How Lifeworlds Work Emotionality, Sociality, and the Ambiguity of Being
by Michael Jackson
University of Chicago Press, 2017
Cloth: 978-0-226-49182-0 | Paper: 978-0-226-49196-7 | Electronic: 978-0-226-49201-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Michael Jackson has spent much of his career elaborating his rich conception of lifeworlds, mining his ethnographic and personal experience for insights into how our subjective and social lives are mutually constituted.
 
In How Lifeworlds Work, Jackson draws on years of ethnographic fieldwork in West Africa to highlight the dynamic quality of human relationships and reinvigorate the study of kinship and ritual. How, he asks, do we manage the perpetual process of accommodation between social norms and personal emotions, impulses, and desires? How are these two dimensions of lived reality joined, and how are the dual imperatives of individual expression and collective viability managed? Drawing on the pragmatist tradition, psychology, and phenomenology, Jackson offers an unforgettable, beautifully written account of how we make, unmake, and remake, our lifeworlds. 

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.
 

REVIEWS

How Lifeworlds Work is an intellectually compelling and beautifully written book that weaves together a lifetime of rich ethnography and philosophical reflection. Jackson captures the quality of life in an African society like no one else.”
— Michael Lambek, University of Toronto, Scarborough

“Jackson is one of the most important voices in the field of anthropology. In a world where hyperbolic claims are becoming the norm of academic writing, How Lifeworlds Work, with its classic elegance and clarity, is a gem to be widely shared and savored. It will contribute richly to pedagogy in a deep sense.”
— Veena Das, Johns Hopkins University

Jackson produces an empirically and conceptually dense account which only a seasoned anthropologist would be able to produce.
— Anthropological Forum

TABLE OF CONTENTS

- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0001
[life stories;limit situations;power of ritual;social order]
When we tell stories about our lives, we often focus on a single defining episode, as if the meaning of our life came into focus at that particular moment, sealing our fate. Undergoing initiation, crossing dangerous seas in search of a better life, losing a loved one, giving birth to a child, suffering a life threatening illness, living through war, surviving a natural disaster, or falling in love may all mark such limit situations. This and the following sections emphasize and explore the mixed emotions stirred in us at such times, and the power of ritual to channel these emotions in ways that strengthen rather than weaken the social order. (pages 3 - 7)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0002
[New Zealand;haka;manhood;adolescence;ceremony;funeral;Maori;cultural belonging;wellbeing]
In Aotearoa-New Zealand, this haka is often taught in high schools, its message pitched at adolescent boys on the threshold of manhood. It both challenges a young man to address his difficulties with courage, and find within himself the resources to persevere and triumph. The haka is also commonly used at coming of age parties and graduation ceremonies, and may be performed at funerals (tangi) as a way of paying respect to someone who helped a youngster through hard times. Indeed, it can be argued that learning and performing haka is fundamental to a Maori person’s sense of self, cultural belonging, and wellbeing, both spiritual and physical, in early childhood as well as later life. (pages 7 - 10)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0003
[emotional intensity;adolescence;physical action]
Emotional intensity is seldom constant. In adolescence, moods and emotions are typically more volatile than in old age. Moreover, we are moved by tenderness, joy, fear, rage, shame, and envy to different degrees depending on circumstances. If emotions are heightened in a moment of danger, boredom will involve depressed feelings and lack of movement. As the etymology of the word “emotion” suggests, strong feelings move us, agitate us, and stir us to physical action. (pages 11 - 13)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0004
[social order;existential;social needs;palaver;everyday life;pluralism;commitment;ritual;praxis]
This short section analyzes the notion that a social order can only be existentially viable if it is felt to echo everyone's need to participate in its creation and recreation, the urgency of which will differ from person to person, both emotionally and socially, depending on his or her situation and status. Accordingly, any social order is permanently under pressure to accommodate, contain, or curb potentially divisive needs. Making palaver was, the author argues, a microcosm in which this process could be discerned in everyday life. And though vexed by deviance, contrariness and variable degrees of commitment, the pluralistic world of the village periodically produced a semblance of unity through ritual praxis. At such times, people appeared to act as one, even though their motives were various and their goals unattainable. (pages 13 - 15)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0005
[sex;gender;secrecy;moral strength;segregation;Kuranko;initiation;anima;animus]
Anthropologists have often remarked that in gender-segregated societies, where men’s and women’s secret associations play important roles in maintaining mutual respect between the sexes, secrecy is a necessary illusion. If there are secrets among women, it is that they possess the imperturbability and moral strength that men consider solely and essentially theirs, while if there are secrets among men, it is that they possess the procreative and nurturing powers that women consider uniquely their own. This is the insight that underlies Gregory Bateson’s thesis that in societies where gender segregation is strictly enforced, an exaggerated and potentially dysfunctional gap will tend to open up between the sexes (complementary schismogenesis) that must be periodically and ritually closed in order to avoid complete alienation between men and women (symmetrical schismogenesis). In the role reversals of Kuranko initiation the strict separation of men and women, and the theatrical antagonism between them, masks an imitation and merging of opposite sexual qualities and works to prevent an absolute polarization of anima and animus. (pages 16 - 37)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0006
[initiation;gender;regeneration;complementarity;interpersonal;ritual;social order;norm;chaos;life project]
What is at stake in initiations is the regeneration of life itself – reuniting a community whose households have been scattered far and wide during the farming season, creating a new generation of moral adults, affirming the complementarity of men and women, and encouraging transparency and cooperation in interpersonal relationships. Rituals, like stories, begin with a suspension of norms, a state of social chaos and emotional confusion, before moving toward an ideal though artificial order based on hierarchical distinctions between men and women, initiates and non-initiates, old and young. Existentially, this transition is from a state of misrule – characterized by adulterous affairs, family tensions (between non-uterine brothers, co-wives, fathers and first-born sons), the falling out of friends, and ill-will, jealousy, and envy in everyday life that defy all efforts at resolution - to a situation in which the world appears to be regulated and orderly. Furthermore, this transition involves an existential as well as social regeneration, in which people go from being mere creatures of circumstance, at the mercy of their emotions, to becoming active participants in their own particular life projects. (pages 37 - 40)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0007
[existential constraints;cultural discontinuities;the human condition;libidinal conflict;socialization;social value;generation;autonomy]
The author argues that existential constants may be discerned within events that have survived changes in customs and worldviews, and that the task of anthropology is not simply to map and explain cultural discontinuities across time and space but to explore the deeper and abiding elements of the human condition. Crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood is one of the most universal and vexed transitions anyone makes in his or her life. Nevertheless, this Oedipal Project cannot be reduced either to libidinal conflicts or to a process of socialization whereby one generation imposes its core social values on the next in order to ensure continuity of the social order. The author favors a perspective that does justice to both the emotional and social elements in initiation, while recognizing that an existential transformation is effected in which an individual comes into his or her own as an autonomous being who actively chooses his or her path, regardless of whether that path perpetuates the past or deviates from it. (pages 40 - 45)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0008
[livelihood;war;emotional extreme;social existence;terror;uncertainty;collective activity;intimate patterns;interpersonal life;sociality]
Though infrastructures are destroyed, movements restricted, and patterns of livelihood suspended, life in a war zone makes one prone to emotional extremes of anxiety, fear, and grief that are inimical to social existence. Moments of abject terror and mortal danger alternate with long periods of waiting and uncertainty. Collective activities, like collected thought, become as difficult as uninterrupted sleep. Sustained over months or years, this kind of emotionally disregulated existence destroys the intimate patterns of interpersonal life on which sociality and morality depend. (pages 45 - 51)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0009
[ritualization;everyday life;transitional objects;impulses;imperatives;social relations;mode of action]
Ritualization is an aspect of everyday human action and speech in all societies, and has its source in the ways that human beings learn to play with transitional objects, words and images in managing contrary and contradictory impulses, imperatives and imaginings in early childhood. This is why I have argued that ritualization has to be approached not simply as a social phenomenon that reorders and reintegrates social relations, but existentially - as an ontologically ‘primitive’ mode of action that plays upon the emotions, manipulates the body and alters consciousness. (pages 51 - 57)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0010
[weather;personification;enmity;taboo;avoidance;physical contact]
Though storms are personifications of enemies and enmity, they are connected, most immediately, with the taboo between son-in-law and mother-in-law. This avoidance behavior between affines is also likened to the avoidance that many bama (Aboriginal people) seek in relation to whites and strangers. Storms that come dangerously close are seen as infringing the strict taboo against physical contact between these categories of people, and this provokes deep anxieties and strong emotions, comparable to the trepidation felt when the settlement is overrun by drunks, whites intervene in its management, or it lies in the path of a cyclonic storm. (pages 57 - 62)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0011
[witchcraft;community;temperance;resentment;solidarity;common good]
Both the imagery of witchcraft and the confessions of individual witches should be seen not as expressions of a peculiarly African mentality but of a struggle that may be discerned in every human family or close community to temper the resentment and envy that arise whenever temperamentally incompatible individuals are obliged to cooperate in the interests of family solidarity and the common good. (pages 62 - 72)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0012
[ritual mechanism;death;continuity;succession;emotional imperative;affect regulation;emotions;identity;tragedy]
Although anthropologists have written detailed accounts of the social and ritual mechanisms with which societies deal with the disruptive impact of a death and achieve continuity through strict rules of succession and inheritance, these accounts of what is socially necessary for the survival of a lineage often fail to do justice to what is emotionally imperative for the survival of the bereaved. It is as if the intrapsychic and the intersubjective were treated without attention to the vital interplay between them. Particularly significant for the author is the relationship between affect regulation in an individual and affect regulation within a social group. Since emotions are perhaps the most intense expression of our singular identity, the question of how individual feelings and social protocols may be reconciled becomes acutely problematic when a tragedy makes it impossible for a person to speak and act as a social being. (pages 72 - 74)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0013
[Kuranko;death;funeral;sympathy;gift;sacrifice;rites;afterlife;soul;social status]
The author's sojourns in Kuranko villages were punctuated by deaths, and by the tidings of deaths. Funerals were facts of life, and he dutifully attended many, offering sympathy gifts and participating in sacrifices even when he had only a passing acquaintance with the deceased. Although the scale and character of mortuary rites, and the afterlife of the soul, reflect the age, gender, and social status of the deceased, the course of events following a death conforms roughly to the same pattern. (pages 74 - 76)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0014
[burial practices;funerary rites;Kuranko]
The author discusses the burial practices and funerary rites of the Kuranko. (pages 76 - 78)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0015
[Kuranko;community;isolation;mourning;death]
The author discusses the period of isolation and mourning experienced by the bereaved after a death in the Kuranko community. (pages 78 - 81)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0016
[Kuranko;funeral;emotions;bereaved;inner feelings;masking;ritual]
From the preceding account of the sequence of events in Kuranko funerals one gains little insight into the emotions, motives, and reactions of individual participants. This is not only because the bereaved are sequestered and unapproachable. It is because people’s outward behavior is never a reliable guide to their inner feelings. Indeed, more than at any other time perhaps, a death requires that emotions be masked, constrained by ritual rather than personal imperatives. (pages 81 - 86)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0017
[ambivalence;life and death;ritual techniques;spirit;emotion;grief]
The ambivalence of the living toward the dead finds expression in the joking play of sanaku actors. At the same time, ritual techniques are deployed to separate the grief-stricken from those less affected by the death, to separate the dead from the living, to push the body deep underground while liberating the spirit into the ether, to suppress memories of the dead person, to discharge his debts, to confess undeclared grievances that might bind people emotionally to the past, and generally clear the ground for the possibility of a new phase of life. (pages 86 - 90)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0018
[ritual;life crises;trauma;coping mechanism;Sierra Leone;civil war]
Are there limits to ritual’s capacity for resolving life crises? Are there traumas so grave that social and psychological coping mechanisms break down? The author explores these questions by analyzing the civil war in Sierra Leone. (pages 90 - 96)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0019
[rites of passage;affect;intensity;enactment;kinship;attachment;schism;autonomy;rivalry;Oedipal complex]
If rites de passage are characterized by an intensification of affect - of increased anxiety and dramatic enactments of emotional states – the field of kinship is even more so. Nowhere else is the tension between the maintenance of control and the passions of love and hate so keenly felt and so difficult to manage. Despite anthropological idealizations of kinship, psychologists and ethologists have repeatedly observed that attachment is characterized by deep ambivalence. Indeed, the more intimate and intense the bond, the greater the potential for dissatisfaction, schism, and antagonism. It may be true that “kinsmen are people who live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths”, but propinquity and participation tend to precipitate yearnings for autonomy and separateness that find expression in sibling rivalries and Oedipal complexes, whether a family is functional or dysfunctional. (pages 99 - 104)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0020
[kinship;abstract ideal;lived reality;rural Africa;scarcity;distribution;resources;power]
A situated study of kinship shifts our attention from abstract ideals to lived realities which, in rural Africa, reflect the endemic problem of scarcity. Whether one is speaking of scarce spiritual or psychological qualities - such as blessings, love, luck, intelligence or talent – or scarce material resources such as money, furniture, or a house with cement walls and a tin roof, there is never enough to go around. Even if the wherewithal of life was equitably distributed, this would not significantly benefit anyone, which is why chiefs and big men tend to control scarce resources, tithing rice production and receiving royalties from gold or diamond mining, then distributing these resources strategically and unequally, both according to need and in order to solidify their positions in power. (pages 105 - 108)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0021
[human relationship;phenomenology;transformation;world;circumstance;kinship;milieu]
No human relationship is simply given – either as a fact of nature or as a cultural ascription; rather, every human relationship is phenomenologically unique, and undergoes many transformations in the course of a lifetime. We do not choose the world into which we are born or the parents that bring us into this world. Nor do they choose us. But we do not live our lives solely as creatures of circumstance, for we also actively or accidentally create our circumstances – whether familial or social – in very different ways. Accordingly, kinship defines the milieu in which we live but not how we live it. (pages 108 - 111)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0022
[emotion;expression;freedom;Kuranko;work;social norms;socal life;emotionality;law and order;village]
Inasmuch as emotions are expressions of living beings and not abstractions (of real people rather than the reified beliefs and conventional wisdom that comprise the social order), feelings are generally synonymous with life not law, freedom not facticity. Hence, for Kuranko, wale (duty or work) is “that which you have to do”, by contrast with desire, which is what you might want to do. To express one’s feelings or speak one’s mind without taking into account the feelings or thoughts of others, is frowned upon; but so too is slavish adherence to social norms. Accordingly, a viable social life consists in making emotionality serve rather than subvert the common weal, a matter of giving equal expression to freedom and restraint. For Kuranko, this involves a continual adjustment of the bush (associated with antinomian impulses) and the village (associated with law and order). (pages 111 - 121)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0023
[Kuranko;folktales;seduction;shape-shifting;metaphor;sex;temptation;infidelity;marriage;adultery]
A recurring scenario in Kuranko folktales involves a woman who assumes the form of a cunning and alluring animal in order to seduce a man. This identification of women’s emotional unpredictability with the capriciousness of bush spirits is common in rural West Africa. The shape-shifting motif is a metaphor for the allegedly fickle and wanton ways of women, the sole exception being one’s mother who, in the tales, often intervenes to prevent her son being snared by a temptress. Sometimes, women’s wiles are explained by reference to Mama Hawa (Eve), who allowed herself to be tempted by Satan, thereby bringing God’s wrath down on all women, giving rise to enmity between the sexes, women’s subservience to men, and women’s suffering in childbirth. Such assumptions explain the alacrity with which men will blame women for their troubled marriages, or cite examples of women who betrayed their husbands’ secrets, neglected their children, or brought ruin to their marriages through adulterous affairs. (pages 121 - 131)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0024
[social organization;elder;Kuranko;inheritance;succession;hierarchy;protection]
As in many other African societies, the elder/younger (senior/junior) distinction is basic to Kuranko social organization. It determines patterns of inheritance and succession (primogeniture), the rank order of estates (the nyemakale clans – praise-singers and genealogists – are referred to as the last-born), and the authority of men over women (in myths about the origins of humanity, man was born before woman). Whether in a household or in a village, authority (tigiye) implies a hierarchy of command and control over persons and property descending from “first-born” to “last-born”. Ideally, respect given to those in authority is reciprocated by the protection and care given in return. (pages 131 - 137)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0025
[friendship;kinship;irrevocable;social fabric;relations]
Anthropologists have often sought to distinguish friendship and kinship on a priori grounds. While it is possible to opt into and out of friendships, kinship is irrevocable. By implication, if friends (or spouses) fall out, the social fabric is not irreversibly torn. But if kinsmen fall out, the relationship is not annulled but continues damaged, carrying the burden of unforgiveable betrayals, painful memories, and irreconcilable differences. However, if we turn our attention to the ways in which friendships and kinship relations are actually lived over the course of time, identical fault lines between the ideal and real are revealed. (pages 137 - 144)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0026
[life;qualities;possessions;scarcity;unequal distribution;affective phenomena;expression;etiquette;double-bind]
Whether one is speaking of the qualities that make life worthwhile (such as love, health, friendship, recognition) or the things that define the wherewithal of life (food, clothing, possessions), they are all scarce, and unequally distributed. Villagers may perceive migrants or city dwellers as more fortunate than they are. Women in arranged marriages may envy those who married for love. Men may be regarded as having greater authority than women, and the old as having unfair advantages over the young. Scarcity and inequality are also affective phenomena. A powerful chief may be oppressed by his sexual impotence. A husband will be seen to favor one wife over another. A young man will resent the privileged position of his first-born brother. And though the young are enjoined to respect the old, the old are not always deserving of respect. In other words, speaking one’s mind or expressing one’s true feelings is often incompatible with the demands of etiquette, and this puts people in double-binds. (pages 144 - 151)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0027
[Kuranko;folktale;lifeworld;intersubjective;unresolved tension;affect;fantasy;society;narrative;dramatic expression]
Kuranko folktales provided compelling insights into the inner workings of the Kuranko lifeworld, and suggested that intrapsychic defenses had analogues in the strategies of intersubjective life. Clearly, societies make difficulties for themselves, just as individuals do. While relations among co-wives and step-siblings in polygynous societies are often vexed, individual women and men react to these vexations in very different ways. It isn’t that social fault lines are introjected as double binds, or inner fantasies projected as narrative plot lines; rather that stories create scenarios where norms are transgressed and suppressed emotions given dramatic expression as a strategy for inspiring listeners to process and clarify in their own minds unresolved tensions between affect and order. (pages 151 - 157)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0028
[society;force field;affect;change;Kuranko;ritual;homeostasis;domestication;proclivity]
Following Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, the author conceptualises a society as a force field (kraftfeld) or constellation in which different areas of life are characterized by very different intensities of effort, energy and affect. Like the night sky, there is a visible difference between regions seemingly devoid of light and regions where stars appear to cluster as dense clouds or in close formations. In a society, however, these areas are continually changing. To use the prevailing Kuranko metaphor, we might say that at any given moment the social field reveals areas of high energy and affect that are “hot” (meaning, dangerous, troubled, contentious, intense) and areas of relatively low energy and emotional flatness that are “cool”. The work of ritual is redressive and corrective – a matter of cooling down overheated areas, and restoring homeostasis. This work is also construed as a process of taming or domestication, in which emotional proclivities are tempered by social imperatives and “wild” impulses brought under control. Thus, neophytes are “tamed”, and the Masters of the Djinn “tame” the djinn in the same way that a wild animal is brought to heel, and tethered to its owner. (pages 157 - 166)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0029
[intersubjectivity;ambivalence;emotion;material relations;cathexis;psychic energy;prototypes;care;Melanie Klein]
One of the most compelling things about human intersubjectivity is that the same emotions, the same ambivalence, and the same kind of reasoning arise in our relations with material objects, abstract ideas, and other people, whether dead or alive, familiar or foreign. Freud spoke of this phenomenon as cathexis – the binding of psychic energy and affect in objects. If parents are prototypes of the ancestors in traditional African societies, modern states and gods are also imagined as proto-parents. Moreover, similar emotional complexes arise from our relations with all these entities. All tend to be regarded ambivalently, as potential providers and withholders of care - something Melanie Klein captures succinctly in the image of the mother as both ‘good breast’ and ‘bad breast’, or the defensive stratagem of splitting the self and the world into good and bad domains. (pages 167 - 171)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0030
[Kuranko;Sierra Leone;state;ruling party;S.B. Marah;Siaka Stevens;Tony Yazbeck;Koinadugu]
The fraught relationship between the Kuranko and the Sierra Leone State reflected long-standing tensions between the ruling APC (All People’s Congress) party and the SLPP (Sierra Leone People’s Party), the political opposition to which Kuranko were loyal, principally because a scion of the ruling house of Barawa chiefdom, S. B. Marah, had been a powerful figure in SLPP since the nation’s independence in 1961. S.B. had gone into the political wilderness when the SLPP suffered defeat in the elections of 1967, and the APC under Siaka Stevens came to power. Through his friendship with Tony Yazbeck, a powerful and well-connected Lebanese entrepreneur, S.B. became manager of the Alitalia agency in Freetown, and it was here in 1970, during a break from fieldwork in Koinadugu, that the author's research assistant Noah Marah introduced him to his elder brother. (pages 172 - 182)
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- Michael Jackson
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226492018.003.0031
[Kuranko;emotionality;openness;public;knowledge;subjectivity]
For the Kuranko, social skills and social intelligence were the measure of a person’s moral worth. We, however, are accustomed to according greater value to purely subjective qualities. Whenever the author tried to ascertain what a person thought or felt about a particular event, or another person, villagers would typically respond by declaring, “I am not inside them” (n’de sa bu ro), or “I do not know what is inside” (n’de ma konto lon), thereby reminding us that what matters is how a person behaves in relation to others, irrespective of what is in his heart or on his mind. As for intelligence, this was not defined by the esoteric knowledge you possessed any more than wealth was defined by the money you had in the bank or the amount of rice in your granary. Rather, it was expressed in the adroitness with which you engaged with others – the way you greeted or cooperated with them, the way you performed your duties and met your obligations. This ethos extended to emotionality. Unless one’s personal feelings had some social value, they should not be publicly expressed. (pages 182 - 190)
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