Excursions

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Duke University Press, Oct 24, 2007 - Social Science - 295 pages
A village in Sierra Leone. A refugee trail over the Pyrenees in French Catalonia. A historic copper mine in Sweden. The Shuf mountains in Lebanon. The Swiss Alps. The heart of the West African diaspora in southeast London. The anthropologist Michael Jackson makes his sojourns to each of these far-flung locations, and to his native New Zealand, occasions for exploring the contradictions and predicaments of social existence. He calls his explorations “excursions” not only because each involved breaking with settled routines and certainties, but because the image of an excursion suggests that thought is always on the way, the thinker a journeyman whose views are perpetually tested by encounters with others. Throughout Excursions, Jackson emphasizes the need for preconceptions and conventional mindsets to be replaced by the kind of open-minded critical engagement with the world that is the hallmark of cultural anthropology.

Focusing on the struggles and quandaries of everyday life, Jackson touches on matters at the core of anthropology—the state, violence, exile and belonging, labor, indigenous rights, narrative, power, home, and history. He is particularly interested in the gaps that characterize human existence, such as those between insularity and openness, between the things over which we have some control and the things over which we have none, and between ourselves and others as we talk past each other, missing each others’ meanings. Urging a recognition of the limits to which human existence can be explained in terms of cause and effect, he suggests that knowing why things happen may ultimately be less important than trying to understand how people endure in the face of hardship.

 

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By Sushumna Kannan
ABSTRACT: Excursions discusses issues of identity, agency, labor, society-state, subjectivity, violent histories, and colonialism. The discussions are interwoven with the author
's experiences, conversations with friends, students, and colleagues; in locations as diverse as London, Sierra Leone, aboriginal Australia and New Zealand. It carries a focus on the 'human condition' and the challenges presented in intercultural encounters.
Recent times have seen enormous skepticism about what ethnography can achieve. Ethnography could easily pass for a venture where ‘anything goes’, with categorical, conceptual and ethical accountability taking a beating. Empirical research in general and ethnography in particular run the danger of becoming pre-designed encounters where the data proves the hypothesis, predetermined categories produce facts and questions shape answers: ‘what is found is thus, what one went looking for’. In this kind of research, the results confirm the initial assumptions, which might well be valid if a book is illustrative of earlier researches, but not so if it aims at original enquiries. We are more alert today to the very impulse behind 19th century disciplinary developments in the social sciences, but there are few methodologies available to help track our own biases. That said, ethnography is still a significant way in which problems of reference and language can be confronted. Michael Jackson’s Excursions is refreshing in that it understands this predicament in our disciplines and voices its dilemmas very clearly, so that readers could assess the cognitive and theoretical moves made.
Excursions is interested in the human condition in general, and the challenges presented in the encounters of different cultures. It recuperates the idea of 'human nature' from the otherwise excessively historicized contexts, and attempts a balanced view of human dispositions and historical determination. The twelve chapters are each dedicated to take up specific issues like identity, agency, labor, society versus state, subjectivity, violent histories, and colonialism. Discussions of these issues are interwoven with the experiences of the traveling author in various geographical locations and cultural spaces. As the author tells us –the book originates from three kinds of conversations –a dialogue with authors who have captured his imagination and conversations from ethnographic fieldwork in Sierra Leone, Aboriginal Australia and New Zealand and conversations with friends, students and colleagues. Excursions travels not just through various cultural spaces, but also across different disciplinary conventions. Its inter-disciplinarity is not simplistic in ways that might reduce the complexity of the concerns raised in any of the disciplines, but is achieved by writing that is clear and jargon-free; presenting us with a perceptible chain of thought.
Throughout the book, Jackson effectively juxtaposes the "voice of modernity that is predicated on the assumption that we can make history the way we want it to be and through knowledge, democracy and foreign aid bring humanity from the dark ages of sectarian hatred and civil strife..." and "the contrary view that we can never legislate away intolerance, or through scientific innovation bring an end to suffering, or through punishment prevent crime, or through remembering history alter its course" (pp. 36-37). Instead of weaving conspiracy theories about how the 'State fails people everywhere' (p 48), Jackson brings the domain of the cultural to the fore and draws our attention "to bear witness to how people endure their lot, affirming life in the face of death". While emphasis on cultural misunderstanding and cultures enabling life-affirming action is a good move, Jackson does see the nation-state as constitutively problematic rather than as functionally so. Thus the new themes introduced by Jackson still use older theorizations and concepts as necessary foundations. This is
 

Contents

In the Footsteps of Walter Benjamin
1
Of Time and the River the interface of history and human lives
22
Imagining the Powers That Be society versus the state
40
On the Work of Human Hands
61
Storytelling Events Violence and the Appearance of the Past
80
Migrant Imaginaries with sewa koroma in southeast london
102
A Walk on the Wild Side the idea of human nature revisited
135
From Anxiety to Method a reappraisal
154
Despite Babel an essay on human misunderstanding
174
On Birth Death and Rebirth
192
Quandaries of Belonging home thoughts from abroad
216
A Critique of Colonial Reason
233
Notes
257
References
271
Index
289
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About the author (2007)

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His many books of anthropology include Existential Anthropology: Events, Exigencies, and Effects; In Sierra Leone; and At Home in the World. The latter two are both also published by Duke University Press. He is the author of The Accidental Anthropologist: A Memoir; six books of poetry including, most recently, Dead Reckoning; and two novels.

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