to immerse myself in. I could not continue fieldwork in Yemen. In and through each cut, anthropology became my refuge, offering a way to think about the space in-between the realization of loss and transition toward invention, what in Arabic might be translated best as barzakh (isthmus, barrier, threshold). Anthropology would help me reflect across my identities, traditions, and worlds. As I moved in and out of the spaces in-between, I recalled my mother’s words: la tansi nafsik (do not forget yourself, know what is conditioning your soul). When she reminded me to never forget my soul/self, she was reminding me not to forget my desire, to not forget justice in the transition between cuts.

The fourteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun (2015) wrote that one response to interruptions (or cuts, if you will) is to turn to pedagogy, to allow for a form of thinking and writing demanded by another world. He argued that when people are cut off from direct transmission of a tradition and its formation of the soul, discipline is required to establish the limits that can preserve desire: to form the soul without breaking it. The soul must be formed, but it must also breathe, for desire is necessary for any rebuilding to take place. Thinking with Ibn Khaldun, who was writing at the time of the bubonic plague, I am reminded that tribulation (fitna) and ordeal (ibtila) are cyclical. Every community, in every time, is afflicted with a trial of its own, and usually the decline of an empire stems from its abandoning the cultivation of the sciences and the production of crafts. Recursive images: the city is the reflection of the souls that build it up, just as souls reflect the knowledge that builds the city. Ibn Khaldun warns that those who refuse a pedagogy of the soul will be taught by time. The question of the soul—in medicine, ethics, revolution—would be my vehicle. In the space in-between, I continue to study the ways the soul makes its way into Muslim medical practices and into patients’ demands for wellbeing (‘afiya).

Instead of succumbing to the stasis of my soul brought about by the isolation imposed by the cuts of geopolitical upheaval in my fieldwork, I turned to pedagogy. I spent many mornings on the ground floor of my host family’s home in Saudi Arabia sipping Yemeni coffee, eating dates, and reading Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques (2012)—alone. Lévi-Strauss, too, wrote from conditions of isolation during fieldwork, in his case in Brazil, reflecting on how he came to anthropology. He portrayed anthropologists as those who withdraw into themselves in order to study phenomena, in near monastic fashion. The ethnographer rests in place to bear witness, to hear the silences, to remember the forgotten, and to unearth the absences in the passing moment as the world continues to move.

As the world rests in place from the COVID-19 pandemic, as listening is interrupted by the slowing of the world’s motion, what lessons are we to learn from dwelling-in-place? Reading Ibn Khaldun and Lévi-Strauss together suggests that from the space between cuts, we can (if we attend to our souls) leap into new relationalities. How can we condition our souls not to forget our recursive relationships to the larger world?

Anthropology is in its own way an in-between space, invested not merely in deciphering the laws of societal norms but also in examining the ways that time builds or buries habits. Ethnography shows us how knowledge is transferential: it is neither in me nor in you. We look on in this time of the novel coronavirus not to diagnose but to bear witness to its contingency and connectedness (from which the word contagion is derived). The space of isolation erases histories of suffering but also recreates them. When we forget, we ultimately repeat, again and again, until we remember the drive that necessitated the cut. We must dwell in the space in-between to reconsider our drives for capital, security, control, and surplus enjoyment (jouissance). The drive to reopen the economy and resume life as we knew it comes now at the expense of others. This pandemic invites us to think about our connectedness to essential healthcare workers and others around us, even as our sheltered-in isolation augments the desire to actually be together.

An antidote to the stasis of cuts and pandemics arises from the study of the soul. Studying the soul speaks to what gives life to movement, what patterns repeat, what allows ethics and trust to arise within a given space. As we step into an uncertain future of cuts—government cuts threaten the social sciences, collapsing economies threaten job security, family isolation threatens community—how will we respond with a pedagogy of the soul? The twelfth-century scholar al-Ghazali (2010) argues that souls expand when anchored. The soul’s knowledge of itself is elusive; it slowly acquires this knowledge through the outer and inner senses. To avoid a deadening oscillation between stasis and movement, one must make space for the soul’s needs and inner senses (appetite, anger, and intellect) while cultivating them into courage, temperance, and wisdom. Wielding one’s inner senses opens the imagination to creative memory, rather than letting it run wild. When we all are at home sheltered in place, inert from lack of movement and lack of experience, perhaps discipline itself can move us, rather than constrict us.

In the final class of my course this semester, Anthropology of the Soul, I invited my students to consider the soul not simply as something interior and inaccessible which one molds and shields, but as a force that is structured by and structures the worlds around us. Our souls are reflected in our habits and our relationships. I instructed students to document their new daily routines and to think about how the soul inhibited their work. Did they feel hopeful, apathetic, or resigned? I asked them to speak with a new person every week (remotely) and to reflect on this interaction in relation to the knowledge produced in-between cuts. I wanted my students to understand the need of the soul to move, to breathe, and to find a new space of limits within which to desire. But during the COVID-19 crisis, we might consider the space necessary for the expansion of others’ desires as well. These lessons on the movement of the soul are even more critical as the pandemic will only further isolate those who seek the space to expand their souls by migrating; those whose movement is forced by wars and impoverishment. Central American migration and the wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria—containing the virus will also depend on how these issues are addressed. We can only hope that we can make space for others to desire amid the cuts that divide.

Ashwak Hauter is a PhD Candidate in the joint program in Medical Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in hospitals and clinics among Muslim physicians, scholars, and patients in Sana’a, Yemen; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and Amman, Jordan. She will begin her UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at UC Irvine this fall focusing on the work of culture in and after war in Yemen.


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Marvels of the Heart, trans. W.J. Skellie(Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2010).

Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to HistoryAbridged Edition, trans. Franz Rosenthal, ed. N.J. Dawood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function,” in ÉcritsThe First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2006).

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).

Stefania Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).