Between One and One Another

Between One and One Another

by Michael Jackson

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Michael Jackson extends his path-breaking work in existential anthropology by focusing on the interplay between two modes of human existence: that of participating in other peoples’ lives and that of turning inward to one’s self. Grounding his discussion in the subtle shifts between being acted upon and taking action, Jackson shows how the historical complexities and particularities found in human interactions reveal the dilemmas, conflicts, cares, and concerns that shape all of our lives. Through portraits of individuals encountered in the course of his travels, including friends and family, and anthropological fieldwork pursued over many years in such places as Sierra Leone and Australia, Jackson explores variations on this theme. As he describes the ways we address and negotiate the vexed relationships between “I” and “we”—the one and the many—he is also led to consider the place of thought in human life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520272354
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/04/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His many anthropological books include Existential Anthropology and The Palm at the End of the Mind.

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Between One and One Another

By Michael Jackson


Copyright © 2012 Michael Jackson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27235-4



Lived experience is always simultaneously present to itself and absent from itself.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

In the late 1930s, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead did pioneering ethnographic fieldwork in a Balinese village, using still and movie cameras to capture some of the "intangible aspects" of Balinese culture and everyday life, including trance, eating, gesture, mourning, family interactions, children's play, art, and shadow-play puppets. In her introductory essay to their 1942 monograph, Mead speaks of a Balinese passion for being part of a noisy, festive crowd. Whether a marketplace, temple court, theatrical event, elaborate carving, or close-packed array of offerings on an altar, "the crowd preference is seen everywhere in Balinese life." Women are said to love crowds and crowdedness even more than men, "and to be less able to stand the silence of empty fields." However, every four hundred days, Bali falls silent for the new year. At this time, the roads are deserted, families withdraw to their houses, markets are closed, and no music is heard. This change from convivial boisterousness (rame) to silence and calm (njepi) echoes another change that Bateson and Mead document in compelling photographic detail—the Balinese "habit of withdrawal into vacancy—letting themselves suddenly slip into a state of mind where they are, for the moment, no longer subject to the impact of inter-personal relations." One photo shows a carver who, having completed a difficult piece of work, sits staring into space, "utterly empty and spent." Other photos show children, with dreamy and absentminded expressions on their faces, sitting or standing close to a parent. Entitled Awayness, this page of photographs also includes a "psychopathic vagrant" sitting incommunicado in the anthropologists' compound.

When I first encountered this innovative ethnographic work in the early 1970s, I failed to see what was singularly Balinese in these images. As Herman Melville observes in Moby Dick, this oscillation between moments of association and dissociation is as true of whale calves as of human infants. "As human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the same time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; —even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight." Active one minute, an infant will grow still the next, as if taking stock of one experience before seeking another. Crying will give way to calm, and a bout of vigorous kicking, grasping, or smiling will be followed by a period of passivity, the infant seemingly absorbed by something far off or deep within. Recent research on primary intersubjectivity speaks of an infant's threshold of excitability. Beyond a certain level of arousal or stimulation, an infant will use "gaze aversion to cut out stimulation," just as it will invite interaction when bored. Thus, from two to six months, the infant is actively regulating its relationship to the world around, alternating periods of intense interaction with periods of quietness and withdrawal. It may be, as Bateson and Mead suggest, that in Bali the "state of dreamy-relaxed disassociation" becomes the basis of trance and thereby is assigned a positive social value that it may not attain in the West, where children are discouraged from daydreaming and told to snap out of it—though prayer, meditation, days of rest (Sabbath/Shabbat), fasting (Lent/Ramadan), and remembrance, or moments of silence for the dead, may be compared to the Balinese silent and trance states. Unfortunately, Bates on and Mead—like many anthropologists—are so focused on what is culturally unique that they overlook what is existentially universal, in this case a capacity for "non-personal concentration" that is present in all human beings, even though it finds expression in manifold ways. Moreover, this alternation of zoning in and zoning out echoes the rhythms of work and relaxation, waking and sleeping, and focused and aimless action that characterize life in every human society and are essential to well-being.

This book explores some of the variations on this interplay between being a part of and being apart from the world. As such, it builds upon my previous existential analyses of elementary forms of intersubjectivity and of the indeterminate relationship between experience and behavior or experience and belief. R. D. Laing pointed out many years ago that existential phenomenology implies that existence "may be one's own or that of another," and that, moreover, "each and every [person] is at the same time separate from [others] and related to them. Such separateness and relatedness are mutually necessary postulates." But, Laing concludes, our being with another can never be completely physical, any more than our being apart from another can ever be psychologically viable. We therefore find ourselves in the "potentially tragic paradox, that our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being, as is our separateness, but any particular person is not a necessary part of our being."

By implication, neither complete detachment nor complete engagement is a real ontological possibility, despite early anthropologists' claims that primitive people live in a state of mystical participation with significant others—a collective consciousness, a group mind—or the claims of sages for a transcendental and mystical fusion with the divine. Rather, these contrasted terms suggest that while human existence is profoundly social (comprising relationships with others), it always entails a sense of our own singularity and aloneness (a relationship with oneself). My method of exploring this oscillation between sociocentric and egocentric consciousness is dialectical. This implies that the movement between being preoccupied by others and being preoccupied by oneself is experienced as an ethical problem that seldom admits of any final resolution, as in the parable of the tragedy of the commons, in which a number of herdsmen find it impossible to work out a balance between maximizing their individual profits and preserving the environment. And though our awareness continually oscillates between self-interestedness and commitment to the common weal—being on stage and off stage, seeing things from without and seeing things from within, associating with others and dissociating ourselves from them—we remain, paradoxically and inescapably, both islands and parts of the main, entire of ourselves as well as involved in all mankind. This does not imply that we are divided selves, or that one mode of consciousness is to be preferred over another; it simply means that consciousness is continually shifting from one register to another, and that these varying perspectives have quite different existential and epistemological entailments. While psychoanalysis is often portrayed as a process of getting in touch with oneself and one's emotions, "getting into oneself" is productive only if it enables a person to escape "the solipsistic strait-jacket that is used to maintain a fixed image of who we are in our own eyes and what we are thus willing or able to perceive as 'reality.'" As Henry James observed, to get out of one's self and stay out one "must have some absorbing errand."


It is part of the received wisdom of social anthropology that fieldwork is an initiatory rite. Unless one proves oneself in the field, one has not earned the right to call oneself an anthropologist. Little wonder, then, that novice ethnographers, about to leave the sanctuary of college life and submit themselves to the perils of fieldwork, experience considerable anxiety. Daunted by the prospect of speaking a foreign language, eating unpalatable food, living in uncomfortable quarters, and questioning strangers on potentially inappropriate matters, anthropological neophytes seek assurances that they will survive this ordeal and succeed in their goals. "What should I read on ethnographic method?" I am asked. "What did you do when you first went into the field?" "How do I know that people won't reject me?" In responding to such questions, I have recourse to humor. I recount how my academic advisor at Cambridge sent me to see Dr. Hawtrey May, a physician who had been dispensing medical advice and survival tips to expedition members, colonial administrators, and research scientists since the 1930s. "Always send your beater ahead of you in case of snakes," Hawtrey May advised. "Kaolin for dysentery. Bungs you up but stops the runs. Quinine ahead of the fever, not after, and always boil your water."

In a more serious vein, I downplay the exoticism of fieldwork. Books on method, from Notes and Queries to the most recent manual, give the impression that one is about to enter a laboratory rather than another lifeworld in which human beings are going about their lives, caring for their children, struggling to make ends meet, getting along with neighbors, visiting friends, meeting ritual obligations, seeking respite from the daily grind. I suggest to my nervous students that they think of fieldwork as they would any other transitional experience in life—starting school, leaving home for the first time, moving to another town, falling in and out of love. Such experiences seem insurmountable when contemplated in advance but comparatively straightforward in retrospect. The anxiety of doing fieldwork is a form of stage fright or first-night nerves. As soon as one is on stage, one's panic vanishes. Finally, I tell my students to place their trust in the protocols of hospitality, which are basically the same throughout the world. As a guest, you are expected to be unobtrusive and respect the rules of the house; in return, your hosts are bound to take care of you. Moreover, abstract knowledge of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, of great books and foreign languages, will not help you reach an understanding of others unless you share in their lives as a fellow human being, with tact and sensitivity, care and concern.


I have never believed that standing back from the world is the best way to see it for what it is, and I have always felt an affinity for thinkers who sought to understand the world through active engagement with it, even at the risk of appearing ridiculous. For Marx and Engels, the purpose of this engagement was to change the world, to save humanity from itself, and I spent several years in welfare and community development work endeavoring to do just this. But my real interest, I discovered, was in neither making the world an object of contemplation nor changing it for the better, but in making myself the subject of an experiment, allowing the world to work on me, reshaping my thinking and guiding my actions. Undoubtedly it was this impulse to test and transform myself in interactions and conversations with others that drew me to ethnography. So when I left the Congo in late 1964, disenchanted with the United Nations agenda for controlling and developing the newly independent, mineral-rich, and anarchic country that Leopold II had brutally subjugated eighty years earlier, I naively hoped that anthropology would provide me a way of returning to Africa as a learner rather than a master, an equal among equals.

At Cambridge it took me a year to decide on a field site and secure funds. During this time, I felt cut off from what I called the "real" world and impatient to reimmerse myself in it. Cambridge felt cloistered and claustrophobic, a place of ivory towers, antiquated rituals, and donnish privileges. It was not without irony, therefore, that six months into fieldwork in northern Sierra Leone, I found myself gazing nostalgically at the postcard my wife's friend Didi had sent us from Cambridge of Kings Chapel under snow. Driven by a felt need to visit every Kuranko village, observing critical events, interviewing informants, transcribing stories, covering every aspect of social life, as well as meeting the incessant demands of neighbors, I was quickly exhausted and fell prey to fantasies of Cambridge, where I might find asylum and indulge the Wordsworthian luxury of writing down experiences recollected in tranquility.

Since that first arduous year of fieldwork, I have returned to Sierra Leone many times and done stints of fieldwork in Aboriginal Australia and elsewhere. Every one of these forays has recalled the first: the sense of immense relief, such as Ishmael describes on the opening page of Moby Dick, when one dismounts the treadmill of a landlocked existence and can "get to sea ... take to the ship." Yet I am always mindful of the irony that, having escaped the confines of the academy and cast myself adrift in the world, I find myself, within a few weeks or months of labor-intensive fieldwork, longing to get back to the sheltered precincts from which I so elatedly sallied forth.

John Dewey argued that this dialectical movement between home and the world is the natural rhythm of human life, for we are constantly forced to rethink our lives in the light of new experiences that unsettle what we once took for granted or regarded as tried and true. Empirical method in science is simply the systematic implementation of this familiar mode of testing what we think we know against what we don't. For Dewey, philosophy should be understood in the same way—testing a hypothesis against experience in a controlled environment in order to arrive at a provisional conclusion that demands further testing. It follows that the good of philosophy is a matter of its ability to do justice to life. And so Dewey asks:

Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful? Or does it terminate in rendering the things of ordinary experience more opaque than they were before, and in depriving them of having in "reality" even the significance they had previously seemed to have? Does it yield the enrichment and increase of power of ordinary things which the results of physical science afford when applied in every-day affairs?

There are, of course, many ways in which one can absent oneself from the world, and many reasons for doing so, including disenchantment, dread, disablement, or a desire for intellectual or spiritual illumination. And there are just as many ways in which one can be actively present in the world, gregarious and engaged. But the task of balancing these modes of thinking and of being—rather than ranking them or emphasizing one at the expense of the other—is difficult. In the following pages I explore this problematic through a set of portraits of thinkers I have known, many of whom would not recognize thinking as a self-conscious, systematic activity at all. My interest is in their ways of negotiating the vexed relationship between being part of and standing apart from the world. My aim is to show the limits of what is practically possible rather than describe what is abstractly conceivable. Naturally I was drawn to these individuals because I saw something of my own struggle in theirs, particularly the struggle to integrate my thinking with my life, to make thought worldly rather than merely wordy, and to clarify the relationship between how one thinks and who one is. As an anthropologist, I have never sought the kind of knowledge of others that purports to transcend the world of their experience, reducing human lives to cultural representations, innate imperatives, social rules, traditional values, or global processes; my interest is in the knowledge that may contribute to tolerant coexistence in a world of entrenched divisions and ineradicable differences. To this end one needs an ability both to think for oneself and to be open to the thinking of others, and a capacity for both self-analysis and social critique.


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. On the one hand, the world constantly invades my consciousness, breaking into my thoughts, disturbing my dreams, and sometimes subverting my sense of who I am or would seem to be. On the other hand, I experience a countervailing impulse to leave the world behind, to put my dealings with it on hold, opening up a space in which the rhythms of my inner life govern the way the external world appears to my consciousness. I regard this tension between turning toward the world and turning away from it as an expression of a deeper existential dialectic between being acted upon and being an actor. For the world can be so overwhelming that one is swept away by it, with no time to think, no sense of being in control, no opportunity to be still or silent. But in stillness and silence we may become estranged from the joys and obligations of our worldly life. Hannah Arendt's distinction between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa captures this antinomy, though, like Dewey, she favored the latter over the former, preferring the activist to the contemplative, the man of the world to the ascetic, even though both modes of thought and modes of being are, in practice, mutually entailed.


Excerpted from Between One and One Another by Michael Jackson. Copyright © 2012 Michael Jackson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Preamble, 1,
2. The Philosopher Who Would Not Be King, 22,
3. Hermit in the Water of Life, 33,
4. Writing Workshop, 59,
5. How Much Home Does a Person Need?, 69,
6. Clearings in the Bush, 79,
7. The Gulf of Corinth, 94,
8. It's Other People Who Are My Old Age, 110,
9. Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, 116,
10. I Am an Other, 131,
11. Yonder, 141,
12. Reading Siddhartha to Freya at Forest Lake, 156,
13. On the Work and Writing of Ethnography, 167,
Acknowledgments, 189,
Notes, 191,
Index, 215,

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