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  • Life Within Limits: well-being in a world of want
  • John Chernoff
Michael Jackson, Life Within Limits: well-being in a world of want. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press (pb $22.95 – 978 0 82234 915 0). 2011, 248 pp.

The subject of Michael Jackson’s Life Within Limits is the concept of ‘well-being’, which Jackson represents as a dynamic struggle for hope amid the ‘fundamentally unstable and ambiguous’ (p. xiii) limitations of existence, impermanence and loss, ‘a sense that one may become other or more than one presently is or was fated to be’ (p. xi). Challenging himself with what appears to be a Dantean descent to a realm where hope itself would be a miracle, Jackson chooses to locate the research for his philosophical reflection in contemporary Sierra Leone, apparently traumatized by its notoriously vicious war and judged by a UN report to be the poorest and ‘least liveable’ country in the world (p. ix). The ethnography is grounded in a thoughtful narrative of Jackson’s return to Sierra Leone accompanied by his teenage son. Jackson regards the ethnographic text itself as a kind of mission, as testimony to his hope in the reflexivity of his problem (p. 14). The comparative contexts are provided by encounters with people from Jackson’s early fieldwork in Sierra Leone, by memories, by the characters in folk stories, and by Jackson himself, conscious of his own age and reflecting on the burden of [End Page 671] his philosophical problem. There are more than enough countervailing experiences available to frame his quest. His erudition affords him an even broader canvas: he moves with ease from Mauss to Merleau-Ponty, from Rousseau to Ricoeur, from Spinoza to Sartre, applying their thoughts to his examples.

This is the work of an elder, literary and philosophical, yet the style is personal, anecdotal, and impressionistic. The work reminded me of Edwin Wilmsen’s Journeys with Flies (Chicago: 1999), though it is not quite as experimental in its literary format and use of details. The argument is cumulative rather than linear, a gradual assemblage that aims toward conjunctions and affinities whose recognition feeds an optimistic openness to commonality as a means of transcending alienation. The goal of this openness is to perceive the ‘other’ not as an alien but ‘as oneself under other circumstances’ (p. 196). Jackson claims his method was ‘minimally planned and ... improvisatory’ (p. 190), but it is not without internalized discipline. He explains: ‘Juxtaposed in a text that preserved the sequencing, interruptions, and distortions of lived time, these episodes did not amount to an essay in understanding. ... Any one element echoes others, even though there is no discernible causal link between them and the only hub seems to be the consciousness of the observer. What binds them together, then – whether we are speaking of cultural traits from very different regions of the world, or events occurring in the space of a single day – is the active imagination of the person whose consciousness encompasses these things’ (pp. 132–3).

Ethnographic practice becomes a way of recovering humanity through engagement with ‘others’, but this recognition of the other is to be based on fundamental commonalities of human experience. The literary challenge involves avoiding a sense of strangeness, bringing the marginal into commonplace familiarity, and finding new meanings in everyday details (pp. 191–4). In the book’s fifteen chapters, Jackson takes us into his associates’ lives as they work out their solutions to different life problems, and he connects these stories to both the circumstances of their elicitation and the broader questions he has posed. Their stories are less related to the traumas of the war than to more mundane situations. There is a woman he knew as a young girl, given in an arranged marriage and now mature, reflecting on her life. There is a theological discussion with a learned Muslim. There are accounts of a funeral, of a circumcision initiation, of a gifted young storyteller in difficulty, of a philanderer’s wife. His travelling companions provide ample testimony to the frustrations and anxieties of people returned from abroad trying to reconnect. Jackson is confronted over and over with unanswerable questions...


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