Published in  
December 16, 2015

The soul is not ‘within’

It is still fashionable to think of souls and feelings as ‘things inside’ of us and their expressions through words and gestures as ‘outside’ of us.

Two separate qualities divided by a gap we don’t know how to bridge. The idea of the ‘ghost in the machine’ still lurks around in the corners of our practices of individualism and humanistic chivalry. It is this gaping lull, the Cartesian chasm, that exists between ‘souls’ (such as we are) and mere stuff, ‘things’ and their meaning, the inner and the outer, good and evil.

The message is clear: ‘as ‘souls’, we are fundamentally separate from everything else. The world around us is merely to be studied, mapped, mobilized, converted, and forcefully put in the family way. We are pure, untainted by the wildness of the outside.’ The idea of a pre-relational, ‘inner soul’ has always been entangled with our political experiments: whether it was in colonial attempts to privilege a ‘superior’ race, or – now – in an American demagogue’s proposal to build a wall and shut out entire people of a particular faith. In other words, ‘we’ are qualitatively distinct from ‘them’. Some ‘souls’ are more equal than others.

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Thankfully, we are living in times when we are being stretched – so that the things we once took to be ‘outside’ of us now seem to be inextricably connected to us. In the same way a blind man only ‘sees’ his surroundings with the sweeping movements of his cane – but forgets to account for the agency of the cane – we are seeing how our identities are performances, not floating entities we are invested with, but doings. We are seeing how these ‘doings’ are part of a larger choir of becoming – and that reality is a movement, a rhapsody of entangled doings that will never be resolved. What it means to be ‘you’ or ‘me’ is not something endemic, something essential to us, something buried within ‘us’. As such, there are no convenient ‘others’, no easy victims or constated enemies. And to build walls is to protect those within from those without is to cut through our own flesh, to exclude the next, to silence a part of the saga that is us from finding a home. To shut out the ‘enemy’ is to plant ourselves in small places, and to be blind to just how already ‘compromised’ we are.

If we must retain the notion of a soul, it can no longer be of the intangible ghost within; why strain to hear the soprano and remain deaf to the entire orchestra? Why struggle to gain the ‘soul’ – the tittle in the sentence – at the risk of losing the whole world – the rich, fluid stream of intermingling agencies whence we derive our agency? Your soul isn’t some deeper level to access, your soul is around you, with you, moving through you, surprising you – trees in their deep bows as processions of winds pass by, seas belching plastic bottles and carcasses embalmed in oil and fear, a South Indian woman making a kolam in the morning to invite ants and blessings to her household.

Your soul is the people on the other side, the masked stranger hovering outside our fences, the forbidden thought leering through the cracks of creed, the path cordoned off by the authorities that care, the specter in the distance, and the wrong answer. Your soul is strange. You haven’t met her yet.