'Doing Justice to Life': A Conversation With Social Anthropologist Michael D. Jackson

March 17, 2010
'Doing Justice to Life': A Conversation With Social Anthropologist Michael D. Jackson

Michael D. Jackson has been Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School since 2005. The author of numerous books of anthropology, including the prizewinning Paths Toward a Clearing, At Home in the World, and The Politics of Storytelling, he has also published three novels and six books of poetry. His innovations in writing ethnography reflect his determination to make anthropology speak directly to contemporary concerns and to reach an audience beyond the academy. His latest book, The Palm at the End of the Mind (Duke University Press, 2009), is a prime example of innovation and accessibility. Wendy McDowell recently sat down with Jackson to discuss the book and the interests that drive his writing, teaching, and fieldwork.

You describe your project as "a phenomenology of what Victor Turner called liminality." Can you flesh out what this means, and why focusing on "those critical situations in life where we come up against the limits of language, the limits of our strength, the limits of our knowledge" intrigued you most at this particular point in your life?

I have always been fascinated by what Bruce Springsteen calls "the darkness at the edge of town," the thresholds, margins, or borderlands between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown. It's partly because I grew up in a small backwater New Zealand town and wanted a wider, more cosmopolitan world to move in, and partly because I identified strongly with the dispossessed—a sign, I suppose, of my own sense of difference and isolation.

When I wrote Palm, I turned to Turner only to realize that his notion of liminality was too structural, too experience-distant, so I took my cues from Karl Jaspers and Michel Foucault, whose notions of border situations and limit situations captured the experiences of being in extremis that most interested me, and how such experiences are often associated with what we call spirituality or the antinomian.

You write that you are "preoccupied by connectedness and transmigration," and you draw on what you call "border" or "migration" experiences—your own and those of friends and family. Yet these experiences are not only the ones we traditionally think of, but also the kinds you just described.

As a social anthropologist, I have always been fascinated by the paradox of sociality—that behaviors that evolutionary biology shows to have evolved over millions of years remain so problematic, beset by miscommunication, misunderstanding, and general ineptitude.

When I was young I felt socially gauche. But I came to realize that most people struggle in their relations with others and that intersubjectivity is a field fraught with danger, a field of thorns in which little can be taken for granted for very long, a field that has to be continually renegotiated and rethought.

Much of my empirical work has been a micropolitics of the limits—a cross-cultural, comparative exploration of these negotiations and renegotiations in everyday life, and the words, images, emotions, symbolic objects, gestures, and actions deployed in mediating relations between self and other. In Palm, I deploy Jaspers's notion of border situation to analyze the limits to which people can relate face to face, and to explore to what extent religious, political, and ethnic identity language is an obstacle to intersubjective freedom.

Of course, you have yourself had the experience of living elsewhere, and so many of the friends you discuss here are "displaced," in one way or another.

I think that everyone—not only displaced people and strangers—struggles with transitions, changes, estrangements, losses. I speak of "the migrant imagination" as a way of covering both the experience of the migrant or refugee and the movement between self and other—a movement that occurs behaviorally but also unfolds inchoately as fantasy, projection, or defensiveness. What goes on in our minds is seldom congruent with what appears to be happening between us, which is again one of the mysteries of sociality that continues to intrigue me.

That makes me think of the experiences you recount of some of your friends from Sierra Leone. They might be living in London, away from home, but so much of what they are experiencing, in terms of their family relationships, would also have been happening if they were still at home. As much as they long for home, sometimes they acknowledge that there are advantages to being able to negotiate from afar. It cuts many different ways, doesn't it?

A case in point is my friend Sewa Koroma. As I recount in the book, he hails from a polity in Northern Sierra Leone where, for hundreds of years, there has been a rivalry between two branches of a ruling family. Whether he had come to London or remained at home, he would have found himself in the thick of this political conflict because he is an heir to the paramount chieftancy, campaigning for his father's branch of the family.

He finds his struggle to feel at home in England very much like the struggle he encounters in Sierra Leone, trying to broker a peace between feuding families, trying to share his good fortune with his poorer kinsmen, yet being attacked and reviled for not doing enough to help them.

I was struck by your take on ancestors in the first part of the book, where you describe your Sierra Leonean friends as "living in the presence of the dead." Has your own relationship with your ancestors changed? For people who haven't read the book, can you describe some of your thoughts about having, or not having, rituals and structures around communicating with our ancestors?

It fascinates me that what is recognized in the official worldview of a particular culture does not necessarily capture the full spectrum of human experience within that culture. In the West, family bonds are as important as in Africa or the East, and this includes bonds with forebears and ancestors. But we don't, as a rule, place the same vital cultural value on ancestral bonds, making daily sacrifices to the dead, regarding the dead as living influences on our lives, distributors of blessings or causes of misfortune. God, yes, but ancestors far less.

What is significant for me, however, is that all human beings seem to have some way of imagining and actualizing relations and connections with what Jaspers calls the encompassing—the extrasocial space that is variously associated with divinities, ancestors, spirits, physical matter, subatomic processes, genetic codes, or the past.

Generally speaking, I think it is healthy to strike a balance between the forces over which we cannot prevail and the powers that lie within us. This may mean acknowledging past events we cannot revoke and future events we may have a hand in shaping.

We live in a world that places such value on the future—how to secure happiness for our children and prevent the destruction of the planet—that we sometimes forget our predecessors and their wisdom. This is a problem for many people who are moving out of the so-called premodern world into the modern world, often leaving their ancestors behind because ancestral wisdom is not going to provide much guidance for them in making a future for themselves.

I have a PhD student working in two Beijing universities, where young people are exhorted to study hard, to develop their own capacities, and to increase the power of the nation. But in doing so, they find themselves in a double bind, demoralized by the pressures and expectations placed on them, guilty at neglecting the care of their parents, and deeply depressed by the competitive rat race in which they find themselves. Attempts to rethink Confucian ethics don't seem to heal this rift between a worldview oriented toward the past and one oriented toward a brave new knowledge society.

You describe some of your own ancestors in vivid detail in this book, including your mother, maternal grandfather, and your first wife's father (you even quote from your mother's journal extensively). Has writing become one of your own rituals of remembrance and integration?

The reason is much simpler than that. I have found it hard to lay my hands on the funds needed for extensive fieldwork anymore, and I don't want to spend long periods of time away from my family. So I have fallen back on autobiographical experience. Where, 20 years ago, I would have relied on ethnographic fieldwork, I now draw on resources closer to home. There is, nonetheless, a certain discomfort that comes with writing about one's own kith and kin. You ask, "Am I doing them justice? Am I causing offence?" Of course, these questions arise when doing ethnographic work, but with one's own family there's greater ethical anxiety.

How did you feel about that when you finished the book?

I think it's fine, and my sisters and brother have approved of the way I write about our mother. But for me, there has never been real hesitancy in using so-called personal experience since I don't regard any experience I have had as "mine" in any proprietal sense. That certain experiences have happened to me does not make them exclusively mine; in fact, they form a springboard for comparing notes with others, for getting beyond any sense of myself as a unique entity. All experience is grist to the intellectual mill—raw material for trying to understand the human condition.

You say in this book that you "have come around to realizing that your vocation was doing justice to life as a writer rather than an activist." What led you to this self-understanding? Was it a gradual transition, or a rupture?

Even when I was an activist, working in welfare and community development, or vociferously and publicly protesting war and injustice, I found meaning in quietism—in books, scholarly pursuits, time alone, and meditative practice.

I must say that even in my preacademic incarnation, I derived greatest pleasure from the people I met in the course of welfare work, not the improvements or ameliorations, if any, that I accomplished for them. Among the homeless in London, with Aboriginal people in Australia, and later in the Congo I was drawn to people living on the margins. My turn from attempting to change the world for the better also reflected a deepening disenchantment, which came to a head when I was working in the Congo with the United Nations as a volunteer.

I saw that the United Nations operation in the Congo was essentially an extension of the colonial enterprise, the so-called civilizing mission. Many of the people working for the U.N. had no knowledge of the place that they were imposing their will upon. Moreover, the operation was entangled with the politics of the Cold War, since American interests were being extended into the Congo to combat Soviet interests in neighboring states.

I had had enough of politics; I wanted to be changed by Africa rather than bring change to it. When I began my academic career as an anthropologist, after graduating from Cambridge, I wanted to write about the changes that had taken place inside of me as much as the ethnographic discoveries I had made, and I began to seek ways of writing that satisfied academic protocols yet reached a wider educated audience. I felt then, as I do now, that the lived plenitude of Africa was being masked by media stereotypes, popular misconceptions, and a voyeuristic lust for violent scenarios, pathetic victims, and noble savages.

One of the ways you have challenged these conventions is to write in different forms and styles (including anthropology, philosophy, memoir, and poetry), which you do here.

Certainly, the books I'm writing now, like Palm, have ventured beyond what is usually regarded as academic anthropology. But then I don't think of myself as an anthropologist, or feel I have to define myself or pay my dues to any profession anymore.

I have a strong vision of what I want to do, and I use whatever tricks of the trade, resources, or skills I can muster to realize this vision in my chosen medium, the written word. I am less bothered than I have ever been by how the work is classified.

In this book, you also spend some time meditating on poetic language and art: what they allow, but also the limitations of such expressions. You don't romanticize storytelling, but rather, call it "the curse of consciousness." How do you live with this tension between the freedom and limitations of art?

I think all art struggles with the same problem that any form of discursive, scientific, or explanatory writing struggles with, namely, how much is being illuminated by the work, and how much is being obscured, betrayed, or left in the dark. It's very difficult to work out when the right balance has been struck.

I often think of Oliver Sacks, who was once asked if he ever shares his writing with anyone before he publishes it. He said, "I always show it to my mother. Hers is the one opinion I trust. And she only ever says, 'Oliver, this rings true,' or 'Oliver, this doesn't ring true.' " In the final analysis, in art as in life, it's a matter of feel, of what rings true or false. Sophisticated theories of criticism, ethics, and aesthetic standards go only so far. Beyond a certain point, judgment is a matter of feel. As for whether one can ever attain—in life or art—a state that feels, like Goldilocks's bed, "just right," perhaps I could quote T. S. Eliot, writing about the struggle to 'get the better of words,' to make words do justice to reality.

. . . And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
Four Quartets, "East Coker," V

Do you find that you're able to do more of what's important to you now that you've been writing for so many years?

When you're younger, you put more effort into impressing. Sometimes you have to, as when you're writing a PhD dissertation. You have to impress the examiners that you're worth awarding the degree to, worth admitting to the profession. The same goes for one's first academic books. But the older you get, the freer you are to devote yourself to expression. That's what I'm doing now—writing the books I've always wanted to write, but aware that I could not have written them, even if I had the freedom to do so, 20 or 30 years ago. It takes a long time to have something to say and to acquire the tools to say it.

I hadn't known before reading this book just how much you are drawn to visual art, but you discuss art and artists as much as you do writing.

I'm trying to write a book about Cézanne at the moment. Cézanne had this compelling idea of the real, so there's a connection with this book. Why should Cézanne struggle so long and hard to paint apples or pine trees that were real when paint is artificial? And what is this mystery that implies that we can only access the real through artifice, only be consummately social when we acquire social skills that overcome spontaneous and natural impulses? To speak of the real carries, for me, the same value that others find in words for God.

Do you find that the times when "the real" happens for you are sometimes the least expected ones?

There's a certain kind of lunacy to it. Consider Cézanne. If he sought the reality of Mont Sainte Victoire, or a pine tree, or the rocks in a quarry, why not go and lay his hands on them, or contemplate them? Why have recourse to paint? And how can one understand this artist's readiness to sacrifice his relations with people in order to devote himself to his art? What is the nature of this notion of the real?

And yet, like you said about storytelling, it's something that human beings have to attempt to do. Maybe it has to do with memory?

I'm not sure memories are real, if by real one means that they correspond to an actual event, retaining an exact image of it. Memories are like stories, constantly being remade and refashioned, yet we cling to the belief that they can be faithful to the events they recount.

It is hard for us to admit the full extent to which our vision of the way things are is filtered, constructed, and distorted—all maya, as the Buddhists claim. And harder still, perhaps, to argue that what we finally come to see as "reality" may still be illusory.

You write here about your grandfather who was a policeman, and this is something police learn in the course of their jobs. When they ask for accounts of an event, they get as many accounts as there are people. And yet people are very invested in their own account of what happened.

That may be tied up with the fact that my grandfather's hero was Houdini, a consummate escape artist who could get out of all the cells in the most secure prison in Yorkshire. Ironically, my grandfather spent much of life trying to get out of being a policeman. How can you be a policeman and a good person at the same time? His struggle is much like my own. How can I speak truth to life, when language and lived experience never completely overlap?

You write that your years among the Kuranko have led you to resist the dualistic oppositions of the West, such as between poetry and science, faith and reason, civilization and wilderness. Do you think this relates to your feeling of having to "wear a mask" and censor your own language here at Harvard?

As I said, sociality depends on artificial protocols as much as natural inclinations. Just as I have experienced difficulty learning the social protocols in other cultures, so I found difficulty adjusting to the subculture of Harvard after six years in Denmark.

The greater formality and guardedness here, for example. The fact that students feel uncomfortable using their teachers' first names. In Denmark, no student would address you as professor or doctor. Hailing from New Zealand, with its down-to-earth, egalitarian ethos, I found it easier to get used to Copenhagen than to Boston. Moreover, people are unnervingly articulate here. I have never been a confident speaker, and have taken refuge in the written word because I can go over and over it and get it right.

For example, if you ask me, "What is your book about?" What am I going to say? "It's a phenomenological deconstruction of Victor Turner's idea of liminality"? Does that do it justice? "It's an exploration of Karl Jaspers's notion of Grenzsituationen." Would that do? Both answers seem glib to me, yet this is the kind of communicative skill, the sort of ability with sound bites, that one needs if one is going to navigate the academy.

Even my lectures, I carefully write, because I couldn't stand up and speak without having notes in front of me. I'll depart from my notes, but they have to be there. I'm a writer, not a speaker. But I sometimes wonder whether the professional world is one where speaking can take you a lot further than writing. Even if you write a good book, you've got to tout your wares and explain it in face-to-face encounters with colleagues. This I find extremely daunting.

Funny you say that, because after I read this book, I wanted simply to tell other people, "Just read it!" rather than to try and ask questions about it. Unlike many "academic" books, it's already a conversation with the reader, and the voice is so strong.

The nice thing for me about this book and some of the others I've written in recent years is that they have drawn positive responses from both academic and nonacademic readers. In the case of this book, people can relate to the limit experiences of bringing life into the world, and life leaving the world. They already know firsthand the shape of these experiences of natality and loss.

What else have you been working on recently?

I have recently finished a book of variations on the theme of "firstness." I was intrigued by the questions, "Are first experiences most formative? Why do we often, in vernacular accounts of our lives, say that our first love, or our first experiences, or the first place in which we lived was fundamental to the person we became?" Are these assertions true, or are they stories we tell ourselves to make our lives intelligible?

I did most of my research in my native New Zealand. I was very much interested in the trope of firstness among Maori people, because, as tangata whenua (people of the land), Maori settled the country first, and therefore lay claim to its land and resources on the strength of autocthony.

Maori social justice claims are made in the same terms. But as I was exploring this issue with people, I was told many adoption stories. "I was adopted, and my first parents are not the ones who raised me." Sometimes these were good stories, and sometimes they were terrible stories, particularly when people attempted to connect with their birth parents and were rejected. So I built into the book several of these adoption stories .

I'm adopted, and I can't tell you how many people have told me, "I wish I was adopted," or "I always thought I was adopted"!

There's that lovely Bob Dylan story in "No Direction Home," where he sets out from Duluth to find the place where he was born, because he thinks, "It can't be here!" Many kids fantasize about being adopted, because they feel "These can't be my parents! Maybe someone else is my real parent!"

It's like what you said about migration: it's really just an element of the human condition, and people who physically migrate just provide obvious examples of what we all struggle with. It's the same with adoptees.

Exactly. We are all in transit, and we all imagine this in different ways. It could be a migrant from West Africa going to London, it could be an adopted child in transition from the person who brought her into the world to another place where she's going to live the next stage of her life. Or there's the transition from being single to being married, to losing one job and finding another, to having children and having one's children leave home, to seeing one's parents die. This is where Turner's notion of liminality fails us, I think, because it doesn't help capture the depth, diversity, and bewildering complexity of our experiences of being "betwixt and between."

As you bring out when you discuss your friends who are actually migrants, you don't necessarily start in one identity, have a transition, then land in another. That's not how it feels for them.

When I began work on migration, I was dismayed to find very few essays on the experience of actual migrants. The phenomenon was constructed around notions like transnationality, identity, and hybridity—concepts that seldom, in my fieldwork experience, corresponded to anything central to the migrant's own experience.

In my work with Sewa Koroma and other Sierra Leoneans in southeast London, I tried to focus on the issues that were most imperative for them, to work with everyday narratives to bring my readers into close contact with lifeworlds that were all too often seen through the abstract lens of anxious outsiders.

It must be hard when this is the discourse about you, and you are thinking, "Why am I not necessarily buying it?" Arthur Kleinman writes about this quite brilliantly, where a diagnostic category might be the death knell for a person. So, it might be helpful to know that you suffer from bipolar disorder, but it could be a terrible stumbling block.

In postwar Sierra Leone, many people learned that the best thing that could have happened to them is to have been traumatized, because then you can go to one of the European or American NGOs and say, "I am suffering from trauma," and receive all kinds of goodies. They are using the label opportunistically, but I'm not sure if people actually interpreted their experience of the war, horrific as it often was, in the terms that our label post-traumatic stress disorder implies.

But do you think when those labels get entrenched enough, then people start to suffer that way?

It's like hobgoblins. If you talk about them a lot, then kids start to see them. "There's one under my bed."

I do want to talk about the end of your book. In a book on limits and liminality, you choose to close with a discussion of self-sacrifice. Why end here?

We were talking before about how one book leads to another. The book I wrote after this one (in press right now) is called Life Within Limits: Wellbeing in a World of Want. It is based on a return trip to Sierra Leone.

When I came to HDS, Dean Graham set aside funds for me to do a substantial piece of research, and this was it. One of the things I wanted to explore is the way that people in Sierra Leone didn't see limits as a problem to be pushed back, as a boundary that you want to break down like the Berlin Wall, but as something that you accept and find a way of living and moving within. It's a compelling idea of freedom, very cybernetic, of working within given parameters rather than going beyond them.

Obviously, more and more Sierra Leoneans are nowadays trying to push back the limits, to migrate, to exercise greater freedom of choice in who they marry, to seek self-transformation through education and wellbeing through wealth. And people's fantasy lives offer imaginative and vicarious ways of getting beyond traditional limits. But despite this openness to new horizons, there are old established values, and I became interested in how existential satisfaction involves a rapprochement between these poles of desire and duty.

For even as people are thinking of improving their lot, they retain a capacity for accepting their lot. So there's not the kind of frustration and exasperation that comes from not being able to do what you have set your heart on doing. This connects with this notion of sacrifice, because people have a very strong sense that losses sustained in enduring your everyday situation, or living within limits, somehow guarantee future rewards and blessings, so that even if you do not benefit, your children or grandchildren will. What doesn't work out in your own life, not only doesn't preclude something not working out in the lives of your children, it increases the likelihood that things will work out for them. They are the beneficiaries of your pain.

This ties in with the way that people think about reciprocity: that for everything given, there's got to be a gain, sooner or later, for somebody in your family or your life. If something is taken away, then it will be augmented somehow.

I spend a lot of time in this Sierra Leonean book looking at the ethics that is grounded in this notion of reciprocity. Sacrifice is simply a reapportioning of things. Give x away, and y will follow. It helps to understand some of the new forms of Christianity in West Africa, like Pentecostalism, which makes exorbitant demands on desperately poor people through tithing.

This seems to be an outrageous exploitation of the limited resources of people, but it isn't experienced by people in this way since nothing in life comes to a person unless he or she first gives something up. Therefore, the sacrifice necessitates a return gift, though when and in what form one cannot know.

I found that kind of sacrifice and giving when I was in East Africa. At the same time, there was the adage, "There's no harm in asking." So both the giving and the asking were so much more open and fluid. Why do you think this is?

I suppose you can see it as a rationalization of being poor. To give is a good, because if you give to other people even when you have nothing, you increase the number of people that you can make a claim on when you have even less than you have today. But I think it's not entirely explained in this way, because just as there is a mysterious change in us when we can share our woes with others, so sharing resources alters our sense of our relation to the world around us. So it does make a difference to give to somebody even when you have little to give. It connects you with the world; it reawakens in you the hope that comes of knowing that every gift entails a counter gift, every act of openness to the world increases the likelihood that the world will respond. Much of my book is an exploration of these proto-ethical mysteries.

When will that book be published?

Life Within Limits will be out later this year, and I hope the firstness book will be published in 2011. Then there's a third book that I'm trying to find a publisher for, that again emerged from writing Palm. It explores the tension between activism and quietism that we touched on before, and works around key figures like Thomas Merton, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Richard Rorty, and Brijen Gupta.

This theme of balance between engagement and solitude fascinates me—whether it's the tension between commitment to one's family and commitment to one's own intellectual work, or the constant shifting of weight between what we see as being good for us, and what is good for those that we share our lives with. Or share the world with, for that matter.

Yet, one of the things I took from your book is that it does matter what the prevailing attitude of a culture is. How different it must be to see your own suffering as something that might bring positive things to your family or friends, rather than the opposite.

Sewa said to me one day, elaborating on a Kuranko adage, "The water that you drink is the water that God put there for you." He meant that whenever you go and take a drink of water, that water is for you. It's not an accident that it's there, because somebody in your family, or you yourself, have thirsted long enough to deserve that water. And thus it is there for you. You have earned it by patiently waiting through days and nights of drought for it. You have shown fortitude. You have accepted the limits of water in the world, and thus the water comes to you.

Some people say, "That's typical of premodern people, that fatalism. They really need a water supply and then they won't have to think in that way!" But we who do have a regular water supply might do well to think of water as a scarce good, something to be earned rather than taken for granted as a natural gift.

by Wendy McDowell

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