How are we to think of works of art? Rather than treat art as an expression of individual genius, market forces, or aesthetic principles, Michael Jackson focuses on how art effects transformations in our lives. Art opens up transitional, ritual, or utopian spaces that enable us to reconcile inward imperatives and outward constraints, thereby making our lives more manageable and meaningful. Art allows us to strike a balance between being actors and being acted upon.
Philosophy and anthropology have long debated questions of difference: rationality versus irrationality, abstraction versus concreteness, modern versus premodern. What if these disciplines instead focused on the commonalities of human experience? Would this effort bring philosophers and anthropologists closer together? Would it lead to greater insights across historical and cultural divides?
MICHAEL JACKSON (b.1940) has been described as “one of [New Zealand's] most astute, humane, idiosyncratic, neglected and perdurable writers” (Martin Edmond). His poetry is characterised by its cosmopolitan range, its conceptual depth, lyrical concision, and craftsmanship. He has spent most of his life as a professional anthropologist, and currently holds a distinguished Chair at Harvard.
Constant in the Darkness
The novel unfolds in New Zealand between 1990 and 2004, and is structured around a series of life-changing encounters, traumatic separations, and missed meetings, involving four main characters, and suggesting variations on the theme of the constancy of love, the fickleness of fate, and the loss of faith.
In this book, I explore our relationship with life itself through the image of the limitrophe. The word limitrophe derives from the Latin limes (‘boundary’) and the Greek, trophos (‘feeder’) and trephein (‘to nourish’). In its original meaning, limitrophus designated lands that provided food for troops defending an outpost of Empire. More generally, the word denotes a borderland between two or more states, though it also calls to mind Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of a mestiza consciousness where phenomena collide - a destabilized and transgressive borderlands in which “dreams, repressed memories, psychological transferences and associations” possess greater presence than they do in ordinary waking life, and religious experiences emerge from the unconscious like apparitions.
Anthropology must deploy a double perspective that encompasses particular situations – local, familial, and personal – and general conditions – global, national, cosmopolitan, historical, and human.
Rather than treat the migrant as a singular figure – an interloper, anomaly, or alien in our midst – I view the migrant as exemplifying a universal aspect of human existence. Either we are moving or the world is moving – about, under, or above us. To cite the slogan so often seen on vehicles in West Africa, ‘No condition is permanent.
The Wherewithal of Life engages with current developments in the anthropology of ethics and migration studies to explore in empirical depth the experiences of three young men – a Ugandan migrant in Copenhagen, a migrant from Burkina Faso in Amsterdam, and a Mexican migrant in Boston – in ways that significantly broaden our understanding of the existential situations and ethical dilemmas of those migrating from the global South.
An ice-bound New England pond – utterly still, though racked with sub-glacial groans – serves as an image of a mind overwhelmed one moment by troubling memories, the next by the peace that passes all understanding. In his new collection, Michael Jackson explores the impact on a poet’s consciousness of past and present events – both personal and historical – and the possibility of transcendence in love and creative work.
My argument is that writing is like any other technology of self-expression and social communication, and that in exploring the lifeworlds of writings and writers we discover the same existential imperatives that have always preoccupied human beings, regardless of their cultural or historical circumstances – the need to belong to lifeworlds wider than their own, to feel that they can act on the world rather than merely suffer its actions upon them, and to express what seems peculiar and problematic about their own experiences in ways that resonate with the experiences of others.
In this book, ethnographer and poet Michael Jackson addresses the interplay between modes of writing, modes of understanding, and modes of being-in-the-world. Drawing on literary, anthropological, and autobiographical sources, he explores writing as a technics akin to ritual, oral storytelling, magic, and meditation that enables us to forge virtual relationships and imagined communities that go beyond the limits of quotidian life.
The tension between philosophy conceived as a conversation with oneself or within a closed community and philosophy conceived as an open-ended conversation with the world at large reflects a tension that is natural to consciousness itself, which oscillates constantly between a sense of being apart from the world and being a part of it.
Michael Jackson extends his pathbreaking work in existential anthropology by focusing on the interplay between two modes of human existence: that of being part of other people’s lives and that of turning inward to one’s self. Grounding his discussion in the vexed relationships between ‘I’ and ‘we’ – the one and the many – and the subtle shifts between being acted upon and taking action, Jackson provides riveting accounts of the contradictions, cares and concerns that shape all our lives.
There are moments in life of which we later say, everything changed. Nothing was ever the same again. This is as true of our histories as our lives. There is a before and an after; our world was turned upside down; we suffered the eclipse of all that we regarded as tried and true. This experience may follow bereavement as well as falling in love. It can befall those who lose their homeland to an invader, as well as a traveler in an antique land. And it often brings us to rethink the meaning of first things, and to ask what hold our histories have over us and whether there is something about our first experiences in life that makes all that follows pale in comparison.
My approach to the study of human well-being reflects a long-held assumption that while philosophers have often asked the most searching questions regarding the human condition, ethnographic method offers one of the most edifying ways of actually exploring these questions.
This book explores the experience of wellbeing in Sierra Leone (recently called by the UN “the world’s least liveable country”), and draws on Ernst Bloch’s studies of utopia and social hope as a way into an African lifeworld with which many Westerners are unfamiliar, enabling us to glimpse the existential and ethical quandaries people face in their everyday lives, while appreciating the web of connections that bind people to the past, open them up to new possibilities, yet generate new forms of dissatisfaction.
One’s wellbeing depends on one’s relationships or connectedness to an ‘elsewhere’ or ‘otherness’ that lies beyond the horizons of one’s own immediate lifeworld. This ‘other’ world is sometimes identified with the dead, and ritual labor enables the living to fuse their being with ancestral being in a life-giving union. Sometimes, as in traditional Christianity, it is a realm of divine power and presence, associated with the empyrean. Sometimes it is identical to the natural environment of forest, bush, and stream.
I call these essays ‘excursions’ not only because each emerged from a sojourn in a place away from home, away from settled routines and certainties, but because the image of a journey suggests that thought is always on the way, is always a struggle, and the thinker a journeyman whose attitudes are perpetually unsettled and tested by his or her engagement with the world.
Based upon a series of journeys to far-flung places – a refugee trail over the Pyrenees, a historic copper mine in Sweden, the Shuf mountains in Lebanon, the Swiss Alps, the heart of the Sierra Leonean diaspora in southeast London - this book comprises a series of meditations on several existential aporias – the gaps and double-binds that arise in human social life through the simultaneous presence of competing imperatives.
We do not own our own lives – we are not in sole possession of the truth about ourselves.
From his New Zealand beginnings, Michael Jackson’s quest has taken him across Paris in the footsteps of his literary hero, Blaise Cendrars, to the doss-houses of London, and to remote regions of Africa and Australia. The award-winning poet, ethnographer and novelist likens his life course to that of a shape-shifter, making it apparent that our lives are as various as the bonds we form and the social landscapes through which we move.
Reason is a matter of the raisons d’être people ascribe to their actions, the mundane rationales they offer for doing what they do, as well as the rationalizations they provide in defense of what they have done. And so I write, not against reason per se, but against the fetishization of a logocentric notion of reason, born of the Enlightenment, that has eclipsed our sense of the variety of ways in which human beings create viable lives – emotional, bodily, magical, metaphorical, anthropomorphic, practical, and narrative.
Of all my reunions, this was the most overwhelming. When Noah walked into the room, I did not recognize him at first because of the glare from the doorway behind him, and because he was wearing glasses. But then he emerged from the shadows, and we fell into each other’s arms, clasping each other, tears rolling down our cheeks, and when we sat down together on the sofa and began to talk we continued to touch each other, as though still unable to grasp the transformation that has just occurred.
All stories are, in a sense, untrue. They rearrange and transform our experiences. But these rearrangements, like the essays and explanatory models we produce in the academy, may serve very different interests – and it was this emphasis on discourse as techné rather than epistemé that came to inform my approach to storytelling.
No life is sufficient unto itself. A person is singular only in the sense in which astronomers use the term: a relative point in space and time where invisible forces become fleetingly visible.
Minima Ethnographica outlines an existential theory of relationships. In the same way that ecology approaches reality as a field of interdependent relationships rather than separable entities, existential anthropology argues that human reality is relational and that relations are prior to relata. In exploring this view ethnographically, Michael Jackson unpacks the ways in which general or abstract relationships, such as those posited between nations, tribes, objects, and concepts, implicate the particular and intimate processes, strategies, and experiences we associate with interpersonal life. Noting that intersubjectivity should not be construed as a synonym for empathy, Jackson gives equal weight to negative and positive modes of interaction, and argues moreover that the field of intersubjectivity includes persons, ancestors, spirits, collective representations, and material things.
Stories have a habit of generating stories. They come to nest, one inside the other, like Chinese boxes, each a window onto another’s world. This is what happened to my grandfather’s story about Joe Pawelka.
In the annals of New Zealand crime, the name Pawelka is practically synonymous with anarchy. The Pawelka manhunt was the most sensational news story of 1910, and the mystery of Pawelka’s escape from prison and subsequent disappearance has never been solved. Who was Joe Pawelka, and how might one explain the hold this self-styled “man against the world” has had on New Zealand’s collective consciousness? In recounting the story of this disaffected son of Moravian immigrants, Michael Jackson intercuts recollections of his own life in small town New Zealand, deftly creating an allegory about the ways in which the past shapes the present, and the known blurs with the imagined in shaping our sense of justice and truth.
In this collection of poems, Michael Jackson plays on the different senses of the word ‘antipodes’ to explore questions of inequity and division between the global north and the global South, as well as personal quandaries and contradictions arising from a life divided between two hemispheres.
Ours is a century of uprootedness. All over the world, fewer and fewer people live out their lives in the place where they were born. Perhaps at no other time in history has the question of belonging seemed so urgent.
To tell a story is to set out on a journey. Narrative is grounded in the journeys we embark upon every day, going out into the world to work or forage, returning at evening to a home, a hearth, a bar, to share food and drink and tell each other stories about our day’s experiences. Our sleep in conditional upon the resolutions we have reached.
Is a person’s life a seamless whole, a single story? Or do we lead several lives at once – one experienced by ourselves or in our imaginations, others by those around us? When one considers all the experiences and encounters that shape our lives, is there any one constant, essential self that can be taken as the measure of who we truly are? Michael Jackson pursues these questions in a series of loosely connected, autobiographical fictions, set variously in France, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, the Congo, and Sierra Leone. Pieces of Music was awarded the 1995 Buckland Memorial Literary Prize.
This book is a break in a journey – to take stock, to get my bearings, to survey the ground I have covered and the ground I have yet to cross. My ancestors, the Kuranko would say, have “gone ahead”: Adorno, Devereux, Dewey, Foucault, Heidegger, James, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Turner. They have blazed trails. But we all must find out own way across the broken landscapes, and by trial and error find the paths for ourselves.
Paths Toward a Clearing is a prologemenon to a radically empirical approach to ethnographic praxis. Grounded in intensive fieldwork among the Kuranko of Sierra Leone, this work broadens the notion of experience to include both personal reflections and ethnographic analysis, crisis and custom, the life of the mind and the life of the body, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, participation and observation, without, however, making any one of these modes of being-in-the-world foundational to a theory of knowledge. Sustaining an ironic sense of the way lived experience overflows and confounds the concepts we customarily use to contain and represent it, Michael Jackson emphasizes the continually shifting sands of human experience, and how varying points of view and practical strategies enable human beings to address quotidian problems, and cope with the finitude, precariousness and contingency of their existence. Paths Toward a Clearing won the 1989 Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology.
In Duty Free the poet’s experiences in many countries over many years are worked into images that coalesce regional and universal concerns.
My instinct has always been to stay close to the ground, though my yearning has always been to fly.
Nicolas Day is raised by his grandparents under the shadow of Mount Taranaki and the “ghostly, ambiguous” figures of his parents. There is a photograph of his father, but none of his mother, and a conspiracy of silence surrounds them both. Since Nicolas’s grandparents were both migrants from “the old country” and he is an orphan in his own, the theme of separation and loss finds expression at both the level of history and biography.
Though we are all prefigured by our social and historical origins, no two of us, the Kuranko say, ever trace the same path across the sky.
Barawa is a work of ethnographic fiction. It mixes ethnographic fieldwork, ethnohistorical documentation, and imaginative reconstruction, and through a series of striking portraits – of Africans and Europeans alike – recounts a story of social change, colonial penetration, and genealogical succession in the remote Kuranko chiefdom of Barawa over a period of several hundred years. Chronicling the journeys of early European explorers, the advent of Islam, the impact of two world wars, modern-day political struggles, and the course of his own fieldwork, Michael Jackson interleaves historical perspectives and individual biographies in this sustained meditation on how human beings are both shaped by external circumstances and, reciprocally, give shape to their own lives.
One of Pyrrha’s stoneshas turned into me. Harder I amthan those whom the waters took, or swaminto time like leaves … I am the cairnshe built for the drowned.
The poems in Going On make up a kind of logbook kept during the year before and six months after the death of the author’s wife in 1983. The result is a series of taut, moving poems that are as haunting as they are beautiful.
Kuranko narratives are not mere fables that present ready-made moral conclusions. They suggest rather than impose answers to existential dilemmas and anxieties.
In this interpretive study of Kuranko storytelling, Michael Jackson shows that most Kuranko tales involve journeys between town (sué) and bush (fira). As such the moral customs (namui or bimba kan), laws (seriye or ton), and chiefly power (mansaye) associated with the town are momentarily placed in abeyance, and the wild ethos of the bush, associated with animals, shape-shifters, djinn and antinomian possibilities, comes into play. Moreover, Kuranko stories are told at night, or in twilight zones that lie on the margins of the workaday, waking world. There is a close connection, therefore, between the evocation of antinomian scenarios, states of dreamlike or drowsy consciousness, and the narrative suspension of disbelief. Rather than reiterate formulaic moral or legal solutions to existential issues, stories cultivate ambiguity, licensing listeners to imaginatively interpret the world for themselves.
Winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 1981, Wall explores the barriers we tend to create between ourselves and others, and celebrates the vitality and enlarged understandings that may come of crossing these divides and opening ourselves up to new horizons. Wall not only bears the impress of New Zealand’s Manawatu, Wairarapa, and East Cape regions that Michael Jackson regards as social and spiritual points of anchorages in his life, but of excursions abroad to Australia, Sierra Leone, and Europe throughout the 1970s.
The Kuranko: Dimensions of Social Reality in a West African Tribe (Hurst: London, 1977)
I share the view of Merleau-Ponty, that the process of “joining objective analysis to lived experience is perhaps the most proper task of anthropology, the one that distinguishes it from other social science.”
In this ethnographic study of the Kuranko of northeast Sierra Leone, Michael Jackson critiques structural-functional emphases on social order, and turns his attention from collectivities, polities, rules and roles to the ritualized dynamics and micropolitics of interpersonal relations in everyday life. Drawing on Sartre’s existentialism and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, he explores the antinomian impulse to create disorder, flout routine, transgress boundaries, and tap into the forces of the wild as if these were necessary, rather than inimical, to the viability of individual lives and the integrity of local communities.
Awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for 1976, Michael Jackson’s debut volume of poetry draws on his experiences of working in welfare and community development among Aboriginals in southeast Australia, the homeless in London, and refugees in the Congo. Of his identification with people on the margins, Michael Jackson writes, “In hindsight, the poems in Latitudes were born of a quandary that troubled my thirties though undoubtedly had its origins in the experience of growing up in a small backwater Taranaki town in which I felt a complete stranger. A yearning for the freedom of new horizons (the ‘latitudes’ of exile) pulled me in one direction, while the longing to have and hold a place I could call home pulled me in another." READ REVIEWS