Dreams, Imagination and other Slippery Stuff

Dreams, Imagination and other Slippery Stuff[1]

Though the title seems vaguely reminiscent of a Fleetwood Mac song, Amira Mittermaier’s Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination is both aptly named and timely.  Published in the same year as the coup d’état that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, Mittermaier’s work reflects an Egypt during “undreamy times,” where local and international political tension bubbles beneath the surface.  But, Mittermaier’s focus Islamic dream communities in Egypt goes beyond the political, or even the visible, realm.  Her emphasis that “dreams matter” depicts the ways that dreams have “significance in people’s lives and…an impact on the visible, material world. [Dreams] matter because they complicate the notion of a monolithic Islam, and they matter because they destabilize conventional understandings of the ‘real’” (2).  Dreams, and the interpretive communities around them, also matter because they give significant insight into the imagination, which is moored in the barzakh, the realm between the spiritual and material.  Mittermaier explores this in-between space not by interrogating the dreams themselves, but by examining the ways that dreams are narrated to interpreters and how those interpreters receive and respond to them.  She is not so much concerned with what a dream means, but is instead concerned with what is does. She is also concerned with the wider dialogue in Egypt that contextualizes dream interpretation.  These conversations hold implications for the ways that Egyptians imagine Islam, Science, and the European world.  Conversely, Mittermaier’s exploration of imagination invites (presumably Western) readers to re-imagine Islam, Spirituality and the Arab world.  In this way, Mittermaier’s work is profoundly ethical.

Broadly, Mittermaier’s work is an opportunity to rethink ethics and subsequently, to rethink our understandings of the “self.”  For Mittermaier’s interlocutors (see questions), dream-visions do not come from the subconscious, as Freud posited.  There are kinds of dreams that might come from the subconscious, but dreams visions come from outside the self and hold implications for the ways that live ought to be lived.  The dream is given to her by God, by demons or by the dead.  In particular, dream-visions from the dead hold significant weight for dreamers.  These dreams often hold moral imperatives for the ways that dreamers interact in the waking world.

The dreamer is the medium for the message and the dream interpreter deciphers that message. Dreams situate dreamers into larger relationships between the living and the dead, visible and invisible, past and present.  This is particularly evident through Shaykh Nabil, who frequently highlights the relational nature of dream interpretation. He is a “translator, cultural broker, religious expert, and moral guide” (81).  Dreamers and dream interpreters must consider what these dreams communicate about these vast relational networks. The dreamer (the self) is deeply relational and dream interpreters assist in the ethical and moral navigation of those relationships.

Dream-interpretation ignites complex conversation in the wider Egyptian culture.  Shaykh Hanafi’s television show on dream interpretation and its cancellation by the State illustrates that dream-visions are deeply contested in Egypt.  Muslim reformers believe that dream-visions are nothing more than “superstition,” while the Egyptian government seems concerned that Hanafi’s interpretations may incite rebellion.  If a TV show can cause such responses from reformers and the government, dreams clearly matter not only for Shaykh Hanafi and his followers, but also for the larger Egyptian society.

Mittermaier carefully posits that the tension surrounding dream-visions is more than a need to embrace European thought via Freudian psychology.  In fact, Freud is just as contentious a figure as dream-visions.  She depicts a fractuous relationship between psychoanalysis and dream-visions to suggest that her interlocutors push past an “either/or” understanding of Freudian psychoanalysis and Islamic dream interpretation.  Both Freudian thought and Islam are remade and reconstituted through dream interpretation (200).

One final thread worth mentioning is Mittermaier’s emphasis on vision and sight.  Mittermaier suggests that the Western world privileges ocular sight as objective.  However, the cultivation of sight for dream-interpretation troubles the notion that sight is somehow morally neutral.  In order to truly “see,” the dreamer must cultivate an inner sight that goes beyond what can be perceived with the eyes. This kind of vision is not a given, rather it comes through practice and teaching.  Paradoxically, cultivating an inner vision does not necessarily mean that one will receive a dream-vision.  Dream-visions often come to those who are unwitting participants in the dream landscape and while a dream can command the dreamer to do something, the dreamer always has the ability to reject that command (110).  In other words, while the dreamer is a medium of sorts, she is not completely passive in a dream-vision.

Another emphasis on sight comes from Mittermaier’s exploration of mass media.  For some of interlocutors, mass media is analogous to the unknown.  Just as the bazarkh is made manifest through dreams, mass media makes the unknown visible through technology.  Egyptian dream communities are uniquely positioned to use mass media because of their porous boundaries between “real” and “imaginary.”  The two categories need no neat separation.  Likewise, Mittermaier’s interlocutors don’t always distinguish between “near” and “far,” “absent” or “present.”  As Mittermaier puts it, “Because my interlocutors are invested in communities that are not limited to physical encounters but that also encompass the dead and (in)visible beings, it is not surprising that they are also interested in media forms that in some ways exceed the limitations of ordinary space and time” (229).

In “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Salat,”  Saba Mahmood’s interlocutors are Muslim women also based in Cairo.  A part of the Women’s Piety Movement in Cairo, these women embrace ritual not as a given set of actions, but as a way of cultivating a pious disposition.  As an embodied practice, prayer serves as a “tool or developable means through which certain kinds of ethical and moral capacities are attained” (844).  Ritual is part of a pedagogical process in which the inner self is formed.  This ultimately shapes external behavior.  Just as Mittermaier’s dream-visions hold implications for the visible world, Mahmood’s understanding of prayer is an internal experience that is turned outward.

Some Thoughts and Questions

  • Mittermaier’s emphasis on in-betweenness and imagination is incredibly ambitious because these spaces are so slippery. Her dialogic approach captures these unstable, ambiguous spaces quite nicely without capitulating to any sort of final, binding interpretation.  By focusing on the conversations around dream-interpretation and the effects of dreams, Mittermaier enters into an ongoing dialogue that is likely not the same today as it was when she was doing fieldwork. Dreams matter or “materialize” in everyday practices and conversations.  She cannot focus on the immaterial without focusing on the ways the dream materialize.  However, this focus gives Mittermaier some distance from dream-interpretation.  She differs from many of our other thinkers this semester in that she repeatedly emphasizes that she does not see what her interlocutors are seeing.  She does not have a dream vision. She does not see angels or the prophet flying around.  But, that’s not the point that Mittermaier is trying to make.  She’s not concerned with whether or not these dreams are “real” for her interlocutors.  She presumes that they are.  However, does this presumption also create a distance from her interlocutors’ experience?   Are there ways in which this focus on “matter” undermines her emphasis on that which is invisible and immaterial? Is this just Geertz all over again, but with a post-modern twist? I don’t think it is.  But, I think it’s important to make some distinctions here.
  • Mittermaier gives us a new term! No longer do we have “informants,” but instead “interlocutors” (see p. 23). Is this new term helpful? Problematic? What are its implications?
  • Mittermaier’s discussion on the “Arab Mind” (40) reminded me of some of our conversations on Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies. Here, too, Western understandings of modernity provide the backdrop for her interlocutor’s conversations.  But, Mittermaier is careful not to say that modern Western notions control the conversation. To what extent is she successful in pushing past a “Irrational Islam Vs. The Rational West” paradigm?  Why does it matter?
  • Given the role of social media in the Arab Spring, it might be interested to think through Mittermaier’s last chapter on mass media.

[1] I am writing with fever-brain on a complex book. The most slippery thing about this precis is that there’s no real central point to it.

4 thoughts on “Dreams, Imagination and other Slippery Stuff

  1. Emmy,
    Thank you for your thorough review and questions you posed about the work. I was also left wondering about this slippery slope of bringing dreams into materiality or matter. Like you mentioned in your first question, Mittermaier views the dreams as real in people’s lives – but do the people themselves view them as real as she does? She focuses on how the dreams or the imaginary are important to people’s realities, but could they really be ‘just talk’ as her friend Amed suggests in the beginning. In our search for what matters to people, could we be placing emphasis on things that don’t really materialize in their lives in the way we think they do?

  2. I too was struck by Mittermaier’s conversation on vision and sight and particularly how she notes the limitations of the anthropologist’s project, “Although anthropologists generally cannot study sense experiences in their unmediated form.. they can examine narrative, performative, and discursive renderings of such experiences. The actual vision always escapes its theorization and narrativization…” (86). She goes on to name the ethical dilemma this presents – either the researcher has to privilege their own “observing gaze” or “give close ethnographic consideration to other imaginations, and examine critically our own blind spots” (87). As others have mentioned, I think this kind of ethical consideration continues throughout the book and maybe it is connected to your observation around informants vs interlocutors.

    I am also interested in Mittermaier’s rhetorical approach – how she actually makes her argument. I am not terribly sure how best to describe it, but her tone is striking to me – the kinds of details she lifts and how her own internal dialogue emerge. “Precisely one year after I had first met Madame Salwa, I called her from New York. Sitting at my kitchen table and staring out into Brooklyn’s gray skies, I picked up the phone and dialed the familiar number…” (153). In another section she writes, ” Knowing Dr. Hakim, I would have expected a triple negation: No it’s not really the Prophet you see; you only ‘want’ to see him. No ‘istikhara’ does not provide answers. and no, you ‘re not clairvoyant…” (196). There is a kind of casual tone in her prose that made her writing more believable and I am just curious if others found her tone to lend a particular kind of credibility to her assessments. I thinking back, I recall a similar kind of tone with Deren – even as Deren might be more interested in correcting misperceptions of Haitian Voudoun, there seems to be something about how one tells the story and how the ethnographer normalizes their own experience into the work, that impacts the reception. Even on the last page, there is a kind of emotional disclosure (231), that Mittermaier gives that seems to evince the credibility of her argument about media.

  3. Hey Emmy,

    Really great job (especially if done with fever-brain—I hope you’re feeling better)!

    I appreciate that you drew our attention to Mittermaier’s emphasis on the in-between. One of her stated goals is to enrich our understanding specifically of an “ethics of in-betweenness” and of interrelationality. Her project seems like a cool one, but it also seems to have lots of attendant complications to think through, some of which you’ve pointed out really helpfully. There seems to be a lot that she’s left us to work out philosophically when we zoom out a little bit—more fun for us.

    As one example, she treats the liminal concept of barzakh like it’s a location or “inter-space,” but doesn’t really go into much detail about what it means that it is constituted dialogically and with “an attitude of openness toward the (in)visible” (56). This might be an opportunity for us, though, to continue a recurring conversation–that she seems to want to fit in to–about ethics and the face-to-face encounter mediating and rupturing dichotomies (like subject-object). I think I’m still stuck in a spot where that all sounds like a great idea, but I’d just like to think through the philosophical and ethical implications a little more. I actually found it a little funny that she covers Douglas, Turner, and al-Ghazali on liminality in the space of one paragraph, indicating that it “can be dangerous yet also full of utopian potentials” (57).

    As another example, you point to Mittermaier’s discussion of the fact that concepts like “Islam” and “Freudian thought” and “self” are remade and reconstituted through interpretation (with emphasis on inter-), allowing us to transcend logics of either/or. Likewise, she describes that in this context a dream’s agency matters more than that of the dreamer, and that the self is thereby constituted by those dreams which act on it from Elsewhere. It sounds like for her the “objective” and ontological is preceded by and constituted from the “subjective,” relational, and ethical. In other words, she sounds a lot like Levinas (who does get a couple of minor shout-outs among the many name-drops). This is especially true when she describes the moral imperatives inherent in the act of interpretation. I’d love to dive more deeply into the implications for the ontology/ethics and is/ought dichotomies that follow from her description of interpretation and of dreams revealing better possible futures.

    I also wonder… she certainly has a sort of moral exemplar when she describes the ideal dream interpreter: a religion scholar, linguist, and anthropologist of sorts, who is a keen observer and can “truly see,” all the while maintaining an attitude of openness to alterity and mediating between rich and poor, real and imaginary, etc. Can we extrapolate from this any ethical principles that might be generalizable? What of this account is necessarily unique to the Egyptian dream-vision context? What resonates more broadly? Does ethics ultimately boil down for her to just good interpretation (or discernment, as Nick might be tempted to say)? Is her “ethics of in-betweenness” just the marriage of Levinasian “ethics before ontology” to Aristotelian phronesis?

  4. Hey Emmy, you are pointing to some of what I found to be the most interesting, and at times most challenging, parts of this book. On the one hand, I really appreciate Mittermaier’s turn to point out that non-material (psychic, spiritual, and/or emotional) forces really *are* important for understanding a social landscape–especially if one is trying to talk about ethics. It reminded me of an interview I was listening to last night, On Being’s Krista Tippett interviewing Civil Rights organizer Ruby Sales. Sales comments that as a young organizer she took a “materialist turn,” and saw the world only through the lens of Marxist analysis. This is a frequent stance on the left, even within some spiritual traditions like liberation theologies, the point being to correct the spiritualizing tradition that asks people to focus on the “world beyond.” Sales continued that it took her many years before she began to realize the importance of her spiritual heritage within “black folk religion,” (she distinguishes this from the more institutionalized elements of black churches) which had been with her the entire time, but which she had ignored. She argues that it is a key animating force even within secular black organizing spaces.

    Mittermaier seems to be making a similar move, which I appreciate both as a corrective to a (sometimes) over-emphasized stance in progressive circles and as a way to open up new ways of seeing. I love when she says, for example, that “locating the dream’s origin *inside* the dreamer, one overlooks the possibility of other subjectivities, other dreams, other imaginations” (15)–her book is an attempt to open the space for those. At the same time, it sometimes seemed that opening this space had the effect of negating everything on either side of it. Sentences like this were typical: “The visitational dream deserves our attention because it exceeds and ruptures *both* of these models [Aristotelian virtue ethics and Kantian duty ethics, 140]”. Without disputing that claim, I was curious what was at stake for Mittermaier in pushing so forcefully against so many previous models. Certainly, many of them are reductive and problematic. At the same time, looping back to Mittermaier’s own idea that seeing is never neutral, I wonder what led her to see dreams so clearly in this “exceed and rupture” model, and how it impacts the resulting work. Can we ever really throw out the old? Ruby Sales tried to, and it came back around and showed it had been with her the whole time.

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